Training Fearful Dogs: Why You Shouldn’t Make Them Do It

brown dog with leashIn the Fearful Dog Group that I started on Facebook I have established guidelines regarding the methods, techniques or ideologies that are appropriate for sharing with group members.

A common, and often hotly debated piece of advice is to encourage people to be better leaders. Though seemingly a benign suggestion it is ambiguous enough for both the giver and the receiver of the advice to have very different interpretations of the term. Given that we already have more appropriate terms for our relationship with the dogs we are training- trainer or teacher, there is no need to use a word that comes saddled with the baggage of pack leadership, alpha rolls and dominance. Even if this form of leadership is not what someone is suggesting, we can spare ourselves the need to explain our version of leadership merely by using another word. We don’t need to be good leaders in order to train dogs anyway, we need to be good trainers.

Nothing in life is free (NILIF) or closing the economy on a reinforcer- making the receipt of a valued or necessary reinforcer contingent on the dog’s performance of a specific behavior- is another training option that is not recommended in the group. In general there is nothing wrong or inhumane about it so long as an animal receives enough of the reinforcement to maintain good health and quality of life. Understanding how we can manipulate the motivators we have to train a dog is important. It makes sense if one is going out into the woods with their beagle off-leash to practice recalls, to skip the dog’s breakfast and have a pouch full of steak and cheese. Maybe (just maybe) we can begin to compete with other reinforcers in the environment that are going to make it more challenging for Tippy to respond to our recall instead of the scent of the herd of deer that wandered by before we got there.

If parents are struggling to get little Jimmy to pick up his dirty laundry, make his bed, do his homework, etc., and they are tired of punishing him, taking away his allowance, or making threats, knowing that playing video games is something Jimmy loves to do, they can take advantage of this to build the behaviors they are after. By making playing video games contingent on the performance of the desired behaviors, they can stop threatening punishment and put the ball in Jimmy’s court. Picking his towel up off of the bathroom floor and putting it in the hamper earns him 15 minutes of game time, bed making earns half an hour.

It’s important that any behavioral requirement we put on Jimmy (or Tippy) is one that they are capable of performing. If Jimmy is not doing his homework because the math is too complicated or written words are hard for him to comprehend, and he cannot earn his video playing time, we could expect to see him find other ways to be reinforced, or become frustrated. He might stop coming home from school right away to hang out at a friend’s house where he can play video games. He then starts smoking pot, steals cars for joy rides, gets arrested and ends up spending his youth in detention centers. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s important that all animals have the opportunity to participate in activities that are positively reinforcing to them, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out what those are, and make it clear and possible for them to be attained.

In the case of fearful dogs we can assume that the motivator of the dog’s behavior is to protect themselves, to find a way to minimize what they perceive as a threat to their health and safety. Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair. I would like to think that this is so blindingly obvious that it needs no further explanation. It is one thing to close the economy on food to compete with squirrels, it’s another thing to use it to coerce an animal into doing something that terrifies them. 


23 comments so far

  1. behaviourunleashed on

    Hugely appropriate as the “make them” attitude seems so prevalent. In my humble, that attitude it’s akin to bullying and forgets that there are many reinforcers available for the dog. Kudos for another great blog that couldn’t be more important to remember.

  2. Jude on

    Well put, firmly but very appropriate.

  3. Lisa Clinton on

    “Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair. I would like to think that this is so blindingly obvious that it needs no further explanation. It is one thing to close the economy on food to compete with squirrels, it’s another thing to use it to coerce an animal into doing something that terrifies them.”

    ^^^^^ This!

  4. Linda Harrison on

    Love it Debbie!

  5. rangerskat on

    Remaining calm when exposed to something that frightens her (people being a prime example) earns Finna increased distance from the person/people and a food treat, a double win from her perspective first she gets to move away and then a food treat bonus. Gradually we’re working our way up to being able to pass a person on a trail so she can go on real walks. At the moment 20 feet seems to be as close as she can regularly get and still remain under threshold.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Instead of making the criteria for the receipt of the treat be “remaining calm” you might find counterconditioning more effective.

  6. thestormie on

    Wow, this is very sensible. I work with fearful dogs a lot and am always looking for information I can use. It seems to me that once I understood that “the motivator of the dog’s behavior is to protect themselves” the rest flowed out, and all I need now is techniques. And to learn to be a little calmer myself sometimes! I’m looking forward to reading your Facebook.

  7. thestormie on

    Sorry, I am not good at Facebook and I can’t find your group?

    • fearfuldogs on

      Oh dear. I hope you’ve found it by now. I’m a bit behind on responding to comments.

  8. Karen DeBraal on

    Great piece. I have 2 fearful dogs. Thanks for the validations.

  9. jill on

    Do you have any tips for house training a fearful dog? We are fostering a 2 year old dog that has been in a shelter for 2 years.he seems to be able to hold it for long periods in the crate, but if he’s alone at all or sometimes even right I front of us he has accidents.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m really late on this one. Hope you got it sorted out.

  10. cathy kulka on

    Could you please explain what counter-conditioning would consist of in the example above? Thanks.

  11. Phoebe on

    A helpful article. Phoebe is not afraid of life in general, but she does become fearful of things that startle her or things that have created a bad experience (for example, a bike fell her way and she was afraid of bikes, she stepped on something in the yard and is afraid to go on the grass, a paper sack fell on her and she is afraid of those. I tried all kind of tricks to show Phebe that these things were OK (to no avail)
    My doggie mentor pointed out that I make a big deal out of fear of inanimate objects, I am justifying the fear. She suggested putting the bike (or bag) in an areas where Phoebe had to face it every day (no input from me). Eventually, Phoebe got used to them and now they are not a problem. I guess what I am trying to say is that in some circumstances we have the option of putting a fearful object in an area they walk by every day, letting them get over a fear all by themselves. Obviously people and public not included are not included. However, sometimes in our desire to have a mentally healthy dog, we push them to “have fun”, which just messes them up more

    I hope I am not too far off topic.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is possible for a dog to habituate to things, but when a dog is really afraid of something the proof that it’s a threat is that they feel fear, whether we “justify” it or ignore it. The dog feels the fear. Harm done.

  12. Emma @ P is for Preschooler on

    Forcing them to do something they are afraid of can definitely have the opposite effect of what you want. My chihuahua gets nervous and barks whenever anything is in a different place (a shoe, a bag…anything!). What helps her is if I go over and touch the offending object. Then she comes over, sniffs it and all is good! 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Great that you found a way to help your dog cope with novelty.

  13. Julieann on

    “Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair.” OK, so we can’t use treats and we can’t use corrections – so what is the answer? Never expose them to anything they are afraid of? Don’t take them in the car, don’t take them on walks, etc.? Just keep him sheltered in the house? I am seriously at my wit’s end.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m afraid you misunderstand the statement. We use food to train. It’s not fair to use food as a bribe to get a dog to do something they’re afraid to do, but are hungry enough to do it. Simply being repeatedly exposed to things that scare them may only sensitize them to the things they are scaring them. We desensitize and counter condition so they can feel safe around the things that scare them and we train them (using food) to have the skills to do what we need them to do around them.

  14. Ry on

    But how do you do the desensitization and counter-conditioning if not by exposure please?! (sorry, bit late on the scene here, interesting article, I have a 6 year old gundog who’s v. sensitive to sudden noises, but we just live with it!).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sounds sensitivities are considered by vets like Dr. Overall as medical emergencies. Dogs frequently get worse without treatment, including medications. The exposure when desensitizing needs to be at a level which the dog can hear the sound, but it does not cause a physiological startle response. This is hard to do, so most people end up making the problem worse. Which is why meds are frequently brought on board, to give the dog a bit more tolerance and we can countercondition.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: