Max is a 16 week old Mini Schnauzer puppy. Max and his family, live in a large apartment building, with many people coming and going, deliveries happening, and other dogs. Currently, Max cowers, runs away, and often barks outside while on walks. It is extra important that he learns to be comfortable taking walks on busy sidewalks, near cars and loud trucks.
Not only did his barking and running away from scary noises and people made walking Max a chore, but it was getting worse. Over time, more and more things triggered his barking: all strangers, delivery people, and especially loud sounds, and trucks!
Max needed help with his fears in order to have a happy life!
Socializing Your Pup to the Outdoors
The best idea is to use treats with low-level exposure (in situations where your dog feels safe) and gradually turn a negative association into a positive one.
This is called desensitization and counter-conditioning, or what we call at Zen Dog Training call a “Coping Strategy.” Training like this is similar to what psychologists do to help people move beyond their fears/phobias.
Like most new puppies, becoming used to the new sounds of the city, Max’s fear involved strangers, and scary noises, so for our training plan it was important to gradually expose him to sounds, people, trucks without making things worse.
How to Socialize
- Have a clear idea of what your dog is nervous about. Get specific about defining triggers. For example: not just men, but men with beards at 20 feet away, or men with beards and hats 40 feet away.
- Study your dog’s body language, to understand when they seem weary, or nervous.
- It is important to not obviously have treats in your hand. When practicing socialization games, you do want your dog to notice the positive (treat) until AFTER they notice the scary thing.
- Have an exit strategy. If you don’t have time to train, it’s easier to distract and avoid than deal with a melt-down, so always have treats and be prepared to quickly walk away.
- Know when to quit. Pushing your dog to fast or ‘flooding’ them by overwhelming them can make things worse. If your dog seems too stressed out, walk them away and regroup.
On our walk, the next time Max noticed a neighbor with this briefcase, we used Jolly Talk to make sure he knew we were relaxed and not worried. Jolly talk is speaking to your dog a soft, confident voice, to reassuring him that everything is fine. The message when Jolly Talking is “Don’t be scared because I’m not”.
At first Max wouldn’t immediately eat the treat, this is very common. We held the treat right to his nose and he eventually took it. In these kinds of cases just getting your dog to eat during a scary situation will tend to improve their phobias.
Important Things to Remember
- Yelling at a scared dog is not a good idea. You can’t punish/reward fear, and you want your dog to trust you. Do everything you can to reduce (not increase) the fear.
- Avoiding isn’t training. Max must go outside, and the sounds of the city aren’t going anywhere, so to be happy, he needs to learn that his fears are unfounded.
- New nervous puppies should enjoy their walks. Therefore, they must be desensitized to fears.
Before long, Max was eating treats during the walk. We recommended they walk him hungry so he’s more eager for treats and that helped too. In a few days, Max was expecting treats when visitors approached. Instead of barking he was excited by the new game. Progress!
We recommended Max’s owners do 5-10 mini-training sessions a day! Just 1-2 minutes of exposure and treats about 10 times a day is usually enough to get them to feel the world is a less scary place!
Today, Max’s owners can take him for more peaceful walks. He’s barking less, he gets startled less often, and who knows, before long, he might greet those UPS drives with a tail wag, because the boxes could be full of treats!
We must train our companion animals to understand the world that does not come to them innately. By helping your dog through his irrational fears, walking can be a great experience for both dog and owner alike!
To learn more about Zen Dog Training solutions for socializing a fearful puppy, check out our Online Puppy Course which includes 6 weeks of puppy class lessons, training games, and solutions to common problem behaviors.