There seems to be a rash of redemption videos making the rounds online. Dogs who once fearful are transformed into confident, huggable dogs by the deft handling and/or love of their savior. The savior varies, from well-intentioned pet owner to professional dog handler, of one kind or another. One thing most of these videos have in common is the use of confrontational handling techniques to work with the dog. So what? you might ask. What does it matter if we can grab a tissue and feel good that another dog has been ‘saved’.
Imagine you have a kid. You’ve tried for ages to get them to go out and get a job. Then one day they come home waving a fistful of cash, lawfully gained waiting tables, shoveling driveways, or some other ‘job’. Now imagine they come home waving the cash and proclaiming that they robbed a convenience store. Does how they got the money matter to you? I hope so. How we get behaviors from dogs matters to me too. As much as I might like the outcome, if we can achieve the same end without adding to a dog’s stress and fear, I’m all for that.
The points I would like to make, so you can finish up and go for a walk with your dogs are these:
1. There are handling techniques that will achieve the same, or better, ends as many of these videos with dogs being forced into interacting with people.
2. Low stress handling doesn’t have to take longer. If a dog’s behavior is going to improve by being forced to interact with someone, they will also improve if we work in gentler, less confrontational ways. And besides, what’s the big rush anyway? Many of these dogs have spent years in a cage or months roaming the streets, why is it we need to overwhelm them in the first hours or days we have them?
3. Know what you are looking at. Skilled handlers understand that aggression in dogs is often suppressed when they are afraid. That dog whose eyes seemed closed in bliss, their ears down, leaning into the wall, is not having a revelation about the joys of being pet, they’re scared. They may be submitting but they’re not calm.
We need to look at behavior in context. Is that paw raise an appeasement gesture, a request to have you keep scratching their ears or are they pointing out a bird in the bushes?
We must consider the dog we are interacting with. Have they had the opportunity to develop any skills with people? If they have not, we should not assume that forcing handling on them is like a Berlitz class in ‘human’- speak human in 2 easy lessons or your money back, guaranteed.
4. The rest of the story. We don’t often see it. We don’t know how that dog is reacting after the camera stops rolling. Novice and inexperienced handlers, believing that forcing a dog to be handled is the cure for fearfulness, overwhelm dogs. They get bitten, or believing in the cure are surprised when the dog snaps at a stranger.
Here in New England if you come across a frozen pond during a hike it’s best not to race across it assuming that the ice is thick enough to support you. To do so would be foolhardy and potentially deadly. When interacting with a fearful, shy or anxious dog, tread lightly, you may not be able to see the cracks in the ice.