Even though I had lived with dogs all my life, and worked in dog rescue for many years, when I got my seriously damaged dog Sunny I had not yet worked with a dog that due to lack of early socialization and/or genetic make-up, could not interact with people at all. I was unable to fathom the idea that he was not just going to ‘get over’ being afraid and realize that life here in doggy paradise was good.
For anyone that has worked with feral dogs or puppy mill survivors Sunny’s behavior would not have seemed so strange. The fact that a dog may never get past certain fears is still hard to accept, we want our dogs to be happy and for rescuers, for dogs to find safe and loving homes. Yet understanding this aspect of fearful dogs is important. If we assume that all dogs can change how they feel and behave we may be inclined to use techniques designed to force the issue, with disastrous results.
One of my biggest complaints with the current focus on dog handling and pack leadership is that people who favor the ‘be the pack leader’ approach often interpret behavioral transgressions by their dogs as challenges to the owner’s pack leader status. Dogs are seen as challenging or stubborn, when instead they are just scared, sometimes out of their minds. When you’re scared out of your mind it’s hard to learn or make good decisions. An animal’s fears do not have to make sense to us to be very real for them. Few of us have to experience on a daily basis (hopefully not all) the kind of fear that makes you dig in your heels and try to flee for your life, yet this is what fearful dogs live with, and for some it’s their life.
I have never stopped believing that Sunny can improve and feel more confident and safe in the world. I will never stop working with him, using counter conditioning and desensitization to help him on that journey. But I understand now that though I continue to have big dreams for him I need to keep my expectations for him reasonable so that I do not make his behavior worse by becoming frustrated or impatient with his progress or abilities.