Adopting a Nervous Dog

Laura Neish

While I was planning our wedding, a friend had joked that my fiancé should get me a dog as a wedding present. We laughed and thought no more about it. A week before the wedding I started to look at adoption agencies just to see where we might consider getting a dog from and what we would need to do to fit the agency’s requirements. We had no fence and our house is quite near a main road. It didn’t look like we were getting a dog anytime soon. My now husband, Stuart, told me we were not getting one yet, we’re not ready, it’s too expensive, etc. He had a whole host of reasons. I showed him a dog on the SePBRA website. He took my phone, had a scroll through some of the other dogs and saw Asha and Daya (then Tessa and Sarah), curled up in plastic bed together, clearly very concerned about the camera in front of them. They just looked sad. No spark in their eyes. He put in an application. We had an interview while on our honeymoon. The adoption agency tried to persuade us to take on an easier dog, but he’d decided. A couple of weeks later, he’d built a fence, cleared out our spare room, done a huge amount of research on helping nervous dogs, and Asha and Daya were on their way.

Asha and Daya at the shelter

The trip from Spain is 1-2 days depending on where the dog is getting dropped off in the UK. We live in Scotland, so our two girls were the last to be dropped off. Unlike the other dogs, they never left their crate for the entire trip just in case they would try to escape and never make it to us. We covered the crate in a blanket and carried it into the house and when we were sure all doors and gates were closed; we opened their crate door. Daya didn’t move. She was completely frozen in the back of the crate. Asha cautiously ventured out but each time she thought we might be looking she scurried back to Daya. I was totally in love with them already and when Asha came out to get some food, carried a mouthful back to the crate and dropped it to share with Daya, my heart melted.

Daya too scared to leave her crate the first night

It was quite late in the evening when they arrived, so we turned off the lights and headed upstairs to bed, leaving the girls alone. We had installed some cameras so we could keep an eye on them, and this is one of the best decisions we made. For the first few weeks, months even, they hid in the corner when you came into the room, keeping a suspicious eye on you. If you came too close, they would clamber over each other, desperately trying to get away from you. Had we have not been able to watch them secretly, I would have been convinced that they were very unhappy. However, on that first night, once we had gone, Daya finally left the crate. They explored their room and even played a bit of tug of war with one of the toys we’d bought them. Watching their body language relax and seeing them play was very exciting. It lulled us into a false sense of security of how they might improve, over the coming months. Maybe this won’t be as hard as we imagined.

We were warned the journey would be tough. It’s slow going. There’s lots of patience required. All the ideas you have to help, all the plans you put in place, end up being changed because of something you haven’t foreseen. We opened the back door hoping they would go out into the garden the next morning. They did and seemed to be enjoying having a good run around, but they would not come back in. We tried to gently herd them back into the house, but they just ran to corners of the garden and hid. We then tried to put them on a lead. When I put a slip lead over Daya’s head, she bolted to try and get away from me. Of course, the lead just tightened around her neck. She was cowering in front of me, as close to the ground as she could possibly get, and she looked up into my eyes. I’ve never seen fear like it. She was terrified of me. I knew it was the wrong choice and let go of the lead. We then decided the only option was to scoop them up and carry them in. Once in the house, they scampered under a table in our conservatory and didn’t move for 7 hours. It was day 1 and my husband and I felt awful.  From then on, we only opened the door if we knew they plenty of time to come back in, in their own time. 

We spent the next few weeks holding out pieces of chicken hoping they might take it from us. We each sat in the room for short periods of time reading books so they would get used to our presence. Some days they ate their dinner. Some days they didn’t. Asha would have a few good days being brave and pushing out of her comfort zone then she’d retreat to the corner under the table and not come out for days. They weed and pooed everywhere, and we calmly cleared it up. My husband works full time and I was quite worried about leaving them alone. I went out one morning to go to the shop and every time I checked the camera, they were sleeping. It was the most relaxed I’d seen them. They seemed much happier when we weren’t around. All the books I read and research I did on how to help a nervous dog, said things like “it’s in a dog’s nature to be your friend”, “they want attention from you” and “they want to love you”. However, we did not see that. It was really disheartening. They had each other and wanted nothing to do with us. We tried to do enrichment activities with them, but they seemed too afraid to try. We’d bought them a whole bunch of toys, but they didn’t know how to play. At night, when we were in bed, they would play fight. While we loved that they were having fun, having two dogs downstairs convinced they’re competing in some sort of wrestling championship all night long meant we weren’t getting a lot of sleep. Stuart’s alarm would go off at 5am and he’d head downstairs to get ready for work. During the night, they’d dragged their bedding through puddles of wee on the floor and ripped it all up. The room would be a riot. Sleep deprived and trying desperately to stay patient, he’d clear it up. I’m not going to lie; some weeks were tough. However, we’d celebrate really tiny wins, making it all worth the trouble and knowing that we’d get there eventually. I remember the first time Asha took chicken out of my hand and then when Daya came forward for a piece a few weeks later. I remember the time they went back outside again, having been too scared to leave the house for 10 days. I remember the day Asha lay down and fell asleep snoring while I was reading a book. I mustn’t be that threatening anymore I thought. I remember when my husband decided to hide some treats in an old pillow, and they tore out all the stuffing to get the food. I remember the first night I slept right through because there was no WWF going on downstairs. I remember the first time I walked into the room and they didn’t feel the need to jump up and be on alert. I remember the first day Asha peed outside. Stuart tried to praise her and excitedly said, “Good girl, Asha”. She promptly stopped peeing and ran into the house terrified. They didn’t understand what praise was for about 3 months. If we spoke, it scared them and that was that. 

Adopting a nervous dog is like riding a rollercoaster. You have a few good weeks or days where everything is going well. They’re learning new things. Their confidence is growing. You feel like you’ve cracked something. Everyone’s on the up. Asha went to the toilet outside for a whole week straight and we thought, that’s great, she’s house trained herself! Then, all of a sudden, she was outside for an hour or so, came inside to have a wee and didn’t go back out for a few days. Where did that come from? They started being more active during the day and sleeping during the night. We thought night time wrestling had run its course. Then Daya started to bark all through the night. We couldn’t figure out if she wanted attention, something was triggering her anxiety or if she was just bored. Asha then started to bark a lot during the day. We had a couple of weeks of constant barking. With hindsight and lots of trial and error we figured out why they were doing some of the things they were doing. We had some great weeks and some tough weeks. It often felt like 1 step forward and two steps back.

We’re now 6 months in. Daya rolls right over onto her back for a belly rub. Asha comes to look for me throughout the day and has been known to follow us outside. They both come out into the garden now if we’re out there. In the beginning we had to hide upstairs and will them to venture out. Neither of them want to stay in the front room with us but Asha will come running in, a big smile on her face, do a little growl and a play bow because she wants us to come and play. It’s taken her a few more weeks, but Daya now joins in the play with us too and her face is changing every day. Her new relaxed face makes her look like a totally different dog. When we had guests, it would take days for them to recover from the trauma of having a strange person in the house. They now bark when someone arrives because they want to say hello and for some of our friends, that come more often, they even come to the sitting room door for a little look. 

We’re finally starting to see their very different personalities. Asha is a hilarious thief and hunter of shoes. She will snuffle to the back the shoe rack for the best pair. There’s no hiding the ones she wants.  She peeps round the door to check you’re not looking (we are of course on the camera!) and then goes about the house stealing socks, underwear, recycling, plastic things she can chew, anything she can find. She’s not a morning dog and gives Stuart a look when he appears at 5am, buries her nose in the bed and appearing to be in a strop, ignores him. Daya, on the other hand, loves Stuart’s morning arrival. It means she gets a tummy tickle. She’s a real Daddy’s girl and wags her tail when he comes in from work. There were days when I wondered if they would ever wag those little stumps they have for tails. She has more patience than Asha and loves to chew through some frozen bone broth to get to a carrot in the middle. Asha will spit it out and look at you expecting something easier to eat. 

Adopting Asha and Daya was never about my husband and me. We wanted them to have a better life. I’m really excited to get out on our first walk together, go meet some of my dog owning friends in the park, get afternoon tea at the dog friendly café down the road, head off on holiday together and explore the Scottish Highlands, and all the other things you dream of doing once you own a dog. The reality now, is they’re just not ready. We will go at their pace and it will take as long as it takes. When we do all these things for the first time, it will be really special. The trust is finally starting the build between us and I think they might even kind of like us. I can’t describe how rewarding it has been watching them go from cowering in the corner, to running about the garden with big smiles on the faces. Daya even used to freeze, she was so scared. She’d sit there emotionless, as if there was nothing she could do to improve her situation. No life in her eyes. Now she comes running out of her corner to see my husband when he arrives home from work. It’s a tough road and I’ve cried plenty. Stuart has spent many an hour out in the garage on his turbo expelling frustration and looking for yet more patience. However, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear that we wouldn’t change it for the world. It is the best decision we’ve ever made. 

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