Today I met with a new client. I am only doing training for show dogs and thought that this was a fearful show dog. It turns out that the dog is not a show dog, but a much loved companion dog who is fearful, but that someone had told her that she needs to work with me. Because we were there and she had driven quite a ways to meet I offered to do the consult.
The owner has done a great job of training her for obedience and basic manners through a local dog training club. Unfortunately, she had been given bad information on how to deal with her dog’s fear issues. This is not uncommon because most times basic obedience dog trainers are not skilled behavior consultants. Working with a dog who is fearful is not the same as simply training behaviors by rewarding desirable behaviors or punishing undesirable behaviors. Fearful dogs behavioral responses are fueled by fear which is an emotional response. Dogs who are afraid trying to stay safe or get to safety, plain and simple. Please don’t waste your time thinking that dogs ever “pretend” to be afraid or that fear is ever an act. It isn’t, dogs are incredibly honest animals, generally what you see is what you get.
Back to this sweet dog. She showed up in a prong collar because her owner had been told that “fearful dogs should wear prong collars or she won’t have control”. I disagree with this because a fearful dog is already suffering from anxiety and by adding a piece of aversive equipment you are adding to that anxiety. This is because when training with aversives the dog is trying to escape the aversive, in this case the prong collar. If the dog is trying to escape the prong collar AND the trigger for fear they are being given no chance to feel safe. They are being taught that they cannot trust their owner. Their ability to communicate their fear and discomfort is taken away because if they try to move away, they are corrected by the prong collar. This dog was working towards her CGC and was afraid of people going over her. The recommendation was to put her in a prong collar and force her to stay there while people touched her which was making her worse, not better.
Also, she was told to never allow the dog to look at things. “She must always look at you” is what she was told. The problem with this is that when a dog is fearful you must allow them to look at the trigger. Of course, this is done at a distance where the dog is “sub threshold” meaning that she can see the trigger and is aware of it, but can still eat, think, respond and play. Done properly you will generally get good results fairly quickly. During this first session, this dog learned that she could look at the trigger, then she would look at her mom to get fed a treat. This does a few things, 1) it teaches the dog the behavior of looking away from the person and at the owner in a way that allows them to choose, 2) it builds a positive association with the trigger, and 3) it builds confidence in the dog as she begins to realize that she is being heard.
So, we did our one hour session. I had her work on walking the dog on a martingale rather than the prong. I taught her to hold the lead in a way that allowed the dog to learn to walk on the lead without pulling and so that she could easily reinforce the dog in heel position. We worked on observing her body language to determine where we should work at the park, based on environmental factors and when we needed to stop or give her breaks. I showed her how to use play, just physical play and interaction to engage and reinforce her dog. When I asked her if she had ever done that before she told me that she hadn’t. The dog absolutely loved the play, even with me before I had her owner take over. This is a dog who was shrinking away from people in class. When given just a small amount of choice, information and feedback she felt comfortable enough with a stranger to work with me, play with me (without food), train with me and perform known behaviors for me when I asked.
By the end of this one hour session this dog was walking politely on the martingale collar. Her owner told me multiple times, “I can’t believe I can walk her on this collar!” She had really not be shown how to properly train a dog how to walk nicely on a lead, she had been shown how to use tools to constantly guide and manipulate the dog.
At the end of the session I always ask clients how this all sounds and feels to them and if they have any questions. I truly almost cried when she told me that she was so grateful and that she had been told her dog “would never pass the CGC test” and that her dog has “a lot of issues”. She told me how good it felt to know that she does NOT have to have a prong collar on her and force her to do things and that there is, in fact a much better way to help fearful dogs.
It made me so happy that we had this misunderstanding of her needs and that I got to do this session with a really loving and dedicated owner and her very sweet dog who is struggling with some anxiety and conflict.