Dog trains man

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The small fearful dog therapist

Kenzo doesn't cease to amaze me when we encounter small fearful dogs. He likes to interact with them in what seems to be an attempt to comfort and protect them.

When we were out with our tracking class the other day on one of our tracking locations, Kenzo did it again. Along this particular tracking location, there is a small fenced-in area where dogs are allowed off leash. After tracking we go there to let the dogs play a little. After a little while, a couple came in with a small dachshund. The dachshund definitely thought that it was not a good idea to walk in an area with 9 large dogs and protested. I usually leave when I see other people approach as I am weary of meetings in dog parks, but knowing Kenzo's reputation with smaller dogs I decided to stay.

Capable of empathy?

The owners walked towards us dragging the dachshund behind them on a leash in obvious discomfort. Kenzo positioned himself between the group and the dachshund. Cautiously, in a calm and relaxed way, he moved up to the dachshund. Not imposing a greet, but inviting nonetheless. As the dachshund was sizing Kenzo up, she finally became relaxed enough to take a little sniff up in the air. And a few moments later both her and Kenzo exchanged a little sniff. After that Kenzo kept a small distance, but remained all the time between the dachshund and the group.

I was just awed. What did I just witnessed? That Kenzo is nice with smaller fearful dogs I know. But what puzzles me is that none of the other dogs approached. They probably all have seen that this was a fearful dog, but I would have expect them to join after Kenzo's greet. But somehow they didn't. Maybe he didn't let them? Could Kenzo be able of empathy? Some research show dogs can indeed be capable of empathy. My twitter pal @dancingdogblog, an animal welfare advocate and author of the Dancing Dog Blog, mentioned she has experienced this behavior before with puppy mill dogs. Where dogs would gather around a fearful individual, trying to protect, and comfort the fearful dog.

The therapist

One of our dog trainers picked up on this special capability of Kenzo already in his adolescence. She had one small dog in her class that was fearful of larger dogs. It had been attacked by a larger dog and sustained severe injuries. He allowed no larger dog to approach him.

When she noticed to what lengths Kenzo sometimes went to comfort a small dog when greeting, even laying down to make himself smaller and not a threat, she asked us if we would like to help her with the fearful dog. We did some setups in which we let them meet, first on a distance, and closer by when the little dog showed interest. After a couple of sessions, they were able to meet and the little fellow was not afraid of Kenzo anymore. I hope it helped him in getting over his fear.

What could have shaped this?

Kenzo's special relationship with smaller dogs already started very young.

During puppy hood we let him meet small dogs just like we would with any other dog. Already as a pup he was larger then most small breeds, and we made sure he didn't attempt to bully them. When I try to rewind the movie of his puppy hood and adolescence to find a clue what could have influenced him with smaller dogs, I cannot come up with anything out of the ordinary except one thing.

On our evening walk we once walked by a garden surrounded by a thick, high hedge. Behind the hedge a fierce watch dog was ready to protect his property and we didn't noticed him until we were only a couple of feet away. When the dog started to bark we got a scare at first, surprised by the bark that suddenly was coming from close by. My second reaction was one of relief and made me laugh. Judging the volume this wasn't your typical watch dog. When we continued along the hedge, the watch dog followed, barking on the other side. I could see there was a fence at the corner of the garden. As I was curious what kind of dog it was I took a quick peek in the garden through the fence and looked into the face of one very angry Yorkshire terrier. There is something about these brave small creatures that touches me, and I threw in a treat and called him "good boy!". Also Kenzo got a treat so he wouldn't be jealous.

When we went on our evening walk the next day, I thought it would be fun to see if the yorkie would still be there and we took the same route again. And he was there again. From then on, we made it a tradition to walk by our new buddy. The whole scenario would repeat itself. And both the yorkie and Kenzo got a treat when we reached the fence at the corner. After a while his bark and anxiety changed into a greet, and he ran to the fence to meet us, tail wagging and ready for his treat.

At the time I thought it just was a fun thing to do, but could Kenzo have learned something from this. Could this explain his special relationship with small fearful dogs? Could he have understood that they are not to fear and behind all the barking there could be a new friend? I think it did.



  1. It interesting to watch the difference social skills and abilities of different dogs. Sounds like you should contact a local trainer and see if Kenzo can be put to work in a small, reactive dog workshop ;-)

  2. I am fascinated with your story. I have always owned labs. My lab Jessie was spooked by small dogs but she was friendly. So when I got Kodee I was apprehensive of large dogs assuming they wouldn't like her. Moral? I have successfully trained Kodee to bark and protect me from large dogs. *Sigh* I see my mistake now just to fix it... Dog interaction is interesting to analyze

  3. I think that dogs are quite capable of empathy. I can't remember how many times my dogs have cuddled with me when I was sick. They just *know* and want to help us feel better.

    Kenzo is a big strong guy that has taken on the responsibility of helping the "little guy" What a wonderful dog :)

  4. Terrific story! It's hard to know how much is nature, how much is nurture but clearly you've done your part to encourage a dog that was already disposed towards kindness. Good for you, good for Kenzo!

  5. @fearfuldogs
    I honestly thought about it. But I am no expert, glad you mentioned it as an option!

    No feeling guilt on this blog :) We can only learn of each other, and I have no doubt about your good intentions.

    Great example, dogs do that. Now I feel silly trying to find some scientific evidence for dogs being able of empathy, while it was laying just in front of me :) Thanks for your nice compliment for Kenzo, you made my day !

    Nurture may have been more accidental then intend. OMG I think Kenzo taught me more then the other way around, but thank you for that great compliment. Kenzo's breeder is a fantastic person and is very passionate about breeding mentally healthy Hovawarts. As he knew it would be my first, he suggested Kenzo to me, being the most "mellow" pup left in the litter. He was definitely disposed towards kindness from birth.

  6. Go Kenzo! We are seeing this with Jasmine too. She's been always amazing with that.

  7. What a great story - dogs and their acts of kindness take my breath away. Wonderful of Kenzo, such a good boy - and I wonder how he would do in a reactive dog workshop as Debbie Jacobs suggested. That would certainly be a wonderful thing for the reactive dogs, but also for the reputation of the Hovawart with a good publicist:)

    That experience with the puppy mill dogs just transferred and in clean cages awaiting medical care was a very intimate one...the proximity of me and my camera was an issue for one dog and a soundless call for help went out - I backed off when I sensed it, but at least three others came to form a cordon in front of the scared dog who was visibly shaken. It was a sight to see, even from where I was paying attention to cats in another bank of cages so to release tension of the group guarding the fearful dog, and the protected dog herself. So I fully understood your awe of Kenzo! These are noteworthy experiences to share, and I thank you!

  8. @Jana
    Thanks :) Good for Jasmine she is one special Rottie !

    Thanks for sharing that story in more detail. It must have been quite an experience with dogs that have gone through so much, yet still being able to act with good intentions to protect and comfort their buddy.

  9. I am continually amazed by dog behavior. I have no doubt that your early incident with the Yorkie helped, but I wonder if Kenzo just has the ability to sense a fearful dog, especially little ones, and just intuitively knows what to do. Either way, he is an amazing dog and I love that you shared this story!

  10. @Melf
    Thanks Mel, I think you are right. I only added a little (or at least not spoiled it) of what was already there.

  11. I love this! Dogs are awesome beings, and Kenzo's behavior certainly sets an example we humans can learn from. Thank you for this lovely post.

  12. @Deborah
    Thanks for your kind words. Dogs teaching humans, I like that :)

  13. This is fascinating. I definitely think your fun with the yorkie had some effect on him. Since he received a reward every time you walked by the "scary" little dog, it taught him to relax. In fact, he probably even looked forward to that part of your walk.

    The more we learn about dogs, the more we realise what they are capable of. Is Kenzo capable of empathy? I don't know. I don't know it it's possible for us to know. But his behaviour is very special. You must be very proud.

    I agree with Deborah. Dogs can often teach us more than we ever teach them.

  14. @Kristine
    Thanks, he makes me very proud indeed :) I also think he learned something from it at least, maybe not an explanation for his behavior, but at least enforcing what probably already was there.

  15. dear kenzo's human,

    it's pretty special what you did with the yorkie. i think most of us wouldn't have been so patient and understanding :P

    there are 3 little dogs a few roads away from us that have barked at our dogs for more than 8 years now and show no sign of stopping. they bark frantically at all dogs that pass by! unfortunately they're in the house so we can't try your little treat trick!

    kenzo's behaviour with small fearful dogs is also wonderful to read. it could be him, and it could be your good work. either way, it's wonderful. if only georgia........ :)

  16. That is so awesome- I love dogs :)

    Once I saw a little boy fall off his bike at an off leash dog park (there is a path that runs through the park). It wasn't a dangerous spill, I could see that the little boy just scared himself.

    Kayloo got there before anyone else did- she stood about 1/2 foot away, ears back, sniffing. I was so impressed that she didn't race in to lick him in the face or anything. It was like she knew he was scared and just wanted to stand with him.

    So fascinating :)

  17. Dogs are amazing in how they react in different situations. Kenzo is such a sweet dog you must be so proud.

    I loved the story with the Yorkie I'll have to try that sometime. Poor little dog was probably just bored and you gave him something to look forward too.


Blogger Template Created by pipdig