Smitty the Pitty Emerges from Fear

Updated: Jan 28, 2021

Smitty the Pitty is a five-year-old precious and delightful dog currently at the Humane Society of Southern Arizona (HSSAZ) where he has 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