It Depends On The Dog

ACTIONPLAYOne of the disservices done to fearful dogs by trainers, who I will assume are well-meaning, is giving owners the impression that all dogs can be ‘cured’ of their fearfulness. Since we will never know the exact reasons why our dogs are fearful, it is worth continuing to work with them, throughout their lives if necessary. But believing that your timid dog is one day going to become a social butterfly may create more frustration than hope for many pet owners.

Don’t get me wrong, I retain a dream for my fearful dog Sunny, and that is that one day he will be able to enjoy all the wonderful people, places and things that I can share with him, and I have never stopped learning about ways to achieve this goal. However the damage done to Sunny occurred long before he came to live with me and though he has made huge strides the scars remain in the form of missing neural pathways, imbalanced hormones and neurotransmitters and superhighways of communication in his amygdala.

I have been tempted to bite at the shiny lure that a trainer’s special ability or technique will undo the damage done by the lack of early socialization and what may be a genetic predisposition to being sensitive or fearful. Some trainers even claim to be able to turn back the clock of brain development and re-socialize a dog in some kind of doggie rebirthing process. No doubt they have success with some, since for some dogs any type of consistent, predictable handling will enable them to figure out coping strategies and behaviors that are acceptable to people.

Deciding what will work for your dog means that you have to understand how animals learn new behaviors and how you change emotional responses to triggers. The magic you will see occurs when you learn how to communicate effectively with your dog and create situations that help, not hinder, learning. How much progress you will see depends on your dog, but if you are using appropriate training techniques the progress never ends.

Check out this page on the website for a list of books that will help you learn how to help your dog.

9 comments so far

  1. Melfr99 on

    Another great post Debbie! And, it came at the perfect time for me.

    I’ve been stewing over whether I am doing enough to help Daisy progress even further than she has already. In fact, I’ve been feeling guilty that I haven’t continued to work with her to get past her fears, but the truth is she may never get past some of them. She has made phenomenal progress and I need to recognize that and be okay with it if she doesn’t progress from there.

    I still want to continue her training, but reading your post makes me realize I’m not the only one wondering if I couldn’t be doing more and if Daisy can ever be a “normal” dog. Perhaps she will never be okay in crowded settings or around large groups of people. Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mel! I think that everyone has to figure out what they ‘need’ from their dog. I don’t need Sunny to function on city streets or in crowds of people and I don’t put him in those situations. Maybe if I needed that, we’d work on it more and we’d figure out a good system to make it happen with a minimum of stress for both of us.

      I continue to see positive changes in Sunny’s abilities and behaviors all the time. The pace is a slow one but he’s moving in the right direction.

  2. Lizzie on

    Yes it certainly does depend on the dog and the breed and the owner!
    Debbie, I can definitely see Labrador traits emerging in Gracie in spite of her ongoing fear. I don’t know about all the hormonal inbalances and brain not functioning as it should but teach something new to Gracie and she gets it very quickly. Of the three of my dogs she is by far the happiest the most intersted in life and the most alert. Hurriedly I have to say, that of course is in the house, where she feels safe. Outside is still a very scary place for Grace.
    However we are making some progress, she is now off leash a lot of the time. Hurrah!! Again I have you to thank for that Debbie. You wrote something in response to one of my posts weeks ago, which made me think. As the flight mechanism is predominant in Gracie I started to wonder if it was the leash that made things even worse for her, ie she wanted to run away but was unable to. Anyway I took the courage and let her off one dark night on our usual midnight sortie. Of course at that time there is no one around, thank goodness but she was fine. She’s always less nervous at night time anyway. As time went by I started to let her off during the day, only where we are safe from the road obviously. To my utter amazement she is enjoying the new experience and will wait and or sit for me to put the leash back on when necessary. I am so glad I taught her the ‘wait’ command all those months ago! There have been one or two tricky moments when we’ve encountered people, but because she’s not restricted by the leash she just makes her own arrangements and walks away very quickly. Admittedly she tries to make her way back home as she knows the route so well now, but on two occasions she has stopped and waited for me when she’s obviously felt less under threat. For a scared dog to wait in a place where she could have encountered more people is amazing to me. So it shows that she does and can think rationally and calmly, I just wish she could remain calm when she sees or hears people. Still progress has been made in the 12 months that she’s been with me, and I look forward to the future with her.

    I can’t tell you how proud I am of her. Once again I think that the relationship we have is everything to her, she follows me all around the house and now will come to me when I call her. Yes she is submissive but I can see her confidence growing as she just recently started to play bow when out at night, for me to chase her around the field.

    She may never lose her fear of people but that won’t stop her from enjoying a life as full as I can make it for her.
    She quite clearly is happier than she’s ever been. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      What a fabulous comment Lizzie! I experienced a similar thing with Sunny, when I decided to let him off leash. Knowing that he can move away from scary things makes it easier for him to be around people and it makes sense doesn’t it.

      Some things to think about-as she begins to become more confident, and you’re seeing it happen all the time, she may develop inappropriate behaviors like barking at or moving toward people even if she’s still afraid of them. I have taught Sunny to move away when he sees something that scares him and he’s inclined to start barking at it, or become aroused and scared by it. If he’s on leash and scary things appear I move him as far away as I can and stand between him and whatever they are. This has made it easier to take him places where we are likely to encounter people. He has learned that the worst is not going to happen.

      Play and exercise are powerful ways to change a brain. For a scared dog that doesn’t feel happy or good on a regular basis it takes practice to get there, but as with everything else, we get better at things we practice. Sounds like that is happening with Gracie.

      Keep working on ‘wait’ it’s a good skill for a scared dog.

      • Lizzie on

        Thanks Debbie,

        I’ll take all you say on board.

        Gracie is not a vocal dog, barking would draw too much attention to her in her past life. She has only barked three times since she’s been with me and she was as surprised as I to hear her voice! Still changes are happening, so anything’s possible.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Hopefully you won’t see it go there, especially if you are careful as to how you subject her to her triggers. I just wanted to put out the idea that a little confidence can be a dangerous thing.

  3. Laurie on

    I can really relate to this post. Once all of my girl’s fears and the degree of those fears started to show themselves, I wasn’t even sure what goals to set. Walking a short distance up the street without her trying to bolt at every parked car first seemed insurmountable.

    The first time I brought out a brush and the frisbee she peed and ran and hid under the table.

    I used low key play and games (voice and demeanor) that she responded to to help develop our bond and begin to boost her overall confidence. I then tackled the fears one by one.

    I really learned to think outside the box through lots of trial and error.

    With the Frisbee after weeks of slow introduction, I finally flipped it upside down and fed her out of it for two weeks. Next time I rolled it across the floor, she was beside herself with excitement. She’s now a Frisbee fanatic.

    I started brushing the cats every day in front of her while she looked on from across the room. I never looked at her and softly crooned to the cats. It wasn’t too many days before she came and sat beside me. One stroke with my hand, then ignored her. Finally, she shoved her head under my arm and I gave her one stroke with the brush. She has been first in line when the brush comes out for a long time now and is now a regular evening ritual we both love.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I love stories like this! You give great examples of how you desensitized your dog to her triggers. It takes time and patience, and as you say, a lot of thinking out of the box!

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