Tuesday, August 7, 2012
I recently had a great phone conversation with a BRAT foster mom, who was wondering whether, after a year with her family, her long-term foster boy was done "improving." His progress has been slow but steady so far, and she was wondering just how much rehabilitation is fair to expect from some dogs. The answer, of course, varies from dog to dog -- the word I always think of is their "resilience." Just like people, some dogs can bounce back really quickly from adversity or a tough start in life, but others take a long time and really need TLC. However, I don't think I've ever seen a dog that has "stopped" improving - some just take longer than others to get there. The example I always think of that perfectly illustrates the concept of doggie resilience is the difference between my own two basenjis, Reef and Biko. Reef is extremely resilient, and she adapts very quickly to whatever new situation she's faced with. Within minutes of being faced with a new environment, situation, or person, she's already curious and sticking her wet little nose into places where it doesn't below. Biko, on the other hand, is my BRAT rescue boy that I've written a lot about previously, who had a rough start to life and who was a very anxious and terrified boy 5 years ago when I adopted him. It took him literally years to make a full "recovery", because he just isn't naturally very resilient to change. Although he's adapted well to life as a beloved pet and has built up his trust in humans, he still relies very heavily on routines, and gets really nervous and has a hard time adjusting anytime he's placed into a new environment or situation.
After 5 years and a TON of improvement, I keep making the mistake of thinking that Biko is done rehabilitating, but then he always seems to surprise me. Just this past week I noticed yet another major milestone that seems to have crept up on me -- he no longer growls when his backside is touched while he's resting on the couch! Previously he used to snap (and actually bit my husband a few times) when anyone touched his backside while he's resting on the couch/bed, because he seems to think that he's going to get moved off the couch. We've been working on de-sensitizing him to this for almost a year now, trying to innocuously touch his backside while playing with him on the bed, giving treats/praise when we touch his backside with no growl on the couch, and similar tactics. He's improved quite a bit -- going from snapping at a hand, to snapping at the air, to growling only, to mild grumbles -- and then just this past week I realized all of a sudden that I was petting him on the couch, stroking all the way down his back, and he didn't growl at all! When I realized what I was doing, I immediately stopped and praised him, hugged him, and generally confused the heck out of him with my effusive show of emotion. He did his happy tail-wag and looked at me like "I don't know what I did, but I'm glad you liked it!" After all this time, my little boy still surprises me with his small but significant improvements. For me, it was a perfect example that some dogs aren't resilient and don't deal well with change, but that doesn't mean they won't change -- it just takes a little more TLC and a little more time :-)