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Deeply Fearful Dogs

3942 Views 24 Replies 13 Participants Last post by  gsdraven
I thought I'd start this here-I don't know if it will stay here or go to general behavior, but since a lot of the dogs who have these deeply ingrained fears are in rescues, it may be okay to leave here.

I am not talking about dogs who can turn it around in 3 weeks or even 3 months. Dogs who within a couple of days are taking treats readily, or can greet strangers within a month or ten months. I am talking about dogs who could almost be described as semi-feral. Dogs who may (will)never, ever be considered "normal" in the basics of dogness, but who, almost without exception, will never aggress either.

They may have been in a longterm puppy mill situation, have been dropped off by their people in a woods and have been on their own for a long period of time-exposed to many dangers, head injuries/organic brain issues, have been badly abused, not socialized at all, or have poor genetic temperament that is made worse by environment, or any combination or even other things!

So what can you do with them? Are they worth the effort? What does it take to commit to them?

The answers all depend on you and how you view the situation. If the idea is that the dog will eventually be adoptable, if you are aware of the depth of the problem before committing, you may not want to take this type of dog-and there is nothing wrong with that. The dog may become adoptable-but it may not-so the permanent foster is possible! Of course it is not always possible to know before pulling these dogs. They may also not be the dog to get if you want a pet, or if you want a dog that responds to you in that dog way.

I of course believe that they are worth the effort. It is four years this month that I have had Annalise and Mariele, my two deeply fearful dogs. I have other dogs with fear/odd issues, but these are the two who after 4 years are still very similar to what I started with (if you don't look to closely-when you do-you see remarkable progress).

So I figured we could post some good threads, websites, etc. for these dogs whose progress is measured in baby steps to help people who are learning how to communicate on a macro level with another species-it is way cool!

Also, when I read Anna's first thread I am embarrassed at some of the advice I gave her first foster, assuming that Anna was a typical fearful dog. When I met Anna for the first time I was like ohhhh....
never mind!

Anna's First Thread:
Anna's Third thread with link to second thread toward the end:

Mandy's Thread

Where is Duke's Thread?
I will post it here when I find it

M&J should post about Lily.

We also have had Henna and Elise (kathyb and LaurieB).

The Shyk-9 group is a great resource with some advice you might not get here:

Some general thoughts before I stop babbling:
Safe containment is key-their backup plan is always flight-so until you know them, leashes (plural sometimes-of different kinds including chain) and no unsupervised time outside can help because you really don't know what is going to push a button for them-so better safe than sorry, better prepared then not. Anna went out on a leash for a while after I got her-once I realized she wanted to be with the other dogs so much that she wouldn't leave-as long as they didn't, I let her out off lead (in a fenced yard).

Structure but not rigidity-what is so great is that for people who are black/white, right/wrong, perfectionistic, etc. is that you need to relax. You can still provide the basic structure, but have to be able to adjust and go with the flow, think on your feet and have alternate plans in mind before you do anything with the dogs. Particularly on outings (which need not happen right away of course).

Unconditional positive acceptance (unless there is aggression-but depending on the issue that may need to be dealt with very differently too)

Rewards-and understanding that typical rewards may not work for these dogs-there may be unknown bad associations with things you'd never guess. Like for Anna, I'd click with my mouth-never thought it would work, but it did, until she could accept food rewards. This weekend, for her bath-she could not take the food because of her fear but could hear the click.

NILIF (even if barely visible) you want to give them that structure and leadership-so important for them to see you as capable and strong, protecting them and not letting things happen to them.

That may also lead to feats of assertiveness for you-with other dogs or people-but it all pays off in the end!

Sorry so long!
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as a resuce guy I really appreciate your post. The kicker with the type of dog you describe is even as rescue I have never had one. I always assume with a great deal of kindness, allowing some freedom, and letting the dog settle, the animal will come around, and yes in three months or so in the extreme cases.

They have their quirks, and these may continue during their lives, but they are adoptable.

Hopefully, persons more knowledgeable then I will respond raising the issues you have posted.

If I had a dog, you describe as really fearful, I am not sure what I would do. Because keeping one prohibits me from taking aother adoptable rescue.
I agree with all your insights. I'll throw in as well that well socialized dogs can be of tremendous help working with dogs like this. Most feral dogs (at least in my experience) love other dogs just not people. I've found the attraction of other dogs can be something I can use to motivate and reward them long before they have any willingness to take food or other rewards directly from me.

The one I'm working with currently (and have been working with for over a year) I was recently able to start touching and it's all because of her love of playing with other dogs. Very very very slowly she got comfortable enough to play with the other dogs near me (after months of learning that I would never reach for her), I began laying my limp arm near where they were wrestling around and gradually she learned it wasn't scary. I think would sometimes pet the other dog, always gentle, always reaching up to them, never reaching down. Quite recently I actually managed to get a quick scratch under her chin in. It took a long time to get to that point but after that quick scratch things started moving really quickly and I am happy to report that I can actually pet her for the first time ever. Granted, I must be sitting down, I must start with my hand very low, and it's only me, not my husband, but hey - progress!

I find working with these dogs to be fascinating but yes - they are very different and not to be confused with dogs who have at some point in their lives bonded with people but were either not socialized enough or were abused or both. Truly feral dogs are a whole 'nother ball of wax!

As far as - is it worth it? In a general sense, I don't know. Certainly you could make the case that many more less troubled dogs could be saved in the same amount of time, with the same resources, and probably with far greater success, than the effort one of these dogs take. On the other hand, on a case by case basis, yes! Working with the few I've experienced has taught me so much about canine behavior, about training, and just about patience that I never would have learned any other way and no way would I trade the joy that both Pixie and I experience as we take those small steps forward.

I'm glad you started this thread. I think it's an interesting topic and it's important to understand the different types of fearful dogs when you work in rescue.
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This is very true-by taking on and keeping these dogs-either until they are adoptable or for good-we often end up not being able to foster.

Yes-other dogs are better teachers for these dogs! I took Anna to a class and after the first week or so decided to bring Ava along attached to her. MUCH better results as she watched and did what Ava did (of course she was attached by a coupler to Ava and if Ava wants to do something...not much is going to stop her-Anna almost got whiplash on Ava's recall). Congrats on petting her!

Those are the kind of things that I am thinking of-things we expect a dog to want and that we expect to be able to do. We expect to pet a dog, to take them for a walk, to have them greet us when we come home-but that isn't necessarily going to happen with these dogs. At least not for a very long time after trust has built up.

You can speed it up temporarily only in my opinion with flooding. Or in my opinion, you can make it stick with slow systemic desensitization.

By slow I mean on the dog's timeline more than ours. Dogs don't have calendars. They don't know that "other people" think that more progress should have been made by this point. They just know what they are comfortable with and how to stay alive. And that survival instinct drives them in a way our calendar cannot compete with.

I also believe strongly in the biological aspect of the fearful dog. After long periods of time of stress and fear, they have a toxic chemical cocktail in their systems that has to be released and replaced. So if you add more stressful situations, you add to the cocktail. If you remove stress and allow a lot of play (with other dogs), good nutrition, and a feeling of safety (okay, crazy lady will talk to me but won't pet me-I feel safe here, crazy lady lets me hide in my crate when I need to) you can help them get rid of that deep tissue stress and fear.

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Great topic. I have not had a deeply fearful dog but do have dogs with fear issues. My experience with this is that any setback at all can have long and major repercussions. I would imagine this is the case even more so with a deeply fearful dog.

So I would think that going very slowly (think glacial pace) and setting up for success is even more important here - including protecting them from unfamiliar and stressful situations that will destroy trust that has been painstakingly built.
Jean, you described my Lilly! It's been two steps forward, one step back for the last six years (can you believe I've had her almost six years??)
I definitely had to retrain my brain to do things with her that went against everything I had learned.

We made a breakthrough when I took her to watch an obedience class and I let her do the obstacles. She flourished. It was like she was on a high that would last a few days after she would go and do that. Just needed to build that confidence.
When I first had her, it was like living with a squirrel in the house. If I, or anyone, entered the room, she would run along the perimeter of the room and escape downstairs to her crate. Now if someone comes in the room she will stay put, allow people to appoach/pet her. She is definitely more relaxed around strangers now. She is a creature of habit, thrives on routine. My own little "Rain Man".

You hit the nail on the head in so many ways. Having had a fear biter before (RIP Madison) I can't get past that with all her fear, Lilly has never once made an attempt to bite or nip. She also comes out of her shell when there is another dog around.
I have to say, her sweetness can not be topped. She is so easy to live with. It's like she knows, "Hey, I have a sweet deal here. Beats living in the woods any day. I better not blow it."

It's funny b/c she is a fantastic watch dog. She is always on alert and let's me know immediately if there is a "disturbance in the force". When she is in the that mode you would think she is an attack dog, she has a nice bark. She will continue with it until I approach the person and Lilly know's, "it's OK". Then she turns back to Sweet Pea. I always know if there is someone walking past my house.
And who can not love those 'gorilla eyes', as Jean and I like to call Lilly and Anna's eyes. When she is relaxing she moves her eyes side to side, not moving her head, so you see the whites of her eyes.

Adoptable? I don't know. Once she came into my house as a foster we knew she wasn't going anywhere. I kid that it was trickery in part by the rescue---they knew she was staying put!
Around the house, she is 100%. In a different environment the heart rate goes up etc. She's about 75% then. No where near how terrified she used to be.
I recall the days when I would try to walk her. She wouldn't budge off the front porch. I would have to pick her up, carry her down the street, and walk away (within eyeshot, of course). She would just sit there. If she wanted to come home she had to find her way to me. Then EUREKA. I took Lilly and Madison on a walk together. That was my magic bullet. Now when she sees the leash she gets excited to go for a walk.
I forget the cowering little girl who was placed with me years ago, but she still has those 'tendencies'.
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Now Rudy, on the other hand, is the neighborhood Mrs. Kravitz. He should have been named Snoopy.
This subject is timely for me since I have the two GA. Girls, Shylo and Honey.

Jeans comment about the dogs "timeline" is so important. I'm not rushing or pushing for anything. If they don't decide, ON THEIR OWN, to come to me, then I haven't accomplished anything. Right now I'm using Honey (the more social daughter) to infuence mom. Honey will now wag her tail when she see's me coming! After this quarentine period, they will get to hang out with my Axl, who loves to play. Hopefully that will help as Jean said.

I would also like to hear suggestions on alternative 'potions'. I'm giving them Rescue Remedy and Star of Bethlehem .
Originally Posted By: CampPappy.

Jeans comment about the dogs "timeline" is so important. I'm not rushing or pushing for anything. If they don't decide, ON THEIR OWN, to come to me, then I haven't accomplished anything.
Agreed. When I got Lilly, I just 'let her be'. She would decide when things progressed. However, I had to get her out of her crate to go for a walk somehow.
Her crate was in the family room, behind a couch so she would feel safe. She would not eat if someone was in the room. I started by watching TV with her crate door open. I put her food in the crate for a while, then over the weeks, put the bowl outside her crate. Then I started putting handfuls of kibble in a trail outside her crate. She would eat a bit, scurry back to her crate, come out for a little more etc for a while. The distances she would venture out for food would increase somedays, some days it would revert. To my surprise, she eventually would eat out of my hand, one piece of kibble at a time. It worked. If it hadn't, I would have adjusted accordingly, of course. I also didn't look at her as I was doing this, in the beginning I would leave the room.

Also, I took her crate down.. The area it where it was, behind the couch, became her safe spot.

As time passed, so did the time she would spend away from her safe spot. It was a great day when she came to lay on the floor near me, even though there was no food. Eventually she gave up the safe spot altogether and would lay on the floor (or the couch) as if there never was a safe spot.

Like I said, I had to go against everything I had learned about how to raise a dog.

Rescue Remedy didn't work for us. There is a prodoct called Anxiety. I'll see if I can find a link.

Also check out They will send rescues a free copy.
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Quote: to have them greet us when we come home
This gets at one of the first issues I think people have to overcome when working with a deeply unsocialized dog: They don't like you. They don't want to be with you.
That sounds like "whatever" but I think it can be really hard psychologically on the foster parent. One of the most powerful and rewarding things working with dogs is how much they love us and how much we love them back. Even a more normal fearful dog may be uneasy at first but usually will bond relatively quickly and incredibly deeply once they're shown some kindness. The deeply fearful dog - not so much. People make a big deal out of "unconditional love" but in reality we love those who love us, we love those who need us. Our baby cries and only mom's voice well do - that's powerfully validating and reinforces that bond and desire to help. Everyone likes to feel special. I would hazard the guess that nearly all of us on this board walk around with a fan club of devoted companions who won't even let us go to the bathroom without them.

It's hard to poor love, care, energy, into a dog that does not love you back. Love (and patience) can be tough to sustain when they're a one way street. But sustain them we must because working with one of these dogs takes a long time!

Quote: When I first had her, it was like living with a squirrel in the house.
So funny that you mention the "squirrel"! This is exactly what we called Pixie, my current feral foster, when she got here. You would open a door, there would be a flash of black, and she was gone. You just never saw her. That went on for months.

I think Jean mentioned it, but for us one of the keys has been predictability and expectations - both hers and mine. Pixie knows I will never reach for her without telling her first. I will never trick her. There are very precise rules to all our interactions. Unless I tell her I'm going to reach for her, I won't do it, and she can relax and not worry about being grabbed unexpectedly.

ETA: We also do the "safe space" thing. She has her crate, which she loves. When I started expanding her range to other rooms, I brought the crate with us. She always has a "base" she can run to.
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In looking for that specific product, I found these.

They may have renamed "Anxiety" this, as I bought it many years ago:

And many others.........

Also, I never used supplements with Lilly, I tried Rescue Remedy on another dog for storm anxiety. Didn't work.
Originally Posted By: pupresq They don't like you. They don't want to be with you.
That sounds like "whatever" but I think it can be really hard psychologically on the foster parent.

True. But with Lil, after a long, long time, the bond did form. I was expecting nothing more than a lifetime with a dog with the personality of an aloof cat, but was pleasantly surprised.

Lilly has gone from complete fear of me, to indifference, to total velcro (I became her safe spot), and now will exhibit the occasional independence by going to another room to hang out.
I was told that extremely fearful dogs will only bond with one person. I have found this to be the case but occasionally I will find Lilly in another room with my husband. It's odd to not be in the same room as her --I'm the one who gets nervous now-I can't sleep unless she is in bed with me---but I have to give my girl her wings in the name of progress.

Honestly, the reward I get from seeing skittish Lil's progress goes beyond the pride I had for my mostly perfectly trained dog.
I should add, Lilly was a feral dog found in the woods in the winter. She had a littermate, who was easier to catch. Lilly had to be caught in a humane trap. She was born in the woods and was about five months old when she was rescued. A farmer would throw handfuls of food to the wild dogs. He said the one dog would come to get it, but Lilly would never let herself be seen and he didn't even know there were two dogs for quite some time.
Jean, I would love to see this thread as a sticky for anyone that does happen to get one of these special dogs. I would also hate to see anyone or any dog have to go through what we did with Gabby.

Markie was my first and he made slow but steady progress and being six months I think helped a lot too to eventually turn him around. Gabby was over a year when she came to me, she was much better with women and wanted nothing to do with men (she would growl and hackles up - something I had never dealt with). With time Brandon did win her over and she would even cuddle with him on the couch. She also had issues with other dogs, she was a definite alpha wanna be, but she respected Ginny's position. Glory being so laid back, was her best friend, she could boss her around and get away with it. Odd thing was, she did better with female dogs then she did male dogs too. Although she adored Markie, respected him and would whisper in his ear and kiss his head. We did get her past the growling stage, but she still would not trust other men and then she would submissively pee. There was something so deep rooted in her that nothing was going to undue. She was fine to stay home, she would greet women when I would have a yard sale, men, she would disappear even though the others were in the yard with her. I even had one woman ask if Ginny, Glory and Gabby were related - not quiet - red sable, bi color and a panda!

I know Henna and Elise are still not normal, but they are happy. I hope Kathy can give some update on them. Elise was much more outgoing and Henna always more reserved.

I would hope that people can learn about these dogs, they aren't like any other. Unfortunately it was a hard lesson to learn.
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Quote: True. But with Lil, after a long, long time, the bond did form. I was expecting nothing more than a lifetime with a dog with the personality of an aloof cat, but was pleasantly surprised.
I totally agree! And like Lilly, Pixie did eventually bond with me and now follows me around like everyone else. I just think it's important for people starting out with these dogs to know that the fearful dog can take, at a minimum, months to bond with a human. Entering into it with the idea that you may never get beyond the personality of an aloof cat or the elusive bedroom squirrel
probably helps keep expectations reasonable and means every bit of progress is exciting and wonderful.

Quote: Honestly, the reward I get from seeing skittish Lil's progress goes beyond the pride I had for my mostly perfectly trained dog.
You should have heard me on the phone the other day - "you'll never believe this! Pixie let me pet her and she seemed to like it! It's amazing! And it's only been 18 months!!!"
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Wow did this touch me inside. My first ever "rescue" was so fearful I always described her as autistic. I didn't know what else to call it but she had no life in her eyes. She was totally shut down and you could move her body and it was so stiff it would just stay in that position.
It was in looking for help for her 15 years ago that I found this forum and a couple of others, and despite not actually participating I have learned much reading through this forum about fear in dogs. Before Montanna I believed as many did that the dog would eventually overcome it now I know that is not always the case.
At the time I lived with just my Apache and he was one of those super confident, afraid of nothing and no one dogs. I brought home this puppy covered in her own feces (she was too scared to move away from it), and not moving an inch. Apache would just lay down outside her crate and for 2 days all I could do was bathe her when she would mess(remember she wouldn't move). Finally I am not sure why but she started to sniff noses with him. That was when she started using the doggie door to the yard. But she only moved if I was laying down on the sofa or when I slept at night.
When she would become frightened off into space she went, it lasted hours to days. After 2 months she and Apache would play if I puttered in the kitchen. Believe me that was a triumph. She still could not be approached or even looked at by anyone else. She never became 'normal'. When she was about 10 months old, I had gotten her at about 9 weeks according to the vet, a gentleman friend came to my home for dinner. She hit it off with him immediately and did not do the autistic thing. After a few visits he showed an interest in wanting her although I was reluctant and spent a good while discussing her fear and need for security. I finally gave in and told him if it didn't work out I wanted her back. Well 4 months later I was speaking to a mutual friend who told me the dog had bitten him and he had it put down. Because of that and 1 other bad experience as a rescuer I will no longer adopt but have happily fostered many since.
Montanna was so severe that she got me on a 15 year quest for all the info I can find on what makes dogs fearful and what we can do to help them. So many times I would look at her and wonder why I was so selfish to keep letting her suffer. Then she would jump on top of Apache and I knew I had done right.

I know the fear you speak of and have personally lived with it. She never did greet me at the door, never took food from anyone's hand including mine, and certainly never played with me. Her confidence and strength, what little she had, were borrowed from Apache and when they were no longer together and she had to deal with life on her own she could no longer handle it. As for the ***wipe that adopted her, well other thoughts for him. He did the right thing but maybe if he had spoken to me, it might have ended differently for her.
Sorry this was so long but I thank you for taking the time to read it. Right now I sit here at the computer with my 2 mildly fearful dogs and thank my lucky stars, that they are not as badly damaged as that one puppy who started it all.
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A few of my rescues have been fearful and shy, but not to the extent that some of the people on this board have stated regarding their dogs.

I have now had eight GSD's into my home this year, the rescues, with one exception, shy and fearful I also have a GSD bought as a pup. So easy to train, so protective, etc.

Nonetheless, I agree with the following, which you said.

"Honestly, the reward I get from seeing skittish Lil's progress goes beyond the pride I had for my mostly perfectly trained dog."

Watching the rescues or adopted dogs get better is very satisfying, and if we can contribute to that, wonderful.
Henna and Elise have been with their family for almost two years now. They are doing much better but it is still up to them if they want to be touched. You can not go to them it has to be them coming to you or they will go to their safe place. But they do love the six year old grandson and just follow him all around.
Thanks for the reply. I have never faced that issue for the amount of time you have. As a rescue sometimes I keep them a bit longer then I should to allow the dogs to adjust.

The dog most shy, I have adopted, but only about four months ago. She is about six years old. At times playful, but will hide, under the bed, in the closet, etc.
Hi this is my first time through this forum but and greatful it exists = ) I have just read through these post and have found that my puppy concern is quite normal.
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