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The Listen Dog Blog

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I'll be keeping it up-to-date with regular catch-ups on what I've been up to, plenty of original articles on obedience training and behavioural best practice, plus top tips and ideas you can work on at home with your own four-legged friend!


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Using Classical Conditioning: Teaching Your Dog To Enjoy What He Once Found Terrifying

By listendogtraining, Dec 29 2016 07:00PM

Despite the fact that every decent dog breeder, trainer, and behaviourist will wax lyrical about the importance of good socialisation and habituation from an early age, there are still many dogs who grow up with fears and anxieties because they simply haven’t been exposed to the big wide world in the right way at the right time.

Any poorly socialised dog suffering from such issues must be reintroduced to the world slowly, and in an entirely positive manner. For example, if the dog shows anxiety or fear around other dogs, do not flood him into sensory overload with a trip to a dog-filled park, instead slowly introduce the concept of other dogs in his vicinity at a great distance. If another dog is visible in the distance and your dog spots it, praise and treat him incessantly. This kind of classical conditioning can be used to gradually build up a positive association in your dog’s mind, with the presence of other dogs. The same method can be applied to a range of anxiety-inducing stimuli, such as traffic, children, or men. Generally speaking, the best way to reduce fear is to keep introductions incredibly gradual, and make strong positive associations throughout.

As advocated by behaviourist Nicole Wilde, this process of desensitisation must be done steadily; never flood a dog with the trigger that frightens him, as this can be a traumatic experience for the dog, will not help to resolve the problem, and can in fact make matters worse, because now the dog has a problem trusting you as well.

So if we take the sound of the hairdryer as an example, you could first turn it on upstairs whilst your dog is downstairs, and treat the dog. Then repeat this with the hairdryer in a nearby room on the same floor, then again in the next room, then again with the doors open, and then in the doorway of the room the dog is in, and so on and so forth.

For fearful dogs, confidence-building is a lengthy and heart-rending process, which requires dedication and understanding on the part of the owner; progress will be slow, but much more effective if taken at this pace. Be careful to pay attention to your dog, and watch out for subtle signs that your dog is getting stressed or anxious, such as excessive yawning, lip-licking or scratching. If, at any point during the desensitisation process your dog starts to display these behaviours, take a step back to a point in the process where your dog was not reacting with stress at all.

It is also critical to educate any friends and family who will be coming into contact with your dog on the current state of affairs, and ensure that these people do not behave in a way that may compromise any progress that is being made – it is incredibly frustrating to put in oodles of hard work as an owner, only to have a house-guest come striding in and undo it all in one fell swoop! If for example the dog seems fearful of people, spread the word to ensure that no-one approaches your dog quickly or noisily, or reaches out to pet the dog when it has not yet sought out contact.

Be wary of any behaviourist who says they can ‘fix’ your dog’s problems in ‘just one session’ – such results will probably be obtained using less than positive means, and will likely be short-lived. Genuine rehabilitation takes time, patience, consistency and dedication, but with commitment, and the help of a good professional, you can certainly rehabilitate your dog from a range of anxieties, and help him to enjoy life!

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