Tread lightly

snowshoeing on a frozen pondThere seems to be a rash of redemption videos making the rounds online. Dogs who once fearful are transformed into confident, huggable dogs by the deft handling and/or love of their savior. The savior varies, from well-intentioned pet owner to professional dog handler, of one kind or another. One thing most of these videos have in common is the use of confrontational handling techniques to work with the dog. So what? you might ask. What does it matter if we can grab a tissue and feel good that another dog has been ‘saved’.

Imagine you have a kid. You’ve tried for ages to get them to go out and get a job. Then one day they come home waving a fistful of cash, lawfully gained waiting tables, shoveling driveways, or some other ‘job’. Now imagine they come home waving the cash and proclaiming that they robbed a convenience store. Does how they got the money matter to you? I hope so. How we get behaviors from dogs matters to me too. As much as I might like the outcome, if we can achieve the same end without adding to a dog’s stress and fear, I’m all for that.

The points I would like to make, so you can finish up and go for a walk with your dogs are these:

1. There are handling techniques that will achieve the same, or better, ends as many of these videos with dogs being forced into interacting with people.

2. Low stress handling doesn’t have to take longer. If a dog’s behavior is going to improve by being forced to interact with someone, they will also improve if we work in gentler, less confrontational ways. And besides, what’s the big rush anyway? Many of these dogs have spent years in a cage or months roaming the streets, why is it we need to overwhelm them in the first hours or days we have them?

3. Know what you are looking at. Skilled handlers understand that aggression in dogs is often suppressed when they are afraid. That dog whose eyes seemed closed in bliss, their ears down, leaning into the wall, is not having a revelation about the joys of being pet, they’re scared. They may be submitting but they’re not calm.

We need to look at behavior in context. Is that paw raise an appeasement gesture, a request to have you keep scratching their ears or are they pointing out a bird in the bushes?

We must consider the dog we are interacting with. Have they had the opportunity to develop any skills with people? If they have not, we should not assume that forcing handling on them is like a Berlitz class in ‘human’- speak human in 2 easy lessons or your money back, guaranteed.

4. The rest of the story. We don’t often see it. We don’t know how that dog is reacting after the camera stops rolling. Novice and inexperienced handlers, believing that forcing a dog to be handled is the cure for fearfulness, overwhelm dogs. They get bitten, or believing in the cure are surprised when the dog snaps at a stranger.

Here in New England if you come across a frozen pond during a hike it’s best not to race across it assuming that the ice is thick enough to support you. To do so would be foolhardy and potentially deadly. When interacting with a fearful, shy or anxious dog, tread lightly, you may not be able to see the cracks in the ice.


26 comments so far

  1. rangerskat on

    As usual, very well put. I could force Finna to submit to handling by my husband but submitting is not at all the same as accepting. I want her to reach the point where she understand that he is not the scary monster that lives in the house and instead recognizes him as another person who is a source of things that she likes. I can’t believe that she’s ever going to get to that point if I force her to endure something that clearly terrifies her rather than creating opportunities for her to develop other positive associations with him. I don’t want her thinking “Oh, no! It’s the scary monster, I’m going to have to let him touch me.” I want her thinking “Hey, it’s the cool guy. That means yummy fun stuff is on the way.” I’m convinced that the underlying emotion has to repaired not suppressed and forcing her to endure something that scares her isn’t going to do anything to repair the underlying emotions.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Many go on the premise that if something happens to a scared dog, or that dog sees it happen to another dog, and it’s ok, that the scared dog will learn it’s ok for them as well. I wish. I could watch 100 people jump out of a plane and still be afraid to do it myself. If you tossed me out to discover the joy of the experience don’t expect me to talk to you again, even if it wasn’t so bad.

      • KellyK on

        Yeah, same here. If you throw me out of a plane, I might learn that skydiving is fun, or I might learn that I hate it. I will definitely learn that I don’t trust you, particularly not near airplanes.

      • rangerskat on

        Well put KellyK. If sky diving is something I think I might like to do and I see a hundred people jump out of a plane and clearly having fun it very well might help me work up my courage to try it myself. If you toss me out of the plane though I’m never trusting you again no matter whether it was fun or not. I refuse to risk the trust I’ve gained by forcing my scared dog to do something. Even if she ended up enjoying it the fact that she was forced into it would damage the trust we’ve built up and that cost is too high to pay.

  2. MelF on

    Was kinda wondering if you were going to write about this. Your reaction wasn’t much different than mine. Been stewing on it all day.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Well don’t let me stop you Mel, start scribbling! 😀

      • MelF on

        🙂 Maybe later today. Gog park then groomer this morning.

  3. 2 Punk Dogs on

    The shelter we adopted Maggie from recommended a trainer that they said “all dogs loved.” The person I talked to said that he didn’t use force and made it seem like he could “fix” her quickly. He was a tall man and Maggie was scared to death of him, worse than she was with my husband.

    He was very low key, but used flooding techniques that caused her to shut down. It seemed like he was more used to dealing with aggressive dogs than shy ones, especially dogs who were fearful of men. It almost seemed like a wasted visit, except it showed my husband that she wasn’t so much afraid of him in particular, but men in general. When I next talked to the person at the shelter she sounded disappointed that Maggie wasn’t immediately transformed by the trainer. I think she watches too much TV.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Even many trainers are not aware of the difference between a dog who is willingly and without damaging stress, allowing something to happen to them compared to a dog who is so overwhelmed by what is going on they simply stop responding. It works for some possums and is also a technique employed in many vet clinics and grooming salons, unfortunately.

      • 2 Punk Dogs on

        Maggie was obviously fearful, walking hunched over with her tail clamped between her legs. The trainer thought that having her walk around the house attached to him or my husband by a leash would help her get over her fear of men. She was so pitiful that we knew it was a bad idea.

        Luckily we have a vet who makes house calls, so the dogs don’t have the stress of going to an office. She always notices how nervous they are, even though they are very well behaved. The last time she was here they took treats from her when she was done, which was a first.

        I doubt that we will ever take them to a groomer, as they have short fur and I clip their nails. It took a while to desensitize them to the nail trimmer. They are so used to getting treats while I trim their nails that they now come running to sit in the bathroom when we start trimming the cats’ nails. Duke will poke me with his nose to try and get the treats faster.

  4. justthreadtwiddling on

    Thank you. That was well-written, and made clear, valid points.

  5. May Montesa Curran on

    Excellent post!

  6. neighbornancy on

    I concur! Thank you! Those of us with dogs who are fearful of multiple things and have had some success with being patient and using other techniques know better. It is a slow process, but we are learning together how to build trust – not only in the easily controlled environment, but in the outside world too. Our rescued Weimaraner has been with us for 6 months; he is just beginning to approach strange men to sniff them. It is wonderful to see.

    That he leaves the safety of his hiding place under my desk and will sit calmly at my feet when I watch tv – without even being asked – still feels like a miracle. He will even play with toys now! He may always be afraid of abrupt movements, loud noises and even his shadow, but we rejoice in each and every success.

    • fearfuldogs on

      That startle reflex is a hard one to ever erase, but the lower the overall anxiety a dog experiences on a daily basis, along with practice at calming down sure helps. We help by providing them something positive after a fright, food or distraction. They may always startle but it can be less intense and they recover more quickly.

      Use caution when allowing fearful dogs to go close to something. It must be a super good experience for them. Some will gain just enough confidence to get close to something and then bite it. 😦 Your getting that info from the horse’s mouth.

  7. Lizzie on

    You can’t ‘train’ fear out of a dog. Nuff said!!!

    • MelF on

      Or force it out either. Amen Lizzie!

  8. maggie68d on

    Well said . Im dealing with fear issues. Some better some not

  9. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    I must have missed the videos amid everything here. Sounds like I’m glad that I did.

    • fearfuldogs on

      They’re everywhere. Recently started up again with the little white dog in the vet clinic.

  10. kate on

    Very well said. I have a very fearful brussels griffon rescue. I have seen her shut down when forced to do things of course I could force her and allow her to shut down, she is small and very passive, but why would I want to make my dog feel worse. Id like to make her feel better

  11. KellyK on

    Know what you are looking at. Skilled handlers understand that aggression in dogs is often suppressed when they are afraid. That dog whose eyes seemed closed in bliss, their ears down, leaning into the wall, is not having a revelation about the joys of being pet, they’re scared. They may be submitting but they’re not calm.

    Absolutely. There’s a difference between relaxed and shut down from sheer terror, and it’s not immediately obvious.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s not even obvious to many after days of interaction 😦

  12. Theresa Liddle on

    I have a 6 month old Springer puppy. He is very fearful of people and is now starting to exhibit some aggressive behaviors now. I am doing the training classes, all POSITIVE, no negative at all. If he doesn’t do it “correctly” I just say “oops” and we try again. I find it has helped his confidence level and he has learned to love some people, just not all. My problem I notice now is he is getting “growly” at anyone coming up to my desk. He lays under my desk and it’s a problem I guess. He has a fantastic home life and loves all of us (Mom, Dad & Daughter). I do the “nothing for free” method and started that to deter any future aggression but I guess that may not be doing the trick. I’m worried to say the least. My last springer was the best dog anyone could ever have as well as were the ones I grew up with so this is all new to me. I never make him do anything that scares him. I go slow with things like rolling windows down in the car so he gets used to those sounds along with the house windows too.

    He is a barker too. Heck, he digs, barks & jumps on people. If I’m not mistaken, all anxiety issues. He is smart as a whip though and doing well with obedience. Again, I go slow with him and try to make it fun for him. The people he trusts, he absolutely adores and is all over them. The others he barks at. He really is such a sweety in so many ways. I have noticed if he comes into the room and you’re already there he is much more confident than if he’s there and you enter.

    Anyway, any suggestions would be helpful. I am so worried about him. I am willing to accept him for who he is, but I need to curb the barking and aggressive/growling at people coming to my desk.

    Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Preventing fearful dogs from sliding into aggression is always a challenge, since it is common. You are right to try to address this now as you are approaching the age when it can become worse.

      I would suggest that you check out some resources.

      MINE! by Jean Donaldson, a protocol for resource guarding.
      Look At That! a protocol popularized by Leslie McDevitt in her book Control Unleashed
      BAT by Grisha Stewart of

      One of the things that’s helpful to keep in mind, and which the NILF protocol does not help with, is that when we are dealing with inappropriate behaviors in dogs we often should be addressing the emotion, especially fear, and not the behavior. If we wait for a dog to perform a behavior in exchange for a reward we may have to wait a long time, and while that is happening the dog’s arousal or distress ramps up.

      Try this as an experiment. Get a handful of super special treats. Say yes! (or if you’ve been using another marker word or even better, clicker, use that) and toss the dog a treat repeat 2 dozen times. Then have those treats with you all the time, but don’t use them for anything other than this experiment. When someone comes near your dog and your dog looks at them, even growls at them, say yes! and toss him a treat. Don’t let anyone get too close. If the barks do the same thing, yes! have a treat. If he barks again, do the same thing. Again, same thing. What you should see is the dog beginning to spend more time, measured in seconds, looking at you and not the trigger. As soon as this happens say yes! and toss a treat. If he barks again, yes! treat. When I have dogs who do this I say ‘thank you!’not because they know what I mean but because it changes how I sound compared to trying to get them to stop or be quiet. I don’t want my own reaction to contribute to their distress.

      Dogs react to changes in the environment. When someone’s already in the room the environment doesn’t change the way it does when someone walks in.

      It’s a lot of treat tossing. As far as learning theory goes you are switching between classical and operant conditioning.

      • Theresa Liddle on

        Ok, thank you so much. I will definitely try your method. I have been doing essentially that but I have been treating when he doesn’t bark or growl as opposed to does. I do use the word “yes” as it’s short, sweet and to the point. I make sure it’s in a positive tone too.

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