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Is it really rescue?

Work at a relaxed distance from scary situations

I often speak with dog owners who have second hand dogs. Most people refer to these dogs as "rescued". I've written before about some problems with this designation because it diminishes the the actual rescue work of first responders and the life saving skills of veterinary professionals. But some of my dog centered friends helped me think of another problem with "rescue" as a dog type designation.

A trainer friend asked what to say or do when dog owners are convinced that they've tried everything and yet the traumatic past they believe their dog has, is permanently hindering their dog's ability to learn or even to adjust to life. I don't teach classes any more but I remember how often that very obstacle was in place. No matter what the expert, being paid for her opinion and advice might say, they've "already tried it." and "it didn't work".

The answer is that some dog owners find a part of their identity from having saved a dog. In fact, part of the bond they have with their individual pet is based on that need to be someone's hero. It's not by itself a negative force but it can become so when pet caretakers no longer help their dogs change behavior to better cope with life. All dogs and people can learn new behaviors. Sure, some of us are limited in which ones we master and at which we excel but nonetheless, we continue to learn or we fail to thrive.

So when a dog owner insists that her dog cannot handle this or that activity we must evaluate together whether that activity is good for the dog's future. Sometimes people need their dogs to compete in agility or obedience or therapy visits for humans. If the dog is not suited to that activity and it's not for the dog's benefit to continue to participate, then forget it. Dogs who routinely break with diarrhea after competition or have to be encouraged to approach strangers really don't need to take part in activities that benefit humans. So we don't need to intensively work on counter conditioning a dog to dog trials or hospitals. You have not rescued anyone if you force her to do things she's not suited for.

However, there are dogs who balk at the sound let alone sight of children or other dogs. Most people assume there was some past trauma. Many people even make one up that is pretty specific considering they didn't even know the dog when said event may have occurred. For example; "we are pretty sure he was abused by someone wearing a baseball hat". Many dogs are wary of hats. I would say in part because not many people wear them around the house and in part because it changes the silhouette of a person who is already most likely a stranger. But even in the event that there was actually a person who did something scary, you can still change the dog's reaction to any characteristic of the memory, such as a hat.

Why wouldn't you? If you can reasonably manage your dog's life so that no children or baseball hats will ever appear by surprise, you really don't need to solve the problem. But it's not hard to do and it has the advantages of solving the specific problem, teaching the dog that some of his beliefs and fears are mistakes and can help solve problems with characteristics or events your dog can't avoid, such as veterinary visits and the slight risk of general anxiety that occurs when dogs fear all kinds of things that are merely related to things that actually happened.

If you have already tried everything, you are doing it wrong. Really. That's true. Because when you do it correctly it works. So if you no longer want to try, that's fine. But that means you like your dog in a state of dysfunction and that's not good. Here's how to change things.

The mistake people make when attempting counter conditioning which simply means teaching a dog a new reaction to something he already has a specific reaction to, is fail to understand what they are doing. You can't just have a scary stranger give your dog treats. First, when a dog is nervous his fine motor skills suffer. So if a stranger is dangling a delicious treat and a dog really wants the treat, he'll grab it. But with diminished fine motor skills the dog is likely to miss, causing what is often referred to as "nipping". The stranger reacts with surprise or even anger. And the dog's fear of strangers is increased.

Instead, you can offer your dog treats at a distance from strangers that does not concern your dog. Whenever strangers leave the area, the treats stop. When you notice your dog senses the passing of a stranger by checking with you to see if treats are available, it's working. Now you change one aspect of the event. Such as strangers with hats. Don't change anything else. Don't get closer, don't use lesser value treats. Just change one thing. If your dog has a set back, move farther away.

When people hear about this program they are likely to respond with two arguments. It will take too long and the dog can't handle it. It only takes three sessions to see remarkable changes and if the dog can't handle it you are too close. I also hear people say their dog is not food motivated. Under separate cover we'll deal with that. But for now, it's simple to decide what does motivate your dog? If it's leaving the area, then by all means that should be the reward for the activity until you deal with your dog's motivation problems.

So if you really have a second hand dog and not a puppy farm puppy made available by a boutique rescue scam, great. But he was rescued by those who got him ready for you. If you plan to save him, that is great. Get started.

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