The Fearful, Timid, Aggressive, Under Socialized or Unsocialized Dog
Far too many owners of timid, fearful, or aggressive dogs (it really does not matter how they got to be that way just that they ARE that way now) believe that the key to socialization is just to put their dog in with other dogs or people and their dog’s anti-social behaviours will magically vanish. That is just not the case. These dogs need a training step BEFORE they can begin to learn how to politely greet another dog by practicing the craft. Whenever I ask a client, who has come to see me about their dog’s behavioural issues if their dog’s problems could be from lack of socialization, and their answer is, “Oh no. That cannot be it. We take him everywhere.”, it usually confirms my suspicions that the problem stems from socialization issues.
Socialization is not just about making a dog to have access to be with other dogs or people. Socialization is having your dog around other dogs, people, in different environments, and other stimuli …. and them having the coping skills to become comfortable with it. If your dog is terrified during the entire process, then chances are that throwing the dog into the lake to learn how to swim (interestingly enough referred to as FLOODING) is actually doing more harm than good. And if your dog is a direct danger to other dogs and truly attacks them, the last place for them to be is with another dog or near other people. No, if your dog has serious issues with fear, then before he can be with others, what he needs more than anything else is Foundation Work.
What is Foundation Work?
Foundation Work refers to behaviour modification techniques geared to modify behaviour based on changing your dog’s mind about he feels about a situation BEFORE you address the secondary behaviour issues. The PRIMARY problem is fear, and the secondary problem is the behavioural issues that these dogs have because they are fearful. Aggressive or over reactive behaviour is never the root problem. It is a symptom of another problem and that problem is that your dog has developed FEAR. Aggressive, timid, or anti-social dogs have fear and before you can work on their secondary and tertiary behaviour issue (like being able to have a polite greeting with another dog) you must address and dissolve their fear issues.
In Foundation Work we use Desensitization and Counter Conditioning exercises to allow dogs to change how they feel about a certain experience. These techniques involve repeatedly associating a small amount of something that the dog does not like or is afraid of with a much larger amount of something that he loves. With time and repetition, the dog will eventually change his mind about how feels about the experience and will react with happy anticipation when he is exposed to the same stimuli that used to illicit a fearful or unhappy reaction in him. Until you do this Foundation Work with a dog, it will not matter how much you expose him to the situations that he fears, his reaction and his behaviours will always remain the same and most likely, become even more pronounced over time.
How To Counter Condition or Desensitize Your Dog To The Experience of Approaching Another Dog
In order to use this Behaviour Modification technique, you need to gather a few items.
- You need to find a friend who can donate some time and a patient well balanced easy going non-reactive dog. This technique will never work with a dog if his behaviour is also out of control.
- You need to find some very High Value treats (food that your dog loves and would do anything to get BUT cannot get any other way other than to comply with your cues). The treats should be in very tiny pieces pea sized pieces so that your dog does not fill up on treats and lose his motivation to continue to want the treats.
- You need to find a training pouch that easily allows quick and easy access to these yummy treats.
- 2 large rocks or items that you can place on the ground to mark starting positions.
Determining Your Dog’s Reactive Threshold
With your friend and their dog in place, start heading towards the pair with your dog. Pay very careful attention to your dog’s behaviour and body language as you begin walking slowly toward them. Use one of the rocks to mark the distance where your dog starts to notice the other dog but does NOT start to growl, bark, or lunge at them. Keep walking and then mark the spot when your dog notices the other dog and DOES begin to react to them physically with his behaviour. Mark this spot with the second rock or item.
You now have a physical representation of your dog’s Threshold for Reactivity. The distance from the first to the second rock is the Reactivity Zone.
In order to work effectively with your anxious, fearful, or aggressive dog, for now you have to keep your dog confined to the space between the first and second rock. If you take your dog in closer (over the Threshold of Reactivity) to the other dog too soon, your dog’s fear will begin triggering his behaviours and the experience will quickly become overwhelming for him. So for now, the area you are going to work with is between the first and second rock.
Desensitization To The Trigger
Move your dog back to the position of the first rock (furthest away from the other dog). Begin taking single slow steps towards the second rock (closest to the other dog). The moment that you see your dog has begun to notice the other dog, STOP moving forward. Redirect your dog’s gaze onto you with a WATCH ME CUE and start feeding him the food. If the dog moves his gaze back to the other dog, stop giving treats, and redirect his gaze on to you with WATCH ME and then start feeding him treats. When you can feed your dog about 10 consecutive treats without him nervously looking over at the other dog, you are ready to move your dog back out the reactivity zone for another approach.
Now enter the zone again with your dog, watching his reactions very carefully and stopping where you notice that his physical behaviours are being triggered by the proximity of the other dog. Were you able to get closer to the other dog than on your first attempt? If you were great, if not that is okay too. Just try again.
If you were not able to hold your dog’s attention long enough to feed 10 treats in a row, after a few attempts, remove the dog from the Reactivity Zone and then come back in again. Repeat the procedure of asking your dog to watch you and feed him treats until you can give him about 10 treats in a row without him looking over at the other dog.
Each time you enter the zone again watch very carefully for the distance where your dog starts to react to the sight of the other dog. If you are doing the exercise correctly you should be able to keep getting a little bit closer to the dog each time without your dog being triggered with the same intensity as he was before. Your goal is to be able to move in right beside (but a few feet away) the other dog without at first hardly any reaction from your dog and then eventually no reaction from your dog. In the end, you want to be able for your dog to continue walking past the other dog without reaction, ideally while his gaze is fixed on you the whole time.
But be prepared that depending on the severity of your dog’s fear and the length of time your dog has been allowed to act reactively, this process will take time. Just be consistent and keep working with your dog.
Variations Of This Exercise
This exercise can also be done with your dog sitting in place (still within the determined reactivity zone) while your friend moves their dog back forth (but not approaching you) across in front of you and your dog . Give your dog the WATCH ME cue and feed him treats. If he drops his gaze to look at the other dog, stop feeding treats, refocus your dog’s gaze, and then begin to feed treats. After 10 consecutive treats have been given, have your friend stop walking their dog, re-establish the new reactivity zone, and begin the process again. In this version your dog stays still and it is the other dog who keeps incrementally moving closer.
What If I Don’t Have A Friend With A Dog?
If you do not have access to a helpful friend with a dog or if you just want to keep switching up the exercise to keep your dog from becoming bored, you can try to do this exercise near a walking path where you know that other people walk their dogs. Determine where your dog’s reactivity zone is and the dogs that are walking by on the path will be the target dogs. The object of the exercise is exactly the same. You want your dog to continue watching you instead of the other dog and you want to be able to slowly move your dog in closer to the target (the other dog). If you find that you have moved your dog in too close too quickly just take one large step back away from the walking path and the target dog.
You definitely want to keep the length of time that you keep your dog in the reactivity circle short. If he continually drops his gaze and you are not able to feed 10 treats in a row, after a few attempts, move him out of the circle and return back to the exact same spot and try again. Moving the dog in and out of the circle keeps the dog from being bored. We already know that Snow Dogs get bored easily and hate repetition so keep this in mind.
Keep the overall training session short too. You definitely do not want to do this for more than 15 or 20 minutes at one time but you do want to practice this as often as you can. If you push your dog too much, too quickly, your dog will shut down or regress in his behaviour. The trick is to find the right balance where your dog is being moved outside of his comfort zone but not to the point where he shuts down or resorts to being aggressive. Most dogs need many training sessions over a period of days or weeks to achieve a permanent behaviour change, so be patient.
Once you have changed how your dog feels about another approaching dog (modified the fearful behaviour) then you can begin going through the steps I presented to you yesterday in Part 2 of this series of teaching your dog how to have an appropriately polite greeting with other dogs.
Tomorrow we will be continuing our series on Husky Greetings. I will give you tips and advice on how you can improve the way that your Snow Dog greets people. So make sure that you check back in with us tomorrow to read that article.
As always, we here at Snow Dog Guru, welcome you to share your questions, comments, and stories. For it is when we share our stories that we may be helping someone who is struggling with their dog.
Helping ALL Snow Dogs …. one owner at a time.