My Janice has always been a very confident dog. Leroy is another story. In his puppy hood, all I had to do was accidentally drop a spoon on the floor behind him to send him skittering off behind the sofa to hide. He was terrified of the broom, and the vacuum cleaner. People frightened him, and he’d cower behind me if he was approached. Today, though, you’d hardly know he was the same dog.
I always sensed that there was something in Leroy to begin with that made him genuinely want to overcome his fearfulness, so I had good raw material to work with. Still, it took a lot of work to make him the dog he is now. I used several of the techniques described below, and also continued to expose him to people – fortunately, I have several friends who were willing to socialize with Leroy and me, even when he was doing his very best to avoid them.
Some of these exercises fall under the category of modifying your dog’s behavior by doing fun things with him. Others are more focused on managing the behavior, and some do double duty. You may have already tried some of these techniques on your fearful dog, but I figure there’s no harm in a refresher course.
So, here we go – 9 great strategies for building confidence in your dog.
Much of the time, a fearful dog can become more confident if his life is more structured. The thing with Leroy was that anything outside the normal routine – a dropped spoon, a new visitor, my infrequent vacuuming – was upsetting to him. So my first step in working with him was to do some basic obedience training.
Leroy enjoyed learning. What he got from his obedience training was the predictability that he wanted in his life. “My person says sit, so I sit, and then I get a treat,” quickly became “My person says I sit, so I sit, and I get praised.” It’s the same thing with down, stay, and the other commands that you will teach your dog during his obedience training – one command, one action, and one result. Nothing ever changes. Leroy needed that kind of consistency.
Now, a word on punishment. Leroy didn’t get it right every time in the beginning, and there were times when I almost suspected that he was being perverse – like when I’d have to push his butt down onto the floor over and over because he wasn’t naturally sitting when I held the treat up over his head. But I was always gentle with him, and never coercive. Coercion can have its place in dog training, but shouting and punishing are never appropriate – I’ve talked about this in The 5 Most Common Dog Training Mistakes – and they are especially harmful to a fearful dog. There’s nothing like shouting or physical punishment to destroy the little bit of confidence the dog is working with. Since your purpose is to build confidence, not tear it down, you should only use positive reinforcement.
At its essence, targeting is teaching your dog to touch part of his body to get a specific result. Its purpose is to keep your dog focused on you, even when he’s in the presence of something (or someone) that’s scaring him. It’s easy to teach, and most dogs will catch on quickly.
Hold a treat in your hand. The dog is naturally going to sniff your hand. When he does, say “Nose,” and let him have the treat. This is “nose targeting.” You’ll probably only need to do this a few times before your dog gets the idea that if he bumps your closed hand with his nose, something good will happen!
Now, switch it up a bit. When he bumps your hand, don’t give him the treat. Instead, take a paw gently in your other hand, and place his paw on the closed hand, saying “Touch.” Then give him the treat.
Once your dog is responding to random commands of “Nose” and “Touch” he will have learned two cues that will result in a positive outcome. Make it fun, and don’t be afraid to change things a bit – you might hold your hand away a bit, teasing him just a little, so he gets the idea that it’s going to take a pretty hard nose bump to make you give him the treat. You could also hide your hand behind your back, place an obstacle between you and your dog so he has to jump over it to deliver the nose bump or the touch of his paw, or run across the room so he has to chase you to do the bump or the touch.
You can use these commands any time that he needs to be distracted from something that is disturbing him. The long-range goal is for him to equate the disturbing occurrence or person with the positive outcome of getting a treat and the fun of having to work for it a bit. When that happens, he will be less troubled by what was causing him distress.
Any time you see your dog becoming nervous, you can play the touch game. Maybe you’re out for a walk, and he decides that he’s afraid of that lady coming toward you – or maybe it’s just that big red purse of hers that’s scary, who knows? And it doesn’t matter because he’s going to forget all about her and that nasty purse when you tell him “Touch.” He can’t be scared, and happy about playing the game and getting treat, at the same time.
Play until the horrible lady has passed. Now, do you see where this is going? Pretty soon, ladies with big, colorful purses aren’t going to be frightening any longer. In fact, your dog will probably think that they’re pretty awesome, because when they approach, he gets a treat.
For sure targeting worked on Leroy. In fact, sometimes I think it worked a little too well, because sometimes he actually pretends to be afraid, reasoning that I’ll give him a treat! And yes, I usually do, but not always, because I want Leroy to know perfectly well that I can tell when he’s putting on an act!
This is another behavior modification game, like targeting. You can use your clicker for this one in the beginning.
What you do is start with your dog in front of you, and a handful of treats held behind your back. Tell him “Find it!” and toss a treat to your right or left. Click just before he grabs the treat. Call him back, say “Find it!” again, and toss a treat in the other direction. Repeat frequently, until he’s moving smoothly from one treat to another.
This also works well with nasty purse ladies and other threats when you’re out on your walk – just make sure that you toss the treats close to you. After all, you don’t want to inconvenience other pedestrians. The outcome is the same as with targeting – you have just created an association between the perceived threat and the fun of playing a game and getting a treat.
Sometimes, a stimulus is still going to be overwhelming. It’s not just people who will frighten the timid dog, it can be something like a noisy vehicle, a ventilating fan, or even a perfectly quiet trash can. The escape game works well when you’re not confident that “Touch” or “Find it” are going to get the job done.
You’ll want to start teaching this game somewhere that your dog feels safe – probably in your back yard. You’ll do it when he’s feeling calm and relaxed. Put the leash on him, and take a few steps. Then say “Escape!” in a cheerful voice, turn quickly, and start running. Reward him with a treat at the end of the run.
The purpose, of course is the same as with the other two games – to change your dog’s behavior by changing the way he feels about what’s happening. Suddenly, the threat is forgotten, because he knows he’s going to play a fun game, and get a treat. He’s not escaping in terror; he’s just playing a confidence-building game – one that, coincidentally, happens to move him away from whatever is frightening him.
Any other game that your dog already enjoys can also be used to modify behavior in the face of fear. Does he love to tug on a squeaky? Give you a high five? Give kisses? Just connect the scary thing to a fun game and a reward.
The key to using these games to help your dog build confidence is to be alert to signs of nervousness. The game isn’t likely to work if he’s too close to the scary person or object, because his brain isn’t going to click into “play” mode if he’s already starting to go into “meltdown” mode. Start when the person or object isn’t all that close.
This isn’t exactly a game – it’s a management strategy. You know how your fearful dog tries to scrunch up behind you when he’s scared? There may be times when you actually want him to do this; for instance if you notice something that’s a little too close and might set him off before you can get him into “play” mode.
To teach “Go behind,” have your dog in front of you, and make sure you have your clicker in your hand and your supply of treats close by. Now, say “Go behind,” and hold the treat behind you, luring him into a sit as your raise your hand holding the treat above his head. Then click and treat. Repeat as often as you need, until he takes the position easily.
Now, again with him in front of you, tell your dog “Go behind,” but don’t move your hand. He’ll probably look at you as if he’s trying to make sure that you really want him behind you. Then click and lure him into position. Keep this up, gradually luring less and less. You’ll know he’s learned “Go behind” when he responds to the command without you needing to lure.
You can still use “Go behind” even early in your dog’s training, before he has learned to respond to the command without luring. If something scary is approaching too quickly, rather than have your dog panic, just lure him behind you until the threat passes.
This is a procedure designed to help your dog become more brave.
You can start applying this strategy in real-life situations early on in the training, even if before your dog fully grasps the concept, simply by luring him into his safe position as the scary thing passes.
“Treat and retreat” is a way to help skittish dogs become braver. The method itself was developed by the veterinary behaviorist, Dr. Ian Dunbar, who founded the Association of Pet Dog Trainers in California.It was popularized as “Treat and Retreat” by trainer Suzanne Clothier of St. Johnsville, New York. To do this, you will need the assistance of another person – specifically, someone your dog fears.
Begin with your dog at what he would consider to be a safe distance from the person he is afraid of. Have the person toss a low-value treat over the dog’s head. The dog will turn to get the treat, and then almost certainly turn around to keep the scary person in view. Now, have your helper throw a high-value treat – this time, in front of the dog, close to where the dog originally was.
Ask your helper to continue the exercise, tossing low-value treats behind the dog, and high-value treats in front. As the dog begins to relax, your helper will begin closing up the distance between himself or herself, and the treat in front of the dog.
Patience is the key here – if you go too quickly, the dog could “spook,” and then you’re back to square one. If the dog seems at all reluctant to take the high-value treat, then you’ve been moving too fast. Ultimately, you want your dog to be fine with taking the treat from the scary person’s hand. He’ll end up thinking, “I must be a really brave dog to make that person do nice things for me!”
Here are three other protocols for dealing with the fearful dog.
CAT stands for Constructional Aggression Treatment, a method developed by University of North Texas researchers Dr. Jesus Rosales Ruiz and Kellie Snider. With this method, the goal is to convince the fearful dog that displaying fear will not make what is agitating him go away. Again, you will need the help of someone that your dog is afraid of.
Your job is to do nothing more than keep your dog in front of you while the person approaches the dog, starting from a distance at which the dog is not agitated by his or her presence. Gradually, you helper will close the distance, stopping when the dog shows the earliest signs of nervousness. At that point, your helper will simply turn around and leave.
What this does is teach the dog that if he is not displaying fear, something good will happen – the person who makes him nervous will respond to what appears to be a show of bravery by going away.
As with “Treat and Retreat,” patience is all-important. You are, of course, working toward the same result – having your dog become brave enough to at least tolerate the presence of the other person without becoming agitated.
BAT, which was developed by trainer Grisha Stewart of Seattle, Washington, stands for Behavior Adjustment Training. It is similar to CAT, but your dog will be moving away from the scary person, as opposed to having the scary person approach the dog and then leave when the dog relaxes. Start from a safe position. Then move slowly toward your helper. Stop when the dog becomes agitated, and when he relaxes, leave the area as a reward. Now, go back and do it again, over and over, slowly closing the distance that you begin from. It’s basically CAT done backwards.
LAT is a method devised by Leslie McDevitt, professional trainer and author of “Control Unleashed.” It stands for “Look at That,” and is based on rewarding your dog for looking at whatever is frightening him.
Enlist the services of your scary helper again, and, from a safe distance, gently encourage your dog to look at him or her. Say “Look,” and as soon as he does, offer a treat. Now, if your dog is not comfortable with the scary helper at any distance, you can introduce a third party into your training exercise – someone your dog is okay with. Proceed as you would with the scary target. Then, once your dog knows that he’ll get a treat if he looks at the target, you can go back to working with the scary helper, at a safe distance.
Your dog will quickly learn that you want him to look at what frightens him when you give him the cue, and he will expect a reward when he does. You can do this exercise not just with human helpers, but with any object that frightens your dog.
You can use pretty much all of these strategies in combination, with the obvious exception of CAT and BAT, since one involves having your dog move toward what frightens him, while the other allows him to move away. Usually, the more of these strategies you use, the better off you will be, because you will have a number of ways to help your dog cope with what troubles him.
So, back to my Leroy. As I suggested before, it wasn’t easy helping him to get past his fear. Fortunately, he seemed to really want to become a braver dog. My job was to help him get there. Is he completely fearless today? No. Sometimes, if he’s tired or not feeling well, a dropped spoon can still provoke a bit of a twitch, but not the full-on flight response that it once did. So he’s not fearless – but is he brave?
You bet he is! Real bravery doesn’t mean not being afraid of anything. What it does mean is having the courage to stand up to what frightens you, and deal with it. And I have to say that today, Leroy is a very, very brave dog.
If your dog has trouble dealing with fear issues, I believe that these 9 strategies will work as well for the two of you as they did for Leroy and me. So start working on it today – you’ll be surprised at how quickly you get results.