We spent the weekend on a workshop for rescue dogs. We work on training me to pick up more nuances in Cauta’s behaviour. Trying to fine tune observations, or as the behaviourist Roz Pooley says, ‘listen with our eyes.’
I start to see more clearly the anxiety that could lie behind the blustering. The silent but unmistakable flinch when a man moves in the vicinity. A tongue flick, a head turn. His wariness of some men has not shown so clearly before, he covers it well, until in this situation, at this time, the fog is cleared. Now he has started barking at particular men on walks, a communication that never came to the surface before.
I see him in a different light, the boisterous dog straining to get to the other dogs may, in his mind, be on a pre-emptive strike. Sometimes I think he genuinely wants to play, but perhaps not always. Perhaps he is working to pre-empt any chance of what, for him, could be a threatening situation. If he puffs himself up, the required effect on the other is to show a confident persona. But underneath, it’s a different story. This seems driven by anxious insecurity and quickly falls apart if the other does not accept his posturing.
This fits in with what we saw recently. A much smaller dog ran out of his open back gate and launched himself at Cauta. Apparently Cauta did not bark, lunge, or indeed make any sound. He ran away as fast as he could, pulling the lead into the air in the process. Thankfully the owners of the escaped dog called him back and thankfully Cauta’s recall work paid off and he returned to safety by my partner’s side. But when I heard the story later, with Cauta panting in a heap at my feet, this seemed important.
He did not fight, despite his size. He did not even bark. Ultimately he attempted to avoid conflict; I think this tells me a lot about this particular dog. For days afterward he took to laying under the table in the corner, or the bush in the garden, perhaps it felt safer under cover.
I wonder about how we can get to know our dogs. Is there ever a ‘definitive’ version? Like us, there is no static entity known as Cauta, but a changing, fluid identity which depends as much on whose eyes we are looking through, as to what we see.
I think on how hard it can be to see emotionally, it seems sometimes we use words to package, make what is nearly unbearable acceptable and sanitised. We use a language of ‘triggers’, ‘below threshold’, ‘over aroused.’, ‘extinction burst’. A scientific lexicon makes the experience easier to digest and think about. What are we really seeing?
A being in distress. Raw emotions such as terror, pain, rage, desperation or confusion, and/or a potent mix.
For humans who experience this repeatedly with their dogs, perhaps we are in the arena of re-traumatization for the human, not to mention the experience of shelter workers who experience this over and over again.
It would be hard not to burn out or become numb, just to cope with the everyday reality.
So this is a nod to all those who work with this level of distress every day.
Here’s to you and the dogs you stay with.
Cauta, it’s safe to come out now.
With thanks to Julia Bedford, Celia Bourne, Emma Boalch and all at Canine Relate.