When I first met Dodge, I was struck by how quiet he was. He was a 4 year old lurcher who had been rehomed to a dog-free family, having been brought up with two other dogs. Shortly before he came to his new home, a fight had broken out between him and one of the other dogs, which meant that he subsequently felt very uneasy when he came across other dogs on walks.
His reactions had escalated so that his owners felt he wasn’t really safe to be walked anywhere that they may come across other dogs. His response was so severe that he had managed to wriggle out of his harness, and they had become worried that he may bite if another dog got too close. He lunged, barked, growled and became distressed when he saw another dog on a walk, even if it was at quite a distance.
Once the other dog had passed, Dodge still couldn’t calm down and would be on high alert, with eyes on stalks, looking for anything else that might upset him all the way home. Fortunately for him, his owners had sensibly decided to stop taking him for walks because they could see he found them so stressful.
A WANDERING MIND
He seemed a shy boy when I first started work with him. His thought processes were quite slow and he wasn’t able to concentrate for long. During those early sessions, we had to keep the actual training exercises very short and give him a lot of breaks, because he lost focus so quickly. Levels of concentration are a real indicator of a dog’s stress levels, and when a dog’s mind wanders, or they seem uninterested in treats, there is always an underlying reason.
His owners and I realised pretty early on that he picked-up on the slightest sense of ‘performance pressure’ from anyone who was working him. If he sensed that somebody wanted him to do something, he would close-off and lose interest, so we needed to keep sessions very short and give him a lot of brain breaks.
Dodge was very lucky, because his owners are completely devoted to him and were determined to help their little lad overcome his fears, no matter how long it may take. They were aware that he lacked confidence and could see that he found a lot of his world scary. Although this was also mixed-up with a very high prey-drive. He loved chasing cats and pigeons in the garden, and yet had a real distrust of the lawn! So, if he saw a cat, he would charge helter-skelter over the lawn to chase it away. But if anyone wanted him to go on the lawn to wee, or if you tried playing a game to get him to go on the grass, he would become stressed and closed-off.
He was happy to be handled and stroked by people he knew, but was uneasy with strangers. Not enough to be reactive with them, but he didn’t really want to get too close to them and he found eye contact challenging with any one new.
THE EEYORE DOG
Dodge’s general demeanour was a bit Eeyorish! He had a slight air of gloominess about him, although this wasn’t at a level of being completely ‘shut down’, which very fearful dogs may do. This is when they become almost inert, with no eye contact or engagement with either people or surroundings, because any kind of interaction with anything is too frightening. Dodge wasn’t as severe as this, he was simply ‘gloomy’. He would be fairly up-beat and playful with his dad, and he loved cuddles with both his owners. But he never got excited, or really waggy about anything. His most extreme reactions were towards other dogs, including barking at them out of the window. Then he would subside back into a state of quiet glumness.
LOUNGING NOT LURCHERING!
What he really wanted to do was lounge around in a chair and have cuddles, or watch things out of the window. Mostly he was calm in the house, so his stress-levels didn’t seem very high. But his coat wasn’t very shiny, he had flaky skin and when I first assessed him I noticed that his hind legs weren’t straight. He was very stiff through his hips and his pasterns were bowed. I wondered if this was one of the reasons he didn’t feel easy on grass – anything that was bumpy made him feel physically uncomfortable.
He also had accidents in the house when his dad went away for work, which also pointed to higher stress-levels than first seemed apparent. His owners were very receptive to Thinking-dog methods and had already stopped walking him, as I mentioned earlier. This made it easier to suggest to them that he needed no walks until we had started to work on some of his issues and increase his confidence. They understood that walks needed replacing with other activities in the house and garden which would get both his brain and body working, and so we started on a very intensive programme to help his balance, flexibility and concentration.
Knowing that his reactions to other dogs were severe, I had a feeling that the most we could ever expect from Dodge was to be able to cope with a dog walking past on the other side of the street. I thought it would take months, if not years, for him to be able to feel easy with a dog any closer than that. He was so fearful when we first went out with him that we could barely get him out of the front door and into the passageway. His eyes were almost swivelling and his ears twitched at the slightest sound. Everything made him want to dart back into the house and go and have a quiet lie down!
His owners were just the people he needed. They never pushed him to move any faster than he was able to. It can be so difficult when you have a dog like Dodge, because he is far removed from the dog that many people want to share their lives with. Most of us live with dogs because we want to be able to take them out and about, go on lovely, long rambly walks with them and just enjoy their company outside amongst other dogs and people. No matter how much we love our ‘troubled’ dogs, it can still be very difficult to accept them as they are and to understand that it may take many months (years, in some cases) to get them to a stage where they’re manageable on walks. As for being able to do ‘normal’ with them, it can feel this might never happen with some dogs – and that can be a hard thing for some owners to accept. It’s why some owners go the fast route with muzzles and medication, without understanding that the subsequent stress behaviours they get at home (skin ‘allergies’, ear infections, paw licking, gastric problems etc) are a result of being forced into situations they can’t cope with.
WE GET THE DOG WE’RE MEANT TO HAVE
Dodge’s owners were wonderful with him. They completely accepted him for the mixed-up, troubled wee hound that he was, and resolved that they would only ever go at his pace. And sometimes that pace was nearly slower than a snail … They avoided all dogs and people for months and months, while spending their time working on Bodywork and doing the exercises I set them.
Over the following year, we were able to start working with my Buddy-dogs, but always at a real distance. We took our sessions down to once a fortnight, and are now working once every three weeks.
DODGE AND NEW DOGS
In the last month, Dodge has been able to work at a distance of about 10 ft from both my dogs and with a very special girl belonging to another client. She was also a troubled dog, who could be very uneasy with other dogs. Her mum is another owner who has taken things very slowly with her and has got her to a stage where we can work with her as a Buddy-dog with other reactive dogs. Dodge was fantastic with her last week. He was able to walk calmly behind her at a distance, and was starting to show signs that he might like to approach her. We weren’t ready to let him do that yet – he has so little experience of dogs that we don’t want anything to upskittle him by letting him get too close too soon.
Dodge’s owners are very special. Like all the owners I work with, they love their dog. They’re highly attuned to him and were very quick to be able to read his signals and understand him once they had learned what to look for. I think the reason why they have been able to make so much progress with their boy is because they were able to accept him for the dog that he is, rather than wanting him to be anything different. They understood him, and were prepared to follow Thinking-dog methods to the letter, only putting him in mildly stressful situations that were carefully managed and set-up by me so that he was never so anxious that he couldn’t cope.
Watching his owners develop in terms of their skills at handling both Dodge and other dogs has been as joyful as watching Dodge gain in confidence. They have a real depth of understanding of Dodge and are able to read other dogs in ways that the average owner is often unable to do.
THE FUTURE IS NO LONGER A DREAM
Dodge is now at a stage where we can start to work him in managed situations with dogs that belong to friends and family. This is a huge step for him, and we’re able to be quietly optimistic that these sessions will eventually lead to him meeting some of the other dogs face-to-face. He has been with us for a year at the end of May.
A year ago, walking with and meeting other dogs felt almost like an impossible dream. Now it seems like a real possibility, because of the understanding and hard work his owners have devoted to their very sweet, Eeyorish boy. Who is, by the way, a lot less gloomy than he used to be. He is far more waggy, his coat is beautifully shiny and he no longer has flaky skin. He’s a happy, confident, Thinking-dog kind of hound and I’m very proud of the progress that he and his owners have made.