By Dido Panagiotopoulos
"I was a feral dog living in the veld and then under a grandstand at a school. This is the story of my rehabilitation, as told by Dido, my forever mom:"
After the traumatic grooming saga I realized that it was time to seriously undertake a consistent, continuous, compassionate program of systematic desensitization. Unfortunately Dini's fears are deep-seated and all encompassing. Human tools are invariably seen as instruments of torture, whether it's a comb to a broom. A plastic bag fluttering on a branch or walking past an electric box (presumably the buzz inside?) would cause him to jump out of his skin. Read more...
At first it felt overwhelming to know where to start... if the whole world is a big and scary place, where the heck do you even begin? Rather than straight forward training, this was about developing coping and life skills. So it is most important to address the issues he'd be facing most regularly in his life, and especially issues that could mean the difference between life and death. In terms of the most urgent matters, I had to address Dini's fear of water (because we have a swimming pool he needed to know how to swim and where to get out if he fell in... without panicking (insert image 1) and then of course his recalls - to keep him out of danger as much as to keep him out of mischief (obviously we didn't want him living up to his name Houdini and go MIA or AWOL). Dini quickly developed a love for water although he still has the strangest behavior with regards to drinking, and always laps water at the very edge preferably with his nose squished on the edge of the bowl and his tongue dipping in...go figure! In terms of general life skills, the top of my list was meeting and greeting other people and dogs; bathing and grooming (he's a long-haired dog who loves to run through the veld and collect mud, burrs, blackjacks etc) and vet visits. As time would pass new issues and concerns would arise that would need addressing, but for now that was it.
And yes, it is all about positive reinforcement and building confidence, discipline is about structure, not punishment or breaking a dog down - that is essential to remember (even more so with an insecure dog). So when you do a recall - tons of praise, love, treats, so that eventually he learns there is more fulfilling, exciting, rewarding stuff happening with mom than out there in the big wide world. First you reward him for just coming, then you touch and hold his collar every time he comes. Sometimes he gets put back on the leash, sometimes the reward is letting him loose again. The reward doesn't always have to be food - in Dini's case praise and then freedom is anyway worth way more than food. Yes,, this particular issue is still a work in progress and I'm still trying to to figure out how to be more enticing than a wild hare or guinea fowl! It was obvious too from Dini's history that he was used to people chasing him and trying to catch him (which became a game) and from the get go, I promised myself I would never EVER chase Dini (any idea how difficult that is as your newly adopted child disappears over the far horizon???) I did however find doing the complete opposite highly effective - call out for him (loudly and clearly and preferably only once) and if he doesn't return RUN in the opposite direction! It has also worked changing direction regularly and not following the same route, so that you are not following him, but he is following YOU and having to keep an eye on you, rather than just sprinting ahead up the trail, safe in the knowledge you will follow. Remember you are the pack leader and he is the follower! Yes, I know this is all pretty obvious stuff... we KNOW it, but do we DO it (especially when we are tired, frustrated or simply panicking?). There goes (fear-aggressive, reactive) Dini, sprinting up the path heading happily straight for Boerbul who is straining on his leash...mummy's impulse is to run to the rescue, BUT best strategy is to shout loudly for Dini and change direction or do a U-turn. When Dini realizes he neither needs to protect mum and pack NOR does he have mum and pack as backup, he swiftly turns tail and runs back along the track to mum... recall successful and crisis averted!
Ady also taught me that it is all about slow, steady repetitive conditioning NOT pushing boundaries and limits, but working from within them. A well-respected Comrades Marathon Coach always went on about approaching training and the race itself by breaking it down into bitable bits and chewable chunks... and this was exactly what I would have to do for Dini so that he wouldn't choke. For example, Dini's grooming issue... Dini could not tolerate a comb/brush or any grooming implement. So first he'd have to learn to share space with them... in the same room, then closer and closer until they share his favorite spot (in our case it was our bed and the couches... if he wanted to lie in luxury, it would have to be next the brush). Impatience and "flooding" brings no rewards (especially with a dog like Dini). Early on when I did think he was relaxed and had been stroking him I held his collar and tried few gentle strokes with a soft rubber brush - he projectile vomited as soon as I finished. I knew I had to go back to basics. Nothing succeeds like success... imagine my elation after many days had elapsed and I was finally able to stroke Dini with a big (face) powder puff and the back of a pair of scissors. Dogs also have role models, and who better to be good role models to Dini than the other calm, obedient dogs. My others love grooming, and especially the rubber massage brush. Dini would learn to emulate the others in order to get praise and rewards (treats)...as well as just to belong. AND, bonus... I had my own bona fide registered Paws for People Therapy dog, GUMBY! Who better to teach Dini there is nothing to fear (other than fear itself) (Insert Image 2) We regularly feed Dini treats off the brush now too, so he not only associates it with something safe, but will come to associate it with something pleasurable. As with the recalls, the grooming issue is a work in progress! We humans are entirely too impatient... there is no deadline to learning or growth, it is a continual process... and having now adopted Dini, he has a lifetime to become the happy, content, well-adjusted dog he will finally be.