Pet Connections

Lessons Learned: Living With a Fearful Dog

Note: The owner wished to share this story to help shed light on the challenges faced when adopting a fearful dog; the names in this story have been changed to maintain their privacy.

Love can fix everything, or so we’re told, but when it comes to dog behavior, it’s certainly (and sometimes dangerously) a view through rose colored glasses.

Kathy was going through a difficult patch in her life and hoped adopting and “saving” a dog would be comforting to her and a life changing opportunity for the dog. She drove to the local shelter and walked through the rows of adoptable dogs, most barking and wagging their tails at the sight of a new person. She came to a poor soul huddled against the back of his cage, shaking with fear and making no attempt to come greet her. “That’s the one,” she thought. “He needs a home the most, and I’ve got plenty of love to give.” The adoption papers were signed, the dog so fearful about getting into the car he wet himself, and Kathy drove home with tears in her eyes happy she was able to rescue this trembling ball of fur and give him the best life possible. While that’s what she succeeded in doing, their path was very different from the one she imagined.

For the first few days, “Rolly” – shortened from his shelter name of Roland – remained closed down and hid under the coffee table in the far corner of her living room. “He wouldn’t come out to play with any of his toys or for treats or even to eat” explained Kathy. “I could walk up and put his leash on, but he was completely shut down and I had to pull his leash gently to encourage him to go outside to potty. He would go right outside the door, then almost knock me over trying to dart back into the house to his table.” While he appeared to be house trained and know what a leash was, he certainly didn’t enjoy it. And he wouldn’t eat anything when it was offered to him, so Kathy left his bowl out in case he changed his mind. “When I would get up in the morning it would be gone. So that’s how I fed him.”

That’s how it went for the first two weeks she says, each day talking to him gently and offering him everything she could think of. She called the shelter to make sure he was okay, and they confirmed what they had told her at the adoption, that it was normal for any dog to have an adjustment period and fearful dogs take longer than most. So she rededicated herself to inching along. Kathy was excited when small bits of progress started to show. “He started peeking out from the table when I was across the room, then he would take a few steps out and look around before ducking back in and I was so glad he was starting to be a normal dog!” she says. “I starting think about the days we could go for walks and car rides and maybe the dog park”.

Weeks turned into months, and Rolly still trembled when Kathy reached towards him; or heard a new sound or the mailman came on the porch. He had started coming close enough to Kathy so she could pet him, but he would freeze and just stand there, often running back to his safe spot under the table after a few strokes. “It felt like he wanted to make a connection with me but just couldn’t,” she lamented. And he still turned into a wet noodle when she put a leash on him, resigning to the fact he was being forced to go somewhere whether he liked it or not.

After 6 months, she was able to take him on a short walk for half a block if there wasn’t anyone else on the street. “If another dog or a person came into view, he would bark and lash out then try to dart home” Kathy explains. “I was starting to feel hopeless.” At the suggestion of a friend, she hired a trainer to see if Rolly could be helped.

“The trainer really helped me to look at things from Rolly’s perspective. I used to think what dog doesn’t want snuggles? Or treats and toys and walks?” Kathy says. “Rolly didn’t. And he kept telling me but I wasn’t listening.”Most importantly, the trainer showed her who Rolly was. For example, while she loved holding him and giving him kisses, Rolly didn’t like it at all but felt helpless so he tolerated her. Once she understood that and gave him more space, he continued to open up to her. And he probably hadn’t been beaten as she first suspected by his cowering; some dogs are just born that way.

Over the past three years, Kathy has continued to work with the trainer to stay on track handling Rolly’s quirks, even trying anti-anxiety medicine with him.

“I love my boy” she says, “and I’d do anything to help him. I was surprised by what our journey turned out to be. We’ve learned a lot together.”


December 14, 2023
December 14, 2023


December 14, 2023