Like most people, I hate to see dogs struggle. Whether they struggle with fear, anxiety, aggression, it really doesn’t matter what the issue is, its a shame to see a dog struggle. That brings me to something that just happened to me tonight. I’m currently training an 8 month old Golden Retriever named Mason. He’s your typical happy go lucky pup who just wants to play and be loved. Its possible not to love a dog like this. He’s in for training for the typical crazy pup behavior, jumping, counter surfing, pulling on the leash, too hyper in the house, you name it.
During a training session, I had on my agenda to start working on his obedience outdoors in a more distracting environment. As we are walking around my house, he sees about a 4 foot tall black garbage can. He immediately puts on the brakes, becomes a bucking bronco and would not get any closer.
Okay, so Mason is clearly afraid of this garbage can. Did he have a bad experience with one before? Is this the first time he’s ever seeing one? To be honest, it doesn’t matter why he’s afraid of it. The only thing that matters is overcoming the fear of it. Simple as that.
As a dog trainer, I don’t put too much thought into why a dog is afraid of something. If I know that “something” cannot harm the dog, I work them through it. Right then and there. I put whatever plans I had on hold and we work through the issue. There is no reason for a dog to be left stuck in a mental state of fear. If I were to coddle him, get down on his level and feel sorry for him saying “Aw, Mason, it’s okay little guy… the garbage can won’t hurt you” He doesn’t understand what I’m saying. At that point, all I am doing is reinforcing his fear, essentially rewarding it by comforting him. From that point on, he would always be afraid of garbage cans.
Instead I work dogs through that fear. I know there is nothing to be afraid of, but they don’t. So I show them that. So we kept walking past the garbage can, little by little making progress. Not even 5 minutes later, Mason was laying down eating his kibble right next to it, eventually sniffing and touching the garbage can. All it took was 5 minutes of my time and a mindset of “Mason, we’re working you through with whether you like it or not because its in your best interest and you’ll thank me later”
So please, next time you notice your dog afraid of something work them through it. Don’t feel sorry and leave them stuck in fear. I know feeling sorry and wanting to comfort them might seem like the right thing to do, or the natural thing to do, but it does more harm than good, especially in the long run.