How to Use Games to Help an Australian Shepherd Get Over a Fear of the Family’s Father

By: David Codr

Published Date: January 16, 2017

Tess (left) is a five-year-old Terrier mix who lives in Santa Monica with Ozzy, a four-year-old Australian Shepherd mix. Their family set up a dog behavior training session to stop Ozzy from being fearful of the family’s father and unknown men, barking and submissively urinating. The family also wanted me to work with Tess who has a few potty training issues (accidents in the house) and bosses Ozzy around at times.

Knowing that Ozzy was fearful of new men, I wore the same pants from the previous session so that they would offer him a nice distracting smell. You can see how that turned out in the video below.

I was expecting far more caution from Ozzy than what I witnessed at the door. I thought the scent from the previous dog would help, but he didn’t seem at all phased by an unknown male coming into the home. This was my first indicator that the problem may be more specific than the dog being fearful of all new males.

I sat down with the dog’s family to chat about things a bit before getting started. This is when I learned that the dogs didn’t have much structure to their lives.

A lack of rules and boundaries can give a dog the impression it has the same authority as its humans and that clearly was the case here. When a dog believes it has the same authority as a human, then the dog believes that it can do whatever he wants as it sees the human as a peer and not as an authority figure. This is almost certainly related to the dog’s eliminating in the home.

I knew that in order to stop accidents in the house that I would have to help the family change the leader follower dynamic as well as retrain the dog to go outside.

I started out by suggesting some rules and structural changes to help the dogs start to identify as being in the follower position. Until the dogs consider it the human’s house, they will continue to go inside.

Next I shared some nonverbal communication cues that the family can use to disagree with the dog whenever they break any of these new rules or boundaries. I also stressed how important it is for the humans to correct or reward the dogs within three seconds in order for them to associate the reward with the action.

My next suggestion was that everyone in the house start practice my petting with a purpose method. This involves asking the dog to do something before the humans pet it or give it attention. By asking the dog to earn these interactions, we can help it move into more of a follower’s mindset while simultaneously helping it practice various commands.

While rules and structure will help the dogs move into more of a follower mindset, the guardians are going to need to incorporate some remedial potty training work in order to re train the dogs into eliminating outside.

By monitoring the dogs when they are outside and probably rewarding them while associating the new command word, the family will be able to give the dogs a good motivator to do their business outside.

Its going to be very important that the family completely and thoroughly clean any indoor areas that the dogs have soiled in the past. If a dog can smell its own scent from past accidents, it will continue to go in the same place. Skipping this step or only partially cleaning the area is a common mistake many people make that prolongs the rehabilitation process.

Another suggestion was that they add a dog house outside and leave the dogs out of the house when they cannot be supervised while the potty training is retaught. Dogs get into habits just like humans. So blocking access to the house will help the dogs get out of the habit of going inside.

Now I was ready to address Ozzie’s fear of the family’s father. A lot of people like to spend time trying to determine where a dog became fearful when they have an anxious dog, but I find this is not a very productive use of time. Even if you guessed correctly, you’re never going to know what caused your dog to become scared.

In this situation, I wanted to find a way to help build up trust between the dog and the human. I had to find a way to stop the dog from fearing men who looked like the family’s father.

I tried out a couple of different exercises, but Ozzy consistently made it clear that he was uncomfortable being within an arms reach of the family’s father. This made most of the exercises that I usually use ineffective.

After quite a bit of trial and error, I decided to make a game of things to engage the dog  with the family’s father in an activity that rewarded the dog.

Anytime that you have a dog that is displaying anxiety or fear, helping them feel calm and non-threatened is a crucial element in their rehabilitation. I originally only had the family’s daughter sitting next to Ozzy in order to retrieve the treats he didn’t catch to prevent him from gobbling them up off the ground. However in retrospect, I believe her proximity to the dog was a calming influence that enabled Ozzie to feel more comfortable which led to him being more engaged in the exercise. Building up a dog’s confidence is another very important element to rehabilitating a dog with Ozzy’s problems.

This type of positive dog training goes a long ways towards helping a dog change his perception as it turns into something the dog actually enjoys doing. Seeing the family’s father with a pleasant look on his face meant that the feeling was mutual.

I recommended that the family’s father practice this treat-tossing game a couple of times a day. I also suggested a number of other interactions that the father can have with Ozzie that wall also create a positive association such as feeding him and walking him without the other dog.

While group walks are great, it’s going to be important for the family’s father to develop his own relationship with Ozzie.

ROADMAP to SUCCESS

  • Introduce and enforce rules that help the dogs see the humans as being leaders.
  • Reward or pet the dogs within 3 seconds.
  • Pet the dogs with a purpose.
  • Monitor dogs when outside and reward with a jackpot for successful eliminations there.
  • Only allow the dogs inside when supervised and “unloaded.”
  • Get a dog house so that dogs can have shelter when left outside.
  • Family’s father should practice the treat toss game 2-4 times a day (15 – 20 treats per session) with Ozzy (with one of the children present until he is confident enough to do it on his own).
  • Family’s father should be the one to feed Ozzy but eat first before giving the dog permission to get the food waiting in the bowl.
  • Father should keep some extremely high value treats in the car with him and drop one every other step after entering the home (while ignoring Ozzy).
  • Once Ozzy is comfortable in approaching the dad, he should practice rewarding Ozzy when he approaches him at first, then transition into practicing the come.
  • Remove any remaining food when dog walks away from bowl (but leave bowl on the ground).
  • Family’s father should hand scoop out daily food portions and rub it between his hands when bagging it up (when family’s father travels out of town) so family members use that food when dad is on the road.
  • Family’s father should walk Ozzy at least once a day while keeping the dog from walking in front.
  • All family members should take turns teaching the dogs a new trick each week for eight to 12 weeks to build up confidence.
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