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Willie Weir : January 31st, 2014

The Reluctant Traveler — Update, or “Did you really buy your dog a car?”

This post is an update on Tiva (aka The Reluctant Traveler), our rescue dog we adopted last year. My column in the Feb 2014 edition of Adventure Cyclist magazine talks about our journey with an amazing, but fearful, dog. Below are answers to questions many people have asked. 

Isn’t it good to have a dog who is afraid of traffic?

Having a pet that is wary of traffic is probably a good thing. But Tiva came to us with a deep fear of traffic. So much so, that it took us two months to successfully get her to walk around our small city block. Garbage trucks are her greatest fear, closely followed by FedEx/UPS trucks and any other rumbling diesel vehicles.

We didn’t truly understand just how ingrained her fear of garbage trucks was until we were on a walk in a city park, far away from traffic. Tiva was walking fine, and suddenly dove under a log, shaking with fear. Thirty seconds passed before we heard it … a garbage truck in a neighborhood a mile away.

Tiva’s sister wasn’t afraid of traffic. Why not?

That was always puzzling to us. How could two dogs from the same litter be so different. Well, we recently found out some interesting news. Tiva and Nigella came to Seattle on the same flight from Taiwan, but they weren’t sisters. Via a Facebook group (for people who have adopted Formosan Mountain Dogs) we met a woman who had also adopted a dog from the same group. She had done some research and found the organization in Taiwan that had rescued both puppies. Tiva and Nigella were from different litters. Tiva was part of a litter of seven puppies who were rescued from a ditch next to a waste treatment facility (Here is the link to the article).

Mystery solved. No wonder our dog quakes in fear with the rumblings of a garbage truck. This information also gave us a much needed dose of empathy. There are times over the last 10 months when we’ve wanted to scream, “Get over it, already!” Tiva has taught us how to be more patient, more compassionate human beings.

Why don’t you just drag Tiva out to a busy street and get her to face her fears?

We are fortunate to have a dear friend who is an animal behaviorist. She let us know early on that working with a fearful dog was a long, patient process. There is a chance that forcing a dog to face its fears will work, but there is a much better chance that you’ll have a seriously damaged dog. The approach that she recommended (and we’ve followed) is to slowly introduce our fearful dog to the stimuli that frightens her, and then back off before it freaks her out. It helped when we began thinking of progress in months, rather than days.

I call Tiva our vampire dog. At 10pm at night, she’ll wait by the door, tail wagging, in anticipation of a walk. At 10am, if you open the front door, she’ll run into the next room. Why? Tiva has never encountered a garbage or FedEx truck late at night. The day-to-day progress (of lack of) is all over the map. One day Tiva will seem emboldened and walk for 40 minutes (as long as no busy streets are involved). The next night she’ll freak out at the silliest thing (one night it was a small plastic snowman blowing in the wind) and our walk is over in 5 minutes. But then Kat and I will reflect on how far Tiva has come since we got her … and the progress is amazing.

Exercising inside … away from evil trucks.

Did you really buy your dog a car?

In a word. Yes. Our car was stolen almost nine years ago. We decided not to replace it. Not having a car saved us money, forced us to live more locally, and resulted in a lot more day-to-day exercise. Enter a puppy with severe traffic phobia, and we were trapped. We couldn’t walk her to the park, because it crossed a busy intersection that might as well have been a river of molten lava. We borrowed a friend’s car and took Tiva to a regional park. It was as if we’d waved a magic wand. Tiva came alive in a way we’d never seen before. She was confident. She loved to run. And she was fast. This was obviously a mountain dog who needed a lot more exercise than we could give her in the house, or in nightly walks around the block.

We bought a used Subaru Outback with 188,000 miles on it. Our car that was stolen was a Subaru wagon, so it was a bit like going back in time. Now as much as the car was purchased for Tiva, you wouldn’t know it by her reaction. Tiva will never be that dog who sits up on the seat with her head out the window. She approaches the car like she going to the gallows. She reluctantly enters and immediately curls into a ball on the floor of the back seat, and proceeds to drool.

The first time we drove up to a regional park, Tiva refused to get out of the car. We had to ask the help of a woman and her dog in the parking lot (Tiva loves other dogs) and we all enticed Tiva out of the car. Months later, Tiva still dislikes her car. She still drools. But when we arrive at our destination, she bounds out of the car ready to “romp and play and sniff all day.” (Yes. We have a song we sing when headed to the park).

This is Tiva when faced with a daytime walk in our city neighborhood.

There are garbage trucks and other monsters out there!


And this is Tiva on a trail!

How about a dog trailer behind your bike?

We have one. Tiva has ridden in it just once. And even that was well orchestrated. It had to be a place where there was zero chance of Tiva encountering a truck. So we packed everything up into the Subaru and drove across Seattle to a section of “Interlaken Park”. This is part of the old boulevard system in Seattle. This small stretch of road was closed to traffic many years ago, and is heavily wooded (which helps to buffer traffic noise). We successfully got Tiva to ride in the trailer, but her stress level was high enough that we realized we needed to wait until her confidence level has risen, before we tried again. Our goal this summer is to go out on some rides far, far from traffic.

Tiva with “Miracle Mattie”

What has been the biggest help?

Sometimes there’s only so much help “humans” can provide. Enter Maddie. I call her Miracle Mattie. Mattie is a Double Doodle (a cross between a Labradoodle and a Golden Doodle). But she could be a Cocka-Doodle-Do for all I care. What Mattie is, is a carefree, confident dog. And the two of them have become best friends. And all the humans involved have become friends as well. There is no medication for a fearful dog that can produce the results of just being around a confident dog. Tiva also gets triple the exercise when Mattie comes along, as they chase each other back and forth along the trail. Another life lesson–if you want help conquering a fear, surround yourself with confident people (or dogs).

What have YOU learned?

To be honest, I was depressed at first when dealing with Tiva’s issues. This dog was restricting my lifestyle. I wanted to go on a bike ride, not walk around my block with a frightened animal. Me. Me. Me. Slowly (slower than I’d like to admit) I came around to focusing on this little animal that had wiggled her way into my heart. It hasn’t been easy for either Kat or me. But I’m the one who needed a serious attitude adjustment. Once I took the focus off myself, and began to focus on how to help Tiva become a well-adjusted dog, it began to be fun. Well. Mostly fun.  And since we couldn’t go on long walks to begin with, we spent a lot of time on training inside the house. Tiva is smart. Really smart. She learned how to close the cabinet door on command in twenty minutes. She learned how to “high five” by watching a friend’s dog do it for a treat. I’m currently training her to do our taxes. She’s afraid of garbage trucks, but fearless with Schedule C.

What now?

We’ll continue to take longer nighttime walks in the neighborhood, and slowly transition to walking during the daylight hours. We’ll drive up to the mountains and rediscover trails that we couldn’t get to when we didn’t have a car. We might have to adjust our travel schedule. Tiva isn’t ready to be left with a house-sitter for three months. But I believe she’ll get there. I still dream of taking a long bike trip with our dog. But for now, I’ll settle on a long daytime walk in my neighborhood. Step-by-step.