Any dog can overcome early-life trauma—but the key to success may surprise you....
Put off by people
Banjo was a dog who’d truly been deprived of love. A black-and-tan Coonhound, he had spent most of his two years in an animal-testing lab, completely isolated from human beings—except for the technician who routinely drew his blood. Is it any wonder that Banjo, rescued by the Nebraska Humane Society, was one terrified dog? In fact, he was just hours away from being euthanized—he was considered simply too fearful to ever be successfully adopted—when he was taken home by Beverly Lachney, a volunteer at the Society.
At the Lachney house, he fit right in with Beverly’s other dogs. The problem, though, was that his experience with humans at the lab had so traumatized him, he wanted nothing to do with people—Beverly and her husband Bruce included! And after four years, there was no improvement whatsoever; Banjo was still terrified of people. Was there anything I could do to bring him out of his shell?
When I first met Banjo at the Lachney’s, he was in his kennel in their basement. Because he was so fearful, instead of approaching him directly I backed into the crate with him, which allowed him to sense my energy without becoming intimidated. I wasn’t hugging him, talking to him, or—most important of all—letting him sense that I felt bad about what had happened in his past. But this was a tough case. Because he’d spent so much of his life being treated like an experiment, Banjo’s integrity, dignity, and loyalty had all been squashed. In order for him to ever really trust—himself or anyone else—Banjo needed to walk.
When I thought he was ready, I slipped him into a collar, but because of the way he’d lived, Banjo hadn’t ever developed the basic instinct of leading with his nose. In order to get him to do that, I created a trail for him to follow using a bottle of raccoon urine. It’s very foul smelling but so distinctive that Banjo would have no choice but to be drawn t o it. And because it’s scent that signals a dog’s brain and tells him how to act, I knew that once he’d gotten a whiff, self-confidence would follow. Beverly was amazed at Banjo’s progress, and we soon moved on to the walk. The trick with Banjo was to let him walk for a bit, and then to drop the leash and wander away. It taught him that rather than him being the one to run away, it was us who’d move away, which in turn, encouraged him to follow. Despite how traumatized he was, the fact that he could make so much progress in a day gave me hope for Banjo’s future.
Pit Bull-Dalmatian mix Julius had a rough start in life; when he was five weeks old, he was discovered abandoned in a field. He was a terrified little puppy, and even after his new owners, Sharon and Brendan Noble, brought him home, he never got over his fears. He had constant accidents in their house, vomiting as often as 10 times a day during his first weeks at home. As Sharon told me, “Julius is afraid of everything… If I put down a coffee cup too hard, he bolts. If there are leaves and they rustle, he bolts. When the gardeners come to cut the grass on Mondays, he panics and he pees and he vomits.”
And, as Brendan said, the only place Julius seemed to feel safe was inside their house, and he refused to leave it under any circumstances. “This is his sanctuary,” he told me. Brendan’s theory was that Julius’s Dalmatian genes were to blame for his nervousness, but I knew there was more to it than that. What could I do to get Julius out of the house and make him realize the big, wide world wasn’t such a scary place?
Sharon and Brendan were perfect examples of dog lovers whose empathy actually blocked their dog from feeling safe. They had all the right elements—especially good intentions—but the fact that they felt sorry for Julius made their intentions an idea, rather than a reality. When I met with them, their eyes showed sorrow all the time. They were actually emitting what I’d describe as a sorry essence, which didn’t do anything to help Julius see them as protectors, directors, or leaders.
It wasn’t that hard to get Julius out the door and walking. I sensed he had a negative association with the Halti the Nobles had been using, so I opted for a choke chain instead. Once the chain was on, Julius was immediately more comfortable—but the real test was how comfortable I could get his owners. Sharon was an actress, so I had her draw on her acting ability to summon the kind of energy she needed to boost Julius’ confidence in her. I asked her to imagine herself as Cleopatra, and to carry herself as though she were auditioning for the role.
When “Cleo” walked, her projection made everybody melt—and Julius followed! And as for Brendan, all it took to put a calm, confident spring in his step was having him imagine himself as a guy with a million dollars in his briefcase. These two were putting on a show, and Julius was their audience; it wasn’t real, but it became a reality. Once the Nobles learned to inhabit their composed, competent roles before grabbing Julius’s leash, things turned around quickly for the whole family. Like so many well-intentioned dog owners, they just needed to understand that giving affection when a dog is agitated only reinforces the agitation.