In previous articles, we discussed the causes of fearfulness in dogs, appropriate ways to manage scared dogs, and the need for developing a slow-but-steady, systematic approach to helping dogs overcome fear towards humans. In this article we will discuss a tried and true way of dealing with other manifestations of fearfulness.
First, let's discuss what not to do. There is a technique for dealing with fearfulness called “immersion,” which consists of forcing a dog into a scary situation in hopes he will realize there is nothing to fear. An example might be taking a dog to watch fireworks on the fourth of July (assuming he is afraid of loud noises and flashing lights) and expecting him to understand that after five hundred booms, he is still alive and well, and thus there is nothing to fear. While some trainers have successfully implemented immersion, it is not a very dog-friendly approach. Immersion can cause dogs extreme stress, and their ability to learn diminishes when they are being traumatized. There are gentler, more reliable methods of helping dogs overcome fears. The simplest, most reliable approach for non-trainers is Classical Conditioning and Desensitization.
Classical Conditioning and Desensitization is the process of changing a dog's emotional reaction to a stimulus. If a dog is afraid of thunder, his response to it could be urinating or soiling indoors, hiding under the coffee table, running back and forth with his tail tucked between his legs, or crying and barking. It would be better if, when a dog heard thunder, he came running to his owner for a game of fetch. Here is an outline of how such a reaction could be achieved. (The assumption here is that the dog loves playing fetch. Otherwise, you can substitute an activity your dog enjoys – anything from eating treats to playing tug will do.)
• Introduce the scary stimulus at an intensity that doesn't frighten the dog. Purchase a CD with thunderstorm noises. Turn it on each day at a volume low enough the dog notices it but doesn't react to it.
• Link the dog's favorite thing/activity to the stimulus. Whenever the CD is playing, engage the dog in an exciting game of fetch. After a while, turn off the CD and stop playing fetch. By repeating this often, you can condition the dog to expect a game of fetch when he hears the noise. To assure proper conditioning, only play fetch while the CD is playing.
• Gradually increase the intensity of the stimulus. Every few days, turn up the volume of the CD just a little and play fetch with the dog. Over several weeks (or even months) increase the volume of the CD until the dog is happy to play fetch amidst realistically loud thunder noises.
When conducting classical conditioning and desensitization, you always should control the intensity of the frightening stimulus. In the above example, we controlled the volume of the CD. However, volume control sometimes is not an option, and you will need to rely on distance from the stimulus. For examples, dogs commonly are afraid of vacuum cleaners (which have no volume knobs). By controlling the distance of the vacuum from the dog, we can slowly counter-condition the dog. Here is an example of how that might be accomplished using the rules explained above.
• Let your dog watch from a distance as you pull the vacuum cleaner from the closet and place it in the most distant room in the house. Leave the vacuum cleaner turned off.
• Feed the dog his breakfast each day after you pull out the vacuum cleaner. When the dog has finished eating, put the vacuum cleaner away.
• After several days, begin turning the vacuum cleaner on in the far room so that the sound is very muffled. You may even need to close the door to the room. Every few days move the vacuum slightly closer until it can be left running at a reasonable distance from the dog while he eats his breakfast.
Dealing with canine fearfulness can be a very tricky and nuanced endeavor, and there are a variety of approaches – some better in certain situations than others. If you have any questions, please contact a qualified positive reinforcement trainer for assistance.
About the writer: Thomas Aaron is a certified dog training instructor and the owner of FetchMasters, LLC in Denver, Colorado. He is a strong advocate of positive reinforcement training, believing it provides the most humane path to a well-trained dog and nurtures an appropriate and strong bond between people and their dogs. He has trained hunting hounds since childhood and currently specializes in off-leash obedience training, behavior modification and positive gun dog training. FetchMasters.com