A recent comment motivated this post. It was from a veterinarian who tries her hardest to alert clients to current and potential behavioral problems, and is a tad frustrated on occasion by how few of them seem to take her cautions seriously. I am sure that other vets, dog trainers and behaviorists are all sighing in sympathy as they read this. I sure am. It is such a common problem that I thought it might be worthwhile for us all to have a brain storming session about how to handle it. All of the pro’s reading this blog know what I mean: a 3 month old puppy in puppy class who plays well with others, but growls at you as you approach. Growling at a person at 12 weeks of age? ALARM BELLS! RED FLAGS! DIVE DIVE (the submarine)!!!
So, here’s the question. If you are a pro, how do you handle it when you see signs of impending (or current) problems? If you are not in the business, how would you want someone to tell you that they saw something that concerned them?
Here are some things I have learned that seem to help, but just like everyone else, the more ideas I have the better, so I’d love to hear yours:
1. Make analogies to human behavior. This is where being anthropomorphic can actually help our dogs. I’ll say something like “Right now your adolescent dog is like a teenage son who has drugs hidden under his bed, and is hanging out with guys named Rat Sniffer and the Dude from Hell. He’s a good kid, your son, but he could go either way. He needs you to benevolently intervene so that he ends up living a wonderful life, instead of making license plates in a federal prison.” I’ll adapt the story, depending on the people… making guesses about what will best resonate with them.
2. Don’t exaggerate, and don’t bring it up until you have established a connection. They must believe that you are on their side and that you want nothing but the best for you and your dog. If something happens the instant they walk in the door, keep your mouth shut until you’ve worked with them for awhile, made gooey over their dog (as best you can) and made it clear that you want to be their helper, not someone who judges them or their dog. If you don’t feel as though you are getting through, it is always a good idea to ‘mirror’ their behavior, which means speaking slowly if they speak slowly, leaning forward if they lean forward, crossing your legs if they cross their legs.. etc. Whenever I do it I am sure that someone will notice and think I’m making fun of them, but so far no one ever has. (Until now….. when I meet one of you and you ask me at a break in a seminar what to do about your 7 fighting dogs and I can tell you don’t like my answer. Sigh. Oh well, if you notice, then you’ll know I’m desperately trying to tell you something!)
3. Talk about it from the dog’s point of view. This is hugely important in most cases. It’s how you let people know that you are on their side, but that part of your job is to try to be an advocate for their dog. Again, make analogies and use the good side of anthropomorphism: (“And how would you respond if a strange man walked up to you on the street, grabbed your head and pressed his lips onto yours?”)
4. At the same time, although this might sound contradictory, we also need to be adept at explaining how dogs are different from people. (“Well, your dog probably greets you at the door with head and tail down, licking her lips and groveling because she is using what’s called ‘appeasement’ behavior (give an example from humans), not because she “feels guilty. If you grab her collar and drag her over to the puddle on the carpet she won’t understand why and respond as if she has to defend herself.”
5. Use visuals: Have posters (like the ones from Dream Dog Productions) on your office walls that show visual signals of stress or social discomfort in dogs. Have “before and after” photos of fearful puppies hiding from visitors at 3 months, and and “after” version showing their teeth at two years.
This is a short list, and if I had more time I’d add more to it, but it’s a conversation starter… I’d love to hear your ideas.
Meanwhile, back at the farm: Finally, as of this morning, all sheep butts are red! Yeah, Redford did his job. Took 2 weeks for all of them to come in. That’s longer than I’d like (it’s nice when lambing comes to have the lambs come closer together when you have a flock as small as mine), but at least I know when everyone if due and when they are bred. (They are all due now in late March and early April. You’ll be the first to see lamb photos.)
Here was Will last week, helping me keep the flock safely away from the road.