Last year I lost my wonderful Labrador Lucy. She had been ailing for some time and I knew that the decision had soon to be made to end her suffering. She was only 7 years old. Later that year I decided that I wanted to give a better life to a Labrador that had been rescued from a 'puppy farm'. In October I adopted a beautiful yellow Labrador, a former breeding bitch, whom I named Gracie.
I was told by the rescue centre in S. Wales, www.manytears.co.uk that she could be 8 years old and that she was very very fearful, mainly of people. She was fortunate to have gone straight into foster, so I went to visit her in Essex to see for myself how scared she was. I had already decided that I wanted her, pending a home check by the centre, but I was shocked when I met her. I can only imagine that she must have been born in this farm and used for breeding as soon as she was mature enough because she had no social skills, had never seen the inside of a house, had never been outside for a walk, or anything else for that matter. And to top it all been kept in a dark place so didn't use her eyes normally, in fact I thought she might even be blind. Thankfully she isn't.
When I brought her home she was like a feral dog, and I wondered how I was going to manage to look after her and what kind of a life I would be able to offer her. For the first week she cowered in the corner of a small room, only moving when I herded her out to the garden. She would not eat or drink if I was in the room, she didn't blink, pant, scratch, yawn, shake or move a muscle. All she did was look terrified every time I approached her with food or water. I could only leave it on the floor and walk away hoping that she would eat. Being a Lab she did eat, that has never been an issue, in fact the only way that I have made any progress with her is through food.
I am happy to say that in the 9 months that she has been with me, she is a changed dog, but it has been slow. I know that most ex breeding bitches that are rescued and adopted can go on to lead happy lives with kind families, who know that these dogs must be rehabilitated, but Gracie is an exception. She could of course have been pre disposed to being fearful and in which case she should never have been allowed to breed. Think of all the pups she must have had who would likely be as fearful as she is, that is, the ones that survived. Also the majority of ex breeders are much younger than Gracie when they are rescued, and so have not endured the years of abuse that she has. In the time that Gracie has been with me I have spent countless hours just sitting with her whilst she looked away and pressed her body as far into the wall as she could, drooling with fear, getting so anxious as to what was going to happen to her next, but too afraid to pant or even breathe heavily. When she gets really scared she bites her top lip so hard that in the past it must have bled because she has scars on both sides.
My heart broke every time I looked at her knowing how someone, who calls themselves a human being, has treated her. She had learned to be helpless and resign herself to what ever was going to happen to her, this in fact was the only way that I could handle her. I didn't like doing it, and had she been aggressive I wouldn't have been able to, but eventually she came to realise that my touch was not to be feared and so she started to trust me, just a little. Of course food has played an enormous part in teaching Gracie skills, after all she is a Labrador! She has learned to hand target, and indeed target me for a treat. She is afraid of the noise that a clicker makes so I improvise and use a softer clicking sound with my voice instead, which works just as well.
She has made real progress in the house, but sadly not with my husband. She will not have him anywhere near her, only tolerates that fact that he lives here, (lodger), avoiding him at all cost. She fears men more than women that is obvious. Sadly she is still very fearful of the world outside, so much so that I can only take her out of the garden for a brief few minutes, and that is only if there are no people around at the time. If she sees someone or hears children's voices or dogs barking all she wants to do is flee, and she doesn't mind taking my arm with her! I consulted a trainer/ behaviourist and was told that he doubted she would ever get better and at best all I can do is manage her behaviour, and control her environment as much as possible, which is fine in my house but outside it's impossible.
I should say that I have 2 other dogs, both normal, who try to interact with her but as she has no social skills they find her unresponsive and so give up pretty quickly. She of course had no idea of play either but I am working on that as well as all else and so far I have introduced a Kong and a food dispensing ball that she has finally gotten the hang of!
Gracie is certainly a challenge, I knew she would be but perhaps not quite as much as she actually is. However she is becoming the most affectionate girl with me, who loves physical contact, is very bright and eager to learn new skills, providing there is a treat up for grabs! Whether she will ever be able to form relationships with other humans I don't know, but at least she has a life now and I know that I have saved her from a fate worse than death. Hopefully she will continue to learn and become a more confident dog.
I honestly don't know how I would have gotten this far if it weren't for people like Debbie Jacobs who created a website to help people like me with fearful dogs, www.fearfuldogs.com She has also written an e-book which in the beginning I took advice from to help Gracie. I have also written a lot about her on Debbie's Blog. I found that there is precious little help or support on hand in the UK for owners of dogs like Gracie, but I'm sure there are plenty of us out there. Needless to say that Debbie is in the United States so I am truly thankful for the Internet.
I am not a dog trainer, it has been a steep learning curve for both of us. However, little by little she is getting there. I can tell you that I have learnt so much about dog behaviour since I had Gracie, have read several books, all by American authors, and have come to know people with fearful dogs who are still working to improve their lives after 5 years, so we do have a long way to go, but I remain hopeful.
Thanks for reading Gracie's story.
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