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Work With Your ’Fraidy Dog

Editor’s note: Reader Karen Westmont of Berkeley could relate to my Monthly Wag last month, “New Year, New Dog,” about some of my own troubles with ’fraidy dog Wiley and shared the following wisdom.

—Judith M. Gallman


I learned just in time that I was making worse first my shy dog and later an aggressive dog. Luckily, people gave me correct tips that I’ve used successfully since. Oh, and I lucked into classes with one of the country’s first “humane” trainers with teaching assistants for every three humans to correct our human miscues. Generally, I find advice from 50 percent of trainers, shelter workers — even from Cornell U animal psych doctors — to be bad to terrible, often reinforcing bad behaviors as was I.

Dogs are exactly like children: If one’s child doesn’t want to go down the slide, one doesn’t reassure that child excessively and also make sure she never again has to deal with the slide. Rather, you bolster, do it together, provide skills, try again.

Similarly, don’t reassure a timid dog, but speak peppily when X approaches, because reassurance with petting and holding rewards the fear. I did that. If she reacts, lightly tease her: “Silly girl!” until you can desensitize her to the thing.

Don’t anticipate her bad reaction by pulling in the leash. Such reaction would show her that something is wrong. I did that, too. All people with dogs supposedly having fear or aggression do the same thing: pull in the leash and neglect to praise the moment of friendliness that a dog has.

Dozens of times I’ve had dogs approach me or my dog with tails wagging only to have their person pull them back saying, “He doesn’t do well with Y or Z.” I’ve seen a shelter trainer instruct such pulling. But note that leash-pulling demonstrates that something is wrong with X person or Y dog and therein reinforces any fear or aggression. If you see a situation coming that one of you isn’t ready to handle, then find some happy reason to change direction or tie your shoe that signals nothing about the on-coming

However, if your dog does lunge, bark too harshly or the like, you must instantly make a big deal of it, preferably (gently but firmly) pushing her neck to the ground as her mom would have and speaking low and sternly. You must treat bad behavior as you would a kid throwing rocks: not acceptable, terrible. Even growling needs your consistent “not OK” signal. Delicate balance: If she is tense, you must remove energy, speak softly, ruffle her ears, act relaxed, even if you’re worried. Gently knock her sideways off her planted feet (that position is a necessary aggression precursor).

Instant response means as she is doing something. Humans are too slow for dogs. You need to respond while she lifts her head to jump on the couch, not after she’s on the couch. Do what human parents do: “uh-uh” or “don’t even think about it.” Yes, this means you must go out in the world utterly attuned to react to and for her until she gets better. Your contribution may be a constant, soto voice patter: “Good girl … No, silly … Oh, goody! There’s the dog you bit last week, oh good … Hello (shake the person’s hand) … OK, bye-bye.”

Get the dog tired (swimming? ball?), then take near things she doesn’t like, praise within microseconds any moment of relaxation or indifference. Seldom train with food. Instead, guide attitude with your voice within nanoseconds of any change. Assign words to things she doesn’t like: stroller, tricycle, baby, toddler, child, roller skates, even certain kinds of petting; indeed, assign words to everything as dogs can learn hundreds (door, stairs, keys, water, your names) and concepts (“I’m sorry,”’ “bye-bye,” “bedtme,” and “come”).

Find your dog’s dog friend who is great with kids; have yours watching nearby while that dog interacts with children. This tip applies broadly: Dogs are social creatures and learn from others. “My” dog taught several dogs how to be close to cats. Your walking, sitting, outside a fenced dog park (maybe first in a car as I did with a friend’s super-aggressive dog) allows your dog to observe how she should behave. If a dog charges the fence, come another time. How else do we all learn how to move around a buffet table, to join a group at the bar? Ohlone dog park is fabulous for this socializing. Also, the children within Ohlone can train your dog … with the adult’s supervision, of course.

Karen Westmont is a researcher in lower income housing policy and finance, land economics, and tax policy and lives in Berkeley. She is not a professional trainer but has had six companion dogs who found her via shelters or on their own. Something of a ’fraidy dog magnet, she is a student of dogs whose knowledge, she said, has been bolstered greatly by a kindly but unknown municipal animal officer, trainer Ellen Weiss, and the “first” humane trainer Judie Howard and her Arydith Obedience School in the Orinda area. Dogless now, Westmont said this: “Any excuse to be with a dog … ask my poor dog-walking neighbors.”

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