Connecting with Shylah: Working on the Dog-Human Bond

Shylah ran away the day I was congratulating myself for our rock solid dog-human bond.

I had taken my car to the garage to have the snow tires removed, leaving Shylah in her bed in the library. Derick, the forester I wrote about in this post, showed up with his friend while I was out. I knew they were coming, and they knew I wouldn’t be home so they didn’t come to the door. They just got their gear out of their truck and walked to the back of the property to bush whack a new trail.

The library is near the driveway so maybe Shylah heard the growl of the Ford F-150’s powerful engine as the truck pulled in. Maybe she heard the men’s voices as they struggled into heavy boots and backpacks, or the slamming of doors as they retrieved the chainsaw from the truck. Or maybe her running away had nothing to do with the forestry guys. I’ll never know.

When I got home, Shylah was still in her bed. She resisted, as usual, when I put the slipleash around her neck and chirped, “Let’s go for a walk!” But she walked to the door on the leash, sat while I opened the door, then walked outside.

I Thought We Were Doing Well

When I want to give Shylah more freedom to explore, or when I’m training for recall, I swap out the slipleash for a 28′ long line.

We’d been doing really well with recall so when I switched to the long line that day, I didn’t anticipate any problems. Holding on to one end of the line, I walked Shylah down to the open meadow. The meadow is maybe 100 yards from the house; we go there all of the time.

In the meadow, Shylah ran and I called her back. She immediately turned and came toward me. She stopped a couple of feet away, as usual, but I saw that as part of her progression. I went to her and made a big fuss of how wonderful and smart she was. We did that half a dozen times.

Then I dropped my end of the line and we practiced some more. Each time Shylah responded to her name by running towards me and sitting until I had praised and petted her.

The lunge line was made of layers of felt. When it got wet from the morning dew, it was heavy. I noticed that Shylah was running sideways and watching the line. So I took it off.

Again, this was nothing new. Shylah had been running free in the woods when I went for daily walks with Linda (the dog behaviorist I talked about here) and her pack of six to twelve dogs. Shylah likes other dogs and stays close when they are around. But she had also been running free with me for a few minutes of each walk on my own property.

Shylah Vanishes

When I took off the leash, Shylah ran towards the woods. I called her. She stopped, looked at me, then flew in the opposite direction. If she hadn’t been leaving, it would have been a beautiful sight. Shylah has the grace and speed of a doe. She soars.

On that day, Shylah was out of sight within seconds. If you’ve had a dog run away from you, you know how that feels. Those feelings were reflected in my voice.

I started with disbelief. She couldn’t possibly have run away. Something must have spooked her. I was sure she’d be scurrying to me for protection any second. My calls were calm, even lighthearted.

Then I was hurt which, for me, shows up as anger. How could she look at me and run away? I thought she trusted me, that we had a good dog-human bond. How could I have been so wrong? My calls were strident, authoritative. I wouldn’t have come for them either.

Next I was terrified. After so many months in a shelter, Shylah’s nose has been slow to develop. Would she be able to find her way back to me? She’s dark coloured and difficult to see amongst the trees. People still scare her so she wouldn’t willingly go to anyone. She has never barked. By this point my calls were plaintive bleatings from the open window of my Ford Escape as I drove a three kilometre loop around my home.

Finally, I was resigned. If I didn’t find Shylah, I would sell the $140 memory foam mattress I’d just bought for her and accept that I wasn’t meant to have a dog. I was back on my property by this point, walking up and down the main paths, blowing long desperate notes on a dog whistle.

Shylah is Found

And that’s when I found her. Two hours after she ran, when she could have been in the next county, Shylah emerged from the woods on to a main path approximately 1000 feet behind my house.

My excited exclamation–“Oh there you are! Come on sweets.”–will tell you that I was still operating under the assumption that Shylah’s departure had just been a little blip in our otherwise wonderful dog-human bond. But Shylah didn’t come. She ran back into the woods, close enough to be seen, but far enough to avoid capture.

But She Won’t Come Back

Knowing that Shylah had stayed on the property, I felt calm enough to return to the house to change into the heavy pants and boots I’d need for the wet woods. I had been consulting with Linda throughout the morning. We touched base again, with Linda suggesting two things I could do to get Shylah back. cartoon of dog, man and objects blowing in strong wind

I tried the first suggestion. Taking a mug of tea and a book with me, I sat on a fallen tree and read for two hours while Shylah danced out of range. She was eventually supposed to come close enough that I could leash her, but we hadn’t counted on the windstorm that started up.

Shylah is terrified of wind. Even I was terrified of that wind! We were surrounded by creaking and groaning trees. Shylah started digging a burrow in an effort to get below the wind, and I knew that the “read a book and let her come to you” method wasn’t going to work.

So I left the forest and went to Plan B. Retrieving chocolate lab Charlotte from next door, I put her on a long line and led her into the woods. The leash wrapped around trees every other step and I did several face plants into streams, but we eventually made our way to Shylah and then, ever so slowly, back to the house with Shylah running alongside Charlotte.

My Four-Legged Emotional Barometer

Questers of the truth, that’s who dogs are; seekers after the invisible scent of another being’s authentic core.

Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
The first nine days after Shylah ran were awful. Linda encouraged me to keep her on the leash and continue to practice recall. She said that I’d know when it would be safe to let her off leash. But I had been sure that it was safe and I was wrong. I questioned myself endlessly. Already devoting day and night to Shylah, I couldn’t imagine what I could possibly do differently.

Everything went south during that time. I wasn’t sleeping well, and was frustrated with several human relationships. Shylah, my sensitive puppy, picked up on all of it, all of my chaotic, angry energy. She regressed, trembling at the door, quaking and skittering on the leash when we walked.

I’d been told that a dog mirrors a human’s energy, but hadn’t realized the extent to which that was true until I went through those nine days with Shylah and then saw what happened when I changed.

Searching for Answers

If you had asked me at the time, I would have told you that I was perfectly fine–calm and at ease. The problem was my dog.

When there is a problem outside of myself, I search ‘out there’ for solutions. I got lots of well-intentioned advice.

Some said, “Accept that your dog will always be this way.” That didn’t sit well with me. Shylah wasn’t even a year old and she was not at ease in her skin. I couldn’t imagine her living a life where anxiety and uncertainty would be her default settings.

Others said, “She does well with other dogs. Get her a dog.” That option appealed to me. But when I talked with Linda she made the good point that Shylah would attach to another dog and we would not develop the dog-human bond that I was looking for. Another dog might be a good idea, but not yet. Not until we’ve bonded.

Then I heard, “Get her a thunder coat for anxiety, carpet runners for the tile and wood floors, a CD of canine calming music, and Bach’s remedy to put in her water.” Those suggestions snapped me back to reality. My mind went immediately to struggles I’d had as a vice-principal at a high needs school where many of the students were ill-equipped, because of chaotic home environments, to handle the structures and routines of a school day. One teacher or another would be in my office every day, pleading for help in getting parents to see the wisdom of having their children medicated so they’d behave in school. I didn’t see any wisdom in that and could not be party to those meetings.Rescue dog on floor cushion

Regaining Our Equilibrium

The first professional book I wrote was titled Start Where They Are: Differentiating for Success with the Young AdolescentMy premise in that book, my career and my life is that when you identify an individual’s starting point and then tailor your teaching to that individual’s needs and preferences, learning can happen. Miracles can happen.

Somehow I’d forgotten all of that when it came to Shylah. I realized that I was looking outside for answers when the answers were inside of me. I knew Shylah better than anyone, and it was up to me to help her.

Surprisingly, instead of feeling pressure from that insight, I felt completely relaxed for the first time since Shylah came to live with me.  I felt truly calm and patient with Shylah, not just playing the role of being calm and patient. And Shylah responded to my new energy, immediately and completely.

A Weak Dog-Human Bond

Shylah’s five hours hiding in the woods happened on April 10th. Up to that time and for nine days after, Shylah exhibited all of the characteristics of a weakly bonded dog. She:

  • seemed emotionally indifferent, especially to Gerri and sometimes to me.
  • failed to respond to commands, especially the recall command.
  • lacked any desire to play.
  • disliked being handled, except by me and then only first thing in the morning or late at night.
  • regularly attempted to run off. April 10th was the big one but there were two other episodes of much shorter duration in the days following.
  • gave poor eye contact.
  • exhibited depressed or lethargic behaviour.

A Strong Dog-Human Bond

When my attitude and energy changed, Shylah started showing little signs of a strongly bonded dog. She:Rescue dog on long line

  • keeps tabs on my location when she is off leash. In fact, she runs to me every few minutes to touch my hand with her nose.
  • wants to be near me. After a few minutes of running with other dogs, Shylah voluntarily comes and walks beside me.
  • looks at me frequently. We’ve got long, sustained eye contact now and it is quite comfortable.
  • loves to be handled. Shylah will initiate requests for touch now, bumping my arm with her nose or sitting close and looking at me beseechingly.
  • is starting to play. Shylah leaps and cavorts in the meadow, dragging the long line behind her. She is still a bit spooked if I try to jump and run with her, but we’ll get there. She is also finally playing with a stuffed toy. Her dog baby is now missing both ears and its tail. I couldn’t be happier.
  • has begun to communicate her wants and needs. Just last night she wanted a different bed brought into the bedroom. A couple of well placed whimpers made her desire clear.

A Long Way Still to Go

I don’t want to overstate Shylah’s transformation. We have definitely progressed by leaps and bounds in the last couple of weeks, but we have a long road still to travel.

Shylah still won’t move freely around the house. She loves her bed and is reluctant to leave it, even to move to a different bed in another room. This lack of movement hampers efforts at obedience training or brain games like hide-and-seek. Training is a big part of strengthening the dog-human bond, so I’m hoping we can get to more of that soon.

We have days and days of outside training where Shylah comes every single time I call her, and often long before I call her. As I joked to Linda, sometimes recall training is difficult because Shylah reminds me so much of the line from the country song, “How can I miss you if you won’t go away?” But then today, for example, out of nowhere, Shylah went down into some bushes and I had to go after her. I don’t think she was running away, but I don’t know for sure.

Shylah has all kinds of funny little quirks. She won’t eat food out of a bowl, although we have made progress in serving it on a placemat rather than the carpet. She drinks water only when she is in my bedroom late at night, and then she will drink two bowls worth but only if I refill before the water drops to a certain level. Laundry flapping on a clothesline sent her into orbit until Linda, bless her heart, spent an hour sitting under the clothesline with Shylah, surrounded by other dogs who thought that flapping clothes were no big deal.

Looking to the Future

Conventional wisdom is that it takes a rescue dog a minimum of three to four months to settle into their new home. As of this weekend, I’ve had Shylah for two and a half months. I don’t know how long it will be before I can report that the dog-human bond is fully there for us, but I can say that it’s a journey I’m very happy to be taking with my pup.




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  1. Oh, Karen, I was riveted reading that. I am glad Shylah is making progress again instead of regressing. I am so glad you stuck it out with her. She needs you in her corner to show her what a solid secure relationship looks and feels like. It certainly does sound like progress is coming by leaps and bounds.

    Thanks for bringing us up to speed on how things are going with her. Even though there is a long way to go any progression forward is a good sign. Each success will be the building platform for the next one, I am sure of it.

    I heard somewhere that dog obedience classes were really for training the human enrolled in the course with their dog more so than teaching the dog anything. LOL.

    While reading this post I can hear the determination and the pride as you describe Shylah’s successes and I hear the heartbreak and frustration when you tell us she was regressing. You are officially a pet parent. 🙂 They really do become like kids to us; we worry about them, try to teach them skills, help them when they are scared or hurt and every other thing we as humans do with children. At least, that is what REAL pet parents do.

    Shylah’s story really needs to be a book. I for one would read it and I don’t care how many pages it took. 😉

    1. Thanks so much, Susan, for your comments and for your support. It’s really terrific to finally be in a better place with Shylah. Just this morning I started teaching the ‘Stay’ command and she’s such a smart puppy, she got it quickly! Especially exciting is that I’d never had opportunity to teach that command before because she never moved! So yes, progress is happening.

      It’s funny. Despite all the dogs I’ve had in my life, Shylah is the first where I really do feel like a pet parent. Thanks for pointing that out.

  2. Thank you for sharing your and Shylah’s story so far. Thank you also for sharing the tips on dog-human bonds. My husband and I work with the dogs at our local SPCA, so I found these tips particularly helpful.
    Dogs teach us so much about ourselves (when we listen). Your listening to Shyla comes out clearly in this post. I look forward to reading about your further adventures ahead.

    1. Thank you, Donna.
      You’re right. I am learning a great deal about myself, not least of which is that I actually can be calm and patient. I didn’t know I had that in me!
      I’m glad the tips were helpful for your work with the SPCA. That’s such important, invaluable work, Donna. Thank you for doing it.

  3. I know I have a lot of energy, even at the age of 81, and it is very hard to change my behaviours. I am trying to slow down, I’ve always been the one to find the right tool to do the job or rush to complete an agenda I have in my head and want it done now. Over the past couple of years I have finally learned to say no to a job. I am trying to have Shylah be my friend and have even been lying on the hard floor beside her. I still want Shylah to be Karen’s dog as Karen is working with her so hard. She is happy, but still nervous, our house is very quiet with just two adults, but I hope as the weather gets better she will want to be outside more where she will get used to the environment around her.

    1. Hi Gerri/Mom,
      It was really courageous of you to post this comment.
      It’s true that you are high energy and that sometimes Shylah doesn’t know what to make of your sudden movements or kitchen noises. But I consider myself blessed to have a mom who is so youthful at 81. I can only hope it’s a characteristic I’ve inherited!
      Shylah will warm up to you. I’m sure of it. It’s supposed to rain all weekend. We’ll spend time walking her indoors, with you taking the lead rather than me. All will be well.

  4. I loved this post Karen and can only say that you and Shylah are lucky to have each other. Your patience is amazing and I am so glad she is finally responding to you. No doubt she will become less frightened as time goes on (except perhaps with the wind!) but there is also no doubt that you will be the one human in her life who means the world to her.

  5. Hi Karen, I am so happy things are going in the right direction with Shylah. I admire your patience and hard work. It really does pay off.
    Look forward to more updates on Shylah.

  6. Hi Karen, Last week when you said you were going to do an update on Shylah, I found myself eagerly looking forward to reading your story, and as a result I went to this entry first. I quickly skimmed it this morning and then read it again later in the day but this time in more depth. I hope you can forgive me but I found myself hysterically laughing at certain points. You have painted so many interesting scenarios as you progressed through the story. I can see you hopefully expecting that Shylah would return from the woods, you driving around in your car, you sitting in the woods on a log with a tea and a book, the wind picking up and all the strategies you used and the internal discussions you had within yourself. I loved the turning point where you drew from what you already knew. It was so perceptive. We get so embroiled in the details of events and sometimes forget what we already know. It is an incredible story where even non-dog people like me learn about ourselves. I can hardly wait to meet her this summer!

    1. Hi Fran. I grinned when I read the part in your comment about you laughing hysterically. I can just see you doing that and of course I don’t mind at all. You know me well so you do have the advantage of being able to picture all of this in great detail. Personally it was the face plants into streams and the constant unlooping of Charlotte from trees that is now most amusing to me, although at the time it was just so irritating!
      Thanks for saying that the story was helpful even to non-dog people. That really means a lot to me.

  7. Hi Karen. Your ongoing story about Shylah has really given me food for thought. And, I have come to my old conclusion that life is very often two steps forward and one step back! I say this because of my own experiences, which have sometimes seemed like a lot of steps backwards! I have a tendency to overthink the actions and reactions of others, and that includes our dog, who obviously loves my husband more. Lol! My Husband , kids, family and dog all “disobey” me from time to time…. but when the chips are down, they show how much they care, and I feel like all is well again. It might be interesting to see how Shylah would react if you were in need. I am not encouraging staging a sprained ankle. 🙂 I bet she would surprise you! Good luck Karen. I know this will turn out well. Maureen

    1. Thanks for your comment, Maureen. I too trust that all will turn out well with Shylah. We’ve already made such great progress. More sunny days are ahead!

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