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working w/VERY fearful adult dog and training speed/patience/are we doing it wrong?!

2171 Views 26 Replies 8 Participants Last post by  Bash-full
TLDR: We have been perfectly comfortable with the slow progress our extremely reactive, unsocialized adult dog is making, but we have gotten enough comments (mostly from non-dog owners!) that my partner and I are wondering if we're doing enough for her.

We adopted a bonded pair of Pyrenees mixes in February of this year, knowing full well that one was fairly well adjusted and the other was.... not. At all. Baelor is our male and he's got no major issues, especially considering the rough situation they came from, a hoarding/starvation case. They came in skin and bones and while Shae (the female) particularly eats like it's her last meal, neither have any food protection problems.

Shae is timid, extremely fearful, and distrustful of people. She is classic "all bark and no bite;" sometimes it seems like everything terrifies her and she'll alert but I've never once seen any hint that she would lunge, she's never bared her teeth, etc. She just shuts down completely when something really rattles her, eventually it's like she short-circuits and goes full PTSD and just crouches low in the closest corner, at which point we leave her be unless it's like, time for a vet appointment. To be clear, I know how quickly fear can turn to aggression, but just noting we've never actually seen aggressive behavior from her. She's fairly good with other dogs but hates people or any other new "thing."

ETA one important detail: after a few months and feeling like we had a handle on her as a dog, my partner and I (and the vet) all strongly aggreed that the level of baseline stress Shae has is just too much for her (or us) until she settles in more. She is on a very low dose of trazodone, which has been a miracle in terms of calming her just a tad while not doing anything to change her personality.

We've had other poorly socialized dogs and are familiar with confidence training, so that's what we've been doing for months. None of our past dogs have been as poorly socialized as Shae. We sit on the floor near her, not touching, and gradually put limbs closer and closer until she'd let us touch her. We go the long way around so we walk by and near her and pay her no attention. We give her so many treats for the slightest good behavior (because praise only seems to go so far) that now she's getting a titch pudgy. Her crate is open all day for a safe space. We separate her and Baelor for at least an hour a day and rotate who has who. We take them on walks both together and alone. ONLY positive reinforcement, which hopefully goes without saying. There's more, I'm sure; our whole routine feels tailored to making sure she is as comfortable as she possibly can be.

And we feel like it's working pretty well and she's making good progress, but then something inevitably happens, we try to share our good news, and other people are incredulous that it is taking so long. It wasn't until five months in that we could touch her without her flinching. Two weeks ago, Shae started taking treats from our hand for the very first time. Before, she would only take them off the floor or from her crate. We were ecstatic; this was a big deal for her and us. But when we tried to tell our friends about it, the reaction was basically "Oh... it's taken her six months to do that and you mean you're HAPPY about it?!"

It's not that I care about what others think of how we take care of our dogs, it's that it makes me worry we're doing something wrong and should be making quicker progress. At the same time, I'm aware of how long it can take to gain a fearful/unsocialized/abused dog's trust and feel like telling them to buzz off. But I don't know!! We don't want to push her any harder than is necessary to improve, and that's what we feel like we've been doing. Shae's foster mother was really excited to hear about the treats, so at least it made me feel a little better to know that someone who actually knows Shae understood how big that was for her.

Shae is still so fearful that she is doing REALLY basic obedience while Baelor is performing intermediate-advanced commands so we don't feel that a general training class is right for both of them at once right now. We're saving money for some sessions with a private trainer, but in the meantime could use any piece of advice you have.

Sorry for long post, thanks.
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You're doing VERY well. And those people are wrong. For a dog who has had a healthy, good upbringing, all of that stuff is normal and easy. For a dog who came from such an awful situation, progress is GOING to be slow. And some dogs will never EVER trust people. I think it's WONDERFUL how much work you're putting in and how patient you are with this poor dog. She's been through hell and she's starting to realize she's in a better place. For some dogs that takes a LONG time.

And it REALLY irks me that people's reaction is "wow it took that long" and not "wow you are so patient, how exciting!" Because I, for one, think it's AWESOME that she's starting to trust you!
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I adopted a Moyen Poodle two years ago that was raised in a box stall with no socialization at all. When they could not get her bred, they wanted to get rid of her so I took her in. I know how you feel when your dog first took a treat from you. When Izzy would go out through a door without bolting past me and best of all wagged her tail for me, it feels like a great accomplishment. Izzy was never snappy even when scared of everything. I never rushed her, I live on my own, seldom have visitors so could moniter all her interactions with people. She is still terrified of strangers and I have just started taking her into town to our small obedience group and just sitting on a chair beside me. I doubt she will ever be a "friendly" dog with strangers but she is so happy at home now, bouncing and playing with my other dogs, sleeps on my bed some nights but still prefers a crate which I leave open all the time. I hope your dog comes along as well but it really does take a lot of time before you see results but worth waiting for.
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Thank you both! I think I needed a bit of reinforcement myself lol.

crysania, thank you. I know logically that it can be slow, and in fact given what we know and Shae's personality, she's really made wonderful strides in a relatively short period of time. The comments still hurt, but your post made me feel a lot better. The silly thing is that we knew full well it could take a very long time and again, if anything she is being especially brave in her still-relatively-new environment. I just didn't really think about this side of it, the stupid comments. Oh well. As long as we are doing right by her, that's all I care about.

Kyllo, that all sounds so relatable. Some of this is just who Shae is and always will be. We've said from the start that she doesn't have to be the world's friendliest dog with strangers and probably won't be. If she can be comfortable with us and in her home, and able to mostly be in public (which she is already able to do), we'll be happy. It's also a little different because we have Baelor, who is a HUGE source of comfort for her even as we try to ensure that she is able to be her own dog and able to function without him. So it's mostly a good thing, but also have to try and loosen her dependence on him some. I wish you the best of luck with yours as well.
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It's so hard to do it, but ignore the stupid comments. And I do feel you on that. I didn't have an intensely fearful girl or anything, but when Dahlia first came home, she had pretty bad leash frustration reactivity. I remember we'd had her less than a month when I stepped off my porch and didn't see a guy jogging down the sidewalk with his dog. We had big bushes that blocked one direction of sight. Dahlia lunged at the dog and started barking and he stopped and started yelling at me and told me "well, maybe if you WALKED your dog she wouldn't be like that." That was 11+ years ago and that guy's comment has stuck with me all this time. It just bothered me so bad (like what did he think I was doing with her outside on a leash???).

And some time later in an agility class, someone I had not met before (I was stepping into a different class briefly) saw my girl being so very hesitant and having to be really encouraged through a sequence (she had NO confidence) and instead of being happy that she worked with me, came up and asked me why she was "like that." I ended up spending almost a year making jokes about how bad my dog was at agility before anyone else could pounce on me, It took a long time to come back from that ONE little comment.

So I know they SUCK.
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I would ignore other people's comments. Only you know your dog and know what progress is to you and her. People with "normal" dogs will never get it.
I think you are great. All dogs are so unique, especially considering what situation they came from.
Ignore their stupid comments.
I understand the excitement in your dog reacting to treats favorably after several months. Great job. My rescue Collie must have had terrible issues with matting on his rear as he would not let anyone touch him there at all. The rescue said a groomer would have to brush out the mats. That first visit was not fun for the groomer who said she did her best until Tobi insisted she stop if you know what I mean. At home I started by putting some peanut butter on the back of the grooming brush and just saying the word "brush" and letting him lick it. I then moved to brushing him with the back of the grooming brush beginning at his front. Basically petting and making it a pleasant experience with a special treat when done. After 3 months I was finally able to brush him with the wire side "gently" and now it is a non event. Patience is key with a dog.
In your case, if your dog likes some special treat like peanut butter [freeze them in a small ball] or cheese etc., try to enlist some friends and give them the treat then arrange to meet them on a walk so they can give your dog the treat and praise him. At first they may have to throw it on the ground but keep at it and eventually your dog will learn that these 2 legged creatures walking around are good to meet. Good luck.
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I remember the history well, and you've been tremendously persistent and made amazing progress, especially in light of the hurdles that you had to jump over. People comment but they don't know the history ... how can they understand...

I have a suggestion ... try "jealousy". ;-). While Shae is in the room, what happens if you brush Baelor, praise him, and toss him treats (more dramatic than just handing the treats to him) ? Will Shae come over to get a treat, or to pick up a fallen treat (and will Baelor allow her to "steal" a fallen treat?).

Continuing the idea of Baelor as a security companion, AND as a training model:
1. Will both dogs sit together on cue. If you pet Baelor, will Shae accept the same attention. Will she accept treats?
2. Can Baelor catch a treat- if not please try to teach him ... while Shae watches.
3. Can Shae catch a treat? Does she miss ... or is she scared of it? ... Is she scared if Baelor catches treats?
4. I agree that a class might be too much for her, but can you run Baelor through his paces and behaviors, while Shae watches, then try teaching her one or two of the simple tricks that Baelor knows, "teaching" them side by side?
5. Are there any other dogs that Shae will play with, maybe along with Baelor? Sometimes a timid dog will warm up to a gentle Golden Retriever, and then to the Retriever's owner, and after a few months possibly to other gentle dogs?
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I remember the history well, and you've been tremendously persistent and made amazing progress, especially in light of the hurdles that you had to jump over. People comment but they don't know the history ... how can they understand...
Thanks everyone! I really appreciate the encouragement and advice.


We do a lot of "jealousy"! ;) Sometimes it helps, sometimes Shae doesn't care. It's kind of comical because she is so attached to Baelor that you can see her trying to decide in scary situations if she wants to be near him-- he who approached the scary thing-- or if she wants to hang back for safety. It's sad, but also kind of funny, and thankfully we are no longer really scary things to her. Baelor doesn't love letting her "steal" a fallen treat, but he kind of will. He can sometimes be a little overly corrective with her, which is another thing we're working on. Most of the time it's because she steps on him, he snaps at her, and it's over so whatever, but sometimes he's just snippy with her for no reason which is not OK.

As for the rest:

1. Shae is still unsure about what we're asking for when it comes to obedience, but she is making progress. If we have Baelor sit, she won't really come sit by him but she is definitely curious, and will follow commands to "go to your [treat] corner," where she sits nicely and will take a treat. Beyond this, she still seems to be really scared by us reaching toward her with a treat unless she is in one of her safe spaces. Even with a treat, she'll run before we can get it close enough if she's just in a random spot.

2. Baelor can't catch a treat and seems disinclined to try lol. This is actually something we're working on, but he's so so gentle with taking food that he just kind of watches it fall. Even when we give him treats from our hand, I've never had a dog who takes treats so softly. I practically feel like I have to drop it into his mouth, even if he clearly wants it.

3. Tossing anything in Shae's direction still TERRIFIES her. If she's lying by the trash and I toss a tissue, she'll run. I don't think she's ready to have treats tossed directly at her BUT we do a toss/roll thing with her when she doesn't want to approach or be approached but has done something worth treating.

4. Unless we deliberately separate them, Shae is pretty much always with Baelor so she's always around when he runs his paces, and I do think this has been helpful. Doing this, we have managed to teach Shae "down" and "touch" and she's OK with sit but it still confuses her.

5. I'm sure there are some but I can't say we've gone out of our way to look, so this is a really good thought, thank you. My parents' dog pulled through her health scare so they do see and play with her, but not all that often.

I hope that helps answer some questions and I really appreciate your advice, you've given us a lot to think about.

Thank you everyone else again, too!
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Sounds like Baelor has a soft mouth, typical of a Golden Retriever. Are you sure you didn't adopt two ginormous Goldens? ;-) ... We were in PetsMart a few days ago, and a young Pyrenees about two the size of Mikee tried to play with him. Mikee was a little intimidated and barked that the Pyr ... and the Pyr just continued to try to play, not very concerned about the tiny little 80 lb dog that seemed to like barking...

A soft mouth is a good thing to encourage!

For catching a treat, if you're interested, you might toss a piece of kibble, broccoli, or cheese so that it hits Baelor in the face... If it doesn't tease him, and he just continues to let it bounce off him... Then I would take the hint ...

Same thing with Shae, clearly she doesn't like things tossed at her. Is there any way that you can hand her a piece of cheese or boiled chicken .... or leave it on the floor and walk away? If so, then after offering 3 - 5 pieces, you might try tossing it far away to your side, or to the side and behind her. If just raising your hand will trigger her, then it may take a few more years before she trusts the motion. My idea was Not to get them to catch, so much as 'counter-conditioning' Shae to like the motion that results in a treat...

If you sit by Baelor or by her [treat] corner, face away from Shae, ignoring her, and place a treat nearby ... or hold it in your hand resting on your knee or the floor, will she slip in to sniff and tentatively take the treat? Sometimes a dog will come close if you ignore her, or if you simply never look at her ???

It sounds like you do have a way through to her, by treating and paying attention to Baelor, while 'ignoring' her, or focusing briefly/gently on her ... keep it up!

Some Goldens and a few Labs are known for carrying around a 'security toy'. I wonder if Baelor might find a plush toy that he likes to carry [like a child with a teddy bear] ... and if Shae might get interested in the same or a similar toy .... to help with some gentle play?

Not sure if this is pertinent, but may give you an idea - Mikee was scared of the world [nothing like Shae], and playing with a smaller 40lb dog who played roughly but was non-aggressive, helped Mikee a lot, b/c when play was too much for Mikee, he growled or barked, and the other dog backed off immediately. [To over interpret], it seemed that Mikee could gain control of the situation when needed, so he learned to relax.

A different, smaller and younger 40lb dog was timid and intimidated by Mikee. After 5 or 6 play sessions, with Mikee trying to initiate play, the smaller dog realized that Mikee wasn't harmful, and the younger dog enjoyed being chased. At some point, the younger dog got braver, and they take turns - he now chases Mikee and knocks him down, and Mikee chases him ... It took a few months of weekly playdates, but they've both learned to play better and with other dogs.

It sounds like your parents' dog may serve a similar role ... Maybe you might find someone local with a dog like your parents' ?
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Sounds like Baelor has a soft mouth, typical of a Golden Retriever. Are you sure you didn't adopt two ginormous Goldens? ;-) ... We were in PetsMart a few days ago, and a young Pyrenees about two the size of Mikee tried to play with him. Mikee was a little intimidated and barked that the Pyr ... and the Pyr just continued to try to play, not very concerned about the tiny little 80 lb dog that seemed to like barking...
It's so funny you say that about goldens and soft mouths, because we haven't done DNA testing yet but have been absolutely CONVINCED that they are golden/pyr mixes of some degree, maybe with other things tossed in. Baelor's face doesn't exactly look like a golden, but his face/expression/general demeanor just gives us the same exact vibes as my cousins two purebred Goldens. Both of them are also quite small for Pyrenees mixes; they are only 65 and 75lbs. Not that I really care what their mix is; we adopted them a little for the Pyr blood and mostly because we fell in love with the dogs they are, but I never knew that about goldens and the soft mouth.

We will try teaching him to catch with higher value treats! I have a feeling they'll just bounce off his nose a couple of times and we'll stop, but there's no harm in trying. It can be really hard to get him to "do the thing" the first time-- it took DAYS to convince him to give me his paw the first time, I tried every paw-triggering trick and it didn't work and he finally just decided to-- but once he does it once, he learns FAST. So if we can get him to just chomp a treat we tossed him once, I think we could do it.

Yes, what you describe with giving Shae treats is completely doable and similar to what we do. She is definitely more comfortable when we aren't facing her for the most part; when we come in the door now she'll approach our backsides for sniffing but skitter if we actually turn to look.

THANKFULLY these scenarios are becoming fewer and farther between. We absolutely have ways to get through to her. She loves being on my bed, and that's one of the places she'll take treats right from us. She'll even extend herself if we hold out a treat. She accepts touches (reluctantly) on the bed or her treat corner or her own bed and is getting better with us looking at her, though she still prefers if we just pet her and look elsewhere lol.

She has basically three spots she takes treats from, her "treat corner," on my bed, and in a somewhat protected corner in my room. We are working on looking away and rolling/gentle tossing-that-doesn't-scare-her (there's a way) high value treats and trying to get her to take them, but it's hard keeping Baelor away from that and if she senses what we're up to she just retreats to a treat area. It's improving, though.

We've had a hard time finding the right toy. They are mega-duper destructive with toys, which is FINE, we've just yet to find a toy we feel safe giving them at all times. Both of them would destroy a toy before it could last long enough to be carried around. I'm not poo-pooing any ideas, just giving you the toy-playing background.

It's interesting you mention that about play time and smaller dogs. I think there's something to it. Shae seemed very comfortable at her foster home when there was a smaller dog around, and they both like Hailey. I'll have to put out some feelers around the neighborhood. Part of the struggle is finding the right dog OWNER who understands what a world apart Baelor and Shae are at this point, and who at least accepts that enough for us to have playdates. Of course, the genesis of this thread was the way people often don't understand! But lots of good dog owners out there who would also be happy to see Shae gaining some independence :)

Thank you again!
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Bingo! So both you just need to walk around with blindfolds or masks ... ;-) Seriously, try sitting on the floor facing a corner, with a few kibbles or treats in your hand resting on your knee. Maybe Baelor distracted by the other person or other hand?

Although, in general, Goldens and Labs are forgiving of mistakes, many Goldens are very sensitive, and will shut down when treated poorly, or even isolated from other people and dogs ... possibly part of the history?

When you find some friends for Shae, after a couple of playdates when she looks forward to seeing her friends, it might be interesting to see if Shae will accept treats and a touch from the owner while the friend approaches on leash?

Different dogs like different types of touching, I know I'm lecturing but humor me. ;-) Dogs may like to have their head rubbed, but most don't like a 'banging' pat on top of the head. They like to be rubbed/massaged/ brushed, but they may not like it initially. Most dogs like belly rubs, but may not lying on their back. Mikee has a 'pointed' back, so it hurts him to lie on his back (except on a deep, soft cushion), but he will stand up and lean against me, so that I rub his belly while he stands!

He has floppy, and he likes his ears scratched. When my nails are short, I put my thumb 'deep' into his ear (closest to his eye) and massage near the opening. I know I hit the right spot when he moans or sighs very deeply. The more that I addressed his 'trigger spots' when I first got him, the more receptive he was to attention and petting. It maybe similar with Shae?
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Bingo! So both you just need to walk around with blindfolds or masks ... ;-) [SNIP]
Sorry it's been so long since I've updated! Things are going well, with a couple of relatively minor exceptions. Where to begin...

Just general all around progress! In many ways, Shae is like any other somewhat-shy, somewhat reactive dog now. WELL, with us, that is. She still does not do well with strange people and that is clearly going to take even more time. Especially with her being a Pyrenees mix, it's hard to know sometimes when she's barking from fear and when she's getting more into a protective role-- in her eyes, anyway ;) She will now tentatively approach us for treats or else nicely go to her spots, in the morning she has started looking for a "good morning" pet, and just generally seems all the more confident and self assured. She enjoys relaxing on my bed even when Baelor isn't in the room and no longer needs to see him ALL the time. She is giving him some more space.

We have been joking lately that Shae is the only one really enjoying quarantine because she's stuck in with her three favorite beings (with plenty of walks around the neighborhood, of course).

Hanks, YES! It's so funny you say that, Baelor and Shae are pleasure-grunters. So we have been using that as a map to her good-touch spots. She also likes being scratched/massaged around the ears and neck. She clearly does not like lying on her back around us still, but she will move her leg so we can reach the inside better.

I would say the couple of problems we're still having is that she just hates being approached. Sometimes if we're REALLY tentative, we can, but any normal movement freaks her out, even if it's with a treat. The best we can do right now is kind of walk towards her holding out a treat and she'll shrink back but then approach if we stop, though granted that is a huge step from where we were so it probably just needs even more time.

The other big thing right now is the barking, which again is a little complicated because of her mix and some of it is clearly just in her blood but some is fear based. Also, more specifically, we are vexed at how often she seems to bark AT us. That's what it looks like, could be misinterpreting. But she certainly barks a lot in our direction and we aren't sure if she's barking at us specifically, the things we're doing (often not "new things" for her), or something else entirely. It's just a lot, but she does calm down pretty quickly if we just say her name so... :: makes scales with hands ::

She also does seem to be extraordinarily noise sensitive, but that's always been true and it is a little better and probably also her Pyr blood. We wonder too if she could be a bit near-sighted the way she sniffs things and us sometimes, or if she just relies on her sense of smell a lot.

Our concerns are getting more and more minor, though, and otherwise, it's slow and steady and doing great.

Thanks again everyone!
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Oh, I forgot to mention the other big thing, which is that Shae is finally really getting the hang of some commands, which is a great development. She's been so-so with them for a while but it's clear at this point there's a handful she actually knows down pat, which also speaks to her comfort in taking treats from us and actually getting that positive reinforcement. She and Baelor are the best.
Glad things are working out. One thing I've observed is that shy dogs that weren't socialized, may not learn the difference between their inside voice and their outside voice. ;-) So they don't know how to distinguish between a fear bark, an annoyance grumble, and a whining "bark'. Play interaction with other dogs may help, if you can swing it, so that Shae can broaden her 'vocabulary'...
Just an update... Shae continues to make great progress. She has largely settled in here, is so much more trusting, and is more comfortable with touch. She has learned a number of commands and is not afraid when we are paying attention to her. She even knows "close the door," with her snout. She has begun to hold her own more when Baelor is a little snappy at her for no reason, which is good. Other than the general pattern with such a reactive/unsocialized dog of progress and then a little backsliding, she has been steadily improving week by week. She takes treats well now, does not have to be in her "treat area," and last night rolled on her back fully for a belly rub for the first time.

She still doesn't really understand the difference between her outside and inside voice, but we're working on it. Both Baelor and her seem to understand that when they bark too much, they come in my room (where they are much quieter.) At this point, we just have to say "Baelor..." if he's being loud and he comes in himself, if we tell Shae "come to daddy's room," she'll come, too. So at least we have a solution for not driving the neighbors crazy but I'm hoping she'll eventually learn the difference. It's hard to know what is her, what's her Pyrenees background, what's fear, etc.

But really, she's doing just great!
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It is three years this month since Izzy came to live with me. At home, with just me there, she acts like a normal dog, coming up for pats, letting me step over her when she is lying down, has been to the little dog park we have in our small town (but even with my other dogs, never enter it unless it is empty which is most of the time) Walks good on leash and will come to me everywhere. I have not tried to socialize her with strangers as she gets so upset, sits and shivers, but wonder if I should be doing more. Do you do any obedience with Shae, like sits and downs? My other dogs will all sit and wait till I say their names before they can come in the house or go through a gate but so far I have just let Izzy come in first.
Patience and progress! I have no suggestions for inside vs. outside voice - a dog can learn to 'whisper' and can learn 'quiet' on cue ... But, if I'm quietly petting Mikee and he looks out the wind to see he knows walk by - FRIEND!!! right in my face, and I have to get up and walk into the other room to pick up my skin, and step back into it. ;-)

Based on the amazing progress that you've made in a year, I'm sure Baelor and Shae will continue to improve. Plus, I imagine you've had a little more quality time with them in the past few months ;-)
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