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Emotional Resiliency

I've meant to write this post for some time now, and I've always put it off because there's a lot of ground to cover and it's a topic that isn't discussed as often as it should be in the dog world.

In an ideal world, every dog would have emotional resiliency. The world would knock a dog flat on their butt, as the world is wont to do, and the dog would dust themselves off, take a deep breath, and carry on. A dog that broke their leg as a puppy wouldn't develop a lifelong fear of handling and vets. A dog that had an older dog lay them out, wouldn't develop fear of dogs. Traumatic things happen. They're part of life. And we all deserve a dog that can take that trauma and carry on with their life in stride.

Some small part of emotional resiliency is building and fostering that in our dogs. It sticks best if practiced young, but there's a lot we can do for even new-to-us adult dogs too. The biggest point, in my experience, is to comfort but not to coddle. Puppy play time during puppy classes is a good example of that. Many puppies stick very close to their humans when first being introduced to group puppy play. It can be utterly overwhelming to puppies. When I taught puppy classes regularly, people would hold their dogs close, if puppies came up to explore, they would turn away, telling their puppy in a tight voice "It's okay! It's okay!" While those owners meant well, they meant to comfort their nervous puppy, often instead what they modelled for the puppy was how uncomfortable they themselves were with the situation.

I would walk owners through putting their puppy down. Often the first thing the puppy did was hide under a chair or behind their owner. From there you'd see all sorts of actions taken by the owners. Some would push their puppies out into the fray before their puppies were ready. Some would scoop them back up. Still others would pet their puppy while other puppies approached and often hug their puppy against their legs. The problem is- pushing a puppy before they're ready can lead to emotional outbursts - snapping, barking. Picking them back up doesn't teach them any coping mechanisms at all. And often holding your puppy tight against your legs as other puppies approach is restraining them and giving them no way to get away if they were uncertain. I encouraged owners to largely ignore their puppies if they were hiding. There's nothing wrong with taking a step back and watching. Nothing at all, in fact it's a healthy coping mechanism, but with young dogs where the goal is to build confidence around other dogs, sitting back and watching isn't actively working towards that goal, so I don't reinforce the behavior. Once the dog starts peaking out and venturing into interactions, I'll quietly praise- "Good, good dog". I want to keep it low key enough that they aren't pulled toward me but still encouraging to them in their interactions. In this way, we built a willingness to take a risk.

Inevitably, because they're puppies, once they started interacting, something would happen. A puppy would barrel over them, or grab their ear, or chase them, or a chair would fall over. Again, owners would default to grabbing their scared puppy, letting their own uncertainty feed into the puppy's fear. Again, I would coach them through letting the puppy work through the problem by themselves. Certainly, if the puppy was beside themselves, I might have the owner step out for a break, I'd encourage them to make their location known to the puppy. If other puppies were chasing theirs and it was frightening their puppy, I'd have them step in between, but ultimately, I'd encourage owners to let the puppy work through the situation by themselves. If they went and hid under the share, that was okay. Yes, the puppy was nervous, but most of the time the puppy was removing themselves from conflict (a good thing) and processing. I like to let puppies do that, because that's how they learn. If we always swoop into save them, they don't build coping strategies. Generally within two classes the puppies might go hide briefly, but within a minute or two they'd then immediately start to venture out again. They'd shake themselves off and give it another go.

This is one small way that we can help dogs build emotional resiliency. It's not only applicable to puppies (though they are far far more malleable). One of the jobs that I use Anubi for often is building confidence in teenage and adult dogs. They problem with working older dogs through an uncertainty of other dogs is that they have already solidified coping mechanisms for dealing with dogs, and those coping mechanisms often aren't healthy choices at times, they're dangerous choices, and they tend to be highly ingrained. That being said, with the right dog who naturally knows when to push, when to ignore, when to solicit much of the same process can be built, so dogs that were afraid of other dogs are able to be more resilient to interactions with them. This is work that the right training professional (and usually demo dog) can work through with a dog, but it's specialized and sometimes slow going work.

However, while there are things that you can do to systematically build emotional resiliency in our dogs, I firmly believe that this is a trait that is highly genetic. Have you ever seen (in person or in a story on social media) a dog that has been through hell - we're talking thrown out of a car, kicked, running on the streets for months, taken in by someone who then chained them in the back yard where they were picked on by other dogs level of hell - yet still is wagging their tail gently as an adopter comes to say hi? These are the dogs unphased by the hectic shelter life you look at you with soft eyes and accept the kindness that is finally shown to them eagerly. Or they might be the dog that looks at you defiantly saying- yeah, I've been through hell? What's it to you? Bring it!

That's what genetic resiliency looks like. It is, in my experience, the purest form of a dog that rolls with the punches, no matter how much life has thrown that them. They're the dog that hasn't been treated like glass and yet still never broke. Street dog, mix, or purebred I have an unwavering respect for those dogs and we need more dogs like that in the world. Unfortunately, it's far more common to see dogs utterly shut down, even from very minor trauma. That's where you start to run into- it's okay my dog has [X behavioral problem] they're a rescue. And while yes, trauma can cause behavioral issues, so can just regular uncurated, unguided life.

This is one of the benefits of getting a purpose bred dog. Ideally, the breeder is selecting for emotional resiliency. It doesn't matter the breed or mix of dogs, all dogs (and really all living creatures) benefit from solid nerves, from emotional resiliency. And I will posit that this is potentially not a trait that is valued and sought as highly as perhaps it should be.

I have been very fortunate to work with dozens (there are roughly 300 in the US) of Azawakh (beside my own) in a professional capacity. I can confidently say that emotional resiliency is highly lacking in the breed and it often leads to some much more serious behavioral concerns.

Check out the amount of scarring, photo Corey Polis

I took a lot of heat for breeding Tabiri due to his thyroid, breeding on a failed health test is controversial, I absolutely understand. However, before I got Tabiri, he went through a lot of trauma in his life. His first owner loved him, but Tabiri definitely did have long days at home alone, likely longer than was really fair to him. Then he managed to deglove himself likely due to hanging up on his owner's fence. I can't really emphasize enough the amount of damage he suffered. He had multiple skin grafts, countless stitches. In the struggle, he exerted enough force to damage vertebra in his neck. Yet both his first owner and his breeder attested to how good a patient he was throughout his recovery, never a complaint, he just took it all stoically.

Taken on a walk at his breeder's

He returned to his breeder for about a year and a half and then eventually he came to me. When I met him I was very impressed with his demeanor. It was clear her didn't trust me, but he followed me. He wasn't hysterical. His breeder lives on a quiet dead end and while I was getting to know Tabiri, a bicycle came down, circled us a couple times, and then carried on their business. And he watched cautiously, but she didn't try to bolt, he didn't lunge, he didn't bark. He just watched quietly. I had gone into the trip prepared to not take him home if he wasn't the right fit but I was stunned by how self-possessed and stable he was.

Literally three days after we got him home, we took him and the other four dogs on a hike. He was on a long line, the other dogs were loose, but as we heard dogs crashing through the brush, we leashed them. It was three out of control Labs who launched themselves at my dogs in a hyper aroused fashion. They pinned Ami and Anu tried to fend them off. Tabiri stood there making himself as big as possible but not fleeing. After we sent the Labs packing, he was wary of dogs we passed afterwards, but still non-reactive, simply on guard. The next day we drove 5.5 hours south of a dog handling retreat. He stayed with my four other dogs, a Wolfhound, a Podengo, two Basenjis, two Aussies, and a Berger Picard. And while he didn't meet all of them, he knew they were there. He participated in the handling clinic briefly and was turned loose with my friends Podengo and Wolfhound. He was stoic, calm, and guarded but curious. He's since taken a UKC Best in Show and finished his UCH and racing championship.

That's who Tabiri is - stable, nerves of steel, and incredibly resilient. That's why I chose to breed him. Those are traits that the dog world needs. Those are traits that the breed needs. Lack of resiliency can be a death sentence. As someone who has counseled many people through behavioral euthanasia, this is a fact that is undeniable to me.

Recently, I had a puppy returned to me. They'd had a rough time of it. A flight in cargo that was a bit traumatic. A lot of conflict and misunderstanding in his first home. This was the most laidback puppy I'd ever produced, so I was shocked to hear the conflicts they were having. Instead of putting them on a plane again so soon, a friend of mine took them to work with and assess. The first day was rather rough. It's a hard transition and I expected the puppy to need some time to adjust. Within a day the puppy was seeking my friend's attention. Within two the puppy was happily playing and seeking my friend for comfort. The issues they'd been having started to melt away and I could again see the happy puppy that I knew. Five days after arriving, the puppy attended a handling class (somewhat impromptu) and they handled it great. Even when there's no abuse, no neglect, the wrong fit home for a dog can still leave lasting effects on them, yet the puppy was willing to trust, willing to give someone new a chance. That's real resiliency.

I would never pretend that my dogs are perfect. As an example, Ami is very soft, she's been fouled in racing and lure coursing and it left her hesitant to pass. She had a rough start with strange dogs as a young dog and she still isn't a huge fan of strange dogs. She could benefit from more resiliency in some ways, Yet, earlier this year with minimal practice she ran in flyball with three other dogs she'd never met in the pack and handled it without batting an eye, so that resiliency is still there.

I'm starting with strong emotional resiliency in my foundation dogs. This was something that was non-negotiable for me. It's, in fact, something I don't talk about that often because it's such a given. I am not going to breed on from a dog that crumbles from a minor inconvenience or pressure. I don't want to live with that and I certainly don't want to send a puppy to a home that is less prepared to deal with it than I am (since most homes aren't professional trainers that work with behavioral issues).

If I had to pick one trait that was more valued by breeders, it would be hands down nerves and resiliency.

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