In the fall I met with a couple from the Boston area to talk about their fearful dog, a young Shiba Inu named Kaiju. Friends of mine have a Shiba, an engaging and attentive little dog, so I had an image of the potential that existed for their dog. I realize this doesn’t make sense. A dog’s breed is not necessarily an indicator of what they can achieve (though getting my cockers to herd sheep may take more work than getting my border collie to do it). We know that pit bulls can be fabulous pets and golden retrievers can bite children. But there you have it. I looked at the shy dog and could see flashes of goofy Jasper, my friends’ dog, chasing leaves along the trail and plunging his head into the river to retrieve treats.
Recently I was sent an update about the shy Shiba and was told that their vet has prescribed ‘reverse domination’. Any mention of the word domination causes red flags to pop up in my mind. The word has been misused and inaccurately defined by pop culture dog trainers. I asked what they were told to do and the reply was basically- let the dog be naughty. I loved it!
Once you get past the knee jerk response of, ‘don’t let dogs practice inappropriate behaviors!’ allow the idea to percolate a bit and it makes so much lovely sense.
Dogs that are fearful, shy or anxious will often display this by wariness, reticence to explore, stilted movement, and an overall tightness in their body and posture. What we often define as inappropriate or ‘naughty’ behavior by our standards is normal dog behavior. Dogs chew things, they dig, they jump, they sniff crotches. Behaviors that we frown upon seem good fun to our dogs. When I see a dog sniffing the ground lower her head and shoulder getting ready to drop and roll, I invariably shout out a loud, “NOOOoooo!” I can’t help it. Cleaning unidentifiable, stinky animal poop out of their fur and collar is not my idea of a good time, but I cannot deny the enthusiasm my dogs display when they find something to roll in.
If our immediate response to a fearful dog who is being ‘naughty’ is to attempt to stop them (we stop behaviors with punishment of some kind), we are further hindering them from developing new skills and denying them the opportunity to gain confidence in relation to things in their environment. I don’t think their vet was suggesting they let the dog destroy their sofa but rather to stop putting so much focus on training and control and putting more on play and engagement. The benefits of play for fearful dogs cannot be emphasized enough.
Finding ways to let my fearful dog enjoy himself was key to the progress he has been able to make. Every day includes some kinds of ‘feel good’ activities for him, though I still draw the line at engaging with poop. Some cultural constraints are hard to let go of.