Helping your dog to learn how to communicate with people is an important step in its path toward becoming a healthy dog. These two activities are great for training and are especially useful when working with a fearful dog.
The Name Game
Fearful dogs often don’t even feel comfortable when people talk to them. Conditioning your dog to feel good when you say its name is key. Start with some extra special treats, say your dog’s name and toss him/her a treat*, and repeat over and over. The treats should be irresistible or you could use a portion of their daily food for this game, but whatever it is, your dog should want it. Repeat this exercise several times a day. You want your dog to associate its name with something good. When the dog begins to look at you when you say its name you can add in your ‘yes’ word (right! good!), or use a clicker to let the dog know that, when you say its name s/he should look at you.
Some dogs will be frightened by treats being tossed at them, so keep that in mind when working with your dog.
Again, start with a pile of extra special treats. Hold one out in the palm of your hand and when the dog takes it use your ‘yes’ word (or clicker). After a few repetitions of this, loosely close your palm around the treat and hold it out to your dog. When the dog sniffs, moves toward or touches your hand, praise and give them the treat. Repeat this until the dog understands that it needs to touch your hand. Once the dog is reliably touching your hand you can then add the command, ‘touch it’ or ‘target’. Repeat this exercise again several times using the command word.
The next step is to hold out your hand and use your command word, but this this time there is no treat in your hand. When the dog touches your hand you praise the dog and reward it with a treat from the other hand. Eventually you can begin to hold out other objects for your dog to touch. If your dog likes to play with toys you can ask your dog to touch your hand, or the toy, before you toss or tug it.
Move your hand into different positions to get your dog used to having hands appear over its head or next to it. You can teach your dog to target the back of your hand and the palm. When your dog is ready this is an exercise that can be used to get your dog to approach strangers. Won’t that be a wonderful day!
I used it with Sunny to get him to move inside the door before I tossed the ball for him. He gets to practice coming in the door (which was not easy for him) when he’s in a playful mood. This exercise can be useful in getting a fearful dog to move toward you and learn a recall. You can watch a video of Sunny targeting a frisbee to get me to throw it for him.
After working on targeting a neighbor’s hand for a treat, Sunny has become more comfortable approaching her. Remember when you watch this video that you are not seeing the months that we spent working up to his current behavior. Luring a dog close to one of its triggers can end up causing the dog to react negatively. Don’t force your dog to get close to anyone and be careful having people lure your dog near them using treats or any other ‘bribe’. A scared dog may find themselves too close to their trigger and bite.
Here is another example of teaching a shy dog to target.
You can learn more about using hand targeting at these sites.
Nose work, scenting and tracking games are fun for most dogs. They are low pressure games that allow dogs to do what they do best, follow their nose. There are lots of ways you can give your dog the opportunity to hunt for food or toys around your home or yard. Sunny is much more motivated by toys than by food so I put his favorite squeaky toy in a box and let him figure out how to get it.
Read about incompatible behaviors to learn why games and playing are important for fearful dogs.