OK so I lied

After Sunny had lived with us for several months and it became clear to me, after he escaped from the house once, and again from a friend’s fenced in yard, that Sunny was not going to go far, I let him be my ‘wild boy’ and spend most of the day off leash outside. At the time we didn’t have a fence and I’m not recommending that other folks do this, it’s just the choice I made given our set of conditions. I’d tried a tie out but he moved as far from the stake as possible, sat down and didn’t move for hours. I spent $100 on supplies and installed a cable run for him and the first time the pulley moved Sunny went down like a marine in boot camp slithering under barbed wire. He couldn’t even walk under the cable when he wasn’t connected to it.

Sunny didn’t have a recall and to catch him entailed long walks late at night and trips down to the river so he could get enough ‘happy’ flowing for me to get close to him. If the idea of putting a long line on him has crossed your mind, I had indeed tried it. The thing about Sunny was that he knew exactly where the line was, and if he dragged a 5 foot length on the ground he made sure to dance 6 feet away from me. The longer the line, the further he stayed away from me. Eventually I settled on a length that touched the ground and had an extra foot to spare. There was no chance I could get to this line on dry land, but down at the river I would play Sunny’s favorite stone tossing game and position myself downstream of him so the rope floated to me. Sunny figured this out as well, but in his enthusiasm to chase stones I could usually trick him into believing that I was reaching for a stone and not the rope. Once caught Sunny headed home with me as if it was his idea all along.

During the day Sunny sat perched on the hillside behind the house, too frightened to go near the cars or people passing by. If I went outside and began tossing balls or frisbees for Finn the border collie or headed off for a walk, Sunny came bounding down the hill, his tail waving like a flag, his mouth open, tongue flopping as he ran. He was happy and I was happy seeing it. Sunny’s idea of the game was to snatch the ball or frisbee before or away from Finn and then run back up into the woods and deposit it in one of his stashes. Routinely I made forays to search for toys as Sunny followed along, seeming to enjoy watching me hunt for his treasures.

One afternoon after a long woods walk and some ball playing I wanted to get Sunny inside. I didn’t like leaving him out alone when I left the house. He didn’t seem inclined to follow the car and on my return I always found him perched on his ledge waiting, but being able to get a dog inside when I wanted to seemed a reasonable enough goal. Before I continue I must emphasize that living with a dog that does not have basic social skills for interacting with people is exhausting. So many of the simple behaviors we take for granted, even in dogs that are not well-trained, were not part of Sunny’s repertoire. It hurt me to see Sunny unable to approach me, or step inside a doorway, or exit the house without a panicked dash. Some days I felt like Effie in Dream Girls ready to belt out ‘YOU’RE GONNA LOVE ME!’. It just wasn’t going to be that day.

I knew I was getting frustrated. I knew I should have just quit and left, done what I had to do, but as I stood there, tennis ball in hand, Sunny anxious for me to toss it, but flitting away with any movement I made toward him, I did something that I regretted even before the results of it were apparent. I threw the ball, but I threw it at him, not for or to him. Both of our eyes went wide when the ball hit him smack dab in the middle of his forehead, a feat I probably could not have succeeded at had I been aiming, and I doubt I could accomplish again. “S**t,” I thought to myself, I’d gone and done it now. All the months of trying to get this dog to trust me and I go and lob a ball at him.

As Sunny stood there, frozen but ready to run, he watched me, the question of what to do next probably weighing as heavily on his mind as it was on mine. In those slices of seconds my mind raced, how could I salvage this situation? I decided on a tactic that had worked, possibly too often, when I was a teenager, I decided to lie. I looked him right in the eyes and said, “Well, GO GIT IT!”. And Sunny, bless his heart, lingered a moment longer and then he too made a decision. He decided to believe me and ran off after the ball.

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13 comments so far

  1. Lauren on

    I’ve done that a few times myself with the old tennis ball and some unruly dogs… And definitely regretted it. It’s a good thing dogs are usually willing to believe it was an accident.

    • fearfuldogs on

      True. I was angry, tired and frustrated. Being patient is easier said than done sometimes.

  2. kimhalligan1 on

    Deb, I love your posts. They are honest & give insight into living with a fearful dog. I also get frustrated at times with my dogs. So helpful to know I’m not alone. Thanks.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Kim. Sunny and I have had a long enough and good enough relationship that now if I do something that scares him, he recovers quickly. Gratefully I haven’t felt frustrated with him in a long time. He is able to come on cue, go in and out of the house and car and I can leash him up and get him to go anywhere I really need him to go. He’s a sweet guy and I know that living with people isn’t easy for him, but he keeps trying so I do too.

  3. Gabrielle Campbell on

    To admit you’ve done something you see as wrong is courageous. I am not yet courageous enough to admit some things I have done.. sigh. God bless you for being you and being there for Sunny. You are learning from each other and that’s what it is all about! : )

    • fearfuldogs on

      Nice of you to stop by, read and comment Gabrielle, I appreciate it. They say you learn the most from your most challenging dog. Sunny has certainly done that for me!

  4. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    I imagine many people think pet bloggers have perfectly behaved pets. Ahhh … this is not so. This is why we “came clean” with the challenges we have with Ty and Buster. And certainly your recent posts on Sunny follow that same theme. Personally, I think your writing is inspirational and puts into perspective some of the “minor” issues people have with their pets. Keep on keepin’ on!

  5. dgken on

    I glad I found you today, I am also dealing with a fearful dog. Unlike your situation my dog has latched on to me. The poor baby was 8 month old when I brought him home, I held him the entire way while he hid his eyes under my arm, occasionally he would get brave enough to look out and would quickly hide his eyes again. If a person is standing he will get behind them and nip, if a person is sitting he is better, very uneasy but better ( I havent figured that one out yet). It makes me feel better to know other people are having the same trials I am. Chet is the most loving dog I have ever owned, I have made the commitment to not give up on him although everyday is a lesson in patience. Thank you for sharing your experience with Sunny.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m glad you found me too! Thanks for reading and commenting. I should tell you that Sunny and I now have a fabulous relationship, though he remains fearful of other people. If you haven’t already checked out http://www.fearfuldogs.com for more information about how to work with your dog, do stop by. That nipping behavior is one you want to ‘nip’ in the bud. As fearful dogs gain some confidence that can become more aggressive and dangerous. The first step is just not to put the dog in the situation where he can behave that way. Don’t punish or yell at him, just don’t let him do it. There are other behaviors that he can learn that will let him feel safe around people without having to resort to biting. I’m guessing he’s a small dog.

      Dogs that are afraid of people and/or other dogs are uncomfortable with social interactions, it’s why they avoid eye contact and try to hide, or become aggressive to keep people/dogs away from them. Removing that pressure is key, so the dog learns that he doesn’t have to anticipate being afraid that people are going to try to interact with him. People sitting or lying down appear less threatening to most dogs. If he approaches people who are sitting and has a sniff, encourage people to ignore him. He’s not trying to say hello, he’s investigating. In general as a start, I’d keep people away from him and ask that they don’t look at him or talk to him. Just some thoughts.

  6. JC Burcham on

    We’re not perfect. You do so much to help fearful dogs and I love all your resources. I posted a feature about you on our blog (http://olatheanimalhospital.wordpress.com) last Friday, which you may not have seen because I don’t think you’re following us (@oaholathe). Keep up the great work!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for that kind profile. I am overwhelmed by the desire to help people find the most effective and humane ways to work with dogs with fear based behaviors and appreciate you helping me do that. And I will certainly follow you back!

  7. melfr99 on

    Another great post Deb! I’m with Kim. I love your honesty.

    As for living with a dog lacking in basic social skills? Oh yeah. Can SO relate. Daisy and I did the whole try and catch me routine, the try to get her in the house routine and the trick her into getting-close-enough-for-me-to-hook-a-leash-to-her-harness routine. I can also relate to the Effie comment. Reading your post reminded me of how far Daisy and I have come and where we were just a year and a half ago.

    And, the lying? Yep. Done that too. Pretending to go for a car ride so she would hop in and I could attach a leash and lead her inside – it beat circling the car 20 more times.

    I’m just glad Sunny believed you! We’ve all been there. :)


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