This is the story of Homer.
Date: September 9, 2020
Homer was adopted by a lovely couple – seriously, like the nicest people you could meet. Homer instantly bonded with his new mama, but to say he was less than thrilled to be around his new dad would be an understatement.
Let’s not mince words here – he wanted absolutely nothing to do with him. He would growl and bark at him if he simply entered the room, or god forbid he came back home from being out. If Homer was left alone with his new dad, he would literally go to any other room he could find to avoid being in the same room.
It was heartbreaking because like I said, dad is the most calm, sweet presence Homer could ask for.
Fearful dogs often times will be much worse with men than women. It’s usually a really simple reason – men, in general, are more “intimidating,” in that they are typically larger, have a deeper voice, are hairier, etc. So, it wasn’t totally surprising that Homer was acting like he was.
What was surprising was when they would all go visit friends, Homer would willingly jump up into another man’s lap who was a complete stranger, which made this situation even more personal to dad. It seemed like Homer would prefer practically any human on the planet to his dad. Again, super disheartening and impossible not to take personally.
I was referred to them and when I met them, I found out an important detail that was making things worse, and it came from another trainer. It was suggested that by dad taking Homer on walks – whether he wanted to go or not – their bond would eventually grow. Hmmm.
So, let’s get this straight. Dog shows an insane amount of fear towards a human and the best advice would be to take that dog on a leash, where he is literally tethered to said human with no escape? I also found out that Homer was pretty reactive on-leash, so with walks being stressful in and of themselves, that was the icing on this terribly made cake.
We spent most of the consult like I do with so many clients – talking about how dogs learn and process information, how their brains function, and how we can then practically apply that information to achieve our training goals. In this case, goal #1 was to get Homer to stop hating his dad (kind of an important one, no?)
When you have a fearful dog, it is imperative that you go at that dog’s pace – not yours. That may sound counterintuitive or fly-in-the-face to what certain famous dog trainers would espouse since it would damage the hierarchy (nonsense). I can assure you, from working with hundreds and hundreds of fearful dogs, you must respect their boundaries and thresholds.
Unfortunately, because of some really bad – check that – horrendous advice, Homer’s pace was non-existent and his threshold was being trampled on the reg. We changed that immediately, and moving forward, there was no more dragging him along for a walk, trying to force him to sit with dad, or any of the other egregious (to Homer) choices that had been made. Again, I rarely fault the pet parents, because their behavior and choices are usually from the advice of “professionals.”
We put forth two simple equations:
- Dad’s appearance or movement towards Homer (from a distance he can handle) = amazing, tasty stuff (mainly boiled chicken).
- Homer’s approach to Dad = amazing, tasty stuff (mainly boiled chicken).
6 days after our consult and just one day after our first session, the first breakthrough happened. I received an awesome email that night from mom that Homer was following dad around and even jumped up onto the couch to sit near him!
We had way more work to do, but when I get emails like this, it puts an instant smile on my face, and reinforces why I do what I do on a daily basis.
The main trigger that remained was when dad entered – whether into a room that Homer was in or especially, when dad entered the house from being outside.
Our focus shifted to doing more controlled setups. A controlled setup is taking what the stimulus is – in this case, dad entering a room – and either breaking that down into a smaller step, and/or repetitive trial, keeping in mind to stay below the dog’s threshold.
They practiced this a ton, and about 6 weeks from when we started, I came over for a session. Homer’s mom answered the door and said, “Wait till you see this.” As I entered the living, what I saw gave me goosebumps. There was Homer, sitting next to Dad, with Dad petting him and Homer clearly having not a care in the world. As mom joked, she thought Homer may like him more than her now!
It was absolutely astounding to see the malleability of this one dog – who had immense fear of this one person, with the initial training so detrimental to trying to form a trusting relationship – sitting there happily, relaxed and lovingly accepting and wanting to be pet.
From then-on, they were best buds and still are!