The Return of Camille, and Some Advice for Difficult Dogs


I’m not sure if you remember, but a few months ago my husband was featured in the Daily Camera (our local Boulder newspaper) for flying a dog to Cheyenne, WY, with Pilots and Paws (a non-profit animal transport organization). Well, the flight went fine, but now that dog is back in our foster care! Turns out her mom got sick and could no longer care for her.

Honestly, I don’t mind. Camille is the complete opposite of my shy puppy mill-breeder Bill, so it’s kind of fun to watch them play together. She’s not the smartest dog I’ve ever met, but what she lacks in brains she makes up for in sweetness. Plus, her white areas are spotted – how cool is that!

Now on to important things…

Last week, my friend Shelley forwarded me an email that was sent to her by an animal behaviorist and I found it very helpful. In case you have a dog who is shy and afraid of humans, I wanted to share. Here’s what Shelley wrote:

After having him for almost a year, he does not want to be touched or picked up. He will tolerate me petting him when he can’t get away (on lead) but otherwise runs if I get within about 2 ft. of him. He’s scared enough that sometimes when he’s running, goes to the bathroom. Treats don’t work because when he’s scared, they mean nothing to him. He walks well on lead and off. He stays right by my side. He is not aggressive in any way, nor does he guard his food. He does well with other dogs but hangs out from a distance and does really understand “play.” He could not go down stairs when I got him and after two months of carrying him up and down, we finally conquered it. Anyway, I would just love to help him get over his fear of human touch. He’s made so much progress in every other way. Any suggestions?

And here’s what the behaviorist, Trish McMillan, with the ASPCA, wrote back:

I’m glad you found our article helpful and sorry your puppy mill rescue is still afraid of you. This is the reason the ASPCA works so hard to shut down puppy mills – these horrible places cause such psychological damage to the dogs that some of them will never be normal. If you still can’t touch your dog after a year, he’s likely one of these, so you’ll need to adjust your expectations and timeline, and take things in super-small baby steps.

The key in working with extremely terrified dogs like yours is to remove all social pressure (stop trying to pet him) and let him approach at his own speed. I know how hard this is – you didn’t get a dog to be an ornament, but trust me, forcing your attention on him is only going to slow things down.

Here’s how desensitization and counterconditioning works:
Desensitization and Counterconditioning

This is a technique behaviorists use to teach dogs that things they formerly disliked are actually predictors of their favorite things in the world.

The best exercise I’ve found for working with the truly terrified is the “cookie person” exercise described in the article. Simply sit on the floor and scatter truly delicious treats all around you. The Natural Balance treat logs are good, since most dogs love them and they can be used to replace part of your dog’s daily ration. If your dog is at all overweight (you can’t feel his ribs without digging), cut down his regular food so that he’ll be hungry. If you have other dogs, block them out of the room for this exercise.

If you’re reading a book or watching TV, you can avoid eye contact entirely. Just let your dog approach and take treats, over and over, without you looking, talking or reaching. Gradually scatter the treats closer and closer to you, until he’s able to take treats from your hand. This may take days, weeks or even months. No big deal. Be patient and don’t frighten the dog.

Once he is taking treats from your hand you can start putting treats on your body as well, so he starts getting into your lap. Or hold your other hand just over his head, so you’re almost touching him as he takes the treat. Gradually (again, may take weeks or months) you’ll be able to touch your dog. This article describes the process, but again, this is likely going to be months in the future. Don’t rush it!

The shy k9s mailing list is an excellent resource – there are many people out there going through the same sorts of things, and these guys are extremely supportive.

One of my articles describing the “cookie person” exercise in more detail is posted here.

If you are cornering your dog in order to leash him for walks several times a day (lots of scary social pressure!) you may be undoing all this work. Try to think of ways to make leashing as untraumatic as possible. Some people leave a very light drag line on their dogs while they’re home so you can just pick up the line when you need to take him out.

One thought on “The Return of Camille, and Some Advice for Difficult Dogs

  1. Wow… thanks so much for posting these sites and articles. My Lily is still shy (especially around men), and I have been really trying to help her overcome her fears- slowly, but surely- there has been success. I'm sure these articles will help!!
    ~April

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