Dogs, like us humans, can develop fear of an endless variety of things. Once I got an email from someone whose Labrador puppy was afraid to go outside unless someone was with him. My Basenji, Sunbeam, had an odd list of things that set her off over her ten years of life. Our Rottweiler, Lola, was a rescue dog and when got her at about six months, she was afraid of several of my friends for some time.
Asking “Why?” a particular dog has a particular fear is not very useful.
So what is useful? What can you do? Just as a human fear — such as the fear of driving over bridges, to name one – can be debilitating, so too can a dog’s fear. If at all possible, you want to help your dog overcome fear and develop confidence.
All this went through my mind as I was reading Clickertraining: the 4 Secrets of Becoming a Supertrainer the other day. I read (on page 34) a some words they quote from a textbook on medical physiology: “The centre of punishment in the brain often can completely inhibit the centre for reinforcements and pleasure.”
They go on to develop the idea, pointing out that when you start training a dog with positive reinforcements and the dog has previously been trained via punishment and fear, you may not get anywhere for some time. If the dog is so busy thinking “I must do something to stay out of trouble,” he won’t understand what you are doing with the treats and clicker. He may not even take the treats at first. Then he will have an AHA moment, or a series of small ones perhaps, and then he will be eager to do things that win him treats.
I had an AHA! moment myself when reading their further comment, “All behaviors are ruled by either positive or negative reinforcement.” THIS is why I love clicker training and other positive reinforcement methods so much. You can really just use them and get results. Okay, it helps if you know what you are doing, but you can learn… that book is one great way.
So if you have a frightened dog, I’d say that the best way to work with it is to use positive reinforcement methods and patience. If it’s something where the dog could possibly snap at you, be sure to use caution.
Life presents us all with many thing we might be afraid of, and bit by bit we can work our way out, whether we’re human or dog. I still remember my good friend Linda, a dog lover to the core, lying on our sunroom floor with treats in her hands, gradually easing Lola’s fears of her. Now they are great buddies and Linda even house sat for us! Here they are, that first day: