The Curious Case of Cali California

I’ve never owned a skittish Labrador before. But I do now.

We need to turn that frown around

At first, I chalked it up to shyness, her moving to a new home, and her age, 15 weeks, when we bought her. I’ve never started with a puppy this old. And though the breeder did a good job of socializing her to people, I don’t think the pup ever made a trip out of the kennel grounds to places with noise – other than barking dogs.

No washers and dryers rumbling, or UPS and FedEx trucks bouncing up and down the street, or gardeners mowing lawns and blowing leaves.

There is some cowering, and a mild fear of me, at times. Not all the time. If I sit on the ground, she comes to me with licks and kisses and is happy. When I stand up, she’s weary. My tripping over the puppy gate twice and making a big racket didn’t promote a positive first impression.

She seems better with my wife and daughter, making me think she never had anything to do with men, or the men she met scared her. When my wife raises her hand to signal “sit,” the pup sits. When I raise my hand, her tail goes down and she is tentative.

The question is . . . is she the dog for our noisy family? It’s been weighing on my mind this week.

Our plan is not to give up on her. We’re being aggressive in helping her, but not in a bad way. We’re making sure we socialize the hell out of her every chance we get. She rides with us every where now, even to McDonald’s, where she made me proud by wagging her tail when I put the bagged McGriddle next to her. Got to love a dog that loves McGriddles (I suspect they all do, as I’ve never known a vegetarian dog).

We’re following the advice of the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, who recommends socialization over parvo-shot quarantine. We won’t take Cali to a dog park, but we’re going to take her everywhere else – now. Otherwise, we’re afraid we’ll lose her.

Today, we saw some improvement. Her tail was up more and wagged – a good sign. She seemed happier. But she still had her fearful moments and was impossible to walk on the leash, planting her English lab bottom on the ground, refusing to move.

It’s baby steps with her. Success won’t come easily or overnight. I see the confidence in her at times, and sweetness all the time. I just need to figure out how to get both 100 percent of the time. Cross your fingers or your paws. And send suggestions if you think they’ll help.

10 thoughts on “The Curious Case of Cali California

  1. Coop was a rescue, and when I first got him, I just could be talking with my hands and he would “hit the deck” – literally stomach on the floor, shaking, looking at me like “please don’t beat me!” He jumped when I coughed, when the microwave beeped – I would have paid a small fortune for “skittish”.

    Granted, he was already a full year old when I got him, and with a rather storied past, unfortunately, but it got better over time, and *me* getting used to him reacting that way was half the battle.

    He’s still a little jumpy, but in a way that’s kind of hilarious, instead of pitiful – normal noises like you mentioned don’t scare him, it’s things like crushing a soda can, or sneezing when it’s otherwise silent, that make him jump out of his skin. So yeah, hilarious (and fitting, as *I* can see you coming and still be startled by you). Most of the time, he’s a happy, (relatively) normal dog, and he even cocked his head like, “wait! where is she?” when he heard me cough through the phone when my mom was keeping him for me.

    Point being, Cooper was/is a CRAZY ASS RESCUE DOG, and he evolved. It just took time. It sounds like Cali’s “issues” aren’t so much a temperament thing as a lack-of-exposure-thing, since she’s already doing so well with other things. Hang in there with her, but don’t coddle her (tempting though it may be) – she’ll get used to everything soon enough, gate-tripping-tall-man and all :o)

    • Jessica,

      Many, many thanks for the comment. I read it a few days ago and it really helped – gave me confidence Cali will be okay in the long run. And, I like the story of your dog and am glad it’s on my blog and part of the record. Very cool.

      Yes, I am the gate tripper. I’ve been more careful lately.

      Thanks again,


  2. P.S. that was supposed to be a smiley, but I used an “o” for a nose, so you got shock-and-awe instead.

    P.P.S. she is SO.FREAKING.CUTE. Even (especially?) frowny.

  3. I was told by a trainer that if you give a shelter pup extra time to get acclimated before teaching her that will really help them develop trust much faster. Also…if she is afraid of men in particular…taking her for one on one time with just the two of you very early on will help lessen her apprehension with you. We have a very skiddish Cairn Terrier who – at 6 years old – just started to feel more comfortable around adults other than my wife and I. Loves other dogs and little kids, but adults are scary. It’s a little frustrating, but he is a good and sweet dog. Like Jess said, it will never go completely away, but it will get better with time. Not that I’m the friggin Dog Whisperer or anything, this is just what I’ve observed.

    Good luck, UC. Miss chatting with you.

    • Dear Dog Whisperer,

      I’ve read both – train right away to give them confidence. Don’t train. Hard to know anymore with the conundrum of the Internet.

      She’s better with me today. I’ve been the only one feeding her. She now depends on me. And I have the natural ability to grow on people over time. Or grate on them. Either one. I’m not sure.

      Thanks for the advice. I do appreciate it. It helps.


  4. I’ve not had much exposure to labs and the loss is mine. However, I’ve been dog-sitting one just this week, a 2-year-old yellow lab named Dixie. She’s a good watch dog, affectionate and playful with my little mutt. But even she jumps at noises like my popping bubbles with my gum!

    • Mal,

      Stop popping your gum! 🙂 We’re working hard to make sure she won’t jump when you come to visit one day and pop your really annoying bubble gum bubbles.

      Other than the shyness, she’s a great dog.


  5. This is similar to my dog Seymour at first, only she was more wary of women than men. She had (still sometimes has) the added bonus of peeing when she cowers. I think you’re doing the right thing—bringing her everywhere to get her used to noise and new, big, scary things. We’re never harsh when disciplining Seymour (can’t raise your voice; it makes her peepee). Mostly we have to totally change voice-tone/attitude if she’s cowering (to happy, high-pitched, squeaky) and change/redirect the situation so she’ll stop being fearful. She eventually warms up to new things and people, but it’s a battle that’s still ongoing 3 years later. 15 weeks is still pretty young so I’m sure Cali will do a total turn around soon. As long as one of her humans is around when she’s meeting loud new things/creatures, she’ll eventually associate you with comfort and safety. Keep me posted!

    • Dr. Nanos,

      More weary of women than men? Odd. Was his raised by a group of convict women? Cali sounds like Seymour in many ways. We really had to watch our voices with her. However, today, my daughter screamed at Cali for some reason only a nine-year-old can understand and Cali didn’t blink an eye. A month ago, it would have sent her running. The socializing is paying big dividends. She’s doing much better now. So, overall you comment is on the money about how she has evolved, Dr. Animal Behaviorist. 🙂


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