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DarnFar Ranch LLC Professional Dog Training
Changing the actions, aptitudes and attitudes of dogs and their people

Training A Fearful Dog

Dogs that present with unacceptable behaviors which are rooted in fear are, most often, moving from a social to an anti-social state of mind when they display the fear-based behaviors. The undesirable behavior (defined by the owner) is typically a form of fight or flight in response to the stimulus that causes the dog’s fear. In a social species, when an individual feels anxious or uncomfortable, the animal should look upwards in the social structure to get information from a higher ranking individual about how to deal with the stress it is feeling. How that higher ranking individual responds to the fearful one has a huge bearing on whether the animal will overcome its fears or, potentially, develop a worse reaction to the fear stimulus. Consider a military troupe. They train and practice together for hours to prepare for a real battle. During that time they learn about each others’ weaknesses and strengths. Sam, it turns out, has a genuine fear of spiders. Everyone knows it. Yet, during training he is not told that he must not have fears. Fear is an important motivator to self (and sometimes group)-preservation. However, Sam is expected to present a high standard of behavior under certain circumstances, despite his fear. One day the troupe is deployed to a real war zone in the jungle, where large spiders are quite abundant. Sam is a little anxious, but he knows the standards he is expected to maintain, which he learned through hours of training with his comrades. The troupe is moving from one point to another through the dense foliage. They have knowledge that there is a sniper from the enemy that is tracking them. All of a sudden, Sam walks through a huge spider web and a fist sized arachnid lands on his chest. Sam’s fear may rise to a level that makes him want to shout out and scream, “Oh My Gosh! There is a HUGE spider on me. Get it off! Get it off me!” But, he holds back and does not allow his emotions to take control of him. He sucks it up and moves on. Why? Because he has been trained that his loyalty to the safety of his “society” is more important than his need to move into the anti-social state of fight-flight as a lone individual. He remained social, rather than moving to an anti-social / lone-wolf state of mind. Wolves also prepare their offspring for the battle of taking down large prey in the presence of real and highly present danger. They set standards for behavior that permit the pack to execute their mission with the least amount of damage. The root cause of an unacceptable behavior is irrelevant. An action made by an individual that is acting out of fight-flight is highly likely to have a negative impact on the group’s operation. Dogs bring forth from their wolf ancestors a strong sense of sociality and a need to adhere to social norms. So, we can take advantage of that when our dogs present with fear-based behaviors that are socially unacceptable. To address fear-based behaviors in dogs, I recommend the following. Teach the dog the meaning of very high standard obedience to authority. This is accomplished, first, with a “sit, no matter what” training session. There are not treats involved in this training. The dog learns to sit because his owner said so and he learns to stay because his owner upholds that level of absolute compliance to the standard. This article is not intended to provide the specific, step-by-step methods to create this high level of obedience to authority. Attending a One Day Workshop at DarnFar Ranch will provide this education and training. However, it is critical to note that this training must be done by a very calm, relaxed, quiet, highly attentive but not harsh trainer. Leaders are not loud or abrasive. They are quiet, calm, confident and capable of setting a high standard for behavior without slipping into a cheer leader mode or an abusive drill sergeant type approach. They are fair but firm. Once the dog knows that there is a very high standard of behavior that is expected of him in the sitting position and in the presence of challenging distractions, the dog must be challenged with distractions that may move the dog into a state of fear. Some dogs never go there. They are unwavering when a metal cane is dropped near their feet or a remote control toy car is raced past them. But, most dogs will present with some level of fear to some type of distraction (whether that is noise or action based). The dog must learn that, if he was instructed to sit, even if a metal cane falls near his feet, he cannot get up. He must learn to trust his handler and the handler must reinforce the standards that are expected. The error that most new handlers make at this time is to move from relaxed, calm and quiet to tense, stressed and perhaps even fearful, themselves. Once the dog senses this lack of balanced energy coming from the handler, he will feel justified in his fear and the behavior will get worse. When the handler is reminded to remain calm and to relax at the same time to be vigilant and proactive, the dog will relax and submit to the process. A dog that can sit in the presence of distractions then needs to be trained to walk / heel with the handler in the same type of distractions. First, the dog is taught to walk on a lead and the handler is trained to make absolute certain that there is no tension on the dog’s collar. The leash is simply available to offer a collar check if the dog begins to move from heel position to out of heel position. Most handlers send tension down the lead to the dog when distractions are presented during this training exercise. As an instructor, I remind the students to “relax your left arm” hundreds of times. It seems to be a very challenging state of mind and body to uphold for many people. I believe this is because most people are used to “feeling” their dog via tension of the leash. When a dog has tension on its neck, it is in a state of being restrained. When an animal feels restrained it cannot be self-restrained. When I am informed that a dog struggles walking in a crowd, around traffic or near loud noises, I immediately envision that the handler is responding to such fear-based behavior with her own level of tension. To resolve the issue of a dog that triggers into a fear response to noises when walking in a busy place, nothing is more important than the handler’s attitude. In response to the dog’s unacceptable behavior the handler must not behave in a way that reinforces the dog’s fear. A handler that stops when the dog balks is doing exactly that. A handler that looks in the direction that the dog is looking at the fear-motivating “monster” (whether that is a sound or an object) is suggesting to the dog, through his behavior, that the scary thing is worth worrying about. The second most important way to resolve a dog’s fear when he is walking in a crowd is to remain wholly calm. The left arm (assuming the dog in on the left side in heel position) must be relaxed from the shoulder to the finger tips. There should be no tension on the dog’s neck, except if he is receiving a quick correction for balking, pulling, retreating etc… The hand should be completely relaxed, hanging naturally at the handler’s side and the grip on the lead must be relaxed. Once the handler’s fist begins to tighten on the leash, the dog perceives it. If the handler begins to raise her hand and in particular if the hand ends up higher than the elbow so that the dog is being manipulated like a piece of luggage, there is practically no way for the dog to over come his fears in that situation. Through her actions, the handler is telescoping the message down the leash to the dog that she does not trust the dog and / or that the fears he is experiencing are real. If a dog struggles with, say, moving through sliding doors at a department store, the handler’s attitude and actions can resolve the issue quickly or create a dog that completely shuts down in the situation. The worst response the handler can have to a balking dog is to stop and look down at the dog. When the handler stops as the dog balks the dog learns that his behavior was warranted. He will do it again, probably more intensely, the next time he is in that same situation or that same geographical location. In stopping for the dog, the handler validated the dog’s fears. If, instead, when a dog balks at a sliding door the handler remains relaxed, looking forward, moving forward at the same pace, corrects the dog for the balking behavior (without stopping) and proceeds through the door, the second time will probably be 50% easier. The third time, the balking will diminish to 75% of what it had been. On the fourth time, many dogs will present only a slight twinge of reluctance. Most dogs will move in a relaxed, confident manner the fifth time the handler moves through the sliding door. If, on the other hand, the handler reinforces the dog’s fear of the sliding door by hesitating, even slightly (or worse, by stopping completely), the second time will be more challenging than the first and the dog’s behavior will get more and more belligerent with each attempt if the handler responds to the dog’s fear. It is critical that the handler remains calm through this process and doesn't resort to becoming tense when the reacts unacceptably. I do not advocate the use of food to help a dog overcome an irrational fear. Typically, the owner uses the food as a bribe. Bribes rarely work to change anti-social behavior. Food offered as a reward is quite different than food offered as a bribe. It’s very difficult for most people to avoid bribing a fearful dog. A bribe is presented before the dog’s actions have changed to the acceptable behavior. A reward is offered only after the dog has presented the desired behavior. When a dog balks at a sliding door, the use of food is typically offered while the dog is in the state of balking in an attempt to coach the dog through the door using a luring technique. My experience tells me that bribing/ luring a fearful dog has little effect to move him out of state of fear, and most often, it causes more anxiety in the dog. The reason that the dog becomes more anxious is that the human is not playing a role of a confident, competent leader when she is giving food to an anxious dog. She cannot be “making the dog do it out of obedience to authority” if she is trying to lure the dog to do it. It’s just not consistent with the way that social canines address unbalanced behaviors in their own kind. Not every fear-based behavior is socially unacceptable. It is the leader of the society that deems whether a behavior is deleterious to the individuals or the society in general. As a dog’s highest ranking one, the human is required to set standards for behavior and to decide whether a specific behavior is worth addressing, regardless of why the dog presents with the behavior. A dog that drools and quivers during a thunder storm is presenting fear-based behavior. But, if the owner doesn’t feel it is unacceptable, there’s no need to address it. If, on the other hand, the dog climbs up the owner’s body with clenched paws and toe nails digging into the person’s flesh and claws at the owner’s face during a thunder storm, most people would find that behavior unacceptable and it should be addressed. It’s not the fear that is addressed. It is the behavior. If the dog feels anxious, he feels anxious. But, that doesn’t mean that the owner needs to tolerate anti-social behavior. The dog should be taught to sit or lie down at a high standard before the thunder storm arrives. Then, the dog can be expected to sit or down during the storm, rather than climbing up the human’s body. If the dog is sitting, there’s nothing wrong with the owner petting the dog during the storm and there’s nothing wrong with the dog leaning on the human during the storm, if the owner deems that an acceptable position. If the owner doesn’t want the dog to lean on her during the storm, then she must set a higher standard for the sit during storms. It’s not about fear. It’s about behavior and what behavior the owner finds acceptable. Training a dog how to behave is about defining the standard of the behavior and reinforcing the expectations. This is true whether the dog is choosing to disrespect the owner’s expectation because the dog is acting excessively exuberant, aggressive or fearful. If we focus on addressing behavior rather than psychoanalyzing why the dog may be presenting the behavior, we can be clear and concise in our communication with our dogs. The more deliberate we are with setting the standards for behavior, the easier it is on the canine student. A very important side effect to setting high standards and reinforcing them, even when the dog is presenting with fear-based behaviors is that the dog usually over comes the irrational fears quite quickly when the handler uses the approaches to training offered in this article. When the owner helps the dog realize that he can, say, move through that sliding door at the department store, the dog not only gains confidence in himself but also in his handler as a sound and competent leader. That is the relationship that permits great things to happen between a person and her dog. © 2011 Tammie Rogers - all rights reserved. For permission to reprint email Tammie.