Meet Lacey, an 8-week-old Yellow Lab/Golden Retriever mix. Lacey is just 8 weeks old (born just before Christmas 2014), and though she was not our first choice at the first viewing, she showed us at the second viewing that she was the right match for the autistic human child she will be raised and trained to work with.
At the first viewing, Lacey exhibited anxiety and insecurity, she whined a lot, and she did not respond favorably to any of the temperament tests or the few stimuli-responses tests we were able to conduct. However, when the human child was brought to the second viewing, last night, she made a beeline directly towards the child and stayed close to him while he played. He overbalanced himself, once, and fell on the floor; Lacey immediately ran to him to make sure he was okay, and she stayed with him until he got up. And when the child picked her up the wrong way, instead of fighting him, whining, or nipping at him, she became very still and waited for his parent to take control of the situation. Then, she went right back to the child and continued spending time with him.
Due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, Lacey’s first year of life will be spent living in two homes: my home, and the home of her new family. When she is old enough to take the Canine Good Neighbor test, and when she passes it and receives her certification, she will then live with her forever family full-time. In the meantime, Lacey will get the socialization and training she needs, as well as work experience with her human child. Once she is in her forever home full-time, her training will become more specialized to include support and assistance to her human child.
Unless there are neurological or other medical issues at work, no dog is ever too far gone to help them find and maintain balance. Last night, Oliver proved this. His training session started out with very strong and physical disagreement with a training collar (a.k.a. “choke collar” – so named because it tightens when tugged as a correction), but it ended with a beautiful, perfectly executed sit and focus position. I was just as surprised by his behavior as the humans who were watching him transform right before their eyes. One of the little children even tried to get my attention by putting herself directly between me and Oliver, and not only did Oliver not break the sit position, he also stayed focused on me. This was stunning to everyone present, because only a few minutes before I had arrived at the home, he had been bullying the children and nipping at them.
Oliver’s negative behaviors can be easily traced back to the people who first had him. They have continued because my sister tries to negotiate and reason with him like she does with the children when they misbehave. I have tried to encourage her to stop doing that, but she continues to do it. Not only does this confuse Oliver, it also puts him in a leadership position he’s not equipped to deal with. At 15 weeks old, this dog is not only correcting – and subsequently fighting with – the other two dogs, he’s also correcting all of the humans when he decides they are out of line. Dogs need strong leaders and order that is maintained at all times. Oliver does not have that from his humans, so he tries to create it himself.
During the training session, Oliver showed me that he learns faster and easier through play. He loves food rewards, but he loves playing even more. So, using one of his toys as a reward, I began the work of teaching him “sit”, “focus/look at me”, and “let go”. In a matter of minutes, he had the “sit” and “focus” commands almost down pat. In fact, he even started initiating those positions without being asked to.
Learning how to execute the “let go” command took a bit longer. Oliver is very possessive with his toys and he doesn’t like to surrender them. But, once he realized that doing as he was asked meant more play, he did much better. And every time he was rewarded with a “Yes! Good job, Oliver!” he would lay on his side and then roll onto his back and encourage me to give him pets. This was a very big surprise to me. Oliver doesn’t like being touched or handled in any way and he bites the hands of anyone who tries. So, for him to invite touch from me the way he did tells me that he’s starting to trust me.
Based on his behaviors and his responses to touch, I can’t help but wonder about Oliver’s life before his adoption. I also can’t help feeling that adopting him was the right decision to make, despite his initial failure with all the temperament and stimulus tests. My greatest concerns now are not with him, but rather, with his humans. There is little to no stability among them, and the rules, boundaries, and limitations are not consistent, and they’re not the same for all of the dogs. Lucy instigates a lot of problems (resource guarding being one of them), and her human owner does not correct her. As a result, Oliver is learning and practicing those same behaviors – which leads to frequent disagreements between him and Lucy. So, the humans are my greatest concerns, now. I can achieve a lot of progress with Oliver fairly easily, but the humans…. They need a lot of work….
It’s been said that dogs are among the most honest creatures on the planet. Not only do they read our energy, they show us our true state of being through their own behavior. An example of this is when your dog seems to act out “for no reason”. I’ll bet that if you take a quick check of yourself and your emotional state, you’ll find that you’re feeling anxious or excited about something. However your dog is acting out, he is directly reflecting your true state. Something to think about on this beautiful Thursday….