Sunny & The Kid

boy playing with black dog in a pondSunny is my dog with the most fear based behavior challenges. For short I call him my ‘fearful’ dog. It’s not an accurate description of him, because he is so much more than just fearful, in good ways and bad, but when managing him around people, it’s the easiest label to slap on him. It’s either that or, ‘he’s not right in the head’, which is also true, but I like even less.

There are few people that Sunny sees and doesn’t feel frightened by. I can count them on one hand, and not need to include my thumb. This summer we added one more friend to the list, soon I’ll need that thumb.

I have spent the past two months in Plymouth MA at a lovely lake where the dogs and I have had a blast, as we say around here. The biggest challenge, other than dirty, wet dogs messing up the carpet in someone else’s home, has been their barking. At our home in Vermont there are no neighbors to worry about bothering, and not many people going by to cause the dogs to bark. It’s been a different story here. Next year I’ll have a better fence system.

One afternoon I noticed that their barking was instigated by a young boy who lives across the road. He barked, they barked. I was not pleased, but I’d rather have good relations with people who live near me, especially those whose prefrontal cortices are still developing (there’s no telling what kids will do when they are upset with someone), so I headed to the gate with clicker and treats in hand. Spying me the boy stopped barking, anticipating that I was going to tell him off, but I called out to him to keep it up. “Bark again!” I shouted. Boy barked, I clicked and treated the dogs. “Again!” Soon the barking boy was all but ignored for the click and treats. Realizing he wasn’t ‘in trouble’ he came over and asked if he could play with the dogs. I had reservations, primarily about Sunny, but invited him in.

I handed the boy my treat pouch and instructed him to toss treats to the dogs. Soon he was encouraging them to do their tricks and was thrilled when any of them came up and took a treat from his hand. Finn had a new frisbee tosser and Annie was beside herself having the opportunity to throw out all of her tricks for treats. The boy’s visits became daily events and long story short, as they say, Sunny is happily excited to see him. Here’s why I think it’s gone as well as it has-

1. The boy respects Sunny’s space. I was very clear about this and explained how he should behave with Sunny. During one of his early visits Sunny scared him, doing exactly what I was worried he’d do, one of those charging BOOFS! that makes your heart skip a beat. I wish it could have been avoided but it may have been a good thing. Sunny can seem like a playful, happy dog and many people do not appreciate how easily startled he can be. The boy saw this and became more thoughtful in regard to his interactions with him. My admonishments to this effect were not enough to get the point across, it was something he needed to ‘feel’ was important in order to comply. His own amygdala sorted that one out for me.

2. There was a lot of good stuff going on. Along with tossing treats and asking for tricks, the boy threw frisbees, balls, sticks, stones into the water and generally provided a fun diversion for the dogs whenever he came over.

3. It happened a lot. Sunny needs lots of positive interactions with things that scare him to change that feeling. The boy’s daily visits lasted on average for an hour. During that hour there were countless playful interactions between the two of them. Sometimes Sunny moved away from the boy, but mostly he moved toward him. Sunny was visibly let down when the boy headed out of the gate for home each day.

4. Other than for vetting and grooming Sunny has not had people try to touch him. He can predict that strangers are not likelyboy playing with dogs in a pond to do the thing he is most afraid of- making contact with him. He can relax around people, to a degree.

5. Play is hugely rewarding to Sunny. Scared dogs brains can become very efficient at ‘feeling’ fear. I wanted to help his brain get better at feeling good. To do this I used food and play. The pleasure Sunny gets from chasing balls outweighs the concern he feels about the person tossing them.

We’ll be leaving here in a few days and I’ll miss my daily swims in the lake and I know Sunny is going to miss the kid.

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20 comments so far

  1. Lesli Hyland on

    this is a wonderful post about turning a negative situation into a positive one and educating a young mind in the process.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Lesli. He’s still at the age that some lady and her dogs across the street can be interesting.

  2. Cathy Baril-Witlox on

    I love this story! So glad to hear Sunny has made a new friend! I wish my fearful dog would play, but nevertheless, there are good lessons here about the importance of respecting her boundaries.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Cathy. We know that desensitization never ends so I am always ‘working’ with Sunny. I’m sure the pharmaceuticals have helped as well.

      • Cathy Baril-Witlox on

        Clomipramine has helped ours a lot, too (thanks to your book!).

  3. sara on

    That’s simply wonderful – for the dogs and the young man. I’m sure he learned a lot.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Sara. It’s always difficult to know what is sinking in with a kid, but it’s funny because I hear him talk to the dogs the way I do, calling them the pet names I use for them. I’m trying to lead by example, but it’s not always easy.

  4. fearfuldogs on

    Good for you Cathy for exploring the options available to help these dogs. Glad to hear you found something that’s working.

  5. rangerskat on

    “The pleasure Sunny gets from chasing balls outweighs the concern he feels about the person tossing them.” That is my Fearful Finna. She’s come such a long way, noises in the environment that used to send her into a frenzy are no longer worth more than an ear twitch. Neighbor is mowing the lawn and she is sleeping at my feet not barking at the window for example. However, people remain terrifying and something that needs to be frightened away, unless, of course, Mom scoops up the ball and hands the chuck it over the fence. People with the ball and chuck it are OK as long as they realize that they need to keep all parts of themselves outside the fence and keep throwing the ball. Four sessions in Finna is beginning to accept that our trainer is not going to do anything frightening and just might throw the high bounce rubber balls for her. One baby step at a time. Your stories about Sunny are very encouraging as we work with our own fearful dog (or as we lovingly call her the psycho bitch).

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are so many aspects to this situation that are win/win. I noticed that movements and objects that startle Sunny also only get a fleeting glance when he’s excited about playing. Those baby steps add up!

  6. Anu on

    What a joyful post this is and such a huge success for Sunny! I got chills reading it. Clearly, your leading by example has impressed the boy in the best ways possible. Who knows how many different lessons, your patience showing him the right way to interact with you dogs, this boy has learned from you. How lucky for him and for the future dogs he encounters that you took the time and effort to do so.

    You turned what could have (more easily and quickly) become a disaster into happy memories for this child, and even happier ones for your Sunny. Hooray for you and Sunny!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment Anu. I appreciate it. I may have to rent a kid when we get home.

  7. Julie on

    What a great experience for both Sunny and the boy. I agree with Anu, I’m sure you have given him many great lessons and experiences that he may have never received! Such a great story!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Julie! I suspect that once his hormones kick in he’ll find other interests. Our paths crossed at the right time.

      • Heather on

        Hard to say. My car dealership allows dogs to come into their waiting room, so i go there for service. It’s amazing how many mechanics take their breaks when we arrive!!! They have been so fabulous and respectful with my shy guy–without me having to say much.

  8. Sweetpea on

    This may be my favorite *summer story* yet…I applaud your moves to welcome this young man into Sunny’s territory, such good (quick!) thinking on your part. What a joyful outcome!! Time ~ oh, sweet time ~ heals so many things. We humans MUST remember this and allow the natural working out of things.

    Thank you for such a lovely post.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks so much for your comment. In some ways the place we are at is a small step up as far as stimuli go for Sunny. There are more people but they are not too close and Sunny always has the options of moving away, though sometimes he chooses not, such as when he swims after kayaks that have come to close to our shoreline. No one is likely to get hurt, he doesn’t stand a change of catching them, but it’s a reminder that Sunny is not to be trusted. It’s also been a year since I added a daily anxiolytic to his med protocol. As is often the case it’s not possible to know whether it’s been simply the passing of time or the meds, that have helped him feel better about allowing another person to engage with him. Probably both.

  9. Kay Liestman on

    What a wonderful story/event for Sunny. You always give me hope for Mattie to improve, too.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Often hope is all we have, without we may give up trying. Few things are hopeless. The ultimate ending may be the same, a dog who is never going to be 100% comfortable in all the situations we’d wanted, but we certainly can affect the quality of that for a dog.

  10. Liuking Neo on

    Thanks for sharing , I love this story, It’s always difficult to know what is sinking in with a kid, but it’s funny because I hear him talk to the dogs the way I do, calling them the pet names I use for them. I’m trying to lead by example, but it’s not always easy.


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