Fear and training in the dog world


For the past three weeks I’ve had a client’s dog staying at my house for training.  I’ve worked with this dog before during one of my three session classes but we had difficulty making headway with him for a host of reasons.  But, after having him here for these weeks some things have come clear and he’s proving to be a challenge for a whole set of different reasons.

Without giving away much information, I’ll say that this pup is right around a year old, in VERY good physical health, and is one of those breeds that I constantly tell people need more exercise than they are getting.  In short, to look at this dog you would think he was perfectly normal, but he’s not.  He’s scared of EVERYTHING.  Every noise sends him running for the door to the house. Every car that drives by makes him cringe and curl up in fear, and any type of correction is very hard on him.  In short, he’s a classic case of not being socialized as a puppy. And the training designed to help him now is much more work that it would have been when he was eight weeks old.  That’s my rant on socializing your puppy, on to this particular case.

This pup lives most of his life in one of the gated communities around Austin.  It’s a very quiet and peaceful environment for the most part but they are tough for puppies because they get very little exposure to the outside world.  When this dog was young it lived behind the walls of his lovely home with the other family dog that’s several years older.  Once the pup arrived home he was put outside with the older dog where they immediately bonded but the owners didn’t have the opportunity to work with him very much. So the inevitable consequence is that he got comfortable with their dog but not with people or the world at large.  Now, the owners want to take him out in public with them and it’s just torture on the poor pup.

Over the course of these weeks my job has been to de-sensitize the pup as much as possible to the outside world.  I’ve done this in a sort of textbook manner by teaching him commands (sit, down, heel…) and having him apply those when he gets nervous out in the neighborhood.  We have indeed made progress with this as the pup can do his commands very well as long as there’s a very low level of stress in the environment.  As a matter of fact, I would have to say that this pup is well above average in intelligence and picks things up faster than most. But the fact is, he’s not where I would want him to be emotionally and I know he’s not where the owners are going to want him. And there is little at this point we can do from a strict training perspective.

To get this dog moving to the next stage he’s going to need something other than just de-sensitization work to lower his anxiety level. We have to find something that will allow him to function when the big outside world brushes up against him.  Now, he can do his commands beautifully until someone else walks down the street toward us, then he bolts for the house.  We’ve got to give him a tool so that he can assess the threat of the situation accurately, and respond accordingly,  before we can move much further with his training.

Every textbook I’ve read on anxiety says that desensitization is a tough program, and it is.  Very few clients have the time or energy to work on it to the level that they need to, and none of them can afford to have me do it for them.  The fact of the matter is that for many of these dogs to have any sort of normal outside life we’ve got to do more for them and the MORE often includes anti anxiety medication in conjunction with their training.

The conversation I’m going to have with this dog when it’s owners return is that we need to provide every tool we can to this pup to offer it as normal and fulfilling a life as possible.  We will, of course, continue with the behavior modification techniques and de-sensitization work but I want to move through that so that the dog actually has more opportunity to "Learn" that not everything is going to cause him harm.  I’ve seen this with other clients and I have seen the medications do wonderful things for dogs that were "hopeless cases".  

Without a doubt, this is a controversial stance in the dog trainer community, but I think that the pups deserve just as much an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors as we do.

Steve Haynes
Austin Dog Trainer
Fidleio Dog Works