Little dog, big fear

20 Mar

Simone

ADDENDUM 10/3/2011: Since I wrote this post, something happened to make me change my mind about letting Simone run with the big dogs. While I still believe that my attitude toward big dogs while walking Simone contributed to her stress behavior, I now will say that little dogs and big dogs should not play together. The risk is too great. Although dogs are domesticated animals, they’re still animals and are subject to animal instincts.

They go after prey…. whether it’s a squirrel, a bird or a rat … .or the neighbor’s Yorkie. When they see a small furry critter flash by, their predatory instinct fires. It doesn’t matter if the critter in question is a Pomeranian or a squirrel.

Anyway, I had a bad scare with Simone. Two dogs (mixed breeds, 30-45 pounds) attacked Simone — she was minding her own business — during play time before dog class. They went after her viciously. The incident happened right at my feet so I was able to snatch Simone before she was injured. But she could have seriously hurt or even killed. They could have snapped her neck with one quick shake. So, folks, when you take your small dog to the dog park, put him on the small-dog section. Don’t take a chance. Don’t.  Seriously, don’t.

That said, here’s the original post:

At 10 pounds, my Simone is a giant among Pomeranians. Those puffs of fur you see competing at Westminster top out at 6 pounds, but usually weigh more like 4.

But even at 10 pounds, Simone is tiny in the dog world, which means she’s more vulnerable to injury than larger dogs — for me, that means big fear.

So I’m protective, not that Simone feels she needs protecting. Simone is sassy, confident, bad to the bone. A few weeks ago, she caught and shook a rat to death — broken neck, broken tail, broken body. Big stuff for a little dog.

Anyway, Simone is unafraid of most things — well, there was that time with the cows — so I have to be afraid for her. That’s why, on her behalf, I’ve been wary of large dogs. They have big mouths, big teeth, big feet. Without meaning to, a big dog can hurt a little dog.

A few years ago, my wariness grew into fear. It happened one Easter.

We were in my mom’s back yard, letting Simone and Ashley, Mom’s chihuahua, hunt for bites of boiled eggs. (Yes, we have an Easter egg hunt for the dogs.) Mom’s neighbors were also outdoors, with their children and boisterous Labrador retriever. Simone, sniffing around for eggs, wandered into the neighbor’s yard. That was just a little too close for the Lab, who immediately rushed, rolled and pinned Simone to the ground.

The neighbor and I pulled the big dog off of Simone. Once Simone was free, she lit out for the safety of Mom’s deck. The Lab lunged and rolled her again. Simone escaped the Lab’s slobbering mouth by herself this time. She wasn’t hurt, but she was shaking. I was shaking. The neighbor was shaking. The Lab was panting.

Looking back, I think the Lab was trying to play with Simone but, at the time, it was scary. Simone’s life flashed before me.

A week later, Simone and I were walking in our neighborhood when we were approached by a woman walking … yes, a freaking big black Lab. Simone growled, then lunged. After that, every time we saw a big black dog, Simone reacted, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Then she started doing it every time any large dog got near us.

I began avoiding big dogs. Every time we saw one, I took Simone in another direction. If a big dog came within a block of us, I tensed and watched it fearfully.

*****

Recently, I began attending a Canine Good Citizen class conducted by Charlotte Mallion and Jamie Walden, partners in See Spot Sit Dog Training of Central Arkansas. The two professional trainers are mentoring me so that I can learn how to teach dogs myself, something I’ve been thinking about for years.

When I arrived at the first Canine Good Citizen class — without Simone because I was there to watch and learn — the owners and dogs were already there. All but one were big. The dogs, not the owners. There was Allee the Rottweiler, Juno the German shepherd, Gracie the brown Lab and a medium-sized speckled dog whose name I can’t recall (sorry, pup). All lovely and good-natured dogs.

It was a wonderful class and I learned a lot. Afterward, we talked dogs. I told everybody about Simone …  and confessed my fear. I also assured them that I love big dogs —  some of my best friends are big dogs — but not when they’re around Simone. I told them … sigh … that Simone had an “issue” with big dogs.

Then Jamie and Charlotte suggested I bring Simone the following week so I could work along with the class as well as observe. Instant anxiety, big fear. I didn’t believe Simone was up to the pressure, I told them.

But they assured me Simone would be fine and the experience could be good for me in a face-the-fear way. Earlier, Charlotte had made the point that people like to find explanations for their dogs’ problems and quirks. We try to pinpoint defining moments in their lives — just as I had with Simone and the big-dog issue.

I decided it could be OK and said I would bring Simone to class.

The day before class, I had second thoughts. I woke up in the middle of the night, terrified, imagining all the things that could go wrong.

What if Simone snapped and growled and pissed off the big dogs?

What if they wanted to play and wouldn’t take no for an answer?

What if they crushed her with their enormous paws?

What if, what if, what if ….?

I got up and took a pill.

*****

When I arrived for training the next morning, the fenced training area at the Sherwood Animal Shelter was empty, except for one pickup in the parking lot. Inside the training area, Simone wandered away from me, sniffing and marking as she explored the new territory.

A man got out of the pickup with … the biggest Doberman in the world. The description “small horse” doesn’t do this dog justice. Next, Jamie arrived with Juno. Then came the other owners and their dogs, including a new one — a pit-bull mix named Gracie (giving us two Gracies in the class).

Gracie’s owner volunteered that her dog was aggressive toward other dogs. Oh joy. Just a few minutes earlier, Bella the Doberman’s owner had told me Bella liked to put her mouth on smaller animals, particularly his cat.

I didn’t react (points for me), but I wanted to grab Simone and run for the car.

Then the dogs began to approach Simone. As each sniffed her, she gave a low warning growl. I decided that turning my back was the only way I would keep away a full-on panic attack. I couldn’t watch a 75-pound Rottweiler — even an extremely sweet one like Allee — approach my tiny Pom. But I was determined to be calm.

Here’s the thing: Every one of those huge dogs walked away from Simone after she growled — what Jamie calls a “distancing signal.” They just turned and left, then played among themselves, chasing each other in circles around the training area.

Simone wasn’t stressed at all. Her tail was up and she kept sniffing around, interested in everything, especially when she discovered that all the people had treats and were willing to share.

*****

Charlotte and Jamie had us stand in a circle with our dogs leashed and at our sides. One by one, we went through basic commands — Sit, Stay, Come — and the Greeting a Friendly Stranger exercise. No problem.

Then we had to walk our dogs in and out of the circle. Every dog had to make the loop without reacting to the other dogs and their owners.

I walked with Simone past pit bull Gracie. A twinge of anxiety. Past Doberman Bella. A bigger twinge. Then toward German shepherd Juno. More twinging … Big sweaty fear twinging. Simone fell behind me and pulled backward on the leash.

Charlotte yelled for us to stop. We did. We know our commands. She explained to the group that they had witnessed a dog reacting to an anxious, fearful owner — me, always happy to be demo dog-owner. She told me to start again, but to hold my shoulders back, keep my head up and walk confidently. Show no fear. Apparently I had started pulling my body into itself back by Gracie.

We started around the circle again. I kept my head up, shoulders back and didn’t look at any of the dogs.

And that was it. No hesitation, no pulling, no twinging.

So the big-dog fear was mine, not Simone’s. It was all about me, at least in regard to encountering other dogs while walking Simone on a leash.

Now I’m less apprehensive about taking Simone for a walk around the neighborhood to see if I can keep my cool when approached by big dogs in an uncontrolled environment.

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4 Responses to “Little dog, big fear”

  1. Cici Davidson March 20, 2011 at 2:37 pm #

    Simone, be gentle with Rhonda.

  2. Pamela Trawick March 20, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    Polly and I experienced the same thing numerous times–always with a black Lab.

  3. Marcus McAllister March 21, 2011 at 4:11 am #

    I finally learned the same trick–that Grover would react poorly to big dogs because I was sending stress signals. Ever since I started staying calm, there has been much less aggression on his part. Our furry companions are total emotional sponges and pick up our stuff sometimes even better than we do!

  4. Yavonda March 21, 2011 at 8:44 am #

    Way to face your fears, Rhonda! I love Simone — she is so precious.

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