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Back to Basics: No Touch, No Talk, No Eye Contact?

I'd like you to meet Ebony, who acts like one of the Hounds of Hell. The depiction doesn't do her justice on the surface (although she IS a small black shepherd mix), but she DOES have three heads, just as in the drawing of the Hounds of Hell. Ebony is at the Humane Society as a hold, and now her owner cannot be located. This might be just as well, because she is extremely unbalanced; she's fearful aggressive, generally doesn't let anyone in or near her kennel, is housebroken but never gets a chance to get out, and keeps a steely gaze at your face while snarling, NOT at your feet or legs (which is not a normal behavior for any dog, let alone a shepherd mix).

So last week I saw her and thought it would be a nice challenge. Little did I know... It took 5 minutes to get her to calm down and somewhat go into avoidance, 5 more minutes to go into her kennel and get het to calm down, and then some more time to eventually have her calm enough when I presented the leash to be able to loop it over her head. All the while, being extremely upset over the process.

But staying calm and no talking is important when dealing with a dog with these issues. You won't be touching her anyway, and if you rush the process she will bite you and she will mean business. Eye contact, however, for this dog, is important becasue she has to break the gaze first, and every time. Why? Because she needs and wants a leader and she doesn't want to be in a leadership role, but she has to know that you respect her as a dog, and that you are willing to accept and safeguard her trust. Especially since she has gotten away with chasing humans off who she does not trust or respect. Fearful aggression is vastly different from dominant aggression because being fearful indicates a lack of leadership in her world. Dominance means a challenge to leadership and almost always requires a different approach. But the respect and trust still must be a two-way street.

After getting the leash looped around her neck, I turned, opened our gate, and walked out. Ebony followed as if we had known each other all of her life without aggression or even a hint of what I had just experienced in very close quarters. She also pooped 4 times in the next hour and peed every chance she got. I worked with her for the next hour and she was just fine; in fact, sitting in the grass with her she would come up face to face with NO aggression whatsoever.

Until I put her back in the kennel. She did not want to stay and wanted to just walk out with me. I lead her back into her kennel a second time and readjusted the leash around my neck. MISTAKE! Ebony put her Hound of Hell mask back on, but this time she was within inches of me -- I would have to neck bite her to get her to back up so I could leave. And I almost wasn't fast enough, but she did back away. I left and went around to the other side (where the public goes and the dogs can see better) and sat down on the floor facing sideways to her. She siddled up submissively as if to say, "Sorry, but I don't like it much in here," and then laid down on the other side of the gate but next to me.

A week later when I went back, the Behavior Manager asked if I could get her back out of her cage again because no one else could. I was surprised that she was still with us and of course said that I would. But here's where a global understanding of working with dogs through issues is vitally important. What I am doing with her is not new-fangled, or patently my technique, it is simply reading the dog and selecting the best course of action FOR HER.

So while standing at her gate waiting for her to calm down, amidst the din of barking and uncontrolled walking of other dogs by staff handlers, I was looking at her with the calmest face I could muster no matter what she was throwing my way -- because she clearly did not remember me. A staff member came up behind me to tell me I shouldn't look at her in her eyes because that makes her worse. Remember, that when you are working a dog through dangerous issues, it's a good idea not to be distracted for obvious reasons. Another reason, however, is that if her aggression makes you back down then in her mind she got her way and it empowers her, thusly taking longer to start the process from the beginning.

After just responding with, "Yup," and not looking away, she interrupted me again. After advising her that I am the only one to have gotten her out of her cage in the past 2 weeks, and know what I am doing. She suggested a treat reward instead, which also shows a grave misunderstanding of dogs in that state (which is why no one else has gotten her out). I dismissed that but telling her the nose does not engage during aggression and I appreciated her time but I had work to do. Ebony and I went through the same process as the last time (taking time, staying calm, no talking, lots of eye contact) until I could get close enough to loop the leash around her. This time I had a Chuck-it stick to extend my reach (my racket was at home) and it got stuck on the leash. Ebony wasn't happy with that at all and bit the crap out of that plastic stick -- puncturing that hard plastic, as a matter of fact.

My second attempt was spot on and, just as the last time, as soon as the leash was on we walked out of the kennel with no problem -- her behind me, no pulling, no barking, no biting. I spent more than 2 hours with her this time, walking all around, letting her poop 4-5 more times, getting her on the treadmill for a short period, walking around people, dogs, and things that I thought might spook her so we could work through them. The bottom line was that she was like a family pet (almost) and had no problem with any of it, including me bathing , drying, and brushing her. She even took a moment to give me lots of kisses.

Returning to the kennel was much better, but she still didn't want to stay (who can blame her?). After walking to the other side once again, she charged the fence like she always does but stopped much faster when she recognized my energy.

So, what do we take away from all of this? The No Touch, No Talk, No Eye Contact rules are not written in stone and are not for all occasions. It IS for meeting new dogs, even balanced ones, because it demonstrates where you are in the pack structure and where THEY are in the pack structure. But every dog is different, just as every human is different -- not every fearful human is fearful for the same reason. Taking the time to observe, orient, decide, and act (known as the OODA Loop in the tactical world) helps us not only in dealing with humans, but also in dealing with the dogs we run across in our lives.

Lastly, what were the three heads of Ebony? One was Aggression, caused by the second head of Fear, and the third head eventually became Dog. But only through taking the time to work through issues, staying calm, and seeing all of her explosions of aggression as a call for help to humans willing to help in the best way FOR HER do we see Dog come out and play.

Until the next time, stay focused on succeeding, and be persistent in your calm and assertive life even in the face of the Hounds of Hell!

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