Finding The Right Foot To Get Started On

Never enough frisbees.

Never enough frisbees.

I was having a conversation with someone who complained that the activities that were the most rewarding and motivating for her dog were behaviors she didn’t like, barking at, and becoming aroused by strangers the main bones of contention. Her frustration was easy to understand since it was impossible for her to interrupt and distract her dog once this behavior got started. It made me wonder though, was there nothing that her dog enjoyed that included her in the equation? Had she never found ways to be her dog’s best friend?

Some will argue that a dog like this doesn’t need someone to be its friend, and I would say that friends don’t let friends drive drunk or let them chase the cars being driven by someone who’s been drinking or not, it’s not about giving a dog free rein (or reign for that matter).

Most of our dogs are here because originally they were bred to interact with humans, in one way or another. Some may be more inclined to focus on their humans making training easier. As a border collie owner I have long since given up on trying to take a shower without being accompanied by at least one dog into the bathroom, but I am very pleased to have dog boarders who barely raise an eyebrow when I leave the room while they lie on a bed in front of the woodstove.

When Sunny first came to live with me he had no skills for interacting with people at all. His response to being around people was (and in most cases still is) to avoid them as much as possible. I believed that somewhere inside that poor brain of his was some coding that would help us find some common interests and they would likely have to be based more on his preferences rather than mine. As much as I might enjoy cuddling up with a dog to watch a movie, it wasn’t likely that Sunny was going to find that enjoyable. Food, while a no-brainer for getting a dog’s attention, is a very powerful tool for working with dogs and its value should never be underestimated. I added some gentle handling and scratching to my relationship with Sunny and he soon learned that there were places only I could reach, and with some coaxing with his paw I could be convinced to get to them for him.

When I worked with rescue groups from Puerto Rico and would receive a shipment of dogs, getting them out for a walk in the woods was a top priority for me before I brought them to our local shelter for adoption. I enjoy doing it and it was a great way to lower the dogs’ stress levels as they recuperated from vet visits, a plane flight and complete change in environment. While I don’t recommend that anyone let a dog off leash if they have any question about its safety, I routinely brought dogs I had known for only a day or two, on long woods walks armed with nothing but good treats, a pair of hiking shoes, and my dogs to act as role models.

There was nothing magical about my ability to get the dogs’ attention or keep them with me. Perhaps as a story teller and tour group leader I have an inclination toward the dramatic which helps me out and I rarely found it difficult to convince the dogs that I was worth paying attention to, they were after all dogs and not rocket scientists that I needed to entertain. There is nothing wrong with acquiring a dog for one’s own personal needs or reasons, but it would be silly to assume that the dog comes without its own needs or preferences. And it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to figure out what those preferences might be, though creative thinking is often in order.

Finding ways to get and keep a dog’s attention is a logical first step in any training program. It might be food, balls, tug toys, squeaky mice, kicking up leaves, or dancing a jig that stops your dog in its tracks, makes it turn on its heels, cock its head and think, “What the heck is the tall one up to now? Better go see.” Sunny is a frisbee and tennis ball fanatic, loves string cheese and wishes I would let him keep the furry, squeaky mice I sometimes hide in my pockets. Most of our interactions include activities that he enjoys and often initiates. It feels like a friendship even if I’m the one with control of the doorknobs and treats. Maybe when he cuddles with me on the couch he’s just humoring me, and it is kind of him. And when I stop him from barking at passing cars or joggers he knows that I usually have something worth paying attention to up my sleeve. One day it just might be one of those squeaky mice and I’ll be feeling generous.


10 comments so far

  1. cayla on

    you say that treats are a great way to temp a fearfull dog in training, well what if your dog could care less about the food and in fact gets worse when you offer it. i have read dozens of sites and no one seems to address that everyone says to give treats and praise well what if yoou dog is so far gone that food has no effect? dogs that dont trust themselves or people and have no food motivation, is there any hope for them?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good question and the answer is a resounding YES! there is hope for them.

      If you are talking about a dog that has no skills at all, like my Sunny, than food is about the only primary reinforcer you have to start with. It’s how you start with it that makes the difference. You begin by creating positive associations between a dog’s daily meals and people. It may mean dropping small handfuls of food for the dog and then leaving the scene, since some dogs are too afraid to eat around people. This is the same approach that trainers use when working with wild animals to desensitize and counter condition them to humans. It takes as long as it takes for any individual animal. The mistakes that are often made are that the food is not high enough value, so steak or cheese trumps kibble, and that people scare the dog during the process. For a dog that is scared of people even approaching them, the approach needs to be as low key and non-threatening as possible, no eye contact, no chatting to the dog, leaving the food at a distance from the dog if it is able to move toward it when someone leaves, etc. On the website I talk about the treat/retreat game.

      Food rewards work in two ways, they can be used to reinforce a behavior you like, ‘good dog for not barking!’ or to change how the dog feels about things that scare or bother it, ‘cheese appears whenever the mailman walks by’. A dog that anticipates something good is going to happen when it sees what scares it usually changes its behavior and reaction to that trigger. If every time someone walks into the room where a scared dog is cowering and does nothing to scare the dog (which may not be totally possible since their mere presence is probably scary, but at least they minimize it to whatever extent they can) and also drops a chunk of grilled sirloin before they leave, with enough repetitions the dog may just begin to feel good about people walking into the room (assuming that it enjoys grilled sirloin, or cheese, or peanut butter, or chicken, or tuna…..).

      Once you begin to work with a dog around other triggers if it’s not food motivated it may be because it’s just not that into food or over threshold, too scared to eat. My dog Sunny is far more motivated by play, another primary reinforcer, than he is by food rewards. I’m working on a short video which shows the difference in his behavior when he is around something scary and is being offered food rewards vs. play rewards. But play is often not an option early in a relationship since the dog does not have the skills or experience to play with a person, so you have to start with food, and since dogs have to eat, and food is a good thing, you use it to get started. Sunny has lived with my husband for years and food rewards are not motivating enough to get him to want to interact with him, but if my husband picks up a frisbee and offers to toss it, Sunny is out the door to play. Early in my relationship with Sunny I used walks in the woods to form positive associations with being with me, having a leash put on, etc.

      I hope that this information has been helpful. You’ll find more on the website. Another thought is to consult with a vet to get information about medications that might help the dog work through this process. It’s no fun and not very healthy to be so stressed out all the time.

  2. Melfr99 on

    Everything that FearfulDogs says is exactly right on. I had the same problem with my Daisy early on – she was just too scared to even consider accepting a treat. We worked on the issue slowly – like dropping them and leaving the room (as mentioned above). I also used high-value treats (e.g., hot dogs) as she became more comfortable.

    What really helped Daisy was having another dog around who had none of the issues that she had. My Aspen was confident but not over-bearing and watching how Aspen interacted with me helped Daisy to see she could do the same and get treats too. If you saw Daisy today you would not even recognize her from the dog I had a year and a half ago. I wish you much luck! I know it’s not an easy road, but the rewards at the end will make your days!

    You can read more about how I worked with Daisy at

    Honestly, I would check out FearfulDogs’ site. If I had known about it back when I first adopted Daisy I would have probably made more progress with her at the beginning.

  3. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience with Daisy and your blog about her. It’s great hearing about success stories. Sunny was also very comfortable with other dogs and my border collie Finn was a wonderful mentor for him. Sunny cowered in his corner while watching Finn chase a tennis ball I tossed in the room. I began to measure Sunny’s improvement by how many inches he’d move away from the corner in order to steal the ball. He remains an inveterate toy stealer to this day.

    I wouldn’t suggest someone adopt or buy another dog specifically for this reason, but if your scared dog does like other dogs, find friends with good dogs, or ask a local trainer for suggestions about a dog that might be a good playmate. I have found people to be very happy to help me out with my fearful dog.

  4. Life With Dogs on

    We lost a Border who was put down many years ago for multiple bite incidents. I wish I had this knowledge then…

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am so sorry to hear about your dog. With any of the dogs that come into our lives, they arrive when they do and get whoever we are at the time. I know the feeling of, if only I knew then what I know now, in regard to each of my dogs. I always feel like I could have done better by them, even the ones without challenging behaviors. Someday some other dog will benefit from the knowledge you have now, and be lucky for it.

  5. Cassie Mercier on

    My husband, our 10 year old boxer and I are adopting a two year old boxer on Friday. She is afraid of everything but other dogs. It appears she has been confined to a kennel outdoors all her life and used for breeding. She probably has had little contact with humans. She has been in a foster home for 3 weeks and making progress with her foster mother. We are picking her up in Orlando and making a 2 hour trip home. Any words of advice to make this event less traumatic for her?

  6. […] she writes a blog…all about fearful dogs. Debbie’s contribution this month talks about how to be your dog’s best friend – and the importance of […]

  7. Nancy Houser on

    Thank you so much for sharing such a wonderful story with the National Dog Blog Carnival #3. I enjoyed it tremendously. Operating a rescue dog center for elderly and behavior dogs, we run into fearful dogs all the time…due to lack of socialism and abuse. Your blog offers wonderful advise and tips for readers to know how to deal with such things.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are most welcome. I created the site to help folks working with these dogs.

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