Want Some Candy Little Girl?

wooden swing bridge in vermont with a dog on it and a dog waiting a other endOne of the often misused techniques for getting new behaviors from fearful dogs is luring. And the most often used lure is food. Besides being unfair, it can backfire, big time.

The unfair part of it is that dogs need to eat. It’s one thing to bait a trap to catch a dog and count on the dog’s hunger to be motivating enough to get them into the trap. It’s another thing to try to draw a dog closer to something that scares them in order for them to get food for training purposes. Dogs who are fearful are often also anxious. They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. The world is unpredictable and scary. Sometimes people approach them and force them to do something they’d rather not do. They are chronically stressed. Eating may be the only time their brain actually gets the chance to feel good.

Using food to lure dogs into performing behaviors, such as going up or down stairs, walk on unfamiliar surfaces or approaching a scary person can backfire if during the process of getting or eating the food, the dog is startled. So instead of getting the beauty of counter conditioning we have taught the dog to be suspect of food because it predicts something scary might happen. We have lost one of the most powerful tools we have in the rehabilitation of fearful dogs- food. The use of food as a lure in training dogs who are not afraid does not present the same risks, though it’s to our benefit to “fade the lure” as soon as possible and switch to using it as a reward.

There are other ways we can take advantage of a dog’s fears inappropriately, in order to coax behaviors from them. As usual, each situation will be different and trainers, using their brains and understanding the implications and potential negative fall out of any technique they employ, can decide whether or not to use them.

In order to access the snowmobile trails in the woods across the river we have to cross a swing bridge. Crossing it is a scary proposition for many people and dogs. When I am out on a walk with the dogs it’s not unusual for a new dog in the group to get to the bridge and balk at setting foot on it, or get midway and then turn and high tail back. For some dogs being left behind is a powerful enough motivator for them to work up the courage and cross it. They slink across like army comandos. Some, after doing this discover that it’s safe and crossing the bridge is no longer scary for them. Others, once across will refuse to set foot on it for the return home. They pace and whine searching for an alternative way to rejoin the group. It’s stressful for them and their apprehension for  facing the bridge in the future will impact their desire to go for a walk with me next time the leashes come out. And a dog who has not developed a strong enough relationship with their owner or the other dogs they live with, may not find being with the gang enough of a motivator to even try to cross.

The way we help dogs learn new behaviors, whatever they are, is to ensure that the dog feels safe and trusts us. This will go a long way and is worth taking the time to figure out how to achieve both. Then teach the dog something. Give them behaviors they can perform on cue. If you use force-free and reward based training methods, asking dogs to do things makes them feel good because you are giving them the opportunity to get something they like. Push a dog too soon in the relationship or when they still don’t feel comfortable enough to cope and you could be setting the stage for aggression to appear as a response.

Every journey begins with one step. We’ll be getting to plenty of bridges to cross with our scared or anxious dogs. Make sure each step is a good one. In the picture accompanying this post Nibbles is hesitating before joining me on the other side of the bridge. He’d been given the opportunity to cross with me getting rewarded along the way on numerous occasions. I could have put him on a leash and encouraged him to come, or carried him. I chose to let him make the choice this time around. He crossed and we celebrated on the other side.

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11 comments so far

  1. vicki1210 on

    I have a year old Sheltie dog. We got her when she was 4 months old. She has always hesitated at coming into the house when called. I have tried rewarding her with treats when she does come in. This works for a short while and then she will just stand on the top step but won’t come in or run back down the steps. Any suggestions?

    • fearfuldogs on

      You may be bribing or luring and not reinforcing the behavior. Can you find any reason why she doesn’t want to come into the house? Did she ever like coming into the house? Is she ok once she’s in the house?

      • Ted on

        Vicki. This might sound a bit stupid but get down to her level at the doorway and see what she sees. I trained Police Dogs for a living and one problem was that a potential police dog would not walk on a particular shiny floor. When I saw it from the dogs perspective I could see that the dog was looking along a shiny floor towards a large sunlit window and could see – virtually nothing! Good Luck.

  2. Margaret Haynes Meritt on

    I adopted a puppy mill lab puppy who for the first five months had no human contact. My slightly older emotionally balanced lab and I formed the pack she grew to trust after 2 years of hard consistent socialization work. Food was never a motivator for her. The bond with the older lab was key.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is so true, for dogs who grew up with only other dogs, having the social support of another dog can be key. But don’t lose faith in cheese!

      • Margaret Haynes Meritt on

        For pepper it’s her beloved “nasty” ball.

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        Hmmm….wondering what that nasty ball might look like.

  3. crystalpegasus1 on

    I took my former bait dog to an agility class one day, for kicks. The trainer tried to convince me to lure him up an A-frame that he was clearly afraid of. When I refused, she got huffy with me, but I’m glad I did refuse. We instead did some shaping exercises on one of those wobble boards, and the trainer was really impressed with how quickly he picked it up. I told her that he is really a bright dog, when he’s not being stressed out ^.^ I’ve seen dogs that have had food poisoned for them and that totally sucks. I don’t know what I would do without my dogs’ love of all things food.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Good for you for sticking to your guns and having the skills to do right by your dog.

  4. Becky Anastasio on

    I’ve got a claustrophobic and sound-sensitive dog. She loves to hunt and sniff things out, so I though we would do nosework to build her confidence in strange indoor places. We were in class in a pet supply store, and I had just persuaded her to search a small bathroom (huge victory for her!) by going in and sitting on the floor and talking to her until she felt OK with coming in. The hide was right on the edge of the door going in, and I was treating her like crazy for finding it when I accidentally kicked a steel water dish behind the door, making an amazing clatter and nearly scaring the life right out of my dog. So now were are practically back to square one with our work and I would welcome any tips of how to fix this, if possible.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Whenever you have a set back, go back to where you started the process. It may be back to square one, but you might find the dog progresses more quickly.


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