Dogs can forget their dogness, especially after a traumatizing ordeal. They could be nervous, shut down, guard up, making a big deal out of small things. Essentially many may react that their dog forgot how to be a dog, because they’re not doing dog things!

Of course it’s not forgetting their dogness really, because this is part of being a dog. Or just a being in general: this happens to us humans too. I had a traumatizing year or two pretty recently, and I forgot how to be Jen for the most part. For me it took a lot of exercising (and still IS – I think I just became pretty addicted to UJam Fitness). Which… strangely… is how Tig got back to normal after being in a shelter too. I just hope I can lose that weight again, but that’s a whole other thing that has nothing to do with a dog blog.

This question and my answer originally appeared on the Pet360 Forums.

The question: My dog forgot how to be a dog!

Next issue for us to deal with is that she was caged so long, she is clueless. She has no idea how much fun she could have being a dog! She thinks life is eating, drinking, and snoozing between Mom and Dad. Only going out to do her duty. This dog thinks a walk is a horror show! Grass is to be looked at but not for her paws! We have to carry her to the area outside the dog park fence. Put her down on the grass, she is none to happy about being on the grass! She will do what she has to do.

She does show interest in the dogs inside the park. Watching them, she has sniffed a couple of them too, face to face. A couple of males have TRIED to sniff her hind quarters. She would have NONE of that, and let them know real quick. She’s a lady and demands they behave like gentlmen!

No interest in toys. She’ll watch you squeek a toy, but not take it. She ignores Kongs, unless there is TURKEY in them! Her “on switch” is turkey. I rub some on chew toys to get her interest in them. No interest at all in a ball. She sits for her leash, on and off. Sits for food, most of the time. But no interest at all in play. Am I rushing things?

My response: how to wait for a dog to remember dogness

Your post makes me smile because Nahvi reminds me a bit of my dog Tig after we adopted her. She also had a negative shelter experience, and this can all affect how comfortable she feels in general. Nahvi also had a surgery recently I remember, so this can also affect how a dog feels in general – it’s a lot of change in a short period of time. It sounds like she’s already off to a good start though.

The main thing here is patience. It’s hard, we want our dogs to fit into our houses and have everything click, but for some dogs it took awhile. For Tig it took 8 months (but her case was pretty extreme – she’d fly to the end of the leash in panic at anything outside). Those were a long 8 months waiting for Tig to become a dog, and I wept (with happiness) when she finally walked into our kitchen. Strange, I know, but it was my clear sign she was finally comfortable in our house, and finally herself again. The funny thing? That wait ended up being so rewarding after those 8 months. The main thing we did with Tigger was…. almost nothing. We waited, didn’t make a big deal with things, slowly slowly slowly exposed her to things, and jogged. I ran and ran and ran because that was the only way I could get her mind off the environment outside our house (yes… I lost some weight. It was great for that too!)

For the grass/outside and other-dogs thing:

I’d really recommend this: don’t make a big deal about it. She may need to relax outside more before approaching grass, but what I would try is focusing on getting her super relaxed outdoors in general and then you can try gradually getting closer to the grassy areas and eventually on them. As I mentioned, for Tig I had to jog her outdoors to get her “mind off things” (she’d focus in on the jog and relax – repetitive, needed focus, etc), for Nahvi it might be something else but the main thing is for both of your focus to be off of whatever is stressful, then you can gradually introduce the things that stress in a “hey, this is no big deal to anyone” kind of way.

If she looks at it with that face of mild panic (ack, grass!), just distract her away and immediately get her focus on something else without rewarding her for the fear (as in “Hey Nahvi, let’s walk over here instead” and simply head off). Some may say this is rewarding her by moving away – and it kind of is – so the main focus should be trying, if you can, to anticipate any fearful reactions before they happen and distract her before and during the times so she never gets fearful in the first place. So when you walk by/near grass if you must, keep talking to her to draw her attention to you so she never looks at or thinks about the grass while you pass it. I asked so many other trainers and behaviorists “what do you DO when they panic? What’s the best action” and the only thing to come of this research and questioning was “just keep moving. Acknowledge if you must, don’t make a big deal of it, and keep moving.”

Tig was always comfortable off leash at the beach, so we did lots of work there. But mostly just let her "be a dog" for that hour.

Tig was always comfortable off leash at the beach, so we did lots of work there. But mostly just let her “be a dog” for that hour.

And this is the same thing with other dogs. Dogs don’t need to meet each other, and certainly don’t need a dog park (which can do more harm than good). It’s very possible she doesn’t want to interact with other dogs, or is just not in the right frame of mind at this time. And that’s okay. When encountering others on a walk, simply keep moving, step aside, whatever you need to do to keep going. If the other person says anything, just say she’s not able to say hi (you can even mention recent surgery if you must – whatever makes this feel better for you both). Remember to just focus on what’s best for Nahvi, which sounds like it may be not meeting other dogs at this time. But do remember to keep it positive so Nahvi thinks “we’re just walking past” instead of “we’re not going up to those mean dogs my dog mom is wary of”. And if you can set up play dates with other, known dogs in an environment Nahvi feels comfortable in this would also help. If a dog is unsure of things, often being tethered to a leash can emphasize this – so a play date in a safe, off-leash environment with known friendly dogs of an appropriate size and temperament can work as a great alternative.

Regarding play/fun:

This might just take time. Any dog has to feel extremely relaxed to play. For some dogs play doesn’t come naturally in their personalities. For Tig, who is a very serious girl, she only lets her guard down when she is very relaxed and also wants to play. So… every few weeks basically! And I can’t make her play, at all… and oh how I’ve tried. But when she wants to, I’ve figured out a few ways to get her playful and it’s a subtle gentle dance. You often really, really have to understand your dog well to do so (again.. that time and patience!)

Dog running on beach with toy

This dog does love toys… the other ones not so much!

It is possible to sort of teach a dog to play though. I taught my first dog to retrieve a ball… but he’d only do it twice, and then look at me with an “are we finished? Have you got your fill of this?” and trot on to go sniff things (his idea of a good time). So some dogs simply aren’t really into it, they simply don’t have toy drive. And that’s OK, because any dog I’ve met enjoys things – just have to figure out what they are.

Once Nahvi is fully relaxed in the home, you can try things like “hide and seek” with the toy. If you take a thing away from a dog sometimes they reeeeally want that thing. You can try sort of “teasing” a toy (what’s called a “flirt pole” – a toy on the end of a long rope attached to a stick, essentially) can sometimes get dogs interested. Just make sure to try all different sizes, textures, colors, types of toys and only during times of extreme relaxation/comfort in the house. Like I said for Tig, this took 8 months. For another dog of mine 2 weeks (and for the third… no time – but he was built for play and adventure and lives for toys).

And regarding the crate/play:

Perhaps try introduce more mental exercises into the day. Because she may have her guard up a little, start with really simple exercises and make it part of a routine. It sounds like she knows “sit” so start with that and then progress to down, shake a paw, and so forth. This will have a couple benefits: it’ll help that bond between the family (great for so many uses), and it may help her relax a little. It will also help you learn what Nahvi is motivated to work for – figuring out a dogs motivation is key to sorting out how they’ll learn, and how to train them.

You may also introduce a bit of massage into your day, which also helps with bond and relaxation.

What are your tips?

There are many ways to slowly desensitize dogs. If you had an anxious or sensitive dog, what worked well for you? What are you still working on?

About Author

Jen deHaan is graphic designer, small business owner, and dog person living in Bay Area, California. Jen enjoys learning about dog training and behavior, and has taken several courses and seminars since 2010. She also contributes articles to leading websites, such as Victoria Stilwell's Positively . It all started with a great dog called Mikey (aka "dude"), loved and lost but remembered forever. Jen also runs a freelance business focusing on graphic, web, and UI design at FoundPixel, and a small business creating hand crafted dog products at Stylish Canine.

  • Great tips Jenn!

  • Our Maggie is a work in progress…and even Jack spent a year in the shelter, so he had some ‘baggage’. He’s gotten past it much more easily than Maggie, her days as a breeder mom for 8 years are pretty deep. She doesn’t play at all – can’t entice her with anything. She does like her find the food game that we play each night with her and she does like a couple of the food toys – but only ones she can roll as she won’t pick up anything in her mouth…don’t know what that’s all about. Patience is certainly the name of the game.

  • I think your advice is right, and as you mention desensitization might take awhile. I love the idea of a dog getting more mental stimulation – giving them a job or something to solve is a great way to make them feel ‘dog like.’ I’ve seen so many dogs at the local shelters here that don’t play. I remember when I first encountered one I assumed it would be an easy fix – I’d just spend some extra time with him and keep enticing him. Didn’t quite work out that way, there was nothing simple or easy about it.

  • Training also builds confidence. I did that with one of my fosters who was fearful of so many things. But she was eager to please and so I used that to train her to sit and other things and in the short time I had her (she was adopted after a couple months) her confidence greatly increased. She still had issues, but she was well on her way to becoming a more confident, easy-going dog, less fearful of the world.

    Blueberry isn’t much for playing either. Ha – she also plays with a toy maybe once a month and it is usually just for a few minutes. She does enjoy chewing on Nylabones and I also have her find treats around the house or outside using boxes and she LOVES that game. Thankfully, there are so many different things we can try with our dogs to see what interests them – there’s always at least one thing they will love. :) Great article!