Monday, January 24, 2011

Getting a lost, fearful dog to come to you

The sweetheart dog in my passenger side seat
I was on my way home from work on Saturday when fate put me on the front line to help out a shivering cold, frantic and fearful lost dog.
As you near my house, you pass by a large chunk of state land open to hikers and hunters. There’s several areas to pull your vehicle over and enter the land via a vast network of trails.
I came up over the hill and saw a sedan parked in one of the pull-over areas. Then I spotted a mostly white dog, jumping on the car’s back door and scratching like it just couldn’t wait to get inside.
At first, I assumed the dog’s owner was either in the car or getting ready to get in the car. As I got closer, though, I could see there was definitely no one in the car, and in fact, no one in sight. I could also see, even from a distance, that the dog’s whole body was shaking with cold as it bounced itself off the car doors.
I slowed down as I passed the heartbreaking scene and decided to stop my car. There was a good chance the dog was really pawing at its owner’s car, I thought, and even though the dog probably would’ve stayed by the car until its owner arrived, I wanted to at least get the poor thing warmed up.
In my rearview mirror, I could see the dog looking curiously at my vehicle. It had stopped jumping on the sedan and was now facing me, it’s body language entirely conflicted.
This is a common sight among fearful dogs. Not that most people would have the knowledge to pick up on it, but conflicted body language is fairly common among fearful dogs who cope with their fear primarily with “fight” rather than “flight.”
The dog’s head was up, ears erect, eyes locked on my car and chest pushed forward — the dog is trying to tell me to stay away because it is ready to defend against advances I make.
At the same time, its tail is tucked as far underneath its belly as possibly can be and the entire back half of the dog is crouched low to the ground — the dog is also saying, “I’m entirely unsure of you and very scared right now. Don’t come closer.”
Now, my gut tells me fear motivates a lot of behaviors in this dog that are probably misconstrued by its owner as territorial aggression. But that’s besides the point.
Regardless of its day-to-day temperament, the dog was definitely experiencing high levels of anxiety over its current situation — losing its owner, freezing cold, unable to get in car. Even if it’s not generally a fearful dog (which I do believe it is), in that situation, it certainly was.
If I had gotten out of my car and tried to catch the dog, it would’ve ran from me. No question about it. And if I’d somehow managed to corner it, things could’ve gotten dangerous.
Luckily for this sweetheart, I know fearful dogs.
I opened my car door and remained facing forward, away from the dog. Cautiously, skittishly, the dog ran to the open door. With her nose quivering at the new scents and her tail still tucked, I carefully lowered my hand.
This is a crucial moment. If you stick your hand out, moving it directly at a fearful dog, you will very likely be bitten. The best case scenario would be the dog fleeing from you, but the most likely scenario is your hand will get bit.
So, I was careful not to stick my hand out to her. I just lowered it, keeping my palm on the side of the seat.
She sniffed my hand, then stepped up into the car with one paw as she continued sniffing past my hand and up to the side of my thigh. Her body was still shivering with cold and I swear, in that moment, she decided my car was “safe enough” or maybe “a good bet.”
She hopped right up into my lap and immediately jumped to my backseat, her nose going a hundred miles a minute — partly because she was smelling my dog, partly because ground/floor sniffing is a calming mechanism often employed by dogs dealing with fear.
I decided to turn my car around and park behind the sedan she’d been jumping at. She seemed pleased with this decision and decided to join me in the front seat. At first, she hopped into my lap and covered my face with kisses. Then, she curled up on my passenger side seat and started licking at her cold, red paws.
Eventually, I was able to get the phone number off her dog tag and called it.
“I’m not sure if this is the right number, but if it is, I think I have your dog,” I said when a man answered the phone.
“Oh thank God,” he said. “Thank God. I’ve been out in the woods searching for her.”
“OK, well I think she was waiting by your car,” I said. “We’re parked right behind it and I’ll wait here for you.”
In a matter of minutes, he came walking out of the woods. Her butt started wiggling at the very sight of him.
“She’s usually so good out here,” he told me. “I don’t know what happened; she must’ve gone chasing after something.”
I’ll save my off-leash diatribe for another day. Meanwhile, I’m still reveling in the beauty of being in the right place at the right time. I gave that dog the opportunity to warm up and then reunited her with her owner. A good deed makes a good day.
He thanked me profusely and I left it at that.
I wonder if he’s curious how I managed to make friends with her. If I had to bet, I’d say probably not.


  1. If everyone had Karen Workman's ability to read and interpret dog body language, there would be far fewer dog bite incidents and fewer lost and stray dogs. This dog obviously loves to be in a car, and Karen gave him the opportunity to test his hypothesis that hers was safe without feeling pressured or made to feel more fearful. Good on ya, Karen!

    (The only unintended consequence is that this dog may now want to jump into anyone's car just to become acquainted! LOL!)

    John Lieberman, Bark Busters Home Dog Training

  2. That's awesome Karen. I'm glad you were able to help this poor dog out.

  3. Why to go Karen. You did a good deed and provided some excellant education on dealing with a scared dog.

  4. opps! Meant to say WAY to go Karen.