Willow the Wild: Lessons in Courage from a Fearful Dog

Posted on Nov 27, 2013
Willow the Wild: Lessons in Courage from a Fearful Dog

: from the Labs :

This line from Andrea's poem went right through my heart. To read, or better yet, to hear/see the whole poem, please visit: http://bit.ly/1iRaOKl

This line from Andrea’s poem went right through my heart. To read, or better yet, to hear/see the whole poem, please visit: http://bit.ly/1iRaOKl

In May of 2012 I brought home a foster puppy with special needs. We adopted her in September and in doing so, made a Promise. Now, a year (and a little more) later, she is no longer a puppy, we continue to work hard, she has given us challenges, and endless laughs. Her name is Willow; she has made my heart ache and my life change…


This being the season of gratitude, I thought I’d share some notes from my working thesis of sorts, (written works on behavior modification, training and experiences with a fearful dog), and also take this opportunity to thank those of you who have been a part of Willow’s story. The following is an account of the past year and the lessons we have learned. I hope it is of use to you, who share your lives with dogs, fearful or not. Every dog is an individual, and every behavior modification program should be tailored to their individual needs and personality. In cases like this, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and it is by no means a quick fix. Don’t let those TV shows fool you.

What I can tell you though, is that Willow, this fearful, introverted, awkward dog has taught me more about being BRAVE than anyone or anything in my life. To be brave to love firecely and unconditionally. I have worked hard to change her life, and in turn, she has changed mine.

Fear, Triggers and Thresholds
Though we don’t know what it was exactly that started Willow off on the left paw, whether it is in her genes to be a little anxious and worried to new people and situations, or maybe a bad experience during those crucial first 6 weeks of life… we’ll never know, but this past year has allowed us to pin-point her fear triggers and get a good sense of her thresholds. We did this through observation, and knowing/reading her body language.

Willow has a Passive Defense Reflex, in other words, she will opt to move away, hide from something that scares her and will only react (growl, woof) when she feels cornered. A couple of random times, she has reacted by barking and moving forward when she felt a dash of confidence while in the presence of other dog friends. We concluded this could be a facilitated behavior by having “backup” in the form of other dogs.

The Triggers
People | Willow’s biggest fear is still people, men in particular and unfortunately members of the senior community. A fear of men is not uncommon in dogs; guys have a deeper voice, and a more threatening (to a dog’s eyes) body posture. Senior citizens tend to scare Willow, in my opinion because they move differently, often slowly, and that can be a threatening thing in a dog’s world. This fear is not solely exclusive to men, though it is more pronounced. Willow just seems to be weary of and sensitive to strangers in general. The fear is more pronounced indoors than outdoors, which is understandable since she is more likely to feel cornered indoors or even protective if we happen to be in our own house.
Places | New environments can be a tricky thing. Willow tends to be scared of strange places if there are a lot of noises or people around, such as busy city streets or venues. Being surprised is not her favorite thing, the unpredictability of a place not only makes for a very stressed and anxious dog, but also a worried handler person, (ahem… me), and that my friends, travels down the leash. On my end, I find investing time in yoga or similar practices have done wonders to help me stay calm and collected in situations where I need to be. I have my own set of calming signals I send down to Willow, such as yawning and singing… yes, I said singing, whatever happens to be in my mind (I have sung anything from “I like Big Butts” to “The Little Drummer Boy”), I sing it in a goofy voice and try to remove Willow from the scary situation. Nine out of ten times, it works beautifully, she thinks I’m hilarious and I have to laugh at my own self too.

Not a big fan of cars.

Not a big fan of cars.

The Thresholds
A fearful dog’s tipping point, the point at which the dog can no longer be in the presence of a trigger without reacting to it negatively (for example, barking, growling, lunging or dashing, zipping on leash, shaking and trying to move away, shutting down) is also known as a threshold. In other words, if a dog barks, growls or lunges at what scares them, they are above threshold. The best way to train and work with your fearful dog is below-threshold. By counter-conditioning and desensitizing, you start to form positive associations with scary things using something the dog enjoys like food, toys or creating space between the dog and what scares them.

Willow’s threshold has gotten a lot wider in this past year. It has taken a lot of work and counter-conditioning/desensitizing her with everyday life. Once you know what to look for, it can be so simple to do and add to your routine. A good example of this progress is our daily walk: before, we would need to make wide arches around other people, or make u-turns, jump behind bushes to play “find-its”. Today, Willow can walk past joggers, walkers and people in general without concern around 90% of the time. It is an incredible accomplishment, and one that has made our walks and hikes more enjoyable.

When meeting strangers or in the company of someone she does not spend a whole lot of time with (like our vet), Willow continues to make progress. If we stop and talk to someone on a hike or on the street, she stays below threshold by keeping her distance and provided the stranger does not reach for her (in which case she will likely move away, or I will stand in between the person and her. If pushed, or if I don’t have time to remove her from the situation, she will “woof” to ask for space). She has shown us some encouraging signs of great progress when the stranger in question has a dog too, Willow is far more likely to consider the experience a positive one, she likes other dogs and will often approach and sniff the person.
The presence of other dogs boost her confidence; this is interesting though because she seems to absorb behaviors that are facilitated by the other dogs. For example, with calm, well-mannered and social dogs, she tends to be happy, calm, goofy and playful but more appropriate. With dogs that are nervous, anxious, high strung or in other words tend to have a few naughty behaviors of their own, Willow is then likely to mimic and absorb that energy too, and boy can she be naughty.

Baby Steps as Huge Milestones
If there is one thing to learn with fearful dogs, it is to value the importance of baby steps. As I have heard it said before, you can never go too slow, only to fast. Willow’s biggest fear revolves around people, and when her journey began, the circle of people she trusted was very small, comprised of myself and Sonoma Humane’s director of behavior and training, Sue Kernek (who assigned her into my care).

A day in the life of Willow the Wild and her growing circle of friends. Follow Willow's adventures on Instagram: @The_Labs #willowthewild

A day in the life of Willow the Wild and her growing circle of friends. Follow Willow’s adventures on Instagram: @The_Labs #willowthewild

The Importance of Friends (not just for you but for your dog too) | Though it took time, gentle/slow introductions, consistent positive interactions, and an incredible amount of patience, love and dedication from the people involved, Willow’s circle of friends has grown exponentially. Her most valuable relationship in my eyes, is the one she has formed with Bill (my husband/partner). For a dog terrified of men, this bond is nothing short of extraordinary. Bill went from being someone Willow would scurry away from, always keeping her distance and on a few occasions playing a serious game of keep-away from, to a best friend, the one she reserves her goofiest play antics for and someone she goes ga-ga over whenever he comes home. He became her dad.

It seems silly, but never did I realize how important it is for your dog to have friends. Yes, I said “your dog”. When you share your life with a fearful dog, both of you will need good friends and family who will be there to support you. It is no easy feat, and it can, in bad cases, test the bonds of friendship. We could not have been more lucky in that sense.
From day one, I knew Willow would have a friend in Carol, one of my best friends. The ultimate dog person, I have never met a dog who didn’t fall head over heels for her. Carol won Willow over the quickest I think, through our hikes, lots of cookies and the kindest of hearts. Carol was the first person, other than me, that got to see Willow’s blatant goofy (and naughty) side. What I am remarkably thankful for, is that Carol and her family have always gone out of their way to welcome Willow into their home. Her mom (my adoptive mom) was the first to suggest (ahem, beg) that Willow had already found her family with Bill and me. They have had us over for many family dinners, holidays and hikes and I have no doubt that Willow’s progress is due in great part to their incredibly welcoming presence.
In this same category are two of the most generous people we have ever met, our friends Steven, Jen and their dog Poppy. We met this family because of the dogs. Poppy and Willow are just about a month apart in age and they have developed an incredible friendship. Though Willow really likes other dogs, in her teenage angst, she can be overexcited, overwhelming and inappropriate in her playstyle. In Poppy she not only has found a great playmate, but a dog she genuinely loves spending time with. Through Poppy, Willow has now (to my joy) added two more people to her circle of friends. She loves spending time at their house. Both Jen and Steven have been recipients of the elusive Willow kiss (something she reserves for those whom she loves and trusts). It fills my heart with joy to see my fearful girl ask for affection from my good friends; and to see their surprised and excited faces at this is even better.
My dear friend and fellow dog nerd Sheila is my constant source of support. She is the one person I can talk to about Willow’s antics, and I know she will understand my position. Her dogs Huck and Nova have been long-time friends of Willow’s, hiking buddies and my god-puppies.

The best trick I ever taught her: Willow’s I Love You kiss –> click here to see it

We continue to introduce Willow to friends and family, though we have yet to succeed in having her realize that puppy “grandparents” can be a wonderful thing unfortunately. Since we don’t get too many visits from our parents as it is, she doesn’t get to spend enough time with them in order to create a good bond. It is my fear that our familes feel uncomfortable around her, and that feeds a mutual fear. So for now, we will keep trying, but both parties have to be willing. Not everyone will understand why you chose to take on such a “project” dog, and that’s ok,  but I know it can be a little painful to hear, especially when you know the real dog behind the fear.

My friend and fellow photographer Heaven McArthur took this photo while on a hike with us. She got to see the real Willow that day.

My friend and fellow photographer Heaven McArthur took this photo while on a hike with us. She got to see the real Willow that day.

We find new introductions are most successful ideally outdoors while doing an activity that she enjoys. Hiking, for example, is where Willow is at her happiest. The new person gets to see the real dog I know and love instead of the reserved, serious creature she tends to be when uncomfortable. The pressure to interact is off, we are constantly moving and Willow can approach this new person at her pace. The person is armed with treats and given a few tips for successfully gaining her trust. These tips apply to any dog in my book, fearful or not and they include:

  1. Keep Calm and Carry Treats
  2. Don’t look at the the dog straight in the eyes, don’t stare and keep your gaze averted but your face relaxed.
  3. Have your body’s side facing the dog and let the dog do the approaching. A full frontal approach can feel threatening.
  4. Use a soothing, happy voice. Lower, deeper, serious voices don’t sound as friendly.
  5. Should the dog choose to approach you, watch her body language (you want loose and wiggly, not stiff and tense) and calmly offer a treat.
  6. Don’t reach for the dog, especially over her head. If the dog is comfortable, you may offer a brief and gentle rub on the side of the neck or chest. Do so briefly and stop, if the dog asks for more, offer more. If she moves away, it is ok, respect that decision.
  7. If the dog is comfortable around you, ask her to do something she knows, like “touch” or “shake”. Being asked to do something you know how to do, boosts confidence, and sneakingly, you are getting the dog to “touch you” to create that sense of: “oh, nothing bad happened when I made contact with this person, I got a treat instead!” Don’t be discouraged if the dog can’t comply with what you ask, allow her to move away and take a step back.
  8. Don’t take it personal if the dog chooses not to interact with you. It does not make you a bad person. That dog does not know you yet, and all she needs is time and positive experiences with you. You are doing a really good thing for that dog by being around her and having nothing but good things happen.

It is important to remember these things, because we live in a culture that unfortunately expects so much of our dogs. Who said all dogs should be loving, tolerant and indiscriminately friendly to everyone? Just like people, they are individuals. Just like people, there are extroverts and introverts, and just like people, they have their own social quirks and needs.

A Dog’s Best Friend is Not Always a Human | I cannot say enough about the power of a good canine friend, especially for a fearful dog. If you have a dog who is afraid of new people, places and things, but enjoys the company of another dog, having a dog buddy is a huge lifeline. I can write about everything we have worked on to help Willow, but nothing and no one has brought her as far as Corbin (our 9 year old Black Lab) has. Corbin is Willow’s best friend and gateway to comfort. When she was little and we had to walk in a scary situation, I would attach her leash to Corbin directly, and the chemistry changed. He does something for her that I could never put in words other than offer comfort, and security. His calming, serene presence in every single situation directly affects her.
Because she is so dearly bonded to him, and because she is nearly two years old while he is nine, we have begun the (often) heartbreaking work of creating some healthy separation and independence. It breaks my heart, but Corbie will not be around for Willow’s entire lifetime, and she needs to learn to live without him too. So, we go on Willow-only hikes, Corbin-only trips to the beach, Bill takes Corbin to work in the city two days out of the week, I take one dog with me to my volunteer shifts at Sonoma Humane Society; we schedule playdates with good dog friends they enjoy independently and that has seemed to help. She is learning to be herself without Corbin, and Corb gets his one-on-one attention. Incredibly, I have seen Willow show “Corbin-like” behaviors, especially when she’s not with him. Could it be that she has adopted some of his traits? I hope so, I hope he rubs off on her as much as possible. She misses him and sulks around the house when he’s not there, and she is happier than Julie Andrews twirling in the hills when he comes home. One thing is for sure, Corbin is seriously adored, and 3 hearts will surely break when he leaves this world: Bill’s, mine and Willow’s.

My heart. My heart. My Heart.

My heart. My heart. My Heart.

Help from the Pros: knowing when you need a shrink for your dog
Because of Willow’s fear of strangers and new environments, I tried to do my best in training her on my own. We did pretty good I think, especially on the basics: she was potty-trained within a week, she got positive interactions with other animals and people through our own pack and friends, and I was able to teach her basic commands like sit, stay, wait, touch, down and loose-leash walking. I discovered she has a great brain for tricks and taught her to high-five, high-ten, spin and “kiss” when she hears the words “I love You.” In talking with some dog-agility friends, they recommended I teach her to climb on things, to build balance and confidence, so our hikes and walks turned into impromptu agility runs. However, in spite of all this, there were some things that were out of my league to work with.
Because of her fear, Willow missed out on a lot of her puppyhood and strands of it came later, and so did her adolescence. Adolescence is a challenging time for dogs and people. Young dogs tend to test their boundaries and certain behaviors can be a little hard to deal with. Willow’s included an independent streak that had her not coming back when called and playing keep-away from us. Her playstyle became rough and could overwhelm dogs and people, with very poor bite inhibition, and if this continued, it was likely to escalate into over-arousal and a recipe for a serious problem. Though I read everything I could about fear in dogs and how to work with them, the extra support and constant work from a pro was definitely what we needed. We found this support and Willow in turn found a good friend and shrink in Charlie Reinhart, of Unleashed! Dog Training here in Petaluma.
It was crucial for me to find someone who’s ideology and approach to training I agreed with and respected: fun, positive, clicker/food, relationship-based training. Aversive training methods, I believe, can turn a fearful dog like Willow, into a dangerous dog; I have no doubt about that; plus it seems to me like a betrayal of that trust I worked so hard to gain. What I found in Charlie, was a perfect mix of fun and relationship-based training using positive methods while still teaching Willow about boundaries. Respectfully, asking for respect. She got Willow right away, and to see them working together is an incredible thing. It gives me hope, and I learned more about myself and what I could be doing differently in one hour one-on-one training hike with Charlie, than in all the books I could have read. Charlie is “Aunty Charlie”, and we meet with her twice a week for training and scenting class. Acknowledging that you need help from a pro is a great step, but a more important one is to find the right person to work with you and your dog. I think my heart just about burst when I heard Charlie say she ganuinely loved Willow.

Willow and Bill seal a great photo session with a high-five.

Willow and Bill seal a great photo session with a high-five.

What We are Working On Today

  • Continuing our conditioning work, we always carry treats with Willow. If there is a loud noise, *treat; a kid on a skateboard, *treat; a trip to the vet, *treat *treat *treat; if she does something nice, like checking in with us, *treat; if she makes great choices around people or other dogs such as calming signals, sniffing the ground, moving away, shaking the stress off, we try our best to capture it, give her praise and a treat. The work is constant, and requires you to pay attention to what your dog is telling you.
  • Recall and attention either on a long line or off leash. This is where Charlie’s help has been crucial, a long line is now my best friend, allowing Willow more freedom and room to make good choices and giving me control should I need it. We practice this using u-turns, sudden changes in direction, squeaky toys and treats and by trying to be more fun to be around during our hikes by engaging with our dogs. Fun! what a concept!
  • Obedience in the real world. During everyday life and wherever we may be, Willow’s tolerance of a busy human world is expanding. We go to outdoor class every Sunday at Unleashed, where we do obedience training walking downtown and in a park with lots of distractions. Willow continues to improve so much and it is great to see that progress on a weekly basis.
  • Appropriate vs. Inappropriate. Positive training does not mean there are no consequences, or that we are pushovers that allow the dogs anything. Setting the dog up for success is a key ingredient, but when life happens, an appropriate consequence to an action can be of great help. During play with friends, if Willow plays too rough and does not heed the other dog’s signals, she doesn’t get to play anymore. Losing privileges or access to something the dog wants, like your attention, can be enough of a consequence when done right. This has been a huge lesson for me. Because of her fear, I was afraid to give Willow any consequences, because I was terrified of damaging our bond. It is incredible what a simple, well-placed “ah-ah” can do. That is really all she needs, there is never a need for the bullying and fear I see created by using aversive methods. Kindness is indeed very powerful.
  • Willow, the kindergarten puppy teacher. Such as been her progress around people and working with Charlie, that we discovered Willow has a fantastic way around young puppies! She is so incredibly calm and appropriate around them, you’d think she was a natural den mother. Charlie has sinced “hired” her to attend Unleashed Training’s puppy classes as a “Puppy Charmer”, a calm, well-mannered dog young puppies can have positive interactions with, playtime and socialization time. Seeing her do this is so incredibly cool, she stretches (a calming signal) and lays down, allowing puppies to check her out, she plays gently with them, and can give them the “mommy look” when needed; and as an added benefit, she gets her own safe social time around strangers (the puppy parents), where nothing but good things happen. It’s a win-win for the puppies and for her.
  • Games and scenting. Willow is a bright dog. Her learning skills are sharp and to watch her learn is a beautiful thing. Teaching her tricks, playing games and most recently, taking up scenting and nosework classes are not only fun for her, they are fun for us too! It keeps her mind busy and working, it builds her confidence and it strengthens our bond. I cannot recommend this enough. A great tool to gain insight into how Willow sees the world is Dognition.com. As members, we played a series of games to figure out what type of learning style Willow has. From 9 scientific Dognition profiles, Willow turned out to be a “Maverick”, described as a dog with a cheeky wolfishness and a strong independent streak, preferring to “tackle problems independently. When it comes to understanding the physical world, she can hold her own compared to other dogs. In terms of social skills, Willow puts the “wolf” back in “lone wolf.” This specific performance in the range of games testing social skills was definitely more wolf-like than most dogs. But this cheeky wolfishness is part of Willow’s appeal.” Dead on I think.


The Wolf in the Parlor? | Funny enough, this is not the first time the word “wolf” has been used in describing Willow. It has been suggested by others, and we have wondered ourselves in observing her, if she could possibly be a wolf hybrid. It would certainly explain some things, such as how tall and large she is, the silver elongated paws, amber yellow eyes, her gait and her fear of people, let alone her independent streak, and the way she takes in the world: scenting without wasting energy, through her mouth and nose pointed up. But the truth is, we don’t know for sure. When we did a cheek swab DNA test, the results were funny: Husky (ok), Chow (huh?), Cesky Terrier (what??) and French Bulldog (wtf?!). No German Shepherd, no Australian Kelpie… We do have the option of doing a blood DNA test that looks for hybrid traits, but to be honest, it won’t make a difference to us. She is Willow, an individual; a dog who loves us and values our company; a dog who is adored and one who has a family who will never abandon her.

I do find it funny however, being that my “spirit animal” in Native American culture and my birth totem is the wolf; that my favorite book and movie growing up was White Fang and that I always dreamed of befriending a wolf. Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it. Regardless of that, I know Willow and I have more in common than any other dog I have shared my life with; we are both introverts, reserved with strangers but loving and goofy with those we love and trust; we would rather be out in the woods, and leave the concrete jungle to those who enjoy it and we both adore bacon among other things. She is my girl, and I am immensely proud of her, for all we have accomplished together.


I could not be more grateful to each and every one of you who is a part of her life, and who have been nothing but kind and generous to us and her. And to those of you who don’t know her personally, or me for that matter, but who nontheless care about her, and have followed her story through Facebook, this blog or Instagram; I am so incredibly grateful to you, for caring.

Sue K (and AJ), Sheila (Huck and Nova), Carol, Linda, Kiki, Joe (and pack), Jen, Steven (and Poppy), Charlie (and pack), Virginia, Julie, Micky, Aryn, Sue Davy, Mimi (and Cabana), Nichole, Heaven, Teeny, Angie, Jose Luis, Matt (Fit n’ Furry), Dr. Angie Smith, Dr. Christy Camblor, Jesse (and Pancake), Kristin H, Trish, Gila at Dog is Good (for sharing Willow’s promise on a beautiful T-Shirt!) and many others… Thank you, a million times, thank you. 

**all images are ©Photo Lab Pet Photography 2013. All rights reserved. Share and Pin if you like, but please be kind and give credit.**


1 Comment

  1. Linda
    November 30, 2013

    Willow was blessed to find two loving, patient, caring souls who cared enough about the welfare of a scared, stray, and made her family. Fate has a way of playing match maker. Did you choose her or did she choose you? Either way… everyone won!