Protocols for living with fearful dogs, part 2

As I was describing in part 1, living with fearful dogs is not an easy task.  It requires constant management of some kind, and constantly assessing how comfortable the dog is at a given moment when presented with the scary stimulus. There is so much that one can do (and I would argue should do) in order to help these dogs out, as well as to make life easier for the people involved. However, I will comment here on four really important aspects of behavior modification and management that needs to take place with the aim of teaching the dog to relax when people (if this is what scares the dog) are present in the home.

1. Predictability in how the person is introduced into the environment (the home)

2. Moving from (almost) full predictability to more realistic scenarios when it comes to approach/avoidance from the dog towards the guest, the mere presence of the guest, to a more active and thus less predictable person.

3. The dog becoming more comfortable; that is, less threatened with this particular individual to…

4. Generalization of different demographics so that the dog is now able to relax because it is not feeling threatened by a number of different people in the context of the home, and has also learned a more socially acceptable behavior to signal discomfort.

Throughout the steps above, the pet parents are learning exactly what to do, what to avoid, and to read their dog’s body language and vocalization if present, so that they can quickly make things easier for the dog.  Of course, the number one concern is always to keep the dog from feeling so threatened that it might injure someone.

I recommend folks keep their dog on a leash, and for most cases the dog must wear a head-halter.  Once the dog is comfortable with wearing one and the people have learned how to use one appropriately on the dog, this is the safest way to influence the dog’s behavior.

The more space there is between the “stranger” and the dog the better, so it makes more sense to have the dog become aware and more comfortable with the person outside the home.

In addition, the dog has learned a simple yet effective protocol by which to approach the person up close with restrain of the leash and the head-halter for a very short introduction. As the dog is successful, he is reinforced by creating more distance from the stranger and offered a high value treat. The scary person is also instructed as to what exactly to expect from the dog and what they need to do to help the dog out.

Again, what I am looking for is predictability for the dog.  Once the initial introduction has taken place we can move inside where the dog will remain at a safe distance from the visitor and on a leash.

We begin with the guest sitting down to an almost choreographed set of movements such as moving the hands, arms, legs, sitting/standing to walking. These might be all the dog can take, if this is the case, the dog can be put away in another room, in its crate with an interesting project to keep the dog not only occupied, but also relaxed.

I encourage my clients to be very diligent in not pushing the dog. They must then cut the training session short when they can tell by observing their dog that the dog (or the guest) has had enough. If this happens in the context of an actual training session with me, we give the dog or person a break, and re-assess and resume again for the duration of the training.

Once the dog and family have acquired more experience as a result of our work together, and are now more confident that the dog will be successful they can begin to work with their dog in “real” life.  Real life must however, be based on the exercises and routines that we established for the dog during the training sessions. This here is the key to success.  If we deviate too far from what the dog now considers “normal” and safe because now it is less predictable, most likely this will make the dog regress and potentially aggress.

Secondly, I would much rather the dog get five minutes of really good behavior mod. and excellent management than the folks training for the duration of the visit.  Besides, most people are really not that interested in coming to a dinner party and have to train the dog throughout the evening!  Yes, indeed I tell my clients they must get the consent of their guests prior to them arriving for dinner etc.; not only because this is fair, but because we need people to be willing and able to follow precise directions, instead of them deciding what is good for the dog.  This is a big no, no!

One of the biggest mistakes folks make is to push too hard, too soon.  Slow and well managed is always better.  Remember, the goal is to teach the dog to truly learn to relax because it is not feeling threatened, rather than the dog “keeping it together” – barely.

The most complicated aspect of teaching dogs to trust a myriad of different people and not just a few is that dogs do not generalize as we do.  So, what we need to do is to have many, many, many (I am tempted to continue writing “many”) exposures where the dog and family get to practice so that the dog learns that all sorts of people: men, women, tall, short, loud, fast moving, etc. are safe. On the bright side, over time as the dog becomes more comfortable with having people acting as people in the home, each successful incident makes the next one so much easier for the dog, and I would argue the people too.