Building a Relationship

It’s not called building a relationship for nothing. It takes time and is a process–it is not as though you bring home your new puppy or adult adopted dog and magically there is a bond and trust in place. You have to build these things from the ground up with each dog–give them a reason to trust you, a reason to want to follow you, and a reason to want to be with you. For most dogs, this is not so much of a challenge. You quickly become worth trusting, worth following, and worth being with if you are even keeled, predictable, do not put the dog in harms way, provide the dog with pleasurable things, and provide the dog with necessities like food and water! It still takes some time for that bond and relationship to fully develop and grow but the foundations are built pretty quickly.

When we are talking about dogs who may have some fear issues or lack of socialization, this process is quite different. These dogs often have a history that tell them not to trust, not to follow, and certainly not to bond with people. Before you even begin to build your relationship, you have to prepare the ground you will be building on–there may be holes, divots, mounds, or debris that needs to be resolved before you can even begin to build the relationship. These dogs often take an incredible amount of time but when they finally come around, there are few things as amazing.

I had one of those amazing moments the other day with a dog I’ve known for just over a year. If you’ve been following my blog or watching the list of “recent graduates” on my Facebook page, you should be familiar with Meika (even if just by name). She has made quite a few appearances on the blog with photos and play time with Shayne and Rio and graduation photos from class.

I first met Meika and her mom in September of last year, she was enrolled in my Sports and Games class at WPHS. Meika had completed a fearful dog class and a basic manners class prior to enrolling in my class. If I remember correctly, Meika’s mom mentioned that Meika was quite a fearful dog but was very much so a flee dog and not a fight dog (which is not always the case with fearful GSDs). I wasn’t really sure what to expect when she came into class but was glad she was able to make it up the scary exterior steps of our old building as a first step.

I knew before hand that she would not be a dog I could snuggle or work and that was perfectly fine. But I didn’t realize just how much of a difference my proximity would change her behavior. At one point we were playing a game and one of the criteria was getting their dog to sit a certain number of times. I knew that Meika knew this behavior but she was struggling. I checked my distance and I was about 8 ft from her so I tried moving further away and once I was about 12 ft away, Meika was able to sit. She wasn’t panicking if I walked close to give her mom information or things but she was over threshold and could not respond to cues and certainly wanted nothing to do with me. Over the course of the 6 week class, this threshold shrunk significantly and she was able to think and work even if I was very close (still ignoring her).

Meika was enrolled in 3 or 4 other classes with me over the course of the year and we had breakthrough after breakthrough. By the end of the second round of Sports and Games, I was able to help lure Meika into positions, could hold her leash while her mom walked to another side of the tunnel, and she had started to play with a tug toy with me after class. If I remember correctly it was after 11 total weeks of class that I was able to slyly pet her for the first time. That was a big moment for us and I was super excited.

We continued to build a relationship as I became friends with Meika’s mom and we began hanging out and having canine adventures outside of the classes she was taking. I’ve had the pleasure of hanging out with Meika and her mom at least a few times a month over the last 4 or 5 months. With each of our adventures (whether that is in class our out in the world), Meika has been evolving into a very different dog. She stared out totally ignoring me and rushing Shayne and Rio during our walks but the last time we all got together, she actually investigated me before Shayne and Rio! While she doesn’t generally solicite petting, she’s let me pet her and has enjoyed the butt skritches I offer.

That level of petting was nothing compared to the surprise I got a few days ago. I stopped by Meika’s mom’s house for a quick visit and as usual we got to talking about training. At some point or another Meika got some zoomies and solicited play from me (which she has done in the past with toys), so I bounced around into the human version of a play bow (bending at the waist with a relaxed happy face and a huff-like noise). She got super excited and we played like this for quite a while–I even started initiating some play with my hands, playfully “hitting” the side of her neck and she just kept getting into it and initiating contact and having fun.

After I got tired running around with her and bouncing and playing, I knelt on the ground and she came right up to me and gave me her butt to scratch. She then spun around and pushed into me even harder for some petting. I was following a “5 seconds” rule where I pet for 5 seconds then stop and see if the dog reengages or if they walk away and she kept reengaging with me. The moment she nearly knocked me over because she leaned into me so hard was pretty fantastic… I was actually a bit overwhelmed by the experience–I never expected for her to solicit that type of physical attention from anyone but her mom. I was pretty shocked and definitely soaked in each second of the interaction because it was just so sweet. There hasn’t ever been any real pressure on Meika to interact with me so it’s that much sweeter to know that she made such a free choice.

She went from a dog who was over threshold if I was within 12 ft of her to a dog who was leaning into me for petting with such force she nearly knocked me over. I’m sure we will have more ups and downs and it won’t always be cuddle time but I cannot be more proud of the relationship we have built thus far (and super proud of her general increase in confidence and outlook on life and people). The journey has taken a lot of time and patience and it hasn’t been a linear route but she is absolutely well on her way to being a more confident and social dog with people!

1 Comment
  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with Meika! Her mom must have been so thrilled to see her relaxed with another person and actually soliciting pets repeatedly! My dog isn’t big on strangers herself and though she will often warm up to someone enough to be around them or to play, she rarely enjoys touching. Heck, most of the time she doesn’t even want me to touch her when we are out of the house. The few times she has actually seemed to want someone other than my husband or I to pet her have brought tears to my eyes.

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