The past couple of weeks, I’ve been volunteering my dog training skills with a local rescue group, Rainbow Bridge Can Wait, out in Carnegie, OK. I offered my services in hopes of helping some rescue dogs become more adoptable. Its an extremely difficult job for rescues in not just providing a safe haven in the interim for dogs rescued from horrendous situations, but its a whole other ensuring a furever home is just that, FOREVER. Many rescues find themselves caught between the race of getting dogs adopted to making sure the new family is a right fit for everyone. Sometimes, its an ethical dilemma, and you just hope it works out.
I reached out to Rainbow Bridge Can Wait a couple of months ago. I was excited, Carol, the founder had me come on board. When we initially spoke, she told me about a rescued a German Shepherd named Zack. She found him with rope burns around his neck and he was only 4 months old at the time. After she brought him back to her facility, it took 8 days for him to become more welcoming towards her. Now, 4 months later, he rubs on her for attention and has the most relaxed body language of a German Shepherd I’ve ever seen with her. This is great for him in developing a bond with another human, but she can’t keep him. Carol asked me to help him with some behavior modification because he is terrified of unfamiliar people, things and other animals. Many fearful dogs do end up becoming aggressive because of their lack of socialization to anything unfamiliar. Dogs who are fearful can become reactive in new situations, especially high energy and highly sensitive dogs like a German Shepherd. They are working dogs breed to herd. They are sensitive to movement and reading body language of others, people included. I’m familiar with understanding working dog breeds. I enjoy their energy and their attention span. Its amazing when a dog can become motivated, but when training a working dog breed, its a different dimension, you’ll have to be on your toes to find out what you can teach them next.
I’ve been going out to Rainbow Bridge Can Wait for the last couple of weeks. The first time I met Zack, he was so anxious and jumping on the fence. He was barking and so very tense. He would bark nonstop when I first arrived. I spent the first session just walking slowly and whenever he barked, I would stop and look away. Looking away is a calming signal to a dog. It communicates to them I’m not a threat. As soon as he stopped barking, I would walk closer. Zack allowed me to come all the way to the fence. I took some time giving him some treats when he was quiet through the fence. We worked for several minutes at a time and then I would walk away. Repeating the steps as I initially approached. My goal was I didn’t want to reinforce the idea of the stressor (me) moves away when he barks. I wanted to get across, barking doesn’t get him what he wants.
I felt pretty successful after the first day. I knew my presence alone caused him a ton of stress and I wanted our time together be something relaxed and positive. After the first meeting, I wasn’t sure how long it would take for him to feel comfortable with me. I let him take the lead and Carol and I were both comfortable with this.
As I was driving up to RBCW for my second session, I wasn’t sure how the day would go. I felt resigned in taking some more time and just repeating the steps we did from last week. Well, it was a different story. As I approached his kennel area, he barked a few times, but stopped pretty quickly. He responded to me when I called his name, I was able to maintain direct eye contact (which is more threatening for a dog) with him while working on a Focus cue and worked a bit on BAT training when unfamiliar came by to meet with Carol. Zack even laid down and relaxed and at times sat for me when I asked for a sit cue. I was blown away. He was ready and that much more comfortable with me. I contribute this to letting him lead and not pushing him more than what he was capable of doing. By the end, I was thinking the following week, he may allow me to meet him in his kennel.
Well, the following week was today! I arrived and suggested to Carol for us to go into his kennel together. I don’t know if she recognized her response, but she kind of smirked at me when I suggested this. She told me previously, Zack is attached to her and will react to others when she was around. I observed Zack in our recent encounters and saw he showed me his wiggly body when she was around, but also showed his same level of awareness of me when I sat by her. His behavior wasn’t more exaggerated when she was close, so I thought it was still ok to go in to the kennel with her. I still remained calm, quiet and I let him lead. When I first went in, he went behind me and nipped me on the back of the leg. I didn’t react and I wasn’t concerned. Many dogs who are insecure and or fearful will react in this manner. It just reminded me to keep it calm and slow. After about a couple of minutes, I was giving him sit commands and working on stay and release commands. By the end of our time together, Zack was rolled over and showing me his belly and wanting attention from me. He would rub his body up against my legs and he allowed me to stroke his body and touch his ears.
Truly amazing. Not amazing because of anything I did, but the sheer fact of how trust can be developed through respect. Zack’s trust in me was developed because of my unwavering respect for his boundaries and I took the back seat in our blossoming relationship. The act of building consistency and maintaining an established level of expectation built the trust between Zack and I. I know today when he was rolled over on his back with his mouth open all I wanted to do was take a picture of him and capture the joy he was expressing. We’ll work up to the camera in his face, but seeing how he felt so safe with me and I felt honored he did will be forever imprinted in my memories. Zack, like any other dog, just needed time. He needed time in becoming familiar with someone new and learning someone new will be ok and treat him well.