Can you relate?

comfypugI got my first and only puppy when I was sixteen years old. She was a reddish brown fluff ball of eight weeks and I promptly was smitten. My mother did not allow dogs upstairs in our bedrooms so I moved into the basement to sleep with her. When I was not in school (and I admit to skipping classes so I could sneak home and be with her) we were inseparable. I took her with me on the subway into Boston where I let her chase squirrels on the Commons and she would stop in mid chase to return to me when I called her.

I knew nothing about training dogs, at least nothing that was written in books or taught in classes. Treble grew into a handsome dog with feathers on her legs and tail and when asked what kind of a dog she was I made up a breed that matched her good looks, a ‘golden shepherd’. She knew to stay with me on walks, sit, lie down and give her paw on command and that’s about it. She greeted children with exhuberant face licking and she behaved appropriately around chickens and sheep. To this day I can say she was among the most attentive and responsive dogs I’ve lived with.

Was she an exceptional dog? Certainly to me she was but probably no more so than others. Was I a ‘natural’ at dog training? Doubtful. What we had was a positive relationship. I did not think of myself as the pack leader, nor did I see any transgressions on her part as challenges to my status as ‘alpha’. We shared the joy of walking on the beach and in the woods. I wanted her to be happy and safe but more than anything I wanted to be with her. Watching her chase a tennis ball made me smile and when I had to put her down because of spleen cancer I was inconsolable.

I learn something from every dog I live with. From Treble I learned that what mattered most was our relationship, and it was not a relationship based on dominance or a social hierarchy, it was a relationship based on what each of gained by being together. Most of us know this, we greet dogs, offering a treat or a scratch, saying ‘let’s be friends’. But it’s more challenging with a fearful dog and so we too often skip this step, moving into trying to get behaviors we need to manage the dog.

If you are working with a fearful dog the first step to take with them is establishing a positive and trusting relationship. Learn what makes the dog feel good, it may be little bits of steak handed out every time you approach, a chest rub, a squeaky toy hidden in your pocket or a run in the woods. Training and obedience will come in time and will be easier when your dog knows that good things happen when she’s with you.

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11 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    I most certainly can relate to this.
    The single most important factor for me with Gracie is that she learns to trust and not be afraid around me. The only way I know how to go about this is to make being around me a pleasant experience for her. Even if the only reason she approaches me at the moment is for food, as this is the only thing in her life that motivates her. The way her face lights up when it’s breakfast time, dinner time, snack time, or any time she comes to take a scrap of food is a joy to me and can often bring tears to my eyes when I think how she was when she first came into my life.

    Gracie has learnt to do simple things not because I have trained or taught her, but because I have watched her and exploited the things that she does naturally to encourage her to repeat the behaviours.
    She needs stability and security above all in her life so I find that a fairly rigid routine also helps, although I know some would disagree with that!
    I love being with Gracie just as I did with my last Labrador, Lucy, whose life was tragically cut short last year when she was just seven years old.
    I strongly believe that a good relationship is the most important thing to establish with any dog, you just have to find out what makes them tick!

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks for sharing this. I don’t want to downplay the importance of obedience training, because it provides every dog with a framework for understanding people.

    As scared as Sunny is around people if someone asks him to ‘sit’ or ‘touch it’ he knows what it means and usually can comply and it’s not scary because he can predict the outcome of the interaction, he sits and gets a treat, no one touches him, looks at him directly or does anything else to spook him. This helps him practice being around people without being scared.

    Thank goodness for cheese wiz.

  3. Sam on

    As I’ve been working with Marge, I’ve started to “re-classify” her as not fearful, but as shy or timid. I know there are varying degrees of fear problems, but the more I read about other fearful dogs, the more I realize that I’m not dealing with something as severe as some other people are. I think a post like this kind of affirms that.

    I couldn’t agree with you more – for a dog that’s so shut down it won’t even respond to its owner, or shakes everytime it leaves the house, obedience training would be a nightmare. I get so upset when people start yanking on their dogs’ collars (fearful or not) and expect them to learn something that they need a little more time to understand. It’s even worse when the dog is outright afraid to perform.

    In the beginning, that’s how she was. She WAS fearful, terribly insecure. A dog that would stop dead in her tracks on the sidewalk, who wouldn’t take treats from people’s hands. I knew obedience was out of the question. Give it til September, some trainers told me. But I knew she wasn’t ready then, and we waited until December before we even set foot inside a training class. And even then, I made it perfectly clear to the instructors that I would not continue if I saw that during the first couple of sessions Marge was not dealing well. But she was fine.

    Maybe if Marge was still truly fearful, she wouldn’t enjoy her obedience class as much as she does. Her whole body wiggles and she can’t wait to get out of the car when we pull up. I actually think she is the most outgoing while we’re in the class – she even willingly let one woman pet her last night. She goes right up to people – I’m sure it has something to do with the fact that they all have treats. She has come a long way since the summer, and it’s all by taking things slow and steady. 🙂

  4. fearfuldogs on

    What to call our dogs is always a challenge, ultimately I think it all comes down to degrees of fearfulness. There is fearfulness that has been learned or experienced as a response to novel stimuli and fearfulness that is hard wired (for lack of a better term). Some fearful, shy or timid behaviors are going to be easy to change, others may be impossible. Thing is we never know until we work with our dogs which applies to them.

    By providing our dogs with experiences which are predictable we go a long way in helping them gain confidence and change their timid ways. Training our scared dogs also helps them predict how their behavior is going to affect their experience. It gives them control, something scared dogs probably feel ‘out of’ much of the time.

    It’s great that you’ve had such success with your dog, and good for you for being patient and giving her the time she needed to achieve success in classes. Sounds like you’ve done a great job with her.

    I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that a dog that ‘lets’ someone handle them is not necessarily enjoying it, and that’s what the ultimate goal should be, tail wagging joy not just tolerance. Just a thought.

  5. Sam on

    “I think it’s important for people to keep in mind that a dog that ‘lets’ someone handle them is not necessarily enjoying it, and that’s what the ultimate goal should be, tail wagging joy not just tolerance. Just a thought.”

    Definitely. Marge is an extremely operant dog, I can get her to do almost anything for a treat. This is completely evident in the fact that when my father has food she is his best friend, but otherwise still has problems trusting him. I’d like for him to take a different approach, but as I think I wrote to you in another comment, there is only so much you can do to change someone’s mind, especially a parents. Marge has gradually learned to cope more and more with his ways, and that’s the most important thing – how she’s feeling.

    Aside from my father, the exposure using treats has helped alot for her. It warms my heart when I see her going up to someone she previously feared wagging her tail, with her ears flat against her head. Last night – the woman that pet her – that was the case.. she previously growled at this woman, wouldn’t let the woman come near her, but finally, she accepted her just a little bit.

    Also of note is the touch training, where Marge doesn’t target the person’s hand, just simply targets – their leg, arm, knee, whatever’s in reach, and she gets rewarded. THAT has worked amazingly for her.

  6. fearfuldogs on

    I wanted to bring up the issue about getting dogs to do things even though they are not enjoying it because Cesar Millan does it all the time and it’s hailed as a success. A scared dog that ‘lets’ people pet it, or seemingly walks appropriately on a leash is at risk for biting or being further traumatized.

    Not what’s going on with your dog, but I saw my chance to make the point 😉

  7. Sam on

    Yeah, wasn’t sure about that! Cesar does often come to mind when talking of forceful training. Pretty amazing what popular culture can make of a “training” theory.

  8. Lizzie on

    It has to be remembered that Gracie has only been with me for just over 4 months, and spent ALL of her former life in a puppy farm in the UK. Over here dogs that are kept for breeding in these vile places are treated like cattle, hence ‘farms’. They are mostly kept in the dark, certainly in Gracies’ case she must have been because she had no use for her eyes only seeking food out with her nose, even if I am holding it right in front of her face. She had spent her life being scared, every day, all day and night. Her eyes were wide all the time with pupils dilated and she desperately tried to see as much around her as her eyes would allow. I thought at first that she might only be partially sighted as she clearly was not using her eyes normally, so I had the vet check them and was told that they were clear and looked healthy, although she could see what I meant!

    Anyway very recently she has started relaxing her face and eyes as she quite clearly is not scared every minute of the day now, even other dog walkers have commented on how better her eyes are looking.

    My point is that with a dog like Gracie obedience and formal training is unthinkable at the moment, if ever, but I am very happy with her progress around me and willingness to be with me, and be handled and stroked. Yes she can and did display learned helplessness and had no concept of what pleasure or joy was, but I’m sure that now she does enjoy being close to me, hell she actively seeks out the sofa every night, with me on it and lies next to me for a couple of hours. I invited her to come into the room one evening and she’s been doing it ever since!

    Cesar Millan says that dogs live in the moment and I agree with that, we all have to live ‘in the moment’, but we all have memories and baggage from former times which in a dog’s case is not so easy to forget especially if the damage has been inflicted by a human, as it usually is.

    Gracie is definitely fearful, and you could even call it a phobia around people, which will be very difficult to over come if at all. So for her future I am not looking for her to do agility or dancing to music or the like, but just to be a happy and relaxed canine and enjoy her life with me albeit limited.

    I know that she is in a much much better place now.

  9. fearfuldogs on

    It sounds like Gracie is in a great place! And I am sorry to report that puppy mills here in the U.S. are no better. Four months is not much time at all for a dog like Gracie.

    Formal classroom training is not necessarily needed for dogs if owners understand how dogs learn new behaviors. If someone has a scared dog and has never trained a dog before I think that attending a class, even without their dog would be helpful.

    I used training classes more as a way to get Sunny out into the world, not specifically for learning how to heel, etc. We sat in dozens of classes (up against a wall) and just ate cheese while people and their dogs worked around us. I liked the classes because I could control the humans, being very clear about how they were not to interact with my dog. Sunny is more comfortable around other dogs so having them along with their owners was helpful. At the beginning or end of classes the trainers often had some off leash play time which Sunny enjoyed.

    I have a very hard time with Millan’s ‘in the moment’ spiel. It implies that dogs do not learn from past experiences or behave in particular ways because of those experiences. It’s as though dogs have achieved some zen-like state of ‘being here now’ that I don’t think is the case. But the real problem is that it encourages owners to disregard their dog’s reactions to situations and just forge on. In some cases this may not matter a bit, dogs do a fabulous job of figuring out what we want from them despite what we do. But for the scared, damaged dog it’s just downright cruel IMHO.

  10. Lizzie on

    I do agree with all of the above, and have neglected to say how much help your web site and e-book have been to me. Thank you. Most of Gracie’s acheivements have only been possible because of it, as I had no experience with a fearful dog.

    Gracie started ‘nudging’ me, targeting I think you call it, when I wasn’t looking at her, (preparing food etc) and I would simply give her a piece of kibble without turning around, so she wouldn’t have to look at me. This was the first physical contact she initiated herself.

    I have a 15ft lead for her and she loves the freedom it gives, so long as no one else is around! She will not ‘come ‘ to me but, as you found with Sunny, will stand whilst I walk towards her. Of the 2 commands I have taught her, ‘WAIT’ is THE most important one and I’m always amazed that she actually does wait when I ask her to! SIT of course is the other one, which she does automatically now for food, even when we’re out! Again provided that no one is around.

    She has come on in lots of ways, but remains very fearful of people, my husband, noise, other dogs, if they’re off lead with irresponsible owners, and children.

    I take her out in the car every day, and she comes willingly, obviously enjoying the ride. I can leave her whilst I go into a shop and she even looks out of the window, I like to think waiting for me to come back! She is constantly wagging her tail as only a Labrador does, bless her.

    There is very little information on the web about living with fearful dogs, as I think I have said before, so again I thank you. Your help and knowledge is priceless.

  11. fearfuldogs on

    I am so pleased to hear that the website was helpful to you. I appreciate you taking the time to say so. I knew that other people were struggling with fearful dogs and the information available to us was often either inaccurate or incomplete. I have tried to put together a site that does not necessarily have all the answers but aims to change the way we think about working with these dogs. Thankfully there are great trainers out there that are teaching people the skills for this.

    The first ‘conversation’ Sunny had with me was to ask me to keep scratching him. He gave me an almost imperceptible paw raise. Like Gracie’s nudges I think that these are probably a keystone moments in our relationships with our dogs, when they understand that they can behave in a way that gets us to behave in a way they want.

    It’s why I think ignoring a dog when it is afraid or forcing it to do things when is wrong. I don’t know if dogs feel ‘misunderstood’ but misunderstandings between people and dogs usually lead to one of the pair ending up in a shelter.

    Good luck with Gracie, I suspect you will continue to see improvements in her behavior, she’s a lucky girl.


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