Updated: Oct 14, 2020
So, let’s talk about Sammy. We adopted Sammy when he was about 10 weeks old. Sitting in a crate outside of the grocery store the day before a holiday, I saw him and fell in love. We knew enough at the time to socialize him properly. Lots of play dates with other dogs, we had puppy parties and had our friends bring over their children. We took him to bars and restaurants and parks and had everyone hand feed him. We knew enough to do all of those things, but not enough to recognize the early signs of anxiety.
As he got older, he started to exhibit new behaviors. He would be sitting (seemingly) calmly and letting a friend pet him, only to growl and lunge when the person walked away. He started showing more stress at fences, windows, and doors. And more and more anxious and scared around new people and dogs.
After a particularly terrifying and embarrassing incident, it was clear that Sammy was no longer able to handle social situations. We tried at first to follow all of the protocols. Our lifestyle became a little more limited: we didn’t entertain, we didn’t travel as no one could watch him. A trainer we adore was able to work with him over a couple of months, coming over a few times a week to give him snacks and let him acclimate. She is now in his “circle of trust”, but no one else has been able or willing to put in the time and effort it takes to get close to him.
We’ve also been able to slowly introduce him to new dogs, but again this takes months and at the end he will tolerate a new dog, but is always wary of any new family member.
Sammy lives an amazing life. He has a big yard, two brothers that he adores, a Grandma who dotes on him and a few close friends. He wants for nothing and is completely happy and content. I love him with all of my heart, but I would be lying if I didn’t share that some days I fantasize about how life would be easier if he wasn’t here.
So, why do I share this story? Because as a dog trainer, I fully understand how having a fearful, anxious, stressed dog can significantly impact your life.
I’ve learned that:
Even if you do all of the right things, it’s not always possible to overcome genetics and temperament.
The research on medications has come a long way. I wish we had been advised to combine medication with our training, we might have made more progress.
Puppy socialization is an amazing and necessary thing. However, with an anxious dog this looks a little different than it does for a confident dog. Taking things more slowly, lots of counter conditioning and not overdoing it is critical.
Things that other people take for granted aren’t possible with a fearful dog. Sammy can’t go for walks or socialize with other dogs. We find other forms of enrichment that work for him, such as puzzle toys, lickimats, training, and playing with toys.
It’s not always possible to commit to keeping a fearful dog in your life, and I support anyone who decides that this is not a situation they can accommodate.
If you have accepted a dog like this into your life, it helps to have other people to talk to, to share ideas and to have the ongoing support of a trainer.
We’ve started a Fearful Dogs Support Group just for that reason. We can talk about how to manage or train through specific situations. We can talk about what options you have to work with behaviors. And we can support each other through this amazing experience of living with a dog who loves you but no one else!
The group meets every other Monday at 6pm. We hope you will join us! https://www.everydogaustin.org/classes