Transforming your dog from fearful to fun

On my never-ending journey to help Emma the Beagle not just overcome her fears but also find joy in our human world, I’ve learned how the best dog behaviorists and trainers in the world do it. The tried-and-true method is called “desensitization and counterconditioning,” often referred to as “DSCC.”

Most dog trainers and savvy guardians know that you can use food to help a dog overcome a fear. If the dog is afraid of people and a person comes into view across the street — feed her chicken chicken chicken. If the dog fears other dogs and she sees a Chihuahua up ahead — chicken chicken chicken. If she is noise phobic and she hears a thunderclap — chicken chicken chicken. And so on.

This chicken game is the counterconditioning portion of DSCC. We teach the dog that “other dog” predicts chicken, or “person” predicts chicken, or “thunder” predicts chicken — just like Pavlov’s dogs learned that a bell meant dinner was coming.

While there are nuances to doing the counterconditioning stuff properly, I’d like to focus this post on the desensitization side. (For more info on CC, check out this blog post on how to successfully use food for training.)

The dog cannot be scared or upset — at all.

You have to figure out the dog’s fear threshold. By reading her body language (looking for signs such as yawning, lip licking, freezing, tail tucking, growling, etc. vs loose body, relaxed tail, smooth forehead, etc.) we find the point where she starts to feel afraid. And then we work below that point.

Can the dog be a little tense? No. She must be relaxed.

What if she only growls at people as compared to her normal lunging and snapping? She’s not AS scared, so that’s good right? Nope. She’s over her threshold. She’s gotta feel totally cool, calm, and collected.

Ok. When she’s at the vet, she doesn’t ever growl. She just sits perfectly still while they check her out. She won’t eat any food, which is weird, because she LOVES food, but otherwise, she’s a really good girl. That’s a good place to start, right? Nope. She’s definitely upset. There is a difference between “calm” and “shut down.” Many dogs appear fine at the vet, because they don’t growl or bite, but really look at her the next time. Is her body stiff? Are there a lot of eye whites showing? And if she’s not taking food, she’s likely very uncomfortable. If your goal is to do a DSCC plan to help her feel better at the vet, you have to figure out where at the vet she doesn’t get scared, and start there.

Will the dog play?

Recently I came across a new way of approaching the question of “Is this dog upset?” where you use “play” as an indicator of how comfortable the dog is. (Check out Play Way Dogs for much much MUCH more on this.)

Sometimes — as in the case of the shutdown dog at the vet, it can be hard to tell if a dog is feeling anxious or not. One way we can tell is by offering the dog food. If she takes it, that means that she could be feeling fine. However, some dogs will still take the food even when they are scared.

I see this with Emma. I had forgotten that she has a fear of long sleeves until the fall air recently turned cool. While wearing a jacket the other day, I reached down to hand her a treat, and Emma jumped away from me and licked her lips. Then her body stiffened and I could see a ton of eye whites. “Guess I’m gonna have to DSCC,” I thought.

I decided to just put a treat on my open hand, squat down and hold it out for her to take the treat when she was ready. After a few seconds of deliberating, she tentatively stretched her neck out, took the treat, and then recoiled back.

The old me would have said, “Good. She ate. She didn’t look thrilled, but she still took it, so we can start there.” But then I thought about the question of play. In this situation, would Emma play? Clearly no. She’s so uncomfortable, that even though she’s a “sit” master, when I asked her to sit while wearing my long sleeves, she just froze.

I need to find a starting point for Ems where she is totally at ease. I can certainly read her body language to figure it out, but when the indicators are really subtle, as in the case of a dog who might be calm but could instead be shut down — or when I’ve been immersed in fearful dog studies for years and I just need a fresh new way to think about a common challenge — play can help.

Back to DSCC…

Wait for a “yippee!” response before moving on.

When we properly DSCC, we figure out what the dog’s fear threshold is, keep her below that, and then pair food with the scary thing. Great. Got it.

So, how do we move closer to the scary thing? Do we just do a series of person-chicken pairings moving closer and closer for a stranger-danger dog?

Nope. We stick at the place where she doesn’t show any fear and wait for what Jean Donaldson refers to as a “yippee” response. We need physical proof that this dog has figured out that “strange person” = chicken. By keeping the dog under her fear threshold, she’ll be open to learning something new. In this case, we’re teaching her that strangers aren’t bad. In fact, they’re really good. Strangers mean that CHICKEN is coming your way! Yippee!!!!!

We look for things such as: when the dog sees a stranger, she immediately turns to you anticipating the chicken, or when the dog sees a person, her tail starts wagging and she gets all wiggly. Get it?

It’s not enough to say, “That was great. We fed her when she saw the stranger five times just now — that’s gotta be plenty. Let’s move the person closer to her.” Only the dog can tell you when she’s ready for the person to move closer. It could take five repetitions; it could take 50. If she goes over threshold, you’ve moved too fast and need to back up.

Learn to read your dog’s body language.

I hope it’s hitting home that the only way you can successfully help your dog overcome her fears — of anything — is to be literate in reading dog body language. Whether you are new to living with a dog or have shared your home with dogs all your life, I highly recommend that you visit iSpeakDog. The scientific community is studying dogs more than ever now, and iSpeakDog keeps up-to-date with the latest findings. You might be surprised by what you can learn. Be sure to visit the body language gallery on the All About Dogs page to see how dogs look when they are upset vs when they are fine.





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