Susan Engelberg, Ph.D.

I used to joke that I was one dog short of being a crazy dog lady.  I rarely admitted that I secretly fantasize about adopting more.

I have four dogs—Mali and ChiCha are my ODH final refuge dogs, and Kai and Danny are fully mine.  Recently I met seemingly sane people who have twice as many dogs as I do.  Perhaps I’m not as crazy as I thought!  The truth is I love taking in homeless dogs.  It’s so gratifying to help an overwhelmed and traumatized dog become the wonderful dog they were born to be.   My experiences with Kai epitomize that journey.

Photo by Susa Holt


Kai is currently eight years old.  When I saw his photo on four years ago I instantly knew he was my dog.  When I brought him home I discovered he was not the playful friendly dog I had told the rescue organization I was looking for.  Among other problems, Kai growled or barked at any dogs who came within ten feet of him, and tried to bite me whenever I pet him.  The standard way of treating these problems would be to either punish him when he demonstrated them, reward him when he refrained from them, or use specific techniques to tackle each behavior separately.  As a psychologist and someone with decades of experience with traumatized dogs, I knew that the best way to help him was to figure out why he was acting that way.  Was Kai in pain?  Undersocialized?  Traumatized?  Scared?  Merely temporarily overwhelmed by the move to my home?



Photo by Suzanne Engelberg


The first thing I did was take Kai to the vet to make sure there wasn’t something physically wrong.  This is a crucial first step in treating behavior problems.  So many dogs are abandoned or brought to shelters for behavior problems caused by treatable medical conditions.  I wanted to rule that out in Kai’s case.  The vet determined that Kai was physically fine.  So why was he acting this way?  Although he had no signs of separation anxiety, my hunch was that Kai’s challenging behaviors were due to anxiety about life in general.




Here’s what I looked for to see if I was accurate:

*Anxious Behaviors

  • Appearing tense, anxious, or on edge
  • Panting/Drooling
  • Pacing
  • Tensing/Freezing in certain situations
  • Hiding
  • Being easily startled
  • Always being on alert  (hypervigilance)
  • Resource guarding (being overly protective of food, belongings, or people)
  • Diarrhea/vomiting
  • Excessive whining
  • Excessive barking
  • Cowering
  • Keeping his tail tucked between his legs
  • Nipping or biting with little provocation


*Precursers to the Problem Behaviors

  •  What’s happening right before Kia’s problem behaviors appear?
  • What’s different during the times he doesn’t have the problem?


*Behaviors Out of Proportion to the Situation

  •  Would a well-adjusted dog respond the way Kai does?


*History—Did Kai experience:

  • Past trauma?
  • Unstable living arrangements?
  • Living in a home with chaos, conflict, violence, or frequent tension?
  • Is his breed (shih tzu mix) prone to anxiety?


*My Gut Feeling

  • What does my intuition tell me about the problem’s cause?


Here’s how Kai came out on the checklist:

Anxious behaviors

Kai was hypervigilant, very easily started by sounds my other dogs barely noticed, and always seemed tense even when he slept.  He seemed to want me to hold him yet he stayed rigid and frozen in my arms. Kai collected and guarded all the available toys then menacingly growled at dogs in the same room to stay away even if those dogs were several yards away and not paying attention to him.  He was always aware of anyone nearby who could hurt him or take his toys.  He frequently barked at unexpected noises and continued long after the noises stopped.  (For example, Kai barked when someone came to our gate, and continued to bark long after the person had left.)   Kai liked to snuggle next to me on the couch but tried to nip my hand whenever I reached over to pet him on his back.


Kai’s behaviors always came in response to a potential threat—seeing my other dog Danny in the same room where Kai was amassing toys, being touched by me when he wasn’t expecting it and couldn’t see what I was doing, hearing a strange noise, or not having control over his safety (for example not knowing if I was going to drop him while I held him).

Behaviors Out of Proportion to the Situation

Kai growled at Danny when Danny was much farther away from Kai’s toys than most dogs would have found threatening.  Kai nipped me in a situation that most dogs would have enjoyed (being petted).  He barked with little provocation and continued to bark long after most dogs would have stopped.


Before I adopted Kai he had lived in at least five places  (including shelters) by the time he was four years old.  There is some indication that his last people treated him roughly, although he probably wasn’t horribly abused.  In other words, when Kai joined my family he had already had more than enough experiences to know that life was unpredictable and dangerous.  Being constantly on guard and ready to defend himself had probably become a valuable survival skill for him.

My Gut Feeling

I felt Kai’s anxiety.  I also felt his conflict between his desire to be held and snuggled and to connect with me, and his fear of what could happen if he let his guard down.

Based on the combination of Kai’s behaviors, his history, and my gut feeling, it was clear to me Kai was dealing with anxiety so strong that it impacted everything he did.


Photo by Ken Astrein


In my next blog I will tell you how I helped Kai overcome his anxiety.

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