“So … a puppy showed up at our door.”
I was talking to my boyfriend, who was on his way home from a weekend trip. Long story short, that puppy is now named Sadie and has been with us since that day in 2009, when she was scratching at the back door to our yard. It hasn’t been an easy road.
Sadie had separation anxiety. Sadie could not be crated without issue. Sadie didn’t like other dogs (except Daisy, our other dog) and barked at everyone (except me and my boyfriend). The vet estimated that Sadie was about 6 months old when she showed up, and I knew that was past the main socialization period as well as possibly even into the second socialization period. But I still thought that with some work, we could turn her into a dog like Daisy, who loved everyone and everything.
I took her to a basic training class and later started a dog training internship of my own. I also had my mentor trainer come over and check out Sadie. She told me that Sadie had moderate to severe anxiety and that I should consider medicating her. After talking to our vet, I decided that medication was appropriate to help take the edge off, so that I could work with her. Sadie was at the point where she was too anxious and scared to be able to work on any skills at all.
After that, I began consuming anything and everything I could about working with dogs who had fear and anxiety issues — as long as they involved positive reinforcement, of course. After our first dog, Chilli, got hit by a car, I had decided to become a dog trainer, and while I felt pretty confident in basic obedience, “special issues” were a whole different story.
I tried letting Sadie meet calm dogs. She snapped at them. I tried having her meet male and female dogs. She snapped at both of them. We eventually found out that Sadie was okay with dogs smaller than her and only had a problem with bigger dogs. But as Sadie only weighed 17 pounds, most dogs were bigger. I realized I needed some serious training strategies to help her.
One management strategy we implemented was that Sadie just did not meet bigger dogs or human strangers when we were out and about. We didn’t waver. I flat-out told people that she didn’t like other dogs (even when she looked like she was pulling to say hi).
I also worked up to taking Sadie to the pet store during the day, when I knew it wouldn’t be crowded, and if she wanted to take a treat from someone, that was fine. But I let her decide. I would never hold her to let someone pet her, and I worked really hard to avoid any potentially “traumatic” experiences.
I use these pet store visits to this day as our adult socialization practice. We go in for a few minutes, walk around, and then leave. She gets a treat or two at the store, and then another one in the car. I do this to create positive associations with new places. I understand that she is never going to be a super-friendly dog, but I want to keep working on new situations to make her at least a little more confident and not so scared.
But the training activity that has made the biggest difference with Sadie has been “Look at That.” When we first started, we would go for a walk or hike (on leash), and when another dog came by, we would pull over, far enough where I knew Sadie wasn’t going to completely lose it, but close enough that she would look at the dog. Then, she got treats for looking back at me. We always used special treats, the ones reserved for her biggest trigger (other dogs). She got the treats whether she was barking or not.
Her reward was for her looking at something scary and then making the choice to redirect her attention back to me. It also created a positive association with the scary thing (other dogs) because whenever other dogs came around, she got treats (also called counter-conditioning).
For more information about Look at That, check out this article from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. We still practice this activity if we have to be in super-close quarters with another dog (like passing in a narrow place on a trail), but for the most part, it has really worked to help her feel more comfortable with other dogs at a distance. Pairing Look at That with a really solid recall called has allowed Sadie to be off-leash and handle other dogs walking by within a few feet of her.
We also use a strategy similar to that of Look at That when people Sadie doesn’t know come into the house. I sit on the opposite side of the room and give her treats. The other person may offer treats as well, and Sadie will generally take them, but she makes that decision. We never force her to take treats from people. A person might toss treats in her direction, but it’s always Sadie’s choice to go up to them or to accept the treats. After practicing this, she settles down much more quickly now.
Another similar strategy is to put up a baby gate so that the dog and the stranger don’t physically interact, and the person can toss treats over the baby gate. Again, strangers = treats, which is counter-conditioning a positive association.
As far as Sadie has come (including going off medication), she is never going to be a dog who can go anywhere, do anything, and be comfortable with it all. And that stinks. We love being active and going hiking, but I usually try to go places where I know there won’t be other dogs to avoid potential issues. Sometimes you just have to accept that no matter how hard you try, not all dogs are going to be okay with other dogs or people during every single encounter.
When you have a dog with anxiety and fear issues, it can be helpful to work with a trainer, but know that there might not be a quick fix. Even dog trainers like me have to work for months or even years on the same issues!
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About the author: Abbie Mood lives in Colorado with her dogs Daisy, Sadie, and Buster, and can usually be found outside with one of them. She is a freelance writer who loves to explore environmental and animal rights issues, food culture, and the human experience through her writing. You can find out more about her atabbiemood.com or her blog, lifediscoveryproject.com. Follow Abbie on Twitter @abbiemood or Instagram @abbiemood.