Hello! Thanks so much for taking the time with us last week. My question for you is, “How do I get Larz not to be a fraidy cat?”
His sister (not related, but 4 months older) was always his protector. Now that she has died, Larz is much more anxious about other dogs. If I had a skirt, he would hide under it!
What should we do?
Larry and Helene Schaeffer
Dear Larry and Helene,
It’s usually much easier to take the dog that looks in the mirror and sees God, and make him realize that there is a God, but it’s YOU, not him, than it is to make a fearful dog more confident. How do you turn a coward into Braveheart? Usually, one of the first things that needs to be done is to stop inadvertently causing and rewarding Larz’s anxiety when meeting other dogs.
So you’re walking with Larz on leash on Main Street, Vineyard Haven, and a half a block away there’s another person with the audacity to be coming straight toward you with his dog on leash. Anticipating Larz’s discomfort, your discomfort causes you to tighten the leash while nervously saying “Larz!” Just saying Larz, there’s no command or request given, all he hears is nervous energy and anxiety. And to what will he relate your tension and unease? The approaching dog, of course. Then, as he’s fearfully hesitating and you tell him, “It’s O.K.,” you’re verbally rewarding the fear response.
If your 4-year-old child was frightened by the ghost at the door on Halloween, you could say, “It’s O.K., it’s a little boy under a sheet,” and your kid will understand. But to a dog, it’s all about body language, voice intonation, and timing. Your response to a dog’s actions, as the actions are happening, is what teaches a dog. The physicality of tightening the leash (body language) and anxiously saying his name (voice intonation) increases his concern as he’s looking at the approaching dog. Then you reward his fear by saying, “It’s O.K.”(voice intonation). Thus, the inadvertent cause and rewarding of unwanted behavior.
So, what to do when you see an approaching dog? Without tightening the leash, the moment the other four-legged is visible, you’re expressing your unmitigated joy and happiness through your voice at the possible “new best friend” Larz is about to meet, not to mention the treats you’re giving Larz to further his happiness at seeing the possible “new friend.” As soon as the other dog comes into view, your voice intonation is expressing your exuberance and elation: “Look at that, Larz! That may become your new best friend! Isn’t that great!” You never sounded so happy in your life as you’re calling out to the approaching leash holder, “Friendly?” The purpose of your wildly happy tone and treats is to tell Larz that meeting new dogs is a good thing. If you get a “Yes, very,” answer to the “Friendly?” question, keep walking, don’t stop, and let Larz do his thing, kind of. If he wants to have a sniff session with the new dog, great. Stay low-key and happy, give it a few seconds, and say “Time to go” and lead him away, with treats if necessary. This guarantees a successful meeting with a stranger for Larz, and may even leave him wanting more, which is what you want.
If Larz pulls hard and wants to create a space wide enough to fit the Pentagon between him and the other dog, don’t let him! I’m not saying try to force him to meet Mr. Friendly, but rather continue on walking by while keeping up a positive, upbeat chatter. If the leash actually goes slack as he stops trying to pull away, add some treats to the happy talk. His confidence will increase as he has more and more experience being in the presence of, and getting socialized with, newcomers, and nothing bad happens.
If Larz is off-leash on trails, try ratcheting up the treats to people food. I wouldn’t suggest that you put him on a leash if the other dog is off-leash, unless you’re positive Larz won’t get aggressive because he can’t get away when the newcomer comes for the proverbial sniff. You may also want to try a DAP (dog-appeasing pheromone) collar, thunder shirt, or anxiety wrap. The collar gives off the scent of a female dog that’s lactating, and sometimes helps the wearer to relax. Same with the shirt and wrap: They sometimes seem to “ground” the dog and help it to relax. You’re the shrink helping the hermit come out of his shell. It’ll take some time and patience.
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