Friday, August 27

Wherein Popper becomes a Security Blanket and Dax becomes a Real Dog

I nearly sat down on the grass and cried today.

Not the "oh no, life is awful," sort of cry, but the "oh my God, I am so relieved, comforted, and happy" sort.

Today I took Dax to the human park for the first time. I picked a time where it wouldn't be too busy, but that there would be some people around to provide opportunities for rewarding. I also brought along Popper, who is a veritable social butterfly around humans. My heart swelled with glee when Dax bounded out of the car, tail wagging, and proceeded to dash around furiously, splash through creeks (the water phobic dog!), chase squirrels and bark merrily at cats. You would have thought he was a normal dog. Surely this was not the anxiety-filled, scrawny mess of a dog who jumped twelve feet at the smallest sound just a few weeks ago. Dax was playing and frolicking like the puppy he is. He boldly bounded into thickets, bounced his way across fields, and in general, behaved much like any other ten month old. He had happy tail the entire hour and a half we spent at the park. I feel like we sailed around the world.

I don't mean to say he's "fixed." He's not. While new places aren't so scary (particularly those outside), he's still pretty wary of people. And I say wary - because we've stepped up from terrified. Yes, we had a few woofs, and he did start chasing a little kid who was running by (quite motion responsive), but we approached or walked much closer to people than we have been. Indeed, Dax turned it into a game, where he would run up to a person, sniff their shoes, and then dash back to the relative safety of Mom. Did I reward the heck out of him? You bet. He particularly loved this two year old who was walking with his mother. He kept going up to the child again and again. I asked the Mom if we could follow behind them for a while since Dax was so taken with the little boy, and we spent an enjoyable time where Dax was STRAINING to see someone. That has never happened before. Dax has begun to have more and more "mild" reactions where he "freezes" momentarily when he sees someone - and then we continue on. The barking is becoming less, the dashing madly away at any reaction on the stranger's part is becoming more of a trot.

I'm pretty sure we can get Dax over "stranger danger," to a degree - he is a cattle dog, after all, not a breed known for being overly affectionate to those they are not familiar with. He is intensely curious in people, and as long as they ignore him, he feels much more comfortable to go check them out. But poor socialization, being yelled at often, and God knows what else have made this little dog a wreck about new folks. If I'm not careful with his interactions, he'll get diarrhea from being so worked up about it.

Popper was actually one of my last choices to walk with Dax. He barks at anything and everything, and he's a NIGHTMARE on the leash if I walk another dog with him. In fact, all of his own personal issues are amplified if I don't walk him solo. However, two things Popper does have, unfailingly, and in huge scores, is fearlessness and a natural joy for life. I walked the two together last night just to try it, and the effect it had on Dax was instantaneous and remarkable. I could see that dog swell with confidence as surely as if he were playing in his own backyard. We were a bit lucky we did not run into other dogs though; while Popper is dog-friendly, he is not quite as reliably so when he's on leash and will bark incessantly when he sees one.

I have since decided that Popper and Dax will be regular walking buddies, and Popper will accompany Dax on all future visits to parks, pet stores, and everywhere else we go. Sure, it's a crutch. But you bet I'm going to exploit the heck out of it. If one day Dax decides humans are as awesome as my other dogs do, I may wean him off of Popper so he can be confident on his own. But that's a long time away. For right now, I'm going to do whatever it takes to help Dax feel like the "real dog" I saw at the park today. Because he deserves it.

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