Challenges in Dog Training: Fear, Force, and Quitting While You’re Ahead

December 17, 2020
Mary Simon
Challenges in Dog Training: Fear, Force, and Quitting While You’re Ahead

My dog, Wyatt, has a fear of the spiral staircase in our new home.

The stairs are the floating kind, and for a creature with four legs, it requires different coordination than typical stairs. Move up or down too quickly, and you’re likely to find one of your legs slipping out from under you. The other day, I carried him up the stairs so he could hang out in my office. I didn’t realize this would be a big deal to him, but evidently, it was. Today, as we begin to work on this fear of the spiral staircase, I can see that he doesn’t quite trust me. “Last time I came over here, you picked me up and carried me up there, and it was too much,” he seems to be saying.

To address his fear, we start with a simple hand target.

In order to touch my hand with his nose, he has to step onto the stairs. We launch into it, and he does a good job at first, even though he has some anxiety. But as I encourage him to go higher, his foot slips slightly, and he gets spooked. He goes into the hallway and sits down, staring at me. “Mom, I can’t,” he seems to say. I encourage him to try again, and he does- but he’s still worried I might carry him up there, it seems. He goes back out into the hallway.

Now, one could push this if one wanted to.

If the stairs had carpeting, making him unlikely to slip, perhaps one could. Or perhaps if he wasn’t showing this much anxiety. But I know how Wyatt is, and I know what will happen if I push too hard. It’s likely that he’ll leap off of the stairs in a panic, and slip, and then the stairs will become even more dangerous in his eyes. He might even start avoiding that area of the house entirely when I’m around, thinking that I’ll force him to do something that scares him.

In the end, over-pressuring a fearful dog often creates more work for the trainer.

Some trainers don’t realize this, and create new problems while trying to get rid of the original one. I watched two videos recently of two different trainers teaching a dog to use a treadmill. The first put a little pressure on the dog, holding the leash close to the treadmill so that the dog had to put one foot on the treadmill.

As soon as the dog did this, it was allowed to move away from the machine- a compromise, of sorts.

Because he listened to the dog, the trainer was able to teach the dog to use the treadmill in a matter of minutes. There was give and take in his approach, and at no point was the dog in a state of panic. The dog could think.

The other trainer, by contrast, was much more forceful, and ignored the dog’s fear.

He immediately pulled the dog onto the treadmill completely, forcing it to remain up there as the dog stood nearly frozen. The dog had to move its legs because the treadmill was moving, but you could see that it was in a state of complete fear. This poor dog was likely beyond the ability to really learn effectively- it was simply in survival mode. And you know what? Trainer #2 took considerably longer to teach the dog to walk on the treadmill. The dog experienced way more stress than it needed to, and may always regard the treadmill as a terrible device. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When I’m training, I don’t want a dog who freezes in fear, panting, heart beating like crazy, unable to function.

It’s no fun, and it creates a lot of extra work that will then have to be undone later. That’s not the state in which learning happens best. I want a dog who can think about what’s happening, who might want to try for me again the next time. When it comes to conquering fears, it’s a marathon, not a sprint. To get a fearful dog to want to try again the next time, it’s important to end the session on a positive note.

But I also want to end the training session on my terms, whenever possible.

Otherwise, the dog might think, “I’ll just opt out of a session whenever I feel like it.” How can I do this while still respecting the dog? After all, I want a dog who knows I’m listening to him, too. The answer: I’m usually going to try and time the ending of a session according to what the dog wants- I’ll just let him think it was my idea.

So when Wyatt goes into the hallway a second time, I pause and adjust my plan.

Instead of asking him to get back on the stairs right away, I give him an easy command. Coming when called is one he knows very well, and he trots over. He gets his reward, and this success inspires him with a little confidence, so I ask him to step onto the stairs again. This time, though, I lower my criteria- he doesn’t have to go as high. And there it is- the end of our session.

Even though I’d had a longer session in mind, he finished strong.

He let me know that going higher on the stairs was too much for him today, and that he really was not into it. I listened, and as with any good relationship, we compromised. Because he trusts me, he was willing to do one more repetition, and I kept that trust strong by ending things there. What this gets me is a Wyatt who will be willing to try again next time.

“Quit while you’re ahead,” or “No more ‘one more times,’” as my mentor John Imler likes to say, are important concepts to remember.

During a training session, there’s always that tendency to think, “Wow, things are going really well. Let’s just see if the dog will do it one more time.” At this point, there are often some warning signs that it’s time to quit. Maybe the dog seems a little tired, and is executing the command a bit unenthusiastically. Perhaps you’re working on her anxiety around crowds of people, and she has given you some signs that he’s about to be over threshold. Push that dog a little more, and she’s suddenly past the point of being able to realistically succeed. You may even have taught her to fear crowds even more.

Why is there that temptation to keep going, anyway?

Perhaps it is our egos driving it. If we’ve had success in a session, it feels good. Maybe someone saw us, and it made us feel proud of ourselves. We feel competent, or excited, and then we get greedy. In these moments, it’s best to remember that is isn’t all about us. It’s about us and the dog.

The idea of quitting while we’re ahead is something we often have to learn the hard way.

Over time, though, we can get better at reading our dogs. We can start to listen to the voice that says, “Now. Now is the time to stop.” And when we do, our training will go that much better- for human and for canine alike.

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