DON’T RUSH ME! -- Help your dog overcome his issues, one step at a time
I’ve recently been working with a lovely dog who displays some anxious behavior while in the car. There are a variety of triggers that cause him to bark, jump around, and nip hands that try to soothe him. In this article, I’d like to highlight the beginning steps we took to address one of his main triggers, which is when a family member gets out of the car and leaves him behind.
It’s interesting to speculate why the dog might react anxiously to this, but we don’t really need to know what’s going on inside his mind to be able to create positive change in his behavior.
To begin the process, I recommended the dog only go for rides – in the short-term – when training is planned. Otherwise, if he’s asked to handle situations more difficult than he’s ready to navigate calmly, his anxious reactions will likely undo some of the headway made during the more carefully structured, step-by-step training sessions.
Managing the dog’s physical options in the car, by containing him in the back section, was also necessary because he would often jump around the car frantically, and this was not safe for the driver or passengers.
The topic of food delivery also needed sorting out. Realistically, there were two options: 1) a helper could be positioned in the back seat to observe the dog’s behavior and deliver food in a timely fashion, or 2) a remote-controlled treat dispenser could be set up near the dog and controlled by the driver. In this case, two family members often travel together, so having a helper in the back seat was an easy way to start.
The tastiness of the food was also an important detail for this dog, and sausage turned out to be quite irresistible!
Next, we observed his body language and behavior carefully to identify each trigger or event that sparked an anxious response. These included:
Pulling into a parking space and shifting into ‘park’
Turning off the car
Disengaging the seat belt
Pulling the door handle to begin opening the door
Swinging the door open
Shifting in the seat to begin stepping out of the car
Standing just outside the car with the door still open
Closing the door and standing by the car
Walking away from the car
Armed with a generous supply of treats, we began with the first trigger listed above. Immediately after the gear shifted into park, a treat was delivered. The order of trigger first / then treat is critical in this work, because it allows the dog to learn, with repetition, a new and more positive emotional response to a trigger that once caused him anxiety.
In this particular case, the dog received some additional treats, calmly doled out one after the other, until he visibly relaxed. Then we drove off again, only to repeat the parking step several more times. With each repetition, the dog responded in a more relaxed fashion.
It’s imperative to observe the dog’s behavior before deciding to move on to the next step. Certain triggers are tougher than others, so you may spend more time working on some, while you can breeze through others rather quickly.
The key is to go at the dog’s pace, one trigger at a time (whenever possible), so that he learns how to consistently navigate each trigger in a calm way. Any bit of vocalization, hectic movement, hyper-vigilance, or refusal to eat offered treats, signals a need to remain at that step until relaxation is achieved. By breaking down the training task into small enough steps, we have the best chance of achieving one success after another.
In my practice, I see time and again how effective this strategy is for resolving reactivity issues in many different contexts. This article highlights some key points but doesn’t cover all the nuanced aspects of the protocol we trainers refer to as desensitization and counter-conditioning. If you’re struggling with some issues, please don’t hesitate to reach out to a professional for assistance. It takes some careful planning, patience, and a commitment to work at the dog’s pace, but the pay-off is well worth the effort.
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Virginia Dare is a dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers remote consultations anywhere in the US for matchmaking services, and pre- and post-puppy arrival counseling. She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in northern Fairfield and Westchester counties, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties. Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120
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