Training Fearful Dogs With Patience and Compassion
“Fear Factor is the competition reality series in which contestants must decide if they have the guts and determination to face their fears while outpacing the competition.” – NBC.com/fear-factor
Eliminate that last part about competition, and you could be describing how some dogs feel on a regular basis. Most dogs become anxious at times, but some can be downright terrified. Understanding why can be useful but isn’t necessary, because the result is the same: teaching a dog something – anything – even when they are mildly anxious is difficult. That’s because emotions trump rational thought. Try learning a trigonometry problem or memorizing and repeating a complex paragraph in a situation where you are moderately uncomfortable to downright scared (On a roller coaster? With a spider on the wall? Or a snake in a cage? Or not in a cage?). Does not being able to learn mean you’re being willful? Spiteful? Does it make you “stupid”? Of course not! It means your brain is prioritizing, and what someone has said you “should” do is losing out to what your brain says you must pay attention to. It’s a mechanism necessary for survival, and even when we understand we are not in true danger the brain is going to work as if we may be.
Translation for dog training: make sure your dog feels safe before starting a training session. Read Brody’s body language for signs of stress and anxiety. Look at his mouth, eyes, brow, ears, back, tail, and general body position (more on these in a later blog). If you do see signs, try to identify what in the environment may be causing his concern. Let’s say you left the vacuum cleaner out, and Brody is looking suspiciously at it. You have a few choices. First, you could just remove the vacuum cleaner or go elsewhere to train, but that doesn’t really address Brody’s emotions about it. Next time he sees the dreaded vacuum, you’ll still have the issue. Second, you could toss a treat each time Brody looks at that potential dog-consuming monster (make sure the treat is not closer than Brody to the vacuum, and sometimes intentionally toss it away to give him some relief). If he takes a brave step closer, click and treat! If he has a strong positive association to the click or marker word, that will infinitesimally help him make a positive association with the object of concern. Don’t expect him to “get over it” in one session – fear is not necessarily rational and takes time to ebb away.
Your third option is to move away but stay within sight of the source of concern. Distance matters to dogs, so move far enough away that Brody can still perceive the vacuum but looks relaxed again. Then practice known cues that he enjoys. The variable you are training is the presence of something distracting, but it also will help reduce your dog’s concern over time with the object. If he looks downright fearful, remove him to the edge of the environment and see if he can relax enough to take a treat or two. If yes, success! Call it quits right there and give the poor dog a break. True fear is not something you can train through; it must be addressed more directly. There are some great resources out there if you want to try to handle it yourself, or consider hiring a professional trainer. Know too that you can’t apply “tough love” or have the dog “face his fear” by forcing him closer – these techniques will only increase the dog’s fear and layer on a mistrust of you. Positive reinforcement training is a necessity, along with buckets of patience and compassion on your part. The good news is that positive reinforcement training can have a profound and life-changing affect for a fearful dog. And that is reward enough for those that love him.