Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Honeymoon Is Over



In relation to dogs, the honeymoon period is the behavior the dog exhibits in the first few weeks in a new home. The common notion is, as the word honeymoon implies, that behavior is better during that time than after the pooch has completely settled in. That, indeed, can be the case, and there are a number of explanations why.
A cautious dog, thrust in a new situation, may appear calm and well behaved, but in reality just doesn't want to draw attention to himself. With time and the new becoming familiar, confidence to act increases, and behaviors previously hidden pop up. 
Sometimes behavior changes because the social dynamics in the new home doesn't work for the dog. He might be under- or overstimulated, or there could be an incompatible other dog, or inconsistent handling, pressure and expectations that are too high. All of it can lead to unwanted expressions. 
Also, not everyone in rescue is knowledgeable or kind. Some apply prong or shock collar punishments to quash any action they don't want to see. The problem with that is that the unwanted expressions disappear, but the dog’s emotional response that prompted the expressions does not. In other words, the subdued dog presents nice enough, and might lay low for a couple of weeks in the new home, but unless his people are equal effective punishers, they resurface, typically taking the owners by surprise.
By nature cautious and sensitive dogs tend to lay low until they have more information. Bolder ones are just as unsure when forced to live in a new social setting, but it can play out differently: They can be more aroused and act out, or overreact. With them, behavior can actually be better after the honeymoon period. 

We’ve had Bowie, a 3-year-old Border collie, for about 6 months now. From the start, he wasn’t tentative or passive, but vigorous, and purposeful, and unafraid to act. He was also, right from the start and still is, polite with people and very eager to please. The perfect combination: Bowie was about as move-in-ready as a dog could possibly be. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t behaviors I wanted modified. And they have. Such, I am glad our honeymoon is over.

One of our must-have requirements was that he’d like our old dog Will, and in the beginning that wasn’t so clear. Will was fond of him right away, but he perceived her more as a resource competitor than companion. He tried to block her from getting close to me or on the bed, tried to stare her away from her food bowl, even nose punched her when she came to have her walking harness put on. Yet, Will was not deterred from doing what she wanted to do and did not avoid him, and that’s why we decided to adopt Bowie anyway and work with it. How, I explained here
Now, Will and Bowie are nicely bonded. I feel that she still likes him more than the other way around, but who could blame him: He is a handsome Quebecois and ten years younger. It doesn’t matter, though. Will’s supported merely by Bowie’s presence, and even though I think he could do fine without her, there is relaxed acceptance and space politeness, no more resource possessiveness and even the odd sweet gesture. Will doesn’t insist on too many things, but when she does, for example who gets first access to the water bowl after the walk, he defers. Each time.

Other than one child who tied his shoes waiting for the school bus, Bowie ignored other people from the beginning, but dogs were more of a concern for him. He was great on the off-leash trails, but growled when he spotted one, hackles up, in every other context. The growling was under his breath, barely audible, but I heard it, and felt the vibration through the leash.
Time alone, and mindful of Bowie’s comfort level exposure to dogs and humans, was enough to change that. As he became more experienced with us and secure in his new environment, anxiety dropped and confidence rose, and now he is indifferent to people no matter what age and what activity they are engaged in. All but street musicians I should say. They still scare him, but he doesn’t growl. He passes as fast he can in a wide arc.
Now, Bowie ignores most dogs as he does humans, surprisingly even my friend’s dog who visited and barked at him. When one is in close proximity, he greets appropriately whether on or off the leash, however, if one rudely infracts his space he is quick to assert himself, measured and clear, not aggressive. But most dogs don't. Our herding instructor pointed out that Bowie is powerful and self-assured, a dog who is able to control subtly from a distance and doesn’t need to push his weight around to make a point. And doesn’t with dogs, typically, anymore.

Bowie’s initial insecurity was also the reason why he didn’t budge one night when he flopped himself on my legs. We don’t mind our dogs on the bed, but I am protective of my sleep and Bowie horizontally on me was rather uncomfortable. He wasn’t aggressive at all when I tried to reposition him, just total dead weight. Now, I can whisper move and he does. Proof that his reluctance wasn’t dominance, but a neediness to be as close as possible, and an insecurity where I might, physically, move him to.

In the first couple of weeks, Bowie counter-surfed, a couple of times successfully scoring food. Hungry dogs will look for food where they know they have a chance to find it, where it smells like food, where they know it is prepared. That has completely stopped after a few interrupting hey-heys combined with not leaving food on the counter, but providing surplus away from it.

Bowie’s strong interest in squirrels, wildlife in general, has diminished quite a bit, and I believe that is because we work with the disc and his ball each day, and not just once, which means I revised my original plan to have ball/disc free days to prevent compulsion. Dr. Karen Overall's criteria for a canine obsessive-compulsive disorder diagnosis includes that the dog can’t be called away from the behavior, and Bowie can. He also doesn’t pester me all day even though a ball is part of the toy box, and he enjoys other activities as well. But disc is definitely what floats his boat the most, and by providing it as a structured outlet I meet his needs more than wildlife does. Plus it allows me to built in obedience, which satisfies his mental needs as well, and leaves him content and tired after about 15 minutes work.
As a result of us spending a lot of quality time together outdoors, he stays much closer now when off the leash, generally, but even when he explores he always knows where I am. He doesn’t need to be right by my side, looking into my eyes, to pay attention and defer to my requests. For the most part, the come command has become redundant: I move, and Bowie coordinates his movements to mine, including when he is ahead and out of sight. I absolutely love that in a dog, had it with Davie and have it with Will, and it is nothing I particularly trained for. It just happens as the relationship strengthens.

It took about 4 months before we felt that the bond was deepening and Bowie fully trusting us. Before, whenever there was a sudden sound outside, whether loud or grumbling, he would retreat to the office or hide under a piece of furniture. We’d follow and sit with him for a bit, reassuringly, but then leave, and eventually he’d join us again. He never barked, whined or destroyed anything, just hid and shut down. It was the middle of July when we had another thunderstorm and Bowie, for the first time, stayed on the bed snuggled against Mike. He was still scared but was seeking safety with us, not away from us.

Bowie has learned to trust us, and goes with us everywhere confidently. He is still deferent and biddable, and very polite with his humans. He is keen to learn and picks up new things so fast that it amazes me each time. His command vocabulary is extensive. 
The one thing that is still a work in progress is loose leash walking. The catch is that I don’t want to put too much pressure on walking properly on a leash cause if I’m a nag at the loop end, guess who won’t want to be with me whenever the leash is involved. Not my goal. I don’t want the leash to be perceived as punishment - it may not be entirely unavoidable cause a young Border collie is of course not meant to go on a leisurely stroll with a 55 year-old. But we are getting there, mainly with me providing resource access when he walks as a teammate: Picking berries, allowing him to sniff where he likes, getting to our favorite woodlot or field where we play ball, and recently the herding lessons when only walking with me allowed him to control the sheep, and where I assisted him on the leash through sheep that plastered themselves against the fence, threatening. I think I impressed him with that, cause after the workshop his leash manners are a whole lot better.

In the last 6 months, Bowie turned from a really cool dog to one who’s just about perfect, but there are two behaviors that were actually better in the first few weeks. And that’s the thing: Dogs aren’t machines. Their behavior is in flux, and it is often the case that most improve while a few less desired ones pop up as the new dog’s sense of belonging develops. 
Bowie, and I actually see that frequently in rescue dogs, isn’t as friendly and inviting to visitors as he originally was. Has he become territorial? No, that’s not it. Rather, on home turf there is now an established experience of Mike and me and Will and no one else. When a person or dog suddenly appears, the huge detail change sparks his attention and arouses him, resulting in charged barks.  Once the new is known, with Bowie that happens within seconds, he invites the guest to a game of fetch: “Now that you’re here you might as well make yourself useful.”
The other issue is that with increased attachment and fun associated with trips, he’s a bit unhappier being left in the car than he was in the beginning. But with the arrival of fall temperatures and more opportunities to practice staying with Will in the vehicle, I am sure we’ll solve that.

What’s the take-away message here?
When you first meet a dog, you get is an idea what he is all about. Chances are that, after you’ve lived together for a few months, most behaviors will be similar to what you first saw, but there likely will be new and different ones as well. A lot of what happens next depends on you. People have influence over their dog’s conduct. You better, otherwise you potentially run into problems.

What’s utmost on your new dog’s mind is: Where do I sleep? When and where do I eat? How do I fit in? And you must create a safe and structured basic routine for him. 
Teach your dog commands that establish common ground communication, but don’t rush things. Your new dog does not have to meet every neighbor, go to the off leash park, or even attend an obedience class, within the first week. Take time to observe your dog. What are his preferences and worries? Likes and dislikes? I wish that new dog parents would understand that getting to know the whole dog, building the relationship, is more important than instant perfect behavior.
I get it. I really do. I, too, was ├╝ber-excited about having a new dog and couldn’t wait to discover how he'd handle adults, kids, dogs, cats, dog sports, off leash parks, trails, the training facility, sheep, traveling with us… I also wanted to show him off. I was impatient, but weather and time – it seems there’s never the right time for a new dog but sometimes the dog is so right that it doesn’t matter – prevented me from doing all of these things at once or in quick succession. I was forced to build the relationship slowly and steadily. Exactly my mantra for others, no matter how old the dog is or where from. 


It takes time for a dog to trust and feel safe, and until then he can overreact to things. Don’t turn purple when that happens. The first time I gave Bowie a high-value bone he blocked it with his body when I walked past him. Nothing major, but he didn’t trust me. I began tossing a treat and walking away – treat and retreat – and after a few times the problem was solved: He trusted me in that context.
Until a bond is formed, the dog is reluctant to take cues from his people. Don’t pressure him, and don’t use force to suppress every little thing you don’t like. That’s not conducive to the relationship, and does not reduce insecurities your dog may have that causes him to overreact.
Don’t punish when he makes a mistake. He is learning, like you would in an environment you know nothing about. Help him out, gently guide him, and patiently teach him better ways.