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Wouldn’t You Like to Be a “Woobie” Too?

Sing it with me, kids. I’m a woobie. He’s a woobie. She’s a woobie. Wouldn’t you like to be a woobie too? (Look at me dating myself again, with an obscure 1970s Dr. Pepper reference.)

After last week’s “You’re Her Woobie,” I felt super sad to read AC’s comment that, “Kona tends to look at me like I’m the most evil thing on the planet when she’s in a scary situation, so I’d truly love to learn how to be a comfort instead!” (You can follow AC and Kona’s training, running, and other adventures on their blog: Running With Kona.)

Hence a new post and an ongoing chat about what it means to be your dog’s woobie.

Separating Woobie-hood from Attention-Seeking Behaviors

When we first began working with our behaviorist from Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, one of the first things she pointed out and insisted I work on were Lilly’s attention-seeking behaviors.

If you missed summer 2008’s trials and tribulations, I’ll be quick. Lilly used to interrupt my day constantly seeking comfort. Seriously, 40-50 times a day, she would jump, climb, or wiggle her way into my lap.

I thought, at first, it meant she REALLY loved me.


Once Jennie explained that Lilly was NOT happy and relaxed at home (as I thought), then it was easier to see that Lilly’s at-home fear behaviors were different than the ones she shows in public. BUT, it’s still fear … or at least discomfort or anxiety.

Both in terms of training and emotion, it was tough to cold-shoulder some of these behaviors. And, truth be told, I still make some mistakes and accidentally reward her by petting or talking to her when she decided to interrupt my day.

BUT, through the Relaxation Protocol, calming music, calming medications, tons of exercise and other forms of training, Lilly learned HOW  to relax so that she didn’t NEED ME as much.

Wait! What About All the Woobie Stuff?

Good question. By training away Lilly’s compulsion to seek comfort from me pretty much constantly, she learned to be a bit more independent and self-assured.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t need my help or my guidance in tough situations, especially in public or if something freaks her out at home suddenly.

It just means she learned to relax at home, and that’s a HUGE step for a fearful dog. Can you imagine being on guard, amped up, or nervous in your own @#$#@ home? That’s a terrible fate for anyone.

Essentially, the behavior modification work we’ve done (and still do) gave us a shared language. We build some new response patterns for her, which I believe means created new pathways in her body and brain so that FREAKOUT wasn’t her only biological option.

That process, as long and as tedious as it was, built our woobie-hood.

Sometimes I’m EVIL Too

All that does NOT mean that Lilly doesn’t sometimes look at me out of fear as if I’m evil incarnate. Remember those fits she has about coming inside in the summertime?

But, those times are much more rare than they were SIX years ago.

Solid Comfort & Compassion

The nibbling thing has crossed over to represent both being happy and being nervous. So, do I let her nibble? Yep … especially when she has just been tagged by another rattlesnake, feels like crap, and is scared at being in the veterinary hospital.

I use my body and my voice and our long history in relaxation training to reassure Lilly.

Other Ways to Be a Woobie

So, if you asked me how to be your dog’s woobie, I’d offer this advice:

1. Learn about canine body language and how it applies to your dog?

Until I learned to read Lilly better and understand the biological root of fear, I mostly thought I had the craziest dog on the planet.

2. Honor fear cues for what they are … a cry for help.

I used to try to cajole Lilly into situations, even when her body language said, “Oh, hell, no!” That’s a big mistake.

Now, when she has a moment or flips out, we instantly go into Relaxation Protocol mode so that she knows that I know she is scared and needs my help to relax.

In practice, like at class, that looks like us taking 2-3 steps toward the other dogs, then her sitting and getting treats for staying calm. Would I like to march straight from the car to the class group? Yep, but sometimes it takes us 10-20 minutes to make our way across the park.

3. Play with your dog.

I had the chance recently to interview several dog trainers, including Eric over at Dog Spelled Forward, about the role of toys and play in a dog’s life, and the consensus is that play builds relationships that keep dogs in their homes. (The article I wrote about all that isn’t live online yet, but I’ll post a link when it is.)

I would include hikes, walks, runs, etc as play because in most cases (not all) that exercise and movement calms dogs down.

4. Hang out together.

Granted, Lilly and I spend nearly all day, every day together, and I know that most people don’t have that luxury, but being in close proximity, even if you’re reading or watching TV or whatever, is comforting for both of you.

What Would You Add ?

So, what kinds of woobie-like strategies would you add to the list?

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.

Amy@GoPetFriendly - July 5, 2010

Buster (my cuddler) is laying with his head on my stomach as I write this. #3 and #4 have been especially important for him. Up until a couple months ago he would still curl his lip when I petted his muzzle. We’ve gotten past that now and snuggling and playing have been a bit part of it. Our relationship is so different after just 2 years – it makes me happy to think about how things will be after 6!

Eric Goebelbecker - July 5, 2010

I think you’ve covered it well. #2 is huge. Accept that your dog is afraid and take a big step back.

AC - July 5, 2010

Thanks for the woobie-hood info. It seems like it goes back to basics and figuring out the things that build trust between you and your dog.

I think one of the tricky things with Kona is she has such a fear-by-association reaction. We can be playing in the yard, she’ll have her feet slide from underneath her and she’ll slink away, staring at me with an incredible look of mistrust. Vet visits have resulted in Kona shaking and hiding when I enter the room, even days after the vet visit. I’ve learned how to help Kona bounce back more quickly, but the initial fear response still remains.

Constantly experimenting and learning!

    Roxanne Hawn - July 5, 2010

    We’ll have to brainstorm about that association thing. In Kona’s mind, perhaps, all she sees is that YOU are are always present when she gets scared. Maybe she has decided that you are the common denominator.

    I’m not sure how you turn that around, other than continuing to build your bond.

    Maybe some of our dog trainer friends can help out.

Maery Rose - July 5, 2010

I can’t add anything as I’ve never had to deal with a fear problem. The latest issues I have is that Java is she’s so vocal and I’m not really sure what it means. It’s like this loud howling thing whenever someone comes into the house. It scares people, but she’s never snapped at anyone and seems happy to have a visitor. I’d love to have a behaviorist interpretation and recommendations as “stop it” doesn’t seem to work too well. It seems like such contradictory stuff going on. Maybe I’ll have to video tape it sometime and post it and see what input I receive.

Crystal (and Maisy) - July 5, 2010

I would add (or expand on 2): Never push your dog. There is no training task that is worth sacrificing your relationship with your dog.

My dog is mildly fearful, and she used to be much more scared of things/objects. Once I figured out that she would shut down if I asked her to do something (it was too much social pressure), I began to let HER make the choice instead (through shaping, mostly, so that SHE was in control of the click), she became much more willing to approach scary things.

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