Work Toward Play

black dog playing with a plastic food toyWe are familiar with the experience of living with an aging creature and being caught by surprise when we realize how much they have changed before our eyes. This routinely happens to me when I look in the mirror, “When the heck did THAT happen?!” The same thing can happen with our fearful dogs. Their progress can be so slow that it’s difficult to notice until we take a step back and look.

It’s not unusual for people to tell me that their dog is either not interested in food or in playing. This may be an indication of a dog who is not feeling well physically, or emotionally. A fearful dog needs to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are safe in order to begin to experiment with new behaviors. A dog who feels under the weather or is in pain may not be interested in doing much of anything except protecting themselves from a perceived threat.

During a consult with a caring owner of a fearful dog it was clear to me from her description of the dog’s behavior how much he had improved. He had gone from being aggressive toward the man in the house, to actively seeking him out during storms to snuggle with. One of the safest bets we could make is that a fearful dog can become an aggressive dog unless handled appropriately. That this dog did not escalate his aggressive behavior toward someone in the house, and actually began to seek him out when feeling frightened, is no small feat.

One concern the owner had was that the dog often seemed sad or depressed and with further questioning we discovered that he had not had the opportunity to play with food toys. They either scared him or appeared to be of no interest to him. We began to explore ways to change this. It may be safe to say that the dog WAS feeling sad and depressed and along with medications we could try to make changes in his brain so that feeling happy and enthusiastic was easier for him.

Our goal is to get him to work on getting food out of a stuffed Kong. As with any behavior we want to teach a dog, we break it down. If the dog showed wariness about the object itself we’d start there. There are a myriad of ways we could eliminate his concern about a novel object. There was another dog in the house who displayed resource guarding behaviors so leaving Kongs around for the fearful dog to get used to, wasn’t an option. The owner had been playing targeting games with the dog so one suggestion I had was to smear baby food or something tasty on the Kong and letting him lick it off after performing a cued behavior. Or the dog could target the Kong for a treat. Once the Kong no longer seemed scary to the dog, a few bits of yummy food, that would fall out easily, could be put into it and then given to the dog.

This may seem too simple to matter in the rehabilitation of a fearful dog, but it is the start of encouraging a dog to begin to solve problems-how to get the food. When a problem is solved we can expect that the dog will feel good about it, “SUCCCESS!” From here we can gradually increase the difficulty of getting at the food. I work toward being able to put a combination of dry and wet food into the Kong and freezing it. This takes longer for the dog to get the job of getting food out, done. Other games to try include hiding a bit of food under a face cloth or piece of cardboard for a dog who is unwilling to engage with novel objects.

Play provides a number of benefits that are worth working for.




16 comments so far

  1. onpoint-k9 (@onpoint_k9) on

    great approach! fearful dogs definitely take time to bring around but as you shared it is very doable. I find that giving the fearful dog a job helps redirect them from being fearful because they have a job to focus on instead of letting themselves be fearful. Simple obedience training builds a confident dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks, it is “do-able” to a point for many dogs. Building a repertoire of incompatible behaviors goes a long way in helping manage our dogs, fearful or not, that’s for sure!

  2. Anu on

    On the second anniversary of Remy’s “Gotcha Day” I’d like to share some of the milestones he’s reached, with so much help from your important book (which has never left my night table) and wonderful blog.

    In the last year Remy’s started barking when someone’s at the front door. We’d never heard a peep out of him before, so it was a big surprise to hear his voice for the first time. I praise him like crazy every time he alerts me this way, and these days his bark is more bold, rather than his initial “What da heck?” ones. Amazing!

    In the last six months Remy’s started to look at me when we stop before crossing the streets in our neighborhood. This is something I’ve worked on with him almost from day one because eye contact was impossible for him at first. I did everything short of setting myself on fire to get his attention, but he couldn’t ease up on his hypervigilance even for a moment, until recently. Now he’s even throwing me a couple of backward glances over his shoulder when we’re out walking together – so brave!

    But what touches me most is Remy’s newest behavior, something I could never have trained him for – wagging.

    I never realized how heartbreaking it was to have a dog who didn’t wag until Remy. He’d only wag at other dogs, never me or another person. The first dozen times he wagged at me brought tears to my eyes. Now he wags at my husband, sister, and a few favorite neighbors. Sweet!

    It gets even better: In the last few weeks I’ve started to see his relaxed, open mouth smile. It’s usually offered when he’s in a deep bow, happy-barking at me, furiously wagging his tail, inviting me to play with him. That often brings a lump to my throat, too. Happy, happy, joy, joy!

    Just as you pointed out in your lovely post today, sometimes (okay, most times) it takes me a few months for me to realize the extent of Remy’s progress because it’s been so slow and subtle. I have to remind myself that Remy’s big milestones have all been built on the brave, baby steps he’s been taking all along.

    Thank you so much Debbie, for your tender hearted guidance and faithful cheerleading. Remy and I couldn’t have done so much these first two years without you!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thank you for sharing Remy’s story and reminding me that there are real live people and dogs out there who are benefiting from my own experiences living with fearful dogs. I appreciate it!

  3. Natasha on

    Great to hear your story, Anu! I had to laugh when I saw the photo – when I tried that game, the cups seemed deep for my doggie’s mouth, or something, so she just flipped it over and the treats fell out, heh! There is a new maze style, flying saucer-shaped toy that she tried to chew, then realized she needs to toss it around. (Kongs of course require more chewing)… After playing with that, if her red-bone-shaped Kong still has something stuck in it after night time, she gets it out of her kennel and tosses it up in the air. Darn smart Eskies!

  4. Paula Izanavich on

    I am writing because I am not sure my fearful dog is receiving the correct help from professionals; perhaps I need a different type of behaviorist. He is 2 years old, a neutered terrier mix. He became agressive gradually beginning at about six months old after being attacked by a group of dogs in a daycare/kennel type setting. He sees a behaviorist now and the two of us seemed to be making progress toward controlling his behavior but have had quite a setback in the past week. He does not seem to acknowledge fireworks, even when we’re walking outside, but I wonder if perhaps subconsciously he is reacting to them them with agression. He has been diagnosed as a fear agressive/reactive dog previously but not so bad that he cannot be helped.

    The past two days he has been agressive toward me in a very violent way; this morning a family member (that he is afraid of because of her temper) walked through the room and he turned on me and attempted to bite me. After the episode ends he acts as if nothing happened and is affectionate to me. He did this the other day and I didn’t notice what the trigger was then but I think it may have also been at a time when fireworks were being used. It’s as if he becomes terrified and turns on whoever is nearest; it’s as if he doesn’t realize it’s me or it doesn’t matter that it’s me. Last night he growled at me when I gently tried to get him off the couch; he does not normally growl at me. His behaviorist says to confine him for the duration of the time we hear fireworks but I am afraid it is more than that; that perhaps he is becoming dangerous. I had to really struggle to control him this morning without being bitten. I will mention that he doesn’t just bite once but will continue to bite until forceably stopped. Right now he seems so unpredictable that I struggle not to fear him as I know he will sense it and react. I’m not sure how to proceed. I am working on becoming the strong leader he needs and to find housing away from the negative, angry person we currently live with but right now we have to deal with our current situation as best we can. I am actually thinking that being put to sleep is best for him.

    I will also mention that he does not eat like a normal dog and never has; it’s as if something bad happened when he was young. He is cautious before eating and sometimes doesn’t eat for an entire day. His vet says nothing is wrong with his teeth. When he does eat he is a happier, more easy going pet but I have not yet figured out how to get him to eat consistently. I have tried baked chicken mixed with it. His behavior seems worse when he is given treats so I have reduced them to only being given as rewards for good behavior.

    I don’t know how to proceed but this morning really scared me; he has never tried to harm me before. I would appreciate any opinions or thoughts you have on this. Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You say you are working with a “behaviorist.” Is this person a certified animal behaviorist? A vet behaviorist? Or someone who has labeled themselves a behaviorist? I ask because when you are dealing with a dog like this you want someone who truly has the educational background, skills and training to help you. Have you seen a vet to rule out any medical issues that might be contributing to the problem?

  5. Cybele on

    OT, but Debbie, have you seen the “Sleeping Corgi Puppy” video on youtube that’smaking the rounds? I’d appreciate your take on what’s going on there.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I haven’t seen it and there are a number of sleeping corgi puppies on youtube. Got a link?

  6. Cybele on

    I can’t seem to send a link but it’s called “Tired Corgi puppy refuses to wake up” and was posted on July 1st. Some people think it’s adorbs and others are horrified by the senseless actions of the girl holding the puppy.I think it speaks to your trying to get across to people to stop and put oneself into the dog’s place and to take a respectful, nurturing, gentle approach with our canine interactions. I apologize for not being able to add the link.

  7. Kay Liestman on

    Debbie, there are definitely people out here who value you and your blog–you keep us sane. And your point about recognizing the progress when you look back has come home to us repeatedly with Mattie. She tends to bark or growl when she sees neighbors in their yards and we tell her that “no rudeness” and that it’s okay for them to be where they are; they’re not in Mattie’s yard. She calms then and just watches. On July 4th, we went on our deck and our back yard neighbors were entertaining lots of children with a water fight and the screams and laughs that go with it. Mattie stood and watched–no growl. I told her about the people and that it wasn’t in her yard and then starting watering plants on the deck. Mattie went into the yard and then I heard her bark. I looked to see what she was doing and she had a squirrel up a tree in our yard! I was so proud–she turned from what would previously have been frightening and did something fun for herself. Joy! Thank you for all you do.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write this Kay, I appreciate it. And a big cheer for Mattie for moving on to the important stuff–squirrel tormenting!

  8. Patt on

    Our first dalamatian, Davey Boy, did not know about playing. It took him a while to get it but once he did, it was his ticket to happiness! All he want to do now is PLAY! First thing in the morning, he runs out to squeek a toy. He always has a toy at the ready for someone to play fetch. When we took him for his first scardey dog training class, he wanted no part of it. The other dogs would do some things for food but not him. We had an A-frame in class to check out. All the dogs were looking at it like ‘why would I walk over that if I could more easily walk around it?!’ but they would go up for food. Davey would have no part of it. Until I put his teddy up there! Then, on the ‘no man left behind basis’ he went up and rescued his teddy! But from then on things went more easily for him. That was two years ago. It’s amazing to see the strong confident boy, still carrying teddy! who is here now. He is still wary of strangers. He still doesn’t like thunder but 95% of the time, he is a happy boy. I remember telling my husband, it just takes time. Be patient. Little steps. A little better every day.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s funny because my most challenged dog is also the most playful. He’s always bringing me toys to try to take away from him. All I need to do is say his name and his tail starts wagging.

  9. Nancy on

    I adopted a 4 year old Border Collie Corgi mix from a local shelter 6 months ago that very non aggressive fearful. She was in the shelter for a year and aside from the typical fear of new things, noises, etc that we have overcome she is terrified of people especially men and children. She is very sweet and well trained on a leash but does not know to play and does not know any commands, sit, stay, come etc. We had to go through heart worm treatment and food allergies so since Ive had her Ive concentrated on getting her physically healthy and she is very trusting of me. I guess I don’t have a lot to complain about, she is super sweet but I would like some advise on overcoming her fear of people. When I walk her she gets really anxious and goes into avoidance mode if anyone is nearby. I don’t allow her to avoid but don’t force her to confront. We just pass by. Any suggestions other than it takes time?

    • fearfuldogs on

      The main technique we use is called desensitization and counterconditioning, and don’t rely on just time and exposure, at any level to change the dog’s emotional response.

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