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Healing the Heart of a Hound

Everyone he meets plays an important role in building trust.

I dreaded Skylar’s first trip to our veterinarian, Dr. Kevin Fallon at  in Arlington. It wasn’t because I dislike our vet or his clinic, but rather because I worried that the visit would trigger a setback in the progress my skittish, recently adopted borzoi has made in learning to trust humans.

Oddly, Skylar has never been fearful of me. When he first got out of the transport van that brought him to me, he gave me a lot of kisses and then leaned right into me giving me a generous borzoi “hug.” He’s cautious, but generally good with most dogs and he’s perfectly fine with cats. He just has this deep-seated mistrust for most bipeds.

During the first weeks that Skylar stayed with us, then as a foster, he shied away from anyone who even looked at him, especially if that person was a man. In fact, one day during a walk on leash in the woods, a kind man who was also walking his dog suddenly laughed loudly and gestured with his hand, prompting Skylar to pull his leash away from me and run like the wind. Luckily, we were well away from streets, and I had already begun practicing recalls with Skylar. I was able to call him back to me once we were far enough away from the scary man.

More recently, Skylar has become comfortable with people looking at him as long as they don’t reach for him—a big temptation since the fur on his back resembles a cross between silk and a marshmallow fluff. He’s even been willing to approach a few of the women we know (if they stand very still and ignore him), ducking his snout under their hand for gentle petting.

How would Skylar react to an unknown man examining him and giving him a shot? I worried that the experience might cause him to lose some ground, but I should have known that the whole team at Mill Brook Animal Clinic would work to prevent that.

Dr. Fallon advised us to call when we arrived and then wait outside until staff let us know the coast was clear, so that Skylar wouldn’t have to encounter strangers in the small waiting area. When it was our turn, Dr. Fallon was already seated in the exam room, rather than coming in after the vet tech had shown us in, which is the usual protocol. I had brought cooked chicken along to help Skylar form positive associations with his doctor’s office. Dr. Fallon, of course, behaved just the way a human trying to win over a nervous dog should. Skylar tolerated his whole exam as well as any dog can be expected to, and didn’t even flinch when he got his shot. I was much relieved!

Wouldn’t it be nice, I mused, if people on the street understood how to put a nervous dog at ease as effectively as everyone at our veterinary clinic? Most well-intentioned people who haven’t had reason to learn this skill instinctively tend to look a dog straight in the face and reach their hand out in order to convey friendliness. These two behaviors can be extremely frightening to an anxious dog. The greeting ritual body language of dogs differs dramatically from ours. For humans, especially in our culture, direct eye contact is considered polite. To a dog, it can be intimidating. We American humans often reach out to shake hands, or even hug. For dogs, it is customary to avoid direct eye contact, approach in an arch-like pattern, pause to sniff nosed to nose, and if still comfortable, circle around one another to sniff other parts. Scent is a big part of the way dogs get to know and trust one another.

Learning how to behave around dogs can be a big help not only to the rehabilitation of anxious dogs, but also to dog bite prevention. Dogs generally have one of two responses when they are frightened: fight or flight. Luckily for me, Skylar is a “run the other way” dog, but other dogs might react by barking, growling, air snapping or biting when they feel threatened.

When meeting a dog, really, the best thing to do is to act disinterested, as awkward as that might feel to you. If you glance at the dog’s face and the dog stiffens up, looks away, steps away, flicks its tongue rapidly and repeatedly over its lips and/or yawns (and certainly if it shows an aggressive response), the dog is asking for space. Your glance translates to the dog as, “Would you like to say ‘hello’?” and any of these behaviors, alone or in combination, mean “Not right now, please.”

It’s so important to give space when a dog asks for it! Even if the dog is a run-the-other-way dog rather than a chase-the-big-scary-thing-away dog, giving the dog space will help it to learn to trust you much faster than if you continue to look at, talk to or reach toward it. “Curiosity overcomes fear when given enough space and time.”  I can’t remember which famous behaviorist I first learned that phrase from, but in her book, Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin illustrates this idea with the vivid example of the raincoat hanging from a fencepost, and the cows who are suspicious of it at first, but eventually come closer to investigate it because it just hangs there, flapping in the breeze, not trying to engage them.

Whether a dog is suspicious due to lack of socialization or due to bad experiences with dodgy humans in the past, you can’t go wrong with this sort of slow greeting. If the dog seems comfortable with you looking at it, you might hold a closed hand slightly away from your body, inviting the dog to investigate your scent. Again, if the dog balks, it’s saying, “No, thank you; not today.” If the dog sniffs your hand and continues to slowly approach or lean in toward you, you might open your hand and very gently touch the dog’s cheek or neck, keeping your hand low and slow as you stroke its fur. Most dogs don’t like to be touched on the top of their head, although some may tolerate it particularly from people they trust. Keep your hands where a dog can keep an eye on what they are doing, and your new doggy pal will come to trust you faster and more completely.

Certainly, many dogs will have shamelessly thrown themselves at you for complete petting by this point, but the timid dog may still be asking you to go slowly. You may not get to pet him today, but if you give him the space he asks for whenever he asks for it, sooner or later, he’ll likely come around.

Adding ultra-delicious food treats to the equation often speeds up the process, so if you meet Skylar and me on a walk, I’ll usually have a goody for you to offer him. If Skylar is having a particularly shy day, I might ask you to just drop it on the ground for him and then step back. If he’s feeling braver, he might venture forth to nibble it from you palm as you look away and feign disinterest. Barring any big setbacks, in a few more months of this work, you might even get the chance to pet his silky, marshmallow-fluff-like coat. I’ll be a very happy dog-mom on that day! All this time, my other borzoi, Tatsuya, will be the one who shamelessly throws himself at you for as much petting as you are willing to give.

Yandor Thon July 15, 2011 at 07:45 PM
These are great tips! As a kid I think I was biten about 5 or 6 times. I just really liked dogs and didn't get the picture that all dogs don't like me. :) Now I have a dog who is skittish as well and am constantly letting people know she's not the most social. However, she is such a sweet dog and really loves the family that we just deal with the skittishness and protect her from herself as much as needed. Ada, Legend of a Healer http://www.AdasLegend.com
Bette Yip July 21, 2011 at 02:11 AM
Thank you so much for your comment! I think it's wonderful that you've given a shy dog a great home. It takes special people to care for animals with special needs.

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