“The Cooties”

No, not the kind that hop and crawl (modern parasite control products work wonders on THOSE :) ). I’m talking about the other kind. Those imaginary “cooties” lurking on strange objects, infesting new situations and sometimes making scary sounds besides. The ones only your dog can see.

Whether just a puppy phase or a more “hard-wired” problem, most people with a herding breed have had to deal with this at one time or another. Herding breeds are supposed to notice things that are different – however some individuals take this trait a little too far.

Jayda is one of those. She’s not my first.

So several months ago I set out on a campaign to teach her that weird new things were GOOD things. Several times a week I made a point to “introduce” her to something “odd” and heavily reinforce “brave” (approach) behaviors. This ongoing program has really helped her a lot, and I thought I’d share a couple of tips.

Oooh – look what I found!

When introducing a timid dog to something scary, I focus on the object, not the dog. Focusing on the dog’s behavior just adds performance anxiety to the mix and slows down the process. Instead, I interact with the object itself – “Look what I found! Ooh – this is really NI-I-ICE!!”. Assuming you have a relationship with the dog, they will pick up on your interest and become at least a little intrigued.

Little baby steps …

I start by reinforcing for the smallest approach behavior – a step is good, but sometimes I’ll settle for a leaning body or even an ear. Never drag the dog to the scary thing, let them find their own comfort zone. I use a clicker, but it’s not necessary – you can verbally mark the behavior too. I slip the dog treats, still focusing on the object the entire time.

Closer and closer

Gradually, I up my criteria – only reinforcing progress. Big breakthroughs, like actually TOUCHING the object, earn a jackpot.

If movement is part of the problem, start reinforcing approaches to the stationary object, then gradually add motion to the picture.

No “Scaredy-cat stretches”

That’s what I call that position where the dog stretches their nose out while keeping their hind feet as fa-a-a-r away as possible! It shows conflict – they’re approaching but at the same time keeping their options open for a hasty exit. I quickly drop reinforcement for this and only reward “normal”, upright body posture.

If you can teach your dog to hit things with a paw, it’s almost impossible for them to do the 2 postures at once. I wouldn’t initially ask for this behavior, but it works well when a basically “solid” dog occasionally spooks about something.

Put it on cue

Once the dog has been through this sequence on several different things, put it on cue. I use “Check it out!”. To Jayda that means: “Yes this is different – food WILL be served.”

The whole process gets faster each time you do it. The first time it may take 15 minutes or even longer, once they’ve learned the game it will usually be only a matter of seconds.

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