A Matter of Trust

New sights. New smells. New sounds. New people. New dogs. Same old fears.

She put on the breaks and outright refused to move any closer to the poop disposal can. No amount of coaxing or leash pressure would uproot her from that spot.

Every time we pass a person in the hallway, she bolts to the end of her leash trying to escape.

At the vet’s office, she climbs into my lap and shakes uncontrollably.

When a storm comes through, she paces the house non-stop with her eyes wide and unfocused. She pants heavily the entire time.

She lashes out at other dogs who get too close. It’s starting to get to the point where she’s barking and lunging when a dog is 10+ feet away.

It’s like I don’t even exist when we’re outside together. I’m just the anchor on the other end of the leash keeping her from going wherever she wants.

I knew from the get go that Risa was a shy, fearful dog. The shelter was honest with me about her issues. Back then, I thought I knew a lot about training dogs and figured I would have no trouble rehabilitating this scaredy mutt. I knew it would take some work and some time before she was a confident dog. I had faith in myself that I could do it. Unfortunately, I soon found out I was in way over my head, that I didn’t know half as much as I thought I did, and that Risa and I had a long road ahead of us.

My first thought after bringing Risa into my life was that I needed to socialize her. It was clear she had limited life experiences, little interaction with people, and a strong fear of new places. So, a week after I brought her home, I took her to Petsmart on a busy Saturday. My heart was in the right place. I wanted to show her that there was no reason to worry. I failed to realize that this dog had not had the time to build a relationship with me. She barely knew me. And I dropped her into the middle of one of her nightmares. It was too much activity. Too much new. She faced it all on her own and she was terrified.

It didn’t get much better after that. Due to my ignorance, I set us both up for failure time and time again. I let dogs rush up to her and greet her because I didn’t know what else to do. I permitted strangers to try and pet her even when she ran away from their hands. I continued to get frustrated with her when she bolted away from things that frightened her. There were numerous nights that I came home from somewhere with Risa and I broke down crying. I was at a loss. Everything I tried failed. I wanted her to be more confident and I wanted it now. I dreamed of ‘six months from now’ when I knew I could look back and see improvement. What I failed to realize at the time was that there is one thing you need to have to successfully rehabilitate a fearful dog: that dog’s trust.

Did you hear that?!

Trust is a tricky thing. You cannot teach trust. You cannot force a dog (or a person, for that matter) to trust you. Trust cannot be proven by words, especially to a non-verbal species. Trust must be demonstrated and proven. Trust must be earned.

So how does one go about earning a dog’s trust, especially when they’ve already proven to that dog that they cannot be relied upon?

One of the most important things is learning to listen. Dogs are communicating with us all the time through their body postures and positions. Once we understand their language, it’s so much more obvious what they’re feeling. We all want to be heard and our dogs are no different. When you listen to your dog and remove them from situations they deem scary, they learn to trust you. You have proven that you are listening to them and taking their opinions into consideration. To those of us who are used to more traditional methods, this seems insane. The dog should listen to us no matter what, right? But a fearful dog benefits from a handler who maintains open communication and takes their thoughts and feelings into consideration.

If you’re currently struggling with a fearful dog, you should brush up on your dog language skills. Books like On Talking Terms with Dogs: Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas, Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff, or Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook by Barbara Handelman would be great additions to your library.

Besides listening to your dog and learning what his/her thresholds for scary situations are, you should try and change how your dog feels about frightening encounters. For most dogs, this involves giving them super awesome treats when they’re faced with something scary. This is known as classical conditioning. If done correctly, your dog begins to associate something that formerly caused them fear with the promise of something great!

I have used and continue to use classical conditioning in working on Risa’s dog reactivity. When she sees another dog, I give her a yummy treat until that dog is out of sight. Seeing a dog becomes a predictor for something good instead of a reason to be afraid.

A busy location and dogs close by. . .yet Risa trusts me to keep her safe.

Of course, life happens while we’re training. I understand there are times when you cannot listen to your dog and remove them from a scary situation. Sometimes a dog will get too close and your dog will react. What you want to do is build up, over time, more pleasant experiences together. So, despite the occasional times when things go badly, your dog will still trust you to keep her safe.

I also like to encourage Risa to investigate and check things out. Curiosity is the opposite of fear. Should we come across something that startles Risa, I will stop and let her approach it. Initially, I had to do more coaxing and offer treats close to the scary object to get Risa to sniff it. I never pulled on her leash to get her closer to it; I always let her choose how close she wanted to get and how quickly she wanted to get there. If she seemed overly fearful, I would often crouch down next to it and coax her closer. These days, she loves to go over and sniff something novel in her environment. There are some things that still frighten her but she’s much more likely to check it out rather than just run away or keep her distance. She seems rather pleased with herself after finding out this new object was no big deal!

It is not an easy thing living with a fearful dog. Progress takes time. A lot of time. Though I dreamed of ‘six months from now’ when I first brought Risa home, we still had a lot more work to do even once we had reached that milestone. I have spent 4.5 years working with Risa to increase her confidence and help her be less fearful. Most of the time, she appears to be a normal dog and I’m very proud of that. However, she is still a fearful dog. It’s very possible she will always be afraid. I have accepted that and all the limitations associated with it. She’s never going to be the confident dog I originally wanted. But that doesn’t make her any less of a dog nor does it stop us from enjoying time together and competing in dog sports. 🙂

If you’re still struggling with your scaredy dog, I think the books Help for your Fearful Dog by Nicole Wilde and The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell are indispensable. The website Fearful Dogs is also an excellent reference.

About Jamie

I'm just a traditionally-trained artist with interests in dog training. I currently teach classes at the local obedience training club (tricks, freestyle, and Rally-FrEe) and I also teach classes professionally for an organization who helps veterans train their own service dogs.
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