In this series, we explored how to help your fearful dog. We covered how to see the fear in the first place, how to isolate the cause of that fear and how to use classical conditioning to change the emotions from fear to fun.
This last article in the series discusses specific tasks you can train your dog to do. The following tasks can help her indicate she is feeling fearful (in case you missed it) and turn her fear into focus.
Tell Me All About It.
My Aussie, named Joy, is terrified of the noise of fireworks. Over the years, this fear has gradually generalized into being startled at loud construction noises, thunder and other unexpected auditory stimuli. The common factor in all of these is that I can’t predict when they are going to occur, which makes them very hard to control. I could get audio files and desensitize Joy over time by changing the volume, but her fear of most of those things isn’t usually very extreme.
I choose to use medication on the actual fireworks holidays. But all other times, I taught Joy simply to come and “tell me all about it.” I started one night when the fireworks were bad. When she ran into the room at the first boom, I called her to me. I encouraged her to put her front feet on my bed and I rubbed her chest to calm her. Then, I added some silly talk which ultimately resulted in a game and a complete change of her demeanor.
Now, she brings me her worry and I reward her with affection and play. When I see a look of worry on her face, I can say, “tell me all about it.” She responds with a quick jump up on me and ridiculous play.
Many dogs just need a safe spot to gather their wits. This is a place they can trust to shelter them when very scary things happen. You can be that safety zone. Train your scared dog to station between your feet when you are standing or sitting. Use a food lure to help your dog find this place and sit. Take a treat and hold it at your dog’s nose level. Then, slowly move your hand to lure the dog closer to you, a few inches at a time.
For very insecure dogs, it’s okay to let them nibble the treat as they go. Or even to reward them for trying to get closer each time. With patience and practice, you can get your dog in between your feet and in a sit position. Once this is happening easily, tell your dog what it is called. I like “Peek” or “Peek-a-boo” because it’s playful, but you can choose any word.
Say the cue word, then lure the dog into position until your dog begins to understand the two are connected. He will begin to anticipate, moving into position quickly when you say the word. Then you need to fade out the use of the food lure. Once your dog is trained to get to this station, honor the space by refusing to let very scary things happen there.
Keep the triggers away; don’t let the people or dogs approach. Think of it as your dog’s safety bubble. With practice, you may notice your dog seeking out this space when she is feeling insecure. Honor it and protect her.
Another use of the station concept is a training a simple task of lying on a mat. Training your dog to lie on a mat is extraordinarily useful for many things. But for the fearful dog, it’s an essential life skill. We’ve got some great videos available on our YouTube channel to help you with the step-by-step process. Or you can register for Check In and Chill Out for practical work on this useful behavior. Keep in mind that the same station rules apply – no scary things ever happen on the mat. The mat is a safe space – no scary things can come close.
A hand target is a very easy skill that can get your dog up and moving. Plus, it is easy to teach. Training your dog to touch your hand can be an easy way to connect with your dog when very scary things surprise you both. Build fluency by using the tactic in different environments where nothing scary is happening before you plan to use it “for real.”
Here’s how to teach it: Extend your hand and your dog will generally sniff it. The second she does, say, “Yep,” and feed her a treat. Repeat this a lot. And then mix it up by changing directions, changing hands and changing where you practice. You can also change how long the dog has to touch or change whether your hand is still or moving. Building fluency in hand targeting can result in a dog that’s able to move away from very scary things confidently, trusting that the behavior she is offering will always be fun and feel good.
If your dog learns all of these skills, she will have many options to choose behavior that is more acceptable than fearful behaviors, which may escalate into real aggression. As you work on these skills, you are effectively putting deposits in a trust account. Every training session and every treat, is a little more money in the bank. When very scary things happen and there needs to be a withdrawal, you’ll have funds to cover it, but don’t stop making deposits!
Dogs who have genetically sensitive natures, who have experienced scary things or who have learned to mistrust people due to being handled poorly or forcefully can become well-adjusted and more confident. I would be honored to help you with your dog and to design a custom program for her rehabilitation. Please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know how I can help.
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