My Dog Is Afraid What Can I Do

Training is concerned with what dogs do. We can train a dog to do something he already knows how to do, such as sitting on cue. We can train a dog to do something new, such as come when called. We can also train a dog to stop doing something we don’t want, such as jump on visitors.

Behavior modification deals with how dogs react to situations, places, people, or other dogs. With behavior modification, we change emotional responses.

Of course, this division may look neat “on paper” (or it may not) but in reality, the two activities have a lot of overlap. Many unwanted behaviors are the result of emotional responses and changing emotional responses frequently requires training new behaviors, but a complete awareness of the two approaches is key to solving many problems.

Negative emotional responses are frequently the result of inadequate or improper socialization. There is a lot of information about the need for proper puppy socialization available on the Internet. Liz Catalano has some great information here. Dr. Ian Dunbar discusses it extensively in his books and here. I mentioned it a few weeks ago here.

They can also be the result of unpleasant experiences. Dogs, like us, are constantly creating associations. A bout of car sickness can create fear and anxiety around cars. Being attacked by another dog can create a fear of dogs. Being abused by a person can create problems with people. How general or specific depends largely on individual dogs. For a Shiba puppy, a bad experience with a brown dog results in a problem with brown dogs. For others, the association might be with all dogs.

While knowing the “why” behind our dog’s negative emotional responses can be very satisfying, it’s not nearly as useful as knowing the “what.” Behavior modification consists of identifying the stimulus that elicits the emotional responses and then pairing that stimulus, which is presented in gradually increasing intensity, with something pleasant. It literally changes the dog’s opinion about the situation.

An important aspect of this process is gradually increasing intensity. When discussing behavior modification, behavior people frequently use the term “over the threshold.” When a dog is “over threshold” she is displaying the intense fearful or aggressive behavior we want to change. When this state is reached learning has ceased. It’s time to stop the process, remove the dog from the situation, and either start over or quit for the day.

For example, consider a dog that reacts negatively to having her nails clipped. She reacts badly as soon as she sees the clippers. This may be because she had them cut too short once or just because she doesn’t like to have her feet handled. It doesn’t matter

Here’s a condensed procedure:

Take out the clippers. Give the dog a yummy treat. Repeat for a few days. Take out clippers. Place them on the coffee table. Give the dog a yummy treat. Repeat for a few days. Take out clippers. Place them on the coffee table. Pick up. Move slightly toward the dog. Give the dog a yummy treat. Repeat for a few days. Take out clippers. Place them on the coffee table. Pick up. Move slightly toward the dog. Touch one paw. Give the dog a yummy treat. Repeat for a few days. Take out clippers. Place them on the coffee table. Pick up. Move slightly toward the dog. Place the clipper on the nail. Give the dog a yummy treat. Repeat for a few days. Take out clippers. Place them on the coffee table. Pick up. Move slightly toward the dog. Clip one nail. Give the dog a yummy treat. Repeat for a few days.

And so forth. if at any point the dog reacted badly, it would be time to back up a step or two and continue until the response is completely gone again.

Does this sound like a long process? Good. It is. There are no 30-minute fixes, and punishment works on emotional responses about as effective as hitting someone who is afraid of spiders until she agrees to kiss a tarantula.