Sophie the Terrified Lab (Published in the IAACP “Safe Hands” Journal, fall, 2011.

Sophie is a real dog. I didn’t make her up as a composite of a bunch of dogs I’ve seen. She’s a four-year-old Labrador retriever. She was one of ten pups and lived exactly as they did. She wasn’t roughly handled or neglected. She wasn’t subjected to loud noises that weren’t also heard by the whole litter. She was cuddled, loved and handled as much and as little as the other pups. Her first owner was a man who wished Sophie to bond solely to him. He planned to make her a hunter. For the first months in his home, he was the only one who fed her. At about a year, she went to school to be a gun-dog. She handled everything just fine. She was trained with a remote collar and learned quickly. She wasn’t traumatized by the E-Collar and will happily do everything a flushing retriever is supposed to do. She is steady to wing and shot and won’t flush until told to do it. She gets the bird (or finds it if necessary) and makes a solid retrieve. In other words, she’s perfect in the field. That is obviously what she was bred to do. In virtually every way she’s the perfect hunter. What she isn’t, is a perfect pet.

The one thing I didn’t tell you about Sophie is that she is generally fearful when she’s not in the field. At home, if a guest enters the house, she stays in the master bedroom and will not come out. She will not accept food from strangers. If there is a guest in the house she won’t eat at all. She lives with another dog, but never plays or solicits affection. She doesn’t solicit affection from her current owner – the original owner’s sister. He passed Sophie to his sister because the dog was so maddeningly not like a Labrador Retriever at home. In her current home of three years, Sophie does like a teenage niece who visits from time to time. She doesn’t like men – even though a man fed her every meal for her first year. She doesn’t like loud noises at home, but has no problem with shotguns, loud trucks or any other loud noise in the field. The other thing I haven’t told you about Sophie is that she’s perfectly normal.

Every population of dogs contains a broad spectrum of personalities. They get this from their ancestor, the wolf. Wolves are group living animals who hunt large prey on a regular basis. If all of them were equally courageous, they might not have survived. Some wolves are plainly scaredy-cats. They aren’t the ones who dive into a battle with an Elk or Moose and go for the throat. Almost all adolescent wolves behave cautiously as the learn how to hunt as a group. Some of these animals simply never develop a “killer instinct.” The best you can say is they have the “harasser instinct.” They leap and dart around the prey animal and nip at its flanks – never attacking head-on with brutish determination. That doesn’t mean that they aren’t as important to the survival of the pack as are the heavy hitters. The many different styles of attack and chase of any pack are impossible to stave off forever. If a prey animal beats down several of the biggest, most ferocious wolves, the lighter, less committed wolves will chase and harass it until it stands its ground and the heavy hitters can have another shot at it. The species survives specifically because there is a wide diversity of personalities within the group. Our dogs are no different.

If you’ve been training for awhile, you know that this rings true. Many a Shi Tzu has the heart of a lion – and others have the heart of a hamster. Most poodles are considered dingbats and some of them retain the stalwart nature that made them great retrievers. Some dogs bravely defend their territory while others cower under the bed, just like Sophie. The point is that this wide difference between brave and cowardly isn’t a sign of abuse or mental defect. Both types are well within the norm for dogs.

Despite the reality that most litters have a physical runt, the concept of a genetically endowed behavioral runt doesn’t seem to cross most peoples’ minds. If a client adopts a fearful dog from a shelter or buys one from a breeder, they assume that environmental influences caused the behavior. If the breeder swears up and down that all the puppies were raised identically, most people raise their eyebrows. They assume that the pup must have been dropped on its head or teased by cruel children. Yet we also know that some dogs that lived through horrible conditions and events turn out just fine. I have never seen any predictable behavioral problems with dogs that were purchased at pet stores and undoubtedly came from puppy mills. I have seen pups from champion lines that were behavioral basket cases. The only thing that explains this is if you assume that behavior is like coat texture, eye color, height, shape and weight. Conformation judges can list scores of things that make up a good Fox Terrier that are all purely physical attributes. That doesn’t preclude a Fox Terrier winning a group title that doesn’t chase cats or rats or any other small, furry creature.

If the idea of inherited fearfulness still throws you a little, consider this. The art of purebred dogs includes the goal of getting behavioral traits that repeat from generation to generation. Regardless of the diligence and knowledge of the breeder they can’t guarantee that every English Pointer pup will point birds as an adult. Not every Terrier is a good ratter. No breeding program can possibly insure that every pup will have the same behavior as its siblings and parents. That’s because wolf genes are very, very slippery. Our dogs’ genes are just as elastic, stretchable and unpredictable. Some Basenjiis bark. Some Cockers don’t. Many German Shepherds wouldn’t know what to do with a sheep or cow despite the name of the breed. Anyone who has been around dogs for a long time knows that there is great diversity within any single breed and often major differences between siblings of serial litters.

If this topic interests you further, there is a foundational book that can help you better understand the way dog behavior is passed genetically. The authors are John Scott and John Fuller and the book has had several titles since its first publication in 1965. Originally published as Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. It has also been called Dog Behavior: The Genetic Basis. It’s still in print and it’s a fine read for anyone with a passion for dogs. Note: The authors make it very plain that there study was limited and should be taken with a grain of salt. Dog trainers have ignored that caution for about 50 years.

Author’s Note: Sophie is no longer a generally fearful dog. I fixed her to her owner’s satisfaction and her progress has been remarkable. She now solicits affection and competes with the other dog in the family. She has bonded with the owner’s new boyfriend. She will take treats from strangers and doesn’t hide out in the bedroom when guests are in the house. The other day her owner reported to me that Sophie actually crawled into her lap while she was watching television. Nothing like that had ever happened before. She will always have a degree of fearfulness in her life, but the debilitating avoidance that marked her first four years is a thing of the past.

2 thoughts on “Sophie the Terrified Lab (Published in the IAACP “Safe Hands” Journal, fall, 2011.

  1. I live in Phoenix Arizona and have 2 Dutch Shepherds from the same litter. We didn’t get them at the same time. Mine I got when she was 8wks old from the breeder Vrijheid Dutch Shepherds. She is a certified Search and Rescue HRD dog. We adopted her brother when he was 7months from the breeder as he was returned when the owners were expecting a child and he growled at guests kids. He came to us fearful of everything. He has come along way but the worst and only thing he now does is guard my husband and is not a stable dog. He perceives a threat when there isn’t one. He will bite. Is it too late to work on this dog? We worked with a trainer one on one for 3 weeks with him staying at the facility and us going there. He is 2 1/2 yrs.old.

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