Friday, December 2, 2011

Friday Woof!--Training My Fearful Dog

Friday WOOF! (Wagging On and On Forever!)-- advice, information, resources and true stories about our animal friends.

Guest post by Sharon Azar 

Love Saves the Day

Dean and his girlfriend, Alice were moving to a small room in a dog-unfriendly house, so they contacted me to help them re-home JayJay, their Alaskan Malamute/Chow mix they lived with for 6 years since his puppyhood.

Dean described JayJay as aloof at first, but in time would bond with whoever became his caregiver. When I went to meet him, he came out of their apartment cowering with his tail between his legs. I thought, “What could make a dog react with such fear? What was he afraid of?” The couple seemed nice enough, not the abusive type. Maybe I was missing something. In rescue, sometimes, you can work with a person or family and help them find ways to keep rather than surrender their pet. After spending some time with the three of them, though, I had the feeling I should take JayJay and not spend too much time trying to help them re-think their decision.

Dean bragged that JayJay had the “privilege of a backyard.” I later found out that JayJay was never socialized with other dogs and never taken on walks. I don’t know why people think having a backyard is such a good thing. I’ve seen so many dogs relegated to a backyard all alone and becoming depressed. Dogs are social creatures, meant to play with other dogs and people and interact with their families. When left alone, most dogs' personalities deteriorate. Backyards are only good if the whole family joins the dog.

After I had JayJay vet checked and neutered (Dean didn’t believe in neutering), he recovered quite nicely and joined my household of two small dogs, two cats and a downstairs roommate with two elderly dogs. In living with JayJay, I realized that his name should be PoohBear. He looked so much like a bear!
In our first week together, I was able to walk him outside, but he was in a constant state of tension and fear. After a week, he refused to go out on walks. I’d take him out and he’d pull with all his might to return home. I had dealt with aggressive dogs in my rescue career, but never with a fearful dog. I needed help. Reaching out to the rescue community, I met A.J., a trainer who agreed to do e-mail consultation about PoohBear’s problem. I’m no stranger to different training methods but the one that most suited me was to just give lots of love and patience. A.J.’s method was to make me into the ‘alpha-dog’. With aggressive dogs, this approach is necessary, but PoohBear is not aggressive. A.J. assured me he would become more self-assured in time as soon as he understood that I am dominant. The program consisted of not allowing him on the bed, never responding to his overtures to play, always going out ahead of him, not telling him what a good boy he is, etc. This was so much enervating work. I felt drained after working a full day and then coming home to another job with PoohBear-a household under tension.

“This just doesn’t seem right,” I kept thinking. After much soul searching and discussion with friends, I thought, “How could a training method meant for aggressive dogs help a fearful dog?” Even though A.J. gave me excellent examples of work she did with her dogs, I just kept feeling something was off. Then, one night, worn out after playing this very unnatural role of ‘lead dog’, I laid in bed tense and exhausted, praying for another way. After a few hours of feeling lost, a voice within whispered, “just give him love and patience like you’ve always done with your dogs and he will come around.” It was as if a light went on.

That night I had my first good night’s sleep since PoohBear came to live with us. I never liked thinking of myself as ‘leader’ or ‘boss’ the way many trainers like to characterize the dog-human dynamic, but rather ‘she who provides all good things.’ I think my dogs love the new me!

In the morning Chili, Schnappsy and PoohBear were eyeing me with their big, trusting, loving eyes and ‘marvelous understanding’. PoohBear and I still have work to do, but now I could do it my way--cuddle, sleep, laugh, play and share love with my dogs. It’ll be a while before PoohBear will want to go out walking in the neighborhood and park, but I’m certain with love and patience it will happen.

Please check out Sharon's WOOF! Petfinder listing for pets up for adoption in NYC area.
woofwoof (dot) sharon (at) gmail (dot) com

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