Have you ever thought about what it must be like to be a little dog, always having to look up at the giant scary world?
Meet Harvey, the Boston Terrier
I met Harvey this week when his owner brought him to me for help. I believe his story must be told and digested on all fronts. He is the sweetest dog ever, but due to lack of human understanding his life is now on the line. There is a sign on the door of the home where he lives warning people of a dangerous dog and if he ever makes another misstep it could be a horrible end for a truly loving little guy.
During my usual intake session we uncovered the source of the problems. Harvey had always been a bit anxious but his owners, like many, didn’t recognize the signs of stress in dogs. His anxiety may have been due in part to his genetic makeup and/or lack of socialization as a puppy. He was uncomfortable with strangers moving in on him in any situation. He was especially wary of women who leaned over him squealing in a high voice about how cute he is. The poor owners thought that the remedy was to have more of these insidious female creatures approach him on walks and elsewhere!
Then one day he got startled beyond his capability to cope, and the unthinkable happened. He bit a woman in face! The apartment manager who happens to be female had come to visit. When talking to Harvey’s owners, she suddenly spun around and down to greet him with that dreaded tone that he connected with fear. She had to have gotten way down there to have been bitten on the cheek. Harvey is a toy breed! Even a German Shepherd would have to lunge to reach someone’s face!
These owners, like most, were shocked at the incident and believed it “came out of the blue.” Just to clarify, it never comes out of the blue! Little Harvey had been trying to tell everyone for a long time that he felt uneasy. Subsequently, each time his little nervous system had to endure the fright of a woman reaching for him with a high pitched tone of voice his phobia reached a new peak.
When he was finally pushed to the point of having to protect himself, he discovered that “I responded in my own defense and now they back away from me. This may be worth repeating!” Since this initial offense which resulted in a visit from Animal Control and the usual quarantine and stigma, Harvey has been trying to back women off with his aggressive maneuvers having no clue that one more documented report might mean the end.
Supporting a Fearful Dog
It is up to us, the humans, to study dog body language and learn to read their behavior. Signs of stress prior to a bite might be the dog avoiding the person, trembling, panting, body lowering, eyes avoiding contact, etc. Dogs may feel threatened when a stranger leans over them or extends an arm or hand over their head.
If you were out in public and a person you perceived to be really scary ran up and started groping you, you would be speed dialing 911. Likewise, when your dog is frightened and you aren’t picking up the distress signals, he may get pushed to the point of instinctive self preservation. If he ever reaches that point and then feels relief at having succeeded at holding off the attack on himself, then he will use that tactic again in the future.
The plan is now to carefully work toward desensitizing Harvey toward women in particular. The reason he bit was because he was afraid. Now we have to try to make him think that women are wonderful. You can see how a dog who is corrected for feeling unsure would then have one more negative experience to heap onto his pile of baggage.
We have to turn things around so that he begins to trust again. This would involve steering clear of any women who may not be able to resist the urge to get in his face. Wearing a yellow ribbon on his leash may alert the oncoming passerby that this dog is part of the yellow dog project. Beyond that, we will be setting Harvey up for success in training where he has the opportunity to react positively with women schooled in proper human to dog body language.
After having Harvey crawl on my lap and reach up for some close face sniffs, I am won over! My own personal dog as a child was a Boston Terrier and I know how they love to snuggle and be close. His owners are wonderful folks and I am confident that we can work together to make his world a safe place!