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Monday, January 5, 2015

Positive Training Blog Hop - Working with a Fearful Dog

Today is the first Positive Training Blog Hop of 2015 and a good opportunity to look over our past year as well as think about the future.

Many of you remember my accounts of Shyla's behavior when she first arrived here, 2.5 years ago. She was scared of almost everything. Fortunately, she is a peaceful dog so her reaction to being afraid was to cower or freeze rather than to be aggressive. 

When I saw her insanely fearful behavior, I immediately sought help from a great positive trainer, and we used a technique based on "BAT", which involved taking Shyla out to very quiet places at first and letting her guide us about how much she wanted to explore. We taught her that she always had a choice - either to approach something, to observe it, or to walk away. Whenever she showed fear signs, we encouraged her to walk away and relax before looking at the scary thing again. Scary things included almost everything that you might see in a town.

The most important thing I've learned in these 2.5 years is to listen to Shyla's body language. If subtle behavioral signals are saying that she's scared, I need to figure out what is scaring her and let her move away from it. Then, I let her decide whether she wants to explore it. If she doesn't want to, that's absolutely fine. Rushing her is the worst thing to do.

Here's an example of the importance of patience in a photo. You might recognize this spot as where K was standing when I took the banner photo. For some reason, Shyla was scared of this spot until a few days ago. I'd walk her up to it, and she'd show worry... so we'd walk away. A few days ago, I walked her up to it, and she shocked me by hopping up onto the perch. We had a treat party to reward her courage! I doubt she would've ever hopped up if I'd tried to rush the process.
Aside from the need for patience, I've learned a lot about Shyla in these 2.5 years. If someone is intent on meeting her, she will invariably shy away. For example, a new neighbor wanted to meet her recently so he focused his eyes on Shyla while bending down toward her. She cowered and rapidly backed away.

I told him, "Pretend that you're not interested in her. Act like she doesn't exist.". He looked away from her and stood up straight talking to me. Within about 20 seconds, Shyla was sniffing his hand which was hanging loosely at his side. He was able to pet her shortly thereafter. This technique works with many new people but not all of them.

When I first me Shyla, I had no idea what to do when she was scared of people. So, you can see - a big part of our progress has been that I've learned (with lots of help) how to help Shyla navigate the world. In other words, I needed to be trained!
I've had to learn to be an assertive advocate for Shyla. I'll write more about this in the future but the story of the new neighbor wanting to meet her is an example. Assertively guiding people about how to interact with Shyla hasn't come easily to me because I'm pretty shy. However, I've learned that I must do it, for Shyla's sake.

In keeping with the need to be patient and not put pressure on Shyla, I don't have specific socialization goals for 2015. We'll go to town about once per week (including training classes) like we've done for the past 2.5 years, and I'll shape our outing to Shyla's level of confidence. The bottom line is that Shyla sets the agenda.

I'll also continue to do fun training games with her. Right now, I am teaching her the names of her toys and training her to fetch a specific one, based on its name. It's a fun indoor game that is perfect for cold winter days, like today.

Today, local wind gauges are recording gusts up to 90 mph out of the west, hurling snow and ice pellets horizontally.
Neither Shyla nor I enjoyed it this morning. These photos were taken when we were hidden behind a big boulder that should've been blocking the wind from the west. Ha!
 So we ended our snow bike ride early and played indoor games with her toys. This is "Dragon".
Shyla and Dragon had lots of fun together this morning!
My motto about training is to keep it fun. When I forget that motto, things go bad pretty quickly. Getting frustrated with Shyla is a sure-fire way to prevent her from following my cues. I learned that lesson in 2014, and I don't plan to forget it! Keep it fun!


  1. today looked brutal! :) i like that you're her advocate. :)

  2. Sounds like a good motto to follow...just go with the flow...

  3. We also have fun as our training motto! If it isn't fun, trainer and trainee get frustrated fast. I have never lived with a fearful dog but life with a reactive dog is very similar. I know what every whisker on Brychwyn's face and all of his body language very, very well. As long as I am smart enough to keep him feeling safe, we are successful (and success is him not reacting at all or not reacting negatively.) Thanks for joining the hop this month! I am sorry about the awful weather... The westerly winds saved us from getting hit too hard by a storm. Oh! And the toy name game is yet another reminder of why I need to stick to my organized training journal goal! I know the dogs would remember the names more quickly and easily than I would.

  4. A great motto to follow! Your patience with Shyla is amazing.

  5. Shyla's story reminds me so much of Phoenix!! I've also had to learn how to be assertive with people, too! I've found that having them completely ignore her works really well. LOL

    I love the photo of Shyla on K's rock and also the indoor ones with the dragon!! Those are so neat!! The lighting inside is so beautiful! '

    Oh my gosh about the wind!! Those are funny! I don't think I would of enjoyed that much either! :D

  6. horizontal onslaught, not fun at all, unlike the playing at home, and your journey over the last years, tells us all so much about you, and your life with Shyla as it developed. With our cats, specially the stray ones who adopt us, they too, have such different natures, and I have found it takes a year to get them used to my voice and touch.This year you will see new milestones, and each one will be a huge step for you both. Hugs to all, Jean. p.s. the new bike had a true initiation in that storm.

  7. KB,, my mommy thinks your training skills are amazing! She wishes that some of your special techniques would come visit us,,,!!
    Well I know one thing,, Shya and I would have fun playing together with her toys!!
    We love all those photos, you capture every moment that exists,,, and burrrr the snow and wind looked so cold.
    You did an amazing job in helping Shyla! And the wonderful help of your trainer friend too!

  8. Brrr! I think you might be in the only place worse than here today! And your training advice is really good. We've had to use that to a different degree with Flattery. She's certainly not shy, but she goes at things...sort of sideways. Catching her in the moment of doing something right is the only way for us to get the initial behavior. With all of my other dogs, I've been able to lure them into a position I wanted, like down or sit, but she's so food motivated that her brain just short circuits. It's still a learning curve with her, but when we have fun with it, she eats it up like candy! I'm still so glad every time I see pictures of Shyla that she came to you. You were definitely what she needed!

  9. Great post...Arty has been giving me a hard time lately and this has given me some great ideas...most of them having to do with retraining myself!

  10. Wow! That's some weather!

    "Keep it fun." I keep saying that to myself too. One of my favorite questions is, "How can I get this done and enjoy the process?" I'm lazy, so that's the best strategy for me. :)

  11. Brrrrrrrrrrr - you look happier being inside playing with Dragon today, Shyla! Three cheers for your mom! She is an AMAZING trainer!

    Love ya lots♥
    Mitch and Molly

  12. Ruby has many fear issues as well, which we are working through. At first, she was quite afraid of other dogs. On walks, she would see other dogs and get all tangled up in her leash. Other dogs would sense her fear and sometimes become slightly aggressive. For a few months, I admit I started avoiding other dogs all together. Gradually, I have learned to tune into her body signals ...and if she wants to meet other dogs, we do so on her terms. She is growing more confident every day!

  13. Great photos, great post.
    I would never have guessed that you're shy, either. I would have guessed that you prefer to keep to yourself, will speak when you have something to say and can be very assertive when you need to be - didn't know you were shy. So well done on speaking up for Shyla even though it isn't easy - looks like you're learning as much as Shyla is! And I agree totally with Mitch & Molly - what an amazing trainer you are. So patient, understanding and interested - I don't think I would be dedicated enough to teach names of toys! What a fun idea though.

  14. Our Maggie is also much more fearful then Stella or Gussie. We never noticed it as a puppy but once she was old enough for puppy class it came out. We have worked on it, but she still can struggle with it. We have the very same dragon only in

  15. A lady in our training class is working with a fearful dog. She is making good progress. I agree that alot of training your dog is also training yourself
    Love to read all about your experiences with Shyla
    Mr Bailey & Hazel

  16. You have helped each other so much and Shyla is such a joy to see and hear about.

  17. Your experience with Shyla is so very similar to mine with Willow (my little Thai meat trade rescue dog) who is fearful of absolutely everything. We've been together three months now and we're working slowly but surely together. One thing I've learned, much as you say, is to let her make her own decisions - when the fear kicks in, give her space to make her mind up. She wants to run with every ounce in her body - but she also wants to be with me. Instead of pushing her, we stand...and wait, until she's had time to process the fear (it could be a branch of a tree, a car, all people, especially children, the list is endless). Every single time though, she comes to me - which is a major breakthrough and I'm so proud. Today she even walked passed someone without cowering! My heart nearly burst! Looking forward to reading more about Shyla's adventures :)

  18. It sounds like Harlow, especially when intense folks approach. For her it is men of a certain type.

    Monty and Harlow

  19. Your patience and love for Shyla is inspiring. Advocating for our sensitive dogs is so important. Thanks so much for joining the hop, your blog is one of my favorites!

  20. Yes, may lessons that apply to dogs also apply to people. Mom said that the best thing hoomans can do before they have kids is learn about pawsitive dog obedience. BOL! That weather looked terible. We are sending you some warmer days.

    Your Pals,

    Murphy & Stanley

  21. What beautiful eyes she has!! Great job working with the neighbor. It's not easy to work with "strangers," and since my boy Leo's reactivity takes the form of barking and lunging, I tend to keep him far away from other people!

  22. It's great to see progress in our shy ones isn't it. Maggie has made great strides through patience and persistence, but like Shyla, she can shut down pretty quickly if pushed. Love the photo of her with her dragon.


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