Working with the Fearful Dog By Cathy Toft

Reprinted from the Winter 98/99 Collie Connection

"Babe" (aka Baby) was turned into an animal shelter in Colorado last March. Her condition, both mental and physical, was so wretched that the shelter was planning to put her down unless collie rescue was willing to take her. Lisa King, of Colorado Collie Rescue, rushed to go get her. Because Baby would do nothing but fold into a fetal position, Lisa had to corner her and pick her up. Although Lisa was gentle, Baby was so terrified that she emptied her bladder and bowels all the way back to Lisa's car.

Baby in Lisa's kennel. You can see the apprehension still in her face

In the 8 months that Lisa worked diligently with her, Baby recovered fully from her physical condtion, but she remained terrified of people. We decided that Baby and I needed each other; I agreed to bring her into my home and work with her mental condition. Because of her extreme timidity, I had to rethink how to relate to her. Lisa and I decided that she needed a more "aggressive" taming program, and I felt that training her to be tame was the way to accomplish this. In the hopes that my trial and error techniques might be of help to others, I am sharing my experiences with you.

Imagine a dog whose only reaction to you is to sink into fetal position, push herself into a corner, trying to disappear, quaking, and not looking at you. How would you begin to train such an animal? Clicker!!! Lisa had gotten her to accept food from her hand, and fortunately, Babe immediately took food from me. I decided to feed her only from my hand for the near future. This would form the basis for her clicker training. The first night I conditioned her to the clicker. If you are not familiar with clicker training, this method depends on the animal offering you behaviors, as opposed to the trainer physically inducing the behavior, as you would traditionally, for example, teach the sit or down. Clearly, physical inducement would be impossible with this dog. The second night, I thought, she offers me only two behaviors: moving her head and flicking her eyes. So, I'll teach her to turn her head toward me. That turned out to be too easy, as in 4 clicks she was just facing me permanently, but not looking at me. Then I decided to go for it and get her to look at me. By end of the first session, I had her staring me right in the eye. Major success!

After a few days of that, I got bored, so I changed the game. I decided to teach her to move toward me, as she had begun to lean forward, giving me another behavior to shape. This turned out to be so much more difficult because of her fear of coming toward me, not because of her intelligence or ability to figure out what I wanted. After a few days of this, (she was so cute) she "inched" her little paws toward me. I decided to accept even an intention to move toward me, so if she just scooted her paw a little or even just leaned forward with her head, I rewarded that. It's been very satisfying to use clicker training to deal with an animal that gives you so little to go on--but whatever there is, the clicker is a powerful tool to bring it out.

I've also had to use negative reinforcement, in the sense that I make her do things whether she wants to or not. For example, she can just go outside when I open the door, or she can wrestle with me. Very quickly she is learning what she needs to do to avoid unpleasant behavior on my part! I then reward her by taking the pressure off her, and so on. I also support her to endure this negative reinforcement by providing her with as secure and predictable an environment as possible. This means being absolutely consistent on my part, same routine, same behaviors from me and the other dogs, day in and day out.

We had another truly magic moment after I had been working on her coming toward me for several days. Well, it finally happened! I got her within inches of me, still lying down and scooching on the floor. I pushed her too much, and she sat up suddenly to pull away from me. Wow! A new behavior, so I clicked it immediately. The most amazing thing happened. I could literally see the fear melt away, and she sat there giving me a curious, quizzical look. In a few minutes, she went down, and we went through the same thing again. On the second click for sitting up, she stayed sitting, and by more careful work, I got her to stand! That made it much easier for her to come toward me. Just getting her out of that fearful crouching was a major achievement in itself.

I am amazed at the power of this method. This is turning out to be an excellent experience for me as a trainer. It's so sad to see a dog in this condition, but so rewarding to watch her progress, which has already been considerable. Daily Babe does something new and amazing. I hope to provide an update for you in the next issue. Oh, why did we rename her Babe? We felt it was symbolic of the transition we expected her to make, from the time when Lisa nurtured her back into excellent physical health in a place of total safety, to her time with me, where we now are putting pressure on her to become the sassy, confident, gorgeous Collie that the name "Babe" implies.


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