Monday, September 5, 2011

Relationship Matters

The last few Sundays, I've been volunteering with a really cool shelter-training program. Dogs who are in a shelter or foster home can come to a free training class, where they learn basic skills like walking nicely on a leash, settling on a mat, and being comfortable with handling. Most of the dogs come with their foster-person, but since some have more than one foster dog, I've been acting as an extra handler.

The dog I've been working with is very cute. He loves to play, and he's pretty smart. However, he is not without his issues. He is fearful of new people, and while he has great bite inhibition, he's not afraid to use his mouth to get his point across. He also has an incredibly short attention span, and he's very environmentally aware, tipping quickly into reactivity.

He reminds me a lot of Maisy, to be honest. From the way he whips his head around, checking for threats, to his eagerness to earn a click, he shares many traits with her (though, thankfully, she's never been a biter). You'd think that this would endear him to me. You'd think that I'd be brimming with understanding and compassion. Instead, I find him frustrating. Despite his small size, he's a lot of dog. Like the old days with Maisy, it takes a ton of energy to manage him in order to prevent reactive outbursts, and even so, he goes over threshold quickly and frequently.

So what's the difference? My only explanation can be summed up in one word: relationship.

Photo by Sara Reusche

Maisy has always been my dog. From that first inexplicable moment when I laid eyes on her, I've known that. I didn't even really like dogs, yet I was ready to sacrifice my home in order to have her in my life, and I've never looked back. Oh, sure, we struggled during those early months. After the third time she peed on my carpet in as many hours on the day she came home, I'll admit to wondering if I'd made a mistake. But as the months went on, I learned how to potty-train a puppy, and she learned how to go outside.

Time only seems to strengthen our bond. By the time I realized that Maisy's temperament left something to be desired, I was so completely in love with her that I knew the only option was to get through it together. Our relationship meant that I wouldn't give up on her. It gave me the ability to empathize with her anxiety. It allowed me to see her as more than just her bad behavior. It somehow gave me the strength to continue on despite the embarrassment and the exhaustion.

And let's be honest: working with a reactive dog is exhausting. The constant management, vigilance, and training takes a toll on the human trainer. Although I can handle it for the hour that I'm working with my Sunday shelter dog, I'm left feeling much more tired than I ever remember feeling with Maisy. I can't even imagine fostering- let alone living with this dog.

Perhaps things would change as I got to know him better. Perhaps the benefit of proximity and time would help abate some of that fatigue. But the one thing I've learned is that- for me anyway- relationship matters.


Ninso said...

I think I would have a hard time with that situation too. Where is the reinforcement for you? I mean, yes you know you're doing a good thing. But you only see the dog on his worst behavior. You don't get to share silly, happy moments with him, like you would if he were your dog. And it's not just a problem on your side--he only sees you once a week in a tension-filled situation. You have no "relevance" to him. The reinforcement history is not there, so he has no desire to work with you. Relationship (or perhaps reinforcement history) absolutely matters!

Crystal Thompson said...

I love your comment, Ninso.

I think what I'm really trying to say is that what I find reinforcing when working with a dog is the relationship that we develop and share. I don't mind having a dog with issues because I know we'll grow together. Some of the most reinforcing moments in my work with Maisy came not when her behavior improved, but rather when I saw that she had begun to trust me.

I also like your comment about how the dog has no relationship history with me. He is in a high-stress environment, with a stranger. For a dog that isn't crazy about people he doesn't know, that's got to be REALLY hard. If he knew me, if we had that relationship, if he had learned to trust me the way Maisy does, the situation would no doubt be easier for him.

I wrote this post because I was trying to understand why I found the session with this dog so much more exhausting than I ever did with Maisy, but I think the idea that relationship matters FOR THE DOG is equally important.

Jen said...

How lucky for that little dog that you already have experience with a reactive dog! Not a lot of people have a concept of "threshold", and so could be at a loss while handling him. That you recognize both that and that he really wants that click (while working with his attention span) could help him a good deal, and help his foster "parents" understand him a bit better.

I wonder if any of the shelters by me have a program like this. None are in my town, of course that would be too easy. I do think Ninso has a point, where you see the little dog at his worst, in a strange environment, and don't have the benefit of relaxation, live-in time with him to counter balance the nuttiness.

Crystal Thompson said...

Jen, it's a really cool program, but I have to drive 90 minutes one direction to get there. I won't be able to do it every week, unfortunately.

And yes, seeing him only at the worst does not give me a chance to develop the relationship with him that I need to get over my frustration. It is amazing how important that relationship is for me.

Joanna said...

I totally understand what you mean when you say that it's draining and not as rewarding to work with someone else's dog, even if you know what you're doing. Personally I'm really tired of dealing with other people's dogs day in and day out. If I really like a particular dog and therefore end up developing a relationship with them, I'm more patient and more willing to work with their quirks. If it's a dog who I don't like, it's sooo draining and frustrating to manage them.

Sophie said...

A lot of people don't really seem to understand how hard it is to have a reactive dog. You have to be constantly, cautiously vigilant, without ever seeming anxious, which would only alarm your dog more.

I can manage and understand my own dogs, in relation to their triggers, and to a point I can empathise with other people and their reactive dogs. But I get much more frustrated even in the company of someone and their dog; I can't even imagine trying to handle a reactive dog that I had even less of a relationship with.

Reactivity is one of the toughest problems--if not THE toughest problem--for a dog to overcome, and I think it can't ever really be overcome without that strong dog-handler bond.

You're doing a great thing offering up your time and energy to this program, Crystal. :)

Ashley Hiebing said...

I kind of enjoy working with reactive dogs, to be honest. Yeah, it's super frustrating when they're busy reacting, but get them de-stressed and they're some of the smartest dogs around. But I might just be biased ;)

The problem comes when I want to take them away from their owners. When I was a trainer, I met so, so many dogs with so much potential, but their owners expected them to be perfectly behaved couch potatoes. I'm not entirely sure that most of these dogs were truly reactive... just bored out of their minds.

Anonymous said...

What a fantastic post, Crystal! I had a foster dog (briefly, thank goodness) who was highly reactive. She reminded me of Shanoa in some ways, of course. But I found her utterly exhausting and frustrating, even though she CLEARLY had the desire and intelligence to learn. But I knew I wouldn't get any of the rewards of working with her, and I was so aware that I only had a week or two, tops, to work with her. So it just didn't seem worth it. I still feel terrible for feeling that way about a girl who was really sweet at heart. I just couldn't do it. Thank goodness she found a great adopter.


Crystal Thompson said...

Ashley, I'm not sure if I'm interpreting your comment correctly, so forgive me if I'm wrong. What I think you're saying is that you like working with reactive dogs who have owners, ie, working with their owners. That seems different to me than working directly with the reactive dog as the handler. For one thing, you aren't the one having to manage/prevent/respond to reactive outbursts, although you do need to guide the human through it. ;) But, I also love working with people. I've always found helping others intrinsically rewarding, which, I suppose, is why I'm a social worker!

Crystal Thompson said...

Nicky, your comment makes me wonder if there isn't something else at play, too. In the human world, we talk about caregiver fatigue. This is usually discussed in the context of family members caring for aging loved ones, but I see it with the families I work with (my clients are children with disabilities, but of course, I work very closely with their parents). No matter how much you love someone, when they have a lot of care needs, it's easy for the caregiver to become tired.

...Actually, I'm going to have to read some of the literature. I think there might be some very interesting parallels to living/working with reactive dogs.

Anonymous said...

Interesting parallel, Crystal. I'm interested to hear more.


Kirsten said...

This is a great post Crystal. And that sounds like an amazing shelter program.

With my own dogs, I think one of the things that keeps me going through all of their leash lunging and reactive craziness is the feeling of appreciation...I can think of all our history together and know how much they appreciate me and love me. That's more than enough reward and seems to abate the exhaustion.

You are volunteering your time and effort to help a dog who really needs help, but because the little thing just keeps reacting maybe you feel that you're not having that much of an impact! I think that in itself would be exhausting.

I hope you know what a huge impact you are having! Volunteers who are experienced with reactive dogs are a huge asset to shelters, and that dog is drinking in life lessons that will serve him in so many ways.

Crystal Thompson said...

I'm on it, Nicky!

Anonymous said...

While a book could/should be written for shelter volunteers, and I risk of oversimplifying, this is what I've found:
In my experience it seems like volunteer shelter dog training is -initially- especially hard on those of us with reactive dogs at home. Not that it becomes 'easy' (probably not ever), but at first there are many mental blocks to overcome. In other words, since we have a heightened awareness of reactive dogs, we know how less-than-perfect the situation is for learning, but once we can reconcile the issues we have incredibly appropriate skills to help out.
I spent a lot of time being frustrated by and having to overcome: physical environment- logistics/space management, lack of control- triggers, schedule, essentially everything, relationship/history as mentioned here, and the ultimate task of having to balance thinking about the situation to perform as the best trainer possible while feeling to ensure that I do in fact remain human.
Each one of the points deserves a conversation in its own right, but since relationship was emphasized I'll say that I think of it like going to a party. In general, I don't care much for parties, though the have their merits. One such perk is the ability to meet a person who is fascinating, informative and engaging right off the bat. Though this person is barely an acquaintance, I feel comfortable, I learn and have a good time. It's the start of the relationship, and one where I focus on what is happening here and now. Train the dog in front of you, as they say, and adjust any expectations of control and perfection to fit the situation. I have to accept that this is 'good enough' training versus 'olympic-style' training, and that I bring valuable skills to those in need in learning how to be flexible, to be adaptive.
More conversation another time- also a great thing to accept- to do what you can, when you can.