How do you win the trust of a traumatized dog?
My pitbull is suddenly terrified by me. I've never hit her but recently she got her head slammed in a door by accident. After that she has been terrified of me but nobody else.
When I'm with her she shakes uncontrollably and as soon as she feels like she can get away from me she bolts. I've never harmed her nor has my family except for the door incident. What should I do to get her trust and love back?Gale's Reply:
It's heart-breaking when a dog you love is terrified of you. The two things you most need right now are patience and objectivity.
In other words, don't take it personally. Your dog has been traumatized. She doesn't understand what happened to her or why. She only knows that it hurt. And, she's afraid it might happen again.
You don't say how old your dog is or how long ago the incident happened. But, my first concern would be physical injury and its potential residual effects.
Some symptoms of head trauma include:
1. Stumbling when trying to walk
3. Pupils that don't dilate or constrict in response to direct light
4. Loss of or abrupt change in consciousness
5. Inability to move
6. Bleeding from the ears or nose
7. Keeping the head tilted to one side
If you see any of these warning signs in your dog, drop everything and go to the vet. If it's been awhile and she seems fine, I think it's still worth a phone call to discuss the incident with her regular veterinarian.
Now, as to her fear response towards you, you must be patient with her. If
you've been trying to force her to have contact with you, my recommendation is that you stop doing that altogether.
Notice how much distance she seems to need to be comfortable and reasonably relaxed when you are in the same room with her, but not directing any of your attention her way. Let that be your baseline.
Depending on her reaction, you may want to sit on the floor or in a chair. But either way, ignore her. Watch TV. Read a book. But, don't pay her any attention. Allow her to stay put or wander around as she pleases without any reaction on your part.
However, if at some point she does wander even slightly closer to you, gently toss a treat in her direction. Don't say anything. Don't make a fuss or try to coax her to continue her approach. Be as nonchalant as possible and continue with whatever else you were doing. Toss her a treat anytime she moves closer to you. Let every step she takes closer be entirely HER decision.
It's important to manage your expectations with this exercise. She may come up to you within a few sessions. Or it could take daily sessions over a period of weeks.
Depending on your dog's reactions, you may need to make adjustments to this exercise as well. So, I highly recommend you read The Cautious Canine - How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears
by Patricia McConnell. This will help ground you in the principles of classical counter-conditioning so that you can tailor this type of exercise to your dog's needs.
The bottom line is, it takes as long as it takes. Extreme patience is the key. Good luck and feel free to let us know how it's going.