Helping an Insecure Dog Regain Her Confidence and Her Room Mate Learn to Relax

By: David Codr

Published Date: September 10, 2015

Sunny and Vito

For this session, I worked with Sunny (left) a three-year-old Beagle Whippet mix who is fearful of new humans and Vito a two-year-old Beagle / Coon Hound mix who is aggressive to other dogs on walks. Vito also gets jealous when anyone gives Sunny attention.

Since these dogs had such contrasting issues, I focused on them one at a time starting with Sunny.

Because she was so skittish to my presence, I ignored her at first and let her come to me on her own time. When we try to prove to a dog that we are a good person by offering a lot of reward or affection, they interpret that as us trying to trick them.

Usually I wait a dog out but Sunny didn’t give me a chance, instead leaving the room or walking behind the couch or table to hide. Her guardians mentioned this was normal behavior for her. While its not dangerous, its most certainly an anti social behavior.

When I blocked access to the space behind the couch, Sunny moved behind a table so we pushed the table back against the wall. I wanted to take away the dog’s hiding spaces so it could develop a new behavior, hanging out with everyone else. Unfortunately this just caused Sunny to leave the room so I placed her on a leash and stood on it a few feet away from her head.

I didn’t try to talk to, pet or otherwise interact with Sunny as her body language made it clear she was uncomfortable. Instead I just blocked her from running away. After a few minutes she relaxed and laid down next to me. Once she did, I took my foot off the leash, but made sure she didn’t realize it. She laid there for about ten minutes before getting up and moving about the room a bit, but not leaving it.

A couple minutes later, Sunny started to use her nose and came over to give me a good sniff. Once she did, I pulled out some high value treats and offered her one with a hand motion that put her into a sit. Once she sat down, I gave her the treat and repeated the command word as she chewed it.

By ignoring her and letting her approach me, I changed the dynamic from “what does this guy want from me” to “what is this guy all about.”

Because she is a timid dog, I stressed how important it is for her guardians to not do everything for her. While we think its a kindness to point out where a treat is, we rob the dog of the confidence that comes from discovery. Just like humans, dogs feel a sense of pride when mastering a new skill. But they have to do the work themselves.

A great way to implement this with Sunny is to stop trying to pet her for being nearby or looking cute. Instead I had them ask her to sit, lay down or come to them and pet her AFTER she followed their command. By making the dog “earn” her reward (affection, treats or petting), she will start to feel good about herself when she does these things.

As I was discussing this with her guardians, one of the family’s boys pulled Vito over his lap to pet him. Vito emitted a little bit of a grumble to communicate he was fine where he was and that he probably didn’t appreciate being pulled over and manhandled that way. But after puling the dog across his lap this way, the boy started to manipulate the dogs limbs into the exact position the boy wanted.

Earlier the family;s mother mentioned that the dog wasn’t as fond of that boy as the other and this is likely part of the reason why. While its fine to touch and manipulate a dog to a degree, doing so as if the dog is an action figure can damage the trust and relationship between dog and human. Fortunately when I put it this way to the boy, he understood.

Now that Sunny was feeling more comfortable, I had her guardians place her on a leash so I could practice a leadership exercise with Vito. The exercise teaches a dog to ignore a high value item even though its completely accessible. This helps the dog learn to restrain itself, a skill that Vito will need to stop his outbursts at dogs on walks.

It took a few practice reps before Vito seemed to understand what the exercise was all about. I usually have the senior parent practice next but one of the boys wanted to go next. Unfortunately he moved in spurts and got a little distracted which created an opening in Vito’s mind. The dog took advantage by moving around the boy to get the treat.

After a few failed attempts I called for a substitution and had the father take over. At first the dog continued to try to evade him but the dad stuck with it and a few minutes later Vito surrendered and successfully completed the exercise. I had the dad run through it again and this time, both dog and human were much better.

With a few successful repetitions of the exercise with the father under his belt, Vito stopped challenging and instead started to complete the exercise faster and faster.

When the mother ran through the exercise, I made it more challenging by having the dog wait with the human sitting down. To a dog, standing up and facing them is an authoritative posture. But when you sit down, you loose some authority.

The exercise gets easy once dogs understand it so the next step is to ask the dog wait for longer and longer periods of time. This helps them develop the ability to restrain themselves better and under more challenging situations.

As soon as the mom sat down, Vito started to get up and take advantage but he mom responded with great timing and technique. Only after she reset the exercise did she let the dog come and claim his reward.

Because of her more timid nature, I knew it would be extremely difficult for Sunny to complete the exercise with me so I coached the mother through it with her.

Sunny needed a few corrections, but figured things out much quicker than I thought she would. In fact she got through the exercise the first time faster than Vito.

Next I asked the guardians to tell me a little bit about the dog’s energy level and behavior while getting ready for walks. As is the case with many of my clients, the guardian’s reported that dogs got excited the instant they realized a walk was imminent.

I asked the mother to show me how she gets the dog’s ready for a walk so I could see just how excited they got.

While these dogs were far from the worst case I have worked with, they did get excited; running ahead of the guardian, barking and spinning in circles.

The state of mind and energy level a dog has when we get ready to leave the house has a direct correlation to how the dogs act on a walk. If they are in an excited or frenzied state, that is the behavior and energy they will display when out on a walk.

Inside of the house, there are no other dogs or other stimulus that trigger a stronger response with a dog. But when they leave the home, dogs are bound to encounter animals and people that trigger a reaction. Combine that with dogs who had few rules, boundaries or limits who think they are equals to humans and you have a recipe for disaster.

I stopped the guardian, had her return to the couch and waited for the dogs to get back into a completely calm state before trying again. But this time as soon as the dogs started to get excited, she stopped and went back to sit on the couch. It took a few starts and stops this way, but eventually the dogs remained calm throughout the entire leashing up process.

While the much calmer energy will help, it was just he first step. As we were getting ready to head out, I noticed that the dogs started to pull once they were leashed up. Because the family lives in a split level house, I showed them how to use walking down the stairs as an exercise in itself.

Each time the dog started to pull ahead, the guardian stopped and offered a correction. Vito went first and after two practice runs, he headed outside so we could repeat the process with Sunny.

By making the dog wait and pace itself with the human, we can help it learn to look to and follow the lead of the human. This puts the dog in more of a follower state of mind.

After we headed outside I took Vito’s leash and demonstrated the correct position, hand movements and how to correct the dog when it got out of position. Next I had the guardians walk back and forth on the sidewalk in front of their house a few times so the dogs and humans could get used to the new technique.

Once everyone was walking well, we headed off for a short walk. Of course no dogs were out at first so we walked a few blocks down to a house with a few dogs and a doggy door. Once the dogs came out, Sunny started whimpering and this caused Vito to start responding with growling, barking and pulling.

I took the leash and did an unusual introduction between Vito and the neighbors dogs. Because Sunny’s energy was panicky, I had the guardian keep her half a block away so they could watch but not influence the situation. Once the dogs had had a proper introduction, I called one of the guardians over to have her walk Vito by the fence.

While we were able to get Vito to walk by the fence without reacting, he was close to it. And when we came across a neighbor walking a small dog down the street, Vito was so intense in his reaction it was clear he needs to practice and master more self control inside the home.

By practicing these exercises and techniques that help Vito learn to control himself in a calm environment, he will develop the ability to restrain himself when he runs across things that trigger a reaction from him.

But self control is only part of the picture. One of the reasons Vito is reacting is the perception that he is in charge of security and a peer of the humans in the house. The more structure they provide him inside, the less the dog will think of himself this way. Only after the dog sees and identifies himself as a follower will he be in a position to develop a new behavior when out on walks. This may be one of the few cases where a second session is in order.

When we returned to the family’s home, the dogs were following the humans lead and looking to them for guidance. I was especially happy to see the dogs deferring and waiting for the humans to walk in front of them. When a dog sees itself as a leader, it walks in front. Seeing the dogs walking behind the humans on their own was a big step forward.

As Sunny learns to be more social and stop running from things she doesn’t know or understand, her confidence will rise. This will likely cause her to be less reactive when she sees dog on walks. As Vito learns that the humans are the authority figures, his perception that he needs to defend his family members will decrease. Combined with a more structured home life and practice at self restraint, the dogs will learn to relax and leave the responsibility of security to the humans instead of reacting and losing control on walks

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