Shadow’s big breakthrough
By Jon Bastian
It’s understandable if everyone just assumes that those of us who work for Dion have the most perfect, best-behaved dogs in the world, but that’s not the case. We’re only human, our dogs are only dogs, and it takes us a while to pick up on Dion’s teachings as well. But, like many of you, we also have our success stories, and this is mine.
I had two dogs, Shadow and Sheeba. When Shadow was younger and my only dog, she loved to go to the dog park and play, but that changed one day when she was about three, and suddenly started getting aggressive. My naïve solution at the time was to avoid the dog park, but since she was showing the same behavior on the walk — going ballistic on the mere sight of another dog — it was clearly not the best solution. Sheeba came into the picture as my attempt to socialize Shadow, and for the most part it worked, between them. Of course they had their occasional tiffs in the past, but they worked as a pack. When it came to other dogs, though, Shadow was still exhibiting what I eventually learned was fearful aggression.
Even after I had come to work for Dion (almost five years ago at the time), and started bringing my dogs to the office, I had to keep them leashed to my desk, and if any other dog came within sight of Shadow, she would go crazy. Even when we attempted to bring her close to another dog, she would try to nip as a warning, and I despaired of ever being able to let Shadow run around free with the rest of the office pack.
The solution turned out to be very simple, beginning with the walk. The problem? Me. I was most afraid of Shadow starting a fight with another dog, and so I was the one reacting to other dogs before she was even aware of them. That tension went right down the leash and put her on alert. Result: nervous aggression because I was sending her the signal, “Danger.” Once I learned to not react at all upon seeing other dogs, she began to calm down, and eventually barely reacted to strange dogs. When she did, she’d lunge a little, but it felt different, more like playful excitement than fearful aggression. In any case, I was finally able to snap her right out of it.
So, things were finally well and good with other dogs at a distance, but what about close up and personal? One day, when mine were the only dogs in the office, I let them off leash and, to my surprise, Shadow stayed right by my side, lying next to my feet, following right by me when I walked around. In fact, she did a better job of heeling without the leash. I had the chance to let them both wander free for a few days before the big test. A newer employee came in with her dog, which Shadow had never met before. I had no problem letting Sheeba run over to say hello, because she’s always been very friendly and social with dogs, but instinctively grabbed Shadow’s collar before she could approach, and that’s when it hit me…
I was the problem.
I was still telling her that there was something bad that could happen, and projecting that worry onto her, and that’s when everything Dion says just came into focus. The worst that could happen would be a bit of a dog fight, but it would be in a room full of people who knew how to deal with that, so it wouldn’t escalate if it happened. And so, I did what I should have done all the while, and I let go — literally and figuratively. I took my hand off of Shadow’s collar, she ran over to the strange dog, and… she sniffed his nose, then sniffed his butt, tail wagging full blast, and that was that. She showed no aggression, didn’t try to nip, and for the first time in a long time there she was just being a dog, with another dog, and it was amazing.
Since that meeting, I left my dogs off-leash at the office, and Shadow met all of the regulars, greeting them dog-fashion when she’s felt secure in their energy, and ignoring them while staying by my side when she hasn’t. Her transformation in just a few short weeks was phenomenal, and she suddenly seemed much more confident, calmer, and happier. This also translated into the walk — she didn’t pull ahead as much anymore, and tended to stay at my side.
The lesson here is one that Pawfessor Dion constantly emphasizes: dogs communicate with energy, which is expressed non-verbally, and the signals we send tell them how to behave more than we realize. But once we understand what we’re telling our dogs with our bodies and our emotions and realize when we’re sending them bad signals, we can work toward providing that calm assertive energy that will bring them balance. At one point, the last thing I would have ever done was let Shadow off-leash anywhere near another dog. Oddly enough, this was exactly what I needed to do in order to send her the message, “I trust you, and I am confident that nothing bad will happen.”
It may sound like a simple solution, and ultimately it is. The hardest part was learning to let go of my fear. Shadow was ready to do the rest as soon as I gave her permission.