Helping a Former Puppy Mill Dog Learn to Trust Human Males

Bentley

Four-year-old Coton de Tulear Bentley is a former puppy mill dog adopted through Little White Dog Rescue in Omaha. His guardians reached out to schedule a dog behavior training session with me to address his habit of growling at the husband. This behavior started a couple of weeks after he settled into his new home.

When we arrive for the session, Bentley did not even get up out of the chair he was sitting in away from the door. No barking, no curiosity, nada. When I came into the room and he saw me, he gave a very quiet growl but did not show any confrontational or aggressive body language.

I sat down on the couch discuss the situation with his new guardians to get a feel for what his day-to-day routine was like. Usually I use this period to observe the dog and see how it interacts with his guardians. But for the initial part of the consultation, Bentley remained motionless on the chair next to his guardian. He watched, but did not move.

After about 10 minutes, I asked the guardian to place him on the floor so I could get a feel for his self esteem, energy and personality by how he behaved. But as soon as Bentley was placed on the floor, his flight mode kicked in and he moved all the way to the far side of the room to hunker down.

When you have a dog who spent most of it’s life in a kennel without interacting with humans in a positive way, new people can become overwhelming for them. Eventually I asked the guardian that Bentley felt the most comfortable with the place him on a leash and then bring him back into the living room.

Because Bentley seem to so skittish at this point, I changed my body posture to help him feel more relaxed; grabbing a seat on the floor, positioning the dog behind me and on my side. This is when I spotted a couple of interactions that gave me pause; specifically the guardian petting Bentley when he was in an anxious and nervous state of mind.

If you are looking for more information on the Calming Signals dogs use that I referenced in the above video, I recommend Turid Rugaas’ Book; On Talking Terms with Dogs – Calming Signals.

As we continued to discus the situation, I started to think that Bentley was simply confused. His growling was not consistent while his engagement of his flight response seemed to indicate that he had a negative perception of men. This could be traced back to some negative experiences with a male while Bentley was at the puppy mill.

The guardian that Bentley liked to occasionally growl at had been attempting to do a number of things to bond with the dog. Several of them were things that I would recommend, however there were a few minor adjustments that were needed to them.

First off, I advised the guardian to avoid looking at, trying to engage or pet the dog. If a dog is it a fearful state or has a negative perception of you, the best thing you can do is ignore it completely. The more you try to interact with it before it trusts you, the more exasperated the situation becomes.

If the guardian continues to ignore the dog and stops trying to engage with him, this will help Bentley to start to feel more comfortable around him. Once the dog feels like the human is not interested in him, there should be a reduction in the engagement of his  flight response.

When I’ve worked with other dogs that had a similar problem in the past I have used to technique called Flooding to help the dog practice being near the thing its fearful of.

It took a little bit of coaxing and some leash work before we were able to get the dog into the proper position near the guardian. Many people stop or give up when a dog struggles to move away. While this can often be the proper response, in dog psychology, sometimes we have to help the dog by staying with it to help the dog get over the initial hump.

It took a couple of minutes, but eventually Bentley realized that the guardian was not trying to touch or interact with him in any way. Once the dog came to this conclusion you could see his body relax and eventually he even laid down at the guardian’s feet with no tension on the leash.

Simply spending time near this guardian in a similar fashion will help Bentley develop trust. After all, the human isn’t doing anything to the dog and nothing bad is happening. Eventually this will lead to Bentley relaxing more and more until he no longer feels the need to flee.

When dogs are in an unbalanced or fearful state of mind, one of the best things that you can do is get them to literally move forward as this is how many dogs get over psychological problems. This is why the walk can be such a powerful activity to use when rehabilitating a dog.

At first Bentley attempted to block us from going for the walk by shutting down. I spent a couple of minutes explaining how the guardian can use a leash placement and technique to rock the dog back-and-forth until he starts moving forward. Once we accomplished that, off we went for our walk.

I used a number of tricks to help Bentley feel more comfortable and boost his confidence level while on the walk. Initially we followed the guardian the Bentley had bonded to in an effort to use her as a type of carrot.

After we got halfway around the block, Bentley’s body language was much improved; his tail was raised, his head was up, his ears or forward and he started to have a little bit of a bounce in his step.

I used this opportunity to have the guardian that Bentley had bonded with head back to the house early so that the other guardian could get some quality time with Bentley. I wanted them to have a successful walk all on their own.

Bentley attempted to shut down a few times, but was easily dissuaded with the proper technique. Within 100 feet or so Bentley had returned to his more confident body posture and was trotting along next to his guardian without a care in the world.

It was great to see Bentley carrying himself with such good self-esteem and movement next to the guardian that he had been growling at for months.

Because dogs enjoy walks and the walk itself provides a lot of interesting stimulation, I recommend that the husband walk Bentley in a similar fashion at least twice a day. At first he should continue walking on the same route to help the dog develop a little bit of confidence. After a couple days or a week or so, the guardian can plot out a different route and then start varying things up to keep things interesting for the dog. This will make it a bit of an adventure and something for the dog to look forward to.

There is a lot of stimulation for a dog when it goes for a walk. These sights, smells, and sounds will stimulate Bentley physically as well as psychologically. It will also help him stop living in a bubble. Its been six months since he was rescued. Bentley is more than ready to start experiencing the world around him.

When we returned from the walk, I had Bentley’s guardian simply drop the leash as we passed through the front door. Normally Bentley would run to the far side of the room to self isolate himself again. But this time Bentley sat down on the floor in between us and relaxed on his own.

When you rehabilitate abused dogs or those with lower self-esteem, it’s a series of small victories. The fact the Bentley remained in the room with us after the walk without being restrained was a huge step.

Regular walks combined with the flooding technique that we went over and the guardian ignoring Bentley should help the dog stop self isolating and instead form a positive association with the guardian. Once that happens, I’m guessing these two will become pretty tight buddies.

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