Helping an Abused Shih Tzu Learn to Trust Humans Again

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 3, 2016

Laci (Shi Tzu)

Lacy is a three-year-old Shih Tzu who is fearful of new people (especially men), shutting down and hiding when guests arrive. This former breeding mill breed dog was scheduled to be destroyed due to an infection that stopped her from having additional puppies. Fortunately the awesome folks at Little White Dog Rescue saved her and eventually found her a forever home with the guardians who reached out to me for help.

When I arrived for the session Lacy had sequestered herself into a corner between a chair and table on the far side of the room. She was almost a textbook definition of a fearful dog; dilated pupils, avoiding direct eye contact, looking around nervously with a stiff and uncomfortable body posture.

While it can be heartbreaking to see an abused dog shudder and avoid all contact with humans, providing them attention and affection when they are in an unbalanced or fearful state can actually reinforce the behavior we are trying to stop.

Whenever I’m dealing with a dog like this, I always make sure to take the time to go slowly. It’s very easy for these dogs to feel threatened or overwhelmed if you move too quickly.

After chatting with her guardians for a couple of minutes, I took off my jacket and sat on the floor about 7 feet away from Lacy with my back to the dog. For dogs, a front facing greeting or approach can be interpreted as aggressive or confrontational. Dogs feel more comfortable when approached from the side, but Lacy was nowhere near ready to be approached yet.

I waited a minute with my back facing the dog to give Lacy an opportunity to relax and allow me to communicate to her that I was not a threat.

After checking her visually a few times, I could see signs that she was starting to get a little bit more relaxed. Once that was the case, I turned slightly so that she was on my right side and then I slid about 6 inches closer to her before stopping again.

Just as I did before, I waited a minute or two to give the dog a chance to process and get comfortable with my presence. Once she was calm again, I slid another 6 inches towards her and kept repeating this process until I was about half foot away from the dog.

I wanted to make sure that the dog was able to smell me and to get used to my presence before I started to actively work with her.

I explained the process to her guardians as I sidled up to the dog. While they don’t need to apply the same approach, it is something that could be utilized by guests and visitors that the dog is not familiar or comfortable with until she is fully rehabilitated.

After presenting her with the leash and giving her an opportunity to inspect it, I gently draped it over her head and then paused again.

At this point I had been working on getting Lacy out of the corner for a good 15 or 20 minutes. In that time we had moved all of about 6 inches, but speed is not the important factor when it comes to rehabilitating a dog.

Now that the leash was attached and the dog was comfortable and in a calm state of mind, I was ready to start helping her come out of the corner.

I used a gentle rocking motion with the leash to try to motivate Lacy to move forward. The worst thing you could do is force a dog to do something when it’s in a fearful shut-down state like Lacy was.

Each time that Lacy started to move forward, even if it was only a single limb, I relaxed the tension on the leash. This is how I communicated to her that moving forward was what I wanted.

It was great to see Lacy starting to move and act more like a typical dog. She was far from comfortable, but she was taking in her surroundings and observing me without trying to withdraw or run away. That was real progress.

Now that we were several feet away from Lacy’s comfort zone, I wanted to try to take her for a very simple walk around the living room.

By this point I was only about a foot away from the dog and she was showing that she was comfortable, or so it appeared.

I repeated the same process that I had utilized earlier to gently and methodically help Lacy move out of the corner of the room again. Because I had taken my time originally, I was able to move a little bit faster in guiding the dog out of the corner this time.

Another big step happened next, it was Lacy who told me that she was ready for the next step by taking a few steps forward unprompted.

It was great to see Lacy starting to move forward on her own without me having to apply the gentle pulling of the leash as the sole motivator.

Before I led the dog away, I had instructed her guardians to block off access to the corner of the room that she had been retreating to. By blocking the space and then placing her blanket and dog bed slightly in front of the area she used to occupy, we can help the dog feel more comfortable being a part of the group rather then isolating herself in a cubby at the edge of the room.

Once Lacy and I were in the next room, I had to reapply the gentle rocking motion with the leash a few times. This was not unexpected as we were moving further and further away from the humans she was comfortable with. Still it was great to see the dog moving forward with a stranger. This was truly a big step for Lacey.

While I had to pull on the leash a little bit more than I would’ve liked, Lacy’s body language and cognition with her surroundings was pretty good. Now that she was calm with my presence and proximity, I wanted to take the next step and pick her up.

I knew that we had made real progress when I placed Lacy back on the floor after holding her in my lap. If the dog was still in a completely panicked or fearful state she would have immediately ran away or back to their comfort zone.

Seeing Lacy lay on the floor even after I stopped petting her told me that we had made quite a difference in this session.

Because dogs get over things by literally moving forward, I wanted to show her guardians how they could use treats to motivate her to move forward at times she was not inclined to do so on her own.

It’s always rewarding for me to work with dogs who come from an abusive background. While I enjoy helping dogs give up nuisance behaviors, some of the prouder sessions I have had are ones where we help a dog learn to stop living in a terrified and fearful state of mind.

Lacy is not out of the woods yet but she made quite a bit of progress during our session. She was taking treats for my hand, moving around the room and showing a generally relaxed body posture and energy. I instructed her guardians to send me periodic updates on her progress.

Now that her guardians know what they can do to help her get over her fears, as well as the things that they should avoid doing, it shouldn’t take long for Lacey to become more comfortable and confident around people she doesn’t know already.

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This post was written by: David Codr