We tried a lot of things to help bolster Sara's confidence. The most important one was to just get her out and about. When she first came to live with us, Sara was afraid to go out in front of the house. We live on a very quiet street with hardly any activity, but still it was too much for Sara. In those days, we had to force Sara to go for walks. It was so frustrating because although the park is only 3 blocks away, that was 3 blocks too far for Sara.
We tried obedience a month after we got Sara, but we dropped out. The instructor was too confrontational for Sara in our opinions. Sara would turn into a ball of trembling putty, and while I agree that you should not comfort a fearful dog (thereby reinforcing the fearful behavior), I do believe that once a fearful dog starts to withdraw into something similar to catatonia, that you have pushed the dog too far. That obedience instructor did not agree.
At about the same time we quit obedience, we discovered the dog park in our town. Our dog park is about the size of a football field, completely fenced in, and dogs are allowed to run off-lead inside the dog park. The first time we took Sara to the dog park, I had to drag her (she was lying down) through the double gate to get inside the dog park. Once we were inside, I let Sara off lead, and she ran to the opposite side of the park and cried. It was pretty awful.
But we went back, and we went back, and we went back. Sara slowly moved from standing 30 feet from any dog or human with her tail tucked up tighly against her abdomin to standing about 5 feet from any human and actually playing with some of the dogs. Sara is not confident enough to play roughly with strange dogs, but she will seek out puppies and try to play with them. I remember the first time she ever played tag with another dog. His name was Tyson, and he was a 5 month old rottweiller. It was wonderful to see because Sara is just dying to play. The last time we went, Sara even wagged her tail.
We've gone back to obedience, and Sara (and Henrey) passed beginning obedience. Sara didn't want to go into the obedience room the first time, but she likes to work with us, so after the first class, Sara was eager to go to obedience.
Sara loves going out, now. If she sees me and Robert putting on our "date" clothes, she gets all excited and starts bouncing around because she wants to go too. And while Sara still becomes what I call saturated with stimulation so that all she wants to do is go home, she is very eager to go out again the next time.
Sara's greatest challenge remains meeting new people, especially children. Sara came to trust me and Robert very quickly, but she has been slow to trust any other people. She adores our neighbor, Bill, but it took about a year of effort before she would walk up to him and allow him to pet her. She likes my parents, too. She only sees them once or twice a month, but they babysit for me and Robert when we take a weekend trip. I think after about 1.5 years, she stopped acting fearful of them when she first saw them at each visit. Sara will now leap out of the truck and run to my parents front door when we go to visit them.
The biggest problem with people is that they are too confrontational for Sara. When a person meets a new person, the correct procedure (in the USA, at least) is to look them directly in the eye and shake their hands. When people meet a dog, they modify this behavior only slightly. I have observed that people try to look dogs in the eye and pat them on the head. Well, in dog, direct eye contact is a dominance move, and then the person looms over the dog and swings their arm down at the dog's head, total dominance. Sara is submissive; she can only respond to dominant behavior with submissive behavior. In her case, she will back away and cower. To a dog, that would be a signal that she is accepting their higher status. Usually, adults accept that Sara does not want to be touched by them.
Children, however, do not seem to be able to understand that a dog as large as Sara would be afraid of them. In addition, children are very unpredictable in terms of what direction they will next move. They are always moving, and they will wheel their arms through the air. All of this is too much for Sara. And while Robert and I try to expose Sara to as many things as possible, we do not have children and we do not friends with children by and large. It is fortunate that my friends with children are understanding and patient with Sara, and they are willing to allow Sara to interact with their children.
Finally, adding Henrey to our household has had a profound impact on Sara. Henrey is very outgoing, loves people and dogs, and is excited about exploring new things. I do not recommend getting a second dog to help your first dog get over shyness, but if you want another dog, it can make a big difference.
Jennifer, August 1996
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This page was last modified Thursday, 18-Mar-2004 15:07:57 PST