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Can a Scared Dog be "Re-Puppied?"

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

When you see the face of Bolt, this 11-month boy, do you say, as I did "Auwe...what a sweetie-pie!"

But if I tell you that Bolt bit two shelter workers -- does that change how you see his face?

Does his face look different now with this information?

Same pup -- new information.

Can you imagine telling potential adopters, "He's a great dog - umm - but he bit two people."

With this track record, what will Bolt's fate be?

Who will trust him enough to give him a home and a life filled with love?

And what if I told you Bolt was so scared of everything that he can't be in a regular kennel at the shelter? He has to have his own room with big red signs on the door that warn that only volunteers who are trained and approved by the Behavior department can enter.

He can't walk outside because he has ripped up his paws on the gravel paths trying to escape due to intense fear. Does his face look the same to you now? Amazing how our preconceptions can influence how we see dogs -- and people -- for that matter.

Bolt was not always like this. But with a leg injury, he spent a lot of his early life in the shelter. Later he went out to be with a foster family and did well. But when they had to leave town and he was returned, he was confused and frightened to be back in the shelter. In the words of Rick, the adoptions counselor at The Humane Society of Southern Arizona, "He was not the same dog."

I had a "bolt of inspiration." I wondered if Bolt could be "re-puppied" -- meaning if he could gain some of the confidence he was missing. Could I provide some of the sense of safety that he was missing? This was how I approached his healing.

When I first met Bolt if I moved an inch closer he would cower and shake. I had to wear a mask, of course, which doesn't nothing to help a scared dog evaluate your face. If he could have disappeared into the wall, he would have. Even if I approached very slowly, he would huddle in the corner against the wall.

Stephen, HSSAZ's Canine Behavior specialist, was kind enough to give me permission to enter Bolt's room, to work with him, providing I checked in with staff each time I entered to let them know I was "Going in there."

Behavior volunteers Lois, Sheri, Bill, and several HSSAZ dedicated staff had been doing a great job to help Bolt come out of his self-imposed prison of fear. We all knew it was not going to be an easy fix. But the journey of a thousand miles starts with the first touch.

In the beginning, Bolt would not take treats from me -- not even smelly, juicy hotdogs, or string cheese, or chicken or turkey. His lack of interest in treats was just one sign that Bolt was on hyper-alert. Any sound, any movement outside his door was a three-alarm fire to him and he cowered in his corner. I wondered if I was going to be able to reach past his trauma and connect with this guy. After visiting with him a couple of times, getting to know him, just sitting on my stool near him, not trying to touch, thankfully, we began to cross the sacred bridge between human and animal.

One of my first strategies raised some eyebrows. I laid down next to him. Remember, because of his mending paws, he couldn't be walked outside, so this is the room that he ate, peed, and pooped in -- let's just say it had a certain canine aroma.

But this horizontal contact meant we were on the same level, I wasn't high above him. He could feel my breathing, and he chose to lay against me. This was the first building block of trust.

Reiki and Healing Touch

At the shelter, when someone walks by, fifty dogs can suddenly start barking as if a pallet of raw filet mignon had just entered the building -- or maybe the world is coming to an end.

It is not the easiest place for a scared dog to relax. Yet getting the nervous system to relax is an essential part of unwinding the trauma system so that the dog can "reset" or resettle when disturbances occur. Unless you teach the nervous system new ways to respond, the fear pattern just repeats and gets retriggered with every new activation. This is why it is hard for very scared dogs to recover. But now that Bolt had been given me some preliminary trust, I could begin this work to help him regain control of his automatic fear-response system.

I am certified in The Trust Technique developed by James French, which helps animals release the burdens of their past. What I am doing, in a sense, is matching or linking our nervous systems, so that I can then help him follow my lead, moving us both down into a more relaxed state. I slow my system down, and if we are in sync, he will slow with me.

He began to calm down with this soothing touch and drift into a sleepy state. Sleep is very healing, and even a few minutes of deep sleep can help the brain reset. One of the best things you can do for a very scared dog in a shelter is to help them feel safe enough to get some more deep sleep. Being afraid all the time, and reacting with hyper-vigilance is exhausting!

I don't know anything about Bolt's history, but I would guess that he did not get everything he needed from puppyhood. He didn't have a stable sense of feeling safe that comes from the right amount of positive early connection and experiences. This lack of confidence was so severe as to actually make his reactivity dangerous to himself or to people. He didn't know that a human could be a source of this comfort.

I like to say, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood -- or puppyhood."

So we began some activities I call "re-puppying." After several visits he was gently taking treats from my hand, so that was helpful to build the bond. One day I found a really soft blue comforter and he loved that. He looked like a little snuggle bunny. Even if he still had that slight look of worry, he was self-soothing and I knew we were headed in the right direction now.

We did the "puppy wrap" game. I wrapped him in a fluffy blanket, like a full-body Thundershirt. This sense of gentle confinement is like the sensation puppies feel when they are all huddled together. This slight-pressure-contact helps the dog feel more connected to their bodies. (Just like for people, too much traumatic fear can cause disassociation from the body. Remember Temple Grandin's squeeze machine to create a sense of de-stimulation?) Then over the blanket, I do some faster massage, like towel-drying a dog after a bath. This stimulation-touch is a counter-balance to the energy of soothing. I have a theory that the alternation of soothing and slight stimulation helps the brain become more flexible, restoring neuro-plasticity, and allowing the brain to learn new things such as, "Maybe the world isn't as scary as I thought."

Bolt coming out of the puppy-wrap game

This process is only done for a minute or so. You let the dog decide when he has had enough, and he will emerge from under the blanket thinking we have just played a game -- rather than "Hey, who rearranged my mental state and erased my trauma patterns?!"

Because this game stimulates the playful, young mind, he will naturally start being curious and want to explore you -- as the person who provided this entertainment. And maybe - just maybe -- want to further check out his environment.

This emerging curiosity showed me that we were ready for a brave new step. For the first time, I opened the door to his gated patio. Wide enough for him to go outside. This caused some trepidation. But because his nervous system was at a lower level of activation, he could adjust -- and adapt -- to this low-level fear. After a few minutes of "looking to the light" of the outside world -- curiosity -- a natural puppy state of mind was beginning to work its magic.

Bolt looking to the sunshine

What was out there? Was it good? Bad? Scary? Fun...maybe?

At this point, I am being silent. Neither encouraging nor discouraging his leaving the comfortable nest we have built together.

I want him to CHOOSE to explore. Or not to! I can't afford any expectation, because that would raise my emotional tone, which would in turn affect his. So I have to be neutral energetically and emotionally so that he can make his own choice when he is ready. This is a big step. And anything worth doing is worth doing slowly.

The dance has begun. He wants to go explore. And he doesn't want to go. What I am delighted by is it that for the first time, now he is looking at me -- i.e. viewing me -- an imperfect mortal human -- as a source of comfort. This is huge progress! This bonding-skill is a critical building block to help him do well in his future forever home.

So he makes a few steps towards the door -- and then returns. This sequence is repeated several times. He is trying out his newfound courage.

He is choosing. The sense of choice is a valuable building block to feeling empowered, a sense of agency. This makes all the difference in the world. He is not being led on a leash. He is not being dragged anywhere he is not ready to go. He gets to choose his moment that he steps over the threshold. This is about more than just going out of this door. This is about the courage to step into his new life.

Finally, curiosity -- which is one of the organic remedies for fear -- begins to create a tipping point.

But it was a process. Bolt would step up to the door, come back to sit on the bed with me. Then go to the door again, and come back inside.

He would just peek out. Realize there are no monsters. Oh, wait, maybe there are -- better go back inside.

It's safe inside. But what's out there?

Just the whole world.

A Big New World where fear is not the defining force.

All this going back and forth -- now he drinks a lot of water. This brave new exploration takes a lot of energy.

Here we go! He's ready. Sore toes and all. But "I gotta see what's out there."

The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step out the door.

Bolt has turned a corner. Fear is not the boss of him.

We all have fears.

But we don't have to be ruled by them.

The behavior team and everyone at the shelter know he has a long journey ahead.

But at least we can see what is possible.

Bolt has his whole life ahead of him.

Good News! Bolt is now back with his original foster family, where he can settle in until his forever family finds him. I am happy for him, but I sure miss the cuddles.

Now when we look at that face we see a Bolt of inspiration.

Thank you, Bolt!

You remind us not to let fear keep us hiding from all the good in the Big World.

Great news:


Genie Joseph, PhD

Executive Director

The Human-Animal Connection

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