Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How many people does it take to change a scared-y dog?

I think there are different kinds of fear. There is the sudden spook of finding a spider crawling up your leg that makes you yelp, gets your hands sweating and heart racing but that goes away after a minute or two. And then there's the deep-seated fear that lingers, settling down in your gut filling long nights with an overwhelming sense of dread.  There are probably many shades of gray in between.

Bella, ready to bolt.
When we were looking to adopt a new dog, we came across a truly fearful dog named Ernie. Ernie was a beautiful black little Boxer mix who was painfully cute and just as painfully scared. We met with his foster folks in their backyard and spent about an hour with them. I managed to touch him - once. Jan was not convinced. ("What are we supposed to do with a dog that we can't even touch?") The next day we met Bella at the shelter and, while certainly scared, she didn't have the luxury of hiding behind foster folks so she chose to hide behind us instead. This, we felt we could work with.

Now I've had some experience with shy dogs: my family had dogs my entire life and I'm not sure I can count on two hands the number of stray dogs my sister brought home that dad then coaxed out of their shell with his patient, positive training. But never do I remember a dog quite as fearful and shut down as Bella. She had both the sudden, quick fearful reaction to things that startled her as well as the deep-seated variety that was her foundation of understanding the world around her: life is scary, best be prepared to run. I learned fast that "bolting" was Bella's way of "coping" which might have been ok if it didn't usually happen at the other end of a leash sending us both sprawling and frightening her more in the process.

Not so sure about this, mom.
As uneducated as I was at the time, I still had no intention of 'forcing' her to deal with the things that frightened her. If she was frightened by a barrel in the yard, we'd just walk a wide berth around it, or choose another path. If she was too afraid to enter the garage, she could go out the front door instead. Thanks to my father's patient example, I knew not to push her past her limits, berate her for her fear or try to physically coerce her to "get over it". What I didn't know was quite how to help her overcome her deep-rooted fear so that she could function and live a somewhat calm and pleasant life.

Which leads us back to our first little fearful friend, Ernie. That meeting had more import to it than I realized at the time because it was through Ernie's foster folks that I learned of one of the greatest resources I would use on this new journey with Bella. Ernie's foster dad was studying dog training and learned much of what he was using to work with Ernie at fearfuldogs.com, run by Debbie Jacobs. He highly recommended the site so I went home and started reading. 3 years later and I have never stopped.

So much of what I found there instinctively made sense to me. Just reading the words "It is ok to comfort your dog" made my heart sigh with relief. The "Getting Started" section provided me with new insights into triggers and thresholds, tools to improve my canine body language skills and sometimes even just an encouraging "you are not alone in this" reassurance. I bought at least half the books recommended in the Resource section dealing with fear and shyness, including Debbie's own "Guide to Living With & Training a Fearful Dog". It was as if a whole new world had been opened to both me and Bella.

We were also very fortunate to have found an awesome trainer early on. I know now that one should research the trainer they choose for their dog as thoughtfully as they choose their dog, but at the time I didn't even know there were options. So let me just say thank you to whatever reigning power it was that allowed us to stumble upon a great trainer who just happened to specialize in shy and fearful dogs when we signed up for the only class available to us at a local pet supply shop. Oh, that first class - well, that's a story for another day but thankfully Sheila Kamath didn't throw us out (yes, that was a concern we had going in) and has been a wonderful friend to us over the years, always understanding of Bella's quirks (as well as that of her owners).
Being scared is verrrryyyy tiring.

Working with Bella will be a lifetime commitment and we will likely never have a "normal" dog, however, we have been lucky to find exceptional resources to guide us along our way. Over time, I've found even more positive, patient trainers and behaviorists, pet-parents, bloggers, Tweeps and other advocates who enhance our support system and I am grateful to all for their help and encouragement. With it, we have been able to move Bella from a fearful shut-down trembling mess to a mostly happy little dog-in-progress. The phrase "it takes a village" comes to mind...


  1. What a great story and en excellent resource!  Thanks for sharing.

  2. Hi Finn!  Thanks for dropping in.  I've discovered there are a bunch of great resources out here in the blogosphere - makes 'raising a crazy dog' a little easier, I think.  :)

  3. Do you know what happened to Ernie?  

    Bella is so lucky you found her and love her and are prepared to help her work through her fearfulness.  And isn't it great how much help there is available in this internet age:)  While I don't follow Debbie Jacob's blog I do know how valuable a resource she is for people with fearful dogs.  Yay for you and Bella:)

  4. I love fearfuldogs.com!  With a hound sanctuary in my home, I have come across several fearful dogs.  Farrah, who would only let me touch her head when she came; three months later, she walked around in dog class, her tail high, rolling over for belly rubs.  She is now in a foster home where she is loved and very comfortable; she will always be shy except around water.  Chip and Monk were feral, born in the wild and brought to me as older puppies.  Farrah mothered them.  Chip went to MN to a special feral foste home; Monk will be here forever after two failed programs for him - the booger knows it, too!.  Oh, I like your blog!  

  5. Oh Sue, you know, I really should have made that my post script.  Ernie ended up teaching us the meaning of "failed foster".  We have run into Ernie and his "foster" now permanent folks several times as they live in our area.  According to one of the trainers we've used who also works with Ernie, he is far more fearful than Bella (which we kind of knew) so it seems he found himself in the right place at the right time with his hu-dad.

    And yes, I have really been overwhelmed by the amount of support available both online and among people in our local dog community to help us on this journey. It's been wonderful.

  6. Hi Roberta, Thanks so much.  (Are you Roberta Beach of Silver Walk Hounds/Dog Blessed? I love your blog!)  

    I'm a big fan of hounds myself but they do present their own set of issues, don't they?  What wonderful stories.  I think Monk is trying to tell you he already found his forever home. ;)