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Episode 314 - Baby and the Beast


“A fearful dog needs to learn to trust its Pack Leader — but if the Pack Leader is afraid of the dog as well, that trust is never going to happen. Before your dog will trust you, you have to learn how to trust yourself.”

 
 

Q&A with Cesar

You said that a fearful dog’s only choices are bite or flight, but biting seems like an aggressive reaction, not a fearful one. Why would a fearful dog bite someone?

When a fearful dog bites, it’s a defensive reaction, and usually happens because the dog feels like it doesn’t have any other choice. It’s trying to control the situation by instinct, and dogs are most used to manipulating things with their mouths. This is how they pick up and carry around toys, it’s how they attack their prey, and it’s how they calm themselves by chewing on things.
 
A fearful dog isn’t thinking about the consequences of biting someone. They don’t worry that if they use their teeth they’ll get hit or that the human will bite back. They’re only thinking of making the threatening thing less threatening, by stopping it from approaching or making it go away. Fearful dogs also usually give a warning before they bite. We saw this with Elffy, who turned her head toward me as if to say, “Watch out!”
 
Of course, fearful dogs don’t always give a warning, which is why their owners are sometimes so surprised by a bite. “The dog wasn’t doing anything unusual, but then he bit my leg” isn’t all that uncommon to hear. But people think this only because they aren’t watching the warning signs. When a fearful dog is full of tension and seems anxious or restless, that is a red flag that they’re in the mood to bite.

What’s special about a swimming pool for earning a dog’s trust? Why that and not something like stairs or just the walk in general?

You don’t necessarily have to use a swimming pool to earn a dog’s trust. You can do it with anything or any place a dog is reluctant to approach. I’ve used lots of other tools to earn a dog’s trust, like the stairs, or a shiny floor, or even just going through a doorway. And, of course, the walk is the best way to earn a dog’s trust.
 
A pool works for a dog that’s never experienced one because it makes them confront something completely unusual and scary. They don’t see the water in the pool as something that will hold them up. They just see a big, deep hole in the ground with a pretty long drop. Their instinct is to back away because they don’t want to fall off of the “cliff.” The challenge is to get them to take that first step on their own in order to get to me. Once a dog does that, they quickly discover that they don’t fall and instinctively begin paddling.
 
As with any exercise to help calm a fearful dog, it requires consistency and repetition. I need to work with the dog until it will jump into the pool on its own without hesitation. In the process, something that was scary loses its power, and they learn to associate that with the human working with them. With most dogs, even the fearful ones, once you get them used to jumping into the pool on their own, you can’t stop them. They’ve taken another step toward building self-confidence.

Why would a dog trust someone who’s calm and assertive more than they would trust someone who’s calm and non-assertive?

What dogs look for in us is leadership. When they see a human who’s submissive, they see a potential subordinate in the pack — and a fearful dog is not going to have her confidence inspired by a subordinate pack member no matter how calm they are. Part of the reason a dog becomes fearful is that they are uncertain, and they become uncertain when they don’t have a strong Pack Leader telling them what to do.
 
Telling a dog what to do doesn’t just involve commands, by the way. This is why Elffy wouldn’t move away from his owner when she was telling him to go and using “Tsch!” The words were there, but the intent was missing. It’s only when your intent is very clear and your energy is calm and assertive that your dog will understand that you’re in charge and will do what you want him to do.
 
A dog’s trust comes from respect, but a dog will not respect weak energy. If you want positive results, you have to remember both parts: calm and assertive.

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