Nibbles was one of approximately 23 dogs confiscated from a home breeder by the HSUS. After being placed in a foster home he fled through a window and was on the lam for a week when he trapped by an ACO 30 miles north of his foster home. How he got that far as fast as he did will remain a mystery, but I’ve seen the little guy get the zoomies and he could probably cover some ground. It was another couple of weeks before Nibbles was identified. He had no collar, tags or chip.

Few people, well intentioned as they are, fully comprehend the challenges of a fearful dog, or appreciate how that fear will affect their behavior. I offered to take him on and see if I could help him learn skills for living with people. The following are a collection of videos I’ve shot showing some of the things I’ve been doing with him since he came to my home.

I often ‘wish’ I had shot video of a particular dog and this time around I decided I’d just do it. There were obviously no set designers or wardrobe people involved.

One of my first goals with Nibbles was creating a space where he would be safe, i.e., couldn’t escape, and where he would feel safe. Nibbles has some comfort with people, but never learned how to communicate with us. Teaching a dog to target is one of the simplest ways to get the point across that if I do something, and the dog does something specific in response, they’ll get a reward. This is when I think of the Helen Keller ‘water’ moment, when the penny drops, the light bulb goes on and the dog learns that there is method to what may have just seemed like madness.

Another reason to give a dog a safe space is that they are less inclined to want to flee if they already have a place they can go and relax. I’d rather have Nibbles race back to his crate when startled then race around looking for a door or window.

Desensitization & Counter Conditioning
The process of changing how a dog feels about something can be slow. I am trying to help Nibbles learn to associate having me interact with him, with food.

Treat tossing
Often people try to lure dogs near them using food, that can backfire. I am using treats to reward Nibbles for behaviors I like, and also sending him away from me to look for treats. After he finds a tossed treat, he looks to me again. We need to become relevant to dogs and food is the obvious way to do that.

Play and movement are important in the process of helping fearful dogs. When a dog feels safe they can begin to play. I want Nibbles to learn that people are fun to play with.

Coming soon! Nibbles gets to be outside.


23 comments so far

  1. Marta on

    It’s so great to see the progress! Also it’s so nice how you train the dogs all together.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Marta. My main focus is dealing with Nibbles, but the other dogs don’t know that!

  2. Amanda on

    I love the difference in Nibbles’ demeanor since the first video! Even his facial expression looks different. And the toy pouncing always just melts my heart ๐Ÿ™‚

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Amanda. He is doing better but it’s not all sweetness and light ๐Ÿ˜‰ He is basically still uncomfortable having people put any kind of pressure on him. He has never been trained on a leash and goes bonkers if you try to move him with it. Sometimes I can pick it up and head in the direction he’s likely to want to go, and he’ll go, but other times he won’t. Then I have to figure out how to get him into the house, shut the doors and make his crate and xpen the place he wants to go. It can be exhausting and frustrating. Figuring out how to handle these dogs in a respectful, productive way is rarely boring. I hate to take away his opportunity to play outside, but unless we can have stress free comings and goings, it may have to take a back seat. I was pleased to notice that he has happily peed and pooped outside. I think he can be housetrained once he can be outside safely.

  3. Lizzie on

    Watching and listening to your video clips Debbie makes me feel like I would have had so much more idea of how to have behaved around Gracie when she first came into my life, had I just had these very clips to help me.
    My clumsy way of dealing with her in the beginning was not good and I now wonder how on earth Gracie even put up with it, or how she ever learnt anything. Thankfully I know better now thanks to you!

    Nibbles is one lucky dog to have you teach him about life with humans, and Tooie is cute and so attentive, it’s lovely to see him and all your dogs; but where was Sunny?

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Lizzie, glad the videos were helpful, even in retrospect. I had to drop Nibbles off to be boarded, it was sad for me. Even though he did not want me to touch him, he was definitely making a connection. Luckily the woman does inhome boarding and has adopted another of the chihuahuas confiscated along with Nibbles. She has the same coloring, but is smaller and has really pointy upright ears.

      During one of the filmings when Nibs was in the pen Sunny came over and stuck his face close to the pen and Nibs gave him a big snark. Sunny took the hint and left. Here’s a link to it. I didn’t include it in any public video cause I think I seem kind of goofy.

    • Mel on

      So agree with you Lizzie. I felt the same way watching the videos. Nibbles is indeed lucky. I cannot believe how much progress he has made already!!
      I was wondering about Sunny too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  4. Lizzie on

    Well it was hard to detect Nibbles’ response to Sunny coming too close; just goes to show how subtle gestures can sometimes be, or maybe you just had to be there to see it happening! But thanks for airing the clip.

    I’m sorry to hear that Nibbles is not with you any more, is the woman that’s boarding him going to adopt him?

    Co-incidentally I took Gracie to meet a woman who home boarded. Having missed my son’s Wedding back in May I felt it was time to see if I had taught Gracie any coping skills away from home and me, so that I might be able to take a break.
    Long story short, she did behave much better than I could hoped for, still very cautious around the woman though but coped with the change of environment very well. After a couple of visits I left her overnight, called to see how she was doing twice and was told ‘fine’. When I went to pick her up the next morning, she was very scared around this woman, I called to Gracie and she seemed not to know who I was, but I opened the car and she couldn’t wait to get in, I think she would have gotten into any car at that point! She cowered in the back of the car and I asked the woman if she had been like this the whole time and she said no. I didn’t believe her and after further chit chat I discovered that the woman was a devotee of Mr Millan.
    Needless to say I have not taken Gracie back there!

    On the positive side, as soon as Gracie got back home that day she behaved like nothing had happened and was her usual happy self, so I feel that the ‘away time’ did her no harm, but showed me that she’s not so much emotionally attached to me as she is to her ‘safe place’ which is my home. So, and here’s the best bit, I suggested that my husband should attempt to take her out for a short walk, this is just across the road from the house, which he did, and she coped just fine. He has now been doing this for two weeks and Gracie is improving all the time. So much so that I have booked a flight and am off to visit my son, and his new wife in SC, next month! Hurrah ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Finding something that a dog really enjoys and making the monster of the house responsible for delivering it (walks, frisbee tosses) can help. You know when if does and when it does, use it!

      I recommend that people who are looking for trainers ask potentials who their favorite dog trainers are. If CM is named, seek help elsewhere. Sounds like a good question to ask ANYONE who is going to handle your shy dog.

    • Mel on

      Wow Lizzie. I would have freaked out if I found out the woman was a fan of CM. I am so glad Gracie is still doing well. Who’d have ever thought she would go on a walk with your husband?? So cool!

  5. Lizzie on

    Absolutely, but I was NOT looking for a trainer for Gracie, simply someone who would take care of her in my absence and who understood her limitations. She was recommended to me by a highly qualified animal physiotherapist, whom I have known for some time.

  6. Alan on

    I came across your fearful dogs site last week and went from there to your blog here. I am reading starting from the beginning and now am up to December of 2010.

    My reason is that I adopted an Australian cattle dog from the Northern Nevada Humane Society and on the third day she was with me, I found out that Dany had some serious issues. Up till that time, she seemed fine with just a little apprehension…dropping the retractable leash handle on the sidewalk startled her and she took off with the leash handle clattering behind her…this went on for about three full minutes until I could literally tackle her to stop the event.

    Now, she exhibits a lot of generalized fear of just about anything at any time. Dany does seem to have bonded with me and at times, she is an absolute “velcro dog” that sticks as close to me as possible.

    The retractable leash was ruined and I went to a long lead leash. She is always kind of fearful on the leash now. Any little thing can cause her to seem terrified while walking on the lead…my foot steps through high grass, me stepping on a pine cone, the appearance of another person…the list seems endless.

    I have been with Dany 24/7 since adopting her and take her to work with me ( I work as night security at a well secured auto auction). Once at work, and all the potential “bad things” have been secured, I let Dany make rounds with me off lead…she is a totally different dog then! Off lead and able to wander as she likes, she is happy and engaged looking for bugs, rabbits, and other “interesting” things. Her recall is just about perfect too. If I lose sight of her in the dark, all I have to do so call out “Dany come” and within seconds a very happy bundle of fur is barreling past me at a full run!

    This morning, after work, I took Dany out of town into the Nevada High desert brush. She dove straight in at a full run! Soon, I was losing sight of her every couple of minutes but a whistle or call would bring her running back to me then she would be off to explore again. Though she did jump a couple of jackrabbits, the rabbits quickly outdistanced her and were never in any danger….seems Dany is a bit slow for a dog her size…but Dany had a blast! We only stayed out for about half an hour. During that time, I would estimate that Dany ran at least three miles! The result seems to be that her overall fear level is much decreased today….no predictor of what things will be like tomorrow.

    Anyway, I have more reading to do to catch up and I absolutely MUST find a food treat that Dany can not resist!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your story sounds very familiar Alan ๐Ÿ™‚ Good food treats are a good idea along with some kind of game. Have you found Check out targeting. It’s a good skill and great game for a dog to learn. Movement and play are very powerful brain changers. I’d also suggest that you start researching behavioral meds. They won’t ‘fix’ fearfulness and it’s great that she has places where she feel comfortable and happy but we shouldn’t ignore the anxiety and dread a dog experiences in all the other places they must exist. If we can lower these, it can be easier to begin to pattern new behavioral responses, and new emotional responses along with them. It’s worth educating yourself about them because they are so helpful for dogs suffering from general anxiety and phobias. IMO. Overall it sounds like you are on the right path. Patience.

  7. Alan on

    I actually got to the blog through the site. I like your “rock their world” attitude toward changing outlook and behavior.

    As for the meds, I will be looking for a vet this week and part of the conversation will be just that…

    Right now, I am on my second cup of coffee but as soon as that is done, I’ll be taking Dany out to the desert brush so she can run little doggie self to exhaustion and bliss…video camera is going along too.

    Keep on blogging! You are providing a valuable service to many you never even hear from as well as those of us who leave comments…

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Alan. Sorry I do see that you mentioned visiting Excuse me again if I am being redundant, but the brains in these dogs have become very good at feeling scared and startling easily. We have to give them as much practice at getting good at feeling happily excited, joyful, enthusiastic and hopeful. I appreciate your support and kind words.

      • Alan on

        It’s easy to miss various things when reading…I do it too.

        As for Dany D. Dog. She is making rapid progress! At least it SEEMS rapid in my view. I am using your suggestions and yeah, she kind of sees me as her dedicated “treat vending machine” but there is a payoff. This morning on her walk, there was all sorts of noisy and potentially scary activity…mowing in the apartment complex, runners on the sidewalk, rush hour traffic….anyway, she did notice those things but a couple of times when it seemed to me that she was starting to really get scared, she sat on her butt and looked up at me. Once, she was unable to really take a treat but still looked to me for support instead of focusing on the “scary thing” and just getting more scared.

        I hope that one day, Dany will be as comfortable walking on leash in town as she obviously is here in the desert:

        Oh, yeah, my dog is important to me and yeah, I made her a “facebook page”…

        Thanks for making your journey public!

    • k9diabetes on

      Just watched your video Alan – what a great time Dany had! ๐Ÿ™‚ She looks like she could be mainly a smooth-coated border collie. I love it that she came back to you so well.

      Thought I’d mention that our smooth-coated border collie rescue is taking Prozac for his generalized anxiety (which may be worse than Dany’s). The full extent of his fears took a while to show up, perhaps because he wasn’t yet mature when he was adopted.

      Despite a great deal of work and training, he was suffering from a baseline level of anxiety that he couldn’t overcome and Prozac has been a miracle for him. He’s made so much more progress since starting it.

      So if Dany winds up needing that kind of assistance, I wanted you to know about our success.

      Wishing you great success with your girl.

      • Alan on

        K9diabetes, thanks for the kind words and encouragement. I am not ruling out the possibility of meds but am holding off for now.

        For the most part, Dany seems much less fearful when off leash where she has the ability to decide on her own just how close to get to something or someone…when she is on the leash, it seems like maybe she feels trapped.

        I did find out though that she LOVES little kids! It was a bit scary for ME because Dany started straining at her leash as soon as a gal and two little girls showed up and were walking our way. I had Dany sit and I knelt down beside her to keep her from running toward them…the three, lady and kids, approached and before I knew it, one of the girls had gotten real close and Dany was washing her face! That was about the happiest I have seen Dany so I thanked them for stopping to pet her. They stuck around for a couple of minutes and went on their way…Dany was super happy for a long time after that little encounter.

      • k9diabetes on

        Oh yes, I wasn’t pushing medication at all. I just know that we were reluctant to go that route and wanted you to know that it can do wonders for a chronic anxiety issue.

        Our dog was not only very fearful in many public situations but was anxious even at home under certain circumstances. He, for example, has a deep fear of men who are intense for any reason and who have something in their hand like keys or a cell phone. Several of his early problems occurred when a man had something small in his hand and was tossing it around. The first time we knew we had a problem was when relatives started an egg toss at an Easter gathering. Our poor dog lost it and was so anxious we had to leave.

        We went to medication when our dog couldn’t handle this behavior at home. When my husband would get ready to leave for work, our dog was moved to be aggressive by his hurrying to get to work on time and the keys and phone in his hand. This was after we had worked with him for quite some time and it wasn’t that he was afraid of my husband or the keys or phone. He was afraid of the combination. We talked with the behaviorist and she felt like medication was the way to go because she felt like he had a constant level of anxiety given that even with his family he couldn’t entirely relax.

        And wow – the change in our dog was dramatic.

        I suspect Dany’s fears are less global. But I also know that it took a while for these issues to show up in our dog. They didn’t happen the first six months we had him.

        I can imagine your worry with the family and kids! Glad it made her happy to meet them. ๐Ÿ™‚

        Being on leash is scary for a lot of dogs. I think you’re right – they feel trapped, and essentially are. It cuts off one of their coping mechanisms, to flee, so forces them to rely on others, like being aggressive. She might be afraid of the leash itself too.

        Your situation is one that led to our dog’s bite. I tried to keep our dog from a salesman at the door but he decided to reach in and grabbed our dog by the neck and ears and scruffed his head. Our dog froze while being handled but lunged up and bit him when he leaned forward toward him to stand up from a squatting position. Very frustrating because I told the guy the dog had issues and did NOT give him permission to handle him.

        I think Dany’s issues may not be nearly as deep as our dog’s. Hope not. She is obviously a sweet and adorable girl and a great companion. I’m glad you’re thinking through these issues now and working with them as you learn more about her.

  8. oreoowner on

    Great work with Nibbles!

  9. Debbie Jacobs on

    My two cents on meds, in case folks haven’t read this blog for long is that they can provide a significant amount of relief for many dogs, along with the support and guidance of a vet, I don’t hesitate to suggest that owners look into them. It’s easy for us to not be aware of the dread and anxiety a dog may be experiencing, even when they ‘seem’ ok. Meds have a good track record, have been tested and tested again, and if they work, it’s great, if they don’t work, we can try something else of stop using them. Either way IMHO they should be on any fearful dog owner’s ‘to do’ list as far as researching them.

  10. Suze Foss on

    I’ve begun to use Target training with an extremely fearful Aussie mix – I’m very impressed and can hardly wait to see more progress info on Nibbles. Thanks so much for posting this info!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Glad to hear that you are finding targeting to be so useful. Nibbles is doing great. He jumped up on the back of my legs this morning, Sunny hustled him away though. He’s enjoying being pet and scratched so long as I’m sitting or lying down, and preferably am not directly facing him. He will still dart away if I move suddenly, but he’s actually a very cool little dog. I just wish he with the people who were going to keep him. He’s learning a lot in his foster care situations, but it’s always nice when they’re with the people who are going to adore them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: