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By Published On: April 2nd, 2009

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.

30-SEC VIDEO of LILLY & KATIE[youtube=]

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

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