Food overcomes Fear, part two

Yesterday I wrote about my Fridge-fearing canine, Kita. Though she is a rather extreme case, I honestly am surprised that more dogs don’t develop phobias over common household objects and appliances.  There is almost nothing in a dog’s DNA that prepares them for living in our homes with all the noisy machines, confining spaces, and un-natural (to a dog) objects and rules.  Integrating a dog (whether puppy or adult) into your home or introducing him to anything new — things will go smoother with judicious use of treats.

This holds true even for something as simple as a new (or especially the FIRST) collar.  All of a dog’s instincts tell it to avoid traps and confining, choking things, so it’s no surprise that dogs don’t feel yippy-skippy when we buckle a collar on them.  We can make that new, suspicious, even scary thing appear much FRIENDLIER by introducing it with food.

Hold out your hand with the collar looped over your palm and a treat resting on the collar.  Chances are Spot will eye that questionable object hanging there with some mistrust, but will eat the treat.  Repeat a dozen times and Spot will start to ASSOCIATE seeing the collar with getting a treat!    This actually changes Spot’s brain chemistry to create “feel good” hormones instead of “fight or flight” hormones when the collar appears.  Food literally (and chemically) overcomes Fear!  If you go slowly and reward Spot with a treat for letting the collar rest on his back, then on his nose, then when you finally put it on for (at first) a brief moment, he’ll probably look forward to seeing the collar and will learn to wear it with no struggle.

Food can also be used to DESENSITIZE a dog to already-established fears.  If Spot has had bad experiences with a leash, for example, treats can (literally and chemically) change his mind.  First off, get a really yummy treat that Spot maybe hasn’t ever had before — like CHICKEN!  From now on, he won’t get this special treat unless a leash is present.  If he was spooked by one particular leash, get a new one that is made from a different material.

Place the leash on the floor and put CHICKEN on it.  You might have to walk away at first before Spot will approach — he’s no dummy and if he’s scared of a leash he’s really scared wheb it’s in a human’s hands.  After Spot happily eats treats as soon as you place them on the leash — and looks up for more — hang the leash around your neck and sit on the floor (so you’re not bending over Spot with the leash hanging down, swinging and perhaps hitting him.)  Reward Spot with CHICKEN when he comes over to you while you’re “wearing” the leash.   When he’s easily doing that, rest a loop of the leash (still hung around your neck) over your palm and place CHICKEN on it!  At first, keep your hand still and let Spot come to it, but gradually move your hand with the leash — and the CHICKEN — around so Spot gets used to a moving leash bringing the CHICKEN!  Then reward with CHICKEN when you touch the leash to his collar.  You get the idea — at each step, Spot should equate the LEASH with the arrival of CHICKEN!

Of course, this sort of desensitizing takes many sessions over many days.  We must resist the temptation to see how far we can push Spot — one of our besetting weaknesses as humans!  Err on the side of caution and moving TOO slowly, rather than skipping steps.  Spot doesn’t know there’s an agenda, here.  He’s delighted to get all that CHICKEN!  He’s also pretty happy with you, and will learn to be happy with the leash if he’s not scared all over again through well-intentioned impatience.  Food overcomes Fear, but Rushing can Ruin things!

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