Supporting Insanity – Fearful Foster

This post is part of a series where struggling pet owners submit pleas for help to the expertise of blogland. Everyone’s experiences are unique. If you have any suggestions, please don’t hesitate to share them in the comments. What you think common sense may be revolutionary for someone else. You never know what may resonate with someone and keep one more animal out of a shelter. My hope is that together we can help good people, and good animals, feel a little less alone.

Today’s email is a little bit more serious than others have been in the past. The human is a first-time foster parent and the dog involved has already bitten someone. I feel as if this is the path Shiva could have gone down had we not been lucky enough to find the right people. The more support we can provide, even if it’s just a book suggestion, or a kind word, the better. I really hope things will turn around for this lovely puppy:

Gracie* was a 6 month old pit/hound mix. I fostered her for a week, during which I discovered that she is leash reactive. I did my best to begin training her, and very slowly, I could sense that we were getting somewhere. She’s amazing with other dogs off leash, particularly with my Lulu but the second she sees another dog while she’s on leash, she barks loudly. Toward the end of our week together, the shelter had sent over a couple who wanted to meet Gracie, and they all fell in love with each other. I explained the situation as best I could without scaring them away – the love among them was something that I knew could be beneficial for all involved. I impressed upon them that she would need training, and patience, and that I was more than willing to continue to assist in any way I could. They said they understood and off they went.

I referred a friend to them who is a professional dog walker to walk Gracie each day, midday, as the couple both had full time jobs. Unbeknownst to me, the couple lives in a luxury high-rise apartment building – one with narrow dark hallways, thumping music in the elevators, a completely mirrored cavernous lobby. Basically, a place that would be entirely overly stimulating for most dogs, let alone a leash reactive one. Gracie did not flourish, and in fact, regressed to the point where she accidentally bit my friend, the dog walker. The couple then returned Gracie to the shelter the next day.

This is when I contacted a blogging friend. I had found out that if Gracie wasn’t trainable, nor adoptable, they would have to put her down. Heartbroken, I reached out to my friend because of a post she wrote. I needed to understand how to move on. She was more than supportive, and gave me great advice.

Some of that advice included considering taking Gracie back in – which I have now agreed to do. I’m her last chance – which makes me feel a huge amount of pressure to really fix this dog. So now I need your help, because of your experience with Shiva. I live in Manhattan, in an area where there are LOTS of dogs, and LOTS of people. I’m highly limited with places to practice with Gracie, and am sort of stuck on what the proper/best techniques are. She’s working on distraction right now, which is something – but she’s currently in the shelter and deteriorating there. With all of the other dogs around, her anxiety is growing.

I am hoping that you may be able to provide me some advice based on your own experience, but also that you could post this on your blog to see what your readers have to say. Thanks so much for reading and I appreciate any help you could give.

Now it is your turn, pet lovers. If you have any suggestions for this struggling foster parent, please share them below. The more support, the better! Thank you so much for taking the time to help. You never know what might change a life.

*Names have been changed

If you have a question you would like answered, fill out the contact form and I will post it up as soon as I can. All submissions will remain anonymous.

40 thoughts on “Supporting Insanity – Fearful Foster

  1. You’ve taken on a lot of responsibility for “Gracie.” I know this is really hard. And even if you take her back into your home (will the shelter allow that since she has bitten someone?), you may not be able to do for her everything she needs.

    Manhattan is a tough place for a fearful or reactive dog.

    If you could find the right group, the best thing for her might be to find a rescue group outside the city where Gracie could work with a patient foster family (preferably with some support from a behaviorist as well).

    If you try to work with Gracie in your home, you might want to check out some of the resources from BAD RAP (Bay Area Doglovers Responsible About Pitbulls). This article on different dog tolerances is excellent for all kinds of dogs, not just pibbles or pibble mixes: http://www.badrap.org/rescue/dogdog.html.

    It sounds like you have reached out in a few different directions for help. Keep doing it. You may get just the help you need.

    Good luck to you.

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    • Great advice! While I do think the poor girl needs to get out of the shelter, ASAP, this foster parent’s home may not be the best long-term placement for her. Perhaps he can work with her temporarily until a more ideal foster home can be found.

      Thanks for the link to BAD RAP, as well. They are such a great resource and I didn’t think of them myself.

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  2. My dog trainer (and employer) always tells me that we are here to keep ‘dangerous dog’ labels OFF of the dogs, not put them ON them. I am surprised a professional was to blame for this dogs ending up at the shelter again.

    She needs professional help and to be worked every single day for at least the next few months. If this is not an option, she needs to be put down. Her problems are not one for the inexperienced dog owner. She may be okay for a while if she is heavily ‘managed’ but sooner or later she will get overwhelmed and bite again. Whose fault is it then? The shelters, because they let a known bitter be re-homed.

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    • It’s difficult to know the entire situation based on a few emails but I do believe the shelter the dog is currently staying with believes there is hope. Most shelters will not foster out a dog they believe to big high risk, it’s to big of a liability for their insurance.

      Professional help is probably a very good idea, though. I know I couldn’t have handled my dog’s problems without it. It’s just unfortunate that so many shelters and rescues do not have these kinds of resources. An awful situation all around. I wonder if there are some trainers willing to consult for lower costs or even for free in certain circumstances…

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  3. I have had a lot of success giving reactive and fearful dogs freedom of motion through a harness and a long line. I am talking 3-4 meters of line (9-12 feet, I believe it would be). It doesn’t seem like much, but it makes a big difference for a dog not having the line attached at the neck, and not being stopped by a line at every turn. Using your voice to get the dog to follow you, instead of the leash, could help a lot.

    Woring with the dogs confidence in all sorts of situations, not just where she has the biggest problems, might also help a lot. Having her jump on park benches, tree trunks, walls, all these things can help build her confidence. If you have access to agility equipment then having her go through tunnels and over the dog walk and a-frame, could also help.

    I really believe you should start using BAT with her. To be left alone from others around you, you could make sign that you could put out that says “Training in progress, do not disturb” or something like that.

    I recently had a fearful dog visit for 2 weeks (I blogged about every day), and part of what we did was sitting down in town just watching the world pass us by. The town I live in is NOTHING like Manhattan, though. But if there is a quiet place you can sit down and watch the world and treat her for calm behaviour, use it as often as possible.

    The thing is that doing anything is better than doing nothing. And I think you will do a great job. Your commitment to her will make things better.

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    • The long line and halter are both great ideas! Anything that prevents the ever-present reminder of the leash and the feeling of being trapped might make a difference. My trainer was always getting after me for tugging on the leash too much to get Shiva’s attention. She was so right in that it caused further anxiety.

      I also love the agility idea! Trick training also is a great way to build confidence as it rewards the dog for doing something right. It’s also just a lot of fun. The more fun a human and dog can have together, while succeeding, the closer their bond.

      Thank you so much for your thoughts!

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      • Leads longer than 6 feet are actually illegal in NYC for all dogs. And in this situation, it sounds like, on a busy, crowded Manhattan street, a longer leash might open the door for more complications.

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  4. I had a similar situation with Delilah. All of a sudden she became leash reactive. I was beside myself, but I took her to training class and I used the “leave it” command when we approached other dogs. I used treats to distract her when we were in class and doing exercises where we were sitting and other dogs were coming close to us. She focused on the treat and not the other dogs. When the class became too full with too many really aggressive dogs I took her out of it; I didn’t want to lose the progress I had made. I can let her have quick “sniff and goes” as we call them where I let her get a quick sniff and then take her away. When she has these types of successes I praise her up and down. I have also had her in agility class which really seemed to help her. I have also had a couple of times where other dogs have been coming on leash, and I have pulled her to the side and had her sit; I am remaining calm and I am petting her and telling her what a good girl she is and I have had a couple of successes with that. If the approaching dog is lunging and barking though, there is no chance of keeping her from lunging and barking too. In that case, I drag her in the opposite direction away from the temptation. Her aggressive behavior on the leash is the worst thing I have dealt with for her and it has been hard, but don’t lose faith and don’t give up. I think you can help her.

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    • It is very hard. Very, very, very hard. But I have to applaud you for knowing what is best for Delilah and pulling her out of a class that was causing her great stress. Hopefully you can return one day when there are less dogs and people, or when she has learned how to handle such situations.

      Agility is so great for confidence building as well. I am so glad you have had success with it! Thanks for sharing your experiences. You don’t give up either, eh?

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  5. The website fearfuldogs.com was invaluable to me when I first brought Bella home.

    Honestly, the dog has to come out of the shelter. Working with a fearful dogs is a 24/7 experience and if that can’t happen, I’m not sure what can be done for this dog. It will take a lot of time, daily effort and probably the help of a professional if you don’t have experience with fear biters.

    She will need to go to a quiet home that has a lot of patience and time to devote to her. These types of homes are really hard to find. Typically child free, and out of a city like New York where there is just too much stimulation 24/7.

    If you are able to get her out of the shelter- management will be your friend in the beginning. Avoiding the busiest times of the day for walking. Make sure you have super yummy treats on hand at all times. I’m talking people food like cheese, hot dogs, tuna. You want her experiences to be under threshold-that point where she is panicked, shut down, or biting. And you want to use the food to help her learn ‘this scary thing makes yummy food appear”. Management only works for so long. What she really needs is someone that can train and work with her long term.

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    • Thanks for your comments!

      I agree that fearfuldogs.com is a great resource, full of awesome ideas to get a dog owner started. I am always saying how sad I am that I didn’t know about it when we brought Shiva home.

      I also second the idea of avoiding the busier times. It’s one of the reasons I still get up at five-thirty every day to walk Shiva at six am when the rest of the world is in bed. And why I used to walk her at around six pm as well when most people were eating dinner. Go at five and everyone is getting home and taking their dogs out. Go at seven and you get all the post-dinner strollers. Six, and probably later like around 8 or 9, was much safer.

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  6. For Stumpy, it was all about distracting her from her fears. Treat, treat, treat…tug, tug, tug. She seemed to really want the distraction from those things (which was EVERYTHING) she feared.

    Even now, when we approach a dog, she looks for her tug toy or treat, rather than focusing on the approaching dog.

    Happy, Waggin’ Tails, FUREVER!
    Stumpy and me

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    • Agreed. Distraction is so important. Shiva often looks immediately at me after we pass a person on the sidewalk. She tilts her head as if to say, “okay, where’s my treat?”

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  7. This is not a problem for an amateur, no matter how much love she has nor how big a heart. When we first got our dog, we couldn’t walk him at all– if he saw a dog three blocks down, he went nuts barking. Two LONG walks through a dog-dense park with a competent trainer really helped move things along. This dog needs really professional help; the question is, who pays?

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    • Exactly, and what a question! There must be some excellent trainers out there willing to work for less, given the circumstances. Perhaps this shelter has some contacts or has some contacts who have contacts?

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  8. As the blog friend who was initially consulted, I wanted to butt in and say two things:
    1. Gracie bit the dog walker in a fit of uncontrolled barking, leaping, and squealing. The dog walker described it as an accidental case of teeth on human, not a deliberate bite. Still nothing to be taken lightly, but not quite as severe as a purposeful fear-bite.
    2. I mentioned before, and I still maintain, that if you feel strong enough to try to help her, then there is little to lose. Without your help, she will definitely be put down. If you are willing to try to work with her — even if you set a time period to see improvements (a month?) — then you will be able to determine whether you can safely help her and remain sane. If you can’t, then her situation is not any worse than it would have been if she had been put down right away. At the very least, you will have given her a loving, warm home to live out her last days.
    You are very, very brave for taking this on. Major kudos in the dog rescue community.

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    • Thank you so much for adding your thoughts on this. I agree 100%. Every dog deserves a chance, as many chances as humans are capable of giving. If only our resources matched our dreams. And what you said about providing a warm, loving home, really sits with me. No matter what, even if nothing helps, it’s still far better than this poor girl spending her last days in a shelter environment.

      Very brave and very kind. I am not so sure I could do the same.

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  9. I’m so glad to see that http://www.fearfuldogs.com has been mentioned, as well as BAT. The creator of BAT has a VERY active yahoo group, called functionalrewards. While I don’t live with a fearful or leash reactive dog, I have learned a lot from both of these resources.

    My last suggestion would be to check out Dr. Sophia Yin’s video resource website, http://www.drsophiayin.com/resources/videos/, and paying special attention to “Podee is Dog Aggressive”.

    I wish you the best of luck.

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    • Thanks for the Yahoo group suggestion. That’s not something I ever would have thought of. I am sure it is full of some very experienced people.

      Dr. Yin is another excellent resource, she has done some amazing things for the dog training world.

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  10. Providing you are sure, I’d say get Gracie straight away. Work with her in your own home and muzzle her when she is out (just to make sure she can’t nip anyone). Sounds to me like she is frightened when she’s ont he lead, so she needs reassuring (not sure how you do that, but sure someone else has far more experience than me).

    Good luck.

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    • Thank you so much for your kind support. Taking on such a difficult dog is not an easy thing to do for anyone, especially someone who has little experience in the world of fearful dogs. I really admire this person’s courage.

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  11. Wow. There is a LOT of really good advice going on here. I don’t think I can add anything overly new.

    Mostly, I agree with Pamela, above. Manhattan may be too stimulating and overwhelming to work in the slow steps ‘Gracie’ requires. It might be worth looking for a nearby rescue (breed-specific, perhaps?) from a less urban enviornment, and ask them if they have the time and resources to help her. She needs the calm and stability (and experience) of a foster home to help her work through everything.

    I know it would be hard to put her in the hands of someone else, but you mentioned you were highly limited with respect to the places you can work with her, so seeking help elsewhere might be the best option.

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    • To be sure. It would be wonderful if such a perfect place can be found for a long-term solution. Especially since it is unlikely she will be able to find this very quickly in a permanent placement.

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  12. THANK YOU for what you are doing! Your love and dedication will make a difference for Gracie.

    The only things I would add to the excellent advice you’ve been given here is to try some T-Touch. It can really relax anxious dogs and help them put things in perspective. I have an intro at http://peacefuldog.blogspot.com/2010/11/t-touch-and-anxiety-wraps.html and http://peacefuldog.blogspot.com/2011/05/t-touch-transformation.html, or you can go right to the horse’s mouth at http://tellingtonttouch.wordpress.com/

    Try gentle touch at home before you go on walks, to set a peaceful intention for your outing. Try to notice the triggers before she does, and neutralize the tension for yourself and for her by saying happy words as you cross the street, turn around, or hide behind a car. I know–easier said than done in Manhattan, but maybe you can find an area of a park that is relatively quiet.

    I’ve done an outline of leash reactivity work here http://peacefuldog.blogspot.com/2011/04/sensible-leash-walking.html

    Have you tried a head halter for the reactivity? I have mixed feelings about them but for some dogs they may help.

    I had a foster dog, Lars, who was a fear biter. He was a white shepherd stray, very anxious guy who I couldn’t even touch until I’d tossed him hot dogs for 3 days. Bit my boyfriend when he got too close to his rawhide. It was a stressful 8 months wondering if there was anyone out there who would be able to handle this dog, but I never gave up on him and he eventually found the perfect adopter.

    If you are ready to take it on, having a fearful dog in your life can be one of the most rewarding things imaginable. Remember to reach out to your friends and fellow dog people for all the support you need along the way.

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    • This is an awesome response. Kirsten, you have some really excellent tips on dominance theory and on leash-reactivity training. Everybody should check this out!!

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    • I am not too familiar with T-touch so I am so happy you have brought it up!

      My trainer used to tell me to sing “Happy Birthday” or any other cheerful song while walking my dog if I felt myself getting anxious. It does make a huge difference.

      Thank you so much for your great ideas!

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  13. A very hard situation to be in. My Sophie is leash reactive. Wonderful off leash but on leash, she was cujo. Can you get a copy of Control Unleashed? It is geared toward agility dogs but her games and tips can be used in other situations for fearful and reactive dogs.

    For Sophie, I met with a behaviorist. We worked on focusing on me when another dog was around. She was rewarded for doing so. For some reactive dogs that works great. But eventually the look command became a trigger for her. She knew a dog was nearby and would become more anxious having to focus on me and not see the dog behind her. She would become so anxious, she would struggle on leash to turn around and bark/lunge.

    For Sophie, I then moved to Look at That (LAT from Control Unleashed). She gets rewarded for looking at another dog and then instead of lunging/barking, returning her gaze to me. It has become a game for her. I took tons of classes with her, went to parks and locations, sat as far away as possible. And just treated for looking at a dog and not reacting. If she would become reactive, we walked away and tried again with more distance.

    There has been such a change in her. We don’t live in a big city but we do live in a very dog friendly and populated area. Constant work with her has made a difference. We can now navigate classes and tournaments with ease. I will never not be cautious with her but she is more relaxed, I am more relaxed and in control of the situation.

    Best of luck to you!

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    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this. Control Unleashed is a great book, one of the best out there for situations like these.

      I am so glad you have seen improvement in Sophie. It gives so many others so much hope!

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  14. My best advice would be to contact Debbie at fearfuldogs.com. The website itself is really super helpful and I am pretty sure Debbie does consults on specific issues. She is awesome and I know her tips on helping a dog with fireworks fear has already made a real difference at our house.

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    • I didn’t even think of actually contacting her, but I bet you are right. Debbie is an amazingly kind person and she would have some awesome advice, beyond even the great stuff on her website.

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  15. I agree with several others…goto fearfuldogs.com. Great source of good information.

    Also, contrary to some literature out there, board certified behaviorists now recommend prozac to help with aggression. I know many people are against using drugs to help behavior problems, but if it will help while you implement behavior strategies, and possibly save this dog’s life, it seems worth looking into.

    Here is the website for board certified veterinary behaviorists. I’m sure there is one in the NYC area.

    http://www.dacvb.org/

    This is also a uselful site, with articles written by board certified veterinary behaviorists.

    http://www.avsabonline.org/avsabonline/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=139&Itemid=375

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    • Medication can make a huge difference, it’s so true. I know the writer of http://www.reactivechampion.com has had a lot of success. When ordinary tactics, aren’t enough, the right pharmaceutical can make a difference. If there is no shame in using drugs to help humans with their anxiety, there is no shame for dogs.

      Thanks for the very informative links!

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  16. Fearfuldogs is such a fantastic resource and Control Unleashed is another great place to start. I cannot even begin to sing the praises of BAT high enough. I LOVE BAT… i mean LOVE LOVE it. It has become my go-to, “try this first” with reactive/aggressive dogs.

    Having a dog like this in NYC is extremely difficult for a variety of reasons. Managing the situations is hard and dogs are often over threshold even in the most mundane city situations. It’s not an easy environment to work in, that’s for sure and you may have more successes in a different environment.

    There is a really good book Civilizing the City Dog: Guide to rehabilitating aggressive dogs in the urban environment by Pamela Dennison that may be of interest. Although I wouldn’t call the pup aggressive, she gives really good advice about planning walks, outtings, and other daily life with a dog who isn’t confident in the environment etc.

    That being said, having a professional trainer work with you is totally invaluable. Madeline S. Friedman, Heather Conely, Anna Grossman, and Marion Wiener are all trainers in the area who you may be interested in contacting. They may not take reactivity/aggression/fear cases personally but they can probably refer you to someone local that THEY trust.

    Fiesty Fido, Growly Dog, Control Unleashed, Reactive Rover type classes would be beneficial as well–go watch a class before you decide to take it. These classes should be small (4-6 dogs depending on size of the space) and the ideal would be fore NONE of the dogs to actually react. Kate Perry in NYC runs a Feisty Fido class (I dont know if it’s a “good” class or not but it’s a resource).

    Any type of redirected frustration (the bite to the dog walker)needs to be taken seriously. Dogs have incredible amount of control with their mouths. There is very rarely an “accidental” bite in this type of situation… it doesn’t sound like it was aggression but the fact that he made contact is something to definitely keep in the front of your mind.

    Using drugs, in my opinion, should not be a first solution but they can be excellent additions to a treatment plan. Drugs alone will not solve the problem but they can aid in a the treatment by taking the edge off of the dog and allow them to ‘relax’ enough to more easily learn from the training work.

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  17. Kristine – this is a wonderful forum full of great advice – thanks for going out of your way to help someone in need. I can’t offer any advice since I have no experience in this area, but I really enjoyed reading all of the information!

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  18. i just read a really heartening article over @ ruffly speaking about the taboo of dog biting:

    http://blacksheepcardigans.com/ruff/general/removing-the-taboo-of-biting/

    it’s always good to remember that most dog problems are not the end of the world.

    as for how to find help, i could only advise to just keep asking – the shelter may not have any resources to offer but it never hurts to get in touch with any and all rescues and ask for references, tips, etc… some trainers may be willing to offer to reduce their price when it comes to foster dogs, and some may even help out for free.

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  19. Something to do is take a very high value treat (for my dog it’s hotdogs) and on a walk when you see a dog/person a block away get your dog’s attention on the treat/you and praise her and give her the treat when she looks at you and ignores the dog/person even if it is far away. Slowly start getting her attention later when you are closer (Watch me is a good command to teach for it aswell as leave it before you head out) I taught my dog these for walks and he is quite a bit better and will continue to get better I’m positive. Also, I practiced with my trainer’s and a friends dogs so they knew what to expect. They brought their calmer dogs until we became more confident and I could get my dogs attention faster and keep it longer. Then we moved to higher energy more excitable dogs.

    Hope this helps a little bit, good luck!

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