On teaching my puppy fear

I know it’s silly, but I feel like I’ve failed my dog.

We’ve worked so hard on so many aspects of her training, and she’s come a long way. She’s more confident, more relaxed, and more able to adapt to new situations.

Except for one thing.

She can’t or won’t tolerate someone else holding her leash.

She can do every single other item on the silver exam list perfectly. Lie down and stay for two minutes? She could go for longer. Recall? Perfect. Walking to heel? She can even do it off lead (even if she proved me a liar today by making a run for it when another dog ran first). Road walk and crossing the street? So easy that we’re bored with the practice. Getting into the car? She doesn’t bat an eyelash.

She’s perfect at everything, but she flips out when someone else takes hold of her leash. The only exception is at the vet’s, where she will let a nurse or vet lead her back to the exam area. Agility class, flyball, obedience class…nope. Nope, nope nope.

For the silver exam, she needs to allow the examiner to give her a mock check-up, similar what a vet would do.

Until Ladybug’s one-year exam, she had been perfect for vet visits. Maybe a bit skittish, maybe a bit timid, and maybe slow to warm up. But with a little patience and kindness from the vets and nurses, she was fine.

For her one-year exam, though, she hid behind me (I sat on the floor with her and the vet) and growled. Just a tiny token baby growl, but she’s never done that before. Barked at the vet or nurse when they interrupted my visitation time while she was hospitalized, yes. Growl, no. Not even a teeny one.

Since then, she’s refused to let anyone else near her.

She’s gotten better in just two flyball practices about letting people get close to her, but she won’t let anyone hold her leash. She’ll sit and stay if I unclip her lead or lay it on the ground, but she panics and jumps the second I give it to anyone else.

I don’t know what’s wrong!

I do think it’s now become a cycle because I’m anxious she’ll freak out, and she is quicker to freak out because I’m anxious. I tried stroking the leash to calm her (a tip from our puppy yoga instructor), but it only helped a little. Saying anything (soothing, reassuring, etc.) made her more nervous when our obedience class teacher tried to approach her.

She did better this week than last, but she still didn’t want him holding her leash. She was willing to follow him–up to a point–as long as her leash trailed on the ground, but he was not allowed to pick it up.

When we paired up in class to switch dogs and conduct a mock physical exam, our teacher specifically teamed me up with a nice, thoughtful dog mummy who has a lot of experience. I stayed close to them so Ladybug wouldn’t panic (thinking I was abandoning her). Total backfire. She flipped out, first with jealousy that I was touching another dog. Then, she kept jumping in sheer panic trying to get her leash away from the other dog’s mum.

The other mum was super kind about everything. Our teacher came and took the other dog to help us out. Ladybug was willing to let the other mum come close as long as I held the leash, but she still only permitted a quick hello and stroke. She ate the offered treats gladly, but then she began barking.

After class, our teacher spent a good deal of time trying to coax Ladybug to trust him. She did pretty well, but once he attempted the physical exam…nope. She barked at him and got upset.

I don’t know what to do! I don’t know anyone nearby who can help practice touching her. In agility class, we just work on obstacles on our own. Flyball will help a bit more, as one of the early goals is to allow someone else to hold her until they let her run toward me. That’s still not to the level of conducting a mock exam, though. Puppy yoga and scentwork are both 100% about giving her space and time. I love that I don’t have to worry about anyone getting too close…but that also doesn’t help her get used to someone else touching her.

Someone pointed out to me last week that I am Ladybug’s most vulnerable point. I’ve always thought of it the other way around. If anyone wants to hurt me, or if anyone wants to force me to do something that’s not right for me, hurting her is the best way to do it. I nearly signed a false confession because I was threatened with divorce and refusal to pay Ladybug’s medical bills. I either signed saying I had committed all kinds of wrong things that I most certainly had not done, or Ladybug would die because I wouldn’t have the money to pay for her medical care.

It’s true that I will do anything and everything to protect her. But it’s also true that she will put her life in danger to protect me. She’s trusted people who hurt her. Why? Because I told her to trust them. She encouraged a sick, violent man in the park to chase after her. Why? Because he was threatening to kill me. Those are the most extreme examples, but she will do anything to keep me safe.

I think she knows, in her wise but innocent puppy way, that I’m not safe. That I can be hurt and am being hurt very badly. It’s Mother’s Day in the US, and I’m isolated from my mother, my mother-in-law, and my stepchildren. For no reason but spite, I’ve been banned from seeing the two children who mean more to me than I can ever say. My mother will only talk to me if I never mention my wife, and my mother-in-law has not spoken a civil word to me since she learned of our engagement. My wife never once stood up for me while her mother insulted me.

I live in constant terror that we will be evicted, I won’t be able to pay rent, and I’ll lose Ladybug. She’s all I have. She’s the reason I can get up in the morning, and the reason I can sleep at night. I say that I’m okay and she doesn’t need to protect me, and that it’s unfair for her to carry that burden. It should be true (and I want it to be true), but it’s not.

Poor little dog. She should have been roaming the hills, herding sheep and enjoying glorious romps in all weather. I feel guilty that she’s cooped up in a tiny apartment with nowhere to run in peace. She’s stuck with me, a worrywart and unhappy mum whose life keeps falling apart more and more.

Our obedience teacher says to give it time. That she’s fine with everything else, and she will come to it when she’s ready…and not before. He suggested that we postpone taking the silver exam and there might be another date available at the end of the summer. He’s concerned that pushing her now will cause setbacks for later, and I’m afraid she’ll have a bad experience at the exam. My only concerns were having a new teacher who may not be right for us (the teachers switch around after exams) and spending the next few months working on all the silver stuff that she can do  already. Boooooring!

He said that he will switch to teaching the gold class next month, and he’ll let us move up. That way, we can work on gold exam material while Ladybug works through her fear of other people touching her. With luck, she’ll be able to take and pass her silver exam in a few months. Even better, we’ll be learning something new in the gold class. He said he’d give special permission for it as she’s clearly demonstrated her readiness for new material.

I’m relieved she won’t have to take her silver exam next week (the original plan), but we won’t be stuck in the silver class.

But even so, I worry.

How do I teach Ladybug that the world is safe…when it’s not?

How do I help her trust other people…when I can’t?

How do I encourage her to let other people touch her…when I no longer trust people touching me?

A man I considered a friend and brother, the man who invited me to live in his house and was supposed to give me a job…

I will never get back what he took from me.

I taught Ladybug to trust him implicitly.

I allowed my wife to tell me for months that I’d imagined things, he wasn’t a bad man, and I was being too sensitive and expecting too much.

I let someone touch me, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever be whole again.

How can I teach my puppy to do what I cannot?

How badly have I crippled her with my fears and issues?

How can I say I’m doing everything I can to give her a good life…when she’s saddled with my past?

I don’t get an ego boost when she clings to me rather than letting someone else take her. Of course I want her to come back eventually, but I’d love for her to have more people in her life.

But the people I’ve introduced to her life so far…well, it hasn’t turned out well.

I taught her to trust people who hurt her.

She allowed them to hurt her because I said they were okay.

I did to her what my wife did to me.

Except Ladybug nearly died.

That’s what it is, isn’t it?

I can never forgive myself that she almost died. I may not have fed the pills to her or left them in her reach, but I left her in care of the person who did.

If I hadn’t taught her to trust that person…

If I’d let her be wary, scared, and timid…

She might still be whole.

She might not have had to endure the months of trauma.

Maybe part of me wants her to be afraid…

Because fear will keep her safe.

Will it?

It’s keeping her from doing a lot of things that she would enjoy.

But fear would have kept those pills out of her mouth.

Maybe she’s afraid because I feel safer with her fearful.

The world is full of danger and bad people.

Don’t get hurt, baby.

I can’t bear to lose you.

(But what kind of life is it…to always be afraid? For either of us?)


2 thoughts on “On teaching my puppy fear

  1. rozharrison says:

    (((hugs))) Ana, both you and Ladybug have been through so much trauma. You have both come so far and overcome so much, you will overcome this hurdle with your training too. It sounds like you have a wonderful teacher to help. Trust, once broken is difficult to rebuild and takes time.



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