Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Believe in your dog

This continues the puppy saga that began earlier this month.

To recap, we introduced 8-year-old Sensi (my dog) to 10-week-old Reese (my friend's puppy) and immediately, Sensi hated Reese. He didn't want her near him.

But Allison and I are good friends, we do a lot of walking and hiking together and it was really important to us that, at a minimum, our dogs learn to tolerate one another.

The first thing we did was an exercise I crafted called "Picnic at the Park." You can read all about that in my previous post dedicated to it (Getting an adult dog to like a puppy: Exercise one "Picnic at the Park").

We walked, then "picnicked" on some blankets near each other — moving a couple feet closer every once and again — then walked again, more "picnicking" etc. We spent five hours at the park that day and the dogs loved every minute of it. I was really proud of Sensi. Though we never allowed them to physically touch other, we got them pretty close and Sensi acted like it was any ol' day at the park, relaxed and happy and totally comfortable. Of course, we were keeping the social distance for him. Had we not, I'm sure he would've taken matters into his own paws and tell Reese to stay away in a not-so-friendly manner.

Sensi looks on as Allison and Reese take a break on the disc golf course
The following day, Allison and I took the dogs out to the disc golf course with our husbands. We spent another couple hours out there. This time, the dogs had an expectation about being around each other. What was it? That they're going to be four-feet apart at times, but they're not going to interact and they're not going to misbehave because they can't. Once again, the outing was pure gold.

A couple days after that, we went for another two-hour walk. This time, we brought the dogs very close to each other. Allison would walk on one side of the sidewalk, me on the other, and both our dogs to the grass on either side. It was a bit of risk — if one dog lunged at the other, they were within leash-range to reach each other. But we'd already put in good work establishing expectations for the two dogs and were very vigilant about watching for any potential situations. We didn't have any. Both dogs were great.

The situation was hardest on Reese, who was desperate for an adult dog to play with. I'm sad that Sensi couldn't provide her with that. Had he been able to, who knows what would've happened — perhaps it would've been enough to meet her needs and she could've stayed with Alan and Allison. But that didn't happen.

When this all started, I wrote a lengthy email to my favorite dog trainer Nicole Herr (read it on my post Adult dog doesn't like puppies, what do I do?) that ended with me saying the experience had dealt a blow to my confidence.

It's a little ironic that in the end, the experience would have the opposite affect on me.

When you see an adult dog decide he or she wants nothing to do with a puppy, it's quite the predicament. If you let the two dogs go off-leash and unrestrained to work it out amongst themselves — which in many cases can be the best thing — you do risk the worst of outcomes. One bite from a dog as big as mine could kill a puppy as small as Reese. It's hard to think about bringing two dogs together at all when the risk is as big as life and death. And when you're determining whether the risk is that big, you've really got to know your stuff. If you misread the dogs and let them go to figure it out themselves, you could have a dead or badly injured dog on your conscience.

But, adult dogs disliking puppies isn't exactly an uncommon thing. Even my dog, when he was younger, was raised with two adult dogs who just despised him. In that situation, we let the dogs work it out themselves because we were confident that the girls wouldn't hurt him, no matter how nasty their snarling sounded. And that worked out very well. Sensi never got hurt by them and they taught him a lot about being a dog and being a respectful one, too.

I told Allison, Reese's owner, that I wouldn't consider the two dogs ready to be around each other freely until I saw a play bow from Sensi. Play bows are wonderful communications — they not only mean, "Play with me" but they also say, "I mean no harm to you."

It's hard to say whether we'd have ever gotten there; we'll never know for sure. But either way, I learned some things about my dog and myself from the whole experience:
1) He can be around dogs he doesn't like and be totally calm and comfortable in the situation so long as I maintain a comfortable social distance for him.
2) I can do this, and he can do this. And we can do more things like this too. As long as I'm my dog's rock, he will trust me to protect him in situations he's uncomfortable with. And he can even learn to be comfortable in those situations if I can be there to help him.

For someone who's dealt eight years with a fearful dog, that's a big lesson learned. And so, I leave you with this message — Regardless of your dog's behavior problem, believe in him. Believe he can change. Believe he can learn. Believe he can better, because I'm telling you, he can. He just needs your help to get there.

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