Rubber Bands & Harriette's Barking
Harriette's energy is bound up like the bands of the World's Biggest Rubber Band Ball.
Sure, energy definitely isn't stationary, but bear with me a moment while I work through this. For a little background picture, Harriette is a two and a half year old Bichon mix, I've known her for four days, and she's got a few nervous tics. She's on more than four medications for itching, but overall she's a happy pup, and doesn't mind the treatments, or the neck cone she wears if that scratching gets to be too much and she could hurt herself.
I observed her sunbathing on the window seat this afternoon, looking quite comfortable, when all of a sudden she noticed some offensive object outside and she... SNAPPED! Okay, she barked. You know the kind: explosive, screeching and blaming the world. "Snap" was the first word that came to mind, but as soon as it arrived, I loved the idea.
The Dirty Word(s): Red Zone
I'm sure you've heard of a few concepts describing our dogs going nuts. One I especially dislike is "red zone," since the words connote the type of thinking that keeps you from being able to help your dog. "Red" is bloody, scary, hot, stoplight. Halt, freeze, do not touch. Careful. "Zone" is indicative of space or time. From here to there; then to "When?" It's mysterious. You have to guess when it'll end. A literal space separates you from your pup while he's in that "zone," since you don't want to get too close or you may get hurt.
The worst part? "Zone" describes a single event. According to dominance theories, even if your pup goes from a Level 9 to a Level 8, it's not good enough. You can't let up on alpha-rolling her or (warning: sarcasm) sending calm energy through your body, down your arm with which you're restraining her on the ground. You need to wait until she's at least down to a 4. Okay, now she's out of the "zone".
No. By lumping it all together, it becomes impossible to sort out the tiny moments during which you could have seized the opportunity to redirect, or to find some other way to help. If you can - if you would like - a new way of thinking about your pup's breakdowns, I'd love to share a different view of what may be going on, and explain how you might use this Rubber Band / Snap! idea to help your dog, both at the moment and long term. Keep in mind that I'm no expert, so take from this post what you will.
The Energy Bound Within
Since I don't know Harriette well enough to say for sure what she's going through when she lost it for a second there, I'm going to come up with a hypothetical pup, Casey the "Every Dog," and run a little scenario by you. Imagine Casey as two months old. He's got a ton of energy; instinctual energy, just bursting to be utilized. He needs to chew, needs to bark, needs to run, needs to cuddle, needs to be taught what's safe to encounter, and needs to learn a few techniques for how to get rid of that energy. The first rubber bands are tied together, and his little ball has started.
Now let's say he's 9 months old, an adolescent. Bands are added with each experience that creates a well of emotion inside him, and now the ball is about the size of your fist. They're layered on nice and easy, without much stretching. If one day Casey is startled by the doorbell and no one's home to help him get rid of the emotion (fear, perhaps?) that's enveloped his body -- not to worry. It'll hold. These are new, freshly manufactured rubber bands.
And now Casey is two, and the ball has grown to the size of a cantaloupe. The new bands are stretched to their limit. You can see cracks in some of them. A few of those original bands are really getting old, and are beginning to break inside. And now every time the doorbell rings, Casey feels that intense rush of energy and a new band is placed on the ball. But it's too much tension. The band snaps.
The Replacement Word: SNAP!
Say it a few times. Snap! It lasts for half a second when you say it. The word elicits a powerful, fleeting moment. Sure, there might be momentary pain, but it's soon forgotten. May have been annoying to deal with, but now that you're over the shock, you can figure out how to deal with it.
When Casey reacts to something in way you don't like, try to think of his response as a result of a sudden surge of emotional energy. Too much for him to handle, so he snapped. But that reaction is done. Over with. Snap. Sure, he may still be barking, this is simply a rebound effect. The rubber band has broken, but now it's whipping about before it settles.
Don't get mad if your pup isn't listening to you. He's not asserting his dominance by ignoring you. He simply doesn't feel as attracted to you as he does to whatever brought about that energy and caused the huge SNAP in the first place!
How About Poor Harriette?
I'm not sure if I initially made the right move to help the tension of the "Something-Walking-By-The-House-Bothers-Me" snap. Her barking startled me, so I gasped and in knee-jerk fashion, gave a curt, "Hey!" for her to stop. She did, for a millisecond, and then went right back to it, as wildly as before. Gasp and "hey" probably added tension to the band. Darn.
So I took a moment and decided to try redirecting Harriette. As counter-intuitive as it sounds -- since the "reinforcement experts" say you're not supposed to praise bad behavior -- I would wait for the slightest indication that her attention wasn't 100% on the offender, and then redirect that attention towards me. So I took a breath, tried to forget about what the neighbors must be thinking, and watched. It took about 25 seconds, but finally Harriette relaxed her shoulders back a bit. The tiniest movement. I called to her a sort of direct, happy and certain voice, "Come check this out!" and leaned over towards the ground. And guess what? She was thrilled to leave her post as Guardian-Of-The-Window-Seat and come on over to me. As she did, I saw the woman walking past my house pushing a stroller and walking a lab. Hmm.
Harriette wasn't completely satisfied, however. She ran back over to the window and gave another few barks, but within seconds she dropped her focus on the lady, a tiny moment, and tilted her head towards me. There was another chance to stop that rubber band from whipping about! So I called to her again, and this time she didn't return to the window.
Did I actually teach her that she can come to me with stress, rather than directing it at the outside world? Did I help her learn how best to release that energy? I don't know. Probably not. She was only with us for a few days. But I do know that as the days went on, she did bark at the neighbors less often. Thanks to Harriette for teaching me this lesson, because it'll help me with all my future Snappers!