I’m not a dog trainer or behaviorist, and I don’t play one at Homeward Bound. But over the years I have learned a thing or two from those who are trainers and from the hundreds of dogs I have met there. Humans tend to think of their dogs as furry little humans but the truth is that dogs are simpler creatures and not appropriate subjects for deep psychoanalysis. They do, however, have patterns of behavior and social norms that humans would do well to become familiar with if they want to avoid miscommunication with their beloved pets. A few days ago I started thinking about one particular approach we use while I was working with a Yellow Lab named Max. More on that in a minute.
One key point that has become almost automatic due to frequent repetition at HB is how to approach a fearful or shy dog.It’s common for us to get fearful dogs at Homeward Bound. Even a well-balanced dog can become supremely cautious when her world is turned upside down and she suddenly finds herself in a kennel environment. When we go into a yard to work with a fearful dog, we make sure to avoid behaviors that are rude for canines. We avoid moving toward the dog and head for the nearest place to sit down. Then we sit and wait and … do nothing. No eye contact, no speaking. Most of all we don’t make any motion toward the dog. In fact, it’s best if your body orientation is slanted away from the dog.
Of course, all the while the scared dog is watching you carefully. Possibly from a corner of the yard, or she might be circling around watching you with a series of sideways glances. The circling might get closer and closer until she carries out a quick drive-by within a few feet of you just to test your intentions. For the second drive-by she might pause for a second and move on. People can generally handle avoiding eye contact and not speaking to the dog for the most part until the first drive-by. Then the urge to talk and touch becomes irresistible and they break role by both calling out and trying to touch the dog. It’s just too hard not to.
But what often happens then is that the dog scoots away and it takes even longer to make a connection. I find that the best thing to do is wait until the dog has had a chance to sniff you and then sticks around for 5-10 seconds. Only then do I gently touch the dog on the side but never on top of the head. This is what I aim for, at least. I confess that I sometimes am weak. When first touching the dog I still try to avoid speaking to them but if I do talk it’s in a low, calm voice. Definitely not a high-pitched squeal. Following this approach will almost always allow you to connect with the dog much more quickly than if you try hard using typical human approaches.
Where was I going with this? Oh, yeah, Max.
I’ve had Max in my kennels for some time now while we worked on his dog reactivity. Reactivity often stems from fear, and so it is with Max. He was a stray so we don’t know his background but it’s a good bet he was a backyard dog or was stuck away somewhere in the house because he became more work than his owners anticipated. But he’s definitely not afraid of people and when he greets you it is readily apparent why his alternate name is Wiggle-Butt. And Max is absolutely gorgeous. But perhaps because he was left to his own devices far too often in his first year and a half of life, Max just doesn’t seem to have a strong, enduring bond with people.
But if Max is not afraid of people why was I was thinking about using a technique we use with fearful dogs? Well, I had a “D’oh” moment when it struck me that I was trying to make a connection with Max when it might work better if I took a step back and let him take control of the timing. So last week I did. I would sit out in the yard with him and do … nothing. In the evening I let him out of his kennel in the converted garage and just sit. Max is slowly starting to spend more time near me and allowing me to touch him for longer periods. It’s not that I couldn’t pet him before. The difference is that now he is coming to me for it. I try not to abuse the privilege and limit myself to a relatively few strokes at a time for now. It’s hard. But sometimes doing nothing is the best way to accomplish a lot.