Thursday, March 05, 2009

Can we "fix" him?

Dozer was born nuts.

Not the scary serial killer nuts a la Silence of the Lambs, but the harmless goofy nuts a la Benny and Joon.

Dozer is obsessive-compulsive and anxious. He loves his toy (usually a ball, sometimes a disc). He loves his house. When he has these things, he is the happiest dog alive.

But when he loses either of those things, he starts whining and pacing, and his brain basically shuts off. He is essentially nonresponsive to the environment. His response to training commands slows to a trickle.

It's not that he becomes out of control, because there's really nothing about him that needs controlling. He turns on a very whiny autopilot. He'll go on a walk, but he won't notice the squirrels dancing a jig in front of him or the stray cat peeing on his leg. He won't "sit" without a sharp push on the behind. He just sort of goes into a trance where I guess he might be imagining himself back at home.

This is one of the reasons why loose leash training has never been successful for him. He simply isn't "there." I use a no-pull harness to make walking easier. (I should add that I can definitely walk him on his regular collar if need be. He is so sad that even the pulling is rather wimpy.)

This has been the way of things with Dozer since his early years. He had all the advantages his "sister" Felanie did, including puppy socialization class, obedience classes, and agility classes. Both dogs lived under the same house rules and expectations. Felanie turned into a fine dog without any social anxiety or obsessive behavior.

At first, Dozer did fine, too, though there were some hints that Dozer was not quite normal, even during early years.

During his puppy socialization class, Dozer ignored the other dogs, favoring a tennis ball above all else. When the other puppies started to play-fight, Dozer stood between them (he was the biggest puppy there), chewing on his ball and whining. The instructor called Dozer "The Peacemaker" because it bothered Dozer so much to see other dogs fight, even in play; he would always try to stand in the middle in order to break it up.

When we took Dozer to a very reputable professional trainer because he was so obsessed about his toy ball, the trainer suggested that we put him in a room and dump dozens of tennis balls in there. The idea was to make the balls so common that Dozer would have no reason to worry about where they all were. We tried this idea. Let's just say that that was the happiest day of Dozer's life--and he's still obsessed with toy balls.

The older Dozer got, the less he enjoyed leaving the house. He still likes car rides--as long as they're short, and he can hang his head out the window (which means only in the immediate neighborhood, since I don't allow dog heads out the window over 35 mph).

My husband has panic attacks when he goes out in public. This has only recently been controlled with medication. Byrd feels a bit guilty about Dozer as a result. "I gave him this," he says, as if social anxiety is some sort of contagious disease.

So here's where I get stuck in my thoughts. Some people, like my husband, think that Dozer needs "help." We have a trainer coming over to meet Dozer this weekend, to see what can be done. But can training really "fix" an issue that seems, to me, to be the result of faulty wiring? I'm all for training when it can alter behavior. But I also realize there are some cases where genetics has had the last laugh (this is where responsible management, rather than training, comes in).

I wonder if Dozer's problems haven't been a bit too humanized at this point. Why, exactly, does Dozer really need to learn to enjoy being out in public? People have to overcome social anxiety in order to function and live normal lives. They must be able to go to work, to the grocery store, and so forth.

Dozer is a dog. He can stay home all day and play in the yard with his ball whenever he wants. And if he's perfectly happy doing that, why do people think that he needs "help," or that his anxiety is a "problem"?

I can understand why Byrd keeps pushing for us to "help" Dozer--because he feels guilty and partially responsible for Dozer being this way, and because he can really empathize with the anxiety Dozer feels in public. He sees Dozer as a furry version of himself, and because Byrd sought help and feels better as a result, he wants Dozer to get help as well.

But I don't see it the same. I see Dozer as a senior dog who just wants to enjoy life from the comfort of his home. As long as we don't force him to go anywhere (and it's not like we really need to), he's quite happy, loving, and healthy. And no, he's not overprotective of our house. He actually loves visitors to our house, no matter who they are, especially if they play fetch with him.

So can Dozer be "helped"? Or more to the point, does he really need to be "helped"? I am tempted to choose the negative response to both questions.


Janet Johnson said...

sounds like he's not really broke, and since you can provide him what he needs, why stress him out?

Burning Moon said...

With Dozer I think my only concern would be that he doesn't enjoy walking. From everything I have read, there is no way a dog can get the exercise he needs in a back yard. Now, I am not a professional by ANY means, and you know some of the problems I have with Noelle so I don't know how much my opinion is worth, but since you asked for a general opinion I figured I'd give mine, lol.

It also might be a problem since you seem to enjoy travelling sometimes and you shouldn't have to be stuck at home because your dog has problems being away. Those would be my only concerns.

Mia said...

First of all I think Dozer is perfect just the way he is -

Your description reminds me of some recent articles maybe a book about dogs being far more autistic than we give them credit for...and I know autistic children especailly hate when things in their environment are moved around...

His story of his trip reminded me of Mia's sister Millie who is perfect inside but has really developed a phobia of going outside - she goes potty and then pulls desperately to go back in and shakes and does make us a bit sad that she can't enjoy outings but maybe we are forcing our idea of fun on her?

Please give Dozer a big kiss from Mia and Millie and I.

happypitbull said...

@Janet, yes, that's sort of the same way I feel.

@Burning Moon, you bring up a really good concern, and it was one I had initially too. But two factors to consider: 1) Dozer is senior and it doesn't take much to wear him out, and 2) we have a sizable backyard and I play fetch with him. It's a little different from just pushing him out the door to do his own thing, which, I agree, would not give him much exercise. No, I play fetch with him until he can barely breathe.

Your point about traveling is a big one and well taken. We've muddled our way through that issue one trip at a time so far. Fortunately, my mom is retired and has happily volunteered to stay at our house if we ever want to go on a trip and leave him behind (and trips are very rare due to Byrd's work). I suppose there are always pet sitters as an alternative if Mom falls through... but it's still a very good point.

@Mia's "mom"--Autistic... that's very interesting... you know, I do see parallels now that you mention it. I might look into that a bit more. (P.S. I gave him a kiss from you guys. He loved it.)

Dennis the Vizsla said...

Interesting comment from Mia about autistic dogs. My father (a clinical social worker) once labeled Tucker autistic because he is often in his own little world sucking on his toy or whatever.

Leila said...

I think that you and Byrd have done a great job with Dozer. He's happy! So he has a few quirks. Who doesn't. He's loved, you understand his needs, and he has Star to play with.

Some people never go past their hometown and Dozer's 'hometown' is his house and yard.

As we all know all dogs are incredibly unique. So, Star will have the adventures and bring home the 'tails'.


forsythia said...

Ramsey, our on-loan pitbull, never enjoyed walks in his life. Even as a puppy, he would lie down half-way through a half-hour walk and have to be urged to get up and keep going. He seems to enjoy having BEEN on a walk. He's in a good mood when he gets home, if the way he holds his tail is any clue, but it's sure hard to coax him out of his chair. Some dogs go bonkers if they hear you getting out the leash. Ramsey just sinks deeper into his chair and hopes you won't notice him.

Anonymous said...

Ah Dozer. Such good points all of them. I am not sure what I would do at this point in Dozers life. He is getting up there in years and seems happy and content. You are a wonderful mom to him. I suppose fixing him now whould be more for you and Byrd than for Dozer. He really isnt missing out on anything, he has all the love in the world!

Three Dog Blogger said...

That's nice to read some background on Dozer.

If he is happy at home then that is great. He sounds like such a character.

I do agree with you, he is not a person, he doesn't need to have the same social skils we do. Well, i'm probably not the best person to talk about social skills, having decided to live up a Mountain in the middle of nowhere with no neighbours!

I agree that a lot of behaviour is genetically inherited. I can't believe how much like her Mum our Dog Jet is. Her Mum is still so shy and Jet takes after her to some extent. Some things will just always be there. We can improve some behaviour but never totally eradicate what is basically their nature. The same goes for people.

The more Dogs I own, the more I have come to realise there is such a vast difference in their behaviours and idiosyncracies. I don't believe any Dog can be classed as "normal", the same as people can't. We should just go with what the realities of each others Natures and build from there.

Cheryl said...

Interesting, I had a female Doberman (she just passed away last month), with similar issues. She was socialized, had the best of everything in life, she was our kid. She was just "off", never liked other people that much, hated to go in the car, etc. Lots of odd behaviors for a dog who should be well adjusted. I think that was just her personality, we just let her be herself. Good luck!