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Meet Our Soulmates

I “met” Debbie Jacobs through Twitter  (that social networking & mini-blogging site I mentioned a while back). We are fellow crusaders against out-dated training methods, especially when applied to fearful dogs. She’s the person behind the info site and blog as well as the e-book called A Guide To Living & Working With A Fearful Dog. We share many of the same insights, methods, and worries from our lives with fearful dogs. Today, to introduce our readers to each other, we’re doing a little Blog Swap Q&A. See her answers to my questions below. My answers to hers here.

Give us a little background on Sunny’s circumstances, age, depth and kind fears, etc.

Sunny is a survivor of a 477 dog hoarding site discovered in AR after the hurricanes of 2005. My best guess is that he was born at the site and lived in an outdoor pen with a number of other dogs and limited exposure to people. I’m not exactly sure of his age when he arrived, but it was probably between 1-2 years. His triggers are people and novel objects or situations. He’s great with other dogs, loves being outdoors, and though he will startle at noises, he’s not phobic about them, thank goodness. Maybe living around nearly 500 barking dogs desensitized him to noise

What kind of dog training experience did you have before Sunny?

I have female cocker that loves agility. Most of my dogs have been through at least a class or two, but she enjoyed it so much that we took classes for years. I’ve also attended obedience and rally classes with my other dogs, but I’m not into competing. I primarily enjoy the classes because they help me learn to communicate with my dogs more effectively, and the dogs like a night out. I am planning on becoming a certified dog trainer in the next year or so.

What methods do you use with him?

The first and most important step I took with Sunny was developing our relationship. Because Sunny had no positive experience with people, he had to sort out what I was good for so that he could begin to look forward to my arrival and being with me. We started with food but moved on to toys and eventually to running in the woods. I am aware of his triggers and thresholds and use counter conditioning and desensitization to help him change how he feels about scary things.

All of my training with Sunny is based on positive reinforcement. I use a clicker with him often. Any kind of aversive techniques are far too risky to use with a fearful dog. Even dogs without fear issues can end up with behavior problems when punishment is not used correctly, and most often it’s not. It doesn’t mean that he is allowed to behave in ways that I think are inappropriate, it just means that I try to teach him the behavior I want, not just try to stop the behavior I don’t. For a very long time I was very careful to ensure that he did not have any reason to wonder whether being with me was a good idea or not. Now, we can do things that might not be fun for him, like vet visits, but because we have solid relationship he bounces back quickly instead of needing to hide from me for the rest of the day while he decompresses from the stress of the experience.

How long have you been together, and what improvements have you seen?

Sunny came to live with me in December of 2005. He arrived a terrified and shut-down dog with no skills for interacting with people at all. He would defecate when handled or moved. He had never lived in a house before, everything about his new life was horrifying, except for my other dogs. He is still what I would call a fearful dog, but he can go for off leash walks in the woods with me, loves to chase frisbees and tennis balls, attends training classes, jumps on the bed for scratches and belly rubs in the morning after my husband leaves the house. He is still afraid of him and other people, but his reactions are becoming less intense.

What mistakes have you made, or what key lessons have you learned?

My biggest regret with Sunny was that when he first arrived I did not provide him with a safe place to hang out and hide. I believed that I’d only be ‘enabling’ his fear and that if he just faced his fears he’d get over them. I now realize that is so off the mark and wonder what additional damage I may have caused him as he lived for weeks in a corner of our living room, too afraid to move.

The biggest lesson I learned is that you cannot reinforce fear in an animal by comforting them when they are afraid. Their brains and our brains don’t work that way. I have also come to accept that because Sunny’s brain was not given the best start in life he may never be like my other dogs, but that’s ok, I am committed to working with him for the rest of his life. And I just adore him.

When did you launch the site, and what are your goals for it?

I created the website in 2007 and my goal was to create a resource for dog owners and rescuers working and living with a fearful dog. I wanted to include the most up-to-date information available about how to change the behavior of a dog with fear-based issues (or any dog for that matter). There is quite a bit of good science and research about animal behavior, but unfortunately too much of what is passed off as training advice is not based on what studies have shown really works. It’s not too difficult to get a dog to do something, and it’s not even that difficult to get a dog to do something AND enjoy it, but most people still hold rather archaic views about training dogs.

I wrote the ebook “A Guide To Living & Working With A Fearful Dog” to also help folks think about the best ways to work with their dogs. The biggest challenge for most owners of fearful dogs is changing their beliefs about how to work with them. I hope the book aids in that process.

If you know modern, positive methods trainers around the country (or even the world), please let Debbie know. She’s creating an online directory of people who can help others with their fearful dogs.

Roxanne Hawn

Trained as a traditional journalist and based in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, USA, I'm a full-time freelance writer for magazines, websites, and private clients. My areas of specialty include everything in the lifestyles arena, including health and home, personal finance and other consumer interests, relationships and trends, people and business profiles ... and, of course, all things pet related. I don't just love dogs. I need them in my life. Seriously.