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A Puppy’s Tale of the Yellow Brick Road

My understanding of the “Wizard of Oz” film is that it’s about a group of individuals who struggle to deal with fear and then seek recovery from it.

This is a story about Juniper’s journey along that “Yellow Brick” road. I think that we all travel along that particular road at one time or another.

Juniper’s mother was a stray, pregnant and struggling to stay safe, living in a deep southern state. She was captured with her pups and taken to a local shelter, eventually packed into a truck with about 70 other presumably frightened stray dogs and shipped to a shelter in Wisconsin during a two-day journey. Juniper was then removed from her family and placed in another shelter, and then in the care of a local adoption organization.

A Fearful Puppy

A kind family in Madison (WI) adopted her at eight weeks of age and I was called upon for Juniper’s puppy training. What I saw was a small dog who was fearful of – and reactive to- a host of things: large trucks, trucks hauling trailers, busses, unfamiliar men, all dogs, and unexpected sounds. Based on her history, I think Juniper was likely hardwired toward higher stress responses from birth.

Puppy Juniper
(Photo provided by D. Antolec)

Now she was living in the heart of a city with a population of 250,000 humans, and her neighborhood had the highest density of dogs and people in the city. It was probably far different than the world she was born into.

Juniper’s new family lived along a bus route, with large noisy buses stopping and going by the house every 10 minutes. There was an active railroad line two blocks away, and a fire station three blocks away. Train whistles and emergency vehicle sirens sounded frequently. Her house was also beneath the flight path of passenger planes from the county airport and an Air Force field, and the roar of F-16 fighters was deafening! To top it all off, there were two ear-splitting tornado sirens located to the east and west of the house, and they sounded simultaneously at noon on the first Wednesday of the month. Juniper’s environment was rich with fear triggers and made trigger stacking a frequent occurrence.

The neighborhood was one of the oldest in Madison, with narrow streets and three-story houses built within 20 feet of one another. Many of the houses were rental units with several college students per house. High population density meant the streets were jammed with parked cars and trucks. The terrain set the stage for blind spots and close unexpected encounters with Juniper’s fear triggers. Juniper was not alone; I worked with five other fearful and reactive dogs in that neighborhood.

Friendship and Trust

I began teaching Juniper puppy manners during in-home training sessions. Using positive reinforcement helped develop our bond of friendship and trust and gave me tools to use when we ventured into the scary neighborhood where she would spend the rest of her life. Juniper was very smart and responded enthusiastically to her training. She also loved the variety of highly-valued foods that I offered as reinforcement of her trained behavior responses.

Training Games

My next step was to continue to observe her responses to things in the neighborhood and write a list of her known fear triggers. Then I could begin to systematically work on changing her emotional response to them (more on that below!).   

Juniper completed her puppy manners training and the family continued working with her on things that I had taught them. When Juniper entered her adolescent stage of development, I was engaged to do follow-up training, and then I was asked to walk Juniper every Wednesday afternoon.

I embraced the opportunity to continue working with a dog whom I loved as if she were my own, fortifying her manners training and continuing to chip away at her fear triggers. What I witnessed over the course of the next two years was as beautiful as watching a flower unfold.

Dog lying down outside
Adult Juniper
(Photo provided by D. Antolec)

Juniper steadily gained confidence and became less reactive to things, her reactive behavior had less duration and intensity, and her recovery afterward grew faster.

Many of the things that once triggered a fear response no longer did so, or they triggered a response of happy anticipation as she became aware of a stimulus and then looked to me for a reward.

“Here comes a truck, woohoo!” 

In training lingo this approach is known as the Look at That game, created by Leslie McDevitt, or the Engage-Disengage game, credited to Alice Tong. These are fun and easy ways to convince a fearful dog that previously scary things make good stuff appear, like extra yummy foods or a favorite toy.

Ultimately the only fear triggers left on Juniper’s list were the few dogs who traversed the neighborhood, who were themselves quite fearful and intense. Those dogs we easily identified and avoided.

The End of the Tale

We all enjoy happy endings, and I was overjoyed to see that Juniper at last had the safe and happy life she deserved, but it was bittersweet. I praised her family for the endurance, patience and love they extended to Juniper, and bid them farewell. Juniper was able to relax and enjoy life. The flower had bloomed, and the gardener’s work was done. I went on to tend to other gardens.

About the Author

The author, Daniel H. Antolec, sitting on the floor with a large dog.

Daniel H. Antolec, PCT-A, CCBC-KA, CPDT-KA began teaching dogs in 2011 and founded Happy Buddha Dog Training . He teaches dogs in a way that makes it fun for pet stewards and pets alike.

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