“Willow, come play!”
Willow winced as she pressed her hind end as hard as she could against the rusty chainlink fence that surrounded the two-acre dog park. Years ago, she had discovered the fence’s ability to protect that area of her body, while her teeth took care of defending the rest.
“Willow, there are nice doggies here today!”
Willow could make out her name among the rest of the garbled sounds coming from her owner, but she ignored her while continuing to lock her gaze on a fast-approaching golden doodle puppy. With each uncoordinated lope of the silly puppy, Willow lowered her stance another inch and pressed her hindquarters harder against the fence.
“See, Willow! Here comes someone wanting to play!”
As expected, the pitch was higher this time than the previous levels of noise that had been emanating from Willow’s owner since their arrival at the dog park a few minutes earlier. For as long as Willow could remember, it had always played out like this. First, there was the begging and coaxing and the false promises of a “great time” that was sure to be had at the dog park if Willow would only cooperate and not make her owner drag her to the car. Next, there was the nauseating, six-mile, light riddled drive that forced Willow to flatten herself to the back seat so she wouldn’t get vertigo and puke on herself. Then, after arriving at the park came the second dragging of the day; out of the car and through the double gates that served as the park’s entrance. The next step always involved a blur of gnashing teeth and shrill screams from Willow’s owner and several of the other dog owners when Willow would lash out at the dogs that insisted on greeting her. Finally, the leash that bound her to her owner would become unhooked, and Willow would race to the refuge of the nearest fence panel to take up her defensive position that she held until the high pitched chatter she heard now would force her to attack the strange dog that invariably followed it.
Too late. The stupid pup could not obviously recognize when its company wasn’t wanted, so Willow considered the moment as an excellent opportunity to teach the youngster what a hard stare, exposed teeth, and growling meant. When the unknowing pup closed the last few feet and pounced on Willow’s head, Willow countered with a lightning fast bite to its muzzle! The puppy howled in pain and narrowly missed getting a second bite to its butt when it turned and fled in the direction of its owner.
“BAD GIRL! SHAME ON YOU WILLOW!”
Willow adjusted her position until she could feel the fence once again pressing on her hind end. At the same time, she ran her tongue across the front of her teeth to remove the bits of golden doodle fur and blood that clung to their surface. In the distance, the other dogs in the park flashed fearful sideway glances in her direction before resuming their play while the strange humans closest to Willow gawked at her with wide eyes and opened mouths.
“Willow, I can’t believe you bit that puppy!”
Willow turned toward her owner and studied her face. She recognized the narrowed eyes and pursed lips as the look she’d seen after every attack she’d been forced to commit to defending herself from other dogs in the park. Even though her owner seemed to be angry, Willow wasn’t concerned because nothing bad had ever come of it. On the contrary, the look typically preceded some auditory response from Willow’s owner to the humans that the injured dog always ran to after it was bitten, and shortly after that, Willow’s owner would allow her to leave the evil park.
“I’m so sorry about what happened. Is your puppy ok?”
While Willow listened to the predictable communication that was occurring between her owner and the person clutching the recipient of her latest lesson on “STAY AWAY FROM ME,” she slowly scanned the park’s interior looking for any other approaching dogs, but to her relief, most seemed uninterested her. The few dogs that still did were immediately met with the same warning the pup had received, but because they were older, they understood the hint and quickly chose to join the uninterested crowd.
“I am so embarrassed by your behavior, Willow. That puppy just wanted to play, and you bit it instead. If you keep this up, I won’t bring you to the park anymore.”
Willow could feel her owner trying to reattach her leash and knew salvation was close at hand. While her owner fumbled with the leash’s clasp and the D-ring on her collar, Willow stole a quick glance in the direction of the injured golden doodle puppy who was peeking at her from the safety of the elevated position it held in its owner’s arms. The pup was licking the wounds on its muzzle while at the same time, trying to burrow deeper into its owner’s chest. Willow knew the puppy feared her and she also knew it would likely never approach her should the two meet again. But, to make sure, Willow uttered a low throated growl that sent the pup and its owner scurrying away. Willow watched them for a few moments and then she turned and faced the double gates that led the way out. Seeing no other dogs nearby, Willow waited, impatiently, until she heard the familiar snap of the leash connecting to her collar and then she bolted for the gates.
“WAIT WILLOW, WAIT!”
Willow didn’t wait. Willow never waited. Instead, she pulled with all of her might and like always, as they passed through the gates, it was Willow dragging her owner and not the other way around.
This story follows on the heels of a blog that I wrote recently about Samson-The Great Protector; a dog who possessed a fear of all unfamiliar humans and whose owner mistakenly thought he was protecting her whenever he used aggression to defend himself from encounters with them. Willow, a nine-year-old, female Labrador retriever, on the other hand, possessed an opposite fear. She was very comfortable with all humans, regardless of whether she knew them or not, but, she was extremely fearful of all dogs. And, like Samson, instinct quickly taught her that aggression was the most effective method of making other dogs stay away from her. This fearful condition was the by-product of the same weak genetics and improper socialization that caused Samson’s condition. Except, in Willow’s case, the inappropriate socialization occurred with dogs and not with humans.
With both Willow and Samson, owner error contributed significantly to the worsening of their conditions. Whereas Samson’s owner aggravated his state by continuing to expose him to strange people, thinking his aggression was him just trying to protect her, Willow’s owner worsened her condition by continually forcing her to have a good time at a dog park full of the very thing that Willow feared the most. In both cases, proper environmental management was crucial to stopping the advancement of the dog’s problematic behavior and for raising the threshold of the provocative stimulus that would trigger an aggressive event. Both owners initially failed to do this until their mistake was pointed out to them.
Willow’s owner loved her immensely, and her desire for Willow to play with other dogs was motivated by that love. It saddened her to watch the other dogs at the park playing and having a good time while her dog remained plastered to the fence; lashing out at any dog that came within a few feet of her protective space. Love does that to all of us. It can blind us from the obvious, and it did so with Willow’s owner. Instead of recognizing that Willow was fearful of other dogs and making the responsible choice not to subject her to a harmful environment, she chose the opposite by continuing to take Willow to the dog park in the hope that someday, Willow would overcome her condition and start to play with the other dogs. The latter failed miserably, and as a result, Willow became extraordinarily aggressive and developed a zero tolerance for any dog of any age or gender.
Like it was with Samson -The Great Protector, accurately recognizing the cause of any problematic behavior in your dog is the first step in achieving a positive change in it. The next step will require you to leave the safety of your fence by trusting what you’ve learned and then doing the right thing. When Willow’s owner did so, she discovered she and her dog found much more joy in the hiking they took up together afterward and the summer evenings both of them spent at local cafes hanging out with friends, than the dog park. Willow the Wallflower and her owner realized they didn’t need the company of other dogs to be happy; they just needed the company of each other.