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Step by step

Written by David Dickson

Imagine being afraid of a room in your own house. Not just when you were a child, but your whole life. There’s this one room you see and walk by every day, but the very thought of crossing the threshold makes you break out in a sweat. Maybe it’s hard to imagine feeling that way (with the exception of spooky basements, of course!), but for some of the shy dogs at the Sanctuary, that’s a very real fear.

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Birdie under the sink

Any part of their building they don’t live in and experience on a daily basis can seem intimidating: for example, the kitchen. While all the dogs see and hear the goings-on in the kitchen, and while most of the dogs at Best Friends walk through their building’s kitchen on a regular basis, the truly shy ones avoid it all costs.

Several of the caregivers at one of the dog areas in the Sanctuary had some mighty tough cases on their hands. There were four super shy dogs who didn’t want to go on walks or even interact with people in their own play areas. Singita, Sissy, Birdie, and Aleah were determined never to venture out in the world.

At Best Friends, all animals are given the space and encouragement they need to progress at their own rate. Even so, some of the animals need a gentle nudge now and again. These four dogs certainly did. So their caregivers brainstormed possible solutions. The first step they decided on was to put them in crates inside the kitchen for short time periods.

Remember, even though all four dogs were familiar with the sights, sounds, and smells from the kitchen — they are literally on the other side of a wire wall — they hadn’t spent much time inside. This was a big first step. To help make it fun for the dogs, the caregivers provided all kinds of treats and toys in the crate. The main goal was helping the dogs realize new things don’t have to be scary.

The next step was to attach leashes while they sat in the kitchen. This helped the dogs get used to the concept of a leash without feeling intimidated. Baby steps can get you anywhere you need to go, you just have to keep taking them.

"We didn’t know if we could do it," says caregiver Kathy Moore. Yet they never stopped trying. And in the end, it paid off! The dogs started to accept walks and other outings.

Aleah, however, proved to be the hardest one in the bunch. For Aleah, the transition from crate time to walks didn’t come easily. So they decided to take her on crate outings in a golf cart. She was still in a safe and familiar environment, yet she was able to take in new surroundings without feeling overwhelmed. (Now there’s some creative problem solving for you!)

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Aleah and Kelly go for a ride

In the end, Aleah threw everybody a curve ball. She was out for a walk one day on leash — they’d finally reached that point with her — when she saw a golf cart. Until then, she’d only ever gone for golf cart rides in her crate. Well, once she laid eyes on that thing, something clicked. She leaped up inside on her own. "Let’s go, people! Time’s a wastin’!"

Since then, Aleah and the gang have truly caught on to the concept of exploring new horizons. Aleah will now walk to the nearest golf cart without protest, and then longer outings proceed from there. Sissy, who used to have to stop and decompress every thirty steps or so, now walks for long stretches with confidence. And Singita and Birdie are doing so well they’re almost ready to go on walks with volunteers.

"It’s pretty impressive," says caregiver Kelly Kesling as she watches these shy dogs overcome their fears. Indeed it is. When the other side of the wall used to seem threatening and now they’re out exploring the world, that’s truly conquering a mountain one step at a time.

Photos by Gary Kalpakoff

We are working toward a time of No More Homeless. Investigate facts about working with any kind of animal who may have a problem that you can overcome with training. Check out Best Friends resource library.