You Are My Sunshine...

"Over Faced"

TITLE: Nico's Story / B. Sallans

Nico helps a visitor win at Scrabble, the Malamute Way
Nico: Hey Jenny,  How do you spell "Snacks?"
Jenny: Hey Nico, Would you like to eat my "Q"?

I looked this expression up on the Internet one day after hearing a horse-trainer use it. She was describing a horse she was working with who seemed nervous and skittish for no reason.   I found that the term “overfaced” was used most commonly in dressage circles to describe an animal of whom too much had been asked, too soon, and so it had developed habits of fearful behavior when confronted with new things.  

The expression was of interest to me because my Nico is without question a dog who has trouble dealing with new things and different circumstances.  I have described elsewhere how I learned from the first day I had him that I could actually pick him up in my arms and not suffer injury!  When I did it the first time I was not surprised.  A dog who is not accustomed to being picked up  doesn't necessarily know what's coming, so if you are quick the first time you can get a dog in your arms and into the crate or onto the vets' examination table without incident. However I soon discovered that Nico, when stressed out, would allow me to put my arms around him, hold him, and then lift him up  and carry him away from, or even towards, what it was that had set off his fear.   It was as if once he was in my arms, he felt protected, and once his feet were off the ground, no longer responsible for his own safety. Putting my arms around him became a kind of portable "safe space" for him.  

Now I must point out that picking up a dog who is over exited, jumping or otherwise causing trouble is not a very good training strategy. While it may solve the immediate problem of a lap dog, or a small puppy, it serves only to teach the dog that his behavior will garner positive attention. The dog learns nothing about behaving, and the owner of a puppy as the dog grows and they can no longer pick him up is going to wish they had solved the problems, before the behavior had become habit, and the dog resistant to correction. Lap dogs who are consistently picked up and cuddled when misbehaving soon require picking up at the most inconvenient of times. Alternatively if thwarted in their intentions this way consistently, may begin to resist being picked up with biting and scratching.

However Nico was neither a lap dog, nor a puppy. He was a sixty-five pound adult Alaskan Malamute with fear issues. Initially an act of courage driven by necessity, picking him up soon became a matter of physical strength and endurance for me. It was not about cuddling, nor training, but rather providing a back door escape route for him when overtaken with fear.

This was essential because even now, when in a new place and approached by strangers, Nico can and will lock up. That is, he will go to the end of the leash and then plant his feet in typical Malamute fashion and refuse to move. Given that an adult Alaskan Malamute can easily pull a thousand pounds of weight from a standing start, I submit that when one of these dogs decides not to move,  there's no point in talking about dragging him. 

More significantly, when an adult dog like Nico is scared, a person needs to think twice before challenging him. A frightened animal has two choices: flight or fight. Fortunately Nico always chooses flight when frightened. However once he reaches the end of the leash, flight is no longer an option.  At that point, early on, I found I was able to pick him up, thus pre-empting  the possibility of a fight reaction.  The remarkable thing to me is that he continually allowed me to pick him up, offering no resistance, even when he'd learned that the next step was often me carrying him towards the very thing that frightened him.

Now I hasten to add that I do not recommend this course of action to anyone. Picking up a scared dog is a good way to get  a nasty bite on your face.  All of the things I did with Nico were responses to circumstances, both his and mine. Any margin of safety I had was created by my sensitivity to his mood and the possibilities he seemed capable of in any given moment. But the bottom line is this: when you put your hands on any animal, you cannot predict the outcome. Every dog and every situation is different. I offer these stories not as a model to rehabilitating the damaged dog, but rather an collection of examples so that anyone confronted with similar challenges might know it can be done., For me the starting point and the end point of any co-operative relationship is listening. For me,with my dogs its always been only about co-operation, about getting along together, not blind obedience. 

Which is a good thing! Because there's no way in the world Nico was ever going to become the  model of the traditional obedience champion, performing formal exercises without looking left nor right under any circumstances whatsoever.  It's not that he won't do those exercises: I find that for any Malamutes and most dogs, traditional obedience exercises are pretty easy to perfect. The question isn't does the dog know what you want when you ask him to sit. The question for most Malamutes, is "What's in it for me?" The question for a dog like Nico burdened with fear issues, was and is, "Is there any reason not to?"

The answer, in Nico's case, was always yes.  That is, if there were other people around or he was in an unfamiliar setting. Because as far as Nico was concerned, new people and new possibilities signaled danger. In the first year we had him Nico clearly demonstrated that he had been hurt by human hands. This knowledge made his trust in me when I wrapped my arms around him to calm him, all the more poignant.  I do not know if I can describe what it is like to wrap a dog trembling with fear in your arms, feel a pounding heart hammering against you own, and then as you take your own deep calming breaths realize that the shaking is subsiding, the heartbeat slowing to match your own, and the dog is coming back to you from fear.  

In this fashion we overcame many small obstacles on the way to expanding  Nico' confidence horizon. When I first starting bringing Nico into the house, I carried him in.  Initially I sat with him in my arms on the old sofa in the basement alone. Then Rick, and my son Sebastian started spending time in the room with us.  Eventually, I kept him in when guests arrived.  He was always scared, but he would stay in my arms, and settle.  In time, he grew  comfortable moving around the room, and the house, but if something startled him he would run to the sofa, and I would join him.  Now of course he has no fear in the house unless there is a loud noise.  Recently he has begun actually being friendly to guests, even men, to the extent that people don't really believe that he was ever such a fearful dog.

We achieved all of this through continuously creating a calm, safe space from which Nico could get a good long look at what might be scary.  We did not force him to confront things that frightened him.  I do not count carrying him towards things as forcing him.  Nico, during his first year here weighed between sixty and 65 pounds.  He was a running, pulling Malamute, all muscle and sinew . There is no way in the world I could have held him if he'd struggled.  But he did not struggle. Instead  he seemed to find security in my arms, and from that comfort of that trust, was able to build his own confidence. 

The expression, "over faced" had resonance for me because when I spoke to a professional trainer about bringing Nico to obedience classes for the sake of exposure, she gave me a lecture on leadership in the training context.  I told her that I would probably have to carry him into the first couple of classes but not to be alarmed as he was not a fear biter, and so long as I held on to him he would not be disruptive.  She was quite adamant that this was the wrong thing to do. "You should not pick up your dog," she said.  I had explained a little bit about Nico's background, his fear issues, and the fact that as an Alaskan Malamute he had an indomitable will that required management. She was equally indomitable in her insistence on methods that obviously suited her and her dogs.  

"You must just walk forward and make him go with you," was her advice.  I can't help but chuckle at the picture: me walking boldly forward to the end of the six foot leash, never looking back, being stopped short and probably falling flat on my face, as if the other end of the leash were tied to Mount Everest.  

I knew then that Nico would never attend this trainer's classes. There is a school of training that says the dog owner must show absolute mastery at all times, that dogs crave strong leadership, and they must not be allowed to transgress the will of the owner at any time.   There is some usefulness in this approach: dogs do require us to be very clear about what is allowed and what isn't, but  I believe it is  a two way street.  As in any friendship, both partners have to be allowed to tell us what makes them feel uncomfortable, and unhappy.  If we do not heed the signs a dog sends when stressed, we run the risk with even a balanced dog of driving them into undesirable behavior, and with a damaged dog likely dangerous ones. 

It was important for me to remember that Nico is not a timid dog. He  is, or was, a frightened dog. There is a difference. A frightened dog has been spooked by something or someone. Survival dictates he respect those lessons, and a great deal of effort is required to before new behaviors can prevail of dysfunctional, but none the less effective ones, the dog has used to cope when he was being mistreated.

A timid dog on the other hand, has a built in uncertainty about everything.  It is part of his personality to look to strong leadership for guidance and confidence.  A timid dog who has never been mistreated will respond to positive leadership because he has not learned the hard way   that bad things happen do to dogs who don't look out for themselves. Nico's is not a timid dog.  When he is in the woods or with other dogs, he is the picture of confidence.  It is only when people enter the scene that he spooks.  His fears were real: they were a function of experience, not his nature.  

Indeed, once Nico got over being frightened there were many circumstances in which I could get him through by moving swiftly and without hesitation.  But first it was Thunder's example that persuaded Nico there was nothing to be afraid of in certain situations. The difference is that a dog will trust a dog to know what is dangerous for dogs. Humans however had deceived Nico in his formative months. Someone who tries try to force another to follow them without first earning their trust: this  is the definition of a bully, not a leader.  A bully is not interested in promoting the confidence of his followers. A bully's only goal is complete acquiescence to his will.   My first goal with Nico was to achieve his trust. That would come only with time and positive experience, not force.

But to me, even with a dog who has not been abused, to ignore their expressions of distress or unhappiness strikes me is more than unkind; it is a stupid waste of an excellent learning opportunity. A frightened dog is usually frightened for a reason. If we watch and listen we can divine that reason, and make things better not only for them but often for everyone else. The best example I can give of this is that of the lead dog on a sledding team who refuses to go out on the ice. The musher who fails to heed his dog's advice probably doesn't survive the icy dip when the surface gives way to tell the story! Sometimes the dog really does have a better idea, particularly when it has to do with what will work for him or her.

Furthermore, and worse, if we expect all dogs to behave the same, and attempt to compel such conformity, we miss out on what makes each dog special, unique in his way of being in the world. We miss that meaning and value of that singularity. Handling Nico's fear has taught me more than I could have hoped to have learned any other way about the small gestures and manners humans have that are in fact quite stressful to animals. He has taught me what helps and what does not. While a stable dog without bad history may not need such careful handling, I find using these manners with other dogs makes it easier from the very start to establish a good relationship, one which we both enjoy more.

The trainer I approached would have had me go boldly out into the world with Nico on the end of a leash, forcing him to meet any and all comers giving no quarter to his fear and anxiety.  I was confirmed in my decision not to take this route by two things.  First I was told by someone else with a great deal of experience rehabilitating dogs about another  poor creature with fear issues. The dog had been sent to a professional trainer who tethered the dog to her belt. She then went about her business as if the dog wasn't there requiring the dog to follow. This is supposed to make the frightened dog realize that it has no choice about facing whatever it is frightened of, and so to become conditioned to all things on the back of the trainer's confident “leadership.” By the end of the "training" period, in this particular case however, all the poor dog could do was run frantically in circles, salivating. She had to be euthanized:  everyone involved concurred that she was so far gone into fear there would be no coming back to enjoy a reasonable quality of life ever.

I don't know if Nico would have ended up like that if “overfaced” in this manner. I do know that as a result of picking him up and allowing him to meet new things from the safety of my arms, I now have a dog who will approach  visitors and unusual buildings or objects with a welcoming interest and curiosity instead of trying to run away.  We still have a ways to go in non-rural settings. Nico does not like parking lots, and paved streets, nor crowds particularly if teenagers are involved.  Its not really necessary that he become comfortable in an urban context because where we live is quite isolated. However, now that he has become so very stable at home, we will begin more urban adventures as circumstances allow, just so his life experience can be as broad and complete as possible.

The key to all of this is time.  If you take time with Nico, give him the time to make his own choices, to deal with his fear in his own way, and then are there to encourage him when he is ready to step out, he will. It has been three years getting Nico to the point where he will approach and greet visitors here in the security of his own home. He began in the kennel, with the dog house to hide in, then progressed to the yard, where he could run up and down the fence, exercising nervous energy while investigating new arrivals from all different angles. The other part of the equation is choice: even when held in my arms, he had the choice to jump out. But so long as I did not force him, he was ready to trust that I would keep him safe.  Now he chooses to be closer, to approach guests and receive attention and affection like any other dog.   

It seems to me that a lot of current training procedures are all getting results that you can see immediately. The liability of such solutions is that while they can bring about the desired behavior in the moment, they do not do a whole lot for the kind of communication between dog and handler that leads to trust, nor consistency in the behavior. People say I am very patient with Nico, but I don't think about it those terms. For me it is just about spending time with my dog. It doesn't really matter what we are doing: if he needs me to just sit with my arms around him while he gets used to something scary, then that is how I am spending my dog time today.

Nico, given the choice, over time, has chosen to embrace all the possibilities being a dog in the world of kind and caring humans can offer.  I don't know what would have happened if I'd tried to force him.  I do know that  what I've described here is what happened when we didn't.