Sofrito | Instinct Dog Behavior & Training

Meet Sofrito

Intense Fear & Anxiety Related to an Urban Environment

The Situation

“In January 2020, when I adopted a 4-month-old puppy named Sofrito, I knew she was a little shy, but I had no idea her fear and anxiety would be, at times, debilitating for her and put a huge strain on my life. She was terrified of loud noises, getting in a car, new or strange objects, and pretty much every aspect of everyday life in the city. She also had a hard time calming down, being touched, and wouldn’t show much affection for me let alone anyone else. After our first month together, it was clear that Sofrito didn’t have a good quality of life, and I knew I needed help if there was any way I would be able to build a relationship with, train, or even keep this adorable but very scared dog.” -Natasha (Sofrito’s human)

Sofrito was 5 months old when Jessica Schulte (Instinct East Harlem) met her and mom Natasha for an initial assessment. Originally adopted from a rescue in Puerto Rico at 4 months old, Sofrito was having a very hard time settling into life in an urban environment. Noises such as bus breaks, fireworks, motorcycles and revving engines terrified her outside and she had a hard time settling in her apartment if she heard noises from the street.

Leash walking was also very hard for Sofrito, she panicked on the leash and refused to walk away from her home. She had a small range of several steps in either direction from her doorway. 

Sofrito struggled with meeting new people; she would back away and sometimes bark. She barked constantly at guests in the apartment, and while she could warm up somewhat to women, she remained suspicious of men. 

The Goal

To help Sofrito build a strong, positive relationship with her mom, Natasha, and to use that relationship to help grow Sofrito’s confidence in other areas of her life that were stressful – from navigating the city, to tolerating loud noises, to meeting new people.

The Program Design

Sofrito’s mom signed up for a package of In-Home Behavior Lessons that took place over the course of about 3 months. Sofrito’s mom also booked a consult with Dr. Emily Levine, DACVB, so they had veterinary behavior support throughout their program.

Our lessons consisted of a mix of relationship-building; operant conditioning to teach Sofrito new, healthier coping skills; and classical counterconditioning and desensitization to help change Sofrito’s emotional and physiological reactions in different situations. Exercises and strategies included:

  • Inside:
    • We added lots of tricks and scent-work games to provide fun, help build confidence, and foster a stronger relationship between Sofrito and her mom. 
    • We used classical counterconditioning to help Sofrito learn to tolerate unexpected noises. We worked on this inside, since the windows faced the street. We also used sound apps and YouTube videos to play noise at low levels. Sofrito got to play with her favorite toys or eat super delicious treats when she heard noises. 
  • Outside:
    • We took very short walks with breaks of going to “home base” (the front door of the building). Natasha and Sofrito would walk until just before Sofrito would freeze and refuse to move forward. Then, mom would immediately turn back and run with her to the safe spot. After about 15 seconds of hanging out at the doorway, they would walk in the other direction. Our objective was to bring Sofrito to the border of OK/Not OK (“at threshold”), so she could experience creeping to the edge of her comfort zone, then returning to safety. It was important for Sofrito to understand she was not being pushed to do something she couldn’t handle. 
    • Natasha learned to support and reward Sofrito for choosing to disengage with the environment and display natural stress-relieving behaviors on walsk, such as shaking off and sniffing.
    • Natasha rewarded Sofrita generously for checking in with her unprompted, to build a simple, default coping behavior of checking in with mom when she felt uncertain about a situation.
  • Around new people:
    • Sofrito learned a “touch” cue (hand target), which gave her a predictable, low-stress way to interact with new people–and allowed her to return to her mom whenever she wanted. 

Challenges

  • NYC can be a tough environment for a dog to acclimate to, especially a dog who has come from a rural environment. Noises can be sudden, and loud buses, taxis, and motorcycles seem to appear out of nowhere and zip by. 
  • People also seem to appear suddenly and in close proximity: elevators open suddenly, people run by, turn corners; even when inside, you can hear people singing, yelling, talking, and laughing outside. 

Outcome

“It has now been a little more than a year of training and amazing support from Jessica at Instinct – and Sofrito has grown into a pretty awesome dog! She can walk along busy streets, take long car rides, pass garbage trucks like they aren’t even there, take treats from strangers, and check out new things with curiosity and confidence, not anxiety and panic.

She knows how to calm down (most of the time!), and she seeks out affection from me and a few of her favorite people. A year ago, she would shake and cry if we went to the park – and now she happily joins me on long hikes and even picnics with friends.

Are there still things she is scared of? Of course. But she and I both know how to deal with her fears better and what to do to help her through them. 

Jessica showed me how to address the very intense emotions my dog was having, and how to train her to FEEL better not just act better. With training, a little help from some medication, and lots of patience Sofrito has turned into the genuinely sweet, curious, and intelligent canine companion I was hoping to find when I adopted her. She is visibly happier, and I am, too.”

Need Help Now?

Talk to an Instinct Counselor Today

Help us learn more about your dog and your behavior goals, and we’ll help you implement a custom program that lets you and your dog live happier lives together, filled with fun, freedom and friendship.

You can also call your local Instinct location to speak to a trainer.

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