September 11, 2013
Living with a fearful dog comes with its challenges, but is also hugely rewarding as the dog starts to learn to trust and overcome its fears. I’ve had Sam for a year now, and he has made some huge improvements in overcoming his fearful behaviour.
His early months were spent at HKDR, so he didn’t get socialized to many people, everyday sounds, or strange things.
A year ago he was so nervous around strangers and novel stimuli that I had to take him out at times when I knew things would be quiet. At first the sound of a plastic chair being moved across the floor would send him running for cover, and any stranger approaching was too much to handle. He still startles at sudden loud noises sometimes, but his recovery time is much improved.
My favourite cafe was a great place to take him (during ‘off-peak’ times) so he could get used to the world going on around him. First order of business was to instruct my friends how to behave around him. It is natural for humans to want to approach a fearful animal, leaning towards it with a hand outstretched, while looking right at it. To a fearful dog, these are considered very threatening behaviours. Over time, he has come to learn that people often pet him in a non-scary way, and sometimes there are treats.
One thing in the front of my mind was to avoid a situation where he may feel his only option was to bite in order to make the scary thing (stranger) go away. Corner a fearful dog and you really don’t leave it much choice if it feels the need to defend itself. Once the neural pathway has been formed and the dog learns this works to make the scary person go away, it will likely repeat this behaviour and a habit is born. I’m sure I upset a few people by telling them to leave my dog alone, but I’d rather offend someone than have my dog bite them.
Some trainers advocate that the dog should ‘just learn to deal with it’, and use a method called ‘flooding’ – essentially forcing it to face its fears at their most extreme. This can seem to work, but the potential for ’emotional fallout’ is huge. Imagine you are scared of spiders, and I decide to help you get over it by shutting you in a cupboard with 500 spiders until you stop screaming. Would your phobia be cured? Did you stop screaming because you had lost your fear, or did you just curl up in a ball and shut down? Or would you just learn to stay away from me in future?
The better approach is to take things slowly and let the dog get used to things at a less scary level, gradually building on success.
Sam still has a way to go and will probably never be the bravest of dogs, but he’s dealing with the world better and his general anxiety level is lower. He still spooks at some strange things, the other evening it was a bag of rubbish that had been left in the middle of the road. He would not approach until my friend and her dog went and stood next to it, once he saw that monsters did not attack them, he consented to pass (at a safe distance, just in case).
Jill Eason has lived and worked in Hong Kong for many years. She runs 'For the Love of Dog' with the aim of helping HK's dogs and people get the best from each other. Jill holds a Certificate of Canine Studies from the Seattle School of Canine Studies, Washington USA.