Your Dog’s Fear Is No Joke

There is no denying that sometimes our canine companions appear to be afraid of some rather strange things. Many things that cause our dogs to startle, flee, or growl can seem trivial to us, such as images or videos of other dogs, their reflection in a mirror, statues, balloons, kites, costumes, etc. For some dogs any novel item, particularly one that moves or makes noise, can be scary. It is easy to laugh when our dog jumps or growls at something silly, but is that the most helpful thing we can do to calm our friend?

Many of us spend so much time with our dogs that we think of them as part of the family. We talk to them, play with them, and care for them. It’s no wonder we sometimes expect them to understand the same things we do! But, by laughing at your dog’s fearful behaviour, putting them in a situation you know will startle them, or trying to take them up to their “bogeyman” to show them it’s ok, we are failing to acknowledge what is really going on. Your dog is scared. He doesn’t know that the object or situation isn’t dangerous, and he certainly isn’t “in on the joke” if you have set him up.

Rather than laughing and forcing your dog to approach or stay close to something he is scared of, allow him to move away to a distance he feels safe. For some dogs being able to review the situation from a distance will be enough to discover that the object that startled them isn’t scary at all. Other dogs might require some help.

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Giving Wilbur distance allowed him to watch the giant motorised snail and decide it was safe

When Wilbur was approximately 6 months old he began to startle and growl at statues. This included garden gnomes, animal-shaped garden ornaments, and artistic sculptures in public places. Are statues safe? Yes! Of course they are! Are they scary? To Wilbur they were. Rather than drag him up to a statue that he was trying to move away from, we started to play a game. I’ve seen this game called “look at that” or “touch the goblin”, and it simply involves rewarding your dog each time they look at or approach something they find spooky. We played this game with the scary sea turtle statue at The Strand (Townsville). After we had retreated to a distance where Wilbur was no longer growling at the statue, i began to mark (“yes”) and reward (with pieces of chicken) each time Wilbur glanced at the statue to make sure it hadn’t moved. Pretty quickly he clicked onto the fact that looking at the statue was making good things happen, and he started to take longer peeks, and then took one step, two steps, etc until he was walking all around the statue and sniffing it all over. By turning the situation into a game, Wilbur conquered his initial fear within a minute or so.

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After a game of “touch the goblin” Wilbur was happy to investigate and sit beside the sea turtle statue

Why didn’t i just take him up to the statue to show him it was safe? It’s simple, fear doesn’t work that way! I know plenty of people who are scared of snakes. On the other hand i love them. If i was to plonk a snake on one of my snake-phobic friends they would freak out, regardless of if i was telling them “it’s ok, he won’t bite”. Chances are they would lose all trust in me and be forever suspicious that i might put them in another scary situation! That’s not what we want for our dogs. We want to be the giver of all good things, the person they can look to when they are unsure, and the person who will help them feel safe.

A quick look on social media shows us that many dog owners fail to consider their dogs when posting and viewing “funny” videos. Before you hit “like” or upload the video of your dog jumping in fright at a dancing teddy bear, stop and consider how that experience was for the dog. Dogs don’t act! If they are behaving like they are scared then they are scared. They may recover quickly from being startled, or their fear may be prolonged, but either way that is not the role we should aim to have in our dog’s life.

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Thanks to force-free training methods, Wilbur is no longer worried about statues we find on walks

Next time something spooks your dog, put down the camera and find ways to help your dog feel more confident. If they are fearful of a range of different things in a number of situations, or if their fear is persistent or severe, then you may need some help from a trainer or vet behaviourist to assist you and your dog on the way to a fear-free life.

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Does your dog listen or watch?

Humans love to talk! We use words to explain things, ask questions, and to communicate with those around us. It makes sense to try to use our words to communicate with our dogs too, but it may surprise you to learn just what cues your pet is picking up on.

When we teach our dog a new behaviour, we usually try to pair that action with a word. As our dog’s butt hits the ground we say “Sit!” and then say what a good dog they are for sitting. What many people fail to realise is that their dog may be paying more attention to what you are doing with your body.

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Wilbur sitting when given a hand signal

We talk all the time, and of all the words we say, relatively few have any significance to our pets. Some words become reliable predictors of fun activities (e.g. dinner, walkies), but for the most part our dogs can safely ignore our chit-chat without consequence. Our body language can be more reliable. If we move towards the fridge, a snack may be imminent. Putting on our shoes could mean time for a walk. It pays for our dogs to pay attention to what our body language is saying, as it is often their first hint as to what is coming next.

Let’s go back to teaching our dog to sit. Even though we may say “Sit!” as their butt hits the ground, how did we get them to sit in the first place? In most cases we moved our hand in a predictable gesture above their head. This may resemble the food lure most people initially used to teach sit. Some dogs even notice very subtle motions, such as us leaning our shoulders forward slightly as we ask them to sit. In the scheme of your dog’s day, paying attention to these things pays off better than keeping an ear out for a particular word. In fact, our body language and actions can be so significant that our dogs don’t actually pick up on the words at all, which is why when you repeat “sit, sit, SIT!” you may not get any response.

It can be very useful to teach our dogs to respond to verbal cues in training, and the good news is that it is actually quite simple. The important thing is the order that we offer our cues. To teach our dogs a new verbal cue, we first want to teach them the behaviour (using a food lure, target, shaping, etc). Then we can use the following method to add a new cue:

NEW CUE (e.g. “Sit”) – OLD CUE (e.g. hand signal) – REWARD

It is very important that the new verbal cue is offered first, followed by the old visual cue. If we give both cues simultaneously it is likely that your dog will focus more heavily on the visual cue (as that is how dogs communicate most easily). By offering the new cue first, your dog starts to learn that the new verbal cue consistently predicts the old cue, and they will begin to offer the correct behaviour.

If your dog does not respond correctly to a visual or verbal cue, chances are they haven’t yet learned it as well as you think. Take some time to go back to basics with them, and help them out by breaking the behaviour down. Consider if they are distracted, if you’ve practised in that situation before, and if you are adequately motivating them.

Below is a short video of Wilbur demonstrating some of his learned behaviours, offered on both visual and verbal cues. As a general rule he learns visual cues (hand signals) more quickly than verbal cues, but following the NEW CUE/OLD CUE method we have easily taught him both (he can even read flash cards for SIT and DOWN).