Archie, a 3-year-old Miniature Schnauzer, was given to me by a lady who rescued him from a shelter. She didn’t feel he was happy with her, as he has always been a very frightened, shaking dog. When her grandchildren came over, Archie would stay under the bed for three days.
My son came to visit and did not approach Archie. He let the dog come to him, and he didn’t try to pet him, but Archie ran to me and was visibly shaking. When he gets scared, he also pees on the spot. He stays by my side or on my lap constantly. We have two other dogs that are older.
How can I work with him to help him?
– Ruby, Wilmington, N.C.
The first thing I strongly suggest you do is take little Archie to your veterinarian, provide the details you gave me and request a neurological evaluation. This is simply to rule out any physical cause of his extreme fear, and is critical for evaluation purposes when prescribing a behavior-modification program.
If Archie gets an all clear, your veterinarian may decide that he could benefit from temporary medication while you begin a behavior-modification program. Then it’s time to call a behavior expert — a trainer or behaviorist who has a strong history of working with extreme fear. Ask your veterinarian for some referrals, and I’ll give you contact information for a great place to start your search after my suggestions, which will carry you through until your first appointment.
Archie may be diagnosed with a form of post-traumatic stress syndrome, which dogs can suffer from, too. The way your son didn’t go to Archie, but allowed him to approach on his own, was precisely the way to greet him, but we’re looking at a level of fear that requires even more of a hands-off approach to help Archie realize he’s no longer in the potential danger he perceives he may be in. Seeing your other two dogs being happy, relaxed and not fearful will certainly be a good influence and help Archie achieve and keep a better outlook, but doesn’t guarantee that outcome; I’m glad to hear you’re ready to get started helping him!
The best way for everyone in the household but you to interact with Archie is to not make eye contact with him. Have everyone start providing Archie with the things he needs and wants, in a completely hands-off way.
Have your son or another family member feed Archie by being the one who sets the food bowl down — taking care to not lean over but to squat down, away from Archie’s direction, and not looking at him at any point. He should softly say, “Here you go, Archie,” then walk away.
Is Archie concerned your other dogs will eat his food? If so, he should be fed in an isolated area for now to lower his stress level, but be sure he doesn’t feel cornered by someone entering the room; have them put the bowl down just at the doorway. Be sure Archie is fed about six times a day, breaking up the usual amount of food he’d eat in a day, so he doesn’t get overfed.
Same thing with toys, water, treats, etc. — the more frequently someone else besides you unthreateningly provides Archie with his life resources, the better. What you want to work toward is letting Archie know when you’re pleased with a response he gives to something that could have seemed threatening to him, so you’re in a position to praise it. It’s true that if we don’t see, hear or feel something, we don’t acknowledge it, and the behavior doesn’t have a chance to be reinforced.
So make the word “yes” very positive for him, by petting him and saying it for no reason when he’s near you, and give him a tiny treat, like a bit of string cheese. Be sure to do this when he’s calm and nothing else is going on around you. You’re not praising him at this early stage, just making a connection — you’re making an emotional “bridge” with the word “yes” so that when Archie shows any behavior you like, you will be able to say “Yes!” and let him know he’s on the right track. But for now, be sure he’s not showing any signs of stress when you say “Yes.”
After after five or six short sessions of this, you can now use “yes” when Archie doesn’t react fearfully to anything or anyone, so you’ll have to really watch him to catch him in the act of not being fearful. Whenever either of your other dogs approaches another family member, give them a “Yes!” too. They don’t need it; you’re just modeling the use of the word for a behavior you like. Of course you can always teach your other dogs “Yes” so you can reward their good behavior.
Have everyone in your household choose a time when they can spend 10 minutes helping Archie.
Holding a piece of chicken in their hand, they should walk in the door sideways, not looking at Archie, and then move away from him, but stay within his sight. They should then lay down flat on the floor, their face turned away from Archie. They should hold the piece of chicken in the hand closest to Archie, reach out and offer it to him, but not say anything.
You will be on the sidelines, offering a “Yes!” to even the tiniest good sign, like Archie simply looking at the person. Start with the very tiniest thing like that! If Archie actually takes a step toward the person on the floor, another “Yes”! If he runs straight for your lap, just continue what you were doing without petting him — let him jump up so he feels safe, but don’t make a big deal of it. We want Archie to learn (at whatever pace that takes) that everyone else is a safety zone, too; that’s why you should let others provide Archie with the good stuff.
If you’re able to dedicate a whole day to people taking turns during this, it will speed things along. Please remember: Do not push it too fast for Archie! Let him always initiate movement and contact. Eye contact is extremely threatening to a terrified dog, and a glance at this point may send him running. Patience is critical; you’re on Archie’s timeline, not yours.
You’ll see a gradual deterioration of the fear-peeing, too. We look like giants to Archie, and even though he may have something in him that wants to say hi, he’s just too scared by our towering height right now. No leaning over to pet him! Who knows what happened to him in the past? Even if you did know, the advice would be the same.
This is just the beginning, but it will get you started and your trainer will take it from there. Please call at least five people before hiring Archie’s trainer, making sure they use positive reinforcement and motivational techniques.
Also, I highly recommend getting a book or video by Turid Rugaas, an expert in canine body language. My favorite dog book site is dogwise.com, and they have videos, too. Another incredibly helpful site is dogstardaily.com, which was created by Ian Dunbar, the behaviorist who created puppy classes and gentle, positive training methods. There you’ll find a Library of Congress-sized archive of videos, articles and blogs by Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) members. You can search this archive for free information on how to work with fearful dogs. And, at the APDT site, you can start your trainer search by clicking “Find A Trainer” and typing in your zip code.
I sincerely appreciate your taking Archie home with you and being willing to help him get much more comfortable. All your work will pay off in huge, immeasurable ways.