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Canine Behavior/Timid 6 Month Old Rescue


Hello Dr. Connor,

I spoke with a friend of mine, Cathy Weisbart, who highly recommend I email you.  I'm writing because my wife and I just adopted a 5-6 month old "Potcake" rescue directly from the Bahamas.  We are unaware of our dogs life prior to being placed with us other than she was a stray.  She is a bit timid which is not too surprising considering the major recent events in her life (being put on a cargo plane and flown to the states, moved into a foster home, being spayed, and now being placed with us).  She is generally doing well but displaying some signs of anxiety/nervousness that concern us a bit.

We had one major event which was our fault entirely.  On her 3rd day in the house a friend brought her 6 month old goldendoodle over to say hello.  Our dog was in her crate when they came in and she immediately began barking and growling.  If their dog approached her crate she would growl louder, show her teeth, and snip.  We took the other dog downstairs and later on brought our dog into the same area.  It took them a while but after some teeth showing and cowering the other dog let her greet him and they began to play. Our dog used her teeth a lot in play but it seems to be without fear or aggression, just mouthy.  I know we should have introduced them on neutral ground but I want to know how best to help socialize her to other dogs.

Other then that incident there are a few other concerns.  She spends a lot of time wandering around the house whimpering.  She isn't doing this if we are playing with her, if we are out walking, if she's chewing on a treat, or even when she is in her crate but it's nearly continuous if she isn't "busy".  

She also tucks her tail and looks nervous when guests come over.  We have encouraged them to be calm and allow her to come up and smell them, which she does, but then she tries to leave the room.  If they try to approach her she walks away or cowers a bit.  There's never any significant signs of fear like shaking or growling but she is definitely uneasy.

She is also nervous of other dogs on walks.  If she sees one she stops in her tracks and just sits down.  Only one has passed immediately by us. She cowered until they cautiously smelled each other and she would not continue the walk until the other dog was far away.  It was without major event but definitely nervous.

Finally, we are going to being fostering children and want to make sure we expose her to kids before this begins.  I want to do this in a way that is positive for her and allows her to remain calm.  How should we approach this?

We want to to everything we can to help her build some confidence, socialize her appropriately, and raise a healthy happy dog but I'm just not sure how to handle some of her anxiety.

Thank you so much in advance for your assistance!

Megan Ivy
Denver, CO

Sorry for 24 hour delay in answering this question.  My cable was out most of the day and night yesterday, no real reason why.  

OK let's go.

First:  NEVER confine your dog in a crate and bring in another dog, a "strange" person, a "child" or anything else.  She is CAGED, she cannot RUN, she must stand and fight.  Her response frightened the other dog which caused him to react appropriately once they were "free" to interact.  His body language allowed her to understand there was no threat, BUT it could easily have become a disaster.  You do not "socialize" a dog to other dogs without expert assistance when it is clear to you that your dog is fearful.

On walks, when she "sits" as another dog approaches, this is what Turid Rugaas calls a "calming signal" to the other dog.  It is a statement of NON threat.  She then "freezes", will not move forward until the other dog has passed, a true fight/flight response no doubt the result of at least one seriously upsetting encounter with another dog "on the street" while she was a stray or in the hands of some human cretin.  Honor her sit, then speak in a high voice, very very happy, and begin to circle her.  If she won't get up and circle, YOU circle around HER, keep up with happy "yay it's a party oh yay yay".  Soon enough, she will begin to circle WITH you as the other dog actually passes.  What you are doing is slowly counter conditioning her WHILE allowing her to give the other dog an appropriate social signal.  Do NOT force her to begin a "relationship" with another dog.  Dogs do not necessarily require the society of other dogs in order to be happy and, some dogs are totally unable to acquire such a casual relationship with another dog.  THIS dog is presently not a candidate for a live-in companion dog, and she may never be.

To address this in a professional manner, you might try to find a "growl class" conducted by a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist or an extremely well credentialed and educated trainer with LOTS of references.  Observe the class first: the aim of the class is to teach dogs, using positive reinforcement, that other dogs are "safe", that each dog can be calm.  Of course it then behooves YOU to be certain that approaching dogs ARE "safe" and that calls for you to study body language.  See a "growl class" in action here:

Since you are in CO, it is possible that Dr. Ian Dunbar's office (he's in Berkeley CA) may know of such a class within a reasonable driving distance of your home.

I suggest you purchase:

The above is a link to Dogwise and to Turid Rugaas' book and dvd: Calming Signals in Dogs.  You can probably get it from Amazon, as well.  You will learn how to "read" a dog's body language.  This is important not just for your dog but also so you can determine what an approaching dog is "thinking" or "acting upon" before allowing any possible interaction after the growl class sessions.

Re: whimpering: ignore it.  This dog will take months to habituate to your environment.  Do not reward it, simply ignore it.  When she is NOT whimpering (calmly sitting or lying down ) approach her on a curve (not a straight line) and as you pass her tell her in a calm low voice she is a "good girl" and keep going.  As she adjusts over time, the whimpering should end.  Also: be certain this is not caused by physical pain (from her incision or orthopedic).

Re: children.  Without professional, eyes on evaluation I cannot and will not advise you.  "Socialization" ends for the domestic dog at or about sixteen weeks, tops.  What's left is desensitization and counter conditioning.  I would not bring any children into the house for quite some time and, before doing so, I would carefully evaluate the dog's body language and reaction to children who are casually in your path during walks.  

Re: visitors.  This is your dog.  If your visitors need to pet a dog, they can get THEIR OWN DOG.  I have had as many as eight dogs at a time in my home (including at least one high kill shelter rescue, one or two "show" dogs, and my own companion dogs).  My rule was, and is: my dog is not here for my visitor's entertainment nor the visitors of my child(ren).  I protect the dog(s).  If there are children visiting, I put the dog(s) in a "safe" area where the children cannot even see them (you just never know what a child is going to do, then the dog reacts, then you're in court).  If there are adults visiting, I do not encourage interaction with my dog(s) unless I absolutely know the dog(s) is heavily socialized to humans and I am, personally, comfortable with this "visitor" interacting with MY dog(s).  Tell your visitors to IGNORE YOUR DOG.  If she approaches them, they should yawn (this is a signal of non-threat) and turn their heads away (another signal of non-threat), NOT touching her, NOT tossing treats (you don't know what is being "rewarded") and certainly not pursuing her for any reason at all.  Over time, if you have the same visitors and/or the dog meets these same people often on her walks, she will warm up to those she has learned to trust.  At that time, she will actively solicit interaction with them.  This is what "should" happen but it will take time.

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Jill Connor, Ph.D.


I have spent my entire professional life rehabilitating the behavior of the domestic dog and I can answer any question regarding any behavior problem in any breed dog. I have answered more than 5,000 QUESTIONS on this site in the past (almost) eight years. If you are a caring, committed owner and need advice, I'm here for you. I am personally acquainted with my colleagues (Turid Rugaas, Ian Dunbar, etc.) who were members of an elite group in EGroups that I founded: K9Shrinks. THERE ARE NO QUICK FIXES for serious behavioral issues; not only is it unprofessional to offer same, it is also unethical. IF I ASK YOU SUBSEQUENT QUESTIONS, I NEED YOU TO INTERACT WITH ME. More information equals more credible answers and a more successful outcome. If you want ANSWERS THAT WORK, participate in any way I request. I'm quite committed to working on this site for YOUR benefit and the benefit of YOUR DOG. Help me in any way you can.


30 years of solving serious behavior problems in domestic dogs; expert in dog to human aggression; Internet columnist for for 5 years; former radio talk show host, WHPC.FM, Garden City, NY "Bite Back" (1995 through 2000). List owner, international animal behavior experts, Seminar leader: "Operant Conditioning and Learning"; "Aggression in The Domestic Dog"; "Solving Problem Behaviors" -- conducted for various training facilities on Long Island from 1993 through 2000. Former clinical director of "Behavioral Abnormalities" in conjunction with Mark Beckerman, DVM, Hempstead, New York.

Member, APDT (UK); Psychologists in Ethical Treatment with Animals

Harcourt Brace Learning Direct: "The Business of Dog Training" "The Fail Safe Dog: Brain Training, not Pain Training"

Ph.D., UC Berkeley

Past/Present Clients
Board of Directors: Northeast Dog Rescue Connection; The Dog Project; Sav-A-Dog Foundation; etc. Pro Bono counselor: Little Shelter Humane Society My practice is presently limited to forensics. I diagnose cause of dog bite, based upon testimony before the Court, for attorneys and insurance companies litigating dog bites, including fatal injuries. I also do pro bono work for bona fide rescue organizations, humane societies, et al, regarding such analysis in an effort to obtain release for dogs being held for death in municipal shelters in the US.

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