My new life with a shy, fearful dog: Escher's Happy Tail + Resources for Reactive Dog Owners

Back in March, I started a new initiative to photograph the “happy tails” of animals adopted from the ASPCA Animal Shelter. Up until then, we had asked adopters to submit their own photos. But I thought we could do a better job honoring adopters while showing the joy that comes from adopting a pet. I’ve done 13 photo shoots so far and it has become my favorite part of working for the ASPCA. I get to see our beloved shelter animals in the homes they always deserved and I meet fascinating people who share my passion for animal welfare.

So when my fiancé Jon and I adopted a dog from the shelter in May, it was no surprise that my colleagues wanted to feature us on the ASPCA blog. I don’t usually like being on the other side of the camera, but I viewed it as a good opportunity to advocate for the less adoptable animals, especially shy/fearful dogs like our Escher. Ashley Chengerian got some awesome photos of us at Central Park and Hayley Smith wrote the perfect blog to tell our story - Love at First Belly Rub: Escher’s Happy Tail.

I always knew I wanted a dog who needed some help. I thought Escher’s shyness around people would be our biggest issue, but it turns out that he’s more afraid of dogs and being alone. It was overwhelming and difficult to deal with at first, but then I did a lot of research and started working with a professional trainer. Walks became training sessions, which is actually really fun and great for bonding. I found a great supportive community of reactive dog owners and learned a lot online. I’ve accepted the fact that Escher will probably never play at a dog park, but the desensitization/counterconditioning treatment we do on every single walk is helping tremendously.

It’s fascinating to watch Escher learn new things and let go of his fears. Teaching him “tricks” has also helped a lot—it’s fun for everyone and helps us focus on the things he does really well. When I’m feeling discouraged about his separation anxiety or dog reactivity, I just play some training games with him and remember how smart and goofy he is despite his fears. I can’t say enough positive things about Positive Reinforcement Training, especially for shy/fearful dogs. Escher always pays attention to us and looks to us for guidance because all good things come from us!

Adopting a shy/fearful dog—or a dog with any behavior issues—takes a ton of patience, dedication, and consistency from everyone in the family. There are days when I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into, but then I just have to remind myself how far he has come in just three months. People who knew him at the shelter have told me that he’s a completely different dog now. I try to focus on one day at a time, but I often wonder what he’ll be like in a year if we continue this positive momentum. Escher has taught me so much about dog behavior, learning, patience, fear/anxiety, commitment, not worrying about what other people think, living in the present, and celebrating the small things. I loved all of the dogs my family had during my childhood, but I never knew I could have such a strong mutual relationship with a dog until I got Escher. Shy/fearful dogs are not for everyone—but anyone who takes on the challenge will soon discover the incredibly special bond that comes from all that hard work.

I want to take this opportunity to share some resources and tips that have helped us on this new journey with a fearful, shy, reactive dog.


  • Keys to behavior modification: Patience, Dedication, Consistency. This has become my mantra. Everyone in the family must commit to the same training plan.
  • The name of the game is Positivity. You must practice Positive Reinforcement Training techniques with these sensitive dogs and you must keep a positive attitude as much as possible.
  • Read everything you can about dog behavior, body language, training, and learning (see below for some of my favorites).
  • Recognize that every moment of your dog’s life is a training opportunity. Get used to carrying treats (or your preferred reward) and don’t worry about social graces in public.
  • Find community. Whether it’s a local dog group, friends and family, or an online forum, find someone with whom you can commiserate, brainstorm, and celebrate.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, or wondering why you ever got into this. Find a professional trainer if it’s too much to handle.
  • Don’t forget to have fun with your dog and take time to enjoy the things he/she does well.
  • Celebrate the baby steps like nothing better has ever happened in the entire world.

Recommended Resources:

Special thanks to:

  • Ashley and Hayley for producing this wonderful story about us and sharing it with the world.
  • My friend and colleague, and Escher’s trainer, Christina.
  • My family and friends–especially my fiancé Jon–for your patience, understanding, and support.
  • The Dog Training subreddit community.
  • Our friends Melissa and Savonly for being the best dog sitters ever.
  • The ASPCA for rescuing Escher and thousands of other animals, plus anyone who supports the ASPCA.
  • All of the adopters I’ve met and photographed for Happy Tails: you inspire me.
  • Our cats Atlas and Lola for welcoming this new furry friend.

Got tips to share, resources to add, or in need of some community? Feel free to leave a message on my Facebook page.

And of course, here are some more photos from our Happy Tails photo shoot (all photos by Ashley Chengerian):

Copyright © 2014. Photos courtesy of The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals® (ASPCA®). All Rights Reserved.