Blazing The Trail

If you’ve ever gone for a walk in the woods or in the mountains and followed a well-used trail, getting from point A to point B is just a question of glancing down now and then to make sure you’re still on the path.

trail marker with a dog paw image sprayed on rock In some areas there are blazes on trees, stripes of paint or slashes in the bark, which highlight the correct route. In the mountains we look for cairns, piles of rocks which previous travelers or rangers have built to mark the route.

When I think about dog behavior I often think of it as though it were a path in the wilderness. Either the trail is worn and easy to find or else a new trail needs to be started. The trail that is easy to find, perhaps even deep and rutted from use, might lead to the correct destination, or it might not. It’s not easy to get dogs or people to veer off their beaten path, even if we know that the views are better when we take a different route. It takes trust, practice and convincing that this new path is in fact better.

Many of the training techniques that work best with fear based behavior challenges begin by flagging the correct route. Leslie McDevitt’s ‘Look at that’ activity comes to mind, along with Grisha Stewart’s ‘BAT’ protocol. In both, we are starting at the very beginning of the trail and marking the first step of simply looking at a trigger and creating or rewarding a positive response. Once the start of the trail is obvious we can move further along and continue to mark the route. But like a route in the forest, until it has been well traveled, it can be easy to miss. It becomes important to be consistent so that the path becomes obvious and easy to follow.

In my life with Sunny I have tried to lay down a path for him which gets both of us to a destination we are happy to arrive at. The times I have led us off a cliff, we’ve been lucky that whatever damage was done was not irreparable. When I led him down the path of aggression this could easily have been the case. Fear aggressive dogs are not easy or safe to live with. If we don’t take the time at the beginning to ensure that we are flagging the correct route, or put our dogs into situations in which they have to choose their own path and they lack the directional skills to do so safely, we can begin to see aggression or other inappropriate behaviors.

It’s helpful to remember that even small steps in the right direction get us closer to our destination.

You can join author Debbie Jacobs for a full day seminar on the care & training of fearful dogs on January 21, 2012 in Bow NH.


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6 comments

  • December 21, 2011 9:23 amPosted 2 years ago
    Nancy DeRosa

    I love this! What a great way to view the road toward fearful recovery! With the fearful dogs I have had the privilege to work with and own, overcoming their fear is the same as cognitive therapy… the more you wear that path down… the less frightful it becomes…
    Thank you for your articles!
    Nancy

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  • December 21, 2011 10:11 amPosted 2 years ago
    Debbie Jacobs

    It is very much like cognitive therapy but since we can’t talk our dogs into changing their thoughts we create opportunities for new thoughts and responses to occur. It’s the challenge but also the fun of working with dogs.

    Thanks for reading and commenting Nancy, appreciate it!

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    December 22, 2011 12:07 pmPosted 2 years ago
    Amanda

    I have a new rescue who is fear aggressive and toy/treat aggressive. In fact, yesterday he growled and lunged at me because he didn’t want a treat taken from him!! He has also growled and shown his teeth when he doesn’t want to be put in his kennel. I have tried positive techniques associated with the kennel such as feeding all meals in it, but he absolutely hates it. With meals and even going outside, we always make him sit and wait. We never allow him on any furniture and only reward good behavior. However, that still has not stopped him from showing his aggressive tendencies. He has also shown aggression to strangers (bit a man once!) and other dogs. With dogs, he is at first excited, but if it looks as though the dog is coming toward us or if he feels they are too close, he starts lunging, growling, and goes into immediate attack mode. He goes straight for the throat if given the chance (happened a time or 2). He is neutered, but obviously has issues. The best we’ve been able to do is keep moving in an opposite direction, never getting close to another dog, and sometimes if we see the other dog first we have him sit and just keep feeding him treats as the other dog passes (only if the other dog is across the street; never close to us). He is always very weary of his surroundings and looks over his shoulder constantly, even darting eyes back and forth always on alert, so we play the “find it” game in which we try to change his mindset by tossing a treat in front of him and having him chase after it like a fun game. It is my goal to eventually be able to go to a nice dog park or on a hike, but at this time he can’t handle it, though he desperately needs play mates (my other dog won’t play with him, but they did eventually learn to accept one another) as he has lots of energy! Do you have any advice for me? I’d greatly appreciate it!!

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    • December 22, 2011 2:06 pmPosted 2 years ago
      Debbie Jacobs

      Your best chance of success is to find a trainer in your area who can help you with your dog. Often when we try certain ‘techniques’ and they don’t work it’s because of how we are performing them. A dog with general anxiety may benefit from the use of behavioral medications to lower their stress levels and make it easier to learn new skills and may give them just enough additional tolerance to a trigger to be able to make better choices.

      You want to find a trainer with a solid foundation in reward based training and who can help your dog without resorting to force or coercion, either may be likely to cause your dog to behave aggressively in response.

      Check out fearfuldogs.com for lots of info, a trainer list and recommended book list.

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    December 22, 2011 4:38 pmPosted 2 years ago
    Amanda

    Hi Debbie,

    Thank you for your response. I am currently taking a course to become a dog trainer myself and have been using techniques I learn from it, but I have also enlisted 2 different dog trainers to help me. The first dog trainer used force such as spraying the dog in the face when he started acting out aggressively or becoming too interested and pulling toward people. I don’t think that was good in the long run and have not had that trainer back since. The 2nd trainer I have helping me is the one whose techniques I am also following. She uses reward based/positive training techniques. Rather than put my dog in front of his triggers (like the first trainer suggested b/c he said if we always flee that will make the dog’s mindset stay in fear that he cannot face others), she has taught us to turn and go a different direction if necessary (such as if a dog is coming too close to us), but also to redirect his attention with the “find it” game. I would really love to be able to socialize him, but I haven’t yet successfully been able to set up a proper training scenario where we can work with gradually reducing the distance between him and other dogs. My neighborhood is very busy with people walking around and other dogs at any given time of day, but most people around here all keep their dogs moving and don’t care to socialize.

    I’m always open to more suggestions and advice. Ultimately, I really want to be able to rehabilitate him as I feel if I can teach him how to make better decisions and be more stable and confident, than I should be able to help others. Working with dogs and animals in general is something I have always been passionate about.

    Thank You!

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    • December 23, 2011 6:19 pmPosted 2 years ago
      Debbie Jacobs

      A big part of the work we do with any dog, but especially a fearful one is building a trusting relationship with them. Until we have that and the dog knows without a doubt that we will be consistent and predictable we need to be patient and give the dog time to learn new emotional responses and behaviors.

      If you don’t have your head wrapped around the concepts of triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization, you should. A dog needs to feel safe in order to make good decisions based on the skills we’ve given them.

      Glad you ditched the first trainer.

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