Stress – we all feel it and dogs do too. It’s caused by different things for different people, it shows itself in different ways. We try to fix it, trick it, force our way through it and still it creeps up on us. Sometimes we think we might grow out of it but mostly it’s part of us, we either get overwhelmed by it or learn to manage the things that cause it.
Some people are lovely but also shy or nervous or get agitated under certain circumstances or hate driving in the city. Maybe they’re not good in larger groups or overly passionate when talking about politics or they feel a pressure to make decent muffins. These are our friends and our family – we love them. We might try and help them manage their quirks (if those quirks are distressing them or inhibiting the quality of their lives or making them unsafe) but we don’t threaten to dump them if we ever see that trait again. That would be hideous and, apart from being incredibly painful for all concerned, pointless as a cure.
When dogs are surrendered to HUHA, they have come from all sorts of backgrounds and some of those have been abusive and others neglectful. And even without those elements thrown into the mix, some dogs, having had relatively normal backgrounds prior to being abandoned at an animal shelter, have their own quirks.
People come to animal shelters to adopt a dog and give them a chance at the life they should always have had. They can be greatly attracted to a dog, knowing they have a quirk or two. Sometimes it is a dog that is unsure of men at first or gets overwhelmed by a lot of noise; sometimes a dog doesn’t mix well with other dogs or is made anxious by small children or worried by having to defend the property. And guess what, we often see those dogs back again, directly relating to the quirk. Some people want to eradicate those quirks quickly – so they overwhelm them with exposure to the very thing they hate; others think that living in a wonderful, caring home will make it disappear and don’t address it.
I can teach a dog to walk on a lead nicely, enrich their day so they don’t get bored, teach them not to barge out of the door in front of me or jump up on my friends; but a dog that is uneasy with strangers or anxious with new dogs at the dog park or reacts to noise – that’s different. I have to understand what the trigger is, respect their anxiety and slowly and intelligently help them to manage their stress. If I ignore it or don’t manage it, then exposure to those things will create a situation too overwhelming for my dog and she will have to manage herself out of the problem, which might result in a bad decision on her part; something that could hurt her and/or others. The same result can be created if I force my dog to address what stresses him all at once, with no patient, gradual management.
So our job is to keep our dog safe. Know what stresses them, don’t confront them with it and don’t let others confront them either. With patience and care, you can minimise issues in the quirk compartment, you can sometimes fix the issues and the quirk – you can certainly, as their guide and friend, make them feel less overwhelmed in situations that might once have triggered a meltdown. But don’t expect to change everything and make your dog your neighbour’s “perfect” dog. Your neighbour’s dog isn’t perfect; your neighbour’s dog is a different dog with different quirks.
Consider what worries your dog and be aware of that. My dog reacts when forced to meet a great crowd of rude, pushy dogs at the dog park. Can we not avoid the dog park and not put ourselves in that position while learning to manage with one-to-one sessions first, say, or while working kindly on the problem with some experienced, dog-understanding help? My dog is made agitated by a lot of strangers she doesn’t know. So why would I force her to have to mingle with my slightly inebriated star-gazing society’s Christmas Party at my place? Can’t she stay in my bedroom or at my sister’s for the night? Help them, guide them, take time and care to teach them. In the first few weeks or even months of adopting a dog, we do not always have to go through – we can go round while together we identify the problem and carefully work through it in small stages. Your patience, your understanding and your own calmness is key – they need you to be that.
The problem does not come first – the dog, whom we love and who loves us, comes first.