I always pick up great new methods and techniques whenever I attend a training conference or seminar; sometimes I also pick up good concepts or “themes” for training. At this most recent seminar I attended about working with fearful, aggressive or reactive dogs, a discussion popped up about how “small” a dog needed its world to be on any particular day or any particular time, and it was great so I thought I’d share it with you!
Many fearful, anxious, reactive, aggressive or stressed dogs simply can not cope with too much at one time. If you go out for a walk and there’s dogs, kids, skateboards, cars…it’s too much for these dogs, it’s overstimulating. Their behavior will break down rapidly. It’s simply too much for that dog, at that time.
The better thing to do would be to “shrink” your dogs world so that it was exposed primarily to things it could handle, with small and controlled increases in difficulty and challenge so the dog could meet them successfully. This will improve its confidence and is what will lead to long-term improvement. So maybe instead of your dog/kids/skateboard/car walk, maybe you drive to a quieter park. Most of your walk is going to be sniffing and strolling in the grass. Maybe some kids on skateboards, or dogs, or whatever, will show up briefly in the distance. The dog will check them out, you’ll encourage him, he’ll be fine, and then you’ll move on. Success; the dog has now gotten through a walk without breaking down or becoming frightened. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow it will also get through walks without breaking down or becoming frightened. It is important to gradually increase stressors/challenges on these walks or your dog will not actually make progress; however, if the challenges are ones that the dog can handle, his confidence will continue to improve until ultimately he’ll be fine in truly difficult situations as well.
The necessity for a daily walk, and daily “socialization” has been popularized through the media, and of course it’s important for dogs to get out and exercise, but the truth is that for many dogs, it is not helpful to get them out and simply practice anxiety and stress over and over. What is most helpful is to get them out into what they can handle, allow their experience of “success” (i.e., no anxiety, no overthresholds or barking) to increase their confidence (it will) and then expand the world gradually.