Helping Tuff Get Over His Fear

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 16, 2014

TuffThis good looking guy is Tuff, a nine month old mixed breed puppy. His owners called me for assistance with Tuff’s shyness and unfounded fear of her father.

Despite the fact that he had been nothing but nice and congenial to the dog, Tuff avoided being close to him, barked at him from a distance and submissively urinated when he couldn’t avoid contact.

When I arrived for the session, I could see Tuff was a little insecure right away. Nothing too extreme, but he did dart under the cover of the kitchen table as soon as I came in. I ignored him but he continued to pace a bit and exhibited body language that communicated he was not comfortable.

When we sat down, Tuff started to approach but would stop himself a few feet away before turning and quickly walking off. As I discussed the situation with his owner’s, I took out a few tasty treats and help them out to my side for him. It took a little coaxing, but i was able to get him to come over and eat them out of my hand. However any time he got anxious, he jumped up on the couch and literally hid behind his owner.

When a dog lacks confidence, my preferred rehabilitation method is to add rules and structure to the dog’s life. I suggested a few rules such as keeping Tuff off the furniture as the height a dog sits has a correlation to his perceived rank among the members of his pack. Sometimes a dog can develop the impression it is equal to or superior to a human member of his home. When this happens, the dog can develop behavioral issues including unfounded fears.

I showed the family a few exercises to practice with Tuff that will help him gain confidence by developing new skills such as self restraint and the ability to focus. Because I noticed the owner’s father had a bit of a gravely voice that Tuff reacted to, I suggested that he dint participate in these initial exercises.

At first Tuff was nervous and clearly uncomfortable with the exercise, but as time passed his confidence started to rise and you could see the difference in his body language and how he carried himself. He even came within a few feet of the owner’s father – something he did not do on his own, ever.

After the exercises, I placed Tuff on a leash and pulled him close to me as I sat down near the owner’s father. Tuff’s body language left little doubt that he was uncomfortable, bending away from him like the leaning tower of Pisa.

Sometimes, removing a dog’s coping mechanism causes the dog to develop a new way to deal with stress. This can only happen when the dog’s fear is manageable. If its too intense, the dog will simply shut down which makes rehabilitation progress impossible. While Tuff was not comfortable, he was interactive so I proceeded the conversation with him between me and the owner’s father.

I advised the owner’s father to continue to ignore Tuff during our conversation. I explained that by avoiding eye contact, not trying to interact with and avoiding any sudden or big movements, the dog will be able to settle down.

I went over a few do’s and dont’s when handling Tuff. I suggested none pet the dog on the top of its head as this can cause the dog to look down where a confident dog walks with his nose in the air. I also recommended they try to avoid standing or reaching over the dog as this can also cause the dog to feel a bit insecure or trigger a flight response.

As the conversation progressed, Tuff started to relax. He didn’t become completely comfortable, but he sat after a a few minutes then eventually laid down. Because a dog will never lie down next to something its not comfortable with, I knew we were making progress.

During the conversation we discussed taking the dog for walks which everyone was doing, including the father. Getting a dog plenty of structured exercise is always a good idea. Dogs with pent up energy will sometimes channel that energy in ways we don’t always want.

When I suggested that the owner’s father start walking the dog, I learned that he was already doing so. Unfortunately he was incorporating a few no no’s that were working against him. During the walk the owner would pet Tuff at various times. As Tuff was on a leash and unable to run away, this action would often result in submissive urination which reinforced Tuff’s fear.

Human’s often make the mistake of trying to pet a dog to calm or sooth it when its fearful or anxious. While this tactic works for humans, in canines it often translates to “Im petting you because of your fear.” So we end up making the matter worse instead of achieving the calming effect that is the goal.

I have found thew best way to get a dog over a fear is to literally get it moving forward in a controlled way. In Tuff’s case, I suggested that the owner’s father walk Tuff daily, but not attempt to pet him, talk to him or engage him in any other way aside from the walk. By avoiding physical contact and repeating the walk daily, Tuff will eventually learn that the fear he developed with his previous owner is not related to his new owner’s father.

We went outside so I could demonstrate the proper way to walk Tuff in a structured way. After coaching all the other members of the family through this walking technique, I handed the leash to Tuff’s owner’s father.

As soon as I did, Tuff piddled a bit and leaned as far away from him as possible. I instructed him to proceed with the walk and to continue even if Tuff stopped. As they walked away from us, Tuff was leaning and stretching the leash as far to the side as he could. But as the walk went on, the tension dissipated a bit. Tuff was still stiff and uncomfortable, but by the time they returned, there was a noticeable improvement.

When we went back inside we tested a few things including the father’s movement and coming and leaving a room. Tuff always tried to run away when the father moved in a room and barked to disagree with him whenever he returned.

We tried again with Tuff on a leash, the father moving slowly and deliberately and his owner ready to correct Tuff. Tuff watched intently as the father left the room and while he did pull a little, he didn’t panic when he discovered he couldn’t run away.

When the father returned to the room, Tuff watched him intently but did not bark at all. While this may seem like a small victory, it marks a significant achievement for Tuff. It also indicated to me that this fear can be overcome.

It will take time and more of the wonderful patience showed by Tuff’s owner’s father (So many of my clients would be well served to be as patient and understanding as this man) and the whole family practicing the leadership exercises and enforcing the new rules and structure before Tuff’s rehabilitation is complete.

At the end of the session, Tuff was lying on the floor somewhat relaxed a few feet away from his owner’s father – off leash. His owner mentioned it was the closes the dog had been to her father off leash since they got Tuff.

While I was disappointed I wasn’t able to deliver a complete rehabilitation in this session, we clearly made progress with Tuff. Sometimes fears like Tuffs just take a while before they dissipate. Because of the love and patience of the members of his new family (especially those of Tuff’s owner’s father), Im confident Tuff’s fears will soon be a thing of the past.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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