Skylar met two new people and a new dog last night. Anne, her husband Tom, and their sweet boy Fonzie came to my home for a visit and to help me continue helping Skylar practice the techniques I’ve been teaching her when she is facing these kinds of situations.
To give her a sense of safety, and to remove any unnecessary added pressure, I moved the place cot from the top of the landing into the dining area. The distance would not only prevent a full-blown panic attack, but it would also give Skylar the opportunity to see everything and then use her nose to assess the situation. Ideally, she should be using her nose first, then her eyes, and then her ears, but the fact that she’s even been trying to use her nose is a big stride in her progress.
Anne and Tom were asked to ignore Skylar completely until Skylar was able to achieve and then maintain a calmer state on the place cot. Fonzie helped tremendously by giving Skylar space and a lot of calming signals. The result was that Skylar calmed more quickly, she started using her nose, and her body language changed from tension to curiosity. The entire process took about 15 minutes – a dramatic change from when she first arrived a few weeks ago.
Skylar and Fonzie became friends. At one point, Fonzie invited her to play. I wasn’t sure how she would feel about that; her people told me that she’s okay initiating, but when other dogs initiate, she would become defensive and fearful. So, when Fonzie initiated play with her and she accepted, I was over the moon with happiness for her. In fact, she followed Fonzie around the house when he went looking for Violet [he and Violet became friends almost right away, even though this was their first time meeting each other], and she even waited politely during a treat handout when all three dogs [Glimmer, Skylar, and Fonzie] were close together.
Skylar also initiated meeting Anne and Tom. She was particularly interested in Tom, and investigated him quite often. In fact, more than once, she asked for permission to join him on the couch. When she was given the go-ahead, she got very close to him and politely touched noses with him. I was more than a little surprised by this; Skylar has given us this degree of trust, courage, and confidence, but while she’s been with me, she hasn’t done this with anyone else she’s met.
Skylar has made a lot of progress in her time with me. It may not be obvious, but in my experience, it’s the smaller, less obvious changes that have the greatest impact. A decrease in intensity; standing quietly when meeting new people instead of barking, pulling on the lead, and trying to run away; making an effort to use the nose instead of reacting out of hand…. Things like this may not seem like much, but to a fearful dog, they are huge victories. Every time Skylar makes an effort to look for direction, that is a huge step in her progress. Every time she manages to get herself under control, that is a huge step in her progress. Every time she makes an effort to choose a different, more positive way of handling situations that stress her and put her in a state of panic, that is a huge step in her progress.
Skylar is not the same dog she was three weeks ago. Over these past three weeks, she’s been slowly but steadily gaining confidence, she’s been learning that her choices matter, the intensity and duration of her reactivity towards strangers and other dogs has decreased dramatically, she’s become more trusting in social situations, she no longer attempts to prevent people from leaving the house [she would bite at clothing, bark, and become quite frantic when her people tried to leave the house], she no longer reacts to people showing each other affection, she no longer reacts to normal, everyday household activities…. She has even changed her behavior with the vacuum: She still tries to kill it, but she is choosing to redirect her energy onto a toy or go to place much more quickly than she was three weeks ago. This is a really big deal for her – and it’s one of those less obvious victories I mentioned above.
When dealing with a fearful dog, acknowledging and rewarding them every time they make a more positive choice in situations that are stressful for them helps them better manage their fear and build their confidence. In turn, it helps us strengthen the bonds of trust with them by deepening our attunement with their energy so that we can respond more quickly and more accurately to their needs.
Today is Day 20 of Skylar’s three-week program. She goes home to her family tomorrow morning. Because we are once again locked in a winter deep freeze, we’ll be working indoors. Skylar will have her treadmill time [she really loves that], and throughout the day, I’ll be working her on her responses to loud noises, the door, and sudden movements.
Have a great day and a great weekend, and remember: Stay calm and lead on.