Relationship Q’s: Listening to Your Dog

Recently, several Paws Abilities instructors and students attended an APDT Rally Trial. During this successful weekend, we had many brags. However, not every moment has to do with ribbons and awards. I’d like to write about one of these today.

I’ve written about Dobby on this blog before. Dobby is an adolescent mixed breed (I call him a “Minnesota White-Toed Chipmunk Dog”). He came to me as a very fearful dog, pancaking his belly to the floor and peeing all over himself if he was so much as looked at. Dobby’s come a long way, and I’m incredibly proud of his progress. True to his nature, he was both earnest and enthusiastic during his time in the rally ring last weekend, trying his hardest to do as I asked. While I certainly have some further training to do with him in order to solidify his understanding of the rally game, he scored well in his first run, earning 209 out of a possible 210 points.

See for yourself here:

If there’s one characteristic that defines Dobby, it’s how very hard he tries to be right. This is a dog who desperately wants to do well, a trait that can be both a blessing and an enormous responsibility. Because of the relationship we’ve formed through training, Dobby will try with all his might to work through some pretty intense fear or stress if I ask him to.

Many clients come to me with dogs who are very similar to Dobby. These dogs are sensitive to the environment, to people, to other dogs. They worry, and they feel the need to be watchful in new situations. If the pressure becomes too much, they react by withdrawing into their shell or by exploding into an impressive series of barks and growls while lunging at the end of their leash. Some dogs, Dobby included, may bite if they feel sufficiently terrified and trapped. These dogs require their owners to support them, to protect them, and to communicate with them. Most importantly, though, these dogs require their owners to listen to them.

Working with a fearful dog, especially one with whom you have a strong relationship based on trust such as Dobby’s and mine, is an enormous responsibility. While we may understand that the things our dog finds frightening are harmless, our dog doesn’t feel that way. Forcing them to face their fears head-on because we feel those fears are silly damages our relationship and doesn’t solve the underlying problem. Fears and phobias are sticky things, as anyone who’s ever felt afraid yourself understands. If you’re terrified of spiders, you’re not going to be okay with me placing a tarantula on your lap, even if I laugh at you and tell you that the tarantula can’t hurt you.

Our first responsibility when working with a fearful dog is always to that dog himself. Silly as his fears may seem to us, they are very real to him. When Dobby entered the rally ring later in the day, I could immediately tell that he was more concerned than before. Why he was concerned is immaterial, and I honestly couldn’t say. We had the same judge, and while we had changed rings we were in the same building. The area was no busier than the one we had been in before. While I may not know his reasons, Dobby told me by his reactions that he was uncomfortable.

Check out his body language in this second video:

In this later run, Dobby felt the need to look around much more than before. He was sometimes slow to respond to cues, even needing a second cue to sit at one point because he was so busy looking for danger. He was conflicted, unable to devote as much attention to his performance because he felt compelled to keep an eye on the judge, the exhibitors, and everything else that was going on.

Many people would consider Dobby’s performance in this later run to be a training issue. I disagree. A fearful dog such as this loses focus, not because he doesn’t understand how to focus on his handler, but because his fear is forcing him to watch for danger. The lack of focus is a symptom, and the best way to treat it is to treat the underlying cause. Just as a cough suppressant doesn’t cure pneumonia, training the dog to watch you more closely in scary settings doesn’t cure the underlying fear issue, only masking it for a short while and setting the dog up to feel more pressured and conflicted. Dobby’s lack of focus here was not a training issue, but rather a confidence one. Because he didn’t feel safe and comfortable, he couldn’t give the performance he would otherwise be capable of.

So, what’s the best way to work with a dog like this? In Dobby’s case, I ended our run early. His performance wasn’t awful, and we certainly would have earned a qualifying score, probably in the lower 190’s. Because of his training and relationship with me, Dobby would have continued trying to do as I asked in the ring. However, asking him to remain in that situation where he was clearly uncomfortable would not have been fair to him. Many people were surprised when I walked out halfway through the course, since Dobby wasn’t doing as poorly as some of the other dogs who had already gone. This was immaterial.

The bottom line is that rally obedience (and every other dog sport out there) is a game that we play with our dogs. Our dogs don’t care about the ribbons, the titles, or the bragging rights. They care about doing something with their person. If my dog is not having as much or more fun than I am, I owe it to him to listen to what he’s saying. In Dobby’s case, he was telling me that he wanted to leave. Treats and praise were less important to him than getting away from the uncomfortable situation.

Working with a fearful dog is an enormous responsibility. By putting Dobby into a situation where he felt concerned, I was stepping onto dangerous ground. Trust is a precious and fragile thing, and each time we overface our dogs, we begin to erode that trust. By listening to what my dog was telling me and aborting our run, I was protecting that oh-so-sacred responsibility that my dog has granted me. I was showing him that he could depend on me to listen to him and to put his feelings first.

After we left the ring, I took Dobby for a long walk outside, where he decompressed by sniffing around, rolling on his back in the grass, and playing with a couple dog friends. We ended our day on this positive note, with Dobby feeling comfortable and content. I couldn’t be more proud of his ability to communicate with me and to bounce back from situations that formerly would have left him pancaked in fear.

After Dobby’s last run, a student asked me whether I felt her dog was too stressed in the ring. My answer to her was that I couldn’t answer that question. Every dog is different, and a more confident dog may do absolutely fine with the level of stress that Dobby exhibited. Furthermore, a year ago I wouldn’t have gone into the ring with Dobby if he showed some of the displacement signals apparent on the video, because he was much more fragile then. Only you can examine the relationship you have with your dog, and only you can determine what is best for that individual dog in that moment of time.

Regardless of which sport we choose to play in with our dogs (or whether we decide to do any sports at all), listening is the most vital skill we can bring into the ring. This applies to everyday life just as much as to any sport: vet visits, walks in the park, and trips into the pet store all provide us with the opportunity to support and communicate with our dog. Know your dog. Stop demanding, and start listening. You may be surprised by what you hear back in return.

10 responses to “Relationship Q’s: Listening to Your Dog

  1. Toby is one, lucky dog!

  2. I wish I had realized this sooner with Jun before I erroded all of our trust. Slowly getting it back.

  3. Sara, this is beautifully written and a great testimony to your relationship to your dog and your ability to read him!

  4. I teared up reading this. Going through our own fear issues with our six-month old Kelpie. It pains me everyday to see him so afraid of life. Every day is a struggle. It’s nice (and sad) to know we’re not alone. It was a beautiful and loving thing you did to stop mid-way. Most wouldn’t have.

  5. Super post! When you have a reactive dog you always have to listen to them!

  6. Gread post – been there done that and now as a rally judge I try really hard to make a point of congratulate handlers who make decisions on course to help their dogs feel more comfortable. For some dogs this means leaving, for others it’s having a ton of cookies or a fun game in the ring before they leave.

  7. Excellent reading and thank you! I am working with my new rescue that has developed some leash reactivity – both fearfulness and dominance. I have hired a private trainer to work through the issues because I need the training just as much as her to ensure we are communicating clearly and choosing the best course of action to help her. As we practice I find a few of my fellow dog lovers willing to be there and assist as we are incorporating distractions while many other dog owner friends think I am trying/training and requesting too much to have a perfectly behaved dog and I get responses/input that my dog walks are just too stressful for them:( That I just need to let her ‘be a dog’ but they don’t understand the pulling and reactivity is NOT doing my pup any good and it is damaging our relationship. And it hurts.

    I have a very intelligent Border Collie Mix that excels in obedience, tricks, agility and rally – she learns everything typically second try. But the reactivity is preventing her from moving forward and creating the issue you mentioned above. So, I have also exited/ended the session early to remove her from the stress. It’s not that she doesn’t listen – like I said – she excels. And she loves playing with her canine friends – I get great praise on how gentle she is – how well she adjusts to the play style of each dog – she even takes to cats. Those same people see the leash monster she is capable of and can’t believe the difference she displays. So, I have to look at the situation honestly and give her what she needs first. And although we excel at so many things we are taking considerable time to focus on the leash with a lot of ‘act like a tree stump’, redirection and u-turns when approaching people and their dogs.. slowly closing the gap.

  8. Love you blog posts and this one and the posts about anxiety especially. Really really great stuff. Thanks for writing.

  9. Congratulations on being so attuned to your dog and his struggles and withdrawing. I have been, breeding, training, competing and judging for over 30 years and have seen these scenarios too many times to count. As a professional full time trainer it breaks my heart when I’m judging to see to many handlers continue with their blinkers on to their dog, and their eyes fixed on the prize. I applaud you. A thoughtful and beautifully written blog as always :) Best, Linda – Melbourne – Australia

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