Helping a Scared Westie Learn to Trust Men

By: David Codr

Published Date: July 19, 2014

SophieThis is Sophie a five-year-old Westie who suffers from Addison’s Disease. Her owner called me for help with Sophie’s fear of men she doesn’t know (including her owner’s boyfriend), and submissive urination.

I suggested that her owner take the dog outside to potty a few times before I came over as she is prone to piddling when nervous or anxious. Normally her owner put Sophie in her kennel when expecting guests to avoid the accidents and because the dog was so fearful. While this approach helps keep accidents from happening, it doesn’t afford the dog the ability to get over her fears.

When I arrived, I made sure to move slowly. Dogs can react to sudden movements and when you have a fearful or anxious animal, they can trigger a reaction so I moved slow. I also completely avoided the dog. Many people mistakenly try to prove to the dog that they are ok by petting and interacting with them.

While that “get to know me” approach works for humans, it often reinforces fears in dogs. So in addition to moving slowly, I made no eye contact, didn’t try to pet the dog or speak to her.  I sat down on the floor and positioned myself so that Sophie was off to my left side.

Facing a dog can be interpreted as confrontational while the left or right side is considered more approachable. I didn’t expect Sophie to come over to me, but I wanted to communicate I was not a threat or confront her in any way so that she could relax a bit.

Sophie’s owner had invited her parents over as she works long hours and leaves the dog with them every other week. As I discussed the situation with them and Sophie’s owner’s boyfriend, Sophie sat under her owner or her parents feet – occasionally scratching at them to pick her up which they did not do.

After we discussed her behavior issues, Addison disease attacks and interaction with her boyfriend, I asked Sophie’s owner to place the dog on a leash and hand it to me while i remained in a sitting position on the floor.

I gently pulled Sophie toward me so that she was resting against my leg. She was shuddering and breathing heavily which are both signs of stress. My goal was to have the dog touching me in a benign way.

At first Sophie pulled against the leash to get away, but after a minute she settled down and sat down. Once she did, I extended the leash a bit so there was no tension on the line.

A minute later Sophie laid down on the floor. She was facing away from me, but her breathing had slowed down and the shuddering had subsided considerably. Her owner told me she hadn’t seen Sophie laying so calmly next to a man she didn’t know since she got her so I knew we were making progress.

I decided to take Sophie out for a short walk to see how she behaved away from her owners. Often times owners of rescue dogs or those who have been through a traumatic situation try to compensate for things by lavishing an abundance of affection on the dog or removing all rules and boundaries. Sophie’s owners hadn’t done that, but they were so hyper-vigilant of the dog’s Addison’s disease, I was concerned it may be effecting the dog’s behavior.

Sophie didn’t need much encouragement to go with me for a walk. To make sure the pulling was kept to a minimum I put a Martingale collar on Sophie and added my special twist to the leash. As we left her home, Sophie tried to keep her distance from me for the first 100 feet or so. But as we continued, she forgot she was supposed to be scared of me and instead started to sniff the ground and take in her surroundings.

When we got back from the walk, Sophie’s owner’s mother asked how I was able to get her to walk next to me with no pulling. I showed them the Martingale collar and leash position and suggested they use it on future walks themselves.

Sophie had returned to her position under her owner’s feet so I gave the leash to her boyfriend and had him slowly and gently pull the dog closer to him. Sophie acted the same way she did for me; pulling away at first before sitting, then lying down at his feet.

I suggested that he repeat this procedure when he visited in the future while continuing to avoid any eye contact, petting or talking to the dog. The goal is to force Sophie to remain next to him and remove her ability to run away.  Provided nothing bad happens when next to him, Sophie will learn that her fear is unfounded.

To help accelerate the process, I took Sophie’s owner’s boyfriend out for a walk with the dog. She acted the same way as she did for me, but it took a little longer before she stopped pulling away from him. After a couple hundred feet, she started to walk next to him in a perfect heel.

After the walk, I had him let Sophie take the lead and told him to follow her. This is a great way to walk a dog; at a heel for a walk, then playtime after. For Sophie, we didn’t do any play, we just let her wander around so she could investigate the long grass in the field behind her owner’s home.

I suggested that the boyfriend walk Sophie this way each time he came over. Because Sophie loves going for walks, this is a great bonding exercise for them to practice together and it will help speed up the rehabilitation process.

When we went back inside the home, Sophie retreated to her position under her owner’s leg so I had her give the leash back to her boyfriend so he could repeat the process of pulling Sophie close.

This time not only did Sophie lay down, she laid down on the boyfriend’s foot! Because a dog usually won’t lay down near people they are uncomfortable with, this signified a big step forward for the dog. We sat their discussing the situation for another ten minutes and Sophie made no attempts to get up until the boyfriend moved to show us he was no longer using the leash to keep her close.

Her owner commented that Sophie had not been that close to him since they first met. I suggested that they repeat this process with him avoiding any eye contact until the dog starts to sniff in his direction. When that happens, he can start to slowly offer treats. If the dog isn’t interested, that is a good indicator Sophie isn’t ready for the next step.

Once Sophie will take a treat from the boyfriend’s hand, that action will signify the next big hurdle has been overcome. At that point, Sophie’s fear of him will be near the end if not completely gone.

Its going to take some time and effort, but based on how calm Sophie was by the end of the session, I predict her fear and anxiety of her owner’s boyfriend will soon be a distant memory the family jokes about.

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