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Seeking advice - fearful dog (of one person)

January 22nd, 2007, 08:25 PM
Hello forum members. I'm looking for advice.

The situation.....a year ago December, I rescued a 3 year old Brussels Griffon from a breeder that was going to euthanise her as her last litter died. This breeder in the States apparently runs a dog farming operation - a hundred dogs in a barn basically. Although physically, she was in relatively good shape (except for her teeth), mentally / emotionally, she didn't know much about being a dog....treats / play / walks let alone city noises....everything was new and scary to her. She wasn't toilet trained, didn't know her "name", knew no commands. She was afraid of everything and everybody. She would curl up into the smallest ball possible and would never, ever make eye contact.

My fiance John has a bit of a magic touch with animals, and after the first month of so, we started to see small signs of progress. Tail wagging....greeting my fiance when he came over, after much repetition, mat trained etc. Since that time, although John is the love of her life (she gazes at him with total adoration when he enters the room), she has become fond of me and trusts me also (if sitting on my foot when in a new environment is any indicator). It is a total pleasure to be with her and a joy to watch her slowly come out of her shell.

Our challenge......Maggie alternates households as I periodically have to travel, and we have not yet combined households. For some reason, she is absolutely terrified of Johns disabled son - a 23 year old with cerebral palsy. As a result of his disability, he walks with a significant limp, has no use of one hand and is speech impaired. Maggies response when he is at their home is a state of high anxiety / alert. A strong flight reaction. Even our presence doesn't temper the response.

We have tried a number of things
a) not comforting her when he is around
b) having him be the only "treat" giver (forget it, 3 months of trying...nothing)
c) his ignoring her outright by making no eye contact or approaching her in any way
d) we have tried the herbal anti stress drops for dogs....not particularly effective and I don't like to drug her unless absolutely necessary

The situation is escalating......a week and a half ago, Maggie had surgery for a luxating running or jumping for 6 weeks post surgery. We bought baby gates to segregate her in rooms where there is nothing to jump up on, and have removed the legs from all furniture that is more than a foot tall. We keep her in a baby pen by the bed at night. Today, John's son went into the kitchen (where maggie was gated is a very large kitchen), Her flight response led her to leap a 2 foot gate, bad leg and all. (She is a small 9 pound dog....didn't think she could even clear a 2 foot gate)

Can anybody recommend anything to help us help her get over her fear of him? We plan to marry and in all likelihood, Johns' son will be living with us also. We don't really want to have to make the choice between the two.

In case you're wondering....I have two cats who crawl all over John's son when he's at my house and even sleep with him at night. They are also rescues and have healthy self preservation instincts....why are they not afraid of him?



January 22nd, 2007, 09:03 PM
It's peculiar isn't it ? My dogs have never met a human they didn't love but just let somebody walk by with a limp or a bit of a lurch or a cane and they're barking like crazy. In contrast my last dog because of my employment at the time with an Association for Community Living grew up surround by people with a range of diagnoses, behaviours, temperments and abilities to communicate.

I put it down to their vision and ability to internalize learning. Dogs are very sensitive to patterns and movement. Virtually everyone they see on their walks, in our life has a "restrained" gait and body movements and distinguishable language skills. So when they meet someone who doesn't share that pattern of behaviour, especially someone whose gross-motor movements may be more exaggerated ~ it's too far out of their "normal" to internalize as another kind of "normal". Particularly when they are not exposed to "the new normal" 24-7-365. T

There's hearing as well, sometimes people don't realize how LOUD they are and when we're around our friends and family we tune it out a little to compensate. And smell, if your step-son-to-be is taking alot of medication ~ he smells different than anything Maggie will have been exposed to in her past or present life.

How does John's son feel about your pup ? Is he completely comfortable with Maggie ? It may be too soon to tell yet given you've only had Maggie for a year and she is still acclimatizing herself to her new life, but you may in time find an activity they can share.

And time is the operative word along with shared experiences. You may want to seek the help of a behaviourist to get you through this rough patch though and to give you some ideas around finding a comfort zone for Maggie and some shared activities to provide you with those shared experiences. I know it feels insurmountable but, you'll get there.

Dad of Dog's
January 22nd, 2007, 10:44 PM
If she feels threatened will she attempt to bite. If not I would get the son to sit on the couch while you carry her over, sit beside him with her on your lap. When she can handle that you can do the same thing but have her sit between the two of you. When that is ok have the son try to pet her.....
Since she loves and trusts your fiance so much you may have him be the one who holds onto her while you go through this process with her.

January 23rd, 2007, 08:15 AM
A while back I wrote about a very similar problem, except with Harley, the person he doesn't like is a young man who visits our daughter occasionally. The young man has owned small dogs, he is a regular 20 yr old. When he comes in the house, Harley freaks! Harley runs into our room and hides under the bed, pees all over the place and it takes a couple of hours to calm him down once this young man has left. (I think I posted under the subject "Fear or Agression" or somthing like that)

Nothing has worked.....Good luck if you find a way to stop your pup from re-acting...:shrug:

January 23rd, 2007, 11:40 AM
Personally I would have the son, if he can walk her and do some fun training things with her. As well when she is over there, have him feed her and be her caregiver which should help. Have him be as casual as possible, calm and don't let her over power him.

January 23rd, 2007, 12:56 PM
You don't say whether Maggie is afraid only of John's son when he is walking into the kitchen or wherever, or if she's afraid when John's son is still and quiet. Does his son use a stick for walking? It is so difficult to know the history of a 3 year old dog that was obviously abused and under great psychological and emotional strain when you got her. Who is to say that she wasn't abused by someone that she feels resembles John's son? Regarding sense of smell, there are ways to deceive animals regarding this. For example, when a farmer wants to ewe to adopt a lamb other than her own, he has to deal with the smell of the lamb. Some do this with some type of vaseline concoction on the ewe's nose to stop the sense of smell, others do it by somehow getting the ewe's scent onto the lamb, as this is how they recognize each other. I guess you need to figure out if Maggie's fear is visual, auditory or small oriented. And I suppose the best person to try to slowly introduce the two is John, whom Maggie apparently adores. I suppose a nervous pet wouldn't appreciate moving from one household to another as she must do when you are away. Is there any way that she could stay at John's all the time until you move in? I also do this cage thing with new animals who come into my household (where there are already cats and a dog), by confining the new, nervous pet to a wire cage, and allowing all my pets to get used to each other's smell and presence, while the nervous pet is within the safety of the cage. Maybe if you were able to put Maggie into a cage such as this, where John's son could then sit outside the cage and softly talk to her and eventually pet her through the wires of the cage, it might help. I think that doing something like this in an environment where Maggie can escape, such as the kitchen, etc., doesn't help, as all she would think about is how to get away. I think there are a lot of websites as well regarding dog behaviourists, etc. which might give you some ideas. Good luck!

January 23rd, 2007, 04:17 PM
Many good suggestions here. Thank you.

As to Inisfad's question......if we are all sitting around and she is in John's lap, she will eventually stop shaking, but her ears remain swivelled towards his son. If he makes any movement at all, or speaks, she starts shaking again and you can feel that all she wants to do is escape. Our hands on her prevents that if she is in our laps.

As to his sons gait....there is no cane, but it could be described as lumbering....add to this he is the only man in her life with a bushy beard. I suspect that her fear is a direct result of her inability to classify him. Our vet's opinion is that this is most likely the case.

I will test the smell theory out by getting John to wear his sons unwashed shirt to see if there is a negative reaction.

As to the two households issue.....she is fine at John's until his son comes home. She is fine at mine until John's son spends the weekend. Ultimately, he or both will be moving to my home, but for the time being, his son needs to be where his special needs school is.

The cage / crate theory is also a possibility. We will try it out and will keep you posted as to the results.

Failing that, I will consult with a behaviourist.....can anybody recommend a good one in the east end of Toronto?



January 23rd, 2007, 04:31 PM
Perhaps even try putting some of the son's clothing in with her where she sleeps at night. Also, it the gait is significantly different perhaps you and your fiance could imitate the gait so that she sees it is nothing harmful.
Also have you discussed with your vet the possiblity of using some prozac for a short period to see if that would help?