Last week I started with this:
Dogs are like people: they’re born with a leaning towards confidence or timidity (or any number of other things), and then their experiences layer over the top of that to decide how they will be later in life.
Also, much like people, young dogs often go through a fearful phase. I’ve seen it hit most often between six and eight months, but can happen before or after that as well. How you deal with timidity, in either a young dog or a rescue, can make a big difference in how they feel about the world, about trusting you, and their confidence levels.
One of the scariest things is, to many owners’ surprise, strangers. Whether your dog is an adolescent going through a phase, or a rescue overcoming previous trauma (emotional or physical), there’s some basic things you can do to help them dramatically.
The basic steps are these:
- Stop them from fleeing.
- Protect them from the “monster.”
- Gently reward bravery.
There’s two ways in which timidity shows itself: flight or fight. Now, I’m going to assume that you’re dealing with timidity/confidence with people issues, and not fear aggression. Regardless of whether your dog falls into the flight or fight category, the basic steps are the same. How much we correct and where, however, differs. So, two case studies! (You know how I love my case studies!) This week we’ll look at Max, a fleer, and next week we’ll look at Tildi, a fighter.
It’s now “next week” and time to look at how to work with a fighter!
There’s a big difference between fear aggression and timidity. Fear aggression has already escalated to a dog that’s lunging forward with clear threat; timidity-fight is going to be a dog that barks from a distance, or is just starting to try and scare a monster away with little pushes or hops forward.
Tildi is only six months old, and she’s in this latter category. If she were with a big group of dogs and she barked at something in alarm, they would first check out what she was barking at. If they saw it was nothing dangerous and she, upon seeing their disinterest, stopped barking, they would reward her with grooming and play. If she ignored their disinterest and continued barking, they would often either move on and abandon her (at least until she decided to catch up!), or they would nip at her until she was quiet, and then reward her. In this way, young dogs can learn what they should and should not be alarmed about.
There are — well, many — theories about what to do in Tildi’s situation (barking from a distance), but one major one. The major one says you should do the same thing you’d do in a flight case, but start from a greater distance and move closer slowly. I think this is great in theory, but in practicality it’s almost impossible. You can’t control if people on your walk are moving toward you, and it’s very difficult to set up enough strangers coming to your house and staying for a long enough time to train in this manner. So, this is what I do instead.
Step one: stop them from fleeing. This really isn’t much different; we put Tildi on a leash to keep her from running away and avoiding the problem.
Step two: protect them from the “monster.” In Tildi’s case, she was protecting herself from the monster by barking at them and trying to scare them away. (This can rapidly become fear aggression, especially if it works.) So first we had to tell her that she’s no longer allowed to try and scare them away. If she starts barking at someone, we can pull her away on her leash, squirt her with a squirt bottle, or bump her away with our knee/shin/side-of-our-foot. In Tildi’s case, bumping worked best. We had to face her and bump her about twenty feet back initially, but as she started to “get it” that became dramatically less. (Once dogs realize you’re more persistent than they are, they start giving up quicker. Usually you can do this in one fifteen minute session with someone acting as the provocateur.) If you use a leash to pull your dog away, remember you must loosen the leash for them to learn anything. If they’re still pulling on the leash to get closer, they haven’t learned to stop barking/hopping/intimidating!
Once we can get a dog to stop barking, then we can protect them from the monster. In Tildi’s case, this meant giving her treats when she hung back quietly, and praising her when she decided to leave when she was frightened rather than barking when she was frightened.
The downside of this step (and the reason many people don’t like it), is that while we’ve eradicated the bad behavior (barking/hopping/etc), we haven’t created a single lick of confidence, and your dog might be slightly more fearful because they now associate people with getting squirted/bumped/etc. Now, however, we can start protecting. Now Tildi’s owner can say, “Yes, Jenna, come in! No, you may NOT touch Tildi.” From here, we can build the trust that Tildi’s mom will protect her, and from there, we build up Tildi’s confidence just as we did with “flight” dogs. (See last week.) In my experience, the downside isn’t enough to prolong the timidity around people. In fact, because dogs who are willing to try and chase off a monster usually have more confidence than dogs who aren’t, these dogs still seem to come around very rapidly, much faster than “flight” dogs.
Step three: gently reward bravery. In a fight dog, this starts with, “You didn’t bark this time! So wonderful and brave!” and then continues to, “you stayed closer!” “You tried to sniff!” “You took a treat!” and so on. From here, it’s once again the same as a “flight” dog!
There is a final step you can take, if your dog is pretty good around people, but you’d like them to be better. I mentioned it briefly, but it deserves it’s own note. Once your dog is willing to take treats and sometimes be petted, you can have strangers ask your dog to sit, shake, high five, or anything else you like. (Anything that involves laying down is hard for these dogs, as it puts them in an even more vulnerable position. Hard things should be avoided, as they create more stress.) This gets your dog happily engaging with strangers, thinking about something other than whether or not the stranger is a monster, and doing fun bonding stuff.
One last note: if you’re apparently afraid to touch a stranger, why should your dog feel safe getting petted? Start shaking hands and, where appropriate, giving hugs. You can model brave behavior for your dog, and that will help, too!