My dog Mayzie was rescued by Second Chance Animal Rescue in Colorado. At the time, she was about two years old and had lived all her life on the end of a rope in a backyard. She had little food or water and only the frame of a drawer for shelter. To the best of our knowledge, she had never lived in a house until she moved in with her foster mother. When we adopted her two months later, we knew her story and that she was a “sensitive” dog. But beyond that, we really had no idea what we were getting into. To be honest, I am not sure if we could ever be prepared for the enormous project we have embarked on. Mayzie was a really scared dog. She was literally afraid of everything.
A list of “Items That Terrified Mayzie” included: wooden floors, stairs, the oven, the dishwasher, the grill, the umbrella on our patio, the wind, ceiling fans, walks, getting in the car, getting out of the car .. Well, you have the idea.
Today, with a lot of hard work, patience, and cheese therapy, Mayzie is a happy, fun, and confident dog. Sure, there are things that still scare her, but she now has the tools she needs to deal with most things that get in her way.
But I remember how challenging those first days, weeks and years were. And I now understand that while there are many resources out there on how to help a frightened dog, they generally don’t prepare people for the unique challenges and rewards that come with it.
So if you’re just starting out on your journey or have been on it for a while, here are some tips to help out your anxious dog.
1. A fearful dog’s journey is not a straight line – don’t expect it
People seem hard-wired to get anywhere by the shortest and most direct route. However, if you are working with an anxious dog, it is best to accept that you are going the scenic route. You should prepare for setbacks and mishaps, and you may need to switch to a different route from time to time.
The fact is, setbacks will happen and they are perfectly normal when it comes to an anxious dog. But that doesn’t mean you failed. Even in the worst case scenario, you are unlikely to go back to where you started. If you stay the course, you will gain ground and get closer to your goal. So when there are detours, acknowledge them, but don’t let them discourage you.
2. Learn to enjoy perspective
After adopting Mayzie, I became hypervigilant about everything around us. What were the possible triggers on our walks? What could cause her to panic around the house? In all honesty, it was stressful because it seemed that Mayzie’s many boogeymen were always lurking around the corner.
But then I slowly realized something: I was seeing things in a way I had never seen before. Perhaps the flowers in one of my neighbor’s gardens had started to bloom. Or maybe someone else put up a new fence. And wow, I’ve never noticed this beautiful weeping willow on the street before. When I began to see the world through Mayzie’s eyes, not only did I help her, I was given the gift of appreciating the world around me in a whole new way.
3. Indulge in small victories when it comes to anxious dogs
One morning on our walk, Mayzie stopped and took several steps back, her body low on the floor. I immediately became particularly attentive. What threat did I miss? Then I saw it. After a heavy rain the night before, a large dahlia blossom had fallen on the sidewalk and in our path. Any other dog wouldn’t even have noticed. Not Mayzie. This was new and different, and in the past it might have panicked her to get away. I stopped and studied it for clues about best course of action.
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As I watched, she slowly crept forward on her front legs, neck stretched out, while somehow holding her back legs ready for flight. Closer and closer she came inch by inch until she was finally with the flower from nose to bud. As soon as she sniffed at it, all tension was released from her body. “Duh, mom, it’s a flower! And you were so scared, ”she seemed to say as she trotted off happily. It may have been unimportant to everyone else. But to me it was just another example of how far this scared dog had come. I smiled all the way home.
4. There will be tough days and you may want to give up
About two weeks after we adopted Mayzie, we had a really, really bad day. Anything that could go wrong did. I was at the end of my joke feeling completely on top of my head. As my husband and I climbed into bed, I sobbed and blurted out, “I don’t know if we can do this! Maybe we should return them to the rescue. “I shocked myself by saying that. I was raised to believe that having an animal like a child is a lifelong commitment, but I was tired and frustrated and just didn’t know what to do.
My husband looked me in the eye and said, “It’s ours now and we’re not giving it up. You will feel better after you sleep. ” And you know what? He was right. I woke up with a better attitude and a new determination to help my dog. This was by no means our last bad day, but I was better prepared for it in the future.
5. Remember – a frightened dog gets better
Five years ago I would never have believed where Mayzie is today. Never. I couldn’t have imagined a reality where she would love to go for a walk or where I could turn on the ceiling fan without a second thought. But here we are. Some days / weeks / months we felt like we were making no progress at all. But when I look back, I find that things got better, even if it was hard to see at the time.
One of the best pieces of advice was to keep a journal to keep track of progress. I started a blog. Maybe you prefer a notebook. But whatever you do, write it down. On difficult days it is very helpful to read how far you have come, how much progress you have made, and how it has really gotten better.
6. Raising a fearful dog is one of the most rewarding things you will ever do
I can’t even start counting all the hours and money I’ve invested in making Mayzie the dog she is today: happy, healthy, and with a full, rich life. Is she “normal” (whatever that means)? Well, no, I think not and probably never will be. She was too far behind the eight ball to ever fully catch up. But every minute and dollar I’ve spent has been worth it. All of the work we’ve done together has created a trust and bond that is rare and unbreakable. It was an amazing, challenging, insane roller coaster ride and I would do it again in a heartbeat.
It’s your turn: Do you have a scared dog? What was your greatest challenge or reward? Tell us in the comments!
Thumbnail: Photography © hidako | Thinkstock.
Originally published in 2014.