Adaptability Matters

The Blizzard of 2016 dropped 28” of snow in my neck of the woods this weekend -- the highest recorded snowfall in Baltimore history.  Despite a significant shift in the exercise routine and access to the great outdoors it proved to be just another day in the lives of our dogs, except for Groovy, who depends on rituals and patterns like no other dog I’ve ever met.

My earliest memory of Groovy’s obsession for patterns quite literally revolves around his puppy crate, which sat in the kitchen.  Every morning we’d let the dogs out, and when they came back in Groovy would get a treat for getting into his crate before we left for work.  Diving into his crate, he’d duck his head under the door, spin around, and duck his head back through the opening to await his reward.  He was a quick study, and made a mad dash for his crate as soon as he came through the doorway . . . which turns out to be my second hint that something seemed more than slightly out of balance.

The dogs came in through the garage, and every morning I’d watch Groovy run around the van three times clockwise before he’d come through the door into the house and dive into his crate. Even when his crate was no longer there.  Yes, for days after I had decided that he no longer needed to be crated and had therefore removed it, Groovy would run to the spot it had been, duck his head, spin around, duck his head again, and wait for his treat.  I finally started scattering kibble in the spot where his crate had been just to help him break the cycle.

Convincing him not to run around the van three times before coming in has proven to be much more challenging and fairly stressful to him, so much so that nine years later we just wait for him to complete the cycle and come inside. 

Groovy repeats the exercise where ever we ask him to come inside.  Years ago we stopped inviting him inside from the deck for fear that he’d injure himself circling the stairs three times and then launching his body to the top of the deck skipping all six stairs.  This spring, when we had our addition built with an adjoining deck, we made special accommodations with fewer stairs to be sure Groovy could clear them, and I carefully crafted a plan to teach him how to climb the new stairs so he’d have another access into the house.  This video shows the results of our efforts, and Groovy’s reality.

Interrupting Groovy while he’s in motion is quite stressful for him, and has revealed rituals that I might have otherwise not noticed.  Once our old dog crossed Groovy’s path while he was dashing towards the door to go out and left him standing frozen in the middle of the kitchen floor while he appeared to be sorting something out.  Then he ran back to where he came from and started over before dashing out the door.

It’s a fairly safe bet for Groovy to run up the ramp to my classroom and wait for me to open the door when I let him out of the van.  Once however, I was holding class in the parking lot and brought Groovy out of the van to be my demo dog.  Although I showed him my intended direction, he started up the ramp.  As he reached the end of his leash and turned around he stood frozen when I asked him to join me in the other direction.  He seemed confused as he stared at me, simply unable to oblige.  So, with a quick adjustment I took him up the ramp, into my classroom and then we both turned around and joined my class in the parking lot where his demo went off without a hitch.

This is what it looked like when we opened the door to the backyard.  The snow was 3-4 feet high.

This is what it looked like when we opened the door to the backyard.  The snow was 3-4 feet high.

And that brings me back to The Blizzard of 2016, which was anything but normal for Groovy.  With 28” of snow and five foot drifts access to the back yard was impossible for about 24 hours as the snow fell, so we relied on sending the dogs into the front yard through the garage door.  During this time I learned a few things about The World According to Groovy.  First, if there are multiple dogs with you when the garage door opener is pushed, it is not time to potty, even when all the other dogs are pottying.  It means you’ll be playing Frisbee, so bark at the top of your lungs for joy and wait for your person to get the toy.  Sending the other dogs back inside was helpful and Groovy managed to urinate several times throughout the day when he was out by himself.  Each time he went out he’d also go to the door that led to the backyard insistent that it be opened.  And then he’d stand gob smacked at what he saw.

I knew he was asking to go into the backyard to defecate, but the storm left us helpless to accommodate his needs.  I felt awful for him, even after he finally had to go so badly that he resorted to hiking through the deep snow and into a void from a drift to relieve himself almost 12 hours later.

As the snow continued to fall I obsessed a little myself about how to make the yard functional for Groovy as well as our other dogs.  What about those deck stairs?  How would he manage them without being able to circle around them for the snow depth even if we cleared the steps?  How might we clear a path at the other door so that he’d have access to do his all of his business?  Would that need to be his access to inside as well?

In the end we worked out a system to suit everyone, but still not without emotional cost to Groovy, who has had to rethink how he gets inside.  Thankfully this part of his routine isn’t as ritualized as some of the others and he manages to make it happen.  But I’ll be especially happy for him when the snow finally melts and the world as he knows it returns to him.

The patterns and rituals that drive Groovy make him an amazing obedience dog and a fun trick dog for the repetition required for both.  He excels at predictability and delights in routine.  He’d really shine in competitions, if they were held at indoor facilities without stairs or loud speakers, and the trials weren’t busy, and as long as we didn’t have to travel too far or stay in a hotel, or it wasn’t too hot.  

That’s quite a list of restrictions, and while the stars might align every once in a while to make it so, more often than not, like other handlers, I might be compelled to ignore one or two of those conditions if I chose a competitive path for him.  And for each layer that was removed in favor of one more chance to compete, the distress it caused Groovy would cost him mentally, emotionally and even physically.

You see that’s what happens with animals who have difficulty adapting to the world around them.  Each time the dog is put in a situation that pulls him out of balance mentally, emotionally or physically – whether we intend to or not -- he pays a price we can only begin to understand.

The distress placed on the dog can manifest in the following ways and to varying degrees:

  • Muscle tension
  • Constricted breathing
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Loss of confidence
  • Apprehension
  • Indifference
  • Foggy thinking
  • Impaired judgement
  • Indecision
  • Loss of appetite

For Groovy it actually causes psychogenic fever, which unfortunately took years of observation and documentation to uncover before we were able to provide him with the predictability and routine he thrives on today.

Adaptability matters greatly.  The next time you find yourself saying, "He's fine unless . . . ," I urge you to take a moment to consider how adaptable your dog is, and what his needs might be. Simply put, when we diminish or overlook the dog’s needs and ask him to perform in ways that suit our own, we put the animal’s well-being at serious risk. 

Suzanne Clothier’s Functional Assessment Tool is a great way to assess and compare your dog’s adaptability in a variety of settings:  home without guests, home with guests, at grandma’s house, in class, at the hotel, during competitions, etc.  Email for more details on this powerful tool.

Once we set aside whatever personal goals we might have and see the dog for who he is we may find that he’s perfectly adaptable to the role we’ve envisioned for him.  Or we may find that he is not.  But what we will find is the information we need to provide the dog with a life that keeps him whole.

We’re grateful to have found ways to offer Groovy a balanced life to the best of our abilities.  Despite some bumps along the way, he’s a very happy dog who feels safe.  And he’s loved very much.