"YOU CAN'T PUSH A RIVER"
A horse trainer told me this many years ago when I was 15 and frustrated with a young horse who I couldn't get past a tractor. What I wanted and what my horse needed were two very different things and trying to push him wasn't going to get either of us anywhere. Well, other than hot, tense and miserable with each other.
So I got off him and we stood and looked at the tractor for a while. Had a little chat. Watched some birds go by. Looked at the sky for a bit. Then he let me lead him past it.
ALL WAYS UP
We went past it, round it, sideways, backwards and forwards and, once he was OK with it, I got back on him and he comfortably walked up to it without spooking.
It was an important lesson: I couldn't push the river of his resistance because he was huge and I was quite a wee bit smaller. So I needed to find a way that worked for him, to help him feel ok with the scary tractor monster.
All he needed was time, distance, and the ability to work it out in his own way.
Most of our puppies and dogs need this slow approach as well. It gives them time to come to terms with anything that bothers them, and to stay settled. As soon as their brains get stuck in 'scary' mode, they become agitated and unable to think clearly.
Loki is a good example of dog with a brain that gets stuck in scary mode. He's a teen German Shepherd who can have a very agitated, busy brain. He is highly sensitive to noise and to anything unpredictable, such as movement, light and any change in the environment.
He's a big, powerful boy, and he reacts by lunging and barking, which he does suddenly and explosively.
This video shows Loki on one of his walks after we had first met and started working together. You can see his anxiety, even though he is less hypervigilant than he could be, he's still far from relaxed.
As well as having high levels of anxiety, he also has gut issues and a tense relationship with food, meaning that he often can't take treats. Anxiety often comes with an unbalanced gut ahd our first step with Loki was stabilising his digestive system. His gastric issues have meant that we haven't always been able to speed the learning process for him with treats.
Fortunately he has an incredible relationship with his dad, who can use his voice and touch to connect with Loki and to help him feel good whenever he makes the choice to walk away from things that bother him.
We try to set-up our sessions so that our dogs feel secure: in theory, we shouldn't get any reactive responses from them because we create an environment where they feel safe. I rarely get barked at by dogs who are reactive towards people because we set things up so that they don't find me threatening.
But Loki didn't feel safe anywhere - other than at home and he was too reactive to meet me on his home territory, where his guarding response would have intensified.
So his first session was at our quieter training centre but, despite its quietness, he was instantly suspicious and hypervigilant as soon as his mum and dad parked-up in the car park.
He was very unsettled throughout the session, although there were moments when he could calm himself. Noises around the building triggered him; hearing my voice upset him; any movement from me set him off, even at considerable distance. He was a tense mix of anxiety, guarding and habit-driven barking. In the video, you can see how quickly he went from relatively calm to loud alarm barking when his mum walked away from him towards me. I'm Stranger Danger!
MOVING THE RIVER
We could see it was going to be a bit of a slow steady process with Loki. We reflected on the best way forward, took several steps back and his Thinking-Dog Behaviour Programme became a meandering river journey (as well as a small trickle, in places!).
It isn't only a case of not being able to push a river. You can't move one, either. So, because Loki had struggled during our first session, we moved me into his environment rather than trying to move him into mine.
His family have inspirational levels of commitment to their boy and were happy to go back several steps. We began by exposing Loki to my scent first of all, over several days. Then we paired my scent with some online sessions so that he could hear my voice.
In the meantime, his dad has been driving many miles from home several times a week and habituating Loki to our Aisthorpe training centre. Once he was more comfortable there, we dropped me into the mix.
I say "dropped"... We actually eased me into the (slightly less) muddy waters of Loki's brain by having me in my car and communicating by WhatsApp video so that he could get comfortable with my car before dealing with me.
Over a few sessions we've been led by Loki and have gradually put the car windows down while I've been talking his dad through how to manage him via the phone.
These have been unusual sessions! Communicating via the phone and watching Loki through my car windows and mirrors has been a first. It's been a fascinating process and a delight seeing the skill that his dad has developed when handling Loki.
He knows when to give him breaks (which is often). He knows how to be led by him, while still having clear boundaries. He knows how to use touch and words to reinforce any calm decisions Loki makes.
REDIRECTING THE FLOW
His family have put in place all the calming strategies we advise when working with a highly sensitive dog and the change in Loki has been significant. He is much calmer at home. He's increasingly able to go for short, manageable walks. And, most importantly, he's learning to self-calm.
Things still bother him - these are very early days in his journey and he's a very sensitive boy. He isn't going to lose that sensitivity over a few weeks. It will take many months for his system to settle and become less hyper-reactive to stimulants.
But the thing that has made me and his dad beam endlessly in our most recent session is that he's learning to self-calm. When something bothers him, he's taking himself away from it and sniffing to calm himself down. The first time he did it, we were both doing joyful whispers along the line of "can you see this? Can you believe it? Loki's ground sniffing!"
And he was 😊 With a soft, gently flowing tail.
It's going to be a long trip with this sweet boy and he'll get there in his own time. His family are an inspiration.