Learning to Speak Dog Part 3: Trust
from the Photo Lab
with a special guest post by Trish King
You need only attend one of Trish King’s seminars to realize your relationship with your dog will benefit from all she has to teach. That’s who Trish is to me, a great teacher, and I am sure my fellow Courses in Canine Behavior grads will agree. What I learned from the books, videos, experiences, behavior consults and conversations in Trish’s Courses in Canine Behavior forever changed my view of dogs and my relationship with them.
It is for this reason that I was incredibly excited and not to mention grateful that Trish agreed to guest post for this third installment of our Dog Speak blog series, and the topic she chose to write about could not have come at a better time for me (you’ll learn why a little later). So, enough from me for now, I leave you in the care of Trish King, canine behaviorist, author, trainer and teacher.
Trust: Developing a relationship with your new dog…
You just acquired a new dog – maybe a youngster, perhaps a bit older – and you’re in love. Let’s call your dog Dolly. You were drawn to her in the shelter or rescue, and now you have her home. She is wonderful, with just a few tiny exceptions.
For instance, when you pet her, she leans into you, putting her head on your knees. This feels great to you, but other people aren’t getting the same response. Sometimes she shies away or won’t come close to them, and occasionally you’ve heard a barely audible growl, almost under her breath. If she is lying on her bed or in her crate, she freezes when people come over to pet her. Sometimes she stares at them suspiciously. This worries you. When she meets dogs, she seems friendly, though less so when she is on leash than when she is off leash. In fact, over the three weeks you’ve had her, that behavior – like the others – has deteriorated rather than improved.
This is actually not that unusual – the dog you meet when you adopt is often not the dog you see weeks or months later. Like humans, dogs don’t display all their behaviors upon first meeting. In addition, they change, sometimes for the better, sometimes not, depending on the environment they find themselves in.
The first thing you loved about Dolly is that she seemed to bond to you instantaneously. The desire to bond is strong within dogs – they need a family (pack) to survive, and they know it. Most are above all things, social. Even dogs that are not particularly sociable will bond strongly to one or two people, and the speed with which they do it can be amazing. In shelters, dogs often bond closely with the first person who takes them out of the run, or sits with them in it. Once that bond has been formed, the dog feels a certain amount of security – enough that she thinks her new human (that would be you) will protect her, should danger threaten. She will also form a strong attachment to her new home environment – her territory. If it is “invaded,” she may become very suspicious. Thus, the friendly dog you met becomes the suspicious dog you now have, who is wary of strangers and defensive of her territory.
All is not lost – there are many things you can do to help Dolly. However, most of them will take more time than you wish, because what you will be trying to do will be to build trust. Unlike bonding, trust is earned, and cannot be rushed. Training of course will help immeasurably, but it is secondary to trust.
What is trust?
For your dog, it is the belief that you will keep her safe. But how do you convince an animal who must learn through experience, particularly when her previous life was either unknown or not happy? You cannot tell her, since she won’t understand. Petting shows affection, but nothing more than that. And training obedience will tell her what you expect but not what she can.
I think it is shown by consistency and predictability. If a dog can reliably predict the outcome of a certain set of circumstances, she will learn to trust that the next time that circumstance occurs, the same outcome will too. For a dog adopted in adolescence or adulthood, this means that you must be very careful. It’s easy to make meals, attention or bedtime predictable, but encounters with other people or dogs might not be so easy to manipulate. If a friend of yours comes to visit with you and – with the best of intentions – frightens your new dog, she may decide that that friend is more of an enemy. More, she might decide that all friends of yours are potential enemies, or that all male friends or female friends are. If she meets one dog that responds inappropriately, she might generalize that behavior to all new dogs.
This is why many dog form strong attachments to the people and animals they meet in the first days or weeks of their new home life, and then try to make any new acquaintances go away by barking, snarling or snapping. You can help to avoid this, although the dog’s temperament and learning may make it difficult to completely do so.
First, make sure that you are reliable and predictable, to the best of your ability. There may well come a time when you will need to be unpredictable, but that time is not now. Make sure you set rules of the house, so that she knows what is expected of her. Feeding times, rest times and play times are all important, as are the locations where she eats, rests and plays!
Secondly, try to insure that all of her first experiences are calm, slow and friendly. If she has shown a tendency to be shy with new people, have all new people behave slightly aloof at first. It’s generally best to have guests come in, ignore the dog, sit down, and then wait for the dog to approach. When she does, the guest should not pet her for more than three or four seconds at first, since prolonged petting can produce anxiety. The dog will let the person know when she would like more interaction. If the person is to be a regular visitor, tossing treats is a great idea. If the person is a one–time visitor, then allowing a few sniffs and then bringing her back to sit with you is likely to be preferable.
Introductions to dogs should also be done carefully, if your dog appears to be nervous. Parallel walks generally work well, with the more fearful dog initiating any interaction. Anxious or fearful dogs generally do not like to be followed by other dogs, and usually want to sniff the rear end of the new dog first to get a quick introduction without the intimidation of eye contact.
I’d suggest continuing with this pattern for weeks and possibly months, depending on how quickly your dog shows relaxation in new situations. Allow time for latent learning – don’t have new experiences follow one another too quickly. She will become overwhelmed, and the learning will stop. Patience is key.
As your dog learns that you are trustworthy, experiences that would have frightened her previously will stop. She will look to you for guidance…and of course, that’s what true leadership is.
Trish is a nationally known speaker, behavior consultant, trainer and teacher whose versatility, expertise and empathy make her unique in her field. What sets Trish apart is her ability to relate to and enjoy both dogs and humans. Trish has taught the Canine Behavior Academy for dog professionals and dog lovers for over 10 years. In addition to continuing at the Marin Humane Society, this school – now named Courses in Canine Behavior – will be located at several different venues, including The Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo, California, and the Sacramento SPCA in Sacramento. Over her long career, Trish has seen thousands of dogs of every breed, shape and size. She understands that your dog is different from every other dog, just as you are, and will need a personalized plan for improvement. Trish will work with you to help you decide the best course for your dog. She will offer a variety of realistic options that will provide you with maximum benefits for your situation. Her clients have found her to be very easy to work with, flexible and understanding of their needs. Trish was the Director of Behavior & Training at the Marin Humane Society for 23 years. Her department set the standard for shelters and training facilities across the country.
This guest post by Trish could not have come at a better time for us. About three weeks ago, we became foster parents to a female, 5 month-old German Shepherd mix pup named Willow who came to the Sonoma Humane Society from Clearlake County Animal Control. When Willow arrived at the shelter, she was terrified of everything and was starting to shut down. The amazing director of behavior and training at SHS recommended she go into foster care and we volunteered to take her in and work with her to try and bring her out of her shell and show her what a loving home environment is like in hopes of prepping her for adoption. Willow completely opens up in the company of other dogs, and she has quickly become bonded to our pup Corbin. Trish’s techniques and tips on earning a dog’s trust have been immensely helpful and Willow has slowly but surely been making some lovely progress.
Our next blog post will be dedicated to Emotions in Dogs and how to recognize them through body language, something that I find invaluable in working with dogs and particularly now in working with a very fearful little girl. I will keep you posted on Willow’s progress and would love to hear your stories of living with/rehabilitating a fearful dog.
If you ever have an opportunity to see Trish speak or attend one of her classes, I would highly recommend you go. To see a list of seminars and workshops available or to meet with Trish about a particular behavior issue you may have with your dog, visit her website right here.