I recently attended a two-day workshop with TTouch practitioner Lori Stevens. Of the many tips and techniques that stuck with me, this stands out: We tend to label dogs’ behavior rather than describe it.
What is an anxious dog? What is an aggressive dog? A well-behaved dog? Turns out that each dog owner — and dog professional — means something different when she uses those terms.
I sometimes describe Jana as “anxious” because, many evenings, she seems unsettled, distracted, and uncomfortable. She whines or paces, but I can usually settle her down in a few minutes. The technique I learned from Lori, using a body wrap, seems to help a little. Jana also shows what I call anxiety on walks if a vehicle (mostly loud, big trucks, though she seems to harbor a deep-seated hatred of minivans, too) approaches from behind us and startles us. I attribute some of this “anxiety” to the possibility that she’s not hearing things as well as she used to and she gets surprised more often — perhaps she’s also losing some vision. Whatever the cause, things seem to come out of nowhere and startle her more often. Fine, so, she’s a bit anxious and I deal with it.
But I have friends whose “anxious” dogs have done hundreds of dollars in damage to their possessions, their floors and walls, their furniture … other “anxious” dogs bark nonstop or are unable to sleep through the night (pacing, whining or barking, and ensuring that no one in the household gets any sleep. Ever.). Compared with that, Jana is calm and placid, well-adjusted even.
Then there’s the “aggressive” dog. I’ve seen dogs who have been labeled as aggressive who are the sweetest, friendliest dogs … but who really dislike cats and want to chase them (or worse). Or who have maybe bitten a person, once, under what turns out (if I get the whole story) to be extreme provocation. Or who are simply terrified, stressed by being put in a situation that they cannot handle. Not all of these dogs are aggressive; they are scared and overwhelmed.
Scared and overwhelmed can be fixed; prey drive can be managed. But some dyed-in-the-wool, born-with-it aggression is not fixable and can be very hard to manage. It is important to know the difference.
Being able to describe our dogs’ behavior accurately and in detail is important for so many reasons. We can do a better job of figuring out how to manage or change that behavior if we know what it is and why it’s happening. As dog professionals, or as dog owners who want to call in a professional, a clear, detailed description of behavior is an essential starting point — does this dog need training? Medication? Treatment for some underlying, painful condition that is causing her to snap at people? Sometimes the cause is simple, even if it’s not immediately obvious.
A couple of summers ago, one evening, Jana snapped at Cali for playing roughly near her. Jana is usually amazingly patient with Cali. I reprimanded Jana for her “aggressive” act. Fortunately, within a few days, Jana was scheduled to have her annual physical. At her vet exam, the doctor found that Jana had a very painful cracked molar. A long surgery and several hundred dollars later, Jana was no longer in pain. She has never snapped at Cali again.
So, trash the catch-all labels. Instead, look at the behavior. When does it happen? Is there a trigger? Did it just start? Has behavior changed recently? Has the dog’s environment changed? Is the dog getting enough exercise, a balanced diet, regular medical checkups? If you can’t figure out the cause, call in help: doggy friends, the vet, a trainer. Post a question on the Thinking Dog Blog!
It’s usually possible to figure out what’s going on — and lots of expert help is available!