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Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Fear periods and other such bumps in the road

So, the trainer I so very much admire, Susan Ailsby, has been having a small amount of trouble with her 5 month old Portuguese Water Dog pup, Syn. For no reason at all, Syn suddenly became irrationally scared of her, wouldn't obey her 'come' cue, and would actually run away. She followed a more 'traditional' dog training idea at first to help Syn, which wasn't helpful, but then realised what she was doing wasn't helping and used a more positive, helpful idea to help Syn overcome her sudden fear.

This brings us to fear periods. I am not talking about the fear of a woman's hormones either. ;) During their life, many dogs go through periods of time, which can be quite short or can last for months, when they become unable to deal with their own fear. It isn't that they just become scared all the time, because all puppies become scared. A happy and well adjusted puppy will soon be able to conquer their fear and investigate whatever it is that made them scared, like say, a flapping plastic bag. One going through a fear period will stay petrified of that evil unpredictable scary scary bag. So much so, it may take the pup months to get over a fear of bags after that - only because he met that bag during a fear period.

Trainers and behaviourists come up with all sorts of ages for fear periods, but they seem to vary widely. Some of the most common ones I've read are four weeks, eight weeks, four months, seven-eight months, a year, 16-18 months and sometimes 32 months. The important thing is, as dog owners and dog lovers, that we are aware of the existence of these fear periods. You should never force your dog to confront his fears when he is obviously going through a stage of being unable to conquer his fear - it will make it worse. You need to show him a way out of the box he has built for himself, and so here are some ways to do so!

Here are some positive reinforcement strategies. For instance, set up a nasty flapping bag, and turn both your backs to it. Get some of his very very favourite food (something like cooked chicken with a tiny bit of garlic) and the instant he stops twisting around to look at it for a second, and focuses on you, pop some chicken in his mouth. Continue to feed him treats (just small bits) when he moves his focus away from the bag. As he gets better at it, move slowly closer to the bag, keeping up the treats. If he becomes unable to focus on you, move forward until he can easily focus (more than necessary) and then try backing up towards the bag again, keeping up the treat reinforcement. If he really is finding it very very hard, move well forward to where he will definitely be ok with the bag and end on the session on a positive note. You will likely need multiple sessions.

Another way to do it would be with a clicker, in the house. I'd have a bag on the ground, and would shape the puppy to interact with the bag. That means, when you see his head turn towards the bag, you click your clicker and immediately give him a treat (you have a very short window in which to reinforce a dog for doing the right thing, about 2 seconds for great learning). Keep on doing that, and he will start to move towards the bag to see if that will continue to get him treats. It make take a while for him to do this, because of his fear, but persevere. Also, normal clicker training mostly only concentrates on using food as treats, in a situation like this with pent up tension, I would use his favourite toy as a 'treat' every now and again, to release some of his tension before going back to the exercise - and to keep it fun. The end idea is to get him to run over to the bag and either touch it with his nose or paws. You can then add a cue to it, once he has really learnt what you want (we are talking over quite a few days). The treats, the fun, the learning, should have wiped the fear out, and he has learnt a lot while you were at it. Feel free to ask for more information on shaping if you want it, it is one of the ways you can train your dog to do virtually anything possible. The other is luring, but that is another story for another day.

Back to Sue and her pup Syn for a second. Poor Syn was really terrified of coming to Sue for some bizarre reason, although occasionally she would act normally. Sue at first tried to fix it by approaching Syn slowly and gently, basically trapping her in a corner then rewarding her when she got close and Syn calmed down. It worked to an extent, Syn acted ok sometimes, but the behaviour by and large continued. So Sue rethought her technique overnight and reverted to something she calls Leading the Dance, mostly just using the part where she attaches the dog to her via an umbilical leash and largely ignores the dog. Her old plan of slowly chasing after the dog she thought bad because at the same time she expected Syn to come when she called,  she then went after Syn, trapping her with threatening and (to Syn) fear inducing behaviour. When dealing with problems like this, we have to think about what the dog is thinking. It is hard for a dog to obey a 'come' cue when they associate fresh fear with it.

One of Sue's possible options for a plan was one of the ones I suggested with the plastic bag scenario, shaping. She would teach Syn to 'come' all over again with her clicker. Clicker/treat whenever Syn looked at her, c/t when she took a step towards Sue, c/t when she came futher still, and eventually c/t-ing for making it infront of her. The process, with some fun and enthusiasm thrown in would help remove that fear. However as I said already, Sue chose a different tack. Sue thinks as part of a dogs fear period, not only can they not control their fear and cannot handle the universe, they lose faith in their owner's ability to handle the universe too. Leading the Dance, in this situation, is to convince Syn that Sue is completely able to handle the world, and secondarily, to get the trust flowing between the two of them again from simple physical proximity. I think the umbilical leashing is a great idea, and Leading the Dance a possible fix for many behavioural problems that can crop up when owning a dog. More detail of Sue's raising of Syn can be found on Sue's "Syn's Blog", which is well worth a read.

Anyway, this brings me more specifically to assistance/service dogs, especially owner trained ones. When a dog that is going to need to be bomb proof in public starts going through a fear period, it needs very careful handling. You can't just push through it as if it isn't there and ignore your dog's abject terror, but neither can you stop taking your dog out and stop following your socialisation plan. You need to keep a careful log of where you went, what you did, and your dog's reactions during each training session so that you can plan each successive session for maximum progress. If you are seeing signs of stress that is verging on fear in a particular setting or with particular people, either skip that trigger for a little while, or work out a de-sensitisation strategy, something along the lines of what I suggested with the plastic bags, or what Sue is doing with Syn... or really anything that works and continues to be positive and non punishing for the dog. Outright fear showing in an AD/SD is just wrong and if you see it, you are letting things go way too far - I'd be suggesting getting a qualified behaviourist to help - but first ask them closely about their techniques and beliefs to make sure you get a good match. Whatever you do, don't use the "shake the coins in the jar" method to interrupt your dog in an effort to 'fix' your dog on your own, or even the "shake the treat jar because the dog knows the sound of treats". Both are a bad idea, the first especially is traumatic. Fear can become so ingrained, the dog learns that timidity and tension are a way of life, and waits for the coins in the jar to shake, on edge every second. This obviously does not produce a balanced pet dog, and certainly will not produce a dog capable of public access work.

So, that is some fairly basic information on fear periods. Do not push your dog blindly through its training, but work with your dog for the best results. Read more about understanding canine body language, so you know what your dog is telling you, come up with a treatment plan or two for the problems and just see how it goes but be willing to experiment. Some fear periods will last for months at the worst, but sensitive training should minimise the time it takes for your dog to get back to their normal self.  Be patient and you'll always get your pup back. Finally, if things really aren't working, see a qualified animal behaviouralist.

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