Grit has been nervous around strangers since she had to stay at a vet clinic at 6 months of age. We’ve been taking it slow and focused on doing the things we enjoy.
For the first time since her surgery, I took her to a workshop last weekend. The presenter was Denise Fenzi, which made it a perfect opportunity to see how Grit would do in a training building. I wouldn’t have taken her to an indoors seminar in a small space if it had been a different trainer, but with Denise, I didn’t need to worry about being pushed to work Grit even if she was overwhelmed. Grit ended up having a really good experience, and so did I. I’m really happy with how she has started to improve! Day 1 of the workshop was about engagement and play … So going from acclimation to engagement to a little personal play worked nice for us, and Denise’s guidance was very helpful. The second day was Handler’s Choice for Obedience. I didn’t know if Grit would be at a good place to do work, and Denise said it was okay if she didn’t – then we’d just stick with acclimation and engagement. Grit did well and got to work and play a little on day 2 – she had really improved! I’m so happy she is regaining confidence around strangers!
I don’t have a video of the first time I took Grit into the training space – the first time was very brief, just a walk-through before everyone had arrived.
2nd time in the training space. I have no food and no toys on my body.
3rd time. I have food in case I need it, but Grit doesn’t know.
4th time. I have food, but Grit doesn’t know.
5th time. I have food and a toy, but Grit doesn’t know.
The only goal here is to give her the opportunity to acclimate and feel comfortable. I don’t care if I will work or even play with her, but I want her to learn that nothing bad happens in this room full of people. Yes, the space was small, and yes, Grit was obviously nervous – but she improved quickly. This is because she is given all the time she needs.
It would be easy to ask Grit to do things for me, or to play with her right away. I’ve tested this – she is able to respond to cues even when she is quite uncomfortable and stressed, and she will play even when she is desperate and scared. She is drivey, and it is easy to overwhelm her fear with toy play or work. But she’d be tense and on edge, and she’d have moments of checking out and then back in again. I don’t want to build these negative emotions into training or play, so I choose to not go down this road. In scary environments, I want to give her the opportunity to look around, explore, and see that the world is a safe place. I want her to learn that I won’t let bad things come near her, and that I won’t let her go near bad things. In environments that aren’t scary, on the other hand, I work with her, play with her, train her, and have fun. And as time goes by, there will be more and more overlap between these two kinds of environments.
Dogs – and insecure dogs in particular – need leadership in order to feel safe. It’s easy to confuse this with not giving a dog the choice to keep her distance from the things that scare her, or forcing engagement and not allowing her to look around at all. Appropriate leadership depends on the situation as well as on the dog in question. In the situation you see in my videos, leadership means mainly that I prevent Grit from making bad decisions and getting closer to a stranger than she can handle. I don’t need to jerk on her leash to do this, and I don’t need verbal commands to control her – I just use the leash to stop her when she gets too close to someone she shouldn’t get close to. I should probably have kept the leash even shorter and prevented her from jumping up on her friends, too. But she did okay.
You can see that I’m not leading Grit by intimidation or force … Quite the opposite, actually. I’m not big or scary; I’m just myself. I try to forget about the other people in the room … It’s just me and my dog, and Denise’s guidance. We’re in a new space, but unlike Grit, I know it is a safe space. So I act like I do in safe spaces: I’m relaxed (once I have managed to forget about the audience), I talk to her about the people in the room, the smells on the floor and the objects she investigates, and I tell her she is a good girl. (You can’t hear me because the camera is so far away that it only picks up on Denise’s microphone, and I’m not talking loudly.) I let her investigate the room whichever way she wants, as long as she doesn’t put herself in a situation she can’t handle. I sit down and scratch her ears and her chest, like I know she enjoys. I am gentle and playful, like we are in our own living room.
You can see how my relaxation eases her worries, and that she comes to me for comfort. She has learned that she is safe with me, and when she gets stressed, she asks for emotional support.
All dogs are different. Some don’t like to be touched when they feel insecure. Grit likes it – emotional support and our invisible connection are huge for her. This is what gets her through the situation and helps her relax more and more. It’s not something we just did for the first time in this space. We have built this connection since her puppyhood – not because I expected to use it in this way, but because it is one of the ways I like to relate to my dogs. I make sure to maintain this kind of relationship throughout a dog’s life, and not stop interacting this way as soon as she is grown up. It gets woven into everyday life, into cuddles on the couch and morning rituals. It’s strong enough that we can take it with us to a new space like this. I’m happy with what Grit gives me here!
(If you want to improve your play and handling skills, check out Denise Fenzi’s Relationship Building through Play and Amy Cook’s Bogeyman class at FDSA!)