Practice Makes….More Likely!

Adam & NookIf you are living with a fearful dog who has inappropriate responses to the things it’s afraid of, cowering, lunging, barking, growling, fleeing, etc., it is important to understand something about how animals (including humans) behave when stressed. When your dog is afraid, it is experiencing stress. When an animal is stressed and needs to respond it is more likely to perform whatever behavior it has performed in the past, you could call this behavior a habit. So your dog may be in the habit of snapping at small children. As long as your dog feels stressed, and this is the habit your dog has, this is the behavior you are most likely to see when near small children.

People who are required to perform in stressful situations, police, fire fighters, soldiers, actors, or musicians, for example, will practice whatever behavior is appropriate for situations they may find themselves in. A police officer will practice drawing their weapon, aiming and firing, soldiers may practice dropping to the ground, actors will rehearse their lines and stage directions, musicians will practice their piece over and over again. When these people find themselves in a stressful situation they are more likely to perform the behaviors they have practiced and which have become habits.

In order to help a fearful dog behave more appropriately in stressful situations it’s important to give them the opportunity to practice an alternate behavior at which they can become proficient. This will become the behavior which will replace the one that you don’t like. But in order to learn and practice this new behavior the dog needs to be in a situation in which it does not feel stressed or the level of stress has to be low enough so that they do not revert to whatever behavior has become a habit for them.

The way to learn any behavior is to begin slowly, gradually adding to the difficulty of it. The fewer mistakes made in the process the less likely those mistakes will be repeated. If you are teaching someone to drive a car, it’s best to begin in a parking lot, preferably empty, rather than on a busy highway. If you are working to teach your dog to sit and look at you, it’s best to begin in a place where your dog feels comfortable and can focus. As this behavior becomes more reliable in this place you can begin to work in more challenging locations, always striving to practice the appropriate behavior, not the old habit.

When it comes to dogs and people, practice may not always make perfect, but it does make it more likely!

For more information about how to help a fearful dog be sure to visit the Fearful Dogs website

6 comments so far

  1. Lizzie on

    Makes perfect sense to me Debbie, I just wish I could convey this to Gracie. 😦

    Trouble is, with her it is the location that scares her as much as the trigger, ie people. She feels vunerable away from home.
    Even if I could get her to relax more outside, which she can do if there’s no one around, as soon as a person comes into view she reverts to her old habit of wanting to flee and cowering right down on her belly. Nothing I have done with her to date is having any changing effect.

    Some days are better than others though, ie she does not always react extremely if someone is say more than 100ft away. I am aware that this is the time to start with the treats, but she’s just not interested. As you know I don’t put her in situations that she can’t cope with but there are always exceptions when you’re out in public!

    She definitely is a dog that will perform a certain
    behaviour in one place, but if I change the venue we have to start all over again.
    On a brighter note though, she is becoming less scared of the clicker and I can now click and treat her for coming close, but again if I try to use it in a different context, she immediately runs away.

    Gracie continues to learn though and I will endeavour to keep teaching her, little by little with the help of your blog!

    Thanks Debbie

    • fearfuldogs on

      Couple of thoughts, you don’t ‘need’ to use a clicker. You can use a marker word like ‘yes’ to convey the same info. I’d stop using the clicker if it scares her at all.

      Gracie sounds like Sunny. He is also quite frightened by people and it has taken years to see the progress he has made. Why not practice the behavior of ‘getting the heck out of dodge’ when people appear on the scene? Just turn around with her and say something in an upbeat voice, I say, ‘this way!’ and leave the scene.

      Here’s why-if Gracie can begin to predict that seeing people is going to immediately mean that she gets to move away from them then she might stop worrying about them so much. Put ‘flee’ on cue in a manner of speaking. It’s a controlled retreat that keeps her in a more positive state of mind. As you can imagine she is probably anticipating seeing people long before they appear and when they do she’s all primed to react in a fearful way.

      I have found Sunny’s comfort zone regarding proximity to people is definitely shrinking. In the last two days I have taken him to ponds where there were people and he was able to play a bit with me (I toss stones in the water) within 25′-30′ of them. In both cases he was easily spooked by them if they moved around or spoke loudly, and he only could concentrate on our game for a few seconds at a time, but it was a big step for him, he used to hide in the woods. As soon as I saw that he was unable to focus on the game and seeming to get more, rather than less upset, I removed him from the scene.

      And you are right, many skills will have to be relearned or practiced as locations and distractions change. It’s just part of how dogs learn. And if it makes you feel any better I never take Sunny out walking in public places where there are likely to be people, except on some wooded walking trails near town where most people show up with a dog, Sunny likes running into other dogs. At the ponds there were also dogs and only 3 or 4 other people.

  2. Lizzie on

    So really some habits are good or appropriate and it’s just a matter of teaching Gracie good habits instead of bad ones! Wish it were that easy 🙂

    I can say that Gracie is not put under prolonged stress, most, if not all of the stress she may experience is self induced, but she DOES recover instantly and carries on like nothing happened, even if it’s seeing people.

    I have been playing the ‘Get out of here’ game for some time now. Gracie responds to ‘this way’ and many other simple instructions when we are out, PROVIDED that she remains calm. But calm flies out the window when the ‘old habit’ kicks in. It’s not always possible to go the other way where I walk, as mostly that would mean walking away from home and she would resist that. Rememeber, Gracie has OCD and this adds to her problems. That’s another reason why change is so scary for her.

    I want her to experience as much as she is capable of, that’s why I’ve kept up with the clicker. To her it was just another scary thing, like being near me, but over time, months, she has become less scared. This, I guess, is her way of learning and, bless her, she does over come her fear in most instances. Surely this is another example of DS isn’t it? Please correct me if that’s not the case Debbie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The reason I suggest not using the clicker is because there is an alternative that works without scaring your dog, assuming you saying ‘yes!’ doesn’t scare her. There is evidence that the clicker helps dogs learn new behaviors faster, but that may not be the case for dogs that are sensitive to it. The click is a conditioned reinforcer, so that means it should make the dog feel good, whenever she hears it. Why repeat a behavior if it’s going to get you something that scares or startles you? But you’re working with your dog, I’m not, so you have to decide what is best.

      Have you worked on GHOD in situations in which Gracie is not stressed?

  3. Lizzie on

    It is difficult to convey accurately using the written word when trying to explain how a dog is behaving and what you are doing about it.

    To sum up with Gracie, I would say this: I never ask her to perform a task that she can’t do. I try NOT to put her in a situation that will frighten her, but I cannot control other people. I have found that when teaching Gracie she has always been nervous at first but in repeating the act she has gradually become comfortable with what ever it is I’m asking her to do. And with that she has become more confident generally, although nothing much has changed for her with regard to people, other than myself.

    I see that she does go through brief times of stress if she’s out of her comfort zone when learning, but I feel that for her to achieve anything new then so be it.
    She has learnt so much, including some self control that I know she is the happier for it.

    Oh and yes we do the GHOD all the time when Gracie is not stressed. The thing is, we don’t encounter people every day so she isn’t anticipating seeing anyone when I say ‘let’s go this way’. It’s just that she has a route that she likes to take and she will deviate if she’s calm and relaxed, ie no one about. But as I said before, if she does hear or see someone she panics and I have to calm her BEFORE she will do anything.
    For example, say Gracie was off the leash, she never is, but just for arguments sake, and she saw someone approaching she would take off in the direction of home, nothing I could say or do would stop her. Her instincts kick in and that’s that. I know this because it happened ONCE when she hadn’t long been with me. She wriggled out of her harness one day when something spooked her, it happened so fast, I had no time to react. We were not far from home thankfully, she crossed two roads, traffic was light that day, and all I could do was watch her as she slunk low on her belly and ran towards the garden gate. You have no idea, or perhaps you have, how relieved I was to see that she went home.
    She has never done that again, I am wise now to her body language and know exactly what to do to stop her from wriggling out of the harness!

    I think we make a good team, Gracie and me 😉

    • fearfuldogs on

      It does sound like you make a good team, and it is hard to know what is going on or explain without actually seeing the dog.

      Her behavior sounds very much like Sunny, one difference may be that we live in a place where he can be off leash, so he is able to decide where he wants to be in relation to people. Often it still is sitting up on the hill behind our house, a 100 feet or more away. Since he loves to go for walks in the woods he would join me, even if someone else came along, but he shadowed us in the woods. Over the years he’s been able to decrease his distance and now usually walks closely behind us, moving away if anyone pays attention to him. Like Lizzie, the more he does something the better he gets at it. With some people, usually women, he’s even able to engage in a few of the behaviors he has on cue.

      I know just where you’re coming from. It’s a slow process changing the brains of these dogs, and Lizzie is so lucky she’s got you helping her do it!

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