Guest post from Tom Shelby
When I adopted my Standard Poodle Paula Jean at age 2, she was a bit “sketchy” and not well socialized. Over the summer, I took her to the Agricultural Fair on Martha’s Vineyard, a huge and very popular outdoor event. Just as we were passing a small stage, a band exploded into a Rock song. Paula Jean yelped, leaped 4 ft. in the air, and hit the ground in a dead run, giving me quite a jerk on the leash. Here’s where the “fine line” has to be walked. I didn’t want to reward and nourish her fear and panic response with hugs, kisses and pity, nor ignore or dismiss her fear and discomfort. What I needed to do in that moment is acknowledge her terror and give her the support she needed to help her overcome her distress. So I talked to her– not dripping with sympathy, but rather in positive tones. “That was a rather interesting experience. We love music, yes we do Paula!” I said as we walked purposely slowly away from the music, with me giving her supportive pets while offering her treats, which she refused. When we were about 75 yards from the music, with me still talking, she finally started taking treats, which told me she felt ok at that distance. Then I did a couple of “sit-down-stays” to redirect her attention, getting her to feel good about earning the treats. I kept playing obedience games with her, but started moving back towards the music. By the time the band was ready for the next break, we were in the front row with PJ not giving a hoot about the music. During their break, I asked each of the band members to give PJ a treat, which she gracefully accepted.
So what’s to do if your dog gets spooked by a sound, object or animal? The solution is as easy as nine words: “been there, done that, seen that, no big deal!” or in one word “socialization.” I tell people on the Cape and on the Vineyard with new puppies that the “first thing I want you to do is rent a place in Boston and walk Bowser 5 times a day.” I say it quite seriously, so it takes a minute before they realize I’m being facetious. But the point is made: introduce Bowser to as much of the world as you can so that nothing surprises him. If Bowser’s life is basically the backyard and the house, he’s more likely to have a hard time learning “works and plays well with others.” He’s more likely to be freaked out by ambulance sirens, an umbrella opening, a truck backfiring, playful kids shrieking, a statue of a stone lion, walking on a dock, or any of the myriad things we take for granted. As you go about exposing Bowser to the vicissitudes of life, the key is to avoid the inadvertent rewarding of the fear response.
The foundation of training a dog is letting him know you like the behavior or don’t, precisely as the behavior is happening. Timing is everything. You have about 2 seconds to connect the dog to the response you want– “the teaching moment.” And the key is understanding that dogs read two things and two things only: body language and voice intonation. So if you’re holding Bowser back at the door, telling him “It’s ok” as you’re petting him while he’s aggressing or jumping at the visitor at the door, it’s classic “Inadvertent Rewarding of Unwanted Behavior.” Bowser’s a lunatic at the door and you want him to stop his presentation but you are making it worse by rewarding the behavior by petting him (body language) and telling him “It’s ok” (voice intonation). So, SOCIALIZE, and when scary stuff jumps out, redirect with positive support, not pity.
Tom Shelby is an expert dog trainer with a specialty in search and rescue dogs and is the author of Dog Training Diaries -Proven Expert Tips & Tricks to Live in Harmony with Your Dog. Follow Tom on Instagram @DogTrainerDiaries and Twitter @DogTrainerDiary
© Tom Shelby 2018