There’s a saying in dog training, ‘If you think you’re going too slow, slow down’.
While that may seem nonsensical, I want you to take a minute and understand why this is so true.
I hope Gracie’s story illuminates it.
I took a call this time last year from a rescue called Lucky Farms, who do fantastic work with Great Danes, placing all ages and problems into forever homes in Atlanta and Tennessee.
They told me that one of their adopters needed a place for their Dane to stay for the weekend as she was being very aggressive to anyone that came into the house and the pet sitter was scared shitless. The dog was on Prozac for anxiety (which is another blog subject for another day - not a fan of how often that particular drug is prescribed), but still she was uncontrollable when visitors came to the house and out on the street.
I spoke to the Great Danes Mum, Debi, and realized that due to the extent of her issues, she wouldn’t be a fit for the pack dynamic that we had here over Memorial Day and had to turn her down. She was devastated, but it wouldn’t have been right to dilute the care and time to everyone else who had booked in for a vacation stay; this dog clearly needed a lot of work, one on one.
I did however suggest that we take her on as a behavioral client once the holiday was over, when we could give her the full attention she needed and we shortly after set up an evaluation appointment.
My first warning to her when she and husband Ben brought Gracie to the Ranch for the evaluation was, ‘This is going to take some time. You will meet trainers who will tell you they can fix this problem in two weeks but that will involve using force on your dog and we don’t ever do that. It’s a false result, because it will work for a while, but bullying always travels downwards and if you, or a trainer, uses force on your dog, she will just take it out on the weakest member of your pack when she gets pissed off in the future. Instead, we are going to do this at a kind, gentle, slow pace so that she can grow a little, consolidate, then grow and consolidate, and over time her behavior will change and she will one day just be a different dog.’
They loved her so much and believed that she was capable of change, so thankfully, they agreed to my plan.
Well, as some of you will have seen on our Facebook page, Gracie started coming to us after Memorial Day; her first visit was an hour, followed by a half day, then a second half day followed by a full day, then an overnight...always one-on-one with lots of fun and beautiful off leash experiences running in our woods and fields, slowly and carefully building her happiness bank. This dog had been in a puppy mill until Ben and Debi adopted her, she had no concept of what normal family pet behavior was, it all had to be taught to her.
(Her entire life until coming to live with them had been in a filthy crate, listening to the terrified barking of hundreds of dogs around her, awful food dumped into her bowl and if she lived as most puppy mill dogs, she probably lived in a huge pile of poop. In a puppy mill, the dogs are not beings, they are just viewed as property and get no care whatsoever.)
We started with just hand picked members of staff handling her, feeding her meals by hand, taking their time with nice, slow movements. Long, slow walks in the woods where we stopped to throw sticks in the water and laugh at her splashing around in the pond; each time she came to check in, we made a face of amazement that she was just the cleverest girl in the world. Laughing with her, telling her she was beautiful and such a funny, happy girl. We told her so often that she came to believe it.
Next, once step one was achieved, we introduced new people to her in the Ranch’s neutral environment, first just women, then, when her confidence had grown, quiet, calm men, all of whom were told to just share the moment with her, to not ask anything of her, and let her come to them. When she did, they didn’t touch her, they just let her explore them with her nose. The very consistent message was ‘there are no repercussions if you want to just see what we humans are. You can come figure us out in your own time, in your own way’.
Touch therapy was included a few weeks in...just calm gentle touches where she could see our hands at all times and enjoy the feeling they bestowed, always followed by a treat or a singsong voice of praise.
Within just a few visits, the pulling on leash to get back in the car at drop off time ceased, to be replaced by a happy expectation of what lay in store. That dog pulled at the leash to get inside the Ranch gates and mum Debi couldn’t believe the change!
We were teaching her how to be a dog and what that truly meant, in all it’s unfettered glory.
Mum would ask me occasionally when I thought they could have friends over for dinner, when would she be ready for that?
My answer was always the same, for her to stop thinking about how long it might take and instead concentrate on the tiny triumphs she was accomplishing every single week. To stop looking ahead impatiently, because the real magic was happening slowly right before her eyes.
Debi and Ben did slow down, and even, thankfully, started to think that if all Gracie ever became was happy in her own skin, then that was enough.
And that’s the exact moment when it all came together......
They settled, stopped thinking in terms of yardsticks of achievements......and all of a sudden Gracie’s progress escalated.
Pretty soon thereafter, we were able to visit them at home and work with them to show them how to introduce guests successfully into their home.
Of course they were scared, but the good thing was that by this time, they knew she could be a loving, sweet soul, because they had seen it happen elsewhere. All they had to do was do exactly what we do, in their own home.
And it worked.
By that time, Gracie had banked a good deal of positive, non-threatening interactions with strangers, enough to crowd out some of the more horrible experiences she had endured. Not all, they never truly leave us 100%, but some.
That was all we needed; for her to see a possibility of goodness in people.
It takes time, and multiple interactions, time after time after time, carefully managed and always ending on a positive.
To an outsider, it looks easy, and I’m glad it does, because that shows how much we all enjoy this work. But the truth is, it’s a carefully decided protocol that has to be adhered to strictly at all times in order to get the results, and it must be done over time. It can’t be rushed.
As a behavior counselor, I try to drum into every single dog owner that very rarely does one positive interaction change a dog’s behavior for the better, whereas conversely, just one negative one will have a very long lasting adverse effect.
It’s a shame but it’s the truth.
The key to success in cases like Gracie's is repetition, repetition, repetition. And then, when you think they’ve got it, more of the same just to be sure.
Sometimes, our own expectations of what our dogs can achieve, and MUST achieve to satisfy our own goals, create stress in the dog. That stress, that invisible unspoken deadline, put so much pressure on her, Gracie would have been doomed to fail, until mum and dad changed their mindset.
It was useless us giving her that learning environment here at the Ranch, if at home, the pressure was always slightly on. Dogs always, always, always learn best in a fun, loving, carefree environment.
This weekend, Gracie will come to us for Memorial Day weekend, almost a year since I first spoke to Debi. She will board separately, she prefers it actually as it gives us more opportunity for one on one and she has her own designated room here at the Ranch with her own chair and her own dog bed, but she will run and play with carefully selected dogs, as she has done many times at the Ranch.
At home, Mum and Dad can have people over to visit without Gracie mauling them to death, (which I think is always a bit of a plus), and she lays beside guests on the couch, happy to be petted appropriately and for short periods.
Last weekend her mum sent me this picture that just rocked my world! Look at how relaxed Gracie is, settling quietly in the background while the humans enjoy some fun in her presence. No one, not one single person, died that day!
There are strict protocols that Debi and Ben have to observe in order for this to happen, and they follow them to a T.
To be honest, they are dream clients.
Gracie is now completely off Prozac, her only calming aid is a few drops of CBD oil as appropriate. She has found a wellspring of peace and happiness inside her that she draws on to give her confidence every day.
She isn’t the finished item yet. But then again, none of us are.....
We are all constantly evolving, improving, rolling with punches, gathering ourselves up and then moving forward again. Dogs are no different.
Two things we need to learn from this.....
One, is that anything worth having takes time.
And....the journey is always way more important than the destination.
Here endeth the lesson.