Musings of a dog trainer, on fearful dogs

Being out of ones comfort Zone, make’s one think

Currently  I am sitting on a 38 foot sailing catamaran in Fisherman’s bay at Great Keppel Island.  How wonderful you might think, as you imagine sun, aqua waters and sipping wine.  Well certainly at times that is the picture. But sailing is not all fun.  And the two weeks we have taken to get here has been full of many a stressful and unpleasant moment. This has made me think of what we put our dogs through at times.  How does this relate to the fearful dog you might wonder?  I have worked with many a client’s dog and also my own, on issues of “reactivity” towards something the dog sees as being scary.  When a dog shows signs of either aggression or behaviours that show us (if we can read a little dog body language) he wants to increase the distance between him and the “scarry”, we tend to use the word reactivity. So the dog can be labelled dog to dog aggressive etc.

How we try to change a dog

One way to change a dog’s emotional response to a stimulus that is causing him to show stress behaviours is to do a de-sensitisation and counter conditioning program with the dog.  In brief we slowly expose the dog to the thing he is scared of while he can cope and reward the coping.  The aim is to convince his brain that the scary thing is actually OK and that wow I get good treats when its around.  Myself and many a trainer have had good success with this method, but just sometimes it goes wrong.  Why? In technical terms we end up actually sensitizing the dog to the very stimulus we are trying to de-sensitise.  Sometimes this is inexperience of the process. Either the trainer or the client go to fast to soon.  We all want results and the pressure is there to get them.  But this really is a time to go real slow.  I look at how I worked my own “reactive dog” and realise that because I took nearly two years to see real results that yes I took my time.  And he is one of those always work in progress dogs, as he is a very fearful dog. But improvement was outstanding.

Things don’t always go as planned

Back to sailing, I am not an experienced sailor.  I do not think I am overly nervous, but as the years go on certainly I am more cautious.  So this planned trip was always a concern to me.  What I guess I was hoping to happen was that I would become familiar and better able to cope, yes de-densitised to sailing and all it entails.  But what in fact I have realized has been happening in the last couple of weeks is I am in fact becoming more sensitized to sailing.  I find even the slightest out of norm noise, (and believe me there are lots of noises day and night) will get me on edge. There have been a few things go wrong nothing life threatening just unpleasant. This is also compounded by the fact that I am then so reliant on my husband to sort situations out. And he generally does so all good there but that does not help my internal fear. So thinking from the perspective of an animal who is generally at a disadvantage because they have to rely on us and do not have a good two way communication system, I can begin to understand how some dogs find it very hard to change their internal emotions on something that they find scarry. Another factor here is how much enjoyment/gain is there from the very activity in which you are in where there is the scary part as well.  What I mean is, OK there are great things about this trip I am on, seeing really out of the norm places, some of which are stunning, snorkeling or walking in nature. But the balance of good to bad has to be higher.  And there are other aspects of long term sailing that I could go into that are not so pleasant but will spare you.  So when taking our dogs out on a walk, the balance of good has to be greater. So this then means we have to be observant and take note what the dogs actually enjoys on the walk and make sure this outweighs the scary encounters otherwise regardless of how much de-sentitisation and counter conditioning we are doing the dog still won’t enjoy the walk. Get the balance right and then go real slow with the training and there is at least a good chance that the process could work.  This then brings in the idea of why doing nose work to help dogs that have reactive/fear issues can work so well. Most dogs enjoy using their noses to find stuff. If we then tip that balance of good and bad more to be more good, by allowing sniffing and finding then this can help.  So I just need more wine on this sailing trip.


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