A Tale of a Foster
Jackie Maffucci, CPDT-KSA
I am fostering a dog named Penny. She came from a shelter in rural WVA. The shelter found her wandering as a stray, so we don't know much about her. She seems to be a chow/corgi mix. About 3-4 years at best estimate. She was also very timid. She was in the shelter for about 6 months but the shelter was pretty under-resourced and it wasn't going to be able to keep her for much longer. A local rescue that works in the area sent an email to NOVA dog trainers, recognizing that she needed some professional help to work on her timidness. I agreed to take her in.
When she got to my home, it became immediately clear that she'd been living as a stray for quite some time. I'd classify her as borderline feral. She was not comfortable with people coming close to her, let alone touch her. She also preferred being outside and wasn't comfortable indoors. The first night, she slept in my yard, refusing to come inside. She wasn't comfortable approaching water or food bowls, and preferred getting her water from puddles in the yard. All signs suggesting that she'd been living as a stray for quite some time.
So the first question to tackle was how to train a dog that didn't want to be close to me. The answer... shaping. I worked on reinforcing her for approaching the door leading to the backyard, and eventually reinforcing her crossing the threshold, only when she came inside. Basically, coming inside meant high value food.
I also started working her to a station, meaning that I'd mark and reinforce her for approaching a towel that I had laid on the ground. The towel is her station. Anytime she's on station, we work on training. So once station was established, I then started reinforcing her for holding station while I started showing her objects, whether it be a hand, brush, or wooden spoon. These exercises were meant to get her comfortable with these objects being near her. If she broke station, the training stopped until she came back to station, so she had a choice as to when we worked and when we didn't.
It's been about 2 months since Penny came to live with me, and we're still working shaping exercises. She has let me touch her, and she'll take food from my hands, but she's still not comfortable with people touching her. She has definitely gotten more comfortable with people (I rotate friends coming to the house and she gets yummy food while they're visiting, therefore establishing positive associations between her and strange people). She's showing much more personality. She is playful and goofy, a huge fan of snow. Every time she goes outside she gives herself a dust bath (or snow bath when it was colder). And, she's now using certain puzzle toys and approaching boxes (for nosework drills), both of which were very scary when she first got here. So overall, she's showing slow and steady progress.