Get Over It Already!

Sunny at the tennis court for play time

Sunny at the tennis court for play time


Even though I had lived with dogs all my life, and worked in dog rescue for many years, when I got my seriously damaged dog Sunny I had not yet worked with a dog that due to lack of early socialization and/or genetic make-up, could not interact with people at all. I was unable to fathom the idea that he was not just going to ‘get over’ being afraid and realize that life here in doggy paradise was good.

For anyone that has worked with feral dogs or puppy mill survivors Sunny’s behavior would not have seemed so strange. The fact that a dog may never get past certain fears is still hard to accept, we want our dogs to be happy and for rescuers, for dogs to find safe and loving homes. Yet understanding this aspect of fearful dogs is important. If we assume that all dogs can change how they feel and behave we may be inclined to use techniques designed to force the issue, with disastrous results.

One of my biggest complaints with the current focus on dog handling and pack leadership is that people who favor the ‘be the pack leader’ approach often interpret behavioral transgressions by their dogs as challenges to the owner’s pack leader status. Dogs are seen as challenging or stubborn, when instead they are just scared, sometimes out of their minds. When you’re scared out of your mind it’s hard to learn or make good decisions. An animal’s fears do not have to make sense to us to be very real for them. Few of us have to experience on a daily basis (hopefully not all) the kind of fear that makes you dig in your heels and try to flee for your life, yet this is what fearful dogs live with, and for some it’s their life.

I have never stopped believing that Sunny can improve and feel more confident and safe in the world. I will never stop working with him, using counter conditioning and desensitization to help him on that journey. But I understand now that though I continue to have big dreams for him I need to keep my expectations for him reasonable so that I do not make his behavior worse by becoming frustrated or impatient with his progress or abilities.


4 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    When you’re scared out of your mind it’s hard to learn or make good decisions. An animal’s fears do not have to make sense to us to be very real for them. Few of us have to experience on a daily basis (hopefully not all) the kind of fear that makes you dig in your heels and try to flee for your life, yet this is what fearful dogs live with, and for some it’s their life.

    Once again this just about sums up Gracie when we are outside for a walk. I have a very real feeling that she will ‘never get over this’.
    As she has been with me now for a few months I decided it was time to consult ‘a professional’, even knowing full well that he would not be able to handle her or even get near her. However he was able to see how she behaves outside as I took her for a walk and he followed at a distance, (she knew he was there though). I was told afterwards that she was like a feral dog and MAYBE she could improve, but he was not hopeful. He made me more aware that it was the environment that Gracie had a problem with, so it was my job to control that as much as possible, and primarily by not taking her out. Whilst I agree with his observations, I cannot agree to not taking her out. She is a big athletic dog and at the moment very fit surprisingly! If I don’t take her out she would simply lie on her bed all day, only coming out for food, and besides she needs to toilet, which she is very good about outside of my yard. I have no area where I can take her to be off lead and run about.
    So I pick my time and hope we don’t run into anyone. For the past 2 weeks we have had calm quite enjoyable walks twice a day, and I was even letting myself start to think that she was getting better, then the inevitable happened. Along came a dog off lead running toward us, hotly followed by it’s errant owner, shouting loudly and of course Gracie immediately panics, and wants to flee, taking my shoulder with her!
    The trainer told me I should ignore Gracie when she does this and stand by her with a loose lead till the person goes away. That is easier said than done. In fact it is impossible. She reacts with a speed that my brain cannot respond to. Providing I can stop her, she then goes rigid with fear and cannot take any instruction, because her brain is locked in the fear. All I can do is physically restrain her and try to soothe her till she calms down and I feel her body relax. She then wants to get home as fast as possible, crawling on her belly, head down pulling me like a train.
    Thankfully these incidents are few and far between. Most local people know me, and how Gracie is, and keep their dogs on a lead if they see me. I must stress that I do only take Gracie out when I know it’s going to be quiet at odd times of the day, but I cannot control other people alas.

    My point is that although we have been doing this for weeks now, Gracie is not ‘learning’ that I am her security and that each time she goes out, she also comes back home safely, with me. I can only assume that she still does not trust me. Or is it that she simply cannot and will not ever be able to move forward, that her brain is locked in the habit and reaction that she has always had around things that scare her? I wish I understood more.

    I know you have a hard time with Mr Millan but I do believe that dogs need to be balanced to function properly. That makes sense to me. Just how to get them to that state of mind, especially these fearful ones, is the great challenge!

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Just some thoughts on this, take them or leave them. Consider using a behavioral medication for this dog. Meds will not cure fearfulness but they can help reduce some of the stress dogs feel and so they may be able to learn more easily. If you have not already visited the website you might find more ideas to help Gracie.

    While it is true that for some dogs the damaged done by lack of socialization and/or genetics, may never be totally ‘fixed’ -by understanding counter conditioning, desensitization, triggers and thresholds you stand a better chance of helping this dog move on. This is information that Millan did not share or employ early on in his tv career, but I’ve noticed that he’s beginning to get it.

    The repeated exposure to scary situations rarely helps dogs like this and can make the behavior worse. You must have some kind of positive reward that trumps the fear the dog is experiencing and in your case this will probably mean adding distance from the trigger to reduce the fear.

    Sunny will never be like my other dogs, but he has been able to learn many behaviors and while he is afraid of people he is manageable around them. How we got here is explained in the website.

    Being a confident pack leader or trying to create ‘balance’ in a dog that’s brain did not have the chance to develop to its fullest potential may not hurt matters, but it’s not likely to help much. You build trust by showing the dog that when she is with you NOTHING scary or bad happens MOST of the time (it’s impossible to achieve this all the time). Also a few weeks is hardly any time at all for a dog like this.

  3. Rae on

    I have a globally fearful dog too. I’m appreciating your website, your work, etc. Thank you! 😉 I am working with my dogs to do just the simplest of things ( the most challenging of things for a fearful/reactive dog)… To check in, look at me, focus and once we really master that, all will be as good as it gets. Right now, I’m approaching my dogs’ seventh year. Had I understood them better initially when they were rescued I would have been much further along, BUT the resilience in dogs is amazing. They endured my impatience and frustration with their inability to do things. Thankfully I continued to search and research a better way while different people and trainers suggested things that made it harder on our relationship. It never felt right and so I kept looking. And we’re healing and we’re moving forward. Nothing works fast with a fearful dog. And as soon as the human “gets” that, the easier it will be. A fearful dog is the way he is for any number of reasons, but like an autistic child, it’s not something that can be rationalized to him, and learning coping skills is really where it’s at. A fearful dog will always be a fearful dog. I’m just learning how to be a better benevolent leader 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for contributing that Rae. Sounds like you’re becoming a better trainer!

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