Dax, Abby & Baxter
Since mid-August this year, I’ve been working with 3 dogs who all share the same dog-heaven-home Vancouver.
The pack consists of the 2 lovely humans Lana & Nigel who created a wonderful home for Portuguese Waterdog Baxter (9), Standard Schnauzer Abby (3) and Bernese Mountain Dog Dax (7) (f.l.t.r. in the picture on the right).
Abby is a very agile and intelligent little girl, physically really strong and hungry for mental challenges. Baxter is a soft and gentle soul and a puppy at heart who thrives in ball games. Dax is a very friendly and affectionate dog who loves to greet all the people. He also holds a lot of wisdom and life-experience.
These dogs live a beautiful dog life, they reside at a place that truly is a dog home: comfortable dog beds on all levels of the house, a dog pool on the porch in summer, an elevated food bar, many different toys available for them to grab and the cherry on top of all that: snuggles with their humans on the couch. It so much warmed my heart to see all that genuine love for dogs reflected in their home.
Living with 3 dogs is wonderful and enriching, it’s so much love Lana & Nigel receive every day plus all the cuddles and loyalty these 3 guys demonstrate on a daily basis. On the other hand it can be quite a challenge to have 3 dogs as each dog, of course, has their own character, boundaries and breed-related instincts which can lead to pack dynamics that at first develop inconspicuously but eventually can result in what we perceive as behavioural issues.
Observations on the first meeting
The 3 dogs and me have a friend in common, her name is Lily. Lily told me she was house sitting for friends who happen to have 3 dogs. In fact, she actually couldn’t even finish the sentence because I would be excited right away and tell her “I wanna come and meet all of them.”
A couple of days later, I met Lily and the pack in a park, all 3 were on leash and I slowly approached the group, talking to my friend so that the dogs would acknowledge our relationship. Lily, as a trusted friend of Abby, Dax and Baxter would help introduce me to them.
The first dog approaching me was Dax. He was showing a heart-melting amount of affection right away, his tail was wagging happily, he leaned against my body, nose-nudged me and then sat down on my feet, looking up to receive pets and words of love.
Then I turned my attention to Abby. She presented herself rather closed and very cautious: she would go back and forth, wanting to sniff me but at the same time wanting to keep distance to me. So I would look away to give her the signal that “I’m no threat” and let her come to sniff. She came closer, barked and also snap-bit once into my direction – a clear sign of “I don’t want you here”. I respected her boundary and gave her space.
During the course of our introduction, she always eyed on me when I touched her brothers Baxter and Dax. I also observed right away that she constantly was scanning her environment.
Baxter would keep standing further away all the time and did not make any eye-contact with me at all. He came once to sniff my hand, I could touch him on the back and then he backed away and just waited to let the greeting-situation pass. He didn’t engage into any other behaviour at that moment, he just kept standing with a lil distance and waited.
All together we continued our walk to an off-leash park nearby where all 3 dogs ran freely. Whilst Baxter changed from being passive to being highly active the second Lily got out his ball from her bag, Dax was sniffing around and greeting people.
Abby’s focus would switch very often: from the ball, to Baxter, to Dax, to Lily & me, to other dogs and especially to humans entering the park. Her body language was very expressive: She had a stiff & rigid body, was leaning forward, set up her ears and her head was making precise and quick movements to gasp at everything that moved. Abby was on guard.
I watched her observing park entering humans closely and eventually running towards them barking. She would run up close, circle those humans whilst her barking increased, now and then she even would snap-bite at their legs. Any recall-attempt failed.
Abby demonstrated alarming guarding behaviour that, so I learned later, only recently increased to that intensity I witnessed. I was instantly interested in Abby and wanted to find out the reason why she would behave like she did in the park.
Attuning to Abby’s emotions
After a while, we all went home together to spend more time with each other. In the house, I kept observing the dogs but would focus mainly on Abby as she demonstrated intense guarding behaviour in the park.
After having water and food, all dogs calmed down and we all would sit down on the porch in the sun, it was late August and beautifully warm.
Abby would lay down quite close to me which I took as an invitation for making contact, so I would sit down on the ground with her. She was relaxed and friendly, so I consciously decided to attune to Abby’s emotions to learn more about her. If you are interested what I mean by that and how it works, have a read through Attuning to our dogs emotions.
When I was sitting down in front of Abby, I firstly opened up emotionally, admitting all my present physical sensations to myself and increased my awareness of how I felt in that moment. To this invitation of an emotional based communication, Abby responded with relaxed ears, stretched out legs and making a lot of eye-contact. For the first time since I met her, I was able to really connect to her.
When I started attuning to Abby, I could feel strong tensions in my jaws and around my eyes, a faster and deeper breath, my muscles in my legs would tighten up, my abdomen flexed and collapsed alternately. I allowed those sensations to fully be there and take over my body. I allowed myself to feel what Abby was feeling. Abby and I would keep our eye contact whilst we shared that emotional experience.
After a short while, I was able to identify what it is that I felt: I felt the emotions of intense stress, overwhelm and
exhaustion. I took some time to fully acknowledging the insight, that Abby was feeling stressed out, exhausted and overwhelmed. I validated those feelings to her by because I could feel myself how real they were.
Then, I became curious and mentally I asked “Why do you feel stressed, overwhelmed and exhausted?” I genuinely wanted to know because I just experienced myself how unpleasant this actually feels. I didn’t want Abby to feel like that.
Right after I had asked, the sensation in my body started changing. At first my stomach did tighten up, my shoulders pulled up, my arms were pressing against my body, my feet were getting slightly cold and my heartbeat would increase, causing a radiant pressure in my chest. My breathing changed to rather shallow and short. Again I allowed those sensations to be there. Then I identified that I felt anxious. Again I tool time to allow these feelings to be present and acknowledged them as valid.
For now, this was enough for me to understand what was happening within Abby. Putting together the facts about her, what I observed so far in her behaviour and what I just felt, I knew what was going on:
As a Schnauzer, Abby has strong guarding instincts. So far she could freely decide on her own when and how to guard. From her perspective, no one is guarding the pack satisfactorily (Baxter is playing ball and Dax sniffs around or greets people). Driven by her instincts, she took on the job. As a young dog she would need comprehensive guidance regarding when and how to guard; the lack thereof has been causing her to be on guard all the time which causes her to feel stressed out, overwhelmed and exhausted.
The feeling of being overwhelmed comes with some uncertainty about what’s going to happen next, which creates a feeling of being unsafe. Abby’s perception is the ideal hotbed for anxiety. The anxiety itself then triggers her guarding instincts even more – the doom loop is created.
On the one hand, I was really sorry for Abby being in that emotional state, on the other hand I was excited to have found the root cause for Abby’s behaviour and more so I was highly motivated to tell her humans how to help Abby with being able to reveal her true and friendly self in public with new humans. What Abby has been needing is clear guidance, humble, patient and consequent leadership & support to develop the ability to physically relax as a result of acceptance of leadership. All this can be achieved with some minor changes in routines and regular mental and physical exercise.
I put all my observations and reasoning together for Lana & Nigel to read. We met up, talked through our options of training and then we decided that we wanted to work together on helping Abby releasing her anxiety. This is how I met Lana, Nigel, Abby, Dax and Baxter. Read in the next blog article how we began our work together and what exercises we would teach to Abby.
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