When you notice that your normally confident pup hangs back a bit or barks at even familiar objects, she is probably in another fear or sensitive period. During these times, your dog is more aware of any changes or new things in her environment. To bring your pup through these times in one emotional piece, don’t hide her away from the world; instead, help her to cope with her reactions. How you handle her fearfulness can mean the difference between a short-term phase and a long-term problem. How would you handle the following?
You and your pup, Daisy, are on the elevator on your way down for a midday walk. The elevator slows, the doors open, and in walks a large, bearded man in some kind of uniform. Your pup growls, and the fur on her back rises up slightly.
1. Giggle in an embarrassed way and stroke the pup nervously while saying, mostly for the gentleman’s benefit, “It’s okay, Daisy. He’s a nice man.” You stroke her to soothe her and to show the man that she is harmless.
2. Yank the lead hard and scold the pup, saying, “No, bad Daisy, bad dog!” You won’t put up with this behavior for one minute; it ends right here!
3. Stay calm and relaxed and step a bit closer to the man, leaving the leash loose. You understand your pup is just reacting to his newness. She will watch you closely for clues about how to handle the situation. You breathe evenly, laugh in a relaxed way, and say something like “Puppies! They’ve got so much to learn.” If the pup stops growling and takes a tiny step closer, you praise her warmly: “Thatta girl, Daisy! Don’t be silly. Good girl!” If she retreats, you ignore her. You take out a treat and let the man feed your pup if he will or simply reward her for stepping toward him.
The correct answer is 3. Answer 1. is likely to be mistaken by the dog for praise, making this growling reaction more likely in the future. Answer 2. may convince your dog that there really is something to worry about, associating the corrections with the man and not with her own behavior.
Answer 3. neither rewards her growling nor adds to her worry. Instead, it rewards friendly, confident behavior and ignores the fearful stuff. You also model the behavior you want (while demonstrating that there is nothing to worry about) by stepping a bit closer to the “scary” person and praising all confident behaviors. How close you step will depend on how the other person reacts as well as your dog’s behavior.
Hint: Do not drag your pup toward the person. Instead, support her every effort to overcome her fear and let her set her own pace. This is the safest (and fastest) route to better behavior.
“Check it out” is almost exactly the same as “say hello,” it just means “check out this object.” You can either put the treats on the object or, if your dog is really spooked, hand him the treats when he gets as close as he confidently can.
Again, as with “say hello,” start with objects your pup does not fear so he can learn the routine without stress. Working with things he knows may seem silly. But it is teaching him the routine, and it is the routine you will fall back on when he is frightened. Later, as he gets more confident, add in new things that he might react to fearfully.
Start From Confidence
Start at a place where your dog isn’t frightened, then progress in small steps, rewarding frequently and taking breaks often. So if your pup is frightened of the children at the playground, start by sitting on a bench far enough away that he shows no concern whatsoever. Get up and walk casually in the general direction of the playground, stopping frequently to reward him. Periodically go back to the bench and let him relax.
Quit While You’re Ahead
This is more easily said than done. Stop when your dog looks happy and relaxed. You’re doing things right if your dog never shows any stress.
Heap on the goodies. If the best things in his life happen near this thing he is nervous about, he’ll soon start feeling less nervous and more eager. Just don’t go overboard with rich foods that can upset his tummy, like liver. Cheese tends to be both appreciated and well tolerated.
Any time you’re working around fear, retreat frequently to a “safe” distance. Spend time there petting and praising. Play a bit if your pup will. Allow her to completely diffuse any tension she may be harboring before you move toward the fearful thing again. This simple process—retreat—can shorten training time significantly.
Arrange playdates with well-socialized, calm adult dogs or a smaller, calmer pup. The ideal dog will ignore your pup completely, allowing your pup to recover and explore. If possible, visit on neutral turf. Always make sure that all toys, bones, and any food is picked up to avoid triggering any aggression/possessiveness in either animal.
Ignore your pup’s reactions entirely and sit down to chat with your guest/friend.
Do this in an easy-to-clean area, as your pup may submissively urinate when she finally greets the other dog. Keeping the adult on lead so she stays in one place can help limit the pup’s stress.
Since fear of other dogs can easily flip into aggressiveness toward other dogs, it is more important to get her around as many calm dogs as possible. Doggie day care, puppy playgroups, and training classes can all help an anxious pup learn the canine social ropes.
Metrodogs encounter many different people each day. If she has seen only one race, sex, or age of human, she will react to anyone different the same way you would react to a towering, purple hairy human on the street. You might feel frightened and try to move away. You might feel aggression rising. Your dog is not so different.
One way to counter this response is to expose your pup to as many different people as possible. Understand that any fear or aggression is probably confusion. In general, if you ignore the pup completely and let her approach in her own time, you’ll have better success.
Hint: If you step or sit next to your guest instead of across from him or her, your pup will see that you are not frightened. She will want to be close to you, which will draw her closer to the stranger at the same time.
Game: Say Hello!
This simple game can be played with people your dog knows, and it will help her greet strangers with happy confidence. All you need is someone she likes (such as a family member), a handful of treats, and a hungry dog. Have her on lead with a buckle collar. Say happily, “Say hello,” and walk her toward her friend (walk in on a slight curve, not straight at the person, and instruct the target not to look at your pup). When she arrives, have her friend hand her a treat and you move her away.
- Approach (praise)
- Treat (praise)
- Move away (praise)
Moving away allows her to get distance from the person before she has a chance to move away because of fear/stress. No matter how confident she seems, move her away happily after the treat. Later in training, as she grows consistently bolder, you can linger a bit and give another treat or two.
If she is food motivated, she will soon wag her tail when she hears, “Say hello.” When she starts looking forward to this, you can have her friends put on hats or coats (anything to change the appearance) and repeat the procedure. Many dogs react to unusual clothing, movement, size, and so on. If that happens, just work on the basic version of “say hello” until the pup is relaxed.
When she merrily “says hello” to friends no matter what they are wearing, move on to less well known people. Continue to move away after she gets her treat.
Once she approaches people happily, you can linger for a second treat before moving away. You can have the person speak to her or touch her (on the chest or under the chin) before the treat. Progress slowly. Each tiny step forward is a step in the right direction. Celebrate it, because tiny step by tiny step you will reach your goal.
Hint: If at any time she balks or refuses to move forward, do not force her. Instruct your friend to toss the treat to her, or give your pup the treat yourself when she gets as close as she is willing to (but before she hits the brakes). This can be tricky, but keep your goal in mind: rewarding her best effort, not her worst.
When a dog get frightened enough, she will refuse treats altogether. If you find this is happening, try moving farther away from the thing/person she fears. Plan ahead. Bring better treats (like cold cuts or cheese), or do this work before meals. Any of these minor changes can create a situation where your dog will be bold enough to accept a treat. Once she’s taking treats with ease, her training around fearful things will be considerably easier.