Process of helping fearful dogs

dog on agility a-frameFor me an important milestone in working with my fearful dog was realizing how little I really knew about the ‘science’ of animal training and behavior. It has been exciting for me to learn about it and I can thank my scared dog Sunny for opening up a few new doors in my brain.

It is ok to comfort your dog when it is afraid. You are not telling your dog it’s ok to be afraid. You are holding their hand and helping them jump off the high diving board.

If you’ve done any dog training at all, or watched TV shows dedicated to dealing with problem dogs you probably have a lot of concepts in your head about how dogs need to be trained. I have fostered dozens of dogs, trained my own dogs in agility and basic obedience, read some books and watched the entire first season of The Dog Whisperer in two nights on DVD. I have worked on rescue cases with our local humane society and spent time at one of the hurricane animal camps. Turns out that what I really understood about fearful dogs was just a bit more than nothing.

Often the advice given to me by well-meaning but other under informed people also indicated that they too shared my lack of understanding. This is also true of the work done by a TV celebrity trainer with fearful dogs. I don’t want to beat up on the guy, he obviously loves dogs and if more people get their dogs out for exercise, he’s done the dogs of the world a great service, but the techniques he demonstrates for getting dogs to ‘deal’ with things is often flat out wrong when it comes to our scared dogs. I bring this up because so many people are preaching his techniques as gospel (someone recommended them to me when I first got Sunny, but fortunately they didn’t seem ‘right’ and I didn’t use them) and owners of fearful dogs should be very careful to avoid his ‘flooding’ techniques. I’ve heard that he’s learning and changing his methods with fearful dogs, but in general it makes sense to think about any advice given to you regarding how to handle your dog (including mine!).

Here’s a key point and I thank the moderator and contributors at the shy-k9s group on yahoo for making this so clear to me. It is ok to comfort your dog when it is afraid. You are not telling your dog it’s ok to be afraid. You are holding their hand and helping them jump off the high diving board. Your dog is afraid and doing what it has learned to do to protect itself. You are going to show your dog that it doesn’t need to worry anymore, everything will be better than alright.

You are helping your dog to change its behavior by changing the way it feels.

Think about how difficult this is for humans, we have therapists to talk to, medications to help and many of us still behave in ways that are inappropriate or unhealthy. Think about the last time you tried to change your behavior, maybe you wanted to quit smoking or drinking or loose some weight or exercise more. Were you successful? Was it difficult? Did it require you to change other patterns of behavior in your life? Chances are it was difficult and you had to change more than just the behavior of lighting a match to a cigarette or putting a fork to a piece of cheesecake, if you were successful.

You are also working on giving your dog opportunities to behave in ways that help them feel more confident.

Imagine changing the behavior of an animal you can’t talk to, or at least reason with. It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated. Taking a dog from a situation in which it learned its inappropriate behaviors and plopping into a good situation in which those behaviors are no longer necessary or desired, isn’t enough. The upside of this is that change does happen and if you loves dogs, you’ll be moved to tears the first time your scared dog wags its tail when you speak to it or whines with anticipation when you invite it to go out into the world.

You are your dog’s coach, trainer, therapist, playmate, advocate and refrigerator door opener. As you go along with your dog you’ll learn to anticipate situations and be proactive in managing your dog’s behavior. Your dog will learn new behaviors because you not only reward the dog for those behaviors (sitting and looking at you for a treat rather than growling at the kid on a bicycle) but because you don’t give the dog opportunities to practice the wrong behaviors (if you didn’t buy the cheesecake you couldn’t eat it).

I will continue to revise and add to this site so come back when you need to. All of us with fearful dogs know how difficult it can be (we really do feel your pain!) and know what a good deed you are doing.