People tend to make several common mistakes when trying to improve how their dog feels about meeting new people, visiting new places, and encountering new things. Even people who work with dog training experts make mistakes that can slow down the training process.
Here is an overview of the top training mistakes people tend to make when trying to rehabilitate and train dogs who are reactive, nervous, fearful, or protective.
Common Mistake Number One: Distracting or refocusing instead of Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning (Coping Strategy)
Focusing too much on obedience games like “look”, “touch”, or “with me” can slow down the learning process because your dog can become too focused on you instead of noticing the world around them and learning to accept the sights and sounds in the environment.
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.
At Zen Dog Training, we teach our clients how to reward dogs who learn to look, focus, or come when they are feeling stressed, as a way to manage and avoid a problem. However, if that is the only issue people work on, these dogs will not learn to feel better about their fears and phobias on a gut level because they are constantly being distracted from their feelings.
While 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. Your dog will not learn to cope with their fears and phobias unless they are focused on what is scary and getting treats while seeing, looking at or experiencing the perceived threat.
As trainers we see this mistake all the time. It is easier to avoid a problem, but if people don’t work on doing the coping exercises every day, they will not see results. To do it right, not only do you need to give treats the right way, you must also give them in the right situations to ensure your dog’s anxieties improve.
Common Mistake Number Two: Failing to recreate the types of situations that trigger their dog to practice.
In many cases, training exercises are not as effectively as they could 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 they do not replicate the exact situations that make their dog nervous.
When the trigger for phobias are strangers in hoodies, men, or people wearing sunglasses, since training involves other people or strangers, it can be difficult to practice as strangers are something not encountered every day. Therefore, it is important to set up teaching moments to work on improving the behavior.
In these cases, creativity is key. If the trigger is people with their face masked, or covered, this is the exact situation people need to practice.
One great way to practice is having family members or friends dress up as strangers. Having a friend come inside the house wearing a hoodie, showering your dog with treats, then pulling back the hood to reveal a good friend is a helpful way to help dogs feel less protective.
Another great option is changing the goal of walks from exercise to socialization exercises. If the goal of a walk is to work on solving fearful behaviors, spending 15 minutes a day standing near the park or jogging path can get everyone in the family working together to turn around scary situations.
Common Mistake Number Three: Not doing enough repetitions or drills 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 2–5-minute sessions where your dog is 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, where people break up treats into teeny, tiny pieces and 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.
Common Mistake Number Four: Not using enough treats and not having high-value treats when improving fears and phobias.
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 because as with people, it has been proven that systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is best way to solve fear-based anxieties.
The Zen Dog Training coping strategy, a 30-day intensive program, doing 10 or more short training sessions-a-day with 10-20 mini-treats can have almost miraculous results. In fact, I have personally seen dogs completely turnaround 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. For our clients, 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!
Common Mistake Number Five: Yelling, scolding or “punishing” a dog barking or growling due to anxiety and fear. Acting overly sympathetic can also be a problem.
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 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.
Finally, it is important to understand what your dog’s body language and vocalizations mean. Growling is a great way for your dog to peacefully let you know they are feeling worried. The better you can understand situations that make your dog uncomfortable, the faster you can improve your dog’s phobias.
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!
Do not act emotional or overly sympathetic
At the other extreme, people sometimes sympathize too much. They coo, console, and try to soothe the puppy like a baby. Adding too much emotional energy runs the risk of endorsing or encouraging anxious behaviors.
Talking too much and acting overly sympathetic can become a problem. We recommend “coach talk” rather than “baby talk”. Imagine how you would talk to a child who fell off the swing set. Ideally, you want your words to help them become more confident and not feel justified in their nervous fears.
Always giving your dog constant verbal feedback is another big issue. A.K.A. Talking too much. If you talk to your dog all the time, without connecting your words with actions, your dog may learn to ignore you. Dogs learn with actions and consequences, you want your words to be a meaningful training signal, not become background noise.
Successfully Training a Shy, Fearful, or Protective Dog
Many of our clients who follow our training plan see huge-improvements in 30 days or less!
Assuming you are being careful to not distract your dog during training and are using treats to change negative associations with scary things – you will quickly see results.
Clients who can recreate situations where dogs seem to get startled or surprised and work on their specific triggers will also see results faster. Once these situations are created in safe environments, repeating lessons and drilling them in every day becomes easier.
To solve dog reactivity, you want your dog to know that excessive barking and aggressive behaviors must stop. The other side to this training plan is knowing how to gently stop your dog when they are over threshold and acting out.
Ideally, your intervention should be as calm and peaceful as possible. Interrupting unwanted behaviors should never depend on force but works with meaningful consequences and gentle persistence. (See: Zen Dog Training)
A coping strategy (desensitization and counter-conditioning plan) is the best way to help your dog feel more Zen about the world. Helping dogs overcome their phobias is difficult and will take time and patience, avoiding common mistakes helps speed up the learning process and reduces stress for both you and your dog.