Helping a Dog Who Discovered Her Previous Guardian After Committing Suicide

Murphy (Golden Retreiver)

Murphy is a five-year-old Golden Retriever female who’s original guardians passed away. Murphy found that guardian’s spouse who committed suicide shortly after. As a result of the loss and discovering the body, Murphy became nervous, fearful and anxious about new things. Her new guardian called me in for a dog training / dog psychology session to help restore her confidence and help her get over a few fears; going into the back yard on her own or going down the stairs to the basement.

I was expecting a far more trepidation us and nervous dog when I arrived for the session. Although Murphy was a little bit hesitant and kept some distance when engaging, she seemed fairly balanced.

I sat down to chat with her guardian about her daily life and routine. This always gives me an opportunity to observe the dog as well as how the dog and human interact.

Frequently when I work with rescued dogs who had a checkered past, their guardians attempt to make up for whatever the dog went through by showering it with love and affection.

The problem is, anytime that you pet a dog, you are agreeing with whatever state of mine it is in at the time. So if you have a dog that is anxious and nervous and you pet it, you are nurturing the exact thing you were trying to eliminate.

Fortunately Murphy’s guardian was aware of this and only used soothing tones to reassure her dog.

I recommended that Murphy’s guardian try to distract her with qa game of fetch or go for a walk when she starts to get anxious or fearful in the future. Dogs get over things by literally moving forward. So going for a walk distracts the dog while also helping it get over it.

To make sure that Murphy’s guardian can redirect her when necessary, I spent a few minutes going over a simple touch exercise. This involves the dog touching a person’s hand with their snout on command in order to receive a treat.

After demonstrating it for a couple of minutes, I coached Murphy’s guardian through the exercise so that she could re-create this exercise in the future. She will need to practice this exercise until its second nature to the dog, even amongst distractions.

At first, the guardian did not have the best technique which is understandable considering she just learned the exercise. With some practice, I’m guessing the guardian will have great technique after 3-4 practice sessions at it.

It will be important for her to move her hands rapidly in opposition to one another as soon as the dog touches her hand. She will need to remove that hand rapidly by bending her elbow then simultaneously extending her other hand with the treat to where the dog touched the other hand.

I recommended that she practice this touch exercise a few times a day for the next week or two. None of the practice sessions should go longer than a couple of minutes each time. The idea is to help the dog practice looking at her guardian. This will enable her to distract or redirect the dog when needed.

I also recommended that the guardian utilize YouTube and find 8 to 12 tricks or commands to teach Murphy over the next several weeks. By setting a goal of teaching the dog one new trick or command each week, and then practicing it for the next six days, Murphy’s guardian can help her develop more confidence.

After we wrapped up the touch exercise, I was ready to tackle one of Murphy’s guardian’s most pressing in-home problem; her reluctance to go outside into the backyard unless her guardian had already gone out in front of her.

It took a liberal distribution of high-value treats and a lot of patience before I was able to get Murphy to cross the threshold on her own. At first, she only extended one paw outside of the doorway, but within a couple of minutes she was happily bounding pass the doorway, then off the deck and into the back yard. Yea!

I recommended that Murphy’s other guardian practice this exercise in the same way. It may require some patience and encouragement at first, but as evidenced in the above video, this is absolutely something Murphy can do. They should keep the practice repetitions of this to a couple of minutes maximum and make sure that afterwards they play with the dog or give her a lot of love and affection so she has a positive association with the activity.

Next up was Murphy’s fear of going down the stairs to the basement. I used a similar method to get her past her fear of the stairs. However the stairs were much more challenging for her. For many dogs going downstairs is more difficult than going up to them.

We were very patient and after a lot of coaxing and arranging the treats in a jackpot formation as well as using our hands to vary the height that the treats were positioned on, we were eventually able to get Murphy to a send and descend the stairs on her own.

Unlike the door exercise which will probably require more practice, Im guessing the fear of the stairs is something that will not linger after the session.

I have to admit I was quite pleased with how well Murphy responded to the positive reinforcement methods I came up with. If I would’ve had this session several years ago I would’ve likely used a leash and forced to the dog to cross the threshold many times until she realized there was nothing to be fearful of.

But by being patient, utilizing positive reinforcement and helping the dog crossed through the barriers on her own, not only did we solve the problem, we boosted her self-esteem and confidence. Positive dog training at its best.

By the end of the session, Murphy was drained. Overcoming your fears can do that to you. But it was great to see her bounding up and down those stairs and out the door on her own. The watch exercise and learning the new commands should help shore up any lack of confidence that Murphy may still have.

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