Helping a Fearful Bichon Learn to Relax Around Visiting Guests

By: David Codr

Published Date: June 12, 2016

Fred Bichon

Fred is a four-year-old Bichon who lives in Omaha who has developed a fear of meeting new people inside his home following a particularily chaotic Halloween. Ever since, Fred runs away and refuses to engage with anyone he does not know well once they enter his home.

When I arrived for the session Fred was at the back end of the living room. Many people want to approach a scared dog and try to pet them to prove that they are a good person. But when a dog is in an unbalanced or frightened state of mind, the best thing you can do is ignore them completely and give them space.

I sat down with his guardian to discuss Fred’s background and get a feel for his day-to-day routine. I monitored Fred out of the corner of my eye making sure that I kept my chest and hips pointed away from him. It took a couple of minutes, but eventually Fred started to get up and peek around the table to find out what I was all about.

I pulled out some high-value treats and tossed them in Fred’s direction but he was too overwhelmed by my presence to take any of them. I wanted to give him time to get as relaxed as possible before I started to work with him.

Finding out he had none, I suggested that Fred’s guardian start to incorporate some rules and structure. When a dog doesn’t have any rules, it often gets the impression it is in a leadership position. Just like humans who are responsible for others, dogs can feel a sense of stress when they feel like they must look after or take care of another.

By instituting clear rules and boundaries and consistently correcting Fred with good timing when he violates them, his guardian will help the dog start to identify as being in more of a follower position. Once this is the case, much of his stress will subside.

I also wanted to give the guardian another tool to help her interact with Fred in a way that helps rehabilitate him. I call the technique, Petting with a purpose.

It is going to take Fred’s guardian a couple of days to a week before she gets into a habit of asking the dog to do something before she pets him. But when she does, she will be engaging in a mini dog obedience training exercise with out even thinking about it.

One very helpful piece of knowledge when rehabilitating dogs is understanding that dogs get over things by literally moving forward. This is why the walk is a powerful tool to use when rehabilitating a fearful dog.

An additional benefit is the change in scenery that occurs when we head out for a walk. Houses are pretty confined places which can contribute to a dog feeling that it is cornered or can be easily caught.

I spent the next few minutes discussing how Fred’s guardian can use the walk to help him stop being so fearful before we headed outside for a short walk.

Once we were outside, I tried a couple of different techniques, positions and strategies to help Fred warm up to me. I was able to get closer to Fred without triggering a flight response, but he was still too anxious for me to touch him. Its possible that he was still so overwhelmed from my initial greeting that he had not been able to fully relax even with the change in scenery.

But still, there was a clear change in Fred’s demeanor once we got outside. This is an activity that can really help him with his fear based problem.

As we walked back to the house, I formulated a plan that his guardian can incorporate the next time she has a guest come over. Once inside, I kept Fred on the leash to block him from running away as I explained my plan to his guardian. I continue to ignore him and did not try to pet him. All I wanted him to do was understand that he could be next to human without anything bad happening; including any human contact – because in his mind, that was a negative thing.

Because Fred will not be in an anxious state when he leaves the house for a walk, and his initial introduction to guests will be on neutral territory in a wider space, he should be able to be more relaxed which should translate into positive greetings and associations with house guests.

I wanted to take things one step further and incorporate some physical contact with Fred. However he was still clearly too overwhelmed for me to initiate direct contact.

I had his guardian pick him up and place him on my lap, positioning him across one of my legs so that I could keep my forearm along his side and my other hand on his chest. This gave me the ability to block him from engaging his flight mode while simultaneously maintaining an ample amount of contact without additional movement.

It took most of the session, but eventually I was able to get Fred to relax completely while laying across my lap. This may seem like a pretty small step, but in Fred’s case, this truly was a giant leap.

Fred’s guardian will need to use her gut instinct as to when to apply the lap contact strategy that I displayed in the above video. If Fred is still completely shut down after the walk the first time or two that he meets a particular person, it may be wise for his guardian to hold off on placing the dog into the person’s lap. We want this to be a positive experience that pushes Fred’s boundaries, but not more than he can process.

I spent the next few minutes going over the signals that Fred will give when he is overstressed so that his guardian will know when to pick and choose the right opportunity for the lap placement technique.

The last thing we went over was a counterconditioning exercise to help change how Fred feels when he hears the doorbell. Although Fred was much calmer by the end of the session, he was still too worked up to take a treat so I had to describe this exercise without the visual of incorporating a dog.

I mentioned to Fred’s guardian that I have a number of examples of me demonstrating the counterconditioning exercise in other session write ups. It should be easy for his guardian to find these case studies on my website and replicate the process with Fred and the doorbell. In time, Fred will learn to associate the ringing of the doorbell as a positive.

By the end of the session, Fred was wiped out. Although we did not work with him very much, simply being in close proximity to a person that he did not know was very draining to him. Its going to be up to his guardian to orchestrate situations in which Fred feels more comfortable when meeting people, as well as helping him shift his self perception of authority into that of a follower to help him stop being so frightened when guests visit.

Once Fred identifies as being in a follower and trusts his guardian to handle the situation and keep him safe, she will be able to utilize more of the lap placement technique and the counterconditioning exercise to help Fred get over the final hurdles when it comes to his fears.

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This post was written by: David Codr