Monday, June 25, 2012

SociaBulls: Finding a Safe Place and Building Confidence

I'm always intrigued by the different reasons people join SociaBulls, and the varying things each of the dogs gets from the group. One smiling face you've probably seen in many of our photos (her devoted dad has taken her nearly every week since she has joined!), is little Sophie. I'm so accustomed to sweet Sophie hamming it up for the camera, I've always forgotten she has fear issues; fear so bad the trainer told her owner 'he was a good guy for keeping her, as most people wouldn't'. 
Sophie is a 3 ½ year old chocolate lab mix (her dad was said to be a vizsla and she seems to have pitbull too)  adopted as a pup from a small town in Missouri.
 As a young pup, she wasn't bothered by the noise and excitement of the city. She loved meeting new people and dogs, and even joined her owner at work. Though as she neared one year, things began to change. Here is her story (and photos from our latest walk!):
At about a year old she started randomly growling at people.  It was sporadic and random at first, and there didn’t seem to be a specific trigger.  It was escalated with men and got much worse in any kind of confined area.  It soon escalated to her actually lunging and snapping at anyone she didn’t know who approached her.  I had no idea what to do so at the advice of a lot of people I had met at the park, I called a reputable trainer who has a lot of experience with dogs with behavioral problems.  He came to my place to meet her, and things didn’t go as I had hoped.  She first lunged at him and then ran around growling and snarling.  He said, “This isn’t good.  You’re a good guy for keeping her – most people wouldn’t.”  That kind of stunned me because the thought of not keeping her hadn’t even entered my mind.  I told him the most confusing and frustrating thing to me was trying to understand how she had gone from being so sweet and friendly to being completely scared of strangers.  He explained that dogs who have traumatic experiences as puppies sometimes suppress those memories only to have them return as they get a little older when they manifest themselves in the form of fear aggression.  We came up with a plan to keep her confined using a gate when anyone new comes into my apartment, and he explained ways to have strangers approach her in a way that she won’t perceive as aggressive (no leaning in towards her, avoid making direct eye contact, etc…)
 I realized that it was now really important to keep her out of situations that could trigger any aggression.  This meant no more dog park, no more dog at work, and definitely no dog at places with crowds of people (street festivals, parades, etc…).  This was really sad because I lost all of the human socialization that can come with being a dog owner, and was relegated to lots of long walks with just the two of us.  Most of the interaction I had with people we met on the street consisted of me saying, “she’s not friendly” which is really heartbreaking.
When I first saw the Sociabulls walks on Two Pitties in the City I was intrigued. I thought this might actually be something we could do.  Sophie doesn’t have any problems with leash reactivity and since the dogs and people keep a safe distance before, during and after the walk, I probably wouldn’t have to worry about her feeling frightened by anyone.  Still I had some trepidations because I would be mortified if my dog was the source of some kind of negative incident on walk.  After volunteering to be a guest walker for Levi and then Ms. M, I was confident enough to give it a try.
Not only did we not have any problems, but she actually did really great.  She was excited to see all the other dogs, and it was nice to walk in a new location instead of just around our neighborhood.  The dogless walkers in the group do a great job of warning the pack of impending obstacles (joggers, cyclists, off leash dogs) so everyone can walk confidently.  It’s really amazing to see dogs with so many different issues walk confidently together once the pack starts moving and it has been really wonderful  meeting  so many conscientious owners who are working to make their dog’s lives a little better.    Like fellow Sociabull Lola who has issues similar to Sophie, I also try to have her meet and take treats from friends we’ve met on the walks.  I definitely have seen Sophie become more confident and less fearful of people we meet while we’re walking, and while I still warn strangers that she is afraid of people, I’ve now been able to allow certain people we meet to pet her once she’s taken a few seconds to sniff them out and determine that they’re not threatening.  
 While I’d love to have a friendly dog that can be an ambassador for bully breeds, I’ve accepted that my role is to do my best to put Sophie good situations and keep her out of  positions where she might behave in a way that promotes negative stereotypes.  I feel really lucky to have the weekly Sociabulls walks that allow us to do this while we explore new areas of the city and meet a bunch of fantastic new people and dogs.  We’re also lucky to have great friends that she loves (who we met in the early days before the  aggression) who help me take care of her and we found an amazing day care facility where they’re happy to take care of her and even work patiently with her when they have new employees so she can make new human friends.   
If anyone reading this has a dog with fear issues, I’d love to hear about things you do to manage them.

Please Note: As the weather has warmed up, bikers, runners, dogs, and kids have come out in full force in many of the areas that we walk. While we had previously been introducing new members a few at a time to each walk, we've decided that in order to continue to keep our group safe and make our walks a positive experience for everyone, we are putting new members "on hold" for the summer. You can still submit an application, and it will go on our wait list in the order it is received. Once things quiet down a bit more in the fall, we will resume introducing new members a few at a time to each walk, and will be contacting people on the wait list in a first-come, first-served manner.


Anonymous said...

I totally feel you, having a reactive dog can make you feel so isolated. It's so heartbreaking knowing what a sweetheart your dog can be around you and people (and dogs) he or she is comfortable with. We've been working with Cooper on that same issue for several months now, except with him it's dogs, not people. His issues also started when he was about one year old, I hadn't heard that about puppies surpressing a traumatic experience, though that makes sense. Since he's a shelter dog, we really don't know what his background is. I commend you for working with Sophie, it's not easy!

CW said...

Great story, wonderful to hear of her progress. I have a Great Pyrenees who is very shy with strangers and has lunged at a couple of people on a walk. At 117lbs, controlling her is no easy task! I find people are difficult to educate - as much as I instruct them to wait until I have her seated to approach, to avoid eye contact and to allow her to sniff them first, most insist on coming squealing up to the dog and try to pet her on the head. It is very frustrating. Great Pyrs are a guarding breed, so she's only doing her job, but it's extremely difficult to teach her otherwise when the humans don't follow directions. Bravo to you for helping your dog overcome her fears and having the support of humans who know what to do.

Tucker The Crestie said...

So awesome to hear how much SociaBulls has helped Sophie and her dad.

Unknown said...

This story is so similar to Annie! Pretty much dead on, sweet puppy and something seemed to change. I hope we can return to social bulls soon after Annie's training.

Sarah said...

Sophie sounds exactly like my Sadie. It took us about 3 years to get her from lunging and snapping at people to happily accepting a pet on the side from a complete stranger (and we didn't have the benefit of Sociabulls!). The couple things I did were:

1. asking people who approached her to treat her like a skittish horse. Most people understand that without having to go into the whole "my dog has fear aggression, isn't friendly" etc. It really helped people understand she required an extremely slow introduction. I used this more with people who came to the house; strangers on the street I simply avoided or told them she was scared of people.

2. I also used vocal encouragement (good girl, mama loves you, what a pretty happy girl you are) etc when she made small improvements with new people. So if we walked past a person and she didn't lunge, I threw a vocal Sadie's the best dog in the world party as we passed.

3. Our other dog is extremely friendly (sometimes too much so) towards people. Maggie helped Sadie a lot in realizing that new people meant lots of new love and treats to receive.

4. Training a solid Leave It. I use this when we pass dogs, cats, people, garbage, food, etc. I've found it to be more useful with reactive dogs than anything else. If I catch her right before she's about to bark or lunge at something, I can stop her in her tracks and redirect. I don't use this with people much anymore but before I was confident that she wouldn't snap at a stranger, I used it on walks all the time.

It sounds like Sophie is doing well in her progress too. It takes a long time, a buttload of patience but kudos to her Dad for being the kind of dog owner I think everyone should aspire to be. While Sophie, like my Sadie, might never be considered a breed ambassador, it sounds like she's on the way to being the best dog she can be and that's all we can ask for, right?

Angela said...

Thanks so much for sharing your story! I also own a fearful dog. We've done loads of training and have her going to a daycare twice a week and she's slowly been improving. I know exactly what you mean about realizing that your expectations for socialization have to change...and how hard that can be to accept. For a long time I thought people would view me as a terrible dog owner because I had a dog that wasn't just bouncy/happy. I wouldn't trade Iz (who is also a vizsla mix!) for the world because even though it hasn't been easy I have learned so much!

Kirsten (peacefuldog) said...

Whoa, that's just so, so cool. Sophie is lucky to have such a dedicated, wonderful Dad and her dad is lucky to have SociaBulls. I wish such a thing existed for all owners of dogs with behavioral issues.

K-Koira said...

My number one suggestion would be to talk to a vet about prescribing some anti-anxiety medication. Too many people either don't think about medicating, leave it as a last resort, or believe it is wrong to medicate their dog. I firmly believe that for a dog with severe anxiety or fear issues, medication is one of the best things you can do to help them. Not only does it help them stay calmer and less reactive, it can help them remain below threshold level and allow for training to take place. I also know a few very good trainers who work specifically with dogs with fear issues, if any names would be helpful.

My dog doesn't have issues with people or dogs, but does have a severe fear of trucks. Her fear is enough to cause her to throw herself against her collar and attempt anything to run away, get away from the trucks or noise of them. With medication, we have been able to work on her fear (while before the medication she went from completely okay to completely flipped out too fast for training to take place). She has been improving so much, it is amazing. And it is wonderful to know that my dog isn't living in a world of constant fear.

Anonymous said...

I really am jealous of your group - Rufus often growls at strangers/strange dogs, and it worries me. He has never bitten and only snapped once (the first month we had him), but I know that his growling is his way of telling a person or dog he is not comfortable, and I wish we had a group like this to expose him to. It looks like I need to start researching!

Two French Bulldogs said...

Our friend Annie we post about had this issue. Exactly...Annie met with her mom and a pet behaviorist (3 times). NEVER avoid the group. Walk with the group all the time. If the group stops, stop a distance away. Always keep walking at a decent pace. Always use a treat to distract. The second she shows positive behavior, a treat. A lot of practice, it totally worked. Annie even bit her mom and our mom(fear aggression). We don't always like to reward with a treat but it worked
Benny & Lily

Yvette said...

This post really resonated with me. I adopted a dog who was friendly and personable and then about 3 months after adoption (he'd been at the shelter for at least 5 months prior to us adopting him) he turned into a leash reactive dog that would bite if given the chance - not just a lunge and warn reaction. It does break my heart to not be able to take him to the dog park, pupcrawls, dog events...we work with him and a trainer regularly. I'm learning to manage his behavior, try to set him up to succeed and not put him in situations where he will make big mutt mixes look bad. I too have to tell people he's not friendly, when I know he can be, but on his own terms in his safe environment...sigh

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