Play Therapy and My Doggo

When I first saw Isabelle she was in kennel D20 of the Utah Humane Society. She critically hit my heart and I knew it was fate. This scrappy yellow dog was going to become my companion and best friend.

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This photo was taken as the ink on the adoption papers was drying. Notice how my car is dog hair-free? Those were the days…

Of course I adopted her for more reasons than just the sweet D&D reference, but I have to admit that she came with quite a few warning labels which made me have doubts about my ability to care for her. Not only was I warned that she is a mix of aggressive breeds, but she also was potentially a fear-biter. When she was found roaming the streets, Humane Society staff couldn’t approach her. Then they had to board her for several days before anyone could get close enough to vaccinate her- even with specialist equipment.

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Knowing all her problems, I adopted her anyway because I like a good challenge. And a good challenge she was. My animal handling skills were put to the test almost instantly.

Initially, Isabelle was afraid of everything. Her tail was between her legs during every walk and she would jump out of her fur at any loud noise. She would frequently wake me up in the middle of the night whining and crying and for a while I regretted my decision to ever get a dog.

Plus, she had a cold. I had adopted a sick dog. Things weren’t looking great. I mean, I had a feverish pup who sneezed on everything and tried to bite people. The weirdest part of all? She wouldn’t play. She wouldn’t chase balls, or frisbees nor would she tug-o-war with me and her rope. If you threw something, she would at best chase it and at worst look terrified. Even after she finished her antibiotics and was healthy! The irony was thick. I, a game scholar, adopted a dog who didn’t know how to play.

I asked my vet how to fix this problem. She said to socialise her with other dogs at a daycare. This helped immensely.

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Learning how to play was a big deal for Isabelle.

Within a few weeks of being introduced to her new daycare pack she became more social. The first difference I noticed was that her tail was less frequently between her legs and more often up, if not wagging. Then she would occasionally play-bow (front legs sprawled out, butt up in the air) in the backyard. I’m told this is how dogs signal to each other, and their humans, that they want to play. We started playing tug-o-war with her rope (pictured above) and then moved onto fetch. Things were looking up!

After learning to play, Isabelle became more animated generally, but also more confident. Instead of hiding behind me on walks she started growling, howling and crying at the approach of other dogs. Not only was this embarrassing as people would stare at my out-of-control pup having a temper tantrum because there was another dog 10 metres away, but it was also baffling. She was doing great with her pack at daycare, so why would she freak out in the park?

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Our training involved a lot of placing Isabelle on things.

When running 5-6k a day with her didn’t calm her nervous energy, I decided it was time for behavioural training and asked the daycare for a recommendation. The behaviourist Mike was confident that general obedience training would help her trust me more and listen better. He was right. Within a six weeks of regular training and exercise, Isabelle became easier to walk and more confident in the park.

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By Halloween she no longer howled and had temper tantrums, but was still a bit shaky. It wasn’t until Christmas she was sniffing-butts and comfortable greeting strange dogs in the park. This is the first time I let her off-leash.

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Because everyone needs Christmas jammies, right?

I took her on holiday with me to visit family in Mexico. I was able to ride a bike along the beach with her trotting leashless next to me. Despite plenty of distractions (birds, washed up dead dolphins) she never left my side.

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From the shelter to having a Christmas beach holiday… Lucky dog.

Although Isabelle’s good behaviour is a product of a lot of time, money, and energy, I think the turning point in our relationship was when she learned from other dogs how to play. I’m sure animal behaviourists have a much more professional way of putting this, but essentially once she loosened up enough to play, she was free enough to learn her role in my ‘pack’ (okay, pack might be an over statement since its just me, but hey, I’m the alpha!) and in her daycare pack. As a result, she is a much happier dog and I’m a much happier human.

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Looking back on our journey together over the past year it seems like more than coincidence that the dog who was too scared to play lived in kennel D20 and was adopted by a game academic. She has taught me so much about why play is important to her and my psycho-social well being. I only hope I can continue to give her a happy, healthy life in return. Here’s to playing many more years together.

Until next time,

Ashley

 

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