Use Protection

I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.

Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.

The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.

It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.

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12 comments so far

  1. kaseyskritterkeepers on

    Wow what a great experience you had! Working with fearful dogs is very hard and you must be diligent, patient, and consistent. You are very inspirations! Keep up the great work.

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      I had an absolute blast! Thanks for your kind words.

  2. ailsaf on

    And then, there is always the opportunistic border collie ;c) It’s all about consistency and dedication (and built-in compassion) once you have a strategy; such a great and easy lesson really. Thanks for this Debbie.

    • fearfuldogs on

      My dear Finn, I joke when I say my most normal dog is a border collie, but it’s true. Thank you for reading and commenting.

  3. coddlecreekpetservices on

    So true that we must always pay attention to the feeling behind the behavior.

  4. Mary on

    And this is really where it all starts. This foundational behavior is basis for every other skill you build. Right?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Yup. Safety. We won’t get far fast if either of us is worried about our safety.

  5. chiquitar on

    New to your blog and really enjoying it. I think you might have had a little less confusion in the beginning had you either waited until he was all the way done with his treat or used treats that were more quickly consumed–there were a few times where I think he would have targeted except he was busy making sure his tongue was empty. You invited comment on a different post but this vid was the one that stood out.

    However, I did love the walking away and using his natural curiousity about what those other dogs were doing/getting to draw him out. I would have done a tossed food lure but that worked so well and curiousity is always the most natural path past fear.

    I have two rescues. Got them together but one developed into a very anxious little guy while the other one is almost ready to be a therapy dog. Always on the lookout for more ideas to work with either one!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting. One of the benefits of taping training sessions is that we can assess what we’ve done and adjust. Thanks for paying such close attention and thinking about the process.

      • chiquitar on

        Yes, watching yourself later is often very educational, especially for timing. Timing always used to come pretty naturally to me, until I got injured. Now my nervous system doesn’t work quite right and my reactions are slower, so I have a harder time getting my timing right than I used to. A good friend noted that the one thing all the superstar trainers have in common, despite their sometimes diametrically opposed methods, is excellent timing. Thought that was an interesting observation. =-)

      • Debbie Jacobs on

        It is true that the timing of punishment is important too. Maybe even more since the risks of doing it wrong can be disastrous. I hope that you can find ways to compensate for whatever losses you’ve experienced. It must be frustrating sometimes.

  6. jadesmith460 on

    Reblogged this on NuVet REVIEWS and commented:
    Loved the article on training a fearful dog. So sharing it


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