Many people start their private lessons by telling us what issues their dog has. Some dogs are scared of people, some of other dogs, and some dogs are just plain scared. The owners usually follow this conversation with where they got the dog from and then they tell the story of what they think might have happened to their dog in the past. Truth is, you’ll never know what really happened to your dog before it met you. Unfortunately, we can’t sit our dogs on a couch and ask them. So, the question we, as trainers, are left with is, “how can I help this dog?”. The answer is… It doesn’t matter whether a behavior is learned, genetic, or from a traumatic event, we train them with the same positive psychological approach.
      Contrary to popular belief, their have been great strides made in canine behavior modification. We no longer have to force a dog to get over scary things by forcing them to deal with it. That approach usually causes a dog to shut down and look like he is handling the situation better. What happens a lot of times in this situation is backlash later in life.
      Say the dog is afraid of people. You go to a trainer and they tell you the dog just needs to meet more people. Well, obviously that is true, but the way in which the trainer teaches you to introduce the dog to people is critical. Most will tell you to put some kind of equipment on the dog so that if it tries to bite you can stop it. Then the trainer will force the dog to greet him and maybe someone else. By the end of the session the dog may have had it’s neck jerked a few times for snapping at them, but the dog is letting these few new people hang around it. The owner is ecstatic, “The trainer fixed my dog in an hour!” The trainer leaves the client with that thought, and sometimes the trainer really believes he fixed the dog. The sad truth is that all the trainer taught the dog is what is called  “Learned Helplessness”. With learned helplessness the dog shuts down because all of its attempts to tell the people around him to leave aren’t working. To the untrained eye it looks as if the dog has just gotten over his issue. (Keep in mind, not all trainers are trained to read a dog, a lot of times they are just trained to train a dog). To the trained eye the dog is miserable and exhausted.
      The problem with this training technique is that somewhere, sometime on down the line, the owner is going to have more confidence than they should and force the dog to meet another new person… Bam!!! There’s a bite! This leaves the owner wondering what they did wrong or if they have a vicious dog, when all they have really done is unknowingly pushed the dog to protect itself. After being terrified over and over, they finally decided to warn someone in a way that would make them listen.
      Here is how you use positive behavior modification to help your canine friend. First you teach them some basic things like paying attention to their handler, walking on a loose leash, hand targeting, and self control exercises. Sounds more fun already, right? Once they have these behaviors down you can start slowly adding the scary distractions. Let’s use the example from the earlier paragraph. The dog is scared of people… We start a new person from a comfortable distance. One technique we can use is the Cookie Bar approach. When a person is there treats fall from the sky, when they go away the treats go away. With this approach we are slowly modifying how the dog feels in the presence of new people. This is not something that happens overnight or in one lesson! It takes a lot of work to change a dog’s perception of something scary. What we are going for here is a positive response from the dog before we add anymore pressure like less distance or more people.With these behavior modification tools we are teaching the dog and handler how to handle a tense situation. Therefore, when done properly, we will eventually lessen the fear and anxiety. Unfortunately, we cannot always fix a dog completely. (Any trainer that says he can completely fix every dog is fooling himself and his clients). However, with a good well informed owner that is willing to do the training and instill proper management, we can prevent a dog from ever thinking it needs to use it’s teeth.
    For those people who disagree with these methods, that’s fine. I have used both of these techniques in my home. I have been training dogs since 1998, and there is a very good reason I believe in positive behavior modification over just making the dog get over it… I live behavior mod in my house every day, and have spent the last three years as a positive trainer. Even as a trainer there is one thing I over looked… In my past training facility we “tapped” our dogs in the haunches with our heels if they started to react. It worked, my obedient girl stopped reacting to other dogs. In fact she shut down and it turned into anxiety. I had to find a new way to work with her.. enter positive behavior modification. Three years later, she is a happy agility and obedience dog. One night recently, I put my heel on her haunches and she proceeded to put my heel in her mouth. While holding my heel ever so softly in her mouth, I realized she was telling me that if I meant to “tap” her, this would be the last time I did it without further action. That’s the backlash that comes from forcing a dog to do something because you want it to. Fortunately, I have a very good relationship with my dog and she was able to tell me what was up. Dogs are experts with their teeth. However hard a dog may bite, is how hard the dog meant to bite. So, please listen to your dog. If you don’t understand what they want, call a trainer who does. Also, remember dogs with serious fear issues cannot be “fixed in an hour”.