Create training opportunities instead of those dreaded problem situations.
“Oh no. Not again. Ugh. Grumble grumble.”
Are you familiar with that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach? Maybe it’s when your dog barks and lunges towards another dog or a person on a walk, yet again. Or you come home and find your dog has peed on the floor or destroyed the blinds. You’re frustrated and exhausted from dealing with this over and over. You feel anxious with yucky anticipation whenever you’re on a walk or away from home, or whatever the situation. I get it. I’ve been there. One of my favorite moments when working with clients is when they turn those “Oh no” moments into “Yes! Another opportunity for training!” They begin to look forward to coming across a person or dog on walk, instead of dreading it and feeling anxious and panicky. How can I help you reframe your dreaded situation into a training opportunity?
How do you get to that point?
Manage the Environment
Set things up so your dog is kept out of situations they cannot handle. Prevent them from experiencing the scary situation and keep them feeling safe. Prevent them from practicing the behavior you’d like to reduce. For dogs who react to people or other dogs on walks, that may mean something like altering the time of day or location where you walk, maintaining enough distance so your dog isn’t upset, or finding alternative means for physical exercise and mental enrichment. (Find some enrichment ideas here, here, here, here, and here. There’s also a great video by Dogkind here. Tricks classes are also excellent!) For dogs suffering from separation anxiety, that means finding ways to make sure they aren’t left by themselves outside of training exercises. For dogs who are scared and uncomfortable with strangers entering the house, set up a safe space in another room with noise masking and fun chew or food puzzle projects.
Change Their Opinion
If your dog is scared and upset, work to change their opinion so they start to feel comfortable and safe in the presence of the “scary thing.” We can change your dog’s association with the scary thing from negative to positive by making it predict amazing things (usually fabulous, special foods)! It’s critical to keep the intensity of the scary thing at a level where your dog is comfortable. Here’s an excellent guide on desensitization and counter conditioning from Companion Animal Pshychology. For separation anxiety, we focus on desensitization (without the counter conditioning or use of food) to teach your dog to be comfortable when left home alone.
Teach Them Useful Skills and Reinforce Them Generously
Teach your dog to do something else in the problem situation. Build a strong foundation outside of the problem scenario, and gradually migrate elements of the problem situation into your training. Set things up so your dog gets it right, and be generous with reinforcement (again, this is often high-value food rewards). Ideally, choose a skill that is incompatible with the behavior you’d like to see less of. For example, if your dog barks when someone rings the doorbell, you could teach them to pick up a toy instead. It’s hard to bark and hold a toy at the same time! Even better if you can build on an existing behavior your dog already offers.