People tend to make several common mistakes with their reactive, fearful, shy or protective dog that unfortunately slow down the learning process and prevent dogs from reaching their full potential.
Here is what you need to know when trying to rehabilitate and train dogs who are reactive, nervous, fearful, or protective. In many cases, you can turn-around shy/fearful dogs, and improve reactive and protective dogs in just 30 days!
Mistake Number One: Teaching commands (distracting or refocusing) instead of Socializing your dog.
Focusing too much on traditional obedience games like “look”, “touch”, or walk “with me” can slow down the learning process! Why? Because often dogs become too focused on training and miss important socialization experiences.
While it is not wrong to get your dog to focus on you with a “look at me”, touch, or having them heel close to you, if your focused dog is distracted from the people, places, and things around them, they are not getting the helpful effects of the coping strategy.
The problem is that dogs need to learn to accept and become relaxed with their triggers. Instead of noticing the world around them and learning to accept the sights and sounds in the environment with dedicated socialization efforts, real learning is avoided as dogs are constantly being distracted from their phobias.
At Zen Dog Training, we teach our clients positive reinforcement designed to keep dogs focused. We reward dogs who learn to look, come, or walk with us when they are feeling stressed. However, if that is the only training option you have, your dog will not learn to feel better about their fears and phobias because they are constantly being distracted from their feelings.
While refocusing and distracting dogs with obedience exercises is the go-to method to avoid a problem, only a desensitization and counter-conditioning plan has been proven to solve anxiety. This means focusing on helping your dog learn to cope with their fears and phobias!
It is always easier to avoid a problem, but if you don’t work on doing the coping exercises every day, you will not see results.
Mistake Number Two: Forcing your dog into scary situations and risk making things worse.
All too often a well-meaning person forces their dog into scary situations by pulling their dog to greet a stranger, or pushing them to say hi to a house guest, visitor, or child on a walk. Not only does this potentially overwhelm them and make dog’s fears worse, it may put people at risk of getting bitten, as fearful dogs who feel trapped may lash out!
Remember: Even if your dog appears fine on the outside, they may be nervous and scared on the inside. Forcing them to greet visitors, children, or new people on walks when they are not ready is never a good idea. Think about yourself. If you are scared of rats or snakes, would being forced to hold one make you feel better or worse?
A Zen Dog Trainer will help you find ways to gently expose your dog to their phobias in controlled situations and at therapeutic levels. If you are interested in learning more about how to help dogs who are Shy, Fearful or Protective, check out the How to Have a Zen Dog Podcast.
Mistake Number Three: Failing to recreate the types of situations that trigger your dog during practice.
In many cases, training exercises are not as effective as they could be because the exact situation is hard to practice. Often people try to encourage strangers to give their dog treats or interact with their dog safely, but the problem does not get solved because these strangers may not act in ways that will help your dog become calm and comfortable with new people.
With triggers like runners and joggers, strangers in hoodies, or people wearing sunglasses, since training involves other people or strangers, it can be difficult to practice. In order to improve phobias you must replicate the exact situations that make your dog nervous and carefully set up a teaching moment where you can work on improving their shyness. Therefore, training is a matter of setting up carefully-crafted teaching moments to strategically work on improving fears and phobias.
Creativity is key. If the trigger is people in hoodies, people wearing sunglasses, or people with their face covered this is the exact situation you need to practice.
A great way to practice is having family members or friends dress up as strangers. Having family members come inside the house wearing a hoodie and showering your dog with treats, then pulling back the hood to reveal a good friend is a fun way to get people to help your dog feel less protective.
At Zen Dog Training we teach clients to change the goal of walks from exercise and stimulation to socialization and learning to cope with fears and phobias. If the goal of a walk is to work on solving fearful behaviors, spending 15-20 minutes a day working on socialization and bonding techniques is essential. Just getting your dog to take treats while standing near the park or jogging path can do wonders in turning around scary situations.
Check out our Helping a Shy, Fearful, Protective Dog Training Guide ($4.99) for all our solutions!
Mistake Number Four: Not using enough treats and not having high-value treats!
There are a few popular dog trainers on TV and the internet who warn people against “rewarding fear by giving dogs treats when they are scared”. Unfortunately, for dogs whose owners follow this bad advice, their dogs do not improve quickly! Why? Because as with people, it has been proven that systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is the best way to solve fear-based anxieties!
At Zen Dog Training we call this a coping strategy. A 30-day intensive program, where you do 10 or more short training sessions-a-day (1-2 minutes) with 10-20 mini-treats. This coping strategy can have almost miraculous results. In fact, I have personally seen dogs completely turn from being scared to calm in one month of training!
The key is patience, lots of repetition, and using amazing treats! High-value treats are essential. This means meat-based treats your dog goes wild over. The secret is choosing treats that can be easily cut or broken up into tiny pieces without too much effort. Here’s a link to my favorite treats on Amazon. We recommend putting together a treat bag with several kinds of treats and generously giving them to your dog to help them feel better in scary situations.
Just getting a nervous dog to eat in a scary situation means you are moving in the right direction. If a dog is too scared to eat a treat, it’s an important sign that they are overwhelmed and might need to be moved away from that particular trigger.
Using high-value meat-based treats as part of the training plan is the easiest way to make huge progress with improving your dog’s fears and building their confidence! Here’s a great article that helps explain The Power of Treats.
Mistake Number Five: Not doing enough repetitions and not having the right timing to improve fears and phobias.
Helping a dog get past their phobias can feel overwhelming. At Zen Dog Training, we teach clients to set up 10 small training sessions a day. Short 1–5 minute sessions where dogs are in a comfortable place and exposed to their triggers at tolerable levels while people practice giving them handfuls of tiny treats, will improve anxieties quickly.
Everyone should focus on doing 10 mini sessions a day,. Treats should be broken into teeny, tiny pieces so it’s easy to give out lots of them. People lead by example, and should act jolly and relaxed as they turn scary situations into delicious and fun training sessions.
Use 10-20 treats or more in each training session and make sure to use the highest value treats you can find. One easy trick is to always have 3 different kinds of treats in your training bag so you can quickly grab the good stuff when your dog seems worried, anxious, or scared.
It is important to mention there is a perfect moment to give treats to help your dog feel more confident.
Perfect timing of treats for confidence is to make sure they come immediately before or during the moment when the dog is feeling worried. Even being late 1-2 seconds can undermine training.
Note: if your dog won’t eat a treat during sessions, remember they might be too far outside of their comfort zone and you should walk them away and try again later at a longer distance. We have found that having high-value meat-based treats like boiled chicken, cooked hamburger meat, even cold cuts and hotdogs (pre-cut into little training bits) can really help.
Mistake Number Six: Yelling, scolding or “punishing” a dog barking or growling due to anxiety and fear.
When a dog starts to growl, bark, snap or lunge, people want to stop the unwanted behavior as quickly as possible and often “correct” their dog by raising their voice, scolding their dog or giving them stern eye contact. Unfortunately, if a dog is reactive due to fear, this is exactly the wrong approach to take!
If you truly want to solve reactive and aggressive behavior due to your dog’s fears and phobias, DO NOT act angry, scold, or “stare down” your dog!
Trying to stop or punish growling by “popping the leash” or using corrections can hurt the rehabilitation process and deter your dog from wanting to communicate with you.
Dogs, especially anxious dogs, need to feel safe, comfortable, and confident. Dogs who growl, bark, lunge, and bite are lashing out because they feel uncomfortable, nervous, protective, or fearful. Training needs to start with building confidence. This means controlled exposure to fear-inducing people, places, and things in positive ways that help dogs learn to relax and feel comfortable around their anxieties.
Yelling at your dog in these situations will confuse them. Since reactive dogs’ primal fight/flight response is triggered, they become laser-focused on the perceived threat. Correcting them is not going to help, because if you yell and shout every time they start barking, your dog might start to think you are yelling and upset at their trigger/phobia.
Acting angry, or yelling can make getting your dog reluctant to take treats or listen to you, as they become more worked up, wondering if they should run from or attack the problem.
Growling isn’t always bad! Growling is a great way for your dog to peacefully let you know they are feeling worried. This is important because, the better you can understand situations that make your dog uncomfortable, the faster you can improve your dog’s phobias.
Believe it or not, letting a fearful dog growl is OK so you can learn to understand their triggers, at what distance they get nervous, and what their body language and vocalizations mean.
When your dog growls they are quietly letting you know they are on alert and getting worried – DO NOT correct them or try to punish them — doing so can make things worse! You want your dog to feel safe communicating with you when they are feeling scared or protective.
Interrupting Unwanted Behaviors:
If your dog is too worked up, they are not in a place to learn and you need to get them in a safe place. If your dog is barking excessively, lunging, or fixated and staring in a way that seems inappropriate, we recommend interrupting them, and if necessary, removing your dog from the situation.
At Zen Dog Training we’ll teach you how to interrupt unwanted behaviors by gently stopping your dog without yelling, startling them, scaring them, or even getting angry. Our interrupt techniques work in ways that never trigger the fight-flight instinct or make your dog feel frightened or nervous. Learn more about Zen Dog Training by visiting our website.
We hope this article helps you better understand how to train your shy, fearful, or protective dog. To learn more about our philosophy on dog training, you might enjoy this How to Have a Zen Dog podcast titled Being Your Dog’s Alpha.