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.

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7 comments so far

  1. What a great idea to use novelty as a reinforcer. I often use squirrels to help Lilly cope in public because if she’s thinking about them, she usually is NOT scared.

    We don’t have tree squirrels where we live, so it’s a real treat to see them down in the city.

    If she’s feeling overwhelmed in class or something, I’ll find a tree and ask her if she thinks there are squirrels pu there. We stand around, looking up, until she seems calmer.

    Everyone makes decisions in training. I’ll take a slightly less attentive Lilly who is excited about squirrels over a fearful, shutdown Lilly who cannot pay attention.

  2. fearfuldogs on

    Thanks Roxanne!

    Sunny spent much of his early time with me shut down in a corner and I had to hope that somewhere in his sad, damaged brain lurked the essence of a dog. Tapping into that with play, running, exploring and of course stinky food treats, got me more mileage, than I think any flooding could have.

    I am working on a video which addresses your comment in a way. I introduced a novel object to Sunny’s environment and want him to approach it. I use a clicker and treats to shape and lure the behavior and then engage him in a game of targeting with a frisbee. Guess which gets him moving around the object more easily? The frisbee of course! He can’t worry and play at the same time.

    • Lizzie on

      So far Gracie has not been able to pay any mind to ‘other animals’. Sometimes I think that it’s not just that she’s scared, but more like she has no idea of what she’s looking at, as there is usually NO reaction from her whatsoever!

      Having said this, so far she has only encountered cats, as where we live there are no squirrels, or chipmunks, we don’t even have too many trees as we are coastal and they are few and far between!
      So imagine my excitement when, late the other night, she discovered her first hedgehog. She had obviously caught it’s scent in the night air and went scurrying over to where it was, with me, so far, unaware of what had moved her to be so alert. Well she stood in front of it tail high in the air wagging for all it was worth and just looked like any other dog, curious, not afraid, head cocked on one side,her feet doing the familiar Labrador dance, and I thought any moment now she’s going to bark at it, but alas, the creature decided to move off and that scared the pants off her 😮

      But it was good while it lasted and now she looks for that hedgehog every time we go out at night.

      I can appreciate how important it is to try and engage Gracie in play and be so engrossed that she forgets her fears, even if only for a short while.

      Thanks again Debbie for interesting reading.

  3. smesmer on

    I like the idea of using curiosity as a tool — I use it as well as I went into in one of my latest posts “Macho Dogs — Or Three Steps to Canine Respect” on my blog smalldogtraining.net.
    I also use curiosity when training puppies to walk on lead. As they see new things their natural reaction is to stop and stare. I find that if I let them do this until their curiosity is satisfied, they will, after a bit, continue on confidently with me.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Another case of great minds thinking alike (surely not fools’ minds never differing ;-)! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and your blog.

  4. Deborah Flick on

    Balancing the element of surprise with safety to keep things both interesting and predictable for our fearful dogs is the mark of an excellent, thinking dog’s person. Nice work 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thank you for the compliment. You can’t see the blush.


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