Last week, Kira heard a noise that frightened her late at night and for the first time ever, instead of running to her crate, she ran to me in the bedroom, stood beside my bed, and touched my hand. (Yes, I cried.) Later that same week when a visitor was in the house, instead of racing to her crate and hiding, she found me in the kitchen and stayed close beside me. TRUST. Not just a lack of fear, but Kira seeking me out because she trusted that I would care for her.
Excerpt from Best Friends Resources :
“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…. For puppy mill dogs, fear diminishes and trust grows in small increments over time. Our studies show that the vast majority of puppy mill dogs come to trust humans, but we have also learned that, for some of the dogs, this trust is extended to only one or two people. And that’s OK. As long as the dog has at least one person he can trust, the opportunity exists for him to fully enjoy his life.”
Trust is a key that opens so many doors of possibility. When Kira first came, I thought, ‘How will I ever train her to do anything??’ How do you approach training with a dog that doesn’t trust you and isn’t motivated by any of the usual rewards – treats, praise, or play?
It is a challenge to train puppy mill dogs for many reasons: extreme fear, lack of trust, hyper vigilance, learned helplessness, lack of focus, no comprehension that words carry meanings, and no sense that they control their environment. These dogs react to the world by hiding. They don’t believe they control anything. They don’t have any sense that their behavior affects their world (nothing changes much in their tiny cages, regardless of how they act) or prompts different responses from humans (who never touch, interact with, or communicate with them). They don’t understand communication with humans. A home is a terrifying, mysterious place for them.
The first time Kira tried to eat food from my dinner plate, she looked extremely puzzled when I pulled away and said, “No.” No?? What is that? She tried again. “No.” Again the puzzled expression. Imagine how confusing this was to her. I had spent months literally begging her to come to me and take tasty treats out of my hands. I had laid on the floor beside her crate, holding treats in my outstretched hand, turning my head away so she wouldn’t be afraid. I had made little trails with hot dogs and cheese to encourage her to come closer to me. And now, after I had encouraged her to take hundreds of treats from me, I was refusing to share this especially tasty food with her!! She was genuinely bewildered. Initially, I was surprised at her boldness, but when I thought about it from her point of view it made perfect sense. She was doing exactly what I had taught her to do – coming close to me for food!
This example is a reminder of how much we take for granted our pet dogs’ remarkable ability to interpret a wide variety of meaning in our communications. Even tiny puppies learn almost immediately the basic rules of the house and the meaning of common phrases and gestures. Kira came to us not understanding that we were trying to communicate with her at all. Her interactions with me were driven solely by her level of fear – sometimes she was more afraid of me (when I was standing, walking toward her, making direct eye contact, speaking) and sometimes she was less afraid of me (when I was sitting quietly, turned away). Likewise, she had no idea what “rules” were. The only boundaries she had ever known were physical – the walls of her cage.
Fast forward many months and Kira now understands a wide variety of communications. She has become intensely curious and seems very pleased when she learns things. She still gets afraid and runs to hide but as often as not, she runs into her crate, spins around and comes right back out to peek curiously around the corner. She likes to know what is happening. Her curiosity wins out over her fear more and more often.
We’ve been practicing leash walks. Every day, I put the leash on her and we walk to the middle of the fenced in back yard, a place she is familiar with, and I feed her lots of treats and tell her she is a very brave girl and then take the leash off. She is worried by this because it is new, but as she relaxes we will extend the time and distance. Is a relaxed walk around the neighborhood in our future? That is entirely up to Kira.
If Kira learns to enjoy walks or playing ball or any of those other things that we enjoy doing with our dogs, that will be great, but I am still basking in that priceless moment when she actually came to me for comfort, and the wonder of having earned her trust! Nothing she learns from here out will widen her world as much as her learning to trust. Her willingness trust is her key to life.
I am humbled by her trust. This dog who came to us so fearful, so closed off, so distrustful, so damaged…. who had no idea of what it meant to have a connection with a human being…who laid motionless at the back of her crate and tried to be invisible. I think back to the early days when I sat outside her crate and read her stories while she tried to pretend I wasn’t there. The months that she flinched whenever I touched her. The many times she ran in a panic to her crate when I stood up or moved unexpectedly.
This same dog now comes in to wake me up every morning with her duck in her mouth. And on the weekends when I say, “No, Kira, it’s not morning. Go lay down,” she lays on the floor next to the bed so she can be there the moment I wake up. She squeezes up beside me, onto a little space on edge of the couch, so she can be close to me. And most stunning of all, this dog who 9 months ago would freeze and shrink away when I spoke to her, came running to find me, to seek assurance that she was safe.
The other day I read this: (From: Best Friends Resourcees – click here for link)
“Eight words to live by: These eight words will characterize your life with your puppy mill dog: patience, love, understanding, compassion, forgiveness, calmness, empathy and perseverance. Write them on a piece of paper and post it on your refrigerator so you will see it every day.”
When I posted this quote on Facebook, Kira’s former foster, who is now fostering another puppy mill dog added the word: “Hope”
There are days, especially during the first year, when hope is hard to hold on to and it can be so discouraging to live with a dog who is terrified of you and who you can’t connect with at all. On those days I never, ever would have imagined, not in my wildest dreams, that Kira would ever stop being afraid of me, let alone trust me.
My prayer is that Kira’s story will give hope to others on those dark days.
It’s a long journey.
All human wisdom is summed up
in two words–wait and hope.
NEXT POST: Standing in the Rain