You know your dog has issues when doggy panic attacks are a thing.
This last spring I was walking Gwen and everything fell apart. All of our planning, all of our hard work, all of our carefully scripted training plans. You know those moments in life where everything seems to go wrong at the same time? It was one of those. We live near a busy street that has a ton of walking traffic and is very dog friendly- a dog owner’s dream. We spent months working Gwen up to the point where she could deal with walking multiple blocks down it without fear. We’d walk to adjoining blocks, approach the busy street, I’d give her handfuls of treats and we’d retreat. Over time we could walk 10 feet of the street before having to bail, and then whole blocks and before long we were venturing into local businesses. It was progress that was hard won and progress that I was proud of.
On that particular day I really wasn’t worried about much of anything. Gwen had happily walked down many blocks, we’d stopped in at two local business, gotten treats from a whole bunch of strangers- it was a good day. And then, simultaneously, two things happened. There was a loud boom (I mean REALLY loud) and a man appeared out of nowhere and tried to pet Gwen. When you have a dog that is afraid of people, you figure out pretty quickly that people are seriously pushy. You come to associate a certain type of person with a feeling of serious dread. They mean well, they really do. But when people approach Gwen with wide smiles, nearly bent in two trying to pet her, all I want to do is run away. Sometimes, I do. In this particular instance I was trapped. I told Gwen to “go behind” a cue I use to put her behind my legs when I need to physically block people from interacting with her. I put my hand up, looked him in the eye and said “I need you to stop. You cannot pet my dog.” He ignored me and tried to reach around my back to pet her.
She was already spooked from the loud boom, already spooked by the persistent reaching of the man and when he practically crawled behind me to reach her she freaked out. I have only seen her that panic stricken once or twice. That type of panic is beyond reason- she was like a wild animal. There was no amount of food or comfort that would have gotten through to her. All I could do was reel her in, pick her up and get away as quickly as possible. Believe it or not, after I picked her up the man tried to pet her again. I turned away from him and said “Back off! Why would you think she wants you to pet her?” His response? Flipping me off and walking away.
Gwen continued to panic- trying to get away from me, trying to get away from everything. I was beyond grateful that she was wearing a harness she couldn’t get out of or I have no doubt that she would have ran away without a second glance at me. I carried her most of the way home and even once we got to a quiet street and I put her down she was spooked and frantic as we walked. When a dog experiences a truly frightening event the stress hormone, Cortisol, is released into their bloodstream. It can take up to 48 hours for them to chemically get back to normal. For the next few days she was profoundly nervous- more so than she’d been since the first few days that she had been home. What was more upsetting, though, was the realization that she now found hands reaching towards her to be completely terrifying.
I was really upset- not at Gwen- but at the entire situation. I was upset with myself for allowing her to end up in that scenario, upset that I lived in a busy neighborhood, upset with the rescue group that she came from who, with their limited resources, didn’t do the level of temperament testing I wish they would have (or more realistically, just didn’t know that her behavioral issues existed) and upset with the all too many people who see dogs as public property and get offended if you don’t allow them access to yours. In a slightly dramatic moment I tearfully proclaimed to a friend, “it’s eight months of work down the drain!”. Selfishly, it was a blow to my confidence too. I felt pretty damn good about myself when I thought about the progress we had made together. I had no expectations that Gwen would enjoy the attention of strange people, but it seemed to be a real possibility that she might get to a point where she would be able to cope with being around strange people on a regular basis. And I was incredibly sad watching my dog, whose fledgeling confidence seemed to have been shattered. All of the little successes that we had worked so hard for- walking down busy streets, going to the pet store, stopping and chatting with neighbors, were once again a reason for panic and (sometimes) wild barking.
After a few days of feeling a little desperate I decided that we would be fine. If we had to start back at square one we would. I would do what I needed to to make things OK again. The progress that took many months to achieve initially has been won again at a much quicker rate, but she is still not where she was before this incident. She is more worried, more cautious. I have to work harder and be smarter every single time I leave the house with her than I did before this happened. And this is where I reach the point of this whole post. I’m sure the man who approached us that day meant no real harm. I’m sure he was certain my cute little scruffy dog would love to say hi to him. Those are great sentiments. What he didn’t realize was the literally hundreds of hours I had spent teaching my dog to calmly accept people approaching her, looking at her, and reaching towards her. This was without the added element of physical touch. And truly, if he hadn’t appeared at the moment that other environmental triggers made themselves known it likely wouldn’t have been as catastrophic as it was.
People often look at me like I’m a little crazy when they ask me if they can pet my dog and I say with genuine emotion, “thank you for asking- I really appreciate it.” Then, truly appreciative of their consideration, I tell them that they cannot pet my dog and why. Then I tell them what they can do with my dog, if they choose (namely, allow her to sniff them and if she is comfortable enough, toss or hand feed her treats).
There is absolutely no way to know the history of the dogs we meet out in the world. Dogs are not public property and we have absolutely no right to interact with dogs without the explicit permission of their owners. There are people out there working like crazy with their dogs that are fearful or reactive or overly exuberant and it is so incredibly easy to make their lives so much harder just by forgetting to ask a simple question and respecting their response.