By getting a dog to perform one these behaviors in a situation in which the dog is fearful, trainers can help them to begin to change their association with the thing or situation they fear.
Eileen Anderson has created a list of resources to help with your understanding of gradual exposure (desensitization) and counterconditioning. Trainer Randi Rossman shares this blog to help clarify our understanding of classical conditioning. She has also created this great page that highlights one of my clients conditioning her dog to the appearance of a piece of equipment that will be used by a vet.
The challenge of working with a fearful dog is to help them learn how to perceive the people, sounds, objects or situations that make them feel afraid, in a more positive way. One of the main techniques is to use classical conditioning to create new, positive associations with their ‘triggers’ (whatever scares them). Most often this is done using food rewards. Food is a powerful reinforcement, but a rehabber’s ‘bag of tricks’ can also take advantage of behaviors which are incompatible with fear. Most of these behaviors would be thought of as being typical of ‘normal’ dog behaviors. The list includes;
* thinking & performing
By getting a dog to perform one these behaviors in a situation in which the dog is fearful, trainers can help them to begin to change their association with the thing or situation they fear. For example, my fearful dog, when let outside, would run off as though being pursued. His fear was obvious by the backward glances at his potential pursuer (me, who never chased him). Fortunately he was also quite excited about chasing tennis balls. I began to throw the ball in the direction he was running when I let him out of the house asking him ‘get the ball.’ Each day his reaction to being let out of the house changed slightly. Initially he ran off just glancing at the ball. Soon he would run off, and after getting a safe distance away would go and get the ball. Eventually he began to look for the ball as he ran off the deck until my offer to go out no longer triggered his impulse to flee, but instead was an offer to play. Leaving the house stopped being a panicked dash, with or without a ball toss. Basically, he couldn’t be afraid and want to play with the ball at the same time, these are incompatible behaviors.
Play is a powerful reinforcer for dogs. Many people with fearful dogs will say their dog does not or will not play. Here’s a helpful article by Susan Garrett on How to Create a Motivating Toy.
I have included ‘thinking & performing’ on the list for dogs which have learned to perform certain behaviors on command. Hand targeting is one behavior that when learned by a dog allows a trainer to initiate a chain of other behaviors. A dog trained to hand target can be recalled and or rewarded. This is a good exercise to use with a fearful dog.
Play is the perfect way to interact with a fearful dog. In this video you’ll see how by being in an environment in which he feels comfortable and with someone who doesn’t put too much pressure on him and engages him in playful activities, Sunny is able to interact with someone and feel good about it.
Nosework is a great activity to help dogs have fun and develop new skills and confidence.