Our friend and fellow blogger Heather Houlahan is currently in Billings, Montana evaluating the adoptability of more than 200 dogs recently released to National English Shepherd Rescue after their former owner was convicted of felony animal abuse. As part of this work she and others are administering behavior evaluations which she describes in a heart-warming post where she writes:
We take each dog to a place she has never been before, and ask her to tell us something about herself.
We do this by challenging her with mild stresses, and giving her an opportunity to show us whether she is bothered by them, how much, and whether she thinks looking to a human is a good way of getting through that. And we see how the dog progresses in confidence as she confronts these mild challenges.
Combined with the absolutely crucial written reports from each dogs’ handler, the results of these evaluations help us sort dogs into categories depending on how much experience and dog chops a potential adopter or foster volunteer might need, as well as any special talents or qualities that the dog has to offer.
No, this is not “poke it until it bites” temperament testing. We Don’t Do That Shit.
One of the most important things we assess is the dog’s ability to recover from something it finds stressful. This capacity, while it can be built and developed, is highly intrinsic to each unique temperament. Good bounceback can take a dog far.
As I’ve posted here before, I’m not a fan of the poke it until it bites method of ‘behavioral evaluation’ either but assessing a dog’s ability to cope with stress is, IMO, the single most important factor in temperament evaluation. An ability to cope with and recover from stress is crucial to a healthy temperament. And like most of the other traits a dog needs to survive it’s derived from a mix of nature and nurture.
Some dogs, like Harry, are blessed with a lot of bounceback or resilience. Even though Harry had a less than ideal start on life, he’s ready to leave it behind and move on. Other dogs, like my like Zip, are born with a lack of resilience. These dogs need regular coaching to develop and maintain a healthy tolerance for stress.
How did I build up Zip’s resilience? — Simple. I pushed her buttons.
The brain’s coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles. If you were born with the genes of a 90-pound weakling, you may never develop that Mr. Universe physique – but with work, you can certainly improve what you’ve got. Your coping mechanisms are also like muscles because unless you were born with the physique of an East German powerlifter you’ve got to use them — or you’ll lose them.
Contrary to popular beliefs, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural force. Stress is a natural – and necessary - part of every animal’s life. The key to dealing with stress successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it lies in developing the strength to cope with it when you need to and taking a break to recover from it when you can.
The tool I use to help my genetically timid, non-resilient dog increase her ability to cope with stress is regular exposure to moderately stressful things. Like choosing the right barbell in a weightlifting regime, the stressor can’t be so intense that the dog can’t deal with it or so mild that she immediately adapts to it. And like a good exercise regime, this work should also continue for the rest of the dog’s life.
Every day I look for ways to push Zip’s buttons. We recently bought a small and rather nondescript table for our deck. The first time she saw it on our deck, Zip decided this table was a thing of great evil. This provided me with an excellent training opportunity. Zip has an enormous obnoxious amount of desire to fetch. It’s what she lives for. So I brought a toy out to the deck and teased her with it a bit. After I whetted her appetite for the toy I casually tossed it toward the table of great evil. Zip took two steps toward the toy then stopped and looked at me as if to say; “Are you freakin’ kidding me? There is NO way I can go one step nearer that thing!”
It was exactly the reaction I was looking for. Zip wasn’t paralyzed in terror, but she most certainly was not comfortable with approaching the table. So I picked up the toy and tossed it again, this time making sure it landed just a bit farther away from the thing of great evil. Zip summed up her courage and slunk over toward the toy. She darted in, grabbed it and raced back to me. Party time! I praised my brave girl and tossed the toy again to reward her – this time in the direction opposite the thing of great evil.
Her courage was stoked by success so I repeated the exercise, this time throwing the toy so that it landed a little closer to the table. While her approach was still tentative she was visibly more confident this time. Another reward toss – and we repeat the process again. I continue until my girl cheerfully runs past the table – which has now faded comfortably into the background.
Important things to keep in mind as you work through this process are:
- Encourage flexibility by letting the dog choose how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag her toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and let her decide how to achieve it.
- Keep the dog’s mind and body active. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to her fear responses where they’ll just work against you.
- Increase the difficulty of the exercise in steps. The dog’s response will tell you how big to make these steps.
- Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If she has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller and easier. If she rebounds immediately, make it bigger and/or more difficult.
- The last bit of the work you do will be the piece your dog will remember the best so it is very important to end the exercise on a successful note. Even if it is only a small success.
- Don’t overdo it. Your goal should be to see an improvement in your dog’s confidence, not to desensitize her in a single session. Once her confidence is aroused – end the session and give your dog a break to process what she just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.
A dog that is frightened of loud things, strange things – even mysteriously afraid of some everyday things - doesn’t necessarily come from an abusive background. She may just not have inherited a healthy dose of courage and resilience. It’s easy to mistake this lack of resilience for a “history of abuse”. And whether a dog has been abused or not, we do her a disservice when we try to shield her from the kinds of stresses she needs to be exposed to to learn healthy coping skills.
Once you ascribe your dog’s fearful behavior to abuse you run the risk of ignoring the other factors that might be involved. Things like poorly developed resilience, health problems, neglect or a genetically fearful temperament. Things you might be able to change if you aren’t blind to them. As Julia McDonough wrote, the “abuse excuse” keeps far too many people from giving their dogs the help they really need.
Convinced that their dog has suffered enough hardship, they decide to “make up” to the dog for his past torment at the hands of lesser humans. This is poisonous, as the overindulgence of a dog is the main reason he fails in a home.
Heather and the other volunteers at Operation New Beginningsdidn’t indulge Harry in an effort to try to make up for the bad start he had in life. They simply took him out of that unhealthy place and gave him opportunities to discover the strong, resilient core inside him. The core that’s ready to take Harry on to the next step in his life.
If you’d like to help the Montana English Shepherds, consider making a donation to support Spay Montana – this wonderful group mustered resources this weekend to spay and neuter over 150 of the dogs.