Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Shylah’s First Month at Home
Shylah is the wonderful, fearful puppy from Mexico that I first wrote about here. In today’s post, Shylah will join me in summarizing her background and our first month together. My commentary is in italics.
My First Two Months of Life
It’s awfully tough being born and weaned on the streets, even in a place as pretty as Playa del Carmen. We spent our time trying, and often failing, to find shelter from the oppressive Mexican heat, scrounging for food, and avoiding people because we didn’t know if their hands would soothe or hurt.
I was clueless as to the magnitude of the street dog problem in Mexico. Did you know that Mexico City authorities claim to capture and electrocute 20,000 dogs a month?
While there is a segment of the Mexican population that treats dogs just as we do, others consider dogs, at best, a cheap home alarm. 70% of dogs on the streets in Mexico have either been abandoned by their owners or they are the offspring of unsterilized dogs. Some people don’t sterilize their dogs because they don’t have the money. Others won’t sterilize a male for fear of taking away his manliness.
Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.Charles M. Schulz
Life at the Shelter
Fortunately, I don’t remember those early days very well. I mostly remember the eight months I spent living at the Playa Animal Rescue shelter. There were up to eighty of us in residence at any given time, so it wasn’t like living in a home. However, I got food, great vet care, and anywhere from two to eight other dogs in the pen with me. My favourite day of the week was Saturday because that’s when we had “charm school.” On those days, volunteers would come to walk, bathe and pet me. I am capable of being an extremely charming pup, thanks to the loving attention I got on charm school Saturdays!
If you’d like to see where I lived, here’s a five minute video. It was filmed a couple of years before I was born, so don’t bother looking for me in there!
Playa Animal Rescue was started by Sue Silva, an American vacationing in Playa del Carmen. The people at PAR are dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating injured and abandoned dogs, and then finding them permanent homes.
I did some research to see if dogs are more fearful when they are raised in a shelter. Although there isn’t a lot of information available, it looks like most dogs adapt very well to shelters. The exceptions are dogs like Shylah. Whether you call them fearful, nervous, anxious, timid, shy, or sensitive, the Shylahs of the world need extra help to become confident, balanced dogs.
On the Road Again
Life was good and then my people at the shelter put me on an airplane. Some of my friends were in crates near me, but the noise on that plane was just awful. I got off the plane and a lady from DIBS took care of me and my two buddies for a night. The next day we went our separate ways. I don’t know what happened to my friends, but I went to a very nice foster lady who had two little kids and two Chihuahuas. After nine days with her, and just as I was getting used to those kids, they moved me again–to Karen’s house.
DIBS volunteers in Canada help find permanent, loving homes for the dogs from PAR. Congratulations to DIBS for recently achieving the milestone of one hundred successful adoptions!
Week One: A Fearful Puppy
My first week with Karen and her mom was tough! Karen has a really quiet house with nice dog beds and a comfortable crate. Those spots were life rafts for me. If Karen put a treat outside my bed or crate, I’d reach for it as long as I could keep my back legs in my bed. I’m nobody’s fool! I know how important it is to stay on your raft when floating in shark-infested waters. Nevertheless, on Day 5 when Karen had a friend visiting, I dashed from my bed in the library to my bed in living room so that I could be closer to where Karen was sitting. Karen was thrilled. I would have liked to have been nonchalant, but the stress of that dash left me quaking!
That first week, I spent a lot of time quaking. My back legs shook uncontrollably, my tail was plastered to my belly, and I avoided looking at anyone. And that was in the house. Outside was worse. Everything was new and scary–twigs on the ground, trees, a stream. I stepped on a pinecone one day and almost had a heart attack! Going outside didn’t get better until Day 6 when Karen’s friend, Linda, came over with a couple of very calm dogs. I was happy to follow them and even explored the forest at Karen’s place a little.
I don’t know what I would have done that first week, or any subsequent week, without Linda’s expertise. A dog behaviorist, Linda has extensive experience with all kinds of dogs. She visited Shylah on Day 2 and Day 6.
On Day 2, I learned the importance of not soothing a fearful puppy. Cesar Millan explains:
“A dog relates your behaviour to whatever it is doing in the moment….To our dogs, affection is a reward. By comforting a fearful puppy, you are rewarding what it’s doing in that moment: being scared. The proper way to approach your fearful puppy is with energy and actions, not words; by showing and not saying, ‘I’m in charge here. Everything is okay.”
I did a good job of not soothing, but focused a bit too much on keeping everything quiet and calm. On Day 6, Linda reminded me that fearful pups need to work through their fears, not avoid them. I started using tension on the slip leash to get Shylah to step out of her bed. The second she was in forward motion, I released tension. It worked and got Shylah slowly participating with me.
Week Two: Two Steps Forward, One Back
Now that Karen knows to keep me moving, so many things have been happening. A big one was learning to get in the car so that I could go to the vet for a checkup. My new vet was terrific. She sat on the floor, avoided looking at me, and tossed me treats that she called “canine crack” (pieces of beef sticks) until I was calm.
The car was a different issue. Karen and Linda took turns walking me around and around cars parked in the driveway. Eventually I could do it without panicking. Then they played with the door handles, making noises that spooked me. I got used to that and then had to practice getting in and out, in and out. Getting in was fine; Karen didn’t like me bolting in but the floor of her SUV is dark and a good place to hide. I’m not a fan, however, of getting out.
On the plus side, I’ve decided that I like Karen and want to be near her. I feel much safer when she takes me with her on a leash, but if there’s no other choice, I will dash from one room to the next on my own–as long as I’ve got one of my mats to land on. Remember those sharks!
Each morning this week, Shylah and I seemed to be starting from scratch. She would quake and shiver when we were outside, darting about at the end of the leash. In the house, she’d be on high alert, ears twitching and body tensed for flight. The almost nonstop high winds were a big part of the problem. When Shylah heard them, she cowered and shook.
However, by the end of each day, there would be little signs of progress. Shylah would leave her mat without me having to put any tension on the leash. At night when I was watching a movie, she would lay on her side in her bed (a much more relaxed position). I pet Shylah only when she is relaxed. And I’ve learned that it’s important to stop petting her after a minute and wait to see if she initiates a request for more. She has been doing that–putting her nose near the hand that just stopped petting, even occasionally, and ever so tentatively, licking my hand.
We spent thirty minutes one day with me trying to get Shylah to come to me to be leashed. We didn’t quite make it–I had to go to her–but she tried, coming closer each time before retreating.
Week 3: Getting Better Every Day
I’m feeling a little bit more comfortable every day. I don’t dart around hardly at all when I’m walking on the leash. Even when Karen has me on a long line and I could move away if I wanted to, I don’t. I run a couple of feet ahead of her, stop and watch until she catches up, then run ahead again. I’ve decided that when we’re outside, Karen’s my life raft. If a big wind comes up (what’s with these winds lately!), I go close to her. We just stand there together until the wind stops and then we carry on. The only thing Karen ever says when that’s happening is “easy” in this really quiet voice. And sometimes she’ll give me a quick massage on my neck to loosen up my stress.
My beds in the house are put away during the day because I was hiding in them and didn’t ever want to leave them. But I’ve got a bath mat beside Karen’s desk in the library; I’m happy enough being there while she’s working on her computer. There was this one big moment when I was laying on that bath mat and Karen wanted to put the leash on me to take me outside. I didn’t want to be on the leash so I ran away from her to another part of the library. She didn’t do anything, just sat in her chair and waited for me. I went back to my mat and let her put the leash on. I could feel that Karen was really happy with me, and I have to say that I felt pretty proud of myself.
There have been a few amazing moments this week. The one that Shylah mentioned was huge, not only because she came back but because she didn’t run out of the room. Another was a time when I had her on leash and she knocked her metal water dish in the library as we were leaving. Shylah panicked. I sat on the floor, waiting for her to calm. I also tapped on the water dish and slid it around on the floor to desensitize her to the sound. Over a ten minute period, Shylah moved toward me, put her front feet on my leg, and then curled up in my lap. I left her there, without touching her, until she calmed and then we stood and carried on with our walk.
I’ve been having trouble stopping Shylah from bolting into the car. Linda has always said that what works for one dog/owner combination won’t necessarily work for another, and that we should try different things to see what works. So with Linda’s help, I’ve now got Shylah going into the larger and more open area at the very back of my SUV. Every time we do something new, we practice and practice. Every success makes my dog a little more confident. I’m really noticing this week that Shylah is much more observant. She also makes more extended eye contact with me. Yes!
Week 4: I’m Home!
I’m really starting to feel like I’m in my forever home. I’ve been walking and running for hours every day this week, much of the time off leash in the woods with a bunch of other dogs. I’m getting really curious–starting to use my nose to sniff my environment, and checking out the other people walking with us. I don’t want them touching me yet, but I’m definitely feeling more trusting that they are probably okay. We even walked in town one day. I did really well with the traffic and people and dogs.
When things upset me, I just go close to Karen for a couple of minutes. The stuff I worry about doesn’t seem to bother her, so I figure everything’s okay and I start to relax. I’m getting so that I can relax fairly quickly. Oh, and because I travel by car to meet my buddies, I’ve decided that maybe the car will eventually be okay too. I’m willing to get in now and, when I get home, I recognize where I am and leap out without any prompting.
It took me a while to realize that, until the day she arrived at my home, Shylah had always been in the company of other dogs. Without them, she was lost. Being with other dogs is making a big difference to Shylah, as is lots of forward motion through hours and hours of walking.
Just as Shylah has me for a life raft, I have Linda. I am comfortable giving Shylah her freedom when we are with other dogs because I know I’ll have help getting her back on leash. I’m working on getting Shylah to stop, sit, and wait to be leashed. When that happens every time, in all kinds of circumstances, the world is going to open up for Shylah and for me. I have a rural property with forest, pond and meadows, and I look forward to being able to roam it with Shylah off leash.
Karen Has the Last Word
So what else is new? I may not have been here for long, but I’m already clued in to Karen always getting the last word!
The love of a dog is a pure thing. He gives you a trust which is total. You must not betray it.Michel Houellebecq
Many years ago, I was in our local mall. A woman came in with her child, a little boy three or four years old. The mom fed quarters into a slot so that her son could have a ride on a mechanical horse. Then she lifted him off the horse and watched as he crawled underneath to explore the horse’s springs. Next, she led him to one of the mall benches which he explored just as thoroughly. Then to the glass front of a store. Each time, she stood back and watched him explore. She didn’t caution him to be careful, or try to explain everything he was touching. She simply made sure he was safe and she gave her blind child the confidence to find out about the world.
That’s what I want to do for Shylah. I read that it can take eight weeks for a dog’s cortisol levels to return to normal after they’ve gone to a new home. Linda tells me it can be up to a year for a dog like Shylah to become a confident, well-balanced pup.
We have made great progress already. I’m glad that I kept a daily journal this month or I wouldn’t have remembered just how far we have already come.
But it’s still early days and there is much to do. I’ve only just figured out that Shylah will eat dry kibble off the floor, but will refuse it out of any bowl. She still isn’t drinking water except when I cup it in my hands. Shylah won’t move freely through the house – I have to put her on leash and walk her from one spot to another. She’s happy for me to approach her but she won’t come to me yet, at least not inside. Other people are still scary. Shylah looks away and trembles, even with my mom.
If we think of dogs as fitting into one of three groups –dominant, happy-go-lucky, or sensitive–my girl is always going to be sensitive. That’s good for me. Shylah needs calm, positive energy –no frustration, anger or impatience. I’ve always had positive energy, but it hasn’t always been calm. Since Shylah, it has been.
My goal for sensitive Shylah is that she grows from being a fearful puppy into a confident dog. I’ll keep you posted.
Comments are always welcome and appreciated.