It’s difficult to know what goes through another species’ head; even ones we’ve spent our entire lives with. Without a common language, we can only guess where it hurts, if they are tired or hungry, or feeling cranky. There are clues, of course, in body language and behavior, if we are aware of them. The photo of my dog Banner, left, clearly shows a happy, relaxed dog. We can tell from his body language and his expression.
But there are occasions when something happens and it is only upon deep recollection that we can discover when the problem began. I confess; I consider myself a good observer of dogs and the relationship their owners have with them. I’m an observer at heart. I use this word deliberately, because to me it connotes active watching. While observing I want to “see” beyond the superficial, whether it’s for photography, writing, or dog training.
I’m also the type of person who wants to know why things are the way they are, but sometimes I realize I can never understand, I can only guess. Patrick is here for me to work with. He was fine as a puppy, his owner tells me, but now he is very unhappy outside of his familiar home environment. “I don’t know what happened,” he says, truly mystified. Often I hear that something terrible must have happened, and that is the reason a dog is fearful. It’s not always the case, though, more times than not there are other explanations.
I do know that when dogs reach adolescence things change, like our own species of adolescents. That compliant, sweet child, or dog, is suddenly a problem. Lack of confidence, fear, poor socialization, genetics could all contribute in one degree or another.
Patrick’s “symptoms” are that he is a worrier, he’s unhappy, indicated by stress panting. He was fine as a puppy, I’m told, and I believe it, although I’m willing to bet I would have seen hints of future issues if I’d known Patrick then. Patrick's body language and expression are telling me he is "worried."
I’ll leave the technical explanations to the behaviorists (and provide some footnotes if you want to read more) but here is how I see it. Patrick’s baby brain was taking in, learning, observing, not judging. Adolescence hit, and the adult brain began thinking “good” or “bad,” or even “I’m not sure.” It can be a genetic predisposition, lack of socialization (I’ll talk more about what that means later), or environmental influences. Think of Patrick in a feedback loop—environment, dog, me. Something new or stressful presents itself, dog starts to worry, I miss the cues, so the opportunity to restore confidence is lost. What often happens is that more pressure is put on the dog, so next time it gets worse.
If there is less confidence to start with then that feedback to build up the ego is critical.
It begins with exposure to new places, people, sounds when the baby brain is eager to learn, and goes on through to adulthood. Socialization is not exposure to the same sounds, places, or people. What if your kid only went from the house to the classroom? Not a good thing, I bet you would say. It’s the same with dogs. Socialization is different exposures to different things; many, many different things where the dog can feel safe and secure and build confidence that he/she can handle the stresses of life. It doesn’t matter what breed, age, background; all dogs need tons of socialization to give them the tools to handle life’s challenges.
So Patrick is here to learn new rules and see the world in a different way. For him to be worry free he must have confidence that I will not put him in harm’s way, however he defines that. Join us in his journey. I’ll chronicle our process, our ups and downs, and hopefully we can all learn along the way. Patrick will be my teacher as well as my student.