She was a bright, alert Border Collie cross called Pepper – black, white and tan. She took her mum for a bit of a walk around the yard so she could sniff about, and then had a wee. I invited them both upstairs, and soon we were both settled on the couch while she looked about, hypervigilant, alert, anxious – and at the same confident in herself. I could tell she didn’t want me to come anywhere near her.
I collected admin details, and took a history, hoping that the time spent would help her settle down and relax. Her mum had been trying out some different dog sports. With agility she didn’t seem to want to go for longer than 10 minutes, then she would shut down. Also she does herding (which she LOVES). Pepper had been to a chiro (who found issues with C1, the first vertebra of the spine, and S1, in her sacrum, at the other end of the spine) – he’d adjusted her, which she didn’t seem to enjoy too much. She had also been to a physio for work, and had some exercises – the physio had found muscle wasting in her Right hind leg. She has an active life – 6km cycle with her mum every morning, 15 minute walk every afternoon, sometimes a visit to the dog park as well, and herding training twice a week. She was rescued and had been mistreated. She would snap, had snapped at her mum once trying to get her out of her crate.
So – I’d been sitting there talking to her mum for 15 minutes or so, and now it was time to approach her. She was wary, tense, ears up high on her head. I approached slowly, without eye contact, extending my hand – and I was met with a firm but gentle growl and a very direct gaze. Clear warning signals!
Here was a gentle challenge for me, because I had to work hands-on with this dog. And to do so, I was going to have to build some trust. I tried moving away and back in a few times, but absolutely no dice on that approach. My next step was to ask her mum to hand me the lead. Pepper didn’t much like this, she gave me a thoroughly disgusted look, and moved closer to her mum. I then gently eased her in one direction and then the other with the lead, inviting her to take a step or two either way. I continued with this approach, gently increasing the distance from her mum, little by little.
Pepper was stressed, with hard, wide eyes, ears up high and tight on her head, body stiff. After a while I had her walking away from her mum, around the room – though she still was pulling back towards her mum, wanting to be close to her. I kept walking her in random directions until she started to watch me with half an eye. So now I was starting to build the slightest connection with her – because she was starting to watch me and follow me, if only the slightest bit.
My next step was to walk her with my body in between her and her mum. Pepper didn’t know what to think of this – you could really see her thinking hard – she had a yawn (a sign od releasing tension), and gently licked her lips a little bit. I walked her back and forth like this for a while until I could see some signs of relaxation. I tried gently swinging the lead in a loop to gently touch her with, but that really didn’t work for her, so I immediately stopped that.
I tried to approach her again, and once more was met with a warning growl, for which I thanked her! She did allow me in closer before warning, and her body language was softer than when she first warned me off. Her mum tossed a tug toy (her favourite) on the floor. She glanced at it, and then fixated on me again. I picked the tug toy up and tried to lure her into a game with it, but again, she wasn’t interested, she was more worried about me.
The tug toy was a rope with a flat end lined in rabbit fur. I thought for a moment, because I didn’t have any idea of what to do next. I decided to touch her with the toy, because I knew she loved it. I reached out slowly and carefully, started stroking her with the end of the toy. I was very careful to keep my hands out of reach, to move slowly, and to maintain connection with the lead with my free hand. Pepper tolerated this really well, even if she looked a bit confused and unsure of what I was doing. It didn’t take long until I could hold the =soft end of the toy in my hand and massage her with it, and then move to touching her with my hands. This really broke the ice, and then she was fine with me.
Well, mostly fine! The next step was to have her up on the table, and to start the Whole Energy Body balance (WEBB) session. Of course, getting on the table edged her state of being back towards fright/flight – so I had to start off with non-invasive, slow, firm, deep pressure strokes to activate her rest/digest nervous system – and I had to go back to this every time I started doing something new during the session.
It didn’t take long before Pepper showed signs of relaxation and strong response to the WEBB touch. Although she was a nervous, anxious, traumatised, high drive dog, she was also extremely intelligent and very responsive. She started off tense, sitting up on her chest, ears tight and high, breath fast and shallow, eyes wide and hard. It took a lot shorter time than many dogs I work with for her to show a softer, sleepier looking eye, for her ears to relax, her breath to deepen and slow. This cycled in and out as I moved to deeper connection, firmer touch, and moved into tighter, more painful, and more vulnerable areas of her body with my hands-on connection.
This is normal in the WEBB work, especially at first. Anxious, traumatised and/or very high drive working type dogs live in fright/flight to some degree nearly all the time. They have very low arousal thresholds, so any little thing, the smallest noise or movement or stimulus, can flip them into full on anxiety – fright/flight. In fact, this state of arousal becomes normal to them, so when I help them relax with the WEBB work, it feels strange, and they will flip themselves back into this hyper-alert fright/flight state of being as soon as they notice they are relaxing. I think that they simply can’t feel safe and relaxed at the same time at first – though they relax more and more deeply with more WEBB work.
As with any WEBB session, I had to be exquisitely sensitive to her communication, I had to listen and sensitively respond to her needs by reducing or adapting the nature of my hands-on connection. I’d move to a new area, and her eye would go wide and hard, she’d tense up, and I’d have to find the intensity that was comfortable for her, and then she’d relax again. I even managed to gently ask her to lie on her side, and she did, which was a remarkable level of trust for a dog like this on her first session. She was flat out, eyes shut, melting under my hands, breathing slowly and deeply.
Her mum told me that this was the most relaxed she had ever seen Pepper, anywhere! Especially in a strange place with unusual noises and smells, this was a special moment. The WEBB work is my favourite thing to do in the whole wide world. It’s so fulfilling to see an anxious, traumatised dog truly relax under your hands!