Puppy Training Helps an English Cream Retriever Get Over Some Fears

By: David Codr

Published Date: November 15, 2016


Serenity is a six-month-old English Cream Retriever puppy who lives in West Omaha. Her guardian booked a puppy training session with me to stop her from jumping up and nipping, pulling on the leash, address her refusal to get into the car or go down the steps into the back yard unless the humans go with her.

I have had the opportunity to work with a few English Cream Retriever’s now and I found them to be gentle and inquisitive dogs. Serenity was no exception.

I sat down with serenity and her guardians to discuss the situation. As soon as I did so, serenity plopped down on the floor and took a pretty healthy nap. While she was snoozing, I learned that she did not really have many rules in place. Good thing they set up a puppy obedience training session now before her problems get worse.

When Serenity woke up, she decided to give me a demonstration of why she was engaging in some unwanted behaviors; her guardians were rewarding her for doing so.

This is one of the more common problems that I solve for my clients; showing them how their actions are actually reinforcing the exact behavior they want to stop. Remember, any time you pet your dog, you are rewarding it for whatever it is doing when you do.

I recommended that the guardian start practicing my Petting with a purpose strategy. This involves asking the dog to sit, come or lay down before they pet her. It also involves them giving her a counter order to do one of these actions anytime she nudges or pause at them as this is how some dogs demand attention.

If all the humans in the house get into a habit of asking the dog to do something to earn it’s praise first, they will be engaging in a mini puppy obedience training session every time they pet Serenity, without even thinking about it.

When the guardians asked Serenity to get down off of them and the couch, she engaged in a little bit of mouthing behavior. Because this is one of the problems the guardians wanted to address, I handed the camera to of her family members so that I could go over some tips to stop puppy nipping.

Nipping and mouthing are behaviors you really want to nip in the bud sooner rather than later. Because dogs have fangs, they don’t necessarily have to be angry or aggressive in order to do damage with their mouth. I have found many dogs unintentionally rip clothing or tear skin out of excited exuberance.

While I was working with Serenity on stopping her mouthing and nipping, I noticed that she had picked up a behavior that my own puppy Quest had also started; snapping or lunging for treats.

I spent the next couple of minutes going over a technique that will help the dog learn that it needs to wait for the treat to be given to it, rather than leaning or lunging forward and trying to snap the treat out of the human’s hand.

I have found that using a sharp “No!” while simultaneously pulling the treat away anytime the dog starts to lean or lunge forward is a very effective way of stopping this behavior. I recommended that the guardians pull out 5 to 7 treats and practice very slowly extending the treat toward’s the dog’s mouth as I demonstrated in the above video. This will teach the dog to take treats gently or have a soft mouth when it comes to taking something from a human; a skill she will need to fully master in order to work as a therapy dog.

After going over the importance of adding rules and structure and demonstrating a few different techniques and exercises, I was ready to address Serenity’s problem of not wanting to go down the steps into the backyard unless one of her family members accompanied her.

Serenity responded perfectly to this dog training exercise. I recommended that the guardians practice the same exercise with her a couple of times a day every day for the next week or two. By gradually increasing the space between the treats, eventually Serenity will be able to move forward further and further with less motivation.

Usually one of the last steps is to simply leave a small pile of treats at the bottom of the stairs. You do this a couple of times once the dog is already going down the stairs automatically. I would start out with seven treats and then each successive repetition I would remove one treat from the pile until the dog goes down without needing any treats at all.

I always love finding ways to utilize positive reinforcement to overcome unusual dog problems like this. The sort of positive dog training works so well because it helps the dog understand what you want and simultaneously motivates them to do it.

There was one problem that we were not able to fully complete before the end of the session. Serenity had shown her reluctance to get into the car. This is often a result of a dog either having a fearful experience in the car or some motion sickness, or sometimes a combination of both.

One of the best ways to remedy the motion sickness part is to take the dog for a lot of very slow car rides where you minimize hard turns, acceleration or stopping. But in order to do so, if you need the dog to get into the car willingly.

Many people simply pick their dog up and carry them into the car when they have this sort of problem. Serenity’s guardians had done the same with her. But when we do not address the cause of the dog’s fear or concern and instead force them to do what we need them to do, it’s very common for the dog to build up resistance or resentment.

I pulled out some high-value treats and started the process of changing Serenity’s perception of the car using positive reinforcement.

At first, Serenity would not even come into the garage itself. This is likely due to her guardians picking her up and putting her int he car when she didn’t want to go. Essentially, I was having to repair the breach of trust that had occurred by her guardians putting her in the car physically. Although they did not do so in an angry manner, the end result was still the same; Serenity was fearful or anxious about being in the car.

I spent nearly an hour working with Serenity using positive reinforcement and making good progress. At first she would only take a step towards the car before turning around and moving away. With a lot of patience and coaxing, eventually I was able to get her to walk all the way up to the passenger door and gobble up treats that I had laid on the floor in the back seat of the car.

At this point we were about four hours into the session and it was becoming clear that Serenity was starting to hit the wall. I wish we had gotten to this exercise sooner as it’s clear that Serenity has some deep-seated reluctance to get into the car.

I recommended that the guardian start feeding the dog in the garage (So she is facing the car) and gradually moving the food bowl closer towards the passenger door. At first they should feed her right inside the garage door, as far away from the car as possible.

Once she is comfortable eating in the garage while looking at the car, then the guardians can start moving her bowl a few feet closer to the car door each subsequent meal. If the dog is looking at the car while she is eating her food, while progressively getting closer and closer to the car each meal, she will eventually start to form a positive association with the sight of the car.

There is another thing that humans can do to get the dog accustomed to going into the garage and approaching the car. I recommended that they go to the door to the garage and call Serenity over while they hold a very high-value meat treat with the strong smell. Once Serenity comes to them, they should give her a treat and simultaneously say the word “come.” After that they should put another treat up to her nose and then toss it into the garage through the open door while she watches.

At first they should simply toss the treat right inside of the garage door so the dog only has to take a step or two to get it. Each subsequent toss, the treat should be thrown a little bit further into the garage (eventually landing right outside the car door) so that the dog has to approach the passenger door on her own to get the reward.

It may take a week or so, but eventually Serenity should feel comfortable in approaching the car itself. Once that is the case, they can use the same technique to entice Serenity to get into the car to get more treats.

I asked the guardians to practice the feeding and treat tossing exercises in the garage over the next week and to let me know how things progress. Based on what I saw, it is possible we may need to do a follow-up session to complete this exercise and get the dog jumping into the car on her own.

When we returned to the living room, Serenity was already showing signs of improvement. She was respecting her guardian’s personal space, had stopped jumping up on them, was following commands and corrections right away and going into the backyard without any pause.

I’m optimistic that the positive puppy training that we introduced her during the session will help serenity stop being fearful or anxious about approaching and getting into the car. If not, then we will set up a encore session to completely fix that remaining problem.

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This post was written by: David Codr

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