What makes a stressed dog?
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 increase...so 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.