Raise your hands if you enjoy having a dog that barks and lunges! Oh no hands in the air? How about one who cowers, yelps, trembles, bites? Anybody?
Raise your hands if you planned getting your dog as a fun adventure, and then were disappointed to find it was so much harder than you imagined. Many of us feel this way, you are not alone. Sometimes there are things you want to do with your dog that he cannot do, doesn’t want to do, even hates doing. We actually have a support group at my local shelter for handlers who need support, empathy, and the sense of community around the challenges of living with their dog.
Dogs are a huge responsibility, and a huge joy. There is a beauty in the lessons they bring into your life, even if sometimes living with them is hard.
Sometimes dogs teach you the pleasure of mischief while sneaking into construction sites after hours through holes in the chain link. The forbidden space is a relief from the crowded city with all it’s dogs and distractions.
The off-hours hikes when all the crowds are still asleep become a magic time just to be together.
The elation when we find an unused field or an office park or a courtyard that we can play in, because everybody else is going to the places with crowds and dogs.
The sense of victory and accomplishment when we successfully navigate the world with ease, as a team.
The openness of letting go of what you thought she would be and embracing who she is. The openness of asking her, are you comfortable? Will you play with me? Then fully understanding her answer to these questions. Inter-species communication, what magic! This instead of attempting to impose my will, my preconceived notions of who I wanted her to be, how I wanted her to feel and act and behave. Embracing her and learning from her. Having empathy for her.
Don’t get sucked into labels. Behavior is our way of interacting with the environment, that’s what behavior is for. It doesn’t define us, or our dogs, or any earthling for that matter. We all behave because we were born to behave, behavior flows like a fountain from us as our interface with the environment.
Here’s an example:
My friend Susie was hiking on a steep rock face and had a moment of vertigo, and she was paralyzed with fear, teetering on a very high ledge, and she couldn’t move. She called out loudly for help, and she got reassurance from a friend who took her arm and helped her move away from that section of the trail. She took a few minutes to recover, her heart was still racing. Her freezing, her calling out for help, her heart racing, these were all perfect for what she was going through, she was afraid and her responses were perfect for how she felt in that context. Other hikers walked past that area with total comfort, and it wasn’t the same for all the hikers that day. If we witness Susie showing these behaviors do we label her as a fearful person? A weak person, a panicky person, an aggressive person? When she is seated on her couch enjoying a movie, is she a fearful person? When she’s happily walking down the street is she a fearful person? No. She is Susie, my friend, who responds perfectly when she feels scared. She responds perfectly when she feels joy. Perfectly silly, playful, angry, tired, happy, and her responses change according to her environment and her needs in each context. She’s just Susie.
Let’s say I’m thinking of getting a puppy.
If I get to meet the Mom of the puppy I’m considering, and I see her cowering, flinching at sounds, and hiding, I’m only going to take that puppy if I am willing to sign up for a dog who may require lots of behavioral wellness care. If he’s anything like his mom, it’s not likely that this puppy will be who I want him to be if I expect him to interact with all the dogs and people and loud places with no trouble. I will also be mindful of the time from birth to 16 weeks as a time when it’s so important to show my puppy the world with comfort, allowing him to look, making sure he feels safe and secure, I will not pressure him or push him if he doesn’t want to get close to things or interact.
Even if he is sick, I will carry him in a comfy bag out to see the world, to look at it as long as he likes, to enjoy delicious foods in the presence of the distractions he can comfortably handle. The vet may recommend isolation for medical wellness, but if that means we sacrifice his behavioral wellness it is advice to get additional opinions on. It’s simply not worth it during these early puppy days to compromise his behavioral wellness if it can be helped.
I will not force him to get close to things, to eat food, to do what I say. I will listen to him and learn his preferences, because that is what a relationship is. Both parties getting their needs met.
Know that if you have a herding dog, they will be likely to be very attentive and very responsive to details in their environment, to movement, to sounds, and they may have responses to these stimuli that you find dramatic. They might offer exaggerated poses, stares, facial expressions, postures, leaping, barking and lunging, which are all their way of interfacing with the things that they encounter in their environment. Not just herding dogs, but many kinds of dogs. Herding dogs are especially talented with all their awareness, though.
Nobody goes out looking for a dog that is hard to live with, harder to integrate into your life and your environment than you wanted. When your dog is hard to live with and you feel exhausted and overwhelmed, it’s so important to find support. Trainers and classes that emphasize positive reinforcement are a great place to start, and classes or support groups where you can talk with other people having similar frustrations can be an incredible comfort.
There are amazing resources online and in person depending on where you live! Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, Play Way Dogs, Dr. Susan Friedman of Behavior Works, Kathy Sdao, The SF SPCA, and many incredible books and videos. See your trainer for a resource list!
There are so many reasons for dogs to perform behaviors. Be curious about these, make notes, collect data, be open to learning. If anyone slaps a label on your dog, make sure you have your critical thinking cap on and you notice when people say your dog “is X” (reactive, fearful, shy, rude, mouthy, aggressive, etc.) these are all labels and labels were made to be peeled off.
Keeping an eye on actual measurable, observable behaviors is far more useful and takes the judgement out. It also helps us see that the behavior is not locked within the dog, and it is not an issue within them, but an issue that we see is in a context. The cool thing about noticing that is we begin to see the intervention and the solution so quickly! ( Susie froze and called out for help when she was on a very steep, narrow part of the trail. Find flatter, more open trails! My dog barks and lunges when surrounded by other dogs. Go someplace with more space! My dog cowers when the cookie sheet bags against the oven. Cushion the sheet or set it down slowly without banging! My dog bites strangers who slap him on top of the head. Avoid strangers hands! ) simply measuring and observing is a really cool skill, without labels, without assigning blame, without judgement.
The dog is barking, lunging, cowering, drooling, blinking, turning his head, tucking his tail. These are observations.
The dog is fearful, reactive, aggressive, dangerous, terrifying, idiotic. These are labels that place blame with the dog and ignore the context. They also impede our ability to create an intervention that makes sense, because when we decide the problem lies within the dog we can be very likely to miss the environmental factors and not even be able to design an intervention that makes sense.
When my black German Shepherd Shadow died, I was heartbroken for a long time. My small puppy Orion had never been the only dog in my busy household, and he was enjoying a revolving door of foster dogs while we tried to imagine what we would do next. A friend called me and said she had persuaded some guys to give her the sable German Shepherd puppy they had kept tied up in the yard of their auto body shop for 8 months. She was a working line dog, without adequate food, shelter or medical care. I was happy to add her to the revolving door of fosters and brought her to my house. When she came to my home we loved her. I adopted her. She was from lines selectively bred for generations to attend to all the details of their environment, which she did pretty reliably. She had been isolated in the auto body yard during her puppyhood when she should have been developing her social skills and she had not had any opportunity to learn how to interact with other dogs or even view them at a distance in comfort. She was also very, very interested in other dogs, staring at them, pulling to get closer to them, trying to get out of her harness to go see them. She was coming around the corner on a neighborhood walk and saw a very quiet old dachshund standing still, sniffing the ground. She ran to the end of her leash, barked loudly, repeatedly, leapt into the air again and again. My heart rate shot up, I went stiff and reeled in tightly on her leash, I shouted angrily at her, I was flooded with adrenaline. It happened again and again, walk after walk and I was furious. I wanted to control her, silence her, and soothe myself. That’s when my learning journey began, and I didn’t know then what I know now, that I really wanted cooperation, not control. I wanted to open up the 2-way communication and talk to her, and be able to understand her when she talked to me. I wanted to play with her, with her huge chest and velvety coat and swishy tail, to be her buddy and her trainer and her playmate. To have an impressive force of nature like that wolfy looking beauty understand me and me understand her. To have the odd couple of my little sassy puppy Orion charge ahead first while this glorious sable dog floated along next to him like a supernatural beast, like a bodyguard. And there I was at their side, the human part of the mythical team, feeling like a gorgeous, powerful warrior in the company of these two. Loba and Orion and I were a unit, moving through the world without stress and without fear, because we could. It was amazing. I hated her barking and lunging but we found new levels of greatness with training, with support, and with lots of effort. Totally rewarding joy was the payoff, I’ll never forget the years we spent together. I miss her terribly which is slightly funny to me, considering I thought about surrendering her to a shelter when I learned how the appearance of dogs meant she would bark and lunge. I’m so glad I kept her, I’m so grateful for all her lessons. She was so delightful, and such a badass. Perfect.
Remember your dog is perfect, and every time they bark or lunge it is the perfect response to the context and to the environment. They are using their behavior to operate on their environment, and if they are in distress you are invited to step up and have their back. You are invited to learn how to prevent them from feeling that way, how to provide them with other options instead of just shouting and feeling yucky. They can learn alternative behaviors and actually begin to feel good instead, if you understand. You can learn alternative behaviors along with them and feel good too, it’s a wonderful experience.
If you become their friend and playmate, you might find places opening up within you that are new, places where you can be silly and joyful just for the fun of it, where you are selfless and empathic and full of kindness, which multiplies as you continue to share it.
As you play with your dog over and over again, doing things that are mutually enjoyable, mutually beneficial, completely satisfying, you might experience a gorgeous new reality blooming that is so different than the one you imagined before you met your dog. It’s an adventure you didn’t know about, it’s joy that was untapped, you do things that are totally different than the things your preconceived notions held. There’s your adventure. Enjoy the ride!