Monday, February 6, 2012

Is Your Tail Half Up or Half Down?

All I have to say about tonight's Reactive Dog Class is thank goodness for the Dog People. We tried an interaction between Brewster and the teacher's dog, Gracie. Gracie was very eager to be introduced (it might've been the smell of very special treats coming from my treat pouch), and she came bopping up to us more quickly than Brewster liked, so he snapped at her. I was terrified and mortified. Had that happened out in the world, I undoubtedly would've had to cope with an angry human who would insist that her dog was "Just trying to be friendly!" and "Your dog is mean!" But, being Dog People, our teachers weren't even phased.

Karla, Gracie's human, called Brewster's snap a "smile," which is a rather surprising way to characterize it. She explained that when Brewster snaps he is showing Gracie his limits, which is a communication that should be respected. Karla repeated to me several times until she was sure I heard, "Brewster isn't aggressive. He's afraid." Thinking back, I realize that she's repeated this during every class, but tonight is the first time I've really paid attention. I have always characterized Brewster as "fear-aggressive." I have always known that it's fear that causes him to lash out. But Karla's insistence on categorizing fearful behavior and aggressive behavior as two completely separate things, even though they may look the same, is a new concept for me. I don't really understand what the implications for this are, except that, at its very base, it means that Brewster is not a "bad" dog. Karla is Director of Operations at the Humane Society, and when the Director of Operations tells you that your dog is really just misunderstood, you kind of want to giggle maniacally in relief. I'm considering asking her for a signed and notarized statement that I can show to anyone who so much as shoots me and the Little Dude a dirty look: "Brewster: Certified Good Dog."* 

After the snap, the four of us--two humans and two canines--sat down on the floor together and shared some of the very good treats. At one point I had Gracie and Brewster eating from both my hands at the same time, which our teachers were very impressed with. I wasn't that surprised. After all, Brewster and Maddie the Underdog get along. The barrier to Brewster's friendship with Gracie is simply that it's taking place in a big room with a bunch of noisy big dogs who scare his whiskers off.

The other "event" from this evening was Brewster's reaction to simply walking into the classroom. Instead of dropping, his tail stayed at half-mast for quite a while, and he even walked right up to the two assistant trainers who have been working with him during previous classes. When some of the other dogs started barking, it dropped all the way, but even then, as Karla pointed out, it was never "clamped," or tucked all the way under. It's a sign that, although he'll never be an outgoing or gregarious dog, Brewster is capable of existing in the world with strangers.

So, since I always try to make an effort to be an optimist, I'm calling the water glass half full instead of half empty, or, perhaps more appropriately, I'm classifying the tail as half up instead of half down.

*Jess over at the DINOS Facebook page makes the important point that dogs who are dog-dog aggressive but not fearful are not bad dogs. She says, "Some of the best therapy dogs I know are dog-aggressive dogs." My thoughts in this paragraph have more to do with my own mostly suppressed fear that Brewster might be irredeemable and my relief at hearing from an authoritative source that he isn't. It should not be taken as my judgment on dogs with challenges different than Brewster's!  

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