Poco a poco

scared dog lying down under a desk

In Costa Rica there is a saying; ‘Poco a poco la hormiga se come el coco’- bit by bit the ant eats the coconut. I use it often in relation to my fearful dog Sunny.

In November Sunny will have been with us for 6 years. He’s not the same dog he was when he first arrived but no one would have any trouble identifying him as fearful of people, unless they only watched him interact with me or someone tossing a frisbee. Sunny is also easily startled; a book sitting outdoors on a table its pages flipping in the wind, a drawer opening or closing, plates settling in a dish rack, the sudden movement of a rocking chair, all cause him to duck his head, pull his ears back and RUN AWAY! But, bit by bit, I have noticed changes in his behavior. Used to be Sunny could not stay in the same room with me while I folded laundry (fortunately for him I’m not big on folding laundry so its not a daily occurrence), each article of clothing pulled from the basket was a source of concern and early on- horror (not a statement on my fashion sense!).

Lately I’ve noticed he’s less worried. The past few weeks he’s been spending more time in the kitchen/living room area with me and other dogs as I prepare their meals. Sudden changes in his environment will still cause him to startle, but often he doesn’t run away. He’s routinely coming inside the house through a door that he avoided, instead of heading to his usual entrance around the house via the deck. That he came in through that door when my husband was in the house was worth noting. After 6 years Sunny remains afraid of him.

Over the years I’ve had people, some well-intentioned, others not so much, offer me advice or criticism, inferring or outright blaming me for Sunny’s behavior. Early on I had my doubts; was I doing the right thing by Sunny? But years of living with him, studying behavior, brains and most specifically, fear, I harbor fewer doubts that the recommendations I had been given were wrong. Most included some form of ‘make him’. Make him walk with you, make him follow you around the house, make him be near your husband. I assume that this technique worked for the suppliers of the advice, but whether they are unable to accurately read their dogs and so are misinterpreting the results, or were handling a dog without the same depth of a problem as my dog, I won’t know. What I do know is that my dog did not have the skills or ability to deal with the things that scared him and come out better for it. For six years I have worked on giving him those skills and as his trust in me has increased (I’ve become predictable to him) I’ve been able to ‘ask’ him to do things that he might not have chosen to do on his own, but together he’s successful.

Dogs do not ever ‘forget’ that something scared them. It doesn’t make any sense to forget that something was once perceived as dangerous. That rustling in the grass may not have been a lion this time, but the animal that gets to breed probably doesn’t ever become laissez faire about it. Even if no physical harm ever comes to a dog the emotional response of fear to a trigger is ‘real’ enough evidence that something is dangerous. We often talk about ‘trusting our gut’ when we’re not sure about how to respond to something. Dogs trust their guts.

This doesn’t mean we can’t change a dog’s behavior, we can, but it takes time and patience. The rate at which a dog is able to change will be unique to them and their particular blend of biology and experience. As our dogs learn new skills and behaviors, so do we. We are also nibbling away at that coconut as we learn about being better trainers and bite off another chunk that teaches us something about compassion. handsome black and white dog smiling at the camera


16 comments so far

  1. Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

    Another inspiring post Debbie! I know Maizey has no where near the issues that Sunny has, yet I know the joy I have every time she shows progress. There are no little steps forward, all progress is monumental and deserves to be celebrated. The loyalty and patience you’ve shown Sunny is a beautiful example. Thanks for sharing!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Katie. I think that when we are faced with few options we rise to the occasion. Sunny could not be put up for adoption, it wouldn’t have been fair to anyone looking for a pet. I couldn’t kill him. We are also lucky to live in a place where he is not overwhelmed by triggers. That no doubt has been a factor. Plus he is so darn cute.

  2. Lizzie on

    Lovely post Debbie.

    It’s wonderful to read about Sunny’s progress written in your own inimitable style. I felt a tear towards the end as I wanted my reading to go on and on. But of course you could have been writing about Gracie, the oh so familiar behaviour’s they both share.

    I imagine that most dogs who have been severely damaged in some way will display a degree of OCD. In Gracie’s case her incessant circling when she’s on the lead, (if she feels nervous) but seems to act as a calming aid for her. She will shake a lot, another display of stress or trying to relieve it. Only allowing me to walk on her right hand side, thus turning round behind me to achieve that. She remains vigilant around the main door to the house, and still worries when the mail man calls, but she is less reactive than Sunny about noises, which is just as well with NOV 5th fast approaching, and the inevitable firework’s that most dogs have a hard time enduring.

    It’s become so ‘normal’ to live with Gracie’s behaviour that it’s easy to overlook her progress. The tail wag as my husband approaches, where before she would run away from him, is a joy to see, but she is still not entirely comfortable around him.

    Like you, I have had times when I worried whether I was doing the right thing for Gracie, and that she may have been better placed with someone who knew more about fearful dogs than I. Truth is she may have been worse off as well. The fact remains that she is my dog and I for one could not be happier, I just hope that Gracie feels it too 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lizzie. Sunny also had a ‘side’ preference but just the other day I was trying to remember which it was! It only was an issue in agility classes when it would have been nice to have been able to have him on either side.

      I recently switched Sunny’s meds and may be seeing a difference because of that. We recently had a boarder staying with us for 3 weeks, a lovely great pyr mix who was a real party girl. She may have also inspired him to be in places he wouldn’t normally hang out in.

      No doubt that Gracie has a fabulous life, even with her concerns. I love hearing that she’s wagging her tail for your husband. It’s a big deal when they are communicating with a trigger, as opposed to just reacting from fear.

      • Mel Freer on

        It’s so nice to read about Gracie and Sunny’s progress. I too can relate to all that each of you wrote. I have often wondered about people who say that you must make a dog do this or that. I haven’t, and yet, Daisy has become like Sunny and Gracie. She startles at sudden sounds and movement, but less so than she used to and she definitely has come out of her shell with people. Where once she would run from people (mostly women) and from children, she is now seeking them out.
        It’s so wonderful to read about and see your dogs’ progress like Daisy. She will have been with me 4 years as of next week and I can hardly believe she has come this far. A toast to all of us and out dogs. Love and patience are virtues we al have in my opinion. 🙂

  3. Ann M. McHugh on

    We got Tinkerbelle, the fear-biting eskie just about 6 yrs ago too -right after Hurricane Katrina.She was guessed to be approx 1.5 -2 yrs old at that time. She was is a Georgia shelter at the time, one day away from being gassed. We don’t know if she was exposed to the rain resulting from the hurricanes that came along after Katrina, but to this day she will not go outside if it is raining! and will wait many hours without pottying aiting for the rain to stop. She has always been fearful of thunder and lightening -chosing to hide behind a table or a barricade of stuffed toys I admit I pile up for her in a corner of the kitchen -she doesn’t pace or whine or shake she just lays very close to the floor. She is still reactive to dogs that she sees on walks or when I take her in the car although she rides well. In short she has alot of little “quirks” that came with her and although we haven’t helped them all, many are better and I truly believe she loves her life her with my husband and me and 6 or our 7 dogs. There is one young bitch with a dominant personality that she is feaful of and barks at whenever they see each other across the gates – this bitch came as a puppy after we got Tinker. She gets along fine with the dogs that were here when she came that are about the same age, and with 2 Keeshonden that came from breeders who died and no one else would take(!) one older, one younger -but Kees as a rule are very easy going with other dogs and they tend to leave her to her duties.
    It isTinker’s “duties” that she has created that I think keep her happy and busy most days. She has taken it upon herself to patrol the very large tree filled yard, fenced yard multiple times a day. She has decided that, unlike obedience or agility the latter which I think she would like but is too fearful to try and probably to stimulating for her prey drive, her job is to keep the woods clear of mice, chipmunks, moles, bunnies, snakes, and opossum. She has a path worn around the fenceline. She checks under the shed etc, stairs and whatever fallen trees she is currently worried about. I think this is a little OCD behaviour, as she MUST finish her rounds before coming in at night -lightening/thunder are the only thngs that will break the ritual.
    I do think Tinker is “happy” here because the 3 times she has left the yard due to a break in the fence, she has stayed nearby and on 2 occassions when it was snowing and we could follow her tracks, we saw that she tried to back into the yard or the motorhome, which is not nside the fence AND she came when called. She will come to me more readily than my husband although she is crazy about him. She didn’t used to use the dog door to come in the house, but is doing that more -feeling more at ease now that it is indeed her house and that makes me very happy -dumb huh?
    This is too long already, but for a fear-biter and she did “get us” multiple times untill we learned most of what she feared because she never warned us with a growl. Now we will sometimes get a “raised lip” then a low quiet rumble to warn us which dumb as it seems is much better. We have also learned her body language better. Many would have pts due to the biting, but I couldn’t do that then and not now for sure. She can be the most loving dog that I continue to see improvement in as to her dealing with unknowns and frightening happenings. She’ll never be an obedience dog or any other sport, but she eats well, sleeps in a warm dry place, is loved, brushed, vetted, loved, played with and she has her :duties”. Not what we’d like for all our dogs, but she seems happy..

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing your story about your dog Ann. No question about how passionate you are about your relationship with her. It is apparent in her improvement.

    • KellyK on

      I think that you’ve done really well with her, and it’s obvious that she’s doing better than she was. Sometimes “perfect” or “normal” isn’t realistic, but “better” is good, and worth celebrating. And your dog has been through pretty major trauma.

      And it’s absolutely not dumb to celebrate the little victories. The fact that she will growl when she’s scared not only is safer for you, it means she’s learning that her boundaries will be respected. (If dogs go straight to biting, that kind of implies that growling or body language hasn’t worked for them in the past, so why bother?)

      Whatever a dog’s “job” is, I think that as long as it’s a job they like and a job that doesn’t cause problems for their people (like if your dog decides it’s their job to remove all the upholstery from your furniture), it’s all good. If vermin patrol makes her happy, that’s a good thing. (Though if you have poisonous snakes in your area, I’d try to teach her to avoid those if possible.)

      My dog, Diamond, has also decided that keeping the house free of rats is her job. We haven’t had any rats or mice, so she’s limited to destroying mouse toys (which we no longer get for the cats, because we don’t want her to eat them).

  4. justthreadtwiddling on

    My BC Ike has never lived in a shelter, or been abandoned on the street. He has never been abused. He and his litter mate, Tina have been with us since they were about seven weeks old. I am a stay-at-home dog mom. The differences in the two pups is astounding.
    At five or six months, when their coats were going through some texture changes, Ike suddenly became fearful of brushing and being toweled off. One day it was fine and the next, it wasn’t. It had to be some tactile change connected to getting an adult coat that triggered this. At the same time, Ike was going through a growth spurt. He was more clumsy and became more insecure about a lot of things. A year later, things are better. He has a safe place in his crate, and when he is overwhelmed he darts in there and watches. He then makes a decision about the severity of the situation, and whether it is safe to come out. He uses this less and less, and is more social with visiting people. Most ignore him until he comes to them. I don’t ever force Ike to do something he’s afraid of, but I also don’t avoid things. I just make sure Ike has his safe place available.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Sounds like Ike is lucky to have you in his life. There are variations in dogs and obvious when you see the litter. I suppose any parent could say the same thing about their kids. Dogs can be more sensitive to being touched, or sounds, movement, etc. It’s good to consider it when we work with our dogs.

      • KellyK on

        Yep, dogs definitely don’t have to have gone through major trauma to be fearful. It’s a mix of personality and experiences. It’s really good to remember that if you have a nervous dog, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you did something wrong, any more than the parents of every person with anxiety or depression or phobias failed as a parent.

  5. Donna in VA on

    I have been polishing some very old and badly tarnished silver for the past 2 weeks. I am struck by the similarities. It seems to take forever. Some types of tarnish come off easily, some is very stubborn. Some I am not going to worry about because I am afraid of breaking off a part. My husband asked why I didn’t just use the cheap dip method and I said I wasn’t going to risk damaging the silver/plate finish. You have to be the sort of person who is willing to work and wait to see the results,
    I’m beginning to think it’s addictive though – to see the shiny object emerge from what was once old & ugly.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Nice metaphor. Or is it an analogy? Know it’s not a simile.

  6. donnaandthedogs on

    Sometimes, when you start a journey, it feels like you are making no progress at all…but then, when you really take a step back and think about where you originally were – like you just did in this post – it brings it all into perspective, and you see that you’ve actually come miles. Nice job!

    Sorry a lot of people gave you unwanted advice along the way. Advice can be great, when it’s asked for. But sometimes, people don’t realize that you already have a plan in place, and changing it on a whim could be disruptive. They also forget that there are many methods that work, and that what worked best for them might not be best for someone else (and their dog).

  7. Jim Hastings on

    Over the last 18 years I have owned three Brittany’s. Jordan, my first Brittany lived a relatively healthy life with the exception of ear infections from swimming in the pool. I was able to successfully treat his ear infections with medicine.
    In 1999 Colt came along. Colt was different; he had problems with seizures generated from valley fever. I was able to treat the valley fever which eliminated the seizures.
    My third Brittany, Kimber, came along in 2007, shortly after I lost Jordan. Kimber is a very high strung working dog. I have had an ongoing problem with high anxiety in KImber. I had been to the vet multiple times for his anxiety issue and they had recommended medicine to help with his hyper anxiety. In giving him this medicine, he appeared to be intoxicated. I have adjusted the amount of medicine I give him with no success.
    The last time I had him in the Vet, they could not determine what was wrong with him, but the vet recommended a new product named the Thunder Shirt. It was funny the Vet mentioned this because a week before my oldest son brought me an article about the Thunder Shirt.
    I purchased the Thunder Shirt a couple months ago and was very surprised with the results. I no longer have to give KImber any medicine. When he starts showing signs of anxiety, I put the thunder shirt on and almost instantly it seems to calm him down.
    I would recommend this product to anyone with the same problem. Whether it be anxieties from thunder, fireworks, loud noises or just traveling in the car. It seems to be a great alternative to mind altering medicines.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Body wraps can help, and when they do, it’s great. They don’t work for all dogs however, and I have also seen some get what I’d call an ‘intoxicated’ look while wearing one. There are a variety of medications that can be used to lower anxiety in dogs, that do not impair thinking or cause sedation. It’s important to remember that ANYTHING that changes a dog’s behavior is ‘altering’ their mind. It’s great that you found the thundershirt and that it’s helping.

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