Don’t take my lead on this one!

Sunny came to us a dog with no skills for interacting comfortably with people. That was obvious, but what wasn’t obvious to me at the time was that being in a house was also a horrifying experience for him as well. It was winter in Vermont when he first arrived and having grown up in an Arkansas hoarder’s compound, being an outdoor dog was not an option for him at the time. Rather than provide Sunny with a cozy, secure place to hide I set him up in a corner of our living room. I thought, incorrectly, that giving him a crate to retreat to would only be ‘enabling’ his fears. Ugh. To date it’s one of the biggest regrets I have about how I handled him. Chalk it up to ignorance and naivete.

My first attempt, the day after he arrived, to take him for a walk on leash almost ended in disaster. Like a kite plummeting to earth in a windstorm Sunny bucked, pulled, spun and leaped, nearly slipping his collar. Had that occurred there is little question in my mind that I would never have seen him again. I’ve seen other dogs ‘kiting’ at the end of leashes and it sends waves of horror and pity through my body. The fear and desperation the dog is experiencing is palpable. So for weeks Sunny lived huddled in his corner surrounded by papers. Other than shifting his position from one direction to another, he didn’t leave this spot, even if no one was in the house. To discover whether he was having exploratory forays on his own I would leave tidbits of food on the floor around the room, returning to discover them where I’d left them. I doubted he had checked them out and left them untouched.

When I decided it was time to take Sunny outside for walks I fitted him with a harness that he could not slip out of, encouraged him out of the house and promptly almost got dragged off my feet as he tried to flee from me. Getting him back into the house was the opposite experience. Luckily for me, though so sad for him, Sunny seemed to know when his only option was to give up and go wherever the current dictated, so I never had to pull him, feet dragging, to get where we needed to go. On the occasions when it was apparent he could not move I would pick him up and carry him, the alternative of yanking him along was too distasteful to me.

In order to defecate while on a leash Sunny had to get as far from me as he could, circle and then squat, his eyes wide and locked on me. Because I rarely walk my dogs on leash, my collection was limited to 4-5′ lengths or the short slip leashes embossed with the names of vet clinics on them. I had seen retractable leashes, the kind with a large plastic handle into which a cord or flat nylon leash pulls out and coils back into automatically, and purchased the longest I could find. After I had, without too much damage to my person, figured out NEVER grab the leash to stop the dog at the risk of slicing your fingers off, and had sorted out the button for keeping the leash from either extending or retracting, it seemed to fit the bill. Sunny could move away from me, and with only one hand I could manage the leash.

Early one winter morning I attached the leash to Sunny’s harness and as I cracked open the storm door he bolted out, and when all 5o pounds of him hit the end of the leash I was pulled face first into the door. The crashing and sound of my surprised (and unprintable) shout frightened Sunny yet again and thwarted in his attempt to escape into the trees he headed down the driveway. I had managed to step outside the door and as Sunny advanced back toward the house the leash retracted and then as he continued past, extended until again he hit the limit and I was pulled around and this time stopped when I was slammed into the side of the house.

In retrospect I wish one thought had crossed my mind, ‘cut your losses’, and I had reeled him in and called it quits for the day, but he was due for a walk. Since he had access to the outdoors Sunny had stopped using the papers I had put down for him. As events unfolded I had the distinct impression that it looked like a scene of choreographed slapstick and might have even been comical if Sunny wasn’t so terrified and I hadn’t ended up with a bleeding gash on my forehead.

It was only during our walks down the dirt road alongside the river that I ever got glimpses of what ‘normal’ might look like for Sunny. His movements would loosen up, he’d sniff and explore, urinating on special spots which only made sense to a dog. He needed this walk. Bundled up in my powder blue down jacket which I had bought years before for winter camping and which was rated to -40, I looked like a toddling Michelin man, a hat pulled down to meet my glasses which now sat cock-eyed on my face, bent from my run in with the house. Smudges of blood had been left on my cheeks as I’d wiped it out of my eyes.

Sunny did loosen up after about a mile of walking and as we were headed back a neighbor pulled up next to us. It was a weekend morning and I’d hoped that we’d make it through the walk without any passing cars, but as folks are apt to do in rural areas, he slowed down and stopped for quick chat. When he opened his window and looked at my face his eyebrows flew up and he asked, “Are you OK?”.  The walk had helped both Sunny and I calm down, but my chest was still constricted and felt like every fiber was pulled taut. The fear, pain and frustration I had felt from simply trying to exit the house with Sunny, had not dissipated completely. I held back tears and tilted my head slightly toward Sunny who had run to the end of the leash up into the trees lining the road, “Yes,” I responded and he gave me a grimacing smile laced with pity, understood I was not in the mood for a conversation and drove off.

As I walked up the driveway, my husband who had not seen our dramatic departure had come outside to greet us on our return. The emotional edge that I had been teetering on slipped out from under me when he said, “Oh My God! What happened?” and as the tears started flowing I sobbed, “This f**cking dog!”. When John reached to take Sunny from me I knew it wasn’t a good idea, but I wanted someone to step in and make it better or make it all go away, and as he took the handle of the retractable leash and grabbed a hold of Sunny’s harness and pulled him in the house I blurted out, “Don’t scare him!” But of course Sunny who had been perched on an emotional edge over a much deeper and darker abyss than I can ever imagine, was about to go tumbling down.

After putting Sunny into the house John stepped back outside and the noises we heard next coming from inside horrified us. I have never heard a dog being killed but the shrieking we heard was what I imagined it would sound like. There were crashes and thuds and I thought the other dogs must be attacking him, a possibility that was not only unlikely, it was impossible since all the other dogs were outside with us. Back inside I surveyed the scene and deduced what most likely had happened.

After getting Sunny into the house John, unversed in the finer points of flexi-leads, had let go of both the harness and the extended leash which dropped to the floor and then zipped toward Sunny, hitting him and sending him into a blind panic. He rammed into the sliding glass door, lost control of his bowels, spraying the wall, doors and couch, knocked over a large potted plant and raced to his latest safe spot under my desk in our office which is where I found him, panting, exhausted with his eyes glazed over. He appeared physically uninjured but to this day I cannot say whether or not that experience left him with other scars.

As I cleaned the walls and glass doors the realization that all the well-meaning advice I’d been given about how to handle a fearful dog was just not cutting it for me or Sunny. He needed more than time and love. He wasn’t snapping out it, nor was forcing him to do things that scared him helping either. I needed better information and more help, but first I needed a new damn leash.


27 comments so far

  1. Philip May on

    A very touching story Deb. I hop you got a new lead!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I did Philip, I bought a dollar store cotton clothesline and tied a clasp on the end. Have used it now for years!

  2. Jim Stay on

    Hi Debbie,

    I know how serious this subject is, but the way you tell it I can’t help laughing.

    Not at you, but with you. I still don’t know what I’m going to do the next time I take in a truly terrified dog. I’m getting pretty good with timid dogs, but ones like Sunny are a whole different story.

  3. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    Wow. And Amy and I thought our Buster was a fearful dog. Compared to Sunny, well … it doesn’t matter. I imagine telling the story is a bit cathartic.

  4. terra on

    Thank you for telling the story, it is helping me with my own fear reactive dog.

  5. kimhalligan1 on

    Deb, Wow youve come a long way with Sunny since then. Ive had some similar experiences with retractable leash that I dont use on my Labs anymore. Banged my head on pole as Stella took off & left a bump on my head, ouch! I also accidentally dropped retractable with Stanley & it scared the shit out of him. Retractable leash no more with them.

    • fearfuldogs on

      To this day Sunny cringes if he hears one of those leashes. We could put together a youtube video of montages of retractable lead debacles.

  6. tundrah on

    Wow. I’ve had those days with my dogs as well, though yours may be about as bad as it gets without delving into actual tragedy. As much as I sympathize with your story, its also nice to hear I am not the only one…!

    And yes, flexi leashes are evil.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to read the post Elizabeth. ‘Those days’ came further and further apart as both Sunny and I learned new skills. Indeed they have even begun to fade in my memory so much that when someone mentioned to me today that there was a fear aggressive border collie at the shelter I actually thought about going to look at her!

  7. Lizzie on

    Just thinking about the crate situation Debbie, I was advised not to put Gracie in a crate and at first I wished that I had because I think she may have been less terrifed.
    Like Sunny she had not lived inside a house before and went for the corner of the study, incidentally my husband’s study, where her bed remains to this day.

    However with hindsight I am very glad that I did not crate her because I don’t think I would have ever been able to get her out of it. As it was she had no where to go when I eventually started to approach her and so I had access to her for putting on a harness or collar.

    I have been very lucky with Gracie as she has never resisted my handling of her preferring to disassociate herself with what was happening to her, she merely became helpless which made it easier for both of us. It wasn’t easy however to get a harness onto a dog who was pressing herself into a wall. You should see the scratches on the paintwork!

    BTW after I read your e-book early on, I went and bought a 25ft line and it worked fine with Gracie’s harness. But I had the benefit of your words of wisdom 🙂

    I commend you whole heartedly for keeping a dog like Sunny, he is one lucky fellow. But I imagine that he knows it by now.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lizzie. I still think that Sunny and Gracie may have been twins separated at birth by the way you describe her behaviors.

      • Lizzie on

        I’m imagining a Collie in Lab’s clothing, very funny!

        But seriously, you have at least gotten Sunny able to cope around people, he may not be comfortable yet, or may never be but, Gracie cannot deal with other humans at all.

        I have been taking her to the vets in the evenings when they are just about to close and it’s quiet, just taking her up the steps and into the entrance where the weighing machine is. It’s been useful to know how much she weighs anyway. This evening when I had just finished the weighing one of the vets put her head around the corner and saw us. She had no knowledge of Gracie’s ‘issues’ and just thought that she was looking at a timid dog. She then made the fatal error of coming forward to offer Gracie a treat when she witnessed the full force of her terror. Gracie leapt off the weighing machine at mach 10 almost overturned it and slammed herself into the floor. She then asked me about her background and whether I’d tried a DAP collar on her! Honestly did she think, I wonder, that I could have had a dog like Gracie for 18 months and simply done nothing to help her?
        I said I’d better take Gracie out before she urinated and emptied her anal glands on the floor, so we left, again at warp speed!

        Although our dogs are not unique, although Sunny and Gracie do seem to be one of a kind, it occurs to me that others, especially those who deal with dogs for a living, have no idea how to behave around a dog that is scared. Have little knowledge of canine body language and simply treat all dogs, and owners in the same way.

        Very frustrating….

    • fearfuldogs on

      I can just imagine your scene at the vet’s. Until you have lived with a dog like this I don’t think you can fully appreciate what they’re like. I have been criticized by people, including trainers who accuse me ‘trapping’ Sunny in his fear. As if something I am doing or not doing is causing him to feel the way he does. It’s not only absurd, it’s mean!

      I have had over 100 foster dogs go through my household, some of them were shy or timid, but they, like many, were able to cope and deal with the world. Dogs like Sunny and Gracie are damaged goods and there’s only going to be so much we can do to help them.

      Even with meds and supplements, the lack of early socialization with people and novelty was a blow that Sunny was dealt that he probably will never fully recover from. I of course continue to believe that his brain can always change, and so never stop working on finding ways to make that happen.

  8. Sukesu on


    Great and very honest post. I am not a fan of flexi/extendable/retractable leads at all and your post just confirms the reasons why not to use them.

    Your knowledge & work with fearful dogs is an inspiration 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting. Was glad that your post about the terriers going after the GSD had a happy ending. Youch. Could have been nasty.

  9. Edie on

    I’ve always said that if you feel a need to reel something in, go fishing. For small dogs, Flexi-leads have the opposite problem: If you let them snap, you can jerk a little dog off his feet.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You mean run to the end of the line?

      How about seeing a flexi on a head halter!

      • Edie on

        Yes, they’re pulled to the end of the line very, very quickly. And the idea of a flexi on a head halter — ay yi yi!

  10. Donna on

    Everything about this post is so human in the emotions–and as a result so helpful. I particularly liked “This f**cking dog!”.–and I hope it doesn’t sound like I’m laughing at you, because I’m not, I’m just appreciating what you are doing. I volunteer at a shelter, and sometimes that’s exactly what I want to say. Thanks 😎

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Donna. I thought that I was a patient person until I lived with Sunny for awhile and discovered my limits. There were days when I just sat down and cried from frustration. I spoke to a holistic health care practitioner one day and she suggested some supplements to support Sunny’s adrenal system due to the chronic stress he was experiencing. She recommended that I take some as well, the emotional toll of working with a seriously damaged dog was obviously affecting me as well. If I knew then what I know now I would have had very different expectations and might have behaved differently myself in regard to managing and training him, probably making life easier for both of us.

  11. Jim Stay on

    It’s a great learning experience, isn’t it. We learn our strength and our limits. Most people never see a dog like these, because they are put down.

    Debbie, it really helps that you share your problems as well as your success. I often feel that there MUST be something I’m doing wrong. Then I remind myself that they were each about to be put down before I took them home. Now all three are happy dogs, even if they are still afraid of people.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Jim. I am always looking to learn more about how dogs like ours can be helped. I figure that as long as there is something else to learn, there’s more that I can do to help Sunny. Both of our brains are capable of changing.

  12. Walk this way « Fearfuldogs' Blog on

    […] 7. Skip the flexi. Scared dogs can bolt and the flexi-leads can give them enough leash to build up some speed. When they hit the end of the line it can be pulled from the handler’s hand at which time it retracts toward the dog. Not only can this be scary for the dog it leaves no leash dragging which could be available for grabbing to gain control of the dog. Not convinced? Check out his blog post. […]

  13. Cindy on

    I am recooperating from my retractable lead experience. I have a 90lb. Rottie who on occasion sees or thinks she sees something that requires her immediate attention.

    Last week before daylight we were going out the front door for a potty trip when she bolted full force. I was totally unprepared and had no time to see if something was there or not. She totally took me sailing out the door landing at the bottom of the steps. The handle she had jerked from my hand breaking my thumb.

    Thankfully she is good on recall so getting her back was not a problem. Now my problem is coming up with a long leash for our potty trips that isn’t a pain in the neck to manage.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ooh Cindy I’m grimacing just thinking about your experience. Hope you heal fast!

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