When we bring home a dog from the shelter, we tend to bring with us many assumptions about the dog’s life before us. We are the rescuer, here to take this beautiful animal away from the horrors of its past life. For many of us, the shy dog in the corner stands out from the swaths of excited dogs bouncing off their kennel doors. They’re licking our hands through the bars, barking and spinning excitedly, ready to play. But the shy dog NEEDS us. He’s confused, and scared. Some jerk treated him badly and threw him away.
So we resolve to give him a normal life with lots of fun and exercise, and to show him that we’re not all bad. It’s a noble cause, and a great feeling! After all, we’re making a difference – saving a life, even. But is it possible that our desire to help might lead us to project our poor image of humanity on shelter dogs? Could some of this fear and shyness stem from something far less sinister, but no less ubiquitous?
It’s true that we have an epidemic of animal abuse and neglect. Our Facebook feeds are packed with animal stories that make our blood boil as we righteously assert that people are pretty much the worst ever. I don’t aim to minimize or deny that this happens entirely too much in what we refer to as an otherwise civilized country, but to illustrate that when we paint those dogs’ personalities with a broad brush, saying “he must have been abused” or “doesn’t like men”, we’re disregarding some important aspects of raising a dog.
I earned my certificate as a professional canine training specialist at Starmark Academy in Hutto, Tx (Go Hippos!) Nestled away in a quiet rural area outside of Austin, the people of Hutto took great pride in the simple pleasures of rural Texan life – especially high school football. Every business in Hutto, from home day-cares to gas stations to chain pharmacies, proudly displayed the town’s mascot just outside their front door in the form of an ungainly statue of a hippo – some painted, others left bare to oxidize in the sun. I would quickly find out, the first time I brought one of my rescue dogs, Lucy, for a walk, that she was terrified of the Hutto Hippo.
At first I laughed at her reaction, but it was soon clear that this was not a joke for Lucy. She backed away from it, whining, then barked to try to scare it away, and eventually cowered behind me, hiding her face. I was confused – Lucy loved people, she loved the other dogs – what had this hippo done to her? Then it hit me – at some point in her life, before I showed up to help – Lucy had been abused…by hippos…
Lucy was a Min-Pin/Dachshund mix who seemed to possess a god-given right to get in your face and demand your affection – as chubby as she was rude. They had found her a couple months prior, running around outside, covered in mange, and brought her to the Wilco no-kill facility.
As the weeks stretched on and we delved deeper and deeper into the science of animal behavior, it became evident that there was a perfectly good explanation for Lucy’s hippophobia – she had never seen one before. It wasn’t a dog or a cat, or a person or a pig – it was something entirely new, and that made it a threat.
This revelation brought me back to some experiences I had as an apprentice, particularly the day a client told me she was surprised when her dog got friendly with me because “she doesn’t like men”. She liked me, and I’m a man (save your jokes) – so that explanation doesn’t work. Another client whose dog “loves everyone” was terrified when I showed up to our first session. They were new to the desert, transplanted from somewhere back east (Connecticut, maybe?) We were working outside on a sunny day, so I wore my cowboy hat, and because I also occasionally work with Rattlesnakes, a pair of cowboy boots, too. But had this dog ever seen an animal with a giant, brimmed head and the confident gait of a comfy pair of heeled cowboy boots? In Connecticut? Probably not, and as soon as I took a knee and took the hat off, everything went back to normal.
If you have a dog from the shelter who cowers from people of certain heights or shapes or genders, or refuses to walk on slick floors, or – this one is always embarrassing – barks at people who are a different color than you, chances are, you’re going to need some help training them to overcome those fears, but it doesn’t always mean your dog had a bad experience with them.
However, if you have a new, young dog, or even an older one who is starting to show some weird behavior, there are things you can do to prevent, or at least lessen, these kinds of situations.
Some trainers call this proactive approach “The Game of 7’s”. The idea is to expose your puppy to as large a variety as possible of people, materials, locations, toys and everyday objects while they’re young. You won’t always find 7 examples of each thing, while sometimes there are way more than 7. The number 7 is more of a jumping off point than a rule. Examples could be:
Floor surfaces (rugs, linoleum, hardwood, tile, concrete, rubber, blacktop)
People (tall, short, fat, skinny, muscular, black, white, male, female)
Clothing (tight pants, baggy pants, cowboy hats, baseball hats, flowy summer dresses, high heels, etc)
Household objects, especially noisy ones (automatic can opener, vacuum cleaner, broom, washing machine)
Things that roll or move on wheels (cars, wheelchairs, beach balls, bicycles, office chairs, wagons etc.)
There are endless examples, and it may sound daunting to sit down and think of all these different experiences you need to provide for your dog, but if you simply include your pup in your daily life as much as possible, and avoid letting them become a homebody, many of these crucial first exposures will happen without you having to go out of your way to make a list. Just watch out for hippos.
Cerberus K9 2016