This year my resolution is to take my fearful dog to one new place each week and work on desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC). He loves car rides, but is always hesitant to disembark when we get to a new place, so I will start with him in the car, giving him treats as he sniffs the air through an open window at our destination. When he decides to get out of the car, he will get to lead the way, as long as it is safe, earning treats for checking in with me and watching the things that scare him (strange people, dogs, vehicles) while remaining calm. If at any time he decides it is too much, we will walk away from the “scary” things or retreat to the car. In the past year he has made himself comfortable at City Park, the lakefront, and Armstrong Park in New Orleans. All of those places are areas where we have plenty of room to move around. Just because it is my resolution doesn’t mean I am going to force my dog to do anything that makes him anxious. We always must progress at the speed of the dog in order to make training and behavior modification stick.
It is important when setting training goals to focus on what you want the dog to do rather than what you don’t want the dog to do. For example, with my resolution instead of saying I don’t want my dog to bark and lunge at things that scare him, I will state that I want my dog to be comfortable and calm in new situations. Specifically, I want him to walk on a loose leash and give me eye contact on his own occasionally and whenever prompted to do so.
After you have set a clear goal (something like “I want my dog to sit when approached by any person”), make a step-by-step plan. Successful training needs to be clear and consistent, so making a plan is part of the process.
Step one: teach the dog a sit-stay around distractions.
Step two: have people you know approach the dog and walk away if she jumps up; pet and treat her if she stays seated.
Step three: ask someone the dog has never met before to repeat step two.
Step four: make sure to practice this in many scenarios with lots of different types of people so the dog understands this is always the way she should always behave to get attention and rewards.
Don’t get discouraged or feel like you have failed if you get stuck on a step for longer than you think should be needed—again, we have to work at the pace of the dog. Stick to your plan, understand that sometimes you need to go back a step to move forward, employ a trainer or take a class if you need extra help, and you will reach your training goals.