I am sitting across from a woman. She is propped up toward the edge of the couch, slightly hunched, leaning forward, seemingly defeated. She is looking down into her lap where her hands are resting, still, except for her thumbs and forefingers. They are locked into a nervous little rhythm. I am there with her. I shift slightly in my seat as I try to find a place to join her, to meet her where she is.
When I arrived at the house she came out to greet me without her dog. I do this occasionally so I can have a moment with the human half of the equation. People often surprise me and never turn out to be exactly what I thin slice from an email. She was no exception. We talked for a few moments while the dog was inside. Things were quiet. I noted an absence of barking. What was also notable in that moment was she, like everyone, was focused on all of the biting. Not surprising. We did do a “head count” and arrived at the number 10. He had bitten 10 people, including everyone that lives with him. (Note: For those in the know, these were Level 2 on the Dunbar Scale.) That was weighing on her and, though I did ask, I already knew why.
Out the door and down the steps, sniffing the ground, he walks nonchalantly across his yard. He lifts his head and I watch. I am in full view and moving slightly as I do not want to be perfectly still, be something he has to figure out. He lowers his head and the strip of fur running from his shoulders to his tail, that litmus test for physiological change, shot up like fireworks. Head turning left, then right, eyes trained on me. Flashes of white from widened eyes, pink appearing just below his twitching nose, and finally, the faint rumbles of a low growl filled the space between us. There was no conflict here. No uncertain approach. I am watching a dog quietly screaming for space.
Once we get into the house - I enter first and place myself in a corner chair - I do everything I can short of leaving to help him. Avert eyes, soft, quiet and still without being frozen, 45º angle, ensuring the dog has all the space I can possibly give him. He hops up on the couch, flattens himself out, nose pointed toward his owners, eyes pressed as far left as he could, starting at me, locked and loaded. I turn my head slightly. This is met with an explosion. This dog just made himself appear to be two times his actual size. Up. On the edge of the couch, balanced perfectly on the tips of his toes, muzzle up reaching, straining to occupy as much space as he can. I get smaller in response.
He never moved off the couch even though he had plenty of leash left to do so. He really just wanted me to go. My mere presence was more than he was comfortable with. We put him in another room, with something that he could chew on. We did not hear a single protest.
In cases like these, this first session usually turns out to be part functional assessment part therapy session. Note: I am not a therapist. Most times though I am the first responder. I am the first person who can or wants to talk about what is happening and bring with me not only information but a safe space to unload their frustration, hurt, disappointment, confusion. Shame.
Inevitably, the first and biggest question is: WHY? In this case, the dog was purchased from a breeder, came to a loving family, with other dogs, and a home with moderate traffic. He got walked everyday and had a big fenced-in backyard. The one thing that was missing was a socialization schedule. He went places occasionally. Let’s just say, if you understand socialization you would recognize a gap. For the average dog owner, this would not be apparent. As we go down the rabbit hole a bit more, it is clear that this little guy had been showing the puppy version of fear. Simply, he was not approaching people. This still did not deliver the why. She really wanted to know, "Why?"
We sit. She breathes. I begin. “The why is buried in the what.” I explain. If we look at history, we are identifying factors instead of functions. We could be spinning around the past, dizzyingly trying to pin the tail on the proverbial donkey instead of stepping into the present. As Susan Friedman has said (and this could be one of my TOP 10 Friedman Favorites), it is time for our “WTF" moment: What’s The Function? We move into the contingency analysis and identify the events that are both eliciting some observable respondents and evoking the operant behaviors. We look clearly and concisely at the patterns of subtracted (negative) reinforcement. The added (positive) punishment was limited to the verbal correction - almost a human reflex - of saying, “No!” I find myself relieved. I am pretty sure a shock collar would have sealed his fate.
The room now feels neutral. There has been a dissolution of helplessness. I am searching for any sign of relief. I hear it. A deep breath. She takes a deep breath. We continue onto management, rearranging antecedents, choice, consent, enriching his environment and yes, we discuss getting a consult with behavior vet to discuss the possibility of pharmacological support.
And there it is again. Another deep breath.
This client is struggling. There is so much of us attached to the behavior of our dogs. I know there is guilt around wanting to live a different life, a life without him. That thought and the fact that he is loved crash into one another like a head on collision. Finding the why inside the what has provided clarity, divorced some of the emotion, and given her a path to more forward. Whether she will take that path is another story.