I was so excited to interview this family. If you don't follow Elisa's accounts for her two pups, Clyde and Helga - you should get on that! Elisa and her partner David document their journey with Clyde, a formerly feral rescue, and more recently Helga, a sweet and social girl. In this post Elisa shares about living with a fearful/anxious dog, watching Clyde learn to trust the world (bit by bit), the decision to bring a second dog into the home, and living together as a family of four. Enjoy!
Hi Elisa and David! Thanks so much for taking the time to share with us.
First of all, can you tell us a little bit about your story - how long you have lived in Oakland, your prior experience with dogs, and what led you to decide to adopt a dog together?
We have lived in Oakland a little over a year but I (Elisa) have been coming to Oakland regularly for the past 10 years because we have family here. I had a reactive Jack Russell Terrier growing up named Squinks that received no formal training and was raised during “The Dog Whisperer" era. My parents were farm people who were used to livestock dogs that lived outside, not small hunting dogs that lived indoors. Because of our lack of knowledge about dog training, we didn't make great choices with Squinks.
Fast forward to a couple of years ago. We decided to get a dog shortly before the COVID lockdown. We moved from SF to Oakland, and convinced our new landlord to let us get a dog. We have been together for the better part of 12 years, and part of getting a dog was to help us build better routines and habits together as a couple. Luckily for us, consistency was exactly what Clyde needed.
Tell us first about Clyde - a bit about his personality and how you knew he was "The One."
We adopted Clyde from a local rescue that brings dogs from Northern Mexico and the Central Valley of CA to metropolitan areas to be adopted. He had been picked up by McFarland Animal Control when he was just over a year old, so they think. He then got picked up by the rescue, and was in and out of foster homes for the better part of two years. He was returned by several foster homes because they didn't know how to deal with him.
We applied to meet Clyde at the end of March 2020 and we didn't get an appointment until May, but he was still available for adoption. His bio didn’t give us any clue as to just HOW nervous he was. We had to meet him in the staff lounge room at the rescue because all of the adoption rooms were full, and his tail was tucked underneath him the whole time. As someone with sound and sensory sensitivity issues, watching Clyde flinch and shake every time he heard a dog barking made my heart weep for him. When I saw one of the staff members try to creep up on him and he growled, I knew. I told David “We just have to get him out of here for his own good.” David had always wanted a blue pitty, and he said “If you think it’s a good idea, I trust you.” I'm so glad he trusted me, because if he had any hesitation I think we would have gone home without him that day.
Were you looking for a dog that was nervous/shy, or were you looking for a more social dog?
We were definitely looking for a more low maintenance and social dog, a dog we could take hiking and camping and to hang out with our friends/family’s dogs. I knew there would be work involved in a rescue dog, but I definitely wasn’t looking for a “project dog.” Clyde's bio did not speak to truly HOW nervous he was. He was previously feral, scavenging to survive, and from what we could tell, he seemed to have ZERO positive associations with humans.
What were the first few weeks/months like after you adopted Clyde? How did you have to adjust your lifestyle and expectations to help him feel more comfortable?
Our entire life changed. Clyde had a lot of stomach issues initially, probably from stress and he also had intestinal parasites. He wouldn't eat or drink, he became dehydrated and we had to take him to the vet to get him on subcutaneous fluids, antibiotics, probiotics, anti nausea meds, and a bunch of other treatments. He was 35 lbs when we brought him home and he is now 60, for reference. We tried out a bunch of different foods and finally landed on chicken and rice to help with his stomach issues (we eventually switched to raw food). He was so uncomfortable and stressed that we couldn't really handle him at all, and even getting him to leave his kennel to go outside and go to the bathroom was a challenge. We changed the entire layout of our living room to help him feel more comfortable leaving his kennel to go outside. We learned quickly to drop all expectations of dog ownership, and just work with the dog in front of us. Over time, we have gotten to know Clyde's personality. He is a Husky/German Shepard/American Pit Bull Terrier/Staffordshire Terrier mix, and behind the fear and hesitation, we have known him to have the personality of all of those dogs. He is cunning, smarter than I will ever be, and a little bratty, with a side of goofy goober sauce.
Tell us about some of the things that you've done to help build Clyde's confidence at home or in the world.
Most of the confidence building we have done with him is just letting him be. Just existing in the same space and not interacting with him was a huge for gaining his trust. We eventually started offering treats and he was very receptive to that. We spent a long time getting him comfortable with basic cooperative care exercises, like getting him comfortable in a harness. After a month of decompressing at home, we started to take him on adventures. We had just bought a new 2019 Subaru Outback for our eventual “family" of dogs. We started pairing the harness process with getting in the car. We started by going to the dog park, because we know he likes other dogs. Little by little started to show his true colors. He still doesn’t quite know how to play with other dogs, but he does like to run and just be with other dogs. We go on hikes regularly. Clyde is his most relaxed self when he is hiking. He sniffs to his heart’s content. We started taking him to family members' houses, because it's important to us for him to feel comfortable around them. He doesn't have to know and like everyone, we just want him to be okay with the people he may see semi-regularly. Again, we have no expectations for him. He decides what he wants to do and not do. We do our best to read his body language and listen to what he is telling us.
What have been some of the biggest challenges, and the biggest joys, of adopting a shy/nervous dog?
Challenges: Having to put patience first. Reminding myself of progress over perfection. EVERYTHING in this world takes time. Especially when your brain isn't made for it and Clyde’s isn’t.
Having to unlearn/reteach myself how to train a dog. Obedience isn't gospel. I think I have been able to connect with Clyde because I have anxiety/ADHD. I get what he goes through. The world isn't built for us. We have to learn how to navigate every situation in order to be comfortable. I have to plan ahead to make sure I am setting him up for success, and it actually helps me set myself up for success too.
Joys: Hands down, watching him excel at being a dog. We always joke, “LOOK HE’S DOING DOG THINGS!” but in reality we're so stoked. Like when he started eating cat poop...we both were like oh my god nooooo but also were very proud of him for being a little stinker (pun HEAVILY intended).
Figuring out ways that we can do enrichment without having to put him in uncomfortable situations. Clyde knows when we get in the car it means we’re probably going to do something fun. Sometimes we just get in the car and drive. Drive up Skyline, drive around Lake Merritt, just drive on random city streets not in our neighborhood. This is something that David and I always did before dogs, but now that it has a place and purpose in his well being, the activity has become so much more enjoyable. We love knowing that he gets so much joy out of just being able to sniff without worrying about what's in his environment.
In what ways have you had to be an advocate for Clyde? Any tips for other shy dog owners about how to advocate for their dog?
I have to constantly remind family and friends, do not touch him, do not stare at him, DO NOT try to pet him. He is not here for you. It's up to me to set those boundaries and to speak up for him.
My three year old niece LOVES Clyde. To some extent I think he likes her but to some extent she is too loud for him. She always wants to just empty my treat pouch in front of him and tell him he is a “VERY good boy.” But thanks to COVID she has started to learn to “Give Space” to other people and now I am able to apply this to Clyde. I have also been able to give Clyde a voice with the use of leash flags, bandanas, and collars that let people know that he is a nervous dog. I also wear t-shirts, sweatshirts, hats, and shorts for myself that say any variation of "Leave us alone."
What would your advice be for someone who is considering adopting a shy or nervous dog?
Do your homework and be prepared. Don’t just adopt a shy dog because you want to feel good about making a “difference.” I made the decision to adopt a shy/reactive dog knowing that it would not be easy. I made a calendar prior to adopting Clyde and blocked out time to spend with him. I think that dedicating that time up front helped him to progress more quickly. Besides being prepared, I would say to drop all expectations. We don't have any expectations for him to like humans, we just want him to know they aren't gonna eat him. But how we get to that goal is dictated by him. YOU don’t choose the route, THEY do and you need to be okay with that.
I can't stress it enough, do not adopt a fearful/anxious dog if you have any misgivings about your ability to cater to their needs.
Tell us about Helga - how she came into your life, a bit about her personality, and how you made the decision to keep her.
Helga accidentally rolled into our lives. Clyde loves dogs. At his most recent foster home before adopting him, he had a foster brother that he got along well with. We see him at his most confident when he is with other dogs that he likes (usually dogs who are confident but not pushy), so we had been thinking about fostering for a while. When we saw Helga up for foster on the Oakland Animal Services website, we thought about it for a few days and then took Clyde to go meet her. They hit it off right away.
We liken Helga's personality to a bowling ball with legs. She is extremely sweet and kindhearted while still being one of the craziest dogs you’ve probably ever met. She wants nothing more than to be close to you and eat all your food. She’s a bucket of laughs and a much needed change of pace for our household.
We decided to keep her when on her first night home she jumped on the couch to cuddle onto David’s lap. When we were looking for dogs, this type of dog was preferential to David, so having access to a dog who gave that fulfillment I think is what gave us the green light.
Tell us about the adjustment from one to two dogs, and about adjusting to life with two dogs who have VERY different personalities.
To be honest, there was a mourning period. Being so invested in Clyde’s well being for the past year and a half, at one point I felt like I had betrayed him. Like our relationship would be warped and never be the same again. I’ve been told that this type of mourning also happens when mothers have a second child. Especially because all Helga wanted to do for the first few weeks was be close to David and I. It took about a month to figure out the hierarchy of emotions and where and how they all fit into our daily routines. The two different personalities has definitely been welcome. Clyde didn't used to get excited about getting up for our morning routine (meds and his walk) but now he gets up and trots to the front door to go outside. He will often lick us uncontrollably now when we put his harness on him as if to say “HURRY UP!” There is more management involved at home for sure, and there were a few bumps in the road as Helga decompressed from shelter life. But having Helga in the picture is the ray of sunshine I think we all needed. Now they are almost nearly inseparable, and Clyde definitely misses her when she isn't around.
Any advice for people looking to add a second dog to their household? Things that worked well, or things you would have done differently?
My main advice would be, foster to adopt. It was the only way we were able to see the things that we needed to work on with Helga and decide IF we had the bandwidth to be able to manage those needs on top of Clyde’s needs.
In hindsight, I may have waited a little longer to adopt a second dog. But Helga really pulled on our heartstrings.
You (Elisa) are very active in the Instagram dog community. How has having a community online helped you in your journey of living with a shy dog?
Oh jeez. I don't think I would have made it this far without the constant positive reinforcement and love from this community. I don’t often seek validation but when I do, it’s about dog stuff. I made Clyde’s instagram mostly for the volunteers of the rescue who wanted to see updates on him. Shortly after adopting him, the adoption coordinator messaged me to tell me that the day we adopted him, she ran up to the office to shout “I THINK CLYDE IS GETTING ADOPTED!” to the other volunteers in the office.
Sometimes just having a group of people who are there to listen and not offer advice has been a game changer. People who are happy when you’re happy and sad when you’re sad. Sometimes that’s just what we need in this situation. A lot of our families don't get the level of dedication to our dogs, so having each other has been a helpful way to get the support that I honestly think we all deserve.
What made you decide to become a High Tail Hikes ambassador?
I wanted to become an ambassador because I love High Tail Hikes! A small woman owned and run business that’s Oakland based and dog focused? Count me in. I'm a HUGE advocate for local makers and businesses, so it was a great fit. You were one of the first people we called when we moved to Oakland. We were interested in getting him into a playgroup setting. Although we decided that it wasn't quite the right fit for Clyde at the time due to his fear issues, that was how we first connected.
What High Tail Hikes products do you use/what are some of your favorites and what do you like about them/how have they helped you?
I have it all. 4, 6, 8, 10, 15 foot lines, collars, etc. But by far I think my 10 foot Small Long Line is my favorite. We have been walking Clyde on that for months now and he is a whole different dog when he has the space to be able to make his own decisions. We have recently added a traffic handle to it in case of an emergency. We have now started walking Helga on that line too, and she is so much more receptive to recall cues when on a long line. We give her the space to make the decision and more often than not, she makes the decision to come to us for food! It’s been pretty amazing to see how something so small can change how a dog sees the world, and how the simple concept of a little space can give them access to problem solving abilities.
In addition to being a HTH ambassador, you are a huge supporter of small + local business in general. What are some of your favorite small businesses/brands, especially in the dog space (but others okay too!)
Small makers and dream builders have always had a special place in my heart. Rooted in my parents being migrant farmers, growing up we were raised to respect the little guy because they carry Big Brother on their backs.
There are so many but some of my fav small dog businesses are:
- YOSHITO TREATS! Based here in Oakland. Karina and I were fast internet friends shortly after our move to Oakland.
- High Tail Hikes cuz DUH.
- WoofCultr is where we get our shirts that advocate for our dogs well being. We’re also ambassadors so use Clyde15 for a little discount at checkout!
- Wildertags: Their jingle free slide tags for collars are *chef’s kiss* and you have the option to customize your own!
- Up 2 Snuff: Bandanas are CLUTCH. Still waiting to get my hands on a snuffle mat!
- Dog Days of Maxx This is where we got our leash flags and harness tags to help in public settings.
You have some really cool interests/hobbies outside of the dog world. Tell us a bit about those, or anything else you want to share about what's going on in your life!
I like to think of myself as a Jackie of all Trades, otherwise known as an Interdisciplinary Sculptor. I went to school and got a BFA in Sculpture and Ceramics specializing in woodworking and welding, but I don't have a set medium. In my free time I do any array of crafts. If it requires your hands I will probably want to learn how to do it. People say “Oh, you’re a ceramicist?” and I’m like “Nah, I just play with clay.” I also refurbish furniture for resale. I do all of this as a hobby, and I work in post production audio as my day job. It has NOTHING to do with my degree, and it sounds boring, but it pays the bills and it’s pretty fun.
Thank you so much Elisa!
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