I did everything right with my sweet little Boxer Mix, Kozi, when I adopted her at 9 weeks of age. I socialized her to everything and everybody, and she turned out to be quite a nice dog. The “watchdog” in her makes her bark at a lone interloper who approaches our property, but as soon as she meets them, and sees that they’re okay, they become her buddy. Still, I was puzzled by her behavior in public with certain individuals. Unlike my older dog, Saikou, who was severely traumatized by a crazed toddler during her fear imprint period, Kozi loved all children of all ages and either sex, tolerating all kinds of abuse from them. Kozi’s problem was with certain men.
I say certain men, because for 2 ½ years, I had not been able to pinpoint what specific thing she was afraid of in these “certain men.” It seemed that only one in every ten men caused her to panic. At first, I thought that it was tall men with hair, and blamed myself for not getting her out enough and meeting men taller than my husband, Ed, and who actually had hair on their heads. But then, she would prove me wrong by climbing into the arms of a tall, hairy man. Sometimes the man looked scary, dressed like a motorcycle gang member with numerous piercings and odd attire, but then another guy just like that would come along, and she would not avoid him. I could not seem to pinpoint a single feature that was common with all of the men she shied away from, except their age.
Kozi never showed avoidance to guys under the magical age of about 20. I thought she seemed a little fearful of tall, burly guys who approached quickly, staring, and “pounced” on her (reached out to suddenly grope her on the top of her head without asking or anything). But, of course most sane dogs would be wary of idiots such as these. But sometimes, she was even okay with the pouncers, starers, and gropers, and this blew my mind. It wasn’t until this past weekend at the Chicago Pet Expo that I started to tumble to the idea that what she was perceiving about the “scary” men was invisible, and might have very little to do with any physical characteristic or mannerism, and didn’t have anything to do with any lack of socializing on my part.
It was Sunday morning, and there wasn’t much of a crowd at the expo yet, and Kozi had one of her worst reactions to a guy that I’ve seen. He seemed like a nice, friendly guy, not moving in a way that would frighten her, but she dove off the crate top and under the table skirt to hide from him. When I turned around, all I could smell was alcohol on this guy. I realized that the last time she had that strong of a reaction was at the booth at the DKC dog show. The guy wasn’t big or burly and he squatted down into a non-threatening posture, but Kozi still freaked out. Then, I noticed that this guy had an open beer in his hand. At the time I didn’t think much of it, but looking back, I was beginning to get more pieces to the puzzle. If what she was avoiding was people who had been drinking, then it truly was something that was beyond my realm of detection. This was the moment I had to smack myself in the forehead. What do men mostly under the legal drinking age have in common? Most of them don’t have alcohol in their systems. This is why she universally accepted kids and young men up to the age of 20ish.
With Kozi’s acute sense of smell (she’s a Human Remains Detection K-9 with a SAR unit), it should not surprise me that she is able to detect minute quantities of alcohol in peoples’ systems. So I started asking a few questions of each man that she met. I asked their age, and when was the last time they consumed an alcoholic beverage. Some of them looked at me as if I was accusing them of being drunk, or an alcoholic, but I would clarify by adding, “…for instance did you have a drink with dinner last evening?” Of course, I would also go on to explain that it was a minute chemical odor that Kozi was detecting, and not a state of inebriation. I didn’t want to offend people.
Of course, just the presence of alcohol in itself might not necessarily be enough to send a dog running for cover, even though my own words from 30 years of teaching dog obedience classes rang in my ears. I printed it right in the handouts: “Please postpone the use of drugs or alcohol until after training class, as it adversely affects the dogs.” And then more of my words rang in my ears… When I would tell the story about how we ended up with Kozi, after the breeder said that all of the puppies were sold, she called us back several days later to say that they would sell the one they were keeping for themselves. I would jokingly add that “They must have needed to buy more booze and cigarettes, so they sold the dog to us.” Maybe this wasn’t too far from the truth.
After all of the socializing I did with Kozi, it made me think that her sensitivity comes from something that happened to her during her fear imprint period (before I had her), that has stayed with her. I now seriously suspect that the breeder’s husband was either an alcoholic and was mean to Kozi, or, he got drunk, and beat her or something. Then, it’s no wonder they were willing to get rid of her… she probably started cowering in fear of him all the time.
It came clearer and clearer as I got the answers to the “When did you last consume an alcoholic beverage” question. The men she liked the best either never drank, or else it had been months since their last drink. Though some of the men who had recently consumed like one drink within the past 24 hour period were scary to her and others were accepted by her. This leads me to believe that the additional characteristics that I thought I had been noticing (like height, weight, speed of approach and hairiness) could also be a factor. The man that terrorized her during her fear imprint period was probably pickled with alcohol, tall, burly, hairy, and pounced on her. So, not any one of these things was enough to trigger avoidance behavior all of the time in strange men. But, as Jean Donaldson’s bite threshold chart shows us, it is the cumulative effect of several scary factors in combination that put the dog at the fight (or in Kozi’s case, flight) threshold.
While I am relieved to think that I finally have the answer to Kozi’s extreme aversion to certain men, it is still not something that I can see coming and circumvent, since I can’t smell the alcohol on a person ten feet away, like Kozi can (unless they’ve REALLY been drinking hard). The good news is that I can usually get Kozi over any adverse reaction she feels toward a given man by using one or two techniques. She’s a very forgiving dog, and once she sees that the person is not going to grab her, beat her or yell at her, she can be friends. I keep a chair next to her pedestal at expos, and I ask any scary men to please sit in the chair (which is facing away from Kozi). Once they are no longer in a position to pounce, Kozi usually warms up to them. If she is just slightly wary of a guy, I’ll show him the magic “chin” trick. I ask them to hold their hand out, palm up and very flat, in front of Kozi and say “Chin.” Kozi will then place her head in their palm. This helps put them both a little at ease. The guy thinks Kozi likes him, and Kozi is made to feel more comfortable, knowing that the guy’s hand is not moving, and can not grab any body parts or reach for the top of her head as long as it is under her chin. This is often all it takes. But when I get an extreme reaction from her to a person who is pickled in alcohol, I think the best thing I can do is just remove her from the situation. I don’t know what I can say to the person to not have them feel badly as I move my dog to a safe zone away from the offending guy. Maybe I can say, “I’m sorry, she reacts badly when she detects alcohol in someone’s system… It might not even be you… I’m just going to let her have a break away from the crowd right now.”
I thought I would share my revelation, since others may encounter something similar with a dog and find this information helpful.
©2010 Lonnie Olson