Friday, March 5, 2010

Shy Girl, and a camping dress rehearsal

We're taking our first family camping trip with all three dogs on Sunday, and have been taking every opportunity to habituate our fearful dog to the things she'll encounter. As far as she's come, we're often reminded that she's still nearly a feral dog at heart.

Willa, aka "Shy-Shy Girl," was one of the infamous Gabbs dogs, rescued from a 150-dog hoarding case in rural Nevada in early 2008. These dogs lived together in outdoor runs, with hay bales for shelter and little to no human contact. Shy Girl was estimated at about five years old when she was rescued from Gabbs, and was found living in an underground den (dug by the dogs) with a few other adult dogs and a litter of puppies. I met her when she arrived at the East Bay SPCA in Oakland, where I was working as a shelter dog trainer, and after a few weeks we brought her home to foster. Christened "Molly" by my roommate Dan, Shy Girl made slow but steady progress, and was able to join us in bed for short naps when she thought we weren't looking. After a month, I decided she was ready to find a forever home, and she did, with a very loving woman who worked as a schoolteacher and had a big, quiet house with a secure backyard.

I saw our shy girl, now named "Bella," weekly for a while, as her devoted new mom brought her to a special Wallflowers class at the shelter. She was painfully agoraphobic, and often panicky, but was doing well in her new home. We all breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated ourselves on what seemed to be a happy ending.

That summer, I got a call from Shy Girl's adopter, saying that she had darted out of the car at a trailhead, and that although she'd been searching for hours, Shy-Shy was gone. We contacted all the local shelters, and Shy's adopted mom posted flyers everywhere, and kept searching for weeks, along with friends and a couple of her friends' dogs who Shy-Shy had known and gotten comfortable with. There were a couple of sightings over the summer: a hiker called and said he'd caught a glimpse, and her martingale collar showed up in faraway Danville, but that was all. As the months passed, we grimly assumed the worst.

Until she was caught with a feral cat trap by an East Bay shelter near the trailhead she'd disappeared from, nearly a year after she'd disappeared. There'd been a mistake--she'd been adopted without being spayed first--and a shelter worker had found her with a litter of puppies, and used them as bait to lure Shy-Shy into the live trap.

Her adopted mom cried with joy at the news, and visited Shy Girl at the shelter, but she'd adopted another dog that year and didn't feel confident that she could keep Shy-Shy safe and happy, after all that had happened. Right away, we knew that we'd invite her home with us, this time for ever.

Shy-Shy Girl, once Molly, then Bella, now Willa (but she still answers to "Shy-Shy," and we can't quite shake the habit of calling her that), is not a normal house pet, but she's getting more comfortable all the time in our strange, urban, human environment. She is a domestic dog in the sense that her species has been domesticated, but she is, even now, not quite tame. She doesn't enjoy petting, although she tolerates it. She'll do anything for food, and steals our other dogs' bones and chewies and hoards them in her crate, along with tissue paper and wool socks.

She's still in survival mode. But occasionally, a relaxed, joyful, puppyish version of herself will peek out, and play with other dogs, give me a quick play bow, or chase a pigeon in our backyard. She's conquered lots of demons: she comes out to greet our guests (to see if they have cheese for her--and we ensure that they always do), she jumps into the car and is able to settle nicely in her spot on the floor behind the driver's seat, and even nap while we drive. She knows to look forward to drive-thrus.

So, we decided it's time she come with us camping. It'll help that our other dogs, Daisy and Chew Boo, will be there (and will be enjoying it more than anything else on earth!). It'll also help (I'm hoping) that we've had the tent set up in our living room for the past week, and that Shy-Shy's new pop-up crate has been set up in the bedroom, right next to her regular crate.

Today, two days before our trip, I'm taking Shy-Shy (and Daisy, as Good Role Model) on a camping dress rehearsal at Garin/Dry Creek Pioneer Park, a ten-minute drive from our house. We'll bring the tent, Shy's pop-up crate (for inside the tent), some bedding, and lots and lots of awesome snacks and chewies--and a good book for me (The Human Zoo, by Desmond Morris, would be apt). We'll set up, sniff around the campsite, hang out inside the tent for an hour, stuff Shy Girl with hot dogs, and come home. And hope that our little trip on Sunday leads to yet another huge step forward for our little Shy.

Here's to shy and special dogs everywhere--and to vacations for their families!

Resources for shy or fearful dogs:

A must-read: Help for Your Fearful Dog, by Nicole Wilde, available online here.

This excellent book, The Cautious Canine, by Patricia McConnell, is available from

The Thundershirt: compression can help some animals relax (see Temple Grandin's book Animals Make Us Human for a description of the Squeeze Box she invented for cattle, and how the same technique works to calm autistic children). My boss at the time I fostered Shy Girl, Sarah Wharton (the B&T director at the East Bay SPCA), fit Shy with a tight little t-shirt before we took her home, for the same reason. There's no way we can gauge how much it helped, but as they say, it sure can't hurt.

Likewise, soothing music; dog-appeasing pheromone (DAP), available in spray form, as a diffuser, or as individually packaged travel wipes; other scents such as lavendar; and flower essences or herbal remedies, given orally, or as a drop massaged onto the dog's ear or nose, can't hurt and might help.


Blogger Jaime said...

Shy-Shy was very brave while I was taking the tent down this morning (in the living room); she came out and air-sniffed at it a couple of times. Cutie-pie! :)

March 5, 2010 at 9:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

air-sniffing -- haha, I am stealing that term!

March 9, 2010 at 12:02 PM  
Blogger Jaime said...

Post-trip update: Shy Girl did a really great job on our camping trip--so brave. We brought her pop-up tent everywhere, including her first trip to the beach!, and she was able to relax and even nap in there, even when my family or other strangers were around.

On our last morning, I decided to let her run off-leash at the beach, since it was deserted and she's always velcroed to my leg, and she surprised us by romping and chasing after the other dogs, and wagging her tail up high! I've never seen her so happy, and she's continued to show that increased level of confidence now that we're settled back in at home.

Such a brave girl! Breaks my heart with pride and happiness. :)

March 12, 2010 at 1:16 PM  

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