A Sigh of Relief

shelter dogA friend recently contacted me to get information for her father who was soon to be acquiring a puppy. I sent her Ian Dunbar’s resources and wished him well. Last night I received an email from my friend, this time informing me that the puppy was timid and afraid, did I have any information about that? It just so happened I did. I directed them to the Fearful Dogs website and sent her a copy of the ebook A Guide To Living & Working With A Fearful Dog which I wrote in 2008 to help people struggling to understand how to work with their fearful, shy, timid dog.

This morning while driving home from a yoga class I thought about ‘relief’. While in a particularly challenging pose, trying hard to breathe through it, I could not help but long for the instructor’s direction to move from that pose into ‘child’s pose’ a lovely, comfy stretch on the floor. We are repeatedly encouraged not to hurt ourselves but just find our edge and gently explore it. Once out of the pose that had me ready to fall off the edge, I exhaled with relief. Whether it’s physical discomfort or emotional suffering, it feels so good to have it end.

Imagine what it would be like to be terrified, truly terrified, on a regular basis and the person that you are suppose to connect with either ignores your fear, whether it’s displayed by cowering or snarling, or shoves you from behind into what you perceive to be the jaws of death. Now imagine the relief you would feel if instead that person acknowledged your fear, and gently led you away from the horror, reassuring you that all would be well.

There are many ways to help scared dogs, but the first step is to get the dog to trust you. Call it leadership if you like, it’s not my first choice of terms. Due to the guidance of trainers like Cesar Millan, too many ‘leaders’ view any refusal or reaction to their demands to be a challenge to their authority or that their dog is trying to dominate them. A fearful dog is just a fearful dog, doing what it feels it needs to, to protect itself. So whether it’s refusing to follow you down a flight of stairs or growling when you approach its crate, it’s just afraid, plain and simple.

I thought about what could be said to someone first embarking on the journey of working with a scared puppy that would be simple to understand and relate to. I came up with this-Think about your scared dog as if it were a young child, a girl perhaps, with chubby cheeks and big eyes that gaze up at you adoringly, and then see those eyes go wide with fright and concern. Treat your dog the way you’d treat that young child. Understand that their fear may not seem reasonable to you, but that doesn’t change its intensity for them. Consider how you would ease their fears and then take them away and think about how tomorrow you can make it a better experience for them.

We can never know what a dog is thinking but because we share the same part of the brain that processes fear, it’s reasonable to assume that we can imagine what a dog’s fear feels like. Hopefully few of us are ever as afraid as many dogs are, but try to imagine what a dog is feeling, and then offer them some relief.


16 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    I absolutely do this very thing every day Debbie when Gracie gets scared if I’m in a hurry sometimes and leave a door only partly opened that she cannot fit through, because of course she hasn’t the confidence to push it herself. I turn around to see why she’s not responding to my call, and there she is face all worried, body low, tail nervously flicking just at the end, anxiously waiting for me to open the door so that she can follow me and feel a bit better about herself.
    This is just one example of some of the things that can scare her.

    At that moment all I want to do is rush up to her and give her a cuddle to let her know it’s all right, but she couldn’t allow me to do that, and besides all that would happen would be her running back to her safe place and displaying that worried anxious look on her face once again. So I simply encourage her to come forward making soothing cooing noises and telling her she’s a good girl, till her face relaxes again and her tail wags happily.

    It is very difficult, nigh on impossible to imagine what Gracie, and other dogs, must have endured day after day in their previous existence to make them so afraid. But one thing is for sure, some human will have been responsible for it.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Let’s set our sights on the day she nudges that door! The trainer William Campbell coined the term ‘jollying’. I use it a lot with Sunny when he acts afraid of some things and like with Gracie it changes how he feels.

    “Silly boy afraid of a coffee cup, now go get your frisbee!”

    Have you done any clicker work with Gracie?

  3. Lizzie on

    I have tried several times to use a clicker, but Gracie is afraid of the loud harsh noise they make. Just like I can’t get over enthusiastic with her by ‘jollying her up’. The only time she has any ‘gay abandon’ is at dinner time when she becomes totally animated, uninhibited, and, for her, truly happy. She dances around the room, rears up on her hind legs in anticipation of the pleasure to come. It is a joy to see.

    But back to the clicker. Nicole told me of the method she uses for Ilja, that is making a clicking sound with her tongue, which is softer than the metal clicker. I have adopted this method with Gracie and she accepts it, so now I’ve started to work with her out in the yard, asking her to come to me, clicking and treating. It’s early days yet, but she has ventured onto surfaces which formally scared her so I’m very encouraged with her progress!

    My grateful thanks to Nicole for sharing her experience of this.


  4. fearfuldogs on

    The clicker is just an ‘event marker’ and is more precise than using words, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use words. I have a dog here that I say ‘yes!’ to in a bright way, heard another trainer use ‘yip!’. The tongue noise works too. Anything that you can use consistently and don’t have to think too much about is fine.

    Since she is so excited about food do you carry a treat pouch on you so you can immediately reward all the behaviors you like? You could put part or all of her meals in it and feed her that way. So for example every paw touch on a new surface gets a ‘yes!’ and some of that food that thrills her so much. Just a thought.

  5. Samantha on

    Trust is huge. When Marge finally got to the point where she could take (and pass) the Canine Good Citizen last week, the only reason she stood there and allowed petting was because she trusted that I wasn’t putting her in a dangerous situation. And that was a really good feeling. She now understands, for the most part, that when I say “go say hi” to someone, that it’s okay to go over and sniff and even accept a couple of scratches. The tail’s been wagging more too.

    All of these accomplishments, with nothing but a clicker, treats, love, and trust.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Congratulations on taking the CGC with Marge, that’s very cool.

      I’d just put one thought out there to folks working with their dogs and that is that many of these dogs will tolerate being handled, until they don’t. The goal for me with Sunny is that he enjoys being handled, not just tolerates it, when it comes to the general population.

      I’m not saying you’re wrong in what you’re doing Samantha, I’m just pointing it out to folks who may not realize that there is a difference between toleration and being totally ok with something. Sometimes toleration is enough, like being handled by the vet. I don’t expect any of my dogs to love it, I’ll accept toleration. It’s an important distinction in my mind because much of what we see on a particular TV trainer’s show are dogs that are just barely tolerating what they are being made to do, in some cases the dog ends up biting or exhibiting learned helplessness behavior.

      It sounds like Marge is doing great and I wish you both many more tail wags in the future.

      • Samantha on

        Definitely. There is a clear difference between Marge “tolerating” something and Marge starting to actually enjoy something. By the time we took the CGC, Marge’s social circle (social circle – not ‘tolerating’ circle) had expanded to the point that I felt the test would NOT be a major stressor on her. Granted, the evaluator was not someone she was 100% comfortable with (though I had a good chance that it WOULD be someone she knew, it didn’t happen). Even so, she went to investigate the evaluator much more quickly than she ever would have. And don’t get me wrong – the goal has ALWAYS been for Marge to enjoy handling – something that has now happened with dozens of people, as opposed to a mere 5 or 6 a couple of months ago.

        On a daily basis, I don’t treat Marge’s fears the way I treated the CGC. In some ways, perhaps I did treat that one section similarly to a vet visit. (BTW – I don’t think that you think this, but I would never force handling on her the way CM does – the leash was completely loose during the entire CGC and of course there have never been any harsh methods.) Otherwise, if she wants to go sniff, she does. If she doesn’t want to go sniff, she isn’t forced. If she wants to accept the treat – she does at her own will – and with a foodhound like Marge, that is almost always. 😀

  6. Lizzie on

    Yes she has treats all day long, just about. Well mostly it’s part of her daily ration.

    I use it also to get her moving and keep her away from the ‘safe place’ in the corner.

    Thanks for your thoughts Debbie 😮

  7. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for sending in your comment Samantha. Again I was not trying to infer that you were doing anything wrong, I just wanted to be sure that people reading these posts thought about what may seem like subtle but very important components of handling their dogs. We need to think about these things when we make choices as to how to work with our dogs, as you obviously are doing. It’s great that it came up.

  8. Samantha on

    Don’t worry Debbie – I agree with everything you’ve said, and it absolutely does make sense to bring to light various differences in what a dog’s feeling as it relates to handling. That is your job in running this blog, after all. And reading these posts (and some others on various sites) have helped me to be a better owner and handler. Just figured I’d elaborate a bit more on my own experiences, for the heck of it 🙂

  9. fearfuldogs on

    Cool, I just didn’t want you to think I was picking on you! If someone knows their dog and hasn’t fallen for all the crap out there about making dogs suck stuff up to ‘cure’ them or being their leader and making them do what they think they’re suppose to do, some dogs can benefit from a bit of a nudge to keep the progress going.

    Before anyone goes ballistic on me, I do understand that exposure can work and that requiring that your dog follow all the cues you’ve trained them to follow, is a good idea. But if you don’t know the flip side you can run into problems that will be harder to address then the original ones.

  10. Lizzie on

    This may be a stupid question, but how do you know if your dog is enjoying being handled as opposed to just tolerating it. I’ve assumed that Gracie actually likes being handled, if at the moment only by me, as she doesn’t object, try to run away, or move about. It’s made me think now that maybe she just reverts to her helpless self and tolerates it.

    And handling means brushing, drying, cleaning ears etc, bathing, going to the vets etc. Anything including stroking cuddling, playing as well?
    All of the above is perfectly possible with her, and she in my opinion actively seeks out my hands for a stroke especially around the sides of her face. She loves me to cup her face in my hands and she then puts all the weight of her head into them. Neither of my other 2 ‘normal’ dogs does that!

    She is a bit of a puzzle though, as she still runs away from me if I walk towards her, but will happily climb up onto the sofa and lie with her head in my lap for ages being stroked. Still I’m not complaining 😮

  11. fearfuldogs on

    It’s not a stupid question at all. It helps if you have an understanding of dog body language and what your dog looks like when they’re scared, comfortable, unsure, happy, etc. A dog that is tolerating being handled looks very different from a dog that is loving it. The only way I can think to describe it is that a dog that is cool with the handling looks and feels ‘softer’ than a dog that is not. But everything from their ears to their tail will be saying how they feel.

    A dog may just freeze up and put up with something, but you can still work on counter conditioning to try to change the association with the handling whether it’s grooming or a vet visit.

    If it feels like Gracie is enjoying your touching her, you may be right. Sunny likes me to rub his chest and was one of the first things he ‘asked’ me for when he was a corner dog. Touch is a very powerful reinforcer for dogs and therapists will also contend it to be healing as well.

    Watch how you approach Gracie. Walking directly toward a dog, looking right at them, bending over toward them, will ‘naturally’ move a dog away from you, even if they’re not afraid of you. It’s just what dogs do. A timid dog is more likely to respond to this kind of social pressure by fleeing (or worse if they’re so inclined).

  12. Lizzie on

    At the moment I am reading about Canine Body Language. It is a wonderful pictorial book by Brenda Aloff. It is giving me a better understanding of how Gracie is feeling.

    Also, as Gracie is so willing, and enjoys, being touched and handled I am seriously thinking about learning how to practice the Tellington TTouch on her to see if it would help her to relax, and also reinforce the bond between us.

    I am lucky as there is a practitioner living locally.

  13. CGC Comic Books on

    I found your blog on google and read a few of your other posts. I just added you to my Google News Reader. Keep up the good work. Look forward to reading more from you in the future.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for letting me know! Do you have a fearful dog?

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