Reality Bites

black dog swimming with yellow ball in his mouth

During Sunny’s 7th summer at the lake he finally started swimming out after balls.

A trainer friend shared feedback with me that she got from clients who have read my book, A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. Some were disheartened by how long it took for Sunny to show progress in dealing with the fear based challenges in his life. This was certainly not my intention, to cause people to lose heart in regard to their dogs. But anyone living with a dog with ‘issues’ is either in it for however long it takes, or they’re not. I make no judgement about people who chose not to be. I understand their decision.

Every dog is different. Some, like Sunny, will spend their entire life having to cope with deficits acquired early in their development. This includes development that occurred in the womb. We can manage these dogs to lower stress and anxiety and help them learn appropriate skills for dealing with things or situations that scare them. In many cases we will see increased resiliency and an ability to tolerate more variety. Most animals can continue to learn throughout their life, which means we should never ‘give up’ trying to teach them when we decide to take on the challenge of helping a fearful dog.

Finding support to help you with your dog can be tricky. I have been surprised to discover that people who I would think would know better, and in my opinion should know better, don’t. Fear based behaviors are treated as though they are bad choices a dog is consciously making. I have been blamed for Sunny’s behavior by people who should have an understanding of dog growth and development and how early experiences, or the lack of them, can have a devastating and long lasting impact on the animal.

I hope that for every person living with a fearful dog who reads my book and finds the slow, plodding progress disheartening, there are people who find hope.

27 comments so far

  1. sara on

    Having struggled to help my fearful dog for years, your book made me feel better knowing that this isn’t a quick process. We have to take baby steps, and not set our expectations too high. I think many believed that if I simply got my dog out more, he would “get used to people”. When in fact, putting him in such situations actually made matters worse, and set me backtracking to regain his trust.

    I read and reread your book to keep things in perspective and reassure myself that it is ok to take it slow, and to jump for joy over what many would consider small accomplishments.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      That is so nice to hear Sara. Thanks for taking the time to say it. There is a reason they say ‘slow and steady wins the race’. Our fearful dogs prove it again and again.

  2. Jena Gammon on

    I live with two fearful dogs. One is much better but the other one seems to be getting worse, Luckily, I have an all natural vet that is understanding and caring.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I hope your vet helps you come up with solutions to help your dog. It’s not easy to see them getting worse.

  3. KC on

    Having never experienced life with a fearful dog before, I have to admit I was a bit disheartened after reading your book, at first. But the understanding it gave me of my situation was priceless. I have learned that I will never change Charlie into a happy go lucky kind of dog (although he completely is when he is in his comfort zone!!). He is who he is, and I wouldnt trade him for the world! That book helped me to find ways to cope with his issues and how to teach others how to interact with him…if at all. The hardest part is knowing that he will never be able to accept the love that everyone wants to give to him. I am content that he now accepts that love from me unconditionally. Thank you!

  4. kdkh on

    To expect a quick fix to such an entrenched problem is delusional. It’s nice to see that after 7 years, Sunny is still healing. People heal slowly, too. Why would dogs be any quicker?

    • fearfuldogs on

      So true. My husband arrived today and while we were sitting outside Sunny came grinning and wiggling over to greet me. My husband laughed, he’d NEVER seen that behavior before. I was dumbfounded, but of course he hasn’t. Sunny has been greeting me like this for years. I adore it. At our house whenever my husband appears Sunny hightails it away, no happy greeting for anybody. For some reason today, he was willing to make this display with my husband sitting next to me. You certainly could never ‘make’ a dog behave this way.

  5. Mel on

    How interesting. I guess I just took it as a matter of course that a fearful dog would always have some issues and would take a long time. But maybe we just realize there are very few quick cures for many things in life. I prefer to be reality-based than to think that there is an instant cure for everything. Great post Debbie.

  6. Anu on

    Dear Debbie,
    This note of thanks is long overdue.

    I discovered your wonderful blog last summer shortly after bringing my six-month old Papillon boy, Remy, home. At our meet and greet, my pup displayed none of the hyper vigilance and reactivity I’ve since become so familiar with. I’d done my homework and acquired him from a reputable breeder.

    After we got him home I quickly realized my little guy was a walking nervous breakdown. I was frantic and called his breeder to report this. To her credit, she offered (twice) to take him back. Even though most days I felt like I was in over my head with Remy, I declined. I don’t know why.

    I wish I could say I was noble and certain I could help Remy, but the opposite was true. I truly didn’t know whether or not I could help this terrified little dog. I gave myself one year working with him before considering rehoming him.

    Today rehoming Remy is no longer an option. Hasn’t been for a long time. I guess in my heart it never was.

    Yesterday was the first anniversary of my little Remy joining our family and I’m in love with my special needs puppy dog. It’s been a long, difficult year fraught with lots of tears. Lately though, there have been tears of joy over Remy’s smallest successes, each hard won, inch by inch, through his remarkable courage.

    I credit your blog and book for not only so much enlightening information, but encouragement. Instead of being discouraged by your stories about Sunny’s slow progress, I’ve found it reassuring to know that Remy’s slow as paint drying pace is typical of fearful dogs.

    Every day Remy demonstrates his willingness to try whatever I ask of him. Sometimes he gets it, lots of times he doesn’t – that day. He’s also changed my attitude – I no longer refer to Remy as my little Scaredy Cat. Now he’s my Brave Heart. And if he can be brave for me every day, I can be patient and hopeful for him.

    My heartfelt thanks to you for so generously sharing your expertise in your blog. Your terrific book has never left my nightstand.


    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for sharing your story Anu. It makes me smile. I can certainly understand why you would find it difficult to part with your brave little Pap. It sounds as though both of you are growing, changing and learning. I am coming to the conclusion that anything in my life that promotes that is a good thing.

  7. geeksdreamgirl on

    I see baby steps in my fearful dog every day and celebrate them. Every time she will willingly walk up to someone to get petted, every time she doesn’t flip out when a child walks by, every time she doesn’t spook at sounds outside the house. We have a little party every time she improves. 🙂 The trainers at our school are always telling new students “this is the dog that hid behind the chair for the first 3 weeks” as she romps around the room and tackles new agility obstacles. (And after she’s done, she runs a “victory lap” to see which trainers will give her a treat.) 😉

  8. KellyK on

    I haven’t read the book (yet), but I like the way your blog is a dose of reality. I’d rather have reasonable expectations than have over-the-top delusions that everything is going to be sunshine and rainbows, and then have that dashed.

  9. Lynn on

    I find it enormously encouraging when people talk about just how long & slow this process can be. It is realistic, it is honest, and it is tremendously helpful to me. “Quick fix” narratives are so much more discouraging, implying as they do that the reason for our slow progress must be my poor training (or, similarly, that if we can’t provide a quick fix, the issue is unsolvable…I’ve heard a lot of that recently, for whatever reason). Your writing has been tremendously helpful, Debbie.

  10. Hazel on

    After reading your book I came away from it with hope. My thoughts were “It may take months or years but there is at least some hope for us”. The book was spot on for me. Told my husband to read it as it was so close to my feelings and what I had already learned. It was so nice to know I am not alone. Asked the vet if she had many like my Dusty and she said, “No, I am so glad he ended up with you as most end up at rescues or put to sleep.”
    My husband would understand your husband. He loves to see stuff I talk about and will even tell me he is jealous. Our Dusty isn’t as bad as Sunny so he came to loving on my husband and son and they can’t get enough of it.
    These are “special” dogs and I would never trade mine for anything else.
    I loved your book and love your blogs. Thank you so very much.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you Hazel for your comment. It’s so nice when a dog can learn to be comfortable with everyone in their household. Sunny ‘copes’ with John and likes him to toss frisbees, but beyond that it’s the barest minimum of tolerance. But we haven’t given up hope yet! We joke that we live long enough to see it.

  11. thelittlebeardogblog on

    Being in it for the long term is a tough, but for me there really wasn’t a choice.

    I’ve had my share of dark days but to offer some hope, both my reactive dogs have taken huge leaps at different points in their training that were as unexpected as they were welcome.

    For Little Bear, the latest leap has been thanks to T-Touch. We’re also attending a new socialisation class called Shy Guys where he can hang out with some very relaxed and confident teaching dogs and a small, hand picked group of shy dogs.

    Debbie, I agree 100% that they never stop learning. Nor do we and the important thing for me is that bit about never stopping trying too.

    Thanks again for a great post.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thank you. There wasn’t any choice in my cases either. Once I understood what the options were for my two fearful dogs they weren’t going anywhere! I enjoy them both, even if it’s not 100% of the time.

  12. Lynn on

    I agree with the other Lynn. I really didn’t know what I was getting into when I adopted Tulip. Reading about your experience with Sunny and discovering what a long, slow process it can be bucked me up no end. I gave up thinking I must be doing something wrong, or that it was all hopeless, and began to celebrate every tiny step she was able to take.

    How wonderful to see Sunny swimming! Tulip jumped into a pond this past weekend after watching another dog do it. She didn’t actually swim, but she looked as if she might next time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There is so much progress going on when a dog learns to move and explore in different ways. I remember when Sunny first learned to be in the water. It was so fantastic to watch. Seeing him try to out swim my border collie to get the ball was incredible. He’s having fun, he’s motivated, he’s engaged, he’s pushing limits. I love it. He’s still startled and afraid of sudden changes in his environment. Oh well.

  13. Heather on

    Put my pups and I in the “found hope” column. My first dog had been a reactive girl, so when i talked about a new dog, my trainer and friend said “get a pet, not a project.” He meant it with the best thoughts to me, but, when I brought on a fearful dog, I needed your resource and practice. Your willingness to share the reality kept me from feeling despair. Yes, we had rough days, but we knew it would be a part of it.

    I didn’t fully understand fearful for life compared to thoughts of just boosting the dog for a bit. congrats on Sunny’s swimming. It’s great to see our special pups open up to play or new experiences.

    You also got me looking at my girl’s reactivity differently. I knew some of it was security, so, the “fearful stuff” worked for her too.

    I appreciated that you were willing to share in a book, rather than keeping the knowledge for yourself and those fortunate enough to live close enough to hire you. I could refer to the book as needed-for more knowledge or more hope.

    All this reminds me, I handed off your book to my trainer friend. Gotta order my own copy.


    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Heather. I hadn’t expected such nice responses from people. Not that I didn’t expect people to be nice, I just wasn’t writing for all the affirmations I ended up getting. It has been helpful and is motivating me to get cracking on the next book I’ve been working on for years!

      • Heather on

        How humble of you. Whether I had a right too or not, I was also impressed with so many people responding. It was great to hear the stories of success: be it stories of canine baby steps or how us humans had grown in our relationships with dogs. I know this fearful guy has changed that forever for me.

  14. Theresa Liddle on

    I would also like to thank all those posting on here. This is my first experience with a fearful dog and to be honest, it can be downright overwhelming and I can’t tell you the number of times that one of your posts has informed me and eased my mind a little. This has been a learning experience for me and I am continuing to learn from Ozi. However, it is so nice to know that when there are questions or he completely throws me for a loop, there is a place to go where there is a wealth of knowledge and experience that you are all willing to share. Thank you so much from the bottom of my heart.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s very nice of you to take the time to say this Theresa. I’m glad you’re finding useful info.

  15. Kay Liestman on

    Any dog I’ve ever had needed some time to learn, but our fearful dog needs so much more of everything–time, patience, plans, awareness, educating family/friends/neighbors/strangers. Your blog and book helped us to know that it would get better for Mattie and for us, and it has. She’s not a friendly dog who can play with our friends, but she no longer lunges and barks at them when we meet them on a walk. She still can’t trust anyone but us at our home, but she can tolerate others if I’m with her and rewarding “no rudeness” while my husband visits with our guest. Mattie and I can be in the same room now with visitors. She travels very well and is almost always okay with walks in strange or new places, even when she sees other people. Knowing the milestones that you’ve had with Sunny gives me hope every day that Mattie can continue to grow and may eventually allow another person into her world and home. If she doesn’t, we can live with that. But she’s still a wonderful dog for us and we’re glad that we’ve learned how to help her live with us and in our neighborhood. Debbie, you’ve given me so much hope and support. We will soon have had Mattie 3 years and many of our good feelings about her have come because of data and techniques that I’ve learned from you and been able to share with our family and friends. You’ve never been misleading. Fearful dogs simply can’t be trained with “sound-bites.” Please don’t stop what you do so very well!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thank you so much for taking the time to share this with me Kay, I really appreciate it.

      Sunny has been joining me at my mom’s house every summer for 7 years. Mom proudly announced to me this morning that she called him over to give him a treat and he went! I did see him slink over, and although it wasn’t a carefree interaction he made the choice to go to her.

      Mom was right to feel complimented.

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