Fearful Dogs

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Yesterday I attended a “Living and Working With Fearful Dogs” seminar given by Debbie Jacobs, of fearfuldogs.com, and hosted by the Vermont Dog Club in Essex Jct, VT.

Something which was fairly astonishing to me was when she began by asking who was in attendance. In the room full of people, there was one vet, a few vet techs, a few people who worked in rescue, a few people who foster dogs, a few trainers….and then she asked who lived with a fearful dog and a slew of people raised their hands. I found that very sad.

Now I don’t know how each of those people defined “fearful” in their own dog’s case. The examples which Debbie used in her talk were not simply dogs who were, shall we say, sensitive, but rather dogs whose lives were seriously debilitated by fear. They came, I think in all her examples, from hoarding situations and pretty horrific environments (full confession: I look away at slides of those situations and plug my ears if it’s video… I just can’t).

An example of the severity of the cases she works with became apparent when she spoke of keeping the dogs under threshold. She said that everyone has a different definition of threshold and so we should be careful when speaking to others that we are talking about the same thing. For me, “under threshold” is when the dog (or horse) can still focus on me and take food. They may glance away toward a perceived threat (ideally they don’t even do that). But if the individual animal feels they have to keep looking at the threat, then I need to increase distance between the animal and the threat so that they can relax and learn that it’s ok if that thing is in the distance. And then, to desensitize, we would move a tiny bit closer, with the goal being that the animal continued to be comfortable.

Debbie’s examples, however, were so traumatized that there was no way they were going to look at a human or take food from it. All they wanted to do was get away, hide, and keep as much distance as possible from people. Her Sunny dog, many years later, still does not want to be touched by people other than Debbie. He might play or go for walks when others are around, but even after her extensive work with him, he still shrinks back from other people.

For this reason, I really appreciated that Debbie expressed full acceptance for anyone who did not want to begin or continue to work with/live with a dog like this. She stressed that it was not fun.  After all, usually what we want from dogs is companionship. If what you have is a dog who really doesn’t want to be around people, you really have to have a different idea in your mind of what your relationship will be. She also stressed how difficult it can be on additional people in the household when a dog doesn’t like them (for instance a family member of the person working with the dog). There is so much focus on rescuing dogs these days, far too many people get into these situations with no idea of what they are in for and no skills/education to deal with it once they come to that realization.

Debbie repeated a couple themes throughout the day. One was patience. A slide with that one word popped up repeatedly.  Behavior challenges are not a quick and easy fix. These very fearful dogs are an extreme example…years and years of work in some cases. The other topic she returned to on several occasions was the most important place to start: keep them feeling safe. As I already said, these were dogs who did not feel safe in life so she did some pretty creative and extreme management toward that end: giving them places to hide, allowing them to stay indoors for months and eliminate indoors if they were afraid of going outside.

Her overall training approach is one of positive reinforcement and using food, food, food, although so much in life is punishing for these individuals that she did not pretend life was all positive reinforcement (and none of us should). She supported her talk and approach with evidence based science and references. Many of her references were familiar to me but I came away with some new authors to research and studies to look up: always good takeaways.

If you find yourself with a fearful dog, of any extreme, her talk is supportive and informative. She has two books available as well as a Facebook group of support. And please get a well-educated and experienced trainer to help you.

Debbie Jacobs

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