For some of us, we look at the dog in front of us and we don’t see Rin Tin Tin – bold, confident, and ready to serve his humans. We see a nervous, aggressive, or rowdy and uncontrollable dog.
Comparing your dog to what you see on TV is a recipe to make yourself feel bad. It’s kind of like me comparing my abs to The Rock or the male cast of Grey’s Anatomy.
That being said, if great abs were my goal, I would put a photo of the Rock up somewhere and do everything I could to get there. Nothing bad can happen from setting lofty goals IF, and only if, you keep things in perspective.
To bring this back to your dog, if you’re struggling right now and your dog is stressed out and having trouble finding success in the world, then keep my sliding scale of success in mind and not just the final goal.
Rehabilitating dogs generally comes down to changing how your dog feels about things. Usually we are taking things dogs hate, dislike or fear and helping them learn to like it – whether that be strangers, other dogs, the crate, or even being afraid to walk on tile floors. I break this process into 4 steps, focused on your dog’s emotions, on a sliding scale : Hating something or strongly disliking something to the point they’re acting out – tolerating something, but still not liking it – accepting something and feeling neutral – loving something they used to hate and being happy about it.
Let’s look at these a little closer:
1) Hate – This is an obvious “red—zone” dog. If they’re dog aggressive, they see a dog and they blow up – jumping, lunging, snapping at, etc. Whatever it is, another dog, a stranger, your dog wants it gone or they want to get gone. Not addressing this situation can lead to dog fights, bites, and other outwardly obvious problems.
2) Tolerate – This is often the biggest jump you will notice with your dog – visually at least. If you wait something out, or can give an effective correction, your dog will stop the outwardly obvious displays of anger, fear, or dislike and defer to you. When you watch an episode of Cesar Millan or other “quick fix” videos on YouTube, this is usually what you are seeing. This is progress for sure, but in some ways, the situation is still dangerous and you’re not off the hook. In this stage, your dog is coping and if something goes sideways, you may be asking too much of your dog which could lead to bad consequences. It’s important to know you’re still in this stage and continue to advocate for your dog as if he is still a dog in crisis, because in many ways that is still what he is.
3) Accept – This phase is another huge jump, but is harder to see visually. Your dog was already behaving well when they were tolerating whatever it was that used to be a problem, but in this stage they have let go of their dislike or apprehension. Your dog is now neutral – they aren’t in crisis and they’re not in love. Your risk of a huge problem is now much lower. Knowing your dog body language will help you determine if they are in stage 2 or 3.
4) Love – This is the stage where your dog has achieved the top level. They used to hate something or be incredibly fearful of it. Now they love it. Instead of being fearful of people, they run up with happy enthusiasm. Instead of picking dog fights, they diffuse them and play with enthusiasm. This is a hard level to reach if you’re starting from the bottom.
If you’re working with a dog in crisis, shoot for perfection. But don’t beat yourself up if you’re not there yet. Every move on this scale is a positive move and something to be celebrated.
No matter where you are, just focus on the next rung of the ladder. Focusing on every victory will make your life, and your dog’s life, much more fulfilling and the path to full rehabilitation much more manageable and enjoyable.