Dogs who are afraid of people

scared dog in cornerHow do you start with a dog that cannot even be comfortably approached? Create a situation in which the dog needs to be handled as little as possible and has a place where it can feel safe, a crate for example. Take social pressure off the dog by not looking at or talking to her. Make every approach count for something good.

Since each dog is unique and the challenges owners face will vary, defining a ‘seriously damaged dog’ is difficult. My own definition is based on my experience working with Sunny, a dog that I would call ‘seriously damaged’. But I would say that any dog that is either incapacitated or wildly aggressive in the presence of its triggers is ‘seriously damaged’. Even this is a somewhat open ended description since it does not take into account the dog’s threshold or tolerance to its triggers. From a practical point of view a dog that cannot deal with people at close range is seriously damaged. This is a dog that needs special treatment and training and realistically few owners or shelters are able or willing to provide more than the basic care it will need.

Most training books and advice on how to deal with scared dogs do not take into account the ‘seriously damaged dog’. I was fortunate to have an exceptional trainer of fearful dogs visit and when I asked about resources available to me to help me learn more about working with Sunny she replied, “There are no books about how to work with your dog.” While there is useful information to help supplement your knowledge of animal behavior and cognition, most don’t start at the beginning for the person trying to figure out how to work with a ‘seriously damaged dog’. It’s like getting a computer manual that begins by saying, ‘turn on the computer’ but has not shown you where the on switch is. You are left feeling frustrated since you are not sure how to even get started.

I will try, at the very least, to provide a finger pointing in the direction of the ‘on’ switch for you and your dog. Keep in mind that few people have the time or resources to devote to the needs of a dog that fits this description. Shelters should be diligent in their assessment of potential owners who are moved to ‘save’ the dog that hasn’t left the back of its kennel since it arrived. Love and care are important but they will not be enough to change the behavior of a dog that has lived with and practiced its fearful behavior for months or years.

At the time of this writing Sunny has lived with my husband and I for 18 months. While my husband can pet and hand feed him, Sunny is still afraid of him and will not approach him on his own and will flee the room if my husband comes in (He probably shouldn’t even be petting the dog but it’s hard to live with an animal and not want to engage in what should be a welcome and pleasant experience. To the man’s credit he tries to give the dog some cheese wiz at the same time.). Outside Sunny will become aroused and bark at him, as though he were a stranger. I continue to instruct people not to look at or talk to him, and it goes without saying that they should not try to touch him. A couple of familiar friends have tried to sneak in a pet while Sunny took a treat from them but he quickly retreats. Even taking a treat from someone besides me is a huge milestone for him and I can count the number of people he can do that with on one hand. But on the other hand Sunny joins me and my other dogs for off leash walks in the woods, chases (and likes to steal) frisbees and balls, and jumps on the bed with me when no one else is around. I’ve accepted his current limitations and am committed to working with him for life.

So how do you start with a dog that cannot even be comfortably approached? Create a situation in which the dog needs to be handled as little as possible and has a place where it can feel safe, a crate for example. Take social pressure off the dog by not looking at or talking to her. Make every approach count for something good. This usually means that high value food treats, and even the dog’s meal is tossed or handed to him whenever a human approaches. It might be days or weeks (or longer) before the dog begins to associate the approach of a human with something positive. Look for the signs that this is happening and then slowly introduce a greeting or eye contact to the interaction. Go at the dog’s pace and be prepared to go back to a previous step if something you’ve tried overwhelms the dog.

Sometimes there’s no choice but to handle the dog. Sunny would defecate when moved from one room to another, taken outside or into the car. He would usually be too frightened to eat treats, though I’d offer them. In retrospect I wish I had gotten him on meds sooner and waited a bit longer before even trying to get him outside. Live and learn. I also held (and still do) the belief that the sooner I could get Sunny moving like a ‘normal’ dog, the sooner he’d become one. To a certain degree I think this is true. The trick is finding the balance between allowing your dog the time it needs to become more comfortable and pushing it to try new things. But whatever you choose to do will be based on the initial foundation you create with your dog. Like other ‘foundations’ the more solid and meticulously it is built, the sturdier it will be.

Don’t rush the dog. Consider medications. If you feel overwhelmed by the dog’s inability to deal with you, take a break and lower your expectations. Check out this page when you’re feeling frustrated.