Little Terrier Ricky was found abandoned in Ireland, very young and with a broken pelvis. He is two years old.
Ricky now has the near-perfect life for him with the couple he has lived with for a year. He’s very friendly with people and best loves to be snuggled up on the man’s lap. He is however a sensitive little dog – perhaps more sensitive than one might think.
Something has frightened him badly either in his past life or as the result of someone demonstrating how they should ‘cure’ his barking at the hoover. They tell me this person threw spoons on the floor in front of him – or it may have been training discs specifically manufactured for ‘scaring’ a dog out of doing something.
Why would anyone think to punish fear is a good idea?
This has led me a bit away from this actual case, but I find it incredible that anyone can think punishing a dog already exhibiting fear with further terror can be a good way to go about things. This was often the old way of ‘curing’ a dog of barking at something – and there are a few old-school people including a well-known TV trainer who carry on promoting the ‘punish fear’ kind of approach.
In human terms, would we slap a child for crying because he’s afraid, say, of the dark? The noise may stop but for sure the fear would increase.
Fortunately Ricky’s lovely owners would never knowingly scare their little dog and didn’t take up the punish fear advice to stop his barking at other dogs.
We discussed ways of helping Ricky to become more confident and to overcome his fear of dogs in situations where he feels vulnerable or trapped. A clicker can be a useful tool. It turned out that he was very scared of a clicker.
Ricky’s owners had bought a clicker a while ago and, as most people would, just clicked it.
Ricky ran and hid. They didn’t try it again
Could the sudden click have reminded him of the sudden throwing down of spoons or discs, I wonder? Perhaps the click reminded him of something from his early past.
I’m careful when I introduce a clicker. I will muffle it under my arm on in a pocket, just to check how the dogs feels with the sound. It’s not uncommon for a nervous dog to react.
Because I thought a clicker could be useful, I had another go, this time being very careful to muffle it so the sound was very soft. I clicked and I threw food. Ricky was fine.
I gradually brought it out from under my arm, making the sound less muffled.
Then, all of a sudden, it was too much. Ricky was scared. Even though I thought I had been bringing it out gradually, it wasn’t gradual enough.
Needless to say, clicker will never be used with him again.
It was an interesting for them to clearly see, though, the dog’s fear ‘threshold’ and how slowly things have to be taken. Once over threshold, the dog is scared and unable to learn or function properly.
Ricky then was then for a while uneasy with me also. This demonstrated how scaring a dog in this way may spread to fear of other associated things like the person who administers the frightener or even the location where it happened. It can destroy trust.
This shows the principle of how they will be dealing with Ricky’s fear of approaching dogs. He only reacts when they get very close and when he’s on lead, unable to escape. However, if they watch him carefully, they will see that he is uneasy long before it gets to that.
This is the point at which they will start to work on his fear. And they certainly wouldn’t punish fear. Instead they will do the opposite. They will work on reducing fear by building up positive associations.
Taking their dog to the pub.
An end goal, similar to that of quite a few other people I go to, is to be able to take their dog to the pub!
They want him to ignore other dogs coming in or passing by rather than barking defensively at them.
Punish fear by throwing discs, keys or spoons as some people (certainly not Ricky’s humans) might? Possibly the barking would stop, temporarily. How, though, would the dog feel about an approaching dog another time?
When another dog is sufficiently far away for Ricky to know it’s there but he’s still relaxed, food should rain down on him. The challenge is to do this before Ricky goes ‘over threshold’ with the other dog being too close or Ricky already being too stirred up to accept it.
Fortunately he has quite a few doggy friends and is fine in a group. It’s only when he feels cornered or trapped and the dog gets too close.
To get to the stage of sitting in a pub garden with other dogs coming and going also requires Ricky to feel more comfortable when directly approached by another dog when he’s out on lead.
They will give Ricky coping mechanisms.
NB. For the sake of the story and for confidentiality also, this isn’t a complete ‘report’ with every detail, but I choose an angle. The precise protocols to best use for your own dog may be different to the approach I have worked out for Ricky and because neither dog nor situation will ever be exactly the same. Listening to ‘other people’, finding instructions on the internet or TV that are not tailored to your own dog can do more harm than good as the case needs to be assessed correctly. One size does not fit all so accurate assessment is important, particularly where fear is concerned. If you live in my own area I would be very pleased to help with strategies specific to your own dog (see my Help page)