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Canine University 71 Clinton St Malden MA



Canine Behavior

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.