Fearful dogs are tricky. They are to dog trainers what antique glass heirlooms are to UPS delivery people: special care and handling required.
I've worked with the owners of many shy or fearful dogs, usually after these people spent years exacerbating the problem with their own misguided behavior: the weary woman who comes home to yet another accident on the rug and in her anger screams "No! No! No!" at her shy little dog; the macho man who wants his water-fearful dog to swim so badly that, out of frustration, he throws the pooch into the pool.
Her dog is now fearful of her arrival at the end of the day.
His dog is now fearful of water and him.
Fighting fear with fear doesn't work.
Full-on in-your-face exposure to that which is the source of great fear will not magically erase the fear, as if it existed only in an Etch A Sketch. Irrational fear is much deeper than that. In most dogs, such dramatic exposure will induce a flooding effect, in which the dog appears resigned but in actuality shuts down completely — as a last-resort coping mechanism. When neither fight nor flight is an option, freeze.
An 84-year-old woman called me last week. She was frustrated. Her three Pomeranians — a.k.a. The Three Stooges — were barking, yapping and eating the plants in her indoor garden. The Stooges are small and on the skittish side. Yelling, which never helps, would in their case make things much worse. I agreed to work with her.
First, I showed her how to use the leash as a training tool — in this case, to correct the excessive barking behavior. Then I invoked the all-powerful squirt bottle to subsidize the correction. This startles the dogs, distracting them from the unwanted behavior and giving her the opportunity to "reset" them to a more desirable behavior — which she then reinforces with praise and affection.
And finally, I introduced her to The Home Depot, where she found inexpensive, unobtrusive fencing to keep The Stooges from snacking on her azaleas.
A couple of training sessions, with her reinforcing the techniques and commands in between meetings with me, and the next thing I know, I'm greeted at the door with homemade biscotti! We were celebrating the fact that her problems with The Stooges had diminished to the point of total satisfaction. Peace in the kingdom. No fear-mongering required.
Regardless of your dog's temperament, if you could get him to drop unwanted behavior A in favor of desirable behavior B without scaring the daylights out of him, isn't that what they call a win-win?
But if your dog's temperament leans toward the nervous and anxious, fear tactics of any kind — including yelling and finger wagging — are off-limits. It'll take a little more time and patience, but in the end, you'll have a problem solved, instead of more problems.
Dog trainer Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis is co-author of 18 books about dogs and host of the PBS series "WOOF! It's a Dog's Life!" Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 3300, Diamond Springs, CA 95619.