Tomorrow will be exactly one month since Kira has been with us. When Kira arrived, she would only come out of her crate to go outside and potty and then she would make a mad dash through the house to get back to it. She would allow me to pet her, but didn’t enjoy it, and froze and stared straight ahead with a tense posture if anyone else tried to even talk to her. She would only come out of her crate to drink her water at night after everyone had gone to bed and she had to be hand fed or have her bowl placed where she could reach it from her crate.
My focus this month has been to 1) reduce fear and 2) build relationship. Here are this month’s highlights. (I have also posted some pictures and videos on the Facebook page)
1) During her second week with us Kira would stand in the kitchen for up to a minute at a time. I noticed her peeking around the corner to see what I was doing and I started throwing treats in her direction. She would grab them and run back to her crate and then return for more. Soon she started standing in the kitchen and waiting for more!
Now, at 1 month, she will often stand in the kitchen just to watch me put dishes away or make dinner. She comes into the living room every night and stands a few feet away and watches me while I eat dinner. She often comes out to sniff around or to peek over the arm of the couch to see Obi. She won’t lay anywhere in the house except in her crate, but in the evenings she is often standing outside her crate and making short forays out into the room so she can see what everyone is doing. I don’t make eye contact or move towards her at these times. If I were to look at her, talk to her, or reach for her, she would run.
I have begun to put her on leash and lead her to the middle of the living to lay down for brushing each night for 10 minutes. She doesn’t mind the brushing as much as being out in the open space, but she will take treats and doesn’t seem overly stressed by it, just hyper vigilant.
2) Sometimes when she is outside in the morning she will run for a few seconds and bounce around toward Obi… ALMOST playing, but then she returns quickly to the porch. Obi very much wants to play with her and he often licks her, play bows, and stands outside of her crate with a toy in his mouth and whines. She is very interested in watching Obi play with toys and will run back to her crate to hold her little stuffed dog in her mouth, but she doesn’t quite know how to play with it yet.
3) She visited the vet during her 2nd week for a booster shot and did better than I expected. I took Obi so that she could follow him, which she did. She jumped right in the car and followed Obi into the vet’s office. She froze when the vet touched her and then wedged herself between me and the wall. However, she ate dinner when she came home and seemed to recover fine from the stress.
4) She is much more expressive now and will cock her head to the side when listening to something interesting. She sniffs the air when anyone comes near and likes to position herself so that she can watch Obi and me doing things when we are outside. When I talk to her in her crate she has a bright, soft expression. She also doesn’t mind guests talking to her as long as she is in one of her safe places – either her crate inside or under the steps on the porch outside. She leans toward them, sniffs them, and watches their faces.
5) She loves her stuffed dog and moves it all around her crate. She holds it between her paws and licks and nibbles it. One night I came in and found that she had tucked it up against her chest to sleep. It was partly covered by her white ruff and looked extraordinarily cute! She has decided that she likes to chew on elk antlers, but is still unsure about Nylabones. She will hide both her elk antler and her Kong in her blankets when she is done chewing them.
6) She seems to recognize several words and expressions: “Do you want to go outside?” , “Let’s go in the house.”, and “Wait.” She also knows her name and Obi’s name and I think she knows that “toy” is her stuffed dog. When you say “Where’s your toy?” her eyes flit to look at her stuffed dog. She knows that “Good boy/Good girl” means the puppies might be getting treats and she usually comes to see what is happening if she hears me gushing over what a good boy Obi is. All of these things are a huge improvement over her first days here when she preferred not to be spoken to at all. When she first came, even if I used a happy voice and told her she was a good girl, she would still hide and avoid looking at me. I see a difference now in her response, not just to my voice, but to anyone talking to her. She no longer seems to find it as threatening or frightening to have people talk to her.
7) The absolute best thing that happened all month is that Kira gave me a few small kisses! One night I was petting her in her crate and she leaned her head down and licked my hand. It only happened once, but it happened!
I feel that we have made some progress this month in reducing fear and building trust, which are related, but also quite separate goals. I read a quote this week by Dr. Frank McMillan, who says,
“Many people mistakenly believe that trust and fear are opposites – that trust comes when fear recedes. This isn’t quite true. Just because you don’t fear someone doesn’t mean that you trust the person. Getting a dog to trust you starts, but doesn’t necessarily end, with the dog no longer fearing you. More importantly, the trust you want to help your dog develop is trust in the world, of which you are one (very valuable) part. You want your dog to develop a sense of security that things in her world are dependable and relatively predictable, something that she can grow comfortable with.”
With puppy mill survivors I think it is especially important to remember this distinction and to work on each area intentionally. Kira and I are building a relationship. She doesn’t even know what a ‘relationship’ is… but if she feels safe in the relationship that we develop, then she may eventually begin to really trust me. In the meantime, I need to work on establishing routines that help her to trust in the safety of the world. For a dog like Obi, who has lived his whole life in relationship with people, it is much easier to ask him simply to trust me. In fact, that is how Obi operates: when something is scary he runs to me and he knows that I will either protect him or give him guidance about how to respond. Obi doesn’t have to trust the world, because he trusts me. (and there are a lot of things about the world that Obi doesn’t trust at all: heating vents, ceiling fans, stink bugs, smoke detectors, storms, fireworks….the list is fairly long) The trust that Obi has in me won’t exist with Kira for a very long time, if ever. She does not believe that I can or will protect her. Humans protecting dogs is not a concept she has developed.
But throughout our first month together, I have seen her fear lessen, especially her fear of me. When I come home from work, she is no longer apprehensively peering at me from her crate. She is standing just in front of it, eyes bright, mouth open and relaxed, craning her neck to see me over the couch. She seems excited to go outside and stands and waits expectantly for her dinner. When she is in the places that she feels safe she seems relaxed and content, she shows some curiosity, and she engages with her environment in her crate (adjusting her blankets, chewing bones, loving her little stuffy).
That said, she is still a dog whose actions are almost completely fear driven. She has a very long road to travel. She only feels safe enough to lay down and sleep in two very protected areas. Any swift movement sends her into a panic. I have learned to move around the house slowly and to make sure that I slow down before turning corners so I don’t scare her if she is standing outside of her crate.
Anything new frightens her and she is exquisitely sensitive to the tiniest details in her environment. I had her water bowl sitting on a brown towel and I needed to wash that towel so I set the water bowl on a white towel. No good. She not only refused to drink her water on the white towel, but she refused to even walk PAST the white towel to go outside. Another day she turned the corner to go outside and saw that I had a sweatshirt hanging on the doorknob of a door she had to walk past. She spun around and ran back to her crate and refused to go out for an hour. Earlier this week I had pulled some weeds outside and made a small pile near the porch. She watched me pull the weeds and set them there, but she refused to walk past the pile to go potty. She tried several times, but she couldn’t stop staring at the weed pile and about halfway past she would spook and run back to the porch. Watching her reminds me of when I was a kid and I would have to walk up the dark basement steps. I would try to tell myself that nothing scary was behind me in the basement, but halfway up I would begin to have a creepy feeling and would start to run as fast as I could to get to the door at the top of the steps, convinced that something awful was right behind me. When I watch Kira, that is what comes to mind. She tries very hard to will herself to do things…. And sometimes she just can’t. I think the fact that she tries is very hopeful. She WANTS to be brave. She tries.
I will close with an example that I think perfectly captures so many aspects of this journey with Kira. I decided that rather than have her water bowl right next to her crate, I wanted to move it to where Obi’s water bowl is, in the kitchen. (about 10 feet away and around a corner) I started to move her water a few inches a day. One day I decided that it seemed to be going well, but slowly, so I moved it about 12 inches. Too much. She refused to drink from it. Finally, after giving her a whole day to change her mind, I moved it about 6 inches back towards her. Then it was good again! For Kira, a few small inches can mean the difference between her being willing to try versus her totally shutting down. Everything needs to happen in the tiniest increments. We have to move from safe to new or different almost imperceptibly slowly. It can be frustrating. It can be tempting to think something like, “Come on! How can 3 inches make that much difference! Just do it.” But for Kira 3 inches is too far. It is the point at which the world becomes too scary for her venture out. The absolutely vital thing is to realize that her fear is real and that no matter how silly and irrational it may seem, with those 3 inches I have asked her to go to the end of her world. In the old days, the maps read: “Beyond this point, there be dragons.” Kira’s world is not very big and she fully believes that beyond the limits of her world something very bad lurks. The challenge is to get to her to push those limits outward, 3 inches at a time.
As I write this, she is stretched out in her crate, back feet in the air, head on a pillow that she arranged with her blankets, stuffed puppy beside her….sometimes her feet twitch as if she is dreaming. I hope she is dreaming about chasing rabbits past the weed pile, playing with Obi in the yard, and living in a world in which there are no dragons anywhere. Sweet dreams, sweet Kira.