Desperately seeking distance

scared dog fleeingDuring a seminar I suggested that people with fearful dogs reward their dogs for moving away from what scares them. Did I mean reward them for trying to flee? For many this flies in the face of what their goal for the dog is. Don’t we want to get dogs closer to what scares them? Well, yes, and no.

Working with any dog is a process and throughout that process the dog’s behavior changes, at least that’s what we’re hoping for. But sometimes the changes are not necessarily what we’d like. As a fearful dog gains confidence we may see happy, eager to engage behavior toward a trigger. Or we may see a dog who with some confidence discovers that they are more willing to be assertive and express what they truly feel, which for some dogs is, GET AWAY FROM ME! It’s that ‘get away from me’ behavior that can become dangerous for a dog and whatever they are concerned about.

Unless you know with surety that a fearful dog is going to end up loving a trigger, you take a risk whenever you encourage them to get closer to it. Early on with Sunny I used to take him for off leash walks on a wooded trail near town. When people appeared he would run off into the woods, sometimes barking. As time went on he became bolder and I remember thinking how much progress he was making when he no longer chose to run off into the woods, but instead followed after people for a bit. But I also remember having a flash of doubt at what was really going on. Was he truly just investigating them? Was that head lift toward the jacket tied around their waist a sniff or had he tried to get his mouth on it? Because he had never shown any aggressive behavior toward me or my husband, nor had any of the people who had handled him previously mentioned aggression, it was not a consideration I kept in the front of my mind. I do now.

I am not suggesting that we never work with our dogs to increase their comfort level when in closer proximity to their triggers. It’s how we go about it that matters. Suzanne Clothier’s treat/retreat technique provides dogs with the opportunity to practice moving closer to a trigger while never removing the option to move away from it. When we take the option to move away from something scary, a dog may hunker down and suck it up, hating every second of it, some may be ok with it and figure out that it’s not as horrible as they expected it would be, but there will be some who will respond aggressively in order to make the exposure end. Don’t ever eliminate ‘move away’ from a dog’s repertoire of behavior choices.

Ultimately our dogs need to learn skills for dealing with what scares them, if only peripherally. But how we get them there matters. The ability to decrease proximity between themselves and a trigger is not necessarily proof of success. You may be willing to go into work and pick up your paycheck and still hate your boss. Or the work you do. People are not the only animals that can go ‘postal‘.

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23 comments so far

  1. Nancy Freedman-Smith on

    agree!! plus often people have their fearful dogs leashed and they can’t choose flight which leaves only flight. yesterday a student was holding my pretty well adjusted 20 wk old foster pup Tang when a homeless guy came at him really weird. He tried to back off and she tightened the leash which left me yelling from across the park ” LET HIM BACK UP!!!” she totally made it worse. Had I been holding him it would have been a non issue. He would have backed up, i would have stepped between him and the scary man and everyone would have been happy. ‘as it turned out, it became an “issue”. Homeless guy stuck around and helped him through it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Nancy. Makes me think about shy chi living with me. There are things I do automatically that help him feel more comfortable. Usually subtle shifts in my posture that many people who have never been blessed with a dog for whom stuff like that matters, might never think to do.

  2. ettel on

    That’s very similar to Grisha Stewart’s BAT where you reinforce a dog for a calming signal by giving it distance from whatever it’s worried about. I’ve seen really amazing results using these methods – and it’s been used forever with horses (who are more flighty than dogs).

    • fearfuldogs on

      I see how it might be like BAT except no specific behavior is required for dog to be given a reward. But like BAT it probably serves to lower a dog’s stress and may help with developing resiliency to scary episodes. My main reason for advocating it is the least it might do is prevent aggression and that will keep a dog alive, hopefully long enough to develop more skills.

  3. Leslie Olyott (@leslie42363) on

    Thank you for this. Working with our fearful dog, we try to keep every option available to her including “run away!” If it prevents her from feeling she has to defend herself, it’s a legitimate coping skill in our play book.

    I’ve found she’s more inclined to check things out knowing she can still bolt if she thinks she has to. She’s also decided that behind us is a safe place from which to peek at new things so she now runs towards us rather than away from the scary things.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Not being in control of oneself is stressful. Makes me believe that having control is less stressful. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  4. sara on

    My dog’s m.o. is to flee from scary things. Yesterday, we had a stranger come to our house, and he fled immediately to his crate in our bedroom. I was pretty darn proud of him for seeking out a safe spot for himself, and rewarded him with cheese! Then, I thought, should I be rewarding him for hiding?

    • fearfuldogs on

      More likely you were addressing the dog’s emotional response not the behavior. If people arriving means cheese is delivered, people arriving might not be such a bad thing afterall.

    • KellyK on

      Hey, if the dog wants to hide, hiding is a valid response. I wouldn’t worry about reinforcing it. If he decides to sit or do some other behavior you like when someone comes over, you could reward that too.

  5. Marta (@smorty) on

    Wow! This was eye opening, again!
    Now I understand some things I was wondering about with my dog.
    I’ll try rewarding backing up in certain situations!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I agree with what Kelly says about not worrying about reinforcing a dog’s efforts to gain some space or distance. The worst that could happen is that your dog gets something good to eat and learns a new trick. It will not teach them to be afraid of something.

  6. Alan on

    Even though I need to keep her on a leash when I have Dany D. Dog out on walks, I try to make sure she can move away from scary things.

    Today Dany made a “liar” out of me! I took her to the vet. She refused to go near the door so I had to pick her up and carry her in. She was very agitated with the other dogs around and I had to pick her up and put her on the scale to get her weight.

    Then, it was on into the exam room and within a couple of minutes, she “transformed” into a very happy, relaxed, friendly dog! I told the vet assistant all about her behavior problems and when the vet came in, I told her too but Dany was still acting as if she was just the happiest doggie in the world and everybody was her buddy!

    I got the vet to watch the video I had made of Dany on and off leash so she could see the behaviors I had told them about…good thing I uploaded it to YouTube!

    The end result was that the vet suggested low doses of Prozac and after it has time to take effect, the help of a behaviorist.

    Once we left the vet’s office, Dany again exhibited her fearful behavior. I’ll keep following the advice here and the advice of the vet.

    Again, thank you for your blog!

  7. Joan Sinden on

    My dog’s mo is to chase after people and try to nip at them and bark and bite them as an expression of his fear and lack of socialization – so what I’ve been doing is carrying treats and whenever he starts to look at a person I will say – “do you want a treat” or if he looks at me I just bend over in the treat giving position and start giving him treats until the person (trigger) has passed.

    If he ignores the person – I don’t do anything, I just let him be. I don’t give or offer any treats.

    I’m trying to have him associate good things happening with the people that trigger fear in him for whatever reason.

    We’ve been doing it for a couple weeks now and he’s started to look at the people and then look at me – expecting the treat to follow which I’m hoping is a good thing.

    My goal is that he will ignore everyone – even ghettoes of people he was initially afraid of.

    For some background he was in a puppymill for the first six months of his life and missed all his human imprinting. He’s super bonded to me – but that’s about it. My Dad lives with me and it took 2 months before he could touch him.

    He’s 9 months old now and also goinginto canine adolescence – so it’s hard to know what is behavioral damage and what is being an asshole teenager!

    I’m trying very hard not to flood him though and train him through desensitization and counter-conditioning instead – I’d like a happy healthy dog at the end of the process.

    Joan in Halifax Nova Scotia

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds good Joan. The process is a lot like Leslie McDevitt’s Look At That. One thing you might add to the mix is to work on noticing and rewarding ANY attention or eye contact your dog gives you, anytime. It helps to practice this behavior when not under pressure so when the heat is turned up, it’s easy for a dog to do. Giving these dogs a solid foundation of skills helps so much. Enjoy! He won’t be an adolescent forever and hopefully not an asshole for long. 😉

  8. Gena on

    Wow, this was interesting to read!

    My dog is a bit like Joan’s. She was born on the streets and then spent 6 months in a dog pound. When I got her (she was 7 months old), she bonded very quickly with me and my boyfriend. My dog loves, loves, loves other dogs but is very suspicious of people she does’nt know. (In her book, KNOWING a person means that she has met them at least 4-5 times. Then she likes that person very much.) In the first weeks she showed her fear towards people by avoiding them and I let her do so. When she had got a little more confidence, she started to lunge at people. She has also nipped them once or twice indoors. I’ve been doing the same thing as Joan – associating people with treats – and it has been working. But I still don’t trust my dog indoors. It seems that walls exacerbate her behaviour. (Suprisingly, she behaves very well on a bus where strange people come and go in front of her.)

    Since my dog has responded well to treating, do you think that ultimately she will forget her fear towards strangers? I have had her for a year now and I would like to think that more years will do her good 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Here’s how I think about fear based behaviors. For some dogs they will always be there, like never ‘forgetting’ how to ride a bike. It’s a response that never disappears from their repertoire, it gets covered over by other more appropriate behaviors that become solid, the more the dog practices them. BUT put too much pressure on the dog and those old responses come back. A big piece of this is also giving the dog skills to use in situations, along with using DS/CC to change emotional responses.

      Without a crystal ball (which I’d also use to choose stocks) I couldn’t say what will happen with your dog in the future, but progress is always an option.

      You might start doing some research into the BAT protocol.

  9. KellyK on

    This is a really good post, and very true.

    We had friends over last night, and Diamond’s usual mo is a lot of alert barking, then retreating to the bedroom, then eventually coming out and usually cautiously approaching people. Last night, we never got past the “retreat” stage. She ventured into the hallway a couple times, but that was it. (I’m pretty sure the fact that we had an earthquake stressed her out just a bit!)

    Lesson learned, I guess, is that things that are only mildly triggering become huge triggers after other stress, and it’s even more important for the dog to be able to retreat.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Kelly. Apparently we had an earthquake too. Wasn’t home to notice any difference in my dogs. Would have been interesting.

      • KellyK on

        I wasn’t home either, so I’m only guessing that it was the earthquake that caused the different behavior. Seems like a reasonable guess, becuase it sure scared *me,* but I don’t have a crystal ball either. 🙂

  10. Donna in VA on

    This is interesting on many levels. I like “retreat” better than “flee” – which to me implies running in blind terror 3 miles into the woods. I am happy with a pause, wanting to go around, or not wanting to go a certain way. Max actually wanted to cross the street last week to avoid a dog he didn’t like the look of, so we did. It is his choice, and he is OK now 98% of the time with another dog approaching. But there will always be the exception and I let him decide. Fortunately he has become easier to read over time.

    I really enjoyed the videos of the foster dog. But I am wondering how you would go about transferring his trust and confidence around you to another person. Does the 2nd person follow the same methods in the same order? Do you expect the process to be faster with the 2nd person because the dog knows what to expect/learn having done the exercises with the 1st person? I would be interested in a post or discussion on this.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a good question Donna. Some dogs will find it difficult to bond with anyone beyond their primary caregiver. It doesn’t mean they can’t, but it can require a lot more positive exposure for them to generalize that good feeling to all people. What I am trying to do with Nibs and any dog is give them positive experiences and some skills, and to create some predictability for them. So if another person takes on Nibbles and behaves in similar ways that I have, such as not trying to touch him or pick him up, he can learn to predict that nothing horrible is going to happen. He has also learned that sitting on cue gets him a treat AND nothing bad happens. We can give him more skills like that including walk nicely on a leash, come when called.

      Nibbles seems to have the potential to become comfortable with a variety of people, so long as they don’t blow his trust by overwhelming him. He actually really enjoys being pet and played with. He is being boarded while I’m away and has bonded with his caregiver there. In time his fearful responses will likely diminish. My dog Sunny can be ok around people because he can predict that they will not try to handle him, but he will remain a dog who is not likely to ever want to be handled by other people. It’s too distressing for him, though he can tolerate enough to be examined by vets, target some people for frisbee tosses, and bark and insist they toss stones into the water for him.

      Being comfortable with people is a skill that is learned early on. We see similar kinds of challenges in children who were not handled as babies. The ability to bond with another creature seems to be something that requires early opportunities to practice it. We can do remedial work on it but for some animals they’ll never be very good at it. Nibbles will be I think. Six years of living with Sunny has shown me that he probably won’t ever be. But hope springs eternal.

  11. Lizzie on

    My experience with Gracie is,that she has learnt various skills through repetition and rewards and is now able to predict, by the routine that we maintain, that nothing scary will happen by doing this. Of course I can’t control the world at large so when we are out my prime job is to keep her calm, to enable her to take instruction if and when necessary.

    Recently the most wonderful thing is that she is now able to be led by my husband on a short walk, and so long as he follows the ‘rules’ that Gracie has learnt, she will go willingly with him, and even shows him what the route is and where to stop for various reasons! Obviously she does know him, and is still not totally comfortable around him, but this just goes to show that fearful dogs are able to learn new skills and in some instances can adapt to other people as well.

    But, like Sunny, she will never be a dog who enjoys being around people, however her life is enriched now, and I am happy with that.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have a big smile on my face Lizzie! Yay for all of you.


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