Desensitising Bear the Chowski with the Rove Van

Posted On February 28, 2020

Every dog has fears, or areas of caution, this is a quick case study on Bear who’s cautious about the Van.

People think dog walking is easy… what do I think? Well, it is and it’s not! All dogs are different. You see your own dog and you assume they’re all a much of a muchness, because how different can dogs really be, right? Let me tell you, hugely different!! Some dogs can deal with some things, and others can’t. Every dog has their own vice, something that’s scary or that they are reluctant to do. Like Ernie! My weimaraner client (one of them… haha) – doesn’t like having to walk through big puddles, yet his brother and every other dog I walk will just go “Eh, ok!” and we go on. Well, except for maybe Tofu? But for a chihuahua, a three inch deep puddle is basically a swimming pool – so I understand that more than Ernie! 

Yet, today was an interesting one. Bear is a Chow cross Husky, known as a Chowski! He’s the adorable bundle of fur you can see above. Now, it’s my first walk with Bear today, and I knew he would be a bit of a challenge, but, as per usual, it wasn’t in the way I expected.  And when a dog doesn’t like something fundamental to your walking routine? What do you do? It’s not something I can really rule out, if we’re to take Bear on our group walks. So what do I do? 

In this blog, I’m going to show you what we do, how we deal with it by desensitisation and creating positive associations, using my helping Bear as my working example. These are all things you can use at home, just remember to make it appropriate to your situation. 

Chowski

The Story

Bear had been cautious about me in the house, we’d only met once prior, at the regular meet and greet, where he had been confident, bold and full of beans! So I seen Husky traits in him and went “He’ll be fine”. To explain a little more, sometimes it takes more than one meet and greet for a dog to allow you in the house, and with big, nervy dogs, I’ll encourage that quite often as a precaution. But Bear didn’t give me those signs, instead, I felt he’d be fine. 

Predictably, I was wrong. He wasn’t that fine! He barked and howled and so, I employed my “It’s ok buddy, remember me? Here’s sausages…” technique, catchy name, huh? But again, this is me making positive associations with me. “She’s the treat lady! She has great treats!” is the first association before I start making more associations with great walks and fun friends.  

Within a few minutes he was literally eating out of the palm of my hand – wary of sudden movements, but he sniffed my lead, and me, and was relaxing. So when he heard “Walkies” and I clipped him on, we got outside! I was excited to see that, because for a moment I did worry it wouldn’t happen.

Next step was to get Bear in the van. 

Uh oh…

He sniffed it, I opened the door. 

And nope. 

Bear backed up and looked at me like I was nuts. 

I don’t always relent, but this seemed like the right time to. The van can be a problem for some dogs. It smells weird, it’s caged (and some dogs don’t have a great association with crates), and they’re with a strange person. So for more cautious dogs, like Bear, the van can be a lot. So, I gave him a shot, and quickly decided no, we were asking a great deal of this lovely chowski anyway, let’s not take him too far out of his depths. Sometimes getting him to bond with me, and trust me is a much bigger and more important step.

So, with a quick message to his mum, we went on a street walk around the local area, where I started testing response to name, hints of recall, general commands and similar, and plying him with lots of yummy high value treats.

With an hour of that, we moved fairly quickly back to the van. This is where the Positive reinforcement comes in. with a pocket full of gammon, sausages and chicken, I worked Bear closer to the Van which he was really not keen on getting close to. Feed him pet him, praise him for each positive step towards the van. It can be a big effort to relax and encourage a dog as opposed to being stubborn back – but that gets you nowhere – so always try to work with your dog. 

We tried an exciting run up! Nope. We tried a trail of treats. Nope. Carpeting the floor of the van with sausages and chicken… Nope. I tried throwing the treats in like a game… nope. But slowly edging him towards it with a piece of food in hand, teasing and luring him in, was working! So I honed in on that.

When close enough, and you can see in the video, I secured him to the van to eliminate any tensions from me, and that way he was free to explore within a perimeter. He sniffed the van, he was getting used to the smells (including my grotty boots, hehe), and I got him to putting his paws in the van. 

Great step! This got me really excited. I feel so genuinely rewarded myself when dogs do what I’m looking for from them. That’s why I love working with dogs like Bear, they’re a great sense of satisfaction.

So, with that then encouraging me, I looked at the van and went “He doesn’t want to be trapped.” So, that’s where the double side door on the van comes in handy. I whipped the other one open, so he could see through, largely, and he might not feel so enclosed. Less trapped. It also probably made it smell a little less like the wet dogs that had been in there before him.

I mean, what would you think if you hadn’t done it before, and someone tried to bundle you into a van that smelled weight and it was someone who you’d met once, you’d also be thinking “Hey, no… I’m not sure about this…”. A big aim here at Rove is to make everything a positive experience, it’s part of what I’ve agreed to do by joining the PDWA (Professional Dog Walkers Association) is to be a force-free walker and someone who champions positive reinforcement.

That’s when the magic happened.

I decided to start recording, weirdly enough… watch the video! You’ll see. 

And you can probably hear it in my voice on the recording. But I was just so excited to see it!! It was a huge step towards making him trust the process. 

Of his own free will, with a little encouragement. Bear hopped into the van and started helping himself to the sausages I’d thrown in there. Result! Without fear, without force, Bear went in the van and treated himself to a small feast of cocktail sausages. Yep! Do you know how much my heart leapt at that moment? 

There was a temptation too to push him further. To ask for more. But there’s a saying in life, end on a good note. And it’s something that I take to heart when training dogs. End on a high! It makes both of you more willing the next time you try (so, yes, mental thing for both human and dog). 

Recap

So, let’s recap. What did I do?

1 – Assessed the fear. (Van, new, smells strange, enclosed)

2 – problem shot how Bear learns (Food & freedom to make his own choices, at his own pace)

3 – Ended on a high (Also known as setting them up for success! End before he was tired of it)

What are my next steps? Repeat the process and hopefully see him adapt quicker. If so, I’ll work him up to shutting the crate door, ply him with treats and praise, and then hopefully at least one of the van doors. Should that go well, we may go for a drive… but it will be done at Bear’s pace, and  how he is most comfortable. I don’t want to take him out of that comfort zone if at all possible, as it’s about building trust right now! His Mum & Dad might be able to take him further outside of that zone, but right now I need to bond with Bear too, and that’s very important.

It’s also worth noting that I specifically chose to do it at the end of the walk when he knew me more, but you may want to do it after a small training session instead to ensure there are some listening ears.

So, what from this do I want you to understand? I want you to see how you can help your dog with their fears. I also want you to take faith that Rove don’t ever push your dog further than they’re comfortable, but that we will work them to mutual goals for your dog. 

How can you implement this sort of thing? Well, maybe your dog is scared of cars? Or you’re introducing a new harness, or maybe a new person? Start slow, let your dog do what he or she needs to do to feel comfortable within safe parameters.

And there you have it! Happy dog, super proud walker! I always say I don’t train your dogs. However, there is always a little to be done. I have to make your dog comfortable with me and my processes in some regard. But hopefully, you can see that I do that gently, with love, care and sensitivity. 

So, if you have a nervous Nelly, or a cautious Colin and you’re worried about getting a dog walker? Don’t be! Just look for the best. They’ll know how to get the best out of your dog with a positive methodology! You can trust that Rove will always do this.

If you don’t know if you’re ready to get in touch just yet, and want to know more, you can also check out how our group walks work, how we work your dog up to recall and how Easy Peasy Puppy Squeezy can help you and your dog.

 

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