Whilst I was walking my dogs along the road this morning, to get to a field, I had a thought. Chips is probably never going to be happy walking alongside a moving car even for 100 yards without my help. He’s sound sensitive and he’s noisy, he’s also over ten years old now and my lovely, cuddly grey faced dog. Yet if I were to allow him to focus on a vehicle coming towards us until it passed, he would likely lunge towards it – especially if it’s big. So I help him.
I help him by sometimes asking him to sit for a treat. Sometimes I wait for the inevitable glance towards me, and reward it and other times I tell him what a good boy he is – loudly and distracting, to which again he looks for a treat. Sometimes I give him something to pull on, and he gets to break a tasty bit of food off to eat.
All of these actions keep Chips happy when he would otherwise be worried. They help him to cope, they distract him and they keep his arousal levels low. No I haven’t successfully taken him passed the need for reward when he sees/hears something scary. I can’t walk along oblivious to the environment, and I can’t walk without treats but you know what, that’s OK. That’s OK because my dog is OK and that’s what matters.
My dog Chips is special you see, he’s anxious, he worries about noises and he has a whole host of superstitions about things. He needs to nose nudge a hand on the way in from the garden, he won’t come into the house unless he’s invited a lot of the time, he doesn’t like being alone and hides under the bed if I say the words “you’re staying here”. Chips is a typical example of every sound sensitive and anxious dog study we have seen emerge over the last five years.
He’s the reason we can’t live in a semi-detached or terraced house. Chips needs silence and space, he’s the reason we can’t go on normal dog walks. Chips needs careful management of his greeting choices or his terrier nerves make him charge, in all honesty he can be a bully because of his fear. He’s the reason we go on holiday in November, and why the humans in this house apologise into the air when we make a loud noise.
Chips is not a robust, sound and strong dog. He copes because I help him to cope and if we were to consider him in a black and white, trained or untrained dog it could be easy to think we have failed him. But we haven’t, he just needs more support than most. This need for support might be nature and nurture, one or the other, but what matters is that he needs it.
You see to an extent dogs are not for fixing, they are not broken radios or objects at all and we simply can’t look at them like they are broken or fixed. Dogs are unique, wonderful animals with many traits, and yes they not ever be completely happy in some situations but that’s OK if we are willing to do a workaround.
Just like we can sometimes never overcome emotional responses, phobias, fears and many learned experiences, so have to focus on our own self-care – we must be comfortable with doing the same for our dogs.