Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Introducing my fearful dog to new people: a summer of hard work and great success

Last May, Brent's coworker, Alan, was in need of a ride home from work. We had just dropped off our truck at the shop to have some work done too, and Brent was also in need of a ride home. I arranged to pick him up and on my way, he called to tell me Alan needed a ride too.
"No problem," I told Brent.
Alan said his wife, Allison, could pick him up from our house — she worked nearby — and so it all worked out.
It was the first time I'd met the couple and instantly, the four of us hit it off as friends.
That first night, they admired the photos of our dog — who was put away in the bedroom, as he doesn't meet new folks very well — and asked us to bring him out.
Sensi & Alan in the car on the way to the park earlier this year
"He's fearful," I told them. "He doesn't do well meeting new people, but if you guys can promise to follow a few rules, I can bring him out."
The rules speech in my house goes something like this: "Don't touch him — I mean it, or he'll bite — and don't talk to him, don't make prolonged eye contact with him — it's OK to look at him and stuff, but if your eyes meet, just look away. Don't hold eye contact — and don't sit on the floor. Basically, just totally ignore him. Act like he's not there and he'll be fine."
They were fine with that, and we felt like they were the type of people who both heard us and would listen to us, so I brought Sensi out on his leash. I walked him around the table we were sitting at, stopping briefly at each of their chairs so he could sniff their feet, and then brought his bed next to where I was sitting and asked him to lay down.
Everything went well. They never made contact with him that first night and he was perfectly calm.
After a while, I let him off the leash and gave him some toys to play with and stuff to chew on. He was content and his playful antics garnered their admiration.
That was night one.
As is often the case when forging friendships, it took a little time for the bond between Alan and Allison and Brent and I to grow.

Night two: Around the fire
About a month later, we invited them over to a bonfire with some of our other friends. Again, we initially had Sensi in the bedroom.
"Bring your dog out, Karen!" Allison scolded me. "We know the rules, we won't break them. But how is he ever going to get used to us if you don't bring him out?"
"OK, I'll go get him — but remember, no touch, no talk, no eye contact and stay in your chairs, let us know if you need to get up to go inside," I said.
I brought Sensi out, first keeping him on his leash and again walking him past their chairs for a quick sniff of their feet. He eventually got put on the long chain, as we usually do around the fire.
Later that night, our little shin-dig moved to our open, unfinished basement. Alan and Allison watched while our other friends played with Sensi; Alan threw the ball for him a couple times, both of them were allowed to toss him some treats — which he gladly gobbled; a good sign.

Night three: Dinner and a dog kiss
A couple weeks after that, Alan and Allison joined us for dinner.
This time, we didn't put the dog away at all, but kept him on the leash as they entered the house. He was allowed another foot-sniff and stayed on the leash for a half hour or so before I let him loose on some new toys.
The same rules still applied, except this time, we let Alan and Allison throw the ball for him. And this time, Sensi brought it right back to them and dropped it in their laps for another go.
The couple really enjoyed interacting with Sensi, and we really enjoyed watching our dog take this big step in becoming comfortable around new people.
After dinner, we were sitting around the kitchen table chatting when Sensi suddenly walked up to Allison, put his front legs on the edge of seat and gave her a big kiss on the cheek. He immediately turned his head away from her and removed himself from the area after the quick lick — telling me he was growing trust, but still not totally sure.
Allison was pumped, though. She still talks about that first Sensi kiss.
"Who'd have thought he'd just decide to jump up and kiss me?" she's said to me. "I knew right then that we were going to make friends with him."

Sealing the deal 
By then, Alan and Allison and Brent and I were spending an increasing amount of time hanging out and taking turns cooking dinner. This meant Sensi saw them with greater frequency, and so the trust-building came a lot more quickly.
They got into the habit of picking him up tasty treats for whenever they stopped by. Pretty soon, we could tell Sensi "Your friends Alan and Allison are coming over" and he'd get all happy and butt-wiggling; racing to the windows to see if they'd arrived.
Within a couple more visits, they were allowed to pet him. By that time, Sensi liked them so much there was no fear.
They played with him, pet him, talked to him and Sensi was all about conning them into endless games of "throw the ball for me" when they came over.
In August, Alan asked if he could sit on the floor so he could work on his laptop from our coffee table in the living room.
"You know what?" I said. "I think that's going be just fine. Sensi has consistently displayed nothing but affection for you guys for the last few visits and shown no fear. Go right ahead."
So he did. Sensi came over and kissed his cheek, then ran and got a toy.
By fall, Alan and Allison had earned 100 percent of my fearful boy's trust. It might've been a summer of hard work and lots of patience, but in the end, it paid off tenfold.
Sensi has even slept in the bed with them on a couple occasions, and I've promised them that they're first in line to dogsit when the occasion arises.
They love Sensi. Sensi loves them.
"This is the first dog I've ever really bonded with," Alan told us. "I know he's got the fear issues, but aside from that, he is like the perfect dog. He doesn't jump or nip or beg or do any annoying stuff. Usually I get so irritated with dogs, but he's not irritating. I just get to enjoy him."
I appreciate the compliments.

The lesson
Meeting and befriending Sensi was a huge factor in Alan and Allison's decision to get a dog.
"We want our own Sensi," they so often told us.
Alan really wanted to ensure that he could get a dog to behave like Sensi, who is calm and lazy until you engage him in playing or walking, and has great house manners.
I promised to help them with training, but I cautioned them too.
"You have to understand that Sensi has always had a calm nature. As a puppy, he was very timid. So one of the things you want to look for is a calm puppy," I said. "But also understand that timid puppies are often or can easily become fearful, which can lead to problem behaviors like we have with Sensi now."
Either way, I promised them I'd be there for them.

Allison with puppy Reese, who is now available for adoption
A year later
In mid-May (a couple weeks ago), Alan and Allison brought home a 10-week-old beagle and labrador mix named Reese.
Right off the bat, Sensi decided he hated her.
"Kind of ironic," Allison observed. "We spent all last summer getting Sensi used to me and Alan, now we're going to spend all of this summer getting Sensi used to our dog."
Except it didn't wind up that way. Two weeks after bringing Reese home, they brought her back.
A tearful Allison called me last Thursday to say, "We just can't do it. She's just not the right dog for us."
Allison was right, and tomorrow, I'll talk about why and the implications their story has for just about anyone looking to bring home a puppy.

Read previous posts about Sensi & Reese
Adult dog doesn't like puppies, what do I do?
Getting an adult dog to like a puppy — Exercise 1 "Picnic at the Park"

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