Discovering that I was not alone when it came to the challenges of living with a fearful dog helped me to keep my sanity when Sunny first came to live with me. Understanding that his behavior was not unusual for a dog that was not properly socialized, and getting advice and suggestions from other fearful dog owners and trainers has been key to the progress he’s made.
Eric Goelbecker owns and runs Dog Spelled Forward dog training part-time in Maywood NJ, while working full-time as a software engineer on Wall Street. He hopes to transition Dog Spelled Forward to full-time in a few years. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT.)
After adopting a puppy that was a “bit of a handful” in 2000, Eric discovered modern dog training via classes at St. Hubert’s Dog Training School, experiencing first hand what can be done with dog-friendly techniques.
I have a fearful dog. The good news is I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact. Gage leads a pretty normal life, all things considered.
Gage is a “failed foster.” My wife and I had been volunteering at a rescue for a while and decided that Caffeine, our back-in-those-glorious-days-of-only-one-dog dog, was ready to share the house with a foster. We took her to the rescue and she got along very well with Gage. Gage seemed a little shy, but we didn’t see anything that afternoon that foreshadowed his fear of new people and well, just about anything else new. He rode home with us, settled into the house very well, and immediately took a shine to Caffeine.
Soon thereafter, we saw the fearful behaviors. Gage was afraid of just about anything new: a trash can, an open closet door, an open laptop carried like a pizza…a pizza. Any novel sight drew a least a startle response, if not flight.
Gage was also very afraid of traffic. We brought him home on a weekend, so he didn’t see real traffic for almost 2 days. His reaction that Monday was very bad, and my wife had to cut the walk short.
At that time my only experience was in obedience training. I did a few web searches and found the shy-k9s Yahoo Group, signed up, read the information in the documents section, and a whole new world opened to me.
For a while the goal was to get Gage to a good place and then adopt him out. I was still only considering the idea of becoming a professional trainer and Gage served as a good way for me to try different things.
I signed up for classes with a clicker trainer that has a good reputation for success with shy dogs and set up a behavior modification plan at home for his issues with traffic.
The problem was, working with fearful dogs takes time and frequently if you do it right, you end up pretty attached to the dog. (At least I did.) As I progressed I became more and more attached and Gage ended up being “my” dog.
Gage is one of the family now. He’s never going to fully accept a new person. He is able to focus on one of us when we we stop to talk to someone during a walk instead of fixating on the person. Strangers coming into the house require some management, but he can cope and calm down in another room. Traffic took a long time, as keeping a Gage under threshold was very difficult and we don’t control the cars. He’s come a long way, but we still need to be careful around garbage trucks and a fire truck is a big problem.
I can’t stress enough how effective the targeting games on the Fearfuldogs.com site are. Gage will now slow down when he sees an “unexpected” object and then frequently just reach out his nose and tap it on cue. Giving him something to do instead of just panicking is a very powerful tool.
I was pretty much on my way to becoming a trainer when we found Gage, but he put things into high gear and made me a much better one. I owe him for that.
You can find Eric on Twitter @dogspelledfwd