Canine Behavior/Cowardly Clifford
Dear Dr. Epstein,
I have an approximately 4 year old Redbone Coonhound that I rescued from an animal shelter. (I live in Ridgeland, MS). He was found by the side of the road when he was approximately 3-4 months old accompanied by his brother. They were sitting by their dead mother's body whom had been hit by a car. They were rescued and taken immediately to ARF (animal shelter) where he and his brother have resided for 4 long years. He was the runt and his brother has always been his protector. I got a glimpse of this when I observed him in this environment. He was terrified and shaking madly in the corner while Bosco (his brother) barked ferociously, yet
Friendly, in an effort to protect his space. Bosco was very friendly to us but did not want Clifford to be taken out of their run.
Clifford had to be picked up and carried to the car, shaking violently.
Since we have had him a year, his timidness has not changed. He is on 75mg of Amitriptyline and it doesn't seem to help much. He has a bed and will not leave the safety of it! He must be forced (sometimes on a lead) to even go outside. He will only get up to eat and then hr will
Sometimes only eat in his bed. He let's our other 4 small dogs intimidate him. Jack (our terrier) literally tries to attack Clifford and we have to intervene because Clifford just lies there and won't react. I am scared Jack will attack him someday when we are not home! Clifford weighs about 85 pounds and is a healthy eater. He won't come to us at all even for affection and barely looks us in the eyes. He looks away when we call him or look at him and then he starts to shake. He doesn't want to go outside, play or ever wag his tail, not even once. I feel solo bad because all he does is lie in his bed all day just staring out into space. He is not food aggressive or aggressive period. I've consulted an expert (supposed) and was told to put him down because he has no good life. I refuse. I know somewhere he loves his home and us. He does seem to enjoy his walks though. He never gets to be a dog and enjoy a good toy, the sun on his back or a warm touch because he is solo very frightened. He likes me better and seems more apprehensive of my husband. Can you help me help him, please! Any advice would be very much appreciated. Thank you.
Thank you for your question. First, I need to clarify. I'm not a doctor. I have neither a veterinary degree nor a PhD. I have a graduate education in animal behavior and learning, but I didn't complete the degree.
What a very sad start that Clifford had. During his primary socialization period (from 3 weeks to 18 weeks of age) he was on the streets and his mother was teaching him to be afraid of humans, and then she died, leaving him and his brother on their own. If he had zero human contact (or at least zero positive human contact) between 3 and 6 weeks of age, then it is likely the main reason you're seeing this behavior today. Even though he was rescued at 12 or 13 weeks of age (still during that socialization window), and likely treated kindly since, he may never be able to be affectionate to people. There have been some studies done with puppies where they specifically avoided any human interaction at certain periods during that window from 3 weeks to 18 weeks) and it was determined that those earliest weeks are crucial to learning the ability to bond with humans.
I don't know what, if any, efforts were made during his stay at the shelter to overcome his fear of people. We don't know if any counter conditioning or desensitization training was done for him or his brother. My guess is that very little was done, especially if this was a county or city shelter and not a private rescue group as the latter frequently have trainers and behaviorists that they work with to help the dogs become the best dogs they can be.
At this point, Clifford has spent the first 5 years of his life in survival mode. As a puppy, he never learned to play with toys when out on the street - perhaps chasing bugs or chewing on sticks would be a fun game for him as he would have had access to such things in puppyhood. Living in a shelter is roughly equivalent to living in a prison as it's very high in stress for all the animals, and they feel that stress from the other animals there, which only serves to increase their own stress. In your home, there are 4 other dogs, at least one of which torments him, keeping his stress level high.
It's good that you're open to medication to help him feel better. But medication alone is not going to 'fix' this. Did the vet who prescribed the medication also prescribe working with a trainer or behaviorist to help Clifford learn better coping skills? Antidepressants and anti-anxieties are always supposed to be prescribed in conjunction with behavior modification. The purpose of the meds to help the dog be able to learn better. But on their own, it's like putting a band-AID on a gaping wound - not very helpful.
I would encourage you to speak with your vet about getting a referral to a veterinary behaviorist. This is someone who not only has their veterinary degree, but also has a specialty (usually an MA) in animal behavior. I think of them as the psychiatrist of the animal world. They are able to observe Clifford, refine his medication dosing and create an appropriate behavior modification protocol to help Clifford feel more secure in his environment. They will work with you and your regular veterinarian to rule out any underlying medical or physical conditions that may be exacerbating his timid behavior. They will followup with you as needed to refine the training protocol or adjust the dosing of the medication. They may want to try him on a different medication. They may recommend other tools to use along with medication such as a Thunder Shirt, Rescue Remedy or Comfort Zone which may help soothe his frayed nerves and help him cope better right now, thus allowing him to learn better coping skills beyond the artificial help.
Unfortunately, Clifford's history is intense enough, and complicated enough that I can't really offer any suggestions here other than he should NEVER be left unattended with the dog you fear may attack him. They should be kept in separate rooms when nobody is there to supervise. Period. No exceptions. It's unfair to Clifford to make him endure that torment, and if pushed to his limit, he far outweighs his tormentor and he could cause real and serious damage to that little dog. I know he's very timid and has never shown any sign of aggression, but we all have a survival instinct, and if backed into a corner and threatened enough, we will all fight back eventually.
In the end it may be determined that the best home for Clifford is one where he's the only dog, or he's with another dog who is very mild-mannered who can support him and encourage him without steamrolling over him. I bring this up because you need to acknowledge that yours may not be the most suitable home for him. It's just a simple fact that not every home is right for every dog, nor every dog right for every home. Sometimes, it's just not a good fit and we need to acknowledge that. I believe that the single greatest gift we can give to a dog we love is to step out of our own emotional attachment and look at the dog's life. If we cannot provide it an environment that allows the dog to truly thrive, then our best pet parenting is to find that dog a home where he is able to thrive - putting aside our own grief at saying goodbye. Even the most skilled trainers/behaviorists sometimes have this issue. One of my gurus, Dr. Patricia McConnell, shares on one of her books (At the Other End of the Leash), that she had a dog (one of 4 or 5 that she had) who was not doing well in her home. He hated it when she traveled to speaking engagements - and she was traveling a great deal speaking on dog behavior. He hated traveling with her and he hated being left behind, even at home with a friend staying. He was miserable and it was showing. She loved this dog very much, but she just wasn't able to provide the kind of stability of daily life that he needed to thrive. So she made the heart wrenching decision to re-home him. She found a local couple who have a working farm (the dog was a border collie). They had no kids and so no children running around. They never traveled and their lives were pretty relaxed. Just work their farm, and that's it. It was the perfect life for that dog. With a heavy heart, she gave this dog to that couple. She checked in a couple months later and the dog was thriving. Happy, tail wagging, smiling, running around and truly joyful. She knew then that she'd made the right decision and knowing that he was living so happily lifted her heart because she had put her own sadness aside to make his life better.
I don't know that this will be necessary for you and Clifford. I'd encourage a proper evaluation with a veterinary behaviorist first. If there's no vet behaviorist near you, most will do phone consultations with your veterinarian or with you. But it is a very real possibility that given your existing household and the personality of the other dogs, that this just isn't a good fit for such a timid dog. But, with the help of a qualified veterinary behaviorist - using positive reinforcement training (never choke chains, e-collars, yanking, jerking or anything "alpha"), and a combination of classical conditioning, counter conditioning and desensitization, along with confidence building exercises, you may be able to help Clifford learn that the world isn't as scary as he thought it was. That would be a blessing.
I wish you the very best of luck in achieving that outcome. I'm sorry I don't have a magic fix for this. I know I would be looking for one if I were faced with this challenge. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Los Angeles Behaviorist