Last Tuesday I was at a new Home Dog Training client in Buckhead. She had a two-year-old Jack Russell with the name of Daisey. The issues that she originally wanted me to address were general obedience commands like Come, Sit, Stay, Walk, etc. Things went very well and Daisey was an excellent student. We now needed to address what I believed was the biggest issue with Daisey.
When I came into the house for the start of the lesson, Daisey seemed very animated and somewhat agitated at my presence. Because I “am a dog trainer”, I knew how to use my body language and general demeanor to put her at ease in order to perform the lesson. My client told me that the same is not true when anyone else comes into the house.
She would normally bark and lunge at anyone entering the house. We both agreed that this was not good. My client then told me that she got Daisey from the local Humane Society, so she had no real information on her background or any clear picture regarding the cause of this unwanted behavior.
Something that is very important to understand and a fact that I always communicate to my clients is that sometimes we just don’t know the initial cause of a behavior. In Daisey’s case, we don’t know if she was beaten, left alone all the time, harassed, or something equally bad. All we know is that she is afraid of strangers. With this said, our efforts must be aimed at getting her fine with strangers. We should not worry about the cause and focus on the appropriate behavior we require.
Our job will be teaching Daisey that people and other dogs are OK. A very large mistake that most people make in this instance is to try and force the behavior they want. The more they try and simply force a result, the more their dog normally gets crazier.
If you really think about it, our Grade School teachers never “forced” us to read and write. What they did was to teach us how to read and write. There is a big difference. They created a safe environment where we felt calm and then slowly guided us down a path of learning. This path always took us slightly outside our “comfort zone” of what we currently knew. During the entire time, we remained safe and accepted the new environment or knowledge as good as well. Eventually, we could read and write. This is called “learning” and did not involve any form of force or coercion
In dealing with Daisey’s fearfulness of people, we must teach her that people are OK. This is done by breaking up the lesson into many, very small steps. This allows us to constantly maintain a sense of safety throughout the process.
As the “Dog Trainer”, my initial goal is to find where Daisey is comfortable in the learning process. I need to discover the point where Daisey switched from being calm to being adrenalized and scared.
I told my client to place a leash and harness on Daisey. I included the harness in case she had to give the leash a tug. I did not want her to hurt Daisey by unknowingly tugging her neck. I also asked her to have some treats in her pocket. I requested that she take Daisey out the front door and into the front yard. We kept the front door open, and I calmly stood at the far end of the room with the front door open so Daisey could easily see me as she approached the door.
I asked my client to walk Daisey around the yard for a few minutes until Daisey was “calm, cool, and collected” and focusing on her. I then asked her to slowly walk toward the front door in somewhat of a “zig-zag” manner. This would allow Daisey to glance in the door for a moment and see me. She should slowly continue to approach until Daisey starts to become too focused on me and begins to bark and lunge. We have now found the “initial teaching moment”.
What we have done is the same thing that our Grade School teacher would do when they were introducing harder and harder addition problems. They wanted to discover the point where we no longer understood what to do. We wanted to understand the point where Daisey started to become afraid.
Once we discovered this, I asked my client to move back a few feet and repeat the process. This time, I asked her to constantly give the leash slight tugs to have Daisey focus on her. (See why I wanted to use the harness.) It was fine if Daisey would occasionally break focus and look at me. She just couldn’t give me the “Robert De Niro stare” and start to adrenalize.
If needed, I told my client to break off for a moment and walk Daisey around the area and out of my sight. When she was calm, she should start to approach again. While outside, I wanted her to “zig-zag” so that I was not constantly in her line of vision. Once they got to the door, I asked her to stop and ask Daisey to sit.
Having Daisey sit will show that she is willing to submit any fearful dominance and trust that my client is keeping her safe. It also allows for a slight pause as we introduce a new environment.
I asked her to continue the process of slowly walking Daisey into the room and closer to me. She should still not walk directly towards me and should carefully monitor Daisey to see if she is becoming adrenalated. If Daisey starts to become too focused on me, she should stop and regain Daisey’s focus. Because we are getting into “closer quarters”, I allowed her to offer Daisey a treat to regain her focus.
As soon as she and Daisey could get to within five feet of me, I asked her to move about fifteen feet from me and sit down. This is now transitioning her body language from high dominance to comfortable acceptance. We watch Daisey to see what she will do. If she remains calm and uninterested in me, that is great. If she starts to become agitated, I ask my client to stand up, walk Daisey around the room until she is calm, and continue the process again.
Once Daisey is calm and my client has been sitting down for a few minutes, I then sit down. Over the years, I have discovered that sitting down can be a trigger if a dog is still “slightly unhappy with you”. If Daisy remains calm, all is great. If she starts to become agitated, I stand up and my client walks Daisey around a little more. We then continue the process.
After we are both sitting and Daisey is fine, we talk for a few minutes, “bla bla bla”. If Daisey still is calm and shows an appropriate level of disinterest, I ask my client to let the leash go. (I only do this if I am 100% sure we can regain control of Daisey if she becomes agitated. If I am not 100% sure, I would have my client attach several leashes together at a length that would not allow Daisey to “get me”. Instead of dropping the leash, she would place the extra leash on the ground while still holding the leash handle. Daisey would still have a sense of freedom.)
If Daisey remains at her feet, that is fine. If she gets up and moves around the room, that shows that she is fine and regaining her confidence with strangers such as myself. I will remain seated and still during this time. If Daisey comes over to sniff me, I will not try to pet her.
I told my client that this lesson would probably take four to five weeks to successfully complete. I also explained that the reason I had Daisey come into the area and approach the stranger (in this case, me) was that I wanted the learning to be done at her pace. She is telling us when she is ready to proceed and get a little closer to me.
Once she and Daisey could constantly come into a room with a stranger and Daisey was fine, she would be ready to move on to the advanced section of this lesson. That involved her being in the room as the stranger stood up, moved around, and even left the room. After that, the roles would be reversed where she would be in the room and a stranger would enter. But, those are subjects for a different day and an additional blog article.
Please call Robin or me at (770) 718-7704 if you need any dog training help. We are blessed to have been your local dog training professionals for over seventeen years. We have trained over 5,000 great dogs and loving families and are ready to help you.