Lara has come on in leaps and bounds over the last few days. We have had several dogs coming and going from the training center and she has met them all with delight. Dogs ranging from a 60 pound Rough Collie to a 10 pound Jack Russell. Lara has a wonderful canine communication system; she solves conflict quickly by demonstrating great calming signals and demonstrates a full array of play behaviors. Even when play gets rough she is a delight to watch as she uses her ‘cut off’ signals effectively. Yesterday I took her into our 2 acre training field for the first time with three other dogs. I sat for an hour and watched them all romp. Lara showed no signs of stress or escape behaviors given that she was well out of my range had she wanted to stay away, or get away. I no longer attach a leash to her collar for safety and when I indicate to my dogs ‘let’s go’ she happily follows behind. Gates, Donkeys and Ducks no longer spook her. This morning she reacted nervously to a car driving past and actually ran in my direction for cover rather than heading for the hills. Lara has found a nice comfort level around me and Bethany Jordan, The DogSmith of The Florida Panhandle and Southern Alabama, who visits each day. Bethany has a ‘way’ with animals and Lara immediately homed in on her as no threat. Bethany had met Lara when she was at the shelter and has seen her come along like I have from a cowering frightened nervous dog to a playful pack member.
Lara is still very unsure of people. If you are seated quietly she will fly by for a quick head rub and then retreat quickly. When we are sitting outside in the evening enjoying our fire place she will relax at around 15 feet away but come no closer. When her room door is left open she will now come and go at will and to the untrained eye watching from afar she looks like just another of “Tudge’s pets. “ Bethany and I have been discussing over the last week whether a pharmacological intervention would work as a bridge to help us strengthen her confidence so we can begin to train her. This is a big decision, as a dog trainer I have worked with animals in the past where we have used ‘Ace or valium” as a management tool to bridge anxiety and fear making training possible. I am not an advocate of drug use on its own; drugs have their place in behavioral modification but not as a be all and end all solution.
Here is the conundrum; if Lara has pleasant contact with us, tactile contact, we could condition her to enjoy it in a non invasive and non intrusive way. It would then become self-reinforcing and she would start to seek out the petting and attention. You cannot however force the dog to do this and when a dog is displaying this level of anxiety or fear it is impossible to teach them in a productive manner. I have made some baby steps during our evening routine and it goes like this: After a good romp and play we wander back into Lara’s room. I then sit patiently waiting for her to approach me. I hold my hand out very gently and she will approach and sniff it and I can then rub her head. We do this about 15 times. My plan is to pick her up so I can sit with her and stroke her. If I grab her first time she will soon learn not to allow me to stroke her. Each night we change how many of these routines take place before I gently take her collar, bend down and pull her onto my lap. As I pick up Lara, which is slightly aversive to her, she does not struggle but is clearly not 100% happy about it. We then sit on a chair and I gently stroke her head and her body. We are now at the point where she will relax and her eyes start to close. Last night she even sniffed at my face each time I stopped and gently nudged my hand. Our goal with Lara is to train her on some simple obedience cues, ‘sit,’ ‘down,’ ‘come,’ ‘stay.’ This will help her develop some confidence and ‘Learn to learn’ and the simple process of interacting with people during the training will bring her great pleasure. Most importantly it will help her find her forever home and will help with the transition. So back to our conundrum, we have seen leaps forward in the last few days with her general demeanor. She is now a happy dog with her environment, her routine and her canine buddies but is still very unsure of her environment and the people in it. She is not in any way aggressive, has never growled or snapped and given how we had to bring her here that is commendable.
The question is do we continue on with our current protocol or speed up the process. Anyway, whatever we decide we will then discuss and take the recommendations of our Veterinarian, Dr Ann Lindholm of Panhandle Vets in Chipley. In the meantime we are delighted that Lara is enjoying life, has friends to play with and is now looking and acting like a healthy dog.