It’s come to my attention that some people believe that those of us who utilize mainly (if not exclusively) R+/P- in training fearful dogs are simply allowing our dogs to live their lives in their ‘safe zone.’ That we are content in owning dogs who are afraid and are perfectly fine in allowing our dogs to remain fearful. They assume that we don’t place our dogs in stressful situations, that we don’t subject them to some training pressure, and just accept them for what they are.
I think there’s a huge difference between management and behavioral modification training. While management is an integral part of behavior modification training, it is not the ultimate goal. With management, you basically limit what your dog is exposed to. For example, if they are afraid of other dogs, you keep them completely away from dogs.
Many dogs, fearful or not, may be subject to lives relegated to their safety zone if paired with owners who are content to let them be who they are. Even mentally sound, non-fearful dogs can spend their existence in a safe zone when living with the wrong family. If the person is unable to handle the dog’s high-drive or other behavioral ‘problems,’ the dog could be placed in the back yard and never taken out to experience the world.
With behavior modification, you work hard to expand your dog’s perceived safety zone. You do so by bumping his thresholds; gradually decreasing the distance at which he is too stressed to learn. It can be a long process, but you teach the dog that he can handle the world. For example, if your dog lunges at a person when they pass by at a distance of 10 feet, you start by walking by people 11 feet (or further) away. Once the dog is comfortable with people at 11 feet, you move a foot closer. If he can handle that distance, you decrease it again (or if he can’t, you step back and work at the previous distance again for a while). You move at the dog’s pace and his perceived safe zone expands.
It’s not about accepting who your dog is. Had I just shrugged my shoulders, said “Risa’s a fearful dog,” and given up, she wouldn’t be the dog she is today. I could have just kept her inside my apartment and never let her experience the outside world. After all, outside my door was a narrow hallway where she had to pass people that sent her fleeing to the end of her leash. Further along was an open courtyard with scary poop disposal cans, more people, kids, and other dogs. Beyond that was a busy roadway with cars rushing by and monstrous sandwich board signs waiting to frighten the poor wuss dog Risa.
Keeping her inside for the rest of her life was not an option. We didn’t have anything close to a private yard for most of our time together so walks were our only option for exercise. Since Risa was an active dog, she would have driven me nuts staying inside all the time. On top of that, I had big plans for her. Though I may have been a bit naive at the time, I wanted her to be my competition dog. For her to be able to handle that sort of pressure, I had to show her the world was not so scary. I refused to accept the limitations of having a fearful dog. I wanted her to fully realize her potential.
Now, that’s not to say I don’t accept that Risa is a fearful dog and some of the limitations associated with that fact. I know that she’s probably never going to be a gregarious dog with people or other dogs. She may always be reserved and afraid in new locations. And that’s okay. However, had I decided to just let her be afraid, she wouldn’t have accomplished everything she has. Risa wouldn’t have been able to reach her innate potential.
Because I required her to step outside of her comfort zone on occasion, she has learned how to handle stressful situations. It’s amazing to watch her in a situation that used to cause her to panic. I can see the gears turning in her head as she considers her options and makes the right choice. She no longer shuts down in the face of pressure; she can work with me even when she’s overwhelmed. The best example of this was our last rally trial. It was loud, crowded, and Risa was pretty stressed out. Despite her obvious stress, she didn’t shut down in the ring. She didn’t run out of the ring and bolt for the door. Risa stayed alongside me in a loose heel and performed the signs. Granted, her performance was sloppy and her focus was terrible. But she did not break under pressure. (I have since decided she will not be competing in AKC rally at this time as the trials are too overwhelming for her.) The dog I brought home from the shelter would have flopped over on her side, exposed her belly, and refused to do anything. Risa’s come a long way!
I don’t think it’s fair to lump all fearful dog owners together and assume we all just accept our dogs as who they currently are and just go on with our lives. Some of us are out there actively changing our dog’s worlds and helping them live up to their potential. And we and our dogs are all the better for it.