Affirmations for a fearful dog

black dog standing at the edge of a pondOne of the challenges for people working with fearful dogs, especially dogs who have suffered from confinement or restraint during their early development, is getting these dogs to offer behaviors for which they can be rewarded. Do not confuse this with trying to change how a dog feels about things using counter conditioning and desensitization, for that we can reward the dog for doing nothing more than being in the presence of whatever scares them, regardless of how they behave.

I’m going to repeat that a different way, because it’s so important. Do not wait for a fearful dog to offer calm behavior before rewarding them in the presence of a trigger when counter conditioning. If a dog cannot be calm or respond to a cue, you have not managed them properly, and they should not be punished for this by having to remain close to something that scares them, while you wait for them to do something you think is appropriate.

There are techniques which you can use to help fearful dogs which do require that the dog offers some kind of calm behavior before they are rewarded, often with negative reinforcement, which is when we take away something that the dog is afraid of, in order to see more of the calm behavior. But that’s not what I’m addressing in this post. I’m thinking about the dog who has not yet learned that they have the power to change their environment or experience.

When you show a dog that by doing something they can earn a reward, get ready to watch the fun begin. Look for simple behaviors that your dog is able to perform in your presence. It might be something as basic as eye contact, looking at you, or looking at an object you place in front of them. From this we can build up to more complex behaviors, but don’t rush. Enjoy watching a dog sort out that by shifting their eyes to your face they will be handed a super tasty treat.

I have been trying to find ways to entertain the dogs during hunting season (only 2 more days to go!) when we cease our daily woods walks for safety’s sake. It has been awhile since I have done any clicker training with Sunny and do I regret it! He practically beams when I bring out the clicker and a bowl of meaty, smelly treats. Today we worked on putting his front paws on an object (a small frisbee). After each successful touch I picked up the frisbee and put it down somewhere else while Sunny’s tail never stopped wagging. “I can do this!” he seemed to say with each delighted slap of the frisbee. “I can make good things happen in my life!”

Help a shy dog learn that they too “have the power” by letting them work for something they want. Isn’t it about time they have that opportunity?

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12 comments so far

  1. Tyrel Kelsey on

    Great post. I’m actually working with something similar. I have a foster who puts herself into situations where she is uncomfortable, and reacts to the other dogs. For some reason I never thought to add a positive reinforcer to my corrections. I usually just use a negative marker ( a stern uh-uh ) for putting her self in the situation, but no real reward for removing herself from it.

    Thank you for the great idea!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Tyrel. One of the problems with using corrections with reactive dogs is that they are often not in ‘thinking and learning’ mode, and so don’t necessarily learn anything from the corrections we apply. Corrections may interrupt behaviors and stop them, for the time being, but do not give the dog any skills for dealing appropriately with what worries them, in the future. They also do not change how the dog feels about the thing they are reacting to. If we can change the emotional response, we usually see a change in the behavior.

      I live with a dog who has a ‘greeting disorder’. She gets so aroused when meeting new dogs that she behaves very inappropriately. What she has responded well to is a marker with a strong reinforcement history, which interrupts, without punishment, her behavior. Over time her aggressive, reactive displays have become less intense and shorter. If you are not familiar with the book Control Unleashed and the ‘look at that’ exercise, it’s pretty useful.

      If you haven’t had a chance to read this post http://fearfuldogs.wordpress.com/2010/11/02/the-good-samaritan-law/ you might find it interesting.

      You bring up a good point that I’m sure many of us can learn from, and that is to reward our dogs for making good choices, as often as we can. These choices often get ignored because they don’t require our intervention.

      Good luck with your dog!

      • Tyrel Kelsey on

        Thanks I actually have read that post, and it’s a great principal to apply. This little girl is quite interesting not like any I’ve worked with before. Not that I have a lot of experience. :)

        She’s definitely made a lot of progress. I’m not sure of her back story but she came to me dog aggressive and very protective. Now she plays with 6 other dogs. She’ll definitely be ready for her forever home soon.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    We learn the most from our most challenging dogs! Enjoy and pat yourself on the back for helping this girl learn the skills to be cool with other dogs.

  3. Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

    I have a reactive girl I am working with and I have a mantra for us.

    In a challenging situation I always say quietly and calmly, “lets get your brain in gear, com’on lets keep that brain working. . .” etc. As long as she is managing I ask for EASY skills and look for all offerings she gives me. We use a lot of hand targeting with this. I think it really helps build her confidence that she has learned to cope and feels powerful. It helps her remember she has other choices than reacting and I am there to protect her, we are a team so she doesn’t need to react to protect herself. I really appreciate your post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Great mantra! Good for people too. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment and share the work you are doing with your dog. It sounds like you have a really great gig going with her. She’s a lucky dog by the sounds of it.

      • Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

        Thanks for the encouragement! As you know there are many challenges to helping a fearful dog gain confidence, but the progress is always rewarding. I am thankful she is not extremely fearful, but it is still a challenge I frequently feel inadequate to handle. Kind words coming from someone with such experience means a lot.

        I spent two weeks doing relief work in New Orleans and one of the most tragic parts was that the animals were so neglected. I understand that people were overwhelmed with all the tragedy everywhere, but so were the dogs and cats. The low point for me was when we arrived at a home that had already been partially cleaned and in the back yard was a pup that didn’t make it. I was sick, just sick. No one had been able to help him in life and no one took time to help him in death. Our crew leader took one look at me stopped our whole crew and helped me bury him. It was too little too late, but all I could do.

        For Sunny to survive all he has is amazing, and I am glad he has someone to help him!

  4. fearfuldogs on

    Few people realize the time, energy and patience involved with working with a fearful dog. We are often confronted with our own limitations as well as our dogs’. But that’s the point at which we can grow and improve as trainers and also as compassionate humans. The struggles that our dogs survived can be sources of strength and resiliency (we our our border collie Finn’s 7th home and he’s as bombproof as they come, likely a dose of good genes helped him out as well) if we give them the time and opportunity to learn new skills and discover the options and choices available to them once they are freed from whatever physical confinement or abuse they suffered. We are all works in progress.

    Want to write a guest post about your experiences?

    • Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

      Hi Debbie, I also emailed you privately about this.

      But it is true that few people realize the energy and patience it takes to help a fearful pup. Not only are we often confronted by our own limitations, our fearful friend so often exposes our limitations as ones we didn’t realize we struggled with or ones that we now know we need to work harder to overcome.

      But that is interesting too, because in human relationships people often shy away from people that expose areas they need to work on. But in relationships with our fearful puppy friends we not only stick loyally by their side, we try to change ourselves and educate ourselves to help them. And in return they love us, teach us and are patient with us, far more so than many humans would be. A friendship with a fearful dog is unlike any other, 2legged or 4legged.

      Thanks again for the interesting post!

  5. Never Say Never Greyhounds on

    Exellent post!

  6. Never Say Never Greyhounds on

    Of course, it would be nice if I could spell E-X-C-E-L-Le-N-T!

    • fearfuldogs on

      ha! Didn’t even notice! Was just so pleased for the compliment. Thanks!


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