Tipping the Scales

For dogs without fear-based challenges it may only take one introduction for the dog to feel safe with you. For others it might require a dozen, and for another hundreds. This is likely the reason many fearful dogs are able to be ok with their primary caregiver(s). There are enough repetitions of positive interactions to tip the scale in their favor. We can’t know how many reps it will take for an individual dog so just keep on adding to the total.

Today on our woods walk I watched as the scale began to tip in John’s favor. For years John rarely joined me and the dogs on our daily walks. But lately that’s changed. Initially I handed out the treats when Sunny stopped and eyed John warily. One day I started doling out handfuls of treats for John to dispense to the dogs, tossing them on the ground for Sunny. I took my chances the next week and handed him a bag of treats and watched as he increased the number of times he stopped and fed the dogs. Sunny began to spend more time close to John looking at him expectantly for treats.

man walking in the woods with 2 dogs

I’ll take that treat anytime now big guy.

The years of coaching (ok, call it nagging if you will) John on how to avoid making eye contact, leaning toward, or reaching for Sunny actually paid off as John noticed how something as simple as turning his head away from Sunny made it possible for him to take a treat from his hand. Both players were being reinforced for their behavior. Sunny got treats and John discovered that fabulous feeling of watching an animal begin to trust you.

Today I noticed that Sunny decided to sit, granted a safe distance away, and wait for John while he worked on building a log bridge over a small stream. I had continued on with the other dogs and was surprised to find the only one missing was Sunny. Even after Sunny caught up with me he returned to John three separate times.

The journey isn’t over for them but gone are the days when Sunny had to shadow us in the woods, too afraid to stay on the trail with John. Call it a milestone or a miracle.


26 comments so far

  1. Anu on

    Your post tonight gave me happy goose bumps!

    What a wonderful illustration that your patient direction/coaching/nagging and your husband’s willingness to go along with the program can foster a miracle – Sunny’s new trust in John – whoo hoo!

    Hooray for you, John, and your sweet Sunny, who benefits most from your faithful dedication.

    And yup, this milestone definitely qualifies as a miracle – congratulations!

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful story!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Anu. They have a long way to go yet, but it’s the same I way I started with Sunny years ago. Day after day of walking and dropping treats.

  2. sara on

    Wonderful, amazing, and inspiring!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      We hope we all live long enough to see Sunny be completely comfortable with him.

  3. Mel on

    You know it’s funny Deb, but I have always viewed you as the teacher and me the student. In my mind, I hadn’t even realized you had your own small successes to celebrate with Sunny because you are so busy celebrating ours with us. Reading this made me realize that you too continue to have these wonderful moments of joy in seeing your dog take one more tentative step towards something (or in this case, someone) he feared. What a wonderful feeling to know that Sunny chose to go back and be with John. Inside I am celebrating with cheers and laughter. I am guessing you are too. What a wonderful story to share. Go Sunny! Go John!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Mel. Sunny remains a dog with plenty of “issues” and I’m always thinking about them. Most of the time we just try to have a nice life, without a lot of pressure to “grow.” The real coup has been getting John engaged in a way he hasn’t for years. Seeing Sunny respond to it has been awesome.

  4. Bren on

    Wonderful post – A great milestone and miracle…I’m hopeful my boyfriend will learn what he needs to also and witness the start of trust as well….we’re working on it!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It requires a lot of patience, for the dog and the humans interacting with him.

  5. babschico1950@yahoo.com on


    Sent from my iPad

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks, it’s an on-going process, but progress is always an option.

  6. Hazel on

    I love reading your blogs and cheer for Sunny. It helps my frame of mind, my Dusty was not as extreme as your Sunny so I always come away from your blog feeling that if Sunny can do things then there is hope for us all. You and Sunny are my inspiration.

    • Debbie on

      Glad the blog keeps you hopeful. If we are respectful of a dog’s limitations most are not stupid, just scared, and can keep learning all the time.

  7. Eva on

    Lovely 🙂

  8. Veronica on

    Love stories like these Debbie. You are lucky to have a man that listens. Do keep every one up to date with your progress

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Veronica. As much as Sunny’s behavior is improving it is because of the human’s willingness (finally!) to put the effort into it.

  9. Natasha on

    My Stoli lets my husband walk her, but he doesn’t take treats because he says she won’t take treats from him when they are alone. Training husbands is a challenge!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Yes, changing human behavior can be tough. Sometimes using a longline so the dog can get further away from the walker, who is then willing to toss a treat and keep walking, can be helpful. Being able to eat food in the presence of a trigger starts somewhere and it’s often not right from the hand.

      • Natasha on

        Thanks, yes, my husband always adds on a second leash, and she has a leash on her because he can’t handle her closely like that (putting one on) on his own. With the long leash, she can go to the curb to potty without him even stepping onto the boulevard! But he keeps trying to hand her treats, sigh. In the house, it’s funny- she will sit for him but she backs way up, then advances for the treat. Pretty obvious communication!

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I gave up trying to micro-manage my husband and Sunny years ago. And it wasn’t John’s fault. Early on I did not know the best ways for him to interact (or not) with Sunny and progress was slow, and then they had some very bad experiences together that did not help matters. John is happy to have Sunny here, will go out and toss frisbees for him a few times a week, and for the most part ignores him (though he HAS to include him in his morning “goodbyes” to the dogs when he leaves for work). I could see how frustrating it was living with a dog who runs away from you, and a wife who keeps trying to get you to change.

  10. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Love this.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks Roxanne. I’m sure you can relate.

  11. jan on

    It is so great when our training pays off and the right behavior results. I mean John, of course.

    • Debbie Jacobs on


  12. Bren on

    I can so relate to your comment Debbie – hard work for the husband to learn a new way of interacting…thanks for posting!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Behavior change isn’t easy always easy to get, even when we can use words to explain what we need 😉

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