Friday, March 29, 2013

Lily's Sense of "Stranger Danger"

Much of this blog is and will continue to be dedicated to my bragging about what a wonderful dog Lily is. She is sweet, affectionate, funny, gentle, naturally well-behaved, wonderful with other dogs and cats, and completely adorable. With this post, though, I want to take the opportunity to write about Lily's one "flaw": her fearfulness.

Lily's fearfulness is relatively specific. While she will happily trot over to greet an unfamiliar dog with a butt sniff and a play bow, Lily does not warm up to human strangers so easily. In fact, she often finds them quite scary, and it can require her meeting a new person for several extended visits before she begins to trust him or her.

Peter and I had some inkling of Lily's shyness from the beginning. The first time we met her, at her foster mom's house, Lily wouldn't let either of us touch her. We sat on the floor for around an hour, chatting with her foster mom and periodically offering her treats. But not only would Lily not approach us, she kept actively trying to escape, either down one stair to the basement or up the other stair to the second floor. However, Lily's foster mom's enthusiastic description of all Lily's good qualities convinced us that she was nevertheless the dog we wanted to adopt.

We were also willing to adopt Lily in spite of her fears because of the way in which she expresses them. Dogs, like all other animals, have a "fight or flight" response to fear. Many dogs who seem aggressive actually behave this way because they are scared, not because they are mean or bad dogs. Lily, though, has never displayed any aggressive behavior whatsoever; one of the trainers we worked with on her fearfulness commented that when it came to the fight or flight response, Lily "has 100% of the flight and 0% of the fight." When Lily is scared, she first tries to flee (thus her attempts to escape the room during her first meeting with me and Peter). If she is not able to escape, she then begins to display a variety of submissive behaviors designed to communicate that she is not a threat, including tucking her tail between her legs, cowering low to the ground, desperately avoiding eye contact, etc. She has never growled, snapped, or bitten anyone. I have the utmost respect for people who are willing to foster and/or adopt dogs who struggle with fear aggression-- I think they are heroic-- but it was not something Peter and I felt comfortable taking on, particularly in a dog we were going to adopt, not foster.

frightened Lily on her first night with us
Happily, Lily has made enormous progress since we adopted her. It only took Lily a few days of living at our house to warm up to us. Within 24 hours in our home she stopped running when we tried to pet her and occasionally wagged her tail a bit; within three or four days she was rolling over for tummy rubs. By a few weeks after that she was actively coming to us for attention and affection.

Lily after living with us for a few days
Lily's progression with her fear of strangers has been slower but also significant. For approximately the first six months or so after we adopted her, whenever friends or family came to the house to visit Lily would try to hide upstairs in our bedroom. Now she wants to be where the action is, although she generally prefers to observe from the safety of Peter's or my lap rather than be the center of attention. For the first year or so that we had her she wouldn't get near my dad; she has always been more afraid of men than women, and my dad is a tall guy with a deep voice. Now, though, when he comes over to visit and sits down on the sofa she jumps up into his lap and starts sniffing around for the treats she knows he's brought for her. Similarly, until very recently if I was walking Lily and people wanted to pet her I would have to tell them that they couldn't because she's too shy; if a person didn't ask first and simply tried to start petting Lily would run to the end of her leash and strain frantically against it, to the point of choking herself, desperate to get away. Now she will go up to a female stranger on a walk and take a treat from her hand (I always carry some treats with me to help ensure that any interaction with a stranger is positive for Lily). She still won't let them pet her, and she will only go up to female strangers, not male ones, but  I'm confident that we will get there eventually. She no longer shies away from strangers of either gender when they walk past us.

Lily will probably always have an exaggerated sense of "stranger danger," but I am so proud of how far she's come in the approximately year and a half since she joined our family. Adopting a rescue dog with "issues" has not been without its frustrations, but the feeling I get seeing her overcome each hurdle is beyond worth it. On more than one occasion I have thought that she'd plateaued, that she'd gotten as brave as she was going to get, but she continues to surprise me and surpass my expectations. I don't know what happened in Lily's life before she came to us that made her think that many people can't be trusted, but I like to think that the longer she's with us, the more confident she'll get that she no longer needs to fear people because we would never let anyone hurt her. I can't wait to watch her continue to blossom over the coming years.

happy Lily snuggled safely in my arms

1 comment:

  1. What a lovely story! Such a testimony to the power of patience (on your part), resilience (on Lily's part), and love (on everyone's part). :)