This is Finnegan (Finn).
He’s a tripawd with an underbite and a heart of gold. His story is that in the summer of 2019 he was running loose on the 78 freeway and got hit by a car, and subsequently had his hind leg amputated. He was in the shelter system, and due to his fearful behavior was pulled by The Dog Squad rescue. He has been in foster care since July 2019, and he learned a lot of life skills but never quite learned to trust people, and continues to avoid most interactions.
There are not a lot of people in this world interested in adopting a fearful dog. When people think of adopting a dog they most likely think of getting a constant companion who joins them in most of their daily activities. A dog who avoids most contact with people isn’t exactly an ideal candidate for adoption. So Finn found his way to me, and while he’s here I’m documenting his journey in the hopes that it will help others in similar situations. I also hope this highlights that when a fearful dog is given patience, thoughtful learning opportunities, and the ability to feel safe in their world that over time, little by little, they begin to emerge from their cocoon and show us who they truly are. And that, in my opinion, is nothing short of magical.
A Bit About Fearful Dogs
Yes, “fearful dog” is a label and isn’t exactly describing the behaviors that the dog is presenting. For the sake of this blog series I’m going to use the term fearful dog to describe a dog who is primarily fearful of people. These dogs often have similar behavior patterns including moving away from people/avoiding physical contact in addition to behaviors such as trembling, crouching/flattening their bodies, freezing, fleeing, hiding, etc.
A fearful dog often has a high degree of self preservation, and their propensity to flee or avoid contact with people or other things that scare them are strong. They don’t “get used” to people after a few visits or after a few days. Many of these dogs take weeks, months, and sometimes years to truly acclimate to living with and learning to trust people.
Fearful dogs have a lot of behaviors that don’t make sense to the average person. Why do they approach when I’m sitting down but then run away the moment I stand up? Why do they seem to startle every time I walk into a room – don’t they know I live here by now? Why don’t they want to go for walks? Why won’t they eat treats? I’m offering steak! Why aren’t they getting used to things by now?
Here’s an important distinction about fearful dogs – most of the things other dogs find reinforcing such as praise, petting, treats, and play can be aversive to a fearful dog because of the level of social pressure that comes with them. Things like reaching out with a treat in your hand, tossing a toy, touching/petting are scary to them. And they learn very quickly that treats can’t be trusted because of the implied interaction with people that comes along with them. Fearful dogs can learn to enjoy those things, it just needs to be approached in a systematic, no pressure manner over time (future blog posts!)
Building rapport and trust with a fearful dog can be painfully slow. If you think you’re already being patient with your fearful dog, take that time and multiply it by 5 and that’s probably a more accurate representation of where you need to be at. Building trust with dogs is just like building trust with people – you are consistent and predictable. You don’t say one thing and then do another, or suddenly change an expectation one has come to rely on from you. You build trust by showing up the same way, every time. And even when you do this consistently, you will not get an immediate response. Think of how hard it can be to trust something or someone after a traumatic experience – how many of us have taken months or years to work through an event that forever shaped our lives? For dogs it’s no different, and when you layer on potential factors such as being under socialized or being predisposed to fearful behavior due to genetics, you’ve got a giant knot to pick your way through.
One last note before I move on, I cannot overstate the importance of having another steady and social dog in the home when working with a fearful dog. There is so much that dogs can teach other dogs that we cannot, and a fearful dog will acclimate to life with humans faster with another dog around to show them the way. For Finn, this dog is my personal dog Scout. Scout was very similar to Finn when I first adopted him, and he’s a big reason why my fascination with fearful dogs evolved. Nowadays, Scout is bolder than I ever imagined, and he’s starting to show Finn that life with humans isn’t so scary after all.
First Things First – Creating a Safe and Predictable Environment
How does one create a safe and predictable environment? By creating as much consistency as possible with whatever the dog comes into contact with – the actual physical environment and the beings in it – including you!
Understanding Social Pressure
I define social pressure as anything that involves interacting with a dog. This includes looking at the dog, making eye contact, walking towards the dog, talking to the dog, asking the dog to do something, reaching for or touching the dog, etc. For a dog that is not fearful of people, they will likely respond to social pressure by interacting with you back. For a fearful dog, they often respond to social pressure by moving away, and avoiding the interaction. There is a very strong negative reinforcement loop going on with these interactions – human talks to dog and motions toward it – dog feels uncomfortable/worried/frightened and in an effort to make the pressure stop – moves away – and feels relief. Reinforcement increases behavior, and when these negative reinforcement patterns occur throughout the day with a fearful dog, they are building a very strong reinforcement history for moving away from people and not interacting with them. This is the exact opposite of what we want to build with a fearful dog, but the best part about this scenario is that us humans are the more intelligent species and we can recognize and change our behavior to prevent these patterns from occurring.
Observing your actions and the dog’s reactions
Not all types of social pressure are going to elicit a fearful response, and simply observing your actions and your dog’s reactions will go a long way in determining what kinds of things your dog can handle. For Finn, he’s pretty comfortable with making direct eye contact. I can also talk to him. Aside from those two things, every other interaction creates avoidance to some degree; walking near him, entering a room, going to sit on a couch he is laying on, etc. I knew that people walking towards him was a big trigger based on the feedback from his foster home, so I specifically made a point to address it the moment he came to stay with me.
Avoiding All Unnecessary Social Pressure
A large part to helping Finn feel safe was to remove any unnecessary social pressure. I wanted to build associations to me (and my husband) from the very beginning – that we are predictable humans who won’t ask you to interact if you don’t want to. And knowing that my moving around was scary for him, I did my best to make slow, calculated movements in his presence. I gave him a wide berth when I walked past him if possible. In doing so, he began to stay in place more often, which is exactly what I wanted him to learn – that he can relax and not flee when we are around him.
In addition to being mindful about my movements, I don’t reach out to him to try and get him to interact with me. If he comes up to sniff my leg, I ignore him so he can get the information he is looking for without a response from me. If he moves away from me or startles, I don’t try to “reassure” him that everything is OK by talking to him or moving toward him even more (this is not helpful for a fearful dog). I spend most of my day going about my business, and doing my regular routine with Scout while allowing Finn to process what is going on around him on his own time. What often happens with these tactics is that the fearful dog learns they will not have to deal with social pressure from you, and over time will choose to be near you more often. Dogs are social animals; they want to be a part of social groups if they feel safe there.
Meal Times and Potty Breaks
Meal times and potty breaks can inadvertently create a lot of social pressure from humans because we “need” to get the dog to do these things. They also involve a lot of scary actions on the human’s end such as walking toward the dog with a bowl in hand, hovering over the dog in the yard to see if they “go” etc. They may also involve being in smaller space with the dog, such as attempting to go through a threshold of a doorway to get outside. Many fearful dogs avoid these interactions, which can create a lot of confusion for the human because they “know” the dog is hungry or needs to use the restroom but won’t do it. This often leads to more social pressure of attempting to convince the dog to do what you want them to do, and again, these actions are likely to create an even stronger response on the dog’s end to avoid you.
Here’s what I did with Finn:
Potty breaks: I would announce this event (I say “let’s go potty”) so that Finn knew what was about to happen. I announce the event and then I walk to the back door to open it. Scout knows this cue, and so he would lead the way with Finn following. I would then stand around with my arms crossed looking away from Finn as he did his business. Staring at him or following him around would only create more stress on his end, and not allow him to be relaxed enough to go to the bathroom. It would also create potty breaks as a time where social pressure was in full force, and this was the last association I wanted to make – I wanted Finn to go to the bathroom quickly and when he had the opportunity.
When the dogs were done I would announce “let’s come inside” and walk back in. Finn was willing to go through a somewhat narrow bathroom with me and Scout to get access to outside, but would not come back in from outside if I was standing there. This is very common with fearful dogs; they don’t want to walk into an enclosed space with a human already inside of it. Knowing this, I removed the unnecessary social pressure and simply walked into another part of the house until he was ready to come in. In order to do this effectively, I needed to make sure my cats were secured in their room so that they didn’t wander through the open door as Finn was processing his decision on whether to enter the house or not. Yes, this was a pain, but I knew that if I maintained this routine and kept it the exact same, that the time it took for Finn to come back in the house would begin to decrease in duration. I even began recording it on my phone so I could track his progress. Day one – 92 seconds, day two – 36 seconds, day three – 9 seconds. Pretty fast progress! When he would come back in the house I would quietly walk to the back door and close it.
Meal Times: Finn did not eat or drink anything the first 30 hours he was with me. Not eating or drinking is a very common response for a dog under significant stress. I did not put a bowl of food in his face every 2 hours or try to force him to drink water…this is social pressure, and it was unnecessary, so I left him alone. Dogs will not starve themselves to death, and just like potty breaks I did not want mealtimes/food to be associated with excessive social pressure. He had water available to him in the space he was in, and I kept my usual mealtime routine with feeding 2x a day. I put his food down, walked away, and left it there for about 10 minutes. During this time he paced around, moving from room to room and watching what everyone else was doing. I kept busy in the kitchen and ignored him, because I know that many fearful dogs don’t always feel safe eating in the presence of people, and that by me looking at him or encouraging him to eat would only make things worse.
He finally did eat, but for the first 7 days would only eat at night. Skipping meals is very common with dogs who are stressed, anxious, or fearful and I did not make a big deal of it. Knowing that he was only eating in the evenings I simply gave him larger portions. I continued to busy myself in the kitchen after I put his food down, as it took him 3-5 minutes to get the courage to walk over and eat his meal. On day 8 he finally began eating his breakfast, and he also began decreasing the amount of time it took to go eat – he’s down to about 30 seconds now of scanning his environment before going to his food bowl.
At the time of this posting Finn has been with me for 12 days. He’s doing really well so far, having acclimated to his surroundings and feeling comfortable with finding his way around the house and learning our routine. His body language is more relaxed – not only do I see less muscle tension around his face, but he’s sitting or lying around more often. He also began playing with Scout, which has been fun to see them figure each other out. Thanks to all the hard work from his last foster home, the stage was set for Finn to begin learning more about interacting with people which will be a big focus of my time with him. I plan on covering all aspects of our work together in future posts – stay tuned and thanks for reading!