Fearful Dog Fails

2 dogs and people walking in the woods

Sunny gets to decide where he feels most comfortable around people.

One of the reasons I go on like a broken record about the importance of using reward based training methods that have been designed based on the evidence available garnered through the study of animal behavior and research is because working with fearful dogs can be so darn challenging. So challenging that if you don’t start seeing improvements soon you might become frustrated and disillusioned and the dog’s behavior can continue to degrade.

It’s the same reason I repeatedly remind people about behavioral medications that can help the process of changing how a dog feels about things that scare them. The risks of putting a dog on an approved behavioral medication for a few months, following the protocol recommended by a veterinarian, may be fewer than the risks we take by continuing to expose a dog to triggers without them. We can add more fears to a dog’s list of triggers, or further sensitize them to the ones they already have. It’s something to think about.

The gold standard for working with fear based behaviors in dogs is to use a combination of desensitization and counter conditioning. These are easy enough to understand, but not always easy to implement successfully. When a dog’s behavior does not improve, though the handler is employing these techniques, there are some common “fails” that may be occurring.

One common fail is to expose the dog to what scares them at a level that overwhelms them. It could be that the scary object or event is too close, too big, too many, too loud or around too long. Being able to eat treats is not a guarantee that a dog is what we commonly refer to as under threshold. It is possible for a dog to be motivated enough by something, to tolerate something scary or unpleasant to them in order to get it. It’s why it’s not recommended that a dog who is afraid of people be invited to take treats from a stranger. The same way you might be willing to pick up a paycheck every week and still hate your job, a dog may be willing to snatch a treat from someone and still wish they weren’t there. This does not mean that we can’t help a dog who is routinely over threshold, sometimes we have no choice, but until you have a good relationship with a dog and have given them coping skills it’s best to strive for less bothered rather than more.

Another fail is to assume that you are actually counter conditioning a dog to what it is they are afraid of. Our understanding of classical conditioning is based on the work of Pavlov, the man who turned getting dogs to drool into an art form. Classical conditioning is learning by association. We all do it, all the time. Counter conditioning is changing an already established classically conditioned response. A dog who is afraid of ________ learns to love children, loud noises, other dogs, car rides, vacuums, getting their ears cleaned, men with hats, etc. The scary thing which once predicted being scared now predicts cheese or a frisbee toss. It can take countless repetitions for some dogs to get this new association to replace the old one. A handler may be feeding steak in the presence of a trigger for years and not make this switch. The problem may be that the trigger is not what is predicting the treat for the dog.

Life is not always orderly. What can seem obvious to us is not to our dogs. If there is something that is relevant to us we often assume it is relevant to others, and it is not. There can be things and events in the environment that take precedence over another for a dog’s attention. We may be assuming that because we noticed the trigger and fed our dog treats, that the dog will make the association that it was the appearance of the trigger that made the treats appear. This isn’t always the case. Even if the dog notices the trigger it might not be the event in the environment that the dog is learning makes treats appear. If this goes on long enough, you reaching for a treat when a kid on a skate board goes by, the dog may eventually learn to feel ok about the skateboarding kid, but not as quickly as he would if it was the kid on the skate board that predicted the treat, and not your hand movement or that you stopped and turned in a particular direction.

Another common fail is that whatever is being used to counter condition is simply not good enough. Many dogs will eat anything, any time. I have no trouble motivating my dogs for a training session using treats, after they’ve had a meal. This is not true of all dogs, but by my dogs’ reactions to seeing me gather up training paraphernalia; clicker, treats, target stick, toys, bait bag, you’d think they’d never had a square meal in their lives. One of the reasons for this is that it’s not just the food that they enjoy. Figuring stuff out is fun for dogs too. But when you are working with a dog who is really afraid of something whatever you are offering them to create a positive association, needs to be amazin. Sometimes this is tough, and is why we combine counter conditioning with desensitization, to tip the scales in our favor. Suffice to say if someone wanted me to feel good about seeing Rush Limbaugh walk into a room they’d have to take out a loan. It’s not always easy to change how a dog feels about something or someone.

As the dog’s emotional responses change we can increase the level of their exposure to a trigger and we may find that what used to require filet mignon to get a tail wag only requires a smile and word of praise from us to get a positive response from our dog. If what you are doing isn’t working, it’s not that the process of desensitization and counter conditioning doesn’t work, it’s that your technique may need some work.

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19 comments so far

  1. Annie on

    Thank you for this. I am giving my dog Bella her favorite treat whenever it thunders, I think I am on the right track because she seems less upset and it gets her attention off the thunder. I won’t know for sure until thunder season really kicks in, but I am hopeful. xoxo

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Sounds like a good plan. Time and storms will tell!

    • PureSnickety on

      Annie, if you have a smartphone or something similar, look for free white noise apps. They almost always have the sound of a thunderstorm so you can plan your training before the stormy season hits.

  2. Natasha on

    There is not enough money, or chocolate, that would make me feel better about seeing Rush Limbaugh. He would have to change his ways, apologize to everyone he has hurt, raise money for every cause I could think of…. Is it going to be that hard with my doggie? *sigh* Toss us a little hope!

    • fearfuldogs on

      It depends Natasha. We may find someone offensive and disgusting, scared dogs often find their triggers life threatening. Don’t despair, just keep DS/CC.

      • Natasha on

        Hee, I was pulling your chain a little. Every time we make a comparison to human situations, some jerk shows us that it doesn’t follow. But at that point it doesn’t matter. And as you say, the dog sees it as life threatening. We must keep that in the forefront.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Hands off my chain! 😉

  3. 2 Punk Dogs on

    Duke is our little chunky punk, he loves to eat anything, EXCEPT when he’s stressed. Just going to a new place makes him shake, he gets over threshold very easily. There’s no chance of him accepting a treat, not even cheese or chicken, so we know he’s starting to calm down when he finally takes a treat from us. 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Good to learn your dog’s signals. When a chunky punk doesn’t eat, that’s something to think about!

  4. Laura Gail Grohe on

    Thank you! I have found it helpful to get another set of eyes on what I’m doing with my fearful dog. His progress is so slow that I usually cannot see it, but when someone who has not been around us in a month sees him I get to hear how much he has improved. The way he needs treats to keep working, I need affirmation of our success to keep slogging along.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a slow process but it can continue for the life of the dog, they can improve forever. Sounds like you are doing a great job.

      • Laura Gail Grohe on

        On most days I have faith that Dante will continue to improve. Reading your blog (and book) help to remind me of just how absurdly slow this can be. My newest trick is to think of him as a skittish cat–I mean really, who expects a shy cat to go out into the world and be social? It keeps my daily expectations lower.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        I think the cat analogy is apt. People leave cats alone and if they get scratched or bitten by one they are more understanding.

  5. lynnandollie on

    Reblogged this on Faith, Trust, & Foster Pups and commented:
    We get quite a good bit of insight from Debbie Jacobs’ Fearful Dog Blog. Debbie’s recent post on Fearful Dog Fails helped me reassess some of our own Fearful Dog Foster Fails.

    There is something to be gained from milestone moments, and moments when you feel like you have miles and miles to go. So here’s to making the most of each moment, and continuing to learn together, leash in hand.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing!

      • lynnandollie on

        Thank you for writing it and all your guidance for those of us out there working with these special pups. “Life is not always orderly” was certainly a true lesson last week, as we had two separate evenings working on CC/DS out on our walks, clearly with varying stress levels, and at different times of day. Day one was met with great success, day two not so much. It goes to show how sensitive he is, and how like with dominoes, all it takes is one tiny piece to be out of place to mess up the chain of success. I sure felt like a failure. But like you say, becoming frustrated or disillusioned doesn’t help anyone, so we pick ourselves up, learn from our mistakes, and keep moving forward with courage, understanding, and love in our hearts.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Thanks so much for this comment Lynn, I appreciate it. And if nothing else these dogs help redefine “patience” for us!

  6. Bob Ryder on

    Terrific overview of CC/D. I was fortunate last night. As a thunderstorm rolled trough, I woke up to find Daisy stressed but under threshold. I grabbed some nearby high value treats and waited for each lightening flash and thunderclap, treating immediately afterwards. Although I was sleepy, I don’t believe I’m going too far in saying I was getting a few CERs by the end of the storm. Also, loved the RL / loan analogy. =-D

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      So glad you were ready for the storm! I usually try to be careful about political comments but he seemed like a safe bet 😉


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