Too often when we are working toward a goal, whatever it is, we are so focused on the long term outcome that we fail to notice the progress we’re making along the way. This is true when working with a fearful dog as well, we do not notice the small steps our dogs are making away from fear.
The behavior which makes my heart swell, is Sunny’s ability to take more and more steps, tentative at first, toward exploration. Even though his body language shouts ‘wariness’, he stretches his neck to sniff a book I’ve set on the coffee table or takes a few steps into a room he was reluctant to enter in the past. He lingers a little longer in a place he usually races through.
Outside in the woods Sunny is a warrior, he races after the squeaks and chirps of chipmunks and squirrels and he leaps from stone to stone in the river. Inside the house, car or other building he is a different dog, slinking, resisting, cowering and always with an eye on the exit. I watch the enthusiastic wandering of dogs that aren’t fearful as they check out the rooms in my house, racing up stairs and returning with a bone or toy they’ve claimed as a prize from their discovery mission and long for the day Sunny is able to show the same boldness.
Noticing the small steps that Sunny is making is important, as is rewarding him for them. It is not any different from training a dog that is not fearful. All the parts that a behavior can be broken down into need to be noticed and considered. When working on a recall trainers understand that the behavior is not just the end result of a dog racing toward its owner. It starts with the dog acknowledging the cue, a glance, head turn, spin around, movement toward the owner and finally getting close enough to be put on a leash if necessary. Each of the pieces of the process should be reinforced and rewarded.
Find ways to reward your dog for the steps they are making, however tiny they may seem. Learn how to use a clicker to make this easier for yourself and clearer for your dog. Keep your goals in mind but don’t miss the successes and be sure to reward your dog for them.