Welcome to our regular blog feature we call "Ask-a-Trainer Thursday". Think of it like the Dear Abby of dog training. We take questions submitted to us by email or on social media from people who have questions about their dogs and we get them answered by professional positive based dog trainers.
Meeko the goldendoodle
This week's question came to us via a blog post comment from Lyla in Kitchener, ON. Lyla wants to know how to help Meeko her goldendoodle get over her fear of strange men. Lyla writes:
Our one year old mini goldendoodle has always been a more fearful pup than other dogs I've owned. We've been able to help her work through most of her concerns with positive counter conditioning methods but she remains reactive to strange men. She will growl and bark if they move in her presence. She is great with her "daddy" and occasionally meets a man she is okay with but for the most part she is fearful reactive.
The difficulty is we don't have enough opportunity to use positive exposures to help her overcome this issue. When we occasionally have men visit our home I have them toss treats to her over a gate but otherwise not engage with her. If necessary, I put her in her crate where she feels safe — but it is pretty rare that this opportunity arises.
She has been to classes and quickly learned to trust the men there and would approach them for treats, but anyone new gets a warning from her that they should stay away. Is there anything else I can do, assuming that I am unable to recruit a line of adult male volunteers to help me socialize her?
Samantha DeJong of Puppy Power
Our expert this week is Samantha DeJong a positive based trainer and owner of Puppy Power. Samantha shares her advice on how to help Meeko:
Working with a fearful dog can be a challenge but it sounds like you're on the right track. Having new men that come into her space toss her treats is one way to teach her to be comfortable with the uncomfortable situation.
I find most people get that part right, but sometimes their timing of reinforcement is a bit off. In some scenarios they can accidentally reward fearful behaviour with attention or by giving a reaction to fearful behaviour.
Teaching a good "leave it" and quickly removing her quietly and smoothly as soon as she displays any fearful behaviour is a good start. Don't say "ah ah" or add any vocalization because the dog may interpret this as barking or growling. It's also important not to pop or jerk the leash. Be sure to reward her calm behaviour as soon as you can get Meeko to a distance where she can be calm.
One method I like is to teach a game where you work at a distance from new people. You can reward her for glancing at them while staying calm and removing her for any reaction. As this becomes easier you can step closer and play it again, continuing to get closer as she shows more confidence.
Working with a positive reinforcement trainer who deals with desensitizing to fear will help you get the timing of this right. With dogs, every second counts. If we throw a treat as she barks, even if we think we're rewarding her for approaching, we've rewarded the bark. If we go to coax her when she's acting fearful, we are giving attention to fearful behaviour.
A good trainer will also teach you about dog body language and early signs of discomfort. Your dog will display this body language to say they need space before they escalate to any sort of a reaction, and often it is missed.
The trainer should discuss with you how people can use their body language to be less intimidating. You can even use the calming signals that dogs use to communicate they are not a threat. If you'd like to read up on some of this yourself, I suggest Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas.
The game I mentioned above can be played at a distance from passersby (at parks, outside grocery stores, pet stores, etc.) to reinforce that good things happen when she sees new people in a variety of situations. If someone stops and asks to say hi, you could ask them to toss treats if she can be calm.
Finding a trainer who offers socialization classes will give you an opportunity to have new people practise the close up interactions more regularly. The benefit of socialization classes as opposed to a regular puppy class, is the change of people. It's not always the same people week to week so you'll get a better variety of exposure for Meeko.
Lastly I have to mention that if you're trying to deter any behaviour using negative stimuli (leash corrections, shaker cans, shock or spray collars, clapping or any vocalizations that sound like barking, growling or intended to startle the dog), you will add to the problem. These are commonly used by trainers who use corrections and while they may temporarily stop behaviours, they do not address the underlying problem to create longterm success.
If you take a look at the IPDTA (International Positive Dog Training) website there is a list of positive trainers you can contact from wherever you live. I'd also be more than happy to help you in person if this is something you'd like to work through together.
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