For better or worse, you are an integral part of the picture when it comes to how your dog behaves. I’m not just talking about how you need to train your dog and build a relationship with your dog. In this case, I want to focus on what happens when you two are together and how that influences your dog’s behavior.
If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time, you know that Risa is dog reactive and fearful. I knew from day one she was a fearful dog. The shelter was very up front with me about that. However, I had a completely different mentality then than I do now. I was well aware I needed to work with Risa and show her the world was not a scary place. But I was misinformed on how to do so. I thought just bringing her out into the world was the way to change how she felt about it. I didn’t know about desensitization or counter conditioning or creating positive experiences for her.
Despite having a rudimentary understanding of dog body language and communication, I constantly put Risa in situations she couldn’t handle. I allowed people to try and touch her even when she ran away from their advances. I made her stay in the busy pet store even when she was practically screaming “get me outta here!” Dogs we saw on walks would just come right up to her to say “Hi.” I simply stood there and let them even though Risa was uncomfortable (though I didn’t realize she was afraid of dogs at the time). Everything I did told Risa she couldn’t trust me. I wasn’t going to protect her from the scary things. I had proven that to her time and time again. So she started to take things into her own paws. If I wouldn’t keep her safe, she would have to protect herself.
It’s possible she may have become dog reactive no matter what I had done. I can’t know for sure. But I certainly didn’t help her learn to cope with the world early on. She started to believe every dog she saw was going to come over to her so she started barking and lunging at them. I’m fortunate she didn’t become human reactive as well!
So, early on, Risa learned that I wasn’t going to listen to her. That, when she was out with me, scary things happened. I also started to anticipate her “bad behavior” and started getting tense when we saw other dogs. This increased her fears and caused an increase in the reactive behavior. My inability to understand why she was acting out and my early attempts to eliminate the behavior didn’t help either. Time with Mom became a time to worry, be stressed, and act out.
Even after I had learned and developed a system to help Risa overcome her fears and dog reactivity, it took a long time for her to change her associations with me. Bad things still sometimes happened when I was around. She still hadn’t gained the confidence she has now and was still overtly reactive. But, if you handed the leash to my mom, she was much better behaved. There was no obvious reactivity. She even greeted a couple dogs on walks around the neighborhood (something I would never have done at the time) when my mom had her. What was the deal? Why was she so much better with my mother than with me? Because she hadn’t had the negative experiences with my mom. My mom was an unknown entity. She had to figure out what my mom would or wouldn’t do. This is the very same reason some trainers appear to be miracle workers with dogs. The dog simply hasn’t figured out this new person’s expectations and behavior yet. There is no rapport between the two of them.
While this can work against you, it can also work for you! Gone are the days when Risa’s outings with Mom were to be feared. Through a lot of training and positive experiences, Risa has learned that I am her security blanket. If I’m around, it’s much easier for her to cope and be confident. She’s less worried about dogs invading her space because it rarely happens anymore. People don’t try and pet her. I encourage her to check out potentially scary things. I’ve shown her that I will listen to her when she’s afraid. I’ve shown her that I will protect her from the scary things. To this effect, many people are unaware of her issues at all. In fact, many are surprised when I tell them her story.
When faced with a scary situation, she now turns to me for help. She relies on me to keep her safe and trusts that I will do just that. So what happens if I am no longer a part of the picture? Does her behavior change? Yes it does.
Last year, I was working with a dog who was a huge party starter. She loved other dogs and didn’t take “No” for an answer (whether the human said it or the dog did!). I needed a dog to help her learn some self control. With Risa’s huge improvements, I decided she could do it. I handed the leash over to my mom while I worked with the puppy. I instructed my mom to give Risa treats when she looked at the puppy or if she made eye contact with my mother. Despite my mom doing the same types of things I do with Risa around other dogs, Risa’s behavior was NOT the same. She was nervous and upset when she didn’t get the same responses from my mom that she gets from me. I ended the training session with the two dogs once I realized how truly stressed out Risa was. Risa trusts my mom; but she doesn’t have the same relationship with her as she does with me.
Because of the hard work I’ve done building Risa’s trust in me, I can take her places and do things with her that were simply dreams when we first met. She’s still fearful and I doubt that will ever change. However, because of our strong relationship, she knows she can rely on me to keep her safe. And that helps her remain grounded and confident even in potentially scary situations. The human is a integral part when it comes to a dog’s behavior.