This is Tej…
We lovingly call him “Bones”…
…or “Chicken Little”…
And he arrived at our house last week for a little bit of help to learn to be brave.
You see, Bones is one of the biggest chickens around.
So much so, that I think if you examined his bloodlines closely, you’d find a tiny Easter Egger somewhere in his lineage. (Someone was clearly hoping to breed in the bravery of a rooster and instead, what they got was a chicken-dog who struggles to cope with the world around him.)
His owners loved and cared for him quite well, but struggled to break through what is one of the more severe cases of fear and anxiety I’ve seen in awhile.
He wasn’t abused.
He didn’t lack socialization or training.
His fear is part genetics, part experience, and part very well-intentioned folks struggling to figure out how to deal with those genetics (you can’t blame them – this is a tricky case!).
And the thing about Bones is, he spent 98% of his life tucked in the back of his crate, hiding from the universe, swearing the sky was going to fall on him at any given moment.
He’d come out for brief moments, to use the bathroom or to eat.
But as soon as there was any movement, he’d shoot back into his crate as quickly as he could get there.
His fear was so bad in fact, that it was recommended he be euthanized only because his quality of life was so poor.
These are the types of dogs I live for.
Because these are the types of dogs I know well…and these are the types of dogs I know I can turn around.
True to form, when Bones arrived at our house, he was the most terrified…well…bag of bones…I’d ever met.
He wanted to quake in his kennel…but he couldn’t relax enough to move.
Instead, he remained a statue, frozen in fear, so stressed that with any movement, he’d promptly evacuate the contents of his stomach, and vomit all over the grass, or the living room, depending on where he was.
In the entire time he lived with his owners, he wouldn’t come close.
He didn’t want affection.
And if in a rare moment of bravery, he did get close enough to touch, he’d dart the moment anyone moved.
Despite his owners seeking help from behaviorists and veterinarians alike, Bones wasn’t making progress…
Until arriving here.
In his first week here, Bones began soliciting attention and affection…
In fact, by Day #3, he was snuggling on the couch with me as I drank my morning coffee…
Now, he is playful and can regularly be found relaxing on a dog bed (not hidden away in his crate) chewing a bone…
And we even got him to play a little ball.
Bones is still a chicken. There is no doubt about that. But he’s come farther in 7 days than he has in his entire life…
So how did we make such progress?
What magic did we use to get Bones to turn around…and fast?
The formula is simple.
We just didn’t allow the chicken to stick around.
Here are a few of the things we did.
(Note: Do NOT try these things at home. If you have a dog that is overly fearful, first consult your veterinarian and then, find yourself an in-person behaviorist for help).
- Broke the patterns: His pattern was to hide. He would avoid anything remotely scary, promptly running for the safety of his crate. And most people would allow this. I mean, the dog should have a place where he can feel secure, right? But for me, this choice consistently inhibited his progress. He never dealt with any of his emotions, never learned to be brave, never faced anything that made him remotely uncomfortable, never tried. As soon as I removed access to the crate, he began interacting with the world because frankly, he had no other choice.
- Removed the ability to escape: I have Bones gated in my living room, where we spend most of our time. The living room is small and there are no readily available hiding spots. He has no quiet spot to retreat to. Regardless of how he feels about it, Bones is stuck with me, and he’s stuck here for the time being. He has to deal with this new life – he can’t avoid it. Sure he can lay on a dog bed in the corner – he doesn’t have to be next to me if I make him uncomfortable. And when we’re outside, I don’t care if stays 6 ft away from me at the end of a leash. But I never give him the freedom to go cower in a corner half-way across the property. He can’t completely avoid the things that make him scared. Otherwise, he’ll never learn that they aren’t all that bad after all.
- Didn’t try: Do you remember that girl in high school? The one who none of the boys liked because she tried too hard? I think I may have been that girl. I was either trying too hard or totally oblivious. I was NOT one of the cool kids. But that’s beside the point. Trying hard to get a dog to like you doesn’t win you any fans. It’s our natural inclination to constantly encourage and dote over dogs who, plainly stated, don’t want anything to do with us. We make kissy noises. We get down low on their level, and we call them. We stare at them. We beg them. We encourage them to us. But all that does is put unnecessary pressure on dogs that are already feeling insecure. Instead, while I do break the pattern of seeking refuge in the crate, and I will at times tether the dog to me, I also don’t care if the dog interacts with me. I’m not going to pat my knees, beg or plead for the dog’s attention. Plainly stated, while I keep the dog in the room with me, I completely ignore them – even if they are stuck to me on a leash. If they want me to notice them, they are going to have to make it a point to try for my attention. And if they try, I will always reward them.
- Lived my life: I never walk on eggshells for Bones. I am LOUD. And my life is LOUD (and a bit chaotic). Sorry, not sorry. I’m not going to tone things down for him. He needs to get used to life here…and I mean the REAL life here. Not to mention, if I’m overly cautious about my movements, I communicate unease and concern to a dog that is already concerned. If I’m tiptoeing because I’m worried about his response to my movements, he doesn’t know it. Instead, he sees me and knows I’m worried. And he’s worried too! That doesn’t make for a good first impression.
- Gave him friends…sometimes: This guy loves other dogs. Sometimes they can be overwhelming, but for the most part, he gets other dogs…after all, he speaks their language. Humans on the other hand, not so much. But social learning is real. And he does mimic other dogs to an extent. When they are all over me, pushing for attention, he gets a little braver. So I choose to capitalize on the bravery he feels with the other dogs around….sometimes. But sometimes, he’s got to hang with me on his own too. Because I don’t want the safety of the other dogs to become a crutch. Sometimes he has to step outside of his comfort zone. And he’s a better, more confident dog for it.
We still have a ways to go to help Bones fully recover from his fear. But the progress he’s made in such a short time tells me we are well on our way.
If you are faced with a dog that’s overly fearful, first, check with your vet. Make sure there aren’t medical reasons fueling your dog’s behaviors.
Once you get the all clear, find a local in-person behaviorist to help guide you.
And most importantly, make sure you aren’t trying too hard to win your fearful dog’s attention.
Instead, live your life…your REAL life (not the overly-cautious-try-not-to-scare-the-dog life you might instinctually create) and let your dog get used to it.
Don’t force interactions, or beg and plead for your dog’s attention, but don’t let them escape the world either.
Because being in the middle of everyday life is the quickest way for a chicken dog to learn that the sky isn’t falling after all.