Working with the fearful dog: final word.

Reprinted from the Collie Connection, Fall 2000

Recently, Judy asked me if Babe was so normal now that I hadn't much more to say about her. Well...that is more or less true! Although Babe is still far from being a normal dog (and she may never achieve that state in her lifetime), she can function as well as an average pet dog in most circumstances. Just this month, she started obedience and agility classes and herding lessons, and she is even entered in an AHBA herding trial for the first leg of her HCT! I have been so proud of her in the classes. Because of the year's worth of work that I needed to train her in the basics and get her ready for life in public, she is entirely credible in her classes. Sure, she has her own issues to work through with training, but so do all the other beginning dogs. She adores working and so focuses on me, better than the average dog in the class. Fortunately, her first obedience lessons are on the exact recall training that we spent the last year doing, so she is performing as well as any dog in class. And in agility, she's had a year of working on the equipment, so at the moment she is actually at the head of her beginning class--the challenge for us was not the equipment, but being in class. And she is doing excellently in this respect in both obedience and agility.

To close this series on what I learned from Babe, I wanted to end with perhaps the most important lesson of all. This is not a "how to train such-and-such" lesson. Rather this lesson went to the core of the dog-human relationship and what training brings to it.

It all started when, after having Babe for several months, I discovered that a number of people didn't like Babe--actually, they actively disliked her. I was taken completely by surprise because of the particular people who didn't like her, people who I thought would have just the opposite reaction, people who I considered sensitive and sympathetic to dogs and would be especially understanding to her because of her extreme abuse. Rather, the opposite was happening! I began to take note of this reaction and think about it during the going on two years that I have had Babe with me, and this is where the lesson comes from.

The first time it happened, I shared the reaction with my training friend and mentor, Katy Robertson (as I do all training and dog issues that puzzle me). Katy had visited us the day after Babe arrived and saw Babe in her catatonic state, curled into a fetal position in the corner of my bedroom, reacting to nothing. When I mentioned that someone didn't like Babe, Katy shot back "What's there to like?" I immediately understood what she meant. Babe was so completely shut down, hiding all of her personality and emotions from those who threatened her, that there was nothing to connect with, nothing to attach our own needs and emotional reactions to. In the absence of this living being offering us something to meet our social needs, we react by "not liking" that individual.

As time went on, Babe got out of her catatonic state and even out of her extreme fearfulness around people. But she continued to shut them out emotionally, in much the same way as I imagine that abused children do. She adopted a particularly unsettling "empty stare" when confronted with people trying to pay attention to her. She must have reasoned that if she pretended like the person wasn't there, then that person could not be a threat to her. She perfected the "looking right through you" glazed stare, which was made all the more uncanny by her having one half-blue eye. Once a friend was giving all of my dogs treats and tried to get Babe's attention by calling her name. Babe returned with her best empty stare. My friend turned to me in surprise and exclaimed "She doesn't know her name!" I thought "Of course she does!" In fact, she learned her name really quickly as do most animals, because in her case that sound always accompanied unwanted attention from a dreaded human. That friend later confided in me that she didn't know "what I saw" in Babe.

Babe is all bright-eyed and connected with the world after she and Megan walked in the Parade of Animals at the local Scottish Festival.  No empty stare here!

Eventually I came to realize that many people are sensitive to animals and drawn to working with them because they have a deep need for the unconditional love that animals are able to offer us. When an animal, for some reason, cannot be completely free with its emotions, people are often affronted and sometimes deeply hurt. I think in Babe's case, some people were especially hurt precisely because of Babe's background of abuse, as if they expected Babe to know that they had a special sympathy for her. Then when Babe rejected it, that was more than they could accept.

All of these experiences opened my eyes to how much we humans expect of dogs, both in our ordinary lives and in training them. Most of us expect any dog we meet to offer us unconditional love--and some of us (myself included!) expect dogs to realize that we have a special love and understanding of dogs, so by golly they should return it. I have often been puzzled in pet classes at the resistance that students have to using food and games and fun in training. It seemed so ironic--most PC pet owners come to class vocally opposed to using aversives in training. Yet they also oppose positive reinforcement tools! When you question them about it, you get reasons like "I want my dog to obey me because it's me and not because it's for the food!" or "when can I stop using the food/toys/games/fun?" I now think that such reactions arise from the same reasons that people dislike Babe. It's offensive to think that a dog is doing something for reasons other than they just love us and want to do what we say because they are devoted to us. We are offended when a dog doesn't just love us unconditionally and unselfishly.

Babe forced me to confront all of my own "demons" that I was brining to the training environment. I was so frustrated at first that she didn't realize that I was trying to help her--couldn't she see that, after weeks and weeks and months and months? I even got angry at her for her rejection of me and her "obstinate" refusal to accept my training (I described one incident in the Summer 1999 Collie Connection). But Babe's training made it blatantly obvious to me that all of my emotional baggage was irrelevant at best and often harmful in her training. What was my goal, anyway? My goal in training was actually very clear. I wanted Babe to be able to do a certain thing, for a certain reason. For example, I wanted Babe to have a recall to save her life--when I got her, Babe was desperate to get away from me and she could so very easily end up dead if she got away from me. Did I care how we accomplished that goal? Why should I? Did I want Babe to come only because she loved me? Or, did I want her just to come to me, who cares why Babe was doing it? The second answer was the right answer. I shouldn't require Babe to "obey" my command only because she loves me or respects my "authority"--I wanted a result, entirely for Babe's own good. Period.

So I learned how much of our emotional baggage that we all bring to our training, both beginning and advanced trainers. Training should be training, nothing more, nothing less. It should be us setting clear goals and objectively analyzing the steps to bring our dogs to achieve those goals. Training should not be a test of wills. It should not be a test of loyalty or love. It should not be how we impress others (including our own trainers!) with our skills or a way to seek the approval of other people or our dogs. I'm not saying that wills (the dog's vs. yours) doesn't come into training--but when it does we should see that objectively as a factor in training that affects the steps we take to reach our goals. It should not be an emotional matter of "you will obey me!" I'm also not saying that we shouldn't bring love into our relationships with our dogs and use it in constructive ways to guide training. Rather, training should not be a love "battleground", again an emotional matter of our getting feelings hurt or using our training to test our dog's loyalty to us.

Perhaps its sounds too cold to say that training should not include emotions. I think that my lesson from Babe was just the opposite of this. When I was forced to remove my own emotional baggage and needs from the training, when I was forced to become purely neutral and objective to have Babe reach my goals for her, she taught me in the deepest sense the meaning of unconditional, as in "unconditional love". Babe taught me that I didn't have to like a dog to love a dog, and I didn't have to like or love a dog to be a good trainer and accomplish goals entirely to improve Babe's quality of life and make life worth living for her, for the very first time in her 4 years. Several times in those first few, very difficult weeks that I had her, I wondered if we really should have put her down, as she was so miserable and she was making me feel the same way. Yet, Babe improved daily, so we kept on. Through time, I have become increasingly grateful for her coming to me and teaching me these hard lessons about myself and my motives in training and having dogs.

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