Monday, December 17, 2018

Just Being a Dog

I think I've probably written at least briefly in the past about our dog, Hera, and her behavioral issues (mostly fear aggression).  Over 10 years ago, we got her as an 8-week old puppy and it was clear from the beginning that she would require special handling and more training than say, a Lab puppy.  My husband and I both took classes from a variety of trainers and we worked with her on our own too.  It took about 2 years, but we ended up with a dog that was a pleasure to walk and who could keep an even temperament even if other dogs around her were acting crazy.  Since then, she has amazed us with her continued growth in difficult situations (like being surrounded by toddlers and even handling a dog running up to her and sniffing her nose).

I credit the special training that we needed to do with Hera for jump starting my interest in questioning the standards I'd been taught regarding horse training and care.  Before Hera, I didn't usually question too much.  I thought horses belonged in stalls for 12 hours a day and that certain conventional training practices were good.  Nimo wasn't a typical young horse at the time, but I still believed that I could rely on experts to help me with him.  It wasn't until after I realized that my husband and I understood Hera better than even the most highly-recommended dog trainers that I really began to take a hard look at what I was doing with Nimo.  It has been a very long journey since then, with a lot of hills and valleys, but I'm not sure I would have started it as soon as I did or reached the same conclusions without having worked with Hera.  I will be forever thankful that we decided to take the last pick of the litter home.  (Yes, she was bred by a backyard breeder, but in his defense, he only had one litter each year and he had the mother, father, and grandfather on the premises.  We met all three of them and they were lovely animals.  He clearly cared about the dogs and tried to do a good job breeding and raising puppies.  There was just something not quite right about Hera, which is why she was still available.  Maybe he should have put her down instead of selling her.  But I'm glad he didn't because she has taught me and my family so much.)

One thing that has been a constant in Hera's life is her attendance at doggy daycare since she was 12 weeks old.  I think a lot of people think daycare for dogs sounds ridiculous, and there are certainly dogs for whom a daycare situation is probably not appropriate.  At the time we got Hera, though, both my husband and I worked in DC and had a long commute.  I teleworked 2-3 days a week, but we still needed to find a place for Hera to be during what amounted to 12 hours on days that both of us were in DC.  I thought about dog walkers but for a young dog, I thought we'd need one at least twice a day and Hera would only get a short time of interaction.

Luckily, a new daycare for dogs had opened up in our town, about 15 minutes from our house.  We took Hera in and despite her issues, she behaved well at the daycare and was accepted into the program (the daycare performed a temperament test to make sure that she would be OK in a group setting for everyone's safety).  So 2-3 times a week for several years, Hera went to daycare.  The staff there never knew that she was anything other than a quiet, sweet dog.  She did well with the other dogs and with other people, even those she didn't know.

Even now that I (or my husband) am typically home most of the day, we still send Hera to daycare 2-3 times a month.  It is also the place she stays if we have to be out of town.  She feels comfortable there.  So comfortable, in fact, that she consented to a picture with Santa (and to wearing a scarf!) today.

Photo by Dogtopia, Manassas, VA
If you've ever been to my house, you know that Hera is a typical German Shepherd in terms of guarding and protecting the house, so there is a lot of barking.  She doesn't like to be petted by strangers (or even someone she's known for awhile) until she's had a chance to settle and adjust to a new person in the house.  If kids come over, we keep her outside for their safety because kids often can't control themselves when it comes to dogs, and they don't recognize the signs of an uncomfortable dog.

But at daycare, she's happy to be petted by anyone.  She doesn't guard or feel protective.  She's not anxious or fearful.  I have to believe that is because the staff and the environment are really in tune with the dogs.  And I'm thrilled she has someplace to go where she can just be a dog.

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