Helping a shy dog spice up his social life

Jalapeño the dog, smiling, while sitting on sand in front of some trees
Found as a stray pup, Jalapeño was shy and shut down around people, but his foster family is helping him find a bold new flavor.
By Sarah Thornton

Bold and spicy may be apt descriptions for your typical jalapeño, but Jalapeño the dog leans a bit sweeter. When he’s not playing with his furry friends or stretched out next to (or on top of) them, Jalapeño is seeking out attention from his people pals. And, with their help, he is working on the bold part.

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Before he’d had a chance to show that sweet side, Jalapeño was scared and shut down. He and his brothers had been spotted wandering the streets of a rural Arizona town — small puppies who shied away at the sight of a human. It had taken days of leaving food out in humane traps for the cautious canines to be caught. And being suddenly surrounded by people in a new and unfamiliar place as they waited out their stray hold at a shelter, the puppies were understandably fearful.

With no microchips and no family having come to claim them, the pups needed a safe place to go. Best Friends’ goal is for all shelters to reach no-kill, and that means working together with other animal welfare organizations to save pets’ lives, giving each one the care and time they need to move into a loving new home. So Jalapeño and his littermates — each named after a spicy pepper — were soon on their way to Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

Scared pups just starting out

Arriving at the Sanctuary’s Dogtown, the pups shared a room and an outdoor run. But if there were people in the building, the pack of peppers were not. During the day, Jalapeño huddled with his brothers outside, an anxious tremble of fur and big brown eyes. They didn’t want to be touched, and if someone came too near, they’d nip out of fear. They didn’t know another way to say, “Stay back, we’re scared.”

Caregivers spoke gently and went slowly when they had to enter the pups’ room to clean or feed them, and quality time meant settling in their room with offerings of treats. Volunteers spent many hours just keeping quiet company with the little canines, slowly warming them up to the presence of people.

When it came time to bring the brothers to their vaccination and neuter appointments, it was a careful production. It took gloves, crates, and other equipment to make the trip as quick and safe as possible for all involved; the pups were not comfortable being handled and hadn’t figured out leashes yet. But once they came back from the clinic, the world started opening up.

The most outgoing of the brothers was quickly adopted, while shyest sibling Jalapeño started a different kind of chapter two: moving into a foster home for some more one-on-one attention.

A slow and steady warmth

Caregivers Alyssa Hill and Ryeleigh Campbell — who’d initially driven the pups from shelter to Sanctuary — were more than happy to open their doors to Jalapeño. “We absolutely love shy dogs, and our pack mingles with them perfectly,” explains Alyssa. “Most of our dogs are very confident and playful and know how to interact with a scared dog. Especially our senior, Sugar — she has worked with shy pups the entire 14 years we’ve had her.”

She says Jalapeño was terrified of being in the house at first, but having the other dogs around helped. He quickly attached himself to Sugar’s side, following her wherever she went and watching the world from the security of her shadow. Going from the wide-open world to the Sanctuary had already been a big change. A home had a whole new host of potentially scary encounters.

The flooring was different, human furniture was a brand-new concept, and the electronics … oh, the electronics. “When I turned the TV on, without sound, it scared him to the point of trying to jump out the window,” Alyssa says, remembering Jalapeño’s first encounter with that most common of household appliances. “So we penned off the window and took introducing the TV slowly.”

In just a few days, starting with a muted television and slowly introducing sound, Jalapeño was happily watching Bluey at low volume. He really did benefit from the presence of other dogs — even, it seemed, in cartoon form.

[Loving a shy dog: An adopter’s story]

Jalapeño also found security in his kennel, retreating to its cozy confines when he needed a little time-out from the goings-on of the house — or even, as he continued to settle in, just when he wanted a nap.

And he did start settling in. He trusted his furry foster family, and they trusted their people — so why shouldn’t he? Plus, if he really wanted to stay snuggled up next to Sugar, he’d have to join the family cuddle puddles. It took time, but as Jalapeño observed from the sidelines, he grew more confident.

Neither Alyssa nor Ryeleigh pushed him into any interactions he didn’t want, which gave Jalapeño the space to make the first move only when he was ready.

“Ryeleigh started lying on the ottoman with one arm dangling just to be comfortable, when one day she felt something on her hand,” Alyssa recalls. “Jalapeño was gently mouthing it in a playful manner.”

That was the big turnaround moment for the scared pup. He’d taken that first step to make contact and found it wasn’t all that scary actually. In a week, Jalapeño was regularly playing with Ryeleigh from beside the ottoman. In a month, he was lying down with her.  

For the first time since he’d been brought in off the streets, Jalapeño finally felt safe.

A bold and bright future ahead

It might still take Jalapeño a while to get used to new things, but now that he’s conquered so many of his initial fears, it’s just getting easier. And now that he’s comfortable hanging out with his foster people (and taking treats from them without hesitation) he’s making progress paw-over-tail. Ryeleigh and Alyssa have started teaching Jalapeño basic cues like “sit,” “place,” and “kennel,” and they’re currently working on “down.”

He’s a fast learner. And as the saying goes: work hard, play hard. “This boy loves to play with other dogs and toys,” Alyssa says. “He’s even been good with cats! He doesn’t do much but wag his nubbin real fast at them, but if they run, he doesn’t chase them.”

[Scared, shy dog just needed a chance or two]

And for as much as Jalapeño adores Sugar, he’s found a best friend in Alyssa and Ryeleigh’s puppy, Sticks. They’re constantly at play, burning through that excited puppy energy until it’s time to crash into a cuddle and recharge with a nap.

“A lot of what we did to help him open up was really just let him work through things on his own terms. Most of the time he would see one of our dogs do something, so he’d do it, too,” Alyssa says. “I’ll say our dogs have helped him come out the most. But the breakthrough of him playing with Ryeleigh was the best thing. Once a dog plays with you, it’s almost like striking gold, especially when it comes to a dog who used to react out of fear to human touch.”

Now, Jalapeño’s enjoying the spice of life. And he’s ready to be a bold new ingredient in a family of his own — as long as he has a little while to warm up.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2024 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.

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