“He’s fine” is often code for “he’s not biting”
Hi my name is _____ and I have a 3 year old miniature Schnauzer. I am emailing you because I’m interested in training for him. I have a problem with him and my granddaughter. He is fine when she pets him and fine when she hugs him but if she is running around and playing, he starts getting aggressive. I’m at my wits end and don’t know what to do, is this something you can help me with?”
This doesn’t sound too bad right? The dog likes the child in general but probably just gets over aroused when she’s playing and gets rough–probably not. I’ve learned that “fine” often means anything but “fine” in most situations. When I got more information from the emailer, I discovered that their idea of “fine when she pets him” meant that he would desperately try to hide behind a couch or under a table when the child came around, when the kid persisted he would stop moving, lower his head, and look away while the child was petting and would escape the first opportunity he had. “Fine when she hugs” was even scarier, the dog freezes, looks away, lip licks, gets a very tense face, ears back, and whale eye (they sent a lovely picture). This dog, was not fine. What he was, was simply not biting–he was in no way “fine” with any of the situations.
The owners were asking me to help him be “fine” with her running around like he was “fine” with the petting and hugging. I brought out all the body language books, cartoons, and sheets to help educate the family on their dog’s body language and that their idea of “fine” was my idea of “not biting… yet.” Apparently that wasn’t what they wanted to hear because I was told over and over again that “he’s fine” even though I showed them all the pictures of the stress behaviors their dog was showing and how it could escalate into a bite. We ultimately parted ways because I wasn’t comfortable with their training goals and as much as I tried to educate them on why I felt the way I did, they were just interested in a quick fix to make him ‘fine’.
My end goal is never for a dog to be “fine” with a situation– at the very least, I want a dog to be confident and tolerant in a situation and would ideally like for a dog to be comfortable in situation. I think we need to move past the general population’s idea of “fine” which often means too shut down to protest, or showing lots of subtle signs of stress, or simply not biting, or existing in a state of learned helplessness. I want dogs to have more comfort, more confidence, more agency, and more understanding of situations.
Shayne’s issues with going to the vet have been pretty well documented on the blog over the last two years. She has come a long way and most people would see her as “fine.” She is tolerant, mostly operant (thinking/working), but she is no where near confident or comfortable with the situation. She’s hyper-vigilant, hyperactive, panting, and over-aroused in the situation–it’s better than the learned helplessness turned aggressive warning system I had for a while but it’s not what I want. Our work is not not yet done with her concerns about the vet and we may never get there without the help of calming treats or potentially medication to help, but I want to get her to a point where she is confident and tolerant in the vet’s office (I think comfortable may be a bit much to ask)–I want more than “fine.”