This is the 2nd scenario I had to write about, for my ISCP Diploma in Canine Psychology (see yesterday’s post), about behaviour issues of dogs and how I would set about modifying them.
BEHAVIOUR ISSUE #2: Complete withdrawal
Lilly was a pretty Neapolitan Mastiff who was only in the Refuge a brief time. She was a really pretty dog, with beautiful brindle markings and a sweet rounded head. I’d had no experience with Neapolitan Mastiffs before, and to me Lilly looked like any other Staffy or Pit Bull, breeds that I love. So naturally I wanted to go into her kennel and sit with her and get to know her.
But Lilly had come to the Refuge a timid and scared dog, for reasons unknown. When I first saw her in her kennel, she was standing at the far end, looking away from me. I called to her, and she barely turned her head. When she saw that I was standing at the other end of her kennel, she seemed to freeze, and then quickly darted into the cubby hole where her bed was, as if to hide from me. Of course, I realise then I was a total stranger to her.
I didn’t know much about Lilly’s history or background. She was another surrender at the Refuge. We get quite a few big dogs that get surrendered for various reasons. Perhaps it was because she had fear aggression? Or maybe she simply grew too big for her home? Or her previous family had a new human addition and felt Lilly was too unpredictable to be left alone around the baby?
One of the volunteers had taken Lilly out for a walk earlier that day, and had only good things to say about Lilly. She recommended that I tried walking Lilly, in order to get her to come out of her shell so we could get to know each other. I got another volunteer, my friend Pilot, to take Lilly out to one of the Refuge’s exercise yards. As we walked from the kennel to the yard, I noticed how Lilly startled at everything – the birds whistling in the trees, the sound of the wind through the trees, even the scrabbling noises our shoes made on the gravel pathway. She was such a frightened dog!
Poor Lilly! All she did was lie at the gate to the yard, panting and trembling. She was so terrified of us that her flanks would shiver every now and then. She had her head turned away from us, and facing the gate, as if to say “Let me out of here!” No matter what we did to call her to us, she wouldn’t budge. Pilot even confessed that he’d been a little apprehensive about clipping his lead onto Lilly’s collar back in her kennel, as she seemed so unsure of herself and her body language was just screaming “Stay away!”
After trying for nearly 15 minutes to get Lilly to come out of her shell for us, Pilot decided to try getting low down on the ground, in case Lilly was afraid of our height and of people towering over her. We both lay on the ground, and as I tried commando-crawling closer to Lilly, I saw what can only be described as a shower of doggy treats hurtle past my head towards Lilly. It looked for a moment like it was raining treats! But of course it was only Pilot emptying his pockets, hoping to entice Lilly to come closer and get the food.
But Lilly only lay where she was, not even looking at us, and made no attempt at all to even sniff at the treats on the ground, or to get up on her feet. So, in the end, Pilot very carefully approached her and clipped on her lead, and we proceeded to bring Lilly back to her kennel. Even then, she would stop and startle at every little sound or movement.
The very next day, I went back to the Refuge to try to make Lilly’s acquaintance again. What a changed dog she was! What a pleasant surprise! She was in her kennel and saw me approaching her door. Instead of backing away or trying to hide, she seemed curious. As I entered her kennel, Lilly jumped up onto the ledge above the cubby hole where her bed was, so she and I were eye to eye. I was a bit apprehensive myself about this sudden face-to-face courage, but I had nothing to fear.
Lilly looked at me with her head cocked to one side, as I talked softly to her. I felt like she was assessing me, and trying to decide whether I could be trusted or not. As I raised my hand slowly towards her neck and started stroking the side of her head, she suddenly turned her head and nuzzled me. She gave me a few licks on my face, and my heart just melted. I felt that we’d made a strong connection, a bond. She took the treats I held out to her, and I knew then that she’d be fine with me being there.
I went and got Lilly some new toys, one of them was a light blue soft toy in the shape of a puppy, with a squeaker in its head and tummy. That very quickly became her favourite toy, and she would carry it in her mouth all the time, dropping it only to take a treat or two, before picking it up again and carrying it. It may well have been that she’d had puppies before she came to the Refuge, and perhaps she was remembering them and/or yearning for them. In any case, for the next few days Lilly was at the Refuge, until the day she got adopted, she never went far without that blue toy in her mouth. I told the Staff at the Refuge that Lilly was bonded to that toy and it should not be taken away from her.
Lilly wasn’t at the Refuge very long at all. In fact, I never got to play with her again after that, as she got adopted that very weekend. I did get a couple of photos of Lilly’s adoption emailed to me by one of the Staff at the Refuge, and my heart warmed to see that in both photos, Lilly had her blue toy with her. I like to think that at least she went to her new home with one familiar thing that she loved and could not be parted from.
If I’d had more time to spend with Lilly, I’d have liked to find out the reasons for her startling so easily at strange noises, movements and people. Perhaps in her previous home she’d not been acclimatised to that? Maybe she lived in a backyard (Backyard breeder? Puppy mill?) and had not been socialised properly when she was younger?
Whatever the case, my brief but sweet sojourn with Lilly showed me that even the most timid or scared of dogs can come out of their shells given enough time. Some will take longer than others, but eventually they will all show their true character. Lilly’s transformation from frightened dog to loveable lapdog only took a day or two, which to me indicated that she was capable of learning and being desensitized to external stimuli quite readily.
I always maintain that there are only 4 main ingredients to training a dog: love, patience, time and repetition. The trick is finding out in what ratio or for how long. And luckily, in Lilly’s case, she came round in no time at all, and went home to her forever family a happy dog.
The following images were curated from Pinterest. Hope you find them helpful in understanding your dog’s behaviour better!