trying to help my fearful dog

arlosmomFebruary 25, 2011

Hi all. I'm looking for any helpful suggestions I can get to help my pup. We adopted Calley as a 12 week old puppy from a local rescue group back in September. She came to the rescue group with two siblings, so my assumption was she'd been in a home situation for most of her life. In general, she's a happy, reasonably well-behaved, frequently confident girl. Inside, she's a great dog. Outside, she's great except that she gets terribly frightened. She's now about 9 months old.

Things scare her and she locks up and won't walk at all. The first couple of weeks she was scared of trains, open spaces like fields and parking lots, and loud noises. We coaxed her with food and went through two sets of clicker-training classes. We found a gradual but noticeable improvement. She's generally getting better, but there is always the stray thing that spooks her.

Two weeks ago we had a random warm spring day. Kids were out with skateboards. This is the second time she's come across skateboards, and they frighten her like nothing I've seen. The first time, my husband had to carry her home two blocks. The second time was two weeks ago. For five days after, we weren't able to get her to go on any walks. We could usually get her into the yard far enough to do her business, but one day we even had to carry her out to the yard to do that. It was either carry her or drag her. On a good day, I could get her from the front door to the car so we could go to the dog park.

She loves the dog park. She has her favorite friends and they play and roughhouse and run. She's pretty much always confident at the dog park. So we decided that maybe the best thing for her was a second dog. This past weekend we adopted Ringo from the same rescue group. He's 2 years old, laid-back and a pretty self-assured guy. She instantly loved him and she's even gone on 4 or 5 good walks since we got him (out of a dozen attempts). She seems calmer and happier. But we also haven't come across and more skateboards or razor scooters or la crosse practicers. Spring is just around the corner, and we live in a neighborhood with lots of kids. We have skateboarders on both sides of us.

What else can I do to get her over her fears? Is there any danger of him adopting her fears rather than helping her get over them? Ringo the "therapy dog" definitely seems to be helping, but I know he isn't a miracle cure. Any suggestions on how best to make this work?



Calley & Ringo together:

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Getting the second dog is the first best step. Hopefully the new dog has more confidence.

You and Ringo will need to work together. First, forget any sympathy for Callie. What happened in the past is gone---with you she will not have any of those worries.

It would be nice if you could introduce her gradually to the kids. Sit on the porch as they skate board, for instance. If the kids go along with her rehabilitation by doing what she needs, that would be wonderful. Taking her out in the middle of the kids the first nice day is not a good idea.

Ignore the behavior you do not want/like. Do NOT feel sorry for her when she 'locks up'. Just stop until what caused the problem is past. Pay attention to Ringo, if he is acting normally. Callie will see that and sooner or later start responding. No praise, no special attention, just include her in what is happening with Ringo.

You will need to learn dog body language. She is telling you her mood and feelings with ears, tail, and posture. What you need to recognize is the subtle changes that signal a shift in mood.

When she locks up, wait until she raises her head. That is the first step in getting her out of that mood. Second will be ears perking up. Those two might be interchangeable. That is signaling the situation has become better for her. But, do not say anything to her. All this takes time. Might be 5 minutes, might be more. Spending the time now, shortens the next time.

She may be a timid dog, so do not expect a complete change. I have one similar to Callie. Three years now and she still sometimes experiences problems. But, not for long, and nothing like when she first came home.

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 5:54PM
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I have no advice, but wanted to say that those are two beautiful dogs! And thank you for adopting a rescue!

    Bookmark   February 25, 2011 at 9:14PM
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murraysmom Zone 6 OH

I agree, those are two beautiful dogs and handymac's advice is excellent. He knows his dogs!!!

I have a similar problem with my 10 month old puppy. She is afraid of a big dog that barks at her when we walk. My other dog likes this big dog and walks right up to him. Fortunately the big dog's owner is sensitive to this situation and we are working on both dogs. My little dog just stops and won't move, so we wait and we wait. The big dog's owner gets her dog to stop barking and then we have some progress.

It's not easy, but it seems yours is not a huge problem since Calley already likes the dog park and her new brother. It will take time, but I think if you follow handymac's advice, you should see great improvement.

Good luck.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 8:52AM
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It's only been a week, but I do think that Calley is a little more confident when Ringo is around. They're bonding well and even curl up together sometimes (too sweet). I think Ringo was a real good choice. He's cautious, yet consistently self-assured. He and I had a wonderful 3 mile walk yesterday after Calley locked up and went home. He's an overall great dog.

Handymac, excellent advise, thanks. I know enough that I don't comfort Calley when she's scared, but I'm probably not patient enough when she locks up. Sometimes I try to wait it out, but what she usually does is pull away and try to back out of her harness. She got out of it a couple of times when she was younger (different harness than we now have). If we turn around and head toward home, she pulls like a sled dog. Great advice about sitting on the porch. We have a big front porch, and I'll see if we can rig some kind of gate across the front so we can just hang out and get used to the noises from the street. I'm watching her carefully to try to learn her body language better.

Would it be a good idea to bring treats on our walks and work on Ringo's training while she's panicked? He's got some room for improvement on basic commands that she knows well. Maybe a training session would distract her and give her something else to focus on. They're both pretty food driven.

Murraysmom, thanks for sharing. It does make it better to know that my dog isn't the only one with these fears. I know that she'll improve with time, patience, and a little worldly maturity.

Weed, rescue dogs are the only way to go for me. I like the uniqueness that comes with having a mutt. And there are so many WONDERFUL dogs out there that deserve homes, especially these days. Our Ringo is a recent victim of the recession. I'm really glad we found him, but I'm sure his original owner is heartbroken. He's a special little guy.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 10:58AM
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spedigrees z4VT

I agree you have two great dogs and getting Ringo was a good idea to give Calley some confidence. I'm glad they like each other. The clicker classes were a good idea too.

Perhaps you could buy a skateboard and just make it an ordinary household item without making any attempt to introduce either dog to it. Just set it down on the kitchen floor or a bare wood floor and leave it there for a couple days. Let the dogs investigate it at their own pace. After a few days you might casually give it a shove across the floor (not near the dogs) every so often, so that Calley might come to accept the skateboard. I don't know if this would work but it might be worth a try. If Calley lives with a skateboard in the house where she feels safe, she might lose her fear of skateboards.

    Bookmark   February 26, 2011 at 2:24PM
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Sounds like you are handling everything but the lock up well.

That will be the really difficult part to fix. Everytime you let her go home after a lock up, you are telling her that is what you want, since that brings her comfort.

Two things you might try, since the aftermath of the lock up is so bad/long. The harness is not the best tool for control. Taking one of her favorite toys/treats might help. When she locks/panics, show the toy/treat. The idea is to get her attention just enough she is distracted from the panic.

Another tact is to learn the warning signs of an episode and distract her before she panics. Turn her away from whatever triggers her panic and distract her to the toy/treat.

When training dogs, preventing bad behavior is much more preferrable to fixing bad behavior. The prevention tells a dog how you want them to act.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2011 at 1:16AM
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Call Cesar Milan, the Dog Whisperer!!! LOL!!! I have watched his show and how he deals with timid dogs. He introduces them to their "fear" and helps them work through it. I think one of the things that struck me about what he said about dogs is, dogs live in the moment and can always be rehabilitated. Like another poster said, you have to watch for the dogs' body language to help them through their fear.
Good Luck!

    Bookmark   February 28, 2011 at 10:54AM
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Very sweet dogs! My female rescue, Lily, is still fearful (after being with me for 5 years) of crackling grocery bags, or things that sound like that ... I now basically ignore it and just move on to the next thing I need to do. She's gotten much better, but still reacts tot eh sound.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2011 at 12:57PM
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twotogo, funny that you mention the dog whisperer. I'm a big fan. He's the reason it occurred to me that a second dog would help (Ringo is her pack).

I've ben trying to watch Calley's body language and haven't really figured anything out yet. Most of the time recently when she locks up, there is no one around, no vehicles, no movement, nothing. That makes it hard to be proactive or divert her attention. We'll get four steps from the front door, not even halfway to the sidewalk, and she just freezes and tries to pull backward. It happens in a second without any warning that I can discern.

spedigrees, interesting suggestion about buying a skateboard. A friend has a razor scooter that I could borrow. I wonder if that's a close enough substitution to help. I guess it's worth a try.

handymac, when she balks and won't walk, if I took her to the front porch and just sat outside with her until she calmed without letting her inside, do you think that would help? I understand what you are saying about letting her inside being a comfort/reward that I should avoid.

Yesterday I took a bag of treats and worked on Ringo's sits and downs when she froze up. I got her to move a few steps forward 3 or 4 times by offering her a treat after he got his. We still didn't get very far, but it was progress.

Thanks for the suggestions and support. I keep you posted, and if you think of other suggestions, I'm happy to hear them.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2011 at 1:40PM
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spedigrees z4VT

It just occurred to me, perhaps Calley's "lock-ups" might be very mild seizures. My collie had mild seizure activity when he was younger, which thankfully never worsened and eventually stopped altogether. His seizures were typically short episodes of shaking and fearfulness, no other symptoms. I'm just wondering because you said that sometimes Calley locks up for no apparent reason.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2011 at 2:10PM
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Valerian extract, in her food. Dosage is 100-500 milligrams per kilogram of dog. (if you get an extract that contains 1,000 mg /ml, it's easy to calculate dosages)

It is an anti-anxiety drug, similar in action to Prozac.

    Bookmark   February 28, 2011 at 6:17PM
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I thought I'd give an update on Calley's progress, in case anyone is interested. She's gotten steadily better, going on more and more frequent walks, most times with no problems at all. Occasionally, she'll still balk a little, but we tug/drag her for a few steps and she unlocks and starts walking again. She's very bonded to Ringo and seems to get enormous confidence from having him next to her. Over the weekend, we even passed two skateboarders. She froze for a second, then relaxed and started walking again. YAY!!!! Thanks for your support on this. It's helpful to hear suggestions and comforting to know that I'm not the only one with dog issues.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2011 at 7:32PM
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That's great news! Thanks for letting us know.

Getting another dog was the best thing I did as well - since my Layla would balk at most flooring changes. She would not cross the line between carpet and tile, especially into a kitchen or bathroom. Once she saw Bo would run in and out wherever he wanted with no problem, she lost a lot of her fear. But still, if I have her alone, she'll start to lock up just a bit or refuse to come into the kitchen. Now it's more like "I'd rather not" instead of a huge response. She'll probably always have that quirk, but it's manageable.

    Bookmark   April 3, 2011 at 9:31PM
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You have made real progress that will last.

Great to hear about the passing the kids with very little problem. That shows what you are doing is correcting the fear!

    Bookmark   April 4, 2011 at 10:24AM
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spedigrees z4VT

I'm so happy to hear that things are going so well! It seems that getting a second dog was the best thing you could have done.

Looking back I see that my sheltie puppy really leaned on her collie companion for security during the "fear stage" of her adolescence long ago. Now sadly both my collie and sheltie have passed, and I am getting both another sheltie puppy as well as middleaged rescue to give my new pup confidence. I think that dogs really do best in a pack and I love watching them interact.

You sound like a great dog owner who has solved a frustrating problem, to the benefit of both your dogs.

    Bookmark   April 5, 2011 at 8:05PM
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