My mantra the first week with Kira was ‘first, do no harm,’ which was something that I was not completely successful in doing. I made some mistakes and learned some lessons, despite my best efforts. In the case of the ‘leash incident’ that I mentioned in this week’s progress report, I should have known better and if I had thought it through, I would have handled it differently. The thing about puppy mill survivors is that they are exquisitely sensitive to things that we don’t even notice about daily life and there is such a small margin for error with them. Fortunately, they are also resilient and forgiving, which is how they have survived such horrible lives, I suppose. It breaks my heart when I frighten Kira and it amazes me when she is willing to give me another chance and try again. When people talk about how rewarding it is to adopt a puppy mill dog, I suspect this is the thing they are referring to. Puppy mill dogs live in grace. They constantly extend grace. Grace is kindness and consideration that one does not deserve and has not earned; unmerited favor. The fact is, that human beings have done nothing but to consistently hurt, frighten and fail these dogs….and yet… there is grace. It is humbling.
Knowing that there is such a small margin for error and wanting desperately NOT to hurt or frighten Kira, I have tried to arm myself with as much knowledge as possible. On her Fearful Dogs Blog (a wonderful resource!), Debbie Jacobs says, “Dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations or who have been isolated or abused will require more than simply time and love. Anyone who makes the statement implying that to be the case has identified themselves as either a novice or sadly misinformed about dogs and behavior.” My first resolution was to ‘do no harm’ and my second was to educate myself about what I was dealing with. I had some experience with fearful dogs, but nothing approaching the level of fearfulness that Kira experienced.
There is not really a lot written specifically about puppy mill dogs. I have added a page listing the resources I have found so far. (I welcome suggestions for additions!) There are more books written about fearful dogs in general and those are an excellent starting point. However, puppy mill dogs are a whole different ball game! Most basic training books assume that your dog is 1) not terrified of you and 2) not terrified of your home and every single thing in it. These books also make the assumptions, fair ones with virtually any pet dog, that your dog 1) is motivated by something (food, play, praise) other than avoiding your presence, 2) is reasonably comfortable being spoken to or perhaps touched by you and 3) possesses at least some desire to please you, make you happy, or interact with you in some way.
Puppy mill dogs lack trust, any sense of connection, and basic knowledge about how the world works. A combination of extreme, paralyzing fearfulness and traumatic emotional scarring makes traditional training strategies hard to use with puppy mill dogs. The underlying training philosophies work, but virtually everything has to be adjusted to meet their special needs.
Best Friends Organization did a large study of puppy mill dogs involving close to 1,000 participants. The full report can be found here: http://bestfriends.org/uploadedFiles/Content/Resources/No-Kill_Resources/Puppy_mill_initiatives/Individual_Resources/Understanding-and-Caring-for-Puppy-Mill-Dogs.pdf
The summary of this large study lists things that adopters of puppy mill dogs found to be most helpful in their recovery and which things they found to be least helpful, or in some cases actually harmful. Surprisingly, (but not surprisingly if you’ve been reading puppy mill books!) many of the same items showed up on both lists. What works for one dog can traumatize another.
In the chart below you can see which things were reported to be both helpful AND never harmful (in this particular study). This list will serve as my guide for beginning to work with Kira to build trust and relationship. It includes such things as: patience, time, not pushing, going at own pace, another dog in the house, love, affection, TLC, routine, consistency, repetition, acceptance, understanding, treats, praise, reassurance, and positive reinforcement (which had actually backfired for me with Kira in the ‘potty incident’).
While these guidelines are helpful, the range of responses in puppy mill dogs is so wide that the most important thing is knowing the individual dog, being able to read body language, and being constantly aware of subtle, shifting signals. Suzanne Clothier gave an amazing lecture on Arousal, Anxiety and Fear, which I was privileged to attend in person a few years ago. She reminded us that the one essential question we need to be constantly be asking our dog is, “How is this for you?” “How is this for you?” “Ok, now how is THIS for you?” And as soon as the answer is SCARY, we need to back up a step. For puppy mill dogs, especially, this question needs to be asked all the time, about things that we normally take for granted. It requires having enormous patience with taking tiny, tiny steps.
In the dog training world, it doesn’t take very long to come across contradictory methods for teaching the same things. It is essential to put serious thought into a personal philosophy of training and a philosophy of relationship before you start working with dogs. When you come across methods, advice, and tips, you can then see how they fit with your idea of what relationship means and how learning occurs. A lot of things that have worked for other people will clearly contradict some of your own values, underlying beliefs and the goals you have committed yourself to. Some things that trainers will tell you to do will violate commitments that you have made to you dog. Learn to trust yourself and your dog. Find a trainer that shares your philosophy. Most importantly, have a philosophy! It will likely change and grow with time, but you must have a bottom line in order to make good and consistent decisions for your dog. I personally value relationship centered positive training methods. My bottom line is: I will not violate my dog’s trust or intentionally make my dog feel unsafe.
After much thought, I identified two primary things to focus on with Kira right now: 1) reducing fear and 2) building relationship. It will take some time to understand how she sees and experiences the world; time just being with her, watching her, and learning about her. I have a notebook with two sections labeled “Working with Fear” and “Working on Relationship” and as I come across ideas I jot them down in the appropriate section. It helps to remind me of what our focus is right now and helps prevent me from getting ahead of myself and pushing too far, too fast. Somewhere down the road I will make more specific goals and focus on specific behaviors and challenges, but first I hope to build a foundation of trust, which might always be shaky for Kira because of where she comes from and what she has been through. My commitment to her is to honor that trust in everything we do.
For me it has been helpful to remember that Kira is in many ways more similar to a wild dog than a fearful dog. Fortunately, she has the genes of the domestic dog. If you talk to wolf researchers, they will tell you that a wolf can never really be tamed, even if it is raised from puppyhood alongside domestic dogs in a home environment. With dogs, however, we have thousands of years of selective breeding for tameness working for us!
One of my favorite books is The Little Prince, and once of my favorite passages is the dialogue between the fox and the little prince. I leave you with these thoughts on tameness:
“Who are you?” asked the little prince, and added, “You are very pretty to look at.”
“I am a fox,” the fox said.
“Come and play with me,” proposed the little prince….
“I cannot play with you,” the fox said. “I am not tamed.”
“What does that mean – ‘tame’?”
“It is an act too often neglected,” said the fox. “It means to establish ties.”
“ ’To establish ties’?”
“Just that,” said the fox. “To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world… if you tame me, it will be as if the sun came to shine on my life. I shall know the sound of a step that will be different from all the others. Other steps send me hurrying back underneath the ground. Yours will call me, like music, out of my burrow….”
The fox gazed at the little prince for a long time. “Please – tame me!” he said.
“I want to, very much,” thelittle prince replied. “But I have not much time. I have friends to discover, and a great many things to understand.”
“One only understands the things one tames,” said the fox. “Men have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so men have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me…”
“What must I do, to tame you?” asked the little prince.
“You must be very patient,” replied the fox. “First you will sit down at a little distance from me – like that – in the grass. I shall look at you out of the corner of my eye, and you will say nothing. Words are the source of misunderstandings. But you will sit a little closer to me, every day…”
So the little prince tamed the fox.
from The Little Prince, by Antonine de Saint-Exupery