One challenge of rescue work is not knowing what experiences our foster dogs have been through. Have they been mistreated or neglected? Do they have any particular fears or triggers? While I do my best to observe a new dog when she first arrives, I can’t always predict how she is going to react to new situations or new people. A few years ago we fostered a seemingly well adjusted and friendly mother dog named Connie. One afternoon while Connie and I were in the backyard with her puppies, my daughter Amanda – then in her late teens – came out to join us and sat down in our old swing set. Amanda began to slowly swing and Connie charged her and bit her hard in the rear. Luckily Amanda had heavy jean shorts; no harm done but some mild bruising and hurt feelings. But we were extremely alarmed that this seemingly innocuous action was so provocative to Connie. And it was a strong reminder that we needed to be very careful about introducing anything unfamiliar to our foster dogs, even ones like Connie who before this event had shown no signs of aggression or fear.
I’ve also seen many of my foster dogs’ personalities change after they settle into our household. Once safe and secure, their true personalities emerge. Usually the changes are positive. Dogs who were once unsure will let us know they need to go out and stop having accidents. Dog who at first were insecure will play with us and Wendy. But they may also become territorial and growl or bark at guests or neighbors, try to dominate Wendy or Little Dog, or chase our cats who they previously ignored. Jenny, a very frightened mother dog we fostered last fall used to hide in the bushes whenever she heard a noise.
But as her confidence grew she stopped hiding and started barking instead.
And a mother dog’s personality and behavior may change during pregnancy and the puppies’ different developmental stages. Initially the puppies require a lot of care from their mother and a large quantity of her milk which leaves her energy for little else. As the puppies begin to eat solid food, the mother’s energy level usually increases. As the weeks pass, our mother dogs tend to want to spend more and more time with me and the rest of our family. When the puppies are old enough to be weaned, the mothers will often run away when they try to nurse and show other signs of impatience. I fostered one mother dog, Ruby, who would pull her puppies off our laps if we were holding them and put her own head down in our laps to be petted. She seemed to be saying “Get rid of these puppies and pay attention to me.” And we did. After the puppies were adopted she stayed with us until we could find her a home too. She even went away with us for a weekend trip to West Virginia:
Now that Holly is spending more time outside, I don’t want a repeat of the situation we had with Jenny. While in the yard, I’d like her to be comfortable and relaxed, to get used to noises from the street and our neighbors and not respond with barking.
It takes patience, consistency and time to change a dog’s response to something, especially if fear is behind the response. The key is to get the dog focused on something other than her fear, something that makes her happy or excited. In Holly’s case, dog treats.
I grabbed a bowl of doggie treats and by tossing some near the open door, I lured her outside:
She tried to go into the back yard which is quieter and more secluded than the side yard but found I’d shut the gate.
That’s when I began tossing treats around so she could seek them out.
I first learned about the “seeking system” while reading Temple Grandin’s wonderful book Animals Make us Human. The basic idea is this. Animals (humans, mammals and some birds) are more receptive to new people, experiences and settings when their “seeking system” – one of several emotional systems – is engaged. Tossing Holly treats to hunt for in the yard is a way of “turning on” on her “seeking system.” And when her “seeking system” is engaged in the side yard she’ll be more excited to being there. She might even be too caught up in her seeking to notice or react to any noises.
As Holly looks for treats she begins to relax and forget her fears. Look at these pictures – above and below – see how she changes from cautious:
Looking at this picture of a very happy, eager Holly, I think to myself what a wonderful world 🙂