Bringing Home a Fearful Pet
When I adopted my dog, Django, from the Albrecht Center, he barked at my husband nonstop for weeks. Whenever my husband would open a door, stand up, or even glance at our new dog, Django would respond with a terror-stricken expression and a loud, shrill bark. He wouldn’t let us pick him up and he would always keep a safe distance of ten feet or so. Long story short, those first few weeks were some of the most stressful of my life, and yet, returning Django to the shelter never crossed my mind.
I knew that over the next year Django would become my best friend. He would become the dog that could never get enough belly rubs, the friend who would cuddle up with me when I’m sick, and the companion who would play tug-of-war with socks he’d stolen out of the laundry basket. Best of all, he’d become a confident dog who wears a big, goofy grin 24-7. But between then and now, a transformation had to take place and that required an ocean of patience and a game plan.
It turns out, dogs are a lot like us. When thrown into a new situation, it is natural for both humans and dogs to feel confused and even frightened. It goes without saying that being adopted is a shocking new situation for a dog.
So how could we help Django discover that he was safe and help him gain confidence? The following steps were highly effective in helping him overcome his fear.
Step one is to create a peaceful environment for your new pet (think Zen garden). You can start this process before you even adopt your new pet. For Django, we placed three dog beds in locations around our home where he could keep an eye on us but still keep his distance and feel safe. These became his safe spots. When Django went to any of his beds, we would always leave him be, and Django learned that he could always go to a safe spot if he was feeling insecure. A crate could also be used to create a safe spot. To make our home as tranquil as possible, we played calming music and spoke in low voices.
Giving your new pet space is critical. Once we realized how much it was scaring him, we stopped trying to pick up and snuggle Django. We gave him all the space he needed, and sure enough, after a month, he felt comfortable enough to come to us.
Step two is to celebrate that food is your friend. Using food, we could show Django that being around us made good things happen. We did this with hotdogs, steak, and cheese. This part is not about teaching your dog to sit or stay, this is about teaching your dog to see you as a source of happiness. Simply toss pieces of the treats to your dog every few moments without otherwise acknowledging the dog. With Django, even making eye contact would make him feel uneasy, so we tossed the treats in his direction without looking his way. We did this casual food tossing daily for about a month.
Once Django was comfortable enough to make eye contact and stand next to us, we were able to use the magic of the clicker to build his confidence further. Django had to figure out what I wanted him to do to earn the sound of the click and the treat that followed. He was able to think on his own and feel his own self-confidence grow as he figured out that sit was good, that down was good, that a handshake was good. Today, when I reach for the clicker, Django runs up to me excited and eager to earn some treats. There are many great resources for learning clicker training and the sky is the limit as to what your dog can learn.
Remember, it’s important to not take your new pet’s fear personally! You are a complete stranger to him and the love he will one day feel for you is not something that happens in a split second; it takes time to grow that bond.
So don’t give up on your new pet just yet. You’re not alone and there are many resources online that can guide you through confidence-building, crate training, housebreaking, working through problem behaviors and more. Returning your new pet to the shelter should come only after you’ve done your absolute best to help him adjust to your life together.
After all, he deserves more than a few days to show you just how wonderful a companion he will become.
Jessica Gladkowski is the Director of Community Relations at the SPCA Albrecht Center for Animal Welfare. Jessica received her Bachelor of Arts in Japanese from The University of Vermont in 2013, and over the next several years she traveled to Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines where she taught English and immersed herself in different cultures. Jessica is inspired to combine her passion for helping animals, teaching, and serving a diverse community through a career in animal welfare. Jessica lives in Aiken with her husband David and their rescue dogs Django and Ollie.