Help with Crossing a Bridge

One of my clients submitted this question about her dog Juby. I suggested to her that we meet for a training session and that we video it too so that I could show others how to go about a similar situation.

Our session lasted 40 minutes from beginning to end. Most of it is caught on video, of course, with editing done. Here is Lindsey’s question, my answer and video below.

Hope you find it useful.

Question:

Hi Almudena,

I have been taking 13 month old dog Juby to downtown Santa Fe the last two weekends for walks, mainly to get her more used to being around other leashed dogs, people, and the sounds of traffic, etc.

On both occasions I have noticed she is terrified of crossing bridges in which she can see over the edge to the ground. She literally freezes then frantically backs away in great fear. This past Sunday a stranger had to help me get her back to the sidewalk as she dragged me back into traffic!

So, my question is, how can I get my dog comfortable with crossing bridges?

Thank you!

 

Answer:

Hi again Lindsey! Juby’s fear is not that uncommon among dogs. In general dogs will fear or at least be concerned about novel things. This could be a new experience or interacting with a new object. Also, in the case of the bridge in particular and from Juby’s perspective, I am assuming that she find it is very unsettling to “step into a void”.

Per your description and the video, Juby looks several times to the wash below the bridge and perhaps does not “understand” that the bridge would provide her with enough support for her to walk safely across it.

Of course, that is just my observation; I don’t know for sure what she is thinking or feeling.

The way I like to handle any type of situations where the dog is afraid is basically the same. Or at least, I follow certain principles:

  • Never force the dog or expect she “just gets over it”. This will surely backfire and frankly it is not fair to the dog. Empathy goes a long way here.

In order to teach her to feel comfortable with crossing the bridge and to boost her confidence, we must:

  • Plan our training sessions so that we progress forward only when the dog is comfortable. The best way to do this is to continuously assess her emotional state for any signs of distress, fear or anxiety and back off when any of these are present. If an animal is in distress it won’t learn. They have bigger fish to fry – safety being their first concern.
  • Also, knowing what steps of behaviors we will be reinforcing will help us in looking for them and reinforcing in a timely manner. This, of course, requires some experience but it is most certainly something interested folks can learn.

If you are not keen in reading dog body language learn about it otherwise you will not know what to look for.

  • Continue to observe her closely because behavior is more like a movie than a snapshot- always in flux and ongoing.
Next, I strongly suggest:
  •  Don’t Lure to Get Behavior:

A lure in this example is anything that entices the dog to move forward (or towards) what scares them such as placing food ahead of the dog, having someone verbally encouraging the dog ahead, etc. The problem with luring in these types of scenarios is that we can put the dog in conflict. I.e.: “I am terrified of crossing, BUT I want to follow my mom, or eat that treat that is a few feet in front of me”.

Conflict in this kind of situation produces you guess it… distress!

That is why by the way, at the beginning of our session (seen in the video) I asked you to stand next to Juby, instead of ahead of her.

Click here to watch the video.

Instead what I like to do is…

  • Click & Reward for very tiny behaviors in the direction that I want to progress. In our example with Juby, it was having her walks towards or step – by choice – unto the bridge and be comfortable with that. With our end goal of having Juby voluntarily cross the bridge all the way & eventually, not fear crossing any bridge.
  • Always Give the Dog a Choice!
As you can also see on the video Juby is always given a choice to move forward and to get off the bridge the minute she feels afraid. You do this every single time! Building her trust in you and in her abilities is really important.
  • Give them a Sense of Control
The best way I can describe the above is to put the dog in the “driver’s seat”. Follow their lead. Yes, you will have to be patient but the outcome is well worth the work.
One of the most important things we can do for our dogs (any animal really including homo-sapiens) is to give them a sense of control.

For Juby the sense of control came from her knowing, after a couple of trials, that if she wanted to get off the bridge she could and that I would not try to “convince” her even worse, force her to stick around for longer.

She also had a choice (or control) as to when she engaged in the “scary” behavior of walking on the bridge. When she did, she got a click and a reinforcer.

  • Reinforce for Behavior You Want to See More of:

Remember, the sciences of learning & animal behavior tell us that: The behavior (s) that is reinforced will increase. So it was crucial for me to reinforce for her walking on the bridge or initially standing next to the bridge, etc.

 

  • Keep it Light & Fun:
Whenever possible, I like to train with games. By this I mean, that I keep a cheery disposition, add lots of fun anticipation for the dog once they are able to be more comfortable with the experience.

 

  • Be Empathetic:
We all need empathy and understanding when we are struggling and dogs are no different! I encourage you to think of these opportunities as great ways to not only boost her self-confidence but to teach Juby that you have her back (which you do) 🙂 and that she can trust you.

Great question Lindsey, thank you!