Mouth writing checks that butt cannot cash
September 25, 2010 9:04 AM   Subscribe

Can a trainer help my little dog with her fear of bigger dogs? Can I? Difficulty: deafness, possible vision problems.

My dachshund is loving and outgoing with people of all kinds, and can even put up with rough handling from children. With small to medium dogs, she is excitable, barks and runs in circles, then rolls over and is happy to play. Big dogs? BARK BARK BARK BARK BARK, then run away. If the dog comes closer, even gently, she may act cornered and terrified. She has managed to contain herself and get along with some very gentle labs and retrievers, one of whom is so sweet that he just rolls over when he sees you. But I'm concerned about her safety, and mainly just pick her up when I see a larger dog approaching. Which causes more barking from her, startling the larger dog and its owner. I'm avoiding dog gatherings now, but we have to use sidewalks every day as it is.

Possibly this all started when she was a puppy, and a boxer picked her up and shook her like a rabbit. (I got her away immediately. She was unhurt, but I had to go lie down.) Even so, she didn't start the behavior noticeably for a long time.

Although she isn't old, she was deaf from birth, and may have occluded vision. Maybe she thinks a lot of big dogs look like boxers. Also, I don't think she grasps the effect of barking on other dogs.

I'm reluctant to spend money on a training course at this time, but I need to be mindful of her future safety. In any case, I'm not sure how a trainer would work with her on this, seeing as it would involve exposing her to larger dogs, and running a risk that those larger dogs get bitten. How can I reinforce the proper behavior, without accidentally reinforcing her fear?
posted by Countess Elena to Pets & Animals (7 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I think consulting a trainer is a great idea. I think a humane, positive-approach trainer would be the best choice. Now, I'm not a dog trainer, so take this with a huge box of salt, but this has worked for me and my dogs -

Teach them a command like Shake or High-Five. Reliably. Meaning, they get it every time. Make sure your dog can perform the command in a variety of locations: in your home, on the sidewalk, in a pet store, in a park. This could take weeks. Does your dog see well enough to see hand signals? Because your dog is deaf, you'll obviously need to rely on a visual signal rather than a verbal signal. Each time your dog performs the command, give your dog its absolute most favorite treat. Now, once your dog has mastered this command, find a friend with an under-control big dog to help you. Have your friend keep the big dog as far away as possible. Have your dog perform its command, immediately give it a treat. Have the friend inch closer, still far away, but close enough that your dog will be able to notice there's now a big dog in the picture. Have your dog perform its command, treat. That's it. Game over. Then, slowly over time, have the big dog come closer. Now you have the choice of: do I want my dog to be friends with big dogs or do I just want her to stop barking at them? I'd vote for accomplishing the latter and then seeing if your dog chooses to be friends with big dogs after that.

Here's a confusing part: if you're doing this exercise and your dog starts barking at the big dog, you still need to ask your dog to High-Five and give her the treat. This may seem like you're rewarding her for barking, but that's not true - if the timing is right, you are rewarding her for redirecting her attention to you, which is what you want, I think.
posted by grayber at 10:03 AM on September 25, 2010

Response by poster: grayber, that sounds like a good plan. I would have to work on signals with her again, though. She learned signals when she was a puppy, but they don't work like commands to her -- if she doesn't feel like obeying, she just turns away from me! Still, this could be doable.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:58 AM on September 25, 2010

One of my dogs is like that too. I try to make sure the treats are ones that can't be resisted.. say, lamb lung.

Also, [URL=]check out this book.[/URL] I have it but haven't read it yet, though I've read the authors other books and I love them.
posted by grayber at 11:46 AM on September 25, 2010

Sorry for the weird link. Here it is again.
posted by grayber at 11:55 AM on September 25, 2010

I try to be especially careful that I am not reinforcing my dogs fears, ie, not babying them in any way when they are afraid. Also search for non-verbal calming signals. Dogs use these signals with each other, will also use them with you and you can use them back. For instance, if your dog hears you yelling or upset, the dog might use a calming signal to ask you not to be upset with him/her. My favorite is yawning. Licking your lips is another. Try using different calming signals when your dog is afraid.

I'm sorry your dog had such a frightening experience as a puppy. I can understand how that would affect both of you!
posted by Agatha at 2:15 PM on September 25, 2010

Jean Donaldson advises something similar to what grayber describes: the Open Bar technique. When your dog is in the presence of a large dog, the "bar is open," and she gets deluxe treats (wonderful stuff that she never gets except in this one situation), lavish praise and attention, and when the large dog leaves the scene, the bar is closed — no more fabulous yummies, business as usual. Big dog = bar open! Wheeee! Big dog gone = bar closed. Aw, damn. In this way, over time, your should (with luck!) associate big dogs with good times.

Of course, the best way to do this is to start at first with the help of a couple of friends with large, calm, friendly dogs in a yard or enclosed area where you can control the situation. Have your dog there, then bring in Big Dog on a leash. As soon as your dog notices Big Dog making the scene, open the bar. It's important that she receive the treats even if she starts barking, and that the treats stop as soon as the Big Dog is led away. After a bit of this, you can do it on the sidewalk, as soon as a big dog comes into view. If you can get the help of a trainer or behavior specialist using this sort of technique that would probably be much easier, since I imagine that many of them have training dogs that they use for desensitization techniques. You'll want to ask about their approach and get a specific idea of how they would go about addressing this problem.

Much more elaboration on this technique by a dog trainer here.

My feeling is that an off-leash park may never be a great idea for your little girl, because even if you manage to get her much more comfortable around big dogs, the overplayful, not-yet-well-socialized, young, or play-rough big dogs she will likely encounter could probably easily undo all that work.
posted by taz at 1:58 AM on September 26, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks, taz -- that also sounds like a good idea! Anyway, I have given up long ago on off-leash play for her, except in yards, because she is deaf and so stubborn.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:56 AM on September 26, 2010

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