By Kelly Grady
Like the opening pages of many a scary tale, mine started a little over a year ago when I replied to an ad on the internet, “Free Dog in need of a knowledgeable owner”. The dog turned out to be Scarlette a 9 month old malamute hybrid showing significant signs of fear. Armed with my experience working at My Dogs Mind, I was confident I would be able to work her through her behavior problems in a few months. Boy was I wrong.
One afternoon, a friend drove down to Boston to pick up Scarlette for me while I finished my day-school duties at the barn. When I arrived home at 6pm, there she was in the middle of my living room, stiff, tail-tucked, ears back, whale-eyed and cowering in the back corner of a crate. My Zombie. I have never seen a dog so frightened in my life.
As much as I wanted to show her affection I knew that the best thing for Zombie was to be left alone. Her first month was spent at home to provide her a place to feel safe. By month two, the sleepless nights were over and I introduced her to my other dog Nita. She was starting to feel at home.
Walk of the Living Dead
My next step was to slowly introduce the world of the living to her. I spent the following month trying to desensitize her by walking near strangers. Getting her out of the car was always a 20 minute process but we squeezed in an hour walk everyday after work. As the month came to a close, I brought her over to My Dogs Mind for an evaluation by Terence. After a few minutes of trying to coax her out of the car I asked him to to give me his honest opinion. He stopped, sat back about fifteen feet, and watched. Zombie crouched low to the ground, at the end of her leash, ears back, tail tucked, and eyes scanning for an escape. “Lifelong project,” was his response. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, but with a little faith and steak I was up for a challenge. I knew I could help her.
At this point I was starting to question if her tail was supposed to be set low to the ground as opposed to being held high and curled like a typical husky. I needed to know her body language so I could determine the effectiveness of our training. Zombie would not be learning or progressing if she was “shut down” from an excess of outside pressure and stimulation.
Dawn of the Dog
One day, I decided to switch our social walks to private expeditions into the sights, sounds and smells of the world around her on a 30 ft longline. At last! The first sign of progress! Her tail propped up, curled and even started wagging. Turns out, I was in-fact, putting too much pressure on her. I pulled back on our walks near people and started working more one-on-one. I dedicated the next three months to only building trust.
Terence had given me the okay to bring her to work and to ask for advice as needed. With the help of all of my coworkers, Zombie found herself a second home at My Dogs Mind where no one bothered her and treats occasionally fell from the sky.
The Howl of Life
Real progress may happen slowly but it is at least a step in the right direction. Overcorrecting or rushing a fearful dog can annihilate the trust you have earned, or worse, can foster a relationship built on fear.
Knowing this, I started using positive reinforcement to work up through the basics; heeling, place, down, sit, leave it, touch. Within a few months, Zombie was jumping in and out of my car with her tail up and wagging. At home she would greet me with a jumping hug and a howl. At work I was using place training to my advantage. My Dogs Mind gets many daily visitors but they all know not to bother the dogs in training. This is exactly the interaction she needed; not to be bothered but simply exposed and rewarded.
In Her Blood
It has been over a year now with Zombie and using positive reinforcement and slow exposure, we live life with little stress. She will never be a super social dog but as long as I have treats on hand, I have confidence we can get through most any situation. We are building positive experiences at home with strangers using “ignore and feed” as the approved greeting ritual. The crate remains in the middle of the living room always serving as a controllable option, but it won’t be long until it is replaced by a place board.
The biggest challenge now is explaining to others why they cannot touch or interact with her. Many people grew up with a dog who could be hugged and touched. I do my best to explain how a fearful dog does not like being the center of attention and how good it is for her to be ignored. There will always be something new to work on with Zombie, but she is making incredible progress and I don’t intend to ever stop training her. I’m ok with introducing her as “my fearful dog in training.” She is my life-long project.