Before I start, I will ask you not to make judgements but to read this article with an open mind. I know many people will think ‘well they should have done this and shouldn’t have done that’ etc, but like most of us in life, sometimes what we should do and what we actually do, can be very different things and this is a story, albeit briefly on the trials and tribulations of owning a fearful dog.
The main character of our story is a dog called Joe – before coming to the UK, Joe lived in a foreign land and was rescued from a life on the streets by a local dog charity. He is a small crossbreed, about one year old and the size of a small Whippet.
My story really starts in September 2015 when a few days before his arrival into the UK, I was contacted by a lovely family asking me to help integrate a new dog into their family home with an existing family cat.
However, this family did not just have a cat, they had a dad who had never owned a dog before, two young boys aged six and three and numerous visitors coming and going, including other children.
So, there I am chatting on the phone learning some of the back-story and getting a bit more information about the impending new arrival, when alarm bells started to ring in my head. Now, part of what I do is to know what battles to pick and what to let go, but when you hear alarm bells in your head so early in a new client relationship, you know that you have a difficult conversation coming.
They had not met the dog, they had been told he was okay with cats and as it got closer to the day, they had been told that he takes a little time with people he has never met and is wary of children.
This information was concerning to me and was to trigger the first of what transpired to be a number of discussions over several months with them that living with a fearful dog can be life-changing and I voiced my concerns, suggesting they contact the charity immediately for more information, which to be fair, they duly did.
The information that they got back did not put my mind at rest and I still suggested that Joe may not be the right dog for their family. Now this is tough, a new client who I have only known for a few days and I’m telling them that their new dog that they have been looking forward to getting, but have never met, may well not be suitable for them.
With time running out, Joe was being flown over the next day, the family decided that they would proceed with their decision to adopt him. They picked him up from the airport and I was due to see them in their home in two days’ time.
As first experiences matter the most, I asked them to take some super ‘out of this world’ treats with them to offer to him the first time they meet.
After they picked up Joe, we spoke again and I asked them to describe how it had gone. Joe had not rushed forward tail wagging, wanting to lick them all over; he had instead backed away with rounded back, tucked tail but would eat the treats if tossed towards him. He was not aggressive though, just frightened and they were able to crate him and bring him home.
In preparation, I had asked them to create a confinement area where Joe could live and be given time to settle over the next few days, but at the same time, they needed a space where they could keep Joe safely away from the children and cat. Although they needed a little convincing, they thankfully agreed and this proved to be very important, as when they first arrived home, Joe spotted the children and immediately growled as they approached and he backed away and the parents immediately took him to his safe space and called me.
I gave them some initial safety advice over the phone and arranged to meet them as soon as possible. When we first met, I sat with the family and we talked for several hours about what the road ahead looked like and what was involved. I laid it clearly on the line; the risks with children, the work, the patience and even suggested returning the dog if they could, as it clearly was not going to be the easy-going family dog they had hoped for.
There were some elements in our favour, in that Joe was going to be exposed to lots of new situations that we could capitalise on, I had a compliant family that was willing to do what it takes, he was not a large dog, was inclined to go backwards when worried and would provide protracted warnings (growling and air snapping). As far as we knew, he had never bitten and so we had no bite information.
The next day, we spoke again and they told me that they had considered everything I told them and they were prepared to do whatever it took to give Joe the loving family home he deserved.
So, we set about the safety management and behaviour modification, over the next few months we worked with crates, leads, tethers, gates, muzzles and lots of chicken and cheese. We got their vet on board to rule out medical conditions and provide clinical support if required.
Now, if I feel there is a safety issue, I make it very clear that they MUST do what is asked of them and throughout the plan they managed Joe and the children diligently so that they were never left alone together, which is no mean feat in itself.
Joe responded well to the training and within a couple of days he was starting to show signs of improvement with me and Mum. It took a few more weeks for Dad to be accepted and a good seven months before Joe was relaxed around the children. Because of all the early management, the integration between cat and dog just happened naturally.
To give you some idea of time, in the early weeks I would see the family twice per week, then for months I would attend weekly, and in the last two months, I have seen them once monthly.
You will often see me write that working with fearful dogs is a slow process that will be life-changing and can also be incredibly rewarding. It has not all been plain sailing; there were plenty of ups and downs for the family. There were times in the early months that they felt like giving up; we had all the emotions, tears, joy, challenge and self-doubt.
As the months passed, Joe improved week on week and although Joe will not be the dog they originally expected, they have grown to love him and accept that life with Joe will always be different. He is comfortable around the children and going back to the original call, is living in harmony with the cat.
Due to their sheer dogged determination, this family has achieved something truly wonderful and I couldn’t be more proud.