Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Dogs and Resilience

While coordinating adoptions for BRAT, I've often been asked whether a basenji will change behavior or personality from what has been written on the web profile. My overwhelming response is, YES!!! But, whether that change is good or bad depends on you doing the right things with your dog (love alone is not enough!), and how fast that change happens depends on how resilient your dog is.

Many people think of resilience, which is the ability to cope with change, as a human trait. It is often believed to be something you're either born with or you're not, but recent research (Seligman, et al) suggests that it can also be a learned behavior. I believe that dogs also have an internal resilience, and some will naturally be able to cope better with change than others. We see this all the time in rescue - some dogs can be bounced around to many homes and adapt just perfectly, while others seem "scarred" by the instability in their lives. So to REALLY answer the question about whether a dog will change, the answer is still yes, but how much and how fast the change takes place really depends on: 1) your behavior with the dog (i.e. love with boundaries); 2) the inborn resilient personality of the dog; and 3) other "learned" factors, such as whether or not the dog can "learn" good resilience behaviors from being around another, more adjusted dog.

An example I always use when asked this question is the story of my BRAT boy, Biko. I'm not really sure about his beginnings but I strongly suspect puppy mill, and we do know that he was bounced around quite a bit between homes in his young life. Biko is a perfect example of a dog who does NOT have a natural inborn resilience, so his ability to cope with the changes in his life (i.e. adjusting to living with my husband and I) really depended on the things that I did with him and the things that he was able to learn from my other basenji, Reef.

When he came to my home after experiencing two homes, a shelter, and a foster home within his young life, Biko was a very anxious and timid little boy. When we tried to pet him he cowered away, yet seemingly by contradiction he had such severe separation anxiety that he used to badly soil his crate every time we left the house. Throughout his first two years with us, we did see little signs of progress here and there: within the first month, he learned to follow the lead of our other basenji and let us leash him; within six months we could pet him all over his body and I began to cut his nails myself; within the first year, he began to allow visitors to pet him if he was seated on the couch; within a year and a half he was down to only peeing in his crate on occasion. However, despite these little signs of progress, we were a little disappointed that we never saw the "big turnaround" that we were really looking for. We figured that if we just loved him enough, he would change and just open up one day when he finally realized that he was in a safe place forever and ever. I suppose that if Biko were a more resilient dog these little milestones might have come sooner (as they do with many rescue dogs), but given that he's quite an anxious little boy by nature, I guess I really shouldn't have been expecting the "big turnaround." As it was, I was just glad that he was making at least small, consistent forward progress.
After about two years with us (last December), Biko's progress seemed to level off, and I figured that his behavior/personality was done changing. I was wrong! Just this summer, we noticed that Biko seemed to be much less anxious with separation than he had previously been, and we began to be able to leave him uncrated in the house when we're gone. This Thanksgiving, my extended family just couldn't stop commenting on how much more affectionate with strangers he's become over this past year, and how he no longer flees when they go to pet him. When we walk out in the neighborhood, I'm often surprised at how confident and "male" my once-timid little boy has become. Even though I had given up on ever seeing the "big turnaround" in Biko, it seems that he was still busy making progress, and all at once I'm just catching up and realizing what a marvelous little boy he has become. I'm so proud of him!

Of course, as any dog changes not all of it will be good, and this is where the "love with discipline" part comes in. After years of not much discipline because I was so busy encouraging Biko to be more confident, his confidence has swung almost in the opposite direction: he's now TOO confident and he needs to learn some boundaries! In the past few months he's become rather possessive with his seat on the couch (which is wherever he happens to be sitting), and he has started to growl at anyone who tries to move him or touches his backside like they might. He's also grown rather protective of both myself and my female basenji on walks, and he now tends to growl and snap at other dogs we meet to warn them away from "his" pack.

To combat these over-confidence issues, I have had to quickly educate myself in setting boundaries, and have begun to take steps to teach Biko some structure and his proper place in the pack. The first thing I've done is to start to walk him properly (not allowing him out in front of me), which seems to be helping with his over-confidence issues overall. We practice commands more often, and I make him work for whatever he wants around the house (sit before he goes out, etc). When he growls on the couch, I will point my finger at the floor and tell him "off," and he's not allowed back on the couch until he calms down and sits nicely and I invite him up. Interestingly, despite these recent shows of over-confidence, he's not actually as confident as he tries to appear: if I point my finger too close to his head, he seems to think I might hit him (although I never have), and he may nip at my finger in that same old fear response that he used to have. However, with consistency and patience he's gradually learning that nobody is going to hit him, and he actually "catches" himself now before he nips. He also seems to be growling over the couch a bit less, so I think he's slowly "getting it."

As Biko is learning some boundaries, I too am learning that all of these changes -both positive and negative- are a natural part of his evolution from a timid and anxious little boy into a confident and balanced member of the pack. Biko is now in his "teenage" stage, testing his boundaries in ways that he hasn't done previously, but I've seen his other negative behaviors pass and I'm sure that with good love and good discipline these will pass too. One thing is for certain, though -- even though he may not be the most resilient dog and it's taken him longer than most dogs to change, his personality and his behavior have changed A TON!! I wouldn't even recognize him for the dog he used to be if I hadn't been there to witness it all. So, here's to resilience, change, and love with discipline, and may all of our BRAT dogs continue to evolve into happy, well-balanced members of the pack.

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