Ask the Dogfather: Gidget fidgets

Gidget fidgets around people she doesn't know. — Photo courtesy of Simone DeSorcy

Tom Shelby, who has trained dogs and their owners on Martha’s Vineyard and in New York City, answers readers’ questions about their problematic pooches. This week, the dogfather counsels the ownerof Gidget who is afraid of men, and the owner of a dog in heat.

Dear Dogfather:

I have been adopted by two small rescue dogs, both very loving. The female, Gidget, is terribly fearful of strangers, particularly men. When new people come to the house, she initially barks and sometimes growls as they knock on the door. Once the guest enters, she retreats to the back of the room and jumps on the couch, continuing to bark. Quite often she gets the shakes, and occasionally the nervous piddles. When I host a large dinner party, as I frequently do, Gidget zooms upstairs and crawls in my bed.

More worrisome is her fearful behavior as we take our daily leashed walks around the neighborhood. We live on a very busy street with narrow sidewalks.  When Gidget sees another pedestrian, either in front of or behind us, she balks (not barks) and tries to back out of her harness and/or onto the road…very scary, as the myriad car and truck tires are merely a few inches away on a road system that was never designed to accommodate such traffic.

Is there anything at all that you can suggest we try to make this little being less afraid of the world?

Many, many thanks,

Gidget and Pierre’s Mum

Dear Gidget and Pierre’s Mum,

How do you take an insecure dog and make him a confident dog? How do you make a coward brave? It’s much more difficult than taking the dog that looks in the mirror and sees God, and making him understand that there may be a God, but it’s you, not him.

The most stable dog is afraid of nothing. How do you get a dog afraid of nothing? You expose him to everything, and nothing bites him. Many dogs bite out of fear, and since more than half of my training appointments have been with problem dogs, I’ve seen a lot of fear biters, and plenty of dogs that were not biters, but nonetheless extremely fearful of anything new.                                              Once again I find myself not in harmony with most modern training modalities. Because I use what some may call force, but I call it gentle, loving firmness. If a dog is afraid to come down the stairs, I’m not going to stand at the bottom of the stairs and try to coax him down with a piece of cheese. With the average lifespan of the midsize dog being only about 12 years, there’s not enough time. If he’s small enough I’m going to pick him up and place him on the second or third step from the bottom and gently force him down the one or two steps with a leash attached to a harness and then give him the cheese. When he’s descending the two steps for the cheese with no pressure from me we move up to four or five steps from the bottom. If he’s a 110-pound dog, I’m not carrying him down and placing him two steps from the bottom. I’m holding onto the banister while dragging him down next to me with very little slack in the leash so he can’t fall and scare himself further, offering the cheese every other step. How many times have I done this with total success? Probably hundreds, with no failures. I’m a strong believer, if it works, stick with it.

Mum, assuming that your guests don’t try to kick Gidget when they see her, from now on when your friends come over I suggest that you are holding the leash attached to Gidget in harness as you open the door and let them in. Both you and the guests ignore Gidget, but keep her close to you, basically forcing her to deal with the strangers in close proximity, without the strangers actually confronting her.

That’s how a good part of the visitation is going to go. Whether Gidget’s leash is tied to a bureau leg in the loop of activity, or being held by you or one of the guests, she is going to get desensitized to the presence of “aliens.” Now add tiny pieces of meat to the equation. When no force is necessary because she’s not at the end of the leash pulling to get away, offer the people food. If the only time on planet earth that she gets people food is in conjunction with new people and experiences, her fear is going to be replaced with curiosity. I’ve used this approach successfully a thousand times. Where feasible, have guests offer her the people food treats and watch her become “Miss Happy to Meet You.”

When walking down the street and you see somebody approaching start talking to Gidget very happily and offering her those pieces of cheese, redirecting her attention to you on a very positive basis, once again in conjunction with the approaching stranger. Better yet, set it up with a friend. Walk toward the friend with your happy voice and treats, treats only if she’s not trying to pull away, and stop and talk to the “alien.” Have the “alien” offer Gidget some of the cheese and watch her attitude change from shy to gregarious.

When the weather permits, take her to Mocha Mott’s and have your coffee with the two of you sitting outside, people-watching. Expose her to the world with treats and she will learn to embrace it instead of fearing it. Write back and let me know how it goes.

Good luck,


Dear Dogfather,

I have two dogs, one male, 1.5 years, and one female, 10 months. The female has gone into heat this morning. The male is neutered, and I have a Pampers with a hole cut for her tail. What else should I do/expect?


Dear Tyler,

I bet your male dog is a lot more excited about your female going into heat than you are. Heat averages about three weeks. Generally the bleeding turns pink by day 12, and stops by day 16, but they are not out of heat. It just means that she has ovulated, and it’s during this time that there are many unplanned breedings. Keep the diaper on her (indoors) for at least a couple of days after the discharges have stopped. You may also want to put a belly band on the male to prevent his “marking” indoors.

She will have a very strong and distinct smell that dogs from miles around can smell. Having used my dogs for search and rescue for 25 years, trust me when I tell you: Depending on the wind, dogs in Falmouth will be trying to take the ferry over to meet your alluring girl. When outside, do not take her off the leash. Period.

On average, they are breedable between the 12th and 18th day, known as the estrus period, but they can remain in heat until day 21. It is during the estrus period that you will see her “flagging,” cocking her tail to the side and backing her butt up to the male, or your leg, or whatever, saying, “I’m ready NOW!”

In terms of behavior, it’s not unusual to find both dogs humping each other, your leg, or anything humpable. Raging hormones may cause some minor behavioral presentations, and sometimes result in a “hysterical,” or false, pregnancy. It may occur whether or not she was mated. Symptoms usually begin four to nine weeks after the heat period, and may include mammary-gland enlargement with or without the production of milk, lethargy, and actually taking a toy and treating it like a newborn puppy. If that happens, let me know, and we’ll discuss it then.

If you have a yard with a six-foot fence, it’s still not good enough. An ardent suitor will get in or your dog will metamorphose into Houdini and escape to find the nearest “lover.” Outdoors she stays on leash!

Good luck,

The Dogfather