Does your puppy ever get scared or noticeably responsive (growling, lunging, barking, hiding behind you, etc) to certain things, people, maybe other dogs, statues, trash cans?
Take a moment and think about something that terrifies you. Maybe it is spiders, snakes, scary dark shadows at night, sudden and unexplainable loud noises that come out of no where...
If we know what they are, how they function, how to avoid getting hurt - we can rationalize that we are safe, we are okay. We know how to keep ourselves safe. That’s the wonderful reality of being human (sometimes).
When dogs are afraid of something, we can tell them it’s fine, but they can’t believe us. They can’t understand what we are saying to even try to start believing us without a history of us advocating for them and keeping them safe.
We can prove time and time again that we are their guardians, that we have their back. We can build their confidence in a myriad of ways that doesn’t have to focus on their “spider” but instead builds up their resilience. We can show them that when things shake them, they can recover - and best of all, they can develop the skills necessary to confidently embrace scenarios where their fear doesn’t have to be the most important emotion. We can empower them so that they choose to be brave instead.
A conversation I have with students that discusses their dog’s fear is usually all about how to encourage their dog to feel safe. If your dog is afraid of people, imagine that people are spiders for your dog.
View the scenario from their perspective. If you were terrified of spiders and someone said “I’m going to let one crawl on you. You will be okay. You will get used to it, and at some point you will feel better.” Would you believe them?
What if we add an additional incentive? What if we add a million dollars (read: amazing, delicious food for your dog) and in order to get the million dollars you have to get within centimeters of that spider that you believe with every fiber of your being can and will potentially hurt you. That money could do so many things for you or someone you know. That’s a lot of conflict, but you reach tentatively for the money, inching closer and closer, stretching your fingers out as far as you can without actually bringing your body close. The spider moves, maybe it watches you, staring at you.
Do you feel better about the spider just because it is in possession of something that motivates you?
Do you feel like that spider is any less dangerous?
The fear is magnified as you get closer...
What could make you feel better about the spider? Distance? Control over how close you need to be to get the incentive, the incentive that isn’t beside the spider, but instead is at a safe distance away and is accessible any time you make progressive choices (at your pace) to look at, observe, and study the spider... and maybe, as your confidence grows, interact with the spider because an expert in safety and spiders is providing you with opportunities to learn more and more about this thing that scares you. They reveal, over time, as your fear becomes more of a curiosity, that the spider is not poisonous, and that actually, it won’t hurt you. In fact, it’s friendly, and fuzzy, and playful. The spider is a friend.
Be the expert for your dog, and move at their pace. Make sure they have comfortable choices to make that allow them access to what motivates them without requiring friction or conflict.
Sydney is a 4 month old Beagle puppy. She came from an excellent breeder. She has no history of abuse, but the one thing that seems to terrify her are men. They are her “spider”.
Do we go and seek out all the spiders to make sure she gets lots of positive exposure to them? Or do we intentionally habituate her in situations where spiders may or may not exist.
My strategy might be to work on people, in general. Women, men, children - wearing hats, sunglasses, or not at all. Some might have coats, others have umbrellas, but I wouldn’t focus on the details. I would just take her on exposure focused adventures where habituation was my focus, not direct contact.
What about scenarios where people that love and adore this sweet, beautiful puppy want to pet her?
I would give her a cue, “Is that a friend?” and I would offer her an opportunity to visit.
I will have already explained to the person that she is in training and asked them if they are willing to help her. Almost always they enthusiastically volunteer. I have instructed them to offer their palm by extending it out at their side (not toward the dog) but very clearly and visible. Maybe I have demonstrated (okay, I most definitely have demonstrated).
I say the cue and Sydney goes and investigates their hand. Her nose presses into their skin. I tell her how wonderful she is and she returns to me. I give her a reward (toy or food, she loves both). We do this several times until when I ask her “Is that a friend?” she doesn’t try to visit anymore. She is happy. She is over the novelty of this friend.
In another scenario, I ask Sydney the same question. This time it’s an older woman with a cane. Sydney is more tentative because this is new to her and her brain is telling her to be suspicious, be careful.
She doesn’t go to visit. I do not force her to go make a new friend. I do not repeat the question. I smile kindly at the woman and I say, “Oh, she must be tired. She’s made a lot of new friends today, so I’m going to give her a break. Thank you for helping us.”
I gave Sydney choices and if I ask that question, my job as Sydney’s spider expert is to listen to and respect her answers.