A sadly reliable part of my work are the scared ones, dogs brought to me because they were afraid, sometimes of specifics like tall men or loud noises, and sometimes just afraid in general. They are afraid for many reasons. Some are traumatized, some have limited capacity to cope, some simply do not understand the world. My goal is to find a way to help these dogs as best I can. Being afraid is not a good way to live.
There’s a tendency among those who love these frightened dogs to manage behavior or situations that are upsetting to the dog. Often, they simply avoid the whole thing. That may work most of the time, but if there’s anything I know from a lifetime with animals, you can’t control or manage everything, especially how life unfolds, how other people interact with animals even when the poor beast is clearly afraid. Sooner or later, avoidance fails, management falters, mistakes are made. . . and the dog still does not know what to do or how to cope.
Anything that a dog carries with him as cause for concern means a potential bite situation at worst, and at best, a worried dog who is not enjoying life as much as he might. The more likely the dog is to find this or that worrisome, the more I’m going to carefully, gently & systematically work on minimizing or eliminating the fear(s). I want to shift his perception of the event. I also want to build specific skills that help him cope.
My goal in developing coping skills and shifting perception is building a deep, long history of repeated positive experiences. This is how I create what I see in my mind as a cushion that I am building for the dog, around the dog, protecting the dog. In the end, even the occasional idiot’s behavior which comes out of the blue has plenty of cushion to bounce against without ever really reaching the dog inside.
To me, it seems that deliberately building that cushion of positive experiences around weird human behavior is a great gift to give any animal you love. How far you get with any animal in terms of their ability to actually cope with what they find scary or uncomfortable – well, that depends on the dog, the handler, and training skills.
Love and knowledge woven together can offer the fearful dog a mighty shield against some of what life can serve up.
“Put A Cushion Around Your Dog” by Suzanne Clothier