You are here:



QUESTION: We recently rescued a toy poodle that is 7 years old. She was used as a breeder and kept in a kennel with other dogs during those 7 years but had little interaction with people. We have had her for 2 months and she is doing much better when it comes to allowing us to pet her and has even wagged her tail and given me kisses but she literally sits on a corner of the couch all day. She will now take treats from my hand which was a big step for her. She rarely will venture off the couch and into another room of the house. If she does it is just to look to see where I am and then she RUNS back to her spot on the couch. She will not eat, poop, pee or drink water in front of us so she will hold it all day if we happen to be home for the day and wait until we go to bed. I have a fenced yard and decided to see what her reaction would be to being outside. She ran while crouching low to the ground under our deck into the farthest corner possible and wouldn't move. I had to crawl through the mud and spider webs to get her. She has never been on a leash and freaked out and tried to get free so I tried a harness and got pretty much the same reaction. She will pull on the leash to try and run and hide in a corner somewhere. I have had her wear a leash in the house to get used to it and she was fine until we try and bring her outdoors. Our entire living room carpet is lined with pee pads until we can figure out a way to get her to potty outside. We do not have any other pets. We did have 3 wonderful male poodles that our daughter grew up with but our last boy passed away in April at 18 years old. We weren't planning to get another dog and then Ruby entered our life. She literally gets ZERO exercise and we so want her to enjoy walks & car rides so we can bring her along and spend lots of quality time with her but she is a couch potato with many fears and I just don't know where to start. I don't have any experience with this sort of thing. I have taken her to the vet for shots & had her spayed. The vet said she had Pyometra and had I waited another day she might not be with us today. She is on a healthy diet and got a clean bill of heath physically but mentally is a different story and I could use some expert advice. Thanks!

ANSWER: Imagine this:  you are five years old; you have been locked in a closet for your entire life; the only light came from under the door so, at night, it was pitch black.  The only sounds you heard came from activity you could not see and never learned to interpret.  You were given food and water through a slat in the door.  You were never held (or touched, for that matter, unless it was necessary, i.e. medical attention) and never directly spoken to.  Then, one day, the door opened.  Let's compare this to Plato's Cave: the reality you saw, and considered the only reality, were the shadows.  The actual reality (insofar as we are able to "see" it) was never even imagined.

Now, you're a Human being; but in essence, you would be considered quasi-feral.  It would take many years for your cognition to begin to catch up with the real world; many years until any sort of communication could be developed with you; many years before you could venture OUT, let alone by yourself.

This dog is responding as I would anticipate for one that has been so badly abused, maltreated, and neglected throughout her lifetime.  She is learning that "petting" is not an attempt to harm or capture; she has found a "safe place" on your couch.  The leash restraint is especially terrifying because it IS restraint AND it also ties her (psychologically and physically) to you.  Since she is "fine" wearing a leash (on a harness) INDOORS, but freaks out when it is used to bring her OUTDOORS, you must NOT use it to bring her outdoors.  Rather, it will take weeks (perhaps longer) to coerce her to follow you outdoors (while wearing her harness and leash, but without you using it).  Since she WILL now take treats from your hand, I suggest this:  cut string cheese (low fat or fat free) into tiny bite sizes.  Sit on the floor near her "safety spot" after offering her (palm up) one piece.  Just sit there with the cheese (it is a forgiving cheese, it can go un-refrigerated for up to an hour without spoiling and then replaced into the refrigerator in the same baggy you use to hold it; just don't use the same pieces for more than one day).   WAIT.  Now she knows you have that cheese because she had a piece.  She must process the information that you are sitting on the floor near her "safe place" and have MORE.  WHEN (and she will, no way to predict how long though) she gets off her couch and "safe place" and comes to YOU, "jackpot" (several pieces of string cheese), turn your back so you are not facing her (never stand over this dog) and slowly get up and walk away.  Sing a little song as you get up and leave.  She will go immediately back to her "safe place".  What we hope to accomplish: she will more and more easily get off the couch and come to you as you very slowly, one foot at a time each day (and how far you can go will be determined by her sudden refusal to come to you) move away from her.  Remember: the "jackpot" must always be given and your removal must always be subtle and upbeat.  After she has made the decision that leaving her "safe place" to come to you for the "jackpot" is easy as pie, the moment she reaches you and AS she is eating her treats, use a unique word ("presto"), not too loud.  From that point on, repeat that word as she is eating her treats.

At some point, she will acquire a conditioned response to your posture (sitting on the floor, no matter how far from her, so long as she is able to see you - meaning, her eyesight is still clear) AND the word you choose ("Presto").  A solidly conditioned response will then be acquired so that the word itself will bring her off the couch (you will go from sitting to crouching to kneeling to standing, but always BEND to offer the jackpot and never bend OVER her or make direct eye contact).  NEVER use the word PRESTO to bring her to you for any reason that is negative.  While doing this (and it should be repeated perhaps three to four times a day until the conditioned response is apparent), routinely throughout the day pick up the leash; simply sit next to her, pick up the leash, no direct eye contact, don't use her name, do nothing but sit quietly, then drop the leash and casually walk away.  Do not use the leash to maneuver her; get her accustomed to your being at the other end, safely there.

This will take, most likely, weeks.  Meanwhile regarding food and water:
Put water bowls in many places; create a safe place where her food bowl is offered three times daily.  Pick her up.  Carry her to the room where the food bowl is; put her down, and leave the room (close the door).  Wait ten minutes; open the door.  She will not have eaten for at least the first few times but then, when hungry enough, she will.  You are not there, after all; she will begin to understand that this is how her food is delivered.  As for water, if there is a bowl near her "safe place" and another here or there (as well as one next to her food bowl), she will drink when she needs to drink.  I have a Toy Poodle.  She drinks what appears to be nothing at all!  But she drinks what she needs.  No dog (unless it has severe physical issues or neurological or brain impairment) will starve it itself or die of thirst.

Regarding toileting: pick up your carpets.  Do not cover the floor with wee-wee pads.  Make a line of them, a short line, going in the direction of a bathroom (should you have one downstairs within sight of the couch) or a special area in a corner of the room.  As she uses these, move them closer to the spot you have chosen and then, slowly, eliminate all except that are on THAT spot.  Will this dog ever be house trained?  No, I very much doubt it.  She has been forced to poo and poop on wire in the place she "lived"; her response perseverance is high at her age.  You might fit with her panties and a liner, removing them only when the pads are in place, but that should come much later when she trusts you totally.  Right now, leaving a short trail of pads going in the direction you have chosen for her to eventually eliminate has to be sufficient.

This dog will most likely never be happy to go on car rides with you.  My Toy Poodle came from a very neglectful home BUT she was carried a great deal and understands "hugs" are not harmful but are good; it has taken me SEVEN YEARS to get her to go for car rides where she actually looks out the window rather than trying to sit in my lap (which is against the law in my State).  She was 2-1/2 when I got her.  There are just some things your dog will never do.  Car rides she must take to get to the Vet (and we haven't yet spoken about GROOMING, you must be VERY VERY CAREFUL about the groomer you choose!  You must insist on being present when she is groomed, and NO CAGE DRYERS).  But joyfully?  I doubt your dog will ever experience a car ride without fear, there are simply too many stimuli and the entire situation is completely foreign to her.  My Toy Poodle is a "gay" little girl, happy, friendly to all Humans; yours will not be so for a while; her real temperament has yet to be seen, but it will emerge slowly.  With patience, affection, love and lots of TLC, she will become herself.  Your veterinarian might be able to suggest a small dose of anti-anxiety medication (NO "doggy prozac") but giving her the pill means wrapping it in something yummy (or sticking it into the middle of a tiny bit of chicken hot dog).

She's been through hell.  You are remarkable for giving this dog a chance at a real life and she has many years ahead of her, this breed can live a very long time.  Let's start with my suggestions and then go from there.  Keep the email containing the link to this answer; as soon as your dog is readily and quickly approaching you from the "safe place" when you are seated a few feet away (for her "jackpot" and has heard the word "Presto"), follow the link in the email back to this answer, scroll down and hit Ask Followup, and advise me of your progress.  Together, we can turn her around but there are some things we most likely will not be able to totally change.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thanks so much for your thorough and insightful reply. I can't wait to try these suggestions. I have never taken Ruby outside on a leash. I put the harness/leash on inside the house and always carry her out and then place her down. She does not like to be outside at all with or without her leash and harness. Since the couch she sits on faces the back deck I leave it open when possible so she can see outside and get used to the sights and sounds. Occasionally I will pick her up off of the couch and hold her while walking out onto the deck and talking sweetly to her. Then after a few minutes I bring her back into the house and place her gently on the couch. We are not using a leash and harness at all for now. The entire time I am holding her while outside she is wrenching her neck to see the door. I will sit outside on the deck alone waiting to see if she will come to see where I am as she sometimes does inside the house but she never comes outside to look for me. When she does come to see where I am while inside the house as soon as I turn around and see her she runs back to the couch. She comes close but she won't come to me. 2 days ago she actually came into my small office to see me & again ran back when I noticed her but she kept coming back to me so I hung my hand down and pretended not see her and kept working. She came up to my hand and licked it and then I realized why she came close that day. It was raining outside and there was a little thunder which she is afraid of and she wanted me to sit with her on the couch to comfort her as I have done in the past and that is exactly what I did. Ruby actually does pretty good in the car. She pants and shakes a little and wants to be close to me but she will settle down most of the time. Since the only time I had her in the car was to take her to the vet, I decided I wanted her to think of the car as fun too so we have taken her to Dairy Queen for ice cream. They offer a doggie cup(it's very cute). The first time she wouldn't eat the ice cream at all. The 2nd time she ate the ice cream from the cup on the couch when we got home. The next time she actually looked out the window at Dairy Queen and started eating the ice cream right in the car. We had her food bowl in 2 different places but found that the one in the living room where the couch(her safe spot) is was the one she ate from. She will eat from my hand and she will eat from the bowl on the couch while I hold it but she won't jump down and eat or drink from her bowl in the living room until we have left the room. Sometimes she will be eating and we come back in the room and she stops eating and jumps back on the couch. The wee-wee pads are lined up in front of the TV in the living room where the couch is. When we first brought her home we had pads in several rooms not knowing what she would do. She did not potty for 2 days but when she did it was in front of the TV(we were not in the room) so that is where the pads are now. She missed the papers in the beginning so we lined them up in front of the TV only from where each accident took place and now she always manages to go on the pads and she has not gone potty anywhere else in the house. We keep our bedroom doors closed when we are not home. We have used the same groomer for 8 years. She is very sweet & gently and works from her home. I don't think she used the cage dryers but I am not sure & will ask. I know she said that when she turned on the dryer Ruby was startled at first but then did fine. When I picked Ruby up she was in a large crate and walked up to me and seemed very happy to see me. Whenever I get home she is always VERY excited to see me and her tail goes crazy and she licks my face. Sometimes she will bark at my husband at 21 year old daughter when they enter the living and hang her head down and other times she will wag her tail when she sees them. Not sure why. We had to go out of town and couldn't take Ruby with us so I hired a pet sitter to visit with her several times a time while we were gone. I introduced her to Ruby before we left and she barked liked crazy. I picked Ruby up and brought her closer to the sitter and she was okay. The sitter told me that she would bark when she first arrived and then calm down. By the third day Ruby let out a low growl but allowed the sitter to pet her. She ate and there were no accidents in the house. I was so worried and very happy that Ruby did so well. We have come a long way in 2 months. I wish I could get her to enjoy the outdoors and possibly walk on a leash. I know Ruby has been around other poodles her entire life and supposedly did great with other dogs. I was thinking perhaps if another dog were outside or on a leash this would encourage her. I don't want another dog though. Have you tried this with your poodle? Thanks again for your help.

ANSWER: My Poodle was heavily socialized to other dogs and cats; her owner was neglectful in several ways: no vaccinations; no grooming; not house trained; loaded with fleas.  I have done a great deal of rescue during my career (high kill shelter dogs carefully "interviewed" by me) and, once, had eleven dogs in my house.

The age of a dog often creates "response perseverance" which, in simple language means: the dog's response is set over time and it is unlikely that response can be easily changed.  It took my Poodle months (about three) to be house trained: she was 2-1/2 when I got her.

You MUST be certain the groomer is NOT using a cage dryer; your dog might be happy to see you when you go there to pick her up, but that does not mean nothing negative has occurred.  The behavior of your dog within the first two hours of returning home will tell you more about her experience.  Since you trust this groomer, you must be certain the dog is HAPPY TO SEE HER, too.  I've seen a great deal of harm done to dogs by groomers in my career.

Eventually, with "Presto" and moving father away, and "jackpot" rewards, you will get this dog to follow you outdoors.  As for the pet sitter: a growl is a bite waiting to happen; instruct your pet sitter (whom after all YOU DO NOT SEE INTERACTING WITH YOUR DOG, DO YOU) to NEVER approach the dog head on, always on a curve; make no direct eye contact; scoot down to the dog's level, talk softly.  Food reward should only be given when the Human KNOWS WHAT THE DOG IS THINKING/reacting to.  This dog will most likely take food reward (high value food) no matter what; we do not want to reward fight/flight.  Review dog's body language:

Adopting an adult dog can be a challenge; rescuing one from a horrific life is much more than a challenge, it is an education.  It also makes of you, in my opinion, a superlative Human being.  I think it would benefit you to go to Dr. Ian Dunbar's website.  He is a Veterinary Behaviorist, quite well known in the US and Britain.  There are so many articles and videos, free of charge, on his site, which is  Be certain any article or video you choose is FROM DR. DUNBAR, not a blogger or anyone not on his staff.

Yesterday I was thinking about Ruby; I was thinking especially about how she comes looking for you and, once she's satisfied you're there, runs back to her "safety spot".  This is an exceptionally good sign. There WILL come a day when she will not "run".  Be prepared with high value treats (that string cheese again) and be sure she is not fearful when you offer the food.  You will know by reading her body language.  Use a sing-song voice, even baby talk, with her right now.  And sing a little song when you're with her; make it up.  Dogs love to be sung to.  Much love and luck.

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: Thank you for your prompt reply. I am a little concerned about your mention of the growling being a bite waiting to happen. Ruby didn't make a sound for the first month we had her and she was very docile. When the vet examined her she allowed him to do anything without so much as a sound. Even when he examined her impacted & infected anal glands, not a sound. But as she became more comfortable with us and in our home she started to growl & bark on occasion. Sometimes when we exit a bedroom she will growl & bark or when we come home she will do it as well. I usually just sit down next to her and say hi Ruby and talk sweetly to her. She is so excited to see me and she will wag her tail and kiss me like crazy. She is most affectionate with me. Sometimes she will growl at my daughter or husband when they sit down on the couch but when my daughter puts her hand out she licks it, same with my husband. I have not seen any aggression at all. If she barks a lot and won't stop and I can't figure out why I have told her no & she stops and she will still give me a kiss and allow me to pet her. She LOVES to be pet & scratched and will sometimes put her paw up to reach for my hand. We have seen less barking but I don't want to do something that would cause aggression or a negative reaction. When I sit down on the couch she will jump from the loveseat where she is resting to the couch where I am sitting just to greet and kiss me and then she lays down on a corner of the couch near me. She HAS to be in a corner. Right now she my husband & daughter on the couch watching TV. Ruby is resting quietly on the loveseat. Sometimes she sits on the end of the loveseat looking toward the office where I am just waiting for me to come see her. I am definitely going to check out Dr. Dunbar's website. Thank you for sharing it with me. Wow, Ruby is going to be a lot more work than I realized. She is the sweetest thing. I often wonder if she misses other dogs and would be happier if she had a buddy. Anyway, thanks again.

Ruby is beautiful.  So are you.

There are many permutations of "growl"; remember that Ruby came from an extremely abusive and neglectful situation.  In such a situation, a dog may at some point growl and then be "punished' rapidly.  In a cage with nowhere to run, when the dog's growl (if offered) is met with quick punishment, the dog acquired "learned helplessness" and may begin to use a "growl" inappropriately.

I would like you to do this:  normally I do not answer private questions but I would like you send me a private question. Subject line: Ruby, phone call.

In that question (which NO ONE CAN SEE BUT ME), put your phone number and your State.  I am in NY State.  If possible, I would like to speak to you.  I will then call you at an appropriate hour; please indicate in the private question what that hour is and remember our time difference (if there is one).  I don't normally offer this service but I have on several occasions.  What you consider a "growl" might not be one; or it might be an inappropriate response that we can quickly fix.  As I said, I rarely speak to questioners directly; I prefer to do this later afternoon my time (after 3PM, before 5PM).  It's far easier to get a real understanding of the dog by talking to you than be exchanging questions/answers.  For now: if the dog growls, do not back up, do not remove yourself, simple break eye contact, remain where you are; when the dog has settled down, speak to her softly.  DO NOT PET HER since you may inadvertently be rewarding something negative.  NEVER extend your hand to a growling dog; I'm not suggesting your dog will bite but remember she is highly stressed; she is making an enormous adjustment; she is confused; and her responses to your behavior demonstrate this confusion.  I'll stick with you until she is doing well; that means, I am willing to speak to you once a week, if necessary, on the phone.  But I will call you: my number will be blocked.  

Canine Behavior

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


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.

©2016 All rights reserved.