Written by Christine Durrant, Professional Dog Trainer and Pet Care Consultant
Some dogs are more apprehensive than others. This goes for noise, random objects, other animals, etc. It's important to allow your pup to explore new things in their own time, at their own pace. It builds confidence and trust, which are vital for a dog to feel safe in the world. Dogs have different triggers and it's important that we honor and respect them as we would our own.
I met a dog named Orion (pictured) at a local shelter. He was not socialized to the outside world and had been living in a kennel environment for half of his life. I volunteered to help him and began taking him out a few times a week.
The first time out we were on a quiet, secluded street and he was sniffing a bush. At that exact moment, a loud truck drove by and he suddenly became afraid of the bush. He actually thought that bush had something to do with the noise. To resolve this, I took a step back with him, rewarded him for looking at the bush, then walking past it (repeatedly) and again when he eventually sniffed it again. I played close attention to his body language and was careful not to push him through fear (this is NOT effective for training dogs) but to support him enough to move closer as he was ready. If he were terrified, I would not have gotten very close to the bush and would have worked closer and closer as he relaxed. I worked with Orion at that bush until he was no longer afraid. Then we moved on to parked cars and trash cans. He was afraid of everything at first. We worked on that street until he was relaxed, then, in the weeks ahead, we made our way to pet stores, Home Depot and even Starbucks for a Puppuccino. Orion made great strides with time and patience.
This is an important example of how dogs develop fears and issues. They live in the moment so whatever is happening when they are punished or rewarded has an affect on them. Orion was a challenging case but with love, patience and support he was rehabilitated and adopted by a wonderful family. I am happy to say that he has a perfect doggy sibling and enjoys a lot of time at the river off leash!
What is important is helping dogs to learn to be less afraid (or even excited!) by using rewards and patience. It's not logical to try to "train" a dog feel differently by force, they may still have the fear but are doing something to please us (hiding their fear out of fear) which isn't really training at all. We are talking about changing the way the dog feels, not making them act as we want them to. It's a permanent solution that builds confidence and trust.
The reward here could be in safely exploring the object (end result) but offering a treat during the experience (with the correct timing) and again at the end would also reinforce the positive experience. I would reward Orion when he was relaxed and interested, rather than during a time of fear, reluctance and/or apprehension. I don't want to reward the nervousness, I want to reward the confidence, even if it's very slight.