The Considerate Canine: Fearfulness
The Problem: My dog was recently rescued from a breeder/handler who didn't have the time for her because she doesn't meet breed standards. She has seemingly been living with a ton of other dogs outside in a caged environment and not fed well, not brushed and just not really cared for. She's a two year old non spayed female purebred German Shepherd who is super gentle and docile. When we take her for walks (we live in a quieter part of the city but it's still a city) she panics and becomes frantic even when it's quiet and there arent people or dogs around. She was perfectly happy walking around the first day but has gotten progressively more skittish each day. Inside she is perfectly normal and doesn't get upset by having a leash on it's just when we get outside that she loses her mind. We have been very careful not to give treats to calm her which could confuse her into thinking that was accepted behavior, but it is getting progressively worse and will even keep her from going to the bathroom and getting any exercise. Any tips to calm her and help her acclimate to walking with us in the busy environment? -Chris
Your new GSD is fortunate to have been rescued by someone willing and able to provide a good, safe and loving home for her. Unfortunately, she missed the most important, age related socialization periods. It does make life more complicated for both of you. That said, dog are resilient creatures, and with understanding, positive training methods and patience, fearful dogs can make great strides. However, the measurement for success may be in very small increments.
Before we go any further, I strongly suggest that you contact a trainer that can help you with a training plan. It sounds as if you have so many issues and triggers, that working on them without professional help may well be overwhelming to both of you. Please look for a trainer who uses only positive reinforcement, no harsh aversives. This dog has been through enough. We want her to begin to view the world as a friend, not just something to survive.
The first goal when working with any dog is to establish a bond of mutual trust, communication and understanding. Yes, she needs to be exercised and taken to potty, but you may have to take her out at odd hours or to a different location. If you live in the city, walks and potty breaks may have to be in the middle of the night or early morning, any time the noise and confusion is at its lowest level.
Before you stop reading, it can be done. Personally, I’ve been a member of the “midnight” dog walkers club, as have many of my clients. Many people take their dogs to another neighborhood or park to walk. You may need to find a potty spot close to your house, that is easily accessible and fairly quick, for quick bathroom breaks.
The most important factor is to help her acclimate to city life, in VERY small increments; noises, people, dogs, traffic. Remember, she has no previous experience with any of these things.
You mentioned that you did not use treats or rewards when you are out and about. Why not? Counter conditioning is a major tool in any trainer or pet owners toolbox. However, it does have limitations and needs to be used correctly. In theory, CC used incorrectly, could make a dog afraid of food. Used correctly, the dog will begin to see the approach of a scary thing as a predictor that something good will follow. Counter conditioning is the basic of a game that I teach all of my students, Open Bar/Closed Bar. So -- UPS truck (scary thing) = great treats (food, toys, etc). Yeah, bring back the UPS truck. There is not a lot of learning in this process, we are just making a positive association between something scary and something pleasurable. For some dogs, that is all that matters.
To be effective, you always need to have a plan.
- You must be able to give her treats BEFORE she starts to panic. The treats will need to be of high enough value to take her mind away from scary stuff.
- You will need to adjust the distance between her and the object causing panic. This means you will need to become a great observer of body language. Learn to see her body’s signals before she “loses” it.
- You will always need to have an escape plan to get you both out of a sticky situation. For this I suggest teaching an emergency U-Turn.
One of my all time favorite tools for use with fearful dogs is the Look at That game. It allows you to teach a dog to take a quick look at the scary thing, then reorient to you for a treat. Yes, learning is happening! To begin, we teach a dog to look (not stare) at a neutral object, then reward the dog for looking at you for a treat. Once your dog can glance at an object, then you make things slightly more difficult. You can add distractions, things that are more scary. But the payoff always comes when the dog looks back to you for a reward. This is very different than teaching your dog to avoid looking at scary things. This allows your girl to be in control of her own behavior. She gets to see the thing and process it, then look to you for a reward. The more she practices and the better you get at reading her body language, the more quickly she recovers from scary things.
I strongly suggest that you use Dr. Overall’s Relaxation Protocol to help her learn that she can calm herself. I’ll be happy to provide you with the protocol, if you are interested. You might consider looking into a Thundershirt, as well. Many people have great success using this with fearful dogs.
For the most part, try to make her life as predictable as possible. Make sure that she is rewarded for all calm behavior, inside and out. Consider taking her onto the front porch with a bag of treats and reward her for being calm when cars pass by.
Working with fearful dogs is a challenge but the payoff is huge, for both of you.
Good luck and let us hear about your progress.