Written by Sarah Griffin. Thank you to Sarah for sharing Bear’s journey!
I have a fearful dog. At this point in his life, I expect surprise when I say that to strangers. I hear it all the time: “Really? But he’s so happy!”
In most situations, my fearful dog no longer appears to be fearful. He still is, but I’ve built a bond of trust with him based on positive associations with scary things. For the behavior geeks among the readers, I’m referring to classical conditioning! For the rest of us, let me sum it up this way:
Every time a very scary thing appears, a very good thing appears immediately following it– and the very good thing must be so good that it can take his attention away from whatever it is that’s scary. Over time, how he feels about the very scary thing will change for the better, because it will have become a predictor of very good things. Here’s the part we like best as owners: as his feelings about the very scary thing change, his behavior changes too.
So how does that work in the long term with a “problem dog,” and why do we at Paws Abilities believe in this method? Let me take you back to the dog before the training.
My German Shepherd, Bear, is a rescue from a city shelter where he was slated for euthanasia. For the whole two hour drive home from the shelter, he cowered in the back of my car on the floor. He did not want me to touch him. He did not make a noise. Upon getting inside my apartment, he lay down in the corner of the bed, hid behind a stuffed animal, and shivered. Even if I hadn’t snapped a picture, that image could never leave my mind. This is that picture.
Now, take a look at a picture from about two years later.
Here, Bear is bounding through the Minnesota snow, tongue lolling out of his mouth, ears only back because of how fast he’s running. He’s being recalled back to me to go out further on a walk, and he loves it. His tail is up, his eyes are on me, and he’s happily responding to my cue from a distance with distractions all around.
Very good things happened. Every time we saw a person, he got a very good thing. Every time we saw another dog, he got a very good thing. Every time we saw a car, he got a very good thing. You get the picture. For two years, I rained treats from the sky at almost anything he encountered.
Bear is an extreme example, so don’t worry! Not every dog will require anywhere near as much work. Perhaps your dog hates those Wednesday tornado sirens, and that’s her very scary thing. Think about what very good thing would help your dog cope with those sirens. For Bear, the very good things are often food! Bits of cheese, deli turkey, licks of cream cheese, pieces of leftover meat, a potato chip… Think outside the box. A very good thing has to be special, after all, for it to qualify in the first place. However, this list is only made up of things my dog likes– your dog may prefer a game of tug to a handful of cheese.
Helping a fearful dog requires consistency, patience, and a lot of rewards, but I can’t give you a better testimonial than Bear’s. With lots of work and lots of love, my shy boy not only has a life, but he has a good one.
Need help expanding your fearful dog’s world? We are experts at confidence building, and can help you put together a customized program to bring your wallflower out of his or her shell! We have all sorts of options to help fearful dogs, ranging from private lessons to group classes.
Already worked through fear issues with your furry friend? Tell us all about your journey in the comments section below!