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How to Help a Shelter Dog Emerge from Fear

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

This is a story about Smitty the Pitty, a five-year-old precious and delightful dog who I met when I was volunteering at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona (HSSAZ) where he had been for a couple of months.

To say Smitty is shy would be a huge understatement. Every noise startles him, and volunteers have told me they have seen him hiding under the bench, cowering from everything that moves.

The HSSAZ behavior team and the volunteers have done wonderful work to help him open up and feel safe. Wisely, they have him separated in his own "decompression room" to give him a chance to come out of his state of fear at his own pace.

The first time I walked by his room, on my way to visit another dog, he looked at me in a way that pierced my heart. It's the kind of look that keeps you awake at night and reminds you that this is a dog you can't forget.

The caring Behavior Program staff have put a sign on his door to let volunteers know that he needs more time and patience to come out of his safety zone, his crate. Many devoted volunteers and staff members have been doing a great job, spending time with Smitty and gently socializing him.

I thought I would give it a try as working with shy, frightened or traumatized dogs is my speciality. And that's how Smitty the Pitty got on my dance card. This is a little story about how this dance of ours progressed, beginning with a detailed description of the tiniest details of our first three visits together.

First Visit: Our Introduction

I have a little folding stool that I bring for visits with shy dogs. This allows me to sit low to the ground, with my head at about Smitty's eye level. And when I enter for the first time, I place it about six feet away from him, in the center of the room, so he can move all around me, as I will show you in a moment why this is important.

I sit very still for 2-3 minutes, ignoring him, making almost no eye contact, but I have chosen my spot so that I can observe him with my peripheral vision. I carefully calibrate his readiness, or lack of it. He is avoiding eye contact, and is "frozen" on his bench. I am silent, as he is noise reactive, so I don't want to add any auditory stimulation at this point. Not only is he stressed, but he appears to be sad -- yes dogs can be depressed! Who knows what his history was, or what he left behind. Dogs arrive at the shelter with all kinds of mysteries and invisible wounds.

These moments of absolute stillness on my part are an important part of our introduction because he is highly reactive to any movement, even movement outside his room. When people walk by it unsettles him and takes him several moments to adjust.

I wait for him to show signs of curiosity about me -- by making fleeting eye contact. This is my sign, and I open my treat pouch on my belly, letting the smell of hotdogs escape. This is the first time I have moved since sitting down. His nose twitches slightly. I toss a tiny piece on the floor, towards him, but about six feet away from me.

Now he has a choice -- stay in his safe space on the bench-- or go for the pungent morsel. This is a test for both of us. Does he feel safe enough to leave his perch?

Yes! He goes for it. I toss another little piece, this time about three feet away from me. He scarfs it up. So I toss another -- this one close to my feet. Game on!

The reason that I tossed treats, as opposed to "delivering them to him" -- is that he has to make the choice to move -- to come and get them. This movement helps his brain to "unfreeze." Even this small motion of his is helpful to lower his over-stimulated fear state - which appears as a frozen or stuck state. Whenever a dog can make his own choice, it helps him to move towards more autonomy and to feel his inherent inner strength. This is how we build confidence, one moment at a time.

I toss a few more treats, each time letting them land closer to me. I am not making eye contact, or any sound at this point. Now he is onto our pattern of treat delivery, he is following my hands closely, anticipating the next one. I keep my motions minimal and precise, eliminating any excess movements as I reach for the treat because extraneous motions require him to attend to them, which can trigger a stress response.

We are making nice progress. He is ready to take them from my open hand right by his mouth. I wait for him to swallow, then I reach for the next pea-sized morsel. This sets our pace together -- he is influencing the rhythm. Smitty is tracking with me completely -- which means we are now in sync. We are dancing. Who is leading? Hard to tell. He is watching me like a hawk -- or like a dog who knows how to play the game -- and wants to!

I slow the pace ever so slightly -- he has to wait just one or two seconds between rounds. This also helps him to both anticipate (positive stimulation) -- and to slow down because he has to wait. Immediately alternating between activities that stimulate the nervous system and actions that slow it down is -- in my opinion -- a key strategy to "reset" the brain of a traumatized person or animal. It promotes brain flexibility which is the antidote to trauma which can cause the "freeze" response to take over. "Freeze" is like the brain being stuck in the trauma response cycle, and it perpetuates itself with the slightest trigger. This is how trauma becomes repetitive behavior.

Now he is willing to be very near me, and watch me closely. I have not tried to touch him at this point, because I want him to be very "nose oriented." I don't want to stimulate any other senses too much, because if he is nose-focused, his natural curiosity emerges. Intense and focused sniffing is one way dogs can "reset" their nervous system. I have a theory that traumatized dogs often have their senses "out of order" meaning they are getting too much data from their eyes and ears. This leads to overstimulation, and it perpetuates an over stressed-state. This is why very smelly, high-value treats are so effective at this stage of interaction.

Thus, by stimulating his nose, and decreasing sight, sound and touch stimulation-- we move into "brain-neutral" - which is where new learning can happen. By leading him to be very "nosy" we have crossed an invisible barrier.

He approaches me now and is willing to make short eye contact -- all on his own free will. Having a dog make his or her own decisions is an essential part of recovery and a feeling of restoring resilience and empowerment.

Of course, now I must be examined fully. The advantage of sitting on the low stool in the middle of the room is he is free to explore me now from every oderiferous angle.

It is 106 degrees outside, and before I came to visit Smitty, I was in cat adoptions, holding Cricket a lovely black cat close to my heart. Martini, the cattle dog with Mata Hari eyes had taken me for a walk -- so in addition to my hotdog pouch, you could say I was "dog-buffet pungent." Smitty investigated thoroughly now. Loudly sniffing my backside, my armpits, the nape of my neck, my chest -- gathering a wealth of data about me that would make Facebook envious. I remain still and silent for this formal canine greeting process. And I know we have turned a corner.

He returns to the front of me for another round of the Christmas in September Means Hotdogs from a Smelly Human Game. Now I change the pattern, switching from right hand delivery to the left -- it odds novelty. Dogs like a mix -- patterns they can predict -- and novelty that means they learn something new. I add another new element, still using the "minimal motion precision" (I learned this technique from a Karen Pryor Clicker Chicken Training seminar). I take the treats out of my tummy pouch, which are about the size of a dime, and I break them in half in front of Smitty's eyes. This tearing causes more scent molecules to be released, increasing pleasure, making my hands more smelly (in preparation for touching him in the next cycle). He watches carefully, as dogs do -- and this slows the rhythm of reward, while still keeping him riveted to my every move. It also prolongs the game with pea-sized treats that mean we can play longer.

Smitty remains completely engaged as I slow the rate of reward down. If he wasn't able to stay 100% focused on this pace, I would speed it back up. This is all about staying in sync with each other. This ever so slightly reduced speed treat delivery causes fun anticipation, and rewards patience.

He is doing so well I introduce another new element -- a new motion. I put the treat from my right hand up to my forehead -- causing him to follow and FOCUS on my eyes. This is a bit challenging for him, making deliberate eye contact -- as his history has caused him to be avoidant of eye contact, perhaps because he was low in the pecking order or mistreated. Avoiding eye contact is a submissive strategy to stay safe.

But -- it's a smelly hot dog! How can you not look?! I only make him look for a fraction of a second - and reward instantly when he does. Then when he can handle almost a second, we slow it down, holding his gaze to almost a full second -- as he becomes more comfortable with this very brief eye contact. This is an important "shelter success strategy" because the ability of a dog to make eye contact with a human can greatly increase their chances of adoption. This is why I feel focused and increasingly sustained eye contact is such a valuable skill to teach shy dogs.

With the "Focus" moment in the middle, I am switching the treats from my left to right hands, and back again. When he has this new pattern figured out (which raises their confidence in themselves - that they can outsmart a dumb human!) I vary the hand pattern, making it less predictable -- two times with the right, once with the left, two times with the left, and so on. All in the spirit of fun -- never going faster than he can figure out what I am doing. It is not about tricking or fooling him, it is about entraining him to my rhythm, which creates connection and bonding.

Another reason for this "set a pattern/break the pattern" game is that he is having to move his head and eyes a lot to follow my hnd movements. Head and eye movements create positive stimulation and diminishes the "freeze response" that can get "locked in" for a traumatized dog.

Now that he is eating out of my open hand, which I am now keeping very close to my body, he is very close to me. I am opening my hand to reveal the treat, which means he is nuzzling me, getting used to my scent as well as the hotdog. This dog-initiated- proximity leads us naturally to preliminary touch. He is letting me scratch a few favorite spots. I go at his pace, watching for his cue that he is enjoying it, and stopping before he has had "too much touch." Too much touch for a shy dog, or too much too soon can have the opposite effect that the human hopes for.

When I pause from touching, petting, scratching, he nuzzles in, letting me know he wants more. He is thus communicating his desires and initiating physical contact and proximity.

Our first session together lasts about 20 minutes. I want to keep this session short for several reasons. He has made a lot of progress, and I don't want to overstimulate him. And I also want to keep our bond light, because he has to bond with other volunteers and staff, and we don't want to fall head over heels with each other, because then I would have to adopt him!

Second Visit: We get Cuddly

When I come back the next day, I am very lucky that Smitty the Pitty has been given a visit to Steve's private office in the Behavior Program that has less noise and no windows. This is perfect for us to make more progress because there are less distractions.

We progress through the steps we did in day one in about three minutes, as the trust is much higher now. He remembers it all, and we move through the stages in seconds. So I go sit on the couch and I invite Smitty to join me, which he does immediately.

And I get the slobber treatment.

We snuggle for awhile. Whoever adopts Smitty the Pitty is going to be a very lucky person. This is one sweet dog!

When I get up to leave, after about 20 minutes, Smitty is content and calm and shows no behavior that indicates separation anxiety.

Third Visit: Ready for Healing

For my third visit, I find Smitty back in his usual room, and he appears to have gone backwards a bit. He looks forlorn and listless. Now that a layer of fear has been lifted, a deeper sea of sadness is revealed. Healing is like an onion, and one layer opens the path for the next level to surface.

This seeming retreat is not unusual, as healing is not a straight line. I find him a blanket, and as soon as I come in, he is ready to cuddle. We spend just a little bit of treat time, but now he let's me know he is ready to be close -- and ready for the next stage of healing to begin.

I sit next to him, and he rests his head on my knee. Now that he is calmer and more trusting, I can begin doing some deeper healing work and the sadness surfaces. I do some gentle therapeutic massage, some healing touch, some TTouch and Reiki.

He settles into a very deep state of relaxation. He is not as reactive to noises, and when he does react, he can settle back down faster instead of remaining on agitated high-alert.

Anyone watching us from outside might think he was just sleeping. But this is the process of unwinding, and letting go of carrying the past.

In this calm state he can begin to unwind his nervous system. The little "dreamlike twitches" in his body tell me he is releasing old energy.

He is able to hold this very peaceful state of receiving healing energy for ten or more minutes at a time, until some disturbance outside makes him attend to the noise. But he is resettling much faster now after attending to the distraction. This is an excellent sign that now he is not so much being controlled by auto-pilot reactivity.

Lifting sadness takes energy, and so we begin a yawning sequence. Yawning can have many meanings depending on the context, but I use it as a form of calibrating our connection. So I yawn, and a moment later he yawns. We do this a few times, he copies my yawn, or maybe it was the other way around once we get going. Yawning is a good release of tension for both of us. Yawning can be contagious in humans and animals. It is a good sign that you are in sync and have good rapport with a dog who yawns in response to your yawn. Here he is yawning on the picture on the right.

I feel that Smitty has been carrying a heavy load of emotional pain and perhaps sadness in addition to his fear. But after our healing session, he was much more relaxed and content. His mouth was open, (picture on the left) a sign of relaxation in a dog, and after our "emotional surgery" he was ready to take a nap when I got up to leave. I checked in again on him about twenty minutes later and he was still sleeping peacefully and didn't even look up at me as I approached.

Smitty the Pitty is a delight to watch in the play yard. He has a high legged trot, like a prize show-horse. He has much more work to do on his healing journey, and he has many friends at the shelter who have been helping and will continue to serve him. With all this love and attention, I am certain he will emerge as a happy and loving dog. I am grateful to have had this time with him and will continue working with him until he is adopted by someone as wonderful as he is.

Great News Update: Smitty was adopted!!!! YIPPEE!!!

Genie Joseph, PhD

Director of The Human-Animal Connection

And here is Miss Martini who could be an eye makeup model.

And this is a purrfectly wonderful cat named Cricket.

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