Put distance seeking behavior on cue

woman sitting with dog outside in a kennelWhen we have a dog who is afraid of people we often focus on getting the dog to move closer to them. What we should be focusing on is encouraging the dog to do whatever makes them feel more comfortable around us. If whenever I stand up, lean or move toward a dog, and that dog moves away, I will put the moving away behavior on cue. The behavior is actually already on cue, my movement is a signal to the dog to get away from me, so what I do is change the cue. This can be helpful when we have a fearful dog living in our home with us.

To change a cue is a simple process, present the new cue then the old cue. With enough repetition the dog learns that the new cue predicts the old cue and begins to respond to the new cue as soon as it is presented. In the case of training a behavior like ‘sit’ we can eventually drop the old cue. This is a fun activity to do with any dog and how trainers come up with cute tricks. Instead of saying ‘sit’ they hold up a sign with the word ‘sit’ on it and the dog appears to be able to read. With fearful dogs the old cues may never be faded, we may continue to stand up out of chairs or walk in a dog’s direction, but they can lose their potency for causing a fearful response.

Let’s say when you take a step toward a dog she skitters away (keep in mind that moving away can also be a polite response from a dog who is not afraid). The dog may be startled or experiences fear by your movement and goes to a place where they feel less afraid. By helping a dog learn to predict your movements you can lower the level of fear they experience. I use a hand gesture and say ‘go on’. What you choose to do or say is less important than being consistent with it. You can also use a treat tossed away from you to prompt the behavior and put distance between the two of you before you move. The hand movement of tossing a treat can morph into the cue.

After giving the ‘new’ cue, I move. In time the dog learns to move away from me before I take a step toward them. When I do move they are already in a place they feel safer and don’t experience the same hit of fear they did before when I moved and they were closer to me. At this point I can toss them a treat or ignore them. By cuing the dog to get some distance before I move I am removing a startling, scary experience, one which is associated with me. With enough practice this causes two important things to occur 1) they learn they will be forewarned before something scary is about to happen, this helps to lower stress and anxiety 2) their response to me moving is no longer based on fear, the dog will position themselves in the place they need to be for the desensitization and counter conditioning process to continue.

In time the dog may choose not to move as far away, or not move at all. When a treat has been added to the mix moving away becomes a positive experience for the dog and is no longer colored by fear. Eventually we may find that if we don’t cue the behavior and simply move toward the dog they no longer have a negative response at all because all our movement ever predicted was that a treat would be tossed to them.

I’ll be talking about this and other techniques for living with and training a fearful dog on January 21, 2012 at No Monkey Business Dog Training in Bow NH. Find more information here.

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14 comments so far

  1. Marta on

    That is a very unconventional but rather ingenious tactic! I never would have thougt of it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Anything that helps a dog predict what the future will bring is helpful 🙂

  2. honeysjourney on

    Wow Debbie, I never thought about the move away cue in working with my girl. She already knows to move away, so now I’ll do what you recommend, see a old coot can learn a new thing or two, thank you for this post.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If an old coot can suggest the idea, no reason an old coot can’t learn it 😉

  3. Tena @ Success Just Clicks on

    I’m doing something like this with a dog right now who is fearful but reactive when people “change heights” so we are working to teach him “beep beep” to get him to back away before people “change heights” so he’s under threshold when it happens (by having more space between him and the trigger after he backs away). We’ve been having some nice successes with it!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yes, that’s exactly how I use it as well. When I’m sitting I’m not as scary as when I’m standing or getting up. Anything that helps the dog predict what is going to happen next is helpful. With my dog who startles at novel objects I’ll do the same thing if I’m going to pick something up. We’ve done it enough that now he’ll stick around and check it out if I offer it to him. It’s kind of fun to come up with positive solutions to these fear based behavior challenges isn’t it?

  4. Bassas Blog on

    Great post. I found your blog via Dogdaz and I am very pleased I stopped by to say hi – you have a wonderful and informative blog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for saying and for stopping by for a read.

  5. Donna in VA on

    This post was really informative. I had not thought of “pre-cueing” in such specific terms but it’s a good explanation. It’s a good reason why we are taught to say the dog’s name before a comand – I find his comprehension and compliance rate is much better by using his name first. I do this because I was taught to. I notice others don’t (family) and don’t get the same compliance rate that I do.

    I also find the command “move” very helpful. Max understands and will move away from his current place if I tell him to.

    Have you used or do you use a post-cue when a surprise event occurs – to let the dog know that it was OK, even though a surprise? Something like “Oopsie!” meaning that it was not dangerous after all so come on back (maybe with a treat)?

  6. Ned (@bordercolliedog) on

    This is a really neat post and a heck of an idea on the “new cue” to put the dog on notice something is going to happen. Really interesting stuff.

  7. Catherine McBrien on

    I agree with Ned. Great ideas re giving the dog advance notice of the scary thing.

  8. Helen P. (Whiskered Paintings) on

    Wow. That was fascinating. Thanks for the insight!

  9. Kate on

    Oh, this is terrific! I’m actually in the middle of making a video about teaching my nervous kelpie to go around behind me when I walk towards him, because he does leap out of the way in a hurry, especially in a narrow area. He waits until the last minute and then panics. 😦 Instead of just walking at him, I started giving him an (already learnt) cue to go behind me (he goes out to the side, around behind me, and then walks with me if he wishes, or else lies down again/wanders off), and that’s helped enormously. I LOVE this idea of yours though!


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