Problems, Prevention and Training
Dog training is often seen as a solution to problems, rather than a means to prevent them. This usually isn’t due to a lack of care or concern. Often people just aren’t sure what prevention would look like, and wonder if training will take a lot of time or skill.
As knowledge of dog training evolves, we are turning more towards prevention. Prevention can’t happen if we don’t know what we are working to prevent. Nuisances such as a dog barking at the vacuum cleaner are often seen as given parts of life with a dog, or just as quirky parts of a dog’s personality; but they aren’t usually quirks, and they needn’t always be a part of life. As demonstrated in the video, training doesn’t always take a lot of time, or fancy skill. What takes skill is knowing why, when and how to get involved. This article will equip you with the know-how needed to employ extremely simple preventive training.
When I say “preventive training,” I don’t mean training that can only be done with young puppies. While early training and socialization are crucial, how you navigate new situations with your dog throughout their life is equally important. My buddy Miles is 8 years old in the video. I believe some of the most useful and important training is shockingly easy and outrageously effective, if only you know why, when and how to apply it.
Skateboards. Vacuum cleaners. Lawnmowers. Noisy, moving, everyday parts of human life.
These are examples of everyday things that can alarm our dogs. These were all on my dog’s list, along with boxes being crushed and the clanking of the dishwasher drawer. Do you and your dog have something to add to this list? Please add in the comments! After reading this you may realize that what you thought were personality quirks in your dog are actually fear responses. The reason we don’t usually realize this is because we take for granted that these are routine parts of our lives. We know that they are not to be feared. Deep down, we know these are tricky for our dogs: have you ever joked about the “evil ______,” while pretending to be talking from your dog’s perspective?
Two Training Concepts
- Counter-conditioning: Replacing current associations with new and different ones. For example, a dog who meets a vacuum cleaner for the first time might be frightened. Without support, many dogs will become fearful, and a pattern of barking at the vacuum forms.
- Desensitization: The lessening of a response through gradual exposure. This can happen on its own, but oftentimes, we need to pair it with active counter-conditioning to get results.
Usually these two are used in tandem. In many cases, you can’t train a dog not to be fearful without the culprit being present at some level and point during training. The object/experience is what you are hoping to desensitize your dog to; and the training you are working on is to counter-condition (replace) your dog’s associations. If used early in the dog’s exposure to the object/experience, preventive training can be very simple and effective. If your dog has a strongly established fear, now you understand the two terms to use and look for when looking for a skilled trainer!
How Does Fear Develop?
Think about the first time your dog encountered a vacuum cleaner, broom, or any other object that many puppies go nuts over. Whether you or someone else raised your puppy, these firsts were witnessed by at least one, if not more people. Most vacuums and brooms are operated by people, after all! Puppyhood is a very fun time, where we enjoy the reactions of our puppies to new objects and experiences. This effect also tends to hold true throughout a dog’s life: we relish the moments our dogs first encounter and react to new things.
Puppies and dogs usually bark and react due to the excitement of play and/or predatory instincts, and/or in defense or offense to fear. Rarely do dogs “go nuts” because they are 100% confident or downright aggressive. On top of that, both curiosity and excitement are parts of a healthy response. The best way to try and understand and prevent fear responses is to understand the progression of how they can develop.
In the face of a surprising new experience, we often assume our dogs are confident, and that their reactions are expressions of their personalities. We might see our dogs as being sarcastic in a human sense, and we might also think, “how scary can it be if I am here?” When something is so familiar to us, we easily overlook how weird or alarming it might seem to our dogs. Over time, these responses becomes less amusing to us if they develop into “quirks” or “problems;” which is usually the same time they develop into established fear responses.
Fear can develop from bad experiences, or from repeated experiences of surprise and uncertainty.
Something bad may not have happened, but if you continually feel alarmed and unsure, and your concern is never proven to be unfounded, you are likely to develop a feeling of dread, and with time, fear. Horror movies are based on this: if every time you walked past the doorway to basement stairs, you heard a bewildering sound, would you feel better the next time you walked by, or would you become more on edge? I can tell you, I never got used to my grandma’s basement stairs — and nothing bad ever happened to me there!
Humans Relish Novelty
I’ve always wanted to own a robotic vacuum, and recently I came across a sale too good to pass up. While I waited for it arrive, I told my friends and family. The very first thing that came out of every one of their mouths was: “Will you film Miles’ reaction? It will be hilarious!”
Often, the first time we see a new reaction from our dogs, we are captivated by the novelty. A taste for novelty is in our nature: if it wasn’t, we wouldn’t buy stuff we don’t need, and we wouldn’t be tempted to choose fun over sources of stability, such as work and chores.
Our dogs are dependent on us for the lifestyle they are brought into, and how they adjust and fit into our lives. I believe if we can recognize the importance of first impressions, we can save our dogs and ourselves from a great amount of trouble. If your dog is reacting to something (especially a situation you control such as the introduction of a vacuum), you may have the power to prevent a chain reaction of: surprise, uncertainty, and then, fear. You may have the power to prevent fear from ever building and solidifying.
How to Handle a First Impression
New experiences are important to handle well at any point in your dog’s life. Plus, the more you support critical moments throughout your dog’s life, the more stable and confident your dog will become, and the deeper your bond will be.
Support your dog when they experience something new. If you can start right away, that is ideal. But there are going to be times you don’t think about it until your dog is already reacting. That is your cue! Don’t stand back and watch, as tempting as it might be, what seems like confident or silly behavior. If your dog is sending out signals, recognize your opportunity to change the associations your dog is making.
Take surprise and uncertainty out of the equation.
- Talk in a very relaxed voice, and give your dog a steady stream of tiny, tasty treats.
- Allow your dog to check out the object/experience. Depending on what it is, this might mean having him on-leash and letting him briefly glance in its direction. If you are at home, this could mean letting your dog walk up to the object/experience (only for a second, and if it the situation is safe). Talk to your dog the whole time. Call him back and reward him.
- Make sure the first exposure is brief. Don’t vacuum the whole house, or take your puppy to a parade. Work your way up.
- Don’t force, lead, or lure your dog closer. Allow your dog to check it out if she is ready.
- Never chastise or punish your dog for a reaction. Just say “no” to “no!” Keep the focus on you and your handful of treats.
- Enlist the help of a qualified professional trainer if: you are unsure about the situation and/or safety, children are involved, or your dog is reacting strongly. If your dog is reacting strongly, don’t hope he will get better on his own. Maybe he had a bad experience before he came into your life, perhaps it is his strong tendency (we all have different fears), or maybe you didn’t realize he was fearful before in other situations.
Remember the Goal
Critical junctures aren’t always overlooked: sometimes we overthink them. Maybe the last dog you shared your life with was afraid of something, and you wanted to prevent that from happening again with your new puppy. Perhaps you did the above, but you were talking quickly and delivering the treats anxiously. Maybe you didn’t notice that you had the leash clutched tight. You can end up creating a fear response if you feed into surprise and uncertainty. Go forth with the mantra of this article in mind: take surprise and uncertainty out of the equation.
A little bit of knowledge and understanding can go a long way, and a tiny moment of training at the right juncture can make the difference that lasts a lifetime.
Now you know that you have the power to stop a chain reaction from occurring, go forth equipped with this valuable knowledge! Be safe, use common sense, and most of all, enjoy.