Scared mama dog transforms into social Butterfly

Person petting Butterfly the dog while Dorian the dog watches
Butterfly used to run for cover if a person got too close, but with help from her roommate and caregivers, she’s really grown into her name.
By Sarah Thornton

Butterfly loves attention. When she sees her human friends coming, she turns into a spring-loaded bouncy dog, hopping straight up into the air over and over again in her excitement. She’ll nose past her roommate for a good scratch, and when it’s time for a walk, she’s right at the gate, ready to go. She’s all big smiles and loose tail wags — the picture of canine contentment.

But it took a lot of help for Butterfly to get to this level of sunshiny happiness. She had a very different reaction to the new world around her when she first arrived at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

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Scared mama dog makes a confident friend

When Butterfly came to the Sanctuary with four young puppies in tow, she was scared. She’d lived an outdoor life before Navajo Nation animal control picked her up, and she wasn’t used to having four walls around her or seeing so many people close up. There were new sounds and smells everywhere, and whenever one of her caregivers would approach her and her puppies, she’d scurry to a corner and huddle down for safety — even if that meant leaving her puppies exposed.

She really didn’t want anything to do with people. She didn’t want to be touched, and she had no idea what a leash was. Toys were of no interest to her, though her puppies certainly enjoyed them. And she was constantly on edge, doing her best to care for her pups but always ready to get into her defensive position at a moment’s notice.

[Front row seat for a scared dog’s transformation]

But, like many people-shy dogs, Butterfly was much more open to the idea of canine companionship. And a solid, confident dog friend can work wonders when it comes to getting a scared dog to come out of their shell. So when Butterfly’s pups were weaned and ready to move out into the adoption spotlight, caregivers introduced her to a dog they hoped could show her the ropes.

Dorian is an outgoing fellow who, at the time, had an opening for a roommate. He’d always done well with new dog friends, and, most importantly, he loved spending time with his caregivers. He was the perfect candidate for showing Butterfly just how fun people can be.

Because Butterfly wouldn’t walk on a leash, caregivers brought her to Dorian’s yard in a crate. She was apprehensive at first while Dorian sniffed at her through the barrier, but when the kennel door was opened and she had a chance to sniff back at him, they fell right in stride with one another. When Dorian started running along the fence, playing with the neighbors, Butterfly joined him. And for the first time since she’d arrived, caregivers saw her loosen up. She play-bowed to every furry face she saw and kicked up clouds of sand behind her as she ran this way and that.

She was in her element at last, and the first bits of her shyness cocoon began to split.

A new leash on life

Dorian’s enthusiasm for life was contagious, and Butterfly took her cues from him. He got excited to see caregivers and visitors approaching for meals and walks, so Butterfly became excited, too. She’d bounce and bark and wiggle her whole body, but she was still not interested in direct contact.

“She would watch us, and she would take treats from us,” says Ramsey Schatz, one of Butterfly’s caregivers. “But she would stretch out to get the treat and then dart back.” It seemed that the potential was there for Butterfly to one day embrace her human friends; it would just take time and patience. And so, Ramsey began working with the shy dog, one step at a time.

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

Any time Dorian would get leashed up to go on a walk, Butterfly would step up next to him as though she was going to join him on the adventure. But, of course, because she would shy away from the leash (and the hand holding it), she had to stay behind. So “project Butterfly” began with just trying to be able to touch her.

Dorian helped a lot. Because he wanted all the pats and scratches, and Butterfly wanted to be right next to him, Ramsey says she could sit down in their room with them and reach just past Dorian to scratch Butterfly’s chin without it being too scary. “She decided that felt really, really good,” Ramsey explains with a laugh. “Almost like a cat, she’d lean into it.”

Every day, for 15 to 30 minutes, Ramsey would sit with Dorian and Butterfly, just petting them and offering treats. She’d bring a leash with her to get Butterfly comfortable with the sight of it. And then, once Butterfly was thoroughly sold on the joys of scratches and pats, she began clicking the leash — not putting it on but just making the sound. “I’d click the leash and give her treats, make the sound, give her a treat,” she says. “She was starting to make really positive associations with it. And finally, I was able to put the leash in the hand I was petting her with and clip the leash on and off and on and off.”

To make the exercises even more effective and comfortable for Butterfly, Ramsey says they used her bed as a sort of “OK zone.” If Butterfly wasn’t sitting on the bed, the leash didn’t go near her. “She was a dog who would put herself in a corner and shut down,” says Ramsey. “And you could clip the leash on her there, but she wasn’t really wanting you to. She just felt trapped. So we worked really hard with her: If she wanted the leash put on, she would go and sit on her dog bed, and we could clip it on.”

It took two months for Butterfly to be consistently comfortable with the leash going on. But leash pressure was another thing altogether. They started going for walks just in her and Dorian’s yard, and if she felt any sort of pressure from her collar, she’d start to panic. But treats could draw her back, and Butterfly soon learned that if she felt that pressure, she could turn right around to Ramsey for a reassuring pat and a yummy snack (and some encouraging puppy-talk, which sent her right into a tail-wagging wiggle-fest).

With a few more months of practice, the leash and going on walks became things Butterfly looked forward to. If she saw someone coming with a leash, she’d dart to her bed and squirm excitedly to get clipped up and head out. And the whole world opened up to her.

A full metamorphosis

These days, Butterfly is a pro walker. She’s excited to meet new people, and she can go out for adventures with volunteers without a problem. She’ll ask nicely for treats, as well as pats and scratches, and she’ll even push past Dorian if someone isn’t paying enough attention to her. She lets Ramsey pet her all over, and she’ll sometimes climb into her caregivers’ laps for even more affection. She even enjoyed a bit of Halloween dress-up.

To look at Butterfly now, there’s hardly a trace of that scared, shy behavior left. She has fully transformed into a social butterfly. She’s learning to load up into cars now, and with Dorian leading the way, she’s picking it up quickly. The only time it can be hard to get her back in the vehicle is when she’s just having too much fun on her outings and hikes to go home.

“She’s just such a happy dog,” Ramsey says. “She’s one of those dogs who, if you’re having a bad day and you go sit in with her, she’ll make you feel better. She’s just a bright-light, sparkly energy sort of dog.”

Her next phase? A new home with someone who’s looking for a bit of bright-light, sparkly energy.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.