4 min read
… when your dog is sick and fearful?
If you have a dog who is sick and fearful you can feel lost and alone. The weight of opinion, expectation and information can be overwhelming. What is right? What is true? What is best?
Merlin came from a good breeder. He had enrichment, socialisation and a heritage of dog sports. Although he showed early signs of being sensitive to sound, Merlin was a happy puppy who fit into our family with ease. His loving nature endeared him to everyone, dog and human alike. The sky was the limit, with Merlin I could achieve the goals I desired as I learned about training. This dog would be my teaching companion, would compete in sports and help take my training to another level. This dog would be THE dog!
Only 5 months old
Merlin picked up a nasty stomach bug which lead to ongoing, chronic illness and fear. Rather than long hikes, fun training and exciting dog sports, the next 3 years were spent surviving while I struggled to make him healthy and happy.
The complexity of his requirements was overwhelming; advice and treatment conflicting. What the vet saw were physical symptoms. What the behaviourist saw were mental issues. What I saw was a special dog with a distinctive physical body, unique personality and rich emotional life.
I battled disappointment. I felt grief, frustration and defeat. I was utterly exhausted. How could I help this wonderful dog lead a fulfilled life? What did I need to enjoy my life with him?
There is a lot of information on the internet, many protocols wrapped up in memorable, marketable names. If you have a dog who is afraid or who over reacts you can find a variety of recipes promising a cure. These can be hard to resist when you are desperate to help your dog live a normal life.
Unless you understand how behaviour functions, damage to your training or worse to your relationship can occur. The ability to analyse protocols objectively is essential – how do they work? Why do they work? Most importantly what is the effect on the animal? Effectiveness is one way to gauge a protocol, but the wellbeing of your dog has to be the most important factor.
Many years ago, I learned this lesson when I followed the advice of a trainer and practised a Nothing in Life is Free protocol. Rumble was aggressive to other dogs and NILIF was the trainer’s solution. I did what she said because she was an “expert” recommended by the vet. Rumble became quiet and deferent to me, but aggression to dogs continued.
I felt terrible, that special spark of RUMBLE was gone. I had first-hand evidence of harm done by training based on constructs like deference and leadership. So, I decided to learn all I could about dogs and the science that explains the way they behave.
When this “cure-all” protocol was again presented as an answer to Merlin’s fear of sound, I was able to analyse and reject it as unhelpful. Learning about dogs and behavioural science has given me the ability to observe Merlin’s behaviour and create training plans that promote confidence and choice, rather than deference and discomfort.
Set a compass for direction
Throughout this process I have allowed my ethics to guide me. The individual who is Merlin is at the heart of every choice I make. A relationship of trust and connection is the foundation of our training. Knowing this I have rejected cookie-cutter formulas with their tones of passivity and control. I have found veterinarians with a more holistic approach. I have learned about gastrointestinal diseases, anxiety and diet with particular emphasis on gut health. I have researched sound training, storm sensitivity, play and creating confidence. I have read everything I could, reached out to friends and experts and exercised my own judgment.
Although once terrified of the car, Merlin now chooses to get in. He doesn’t run from his collar like he used to. He is no longer afraid of the kitchen or metallic sounds. He is not too bothered by a windy day. General environmental noises have stopped frightening him, he can rest alone without constant whining and can relax in the car by himself. He is afraid of the rain but recovers quickly and will leave his safe place to be with us when it clears. He walks beautifully on lead and can run off lead in safe environments. We both enjoy grooming and are working on making his husbandry behaviours worry free. For the last 6 months his gut has been stable, and he is gradually tolerating a more diverse diet. What Merlin and I have achieved may not be spectacular, but to me and my family, it is remarkable.
I stood by my window a few days ago watching as Merlin rolled around on the lawn. His glorious hair flew, and his legs kicked the air. It is so important to enjoy these tiny moments of fun and connection: the nose bump to your leg, the joyful greeting, the long, lush belly rubs. Appreciating and remembering helps you see the undesirable with different eyes. I wanted Merlin to meet my needs. I dreamed of competing in dog sports and showcasing what can be achieved through skilful, considered training. My own goals have had to shift; I may never perform wonderful routines of heelwork or compete in Rally Obedience, but I can use my knowledge to build a brilliant life with the dog I have.
Our dog trust us to find the best solutions for them and will in return do their very best.
Author: Julie Van Schie
Julie shares her Australian life with her dogs in Melbourne.
She is an experienced teacher and trainer in lifeskills and has studied with Kay Laurence for many years.
Learning long-distance has never proven an obstacle to developing great training skills.
Julie’s Website: Delight in Dogs.