This month we began a new adventure. We enrolled in a “Fearful Fido” class!
If you’ve followed Kira’s blog, you know that my focus from the first day has been on building a trusting relationship and creating an environment in which Kira knows she is safe. I have a strong commitment to respecting her limits and her fear thresholds and have always said that if she never felt comfortable outside of our home, that was perfectly okay. Some puppy mill dogs just won’t ever have the mental or emotional capacity to face the world after spending years in a cage suffering deprivation, neglect, and often abuse. It’s so important to respect our dog’s limitations and accept what they are capable of. Each dog is different.
Those of us who have lived for a long time with very damaged dogs become very protective of them and very cautious about what we expose them to. Many of us have had well-meaning people give us advice about forcing our dogs out of their comfort zones or making them “face their fears.” We have learned that when people talk about fearful dogs, they usually mean a dog that is skittish or timid, not a dog that stops breathing when you look at it. We have learned to expect, as a matter of course, fear reactions that are totally out of proportion to the stimulus and to expect those reactions to happen a lot, in response to many different kinds of things. We have vivid memories of the mistakes we have made and of every time our dogs have responded in terror. We have worked hard to earn their trust and we work hard every day not to violate it. We have learned to advocate for our dogs. But slowly, sometimes imperceptibly, our dogs heal and they change… and sometimes we don’t notice how much they have changed. This has been true for me.
Over the past two years Kira has grown comfortable in our house and become happy, loving, expressive dog. In the course of those years she has gone from a dog who “let life happen to her” to a dog who actually attempts (often) to interact with and manipulate the world – using her nose to push open doors, rummaging around in the toy box to find a toy she wants, barking at things, chasing squirrels, herding the other dogs around and managing their activities. (She is definitely “the sheriff” of our house!) She now shows curiosity about many things. We have built a strong relationship and she trusts me and feels safe with me. Don’t get me wrong, she still falls firmly within the “fearful dog” category, but she is no longer at the very extreme end of that scale. She navigates her everyday life well. It has been a huge transformation!
Watching these changes, it seemed to me that maybe we had gotten to a point where it would be good for her if she had more to engage her active mind, so over the summer I took her and Obi to the park near my house to see if she would enjoy a walk in a new place. Disaster. She was terrified and extremely stressed. She was hyper vigilant and either glued to my leg or darting back and forth. When she spotted a person and dog in the distance, she tried to run, got to the end of her leash and flattened to the ground. We immediately got back in the car and went home. It was too much for her – open spaces and nowhere to hide. I felt terrible.
What I learned from that experience was that the outside world was still intensely frightening for Kira and that I didn’t know how to help her navigate it. If she was going to leave the house, I knew that I needed help from a trainer who was experienced in working with fearful dogs; someone who could both objectively evaluate Kira and teach me the skills that I needed to help her. At an earlier time I might have decided not to try anything more, but Kira has become so comfortable and confident with SO many things at home that I really believed she was ready to learn in other places too.
I contacted a wonderful trainer who offers a Fearful Fido class near us and I described Kira and expressed my concerns about bringing her to a group class. After much discussion, we decided that we would try the class and see how Kira responded. Ultimately three things influenced my decision to take her. First, I trust the trainer and know that she has the same commitment to respecting Kira’s limitations and thresholds that I do. She said that if Kira was obviously stressed and afraid by the second week, then we would withdraw her from the class because it was not acceptable to continue to put her under high levels of stress. The second thing is that Kira has come to trust me enough that my presence makes her feel secure. The last thing that made me believe it was worth trying a class with Kira is her personality. For a long time, her intelligence was masked by her fear. It was so hard to know what she was thinking because she didn’t do anything and didn’t engage with anything. But as her fear dissipated, what emerged was that she is very, very smart and she really enjoys learning. She seems pleased and proud of herself when she figures something out or solves a problem.
The first class was a ‘people only’ orientation during which the trainer talked about counter conditioning and demonstrated with her own fearful dog some things we would be working on in class, such as hand targeting. We were told to bring lots and lots of high value, small treats (don’t use hot dogs! more on that later) and that we could bring our dog’s bed or blanket if it would help them.
The following week, I packed up Kira’s blanket and treats and we headed off to our first class! Class was set up so that Kira had a safe place to lay with a limited view of the room, no pressure to interact, lots of reinforcement for simply being there, and a puzzle toy filled with treats to keep her mind busy with problem solving so that she wasn’t focused on her anxiety.
Kira was very nervous entering the classroom, but the trainer had set up a visual barrier, an x-pen with sheets over it, for her to lay behind so that she would not be overwhelmed by seeing the other people and dogs. It helped her so much! From where she lay she could see only 1 other person/dog pair. At first she laid behind me with her back up against the wall, which is what I expected, but after a short time she came and laid next to me on her blanket. The trainer had us feeding lots of treats. If a dog is too nervous to take treats, that is a sign of fear and stress, so it was fantastic that she was eating!
After about a half an hour, the trainer moved the sheet so that Kira could see more of the room. Kira returned to the wall, but she was able to come back to her blanket after just a few minutes. The dogs took turns going out to the middle of the room and doing some “nosework”, sniffing around for treats in a pile of things on the floor. This was beneficial both for the dog whose turn it was and also for the other dogs who were able to get used to watching people and dogs moving around the room. Everyone got lots of treats and praise! When it was Kira’s turn, she didn’t want to explore the objects or eat any treats while she was in the middle of the room, but she walked around the stuff a few times, while surrounded by strangers, and that was very good for her! It wasn’t until the very end of class that Kira began to explore the puzzle toy. She pushed a little wooden disc aside with her long collie nose and got a treat! I was really surprised and so proud of her!! A few times during the class Kira became too stressed to accept treats, but she bounced back quickly. The trainer felt that she did very well!
In reflecting on the class, I understood more about why my attempts to introduce Kira to new places had failed. I was asking her to encounter far too many new things all at one time and I was not providing her with the space, time, and positive reinforcement to help her slowly acclimate to those new things and form good associations with them. It’s one thing to understand that in theory and its another thing entirely to envision what it looks like in practice! This class showed me what it should look like in practice and I’m deeply grateful to the trainers whose knowledge, skill, and guidance made it possible for us!
CLICK HERE to read Fearful Fido Class Continues
In other news: Kira continues to love her ducks and her little buddy Page!
Two great articles on how to choose a good dog trainer:
NEXT POST: Fearful Fido Class Continues