Meet Rooney. She is a female Great Dane, who lacks confidence. Her insecurity has led to frequent panic attacks and frightening episodes of aggression around her family. A large dog with high anxiety is like mixing oil and water. It’s messy!
I am not a dog “whisperer.” I don’t have a television show, and I don’t have a syndicated column that I write. I have never spoken to thousands of adoring fans on a nationwide tour. On occasion, I achieve small moments of success, which is more important to me than seeking fame and fortune. I had one of these moments recently while nobody was watching, and it has taken a few days for the adrenaline rush to subside.
As a dog trainer, I have acquired many tools (commands, corrections, and rewards), and I store them in a toolbox (knowledge and experience.) When I am needed to fix a dog’s problematic behavior, I am usually well-prepared.
While I have made significant progress in teaching Rooney obedience commands, I have not been as successful in minimizing her reactivity when something startles her. I have been desensitizing her to loud noises such as knocking on doors; banging bowls, slamming car doors, and even had her sit and stay while a tractor drove by her. She still panics momentarily, leans against me, and looks for comfort from her security blanket (me.) She is like a strip of Velcro, attached to my hip.
The other day, I was walking with Rooney on the way to the training area when an idea struck me.
What else do you have in your toolbox, Peter? Do something different.
I took Rooney into the woods. Once we got on a trail, I took off her leash, and I walked. I didn’t know what she would do. I hoped she wouldn’t run back to the kennel, a comfortable safety zone for her.
She galloped about 25 yards, towards the kennel.
Be calm. Don’t panic. Relax Rooney, relax.
“Rooney, COME.” She kept going. “Rooney, COME.”
She stopped, turned around, and looked at me.
‘Atta girl. Calm down.
She started walking towards me. I turned my back away from her, and started walking. In a few seconds, I felt her head push under my hand. She was walking with me, in a heel position.
Thank you girl. Trust me.
I walked on, saying nothing. Rooney continued to put her head under my hand. She was looking for reassurance and comfort. I put my hands in my pocket and continued on the trail. I was purposely giving her a “cold shoulder.”
She pulled well ahead of me on the trail, showing curiosity. I was amazed. At the top of a gentle rise of the trail, she turned around, and walked proudly towards me, before stopping. The late-afternoon sun poked through the trees and glistened off the virgin snow. Her shadow was enormous. It was a beautiful scene!
Before my eyes, I could see her leaving the “shadow” of who she used to be, behind her. Her head was high; her posture was strong, and her legs were squarely beneath her. She looked confident, in the scary vastness of the wide-open woods, with all the smells, sounds, and wonders of nature.
No commands. No obedience. No cookies. No treats. No praise.
Rooney’s reward was freedom. Freedom from the “noise” of anxiety. And this freedom led her to explore with confidence. She found something new. Something not so scary at all. It was a sapling with a few leaves on it, poking through the snow.
Had I not been silent, had I not given her liberty to explore, or if I had been strict in my obedience, I never would have seen the gentle side of this girl. She was bold, brave, and balanced in mind, body, and spirit.
In the silence, I was able to teach her. In the silence, she was able to teach me. In the silence, we were both rewarded. Silence was a the best teacher. Silence was a new tool in my tool box.
Rooney came to me in a perfect heel, on her own. She licked my hand in what seemed to be a gesture of gratitude.
Thank you, Rooney! Let’s do this again tomorrow, shall we?
Be Kind. Be Thankful. Be Significant.