Take It When You Can Get It

approach1In November Sunny will have lived with us for 8 years. He has remained wary and afraid of my husband for those 8 years. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. John is a man, dogs tend to be more afraid of men than they are of women. Early on in their relationship there were several events that scared Sunny, quite literally sh**less (it usually fell on me to clean up after those episodes). One day the metal food bowl that John was carrying dropped and chased Sunny down the stairs where he slammed into the wall before recovering and getting into his safe spot under my desk where he hid out for hours. One day during a run John tripped and fell, Sunny on a long line emptied his bladder on the spot. There was the flexi-lead debacle that I describe in my blog post Don’t Take My Lead On This One!

Another factor could be that as much of a nice guy and dog lover John is, he’s not into dog training in the same way I am. He works away from home, I work at home. By virtue of that arrangement I have had more time to work with Sunny and more inclination to do so. Tagging along with this is “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Since it has fallen on me to come up with ways to help Sunny, and early in our time together I was not up to speed on exactly what those ways should be, mistakes were made. Both Sunny and John lost the motivation to work on their relationship. Neither got enough positive reinforcement.

All relationships require positive feedback. It’s not easy to live with a dog who is afraid of you. People will converse longer with someone who offers a nod or smile, compared to someone who does not. Humans and dogs seem to share this as motivation for engagement. Live with a dog who avoids you and runs for cover when you appear and there’s not much “feel good” value to the relationship. As for the dog, well, they’re feeling fear and that’s worse than being snubbed.

For years John has been happy to go into the yard and toss frisbees for Sunny and Finn. John likes to count and see how many frisbees Finn can catch and the dogs just love the game. Gradually I’ve seen Sunny’s reaction to John’s evening return morph from what was complete concern to a mix of concern and frisbee-tossing-anticipation. This felt like an improvement.

Recently something changed. Several times during the past couple of months John has joined me and the dogs on our woods walk. Initially he came along to get the trails ready for winter skiing. He toted a chain saw or pruning shears to clear downed trees and build walkways over the streams that will ice up your skis if you break through the snow. I brought treats. Sunny preferred keeping John in sight, and his preference extended to seeing John walk away from him, rather than toward him. I doled out the treats whenever John was nearby. As the number of our walks together increased Sunny’s comfort having John on the trails with him increased as well. Off leash Sunny is able to choose his proximity to John. I even managed to convince John to toss a treat to Sunny now and then when Sunny came up behind him.

Yesterday I watched as the dance of desensitization, counterconditioning and training between the two occurred. Initially Sunny would get within 5-6 feet of John who was ahead of him on the trail. John would stop and toss a treat for him and keep walking. After eating the treat Sunny would move back to within 5-6 feet of him, and another treat would be tossed. In front of my eyes I watched Sunny decrease the distance between the two of them until he was taking treats from John’s hand. Today the same thing happened. At one point John stopped and tried to lure Sunny to his extended hand with treats, but Sunny would have nothing to do with it, but seconds later after performing the “move toward man” behavior on his own he happily took the offered treats.


By the end of the walk Sunny was able to take treats even if John was facing him.

Everything about the “picture” of the trigger (John) mattered to Sunny. I complimented John on his ability to hand out treats without scaring Sunny. He responded, “I’m not looking at him and keeping my upper body turned away from him.” Bravo! Eight years of living with my chattering on about fearful dogs was not for naught!

Some would say that it has taken 8 years for Sunny to make these gains with John but it’s as much based on the fact that it took 8 years for John to find that tossing treats while walking with Sunny was worth the effort.

P.S. Sunny missed out on positive experiences with people and novelty during the first year of his life. There is no “do-over” for the lack of whatever needs to happen during critical periods of development in a dog’s life. He has learned skills to be comfortable around people, but he will never be like a dog who had the benefits of play and enrichment with people during the first few months of their life. Sorry to break it to you if you were unaware of the importance of early puppyhood experience.


27 comments so far

  1. Sage on

    Those early experiences really do mean a lot. It sounds like Sunny and John are making progress!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Baby steps have been made over the years but it takes two to tango 😉

  2. Peter Smoyer on

    Being the big scary man married to a dog trainer, Ali Brown, it can be hard to learn to be less imposing around certain dogs, even our little dog Tango. Although sometimes I can be useful during Ali’s reactive dog classes, especially when wearing a hat.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Just be happy she hasn’t made you grow a beard Peter!

  3. SlimDoggy (@MySlimDoggy) on

    Thanks for sharing this story – makes me feel good about our progress with Maggie. We BOTH work from home, so while she was very afraid of my husband too, she has acclimated much more quickly. She learned that he keeps treats in his office – so she will even go down there to get some. She doesn’t usually stay, but she will seek him out because she knows he’s the treat guy. It’s so sad sometimes knowing that they will never be totally free of that baggage they carry – try as we might, you are right – they missed something in those early years.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Being the treat guy is not such a bad thing! Good for him for being just that.

  4. rangerskat on

    thank you for the encouragement in this post. after two years my fearful finna is still leery of my husband. He can’t pet her but she will curl up on the couch with her head on his knee. talk about frustrating, she can touch him but he can’t touch her in return. never having lived with people and learned all the ways that people can behave finna finds my husband unpredictable and very frightening. it’s very encouraging to know that sunny and john are making progress. there’s hope. (apologies for the broken shift key).

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Hope? I’d be singing if Sunny was doing what your pup is doing! It will keep getting better if everyone can remain patient.

  5. sara, oreo and chewy on

    Cool stuff!

    It’s amazing how taking the pressure off the dog works wonders. Hard for people to understand though, especially dog lovers who assume they can win every dog over.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      There is no way you can force a dog to stop being afraid of you. Cat people seem to understand this.

  6. Pam Garland on

    It’s always encouraging to me when I read about the actual reality of having a fearful dog. It reminds me that the steps that seem backwards are only really a pause before moving forward again. I’ve stopped with the “if onlys” for the most part and the wishful thinking and have learned to think about the now and how much progress he is making. As long as he can still feel happy in his daily life I know we are making progress. What I have learned about myself is the really surprising part of this journey.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      It is often the case Pam that people say they learn as much or more from their dog than they think the dog has learned. It’s a nice trade-off.

  7. Kay Liestman on

    Great news for Sunny and John. It will get even better.

  8. dogdaz on

    Some baby steps can take a really long time. Good for all of you.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks. We all just keep hoping we live long enough!

  9. Mel on

    I love the progress each has made. So wonderful that Sunny is deciding on his own to approach Hohn. Wow!!!

    • Debbie on

      Dogs rarely habituate to things that scare them, and has that been true for Sunny with John.

      Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  10. Laura Gail Grohe on

    Bravo John! It sounds like a long hard road for him as much as for Sunny. Those years of living with someone terrified of him, who he couldn’t communicate with, must have been awful. ( And there you were in the middle, with neither of them willing to do what you wanted them to do!) what a wonderful end to that chapter this is, everyone got positive reinforcement, the trails got cleared, and you got to see these two special beings finally make a genuine positive connection!

    Treats all around (including for you!)

    • Debbie on

      Thanks Laura, not quite the end though. Sunny has not generalized this behavior to inside the house. For years Sunny had happily played frisbee with John, but beyond that he is worried about him. But it is progress and I’m taking it!

      Debbie Jacobs Fearfuldogs.com

  11. Megs on

    My dog Moose is also a fearful dog. She has been afraid of other people since I got her at 5 months old. She’s afraid of anything new, anything moved, etc. But especially people, and as you said, especially men. In the 5 years I’ve had her she’s made INCREDIBLE strides. She now warms up to women with brown hair (like me) more quickly, or women who also have a dog with them more quickly, and she – with the help of her easy-going “sister” Taffy has come leaps and bounds as far as meeting new people in our house. But out and about new people, especially if they pay attention to her elicit shaking and a tucked tail. Most people don’t understand that this is not a “normal” initial apprehension, but rather full blown PTSD and most will try to assert that “all dogs love them”, or they don’t understand, especially since Moose is part Lab part Basset Hound so she looks like a yellow lab puppy so everyone wants to pet her. It has taken me a long time to learn how to be a strong advocate for her and tell people NO, they may not touch her. I am her protector and if she does not feel safe, it is my responsibility to make sure no one can make that worse. She may not be “perfect”, but she’s mine. She’s perfect to me, she’s my soul dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds like she’s lucky you found each other.

  12. Leslie on

    Bravo John and Sunny! I know its only a little bit and a long time coming too but it is progress. I hope more will come now that they’ve had a little extra fun together.
    My Mickey licked my husband’s cheek the other night! I think Brian’s only been able to reach out and stroke him two, maybe thee, times so far but he’s good about keeping it on Mickey’s terms and all is going well. It’s like watching molasses in January sometimes but as you said, progress is progress and I’ll take it any day!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Going face to face is a real stride. Good for your hubbie for being so patient.

  13. Hazel on

    We got Dusty at 10 weeks old, I didn’t know before then just how short of a window for socialization could be. Now 3 and half years later he has finally crawled up on my nieces lap. We got him to a point he could make that decision on his own – she was the only one there at the time and he really wanted to be close to a person. He has also gotten where he could stand at a glass door and look at strangers without shutting down. (We are helping my sister after her husbands death and we had to take the dogs with us as mom-in-law was not available). We were amazed and happy that it went as well as it did.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Along with the window of opportunity that we have to help a dog feel good about people and novelty, there is also what the dog brings to the table. Some have less tolerance or more sensitivity to start with. Handling these dogs as though they are the same as a dog who has more tolerance and less sensitivity is often unsuccessful.

  14. Diane on

    One of our dogs spent her first 4-6 years (we’re not sure of her age) in a puppy mill and, after 2+ years with us, is still fearful of my husband. She walks around the perimeter of the kitchen and as far away from him as possible before going outside. Makes you wonder what happened to them in those formative years.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s what didn’t happen that’s the problem. Puppy brains need to be exposed to novelty and social interactions in order to learn how to cope with them. There is no do-over for this lack. But systematic desensitization and counterconditioning can help.

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