Challenges of working with fearful dogs

scared dog shut downWithout a doubt, working with a scared dog can be overwhelming. There are times you may question your decision to keep and try to improve the life of your dog. It may be that you need to reassess that choice. Your lifestyle may not be a good match for the dog or the changes you would need to make to accommodate the dog’s needs are not ones that you are able to accomplish. The time and thought that goes into dealing with a fearful dog can intrude into other aspects of your life. Giving up or euthanizing a dog are options that are never off the table. We are all required to make difficult decisions in the lives of any of our dogs, from whether to perform certain medical procedures to choosing how our dog’s lives will come to an end. It’s a huge responsibility to shoulder, but we can only do what we can do. How much we’re able to push past our own limitations or the sacrifices we’re willing to make, are up to us.

Expecting a one year old to walk and speak in complete sentences isn’t realistic. Expecting a scared dog to behave like a stable dog isn’t realistic or fair.

This video shows a dog who despite living in the same home for over 5 years still shows wariness and concern when something new appears in his environment. This behavior was likely caused by Sunny’s lack of exposure to novelty when he was a young puppy. He can get used to new objects and changes in his environment, but at that point they cease to ‘novel’, and the next new object or change will elicit the same response.

Not only do these dogs require additional physical energy (leash walks, training sessions, general management issues) I would suggest that the psychic energy we put into these dogs can leave us exhausted as well. Not only am I required to manage my dog I also feel responsible to ‘manage’ the people he comes in contact with, including the person I live with. At times I have felt sad, depressed, angry, frustrated, amused and inept when dealing with my fearful dog. I have pitied, adored and cursed him. I have spent countless hours and sums of cash that I’d rather not know the total of.

It can feel like you have to be on your game every minute. The day you decide to introduce your dog to the kitchen is the day the pots slip from the draining rack and crash to the floor. A walk around the neighborhood turns into a nightmare when a car back fires or a pack of children on bikes and skate boards come blasting past. Or a great training opportunity presents itself and you forgot to put treats in your pocket.

Thinking of my dog in terms of his brain being damaged has helped me to keep perspective on his progress. I do not mean actual damage due to physical impact to the brain. I use the term ‘damaged’ to include the inadequacies in development due to lack of experience and socialization and also to the lottery of genetics. I would also include abuse in this category. How much a brain can repair and rebuild itself will be a mystery throughout your dog’s life. But it does happen, to whatever degree possible, and it takes a long time.

Expecting a one year old to walk and speak in complete sentences isn’t realistic. Expecting a scared dog to behave like a stable dog isn’t realisitic or fair. It doesn’t mean that we don’t have high expectations for what our dogs can achieve, but it does mean that the healing will follow its own course and you can be sure that at some point you’ll be faced with your own inadequacies as well as the dog’s.

When I have ‘hit the wall’ in regard to my patience and energy with Sunny I will take a break. I don’t worry about making sure I’m ‘doing the right thing’ every minute. I let him do whatever he seems most comfortable doing and leave it at that for the day (or more). I skip a training course. I log onto the shy-k9 message board and whine a bit. I call a trainer and schedule an appointment or just talk about techniques that might help us move forward. I read a training book or watch a video. I look for puppies to play with (and marvel at their boldness). I step back and see the positive changes that have occurred, minor as they may be. I choose to accept that the dog that I have is the dog that is living with me today, and in my case I wouldn’t trade him for the world.