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By Published On: May 14th, 2011

duck cartoonI have found myself being taken to task, chastised and berated for putting information on my website that says that not all dogs can completely become desensitized and counter conditioned to the things that scare them.

Some who label themselves trainers, and others who will not identify themselves at all, have claimed that this is a disservice to people with fearful dogs, that it is not just disheartening, it is wrong. They assert that they have been able to ‘cure’ all the dogs they have worked with of their fears. One described a process akin to ‘rebirthing’ and offered to take my dog for 6 weeks and return to me a dog that takes treats from my hand and rolls over. I declined. Not only was the price tag of several thousand dollars too steep for my budget, I already had a dog that would take treats and I was not at all interested in a dog that would roll over when approached by a person. In case you weren’t aware of it, dogs will roll over to indicate their lack of intention to be confrontational. It is the source of the misinterpreted ‘alpha roll’. It’s a way of asking to be left alone. (Not all rollovers are for this reason. Go ahead and give that belly a rub if you know the dog is asking for one.)

What I should have suggested to this person (who refused to give me any information as to who they were) was that I would consider their offer if in 6 weeks they came back to me fluent in a foreign language. Fluent, not just able to order a meal or find a toilet. I say this because the development of language in a human’s brain has a sensitive period during that brain’s development when the acquisition of language is most efficient. There is also a sensitive period in a dog’s brain development during which the ability to interact with novelty, and the skills to engage socially with people and other dogs, also occurs. Once this period of development is over it does not mean that a person cannot learn a second or third language, or that a dog cannot learn the skills to interact appropriately with novelty, but that some will be better at it than others, and that some will always speak with a funny accent.

I don’t want to toss out the baby with the bathwater in regard to their message to me. My goal is most certainly not to discourage people living with fearful dogs. An important piece of the equation is that as we work with the dog, both of us learn new skills. The challenges we face with our particular dog become easier along with the development of these skills. In order to learn these skills we need to be grounded in the foundation of how behaviors are built and changed. We need to understand that behaviors can be driven by powerful emotional responses that we should acknowledge and address.

Understanding how a dog’s brain develops is important. If you have a duckling and are expecting it to grow up to be a swan, you may be disappointed, but what’s so bad about being a duck anyway?

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