In October of 2008, I brought a scared dog home from the shelter to join our family. What follows is our story in the evolution from a shy, terrified creature, to the almost self-assured dog we have today. I say almost, because she still has her moments. But, for the most part she’s confident and happy.
Will the methods I used work for every scared dog? No, all dogs are different. I’m hoping that some of them, however, will guide you towards calming your frightened pet.
THE DOGS I MET ON MY FIRST DAY OF VOLUNTEERING
After having signed up with a local shelter to volunteer (Briggs Animal Adoption Center), I decided to work with dogs of all different personalities that first day to see where my talents and interest would be best used. I don’t remember all of the dogs I interacted with that day, but here are the three that stood out. Winnie, an energetic terrier mix, large, hairy, slobbery, with a joyful, rambunctious personality, Dino, a Jack Russell terrier with a Napoleon complex, known for toy possessiveness and general bad behavior; and Akira, a beautiful shepherd/collie mix, so shy she wouldn’t even look at anyone who walked past the kennel door. Keeping her head down, she was huddled in the farthest corner of the kennel looking as if she wished she could disappear.
Winnie had been adopted before the next time I went – I picture her happily running with a bunch of kids. Dino and I had several adventures before he was eventually adopted – more about him in another blog post. And then there was Akira.
MY FIRST DAY WITH AKIRA
At the time, each volunteer worked individually with BAACs wonderful volunteer coordinator, who is now the director of the Frederick County Humane Society. (Briggs has grown so much that this individual attention is no longer possible.) She would take each volunteer, help them get the dog they wanted out of the kennel, and offer advice on how to interact if needed.
Akira was the last dog I planned on working with that day and, since I knew a lot of dogs react aggressively when frightened, I was a little concerned about getting her out for a walk. In Akira’s case, there never was, then or now, any aggression (except some grumbling towards her canine sister on occasion). But she clearly didn’t want to leave the security of the only home she had – the kennel. Having to enter the kennel and put her leash on, the Volunteer Coordinator started her moving. I put out a hand, but there was no interest in meeting me at all.
WALKING AKIRA FOR THE FIRST TIME
She stopped dead and laid down in the middle of the hall and no amount of tugging or pleading would get her to move. So, I learned another trick. When a dog just refuses to budge, or wants to go in another direction (Akira would have moved if we’d turned back to her “home”), you just move in the dog’s preferred direction for a few steps, then turn abruptly and move in the direction you want to go. Works like a charm for most dogs.
Out in the walking area, Akira had no real interest in moving along – she would occasionally rear up and grab the leash with her front paws. This startled me at first. After a few times I realized that this was her way of telling me to stop. Although since then I’ve seen dogs grab their leash with their teeth, I’ve never seen another dog go up on her hind legs and grab with both paws.
After a few minutes of trying to walk her, without a whole lot of success, I took her back in the shelter hoping to interact with her in the enclosed visiting room.
AKIRA IN THE VISITING ROOM
Things didn’t get a whole lot better in the visiting room. Too frightened to take a treat, Akira sat in the farthest corner peeking at me occasionally when she thought I wasn’t looking. Attempts to approach her were met with her moving farther away. I settled for just talking to her from my perch on the sofa. After a while, I cornered her (not recommended for any other dog), and put on her slip leash. She was put back in her kennel.
SHE TOUCHES MY HEART
Having never dealt with a dog so frightened before, I was determined to break through that shyness. When I talked with the Volunteer Coordinator, I found that Akira had quite the history. In one shelter or another since about the age of 4 months (we think), she had been with one rescue that was shut down for mistreatment of the animals. She was then transferred to another local organization, and finally ended up at Briggs. It’s fortunate that all of her shelters were non-euthanizing since she would be a very difficult adoption.
So, it was time to leave, but Akira (and Dino, as well) would become long-term projects for me.
A SLOW EVOLUTION
Akira remained the scared dog she was for the next several visits. We’d go for a short “drag” (I can’t in good conscience refer to it as a walk), and then sit in the visiting room me on the sofa, and she in the corner for a while. Then I’d take her back to her kennel.
There was no tail-wagging, and no excitement at my presence for the first weeks. Still, I persisted.
Then came the day when something changed, so suddenly, I was terrified. We were out in the field doing our normal rounds when she abruptly jumped up. But, this time, she wasn’t grabbing the leash – she jumped on me! My first thought was, “she’s going to kill me”. But…. she just wanted to play! This was such a breakthrough; it took my breath away.
SOME THINGS DON’T CHANGE (YET)
However, in the confined room, she was still the same dog – sitting in the corner, terrified. She’d jump at every noise (normal shelter noise), and still didn’t want to interact. So, I started spending more time outside with her, including working with her off leash in the smallest fenced-in area.
Eventually, she started taking treats in the visiting room, then playing with toys. Although every noise from outside the room caused her distress. But things were going so well, I started thinking of adopting her.
INTRODUCING HER TO THE FAMILY
As with most shelters and rescues, the entire family is required to meet the dog before adoption. At the time, this included my husband and our 15-year-old son. I knew she was much more frightened of men than of women, so I expected a long haul. And I was right.
Even though she knew and now felt comfortable with me, she refused any physical contact with my husband and would sit as far away as possible from him. There was still no aggression, but you could tell how terrified she was. She did considerably better with my son, however, which surprised me. The shelter veterinarian said dogs could tell the difference between a kid and an adult – even though he was that close to being an adult. Still, things between my husband and her were not comfortable enough to proceed.
So, we kept visiting. In the meantime, I still worked with her an additional one or two times a week, and our bond continued to grow. We brought our dog Twinkle for a meet and greet, and everything went well.
We finally made the decision to just bring her home. Things were still not easy around my husband, but he has patience, and was willing to work with her. And, then……she was diagnosed with ringworm. Ringworm is a fungal infection, similar to athletes’ foot that is present in the soil. It tends to affect dogs who are under stress, and our multiple visits had caused stress. She was put into quarantine to keep her from infecting other dogs in the kennel.
Time passed, and she started to improve. She still wasn’t out of quarantine yet, however, and wouldn’t be for another few weeks. But I didn’t want all of our gains to disappear with time, so I asked if I could adopt her and take her home anyway. I was willing to give my other dog the baths necessary to prevent transmission and to continue Akira’s treatment as long as necessary. The answer was “yes”.
That shelter always delivered their adopted dogs to their forever home, and this was no different. Still, the counselor, because of the ringworm, showed up wearing a white Tyvek suit. We still tease her about being dressed like a “Stay Puff marshmallow”. We walked the fence line to see if there were any issues, and talked about adjustment. Then, Akira was ours.
THAT NAME HAS GOT TO GO
Neither my husband nor I liked the name Akira. So, we made the decision to change it. Not knowing anything about how a dog learned a new name, we just did it, and starting calling her the new name. Didn’t take more than a couple weeks before she was consistently responding to it. Her new name – Wilma.
THE GRANDFATHER CLOCK – A HAVEN FOR A SCARED DOG
This became Wilma’s daytime home over the next few days. She discovered the ticking clock, curled up right against it, and only moved when I put a leash on her to take her out to potty. For the first 24 hours, she would only drink, not eat. I left her hang by the clock but made sure she was part of the household and didn’t try to make our normal household noises any quieter.
On the second night, I found an old blanket, put it next to my side of the bed, and brought her back to the bedroom to sleep. Because her immediate response was to go back to the clock, I had to shut the door to keep her confined. For a little while that night, I heard her pacing around, but, soon, she settled and slept. This became her new “safe spot”.
Although she’d gotten quite a bit braver on her walks at the shelter, walks at home were another matter. We live in the woods and there are all sorts of animal smells. We’ve been hosts to foxes, bears, and opossums. And, snakes….. She would only walk about 500 yards directly in front of the house, then she’d grab her leash again. Getting her in the car would be impossible for the time being, so I settled for taking her on her tiny walk several times a day. As she grew a bit braver, we extended the walk, and were soon able to go up and down the street.
THINGS THAT CHANGE
One thing she never handled well was change. And it didn’t have to be a big change. Just moving a chair, or leaving a lawn tool on the deck or in the yard, had her backing up suspiciously. Although this took a while to solve, I found the answer by accident. If I sat down, put one hand on the offending object, and the other on Wilma, she would associate the object with me. Then she could move past her fear, slowly, and take a sniff. I can’t even count how many objects we went through that exercise for.
CHRISTMAS – AN ORDEAL FOR A SCARED DOG
Christmas was quite an eye-opener. We use an artificial tree and I thought nothing of putting it up as in other years. But the site of a “tree” in the living room made Wilma determined not to enter. For the rest of the season, she would skirt the tree, eyeing it with dread. She’s now come to terms with a tree in the living room – but it was quite the challenge at first.
On Christmas Day, after the gifts were opened, I gathered the dogs to take them for a walk. I had gotten my husband a high-powered flashlight as a gift, and he was sitting on the sofa playing with it. When the light hit the ceiling, Wilma hit the floor. The flashlight phobia probably outlasted anything other than her fear of men, although she now tolerates it.
THE OTHER DOG
Meantime, our other dog just watched the show. Twinkle was the sort of laid-back dog you think is mythological. Until you met her. She was a 25-pound Cairn terrier mix. A no-drama dog who didn’t put up with a lot of nonsense, she was a perfect companion for our skittish girl. Nothing fazed Twinkle, and I think her serenity rubbed off a bit on Wilma. Still, she stayed out of the way, and continued to sleep in our son’s room at night.
DEALING WITH “THE MAN”
Despite her advances in other areas, my husband was still not someone she would accept. He works from home, and would often visit her curled up on her blanket in the bedroom and give her treats. She’d take them, but move away if he tried to pet her. So, while I worked, it was treats, when I came home it was short walks and attempts to bring her more into family life.
OUR SCARED GIRL DISCOVERS THE SOFA
When my husband was out, Wilma would now come into the living room. And, then, like the meme says, she noticed we had a sofa. The first time she got up next to me (no, I don’t mind dogs on the furniture), she settled down for a moment, then the front door opened. She barked! That was the absolute first time she’d barked since being out of the shelter. Then she, of course, got off the sofa and back to the shelter of her blanket. Later, she would only sit there if I was between her and my husband.
THE FIRST REAL BREAKTHROUGH
We adopted our scared dog in October. In May we take a regular vacation, and had to take both girls to the kennel for the week. When we returned, we emptied the car and I took off alone to pick up the dogs. Twinkle was her normal self – happy to see me, but used to taking whatever life threw at her. Wilma was another matter, almost knocking me down in an effort to get out of the kennel and into the car.
The experience was so emotional for her, that, then and there, she decided my husband was her best friend. At home, she charged towards him, tail wagging, and smiling from ear to ear. Success, at last! They’ve been buddies ever since, and I would actually call her his dog at this point.
She was still shy of strangers, however, so much so that people would come over to my house, spend the day, and not realize I had two dogs. The blanket in the bedroom was her haven and there she would stay. This has not entirely disappeared, even today, but the abrupt change there was for an unhappy reason.
One day I got a panicked call from my husband – Wilma had had a seizure, and when he tried to approach her, she snapped at him. (He was unsure at the time whether it was a seizure or she was choking, which is why he tried to help.)
I met them at the vet’s office, and no definitive diagnosis was made. She’s been on anti-seizure medication ever since (about three years now). Nevertheless, out of this health issue, her fear of strangers finally abated. She’s still cautious of men, but no longer terrified. And with women, she’s the most outgoing dog you’d want to meet. I have always suspected that the seizure was so frightening to her, that, once she realized we were taking care of her, all other fears subsided. Of course, I may be anthropomorphizing a bit, but that’s my theory and I’m sticking to it.
Her health is declining, which I hate to see, but her life is so much fuller now that she’s no longer a scared dog. I can’t remember the last time she jumped up to grab the leash, or stayed hidden in the bedroom when we had visitors. It will break my heart when she goes – but I know she has a good life free from her terror.
I’ve told this long story for a reason. Thank you for sticking with it to the end. This is what I want my readers to take away from this:
- Take time before you adopt to meet all sorts of different dogs. Shelter dogs rarely come perfect right out of the box. It’s so rewarding to help a frightened animal become all the “dog she can be”.
- Patience is the key. When I first started working with Wilma, there were times I got frustrated because of our slow progress. I learned to put away the leash, and leave her alone. Forcing an issue only made her more frightened, not less.
- Try many different methods until you find one that works. You always want to use positive training methods, but don’t be afraid to experiment a little.
- If you find helping your scared dog to adjust to be more than you can handle, look for a trainer. Be aware that you must be willing to attend all training sessions. It will do you and your dog no good if she is trained to respond to the trainer and not to you. A good 50% of dog training is teaching the owner how to respond to their pet.
- Have fun. It’s such a proud moment when you can see that your pet has turned a corner. Don’t expect an overnight transformation – celebrate every advance with a treat and some justifiable pride for both of you.
- Love your dog. Dogs can tell if affection is real, and they respond much better to someone they love and trust. Remember, at the beginning, you are all she trusts. Let her take her time to discovering that the rest of the world isn’t so horrible.
- There is a difference between being a frightened dog, and a dog with general anxiety. If you think your dog falls in the anxious category, speak with your veterinarian. There are many medications that can help with canine anxiety – just a matter of testing things out and finding the right one.
If you’ve adopted one of the more challenging dogs in a shelter – thank you! These pups tend to stay in rescue longer, or, unfortunately, end up euthanized when the shelter runs out of space. Scared dogs can turn into wonderful family pets given time and the all-important feeling of security that a loving owner can provide. Enjoy the journey.