Thursday, May 6, 2010


I had a great bit of serendipity the other day with a client.  I'm helping them train their mastiff, Madison.  Madison is a great huge beast of a dog, and a total lover.  But she has some slight timidity issues that sometimes result in her barking or growling.  Pretty minor, but given her size, and that her owners would like her to be a Therapy Dog (which she totally will be, she was born for it), it is definitely something to address.

I wanted her owners to know how a dog naturally responds to something that scares it, and I actually demonstrated by playing the role of the dog.  A dog, upon seeing something that startles or scares it, will back away very quickly and then check things out from a distance.  Then it will circle around and approach from another direction.  Usually it will back away again before getting all the way close.  After a few seconds of checking things out from a distance, it will circle in, getting even closer.  Eventually, it will get to within sniffing/touching distance - and then run away again.  Typically, when it approaches again after that time, that is when it has finally decided to be comfortable with the new thing.

(It is on that second-to-last approach, where the dog first gets close enough to touch, that most people blow it and try to pet a dog that is afraid of them.  That was really just a test to see if you could be trusted to stay cool and not move.  By trying to get too friendly too fast, you fail the test.  Wait a little bit longer for the dog to come back to you and then hang out on its own.  Then you can give a little scratch under the chin.)

So, I had gone through this whole comical pantomime of acting like a dog, and I could see the owner sort of got it.  And then I had my stroke of luck - while we were talking, Madison, giant 100 lb mastiff, was startled by a grasshopper!  And right there in front of us, Madison proceeded to reenact everything I had just done.  She jumped back away from the grasshopper.  She circled around and approached it again, and then jumped back.  She circled and tried again.  And then, after a couple more cautious approaches, she sniffed it - and then walked away unconcerned.

Other than being hilarious, there was a valuable lesson in all of that.   It is usually our own clumsy use of leashes and fences that create problem anxiety in our dogs.   If you give a dog freedom to deal with fear on its own, without trying to force it closer or farther away or impose your will on it, a dog will work through things on its own quite well.  Even grasshoppers, the mastiff's mortal enemy.

1 comment:

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