We have a rehab client here at the ranch this week called Max, a 4-year old maltese Shih tzu mix, who is here for work on his severe case of neophobia.
Neophobia is a terrible affliction to have when you are a species that loves to explore, to chase, to taste, to sniff and to live free…it is, basically, fear of the unknown, the different, anything new.
I met Max a few weeks ago when I went to his home to consult for his family on the behaviour of him and his sister Sammi, who his mum called me about when they terrorised a beach vacation this summer and made the family too embarassed to go back!
When I went to their home, both Max and Sammi ‘owned’ the doorway, barking furiously at me, asking me how I dared to walk in to their home. I knew first off that this wasnt normal territoriality, as they kept up a steady stream of barking for three whole hours….this was based in fear, real fear, for each of them of a very different kind, that ate at these dogs’ very core.
I gave the family some very strict instructions as to how to manage things short term, in terms of diet, exercise and leadership, but asked them to bring Sammi to the ranch first for some work here, and Max would come later.
Sammi was here for a couple of days last week and we worked on some of her social issues with both other dogs and people…the work will be ongoing but its a very solvable case.
Max came three days ago, and as soon as he was dropped off and his mum drove away, he went into complete shutdown. Now this does happen sometimes and we are used to dealing with these issues as thats our job….what was so strange for us was to see that some time later, Max was still in a state of shut down and wasnt able to get himself out of it, as most dogs do. I realised that this dog was suffering from neophobia.
Afraid of other dogs, people he doesn’t know, new places, new smells…Max exhibited all of the hallmark signs of a dog petrified of anything new. He panted despite cooler climes, his eyes were wide, he circled, paced and shrank from the approach of humans.
Under normal circumstances, I would have had his parents there to perform a handover of custody, in order to facilitate an easier transition, however, I’m sure his Mum won’t mind me saying that she was a very nervous mum, anxious as to what he might do, and also certain that Max would not succeed in a new environment because she knew what a tough case he was. Obviously, dogs buy in to our perceptions of them at all times…I myself have no preconceived ideas about what Max can do, though I had met him before, so it made sense for Max to be handed directly over to me and for his mum to go…..
In these circumstances, as with most issues here at the ranch, we allow the dogs to take their time and do what they feel they can, on the first day. If they are more comfortable in the top yard, fine..if they want to sit by the doorway, fine…if they want to be inside on the couch looking at all the action outside, that too is fine. I’m very fond of saying that we ask nothing of them until we form a relationship with them and the dogs trust us to help guide them through the minefield that is life in a human world to a dog and honestly, its true.
I have a hard time taking direction from anyone, but someone who I know has my back? Oh yeah, I’ll follow them til the ends of the earth….Dogs are no different.
Very often, we use dogs to help dogs here at the ranch, however, Max had dog issues and so we had to really use our own body language and communication skills to earn Max’s trust. It took him 3 hours to approach us under duress (we needed to put him up) and the first evening he refused his dinner. The next morning he refused his breakfast and I warned his mum that we may have to send him home that evening if he didn’t eat. We want the dogs to be in tip top health when we work on them…
Poor Max stood on the sidelines watching everyone having fun, so frightened to step out of his box and let go…we made sure he was taking care of his needs (drinking, elimination etc) but it was almost painful to watch him so frightened to even take a step into the meadow, because it seemed so huge to him.
Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is nothing…sometimes you just have to be patient and let the dog work it out, while you stay in the background and watch his back, ensure his safety both emotionally and physically but thats it.
Max had a light bulb moment yesterday afternoon, 30-hours into his stay, when another dog came close to him, the puppy we have here this week, Bailey…he sniffed him, didn’t shirk from the contact and then half followed the dog as he retreated. It was just what we were looking for….from then on, the hurdles were being jumped every hour.
He approached my husband and sniffed his nose.. he came to my lap and allowed me to massage him, then jumped up on my lap to ask for more massage…then he allowed us to hand feed him and actually ate everything!
At each point we finished as he looked like he had had enough…we can never overwhelm a fearful dog, but this morning, when I went to let everyone out after a good nights sleep, he was supremely happy to see me. He ate his breakfast and sniffed around with the other dogs, not at all concerned by their presence. This was going to be breakthrough day, I could feel it!
At ten AM this morning, Max Maynard decided he had had enough of always being in the shadows; he grabbed the bull by the horns and decided to join the other dogs down in the meadow…he raced down into the meadow, sniffing, circling and enjoying himself immensely, right in the company of other dogs, close as can be..and he loved it! Then he did it again, and again, and again…as if he was just a puppy again.
I was so happy to see him acting like a dog, I cried… and I’m so glad we were patient and let him make this decision himself as he needed to do.
The best things in life will always surely come to you, but sometimes you just gotta learn to wait for them….