Tread Lightly

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There seems to be a rash of redemption videos making the rounds online. Dogs who once were fearful are transformed into confident, huggable dogs by the deft handling and/or love of their savior. The savior varies, from well-intentioned pet owner to professional dog handler, of one kind or another. One thing most of these videos have in common is the use of confrontational handling techniques to work with the dog. So what? you might ask. What does it matter if we can grab a tissue and feel good that another dog has been ‘saved’.

snowshoeing on a frozen pondImagine you have a kid. You’ve tried for ages to get them to go out and get a job. Then one day they come home waving a fistful of cash, lawfully gained waiting tables, shoveling snow off driveways, raking leaves, or some other ‘job’. Now imagine they come home waving the cash and proclaiming that they robbed a convenience store. Does how they got the money matter to you? I hope so. How we get behaviors from dogs matters to me too. As much as I might like the outcome, if we can achieve the same end without adding to a dog’s stress and fear, I’m all for that.

The points I would like to make, so you can finish up and go for a walk with your dogs are these:

1. There are handling techniques that will achieve the same, or better, ends as many of these videos with dogs being forced into interacting with people.

2. Low stress handling doesn’t have to take longer. If a dog’s behavior is going to improve by being forced to interact with someone, they will also improve if we work in gentler, less confrontational ways. And besides, what’s the big rush anyway? Many of these dogs have spent years in a cage or months roaming the streets, why is it we need to overwhelm them in the first hours or days we have them?

3. Know what you are looking at. Skilled handlers understand that aggression in dogs is often suppressed when they are afraid. That dog whose eyes seemed closed in bliss, their ears down, leaning into the wall, is not having a revelation about the joys of being pet or rubbed by a towel, they’re scared. They may be submitting but they’re not calm.

We need to look at behavior in context. Is that paw raise an appeasement gesture, a request to have you keep scratching their ears or are they pointing out a bird in the bushes?

We must consider the dog we are interacting with. Have they had the opportunity to develop any skills with people? If they have not, we should not assume that forcing handling on them is like a Berlitz class in ‘human’- speak human in 2 easy lessons or your money back, guaranteed.

4. The rest of the story. We don’t often see it. We don’t know how that dog is reacting after the camera stops rolling. Novice and inexperienced handlers, believing that forcing a dog to be handled is the cure for fearfulness, overwhelm dogs. They get bitten, or believing in the cure are surprised when the dog snaps at a stranger.

Here in New England if you come across a frozen pond during a hike it’s best not to race across it assuming that the ice is thick enough to support you. To do so would be foolhardy and potentially deadly. When interacting with a fearful, shy or anxious dog, tread lightly, you may not be able to see the cracks in the ice.

6 thoughts on “Tread Lightly”

  1. I think it is erroneous to assume that “going slow” stresses animals less. Dragging the experience out can also drag out their suffering. My experience is that fearful animals feel more confident around people who are confident. I am NOT one of those confident people, myself, but I have seen my own dog transform and relax around confident, assertive people, whereas he would be more suspicious of someone who timidly approached him. It is obvious that this article is in reference to the rescue videos of Eldad Hagar, but I think there are some sour grapes here. Yes, the fearful dogs in those videos probably retain a fearful nature about new people, but I think it is clear that he does have “a way with dogs” that makes them trust him quickly. Not everyone could or should use the approach he does, but it is clear that it works for him. He does show after videos in which the dogs are clearly more relaxed and I think the faster a dog goes from “you are trying to kill me” to “you are my friend” the more humane you really are.

    • “Imposing myself on a dog with social fears because I think it’s more humane to do it faster rather than slower is missing this point. ” But the videos you are obviously referencing are not necessarily dogs who have deeply ingrained social fears. A stray dog can be fearful in a rescue situation or in a shelter situation because it is a new and frightening experience with new people. However, once it feels it is with friends, it really can transform into a much more relaxed animal. You seem to object to the fact that Eldad Hagar doesn’t spend weeks getting the animals to trust him, but how would that be more humane than getting them to trust him in 15 minutes? Yes, the animal isn’t cured of any longterm social issues it has, but it is relieved of being abjectly terrified, which seems like a good thing.

      • I’m sorry to seem so confrontational but I was responding to what seemed confrontational in your article. Your reference to “being rubbed by a towel” made it seem like you were referring to a particular video by Eldad Hagar. I do appreciate the larger points that you are making.


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