Living with a severely fearful dog is not easy.
It’s emotionally draining to look at this dog that you love so much and wonder, day after day, why he’s cursed to live in terror of the entire world. It’s easy to feel guilty that you’re not doing enough to help, or that you must be doing something wrong if your dog isn’t “fixed” yet. It’s embarrassing and frustrating when your dog reacts in public, and it’s humiliating when strangers wonder aloud what horrible thing you must have done to “make” your dog so frightened. It can be a huge financial drain to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on trainers and behaviorists and calming aids.
In short, it sucks.
I know. I’ve been there. I remember the years of despair when I never thought Pongu would be able to walk down the street comfortably, let alone function in a training center, let alone learn anything, let alone compete. Or win.
I was wrong, of course. Eventually he did it, and he continues to amaze me with his progress. He isn’t “fixed,” but he’s better. We can do things today that I never dreamed would be possible for Pongu. But it wasn’t quick getting there, and it wasn’t easy, and a million times along the way I thought I’d completely lose my mind.
Where we are today — after four years of slow and steady work.
Today I want to talk about some of the coping strategies I used to keep myself going through those dark years of despondency. I’m not going to talk about what I did to push Pongu along (except incidentally). This post is about how you motivate the other end of the leash.
Because that’s important too. You have to keep faith. You have to hold hope. If you give up, your dog has no chance at all.
So here’s how I did it.
1. Remember the Good
There will be moments of joy amid the sorrows and frustrations. Pick them out. Take pictures of your dog being happy. Make videos of your dog succeeding (see #3 below). Record your good times on a blog, post them on Facebook, share them with a support group (see #4).
Recognize those happy moments, cherish them, and preserve them for the future, so that you can look back on them when you really, really need a reminder that your dog can be successful, that you have done some things right, and that it’s not all bad.
Think of this as like making jam for the winter. Your moments of happiness are like summer fruit: glorious, magical, and perishable. You have to save them, or else you won’t have anything to get you through the cold dark nights when it seems like nothing is ever going to be warm again. The good times will come back, if you can get through the tough stretch… but sometimes you need to draw on those stockpiled reservoirs of happiness to push yourself through. Make sure you have lots of them.
2. Record Your Progress
Keep a training journal. Record what you’re doing by way of training and behavioral rehab, where your dog is in her progress, and what your results have been. You can do this as a blog, on paper in a notebook, whatever works. Format is unimportant.
There are at least three major reasons why this matters: (1) it will serve as a tangible reminder that you are making progress over the long term, even if it doesn’t always feel like that day-to-day; (2) it keeps you honest and accountable about how much work you’re really putting in; and (3) it gives you concrete goals to aim for, work towards, and check off as accomplished.
It helps a lot to give yourself small, clearly delineated goals like “in three weeks, I want my dog to be able to walk past a coffeeshop sidewalk sign within 10 feet without freaking out,” as opposed to big ill-defined amorphous goals like “I want my dog to stop being afraid.” You can accomplish the first one. Make a plan, stick to it, work on it every day, and you’ll get there. And then you’ll be proud and happy, because you achieved a concrete benchmark in helping your dog cope with the world (and you can record this for use as encouragement if you need it later).
You can’t achieve the huge amorphous ill-defined goals. As soon as you get close to them, they slide away again, because they don’t have any hard-and-fast benchmarks anchoring them to the ground. They’re just mirages, and chasing them will lead you straight into the swamps of despair. Don’t fall for it. Set real goals, and journal them.
3. Train with Joy
Learn how to clicker train, get good at it, and do it all the time with your fearful dog. If your dog is afraid of a clicker (as Pongu was at first — he’d spit out treats and flee the room in terror when he heard the click, even when I used a relatively quiet clicker and stuffed it inside a balled-up sock to further muffle the noise), use a marker word like “yes!” instead.
Train tricks. Train fun things. Train just eye contact, or small head movements in your direction, or staying in the same room as you and the clicker, if that’s where your dog needs to begin. Don’t train for competition, at least not at first — it’s too easy to put excessive pressure on your dog, even if you don’t mean to, and it’s also way too easy to get discouraged when your scaredy dog has trouble performing like all the awesome purpose-bred dogs with Seriously Serious handlers that you might see in those venues.
For now, the goal is to establish a history of joy in training, so just put all that competition stuff on the shelf when you’re working rehab. Maybe you’ll get to it later (in which case all the trick training will be super useful as foundational background, trust me; Pongu learned how to do a sequence of six weaves in five days with zero prior exposure, because he had a very very strong background in clicker shaping by the time we got around to dabbling in agility), maybe you won’t. For now it doesn’t matter, so don’t worry about it.
What you should be doing is teaching your dog that learning is fun, that you are fun, and that you will help him find ways to interact with potentially scary things in a secure, controlled, structured way that makes him feel safe and confident.
I taught Pongu to hunt for Easter eggs because the eggs made a slight clattering noise when he dropped them in the basket. That noise scared him at first, but the game was so much fun that he eventually decided it was worth it. Then I hid the eggs inside cardboard boxes and under toys and around things that moved, raising the difficulty very gradually and very slowly so that he could interact with the obstacles at his own pace, depending on his own comfort level, always with Pongu controlling the decision of whether or not it was worth approaching Obstacle X to get his egg. If it was too hard and he chose not to do it, no big deal — it wasn’t like I needed him to fetch eggs for anything. But if he did choose to do it, then I made sure that he knew he was the Very Most Wonderful Dog in the World and extremely brave and I was very, very happy with him.
And at the end of the trick, I had a video that I could record and keep for myself as an encouraging reminder of success and happiness. Because trick training isn’t just for the dog. It’s for you, too.
4. Find Support
You will need friends on this journey. You’ll need the support of people who have been there and know exactly what you’re enduring.
Joy shared is amplified. Grief shared is diluted. If you try to hold everything within yourself, you’ll burn out so much faster, and that’s no good for you or your dog. But if you can find friends who are willing to listen in your moments of need, and celebrate your successes with you, and share their own successes when you might not have any of your own to give you heart, you’ll have strength when you need it most.
There are several good online resources for support groups: the Shy K9s Yahoo list, the Fearful Dogs group on Facebook, and others.
There may also be real-world options, depending on your area. If you’re active in a local training club, or working with a well-established local trainer who has a broad client list, ask around: there may be established groups and classes for owners of fearful dogs, or you might be able to put together a list of contacts who’d be interested in joining one if you started it yourself.
If you can, try to establish contacts in both worlds. You’ll need them: both the worldwide reach and 24/7 access of online support groups when you find yourself up at 2 am wondering why in god’s name your dog is screaming at radioactive spider ghosts, and the close, tangible comfort of real-life friends who have met your dog and know you in the real world and can get together to commiserate or celebrate over coffee or cocktails.
5. Be Patient
…with your dog, of course, but also with yourself.
You’re going to make mistakes. Everybody does. I still do, constantly, and at this point in the game I’m ostensibly supposed to have a vague idea what I’m doing (ha!).
Don’t beat yourself up about it. A certain amount of self-doubt is healthy and commendable, but don’t let yourself get too mired in regret. Learn what you can when things go wrong, ask your dog for forgiveness, and move on.
Be patient, too, in understanding that rehabilitating a seriously fearful dog is a long, slow, gradual process. It is hard. It is a journey of months and years, not days or weeks. This is normal.
For a very long time, I wondered what I was doing wrong for Pongu to need so much time to function in the world. I looked for magic bullets that would take out his terrors in one shot. I would read glowing testimonials from people who said that shock collars and prongs magically cured their dogs overnight, and I thought “that doesn’t seem right, but maybe I’m missing something?”
I was, but it wasn’t what I thought. Here’s what I was missing: that a lot of people have different definitions of “fearful dog” than I do, and that a lot of people have different definitions of “cured.” The words we were using didn’t mean the same things. When I dug deeper, mostly what I found was that their dogs weren’t anywhere near as severe as Pongu was (not even in the same galaxy, sometimes), and that what they considered a “cured” dog was not at all what I wanted my dog to be, or what I wanted from our life together.
It turned out that I wasn’t making any (big) mistakes. I wasn’t going down the wrong road. I didn’t know this for sure at the time — I had to just keep going, mostly on blind faith, following my own moral compass and the guidance of mentors whose values and judgment I trusted — but it turned out to be true: there wasn’t anything wrong with what I was doing. It’s just that it takes a really long time, even if you’re doing everything right.
Promises of instant transformations are not only false, but harmful on multiple levels: first, because they often induce well-meaning people to do things that are really not helpful and may be awful to their dogs; second, because they cause people to doubt themselves unnecessarily during a process that’s already difficult and emotionally fraught. Switching course midstream can be terribly detrimental to your dog’s confidence. If you’re seeing signs of progress (even small ones! even slow ones!), then you’re on the right track. If you aren’t seeing a miracle transformation overnight, it doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong. It just means that you have a dog who needs more time.
There is no magic bullet. There is no quick fix. If there’s one thing I want people to take from this post, it’s that you have to be patient. With yourself, with your dog.
In truth, the journey never ends. If you have a severely fearful dog, this struggle will go on for your dog’s entire life.
But it can get easier. It can get happier, and brighter, and filled with more sunlight than stormclouds.
You can get to a place where you win.