When writing about dog training, I often find inspiration in unlikely places. I recently finished Fiona Wright’s collection of essays about hunger and disordered eating titled “Small Acts of Disappearance.” Throughout the book, she questions whether viewing behavior change via the traditional “recovery narrative” is helpful or even realistic.
Writing about one of her many setbacks in overcoming anorexia, she writes, “There’s no room in any narrative of recovery I’ve ever seen for this terrible sadness, this unreasonable fear, and these unmeasurable movements, backwards and forwards and sideways, towards, away from and around whatever a return to health might mean.”
Although Wright is speaking of her own personal experience, her description of non-linear progress hits home when working with fearful and aggressive dogs (both for the client and the dog).
When beginning a behavior change program for a fearful dog, the terminal goal is always reduced fear and increased trust – “a return to health,” in the words of Wright. It’s easy to view the steps toward this goal through a rigid paradigm: Step A, Step B, Step C, all forward progress. Unfortunately, fear doesn’t go from A through Z. It has setbacks and sub-steps.
In Wright’s words: “Recovery is not a linear process.”
Sometimes outside events cause a sideways or backwards move in a dog’s journey. A dog with separation anxiety is left alone. A reactive dog gets bit by another dog at the park. A noise sensitive dog sensitizes after July 4th fireworks. Sometimes internal events create a setback. Illness, the wrong combination of medications, or periods of heightened stress all affect behavior.
The definition of recovery itself can be misleading. Some health fields prefer the terms “rehabilitation” and “reintegration.” In dog training, does recovery mean complete reversal of fear and aggression? Or does recovery mean possessing the tools to cope with the environment, alleviate symptoms, and gain more trust and higher quality of life? I choose the latter definition.
It’s understandable to worry when a fearful dog appears to regress. After all, society is well-primed to see recovery as linear, to expect the narrative to progress forward at all times. In reality, your dog’s narrative is unique to you and your dog.
When you notice your dog’s recovery going sideways, backwards, perhaps even forwards a few times in between, don’t panic. It’s ok. You’ll be ok. Your dog will be ok.
Observe what’s happening in your environment and ask the following questions:
- Is there anything in the environment that’s new or causing your dog stress?
- Are you pushing ahead too quickly in your training plan before your dog is ready?
- What is your dog’s body language telling you?
- Have you spoken to your vet to rule out any underlying physical causes?
- Do you need to add another element to your training plan to address a new or previously unknown trigger for your dog?
- Are you managing your dog’s environment to prevent his going over threshold and developing negative associations to his environment?
If you live with a fearful or aggressive dog, remember: Recovery may not be linear, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible.
– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC, PCT-A is the owner of Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco. She is also the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and Muzzle Up! Online. To get in touch, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her training DVDs, visit Tawzer Dog.