This is my hiking buddy, Mouse. Our family acquired him a couple of months ago when a friend was no longer able to care for him. His home had been a loving one he lived a good life. I like to think we have given him much the same since his arrival in our home as it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with him, and insomuch as a dog can return such human feelings, I believe he does.
As a mix of German Shepherd, St. Bernard and Chow, he’s smart, affectionate, good-natured and loving with children, and in general listens to commands without a second thought.
Except when there is a perceived threat, usually in the form of another dog. At which, he flips outs by either cowering and growling or threatening to eat the other dog’s face off. He, more or less, becomes another Mouse. Someone who doesn’t listen to my commands, is stronger than I am, and makes me very away of how far he is willing to go to protect himself if he has to. Simply put: Mouse does not see other dogs as friends–he sees them as enemies.
Dogs don’t always use the same sort of logic we do–there is a top-dog mentality which in most cases doesn’t apply to humans. If he’s scared he isn’t going to talk about his feelings–he’s going to act. Perhaps Mouse was at one time abused as a puppy–pummeled by a much larger dog. Maybe he was bitten by a playmate, nobody really can say–but once those experiences are in a dog’s mind they create these automatic responses to certain situation. Thankfully, in most circumstances these behaviors can not only be stopped, but can be reversed. With time they can often be rehabilitated, so to speak, into realizing that there is a difference between friend and foe. Of course this takes time, routine, and determination on part of the owner because dog’s aren’t going to put any work into bettering themselves, no matter how many self-help books you check them out from the library, unless you make it worth their while. And they are going to always look to you, as their owner, to read your emotional responses to approaching dogs.
So Mouse and I like to take walks, alone, so I can pay my full attention to him and see his initial reactions before they escalate into full blown aggression. We start out on a little jog–because the best way to handle excess energy is to get it out before it turns into anxiety, much like with people–and continue on a steady walk for while before heading home. When we pass another dog, I gentle guide him to the other side of the walkway, and keep a firm but relaxed grip on his leash and halti–telling him with my behaviour that this dog is of no threat. It doesn’t always work–sometimes the other dog has the audacity of barking a friendly hello in his direction and then all bets are off. I’ll have to forcefully lead Mouse away before he can sink his teeth into the poor animal. It’s nearly always affective though, and we carry on our way. This process has been very effective, except when some other dog owners disregards the county’s rules and lets their dog off of it’s leash.
Yesterday while taking a hike through the woods, Mouse and I were having a great time. It had recently rained so all the smells were floating up from the damp earth and it was lovely. We were both relaxed and having a good time, but when I heard another dog in the distance, I knew it was time to move on. Narrow trails such as this have very little room to allow dogs to pass without having direct contact with one another, so I just turned around and headed the other direction. Then I looked behind me to see this huge Newfoundland, or some other bear-looking dog, galloping my way. Mouse was suddenly in a panic as the dog jumped on him playfully. The other dog clearly not reading Mouse’s signals, continued to try and make friends until he finally nipped at him and let out a growl that said very clearly, “back off now!”
“Call your dog now!” I tell to the owner, as my dog starts lunging towards him. The option of walking away made completely invalid by an unleashed dog. “Don’t worry, my dog doesn’t bite”, she explains. “But, mine will if provoked!” I assure her.” She grabbed her dog and I lead a very shaken Mouse away from the gentle giant who had to him had been seen as nothing but a threat. After an afternoon of hard work, Mouse walked back home panting, shaking, and aggressively barking at any tree which happened to shake a leaf in his direction. Eventually Mouse is going to have to learn to take these situations in stride, but until he learns to trust again, he’ll never be able to enjoy relationships with other dogs.
Leading a dog like Mouse through a backwoods trail like that is an emotional minefield. He’s scared to give in and enjoy the scenery because he feels he must always be on guard for the next enemy that might be coming his way. Furthermore, when scared he acts out which could easily hurt another dog badly. It could also conceivably hurt me if I get mixed up in the middle of a dog fight. My dog, once a victim of being hurt, now acts out similarly to other dogs. Experience has told him that if he acts out towards other dogs then he doesn’t get hurt, and so this is his established pattern. Every single time he does it cements it into his brain that being aggressive towards other dogs keeps makes him safe. And whether that is true or not is really irrelevant to him at this point.
Many people run through life much like Mouse–avoiding people who want to be close, running away from situations which make them feel vulnerable, and striking out at anyone who they fear might betray them. As in Mouse’s case, there could be a number of reasons which have set about this pattern of mistrust of people; anything from a broken heart to severe long-term abuse. This reaction may be all they have ever known or it could have developed suddenly after a traumatic experience. Either way, at some point they have felt betrayed and began to see people as a possible threat to them and their safety. They have learned that it is much better to deter people from getting too close than to risk letting them in.
But, like Mouse, people too that we can learn new behaviours. People can learn to listen to their heart, intuition, the education of their experiences, so they can let their guard down and experience life in all of it’s fullness. And unlike Mouse they don’t need anyone to force them into any of this as they can be our own motivators to seeking out and achieving healing and recovery. Dogs cannot ask for help, make goals, and reach them, but we can.
The trick to teaching Mouse that other dogs aren’t always to be feared lies in teaching him to trust his instinct, not his fear. It’s much the same way with us. When we have a guard up all of the time, we lose the ability to recognize clear threats to our safety. In fact, everything can become illuminated as a threat when we use fear as our guiding light in life. But, with time, determination and outside help when needed, we can learn to break down the walls in our lives and learn to love and be loved again.