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— June 12, 2012 —

How to handle a fearful dog.
by Daniel McElroy Jr.

I had a very interesting evaluation this weekend. It was a dog I know. We adopted him out through our rescue
K9 4 KEEPS. We’ll call him “Toby.”

Toby is a “pit bull” mix and he is fearful. One could hardly blame him, though. He was fought, abused and abandoned with his femur bone sticking out of his leg. Toby’s owner is a very caring, responsible, careful owner. He takes great care of his dogs and Toby has picked up a few extra pounds to prove it.

I was included in an email thread last week that explained that Toby has been lunging at and trying to bite people. Now, before you start to blame the “pit bull” let me say this. The problem was immediately obvious to me when I walked in the room where Toby and his owner were sitting. Toby was barking fearfully and his owner was restraining him with the leash and petting his dog. He was talking to him in reassuring tones, telling him that everything was fine. Within 5 minutes of taking Toby from his owner, I had him under control and sitting calmly next to me as I had people walk all around us both indoors and outside. Toby never acted inappropriately.

I don’t possess any special animal communication powers. I didn’t “whisper” to him. I simply took his leash and told him to sit. He didn’t ask why. He didn’t argue, and he stopped lunging. I started to lead him around the room and kept his attention on his obedience. After a few minutes, I pet him for following my instructions. I NEVER acknowledged the things he was scared of. I never told him everything would be ok. I simply told him what I wanted him to do. This is the whole point of that first Tail. Generally dog owners are reactive. I train dog owners to be proactive. You should fly the plane (for more info, please see Tuesday’sTail: 10 Jan, 2012). Don’t wait to see how your dog will handle any given situation. Tell him how to handle it. I also advise people to start this as soon as possible-even before the dog starts to display problem behaviors. This will prevent issues before the dog requires hundreds of dollars worth of training.

There is still a genetic layer to all this. On 8 May, 2012, I wrote about how the dog’s genetic make-up will dictate how he reacts to to his experiences. I used Olivia as an example, another abused pit bull in our rescue. While Olivia was severely abused, she has not retained any ill effects of her negative experiences. Toby, with his specific combination of nature and nurture, has developed fear-based aggression issues. The last thing he needs is an owner who (inadvertently) reinforces the fact that things are scary and dangerous. One line I often use with the owners of fearful dogs is this. “If you can control your dog, your dog thinks you can control everything else.”

While the owner was trying to do the right thing, his reassuring the dog was basically telling the dog that the behavior was not only acceptable, but desirable. It was the classic mistake of rewarding negative behavior. I don’t particularly fault Toby’s owner for this. It’s an intuitive reaction and lots of people do it. Unfortunately, it’s the wrong reaction. Instead of reacting to his fear, proactively showing him how to handle the situation helped him to relax.



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