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Back to Basics: Calm and Assertive

In a previous post, you read about Ebony and how important it is to stay focused and persistent when you are working with an unbalanced dog. Like a paraphrased line from an obscure movie I saw recently, a dog is like a piano – if you keep banging on it and never give it the care required it gets out of tune. Then, someone has to come along and fine tune each string (230-250 of them!) one at a time before the entire instrument is whole again.

Dogs are like the piano in that sense. Keep banging away on an already out-of-tune dog and he will be badly out of tune. It also takes quite some time to get him back into tune and you must do it carefully and one “string” at a time. Yet, if it never gets entirely in tune and keeps being banged on, it will never be in tune until the entire system or environment changes. Thus, we have Ebony.

Now consider Ebony on steroids and you’ll have Athena. Athena is another shelter dog, a large Great Dane mom, way too underweight and takes up the entire kennel (so no going in, really). And whose head was even with my waist. Athena was territorial and vocal when I passed by, so this is not Ebony – or any other dog. Every dog is different and each one will tell you what the problem is for him or her; you just have to listen with a canine ear, not a human one. In my past, I have owned Great Danes and other giant breeds and love working with them. However, although familiar I also respect the fact that they are dogs and, having been bitten badly by my own Great Dane in the past, these dogs are powerful.

I knew that the eye contact necessary with Ebony will never work for a territorial dog – you have to respect the fact that they are claiming their space and telling you about it. And warning you not to challenge them. Therefore, with Athena, I went to the open side and sat down right beside the fence facing 90 degrees away from her. Since she towered over even me when I was sitting down, she used that to her advantage and “whispered” in my ear at full volume that she was a force to be reckoned with and needed to be respected… and I did.

She very soon stopped barking and walked to the other side. I also walked around and opened the gate slowly but persistently to present myself and the leash but no talk and no eye contact. She came up to sniff the leash and I slowly looped it over her head, opened the gate fully and invited her out. Moreover, she and I became good buddies for the next hour. When I returned her back, she had no problem going in and she looked back as if to say, “Hey, thanks, bud.”

The problem most of the time is that they are going back into an unstable environment, constantly being banged on because of all of the barking and other instability. Thus, Ebony immediately reverted to Devil Dog behavior. Would Athena do the same thing when I saw her again?

The next day I had to be back there and decided, while I had a short period I could stay, to get Athena again. She was napping on the open side so I sat down quietly and let my scent and presence wake her gently. Which it did, but she was still a little startled to see someone there… and let me know it. But only once. Because this time I turned slowly and looked at her as if to say, “I’m your calm helper, returning to see you.” Moreover, she walked to the other side and waited for me to get her!

How many different ways could that have gone? It should only go the most productive way for dogs and humans, and rushing isn’t the answer at all. Thinking that because this dog is barking that she is like all dogs that bark is a recipe for failure and disaster. If you are a dog owner, a dog lover, or someone who just wants to know more about how to get along with dogs, keep reading this blog and continue to interact – or watch interactions – with dogs. They teach us a lot; humans just don’t pay attention most of the time.

Until next time, listen to your dog from a dog’s point of view and you will understand their language even better than you do now!

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