Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Fostering & Adopting: What to do with a Fearful Dog?

It seems that lately, I've gotten a lot of questions about how to deal with a fearful dog. Whether you're fostering a basenji or you've just adopted one, chances are that your new dog is going to be afraid of his new situation, his new people, and perhaps his new playmates. Every dog shows fear differently -- some cower in the corner, some run away, some lash out with a preemptive growl or bite. As an adopter or a foster of a rescue dog, you should be prepared for ALL of these situations, and you need to be equipped to deal with them both mentally and physically. When you come prepared, or even when you're not but you reach out to your BRAT colleagues for help, you can quickly turn a fearful dog into a trusting dog. This is the ultimate reward of rescue-- when you earn a dog's love.

Here are some pointers to keep in mind when adopting or fostering a new dog:

Mental Preparation: You foster and/or adopt a rescue dog because you want to do something great, to show a homeless dog a loving home, and potentially save his life. It can be discouraging when your new dog seems less than grateful for your sacrifices, and many people get understandably upset when the new dog lashes out with fear aggression towards his new humans or his new doggie playmates. Many folks consider a single bite or dog fight to be a "deal-breaker," and either don't want to or don't know how to deal with a dog who doesn't get along with his new pack. However, you've got to realize that 99% of the time your new dog is NOT being aggressive, he's just scared. Put yourself in his "paws" for a moment, and try to see the world as he does-- he does not understand his new world, he has no idea whether you mean to love him or hurt him, and he's just protecting himself because he knows he's pretty powerless against whatever the human decides to do to him. Maybe in the past when someone raised an arm near him, it hit him, so he's scared of a human raising an arm near him and his instinct is to defend himself in the only way he knows how. You just never know what he's been through, so you've got to come mentally prepared to forgive him for it. It's not that he doesn't love you or what you're doing for him, he just doesn't know yet.

So, when you take in a new dog, you've got to be mentally prepared to go slow with him, be patient, and "win" your dog's trust one day at a time. Too often, fosters or adoptions fail because they expect to get a grateful, loving dog that's just like their own basenji (whose trust they've already won). Be mentally prepared and expect that your new dog or foster WILL lash out and bite either you or your dogs at some point, but this is NOT a deal-breaker. Remember, he's just scared, and your job is to work with him and allow him space to decide to trust you when he's ready. You're doing a great thing, whether or not it feels like it at the time, and with patience you WILL be rewarded with doggie love.

Physical Preparation: Of course, there ARE lots of things you can do to help win your new dog's trust, and the best way to find out about these little strategies is to ask your BRAT colleagues. That's why we have the BRAT website, the BRAT blog, and the BRAT chat list. I would never have made it through my challenging foster situation last summer without the constant help and support of Roberta Kosek and JR Key. There were many times I wondered, "What the heck am I doing? My life was so much less complicated without this." I almost gave up, but I didn't because they were there to help me with encouragement and strategies. I tried everything they said, and everything I could read about on the web, and here's what I found worked really well for dealing with a fearful dog:

  • When approaching your new dog, always have a treat in hand. Let him know you are the "treat dispenser" and good things happen when you're around. At first, don't come up to him directly -- sit down on the couch near him, show him the treat, then ignore him and let him decide to come to you. As he gets more comfortable doing this, you can make your initial approach closer and closer to him, each time showing him the treat and ignoring him until he comes to you. Always talk to him in a reassuring voice while you do this.

  • Growling is a warning. It's his indication that he is uncomfortable, it's best to walk away. Turn the situation around by calling him to you for a treat; changing his thought process. You are not rewarding the growling, you are rewarding the "come."

  • If your fearful dog likes to "guard" his space on the couch, but you want to sit there, call him to you and give him a treat before you go over and claim the space as your own. Make him wait til you are seated/comfortable before asking him to join you.

  • Make a "safe space" for your dog somewhere in the room where you usually are, where no one will bother him. Any human or a dog needs to have a place to go where they know they are safe, especially when everything else around is new and scary. Dogs like to have a "den" that is enclosed on at least two sides, so perhaps a pillow on a lesser-used chair, a blanket under an endtable, or a pillow-fort in the corner could be a safe haven for your new dog. If he's in there, never reach in to get him, but rather coax him out with a treat and a cheery voice that calls him to walk or play.

  • Carry a squirt bottle of water around the house (I used a ribbon to tie it to my belt loop and let it dangle in arm's reach) and confidently go about your business. If there is any snarking, fighting, or resource guarding going on, cut it off immediately by showing/using the squirt bottle and positioning your body in between the snarking. Try to make it non-confrontational, ignoring the dog as best you can, and be sure to stand straight up and down with your shoulders back & relaxed. Dogs see any slight lean forward as aggression, so be sure to exude confidence and relaxation. You are in charge, and nothing will ruffle your feathers. Don't get angry or yell; a simple verbal correction, showing the squirt bottle, and a disinterested but confident step in between should do it. Eventually the dog will get the idea that it's his behavior you don't like, but you're not going to hurt him.

  • If you have a dog that doesn't like to be handled or approached, let him drag a leash around the house for a few weeks, so that you don't actually have to handle or approach him (which will terrify him and may provoke a negative reaction from him). If he's dragging a leash, you can work on approaching/touching him on his own terms, but you can still get ahold of him or walk him when you need to. Work on approaching him by showing him a treat (distraction), reaching for the end of the leash, and then allowing him to take the treat once you have the leash in-hand. Do this until he's comfortable with it and he doesn't seem to mind you picking up the leash. Gradually progress to reaching further up the leash, as long as he seems comfortable with it. This will probably take several days, and several sessions a day until you really build trust. Eventually you can get to the point where you can reach and touch his collar, and reach and touch behind him on his harness. You may get nipped if you try to progress too fast or come too close, so take it very slow and if you get a warning growl, stop. Eventually you will be able to approach and touch your dog without a problem. Keep in mind that some dogs may never allow certain things, like touching their paws or picking them up, but you can certainly win the trust of a fearful dog with a treat and patience.

Try these tips and any more that your BRAT colleagues may suggest to you, if you've got a new or fearful dog. Remember that your dog doesn't yet understand that you mean to love him, not hurt him. He's in a new place, he's scared, and he may try to defend himself against anything he perceives as a threat (even if it's not). Don't give up on him; work with him and SHOW him that he's got nothing to be afraid of. You'll need to be both mentally and physically prepared to be patient, go slow, and forgive him when he doesn't understand. Celebrate the baby steps of progress, and when you do finally break through his walls of fear and earn his trust, I promise that it will be worth all the while. The love and gratefulness that shine in a rescue dog's eyes is one of the most rewarding feelings in the whole world!


  1. Excellent article!!! Have adopted three adult basenjis that had been passed around a bit, we earned our scars, but the day you see the light go on in the dog is an amazing day! Most recently, we'd had our BRAT rescue for only 3 wks when he had an accident at the dog park and broke his front leg. Not a good start. It was like we lost all the small ground we had gained, and then a mile more. Unless we had food in hand, we couldn't get near him without being severely bitten. To make matters worse, he wanted to claim all the furniture, and our bed, too. It took four solid months of reminding ourselves every day that it was because he was frightened, not vicious, and working w/all the tools you've suggested. There were definitely days when we asked ourselves if we'd made a mistake, but we kept his needs in mind, and if things got too anxious, we remembered that time-outs are ok, for BOTH sides. Then one day, it was as if we saw his tension just disappear and he finally claimed us as his family. Since then, we very rarely have problems. My bite scar is permanent, but the satisfaction we get from knowing we came through the the other side, the RIGHT way, means so much more to me. Most of our friends don't understand why we like to own "challenging" dogs. "Why don't you just get a Lab?" Because, I know we've EARNED this dog's love and respect. It's worth it.
    Lona Gibbs

  2. I agree, this is very valuable information and support. It took Leeny a full year to settle in with Jello. She was 12 years old when she came home with us, and had been through a lot; poor Jello bore the brunt of her fears & frustrations. But we all persevered (the 2 BRATS, Echo the wonder cat & I) and now Leeny is the most openly affectionate of my small, mixed species pack. It's truly a wonderful thing to see that 'light bulb' light up in the eyes, that, yes, it's good here!
    Vicky Locke

  3. Nice post Kristen and really a good article for anyone who is adopting any breed or mixed breed.

    Who's the Basenji in the picture?

  4. That's my little BRAT boy, Biko. He's always been quite an anxious boy -- it seems some dogs are just more resilient to change, and some aren't. He definitely isn't! When we first adopted him he would run and hide, and wouldn't allow himself to be touched, although he was not yet a fear biter. That came later -- as he got more confident in some ways, he started not shirking from his fears, but instead started going after anything that frightened him with his teeth. That included sudden movements near him, arms raised above him on the couch, and a whole host of odd triggers. But, we've used treats and built trust to slowly desensitize him to these triggers, and now 4 years later, he may still have a fear reaction to a trigger but he stops himself before he bites. He's growling less about his triggers, too, so overall I know we're on the right track. It's literally taken years to get this far, but I'm proud of my little boy :)

  5. Excellent aritcle, Kristen! You'll need to re-post this from time to time as a reminder/refresher.

  6. Thanks, Roberta! You'll recognize a lot of the tips as ones you and JR gave me this summer :) I couldn't have gotten through without your support!

  7. Thank You! This article should be easier to find on the internet. My little guy bit me and 4 other people in the first two weeks. I was ready to give up until I talked to a rescue about the behavior. It has only been a month now and I can see the warm light coming on finally. His ears go back in a happy way now when I pet him. His body language is just totally different.

    My initial expectations about adopting an adult Basenji had been wrong, and like many others, the lesson was learned the hard way.

    1. Clay, I'm so glad to hear that you were able to see past your dog's fearful behavior, and you persevered with him. He may still change and develop other odd or fear-based behaviors as he grows (see my comment above about my own BRAT boy, Biko), but now you know from your own experience that he'll get past it if you work with him and have patience. Great job!!