By June Pennell
I would love to be able to say that love is enough to help a troubled dog. Indeed, perhaps it is enough for a dog without any behavior issues or a troubled background. Perhaps. But although the idea that you can help a dog (in this case, one who is reactive towards other dogs or strangers) purely by showing him that he is loved may be an attractive one, is it actually possible? I would say, “probably not.”
So many of us (me included) would like our adopted rescue dogs to be happy-go-lucky, waggy-tailed, confident extroverts, who are delighted to interact with every dog or human they meet and play with all the children in the park. But is it possible to achieve this just by showing them love alone? Is it a realistic goal, or even fair to our dogs to have such high expectations of them?
Dogs are sentient beings with their own characters and personalities, so should we be trying to change them into something they are not? I really don’t think so. If, however, we are trying to help them feel more comfortable in our world, well, then I am all for it.
If love means we are providing our dogs with shelter, a place to call home, a quiet, soft and warm place to rest, and access to good nutrition and water, which they may have been deprived of in the past, then yes, love is absolutely going to help. They will certainly appreciate having their biological needs satisfied.
If love means we are making sure our dogs have sufficient exercise, are groomed gently without stress, and promptly get any veterinary care they need, love is now really starting to make a difference to their lives.
If love means we are giving our dogs space to learn how to trust us, we are guiding them with consistency and compassion, becoming their protectors and advocates, well, we are now starting to really rock, and love will be having a hugely positive impact on our relationships.
Dogs have emotional needs and, just like humans, they need security, love, trust and to be cared for by someone who exhibits consistency and benevolence. No one likes not knowing where they stand in a relationship or having someone who says yes one minute and no, the next.
The Hierarchy of Dog Needs sums it all up perfectly. The bottom tier of the pyramid represents biological needs (food, water, shelter) and the second tier covers emotional needs (security, love and benevolent leadership), but above that are social needs (bonding and play), force-free training needs, with cognitive needs (choice and problem-solving) right at the top.
Based on this hierarchy, we learn that we need to be satisfying our dogs needs at the lowest level (biological) before we can move up to the next level (emotional) and so on. Yes, love is right there in the second tier – but there is so much more that we need to provide for further up the pyramid.
If love means we are both enjoying shared experiences, having fun together, and the dogs are having some fun with another dog – even if it is just one dog that they are familiar with – then love is working, and we are starting to fulfill their social needs.
If our love extends to training our dogs with kindness and rewarding them for getting it right, we will be really working as a team.
Giving our dogs some choice on a walk (which should be just that, the dog’s walk; a time he can call the shots for just a while and have some choice in his life), that’s even better. Choice for a dog is a huge thing in a world where we control our so much of their lives. We often decide when and where they eat, poop, sleep, and go out, so giving them the opportunity to make just a few decisions is incredibly liberating and refreshing, as well as empowering and confidence building.
I hate seeing a dog being route marched by his guardian on a tight leash without a thought for what the dog actually wants to do. If your dog is getting the freedom to choose, then your love for your dog is definitely making a difference to him.
Talking of walks, the canine olfactory system is extremely important in the way dogs experience the world, so having opportunities to use this amazing skill when out on a walk is crucial to their well-being.
Sniffing releases natural endorphins which help anxious, fearful and overaroused dogs calm themselves, and if this makes their walk more enjoyable, then it is worth waiting for them to investigate that flower or lamp post for a while, is it not? It really is important we let them collect the ‘peemail,’ as knowing the gender, life stage and health of the dog who passed by an hour ago – or even a day ago – is going to help our dogs learn more about their world and assess how safe they are in the environment.
If the scary dog passed by recently, they are going to know that too, and we need to watch their body language to know how they might feel about that. At times, we may need to just turn around and avoid the scary thing, even if we can’t see or sense it.
When my rescue boy Robbie joined us, he feared strangers and would bark and lunge at them, and we were worried that he might bite if he was stressed enough or put in a position where he felt he had no choice. So even though we were very sociable people, having fallen in love with him during our first meeting and feeling strongly that all dogs deserve a second chance, we looked at how we could change our lifestyle to accommodate him.
We stopped inviting people to our home for a time, so Robbie had the time he needed to get to know us, and only us. This was quite a commitment, but for us, he was a dog that showed us love from the moment he met us and we felt there was no alternative. How could we not rise to the challenge of taking this troubled dog home with us? But if we had thought love would be enough to ‘fix’ all his issues, we would have been completely wrong.
At first, Robbie’s habit was to sit with his head bowed. He rarely offered eye contact – which was heartbreaking. You have to wonder what has happened to a dog to make him so fearful. But over the first few weeks, his head came up and he would start to look at us briefly. When he realized he could come to us and ask to go out or for us to play with him and that we understood what he wanted, his body language was amazing. Happy dances don’t cover it!
Of course, Robbie also had a friend and role model in our other dog and very soon they adored each other. Seeing them playing together and sleeping in the same bed made me realize that it’s not just our love that can make a difference. Previously, in the kennels, Robbie’s only real longer-term companion had died, leaving him pretty much alone for a significant period. Having a companion has made a huge difference to him.
Meanwhile, realizing that Robbie disliked eye contact (unless he knows someone well) was an important discovery, as now we knew we had to make sure anyone he met didn’t try to look at him directly and also didn’t talk to him, at least at first. If ignored, he would begin to gather some data about the new person and usually feel a bit more comfortable about them being there. It was still important he was on leash, of course, just in case his fear became overwhelming for him. It is difficult to surf that line between exposing him to his trigger at a safe level and ‘flooding’ him. Sometimes we got it wrong.
We had always been careful to not put Robbie in a position where he was faced with lots of scary strangers (as much as was possible), so we walked in remote places and avoided places where we were likely to meet groups of people. He was walked on a 30 ft. leash, which gave him some freedom to sniff and experience the world as much as possible while we worked on his recall. All this helped lower his stress levels and the more his stress levels dropped, the more we saw the real dog at home. He was a fun-loving, affectionate boy who loved nothing more than to sit on our laps in the evening.
We slowly muzzle trained Robbie, rewarding him for seeing the muzzle, touching the muzzle, and hearing the buckle do up well before we actually put the muzzle on him. When he finally went out of the house wearing the muzzle, he was already well used to it, so it did not add to any stress he might suffer if people were around.
Although we were careful to protect him, there were times when we saw him react to the sight of someone in the distance, or a bicycle or dirt bike coming down the lane. If this happened, we usually skipped his walk the next day and substituted it for some environmental enrichment at home, such as a snuffle mat, a LickiMat, or some scent games. All of these options would give him an opportunity to dissipate cortisol, the stress hormone that would have built up in his system during the scary episode.
Our dogs definitely have a way of surprising us though, don’t they? Robbie’s first additional new friend was unplanned; we didn’t really have time to worry about it and had to get straight on with it. This is because my nephew, who is confident with dogs, arrived unexpectedly one day. Straight away we put Robbie on a leash and armed ourselves with some treats to do some desensitization and counterconditioning.
Our hope was that we could help him understand that good things can happen when there’s a stranger in the house. Well, within 10 minutes of my nephew’s arrival, Robbie was outside on the sun lounger with him, upside down with his legs in the air!
I believe Robbie gained some additional confidence that day and learned that he was able to handle a potentially stressful situation after all. This was an incredibly positive outcome for him which should help build his optimism in similar situations in the future.
No doubt, the fact that we had spent a long time working on his well-being, building up the level of trust he had in us, and convincing him we would keep him safe, combined with my nephew’s confidence, helped make this an easy introduction.
It seemed Robbie was attracted to my nephew’s positivity (much like the day he first met us and chose us, rather than the other way around!). Whatever it was on that day, he proved he had it in him to make friends with strangers. It appeared that once he knew a person was not a threat, they became a member of his trusted inner circle. It is getting into that inner circle that is the challenge with some people!
We went on to introduce Robbie to other friends over the following 12 months and he now has a small circle of trusted people who can come into our home whether we are there or not. These are friends who can let out the dogs for us, something we feared we would never be able to do with our shut down rescue boy.
I am eternally grateful that some of our friends were happy to endure their first meeting with him. Although we did everything to help him remain calm, it would sound pretty aggressive if he did bark at them. Although they knew that they were always safe, I still thank them for loving dogs enough to want to help our boy.
It was meeting one of our friends and her dogs one day while out on walk that brought about one of Robbie’s biggest positive changes. He was certainly alert to someone coming towards us, had his weight forward and was watching them intently – but that was about it. No barking and no lunging.
As the friend and their dogs got closer, the realization it was a friend made such a huge impact on Robbie. I am convinced that now, when he sees people on the horizon, he looks to see if it is a friend rather than a stranger. That’s a major change in thinking: from being scared of everyone on the horizon to being open to the possibility it is someone he knows and wants to see. The great thing is, he is not overly disappointed if it isn’t a friend, and his positive emotional state allows him to shrug off the fact that it is a stranger.
On the flip side, there are a few people it is clear he is never going to accept. I can only wonder why that might be? I must respect it though. For these people, it will be a matter of always having to manage our boy around them.
Thankfully, it is only a couple of people so far. Robbie is even getting to like his scent work instructor after a shaky start. I suspect this is because he loves the work so much and is good at it, so he gets lots of praise and rewards for finding the scent. As we build this reinforcement history and trust account, Robbie becomes less and less bothered about who is standing 10 ft. away.
In the past, we have focused very much on desensitization and counterconditioning to work with Robbie’s fear issues, and it was these techniques that provided the amazing improvements we had seen up to about six months ago at the time of writing. However, it seemed that by the end of last summer we had reached a plateau. Yes, he could Look at That (LAT) and Look at Me (LAM), he could remain calm while people walked past us at a much closer range than ever before, and he had human friends. But I still didn’t feel sure that he would make the right choice and ignore someone if off leash.
So, as the pandemic kicked in, we decided to rent a secure field where we could work with Robbie in a different way. Enter Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT). The field we used was totally secure and even had a double fence along one side where there is a public footpath. This means it is perfectly okay to have Robbie off leash even when someone walks past.
Ideally, in terms of BAT, Robbie should be on a long leash and should choose for himself not to advance towards the trigger (in this case, the person), but the greatest of his successes are now when he is off leash. He can ignore the person completely, he can be called away as he is on his way over to investigate them, he can go see them and remain calm, or he can walk alongside them and their dog and disengage on his own, and do all of that with a lovely wiggly, soft body that shows only happiness.
I am not sure he could have done this before we started practicing the BAT techniques and they were a very helpful addition to our tool kit. Of course, I still won’t trust Robbie off leash with strangers where he can actually reach them and gain access to them, but the longer he can display this level of restraint, the more this becomes his ‘go-to behavior.’
If you were to ask me what changed Robbie’s emotional state the most, I might respond that it is the building up of his trust account with us. He knows we are his secure base and that we will protect him no matter what. But is that love? I think it is more than that. It is also us knowing how to help him and the commitment to do whatever is necessary.
Waters (2021) cites Rowena Packer, a lecturer in companion animal behavior and welfare science at the Royal Veterinary College in the U.K. who says: “I think we love [animals], but I don’t think we understand them, nor do we respect them in many cases.” In Robbie’s case, I don’t think love alone would have helped our boy. Respect and understanding have certainly played their parts too. But love was a great start and something he absolutely couldn’t have done without.
Waters, A. (2021). Love is not enough to provide good welfare. Vet Record (188) 5 165-165
Mariti, C., Ricci, E., Zilocchi, M., & Gazzano, A. (2013). Owners as a secure base for their dogs. Behaviour 150(11): 1275
Michaels, L. (2021). Hierarchy of Dog Needs
Stewart, G. (2021). BAT 2.0 Overview
This article was first published in BARKS from the Guild, July 2021, pp.38-42. Read the full article Is Love Enough?
For more great content on all things animal behavior and training, you can sign up for a lifetime, free of charge, subscription to the digital edition of BARKS from the Guild. If you are already a subscriber, you can view the issue here.
About the Author
June Pennell ISCP Dip. Canine Prac. MCMA is a principal of the U.K.-based International Canine School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour Ltd. (ISCP), an ISCP tutor, and the ISCP committee member for the International Companion Animal Network (ICAN). She is an INTO Dogs certified canine behaviorist and trainer, an ICAN certified animal behaviorist and trainer, and an approved trainer with Veterans with Dogs.