Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast
My niece walking my 110 pound Rottweiler, Mickey, many years ago. Mickey would normally drag anyone walking her, but she just knew to be gentle with my niece.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Cost of Confidence

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned working with dogs came from my dog trainer friend, Angie, when we were asked by a shelter to come help do behavior modification on some of their worst dogs.  We were being shown a dog that exhibited such extensive fear issues that it was nearly paralyzed and had been for over a month.  A staff member would enter the outdoor kennel and leave food and water while the dog cowered inside a Dogloo doghouse.

“You need to get that dog out of there. You can’t let it stay like that,” Angie told the staff who responded by saying that any attempt to place a leash on the dog triggered massive fear aggression.  “Then use a catchpole!” Angie said.  

Her point was this: When are dealing with a fearful dog it must be broken out of that mindset. Leaving the dog in its fearful state will only drag it deeper into negative behaviors.  This is why fearful dogs should never be paired up together in a shelter setting.  Fear feeds on fear, which is why such dogs should be paired or worked alongside a calm, confident dog.  The dog that cowered in its dog house, well the staff did what Angie directed.  A catchpole was used (not harshly) to remove the dog from the doghouse, out of the kennel, and it was taken for a walk.  After only a few days of repeating this, the animal was no longer hiding in the dog house but out exploring its kennel, even when staff went by.  After a few more days it allowed contact, then finally a leash, and eventually it started acting like a typical dog.  Through confident measures and by not allowing the dog to wallow in its fear and insecurity, confidence was created, which basically saved this dog’s life. 

Of all the dog bite cases I’ve been asked to be involved in, most of them were the result of fear aggression, also known as defense aggression.  The dog, facing an unfamiliar or terrifying situation has only three options when under high stress: flight (run), fight, or freeze (submission). Fear-based bites are often the result of the dog not having the ability to run away and not being of a submissive temperament.  Thus, the only option that remains is to fight.  For this reason it is so important to work with fearful dogs by breaking them out of fear cycles.  In shelters, where time is short, it is important to take more drastic measures, such as using a catch pole to physically remove the dog from its self-imposed prison.  This isn’t done out of anger or in an aggressive fashion, but it is done in a manner by which the dog has no other option but to submit.  In doing so dogs learn to trust their handler over the world they were so fearful of.  There are few things more awesome than watching a skilled dog trainer, such as my friends Angie, Ben, and Ron, take a very fearful dog, that had been biting everyone and everything, and in a few months have a stable, calm dog that is on its way to being a well-behaved member of its pack and society.

Carly, queen of the tire
I want to address this topic because my girl, Carly, is one of those fearful dogs.  I consider her a dog with conflicting personalities.  She has the drive and dominance of a working line Rottweiler, but because of her past she came to me with almost no confidence and high defense aggression issues.  What helped most with her transition wasn’t just my efforts but also my male Rottweiler, Bradum.  I didn’t realize how much confidence Carly gleaned from Bradum until he passed away on August 1, 2016. In the last two years, Carly had grown to be my brave guardian who took on most challenges without much hesitation. However, in the week following Bradum’s death, she reverted back to being an insecure dog.  This makes sense, really, Bradum was one of those dogs who carried himself with calm confidence and who rarely had to push the issue of being top dog.  Carly fed off of that confidence, and I attribute her positive behaviors to him being a part of the pack.  Come on now, you would be brave too if you had a 120-pound Rottweiler as your backup, wouldn’t you? Now that Bradum is gone, I’ve had to ensure that Carly understands that her confidence should come from me.  I’m still Alpha; I’m still here.  It has taken a few weeks, but Carly is back to her normal, guard dog behaviors when out for a drive or in the house.  This is in part because I didn’t let her revert back to her old self for very long. Instead, I focused on her obedience training and proactively continued pack walks at Montana Murray Kennels here in Bozeman and with my friends Brett and Mike and their dogs.  These settings required putting her in challenging situations in which she had to look to me for confidence. It has all helped.  Consistency in training, routine in daily life, and exposure to situations where she can see that I will handle it have all been key factors.  Through these circumstance she sees that she doesn’t need to protect me (though I know she will), but rather I will protect her.  I am, after all, the Alpha in the pack.  This is all she needed, to know that there was still a leader after Bradum died and that the scary circumstances were not really so scary after all. 

Carly and I doing confidence training at Montana Murray Kennels
Does Carly still have issues?  Yep, and I suspect she always will.  Even so, she continues to make improvements with each day, though it takes consistent effort on my part. I’m okay with that effort in order to help continue to build her confidence.  It is a cost I’m willing to pay.

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