Will you be my friend? – Dana’s story, part 5

We are a two-dog household. So why would we need to meet up with other dogs? My dogs already have a member of their own species for company. For some dogs, that may indeed be all they need, especially if they get along very well. But for my dogs, that was never enough. They are a fair match in terms of personality and relationship, but not a great one, so meeting others would be a good addition to their social lives. Especially Dana, whose reaction to other dogs was so strong when out and about, would benefit greatly from interacting with others, I knew. Just how would we do that?

The idea for this website came to me over a year ago, while I was out walking with Corey. The reason was that “recruiting” dogs and humans to walk with is not easy around here! We needed a person who was willing to meet up with us in the evenings or weekends because I have to work during the day on week days. That was difficulty number one. Difficulty number two: the dog in question needed to be well-adjusted and social, as a dog who is themselves coping badly with their environment or with Dana herself would only stress Dana out more. Frankly, most of the dogs we meet around here are anything but well-adjusted! I didn’t immediately put the website idea into practice, and we went down another route at first: asking friends and acquaintances to help us out with their dogs. None of it worked out, as there were either scheduling issues, or the dog turned out not to be a good match.

So we met up with Els of Freedogz for social walks in a wonderful, open area with high grass and lots of water. She offers those social walks as part of her services and has two lovely dogs who help out with that. Dana met Lissa, the Australian Cattle Dog, first, and later Imaree, the Labrador, and she got along splendidly with both of them. The experience was very liberating, a careful approach, and then simply moving at her own pace, interacting with the other dog, exploring the surroundings together. And there was SO much to explore! The only downside was: it was an hour’s drive away, and for Dana, that was so very hard at the time, so we started looking for other solutions once again.

While Dana’s initial reaction to an unfamiliar dog was tense, depending on the situation even bordering on extreme, it was not so much of a problem once she was actually freely interacting with that dog. Her behaviour was never in any way aggressive. Oddly enough, she wanted to approach every single dog we ever met, and right THIS instant. If she was allowed to, she would fiddle about* (react in an overly exuberant way, in a huge playbow, barking at the dog as an additional invitation to play – not that any dogs went for that, it was always too much!) and then calm down and interact normally. If she didn’t get to approach, barking and jumping ensued. Until present day, it’s hard to be sure: Does she need to approach them because she’s worried about them and needs to make sure that they are not a danger to her by going up close (a good position to defend or to fiddle about, if needed), or is she just so keen on meeting other dogs that she can’t resist. I suspect it’s the former, because this behaviour only started after her awful encounter with that dog when she first came to us. Either way, once she has ascertained that the dog we’re meeting is okay, she does enjoy interacting with them very much.

*A little “excursion” for anyone not familiar with the term: fiddling about! There are 4 possible strategies any individual can use in a situation they perceive as potentially dangerous: 1) Freeze: don’t move, wait for it to pass, or take time to make a decision 2) Flight: run awaaaaay! 3) Fight: A good offense is the best defence, or so they say. And last but not least, and not so well known 4) Fiddle about. That’s when the individual tries very hard to make the “threat” take a liking to them, by playing and being “jolly”. The difference between this fiddling about and normal, relaxed play can be recognised from the fact that fiddling about looks more (in)tense, over the top, bigger movements. While it seems so much happier, a dog who keeps fiddling about needs to get out of the situation just as much as one who is about to fight, freezes or tries to flee.

What I was hoping to get out of the social walks was to a) fulfill her social needs so she won’t have that irresistible urge any more and b) restore her trust in others of her species. I’ll tell you how that’s working out in a bit!

I eventually put my idea into practice and started this website, stating what we were offering and what we were looking for. It’s been easy enough finding walking mates for Corey, but still not so much for Dana. Though among her friends, she can now count Monkey, the wonderful pug, as well as two Shelties and a Collie (all from the same household, so we walk together with all three of them). We also occasionally just walk along for a little while with whomever we happen to meet, if dog and owner are a good match. While I always hand out a “business card” with the link to our website, we rarely ever hear back. This kind of walking does not appeal to everyone, it seems. And that’s okay. We will keep trying!

So, what did this do for us? Well, the more often Dana had friendly contact with dogs, the less extreme her reaction became. Despite that fact that good social opportunities for her don’t come along often, her reaction between then and now upon seeing a dog has gone from “complete freak-out” to “pulling a little, whining or going a little tense”, and continues to improve. Of course the social walks aren’t the only reason her reactivity to dogs has diminished so much. She has just become more relaxed altogether, thanks to the interplay of all the things we did, and probably more importantly the things we didn’t do! But the social aspect is still an extremely important one, and we mean to pursue it in the future. Now that Dana is not so bothered any more by riding in the car, we have more possibilities as well.

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