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Where am I? - By Teresa Gray, ABC Mentor Trainer

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Saturday, January 30, 2010 : 12:17:47 PM
Updated Thursday, August 18, 2011 : 10:01:03 AM
Generalized Anxiety versus Hyper-bonding

There are many ways to add a new furry, family member to your existing family. Every addition will come with a unique set of issues, some more difficult then others. This topic is going to focus on responsible rescues.

A rescue is a private party or team that accepts a specific breed type or multiple breeds into their program. The rescue evaluates the needs of the dog, begins evaluating temperament and has the dog fully vetted. Basic vetting includes castration or spay, a standard blood panel looking for several things; primarily heartworm, updating vaccines, doing a fecal check and treating for parasites. Rescues begin feeding a well balanced, proper diet.

One of the primary differences between a shelter and rescue is the way the dogs live while in their custody. Rescues tend to have the animals live in more of a home like environment. This allows dogs that have no prior experiences within a proper family structure to begin the journey to becoming a full dog, reaching their utmost potential. When a dog is ready they become available for adoption. Rescues take applications and screen the potential adopters to hopefully create the perfect match. In many cases, it’s all roses and happy endings. In other cases it leaves the dog thinking “Where am I?”.

If you can imagine, consider what it would be like to be abruptly taken to another country and left there. You would not be aware of the laws and customs nor even be able to speak the language. This may be frightening and in some cases produce symptoms of generalized anxiety.

As humans, we often feel that a dog will get over the issues with time. Some may, others will take a bit of work. People tend to think like people, which is a good thing. Dogs think like dogs. When you apply human thoughts and feeling to a dog you increase the likelihood that your dog is not going to understand you. Most families bring their new rescue home and shower them with love, toys, treats and resources, etc. This sets up an abnormal pack structure in a dog's mind. When we shower love and affection on a dog, they can perceive that they are the most important, most valuable pack member. This is very confusing for a new pack member. What we can get is a breakdown in communication.

In an effort to get along, the dog may target one pack member with who to hyper bond. Dogs see all human and canine members in a household as one pack unit. Dogs do what works for them. When selecting the bond they take the path of least resistance. In the case of a married couple, the dog may exhibit signs of ease and affection towards one person and anxiety towards the other. Generalized anxiety with a fear base displays itself in predictable patterns. Some of the outward signs can be, but are not limited to, trying to escape the area or room they are in, refusing to eat, full body pacing back and forth, pacing in place; moving their front legs back and forth with their rear legs planted, panting, drooling, spinning or hiding behind the person they are hyper bonding to. In extreme cases they may damage property or themselves. Symptoms of hyper bonding can be, but are not limited to, an unhealthy desire to be close to one family member. They may put themselves in small, uncomfortable positions to remain in close contact or proximity with that person. Their body language and emotional health is overly dramatic surrounding the person to whom they are hyper bonded. For instance, the dog may feel that if the whole world would disappear and they could be alone with the person to whom they are bonded, everything would be ok. Hyper bonding is equally as unhealthy as generalized anxiety and both issues must be addressed for a dog to have sustainable good mental health.

Typical families get a rescue dog in an effort to do a good thing. They recognize that many dogs have not had a good life and they genuinely want to give the animal a permanent, loving home. Often the dog is coddled, spoken to in baby talk and the humans try to soothe the dog in every way that makes sense for a human. To a dog, these behaviors are upsetting. They look at pack structure as a very definite and ordered process. Therefore, if a dog is concerned and the owner says “oh baby, it’s ok, don’t worry” the dog does not hear words of comfort. What the dog actually interprets is the more dominant pack member is showing signs of weakness (coddling), thus this must be worse then they thought it to be.

In order to establish a positive bond we must first find each dog’s currency. Currency can be praise, affection, treats, toys or any combination thereof. In the situation where the dog is suspicious of one of the adults, it is important to build on that dog’s currency to establish familiarity. To begin this, the person to whom the dog is hyper bonding should with hold affection. When the person the dog views with anxiety enters the room that is when the dog should be rewarded with their currency from the person with whom they are most bonded. This will establish a pattern of predictability. Every time that person comes near, something good happens without any cost to the dog. The person to whom the dog is responding with anxiety is not going to speak to, touch or interact with the dog. Therefore, every time they come in the room and their bonded person responds to them, they begin to see the other person as good, always good. That person then becomes a positive resource. Once the dog begins anticipating this person’s arrival, we build on this behavior to develop the relationship further. Within a few days, when they walk in the room, they toss the dog a highly valued treat that the dog can get freely without feeling they need to approach that person or be in a risky position. Depending on the dog, how often this task is completed, and the comfort level of all, the treat can be tossed gradually at a shorter distance so that the dog begins to take a step or two towards the person they have seen with anxiety. This continues to build feelings of pleasure and trust within the pack.

Pack structure is a very solid, yet fluid family dynamic. An absolute would be the pack leader always eats first and gets the tastiest, best tidbits. The pack leader passes food down in an orderly fashion from top position to second and so forth. During feeding time, the dogs should see the pack leader take a moment to eat something. It can be anything. If you choose a cracker, you should act as if that cracker is the best thing you have ever tasted. The pack leader may give the person in second position the dogs dish and a cracker. That person will then act as if that cracker is delicious with a little less fan fair then the alpha showed while eating theirs. The dogs dish should be put down with no fan fair. Here is your food, eat it or don’t. Food should be left out twenty to thirty minutes and then removed. If a dog who’s exhibiting anxiety symptoms skips a meal, it is not great cause for alarm. Dogs are smart, they do what works for them and they will eat.

Beginning the communication process with a nervous dog can be frustrating and time consuming. It would be so much easier if we could more easily speak the language of dogs. I believe that most problems with dogs within a safe environment boil down to a basic break in communication. You will find that your dog begins to anticipate your presence with pleasure since they have been rewarded every time you arrive, and they too, will begin to reach out and establish communication with you. As the language between you begins to build, frustrations between animal and human will begin to fade. That is not to say that this is a complete path to the perfect bond. Additional leadership activities and training, along with some plain fun will get you to the point of being a cohesive pack unit.

The rewards you reap when taking a dog that otherwise has no home, bringing it into your home and establishing trust, care and health are immense. There is a reason they are called “man’s best friend”. Their loyalty knows no bounds and the love between humans and canines is endless. Happy tails on your journey to a solid, emotionally stable family/pack unit.