Project Home Life

2 golden retrievers running

Photo by DVGRR

I love this. Flat out love it. At the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue in Pennsylvania adult survivors of puppy mills are provided with skills to make the transition to being pets. Not only does DVGRR accept mill survivors they actively seek them out and make relinquishing these dogs easy. Their no questions asked acceptance policy means that more dogs will find their way to them for help.

It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to have spent every day or your 5 or 6 years of life in a cage. Understanding the challenge of leaving that cage and being confronted with the stimulation of the world outside the mill is important for handlers. As well-meaning as many of the people involved in rescue and foster care might be, the implications of early deprivation are often not fully appreciated or acknowledged. In the rush to give a dog new life dogs are frequently overwhelmed and frightened.

Project Home Life provides mill survivors with the opportunity to learn about houses and the things in them. Several times during the day trainers and volunteers bring dogs into an apartment set up specifically for this purpose. Common household sounds can be scary to dog who has never heard them. A refrigerator door opening can be startling, as can chairs moving, doorbells ringing, and footsteps on stairwells. Assuming that a dog will somehow get used to these and the myriad other new objects and events they will be exposed to, is naive. Pet owners or foster care givers, as committed as they might be to a dog, may not have the skills for effectively desensitizing and counter conditioning to home life and the complete immersion may be too much for a dog regardless of their handler’s skills. Some dogs will adapt but many others will spend their first days or months cowering in a back room. Project Home Life minimizes the likelihood of the latter occurring.

I wish I had known about this program when Sunny first came to live with us. I might have been more sensitive to his needs and his early life with us might have been easier. Even if you are unable to recreate Project Home Life exactly, given your access to resources, understanding why this step is important may help you create new protocols for special needs dogs.




18 comments so far

  1. Lynn on

    I certainly didn’t have the right skills to help Tulip, rescued from a hoarder who kept her in a gloomy concrete building. I doubt she’d ever been inside a house. Noises like the dishwasher and vacuum don’t seem to trouble her, but even after two and half years, she still needs to screw up her courage for a minute to come in the door (can’t even take treats at that point), acts totally spooked in the living room (likewise), and chooses to hole up in my office when she’s indoors. She’s recently started coming into the bedroom in the morning after my husband gets up, so that’s progress. But I’d love to know what steps they take that I might be able to use. (PS she’s in my office with me now, flinging a toy around, and playing bitey-face with Jasmine, so her indoor life isn’t truly awful …)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Dogs are gradually introduced to objects and spaces and allowed to freely explore. Treats are provided all along the way. Some dogs may always startle more easily than other dogs but the process of desensitization never ends and we can continue to see improvement in our dog’s behavior throughout their life.

  2. Heather Hatt on

    Debbie, you’re so cool.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are innovative and compassionate Heather, both of which are cooler than cool. It was wonderful to meet you and I hope you and yours have a wonderful holiday. I think Sunny would tell Lance to keep the faith. So far the sky hasn’t fallen.

  3. Debbie, thank you for sharing this idea. I don’t have a space to set aside for my fearful ones, but it reminds me of the many things that can scare them. Not having space, I just make sure they have a place to get away, usually my bedroom, and a crate as their safe place if they want it.
    Above all, let the dog decide when he/she is ready.

    • fearfuldogs on

      We are always finding the balance between what we should do and what we can do. Many dogs will be able to progress when we do what we can, but I always try to keep in mind that when there are those who are not it might be because I’m not doing what I should.

  4. deb spanhake on

    debbie thank you for all you do

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for saying. I feel lucky to have discovered something that is so motivating to me.

  5. fearfuldogs on

    Here is another organization addressing the needs of dogs in transition.

  6. oreoowner on

    Wow, that program is awesome! They should start up similar programs around the U.S. so many dogs need it!

  7. Heather on

    Thanks for mentioning Glen Highland. I fostered a puppy mill rescue for them. I knew my local shelter worked with them, but only after fostering did I realize the operation they ran. I respected their set up even more after hearing about all that you went through with Nibbles. I think it’s awesome that you have worked their summer camp.

  8. Melody on

    Hi, I have an 8 year old cocker spaniel, Lily, who was the runt and has been fearful since birth. I am starting to think about having her put on a medication, since it really interferes with our life. Has anyone had any luck with medications? Thanks. Melody

    • fearfuldogs on

      Lots of folks have had success using medications, but they are not a cure. They need to be used in combination with a training program that uses positive reinforcement to modify behavior. If you think being afraid has interfered with your life, imagine the impact it has had on your dog’s.

      • Melody on

        I knew that came out wrong right after I hit “send.” I live alone with my dog in a small apartment, and we are extremely close. I mean that her fear interferes with her life, and mine too because I’m so worried about her and hate seeing her afraid. I am with her 24/7 because I am on disability. She has severe stranger anxiety and can’t even go for a walk if she sees one person out there, so I take her for walks late at night so that she doesn’t have to see a stranger. Also, in the winter, when the apartment is heating up and cooling down, it makes loud “cracks” in the wall noises, and she either runs and hides from those constantly or hides by me. I feel terrible for the fear she goes through with the house noises and the stranger anxiety. What I said came out completely wrong. My whole life revolves around her and the “us” I mentioned is her and me only.

  9. Debbie Jacobs on

    Sorry to make you feel as though you needed to apologize Melody! You can talk to your vet about medications, it sounds as though you or your dog doesn’t have much to lose by trying them. Sound phobias are miserable for a dog to live with. Since they often can’t predict when they are going to occur they are anxious all the time anticipating being scared by them. You can ask about both long term anti-depressants and anxiolytics you can use on an as-needed basis, or also long term. My dog is on a combo of both.

    You should also get your head around what triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization are. It wouldn’t be too difficult to begin to pair scary sounds with cheese treats falling from the sky.

    If your cocker is anything like mine have been, food is very important to them. Keeping strangers away from her and also pairing their appearance with treats is how we change how dogs feel about scary things. You may never see a dog without some level of wariness or fear, but you may likely improve her quality of life by decreasing the stress she is experiencing on a daily basis.

    • Melody on

      Thank you! I will try the treat method when the sounds start happening. They don’t take that as a reward for their fear, do they? I hope it would be reassuring, to get her mind off the sounds.

      As far as her refusing to walk when there are strangers outside, like I said, I take her out walking late at night instead. She has to go out of our apartment to go to the bathroom every 3 hours; however, she’s much better on those short trips around the apartment complex.

      Thanks for your response. It is very helpful.

  10. Melody on

    Since she’s so afraid of the strangers in the park, should I never take her to the park? I like to see her comfortable, and not stressed out, but I always think I’m desensitizing her. She’s 8 and I don’t think desensitizing her works, as its never worked before. I used to take her through Home Depot to try that and nothing has cured her stranger phobia.

  11. Debbie Jacobs on

    Desensitization alone is not likely to help your dog. You need to include counter conditioning. That’s what the treats are for. Whether you take her out around people depends on whether or not there is any benefit to her health & well being to do it. If she’s scared, wary, hyper vigilant, barking, anxious, etc., then going out when there are likely to be people isn’t a good idea, until you have actually desensitized and counter conditioned her to whatever level of exposure she is going to be at. Otherwise it’s like throwing a kid who needs to learn how to swim into the deep end, over and over and expect them to swim.

    You will not reward a dog for being afraid by giving them treats when they are scared. There are different kinds of behavior. Fearful behavior doesn’t respond the same way as sitting or recall behavior when it is rewarded. If you were scared and I held your hand and gave you a box of chocolates would you think I was rewarding you for being afraid? Would you be more likely to be afraid again in the future because you were going to get chocolate? You might learn to pretend to be afraid, but you wouldn’t really BE afraid.

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