High Risk Activities

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.” “So?”

One of the primary goals I have for this blog, the seminars and webinars, and consults I do for folks living or working with fearful dogs is to help them understand how to think about fear based behaviors. When I am contracted to help someone train their dog I can directly and specifically tell them what to do. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the number of dogs out there that need someone to help them. If people have good information to use to come up with reasonable ways to respond to their dog, they are more likely to do so, and that is what needs to happen–dogs need to be responded to appropriately.

Risk management is an important consideration in many industries. It should be in the dog training industry as well. The most obvious reason is that when people get bitten, dogs get put down. But there are other risks. A dog’s quality of life is at risk when they are not handled properly. One of the most high risk activities we engage in is when we expose dogs to objects or events that scare them. This tactic is fueled by a variety of notions espoused by trainers; dogs need to be exposed to things or else they’ll never learn to not be afraid of them, dogs are empowered by being able to choose to investigate something, if something doesn’t hurt them a dog will learn that it’s not something they need to be afraid of, dogs won’t be afraid if you are the pack leader. Each of these, among others not mentioned, can lead people to making high risk decisions about how to manage their dog.

I am not saying that exposing a dog to things, or allowing them to roam around and make choices as to how they will respond to something that might scare them doesn’t ever work. I am suggesting that it is a high risk approach to take with a fearful, shy, anxious or reactive dog. Existing fears can become worse and new ones can be added. We can and should minimize and manage the risks we are willing to take when a dog’s life and the lives of those around that dog are at stake.

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe.
  2. Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you’d like them to do when in the presence of something that does or might scare them. When we use high rates of positive reinforcement to train appropriate behaviors we don’t need to worry about them making bad choices.
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6 comments so far

  1. KDKH on

    Thank you for the reminder. My fearful dog doesn’t want walks anymore because of runners and bikers on the trail. I’ve been working out a strategy,and this helps. We aren’t returning to the trail soon. I’m goi g to start with quiet trails with no bike and runners to stop the fearful trend. Lots of treats. Got it!

  2. our sacred breath on

    I adopted a 4 year old GSD last May. He was second dog – my last guy had some issues but having Franklin has taught me to be a better dog parent. I did the best I knew how with Gryphon but having Franklin has made me aware of so much more.

    He pulled like a train (at 80 lbs he was strong – and I mean strong – he’d pull you 100 feet without breaking a sweat). He was leash reactive to dogs – yet off leash fine. He was suspicious of people – but not aggressive – but mouthy if someone approached too fast or close. Otherwise he ignored people. Resource guard food and me.

    But incredibly smart, playful, and lovable.

    Yet one obedience class (that we completed outside away from other dogs because he reacted – and I told the instructor he would), two trainers one on one, one close call with another who kicked him (but it doesn’t hurt he said as he put a slip lead on him to choke him into walking), three different types of collars and three harnesses later, months of counter conditioning, he still pulled and reacted.

    Oh and one trip to a vet, who I went to because she said she would medicate anxious dogs – that ended with her recommending euthanasia (he panted, paced, then curled his lip when she touched his mouth, then growled when the stethoscope went on his chest, I muzzled him, she tried stethoscope again, he went to mouth her through muzzle) she ended exam and said he gave her no warning signs and so I should have him put down. Excuse me? No warning signs? What was the pacing, panting, lip curl and growl? What warning sign was she looking for? A second vet suggested friendly visits first – I asked no dogs be present – we went in, I was told it was clear – and after a few minutes a dog came out of the exam room and Franklin went off. That soured that friendly visit.

    I considered relinquishing him at that time. How was I ever going to help him. I found the names of three rescue organizations, but I couldn’t go through with it.

    So I found a board and train facility. Once a week with a trainer was not cutting it. Sure they were giving me ideas about what to do between appointments, but I knew Franklin needed intensive work with a skilled professional.

    He has been gone for 8 weeks. Doing great but still reacting and pulling on leash. His reactive distance is down from 100 feet to about 30. He can get within 5 feet (if dog not moving). Pulling is about 25% now from 100. He is almost there.

    Trainer thinks whoever had him was a scent detection and Schutzhund enthusiast – Franklin exhibits behaviours taught in these areas – yet he doesn’t do them very well – except the place hold at end of leash. Poor Franklin – he was doing what he was taught by someone else, but that’s not what I wanted him to do!

    Anyway, to make a long story short, I agree that more education needs to happen. Now I’ve sought out information on fearful and reactive dogs, I can see how many there are – and how many owners are out there helping their dogs – but I also see other owners who have no clue and make it so difficult for not only their own dogs to enjoy a quality of life, but for our dogs to enjoy life as we are approached too close or off lead with a “Oh he’s friendly, he only wants to say hi.”

    I also think the Humane Society I adopted him from should get more information from owners that relinquish dogs – it will only help the next owner if we have a better history. It would have prevented months of mixed messages for Franklin.

    I’m sure glad I did not listen to that vet and euthanize Franklin. He is a fantastic dog – he is learning how to replace behaviours in a positive choice based and playful environment – a lot of work for sure …. But he deserves a good life.

    We humans sure can mess up some dogs. But then we humans can also learn to respect dogs and help them them live with us in our world and us in their world.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. One heads up for me was your comment “months of counter conditioning”. One of the flaws in many trainer’s plans that include counter conditioning is they way it is implemented, they don’t understand what it is and isn’t. Effective counter conditioning takes into account an order of events, competing stimuli and a 1:1 ratio. It is NOT just feeding a dog in the presence of what bothers them. Miss any of these in individual trials and one is not likely counter conditioning at all. Since the curve for counterconditioning flattens out fairly quickly, doing it for months is not likely to be gaining anything. The primary conditioning effects occur within the first few trials, if they happen at all. If we are not seeing it happen within those first few trials, it’s better to stop the exposure and reassess the plan one is using for those exposures. Doing something wrong repeatedly rarely gets us the progress we want and our dogs deserve. This dog is certainly very fortunate to have someone committed to providing him with a good life.

      • our sacred breath on

        I appreciate your comment about the CC – I knew things weren’t working … I asked the one trainer who was working with me one on one if we could meet three times a week at the beginning because I wanted to be sure I was doing what I should be doing. She said I didn’t need to – to just work on what she taught me.

        I also live in a small rural village so my access to trainers was limited (oh and he was not calm in car so I couldn’t drive him anywhere until I worked on that issue as well!)

        He certainly tested me …. I cried some days I was so overwhelmed…. But I knew he had more issues than I was able to help him with …. but I loved him and knew with someone who had more experience than I he could be helped.

        He will still require a high degree of behaviour management or handling when he comes home – but they will teach me with their methods and Franklin will have a good base now for me to start with. They also include follow up sessions.

        I’m grateful for people like you who share stories and advice though – connects us all!

  3. fearfuldogs on

    You are not alone regarding the limited access to good trainers. There is a shortage in the entire industry. It’s unregulated and few have the education or understanding of the mechanics required to train dogs like ours. Your commitment and patience will hopefully get you far.


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