Katie was adopted as a puppy by one of my clients. When I met her, she was already a fearful dog. She did not like to be held by anyone other than her “mom” and struggled to be in attendance in one of my small classes. Fast forward to today, even though she has accepted some people and feels safe and comfortable in their presence, she struggles with most newcomers, especially at her home.
Most of the work I am doing with Katie is a continuation of past work with her. My client’s goals for her are to make her overall less fearful and more comfortable with people that come to visit at the home.
Working with dogs like Katie is a lot of what I do professionally. It requires copious amounts of patience, very keen observation skills, paired with clear goals for her improvement.
I decided to engage with her while she is in her crate with no one else around. The sessions are 30 minutes long twice a week. Katie is a very tiny dog; so it is not really feasible to work with such a tiny dog for long without having her completely full before the hour has ended.
For the first few sessions, I showed up to greet Katie as she remained shaking in her crate – pretending that I was not there. Hoping perhaps that I would go away.
The procedure that I use for cases like this begins with classical conditioning where my only goal is to pare the delicious cheese that she loves with my presence and my absence – as I exit the room many times during our session with the flow of cheese coming to a halt. It is important to realize that no matter what the dog is doing, she gets the cheese. During this stage of the work, I am not looking for specific behaviors that I want later on, I am only (sigh!) looking for Katie to associate my presence and approach with the delicious snack.
The progress was slow at best. But Katie does not know how much patience I have. She also doesn’t know that I have worked with many dogs, just like her, and that they did get better. For now, Katie just shakes- barely taking the treat I toss for her inside the crate.
If Katie was out of her crate, I would not be able to work with her at all as she would happily run to safety behind a sofa without me being able to see her or pay her with cheese. Besides, she bit someone when in her crate at the Veterinarian’s clinic, so I am hoping to kill two birds with one stone. I am aware that with this set up, Katie does not have tons of options and options my friends, are crucial for any animal that is fearful.
Mindful of this, I only approach the crate from one direction- giving her an opportunity to remain in the back of the crate. She does have the choice to remain there or come to the front of her crate. That was step number one.
The session that you will see on this video is a refection of many encounters as I describe above. However, one day I got really lucky or really smart and I noticed that when I reached for the fastener of the crate, Katie to my surprise, rushed to the front of the crate. “Wow” I thought, why is she so eager to come out and be in my proximity? I decided to run with my instinct and be willing to explore other ways.
I opened the crate and Katie did not bolt out. Instead she calmly came out of the crate, as I remained immobile. Seconds later Katie was about 15 ft. away from me and outside the crate altogether. I continue with the same process of tossing cheese to her and leaving the room. Rinse and repeat. Rinse and repeat.
As Katie learned the routine and she could relax a bit, I began to reinforce for very specific behaviors such as Katie remaining in place versus creating more distance between us, giving eye contact either on her own or when I pronounced her name. Her eyes blinking softly instead of darting rapidly scanning the room.
I personally love this part of the process when the dog begins to learn that she still has choices AND that she will get paid when she takes a tiny brave step.
One of the most fundamental things about behavior is that there are many possibilities of responses to the same stimulus and this is exactly what I wan to teach her.
As part of this process the dog begins to feel more comfortable now that she begins to learn that humans are actually not that scary because they can deliver cheese or other things the dog really likes.
As I mentioned above, variability is one of the hallmarks of behavior so within the same exposure to the trigger, the dog can regress (from my perspective) and shortly after offer behaviors that are new to her. Behaviors that I hope will become the norm as she learns to relate to other people with confidence that she is safe.