Teaching Your Dog to Target May Help Him Overcome His Fear of People or Things
Dogs vary in their degree of friendliness with people other than their
families. Many dogs surrendered to shelters or rescued off the street lack
early social contact with people. The window of opportunity to socialize a
dog to people is short, between 2wks and 18wks of age. This doesn't mean
that socialization ends there, but it must have begun around this age in
order for the dog to accept people and dogs as part of his environment. If
socialization has not begun by 4-6wks old the puppy will grow up suspicious
and fearful of strangers.
Many dog owners believe that their dog's fearful behavior toward
strangers is from someone mistreating or abusing the dog in the past. In
reality it is a lack of proper and extensive social contact with the world.
That is why every puppy book available repeats itself over and over " take
your dog everywhere, let him meet everyone young, old, male, female".
Sometimes this isn't possible, perhaps you've adopted an older dog from a
rescue or a shelter and your dog came with a fear of people or things.
Though you can't undo a lack of socialization, you can make the
dog's life better through training. Lack of proper socialization and
dealing with fearful reactions to new situations is very common and
probably one of the primary reasons people come to me for private training.
We can't "fix" the problem entirely but we can give the owner tools to help
make the dog easier to live with and safer to take in public.
The best place to start improving your dog's fearfulness is
figuring out exactly what or who your dog is afraid of and set a reasonable
goal. If your dog has never met a child in his life, or reacts very
aggressively to one, "making him trustworthy with children" is not a
reasonable goal. A dog that has little or no experience with kids will
never be a safe dog with children. The best that can be done with a
situation like this is to give you the owner more control of the dogs
behavior and his response to your commands.
In order for this to work your relationship with your dog must be
solid, he must trust that you will never put him in a situation where he
feels he must bite to get away. Being your dog's advocate means making
sure you protect him from situations where an unreasonable amount of
tolerance on his part is needed, and never leave him alone unsupervised in
a potentially troublesome situation.
Physical corrections should never be used regardless of the dog's
behavior, as this will escalate the dogss aggression and associate the
unpleasantness with the thing or person he fears. If the dog growls and
snaps it means you have pushed him too far and he is no longer learning
anything: he is reacting emotionally. The higher his emotional state the
less chance he will learn an alternative behavior. Punishment suppresses
all of the precursors to aggression (growling, snapping, barking, lunging)
and teaches the dog to skip all the warning about how he feels and go right
to the bite. As you can imagine this makes for a very dangerous dog.
To help control a fearful dog, we need to make good associations
with the feared objects or people. One excellent way to accomplish this is
with targeting. Target training involves teaching the dog to touch his
nose to some other object or person for a click and treat. We begin
teaching this behavior with a food treat in a closed fist. When the dog
sniffs our hand he gets a click and treat. This step is repeated 6-8 times
and then the food reward is removed from our hand and we begin again. The
dog still gets the treat after the click except that it no longer comes
from your target hand. This step is repeated until the dog can follow your
hand around the house in all directions.
The next step involves having the dog transfer the target to
another person or thing. For some dogs you may need to help at first by
backing up a step and putting a treat back in your hand. Once the dog gets
the idea of touching the new object with his nose you can begin to work on
sending him from greater and greater distances. When the dog becomes
"hooked" on touching his nose to the target it's time to take it on the
road. Go outside, to the park, on walks or at the pet store, when friends
are visiting etc. and practice (remember when you're first training in a
new environment you may need to go back to the first step for a while until
your dog can perform the behavior reliably).
Teaching your dog to target and getting him really hooked on it
will give you a tool to deal with fearful episodes. The targeting behavior
must be really fun and really well learned for this to work. Have new
"scary" people sit side ways to the dog at a distance. Have them put their
hands palms outward at their sides. With the dog on a leash allow him to
investigate at his own speed. The person should completely ignore the dog,
no eye contact no reaching to pat or talking. The handler should click and
treat any movement toward the person first, with the goal being for the dog
to get closer and closer to the persons hand. The person can hold a
delicious treat in their hand to help encourage the dog once the dog is
touching the hand readily. The handler should still do the clicking, and
let the stranger do the treating. Changing the persons position, having
them stand and move around can be added later.
Some people find when the dog is really hooked on targeting that
this whole process moves very rapidly. We once had a dog in class that was
terrified of a bicycle that someone had parked by the front door. This dog
was using the targeting behavior in our agility class and loved the game.
Within about 5 minutes, this dog who was initially terrified of the bike
was poking it with her nose quite happily. Her owner can use this
targeting behavior whenever her dog's confidence wavers and immediately get
her right on track.
As with any behavior problem helping your dog to overcome shyness
may not disappear overnight, but with patience, persistence and training
you can make a dent in your dogs fear and be rewarded with a happier,
calmer more enjoyable pet.