The price of a fearful dog

small dog in a cageYears ago a friend decided he was ready to adopt a dog. As a young man he had traveled cross country with his beloved chihuahua and he was hoping to find a small dog to add to his and his children’s lives. Small dogs were not easy to find at nearby shelters so he looked online and found what seemed to be a good match, a small, young terrier mix that he met at the airport with all the nervous excitement a new dog owner can feel. At first the dog’s shyness and hesitation to interact with him wasn’t a worry. Assuming that the dog just needed time to settle in and with the assurances of the folks at the rescue that the dog had not behaved fearfully there, he waited, and waited, for the dog to ‘warm up’ to him.

I began to get phone calls from him and it’s one of those cases of ‘wish I knew then what I know now’. We’d talk for hours about what might be wrong and what he could do differently to salvage what was suppose to be a two-way love affair. When he called me one last time to talk about the dog it was to tell me that he couldn’t bear living with an animal that cowered each time he approached, ran away from him, and which made him feel like some kind of monster. With the assistance of my local animal shelter I was able to rehome the dog and my friend did find some consolation that all the time, energy and money he had spent, had eventually helped get this little dog into a home where it could be happy and comfortable. But he had paid a price.

When we choose to keep a fearful dog, and often it doesn’t feel much like a choice as it seems the only option available to keep the dog alive, we end up paying a price. The dog we had hoped would go for runs with us but is frightened by people and traffic, turns what used to be a pleasant recreation into a stressful, dreaded event. And rather than enthusiastic greetings and the pleasure of watching a joyous dog bound and play, we get the sorrow of watching an animal suffer from fear or the sting of being the source of that fear.

My friend ended up adopting another dog that lived happily with his family for years. I have almost forgotten the months and months my heart ached for my fearful dog that had he not suffered at the hands of an animal hoarder, might have become a confident dog that could enjoy all the activities and travels my other dogs do. Who can say what a dog’s life is worth, but spending it being fearful seems the highest price of all to pay.


13 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    Oh, how heart rending it is to watch your fearful dog cower or run to the corner of the room in order to get away from someone in the house that she can’t cope with, even after months and months of coaxing and being kind to.

    I wonder all the time whether Gracie would be better off in a different environment/home where she could have the freedom to just be herself in a really safe place with someone who knows more than I do about keeping a dog like her. But I always come back to the fact that there are no guarantees that she would be any different or happier being rehomed.

    I have even heard of owners having their vet put their fearful dog to sleep because they think it’s troubled mind is as bad as having a physical problem that can’t be put right. And I suppose it is in some ways, but I think that Gracie is as happy as she can be given the circumstances she finds herself in. She is probably happier than I am at the moment. I am full of self doubt about my capabilites with regard to teaching her effectively, so this must rub off on her with the vibes I’m giving out.

    I despair some days trying to understand why it is she can’t ‘move on’ from her fear, even though she plainly has in lots of ways, but still can’t go out for a walk without being so stressed all she wants to do is come home. Or if I try to change the route we take just a little she immediately gets worked up and can’t cope.

    I could teach her to do tricks in the house I’m sure, but that still would not help her to overcome the one thing that drives her. Her fear.

  2. […] I read blogs like this and realize how lucky I […]

  3. fearfuldogs on

    That’s another price, the burden of making the decision as to what to do with our dogs.

    Don’t be so sure that your self doubt rubs off, or that she picks up on your ‘vibes’. She might indeed, but she also might not, we really don’t know what dogs sense in regard to our ‘energy’. I think that if you can fake it well enough, moving and behaving in ways that help her predict what will happen next and indicate your benign intentions it likely doesn’t matter that you’re not feeling confident. People are often fooled by other people who put on a brave show, why not our dogs?

    Doing tricks in the house may actually help her a lot. Anything you do which stimulates her brain and gets her ‘thinking’ sure won’t hurt matters. Nothing ‘cures’ a fearful dog but you are in it for the long haul and progress, even tiny little bits of it, are always a possibility.

    There may be someone out there that knows more than you do about fearful dogs, but they are not likely to take Gracie anyway. You are becoming an expert on Gracie and that’s a big, important deal Lizzie. She’s luckier than you know.

    • Lizzie on

      Thanks Debbie,

      Yesterday I was having a bad day 😦

      It’s good to be able to ‘sound off’ to someone who understands where I’m coming from. It can be very isolating living with a dog that fears people as I’m not able to stop and have a chat to other dog owners. Most of them wouldn’t understand anyway!

      Always grateful for you and your blog 🙂

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks Lizzie and you are most welcome! Too bad there aren’t any shy dog classes in your area. Even if Gracie was too scared to attend perhaps you could go and just watch.

  4. Lizzie on

    Ha, I wish. Even the highly qualified behaviourist who came to assess Gracie a couple of weeks ago had never known of a dog as bad as Gracie, and she couldn’t understand why she was not aggressive. Classes or any kind of help for dogs like her are simply unheard of around here.

    I am having a TTouch practitioner come on Monday to show me how to massage Gracie, might help to relax her a little.

    I live in hope 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Keeping Gracie from becoming aggressive is a HUGE accomplishment Lizzie. Remind me what the med scene is for you? Can you not get them for dogs, or have you chosen not to use them?

  5. Lizzie on

    Gracie is on a seratonin and vitamin B supplement at present. I don’t think it’s making the slightest bit of difference, though. I’ve tried other supplements and calming herbs but to no avail. She obviously needs something to help her.
    My vet can’t prescribe Prozac, which I would like to try, as it’s against the law here for dogs.

    I am rapidly coming round to the idea of some drug therapy for her but it’s a question of what. Again my vet has little or no experience of treating a dog like Gracie so hasn’t been much help with drugs.

    So I try to control her environment as much as I can. She clearly cannot cope with people or change in routine. What amazes me every day is that she has been able to form a really close relationship with me, loves affection and physical contact. I think that because her needs are now met by me she simply has no need of anyone else. I’m also amazed that she hasn’t developed seperation anxiety, so I’m very lucky in lots of ways. Actually she has no issues other than her inherent fear, which makes her sound like an OK dog, but that is too simplistic a way to describe her.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Gracie sounds a lot like Sunny. Can your vet get products called Reconcile or Clomicalm? Reconcile is Prozac (SSRI) and Clomicalm is clomipramine (TCA), another anti-depressant. Both of these products are sold for dogs through vets here in the states. If so your vet should be able to read the product specifications (as can you) to determine dosages.

      You can also research melatonin and L-theanine.

  6. Julianne Vazquez on

    I thought I was the only person on the planet with such a a fearful dog.
    She (Merry() is a cattle dog rescue I have had for 8 months and although she has come a long way her issue is mostly fellow dogs.
    I expected a high energy companion and she arrived fearful, crawled like a commando instead of walking, never walked on a leash and was generally timid of life.
    Friendly with people although a bit shy.
    We lived in Maine and now in Boston. It is not the traffic and bustle now that daunts her, but rather fellow dogs. She was mugged by a border collie (to play) once and then by a smaller dog. Now she rushes and growls .
    When we are in the dogpark and other dogs approach we must leave. It is so sad because she sees them playing and I cant trust that she will not injure one of the smaller ones.
    She did basic obedience in Maine but they did not socialize the dogs there. I tried doggie daycare but they said she was too timid.
    I now have begun with a very qualified trainer and hope that eventually she will help me socialize Merry… I agree that that is a most diificult feat for a professional.
    I at times as others have, wonder if I am being fair to her living in a city etc.,…but then remember that she was extremely hard to place and I did not understand why until I met her. I thought it was because she had heartworms (which I had treated immediately) but I think not because for 6 months she is extremely healthy.
    She will be with me for life because I know that no one will love her the same nor will be willing to do whatever it takes however long it takes to help her overcome her shyness.
    I am even going to try to find a cattle dog person who may be able to allow me to get her into the field to see how she does. However it was suggested that she may have been abused when she did not do well in just such a situation (she came from Texas)
    At this point we are just getting comfortable playing with a ball.
    I wish someone could help with someone who could help with dog socialization…does anyone have a pack that would not injure my Merry and help her become comfortable.
    Thank you all for your comments

    • fearfuldogs on

      Welcome to the fearful dog club, a membership we’d all likely happily revoke!

      Here are some thoughts for you. The sensitive period during which a dog becomes socialized to people and other animals, is over for your dog. That doesn’t mean that dog can’t and don’t continue to learn how to be comfortable with other dogs, but the idea that you can ‘socialize’ her now may not be accurate. It is not just a question of exposing your dog to other dogs, as good as they may be. Dogs don’t learn to feel better about things just because nothing bad happens to them when exposed to them.

      If you do not understand triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization that’s a good start. Why bring your dog to a dog park when even the possibility that other dogs will approach her (which she is likely anticipating and dreading)? Each time your dog is startled or scared by another dog, that reaction is likely to just be repeated in the future.

      In the Boston area you can look for Emma Parsons who wrote the book Click To Calm. I would also encourage you to research the use of behavioral medications to help lower the stress and anxiety a dog that lives in a world filled with other dogs must feel much of the time.

      Just some thoughts. Thanks for reading and commenting. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out

      • Julianne Vazquez on

        Thank you so much…
        I am just starting with a trainer who I understand uses the click method. I am so glad that it is the right direction for us.
        Am checking out your site now…..

  7. Debbie Jacobs on

    Good luck and keep us posted on how it goes.

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