Working with the fearful dog, Part 2 by Cathy Toft

Reprinted from the Collie Connection Spring 1999



With this issue's theme, I wanted to update you on Babe, the Collie from Colorado Collie Rescue. As you recall, her extreme fear and lack of socialization has made her particularly challenging to rehabilitate.

Babe walking on a leashLast issue I described the earlier stages of her clicker training. In the first month I had her, Babe made many remarkable steps toward becoming a normal dog (you can read a longer version of her condition and progress on another page}. The most important of these accomplishments was her ability to walk on a leash, after more than 9 months in the rescue network. This meant I could exercise her (which she desperately needed) and take her many places for her socialization work. Here we are arriving at my mother's house, with Babe (on her leash) surrounded by my other collies as we go up the walk.

Each week I presented Babe with a new challenge (I found that a week was about the right amount of time for Babe to accommodate each new step). I asked myself: What does she need to do next to become a normal, happy dog? And (importantly) can we get there from here? After leash walking, the next, absolutely crucial step for her was to come when called. This step, however, would take much longer than one week.

Whenever Babe suspects that I want to catch her, she bolts away from me, as fast and as far as she can go. This is OK but not great in my yard, but it would be disastrous should she get away from me when I have her out somewhere. We live in a rural county, and if she gets away, I fear no one could catch her--I truly fear for her life.

I tried to shortcut her recall training by using aversive methods, such as is traditional, like leash popping, but this was worse than a failure. I discovered that when she feels trapped, she can buzzsaw through a fabric longline in less time than I can run over to stop her. It's a good thing I found that out in the safety of my yard; she now walks with a chain leash. In hindsight I could see why aversive training works with a normal dog and why it didn't with Babe. A normal dog can easily compare the displeasure of the leash pops with the pleasure of receiving love and attention from the master. With Babe, on the other hand, there was no humane way to make not coming to me more unpleasant than coming to me. As soon as I saw that my efforts were only escalating her already considerable fear of people, I immediately stopped this tactic.

So there was no choice but to use positive reinforcement and hands-off clicker training, but the power of positive reinforcement was measly and no match for her overwhelming fear of being trapped. I resigned myself to having her recall training taking perhaps as long as a year. I began a plan of teeny, tiny steps toward the recall, supplemented by diverse training to provide the structure that Babe needs so that she can feel secure and ultimately (I hope) trust me.

We started with dinner time clicker training. I had begun to train her to move toward me to get her food (Winter 1998 CC), and this was painfully difficult for her. I eventually decided to position myself perpendicular to her, so that she did not have to face me frontally to come toward me. I sat on the floor and worked up to having her touch my elbow with her nose. This procedure allowed her to come toward me with the greatest safety. My elbow is a completely neutral part of my body. This action was also an excellent one to teach her the clicker game: my elbow has no inherent meaning whatsoever, and she actually has to move away from the food in my outstretched hand to touch my elbow. This made it completely clear to her that I was not luring her with the food, but rather an otherwise meaningless action on her part was what I wanted and what she needed to do to get the food.

I also used these evening sessions to condition Babe to "praise" and to (I hoped) the working cue "c'mon" which Lisa King had already introduced her to for coming into her kennel. As you may know, there is a lot of debate in dog training circles about the meaning of praise to a dog. Most trainers now abandon the idea that dogs like praise because they want to please their masters. Many take the perhaps cynical view that dogs only like praise because it means they are not going to be corrected during praise. I was certain that praise was at best meaningless to Babe, who had no emotional connection whatsoever with humans. More likely the sound of praise meant that she was about to receive (horror of horrors) attention from a human. So I began to use praise words and sweet nothings while feeding and clicking Babe so that I might be able to use praise in her training, when I was unable for some reason to get her to accept food.

I quickly learned that Babe, the smart Collie that she is, was easily capable of generalizing her training from our evening sessions. One day while having lunch with my mother, I felt a nudge at my elbow while we were sitting at the table. I turned around and with astonishment saw Babe begging. Naturally, I broke every rule of housedog etiquette and fed her as much as she wanted from the table.

Then one day while I was clicker training my other dogs, again in astonishment I saw Babe leave her crate (where she had been stuck for the past 5 weeks), come out in the kitchen and join the other dogs begging for food. I decided to use her working cue C'mon to bring her in to me. Sure enough, she not only came toward me, but she walked right up to me and pressed her nose against my leg. I was not about to require that action, but Babe had generalized that she need to touch me with her nose to get a treat. I took advantage of her initiative, clicking that action as though I'd planned it, because if I could bring her in that close, that would make the beginning of her recall.

However, the recall is still eons away. Babe only comes up to me in the safety of my other three Collies' presence. I began to extend this training to the various parks we go to, even adding light leash taps to bring Babe in for a click and treat. She does this "recall" very nicely in many settings now...but she knows when she is on a leash. When she is off lead and we are not fooling around with food and the other dogs, she will not come in to me.

Babe jumping up on meNext I decided to use some of Terri Arnold's ideas about getting a dog emotionally up. It was all too easy to get Babe to bark! But even though we're "playing with fire", I feel it's a necessary risk--Babe's emotional state is much improved by her barking, so I use this tool. I also decided to teach Babe to jump up on me--yes, I teach all my dogs to jump up on me on command (OK the idea is that I can command them not to do it too!) . This was very easy to accomplish, by having my other dogs serve as models. Of all the surprises Babe has given me, perhaps the greatest was the day that she jumped up and planted both front paws on my chest. Now, of course, she is a pest about it, but that's a lovely price to pay for a dog that arrived at my house terrified and withdrawn.

Wish me luck--perhaps my next update on Babe will include a real recall....



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