Treats for tricks

One of my responsibilities when I foster a dog is to give them as many skills as possible for making sense of people. This is helpful for any dog but crucial for a fearful dog. Along with teaching a dog basic life skills such as; waiting at open doors or gates, coming when called, getting in and out of cars, getting off of furniture when asked (sorry folks I’m bad, I let them on to begin with), and walking nicely on a leash, I also try to give the dog a few cute tricks to perform. People love dogs that can do tricks, but that’s only part of the reason to do it.

First of all it’s fun. Most dogs enjoy training when rewards are involved. It helps to create positive relationships and associations with people. A dog who is afraid of people but learns that we do all kinds of things with our bodies, hands and voices that lead to a reward, if they can come up with the correct response, may feel less frightened when a new person makes some of those similar movements or sounds. In the big picture it can mean people lead to rewards. It may not happen easily or quickly but over time dogs can learn.

It’s hunting season here in Vermont so it means no walks in the woods. The dogs and I go a bit stir-crazy these couple of weeks so I try to spend more time tossing toys and teaching new behaviors. It’s not the best set-up for training, with each dog having their own agenda, as you can see in the following video, but I do what I can. I also like working with several dogs because it helps them each learn to be ok having other dogs around when food is involved. Fearful dogs are also prime candidates for resource guarding the human they feel good with. They’ll growl or snap at dogs or people who come to close to their person.

And then there’s all the silly talk and kissy face stuff we like to do with dogs. We often can’t help ourselves, but once a dog feels safe with you it can be a great way to get their tails wagging. When I first met Nibbles there was no way I would put my face near his, he was very clear about not feeling good about that! Now he enjoys a good cuddle and thinks silliness is just fine.


18 comments so far

  1. Frances on

    I’ve been following Nibbles’ progress – what an amazing change you’ve made to that little dog’s life! Thank you – you have really helped me to understand just how much we expect of all our dogs, not just the fearful ones, when it comes to coping with our strange, rule filled world and our bizarre and unpredictable behaviour. I first came to your blog because my poodle pup was rather shy, and I wanted to build her confidence – I’ve stayed because although my two are not fearful, your posts remind me of the importance of remembering to the life I share with them from the dogs’ point of view, as well as the human!

  2. perthcyclist on

    I teach mine tricks because it’s such a bonding experience. It also helped Barbie get more confident with the big, scary outside world. Sometimes I just have to marvel at Greyhounds as a breed – they spend the beginnings of their lives in such a limited environment, and yet the majority of them can become confident well adjusted dogs despite their very different start to life.

  3. Rachel on

    I’m curious about the idea that fearful dogs are primed to become people-resource guarders. I’ve actually wondered whether my shy dog has been developing something like this.

    When we go to the dog park, when I pet another dog, Raleigh almost always comes over and gets in between the other dog and I, soliciting attention.

    He doesn’t do the classic resource-guarding behaviors, like growling or piloerection or air-snapping. He seems to have friendly body language the whole time, but I don’t know what would happen if the other dog didn’t drift off (eg he’s never seemed to have a chance to escalate these interactions).

    Pre-resource-guarding or just soliciting attention?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Without seeing a dog it’s impossible to say exactly what is going on, and even then we have all the theories, and the dogs have all the facts. But I’d suggest that there’s nothing coincidental about a dog’s behavior.

      I say they are primed to be resource guarders because often lacking in confidence, things that make them feel safe, are more important to them and so therefore worth protecting.

      Nibbles has shown, from the first time I met him that when he will become aggressive in order to either keep people away. He growled at my husband coming to bed (not anymore) and growls at dogs that try to join us on the bed.

      It can be an easy fix. Just change what the intruder predicts.

  4. Joni on

    Help! I am fostering a fearful/nervous dog and need some advice! Gea is a young border collie – aussie mix female about 7 months old. She is of course an active dog and has some brains. She was adopted out as a puppy at about 3 months old and at that time seemed to be a normal healthy puppy. The people that adopted did not give her any daily exercise and no training at all, not even crate training or how to SIT on command. She was tearing up their house and too active to handle so they returned her.

    I got her late last Sunday evening to foster for a few weeks. I am crate-training her. She is great while I am in the room but as soon as I leave (has separation anxiety) she cries and barks and tries to get out of the crate. The first night this went on for hours. From time to time I would enter the room and tell her to shut the hell up — yes I yelled at her and spayed her with a spray bottle. She finally shut up and went to sleep. But she continues to do this each time I leave. She does not last as long now but it is still a pain and causing problems with the other people in the house as they want her gone so their sleep is not disturbed. Also my son is wake at night and sleeps during the day. Each time he has to go in the room where she is in the crate and then leaves again the barking/whining starts again.

    I am training her with clicker training; walking/running her 3 or 4 times per day. She is doing well with that — a bit on the stubborn side for SIT while she is in the crate before I let her out.

    Her other problem is I don’t think Gea was exposed to enough different dogs. She is fearful of meeting new dogs. She lunges at them barking. Seems to be worst when she is in her crate or behind a fence. She also does this at my ponies and to the neighbors cows (through the fence). Today is Friday and she is still lunging at my dogs from time to time if they make a wrong move or bark at something – like the vultures overhead.

    Any advice to speed up her socialization to dogs and release her separation anxiety?

    Since she seemed a perfectly healthy normal puppy did the people that adopted her and gave her not training, leadership, or socialization with multiple dogs cause these problems with her.

    If I return her she might be consider unadoptable.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Your best bet at this point is to enlist the assistance of professional trainer with experience in reward based training methods. There are no quick fixes for behavior challenges and you are dealing with an adolescent dog who on their best days can be challenging. Where are you located? Maybe I can recommend a trainer in your area.

      In the meantime understand that you have a dog who is likely suffering from culture shock, and is confused and doing the best they can to make sense of their new life. The problem with punishing a dog for inappropriate behavior, is that you might stop the behavior at that moment, but as you’ve seen with the crate crying, it returns. The use of punishment as a training technique means it should work to change the dog’s behavior, permanently. That you have to continue to spray or shout at a distressed dog to get them quiet down (believe me I know how upsetting this is when you’re trying to sleep) means that it’s NOT working and certainly isn’t helping the dog to feel better. You can’t MAKE a dog feel less stressed and anxious by punishing them for feeling that way. If you could however make them feel better you’d probably see a decrease in the crying. In some cases, with a dog who is not compromised by genetics or history, inadequate or inappropriate socialization, you may be able to stop the behavior long enough and see change, but with dogs like yours, it’s obviously not working.

      Is she really being ‘stubborn’? I’d encourage you to read my recent post on Life With Dogs, Stubborn, stupid and just plain nasty. We often describe a dog as being stubborn when in reality they truly do not understand what we are asking of them. We think they understand, because they have performed the behavior in the past, but that alone is not proof they have generalized it to all situations.

      There are ways to help dogs feel better in crates, but they take time and training. Does she have to be crated at night? Could the crate be put in the room with someone at night so she wasn’t alone? Is the amount of time she’s being left in the crate realistic for a young active dog?

      I have no way to tell you what caused her problems, or even to say she has serious problems or is just a young, stressed out border collie without skills. Though if they label her unadoptable they’re serious regardless of whether they are normal or not.

      There may even be a genetic basis for separation anxiety.

    • KellyK on

      Is there the possibility of just letting her sleep in the bed with you? Our foster, Reba, *hates* being left alone and does a lot of frantic yelping while crated. We tried putting the crate in the bedroom, covering the crate, thundershirt, dog appeasement pheremone, but what she really wants is to cuddle.

      It’s really not ideal, because she has to be kept separate from our dog and cats unless they’re supervised, so that means my hubby and I have been sleeping in separate beds in order to have one of us sleep with her in the guest room. But she’s happy, we do actually get to sleep, and it’s not forever. (A big part of the decision for us was that Matt’s brother & his wife, who are applying to adopt her, have always let their dogs sleep at the foot of their bed. So we’re not nearly as worried about making it harder for her eventual adopters by “spoiling” her with a spot on the bed.)

      I definitely agree with the idea of working with a professional trainer one-on-one. The rescue you adopted her through may have someone.

      • KellyK on

        Er, rescue you’re *fostering* her through is what I meant to say.

  5. Catherine McBrien on

    Joni, You’ve come to the right place. Debbie is just amazing and her videos are incredibly instructive on various training techniques.

    When I get a new foster, I crate the dog right next to my bed where I can easily put my hand out to touch the front of the crate. This seems to comfort the dogs and has really helped alleviate crying problems. As the dog becomes more secure I gradually move the crate farther away from my bed and later into another room with other dogs.

    One of my dog’s has moderate SA (really bad in the beginning!) so I know how stressful it can be to deal with the shrieking. Debbie advised me to think of her as an emotional five-year-old and not to have the same expectations of her as I have of my other non-SA dogs whom she likened to ten-year-olds. That advice really helped me to be less frustrated with my SA dog and not to make demands she was emotionally incapable of complying with.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for joining the conversation Catherine. I appreciate your compliment!

      Isolation can be scary to creatures who have evolved to live in a social network. We often need dogs to be crated and enough are successful at it that it’s now become a common expectation of them. Changing how a dog feels about being isolated can take time, time which caregivers may not have.

      Dr. Karen Overall once made a remark to the effect- psychiatry exists because we can’t just kill people suffering from mental illnesses, which is how we deal with dogs.

      Dogs’ brains are sophisticated and complex, which is in part why they have been so successful and why we adore them as much as we do. When they have ‘issues’ the solutions may require more therapy than we are prepared to provide.

      It’s great you have come up with ways to help your own dogs. Hopefully others will get ideas from what you have had success in doing.

  6. Joni on

    11:23 AM 11/28/2011 UPDATE on Gea:

    Gea is improving little by little. She now sleeps throughout the night in her crate without crying or barking even when my son goes into the room then leaves again in

    the middle of the night. She is also doing better around my three dogs but my smallest dog, BooBoo is now afraid of her from all the barking and lunging Gea has done at

    her. Gea is barking less at the ponies through the fence and reacting less to the cows too.

    She is still barking and whining when I go feed the ponies which only takes a few minutes and she is left in the yard — she can view me for most of the time exempt

    when I get the hay. She whines even when she can see me. She has climbed a four foot fence once to get by me.

    I have been giving her a raw beef bone twice a day — when I leave to go to work for a few hours each day to fed my neighbors calves and cows and again right before I

    leave the room she is crated in to go to bed. She has been chewing on the bone and not crying when I leave.

    I live in a very small house with few rooms. I don’t have room in my bedroom for a large dog crate and my little dog BooBoo does not like foster dogs loose in the

    bedroom and neither do I, specially young puppies and teenage dogs that are still in the chewing stage and jump around and knock into my sleeping dogs on their beds.

    Gea is also now doing better if I let her outside (by herself or with two of my dogs). Less crying and scratching at the door the minute I put her out. She will stay

    out for about 5-10 minutes at a time before crying to come back inside.

    I am in Kentwood, Louisiana. I would love to be able to find another foster home for Gea — one that could expose her to more dogs and people on a regular basis. I live

    out in the country on a gravel road with only one other house.

    Gea is very food motivated and will work for dry kibble. I also give her small slices of hot dogs and cut up raw chicken gizzards for treats.

    Here is an online photo album of Gea the Border Collie / Aussie mix dog: Gea –


    I am very thank for for your training advice and everyone else’s input.

    • Catherine McBrien on

      Congrats on Gea’s progress! It sounds like she’s the insecure type who will need long term work on her separation issues. But the fact that she’s made this much progress is a great sign IMO. Debbie will undoubtedly have great advice. I am always in awe of her videos showing calm, stable dogs who certainly did not start out that way! If I win the lottery I’m flying all my dogs across the country for training with Debbie.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks Catherine! Let’s find you a trainer closer to home to save you the expense, and your dogs the stress, of a plane ride 😉

      • Catherine McBrien on

        That would be wonderful to find a trainer who can help me with my dogs’ separation issues. I would love to have somebody help me help them not to be so dependent on me and to act like your dogs!

        As I have mentioned previously, Gracie, the major SA one, is the big-time leader, so all of her very sensitive and volatile compatriots (all semi-feral Taiwan street dogs) really feed off her energy and imitate her behaviors. Unfortunately, I have somewhat adopted a defeatist “they-are-what-they-are” attitude, but thanks to your insight re Gracie, I have become less frustrated with her behavior. Naturally, when I’m calmer, she is calmer.

        Other than their excessive dependence on me, my dogs are really making progress in other facets of their life. Gracie formerly was deathly afraid of children and would literally head for the hills (in a 400-acre nature preserve) if she even heard the faintest sound of a child. The other day she stayed right next to me while off leash when four, noisy toddlers came galumping up the hill straight towards her. I was beaming with pride! She’s also regularly taking treats from strange men who are making eye contact which is also a HUGE accomplishment.

        If you can recommend a trainer who can help ratchet down the my dogs’ unhealthy attachment to me I would be eternally grateful!

      • Debbie on

        Two books to check out regarding sep anx- Nicole Wilde’s Don’t Leave Me Patricia McConnell’s I’ll Be Home Soon

        Debbie Jacobs

      • Catherine McBrien on

        Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll order them right away.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Hopefully as Gea feels more comfortable you’ll continue to see more improvement in her behavior. Maybe BooBoo can get a few treats whenever Gea is around to help change his mind about her.

  7. Joni on

    Sorry, not sure why my message posted chopped up like that.

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