Three of the last four dogs I have been to have been scared of me. Although they all barked at me I’m not taking it personally. Each one, almost certainly, has been inadequately socialised at a sufficiently young age.
Rescues are full of undersocialised dogs. Without sufficient happy encounters with lots of different people in the first weeks of the dog’s life, the puppy of about three months old will very likely begin to be fearful. The clock can’t be put back.
People often think someone may have been actively cruel to their adopted dog but usually that’s not the case. There has even been research to prove that the brain of a dog that has been undersocialised develops a bit differently. What’s more, fearful dogs may pass on these fear genes to their puppies. It really is a big problem.
A dog that has been with one person, loved but not exposed to people and real life from a very young age, is condemned to a challenging life. So many people I go to have re-homed a dog like this, like the family I went to today.
Cocker Spaniel Millie, 3, is very happy with her family. She is pretty good with other dogs too. However, she does not like other people.
When someone comes into her house she will bark at them in a fearful way. The people have a ritual that may keep her barking under control but it’s not actually changing how Millie feels about people. Today I asked them not to do what they usually did, which unsettled her, actually making her worse. This may happen to begin with.
What was apparent is that the fear element reduced with the help of food but she still barked at me on and off. I feel it’s become a habit that always brings the same predictable result that may be rewarding or reassuring – a certain reaction from the family. She may even be getting a little bit cross. So often it’s a mix of things.
We have a plan for working on this involving food which fortunately she loves and multiple short sessions. They will have the environment already laced with food before Millie joins the visitor who will be sitting still and not looking at her. They will take it from there, trying different things. Some things work better with some dogs than others.
Millie’s not keen of people she meets on walks either. It is tempting to get the dog to sit as a person passes, but I prefer to keep on the move, making a bit of an arc rather than approaching head-on, keeping the dog’s attention and feeding as the person goes by. This is great practice at a level she can cope with to make her feel a bit better about people.
Millie’s general stress levels are permanently being topped up during the day by various things – she’s very alert to noises or anything sudden. There are many small things that can be done that could contribute to reducing stress from diet to preventing post being pushed through the door.
There are also things dogs can do for themselves to help them to self-calm.
Millie has had over three years in fear of people, so it will be a slow process. Every small step will be an achievement. The gentleman said that a trainer had told him that teaching Millie something new was not possible as it would be like trying to teach a 35-year-old human something new. That’s ridiculous. I am learning all the time.
Anyway, this isn’t about ‘learning’ as about ‘feeling’. There is no age limit to changing emotions.
The physical effect on Millie’s brain isn’t about ‘learning’ either. It is hard-wired and will always be there and even, once ‘cured’, she could revert if faced with a situation she can’t cope with. With continuing help she will bounce back.
When they first had Millie it looked like she had no tail. For days it was clamped between her legs and under her body. Even despite her unease with me, that didn’t happen. Later in my presence she was positively enjoying the clicker work the young lady was doing with her.
With kindness and patience they have come a long way in the eighteen months that they have had her. Now it’s time to push a bit further forward.