As a Canine Behaviourist. I work on many cases with dogs and their families with the sole goal to make their lives work better. Many of these cases are truly fascinating, with each dog having their own unique personalities and quirks, along with their caregivers. I have decided to write about them because their journeys are often inspiring as they illustrate such tremendous commitment of humans to care for their dogs. I want to protect my client's privacy so names and identifying notes will be removed and the stories shaped in a way that demonstrates the challenges and the strategies used to overcome each one. I hope you enjoy these stories and gain insight into dogs' minds and souls.
The beauty and coldness of ginger eyes. For a moment, I hold my breath, as I notice the pupils constrict. His eyes pierce me with distrust and disdain. Then, suddenly, the head swings away. Samson's assessment is completed. I am no threat and smell a little like liver. I swore the air pressure seemed to have shifted as he looked away. This was my first encounter with my client, a stunning male, marmalade malamute, and the complaint was growling, nipping, and aggressive behaviour.
The caregiver was a single business woman who clearly loved Samson. Tall, blonde and well-educated, Kathy hired me to help uncover why Samson was growling so much and if she should be worried for her safety. She wanted to stop the nipping which was bruising her arms and legs.
Samson, after his initial cold greeting of me, took his 90 lb. frame and padded to his blanket, picked up a bone and began gnawing, while Kathy and I sat down to talk.
I learned Samson was adopted at 4-months of age from a questionable breeder. He was never an over-affectionate dog but enjoyed playing and having fun like any young dog does. Samson was now in his teenage years, and still enjoyed play although seemingly on his terms. Adolescence in dogs is a time where great empathy and patience are required. They are often fearful years for a dog whose age ranges from 6 and 18 months, where dogs become aware of themselves, regardless of being neutered or spayed. Hormones may be surging, and complex emotions are intensifying. They wonder who they are and their value within their social circle. It is a delicate and challenging time where the foundation of adulthood are set in place.
Samson, rises and pads over to me as I sit writing on the sofa. He sits down directly in front of me, breathing on my notebook, waiting for attention as scribble Kathy answers to my questions. He 'nokes' my pen (noke meaning a poke with his nose) and the pen slides across the page. He is not to be ignored. I put my notepad aside, taking the opportunity to exchange some communication signals. Samson's tawny eyes are comfortable now, not hard like during my entrance. As I lean forward in my seated position. I am careful to position my face far away from his face, but still allowing him to gaze at me. I squint my eyes and smile. I am saying "Hello" in dog language. I asked him, "May I touch you?" I wait for a response, and then Samson says yes, shifting his large stately head down to my hands resting in my lap, "Yes, you may." I move slowly and rub his neck, my fingers sinking into the most glorious fur you have ever felt. Rich layers of softness, warm and luxurious. I keep my eyes half-lidded (called, soft eyes) and notice the same soft-eyes on Samson's face. Then a growl. and Samson's eyes hardened, seemingly simultaneously. I removed my hand quickly and sat back. Kathy sat up straight, and said, "There! That's what I don't understand!"
I explained the silent transaction that had just occurred between me and Samson, with his final "That's enough!" Samson, in short, had a short tolerance for handling and quite vexingly, wanted affection.
Samson, over several weeks of interaction and study showed his growling was likely signaling frustration and grumpiness. Consider that in his mind, he likely believed he was being very clear in his dog language as to what he liked and didn't like, but it appeared no one was listening. In typical adolescence fashion, he lashed out, escalating his anger to nips. I also believed Samson's trust had been broken. He simply didn't trust Kathy to care for his needs. He likely felt he needed to be hyper-vigilant in training Kathy to notice when he needed to relieve himself, be protected, or when he needed to relax in peace. If Samson could have graded his caregiver, he would have given her a C- which would have broken this kind-hearted, well-intentioned woman's heart. She truly cared deeply for Samson. His signals also seem to suggest a general disappointment in humans. Missing key knowledge on his early formative experiences, I had to assume his frustration, distrust, and subsequent aggression were triggered by an abandonment memory. I also thought it possible the memory resurfaced once I learned of a recent puncture wound Samson received during a play fight with a dog-friend. . He was also very demanding, potentially coming from a sense of entitlement found in many young dogs finding their sense of self. All of these beliefs, interpretations, and choices Samson was acting on, need to be gently guided, with a firm and fair hand.
I committed to helping build a comprehensive plan for Kathy and Samson to build trust between the two of them. Kathy committed to being engaged with the plan; ask questions, provide feedback, and be open to training and receiving help.
A large majority of dogs can be summed up as being all about peace, love, and cooperation. It is their natural state of being. Samson was attached to Kathy, but his love was to be earned and the plan needed to deepen the bond between them. Our strategy needed to address how Samson could shift to become more peaceful and cooperative. We also needed to consider other humans in his social circle that Samson needed to cooperate with (social circle meaning friends and family members).
Kathy needed to be able to communicate clearly and firmly to family members about their interaction with Samson, especially when on a Behaviour Modification Plan. In the past, misguided family members were noted as bullying Samson, physically and mentally into situations he was not comfortable - this had to stop and Kathy had to be the one to do it with Samson watching. Our strategy sought to establish a set structure Samson could always rely on, including a plan to set and enforce ground rules. For Kathy, I needed to step-by-step plan to educate and train her to read Samson's signals and to respond back in a way he understood.
Kathy excelled at the challenge before her. She learned how to read Samson's communication signal, and also to for permission before touching his body. The simple tasks of putting on a harness, cleaning his ears, and checking his teeth were done with respect. It may sound odd to ask for permission, but it helps our human minds to move into the right space of respect for the dog. Also, Kathy was tall in stature and needed to think through and adjust what she was subconsciously signalling to Samson, with her body positioning. Signaling through tone, body language and position, Samson was able to prepare himself to be handled. To understand this, imagine you taking a deep, calming breath before having to engage in conversation with an opinionated relative.
We established a strict daily routine for Kathy and Samson, with a time-based schedule to play and relieve himself. We also increased his feeding schedule, and added in exercises where Samson was handled (not when needed but as a bonding exercise). Bedtime routines shifted to ensure Samson could turn off and fully relax. We introduce several Human-Dog bonding games - instantly a huge success. We also introduced a discipline plan that was kind but firm, with no force. Samson desperately needed ground-rules to be reinforced, without breaking the fragile trust we were building between him and humans. Ground-rules helped him to learn to be a cooperative member of the household. After a few weeks, Samson likely thought he had entered into a dream-life where he was understood and could begin to believe in. The comprehensive nature of the plan worked on many emotional plains to reduce Samson's distrust.
Sitting on the floor, a few delicate threads connect Kathy with Samson. Samson is on his back, with a lolling grin, his mouth soft, his eyes half-closed. Kathy is a little behind his head,, dangling a rope toy over his lips and his front teeth gently grab the fringed threads, connecting them in gentle play. His paws move slowly to tap the rope. Kathy smiles at this lazy efforts,. Samson smiles too, very relaxed, with his stomach exposed - he feels safe. Kathy asks Samson, "Can I rub you?" and Samson grins, "Yes" . Kathy slowly and gently rubs him and then stops, checking Samson's response. There is nothing from Samson. Kathy knows this means it may be giving 'her' pleasure but Samson is only kindly tolerating her. She smiles again knowing that this is Samson's unique personality and that his tolerance of her is a sign of love.
Over three months of diligent care and commitment to the plan, Kathy and Samson are much closer, with a deep bond that is wonderful to see - true affection can be observed. Samson's smiles more having found greater peace in his world and growls less due to grumpiness (I should mention lest it be misunderstood, growling is good, as it clearly warns a person to stop what they are doing). There have been no further nipping or signs of aggression. In addition, Kathy's efforts have paid off and her family has been effusive about the dramatic difference in Samson. Using caregiver guidelines combined with Samson's increased joyful cooperation, the entire family has been enjoying Samson more and were no longer nervous being around him. Kathy's commitment and dedication to her dog Samson is a testament to her long-term loving relationship she now has.
This is only an overview of our Behaviour Modification Strategies and Plans which are extensive and wholistic in nature. We outline in our strategies and plans all aspects of Dogs basic and enriched needs, in addition to practical exercises, games, training and both interim and long-term goals. We train caregivers to execute on the plan, and provide support, encouragement, and refreshers when needed during the execution of our plans. Each plan is highly tailored simply because each dog has a unique personality, complete with distinct beliefs on who they are, who you are, and why they think they should be doing what they are doing. Our plans are updated as new science breakthroughs come to light.
'Sparky' Smith is a Canine Behaviorist and Practioner, educated through the International School for Canine Psychology & Behaviour, earning her ISCP.DIP.CANINE.PRAC.