When I’m working with an anxious animal, there are three main tools I use to help them overcome their fear and face whatever frightens them: luring, distraction, and reassurance. After working with Ray’s severe separation anxiety, the process is fairly intuitive for me. I rarely think through what I’m doing or why, and I pay attention to how the dog responds to make adjustments on the fly, as needed. But that explanation isn’t particularly helpful if you’ve not done this before, and while the process feels intuitive to me, no doubt there are actual principals behind my decisions–I just don’t consciously consider them. But as I sit down to write this post, I’m trying to be more mindful of the process.
Luring is using something that appeals to the dog to get them to approach whatever frightens them. The lure has to be a more powerful attractant than the repulsion of the scary thing. So you start with providing the lure at whatever distance will cause the dog to approach and take it, then provide lures progressively closer to the object of fear. The lure is commonly food, but it could also be a toy, or another animal your dog trusts enough to follow. That includes you, which is why bonding with a dog and developing a rapport of trust gains you so much mileage in working with anxiety issues.
Distraction is basically giving the dog something to think about other than whatever is provoking the anxiety. The distraction could be obedience training, play, food, etc. And since the world doesn’t generally fit into neat categories, items used as lures can also work as a distraction. However, where I draw the distinction is that when I lure, I draw the animal closer to whatever it fears. Distraction, on the other hand, does not necessarily involve movement towards an object, and can be used when the anxiety is a situation the dog fears, rather than a concrete object to be approached.
Reassurance is interacting with the dog in a calming way. And this one, I think, warrants more discussion in a future post, as reassurance can either help an animal overcome its anxiety, or provoke further anxiety, depending on how you apply it. So it’s a tool that I apply carefully.
All three of these tools are, of course, applied while providing exposure to whatever is frightening. So I guess you could say exposure itself is a tool, but if the animal isn’t exposed to the thing that frightens it, then applying the other tools won’t really help, right?
Anyway, when Cricket freaked out over my open garage door, I had treats with me, as well as a plush skunk squeaky toy. It’s not stuffed…more of a soft rag made to look like a skunk, actually. And it was fairly inexpensive, so I didn’t care if it got dirty or ripped up being tossed around outside.
Given how unglued Cricket became with the garage, and given how obsessed she was with squaring off with it, I didn’t feel luring was the right tool to start with. Especially as she’d demonstrated fear of open garage doors we weren’t going to approach. I simply wanted her to learn that an open garage door wasn’t even worth noting, and therefore, distraction is what I chose to use first.
So I got out the toy skunk, and used the squeaker to get her attention, then started tossing it onto the ground at the end of the driveway to get her playing with it. Cricket has a high prey drive, so it wasn’t hard to engage her in play, even though she’d been fixated on the garage. We were far enough away that the toy provided ample distraction.
Once I had her attention, I started making some tosses with the skunk a foot or two higher up the driveway than we’d been previously. This got her moving towards the garage door, so I was essentially using the skunk as both a distraction and a lure at that point. Halfway up the drive, though, she caught on to the ruse, and started barking at the garage again. So I backed off half the distance we’d covered, and spent a little time playing without moving her closer to that horrible garage monster.
The next time we made it halfway up the drive, she was a little tense, but didn’t get obsessed and barky. And this is where it takes some time to get to know a new animal. Should I get her comfortable at that distance, then call it a day right then and there, appreciating the success we had? Or should I push for more and see if we could get all the way up to the car?
I’m always afraid of screwing up with an animal during those early days, and losing whatever trust and rapport I’ve built. At the same time, nobody is perfect, and there will be times you see in hindsight that you screwed up. That’s ok. Just make note of what was too much, and you’ll have a better sense of what does and doesn’t work. The next time you interact with the animal, you simply take things down a notch, or alter your approach, if the prior session was too much. You want to push a bit for progress without pushing too hard, but it’s only through some initial trial and error that you have an idea of what “too hard” even is for that particular animal at that particular point in their training.
If you stay in tune with the dog’s behavior and learn to read when they’re relaxed and when they’re stressed, that also helps calibrate your sense of what will push enough to make progress without overdoing it. To make progress, some stress is needed. But push too hard, and you end up with the problem I had in trying to walk Cricket around the neighborhood–her anxiety level was so high that she couldn’t possibly learn anything, and she spent the whole time trying to run.
The idea that mistakes are recoverable is so easy to type, and so hard to feel when you’re training. It’s something I need to remind myself of and hear from others quite a bit in the early days of establishing a relationship with a new animal. In this case, though, I decided to keep going and see just how far I could get with Cricket and the garage door. If it proved to be too much, I would simply back off again to where she’d been comfortable, play a little longer at that distance, and call it a day.
Although the distraction of the toy almost entirely outweighed Cricket’s fear in the lower half of the driveway, I could see she was struggling more as we drew closer. When I’d toss the skunk a little further up the drive, she’d hesitate and check things out before rushing up, grabbing it, and retreating a ways. So I slowed the pace of our approach, and when she retreated, I did the first few tosses at least that far away from the garage door. Sometimes I’d throw it a little further away, even, before throwing it as close as her last comfort distance. I was trying to mask from her a bit that she was being lured. “What? Did that skunk bring you a little closer to the garage? Huh,” was the attitude I projected.
During this entire process, I didn’t encourage her at all, or offer any reassurance. I was just playing with my dog, and since an open garage door isn’t a threat, I didn’t pay it any more attention than it deserved. And if the garage door didn’t deserve any attention, why would I draw her attention to it by making a fuss about how good she was for approaching it?
Finally, I got her to the ramp leading up to the crate in the car. She was reasonably calm, and I decided to call it quits. We’d done quite enough work for one day, and I didn’t want to start an entirely new exercise around luring her up the ramp.
Cricket had other plans. After eyeing it for a moment, she ran straight up the ramp and into the crate. No luring, no encouragement from me. She just threw herself at it for the sheer fun of running up it. Made me laugh, and she got lots of “good girls” and some love and attention from me. Now it really was time to call it a day, and end on a positive note. I gently picked her up and set her on the ground, then took her into the house. I saved closing the garage door in her presence for another day.
Thereafter, Cricket had some milder heebie jeebies when we’d go up to the garage and open the door, or return from a trip and close it as we walked away, but she got over that pretty quickly with some treats and encouragement that she was fine. And she hasn’t been afraid of open garage doors on our walks since that time. Not all fears resolve so quickly and easily, but I was glad this one had. It was a good way to start the process of getting her adjusted to her new world. I will never know why garage doors were so frightening to her, though. Did something traumatic occur involving a garage door? Or were they simply unfamiliar, and garages laden with heavy, unfamiliar smells? Given how quickly she overcame her fear, I lean towards thinking they were simply unfamiliar to her, and therefore overwhelming to this little dog who had been through so much. If only dogs could talk.