If Only That Hadn’t Happened, This Dog Would Be Fine

People have many explanations for why dogs act as they do. Sometimes the dog’s history becomes baggage that the human carts along for the dog’s entire life. Recently, I asked someone about their dog’s pulling on leash and she began her answer with, “He was found near a dumpster when he was six weeks old.” The dog was 3 years old now. How does being found near a dumpster have much to do with pulling, which is an interaction between a dog and handler?

Sometimes, the human guesses at what happened. “A man with a hat must have abused her because she hates men with hats.” Or maybe she just finds hats scary? Or maybe she’s unsure about men in general, and the hat just adds to the scariness? If a 10 foot tall three headed slime being suddenly appeared on your street, your reaction wouldn’t be due to having been abused by three headed slime beings but rather due to the strangeness, the novelty, the unfamiliarity of the thing. What is attributed to abuse in the dog’s past often can be more accurately laid at the feet of being poorly socialized and thus having a very small list of known & familiar, but a huge list of what is strange, novel or unfamiliar and therefore frightening. By contrast, a well socialized animal has a huge list of familiar and known items, people, experiences.

However, when we explain behavior, what is frequently heard is this:

If only that hadn’t happened, this dog would be fine.

“If only that hadn’t happened . . . this dog would be fine” is at best a faulty premise. At worst, it is a rejection of the reality that individuals vary considerably in their ability to handle whatever life dishes up.

“Would have been fine” or “was fine before X” — based on what criteria? After what kind of assessment? Breeders, trainers, rescue/shelter staff and dog lovers alike often have no meaningful, detailed way of assessing behavior. They are not lying when they pronounce the dog as “perfectly fine”, but they are reporting on an opinion based on a less than thorough assessment. Without a Geiger counter, the woods and fields around the nuclear disaster site at Chernobyl look quite lovely. Sometimes, what passes as an assessment of a dog is a lot like evaluating Chernobyl without checking for radioactivity.

Ironically, there is frequently some tacit acknowledgment that all is not truly fine. Instructions provided regarding the animal reveal a lot.  This can be heard in “Oh, just don’t reach for him [or try to touch or look at him], and he’ll be fine.”  None of these warnings indicate an animal who is fine, who can remain functional and appropriate and keep his teeth to himself (or stay in the same room) even if humans look or touch or act humanoid. Warnings exist where there is a potential for problems. Ever seen a sign that says “Caution! Dry floor with good traction!”?? No one warns, “Careful – he will stay relaxed and happy if you look at him, hug him, or touch him.”

“If only that hadn’t happened…” often points to specific experiences that people believe are to blame for any number of behaviors and responses that are less than desirable, whether that’s being anxious or fearful or shy or aggressive or intolerant or reactive. “It’s because he was flown on a plane.” “It’s because he’s in a shelter.” “It’s because the woman reached over his head.” “It’s because the man was wearing sunglasses.” “It’s because he had five different people transporting him.” And so on. In the end, what is believed, is that the experience alone – whatever it was – ruined the dog

This bears some detailed examination if we are interested in doing right by the dogs entrusted to us.

Experience can, will, does affect an animal. No question. But to pose experience as the thing that can destroy a stable resilient individual is not quite accurate. What one animal finds so traumatic might be simply confusing and annoying for another animal. An unexpected hug from an overly exuberant child can result in one dog just waiting patiently for it to end, while another dog in that same setting might feel trapped and frantically bite the child’s face. Being hugged is not the problem. It is how the dog experiences the hug. And that’s the key here: who is the individual, and to what extent does any given experience affect him?

Each individual dog is the product of genetics and developmental stimulation (also referred to as Nature) and the cumulative effect of his experiences (sometimes referred to as nurture). Which is more influential? Genes are not the sole determinant of behavior; behavior is not solely the product of experience. Though the “if only that hadn’t happened…” folks like to think otherwise, it turns out there is no point in deciding between Nature and nurture.

In her book, The Mirage of Space Between Nature and Nurture, Evelyn Fox Keller points out that each are inexplicably intertwined. Each influences the other. As Keller notes, there is no understanding of a wall as purely bricks or purely mortar, just as no drum beat exists without a drum and a drummer. There is a great illustration in her book that shows one child holding a hose aimed at bucket, and one child at the other end of the hose ready to turn the faucet on. She asks if X number of gallons fill the bucket, which child contributed more to that? The answer, of course, is that both children and both actions (turning on the faucet, holding the hose) are necessary to fill the bucket. This, in an elegant nutshell, is the Nature/nurture argument.

Animals vary widely in their adaptability, their coping skills, their resilience, their ability to remain functional in any given situation, under any given stress. There is a huge range between the end points on the functional/dysfunctional spectrum. It is helpful to consider it as a continuum with many layers. On each layer, an animal could be closer to one end of the spectrum than he might be on another layer. For example, if one of the layers is auditory sensitivity, then a deaf dog is on the dysfunctional end of scale, though he may be perfectly functional on all other layers. (CARAT seeks to assess animals on a multi-layered scale that allows for finely detailed evaluations.)

On one end of the behavior spectrum are animals with limited ability to handle stress. Their behavior can be rigid, maladaptive, inflexible, or even downright fragile. These dogs can experience poor quality of life at times due to specific stressors or stimuli (for example, thunderstorms). Or the dog may have a generalized inability to adapt that affects the dog throughout his life in many or even all situations. For such dogs, care must be taken to provide the best possible environment and lifestyle to avoid creating distress for them. It may take very little for them to find a situation upsetting or distressing. The goal for their caretakers is to support their needs so that they can function to the greatest possible degree. Sadly, for some of these dogs, they may have severely limited adaptability.

On the other end of the behavior spectrum are the animals who can adjust, continue to function, who have coping skills. These animals are “take them anywhere, do anything with them!” hardy souls remaining highly functional under even extreme situations. They are able to recover quickly even from distressing experiences. Their behavior is robust, flexible, adaptive, and resilient. Typically, these animals can move easily between varying environments and a wide range of demands without any significant changes in their behavior. Since they can adapt to their environment, the environment does not need to be adapted for them.

What we need to focus on is this:  the adaptable, resilient animals will have very different experiences than the fragile, less adaptable animals even in the same situation. Consider a visit to the zoo’s reptile house. If you’re a snake lover, the reptile house is a wonderful experience full of interesting animals, and you enjoy every minute of your visit. If you’re afraid of snakes, the reptile house is a frightening place that you do not enjoy and leave as quickly as you can. Same situation, two very different experiences.

When we understand that any given event may or may not affect the animal depending on who that animal is, we can stop blaming an event and begin to understand the individual animal. Then the important questions become:

  • How do you assess the dog’s ability to adapt, function, cope?
  • How do you know how fragile or robust an animal is?

One important clue to adaptability and coping skills is the ability to remain functional. The degree to which basic functions are disrupted tells us how much any given stress or situation is affecting the animal. The basic functions to be considered are:

Eating Functional animals eat when hungry. Variations on the spectrum range from limiting intake to needing particularly tempting or “special” foods to having to be coaxed to being hand-fed to being force-fed to vomiting to total refusal/complete disinterest in eating.

Drinking Functional animals drink when thirsty, and in appropriate amounts. Variations on the spectrum range from excessive drinking (psychogenic or “stress” drinking, which may have to do with gastric distress) to refusing to drink at all.

Sleeping Functional dogs sleep approximately 12-14 hours per day. Variations on the spectrum when stressed/distressed include hyper vigilance that precludes sleep, constantly interrupted sleep, insufficient sleep, and excessive sleep.

Elimination Functional animals urinate and defecate on a regular basis, with properly concentrated urine and properly digested food and a compact stool. Variations on the spectrum when stressed/distressed range from refusal to urinate or defecate in new (or “unsafe”) conditions or only under very specific conditions (no humans nearby, no noises, no other animals, etc) to increased urination and defecation to outright diarrhea and urinary incontinence.

Social Interactions Functional animals are able to maintain their social skills under a broad range of conditions. Please note: maintain, not develop! An animal who is lacking social skills with either humans or other dogs or any other species cannot be said to be dysfunctional due to circumstance – the skill did not exist prior to the circumstance. Variations on the spectrum when stressed/distressed include avoidance of interactions, irritability with interactions, clinginess, unwillingness to be left alone (when normally willing to be), to outright aggression.

Learning & Thinking Functional animals can employ their knowledge and skills under a broad range of conditions. As an animal’s stress/distress increases, their ability to learn or think clearly decreases, one notable effect of arousal. Variations on the spectrum when stressed/distressed include slow or inaccurate responses, mild to significant inability to correctly process signals, outright inability to learn or perform.

Play Play is a high level function that is based on physical and emotional well being, and in particular, a feeling of safety in that environment and with playmate(s).

Example #1:Dog is adopted from one home to another, but within 2 weeks, brought to a boarding kennel where he spends 10 days. From there he is adopted to yet another home. The dog has continued to eat well, drink normally, urinate/defecate with some mild diarrhea on a few occasions, interacted appropriately with all staff who handled or walked him, played when given the opportunity, was appropriate with other dogs and cats at the facility. Not surprisingly, this dog handled very well the journey to his new home, a nearly 9 hour trip with multiple stops and a change of vehicle and crate.

 Within a day, this dog had bonded strongly with his new owners, and continued to adapt without any significant changes in his functioning.

Example #2: Dog is picked up from a situation where he has lived all his life since birth. When approached by the rescuer, the dog becomes immobilized with fear. He is unresponsive to food, touch, verbal signals, tugs on leash or collar. He must be carried and forcibly placed into crate for transport. Upon arrival at his destination, the dog remains immobile in the crate, unwilling to come out even when door is left open.  Left alone in the safe room with food and water, and observed from outside the room, it is more than 3 hours before he moves towards the food and water placed just inches from him. Not surprisingly, it is a long road to being fairly functional in the world for this dog, and a matter of years of consistent effort and environment.

 He can still be pushed into dysfunction by disruptions in his schedule or unfamiliar people.

Example #3: Dog competes several weekends each month in a dog sport. The handler is careful to pack her white noise machine for the hotel room or the dog can’t sleep and will pace most of the night. She also packs special foods because the dog often refuses to eat while traveling but can be tempted with exceptional foods. Her medicine kit includes plenty of anti-diarrheal medication, because diarrhea is common with this dog while traveling (though he has normal stools at home). Finally, she includes supplements meant for stress relief, because the dog often appears stressed during trial weekends. When asked about her dog, this handler reports that her dog “loves this sport and the showing adventures” they share. Not surprisingly, she also reports some performance and training difficulties with this dog. She is offended by the notion that her dog’s behavior demonstrates a high degree of stress, dismissing it with, “Oh, all the dogs I know are the same way. He’s fine!”

Any of these dogs could be assessed according to their ability to be functional at any or all of the points along the way: at the point of initial contact, during transport, and at the final destination. At each assessment, we need to know:

  • How functional is this animal?
  • Where is function impaired, and to what degree?
  • Is function in any area impaired sufficiently to warrant medical intervention?
  • What negatively affects the animal’s ability to function?
  • What positively affects the animal’s ability to function?

A behaviorally robust animal can adapt to a great deal before a situation becomes distressful for them. A behaviorally fragile animal cannot handle much without becoming dysfunctional. The same experience can have vastly different effects on individuals. Knowing how to assess an animal in terms of basic functions helps us be truly more humane, and aids us in making the best decisions for them as unique individuals.

This functional assessment gives us a way to know where the animal stands in that moment, and helps us continue to assess progress or deterioration on a fine level, as often as necessary. Functionality reflects the animal’s current state. Not what he might be or what he was in the past, but how he is Now. The dog lives in Now; assess him in Now, support him in Now, train him in Now.

Click here for more reading on Evelyn Fox Keller’s work.