Something else is sometimes nothing

cartoon dog looking warily at toy dogSome dogs are afraid of stuff. Stuff they are unfamiliar with, stuff they see routinely. Some are ok with stuff inside the house, but not stuff outside. Other dogs are ok with ‘things’ but not people or animals. Trying to get fearful dogs to stop being afraid of anything is challenging and I am often impressed by how many people truly want to try. And they try. And try. And try. I am almost inclined to believe them when they say they have tried ‘everything’. A dog who has been around the mill, as the saying goes, may have been subjected to a variety of different ‘techniques’ to rid them of their fears by the time they end up in our laps, or more likely, in a corner somewhere. Often the first thing we need to do is, nothing.

Create a space where the dog feels safe, however best you can. If a dog wants to hide, let them hide. If they prefer being outside and outside is an option, figure out how to make that happen. We don’t invite first dates into our home and ask them to empty the dead flies out of the light fixtures. We make them comfortable. The flies will still be there later when maybe we can convince them to climb up on the ladder for us.

If a dog is afraid of people, don’t be pushy. There are not many things more unattractive than someone trying to convince you about how wonderful they are. Make a mental note to avoid them at the next dinner party. Find a distance away from the dog where you can sit and make yourself interesting and safe. Sit and eat a roasted chicken, occasionally tossing a chunk to the dog. If the dog eats it, fabulous, if not, get up and leave. On your return do you notice the meat gone? If so, sit and eat some more, toss some more and leave again. Don’t interact with the dog, they’ve already declined your invitation for this dance, don’t embarrass yourself by asking again……yet.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that just because something has worked with one or one hundred dogs doesn’t mean it will work with the dog you are working with now. They are all different and the level to which their brains have been compromised either by experience or the lack of it may remain a mystery to you. Don’t let your impatience or time schedule bump up against biology, there’s a good chance you’ll lose, which is also the dog’s loss.

Even extremely fearful dogs can be taught new skills to help them live comfortably in their world. But in the beginning of the journey, less is often more and the something else you can do is often nothing.

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9 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    Excellent post Debbie, as always 🙂

    I had to learn to do nothing around Gracie, it’s difficult often as I tended to feel that I was never doing enough to help her; that surely something must work to alleviate the stress she so obviously was living with .

    Essentially even after three years, Gracie does remain fearful of the outside, people, and change. She has however become much better at coping with it, and that is largely in part down to you and your dedication to helping folk living with fearful dogs.

    Reading your post and having the knowledge that I now do makes perfect sense, and again time and patience are just as important as experience.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you Lizzie. It’s difficult for many to understand and accept that there are dogs like Gracie and Sunny, who, for whatever reason, will always be compromised in how they well they can tolerate changes in their worlds. But I think that both our dogs have lives that many less compromised dogs would envy.

  2. honeysjourney on

    When did you meet Honey? I find even the smallest change in her world can have a big impact. I put on windbreaker yesterday for the first time this fall, that was scary and it took well over an hour for her to decide it was okay.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Even though they are all different, there are some things we can predict. When I went to pick up Nibbles after 3 days boarding he barked at me and didn’t want me to touch him.

  3. Lizzie on

    I left Gracie with my husband for one week last month whilst I visited my son in SC. They both coped very well in my absence but when I walked back in the front door of my house she acted like she didn’t know me……. for about 1 hour, until I started to do routine stuff she was familiar with and we were back to being pals again very quickly.

    In my experience, it’s not just dogs like Gracie who act in that way; my other two old boys spent time in boarding kennels regularly when we went away. Typically they spent 14 or 15 days maybe twice a year, (they are too old now). When I went to collect them they would follow the person who had been looking after them and not even be aware that I was there, even though I was calling them. Their focus was always on the carer, until they got my scent and remembered that they lived some place else!

    Just goes to show how adaptable dogs can be.

  4. Lisa on

    I am so glad I have stumbled upon your site! I have worked with dogs all my life, and while fostering this summer fell in love with another Aussie (we lost our two Aussies over the last two years and we were just “fostering” for the summer, found the puppy a home and I couldn’t stand to part with this guy! So he’s mine now!). Despite what everyone always assumes, he was never abused, just unsocialized. He lived with a pack of other dogs on the rural property he was born on and had not left since he was 2 days old for his tail docking. He interacted with one human and that was his world. Never been inside a house or met a stranger…. until now. We have conquered many hurdles, but we still have a long way to go. We have been developing a great relationship with each other, but his fear issues have forced me to change everything I’ve ever known about training- and I love everything I have read here and can’t wait to start using your tips! I can’t even begin to express how much I love him, and feel like the “special” time we have spent together has brought me closer to him than any other dog I’ve ever had, and it is already the most rewarding relationship. I’m sure everyone else thinks I just have a crazy dog, but I can’t imagine my life without him, problems and all. I can’t wait to purchase your book, I am really looking forward to it! Thank you!!!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Lisa. If you haven’t had a look through fearfuldogs.com you might find some ideas for things to do with your dog.

      Dogs are typically so adept at being with people and figuring us out that we as the other half of the equation don’t have to try so hard. When we meet a dog like yours it forces us to pay more attention to the dog and our behavior around the dog. This can be incredibly rewarding for us. These dogs provide us with moments of insight and inspiration.

  5. Laurie on

    I really enjoyed this post. Leaving well enough alone when it comes to dealing with fear in another living being is very counter-intuitive to us humans. It is so hard to do for those who want to hug, reassure, coax (aka force) a dog to trust them.

    As you say, often the best thing to do with or to certain dogs is absolutely nothing. The most powerful tool I have at my disposal is allowing the dog (from a safe place and distance) to see my other dogs interact with me, have fun, play games, get stinky food… while I sit on the floor with my back to him or her. I’ve learned that many dogs will trust and take their cues from other dogs far more quickly than earning it alone.

    One goal of most owners is to have their dogs master the art of self control. As humans, this would be a good starting point for us too in our journey with a fearful dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a good starting point with or without a fearful dog 😉 Some of us have been lucky enough to have a fearful dog point us in the right direction.


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