Case Study: Bear’s New Lease on Life

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.

(Caption: Bear’s safe spot on his first day home.)

Now, take a look at a picture from about two years later.

(Caption: Now Bear likes to go out on adventures in the winter more than I do!)

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.

What changed?

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.

(Caption: Bear at Paws Abilities’ north Rochester location, smiling his big, goofy smile.)

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!

12 responses to “Case Study: Bear’s New Lease on Life

  1. I am so happy Bear has come such a long way. This is the true essence of positive reinforcement . I work with a lot of dogs like this and I can get giddy when I see a dog start holding their head up and walking with confidence.

  2. lizzyflanagan

    A wonderful update and, man, those “after” pics do fill my heart with such JOY!

  3. Ack, I was trying to see how the rating app worked on this app. I accidentally gave it 3 stars! It deserves 5 stars. Well done Sarah!

  4. I am familiar with this method only had to do it on a much smaller scale. Most people would wash their hands of him. Good for you..he is one lucky fur baby❤ love this story.

  5. I am the foster mom to a rescued Shepherd, she has gotten a lot better, but still is so fearful and anxious that when crated she has liquid diarrhea. She’d been abandon in a dog crate as a 9 month old puppy and almost starved to death. I’m looking for a way to help her gain control of her anxiety. I don’t love anywhere near you, so bringing her to classes with you is not feasible. It’d be a long drive from Iowa! 😀
    I’ve found a YouTube channel, Power Thoughts Meditation Club, I play their videos for releasing fear and anxiety when I have to leave. They’ve made a huge difference so far. I am looking forward to trying this method with her, too.
    Thank you so much for sharing this!
    Peggy Slater

  6. Your sweet Bear reminds me of my girl Mo. She is also a shepherd (mix) rescue who came with lots of fear issues. She wouldn’t even leave the yard for the first five months. And she wasn’t food motivated- especially once her stress responses were flipped to on. I used to drive her two blocks away just to force her to go on a little walk. What worked for us was a LOT of patience and time, inviting friendly (non dominant/aggressive) dogs over for play dates, and- although I’m sure many trainers would advise against this- encouraging her to chase rabbits on our walks. These things built up her confidence and ability to switch her focus from the stressful things and lock onto something happier. Now, two years later, her favorite thing in the world is to go on walks. And mine too! Thanks for sharing your story and your work!

  7. We’re only 5 weeks into out BAT training and realising what an uphill struggle it will be. He can now enjoy himself with us with no triggers but as soon as another person or dog appears he’s terrified. But hoping to see big improvements soon. Stories like this give me hope!

  8. I was wondering if Bear had any fear aggression (biting, lunging, growling, etc) and if so whether you were able to overcome it & how long did it take?

    • Same here: ferocious bluff-barking from Pomeranian and Border Collie at any dogs, sometimes people far away, too. We’ve had 8 (eight!) of what I like to call unwelcome, unleashed, unsupervised encounters with the local pit bulls who are extremely dog-aggressive. First one had my BC completely in his mouth. Last one was not under my control but my friend jumped in and took my 2 dogs and hid them while I wrestled with “Taz”.
      My question is how to get my 2 to stop acting like stupid bait dogs and be quiet? I have to walk them both on 3 ft leashes so I can haul them behind me, but if I let them go they’d go straight for the pittie!
      I need them to be calm, quiet, and stay when I drop their leashes to catch the incoming threat. I can’t even use pepper spray because I’m trying to get them behind me. aaarrggh!

      • I’m wondering this too. If he’s growling and lunging how can I give him treats for that? Won’t it reward the bad behavior? How do I get him to settle to give the treats?

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