I scour the euthanasia list from our local county animal shelter every night. Since both locations of Maricopa County Animal Care & Control are kill-shelters, about 40% of the animals who come in each year are put to death. It’s horrifying and sad, but the East Valley shelter alone takes in almost 150 animals a day. Each. Day. The Maricopa County facilities need a lot of help. Many people turn the other way because they are “kill shelters.” Well in reality, they wouldn’t have to euthanize so many animals if there was more funding, help, and foster/rescue homes. Oh yeah – and less idiots surrendering their dogs.
I’ve been involved with MCACC for about nine years and I just recently rescued a dog off of the euthanasia list. I came across her photo online on 11/22/15. She was an unknown breed, put at risk for euthanasia due to “fear.” She was set to die the very next day. As much as this angered me, I immediately had her “pulled” from the list. The shelter was right, she was extremely fearful. And I was going to have my hands full.
That was a Sunday night. Monday she got her vaccines and spay surgery, and Tuesday she came home to us. I named this beautiful dog McKenzie-Rae, which means “hope for a new beginning.”
When McKenzie got to the house, she wouldn’t come out of the kennel. She was terrified. Matt and I just left her alone and eventually she came out to do a bit of exploring. McKenzie quickly went back into her kennel and we took her upstairs to our bedroom so she could sniff around and hear everything, while keeping the dogs and cats out of her face.
So let’s get to it. This is the most terrified dog I’ve ever had in my care. How do I possibly help such a fearful dog?
- Give her space: When Matt and I brought McKenzie into the bedroom in her kennel, we just sat it down and left her alone. We put a baby gate up at the door so the other animals wouldn’t come in and overwhelm her. I put out a bowl of food and water, and she was clearly curious about everything. McKenzie jumped up on the couch in the bedroom and immediately fell asleep. She was a stray, and we were starting to think that she had never lived in a house before. McKenzie didn’t even know what a water bowl was and she was afraid to drink for almost a day.
- Give her time and have patience: Don’t rush it. Your dog is in a new environment. Like McKenzie, maybe a home environment with humans is completely new. You don’t know your dog’s past so you have got to be patient. It isn’t fair to give your dog ONE day to come around. Wouldn’t you be scared if you were in a new place with completely different surroundings? And what if you had a tumultuous past, like many dogs do? It would probably make you even more fearful.
- Use positive reinforcement: After McKenzie spent the night on the couch, she retreated under the bed. The only way we could get her out was to use lots of sausage. Matt and I were able to lure McKenzie out from under the bed and she quickly learned that we were “the people with the sausage.” Every positive step McKenzie made was cause for praise. Come sniff us – sausage. Drink water from the bowl – sausage. Lots, lots, lots of positive reinforcement!
In the video below, you will see Matt working with McKenzie on day ONE of her life with us. Notice how he moved slowly, kept his hands low, avoided eye contact and gave McKenzie sausage for being so brave. She had just come out from under the bed on her own!
- Go slow: When McKenzie would escape under the bed, Matt and I would sit on the floor (out of her sight) and just lightly chat. She could hear our voices and smell us. The very first full day she was with us, McKenzie actually came out from under the bed by herself when we were sitting on the floor. We didn’t look toward her – we just slowly handed her sausage or put it on the ground. We didn’t want to pose a threat. Any quick or scary movements, and she’d be right back under the bed.
- Use a happy voice: Dogs aren’t stupid. They know a happy voice versus an angry voice. Matt and I used lots of positivity when interacting around McKenzie. She definitely sensed it.
- Smile: It’s been scientifically proven that dogs know a happy face from a sad or angry face. Whenever McKenzie would make eye contact with me, I’d smile. It may sound dumb, but it’s a lot more important than one might think.
- Introduce your other pets slowly: Wynston was the first to interact with McKenzie. He’s super calm, quiet and well-behaved so we figured it’d be a good start. And it was. Wynston sat on the couch next to McKenzie and she growled a bit. Wyn moved over and just laid down. He knew that McKenzie was new to this whole situation and she was scared. McKenzie quickly realized that Wynston would do no harm. He was the perfect introduction animal. After about a day of Khloee crying at the door because she wanted to meet her new sister, we let her meet McKenzie. It went a lot better than I thought, as Khloee can be a little bit hyper. Much to my surprise, Khloee was also very calm and became aware that McKenzie was scared. Turns out, even my cats sensed it and all of the introductions were perfect. Patience. Don’t force the intros.
In this video, McKenzie is walking around the bedroom for the first time. Khloee and Wynston are sitting outside the bedroom, allowing McKenzie to sniff them through the gate without feeling threatened. It helped that Khloee and Wyn were sitting quietly.
- Don’t let your kids torment the dog: Children may or may not understand that dogs can be very fearful and nervous when in a new environment. Make sure your kids give the dog space. You’ll want to make sure the kids aren’t forcing the dog to play or come out of hiding. Ultimately, your dog may become fearful of your children, which is a recipe for disaster.
Most rescue dogs have some level of fear when first adopted. In McKenzie’s case, it was very intense fear. However, with simple behaviors we were able to get McKenzie comfortable in only a week. She was playing, running around the house on her own, sunbathing in the backyard and playing with toys. I’d say that positive reinforcement is the biggest factor here. Never hit or physically punish your dogs – they will only become more fearful!
Here is McKenzie a week after rescuing!
While we’ll still be working on McKenzie’s confidence for a while to come, she’s no longer “afraid.”
Have you ever worked with a fearful dog? What was the main factor for overcoming their fear?