It’s one thing for someone like me to say how rewarding and fulfilling it is to care for a fearful dog. It’s another thing to actually live with a dog that can’t interact with you or members of your family, a dog that can’t go for walks outside, that races for cover at the drop of a hat (or pen or cup), a dog that makes you feel sad just to look at it. While it is possible to help a scared dog learn to feel better in its world, no one can tell you how much better or how long it will take.
When Sunny came to live with me he was debilitated by his fear. He could not move out of a corner and defecated if handled or moved. I kept trying to get reassurance that he would ‘come around’. Some folks gave it to me, others did not. I contacted people I read about online who trained dogs or had a scared dog, hoping for some tidbit of information that would crack the code to Sunny’s fear. I had timelines in my head to gauge his success, this person’s dog took two weeks, another two years, another never. As each ‘deadline’ came and went I still had a fearful dog.
Each of us has different skills, lifestyles and expectations for what we want from a pet. If you have found yourself with a seriously fearful dog you do have options. If you got your dog from a breeder you can return it. The breeder should be aware of the type of puppies s/he is producing, and there may be a more appropriate home for that pup. It is harder to think about returning a fearful dog to a shelter or rescue because we know that the options available to them are limited, and we often feel that we may be their best chance of a good life. Shelters and rescue groups need to be better at assessing their dogs so that adopters are not faced with this dilemma. It’s not fair and it puts people off of ever wanting to get a rescue dog again. But if you have rescued a dog you can return it and provide the rescue group with important information about the dog. Perhaps the dog is terrified of kids or traffic. The shelter may be able to place the dog in a home where it does not have to face these things on a daily basis.
No one wants to euthanize a dog but it is worth thinking long and hard about what kind of life a scared dog is going to lead if it winds up in a no-kill shelter or on the end of a chain in someone’s backyard. I have given a trusted member of my family explicit plans for my dogs should something happen to me. In Sunny’s case the plan does include euthanasia if my first choices for him are not available. I hate to even think about it, but far worse is thinking what it would be like for him if he were to end up at a shelter. It is not that I believe that I am the only person on the planet that he could be happy with, or that someone else wouldn’t have the skills to work with him. There are just not enough homes for all the easier-to-have dogs in shelters today, nevermind trying to find a home for a dog that would hide all day. And I adore him just too much to put him through the horror of ending up in a home with well-meaning people who do not understand the depth and quality of his fearfulness.
If you decide that you are going to keep your scared dog it’s not essential that you commit your life to its rehabilitation. It is possible to provide a dog with a good life without having to devote your retirement funds and every spare minute to it. If your dog is happiest outside than you can create a space where it gets to spend as much time there as possible. Or if your dog seems most comfortable inside there is no rule that says it has to go to dog parks or on long walks. You don’t have to keep trying to change how your dog feels about things if you can limit its exposure to them. If you understand the basic concepts of counter conditioning and desensitization, triggers and thresholds you can handle your dog in a way that will not make its fears worse.
Life with a scared dog is not always easy and may require more time, energy and patience than you have. It does not make you a bad person or bad pet owner. There are plenty of dogs out there that need a home and would happily jump in your car, snuggle up on the couch with you and mug all your friends for treats and scratches. Any dog requires effort and expense of course, but if you’re dealing with a fearful dog you’ve discovered the difference in what they require of us compared to a dog that is not extremely fearful. I am not encouraging anyone to get rid of their fearful dog, but I certainly understand why you might.
If you have decided to keep your fearful dog and want to learn more about how you can work with it I created the www.fearfuldogs.com website to provide ideas and links to resources to help you.