Archive for June, 2009|Monthly archive page

Five Golden Rules for Working with Fearful Dogs by Nicole Wilde

The Fearful Dog’s Blog is happy to introduce you to our guest blogger, Nicole Wilde CPDT, RM. Nicole has worked with fearful dogs for years and her book, Help for Your Fearful Dog is a must read for anyone working with a fearful dog. I was attending one of Nicole’s seminars recently, it happened to be my birthday, and a friend gifted me with a copy of Nicole’s latest book Energy Healing For Dogs, which would be another great topic to include on this blog. I hope you enjoy and I know you’ll learn a lot from the following post.

Five Golden Rules for Working with Fearful Dogs by Nicole Wilde

Nicole & MojoHaving worked with hundreds of shy, anxious, and fearful dogs over the years in training, shelter work, rescue, and yes, even in my own home, it’s become obvious that regardless of the type of fear issue, certain precepts apply. Whether a dog is frightened of a family member, a thunderstorm, or other dogs, keep these five rules in mind when implementing your behavior modification program:

Employ good management. For example, if your dog is afraid of the vacuum cleaner, for the length of your desensitization program, don’t turn it on when he’s close by (until you’ve build up to that step). Take him for a walk while someone else vacuums the house (ladies, put your husbands to work!) or put him out in the yard while you vacuum. Ideally, keep your dog from encountering the trigger for at least two weeks before beginning your behavior modification program. That way the stress hormones, which can circulate for up to a few days in the body even after that initial adrenalin rush has subsided, will be at low levels and the dog will be as calm as possible.

Always work under the dog’s threshold. It’s fine for the dog to notice the trigger, but you don’t want him to have a major reaction to it. If you were doing a desensitization and counter conditioning program, ideally you would start feeding treats as soon as your dog noticed the scary thing, not after he’d started barking or trying to run away.

Progress in teeny, tiny increments. It’s very tempting to move forward rapidly when you’re excited about the progress your dog is making, whether it’s about holding a stay or being less frightened of other dogs. Don’t do it! If you push your dog too far too fast, you risk having to go back to square one and start over. Progressing in small increments will allow your dog to feel good about the trigger and secure during the process.

Put the power in the dog’s paws. Let the dog decide whether to approach the big, scary thing rather than forcing him. For example, the “touch” command (also known as targeting) is excellent for fear of objects, because you can teach a dog to touch her nose to your hand, and then transfer that to the object. The dog can then approach the object of her own free will, as she is comfortable. The extreme opposite of putting the power in the dog’s paws is flooding, a technique that forces the dog to deal with the trigger in massive doses—to become immersed in it. Although the technique has been used successfully in laboratory tests, and it could potentially work with your dog, the chances that you are going to traumatize your dog instead of helping are very high. Leave flooding in the lab and let your dog feel confident, and trusting of you.

Be an advocate for your dog. Let’s say your dog is afraid of people. You’re out on a walk, and someone approaches as if to pet him. It’s your job to stop that person. Stand in front of your dog, put your palm out as if to say, “Halt!” and relay in no uncertain terms that you’d rather they not pet your dog. It is especially important for a dog with fear issues to feel you will keep him safe under any circumstances.

Help For Your Fearful Dog

Nicole Wilde is the author of eight books including Help for Your Fearful Dog. She teaches seminars around the world on canine behavior, and runs Gentle Guidance Dog Training in southern Calfornia. You can follow Nicole on Twitter at @NicoleWilde


Creating A Climate For Change

Ready for action!Imagine you have to study for a big exam or are trying to learn to use a new computer program or figure out your taxes. Do you pack up your supplies and go sit in the middle of a busy city intersection? Or perhaps more realistically do you invite the neighbor kids over to play video games in your living room while you replay in your head all the injustices you feel were inflicted on you by your parents and older siblings? Hopefully you don’t do any of the above if you actually want to get something done.

When working with a fearful dog it is important to create a climate both internally and externally that will facilitate, not hinder, learning. We do this by making sure that whatever scares our dogs is not surrounding them in such proximity or quantity that they can focus on nothing else. In order to learn new behaviors and skills a dog needs to be able to process information and think, something they cannot do if they are scared and overwhelmed.

Changing a dog’s internal climate is not as easy or as under our control. Understanding how classical counter conditioning and desensitization ‘work’ is important for every owner of a fearful dog. The use of behavioral medications can also help a dog’s brain be more open and susceptible to new information and learning. The behavioral meds commonly used today are not merely sedatives employed to depress a dog’s reaction to a trigger. By changing the chemistry of a fearful brain, or a depressed brain, it is possible to create a climate in which learning and change becomes easier for a dog.

By controlling and managing what you can in relation to your dog’s experiences you may find that you can help your dog ace the next test that comes their way.

The Curiosity Factor

What's up?

What's up?

When working with any dog, developing a positive, trusting relationship is important, but when working with a fearful dog it becomes paramount for the success of training and rehabilitation. There are trainers who have come up with theories as to why dogs behave they way they do and therefore why ‘their’ method of training works best, this includes focusing on things like ‘prey drive’ or being ‘alpha’ to your dog.

There is a large body of research and data which has been collected and informs us as to how animals learn new behaviors. The more fuzzy area of ‘why’ they behave the way they do leaves a void which too many trainers and owners feel compelled to fill. While most of the theorizing is harmless and may even be correct, some it of it is not and leads to making dogs feel frightened and wary. It is useful to consider that a dog is chewing up the sofa cushions because they are bored or anxious, less useful to believe they are angry or vengeful at being left alone.

Good trainers know that when they have a challenging dog to work with they have to pull out all the stops, strap on their thinking caps, and reach into their bag of tricks. Getting a dog which is afraid of people to buy into what you’re selling requires patience and imagination, but there are many routes to take to get their attention. It may be prey, or play drive that you tap into, and though I cringe to use the word ‘leader’ in regard to dogs in general, because I feel it has been poisoned by trainers like Cesar Millan, showing your dog that you understand how they feel and will not allow the worst to happen to them, whatever their ‘personal worst’ may be, is helpful. As is teaching them new more appropriate responses for situations.

One of the fun ways I connect with my fearful dog is to tap into his sense of curiosity. Since novel objects and people frighten him, I need to tread carefully, but in situations in which he feels comfortable he is all dog and wants to check things out. I take advantage of this when working on challenging behaviors like recall. Sometimes my dogs get a treat when they come when called, sometimes a ball toss, an ear scratch and sometimes I point out something new and interesting.

If I spy a chipmunk darting into a rotten log I call the dogs, point out the fresh scent and enjoy the show that ensues. Perhaps it’s the prints of a deer or moose that I direct them to, or pass around the shards of a newly hatched bird’s egg for them to sniff (until one of them gobbles it down). I try to be as predictable as I can be with all my dogs, but especially for my scared dog. I want him to learn that regardless of how I move or speak I am never going to do anything ‘bad’ to him. With a solid history of positive experiences with me the occasional vet visit or mat brushing does not cause set backs in our relationship. I also look for ways to surprise and delight my dogs, leading them to wood piles where they can torment squirrels hidden inside, or pulling a new squeaky toy out of a pocket. When I do open my mouth and say their names I want them to have many reasons for perking up and paying attention, and no reason to hesitate.