Friday, June 10, 2011

The reasons

What makes a stressed dog?

Genetics? Environment?

I've been thinking about this a lot lately as I post on a couple of Yahoo lists about my dogs' fears, and also as I finish up my "introduction to social sciences" class at school. According to my class,

Genetics + Environment = an individual

Although the class focuses on humans, of course I generalize everything to dogs :) And I've heard of this equation before, referring to dogs. It's gotten me thinking about why my dogs are the way they are.

Mika came to me as an 8 week old puppy. She was shy and cautious from the start, and her initial reaction to things that frightened her was to run away. I remember when we were in Petcetera one day (a Canadian version of PetSmart) and there was a big, black brindle lab mix. We were walking Mika behind it, and then the dog turned around and lunged and Mika. My puppy, about 10-12 weeks old at the time, ran away screaming. And so began her fear of big black labs.

Today, she is fearful of all dogs; but while she can handle the average dog approaching her without "blowing up," if that dog is a big black dog, she'll go absolutely nuts in panic. Coincidence? I think not.

We started puppy kindergarten with Mika when she was 18 weeks old. During the puppy play sessions, while most of the other puppies tumbled around, chasing each other and wrestling, Mika would spend her time hiding under the chairs.

When Mika was 6 months old, she began to bark at other dogs, and people. Fight instead of flight; a typical terrier response!

And I also believe that the "activity" that Mika was bred for -- conformation -- played a part in her reactive tendencies. Terriers in conformation shows are encouraged to "spar" with each other in the ring; basically, acting tough and showing the beginnings of reactivity. I wasn't aware of this sparring technique until a few years ago. No doubt Mika has some at least slightly reactive dogs in her lineage, as both of her parents were conformation Champions.

And Wall-e came to me as a confident 5.5 month old puppy. I could bring him anywhere and nothing seemed to faze him. He always showed a bit of nervousness/awareness when he heard heating fans in dog training buildings, but no true fear; just the typical sheltie sensitivity to the environment. Overall, I called him my dog with "no self-preservation" and he was an outstanding example of a sheltie without any fears (unlike so many fearful shelties). That is, until his bad experience, which changed him into a fearful dog. So Wall-e's situation is a bit simpler in terms of what caused his fearfulness, unlike Mika, who has so many elements that made her who she is today.

Some people say that if both of somebody's dogs
(or all, if they have more than two) have the same "behavioural problems," then that person obviously doesn't know how to prevent or fix the problem. But what if things just happened that way? I'm not perfect, but I "did everything right" with Mika during her puppyhood; socialized her, did puppy kindergarten, brought her everywhere and anywhere. And yet, she still became reactive. I've recently read about the new belief that shy dogs should not be over-socialized because this could cause their fears to maybe that was my mistake with Mika. But to be honest, I think she still would have become reactive anyway, since she'd been showing fear ever since I brought her home.

And Wall-e had a bad experience, which of course couldn't have been my fault, since it was just a "freak" thing (maybe that's too big a word, but oh well) that nobody could have expected.

It's just gotten me thinking.

And I don't know how much longer I can call Wall-e a "fearful dog" because this year I've been seeing so much of the old Wall-e, the confident Wall-e I had before the bad experience. On walks, he wags his tail when children approach him, smiles at women in hijabs (another one of his previous fears that I haven't mentioned), and confidently turns to me for guidance when he hears a scary noise. I know that Mika will never be a completely confident dog because she was never confident to begin with; but I'm getting my Wall-e boy back.

Anyway, these are just some of my random thoughts. Do I hope that my next dog will have no fears? Not really;
I love working with my fearful dogs. Seeing them face a situation with a big smile, that would previously cause them to fight or flight (depending on the dog :), is something that I wouldn't change for the world. There are few things in my life more satisfying than helping my dogs learn how to deal with their fears and truly live.


  1. I dont know. Sometimes things just happen and then there is fear. And a lot of times we dont even know what caused it. I will do some things different with my next puppy. I think puppy classes are good but I will be more careful next time. Miley got jumped a couple of times with puppies playing and she didnt like it at all. I think it lead to her not liking other dogs.

  2. I really think so much has to do with the dog you got. With Cricket I really asked around about the type of dogs their lines put out. If you get a dog from a breeder sort of getting a feel for what they are breeding for and if it is just confirmation, that scares me, or some people like a dog with an edge and that is a bit reactive...or nuts... I truly think now from the dogs I have been around and know their lines that some dogs just come genetically bomb proof, you could do just about anything and they are going to be fine-they can have the worst upbringing and you can do everything wrong and they are going to turn out great. Cricket is like that, she has been jumped by dogs and had lots of snarky dogs, that would have ruined Breeze but Cricket is just fine-still loves all dogs, I just think I would have had to work really hard to ruin her, so her good nature is not something I can be proud of, it was not my upbringing even though I tried to do the right things, I think she is just made that way. Breeze is good with people but has more of an edge, if I had not been careful I think she could have been mean, I think the right socialization was critical for her. Lizzie is a dog that because of her personality, I do not think there is any way I could have made her mean. I know noise sensitivity runs in Breezes lines and I worked hard on that and she is really good except it still shows up with rattly noises like a crate rattling can terrify her. I know think there are some dogs whose genetics are such they could go either way and socialization is a bigger thing for them....but I also think it is useless and mean to blame the people and just something people do to make themselves feel they are in control and they could not get a dog that was reactive because they will just do the right things, I think they are indivuals and you just capitalize on their good points and do what you can to smooth out the rough edges.

  3. Generally dogs that have fearful responses to stimulus and it makes a "lasting" impression lack the ability to recover. These dogs need to sometimes be taught how to recover, and be taught that their handler will support them no matter what. By support I mean the handler instills in the dog that they will never set a challenge for the dog that is too great for the dog to work through at that set moment in time. Over time the dog learns the very basic trust that if the handler says an obstacle/fear is surmountable it will be. The dog learns how to recover based on their handler's support. And the dog learns how to work through a "scary" experience. the handler never floods the dog and the handler never asks their dog to do something that the dog would not have the foundational skills to handle. The handler never sets the dog up for failure. Once a dog learns How to recover and How to trust their handler in that way, situations that may invoke a fearful response do not make lasting impressions. The dog learns "the world may be scary, but I can work through that and go forward" If you teach a puppy how to recover and how to trust the handler, from day one, you generally can to some degree avoid what happened with your 2 dogs.

  4. Is there anyway you would consider removing the CAPTCHA/word verification requirement for posting comments on your blog? It makes it near impossible for people with vision disabilities to comment. It would be appreciated. thanks! :-)

  5. I've been thinking about this a lot lately with my reactive JRT. She definitely inherited a lot of problems from her parents - I've seen and heard about what her other siblings are getting up to, and training has actually made it so that she is much less stressed about strange people and dogs.

    Next time though, I'm definitely going to go to a health-testing breeder, who generally breeds non-reactive dogs, for my next breed, if I don't get a confident young adult from a shelter. It's great seeing fearful dogs take steps forward - but when they take steps back, it's a massive blow, and deeply frustrating for me.

  6. In order to blame the owner, I would say you need a much larger sample of dogs. Plus it seems that dogs will take on the traits of the dogs around them as well as the people. For Example - Essex is focused, aloof and will shy away from people she doesn't know. She absolutely disliked fireworks, and is very slow in approaching things. My Angel Collie, Deacon, my brother called him a goober, he loved everybody, he wanted to meet everyone and was a Collie Ambassador. Oh he was mischevious but never malicious. He could care less about fire works, and would be in a rush to tell the new dog or cat, that he was their bestest buddy. Yes, I miss my silly boy - but looking forward to the new puppy.