Katie from Lessons From 4 Legs has been kind enough to share the story about her life with Maizey, a fearful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The promises Katie had made to Maizey should be ones which we all make to our fearful dogs, and you will no doubt find similarities between their experiences together and your own.
Having a fearful dog is a journey of unique challenges and joys. Each challenge leads to its own lesson, each lesson to its own larger joy.
My journey with a reactive dog started before I ever realized that it was a reactive journey.
Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are friendly, out going, loving dogs. But a combination of genetics and poor early puppy socialization combined to give Maizey a predisposition to be fearful.
Now at two years old her fear issues are not severe, but the signs of fear were evident from her first day home. I just did not know they were signs of distress.
Looking back, you can always see more clearly when the fear started or escalated. You wish you knew then what you know now and had done things differently. The “if only’s. . .” are one of the sorrows of owning a fearful dog.
“If only I had given higher reinforcement in that situation.”
“If only I had spoken up for her and not been intimidated by people.”
And for me the worst feeling, “If only I had protected her better.”
But from these “if only’s” can come some of the best lessons and what I call ‘Maizey Promises‘. The main promise I make to her-
“I will always protect you. If I don’t do a good enough job, I will learn and do better next time.”
Maizey is a happy, playful girl. She loves to snuggle, train and learn. She is an expert at figuring things out. She is thinking all the time.
She is my emotional side-kick. She reads human emotions better than most humans I know.
This sensitivity is one of her greatest gifts, but also leads her to hyper-sensitivity. One of her greatest stresses, and my greatest sorrows.
Seeing her inability to handle stress is always sad. She can go from being a happy, playful girl to a stressed out, reacting girl in seconds. After an episode, she will remain watchful, alert and unable to calm down for hours.
This sorrow leads to another challenge. Helping a fearful dog takes full time thought. As Debbie said, “Few people realize the time, energy and patience involved with working with a fearful dog.”
One thing that is vital is the need to control the environment. Unfortunately, at times this is impossible. You can not, even in your own home, fully control everything.
Recently the shadow of our cat was on the door to the next room. Maizey was relaxed, not stressed at all, and the next thing I know she was reactively barking and lunging at the cats shadow.
There is no way I can control shadows, but I can try! I promise to protect her, but when it comes to controlling the environment I have another Maizey Promise. “I promise to help you have the skills you need to cope and I promise to help you use those skills. If I don’t know how to help you, I will learn and do better next time.”
The human element can be a challenge too. People have varying reactions to you and your barking, lunging, 10 pound ball of Cavalier ears and tail.
On a walk one day, a dachshund ran out of his house towards us. I tried to use the skills we have conditioned, but it all happened so swiftly that she briefly put on her best barking, lunging attack dog impression.
It would have been ideal to move along, but the neighbors came out and wanted to visit. Although I repeatedly stated I needed to go, they kept talking. Short of just walking away from my neighbor in mid sentence all I could do was use our skills to help Maizey cope.
When the other dog was contained, and Maizey had calmed down, I tried to salvage the situation by letting her say hello. She ran up with a friendly greeting for our neighbor, who quickly backed away. She was so scared of this “ferocious” little dog that in her haste to get away from her, she almost fell over! I felt terrible, for her and for Maizey.
It’s difficult to convince people who were raised on talk of dominance and aggression that this is a fear based behavior. It’s hard to explain that this happy little puppy with tail and ears flying is not the same threatening, barking apparition of a few minutes before.
So I have developed a new language to help people see Maizey for who she truly is. I have learned to overlook what is not useful in what people say and take away what will work for her.
Although what I do to help her doesn’t always make sense to observers, I know it makes sense to her. Which leads to my next Maizey promise, “I will put your needs first. I will not be swayed by public opinion, I will do what is best for you.”
Though the challenges can seem overwhelming, the joys of having a fearful dog are often found in the smallest things and far outweigh the sorrows.
There are no titles, no strings of letters after their name to show how far they have come. No fancy ribbons and registries that show, “My dog took a relaxed and fun walk today.” Or, “Today my fearful dog played happily with a new dog.” These are the kind of things that make me happy and proud.
Those things, like seeing her think through a problem and choose to offer me a simple behavior instead of reacting automatically show her progress. Even silly things like destroying a cardboard box in fun, instead of anxiety, are all monumental steps for a fearful dog. Steps that deserve recognition and celebration.
Each skill she learns is a tool that helps her confidence grow. Each time she gains more confidence, my confidence grows with her. As our confidence grows so does our joy.
That is my last Maizey Promise, “I will see and celebrate the joys. I will share in your successes no matter how small.”
Having a fearful dog will inspire you as a trainer and a person in ways that others may never see. It is a journey of lessons that can’t be replaced any other way. Like all journeys there are sorrows, but there are more joys.