Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Helping a Shy Dog: Talley’s Story

Most of us have experienced or know what it means to “fail” fostering.  This past summer when I fostered an adorable little black & white basenji girl named Talley, was the first time I actually came close to failing fostering myself.  But, in the process, I learned a lot about how to work with a shy dog as we helped Talley to get ready for her eventual adoption.  Here is Talley’s story, retold here so that the tips I learned may help others who work with shy dogs. 
Talley came to us in May 2011, as a part of a large group of rescues from the Philadelphia area.  This group of dogs had never really had much human interaction before, so were extremely shy around most humans, especially men.  Talley fought me and the leash the whole way out the door and into the car, and once in the car she plastered herself up against the passenger’s side window, as far from me as she could get.  With a 3-hour drive ahead of us and a bag full of treats, I decided to start trying to win Talley’s trust by tossing her tiny little pieces of chicken jerky.  Nervous at first to the point of agitation, she wouldn’t touch them for the first hour, but eventually she did start to nibble at them, tried a few, then started gobbling them up greedily as fast as I could break off more bits of jerky.  I started giving them to her by hand, so she could get comfortable with the smell of me and having my hand near her, and she hesitatingly began taking them from me.  After 20 minutes of hand-feeding her, I began to scratch the bottom of her chin (always go for the chin first with a shy dog, since it’s less dominating than the head), then moved to the neck, and eventually around to petting her on the head.  With one hand still on the steering wheel, I pet Talley nonstop for nearly an hour, growing ever more confident with my movements, and with her growing ever more comfortable with me.  By the end of the car ride, she was starting to gingerly test out my lap, and I knew we would be friends.  

Getting home, however, we entered into a whole new challenge: Introducing a terrified dog to the house, the dogs, and my husband.  Most fosters have their “usual” way of introducing a new dog to the pack, which is even more important to follow when you’re introducing a shy (read: insecure) dog to your home: 

Talley gets acquainted with Reef
  1. Let the new dog run around the backyard by herself, dragging her leash, to empty her bladder and familiarize herself with the territory. 
  2. Get ahold of a squirt bottle, hold the new dog’s leash, and have someone else bring out one of the resident dogs on leash.  Walk the new dogs around the yard together, never letting them go head-to-head or get too close, and squirt anyone who growls. 
  3. When the dogs are comfortable with one another, drop the resident dog’s leash and let him come sniff the new dog while you (the pack leader) are still holding the new dog’s leash.  If necessary, kneel down next to the new dog, to show ownership over the new dog and let the resident dog know not to mess with her.  Let the dogs sniff each other, and squirt anyone who growls or postures. 
  4. As the dogs get more comfortable, drop the new dog’s leash and let them sniff without being “shielded” from one another.  Be watchful – this is where a fight is likely to break out if there’s going to be one.  As the dogs sniff each other, encourage them to move around the yard together, and sniff the bushes together.  It may be too early for them to start to play, but try to get them to run around if you can. 
  5. After the dogs seem comfortable with one another, put the first dog in the house and repeat the process with the second dog.  
  6. When you’ve got the second dog comfortable with the new dog, repeat the process with both dogs together at the same time. 
  7. When everyone is comfortable together in the yard, take everyone’s leashes together, and enter the house at the same time.  Have baby gates in place before you enter, so that the dogs are initially confined to just one room (preferably the kitchen, in case of accidents).  All dogs should remain dragging leashes for the first few hours/days until you are sure there will not be dog fights.  As you are comfortable, add more rooms to their “roaming area” one by one.  If potty training is an issue, only allow the dogs access to one room at a time – the room you are currently in – to avoid having the new dog run off to another room to potty in secret. 
After this initial orientation to the house and the pack, Talley gradually started to acclimate to life as a foster dog.  There were a few spats between the dogs, but nothing outside of the ordinary dynamics of a new pack trying to establish a dominancy hierarchy.  On the human side, Talley very quickly started to trust me enough to pick her up and handle her, but she still remained terrified of my husband, Mike, and all newcomers to the house.  Because we were trying to get her ready for adoption, we had to work on helping her to overcome this shyness behavior ASAP, or else she would never be able to go to a new home.  Through our experiences and lots of great advice from the BRAT network, we implemented the following tips for working with shy dogs, all of which really helped Talley to gradually come out of her shell over the next few weeks: 
  • Have the new dog wear a harness and drag a leash around inside the house for the first week or so.  You want to be able to get ahold of her when you need to, without having to chase or corner her (both of which would terrify an already shy and scared dog!), and she's so shy that luring her with a treat probably won't work all that well either.  The best thing to do is to have her drag a leash and wear a harness so you can get hold of her without invoking her fear response, until she gets comfortable enough with one person to allow them to regularly approach her without her running away.  Also, wearing a leash and harness is a great safeguard against the new dog accidentally slipping out the door while she acclimates to being in your home. 
  • While the new dog is wearing a leash and harness, try hooking the leash to your beltloops for a few days, so the new dog has to be in close proximity to you and follow you everywhere.  This helps get the dog used to your presence (also helps avoid potty accidents!), and it allows you to be able to reach down and pet the dog whenever you want to without having the dog run away.  Eventually the dog will get used to you and you can take the leash off.  After we took Talley’s leash off, she still wasn't a fan of my husband reaching for her for pets, but she did start readily coming up on the couch and sitting near him because she had gotten used to being around him.  She would get closer and closer all the time, and gradually started letting Mike reach for her to pet her while she was laying on the couch.  It was a big win for a shy dog, which was greatly facilitated by keeping them leashed together for the first few days.
  • When the new dog is untethered from you (but still has a leash and harness on), use baby gates to keep her in the same room where you are at all times, but make sure she has a "safe space" in each room where she can go to feel secure.  Because she's terrified of her new environment and needs somewhere to feel is "hers," she should have a den-like space in each room where she can go and no one will bother her.  Usually a crate covered with a blanket works well, or sometimes underneath an end table, or the corner of a sofa with lots of pillows to burrow in.  You want this safe space to be where you can see her and she can see you as you move about the house, because you want her to feel safe but still see you and your dogs following you around confidently.  Eventually once she feels safe she'll start venturing out -tentatively at first, and gradually getting bolder- to see what the other dogs are interested in.  As long as she can physically see that they're okay with you, she'll start becoming more okay with you, too.  (Note: The baby gate strategy also helps to make sure that she won't go into another room and have a potty accident while you're not looking!).   
Hiding under the patio table
  • Once your new dog gets comfortable with one human, have that person facilitate contact with other people.  With Talley, I started this by making her sit between Mike and I on the couch.  Anytime I was sitting on the couch with Mike, I picked Talley up and plopped her down between us.  At first she would lean away from Mike with all her might, or she would try to jump down (I wouldn't let her), but after a few times she learned that she was okay just sitting there between us.  I would pet her, then Mike would start petting her too, then I would stop and just leave Mike petting her.  After a while, she became okay with Mike just reaching over and petting her while she was seated on the couch.  After she got comfortable with this level, we upped the ante even more by having me pick her up, then hand her to Mike, and he would carry her around for a while.  By the time Talley got adopted, she still wasn't yet okay with Mike reaching for her while she was on the floor, but it seemed that if I initiated the touch and then handed off to Mike, she'd be fine.  
All ready to be adopted!
By implementing all of these tips for working with a shy dog, we helped Talley to make a little bit of progress every day, and within weeks I started to see her really come out of her shell.  By the time she was adopted in July of 2011, Talley was definitely ready to begin forming attachments with other humans, and we knew what techniques would work to help her continue to make progress.  We chose a wonderful new family for her in North Carolina, where she would have two basenji companions to help “show her the way” when it comes to trusting her new humans, and we made sure to give the family all of the great techniques we had discovered along the way to help her.  They have continued to work with her, and from the pictures we’ve gotten from time to time, it seems she’s doing great! 

Talley, the shy dog who was worth the challenge!


  1. Is there any way to help a basenji like dogs again after he's developed fierce aggression toward them? Can't adopt or foster because of that :(

    1. Amy, I actually have the same problem - my brindle basenji, Biko, has developed a fierce aggression towards other dogs, particularly male dogs. We have found that when we introduce him to new dogs, if we follow the steps I outlined above and never let him go head-to-head with another dog when initially greeting, we can usually get him gradually comfortable with being around another dog. It's always touch-and-go at first, and there may be a dog fight or two over the first few days, which is why I always wear my squirt bottle on my belt (to break up any fights or signs of aggression) for the first week we have a new dog in the house. But if the dogs are introduced properly and gradually, then we just give it a few days for them to sort themselves out with pecking order, even my dog-aggressive basenji turns out to love other dogs. I encourage you to follow the steps and give it a try!