As I mentioned in my last blog, my new dog Easy is afraid of many things. In fact, it might be simpler to list the things she's NOT afraid of. She's not scared of familiar people or dogs, as long as they don't DO anything frightening. Like move suddenly, growl, drop something, dance, etc. Riding in the car is fine, until she sees something unfamiliar out the window. Then she requires a straightjacket.
Desensitization is obviously called for, but desensitization to everything?! And how to expose her to new experiences when we live in on an isolated farm, and she can't be driven to the nearest town without adrenaline bursts when she sees things through the window?
Fear is indisputably one of the most problematic issues that dog trainers and behaviorists encounter. Fear runs deep, and it's the main reason why many vets and most trainers now encourage owners to get their puppies out and about at an early age. As Dr. Ian Dunbar repeats at every opportunity, "Socialization, socialization, socialization." The risk that puppies may contract a contagious disease before a full series of vaccinations can be given is still a concern, but that pales in comparison to the behavioral problems caused by isolating puppies until their vaccinations are complete. If puppies can be taken out in public and have good experiences during their first four months of life, so many of the issues I'm now encountering with Easy can be avoided.
It is very disheartening to treat a dog who has global fear. It's like unwrapping an onion; you try to address one thing the dog is afraid of, and you find another underneath. You plan a strategy for dealing with one problem, and then find it won't work until you backtrack and treat another issue. At this point, it's best to put your long-term vision for your dog on a shelf. Someday, a Canine Good Citizen certificate, but, for now, let's toss the dog a biscuit every time we bend our legs.
It is important, when dealing with behavioral issues that are likely to resolve slowly, to keep track of the progress you are making. You can do this by recording video footage of your dog, keeping a training diary, or through feedback from friends and acquaintances who see your dog irregularly. You may be discouraged that your dog's not perfect yet, but others may be able to sincerely tell you that they see an improvement.
After our last trip to town, I was pretty discouraged. Easy saw another dog as we were driving in, so she was already very wound up before I let her out of the car. We managed to calm down and had a good session outside the recycling center, where traffic was low and everyone was following a predictable path, allowing us to stay well out of the way. But then we went on to the farmer's market, which was a little too busy and populated by friendly people who wanted to approach and pat my dog. It's good that I'm forty-something instead of twenty; as a young woman I might not have been assertive enough to fend off these well-meaning strangers, whereas now I think nothing of holding up my hand and shouting at them, as politely as I can manage, to stay away. Still, I'm probably alarming my dog by tensing up and shouting, so I've requested a "Dog In Training" vest for Christmas from Pawsitivedog.com. (see photo above.) I hope this will help, although I wonder if people won't just come closer to read the darn vest!
I won't be returning to the farmer's market with Easy anytime soon, but I do have to keep exposing Easy to new environments if I want her to ever be able to travel off the farm with me. In order to keep her under threshold while I'm driving, I've decided to try using a Calming Cap. This training aid, available through Premier Pet Products acts as a visual filter, blocking out visual stimuli which would otherwise excite or upset the dog. The hitch is, the cap can easily be pawed off by the dog, so before we try to use it in the car, Easy has to be desensitized to the calming cap. One step forward, one step back. Another thing that can be helpful for counter conditioning while in the car is the Treat & Train remote treat dispensing machine. If your dog sees something concerning out the window you can pair that with a treat so he or she starts to feel a little better about that thing. Or you can simply reward calm behavior with it.
What to do when your dog's afraid of everything? Pick something to desensitize or counter condition her to and get to work. The younger your dog is, the faster progress you can expect to make, so starting today is better than putting it off until it fits into your schedule. Also for more help, a great Yahoo group to check out for help is shy-k9s. Pet Expertise also has many tools to help calm anxious dogs which can be well worth a try.
Shane Windatt, CTC, CPDT