Archive for the ‘Guest bloggers talk about fearful dogs’ Category

Fearful dog update-guest blogger

Recently Jack, co-caretaker of Mollie, wrote to share what has been unfolding with Mollie, his fearful dog.

Too often the information we get regarding changing dog behavior comes in the form of programming for television in which all the hard work, set-backs, struggles, frustrations and failures, are left on the editing room floor. Between commercials we see what is tantamount to a miracle. Bad dog to good dog right before our eyes and despite the ‘don’t try this at home’ and other notes of caution and warning, it’s hard not to feel disappointment in our own dogs’ progress and our own abilities to foster it.

When we speak to owners and trainers of fearful dogs we discover that it is indeed a long haul for many of these dogs. The word ‘patience’ has taken on a whole new meaning for us.

I asked Jack if I could share Mollie’s journey with you and thank him for his willingness to do so. Here is his reply-

Feel free to share whatever info you think would be of benefit to others.

woman holding t shirt that says the dog likes me bestThis has been a challenging and rewarding journey for us (any wonder that those two aspects of endeavor seem to be combined so often?). You may or may not recall that I (Jack) am a clinical psychologist and Jackie is an early childhood development expert. It is intriguing to realize how much of our familiarity with behavioral psychology is complimentary and pertinent as we interact with Mollie. Both in terms of our behavior as well as hers! She has been telling us all we need to know — we just have to be adept at listening and recognizing what she is saying.

This is a follow-up to a consult we had with you after buying the Fearful Dog Ebook last September. Our names are Jack and Jackie and our dog’s name is Mollie. We live in California. We got her from an organization that rescues golden retrievers.

She was 4 yrs old and had spent her whole life in a breeding kennel. She was very fearful and shut-down/depressed. A week or so after we got her, she had a gran mal seizure. This led to immediate changes in her diet from commercial to home cooked foods with good results — no additional seizures. However, subsequently we discovered that she has a chronic renal condition – one kidney completely atrophied and shut down, the other trying to hold its own, but lab blood tests show abnormal readings. After months of consultations with veterinary nutritionists, additional diet modifications and various treatments with medications, it appears her renal functioning, while still impaired, has improved and stabilized. The vets tell us that her current functioning should yield a long life.

Along with handling these health issues during the past 6 months or so, we have of course been dealing with her fearfulness. We are very happy to report that she is no longer the withdrawn shut-down dog that she used to be. At first, it was not possible to get any positive responses out of her…shied away, turned her head, slunk to the ground, no eye contact, lying “hidden” in the corner all the time, etc, etc, whenever we would try to pet her or engage her in any way. Today, she has bright eyes, frolicks off-leash when we go for walks on our rural roads 2x a day, comes when called, has learned to come to us and sit at attention whenever an occasional car comes by, remains completely relaxed (even seemingly asleep) when we come to pet her (particularly likes to have the top of her head rubbed with pressure — pushes back up against our hands) .. “talks” to us when she wants to go out and over-all appears to be comfortable with us and even strangers. All of these mannerisms are more accentuated with Jackie than with me, but she continues to interact with me more and more as time goes on.

Now, she still doesn’t “play” very much…toss around chew toys, fetch a tennis ball, get into tug-of-wars with toys, etc. To our mind, it appears that she wants to, but doesn’t know how. She’ll show some spark, jump into emptying out a basket of toys we have, only to quit after less than a minute. When we try to engage her directly, she shows interest, wags her tail, prances around a bit, but then doesn’t really do anything. As I said, these moments typically last less than a minute and then she usually just lies down and looks at us.

We much appreciate the supportive help and suggestions we obtained from you. We were lost – you got us going in the right directions. I want to emphasize and confirm with you one element of assistance you emphasized which we consider invaluable and completely pertinent. That is….PATIENCE. Of all the things that people working with fearful dogs might do, maintaining patience is essential.

If you would indulge me, I would expand this admonition a bit so that the instructional phrase becomes….”ACTIVE Patience”. To our minds, this isn’t the kind of patience in which you sit around doing nothing and just wait for the dog to become less fearful. This is the kind of patience in which you steadfastly and consistently actively observe and study your dog and offer it your kindness and safety by whatever means you’ve developed and in whatever way it seems to fit and then be alert so that you will be in position to actively accept and welcome the dog’s positive responses – as slight or minimal as they might be. This is what we’ll continue doing with Mollie — looking forward to the day she licks our faces, chases and fetches the ball and engages in a tug-of-war with one of her toys.

Thanks again,
Jack, Jackie and Mollie


Finding our way with our dog by heart

man & border collar playing frisbee in snowYears ago a fellow named Vince, out in Colorado contacted me to purchase a collar pendant for his dog Ellie. I sell pendants made from gemstones that are suppose to help the wearer feel more courageous. Mostly I think they just make us feel good because they look nice. I suggested that Vince also try cheese and counter conditioning, just in case.

Over the years Vince has kept in touch, sending me updates on his life with Ellie. Like Ellie I think that he shares a bit of the border collie’s commitment to the task at hand. He never gave up on becoming Ellie’s friend. Thank you Vince for sharing the following story with us.

Ellie was terrified. I knew then that she would not stay in that despicable emotional or physical space. He told me she was not for sale. He didn’t understand! Her name then was Kay. Even today when lavishing praise a certain care needs to be exercised when saying “okay.” The books said change her name. They never said it would change my life. So I named her after my mother and looked for that extra bit of strength.

Ellie’s Long Road home had begun. It was, and seemingly will continue to be a long strange trip. The rest stops now are shorter and the smiles, dogs smile you know, almost nonstop.

Was Ellie a fearful dog or just suffering from PTSD. I chose the latter and gave her the space to do the work. It could’ve turned out another way but then that would be a different story. We are very fortunate; 15 acres of good pasture and 1/4 acre fenced grassy forests around the house where a dog could hide once she actually left the house. I am fortunate because my lovely bride Lefty was always Ellie’s protector, her caregiver in those first six months. Months that I rarely saw Ellie except for a flash of red and white in the tall grass or sitting still as an owl behind a Stickley chair. Anyplace where she was confident that I could not reach her.

We got Ellie in  the spring, and soon she had a path worn along the fence perimeter from hideout to hideout; the Holler, The Corner Pocket, and The Dew Drop Inn. It is most important to respect these hiding spots for two reasons. First they need to build trust and second even a lightning bolt won’t catch a border collie. You need to know  if they are fearful or just very cautious; the words stubborn, manipulative, spoiled, self-centered little… Come to mind but then I figured two things. First how she would flood so completely lying on Lefty’s lap and I came near and second, now three years later, when she is talking to me with her eyes; no kidding! Remember the dog does all the work. You just think of the opportunities. Sure despair, frustration, anger, rejection and hurt all exist in the same bag as hope, delight, joy, acceptance and happiness. Oh I forgot the boatloads of patience.

This is the dog that would only eat ice cream if she was at least an arms length away from me. My sleeve length is 38 inches. She’d take a graham cracker but only if I first dipped in milk. Even the Vet said you can’t do that. She will never eat dog food. Hell, I had already bought every food and type of dog food on the face of the earth. Now she eats her lamb and rice with a little cheese as long as I am sitting behind the counter. She’s a kick.

So okay what worked. We all know border collies are obsessive compulsive. In themselves not bad traits. It’s what makes them such hard workers. If you can put an obsession in front of a fear then you win. We found, kind of like Columbus found America, something that I saw her eyes watch more than me; A Frisbee; a flying squirrel to be exact. She would sit near Lefty just as we as we started throwing the frisbee to each other. She watched it like it was a herd of sheep and she was hooked. She still wouldn’t come in or out of the yard if I was near the gate but she would play frisbee. She wouldn’t come closer  to me than 15 feet but that wasn’t too bad even when you’re lying in a ground blizzard staring into those amber eyes just taking each others measure with no flooding.

There were red letter days When I got to scratch her stomach “no scratch no catch” worked. We played baseball with the frisbee. She would crouch on the ground ready while I kept up the color and play-by-play; He looks, gets the sign, checks the runner on first and third; goes into his windup, and she’d be off running where I looked or maybe was football. We’d line up, wide receiver split outside; set; 31 and BAM she’s off! Now she’ll come right to me roll over on my lap, get scratched until I say “number 31”  and she’s off. This is the same dog that in year 2 I could hold if Lefty was near and sing “Ellie Girl”  to the tune of “Danny Boy.”  But, year 2 passed into year three and we still had her in spite of those days when I would have traded her for a dry cow. Can’t sing “Ellie Girl” anymore; that took some learning. Things can work for a while and then they become part of the past; part of all bad memories. If it worked and then doesn’t lose it. That dog is ready to move ahead. Still the frisbee kept flying. Now when I see her in a full speed run both of us knowing I can hit her on the fly almost brings me to tears.

Then we got another border, a pup. I do not recommend this to everyone. There are so many ways it can go wrong. We were lucky. Hank and Ellie became fast friends almost at once. It brought Ellie back her childhood and she grew back up again.

She Saw Hank get in the truck and come back. She saw Hank come right to me and take a treat like a  graham cracker. She’ll do that now but they still have to be dipped in milk! She leaps into the future and trusts. This took some doing on her part. Don’t be afraid when things go south now and then. Imagine trying to build your life without words and what you need to do it. Remember the dog does all the hard work. You just need to understand and adjust; unafraid to try anything. Your life is like a taxi ride; it goes where you want it to. The dog’s life is like a train; on set rails.

You try everything and believe everything will work and when it doesn’t try something else. I bought Crystal charms, shameless plug it is, I think they worked. Single-handedly I kept the dog food industry in business. Now she eats Milkbones from my hands. For over a year I thought I might never leave the ranch. I was afraid I’d never get Ellie in the truck. Now sometimes I can’t get her out. Sure sometimes she needs to do some obscure ritual before she gets in but she gets in and that is the point right? Years went by when she would not come in the house when I was there. Now I can snap my fingers and say up and she is on the bed. Would I do it again? Yeah. You don’t leave dogs in small cages.

Was it worth it? Most definitely. When we are hiking in the woods and she comes turning back to me jumping up saying Thanks; that’s worth it. She learned to trust and I learned patience. Just watch out for the first few years try everything; push but don’t shove, open yourself to the dog and let them close that chasm which to you looks so small but to them may be miles across. Sounds a lot like life doesn’t it!

Games One Shy Dog Owner Plays

Laurie from Saskatchewan recently shared some of the ways she discovered for inspiring her fearful dog Chewy to play. I didn’t want them to get lost in the ‘comment’ section of this blog so with her permission am sharing them with you here. Thanks Laurie!

Will that be cash or kibble?

Fetch is usually Chewy’s activity of choice so I’ve used that to teach her numerous words and phrases. (She knows approx 100 words/actions and related hand signals so far). It worked well right from the beginning (in the house) because we could interact in close proximity in an exciting, fun way without any physical touching unless she approached me directly.

I would sit on the floor several feet away and roll a ball to her or past her. She quickly became an incredible goalie. The only way I could win was to cheat- throw it over her head. She then learned to leap in the air and “grab” or “catch” those too.

The “go find it game” is one of the best teaching, bonding and confidence tools I know and fabulous mental exercise for her- a must for all dogs IMO and especially border collies. I started with hiding her ball or other favorite toys in plain view (behind me) while sitting on the floor and telling her to find it. Then I put on a jacket or hoodie and hid a toy on me while she watched-in my pockets, in the hood, up the back, get her excited and then tell her to find it. You can use a treat as well if your dog isn’t into toys. Once she knew the game, I would tell her to “stay”, then leave the room, hide it on me and return to sit and let her go at it.

The main reason I hid them on me in the very early days is that it made her eager to interact with me physically (sniffed me from head to toe, shoved her nose in my pocket, down my neck, pushed up the back of the hoodie to get the toy out). It always made me laugh out loud and she loves when I do that. Again, I just cheerily sat there without making a move to touch her at first.

Within a few months, she could find numerous objects by name in complex hiding places – upstairs on top of a door frame, on top of dressers or tables, under quilts and pillows, in the laundry hamper etc. If she can’t physically bring them to me, she signals she found the item by sitting or laying beside it.

When we go out, I ask her to find and bring her collar, leash, poop bag, my keys, purse. (Still won’t carry the latter. Too heavy maybe? lol) These items are never in the same place, so it’s actually very helpful. Helps me gather up laundry too.

She picks up items if I drop them at home and even at pet stores. There she carries them to the cashier and jumps up and puts it on the counter. As you can imagine, this took months but has done wonders for her confidence.

We did a lot of fun work at pet stores for very short stints at first at least 3x per week. It was scary for her at first with new sights, sounds and people, but it wasn’t long before she loved going there and we then moved to manners and polite greetings (feet on the floor please).

I also used a nearby park when no one was there to teach recall in a fun way. I used a long drag line (30′) at first. When she had explored for too long without looking at me, I would hide behind a tree and call her name and tell her to come find me. Other times I would just hide without calling her and she would always come barreling over to see where I’d gotten to. She was sooo excited to find me and it wasn’t long before she always kept an eye out for me to ensure I didn’t get lost.

Her reward for coming each time? Big praise, laughter, and being told to “go play”. My reward is now having a dog who will stop on a dime no matter what she’s doing, chasing dogs at the dog park, escorting a cat or squirrel out of the yard, and come to me every time I call her.

I also find it very effective to either squat down or go down on one knee and open my arms wide in getting her to come when I called her. Many people stand and bend forward over the dog as they arrive which can be very intimidating and threatening. Now all I have to do is drop into this position and she’ll come roaring over without me having to say a word. Great for longer distance communication too!

So for me, educating a fearful dog is at the top of my list. But if I do it right, she’ll never know that’s what it is.

Guest Blogger Veronica Zimmerman

Over the years I’ve been working with my own fearful dog and learning about fear based behaviors and how to change them, I’ve corresponded with many others who are doing the same. There is something to be learned by each of our experiences with our dogs and Veronica’s post addresses many of the important components of how to go about helping a fearful dog. Veronica is the owner and Canine Clicker Trainer at V’s Cloud 9 K-9 LLC.

Tye not so fearful anymore!I recently took in a puppy, a golden retriever mix, which was abandoned on the side of the road. He was found covered with blue paint ball paint and oil. He was very reactive to people, especially children and men with tattoos. I focused on counter conditioning him to various situations in combination with TTouch. I’ve been working with him for about two months and he is now approaching people with an open mouth, wiggly butt and showing more confidence. This includes men and children. He will still bark at some men, however, he is able to refocus and adapt within a few seconds. He is not the same frightened little puppy I first met.

I combine clicker training with TTouch TM in some cases for fearful or reactive dogs to change the emotional state and help the dog gain confidence. I first start by determining what triggers the dog and what its threshold is. You always want to work one step below the dog’s threshold where he or she will accept treats. In this case I began clicking him and giving him treats every time he turned to look at a person in the distance. I would click him before he had a chance to react. Soon the puppy began looking for people and turning to look at me as soon as he saw someone as if to say “Look, aren’t you going to click me? I just spotted a person, where is my paycheck?” This told me he was ready to move forward. And by forward I mean baby steps, always remaining just one step below the dog’s threshold. This was conditioning him to see people as a positive event vs. a negative one.

I would also use other distractions, such as having him target my hand, look at my eyes and target my shoe when I could not control the distance from people dog massagepassing by. What can I tell you, it doesn’t matter if you put a vest with big letters on your dog that says “DO NOT TOUCH, I’M IN TRAINING”, people see a fluffy puppy and lose their reading and listening skills. In some instances I was forced to get up and start walking in the opposite direction as if we were going to play a game of chase. It’s important to use the “Jolly routine” in these instances so your dog doesn’t feel that you are running from danger but because we are going to go play. I was also using TTouch on his ears, mouth, head, tail and neck. In the beginning I also used a wrap to help ease tension on his hind quarters. People that met the puppy before the training tell me that he’s not the same dog.

I hope this information helps someone else out there with a fearful dog.

Guest Blogger: Eric Goebelbecker

Discovering that I was not alone when it came to the challenges of living with a fearful dog helped me to keep my sanity when Sunny first came to live with me. Understanding that his behavior was not unusual for a dog that was not properly socialized, and getting advice and suggestions from other fearful dog owners and trainers has been key to the progress he’s made.

Eric Goelbecker owns and runs Dog Spelled Forward dog training part-time in Maywood NJ, while working full-time as a software engineer on Wall Street. He hopes to transition Dog Spelled Forward to full-time in a few years. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT.)

After adopting a puppy that was a “bit of a handful” in 2000, Eric discovered modern dog training via classes at St. Hubert’s Dog Training School, experiencing first hand what can be done with dog-friendly techniques.

Gage’s Tale

gageinatorI have a fearful dog. The good news is I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact. Gage leads a pretty normal life, all things considered.

Gage is a “failed foster.” My wife and I had been volunteering at a rescue for a while and decided that Caffeine, our back-in-those-glorious-days-of-only-one-dog dog, was ready to share the house with a foster. We took her to the rescue and she got along very well with Gage. Gage seemed a little shy, but we didn’t see anything that afternoon that foreshadowed his fear of new people and well, just about anything else new. He rode home with us, settled into the house very well, and immediately took a shine to Caffeine.

Soon thereafter, we saw the fearful behaviors. Gage was afraid of just about anything new: a trash can, an open closet door, an open laptop carried like a pizza…a pizza. Any novel sight drew a least a startle response, if not flight.

Gage was also very afraid of traffic. We brought him home on a weekend, so he didn’t see real traffic for almost 2 days. His reaction that Monday was very bad, and my wife had to cut the walk short.

At that time my only experience was in obedience training. I did a few web searches and found the shy-k9s Yahoo Group, signed up, read the information in the documents section, and a whole new world opened to me.

For a while the goal was to get Gage to a good place and then adopt him out. I was still only considering the idea of becoming a professional trainer and Gage served as a good way for me to try different things.

I signed up for classes with a clicker trainer that has a good reputation for success with shy dogs and set up a behavior modification plan at home for his issues with traffic.

The problem was, working with fearful dogs takes time and frequently if you do it right, you end up pretty attached to the dog. (At least I did.) As I progressed I became more and more attached and Gage ended up being “my” dog.

Gage is one of the family now. He’s never going to fully accept a new person. He is able to focus on one of us when we we stop to talk to someone during a walk instead of fixating on the person. Strangers coming into the house require some management, but he can cope and calm down in another room. Traffic took a long time, as keeping a Gage under threshold was very difficult and we don’t control the cars. He’s come a long way, but we still need to be careful around garbage trucks and a fire truck is a big problem.

I can’t stress enough how effective the targeting games on the site are. Gage will now slow down when he sees an “unexpected” object and then frequently just reach out his nose and tap it on cue. Giving him something to do instead of just panicking is a very powerful tool.

I was pretty much on my way to becoming a trainer when we found Gage, but he put things into high gear and made me a much better one. I owe him for that.

You can find Eric on Twitter @dogspelledfwd

Guest Blogger Ali Brown Author of Scaredy Dog!

My guest blogger is Ali Brown, dog trainer and author of Scaredy Dog and Focus Not Fear. I asked Ali some questions and she kindly took the time to answer them. If there are nails to be hit on the head, Ali’s aim is right on!

AliPortraitHow did your interest in working with fearful dogs originate?

It all started just like everyone else did…when I realized I had a reactive dog! Acacia, my now 11-year old Belgian Sheepdog, was reactive toward people and dogs, and it came to a head when she was 2 years old, right after I spayed her. Prior to that she was a show dog.

Reactivity, in my book, is based in fear and anxiety. A fearful dog can either curl up and hide (turn in toward himself) or make a big scene to try to make the thing that scares it go away (turn outward, look aggressive, etc). Reactive dogs fit into the latter category. Most people think they are aggressive, but given the opportunity, reactive dogs will make alot of noise and then run away rather than bite.

Is there any training technique that you think is essential for trainers/owners of fearful dogs to understand/use?

Oh yes! A good understanding of classical conditioning is critical to being able to help fearful dogs. A dog’s underlying emotional response toward a stimulus must be changed before any operant learning can take place. So lots and lots of classical conditioning, and classical COUNTER conditioning, in particular, must be a huge part of the work done with a fearful dog.

What is one of the main mistakes you have noticed trainers/owners make with fearful dogs?

Oh boy, they do lots of things. They yell at the poor dog, put choke chains, prong collars, shock collars on them, flood them (expose them nonstop to the very things they are most fearful of until they ‘cease’ being fearful of it …which is ineffective, by the way)…all sorts of really sad and horrible things. Most folks don’t intend to further their dogs’ fears, but this is often what happens. Or the dog just shuts down entirely. Becuase the dog isn’t showing any behavior, the owners think the dog is ‘fixed’. In reality, the dog has completely shut down…not a very good quality of life.

Have your methods of working with fearful dogs changed during your time as a trainer?

Only in the sense that I have developed more and varied activities to do with fearful dogs! But my philosophy hasn’t changed one bit. Acacia is a testament to the loving, trusting relationship that we have developed as a result of the work we did together!

I know I have lots of other questions for you and readers might as well. What’s the best way for them to find out more about your ideas for working with fearful dogs?

The best thing they can do is go to or they can read Scaredy Dog! and/or watch the Scaredy Dog! DVD. I also have a second book out called Focus Not Fear, and we will be doing a companion DVD for that this summer. I hope!

Scaredy Dog!Focus Not Fear

Five Golden Rules for Working with Fearful Dogs by Nicole Wilde

The Fearful Dog’s Blog is happy to introduce you to our guest blogger, Nicole Wilde CPDT, RM. Nicole has worked with fearful dogs for years and her book, Help for Your Fearful Dog is a must read for anyone working with a fearful dog. I was attending one of Nicole’s seminars recently, it happened to be my birthday, and a friend gifted me with a copy of Nicole’s latest book Energy Healing For Dogs, which would be another great topic to include on this blog. I hope you enjoy and I know you’ll learn a lot from the following post.

Five Golden Rules for Working with Fearful Dogs by Nicole Wilde

Nicole & MojoHaving worked with hundreds of shy, anxious, and fearful dogs over the years in training, shelter work, rescue, and yes, even in my own home, it’s become obvious that regardless of the type of fear issue, certain precepts apply. Whether a dog is frightened of a family member, a thunderstorm, or other dogs, keep these five rules in mind when implementing your behavior modification program:

Employ good management. For example, if your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, for the length of your desensitization program, don’t turn it on when he’s close by (until you’ve build up to that step). Take him for a walk while someone else vacuums the house (ladies, put your husbands to work!) or put him out in the yard while you vacuum. Ideally, keep your dog from encountering the trigger for at least two weeks before beginning your behavior modification program. That way the stress hormones, which can circulate for up to a few days in the body even after that initial adrenalin rush has subsided, will be at low levels and the dog will be as calm as possible.

Always work under the dog’s threshold. It’s fine for the dog to notice the trigger, but you don’t want him to have a major reaction to it. If you were doing a desensitization and counter conditioning program, ideally you would start feeding treats as soon as your dog noticed the scary thing, not after he’d started barking or trying to run away.

Progress in teeny, tiny increments. It’s very tempting to move forward rapidly when you’re excited about the progress your dog is making, whether it’s about holding a stay or being less frightened of other dogs. Don’t do it! If you push your dog too far too fast, you risk having to go back to square one and start over. Progressing in small increments will allow your dog to feel good about the trigger and secure during the process.

Put the power in the dog’s paws. Let the dog decide whether to approach the big, scary thing rather than forcing him. For example, the “touch” command (also known as targeting) is excellent for fear of objects, because you can teach a dog to touch her nose to your hand, and then transfer that to the object. The dog can then approach the object of her own free will, as she is comfortable. The extreme opposite of putting the power in the dog’s paws is flooding, a technique that forces the dog to deal with the trigger in massive doses—to become immersed in it. Although the technique has been used successfully in laboratory tests, and it could potentially work with your dog, the chances that you are going to traumatize your dog instead of helping are very high. Leave flooding in the lab and let your dog feel confident, and trusting of you.

Be an advocate for your dog. Let’s say your dog is afraid of people. You’re out on a walk, and someone approaches as if to pet him. It’s your job to stop that person. Stand in front of your dog, put your palm out as if to say, “Halt!” and relay in no uncertain terms that you’d rather they not pet your dog. It is especially important for a dog with fear issues to feel you will keep him safe under any circumstances.

Help For Your Fearful Dog

Nicole Wilde is the author of eight books including Help for Your Fearful Dog. She teaches seminars around the world on canine behavior, and runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern Calfornia. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @NicoleWilde

Guest Blogger Roxanne Hawn

Fearfuldogs: Tell me about your dog Lilly.

Roxanne: Lilly is a nearly 5-year-old smooth coat border collie, adopted at 6 months old from a progressive humane society in Boulder, CO. She came in as a transfer. So, she lived in two shelters and a foster home before we adopted her. She passed all temperament testing with better-than-average scores even though she did show some shyness/fear. She lives with us and a nearly 9-year-old Lab/Greyhound mix named Ginko.

Lilly has always been fearful, which we’ve always worked on, but at around 2 1/2 years old (social maturity), she developed an extreme intolerance of other dogs. She decided that a good offense was the best defense. We’ve been working on that ever since … along with severe generalized anxiety/fear that I have only fully understood in the last year or so.

Our behaviorist says that if you combine genetics, a deprived puppyhood (poor socialization), and numerous illnesses (including parvo), you’ll get dogs just like Lilly again and again.

Our blog, Champion of My Heart, tells the tale of this once promising agility dog who is too afraid to run a course in front of other dogs. At home, she’s great.

I talk about nearly accepting we’ll never be good at agility, but the real story is what else I’ve learned along the way. Our working goal is a book deal, but having each other is what matters. Lilly is the most important canine relationship of my life.

Fearfuldogs: Was there a time when you thought twice about keeping your dog? If so why, and why did you decide to keep her?

Never. When I first looked into getting help from a behaviorist, that’s one of the first questions they ask, and it made me think our situation wasn’t so bad, if my answer was no.

I’m a big believer in “Dog-girl, know thyself,” and as difficult as Lilly’s fears can be, it’s nowhere near my breaking point. I know from experience that one thing I cannot live with is a dog I don’t trust — a dog that shows aggression toward me.

I trust Lilly with my life. She is an amazing dog — smart, funny, loving, active. Do I wish she didn’t worry so much? Sure. Would I trade this experience for anything? Nope. She makes me a better person and an infinitely better dog trainer.

Have you had to modify or change your lifestyle because of your dog?

Roxanne: Before Lilly, my dog training experience was of the Petsmart variety (no offense). Now, I joke that I’m earning a Ph.D. in dog behavior from the University of Dogs with Issues, so in that way, she is a major undertaking. I spend a lot of time and money on consults, training, medications and such. Even with some financial shifts, like giving up weekly yoga classes (after 10+ years of study) to pay for dog classes, Lilly feels more like an improvement, not a sacrifice.

That said, until I find a boarding kennel equipped to handle a sensitive dog like Lilly, I do not travel.

The only other thing is that I cannot open the window over the sink in the kitchen. We had some windows replaced a couple years ago, and Lilly is afraid of them. I’ve successfully desensitized her to the ones that go up and down, but the one over the sink slides side to side and squeaks ever so slightly, even though we’ve oiled it, etc. If that window stays closed for another 10 years, I’m OK with that.

I’m sure there are other things that have become so normal I can’t think of them.

Fearfuldogs: During the time you’ve had your dog what has been the most exciting improvement in her behavior you’ve witnessed?

Roxanne: We took a long break from weekly group classes (advanced pet dog training), when we began working with a behaviorist from Colorado State University in July 2008. After avoiding drugs and trying all manner of holistic options, our current plan includes medications (clomipramine & alprazolam) and detailed, regimented behavior modification work, mostly in the classical conditioning model.

I learned I had been doing far too much operant conditioning (trying to get Lilly to act her way out of being afraid), rather than trying to change how she feels first.

We attend a group class, outdoors in various locations, about once a month now. A couple of times recently, other dogs accidentally challenged her, but Lilly handled it beautifully and with restraint.

The first one, a young, rambunctious lab, who lives with a training pal of ours, came flying toward Lilly flapping a weasel toy. Lilly was working off leash at the time. When she glanced up and saw him running toward her, I said, “Leave it.” And, she did, going back to work.

 Funny enough, after she headed toward me as the second part of the exercise, the pup came racing back the other direction. He would have bowled her over, but she waited for him to run past and then continued toward me, stopping perfectly into a down … just as I’d asked before the encounter began. 

It was the cutest thing. Lilly had this look on her face like, “Look at this goofy pup.”

The key was that he was more interested in the toy, than Lilly. I always tell people that Lilly doesn’t mind other dogs as long as they don’t pay attention to her.

Then, a few weeks later, a young, pushy German Shepherd got loose from her owner and came flying at us at class. This dog arrived wearing a shock collar, which our trainer won’t allow and which, I believe, is telling.

I was giving Lilly a break when the dog ran up, so Lilly was up on a big rock at the time. Lilly shot off one warning bark, dropped her head, and offered a convincing show of teeth. The dog did not relent. So, Lilly jumped down and offered another stiff-bodied warning, where she gave her best Border Collie Eye (intense stare). The dog did not relent.

So, even though I think Lilly was justified in her correction, I stepped between them, and Lilly and I walked away. The dog followed, but we kept moving away. Eventually, someone got her, but I kept Lilly far away from the group for several minutes to give her recovery time. She was upset, but bounced back.

After class, our longtime trainer (the only one who didn’t give up on us) said she felt like it was a huge breakthrough for Lilly to handle a challenge like that with such poise. Even weeks earlier, she felt the encounter would have been awful.

Other classmates, who’ve known us for years, also say Lilly seems like a different dog. So, while it’s hard for me to see the change day to day, others notice.

It’s a long story, but Lilly has a best-best dog friend named Katie (a young, wild Borzoi), who nearly became our third dog recently. Katie has amazing dog-dog savvy and helps Lilly practice her dog-relationship skills.


We blog at least five days a week. On Fridays, we always post a training update, for those following our saga.

Fearfuldogs: If anything was to happen to you, what are your plans for your dog?

Roxanne: I’m married, so my husband would take care of Lilly if something happened to me. While he doesn’t do the hands-on training, he knows enough about the methods to keep her happy and safe.

Fearfuldogs: Where does your dog spend most of her time?

Roxanne: At my side. As a professional, freelance writer, I have the luxury of working at home. So, we’re pretty much together all day, every day. She usually stays in my office with me, either on a bed under my desk or on her doggie sofa near the windows. We often let both dogs snuggle with us for a few hours at night, before they head to their crates to sleep.

My husband works at home too, so especially in the summer, we work outside and hangout with the dogs.

You might think this means Lilly is a prime case for separation anxiety, but I’m happy to report that’s one fear she does not have. She’s completely fine being left alone in the house or in the car (when weather allows).

Fearfuldogs: Thanks Roxanne! Be sure to check out Lilly’s updates at