Updated: Feb 17
This is Buff. He was a stray dog who
was very shy and afraid to be touched. Although he was a total sweetheart, he was overlooked by potential adopters because he was just too scared of human contact. In a kennel full of 300 dogs clamoring for attention from people walking by, Buff was easily missed because he didn't want to look anyone in the eye. He simply avoided anyone who looked at him. That is why this beautiful boy spent four months at PACC - Pima Animal Care Center, the municipal shelter in Tuscon, Arizona.
Fortunately, PACC has amazing, caring volunteers and staff -- and they didn't give up on Buff. They brought him to their doggie playgroups, although he cowered in the corner, even with the gentle dogs, he just tried to make himself invisible.
The first time I met him, I sat outside the play yard, on the other side of the fence. I began doing the healing work I do, The Trust Technique, which doesn't require touch or physical contact.
After about twenty minutes of watching me from his corner, and I believe responding to the healing energy I was offering, he decided to brave the thirty-foot diagonal walk over to me. The other dogs immediately took notice and surrounded him, a few tried to hump, but he slowly made his way through the doggie gauntlet. He plastered himself against me on the other side of the chain-link fence.
I knew then that he had chosen me to help him. I was so touched by his shyness, even though he couldn't look at me, it was as though he knew that there was something that I could do to help him release his fear. And I knew that I had to try.
Volunteer Trainer, Lynne Stott from PACC's training team, Top Dogs, and I began to slowly introduce him to a new world of connection. It was very important to work at his pace, to not rush him in any way. We didn't initiate any eye contact or touch at first. That would have been more than he was ready for. And could cause him to retreat further.
I let him explore the small meet-and-greet adoption room where we were working with Buff. It was important to let him set the pace. I let him drag the leash as he began to orient to the room's boundaries, sniffing all the dogs who had come before him. He would pace, explore, then come close to Lynne or myself for just the briefest moment.
At this early stage, it is important not to reach out, but to let him come to us when he was ready. We stayed very still and nearly quiet so as to show him how he could also settle down in our presence.
In our stillness, he began to relax -- slightly. He began to initiate contact. Only when he would approach, would I then begin to briefly touch him. He seemed to enjoy the new touch. But then his fear would resurface and he would go off and explore the room perimeter again.
Of course, I would immediately let him feel the freedom of choosing when to have contact, and when to disconnect. This is an important principle in the Human-Animal Connection. We are always attending to the dog's rhythm of moving towards us and then moving away. He would repeat this cycle many times, and each week when I would come to work with him, he would move towards me and then away, in a certain rhythm that was good for him. Knowing that he could come close and engage, to be touched and that he also had the freedom to disengage is one of the ways you build trust with a shy dog.
The next week he was moving closer and staying in connection longer. He was responding to several of the healing touch methods I use. It was clear that this was a dog that loved to be touched.
He began initiating eye contact and even holding it. I felt he was saying "Thank you. For not giving up on me."
In the Human-Animal Connection program, we like to teach all dogs, especially shelter dogs to make and enjoy eye contact. When I ask adopters what it was that made them pick a particular dog in a long line of kennels, filled with excited, hopeful dogs, I often hear "It was the way he looked at me. I just couldn't leave him at the shelter!"
Making eye contact is not easy or natural for all dogs. But it is a learnable skill. Dogs that are bred to be service dogs learn how to "focus" on a human's eyes - and this training begins with eight-week-old puppies.
Of course, you should never stare at a dog who is not your own, as it may be taken as a sign of aggression, and the dog may lunge or bark, or worse. But if it is a dog you have a trusting relationship with, the ability to have a good eye connection is invaluable for training and bonding. For shelter dogs, learning to make and enjoy eye contact greatly increases their chances of adoption.
Buff became a master at eye contact. Not just looking into your eyes, but looking into your soul. He had the ability to melt me in a moment. He could make me forget all my troubles with one gaze.
Buff was making great progress, but doing this healing work in the shelter environment is very stressful. Taking him to and from the kennel meant I had to pass fifty or so other jealous and hopeful dogs. "Where are you taking him?" they might be saying as they barked ferociously, leaping several feet in the air, flinging themselves against the kennel doors. "Why aren't you taking me?!" It was hard for Buff to pass through this kinetic frenzy. And, honestly, it wasn't my favorite thing either. It was hard not to feel guilty that I was choosing just one.
Gail Smith, one of the Top Dog volunteer trainers suggested I take Buff out for an outing, to get away from the shelter for just an hour or two. But because he was so scared, he could easily bolt, or pull hard in pure terror of the slightest noise or new thing he might hear or see or smell. I had no idea if he would even be willing to get into my car, or if he would be calm as I drove. Only one way to find out!
Turns out I didn't need to worry.
Buff was built for car rides. Perhaps his previous people had introduced him to the wonderful world of private transportation. Each week I took him for an outing. A break from shelter life. A taste of sharing a life with a human. And the oh-so-stinky joys of junk food.
Oh, why didn't somebody tell me about drive-through Dairy Queen? Thank you, Mama!
Honestly, as much fun as Buff was having, each new thing was still scary, and I had to be prepared to just go back to the car -- the safe place. After a few minutes of new things, Buff would reach his threshold and need a "safety re-set."
I was continually reminded of how scared he was of things he hadn't ever encountered, like automatic swishing doors when I took him to Petco. Just the "whoosh" of these doors made him start to bolt.
But I used my sweet, reassuring doggie voice to calm him down, and he was willing to enter -- with his tail plastered between his legs, and glued to my side. But he discovered where treats come from!
We were making so much progress. I knew I had to cross the boundary, and take him for some quiet, homemade love.
PACC has this wonderful program where you can take a dog home for a sleep-over to give him or her a break from the shelter and for a taste of the Life of a Pampered Pooch. But how would he do with my little dog, Sophia? A rescue dog who has to let any dog know she is The Big Boss of The Universe!
Well, after her perfunctory "I am the Queen and don't you forget it" bark -- things went pretty well. I introduced them in the yard, and let Buff experience the healing power of the freedom of choice -- to go where he wanted, to trot, to relax by the fence, to explore every scent. This process of experiencing freedom within boundaries helps to reset the brain. Soon we were ready to come inside.
And not only does Buff have amazing dog etiquette, but he also turned out to be a Cuddler Extraordinaire. From a dog who once winced when touched, he just couldn't get enough. Such sweetness that had been hidden under an avalanche of fear was now melting away. And of course, there was no question - he had decided on the sleeping arrangements.
The moral of the story, never give up on a scared dog, as there is so much goodness waiting to surface. I feel honored to have known Buff. He touched my heart so deeply. We all have fears that keep us from being our true selves.
A week later, Buff had made so much progress he was my demonstration dog at Sol Dog Lodge where I was teaching a class in animal massage. He and Sophia were on the table together demonstrating that loving touch is a healing power that's good for the Soul.
The day I returned him to the shelter (Oh, my God, don't ask how hard that was!) --
BUFF WAS ADOPTED!
Yeah!!! I hope his new owners will spoil him completely.
Thank you, Buff, for showing me that anybody can heal.
A special Thank You to all the dedicated PACC staff and volunteers.
And to all the volunteers out there who help animals heal!
Here's a one-minute video about Buff featuring our friend, Grandpa Steve's song
"Take Me Home, and I'll Love you."
Genie Joseph, PhD
The Human-Animal Connection
Please read my book: The Human-Animal Connection - Deepening Relationships with Animals and Ourselves.
Here is a two-minute video about our program.