One of the challenges for people working with fearful dogs, especially dogs who have suffered from confinement or restraint during their early development, is getting these dogs to offer behaviors for which they can be rewarded. Do not confuse this with trying to change how a dog feels about things using counter conditioning and desensitization, for that we can reward the dog for doing nothing more than being in the presence of whatever scares them, regardless of how they behave.
I’m going to repeat that a different way, because it’s so important. Do not wait for a fearful dog to offer calm behavior before rewarding them in the presence of a trigger when counter conditioning. If a dog cannot be calm or respond to a cue, you have not managed them properly, and they should not be punished for this by having to remain close to something that scares them, while you wait for them to do something you think is appropriate.
There are techniques which you can use to help fearful dogs which do require that the dog offers some kind of calm behavior before they are rewarded, often with negative reinforcement, which is when we take away something that the dog is afraid of, in order to see more of the calm behavior. But that’s not what I’m addressing in this post. I’m thinking about the dog who has not yet learned that they have the power to change their environment or experience.
When you show a dog that by doing something they can earn a reward, get ready to watch the fun begin. Look for simple behaviors that your dog is able to perform in your presence. It might be something as basic as eye contact, looking at you, or looking at an object you place in front of them. From this we can build up to more complex behaviors, but don’t rush. Enjoy watching a dog sort out that by shifting their eyes to your face they will be handed a super tasty treat.
I have been trying to find ways to entertain the dogs during hunting season (only 2 more days to go!) when we cease our daily woods walks for safety’s sake. It has been awhile since I have done any clicker training with Sunny and do I regret it! He practically beams when I bring out the clicker and a bowl of meaty, smelly treats. Today we worked on putting his front paws on an object (a small frisbee). After each successful touch I picked up the frisbee and put it down somewhere else while Sunny’s tail never stopped wagging. “I can do this!” he seemed to say with each delighted slap of the frisbee. “I can make good things happen in my life!”
Help a shy dog learn that they too “have the power” by letting them work for something they want. Isn’t it about time they have that opportunity?