Once I realized that trust was the fly in the ointment, I had no choice but to put everything else on the back burner. Without Rugby’s trust when he was scared and overstimulated, nothing else mattered. Trust is everything to a dog. It’s the glue that holds the relationship together. I should have figured this out sooner than I did, but I honestly had never owned a dog who didn’t trust me, so I didn’t really think about looking for it. There just weren’t obvious signs that Rugby didn’t trust me.
For any of you with rescues, re-homed dogs, strays, overly timid, etc. you might be smart to assume that there may be some trust issues somewhere along the way. I think it really takes a whole lot to blow a dog’s trust, but for special, high needs dogs, trust is probably likely a factor in any progress that you’ll make. Dogs have to know that their humans are safe and predictable in their world. I think trust is grown, and it’s earned, and when a dog gives his trust, we need to never take that lightly but to treasure it as a highly prized gift, because to a dog, it really is a gift to trust us.
In Rugby’s case, he did trust me at home when there were no triggers that set him off. If something triggered him, all bets were off, and I could almost see a light switch go off in him as he was making the decision to save himself rather than trust me to help him. I can’t begin to tell you how heartbreaking this was for me. I was head over heels in love with my little speckled puppy, and felt so at a loss to help him process the scary parts of his life in the human world. Of course, I wanted nothing but the best for my little dog, but how in the world could I convince him of that?
I decided that all official “training” had to go out the window for now. No more outings. No more stretching him out of his comfort zone. I was going to keep his world small, and focus only on doing fun things that Rugby enjoyed at home. I wanted to teach him new things, but I put my focus on teaching tricks, because there would be no correction or any way that he could really fail. Tricks also burn mental energy and when an anxious dog gets mentally tired, it is a very good thing indeed!
Rugby loved learning tricks! He just loved them! He also loved jumping, so I taught him to jump up into my arms, and to jump up on my shoulders and go for a ride. He loved shoulder rides, and would often just hang around on my shoulders while I was on my laptop working. I taught him to jump through a hula hoop, and over a jump stick and AKC obedience jumps in our backyard. He was a jumping fool!!
Tricks were a vehicle for teaching Rugby to focus on me and because I was teaching him to produce a specific, given behavior on cue, I was hopeful that he would make the same connection of focus and trust with me when he was triggered by something that sent him into a whirl of barking and running. I was hoping he would connect the dots to figure out a new behavior pattern I would teach him to follow when he got triggered, but I knew it was going to be a long process. Rugby was so high strung and so highly reactive that trying to nail down the timing on training was going to be a real challenge. But those long term goals were far off in the distance, because if I couldn’t get my dog to trust me, I would be spinning my wheels and going nowhere fast.