Change of Heart

In the years I have been living with a very fearful dog I have often thought that shelters and rescue groups that adopt out dogs like Sunny are doing a disservice to the people looking for a pet, and ultimately to the rescue industry. I hear people say that they will ‘never adopt a dog again’ after having a negative experience with a dog which they adopted from a shelter. Fearful dogs are just not good for business if you want people to return in the future for another of your ‘products’.

When you speak to other adopters of fearful or shy dogs they have a different tale to tell. They talk about how much they adore their dog, how the dog changed their life, taught them lessons, how they cannot imagine a life without their dog, despite the challenges.

Sunny came into my life when I had the time and inclination to see what progress I could make with him. He has both frustrated and delighted me. I have come to realize that if I witnessed any person display the courage Sunny displays on a daily basis I’d label them ‘inspirational’. When Sunny chooses to remain in a room with someone that frightens him, or finally gets himself through the tire in agility class, he’s showing the kind of courage I rarely need to muster.

Life isn’t easy for a dog that was not properly socialized, and living with one isn’t easy either. I still believe that the time and energy required to help a fearful dog can be more than many of us have to offer, but when paths cross, planets align or the pieces just fall into place, these dogs don’t just change our lives, they change our hearts as well.

Change of Heart by Holly Near

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23 comments so far

  1. Sweetpea on

    I rescued a fearful dog. I wouldn’t trade what I’ve had to go through with her for anything. If someone had told me ahead of time what I was in for, I would not have been brave enough to attempt helping her. But as it’s turned out, she has HELPED me and we are a most wonderful team now…

    BRAVO to you for this post and all your work with Sunny and all the encouragement you put out there to inspire others!

  2. Jim on

    Thanks for that great post. I have started taking fearful dogs from my local shelter. It is a painfully slow process, but watching them progress is very rewarding. This is certainly not for everyone. It requires patience and the ability to let the dog heal on his/her own time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Jim. You are so right patience is key. A healthy dose of reasonable expectations doesn’t hurt either ๐Ÿ˜‰

  3. Lizzie on

    In my opinion if you adopt a fearful dog, you HAVE to put much more effort into forming a relationship with her than you may have done with a dog that is ‘normal’.

    Therefore you have a much closer bond and a very rewarding partnership. As you say Debbie, patience is all, but the end result is so worth it.

    Gracie has taught me to behave in a much calmer way, and I’m so aware now of her body language. I would not have missed this experience for the world.

    Of course it helps if you can find someone like you Debbie to help along the way ๐Ÿ™‚

    Many thanks.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lizzie! I think you are right about the time and energy that we put into these dogs affects how we feel. Getting a scared dog to wag their tail feels like making a shy baby smile, it’s a real rush. I know I’m addicted to it when it comes to my Sunny.

  4. Laurie on

    While I understand your point about shelters possibly doing a disservice by adopting out fearful dogs, there are really not a lot of other options open to those dogs other than euthanasia.

    The majority of shelter pets will have behavior issues of one sort or another, and oft times those issues and the degree of the issues won’t fully present themselves until they are “home” for a while.

    While tightening up screening processes to ensure prospective owners are experienced enough for certain types of dogs, shelters may frequently not know what they’re dealing with.

    The shelter I adopted Chewy from now has a full time trainer on staff to help dogs with specific problems and make placements more successful. I think this is a fantastic idea, but one that many shelters can’t afford.

    Like Lizzie said, tapping into knowledgeable community resources can be key for owners, such as certified behaviorists, trainers, vets etc experienced in a particular area such as dogs with high fear levels.

    This is something that shelters should be encouraged to provide owners with at the front end in terms of appropriate referrals.

    • Lizzie on

      I’m with you Laurie on this one.

      Gracie was rescued by a shelter that is hundreds of miles away from where I live.
      I had to go and fetch her from the foster home where she had been placed as she was unable to cope in the shelter’s kennels.
      Whilst I knew that she was really scared, I thought that she would just ‘come round’ with a bit of TLC and time. How wrong could I be! Anyway at first I did feel let down by the whole process of adopting a needy dog, when there was little support from the shelter. Yes they do have a behaviourist that can be contacted by e-mail, but she is overcome by many people asking for help that when I wrote to her, after two weeks of having Gracie, she never responded. In fact I never did get a reply from her at all.

      I felt also that the shelter was somewhat irresponsible in allowing people adopt ex puppy mill dogs when they have so many issues. And it shows by how many of these dogs are returned because the new owners simply cannot cope with them.
      I am in a fortunate position. I have the time to dedicate to a dog. I do not go out to work and I have no young children at home. I know that Gracie would not have coped at all with chidren, in fact she is more scared of them than of men. But as you say, what other choice do shelters have but to try and find new loving owners for these dogs.Trouble is, love is not enough I’m afraid but it’s a good place to start ๐Ÿ™‚

      The shelter where Gracie came from dedicates itself to ex puppy mill dogs and ones on death row. They have been doing this for the last five years and have found homes for over 6000 dogs apparently. They have to be commended no doubt about it, for if it were not for them, dogs like Gracie would simply be shot, if they’re lucky, or drowned, or clubbed to death. Perish the thought ๐Ÿ˜ฆ

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for your comments!

        I understand the plight that most rescue groups face, too many dogs, too few resources to help them. Some might argue that the risk of placing one dog in the wrong home is worth the benefit of potentially placing ten in the right one (I have no idea of how this actually plays out statistically).

        I don’t blame the folks who sent Sunny to me for not knowing the extent of his fearfulness, they were overwhelmed and his lack of aggressiveness was interpreted as an overwhelmed dog, that once culture shock wore off, would be fine.

        But like Lizzie I shudder to think what his life might have become if he had fallen into the wrong hands (I have also considered that there might be hands out there that are far more competent than my own!).

  5. Laurie on

    I love that, Lizzie and think it should be the main educational theme at all shelters: “Love is not enough but it’s a good place to start.”

    Actually, this is true for all dog owners.

    I think far too many prospective owners have a “rescue” mentality when they walk into a shelter rather than a “which dog would be the best match for me given my overall circumstances, personality, age, income bracket, time, willingness to teach, expectations, experience, knowledge and what I’m prepared to live with for the next 15-20 years” attitude.

    My living situation is very similar to yours so I was able to provide Chewy with the heavy investment of one on one time she needed. There was a time I couldn’t have and the outcome would likely have been very different.

  6. Lizzie on

    Well, I think I’ve mentioned before that I believe in fate, and that somehow Gracie was destined to be with me.

    Had she been placed in a family with children her life would have been very different, assuming that they were able to cope with her. Otherwise she may have found herself back at the shelter and suffering even more stress.

    Although everyone who applies to adopt a dog is home vetted, it does not really tell much about the ability of the person to cope with a fearful or aggressive dog. Had Gracie been aggressive I would not have taken her on as I know I would not have been able to handle that.

    So to sum up, I think Gracie ended up in the right place, although I do think sometimes, like Debbie, that she could have done better with someone more experienced than myself. We’ll never know.

    But I doubt that Debbie has to worry over that as far as Sunny is concerned. I’m sure he’s doing just fine in her more than capable hands……

  7. Laurie on

    I’ve second-guessed and doubted myself many many times this past year. I’m not sure the average person can ever really be ready for a dog with high levels of fear. I sure wasn’t.

    Like you and Debbie say, there is always someone out there with more knowledge and experience, but it’s unlikely they would have been the ones to adopt our dogs.

    I think the thing that comforts me the most in those times of self doubt, is to focus on the level of trust I have developed with Chewy. For me that’s a strong indicator that I’m at least on the right track.

    It sounds to me like Gracie and Sunny are exactly where they belong.

    • fearfuldogs on

      And as far as I’m concerned, Sunny’s not going anywhere! He’s stuck with me.

  8. Laurie on

    I wanted to share an achievement that can only be truly appreciated by others who have lived with a dog with extreme fear.

    Last night, for the very first time, Chewy went into a crate…several times. She ate some treats in there, got her ball, laid down, all very calmly.

    A very common occurrence for millions of dog owners every day.

    This was Chewy’s biggest phobia of all. The first time I unwittingly lead her towards her “new bed” when I first got her a year ago, she dropped into a death roll, screamed and peed, broke free and ran and hid under the table. I stood there, floored, devastated and bewildered.

    Many weeks of desensitization later, she would go in to eat her dinner, but always keep herself stretched long enough so that at least one leg was outside the crate (even when I removed both ends of the crate so it was more like a tunnel than a cage).

    I eventually put it away last spring since it was simply not that important and just focused on building her confidence and our relationship.

    I can’t even begin to describe the feeling I had as she calmly laid in her crate. There are just not enough “WOO HOOs” in the world.

    I am so proud of her!

    • Lizzie on

      Way to go Laurie, I know exactly how proud you must feel. Stuff like that reduces me to tears.

      I had a similar experience with Gracie only this morning.

      I have been trying to get her interested in a rolling ball, previously she has had no play drive at all, being really scared of the movement my hand/arm made. Well over the past few weeks she has been going toward the ball, picking it up, I only roll it a few feet away, coming towards me, I have treat in hand of course, dropping the ball and getting the treat! Of course, she’s not really intersted in the ball, it’s just another way to get food, I think.
      Well today I found a golf ball whilst out on one of our walks, picked it up, showed it to her, threw it, she went straight for it picked it up and came galloping back to me! She was so interested in it that she didn’t drop it, until she saw the hand go into the pocket when she knew that a treat was forthcoming. You know I threw that ball several times and she went after it each time, not even thinking about her environment. And it’s the first time she’s even seen a golf ball, let alone done anything outside that she’s been taught inside, oh except for eating that is!! Come to think, she probably thought it was something she could eat at first!

      WOW that’s progress for you ๐Ÿ™‚

      • fearfuldogs on

        It was recommended that I teach Sunny a retrieve as a good exercise for fearful dogs. Sounds like you discovered it on your own!

    • fearfuldogs on

      That’s the beautiful thing about working with these dogs humanely, the progress seems like it never ends.

      Congratulations, I fully understand your feelings of elation over this achievement.

  9. Laurie on

    That’s so awesome Lizzie!

    That’s the great thing about play and games they can get into. Takes their focus off their surroundings. Once she gets the hang of it, you may be able to get rid of the treats because another toss of the ball will become the reward. WTG!

  10. Lizzie on

    Thanks ladies but I couldn’t have done it without you.

    You’re the best ๐Ÿ™‚

  11. James on

    Having trained many dogs i ran into my fair share of fearful puppies and dogs. Like your post and many comments, there is no feeling that can describe how wonderful it was for this Long Island Dog Trainer to experience.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to read the Fearful Dog blog and share your experiences. Best to you and yours!

  12. Lori on

    I am really happy to have found this, the perfect blog, for me and Nessa, my extremely shy rescued girl. She a border collie/sheltie mix, and has been in my home for 3 years now.
    When I brought her home she hid behind the couch all day, avoided my husband like the plague, and wouldn’t take treats, no matter how luscious. She would sneak out of hiding in the dark of night5, and chew little round holes int he MIDDLE of sofa cushions and pillows. I don’t know if the secretive chewing behavior or the ultra shy behavior was what caused her to be surrendered to the pound, but I can see how it could happen. I found her through the Pueblo Collie Sheltie Rescue in Colorado, and brought her home to live with me, my husband and our very happy, grounded border collie Gracie.

    Anyhow, I started by loosely attaching her to my jeans belt loop with a leash, so she followed me around all day as I dinked around the house. Milestone one: she startedf sleeping at night, upstairs in my room instead of hiding behind the couch.

    Milestone 2: she started accepting treats
    I love reading your blog, because Nessa’s progress closely mirrors Sunny’s and it makes me happy to see that I intuitively did many things RIGHT.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your story about Nessa. I had a very similar experience with Sunny, though I found I couldn’t get him to move around the house with me easily, but I did introduce him to different rooms and he too now sleeps in our room. Since it’s probably reasonable to assume that dogs experience fear in much the same way that we do, it makes sense that when we handle them in ways that are kind and compassionate, we are on the right track. I’m glad your found my blog and welcome your input.


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