Gaining Confidence and Desensitization

Gaining confidence has been a massive part of my work with Scotia. To be able to work with a dog, they have to be ready to learn. To be ready to learn, they have to not be vibrating at the sound of the dishwasher or our upstairs neighbour. This was step one for Scotia and I. It is still a work in progress, and likely always will be with Scotia.

When Scotia arrived, everything scared her: humans, leaves, dogs, noise, movement, smells, walking. She was terrified of cars. If she could see a dog, she wouldn’t move, even if it was 3 blocks away, leashed, and walking away from us. She wouldn’t walk down the stairs we needed to go down to leave my suite. She didn’t like being outside or closed inside. Everything was a challenge. We started slow and I screwed up a lot, but we learned together.

A dog that has the trauma and fear that Scotia has, is incredibly tiring and challenging, but I also have all the patience in the world because I can see the fear in her eyes. There’s a massive difference in my mind there. She isn’t behaving the way she is because she doesn’t feel like doing whatever it is we are doing. She is struggling, she doesn’t understand, and quite frankly, she’s terrified.

So what did I do about it? Desensitization has been a massive part of Scotia’s learning. Before learning to listening to a task, she had to learn to be ok with the environment. Initially, this involved a lot of just relaxing in different spaces, getting fed in different areas, and enrichment (see my last post for more about enrichment). Using brain games for feeding and freezing food in a kong or lick-mat was a huge help. Being distracted near something that she’s scared of, allowed her to relax near a trigger and changed how she viewed that thing. We did a lot of combining something motivating that she likes (food) with something she’s nervous about or scared of (everything else).

For example, when she started to learn to walk on a leash, I would put a treat a foot ahead of her. She would walk to it and eat it. Repeat. Eventually she just said she was done, no matter how many treats there were, so we went home. This is where the second huge component comes in: I had to listen to her. I choose when training starts, Scotia chooses when it ends. Sometimes they’re 1 minute long, other times it might be 10-15minutes. It’s never very long though.

Once we starting building that trust, Scotia started being more adventurous with what she was willing to do. Our relationship is based on our trust. She trusts I will keep her safe and I trust she will be just as consistent as I am with her. Following through, being consistent, and lots of treats, was just the beginning. Today we are still learning to trust each other and grow together. We will work on training in small sessions and she still decides when we stop. There will ALWAYS be lots of treats involved. That’s how this goes.

Once Scotia was at a place where she was desensitized enough, we began training the basics and have grown from there, but the process is what matters the most to both Scotia and myself. Next post we will discuss more of my tactics in how I train something and how much positive reinforcement has been a game changer for Scotia and I.

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