That’s irrelevant! Or is it?

It may be the human condition, this striving to achieve relevancy in our lives, at least for some of us anyway. Fortunately for us it’s not too difficult to become relevant to the life of a dog. Some lovely evolutionary twists and turns seem to have practically written our relevance to them in their genes, and maybe theirs in ours. Alas the system can go awry and we end up with dogs that for one reason or another find us not only irrelevant but also terrifying.

In some cases due to the lack of appropriate socialization some dogs don’t find us much fun to be around, regardless of our good intentions. Others may not be frightened of us but they don’t see the point of us, unless it’s feeding time. Sometimes I joke and say that one of my dogs would love anyone she thought could open the frig, but maybe there’s more truth to the statement than I’d like to admit.

When we are helping dogs in need of homes, whether working with them at shelters or fostering them, one of our goals is to find ways to make people relevant to them. A dog that has discovered the relevancy of humans is going to be better equipped to learn to enjoy living in yet another new place, with someone new.

My border collie Finn was in 3 different shelters, that I know of. By my count we are his 7th abode. When he came to live with us at 3 years of age he was as close to an insta-pet as a re-homed dog can be. Sure we had to iron out some kinks, and I had to learn what living with a border collie can entail, but Finn sacked out on the couch with us the first night, like an old pro.

Besides whatever good handling Finn received in his migration from Tennessee to New York and finally to Vermont, he was given a gift by one of his owners. Finn was adopted by a competitive frisbee player who decided that Finn didn’t cut the mustard and brought him to a shelter, but not before he turned Finn into a frisbee catching machine. It’s not too difficult to turn a border collie into an enthusiast for one sport or another and for Finn, since frisbees don’t toss themselves, people are very relevant to him. In fact, show up at our house and Finn will greet you like an old friend, drop a frisbee at your feet and let you practice your toss. Pick up his frisbees and walk out the door and you may find yourself with a new shadow.

Becoming relevant to fearful dogs initially involves the use of food, since it may be the only thing that they can feel good about, but it doesn’t have to end there, nor should it. Turn a dog onto something, whether it’s chasing balls, playing tug, going for walks, learning clicker tricks, doing agility or nosework, and you give them something they will carry with them when they move to a new home.

Rehabbing fearful dogs is about giving them the skills to live in the world and in my opinion the most important skill is how to have fun, no matter where you go.

16 comments so far

  1. Kevin Myers on

    Quit trying to make an old curmudgeon cry! Indeed, supplying shy and fearful dogs with fun activities that require us humans to participate in is a gift that the dog can use for the rest of its life; and one you will remember for the rest of yours.

  2. Rod@GoPetFriendly on

    “Rehabbing fearful dogs is about giving them the skills to live in the world and in my opinion the most important skill is how to have fun, no matter where you go.”

    Yes, and it requires people who have/take the time to have fun. Think about it, how many people do you know (with or without a dog) that don’t. They’re always busy doing something that needs to be done, but they’re never having fun.

    I only say this because I used to be like that.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So glad you were rehabbed Rod! But I think you may have uncovered my secret. I have dogs so I always have an excuse for going outside for a hike 😉

    • melfr99 on

      I so agree Rod! Dogs love to hang out with people who like to have fun and heck, it’s good for all of us!

      Maybe that’s why the dogs who stay with us at Casa del Mel are so excited when they arrive. 🙂

  3. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Love that photo of Finn with his frisbee. You know, we used agility to build Lilly’s confidence from zero to where she is now, but when it became pretty clear that we’d have no success in a competitive venue … SO many people told me to “retire her,” which can mean either rehome her or just let her hang around but not really work with her.

    Clearly, I chose the dog over the sport, and we continue to work and bond and train on our own terms, with our own goals in mind.

  4. Lizzie on

    I agree with Roxanne about ‘bonding and training on our own terms’.
    Our dogs are all different, but united in the fact that they all have shy, nervous or fearful issues.

    Breed traits do play a part as well so you go with what motivates your dog.
    I’m not so sure that Gracie would be able to see the relevance of another human being, afterall she can find no use for my husband other than the occasional treat, and food at breakfast time.

    I wonder, does this mean that I’ve done my job too well, by fulfilling all of her needs, or is it that I simply haven’t found just what pushes her buttons yet and must try harder?

    • fearfuldogs on

      You bring up a good point Lizzie. There are dogs who for whatever reason may never be adoptable. We know from research that if a dog is not socialized with people during the first 16-20 weeks of their life, the chance of them ever developing the ability to generalize an affinity for people beyond immediate care givers is difficult if not unlikely.

      Whether you need to work harder with Gracie is not something any of us could answer. There is probably more that each of us ‘could’ do for our dogs, but we need to be realistic about how much time and energy we have to devote to repairing what might ultimately be irreparable. The realities of our living situations may not be ideal for a dog, and that may not be something we can easily change, nor are we likely to find a better place for our dogs.

      So we are left with our good intentions and the continuing desire to provide the best care and training we can for these dogs.

  5. Kenzo_HW on

    Loved this article, it is very recognizable.
    As it is, I do a lot of tracking and nosework with Kenzo. He is a Hovawart and our first dog. The Hovawart breed is known to excell in tracking and they love to do it (in general).
    So I also took this up with Viva, our fearful dog (and also a Hovawart). And we hit the jackpot. Her progress in learning tracking is amazing. I thought Kenzo was a natural, but I have to rephrase that now with Viva. When we do a simple “find it” in the garden, she is still vacuum cleaning every inch and every corner, long after Kenzo has already stopped. When we go tracking, she shows a remarkable concentration to follow the track, there are not many things that can distract her. I started doing all kinds of search and smell games during our walks, and it is what she loves to do above anything else.

    I like to think that this is doing wonders for our mutual relationship and that it will bolster her self-awareness.

  6. George on

    Your last paragraph to Lizzie’s comment “So we are left with our good intentions and the continuing desire to provide the best care and training we can for these dogs.”, I find is the most difficult part in working with these lost souls.

    When sitting in the yard on a nice summer/fall day with my other two awesome dogs laying by my feet and Honey 5 feet away, I keep saying over and over, “Please come and join us, all I want to do is pet you, you’ll like it.”

    In my old rational (sort of) mind I think, “Honey you may never know a pet, a walk in the woods or snuggle on the couch but you’ll never need to fight for food or live in the wild ever again.” “I’ll give you all the love and tools you need to make the choice, but it’s your choice, ‘all I want to do is pet you’.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Don’t give up George! I never thought Sunny would solicit handling from me but he does.

      Have you got a leash on her yet? You might find that she’s comfortable enough with you for you to push her a bit. I would sit with Sunny when he was a corner dog and scratch that ‘kick spot’ on his side. I don’t know why but I figured it must feel good. I also rubbed his chest or scratched his ears or near his tail, all the places other dogs seem to enjoy.

      When they don’t know what they’re missing it can hard for them to ask for it. Just a thought. You know her best.

      • George on

        Oh, I’ll never give up, still no touching, leashing or any contact other than pushing my hand out of the way to get a treat, but that’s a start.

  7. KathyF on

    This foster I’ve got–my first one–didn’t know how to play when he first came here. Maybe he’d been punished for taking anything in his mouth, I don’t know. But now he is enjoying playing with toys, even tearing them up. He loves his new ball, so much I wonder if he’d ever had one before. Makes me happy to have taught him that humans are fun to play with, if nothing else.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to comment Kathy. It feels so good when they start to show some normal, mischievous behavior doesn’t it? I love bringing Sunny a new squeaky toy, he seems so delighted with them.

  8. melfr99 on

    Another great post Debbie! Maybe that’s why I loved fostering fearful dogs – I could help them to see people as relevant and maybe even, something not to be feared.

    Lizzie knows Daisy’s story, it’s very similar to her Gracie’s experience. Not all dogs are the same, but treats were what worked with Daisy and I. I started with treats and “watch me”. Being a Lab, Daisy was VERY treat motivated, so I gained relevancy (and eventually trust) by starting simply with treats. Then came the belly rubs. It happened by accident, but one day while laying on my belly on the floor, Daisy approached and sat near me, I reached out and rubbed her belly. I tell you, belly rubs made me extremely relevant after that! LOL!

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