How do you know what you don't know? Milo's Story

​I often get asked "How do you know what to do?"

Like anything else, it's all learned over time and experience. Each animal I took in taught me something new about care, training - and life in general! 

I'd been fostering, rescuing, and adopting for over 15 years when I took home Milo. Some things with him I'd been through before: the heartworm treatment, the rotting teeth due to malnutrition, requiring extensive dental surgery, and the fact he'd been abused. However, Milo's PTSD from abuse was worse than the previous dogs I'd fostered and adopted. 

Milo was the dog, when you walked by the adoption kennels, who was unseen. You just assumed the kennel was empty because no dog was visible. All the other dogs would run and bark and be at the front of their kennels, while Milo would wedge himself underneath the slightly raised bed at the back corner of the kennel. When you went into see him, he’d press himself into a corner, and if you reached to pick him up he’d cower to the floor, shake, wince, and then spontaneously urinate on himself.

He was a mess medically, and was languishing at the shelter for months due to his inability to “show well”. Sadly this frequently happens with dogs and cats. This is where Volunteers can dramatically change an animal's life and adoption prospects, by spending time with them to coax them out of that - but that's another blog. Milo's coat was extremely thin, faded, and bald on his abdomen due to malnutrition and anxiety.

Milo spent most of his first three months at home hiding under the long dresses in my closet (sometimes with the way my five insane cats act I don't blame him...) Among the many things he was afraid of, I discovered he was afraid of the harness and leash which is not something I'd encountered before. Most dogs love walks. He was also afraid of the car and not just in the ordinary way. It was in a panicked, "I gotta break out of this place right  NOW" way that endangered the driver (me) as he'd block the steering wheel or get down by the gas/brake pedals.

I tried all the usual techniques I had learned from working with frightened dogs at the shelter, and none of it helped. Milo remained terrified and unable to cope, continuing to panic, flee and pee. I consulted my Vet who consulted his Trainer, who said I could not expect a dog that frightened to get over it via the usual methods nor in the usual time frame. And so began a long – but 100% effective - process I want to share today in the hope it is helpful to others dealing with a similar situation. 

Week 1

  • Go to the car together. No harness, no leash, so no opening the garage door. 
  • Get in car, but don’t turn on the car. Sit quietly for 5-10 minutes with the dog, petting and talking softly. 
  • Get out of the car, go back in the house, praise, praise, praise, cookie! 
  • Repeat once or twice a day until the dog’s anxiety lessens (in Milo's case this took about a week).

Week 2

  • Go to the car, get in. Open the garage door, turn on the car.
  • Sit quietly, radio on soft music or talk radio, pet the dog gently, praise the dog. Stay 5-10 minutes. 
  • Turn off the car, close the garage, go back in the house, praise, praise, praise, cookie!. 
  • ​Repeat once or twice a day until the dog’s anxiety lessens (in Milo's case this also took about a week).

Week 3

  • Combine Week 2 with backing the car out of the garage, then out the driveway, then turn right around and pull back into the garage. 
  • Go in the house, praise, praise, praise, cookie!
  • "Rinse and repeat" as with Week 1 and 2 until anxiety lessens. Milo got past this stage in just a couple of days.


Week 4
Week 3 combined with a short ride up the street and back.

By the end of Week 4 we could make the 2 mile drive to the park, and while he was slightly anxious he was also eager and interested. Instead of panicking and trying to flee and pee, he stood in the passenger seat looking out the window in amazement, tail wagging, with a bark or sound here and there to check in with me that this was OK. I would reassure him in positive tones, and he would wag his tail and go back to looking out the window. 

Getting him used to the harness and leash was an almost identical process (I don't mean involving a car; I just mean the slow approach). 

Week 1 - put on the harness, pet, praise, pet, praise, take off harness and leash, cookie.

Week 2 - put on the harness and let him wear it for a bit and drag around the leash (I used a cloth one so it didn't make scary rattling noises). Pet, praise, take off harness and leash, cookie.

You get the idea of how the rest of this goes. I found we got through this much faster than the fear of the car.

Fast forward to 4 years later: 

Milo can barely contain himself when its time to leash up and drive to the park. If he sees the harness and leash come out, leaps of joy in the air commence, with much yelping, wriggling, tail wagging, and licking of my leg, face and hands while I put it on him. 

Long gone are the days of hiding in the closet. He is now an epic bed, couch, and pillow hog. 

He's gone from cowering away from touch to someone who follows me around the house, trotting behind me as I walk and licking the back of my leg. He loves being picked up and will lick your face earnestly to show his love.

And every time we get in the car, before he takes his place at his window, he gives me a kiss.