Fears are never easy to deal with. And what makes it even harder is tons of wrong advices out there... One is to take the dog right back to have him see it’s not actually scary… Another one is to ignore the dog's fear and pretend nothing happened. But how would you feel if you feared something and couldn't talk about it to your best friend who would act happily and ignore your fears? Wouldn't it make you feel better if the friend listened to you carefully, offer support and try to help you out of scary situation if at all possible?
When something scary happens, most people are instructed to immediately take the dog back to make him see it’s actually not scary. But it IS scary. Once the dog gets scared, he is not in a perfect emotional state to see things aren’t scary. That’s much easier when you’re not scared already. I hear you saying: but, I did exactly that and my dog was just fine. Of course he was. Most confident dogs without fear issues can easily be handled that way and they will do just fine. When something bad happens in agility ring, like crashing into a tire or falling off the dog-walk, it’s usually the handler who gets scared the dog got scared, but most dogs are in so much drive when they run that they don’t even realize they crashed into a tire or fell off of a dog walk even if it’s really bad as they don’t feel the pain with all the adrenaline rush just yet. So yes, they will be fine even if you take them back immediately. I did that with my Samoyed and he was fine. I could easily do that with La and Le and definitely Bi - who cares. But Lo and Bu… - Yeah right!
When something scary happens, it doesn’t matter what I do for La, Bi or Le - they will be perfectly happy to do it again. However, when speaking about fearful dogs, like Lo and Bu, I learned an important lesson: if they get scared, they get in an emotional state that doesn’t allow them to see things are actually not scary and asking them to immediately go back into the situation that scared them was ALWAYS a bad idea, despite I was always shaping it (clicking for approaching the object, rewarding away from it to let them escape from it, not asking for more as they offered on their own etc.). The longer and more patiently I worked on it, the longer they were rehearsing what just happened. So I learned to not even check if the dog is o.k. right away: but immediately start a party, make the dog extra busy with her favorite tricks, do some tunnels with Bu and keep her as busy and as much in movement as possible. I then avoid the scary situation/obstacle for a while and after a couple of weeks, try it again. After a couple of weeks, things don’t look so scary anymore AND as the dog never had the time to rethink what happened, they’re usually perfectly fine with it.
I handle scary situations the same way. I used to think that the best way to make Bu feel confident in trials is to keep her with me, make her see it’s not scary. But it IS scary for her. So what works best for her is to respect her fear, keep her away from a scary situation in a safe place (preferably a car) and then bring her in in the very last moment, keeping her busy with tricks to not give her time to notice all the scary things around her, run the course and then run directly out of the ring back to the car to party. She knows the routine, she knows I won’t be asking her to be comfortable with dogs barking around her or interfere with them, she knows to just do our run, in the safety of the ring, away from other dogs, and go right back - and she is fine with that.
It was the same with Lo. I first tried to get her happy to interact with people, giving them treats and asking them to give her treats. It didn’t help. It only put her in conflict as she wanted that treat, but didn’t want to have anything with that person. When I gave up doing it, she was so happy that she could simply ignore everybody and couldn’t care less about their presence! - But would start to bark anytime somebody would want to give her a treat for the rest of her life!
Finally, I learned to respect their fears, to earn trust that I would never ask something unsafe from them and make sure they know they can feel safe with me. My favorite way to socialize my puppies now is to take them to as many places as possible, but mostly keep them in a sherpa bag so that they can observe the world from a safe place and only let them out if they feel confident about it. The world looks so much nicer when you’re not scared!
You don’t need them be able to face their fears. You just need them to be able to focus on something else. The better toy drive you have, the easier that will be, so your time is definitely better spent working on drive as pushing them into scary situations. Drive is fears’ biggest enemy. With Lo, it worked like a charm. It was very easy to get her to “stress up” rather as “stress down” and I actually got better speed and performance the scarier environment was for her – she would just go in more drive as an escape from it.
With Bu, it was not as easy as she hasn’t got the drive either… - Not an easy combination… But fortunately, she has her little obsessions that make her happy and excited: like going for a walk, getting a dinner, playing a stupid “ready-steady-go” game with Bi (running full out into nothing) – and tunnels of course. I took advantage of things she loves to put that excitement on cue. I noticed that when she is excited, her front feet will bounce off the ground in anticipation – so I made up a trick out of it and took it all the way from small bounces to big happy bounces in the air, named it and then took it on the road to put her in a happy mode when necessary. Bu’s happy tricks allow me to make her happy in any situation and by now, she can run in big noisy trials just as good as she does in my backyard.
Bu's happy trick
Feelings are, to some degree, automatic. Many researches shows that body posture and facial expressions in people, even if forced (ie. people in experiments were asked to nod or smile or stand in particular way), have impact on our feelings. Wells and Petty (1980) research showed that nodding the head (as in agreement) while listening to persuasive messages led to more positive attitudes toward the message content than shaking the head (as in disagreement). Cacioppo, Priester, and Berntson (1993) observed that novel Chinese ideographs presented during arm flexion (an action associated with approach) were evaluated more favorably than ideographs presented during arm extension (an action associated with avoidance). Duclos et al. (1989) asked participants to adopt various body positions associated nonobviously with fear, anger, and sadness and found that these postural states modulated experienced affect. Strack, Martin, and Stepper (1988) study showed that success at an achievement task led to greater feelings of pride if it was received in an upright position rather than in slumped posture. In the same research, they unobtrusively facilitated or inhibited the contraction of the zygomaticus (smiling) muscle by asking participants to hold a pen in their mouth while they evaluated cartoons. It showed that if you hold a pencil between your teeth, forcing your mouth into the shape of a smile, you'll find the same cartoon funnier than if you hold the pencil pointing forward, by pursing your lips round it in a frown-inducing way. In short: with lips forced into a smile, world automatically looked better to participants of those experiments.
I observed the same with dogs. You can try it: observe what your dog does when happy (barks, spins, jumps up?), make a trick out of it, put it on cue and then tell the unhappy dog to do those behaviors that normally express happiness - and you’ll immediately get a happier dog! It did wonders for my worried Bu and allowed me to put her in a happy mode in whatever situation. She will bounce back immediately from a stressful situation now, by help of her happy tricks. Barking, spinning and jumping up are certainly “must have” tricks in every unconfident dog’s tool bag!
Silvia Trkman has started agility in 1992 with a Samoyed. She is a 16-time National Champion of Slovenia (with 5 different dogs of 3 different breeds), 14-time World Team member, mostly with two dogs at the time (last time 3), 3-time EO winner and 2-time World Champion. You can contact her through her website www.lolabuland.com
coming soon: Ending a session on a good note???