Thursday, April 09, 2015

Remy is Finally Learning to Speak Dog

Like many teenagers, Remy was a bit socially awkward. At least in terms of dogs (he has always been quite adept at interacting with humans). His dog-awkwardness is not something I have wanted to admit, so I haven't made much of an effort to write about it. But I'm happy to report that Remy is finally figuring things out, and I've decided that it bears a blog post.

I guess this is sort of a continuation of my earlier post, My Dog's Nuts, where I went into detail about why we delayed neutering Remy until he was 21 months old and some of the issues we faced in having an adult, intact dog (not what I had expected). Now, 9+ months post neuter, I hope this report might help others who have delayed neutering their dogs and, as a result, found themselves with a dog that didn't get quite enough socialization during adolescence.

Most every dog innately knows how to speak some dog language. At least the big stuff. (Remy does get the big cues.) We humans understand a tiny fraction of dog communication, and we frequently get it wrong. ("Oh, he's wagging his tail" doesn't always mean "he must be friendly" -- it's all about how the tail is wagged, its position, etc.) There are far more subtle cues that dogs use to convey things to each other that most of us in the human realm don't even see. Adding layers to that, there is a lot of information dogs convey through scents and sounds that even the best dog whisperer will never understand because they're physically out of the realm of human perception.

Remy came to us from a wonderful breeder whose family spent a great deal of time working on socialization of their puppies. He came pre-loaded with a love of children (little girls in particular), other dogs and even cats (yes, they had a dog-loving cat who played with the puppies). Remy was always a happy, social puppy. Before he was six months old, we took him to a local doggy daycare for a couple of their Sunday puppy romps. He had a great time. Any dog we greeted on leash or in a park was a fast friend, at least from Remy's point-of-view. And when he was old enough to hold his own, we started taking him to the local dog park to run and play with other dogs. He loved it.

But, as I wrote previously, Remy's sexual maturity complicated that situation greatly. We stopped taking him to the dog park after he was attacked twice by neutered dogs (he did not provoke the attacks). We couldn't take him to doggy daycare or play groups because most of them don't allow intact dogs older than six months old. (I subsequently found out from a doggy daycare provider that this isn't just because they were concerned about the intact dogs being aggressive, they were just as concerned that neutered dogs tend to react in a passive-aggressive way toward intact dogs and that tension can lead to bad situations for all the dogs involved.)

I guess we complicated things further when we moved to a larger property out in the country when Remy was just over a year old. Suddenly he had a lot of wonderful room to run and play in, but his only playmate was our other dog, Kirby, who is 1/3 his size. He got to play with our friends' dogs when they came over or when we all went to the beach, but those opportunities were few and far between.

Occasionally we would take Remy out for a walk on leash around our old neighborhood in town. We thought it would be good for him to see some of his old dog neighbors and meet some new dogs occasionally. We soon discovered that Remy, probably as a result of having been attacked before, was becoming very nervous about meeting new dogs. He would approach them to sniff, but something was different. He was no longer just assuming that everyone was his friend. Instead, he was wary.

Some dogs we approached were fine with Remy. The friendly old Golden Retriever, for example, didn't let it phase her and the two dogs had good interactions. But other dogs would start growling at him. A couple even lunged at him. We weren't sure if it was Remy's tenseness that set them off or if they were sensing his intact-male hormones and feeling threatened. This didn't have to happen very many times before Remy's wariness cranked up a notch. He started approaching EVERY dog with extreme caution, as if he just assumed they weren't going to like him. His defensive mechanisms started to turn into proactive notifications -- little growls as he approached other dogs that conveyed "don't come up to me and hurt me or I'll hurt you back."

We knew this was not good. And, of course, this made us humans nervous whenever we were approaching other dogs. Was it going to be a good interaction or a growling one? I'm sure any fears Remy had were just amplified by our own nervousness and we knew we had to break this cycle somehow or we'd never be able to take Remy out for a hike or a romp on the beach.

We had seen this negative feedback loop happen before with some of our neighbors. A new puppy is all sweet and friendly. Then something happens that makes the people nervous about having their dog meet other dogs -- perhaps there was an altercation between their dog and another while out on a walk (sometimes dogs just don't like each other). Anyway, it starts small, but the people reinforce the dog's anxiety by tightening the leash whenever they approach another dog. The fear of the dog and the fear of the people feed into each other until they have a leash-aggressive adult dog who cannot meet new dogs without a snarlfest.

One of the reasons we neutered Remy was because we didn't want this to happen. We knew that neutering him was no guarantee that he'd get along well with other dogs again. But we hoped it would help other dogs not feel so nervous around him, which might, in turn, help him not feel so nervous around them. We were also told that neutering him might calm his reactions a bit if and when a dog did growl at him.

Our breeder (who is a veterinarian) said that it could be about six months before all the testosterone was out of his system, so the reactivity might still linger for a bit. About three months after he was neutered, we started trying to curate some positive dog interactions for Remy. We had a couple of positive interactions at the beach on Remy's birthday and only one growl-fest -- with an off-leash Corgi who came running at him and surprised him from behind growling. Remy growled back and we were glad we had him on a leash. Nobody got hurt and the Corgi's owner apologized. But it was clear Remy was still on high alert.

We had one not-so-positive session with a local dog trainer who just didn't seem to read Remy's personality very well. So we decided to try taking him to a doggy daycare to give him a chance to be around other dogs in a more casual, playful environment. We told the staff there that he was nervous about meeting new dogs, so on his first visit, which was a 4-hour evaluation session, they paid special attention to his reactions to try to read what was fear, what might be aggressive and what his play style was. Remy immediately bonded with one of the staff people there, and it was very apparent from the get-go that she understood Remy's personality far better than the previous trainer did. She introduced him to the other dogs and gave any overly-assertive dogs either a water spray or a time out in their crate so Remy had time to play with the gentler dogs. We got to watch through their window and via a webcam after we left.

Remy was clearly nervous, tail tight against his bottom, and on the defensive. Eventually he started slinking low up to other dogs. When he realized the other dogs weren't out to get him, he started sniffing and allowing himself to be sniffed. He started circling and after a short time he was running around and playing. After about an hour of this he decided he wanted to go home and just laid down by the gate and stared at the door, panting. But overall, the session was a success and they welcomed him back to the doggy daycare any time we wanted to bring him.

We have since brought him back four more times and, with each successive visit, he has become more comfortable around all of the dogs. He is dealing well with the more assertive dogs and is clearly not feeling like he has to be the top dog there. Instead of growling back, he licks the dominant dogs under the chin and either leaves them alone or tries to engage them with a play bow. The last couple of times we brought him, he was so excited to go he started whining when we drove into the neighborhood and practically pulled our arms off as we went in the door because he was so eager to get inside and play with his friends.

I cannot tell you how relieved we are. What seemed like a budding potential fear-aggression issue was overcome by the highly tuned-in staff at the doggy daycare and the nice group of dogs who play there every day. It really seemed like the key to his transformation was that they trusted Remy (but with a watchful eye) and let him come around on his own to make friends.

The woman with whom Remy bonded so quickly told us he was just a little socially awkward at first -- he didn't quite know how to relate to his peers and he didn't have all his doggy language straight. All it took was some supervised time with friendly dogs and he quickly learned the dog lingo and made some play buddies.

We plan to take Remy there every few weeks for some doggy play time (and to give Kirby a break). And we now feel comfortable that Remy can meet new dogs without fear. He's learned how to handle himself around assertive dogs without snarling back and he's learned to be more open and friendly. And that's everything we were hoping for.

I don't know if the same thing would have happened had Remy not been neutered -- some say the "super-male" effect of high testosterone in young male dogs starts to wane by the time they're two and they settle down a bit. But the fact remains, Remy wouldn't have had a chance to go to the doggy daycare if he wasn't neutered.

And thanks to his doggy daycare experiences, we now feel more comfortable taking him out on the trail or to the beach knowing that most dogs will accept him without fear and that he will be able to greet them without feeling defensive. There will always be aggressive dogs to watch out for, but at least he's not one of them.

Remy has learned to speak dog, and that makes his humans very happy.