Updated: May 29, 2020
How (not) to deal and work with a fear reactive dog
Let’s review this video together – Zak George has been making a series about training his dog Inertia for the last couple of months. To be truthful, I haven’t watched any of it – but this video has been making some rounds and I was asked to comment on it. There are a lot of things in this video that I would do differently than Zak, Collies and Shepherds are very visual dogs. I sometimes struggle with Theodore with this as the second he is outside; he is so environmentally aware of his surroundings it can be hard to get his attention. When I do get his attention, it is also entwined with some anxiety. The anxiety of the unknown that is out there and when something presents itself not being able to see the thing and ensure it is safe and won’t hurt him. (We have an unfortunate history of things being unpredictable and hostile).
When watching the first part of the video with Inertia, I see a lot of similarities. She is uncomfortable with the constant changes in the environment and unsure if they are safe or not. She is not able to examine or evaluate the area and she is insecure about being restrained with other dogs running around. He also shows some clips of Inertia lunging and barking at other dogs on walks (common in these breeds)
Zak waits outside of the dog park (by a few meters in his words) and tests to see how much focus Inertia has, you can see she is able to sit, wave, focus and follow easy cues which is a good sign. Yet she has a hard mouth (hard, fast-paced bites trying to get the reinforcement) and instantly looks away to reevaluate her surrounding the second she gets food – a sign of over-arousal and stress As Zak moves forward, you can see Inertia is exhibiting signs of uncertainty, she barks at the dogs in the park, she tries to gain distance but cannot since she is on leash and Zak is standing still, her tail is straight up and wagging slowly (not a good wag), she is exhibiting erectile plumage (hackles up) and her body positioning is forward (about to lunge). She also starts to drag Zak to the fence and he follows her (he should be moving away!). He then tries to gain her focus back with an “Inertia come!” and she ignores him, which is no surprise at all she is way over threshold – she is in a fight or flight mode. She can’t turn away from these dogs – she is scared and uncomfortable. If I said there was someone with a knife coming up behind you, and held your head so you couldn’t look – how would you be feeling? You too need look at your surroundings and have that reassurance you are safe, and that the person with a knife is just buttering their toast not trying to kill you.
Eventually, Zak does make a good decision and moves away – but within a couple of minutes (that’s an assumption on my behalf) he moves closer than he was where she was struggling and although she has a couple successes, she is still uncomfortable and tries to move away again. (This is a good example of putting a dog into a compromising position with a high-value reinforcement. When a reinforcement, this case a treat – is of such high value the dog has to choose food over safety. When the dog chooses food and the food is then not available, their only solution is to react. This means we are too close and too over threshold – this happens a lot of times with dogs who are scared of people, people give the dog food from their hand and when the food is gone, if the dog can not retreat – a bite will ensue; anyways back on topic) When a dog comes to approach her through the fence, she cowers and tries to minimize her size to encourage the dog to leave. When the dog does move away, her body reverts back to the above mentioned, and her attention is gone (she is back to being over threshold)
He then decides that maybe he does want to check out the inside of the dog park, he lets her off-leash at the gate and tries to see how she does. She is undoubtedly nervous, her tail is tucked, she cowers and tries to back away but she is cornered by the gate – not a good situation. She then goes to find Zak for reassurance and comfort.
There was a good interaction with a black dog that I did a little cheer for; the first time the dog came up, she tried to make herself smaller, she froze, threw her ears back and the dog read it appropriately and left, a minute later the dog came back up and she did the same thing but also offered her butt for a sniff and that black dog sniffed and moved off. This interaction gave Inertia some positive feedback and a bit of confidence. She then follows that dog to go sniff about, this opens a door to some good interaction with a brown and black dog and some appropriate but borderline bullying towards a puppy – which Zak interrupts that behaviour. Otherwise, I don’t have anything ‘negative’ to say about that! Phew!
Then a yellow dog comes around, who has a completely different playstyle and wants to chase (Downside of a dog park: you don’t get to chose play styles, you get what you get. Which can be detrimental for many dogs) – Inertia isn’t into that game, and once again Zak interrupts that behaviour but it puts her back into defensive mode and she is now more on edge and over threshold again. Which brings us to where Inertia is just done playing nice and when the black shepherd who barrels towards her and body checks her broke the camels back. That is rude behaviour from the shepherd and many dogs do not like that play style, most definitely from a strange out of nowhere – so I am not surprised by her reaction. Inertia reacted with barring her teeth and biting the shepherd’s nose multiple times to create distance. Thankfully, the shepherd seems to be well mannered, just rude and sends appeasement signals to Inertia telling her that he isn’t interested in a fight (ears back, whale eyes, tail tucked, body position backwards as if to run away). Zak picks up Inertia so it does not escalate but wants to end the dog park experience on a good note but Inertia doesn’t seem to have an interest playing this anymore and continues to encounter hyper dogs that are too much for her – this reinforces her feelings of stress and anxiety towards dogs once again. She then continues to snap at, cower, vocalize and hide from other dogs. He says in the video “She is more a people person, and that’s alright!” which it’s true, it is alright. Although I think with properly structured play with dogs that are calm, or ignore her would teach her how to come out of her shell and teach her proper play. She is scared and he moved way too fast for Inertia just for content. He isn’t being a good advocate for her in this situation or helping her through a lot of these poor interactions.
Don’t get me wrong, Zak has a lot of good information in the video, and he says all the right things but this is a great example of knowing more than just theory but also knowing how to implement the training so that you and your dog (and everyone else involved) is set up for success.
Why Zak decided to go into the dog park in the first place doesn’t make sense – he says at the beginning of the video that isn’t his intent, and with multiple failures outside the park he was setting himself and Inertia up for failure.
Hopefully, my breakdown of this video makes sense, and can enlighten you in some canine language and dialogue. Also check out the book and video Calming Signals by Turid Rugaas and Inertia was very clear in a lot of her body language that she did not want to be there. Learn to communicate with your dog and don’t ignore valuable information that they are giving you. Otherwise, as seen in this video – the behaviour will escalate.
If you would like more content like this, please let me know! Or send me a video you would like broken down!