Their dog has feelings similar to their own.
When I arrived, the man had Cocker Spaniel Danny in the shower. The dog had just come back from his favourite occupation – swimming in a muddy brook. The wet dog then greeted me – confident, curious and friendly.
I had been called to help an anxious dog and they want him to be happier. He seemed quite happy to me – if a bit unsettled. He did, however, have strange short bouts of what I can only call shaking shutdown. He would stand still head and tail down, and tremble. There are a few clues as to why he might be doing this based on what is happening beforehand (which was nothing apart from our sitting around a table, talking and taking no notice of him) and the reaction it gets (it generates sympathy and cuddles from the man).
They will be taking him to the vet to investigate further for possible physical causes.
This dog has a great life. He loves their three young children and lives with a calm little Cockerpoo. He has freedom to run in woods and fields and do ‘spaniel’ things (one thing I shall be helping them with later is loose lead walking – currently Danny would rather carry the lead!).
Where Danny’s anxiety is concerned, it manifests around certain vehicles; he also gets anxious and growly when there are too many people in the house, particularly children.
Chatting began to uncover the problem. Old-school attitudes tend to believe the dog should be disciplined and kept in line according to his lower place in the ‘pack’. This doesn’t imply cruelty but it doesn’t recognise that the dog has feelings and reacts to things very much in the same way as we would. People like this family don’t feel comfortable with this approach, but do things because they feel they should and that it’s the right way. It isn’t. A dog doesn’t need dominating but understanding.
There has been considerable scientific research recently that has proved beyond all doubt that a dog has feelings and emotions like our own. Eminent people have exposed the old dominance, alpha wolf, pack theory as a myth.
It’s a funny thing that someone who loves their dog so much, cuddles and comforts him, can at the same be insensitive to some of his fears.
If the dog is scared of something, the old way could well be to make him face it. If he growls and particularly if he bites, the old view is that this should be punished.
When Danny was scared of the ride-on mower as a young puppy, the man lifted him onto his knee as he mowed and too late he knew this was the wrong thing to do. The puppy was absolutely terrified. The dog now, six years later, still panics if the man even walks towards the shed the mower is kept in. The fear has generalised to other vehicles.
If this had been a fearful child they would undoubtedly have taken it slowly and patiently, helping him to learn to like the mower.
Now Danny has bitten a child.
It happened because nobody was paying attention to how he was feeling even though he did his best to tell them. He was punished in several ways. He was then sent away to stay with someone else for a couple of days.
Surprisingly, he isn’t yet showing any signs of the fallout which will surely come unless they now listen to what their dog is desperately trying to tell them..
Imagine if the story was about a child and not a dog.
Here is the same incident put into a human context.
Imagine that you are a child who wants to be left alone in peace to do your own thing and there are lots of people in your house. You find refuge in your own bedroom, but a bigger boy follows you in there and he won’t leave you alone. You politely tell him to go away but he pushes you, so you shout at him. Mum hears and she asks the boy to leave you alone.
Behind you mum’s back, the boy then comes back to your room to annoy you. You ask the boy to go away again; you yell at him and he continues to goad you. So you push him away. You feel scared. He won’t stop pestering you. You snap, you scream and then you hit him.
Now what happens?
Your world falls in.
The boy yells. People come running into your room shouting at you; your dad, who you trust, for some reason out of the blue attacks you. Later, after you thought it was all over, he comes back; he grabs you by the scruff of your neck and roughly throws you out of the house whilst attacking you again. You start to cry so loudly that he opens the door and chucks cold water over you to shut you up. You stifle your sobs, shivering and confused.
The next day they send you away to live somewhere else (you don’t know if you will ever come back home again).
You have learnt two things: that bigger kids are bad news and that you can’t trust your dad to help you out either. You have learnt that asking nicely doesn’t work. You have learnt that your bedroom isn’t a safe place. You have learnt that your dad is unpredictable and can be scary.
Punishment may work in the moment, but there is always long-term fallout.
The bond is very close between man and dog to the point over of over-dependence, which no doubt makes inconsistent or unprovoked behaviour very confusing for Danny. No wonder that at times he is anxious. Here he is in this picture, worrying as the man walks away and down the garden path.
I was called out so he would become a ‘happier dog – less anxious’, and we have found the key: understanding that the dog has feelings just like us, and dealing with his fears in the same way as we would our child’s fears.
Building up the dog’s confidence will require patience and lots of positive reinforcement, from the man in particular, so that he can rectify any damage previously done to their relationship. If there is no physical reason for his ‘shaking shutdowns’ then this approach should stop them also.