Dear Doctor - Rescue dog scared in new home
Letter to Tufts Veterinarians
Q About three months ago I adopted a 1½-year-old Lab-terrier mix. For the first two weeks she sat like a bump on the couch. She has warmed up considerably in the apartment, but when we go for a walk she becomes very apprehensive, scared even. She cowers or tries to run from people, cars, or noises. I walk her five times a day — that’s 35 times a week, or 400-plus walks over the course of these last three months, but the fear and reaction still remain. In fact, today, when we left the apartment, she went to the right, when the elevator is to the left. Any suggestions?
Fort Lauderdale, Florida
Dear Mr. Kostner,
A First, bravo for taking on such a nervous dog. You are good to do so. Second, it seems that she may have been through a lot before she came to you. She sounds very, very scared — although she appears to have come to trust you, since she no longer sits stock-still at home.
To help her relax outside, she’s going to need to be reintroduced gradually to whatever frightens her — other people, other dogs, the sounds of cars, and so on. Even taking her many times a day, as you conscientiously do, will not adjust her to her world by itself. As we said in our article on ratcheting down a dog’s fear last month, that’s flooding, not desensitizing.
Can you find a place to walk her that’s quieter than your usual route, with fewer people and loud noises? Can you introduce her to people in your own apartment, where you can control the interactions, say, by inviting those who adore dogs and would speak very softly to her and perhaps drop a delicious treat by her feet without looking her in the eye? The same goes for introducing her to other dogs. Plan staged introductions to gentle dogs that don’t engage in any roughhousing.
Because your dog sounds especially nervous, you may need to combine the desensitization with some anti-anxiety medication such as buspirone (Buspar), at least for a few months. That will allow your efforts with her to work to best effect.
Over time, with planned introductions to the things she’s afraid of in a structured manner, your dog will calm down and feel more comfortable in her surroundings, allowing a better life for both of you.