I was in Roswell last week at a follow-up Home Dog Training session with my client and his Boykin Spaniel named Sadie.  Our initial session focused on pottying and not jumping.  My client had been practicing the homework we set up and had read all the on-line instructions contained on the personal training web site we had established for him. Things were going great.  He called us back to help with additional issues. 

Fearful dogs can be easily taught if you keep your lesson slow and observe their body language

Sadie had always lived in a big house with a big back yard.  This allowed her to simply wander outside and go wherever she wanted.  My client was now moving to a high rise condo in Atlanta where Sadie was going to have to learn to take walks.  Sadie had never had a harness or collar on her.  The few times that my client had tried to previously walk her, Sadie pulled, barked, and just wouldn’t move.  As soon as my client dropped the leash, she would run into the corner, tuck her tail, cower, and shake. 

I always try to teach my clients to carefully watch their dog’s body language.  This is almost always a very clear indication of how the dog is feeling and how well the client is communicating their needs.  Sadie’s retreat to the corner and body language clearly indicated that she was fearful and timid.  This is a situation where the dog has no idea what is going on and needs to stop and regroup.  The more my client tried to continue what he thought was teaching, the more Sadie became fearful and completely disoriented.

I didn’t blame my client for making Sadie scared.  He wasn’t able to read the warning signs and thought he was doing the right thing.  (Now, he knows better!)  I explained that when Sadie showed any signs of fearfulness or disorientation, that was the time to stop and take a break.  Teaching is not a race; it is a process.

We must break down Sadie’s walking into a group of very small steps with clear success and failure points.  We slowly implement each step and continue to work on that one until we have allowed Sadie to reach the success point for that step.  If Sadie is “overwhelmed” on any one day, we back up to the prior step to allow her to be successful or simply stop the lesson for that day.  I broke down Sadie’s walking process into multiple steps.

  • WEAR THE HARNESS. Since Sadie has a tendency to pull, I always suggest a harness for better direction and communication. The harness should be set to the loosest setting.  My client will pick up Sadie and sit in a chair or sofa.  He should then pick up the harness and calmly place it on Sadie.  After it is on, he should calmly cinch it up to the proper setting.  He should hold Sadie for a few minutes and then calmly put her on the ground.  If she begins to shake or doesn’t move for several minutes, he should pick her up for a few minutes and then put her down again.  He should encourage her to follow him around the house.  If needed, he can coax her with goodies or toys.  All this should be done in the house.
  • TIME FOR THE LEASH. We do not get to this step until Sadie will happily wander around the house with the harness.  She should be able to play and lie down in her favorite spots while wearing the harness.  Now, when my client is putting on the harness, I want him to also click the leash onto the harness.  He should repeat the same process he did when only installing the harness.  Put Sadie down and let her wander with the harness AND the leash.  If she doesn’t move, pick her up after a few minutes, encourage her, and put her down again.  If she becomes too stoic, “back the lesson up a bit” and let her wander around for a little longer with only the harness.
  • TIME FOR OUTSIDE. Once Sadie has no problem walking around and having a fine time wearing the harness and dragging the leash inside, open the back door.  My client should now just let Sadie feel the same happy experience she just learned inside, but with all the sights and sounds of being outside.  Never close the door when she goes out.  If she gets to a point of concern, my client should always give her the immediate choice of coming back inside “and take a breather”.
  • START TO WALK. After a few days of wandering inside and out, I want my client to calmly pick up the leash while Sadie is going somewhere. He should do this while they are in the house. He should walk next to her, but let her still lead and make sure the leash is loose at all times.  This starts to passively build the impression that “Oh look, you are walking next to me.  This all feels fine, no big deal!”  The process starts out with quick “leash walks” of twenty to thirty seconds and slowly builds up to five to ten minutes.
  • WALKING WITH COMMANDS. Now that Sadie is comfortable with “walking without commands”, it is time to add direction.  My client should now hold the leash a little tighter so that there is a slight bit of tension in the leash.  He now changes direction and coaxes Sadie to follow by tapping on his leg and/or slightly lowering his height.  Like everything else, this starts out slow.  The frequency of direction changes and stops should slowly increase until Sadie is giving almost full attention to my client as they walk.
  • LET’S GET OUTSIDE. Now that Sadie is walking inside, it is time for the real world.  I want my client to have the door open as he is on one of their inside walks.  Walk past the open door several times and then simply go out.  If Sadie pulls back, return inside and try later.  When she gets outside, loosen the leash slightly so she can have some freedom to take in all the new sights and sounds.  Have her stop.  Now, I want my client to slowly start the walk again.  I want him to go inside and then outside with turns and stops.  My client is simply adding the distractions of the outside to the already learned experience of walking inside (with minimal distractions).

Remember that teaching a fearful dog involves both socialization and instruction.  Keeping it slow and being very observant of what your dog is telling you is key.

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 fifteen years.  We have trained over 5,000 great dogs and loving families and are ready to help you.