Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The Myth of the Magical Rescue Dog

Shaun earning his first ribbons at an agility trial

Dogs with Serious Emotional Trauma Need Critical Care. So Why Do Some Dog Trainers Insist on Training them "Just Like Other Dogs"?

A popular dog training blog recently posted a rant about how the owners of rescue dogs were guilty of "coddling" them and how they should be treated "just like other dogs". 

That somehow, the deficits of non-existent socialization, reactive behavior, traumatic experience and lack of relationship knowledge somehow magically disappear.

Sometimes a "rescue" is more like a re-homed situation. And oftentimes, the dog doesn't have serious or unusual issues. 

But in those cases were serious problems do exist, I feel that criticizing owners for being to over-protective or worried is a convenient way for dog trainers to side-step the sometimes often complex and time-consuming issues of treating a dog with serious issues. 

Instead of helping the owner with the critical care the dogs badly needs, the new family often walks away with a band aid.

If the dog doesn't fit in the box of "normal dog training" -- training often developed to support the training needs of competition obedience dogs -- the new owners too often walk away with serious behavioral and socialization needs sorely unaddressed. 

Shaun in his peaceful older years

The story of Shaun

Our 17-year-old Toy Fox Terrier came to us at 2 years old after surviving being a pit bait dog. He had been starved, burnt with cigarettes and bitten. His life was probably not great before that point either. He was classed as vicious by the shelter when we adopted him.

But because my current dog at the time was dying of a brain tumor, I wanted to rescue something. So I rescued Shaun. Shaun had many severe problems. I won't list them for you, but if you can imagine it, he probably had it.

I got into dog training because of Shaun. I knew he was more than I knew how to handle alone. He did get better. He did go on to lead a somewhat normal life. He did earn his CD, Open agility titles and earned some of the first Toy Fox rally titles. He ended his career discovering something he really loved, APDT rally, where he retired with a High in Trial.

I can tell you about the things we managed (with difficulty) to accomplish. But Shaun was never a normal dog. 

He had nightmares, at night and in his sudden reactions to triggers of his formal life. His brain, I think, had been damaged by the experience of being attacked. Possibly from being shaken. He was an extremely athletic dog and an escape artist of the highest degree and we figured that's how he survived.

Shaun learned to enjoy life,
but still, the past haunted him

There are dogs that have gone through genuinely horrific experiences. Who never knew a trustworthy human relationship. Who have real physical and mental damage from their abuse.

My life and Shaun's were made harder by those who insisted that now that he was rescued that the past should disappear and he should be magically the same as a dog who was bred well and raised in a loving environment. 

It really was really because I found trainers who had worked with seriously damaged rescues that we were able to work within the reality of his true situation. But, honestly, he always struggled and was always the ghost of the dog he could have been.

The blessing was that at the end of his life, canine dementia stole away the bad memories. He lived in the moment and for those last two years he was feeble, but blissful. For the first time in his life. That was pain I did not train away. It was pain he finally lived away. He died in his adopted daddy's arms with a smile on his face.

Dedicated with love to Shaun 

Serious needs need to be appropriately addressed, not just wished away

I just don't want other people who have severely traumatized dogs to struggle, not getting the help they need, by people who have never had a dog with serious issues, and who insist they should just treat their dog like any other dog who has not had severely traumatic experiences. 

This is not fair to the person, who is probably trying very hard to treat things they don't understand. It's not sufficient for a dog who needs, in the training and emotional sense, critical care and not a bandage.

Here are some things that can help

If you have rescued a dog from traumatic circumstances, here are some things that I did for Shaun. I hope they will help you.
  • Look for a trainer with rescue experience -- Look for a person who has worked with all kinds of dogs from all kinds of backgrounds. A person with lots of titles might have dog training skill, but their experience might only be with dogs selected from birth from high end performance lines and raised in enriched environments. What's important to their agenda in dog training might not mesh with the urgent needs your dog presents.
  • Interview your potential dog trainer -- Ask specifically what successes they have had in rehabilitating dogs. Ask also about their failures. Someone who has participated in a deep way with the realities of rescues will be honest about both.
  • Look for a behavioral focus -- Ask your trainer what solutions they have for helping to socialize your dog, build the relationships and create plans to address specific behavioral issues. If the training program seems more directed toward skills needed to earn titles in dog shows, they might not meet the needs you have now. It's not that this type of training is a negative, and you might decide to pursue these skills some day. It's just that you first need someone who can help you triage your situation, prioritize the issues, and help you develop the skills to address and manage them.
  • Listen -- A good trainer will often tell you things you don't want to hear. Keep listening. Try it, even if it sounds like the funniest and most unlikeliest thing you've ever heard of. Dogs don't think the same as we do. And often, things that don't make sense to us, makes sense to them. Keep an open mind and give the strategy a chance.
  • Know when to look further  -- If your dog trainer seems to not have the flexibility or tools to address unusual or difficult issues, don't hesitate to break off the training relationship and find a more experienced or suitable trainer.
  • Try HARD -- Training and rehabilitating a dog with serious socialization, reactivity or other needs is serious business. You will need a plan. You will need to commit to doing the work. And you will need to work at it every day, most likely for the life of your dog.
  • Know your dog -- Even if you haven't known your dog long, you most likely understand more about him than you know. Trust your instincts. Trust the responses you see in your dog. If you come across advice you absolutely feel is wrong for you or your dog, you do have choices. You can ask for alternative approaches, or if the gap is large or serious, you can choose to find a trainer or system that better fits your need or lifestyle.

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