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Unsocialised, fearful young dog

Michael M

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Hello, I have just joined and it was suggested by one of the members that I look at this particular forum topic for possible advice, as I have just adopted a totally unsocialised and extremely unconfident young American Cocker Spaniel.
His name is Harry and I think he has spent 12 out of 14 months (I’ve had him for 2 months) in a breeder’s kennel. He was being kept as a stud dog but the breeder changed her mind and put him up for sale. She did mention he was a bit timid but it’s now clear he’s absolutely scared of just about everything. On the upside, he is very loving (albeit still slightly distrustful of us and strangers) and he is very bright. He went from going to the toilet anywhere, to totally house trained within one week. He loves to play and he likes other dogs. The downside is his unpredictable fear of just about anything. For example: he might not be scared of the ‘vicious dog eating postbox’ in the village today but the chances are he will drop flat and refuse to approach it tomorrow. On top of that, he doesn’t just bark when he’s frightened, he actually lets out the most blood curdling screams. Honestly, you’d think he was being tortured. Travelling in the car causes him to shake violently and mess himself with fear. Sadly, the list is quite endless, it’s fair to say the poor little fella just doesn’t enjoy life outside the house.
Any good advice / tips / suggestions would be really welcome. Thanks
Poor lad, it must be awful for him. But don't feel pressured to walk him every day if it's that stressful. If he can be exercised in the garden, a few days of not walking will bring his stress hormones down. When stressful events happen, cortisol builds and builds, making each new stressful thing more likely to trigger a reaction. Like the final straw that breaks the camel's back.

I don't know if you ever came across Maslow's hierarchy of needs in school. Basically, it says that any sentient creature needs to have basic needs met (safety, food, shelter) before being able to meet higher needs (learning). What that means for him is that he can't learn that things are not frightening while he is actually in a state of fear.

My suggestion would be to start with an empty stress tank, go out, and when he finds something like the postbox to be scary, listen to what he is telling you and help him move away from it. That in turn will build his confidence that you aren't going to push him beyond what he is able for. Then he will trust you more. In time - maybe a lot of time - if you reassure him in scary situations he may feel up to pushing himself a little bit more because you are telling him it's OK.

If that's too much for him, maybe even sitting at your door watching things and people might be an alternative for starting.

Does that make sense?

You could also try an adaptil collar. It replicates the hormone a bitch has when nursing and is supposed to have a calming effect.
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Two months isn't long for such a traumatised dog. I agree with JoanneF - for me, the key mantra is 'Always work within your dog's comfort zone'. If he's happy to walk to the end of your drive and then go home, that's fine - next week he might be ready to go a few feet beyond it. And making him realise that he doesn't need to get close to dog-eating letterboxes if they're scary that day means that they'll become less scary. My dog used to be scared of dustbin lorries and similar, and I never made him approach one if he didn't want to - eventually, he would look at the lorry and decide that, yes, he was OK to pass it today, and walk briskly past. But it was always his choice.

Can you avoid taking Harry anywhere in the car for a (possibly long) while? In the meantime, you could walk him past the car and give him a treat when he's alongside, build up to stopping next to the car, treat, and move on, opening the car door and closing it again without getting in, treat, move on... You'd move up to quality time on the back seat together without going anywhere, you in the front and him in the back (or wherever he goes), starting the engine, driving two feet......
Thank you to both Joanne and Judy. All good sensible advice and tips. I think a fair bit of what you have suggested is already being slowly introduced, so it’s good to know I’m not doing anything wrong. Funnily enough, while I’m writing this, Harry, who has had a very good morning today, has just noticed the new bag of firewood kindling sitting on top of the logs. That wasn’t there before, so he’s just gone ballistic, screaming at it to go away. Maybe he just has OCD and I’m not putting things where he thinks they should be. Oh well, we’ll just have to have some quiet time together now while I calm him down. Thanks again for your helpful inputs.
It might be worth getting something from the vet. I'm not someone who suggests medicating lightly, but if he is so bad it might help take the edge off, while you work on things. Like for people, medication doesn't have to reduce him to a zombie - but do be careful because some meds will suppress his reaction rather than his fear. That would mean he is just as terrified, but can't do anything about it. And that would be awful.
A friend has a rescue dog who is on meds for OCD - he often spins and tries to bite his tail/rear end. He spent the first years of his life, and it has been suggested that this is linked to flashbacks of when rats would attack him :-( The meds have helped him a lot, so yes, it might be worth having a word with your vet.
I concur with previous comments. We’ve always taken on rescues (whippets) and they’ve each come with various issues. Our current adoptee came with the mother of issues and angst. She’s been with us for 2½ years and, although there’s marked improvement, there’s still some way to go. It took her ages to relax with me and we’ve put that down to her distrust of males - God knows what she’s been through. As for the car, at first she would tremble and then throw up. Once again we’ve put it down to previous experiences. However just sitting in the car with her without engaging the engine to short journeys just down the road and back. In a very short time (a few months) she realised that the car meant fun and the biggest test was last year when she slept for most of the journey from Herefordshire to Jamaica Inn (lunch) and onto Portscatho. For the first few months of her adoption I really doubted that it was going to work but as everyone has said - patience, observance and working within the dog’s comfort boundaries will be of great help plus a reasonable Merlot. Best of luck.
Thanks everyone, so many ideas and so much to try out. Started with the sitting in a stationary car yesterday and a couple of times today with treats in the car and then play in the garden and more treats. He still won’t walk towards the car (all 4 brakes go on) but if he’s carried (thank heavens he’s only 9kg) it seems to be a lot better and so far, the nervous trembling seems to be lessening.
I read something the other day, written by someone who has been rescuing and fostering dogs for years, that suggested introducing a calmer older dog could positively influence a nervous dog. Has anyone had any experience good or bad of doing this? I now realise that when I first met Harry, he was always in the company of his kennel mate, a very confident, in your face young poodle and I now wonder if he felt much braver in her company.
Not sure about Merlot but the gin consumption has definitely increased☺️
He still won’t walk towards the car (all 4 brakes go on) but if he’s carried (thank heavens he’s only 9kg) it seems to be a lot better and so far, the nervous trembling seems to be lessening.

To be honest, when he puts the brakes on it might be better to stop there, give him a treat and either retreat or just sit there and spend some quality time near the car. Then any progress towards the Big Scary Car is his choice.

I don't suppose Harry's kennel mate is up for adoption is he? Some dogs do benefit from having another dog to give them a feeling of security, but it's not guaranteed.
Alot of rescues wont rehome ex breeding dogs without another dog as that is all he has known could try fostering and if makes a vast improvement consider adopting the foster. ...
To be honest, when he puts the brakes on it might be better to stop there, give him a treat and either retreat or just sit there and spend some quality time near the car.
This, this, this. When you carry him, he has no choice. It would be like me chaining you to a chair in a room full of snakes or huge spiders (or whatever gives you the heebie jeebies) and telling you that you will be fine because they are really harmless. It doesn't help you overcome your fear.
Thanks again. I also feel well and truly chastised by Joanne! Not immediately sure where you were going with chaining me to a chair but I do get your point! I should explain though that he has to walk past the car to get to the garden. The only way round this would be to park the car almost 300 metres away from the house. Please, no suggestions that I do that!
Will he happily walk past the car to get to the garden, or do you have to carry him past each time you go there?
He will walk past the car at a pace! He puts the brakes on if he gets within a foot of the car.
In that case, I would stop putting him in the car, but keep walking past it, and walking past just slightly closer each day. Then stop by the car, treat, and walk on. Work up to stopping, putting your hand on the door handle, treating, and walking on, then to opening the door... Maybe putting a treat just inside the car so he can stick his head in and get it, then walk on... Assuming he can't get in the car himself, then you could lift him while next to the car, treat him, and put him down, then do this next to the open door, then put a lovely stinky treat on the seat so when you lift him he'll want to go in to get it...
I also feel well and truly chastised by Joanne!
I'm so, so sorry, I didn't mean it to be like that!

I just meant that carrying him forces him to be closer to the scary car than he wants, he can't give it distance or escape; my analogy was to illustrate that you would have no choice if I forced you to be close to something that scared you. :(
Hi Michael .. I just wanted to check in and see how you and Harry are doing now?

Poor little lad (Harry ;-) will not have experienced anything except the kennel, a dog or two and human or two - so everything will be very scary to a dog that has never been taught, new things are good things.
The advice above, I am so relieved to say, is really good - what an amazingly safe forum!
Do let us know how you and Harry are doing .. it is REALLY early days still so if he is not yet loving the car, that's okay, but hopefully he is more comfortable walking past it to get to the garden?

When you are working with fearful dogs things always need to be on their own terms, at their pace, so they learn trust of us whilst they learn that scary things are good things - the latter done by treats with specific timing.
Just wishing you well x nic and (her scaredy dog, Jen)
Hi Nic. Thank you for asking and I’m sorry I haven’t given any updates, it’s been a constant ‘work in progress’ with little Harry. All of the advice given (thank you everyone) has been so helpful. The one hurdle we didn’t seem to be getting over was the car. Really sad as we couldn’t take him out in the car without terrorising him and we couldn’t leave him at home because he would get very upset. So, we ‘borrowed’ a very ‘bomb proof’ Australian Shepherd female pup. Harry just fell in love with her and followed her everywhere. The issues with the car were resolved almost immediately and Harry started to be braver because he could see his new doggy best friend was very adventurous. He still has his moments when he sees ghosts or something isn’t where it was yesterday. He still has the odd ‘screaming’ session when he’s unsure but even these are starting to get fewer now. Sadly, his friend has to go home tomorrow and we are quite worried he might revert to his old insecure self. We’re ready for it though and hopefully we can get him through the next phase. If not, we’ve decided we will get him a permanent new friend who can probably help him better than we can. I will give an update in a few weeks.
As promised, here’s the latest news on Harry’s progress. Only a week since his temporary playmate went home, he had come on so far in the 2 months she was with us, he was a lovely, happy dog to have around. Sadly, in just a week he’s almost regressed to how he was when he first came home to us. Howling and screaming constantly at
‘ghosts’ makes it very difficult to remove the trigger because it’s impossible to see or understand what he’s actually scared of. This behaviour is actually getting worse day after day. He’s happy to have cuddles and bring his various toys for a game but part way through he will often suddenly break off and start his fearful high pitched barking at something only he can see, or hear. Good news is that he will travel in the car now, although where he would follow his puppy friend from the house to the car, he now has to be carried. The fear induced panic he used to suffer from in the car isn’t there anymore, so at least that’s a win. Possibly the most worrying thing is that he’s suddenly become destructive, sneaking various items off to where he can’t be seen. So, Harry is still very much a ‘work in progress’.

I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s missing his friend very much. So, although it’s only been one week, I think finding him a permanent ‘pal’ is now a priority as he clearly needs to feed off another dog’s confidence and although there was never any intention to have a second dog, Harry’s happiness is paramount and so I’m now on the lookout for a gentle, friendly, confident and mature female dog. Quite specific I know but what I don’t need is another high maintenance dog.

So, that’s where we are at the moment. As always, any advice or suggestions would be appreciated.

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