Neutralize it!

Before a dog can begin to feel good about something it’s afraid of, it first needs to stop feeling afraid of it. Sounds obvious right? It should be but people will continually expose their dog to something that scares them expecting that the dog is going to figure out that it’s ok. It doesn’t work that way. Many people believe that if they show their dogs that something isn’t going to hurt them that the dog will then no longer be afraid of it. It doesn’t work that way. They let people touch their dog, or bring other dogs around to sniff and be friendly, believing that since the outcome is not bad or painful, their dog will not be afraid of it anymore, probably won’t happen.

Think about people who are afraid of spiders, snakes, or flying in a plane. Most have never had a bad experience with the things they are afraid of. They’ve never been bit by a spider or had a boa constrictor wrapped around their neck snuffing out their life, or been in a plane crash. Even knowing that a spider or snake isn’t poisonous or that driving in a car is statistically more dangerous than flying, they remain afraid. Every time your dog is exposed to something that scares it, it experiences fear, whether anything bad happens or not. To begin to change how your dog feels about something your first goal is to stop them feeling afraid of it.

Neutralizing your dog’s experience with something scary can be done in different ways. It may mean keeping the scary thing far enough away, or making it quieter, or smaller, or less active. At the very least you want your dog’s experience of the things that scare it to be as neutral as possible, they see it, they hear it, but are not terrified by it. This is the first step and requires paying attention to your dog’s reactions and managing the situations your dog is in.

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6 comments so far

  1. Sam on

    What a great blog! I’m glad I came across it. I have been on fearfuldogs.com and shy-K9’s Yahoo Group in the past as well, looking for advice for my own fearful dog.

    I think the key in your post is “as neutral as possible.” If we could control our environments 100% of the time, the rehab of these dogs would be all the more easier.

    But there are always the people who think they know better, who proclaim “I’ve had dogs all my life and you need to do it this way.” And, sadly, we (or at least I) cannot control these people’s actions 100% of the time.

    My dog is afraid of my father. She has improved immensely but is still afraid of his eye contact (to some degree) and motion (to a larger degree). Yet the whole slow desensitization process seems futile to him, so I’ve kind of had to compromise and use a clicker to reward her when she targets him with her nose or relaxes next to him.

    IMO, it’s better than flooding her by having him walk her or chase him around the house. We’ll see if it gets us anywhere.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for your comment. I am also currently using targeting to help Sunny feel more comfortable with my husband who he has lived with for over 3 years! There is one place where Sunny feels ok or neutral, with him, and that’s out in the yard where Sunny can keep his distance.

    We’re making it better than neutral by having my husband toss frisbees, which Sunny loves. I’ve started having Sunny target the frisbee near my husband in order for him to toss it. A game he’s played with me, so he knows the routine.

    It is getting easier for him. My goal is to have Sunny target the frisbee while my husband holds it and asks him to. We’ll get there, slow and steady 😉

    A thought on controlling other people- it is true we can’t control everyone all the time, which is why I continue to work with Sunny to help him feel more comfortable with people. I am putting so much energy into helping him that I refuse to let anyone set us back. I am very directive with people who come into his space. If I can’t control them, we move away from them.

  3. Sam on

    The work you do with Sunny really is great and I’m sure dogs everywhere are benfiting from the stories you post on the ‘net. 🙂

    Yeah, in terms of the general public, we’ll just walk away. I’m not about to let some know-it-all stranger set my dog back after all the progress we’ve made. It gets a little more tricky with people like Dad and Aunt so-and-so, though, I’m sure you know what I mean. Especially when my father and I live under the same roof.

    I am going to try to see if the women who instruct my obedience class (which my dog loves) would help me out with a slower desensitization and maybe work up to my dog letting them handle her a little more. Maybe a couple of minutes after class or something. At this point, it’d be great to expand her social circle even to just a few more people.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for the kind words. I can’t help myself with this dog. I know what you mean about relatives or people close to you. My brother who I don’t see very often always asks me,
      “What would happen if I just went over and pet him?” and I always say the same thing, “You’ll scare the s**t out of him, and why would you want to do that?”. He means well, most people want to interact with dogs cause they like them. You might try treat/retreat with your dad if he really needs to do something with the dog.

      We’ve done a lot of work in classes, I’ve had Sunny go around and target people’s hands. If he can’t get near some people that’s cool, we move on.

      Good luck with your dog, if nothing else it’s endlessly interesting working with a scared dog.

  4. rangerskat on

    My husband is going to appreciate blog posts like this. He’s rather frustrated living with a dog he can’t touch. Fortunately he has a great sense of humor because little miss greatly conflicted Finna will take treats directly from his hands, will lick his hands and face and the other day when he was stretched out loving on Ranger Finna curled up against his back and went to sleep. She was physically in contact with him while she was sleeping but he’s not allowed to pet her. It’s like she trusts every part of him except his hands touching her. She’s quite content to have him walk her as long as someone else attaches her leash to her collar. She’s an interesting challenge there’s no doubt about that. Someday she’ll let him pet her and there will be no looking back; in the interim he’ll keep feeding her treats, taking her for walks and allowing physical contact while keeping his hands off.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Have you taught her to target hands? It’s one way to change the association with hands.


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