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March 24, 2011

I sometimes wonder if I’d ever deliberately adopt a truly fearful dog again. Truth? I didn’t know what I was getting myself into with Lilly. Still, I cannot imagine missing out on all the amazing things she taught me about not just dogs and dog training / dog learning theory but also about life and love, relationships, and finding (perhaps) my true calling.

Fearful Dogs Require Work

It is, indeed, a lot of work to help Lilly cope in the world, starting with the tedious-but-necessary Relaxation Protocol that teaches dogs how good calm can feel. Living with a fearful dog is often a heartbreaking, frustrating, and slow exercise of daily life — with progress measured in the smallest possible increments. Yet, after reading some of the adoptable dog profiles during last week’s big Petfinder anniversary celebration, I understand how lucky Lilly was to be rescued and quickly placed at such a young age (around 6 months old).

Fearful Dogs Deserve Better

Many other dogs currently in animal shelters and dog rescue groups face a much longer road. Take, Breezy, the dog in Maryland that we championed for Adopt the Internet Day. After being saved from a hoarding situation as a pup, she spent THREE years in a shelter while the ensuing legal case ran its course. Since then (15+ months), she has lived in a foster home … which clearly is a MUCH better situation for her, but still … she needs her own family. She deserved that 4 years ago, and she certainly deserves that now. I really, really hope she gets one soon and enjoys the best summer of her life in 2011.

Consider Adopting a Fearful Dog

So, in hopes of encouraging others to consider adopting fearful dogs or shy dogs, I offer this list of ways a fearful dog will:

  • Improve your life
  • Make you a better person
  • Teach you important life lessons

5 Ways A Fearful Dog Improves Your Life

5 ways a fearful dog improves your life
While Lilly will always be fearful, some 95% of the time she is perfectly happy and calm because we protect her from scary things and because we've taught her how to cope in the world

1. Fearful dogs teach you compassion … because you often have daily, if not minute-by-minute, chances to recognize suffering and to do something to help.

2. Fearful dogs hone your awareness and attention to detail … because it takes focus to find and understand what exactly your dog fears. You’ll truly WAKE up to the world around you and realize just how much is happening every second. (Fair warning, you’ll also suddenly find an untold amount of rude and/or clueless behavior … in that case see # 5.)

3. Fearful dogs demonstrate the real meaning of trust … because they don’t just give it away for free. You must earn it every day not only with your good intentions but also through your actions, your words and yes, sometimes, your cheese. Not just in the beginning. Not just some days. Every day.

Think about it like this. Do you know people who kind of treat their loved ones like crap most of the year, then make a big production of giving lavish gifts on certain holidays? Yeah, well … fearful dogs don’t buy that kind of “love.” They need, expect, and deserve real love … which in many cases involves tiny gestures all the time that other people won’t even notice.

4. Fearful dogs persevere, many times in the most unlikely situations … and, that’s a lesson people should internalize because most of the time the best things don’t just magically happen without any effort. Keep at it (whatever “it” is for you) because your dog surely would.

5. Fearful dogs teach perspective on ugly behaviors between people … because when you understand what triggers set your dog’s fears off, you also learn how to read even the most horrible behaviors between people for what they truly are. This gives you the chance to practice the dog training cue LEAVE IT in your own life.

About the Author Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related.

I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.

  1. I absolutely loved this article. I have been in an animal rescue group for 4 yrs now, we work very closely with a behaviourist/trainer. I have learned SO much working with these poor munchkins, ranging from a little jumpy to terrified of every single thing. In the beginning my first reaction was to feel so much sympathy and coddle them, which is the worst thing you can do. My hardest work, but best succes was a puppy mill rescue, locked in a cage for 4 yrs! I fostered, then adopted her, and I can read her body language like a book and know what will set her back. She is now a bubbly dog, goes to people, cautiously, plays with other dogs etc. It is a LOT of work, every single minute of every day, but so worth it. I now find, I prefer helping these fearful dogs, than fostering the puppies. I need them more as much as they need me.


    1. Thanks for dropping by, Janice. The whole coddling thing is so complicated. Often I get confused about what works and what doesn’t in that spectrum between comforting in a good way and possibly crossing the line, see this past discussion of the issue:

      Canine Fear Confusion

      I would also recommend Debbie Jacobs book (new addition just out in 2011) … Guide to Living with and Training a Fearful Dog

      Debbie is VERY good at explaining what the SCIENCE actually shows and how it can be applied in the lives of fearful dogs.

  2. I think it takes a very special owner (like you) to successfully adopt a fearful dog. Our family is way too chaotic, I fear, for a dog that has already suffered. I am so moved by this post, though. And so glad that you adopted L. and that you are championing kindness for dogs from everyone. If we could apply these lessons to humans as well, the world would be a better place.

  3. Well said, Rox. I’m a much better person for having Buster and Ty in my life. We may not have ended up with the dogs we expected, but we definitely got the dogs we needed.

  4. I have so much compassion for unwanted animals. I wish more people would adopt from shelters before going to breeders or (God forbid) pet stores.

  5. Per Alexandra’s comment, I was thinking that many of the same lessons could apply to the parent of a special needs child. It’s amazing the things we learn from unexpected sources!

  6. What a beautiful post.

    My scaredy dog, Oreo, does teach me new things everyday. The best thing I’ve learned is that patience, kindness and a smile go a long way.

  7. All excellent points. I’ve often said that the clearest image I get of my humanity is reflected in my fearful dogs eyes. How I deal with her is a true test of empathy and patience.

  8. What a wonderful post! I’m amazed at just how much I’ve changed since I adopted Lucas, my fearful dog. He expanded my capacity for kindness and patience in a way that nothing else could have. Every time he’s happy or relaxed or playing, I melt. Yes, there are really frustrating days, but then there are those other days, the days when he does something or overcomes a new fear, and I just burst with pride. Regardless of the stress and frustration, he’s improved my life in immeasurable ways.

  9. Great list and oh, so true. When a dog is fearful it is so upsetting, since they cannot tell us about what made them that way. It’s hard to imagine that anyone would treat a dog cruelly, but unfortunately that’s often the cause. I’ve lived with fearful dogs and it is both heartbreaking and rewarding when you can get them to trust and relax.

  10. We can learn so much from our pets and just animals, in general. They have a way of cutting out a lot of the extracurricular clutter that invades the human psyche at every moment.

  11. I love this. I’ve adopted a fearful cat and have had some of the same experiences. I’ve trained her to do tricks in the same way you’d train and dog. I’ve even shared my cheese. My god, that cat loves some cheese! If she hadn’t had some training, I think she’d not have settled down as much as she has. It made a big difference in her trust level and the level of bonding. Poor puss!

  12. Love your insights. I met a friend’s dog for the first time yesterday and she just had this look in her eyes. I asked my friend if she was a shelter dog and sure enough, the dog was. Beautiful, friendly spirit that I find with most shelter dogs (including my own) that comes with also being a bit fearful. From my shelter dog, I’ve learned to let the dog come to me versus trying to impose myself on the dog first.

  13. Amen! I have learned so much from Anyanka and would not trade her for any agility title or ribbon. The lessons I have learned from dealing and helping her have over flowed into my personal and professional life (ICU nurse). I am more aware of my patients/families subtle signs of fear. Would I adopt another fearful dog…yes. I think most rescues have a degree of fear and mistrust (a form of fear) so it is inevitable when I am able to adopt another pup I will be dealing with some fear issues. What a wonderful post, I did post it to my Facebook page…very insightful…Thank you!

  14. Great list, Roxanne. Adopting Kona helped rip me out of the center of my universe. She doesn’t fit the bill of “man’s best friend.” Her love is conditional, she doesn’t want to listen to my problems and she remains loyal only away from danger.

    And yet, I think I’ve got the coolest dog around. Because I’ve had to flip-flop my thinking (it’s about what I can do for Kona, not what she can do for me…not to sound too presidential…), I’ve been able to focus on who my dog is, as oppose to what I get out of her. And she’s amazing! What an athlete, a hunter, a goofball, a sensitive soul…

    When this life isn’t all about me, I can wake up to the brilliant small things and be reminded that I’m one lucky dog to be here today.

  15. Understanding and dealing with dog personalities and behavior and social dynamics is a big education. My new puppy and Java appear to be very different dogs but neither is fearful. I just read an article about how to handle your dog when you encounter a rude dog when what I wanted to know is what do you do if your dog is the rude one? I can’t seem to stop Java from getting excited and lunging towards other dogs when they approach. I try to distract her with treats, which sometimes works. And now her thing is to growl when a stranger approaches her. I can’t figure that one out because it’s one growl and then she’s over whatever it was and is friendly. Lots of mysteries.

  16. I have such respect for anyone who adopts fearful dogs. When I was reading the first paragraph of this post, it occurred to me that I could have written it about having assumed responsibility for my elderly mom.

    My husband is allergic to dogs, so there are no more dogs in my future for now, but were there, I think I would go with your advice. I will tell my dog-lover friends to check out this insightful post.

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