Facing fear, Bud’s teeter discussion

Bud is initiating a discussion of teeter issues and he’s reviewing the different types of teeter fears.

I’d like to add my 2-cents as well, on the issue of fear in general. It is my philosophy, when faced with a dog needing training, that his or her fears are unwarranted or irrational.

There are, indeed, things in life of which dogs should be afraid, including, sometimes, the people who own them.

With puppies we must weigh protecting (not scaring) the puppy with building confidence (allowing the puppy to be scared and work through the fear).

I’ve seen demonstrations on the puppy Einstein process, where puppies are stressed in order to encourage the production of neuropathways for coping with stress. We have one dog who (allegedly) experienced this process as a puppy and, frankly, I don’t see any capacity in her for dealing with stress that doesn’t exist in our other dogs.

In agility or obedience training there is nothing the dog should fear. So their fear of jump bars hitting the floor, of teeters banging in the other end of the building, of fans being turned on, of crates banging, are all unwarranted or irrational fears.

A human analogy I often use is this — say your 6-year-old is afraid of the school bus — do you say, “oh, I’m so sorry you’re scared, okay you don’t have to go to school anymore …”  OR do you reason with the child, get them over their fear of the bus, and reward them for being brave? Of course you do the latter as there’s no way for your child to progress and be confident if they never face their irrational fears.

Perhaps the puppy has led such a sheltered (uneventful) life that even the slightest change in environment turns him into a quivering bowl of jelly.

Perhaps the youngster is relegated to a basement or garage and isn’t allowed to put positive associations with the banging and clanging of human existance.

Whatever the reason, when they get to agility class, we set out to reverse the fear, to reward away the fear, to build confidence by making positive associations with any effort at bravery. The reward of joining their owner and the food begins to override anxiety over the strange environment.

“Dash” — a case study in generalized fear …

In 2000 a woman bought a red merle aussie puppy from a well-known breeder of aussies in Texas. The 8-week old puppy was flown from Texas to Ohio. On the face of it this was a great plan. The puppy’s aunt was a world beater, fast and focused, intent on the work with the body structure to back it up. The puppy’s grandmother was biddable and fast.

Error #1 was with the purchaser, who heaped all her expectations of agility world domination on the shoulders of an 8-week-old puppy picked by the breeder and shipped, sight unseen, to Ohio. She was an average handler and an average trainer but she’d only trained border collies in the past.

Error #2 was with the breeder who, in the beginning throes of a divorce, allowed an unwanted pup from her most recent litter to be purchased by a total stranger without any references or knowledge of what his life was going to be.

Error #3 was with the purchaser’s choice of training methods. She decided to initiate a “nothing in life is free” and “tuff love” protocol with this 8-week-old puppy. For a couple of months she persisted with this.

Without knowing the pup I watched the train wreck unfold from afar. On agility lists we heard about how “Player” was being purchased from Texas (because no breeder in Ohio would sell to this woman) and how he was going to carry her to fame.

Within six weeks (pup was 3.5 months old) there were signs that he wasn’t working out, with the purchaser asking “is anyone going to the aussie nationals in Atlanta and could Player ride along to be returned to the breeder?”

In a few more weeks there was a general posting about a 5-month old red merle male puppy RESCUE needing a new home, with the rescue price listed.

I contacted the lady and asked,  1) is this Player, the puppy from Texas? (Yes),  2) is there something wrong with him? (No, we’re just unable to bond.),  3) why don’t you want to keep him?  (He’s a dud and all he’s interested in is food.)

I then contacted the breeder who begged me to go get this puppy, apologizing for having put him in that home, and asking if there was any way I could keep him. According to her the pup, now 5 months old, was clingy and sweet, preferring the company of people to the company of his litter, and a good prospect for training.

So Player became “Dash,” my sweet treasure of an aussie. When he got out of the woman’s crate he was “empty eyed.” He had few expectations of people by this point. He had no desire to interact with these strange creatures.

I put him in my crate, right behind the seat in my van, and he rode home with my fingers entertwined through the wires of the crate and touching his hair. By the end of the 90-minute drive he was leaning on my hand, craving some sort of attention and affection.

People involved with rescue and with shelter dogs will tell you that every adopter of a neglected or unwanted dog attaches a “story” to the dog. The story becomes the legend of that dog. Why he is the way he is. Why my home was his salvation. Why I’m going to heaven because I rescued him.

So that’s Dash’s legend, his story. But his real story is one of generalized fear — fear of everything including going into a crate, coming out of a crate, jumping up on things, jumping off of things, going in a door, coming out a door, going upstairs, going downstairs — conquered through positive reinforcement.

Instead of tuff love, Dash’s training protocol became “be brave or be lonely,” “be brave or be hungry.”  He had only to be a little brave to earn all the love and food he could stand.

After many months of rewarding bravery Dash became my “steady Eddie” in dog agility and obedience. He continues to battle his fears but has a foundation of reward-for-bravery and will, on most occasions, do what I ask with fundamental trust in me and my ability to keep him safe.

So my advice when faced with a dog exhibiting irrational or unwarranted fears is reward your dog for being brave. When you’re at home or in the car, on the street or at a store, reward ANY act of bravery or boldness with huge treats and praise and love.

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One Response to “Facing fear, Bud’s teeter discussion”

  1. Linda P. Says:

    Thank you for this look into your dog’s fear issues. My 8 month old puppy has a few issues of his own, and I don’t have any idea where they came from. He came to me with an extreme fear of riding in cars that I continue to battle with. But he also has a few that come out of nowhere – such as plastic bags and the baby gates at class (but not the ones at home).

    It’s a shame that most people “give up” on their dogs instead of helping them. Kudo’s to you!

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