Dog gains the courage to trust

Kya the dog in the back seat of a vehicle
A once fearful pup finds safety with a patient, loving family who accepts her for who she is.
By Karen Asp

Anybody who’s terrified of things like flying or heights knows how difficult those fears can be to overcome. Now imagine that you’re a dog, who can’t rationalize things like humans do, with a paralyzing fear of anything unfamiliar. Even going outside makes you scared. Meet Kya.

From the moment Kya arrived at Best Friends Animal Society in Northwest Arkansas, it was obvious that she was going to need a lot of time to decompress, build trust, and learn how to live in the world with people. Kya’s rehabilitation, if you will, took baby steps that included time in several different homes. But in the end, Kya landed with the family who had helped her early on when she needed it most.

Scared dog lands in a shelter

Kya’s past is a mystery to those who know her today, but her path to a new life began when she was picked up as a stray and went to Lester C. Howick Animal Shelter in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The small black dog cowered and shook in her crate when she arrived at Best Friends. She was terrified of everything going on around her. “I couldn’t help but think that she had never had any experience with humans before she came to the shelter,” says Nicole Smith, Best Friends foster coordinator. “My heart hurt for this sweet girl who just needed somebody to show her kindness and patience.”

[Shy Dogs and Cats: How to Help Timid Pets]

The team decided a foster home would be ideal for Kya. There, she could let go of fear at her own pace and get used to the world in the comfort of a home. Still, helping Kya wouldn’t be easy. In fact, she spent time at two different foster homes before going to stay with Misty Brown; her husband, Deter; and their dog, Sophie.

Fostering an unsocialized dog

The foster team shared notes from Kya’s previous foster homes with Misty, explaining how she was afraid of everything but especially the man in the home — no matter how much he tried to win her over. They coached Misty and Deter to prepare them for Kya’s arrival and had a foster mentor stay in touch with them for support.

But some things take hands-on experience to fully understand, and giving Kya a temporary home ended up being a crash course on caring for an unsocialized dog. “I honestly didn’t understand the impact of what I was getting into,” Misty says. At least, not yet.

For the first three days after arriving at Misty’s house, Kya wouldn’t leave her kennel. Misty had to carry her outside because she was too afraid to walk there. As Misty had expected, Kya also went on a food strike for the first few days.

It took about six days before Kya began to settle in. Although she was eating, she did it at night. After she went to bed, Misty would hear Kya eating in her kennel and slurping water.

Misty also wondered whether Kya would accept Deter, who was out of town during this time. The surprise? Although Kya growled a little, she remained relatively calm and didn’t run. It was another tiny hint of progress.

Kya wasn’t just dealing with anxiety but also heartworms, and on her eighth day of being with Misty, she had to spend the night at the vet for treatment. Misty was concerned that any progress they’d made would be wiped out, but Kya seemed happy to see Misty when she picked her up. She even jumped up on the couch to be next to Misty, a new behavior. “I was shocked by it but felt things were moving in the right direction,” Misty says.

Patience is a virtue with shy dogs

Helping a dog like Kya requires patience — a lot of it. Misty explains that she avoided eye contact and let Kya come to her. It worked best to have Deter go to another room when Misty needed to get Kya outside. While she hadn’t initially run from him, Kya was much more afraid of him than she was of Misty. They avoided making quick movements or loud sounds, as both would send Kya running into another room.

To help Kya get used to everyday sounds like a soda can being placed on a coffee table or the sound of an iPad case closing, Misty would make these noises when Kya was relatively relaxed and watching. “I was hoping she would see the safe things that made noise and become comfortable,” Misty says.

Misty also began talking to Kya while she worked. Whenever she was in her office, Kya was there, too. Frequently throughout the day, Misty would call her “Kya baby” and tell her she was such a good girl. Those positive affirmations paid off. One day, Kya wagged her tail. “I about fell out of my office chair,” Misty says. For almost three full weeks, Kya had kept her tail tightly tucked under her.

Kya gets adopted, briefly, 3 times

After fostering Kya for a few months, Misty and Deter decided to adopt her. “She was just so sweet, and I was confident we were making progress,” Misty says. Within a month’s time, however, things had changed — just not for the better.

Around that time, Misty started traveling more on the weekends, and Kya responded by going to the bathroom in the house whenever Misty left. Then one day, Misty’s friend visited with her newborn. Kya got spooked and jumped up onto the bed where the baby was. When Deter stepped in to move Kya away, Kya nipped at him.

Although Misty had connected with Kya, the way things were progressing caused her and Deter to rethink the decision to adopt her. Misty says, “We felt like Kya wasn’t living her best life being in fear of Deter.” So they asked the team at Best Friends to make Kya available to others for adoption, and they would continue to foster her until a better match could be found.

By Christmastime, nobody had inquired about her. And although Kya was making progress around Deter, they still believed she wasn’t living her best life. So Misty posted a Christmas photoshoot with Kya on Facebook, and it earned her a meet and greet with a family who adopted her. Four days later, however, they brought her back after she nipped at their dog.

Misty received the call about Kya being returned and agreed to pick Kya up. Then, in less than 24 hours, the adoptions team received another inquiry from someone who wanted to adopt Kya. When Misty brought Kya to Best Friends for the meet and greet, the potential adopter seemed like the perfect match in every way. “I was so excited for Kya,” Misty says.

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

Kya went off to her new home right before Christmas, and Misty kept in contact with the adopter. But then things took a familiar turn. Kya refused to eat. Again. Her fear of going outside returned, too, and she went to the bathroom all around the house.

Kya’s adopter did everything she could to help Kya get comfortable, and she didn’t want to give up. Eventually, however, she asked whether Misty could take Kya back. The answer, of course, was “yes.”

They went to pick up Kya, and Deter went in first to greet her. That’s when something happened for the first time: She was happy to see him. “Each time Kya went elsewhere and we picked her up, her trust and love for us seemed to grow,” Misty says.

The false starts and Kya’s happiness at being reunited with Misty and Deter after each one were enough to convince the couple that their home was right for her after all. So they adopted her for the second time.

Second time is the charm

Today, Kya doesn’t go to the bathroom in the house, she knows the yard, she can go through the back door on her own, and she’s started being playful. And in her own way, she loves Deter. “She’s still a little scared when he’s standing up, but when he’s sitting or lying down, she loves to come up to him to get her head scratched,” Misty says.

There are additional signs of progress, too. Kya is no longer on high alert, even staying sleepy while Misty is up and about making noises. Misty added a charm to her collar, so they can be aware of where she is in the house and not scare her, pausing and giving her a chance to see them before they move.

And there are moments when she’s truly joyful, not just tolerant, of life in a home — like when she’s out in the yard. “She prances around and does this weird contortion of her body because she can hardly contain her happiness,” Misty says. Their other dog Sophie has helped Kya as well because Kya often mimics what Sophie does. She won’t roll over on her back yet, although she did recently start chewing on a bone — another sign she’s starting to relax.

It was nearly a year ago that Misty and Deter adopted Kya the second time. Misty has declared Kya’s Gotcha Day in April her birthday as well. This year, Kya will turn 3, and although she is still anxious at times, she now has a home where patience, love, and her favorite person reside.

“(Kya) found something in me that makes her feel happy,” Misty says. “That is rewarding in a way that no words could ever express.”

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