One Step Forward, Several Steps Back
The Hope chronicles continue, with progress and problems. The good news is that Willie, on occasion, is stepping up to the plate a bit and not letting Hope bully him as often when they are in the house. As an example, ever since he was tiny, Hope has lept up growling and bitten at Willie’s shoulders as they move through space. At first I thought it was play, but if it was, it’s the kind of play in which one individual is having fun, the other not so much. Sometimes Willie seemed to ignore it, other times he’d tongue flick and look anxious. I came to see it more and more as a behavior related to controlling space, perhaps in part motivated by herding instincts, but rude nonetheless.
All Willie needed to do was snap at him one time, and I suspect it would have stopped. I’ve never seen Hope do this to any other dog; Hope is totally appropriate around all other dogs, giving lots of appeasement gestures or playing beautifully, with lots of self handicapping and never becoming overly aroused. As I’ve said earlier, I think Willie has a V for Victim on his forehead.
Recently, Willie has corrected Hope on a few occasions with a perfectly measured inhibited muzzle “bite.” (That is ‘discipline’ in dog language. A bite anywhere else, even if very inhibited, is either a fight or done in play). Willie’s corrections to Hope have been while wrestling/tooth fencing or over a resource. I don’t like Willie being a resource guarder (both he and Hope are to some extent), but I did love that Willie has gained a bit of confidence and is at least trying to teach Hope some boundaries. [And oh yes, yes yes, to the comments that perhaps it would be helpful to have a female like Tulip in the house. I have often said I wish she was still here for many reasons, Hope and Willie's insecurities being one of them. But I should add that getting a third dog as an experiment to fix things between Willie and Hope doesn't seem like a good risk right now, not for us and not for her.]
What’s concerning is that Willie’s behavior has recently degraded in other ways. Willie has regressed back to the fearful, neurotic dog he used to be. I believe that this is due to the fact that Hope has moved into a “Juvenile Shyness” period, and has begun barking and growling at unfamiliar shapes (strangely shaped signs, an empty grandstand, a large white rock). Hope adores people and other dogs, but if someone appears with a strange silhouette he’ll growl, lunge forward and bark. It’s very much “I’ll get you before you get me” and is, without question, fear-based.
Since this behavior appeared in Hope, Willie has behaved in ways that he hasn’t in years. While walking in town he barked and lunged at a small dog who was a good 40 feet away. He hasn’t done that in over two and a half years. He snarked and made ugly face to a BC he’s known for a long time, and was so worried about his presence on our entire 45 minute walk that he never stopped tongue flicking. Much of the time he hid behind my legs. Equally concerning is that recently he wouldn’t get near a man he knows well, and has always adored. Willie loves guys best, always has. It’s true that in his own juvenile fear period he began to act fearfully around unfamiliar men, but it was a mild version that was brief and was easily turned around. Willie’s major problems when he was young were a pathological fear of his own species, and an extraordinary level of sound sensitivity.
People who meet Willie now, at least until last week, often don’t believe me that Willie was a mess of fear and rage when he was young. He has lots of good dog friends. For the last year or so he has been completely comfortable around unfamiliar dogs he sees on the street, acting as though he’d love nothing more than to greet them. He’s greeted many unfamiliar dogs, loose bodied and comfortable, although I will say that size definitely matters. The smaller the better according to Will. He is, however, not comfortable with any other dog coming into the house, and large dogs in the house make him extremely anxious. (That’s part of why I wanted a puppy.) His girlfriend Mishka, the beautiful Dobie he loves to run with, made him a nervous wreck when she came into the house. The dogs he’s been most comfortable in the house with have been small, male Border Collies and a Cavalier.
Until recently, if you came to the house by yourself, or saw Willie out on the street around other dogs, he’d look like a happy, care free dog. But underneath that full body wag lies years of hard work trying to help Willie out of a world of fear and panic, and I am concerned that Hope’s behavior is bringing it back out. They both strike me as insecure dogs who are feeding off of each other. Right now I’m teaching Hope “What’s That?!” (look at something before barking, turn and get a treat). I’m back to conditioning Will that if he sees another dog he gets to play tug with his favorite toy (play is MUCH more effective with Will than food, vice versa with Hope).
Because so many of you have been so kind and gracious about my writing about my own dogs, and said that it was helpful to hear about them, I will share with you that my heart fell when I saw Willie bark, growl and lunge at another dog. When he backed away from a man he’s loved for years I was stunned –he’s always loved men except for a short juvenile period during which I had guys throw balls for him and he decided they were the best thing since, well, the invention of tennis balls. I suspect that many of you know what it feels like to have a behavior problem regress; it’s tough. Willie and I have come so far, and we have worked so hard together to get him to where he is. My first job now is to carefully evaluate the situation and do what I need to do to bring back Willie’s confidence. Raising and loving Willie, a dog with problems as serious as any I’ve seen in twenty-two years, has always been a challenge, and I admit to sometimes wishing life with Willie was simpler. But it’s not, and I love him, and that’s that. I love Hope too, and I am equally committed to helping him have the best life that he can. I’ll keep you posted.
Meanwhile, I’m interested in how many of you have raised dogs who have developed what I call Juvenile Onset Shyness (fear of unfamiliar things or people developing from around 5 to 9 months of age). I’m curious about the breed effect–it appears to me to be especially common in herding and guarding breeds, but I don’t believe there has been any study that compared it’s occurrence in different breeds. Anyone know of any? Of course it varies from a short, temporary period of mild fear of unfamiliar things to all out fear-based aggression, but I’m curious if there is a breed-specific predisposition. We do know that shyness is highly heritable, so it would make sense to be affected by breed and lines within a breed. Anyone seen any research?
Meanwhile, not on the farm (at least in the photo) here are the boys on Sunday morning, looking out of the balcony where we stayed in town so that the farm house floors could be refinished. It was fun to be in town in many ways, and good for the dogs, but ooooh, it’s nice to be home to the farm now.