Showing Your Dog the World Beyond!

Lots of dogs are very excited at the word “walk” or a glimpse of the leash. But not all dogs. There is a whole other category of dogs that are terrified to explore outside the safety of their space.  We find it often happens with younger dogs that were raised in a shelter environment.  We want to share our experience with what we have learned.  Be warned, you may find it long, as we have found ourselves acting like very proud parents, as we watch our rescue dogs grow and evolve.
If you want to cut to the punchline and know how to do it – long story short:  Work through it, kindly and consistently.

Mindy & Me
Again – cutting to the chase, have a look at her before and after video: See Mindy before and After

Mindy was our first experience with a really fearful dog and we learned a lot from her.  For the most part, she was a dream to foster.  She was house-trained, great with cats, awesome with dogs, and not a bit of aggression.  She slept in her crate like a pro, she loved toys and she made us laugh every day.  We accepted a few weird nuances with her, as we knew she needed time to adjust.  To get her inside the house after an awesome romp in the backyard, we had to follow a routine (open the one specific door and stand back).  She’d contemplate, and when she was sure the coast was clear, she’d charge through the door, and go right to her crate, where she’d sit, bright-eyed and happy and proud of herself.  Sometimes while working during the day, we’d get a nose poke in the back or the leg.  When we turned around, she would be a safe distance away, just saying “hello”.  Again, smiling and happy just to be near (but not too near).  We thought “this is Mindy” and that we’d find adopters who accepted her for all the good she had in her.

It wasn’t until we had business travel that we decided to put her into “board and train” with Jenna at Highfives for K9s, and we learned that Mindy’s world was about to get way bigger and that our “poor Mindy” attitude was actually making things worse for her.  When we arrived with Mindy (crated) to Jenna’s, we were told “I’ll take Mindy for a walk in an hour or so”.  We looked at each other, we controlled our eye rolls (I hope!) and thought that Jenna, like us, would adjust to Mindy.  We were wrong.  It turns out that, with Jenna’s training, Mindy was the one who did the adjusting.  When we picked Mindy up two weeks later we were greeted by what seemed to be a whole new dog and a list of instructions to help keep Mindy on track.

Jenna reminded us that everything we were doing at home, was all “Mindy-rules”.  We were allowed to have rules too, and Mindy would need to meet us partway.  In the past, we were bending to her 100%.  Just because she was mostly a good kid, didn’t mean that we could ask more of her.  And, we were actually doing her a disservice, but bowing to her lack of confidence, instead of working with her to build it up.

Once we got Mindy back home, we had work to do.  We had a family meeting to ensure we were all consistent. We understood that Mindy was always learning and every interaction we had with Mindy was a training moment. Sometimes, we’d say “Mindy, come”  and she would have a look like “do I have to?” yet she did, every single time.  And every time, we were elated and we could see that she was proud of herself. We never had a single moment of “old Mindy” in our home again.  Mindy soon got the perfect application and when her moms came for a meet and greet, they said “Mindy, come” and she did (to strangers!)!  We weren’t sure if they were aware of the monumental experience that they had just witnessed, but our family definitely welled up with pride for our Mindy.

Since then, we’ve had some “Mindy-lites” come into our foster care. Most aren’t as nervous as Mindy was, but we’ve been able to apply what we had learned,  to help lots of other dogs. With Jenna’s help, we’ve developed a list of tips for working through the fear and making life better for our timid and fearful dogs.

Adjust Your Perspective – so important!  If you don’t get on this early, bad habits start. Trust is lost and the dog will get more comfortable in their too-small comfort zone.

  • Remember, that you’re always training your dog. They are always learning from you, even when you’re not aware of it. Reward the behaviours that you want to see.  Teach and reward calm behaviour. Don’t reward or react when your dog is stressed or anxious, as it acts as reinforcement.
  • The dog is scared, but there is no reason to be scared.  If your pup is afraid of a person, without cause, be sure to stand strong with that person – do not console the dog.  If you do, the dog interprets that you are also scared and you are comforting each other.
  • Your dog needs you to be a calm and confident coach. Are you feeling sorry for your dog? If so, that’s not going to help. Be in the present with your dog and don’t let sad stories about their past limit their potential.
  • Don’t carry him/her when he gives up. This is a mental barrier, not physical and you need to work through it together.
  • The home is your home, not his.  Freedom to all spaces is an earned privilege. (Would you let a toddler roam freely?)
  • Treats are not given for being cute.  Ensure treats and affection are given for “good effort” not just “being”.  Ensure that family and friends are on board with this plan.

Training Tools: Be Prepared

  • Collars – martingale collar (fitting snugly) or a slip lead.  Leave the advanced tools to the professional trainers.  Note: some training tools are controversial and you really need to believe in your trainer and their approach.  These dogs are your “kids” and be sure you know and understand and support what your trainer is doing.  Work with a trainer that you believe in.
  • Harnesses are not always ideal – they create restraint and dogs can slip out of them.
  • If you invest in a SwaddleShirt or Thundershirt, consider it a bandaid, vs a cure-all.  It will be great to get you both through the tougher times, but it is not a replacement for training.
  • Treats – this includes affection, food and freedom.  If you can view affection, food, and freedom as earned privileges, you’re on the right track. It’s just about tapping into natural balance. They’re already imbalanced with stress and overstimulation. By giving them rewards for effort and good choices, you’ll reinforce what you want. Don’t share these rewards when the mind is stressed or anxious, as it acts as reinforcement.
  • Time.  You need to invest time.  Be consistent and it will pay off.
  • Use a marker for good behaviour. Saying “Yes!” works really well. You can shape behaviour by rewarding positive behaviour with a “Yes!” followed by treats and/or affection and/or a toy. Lots of people use clickers as a marker instead of “yes”. Remember, if you are going the clicker route you always have to have the clicker with you.

Taking Walks

  • Set your dog up for success: Geography matters. Plan your route in advance. A busy street, garbage day, kids coming/going to school, etc. will all add challenges. Pick a quiet area and a quiet time. And be sure you aren’t in a rush to get somewhere.
  • Consider your dog’s comfort zone. If your dog has specific triggers (other dogs approaching head-on, cars whizzing by), you’ll need to do some work to build your dog’s confidence with these. Keep a comfortable distance at first and pay attention to your dog to see signs of nervousness. Reward for relaxed, positive behaviour and build slowly towards expanding your dog’s comfort zone. If you get too close to a trigger, back up to expand the comfort zone and start again. Just like with nervous kids, sometimes we need a gentle push beyond the comfort zone (Mindy sure did!), but too much pushing can cause a shutdown.
  • Be aware of trigger stacking. When your dog sees something stressful they’ll become aroused. Once they get to an arousal state other stressors will make them even more aroused. Arousal upon arousal upon arousal! Dogs (like people) learn when they are in a calm, relaxed state. Be prepared to cut walks short or take a different route to keep your dog’s arousal levels in check.
  • When you’re ready to walk start with “let’s go”, then take your first steps.  Follow through with full leash pressure.  As you walk on, his resistance will provide the leash pressure – keep going (he won’t choke or hurt himself)
  • If the dog locks in place, you will have to wait it out.  No tugging, no scolding. Don’t carry him/her when he gives up. Keep your leash firm, stay calm and patient, and telepathically tell him that you will continue walking.  (If you are rolling your eyes at “telepathically” what we mean is to get your energy right because dogs read and respond to our energy).  Do not release leash pressure until she gives in – even if it’s just one step.  You can give her a YES! and reward at a positive step.
  • Be an advocate for your dog. If your dog doesn’t like other dogs sniffing or people approaching make her nervous, protect your dog’s space by keeping others out of it.
  • Keep training sessions short. A 5-minute successful walk is better than a 20-minute struggle. If walks are short use other ways to exercise your dog’s body and brain: fetch games in the backyard, short indoor training sessions, “snuffle mats” or other activities that work your dog’s sense of smell can all help while you’re building up your dog’s skills and confidence to make walks a form of exercise and adventure that you can enjoy together.
  • Be sure to spend time teaching basic leash walking skills to give your dog the tools needed to succeed on walks. Aim for short sessions 2-3 times a day in an area with few distractions to start.
  • Great training video:

Need further support? Don’t hesitate to enlist a qualified professional trainer. Bad habits develop quickly and an investment in training now could result in years of stress-free walks together. With patience and effort, you can help your timid dog enjoy the outdoors.