While they may not be blind or deaf, dogs with extreme fear certainly have special needs. The biggest of those needs is patience. Yes, loving your terrified dog is important, but, paradoxically, the more you try to show your dog how much you love them, and how safe they are in your home, the worse the situation could become. What your dog really needs is space and patience to enable them to get comfortable in their own time.
That’s not to say that you do absolutely nothing. It just means that you let your dog set the pace.
A slow start
I met my dog Hazel when I started my second stint at TEARS. Her little came in from a foster home and I was warned that all three puppies were fearful. That didn’t even begin to describe them. As soon as I got near their enclosure, they tried to melt into each other and into the kennel wall.
So I stopped. I took some steps back until they oozed back into their original huddle, I sat down and I started telling them nursery rhymes. It took several days (and my entire repertoire of rhymes and fairy tales) before I could get to the gate and even more before I could go in.
Hazel’s brothers came out of their shells and were adopted relatively quickly, but Hazel was far more challenging. I started fostering her to get her out of the shelter environment. After that it was inevitable that I would adopt this terrified, virtually feral, unadoptable little girl.
A lesson in patience
She was at home for three days before she decided it was safe to sit near me; it took another three days before she initiated physical contact.
My husband was another matter entirely. She barked at him when he came home, when he left the room, when he entered the room, when he moved too quickly, when he did anything at all. Thankfully my husband is a patient man because she barked at him like this for four months. It was another three months before she initiated physical contact.
We danced with progress as I worked on the different aspects of her fear. Two steps forward – three steps back. Three steps forward – one step back. She bonded with me and she bonded strongly with one of my dogs, who also treated her with utmost patience. She played with Hazel gently and Hazel stuck to her like a magnet on walks. Hazel even decided that she wanted to go with her to training classes.
From keeping her distance and barking at anyone who even looked in her direction, Hazel now trains in the class with other dogs and people. It took about 18 months to reach that point. Since then, progress has been rapid. She takes treats from people; she can be close to other dogs. She does agility courses that include the A-frame and tunnels. She even works with her favourite person who always gives her treats.
Rewards you can’t imagine
Not once did we put any pressure on her. She did everything in her own time. And I’m so glad we did it that way because we got to know her quirky personality. We uncovered her brilliant sense of humour, and the delight she gets when she plays like a lunatic and makes me laugh.
Will she ever completely get over her fear?
But that’s ok because we can manage her environment so that she’s not blasted out of her comfort zone and into terror. We work slowly with new events and stimuli that make her anxious. Sometimes we progress and sometimes we just have to let it go and work around it. For instance, she doesn’t like undercover parking, so I just hunt for shade and shop like the Flash so that people don’t think I’ve left her in the car to overheat.
She’s a work in progress, but who isn’t?
I took on a challenge when I brought her home but she’s been a great teacher and has turned into the cutest little munchkin that ever was.
Sandy is a qualified dog trainer and behaviourist with a soft spot for special needs dogs.