Abby had come from a series of very stressful situations. She had been in several homes, she was abused and neglected, surrendered to a rescue , adopted out, returned. Abby enjoyed being around other dogs but did not trust people – she had good reason not to trust. When I adopted Abby at 18 months of age she was emaciated, very stressed and suffering from ear and eye infections. Abby was insecure, anxious and fearful of people. She was aggressive-reactive to people (adults) and dominating with female dogs.
On the behavioral scale Abby was in the medium intensity zone
On a scale of 1 to 10, Abby was a 10
A Little About Abby’s Heritage
By the end of the 19th century there were many types of shepherds in Belgian. In 1890 Nicholas Rose – owner of the Belgian Cafe du Groenendael, found a black, long coat female in one of his litters. He purchased a dog with similar physical attributes and by employing selective breeding Mr. Rose created the Groenendael. In 1891, at the Brussels Veterinary University, Professor Reul isolated the breed and its characteristics. At the university the Belgian Shepherd breed was identified as having four distinct varieties; the Groenendael, the Tervuren, the Malinois and the Laekenois. The Groenendael arrived in North America in 1907.
The Groenendael is similar to the German Shepherd. Both are classified as working dogs as well as companion dogs. Both breeds were and still are used as hunting and herding dogs, Red Cross messengers in wartime, and as police and guard dogs. The Groenendael is a highly intelligent, sensitive, brave and obedient breed. A breed that posses a long memory. They can have a tendency to be timid and are protectors of children.
It is thought that the German Shepherd dog (GSD) may be a descendent of the wolf – some say the Bronze Age wolf. Around 700 A.D. there was a similar sheepdog with a lighter coat than the present day Shepherd. By the onset of the 16th century the coat was of a darker shade. The present day German Shepherd was bred in the 1880’s by a German Cavalry officer named von Stephanitz. During the 1920’s, the breed was imported to Britain and the Commonwealth. Up until the 1970’s, in Britain the GSD breed was known by the name ‘Alsatian’ or ‘Alsatian Wolf’ Dog. These alternate names for the German Shepherd were used to avoid the negative association attributed to the GSD post World War I.
The German Shepherd is an intelligent, loyal, faithful and obedient dog with highly developed senses. The German Shepherd is an energetic dog and as such requires a lot of exercise. These attributes make the dog an easy breed to train as a working dog and a companion dog. German Shepherds were used extensively in World War I, and are employed today as police dogs, seeing-eye dogs, avalanche dogs, herding dogs to name a few occupations. This is a breed that loves children. Many think of this breed as an aggressive dog; however aggressive tendencies in this dog are present only when induced by intentional or unintentional mishandling/misdirection by humans.
The first series of people in Abby’s life who were supposed to be her guardians let her down very badly. I don’t know anything about Abbey’s first home.
I know a little about Abbey’s second home. The husband wanted a dog, the wife did not. The home she lived in was a home in conflict. A very unpleasant situation for any dog, for a dog with heightened sensitivity such a situation is added torture. Then add the physical abuse that was inflicted on Abby and the damage was done.
The wife took her frustrations out on Abby, treating her with disrespect, beating her with cleaning implements such as brooms etc. When Abby attempted to defend herself she was vilified. The couple called a local Humane Society (I won’t mention which HS) and told them that Abby was aggressive. That Humane Society responded by telling the couple to bring Abby in and they would euthanize (kill) her for them. It never ceases to amaze me how some humans never take responsibility for themselves and their actions – shame on the people that were supposed to be Abby’s guardians and shame on that branch of the Humane Society. Abby’s fate was to be an untimely death.
Returned to the Rescue – Saved From Death
Just before heading out to take Abby to the Humane Society to be lethally injected, Abby’s faithless family happened to call the rescue that they had adopted Abby from. The rescue reminded them that they had signed a paper upon adoption which said that they were to return Abby to the rescue if they decided they did not want to keep her. Had the stupid people not made that call Abby would be dead today. As it was they took Abbie back to the rescue rather than to the Humane Society that had offered to ‘euthanize’ her. I adopted Abby from the rescue group – she was eighteen months old at that time.
Upon Arrival – Anxious, Emaciated, Ear and Eye Infections…
Abby was a very beautiful young lady however she was seriously underweight. At the time I adopted Abby she weighed-in at 42 pounds – her rib and hip bones stood out, a painful sight to see. She should have weighed at least 65 pounds. She also had an eye infection and chronic ear infections – nothing serious but definitely a symptom of the stress, poor diet and food allergies. Abby also suffered from thunder anxiety, and gun-shot anxiety.
Abby enjoyed being around other dogs, although she exhibited very dominating behavior around female dogs. Abby also had a deep distrust of humans. Her distrust manifested itself in mild anxiety to intense fear. Like us humans some dogs have more intuition than others – I soon found out that when it came to unkind or unstable (fearful, tense, etc.) humans Abby’s intuition was acute enabling her to assess a human from a distance that most other dogs could not do. Her dominating behavior towards other female dogs saw her tumble other females to the ground. Abby would need to learn that such behavior was not acceptable.
I believe it is a privilege and an honor when an animal who is normally uncomfortable around humans immediately accepts me without any fear – I loved Abby the moment I saw her and she responded in kind.
Abby’s fear of people did not include children – true to her German shepherd heritage she was wonderful around my young daughter, although she was at times overly exuberant. Abby would pull off my daughter’s mittens and boots while in transit down a snow-covered hill on a toboggan, jumping up and overwhelming my daughter with excitement, etc. No aggression or fear towards children just towards adults.
Behavior Modification and Psychological Rehabilitation
During the next months Abby, sometimes by herself and often with other pack members visited plenty of places where I exposed her to people (my focus for her was adults). She became more comfortable and accepting of strangers, allowing many to give her affectionate pats.
Some dogs need a little space when initially greeted by humans – for example dogs that have had negative experiences with humans. To fulfill the dogs need to develop trust – human greetings should start with allowing the dog to simply smell the human. This is contrary to many people’s idea of what a greeting should be. When most people see a dog the first instinct is to enter into the dog’s personal space, pat the dog on the top of the head, and vocalize excitement in a high-pitched voice. If you stop to think for a moment – this is a very invasive and energy intensive approach/introduction. The dog may be overwhelmed by the intensity of the greeting. For a nervous/anxious dog the intense energy behind such a greeting can trigger his/her anxieties. If the dog responds by barking “back-off human”, the human often reacts by becoming angry or frightened. This response just further upsets the dog and can spark more anxious/aggressive reactive behavior. The human, with the best of intentions ends up unknowingly solidifying the dog’s initial distrust. The dog’s association of human with distrust has been strengthened instead of dissipated.
When first arrived Abby would stand and bark with teeth barred at strangers, she had bitten people in the past. She would run to escape and when that was not possible she would snap and bite.
Without intending to be my father was a case in point. When he first met Abby, she barked at him – after all, he was at that time a stranger and she needed to meet him on her terms. He immediately became angry with her – he felt a dog should be happy to have someone reach out to pat them at first contact. He was so angry that his mind was closed to understanding the situation. Unfortunately this is just the kind of reaction that engenders distrust. Abby continued to be distrustful of my father.
Over time I persisted, continuing to try to get through to my father on this issue. One day he was in a more receptive mood and when I asked him to greet her by just being there and allowing her to come up and smell him – I also asked that he not talk to her, touch her or look at her he did listen without anger or resentment. The difference was immediate; Abby smelled his hand and then leaned in to him to ask for a touch. There were never any issues between them after that. She is always happy to see him now.
When a dog is reacting ‘badly’ it is often the human that is causing/enabling the reaction – the source of the problem is the human not the dog…this is a bit of a foreign concept for many of us to understand but once a person recognizes the concept many negative canine behaviours can be resolved.
Dogs are very forgiving. A dog may associate a state of being (for example fear, excitement etc.) with a person, place or thing but if they are provided with an opportunity to experience the situation in another way the dog will alter his/her perception and reaction to the situation. By changing your attitude to a situation, person, place or thing you can change a dog’s reaction to that same situation person, place or thing.
It is not unusual for a dog that has experienced what Abby did to lack trust and be resistant to having their nails touched or trimmed, their ears cleaned etc.
At first Abby would not allow anyone to groom her, touch or trim her nails. She would start to tremble and give verbal warning (growl) and then proceed to bite. Using force to attempt to groom a dog will only reinforce the negativity of the situation for the dog and will result in additional physical reactivity. But when approached in a respectful but firm way Abby quickly learned that getting her nails trimmed was no big deal, the same applied to ear cleanings, dental care etc.