Helping your dog overcome his fears

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15 October 2014
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Bike fear

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The Your Dog team visits one reader whose dog needs help to overcome his biggest fear.

The problem

Rescue dog Riley had a traumatic experience involving a bike which left a lasting impression. His owner, Abi Whitaker, was walking Riley off his lead when he was hit by a pushbike.

"About two years ago, we were walking along a cycle path," said Abi. "As it was not busy I decided to do some off-lead training with Riley. A cyclist suddenly appeared; I shouted there was a dog off the lead but the cyclist didn't take any notice.

"Riley had disappeared into the hedge. As he reappeared he collided with the bike.

"The cyclist was really angry and tried to hit Riley, but fortunately he got away.

"Riley has had a fear of bikes since the incident. If he is on the lead he will pull and bark at a bike; if he's off the lead he will chase it. Even if we are in the car and he sees a bike he is very reactive and will bark. He is fine if the bike is stationary or a child's bike.

"I like taking Riley for walks, particularly on the beach, but there are usually lots of cyclists about. It's really frustrating as his fear is affecting our walks."

Fighting a fear

The Your Dog team, accompanied by Steve Goward, deputy head of training and behaviour at Dogs Trust, met Abi and Riley at their home in Bristol. After hearing how Riley was hit by a bike, Steve explained that this type of incident can have a big impact on dogs.

"Dogs usually learn things over time but when a negative one-off experience happens it can have a strong learning effect," said Steve.

"In Riley's case, he had a frightening encounter and developed this negative behaviour towards bikes and cyclists as a coping strategy. These behaviours can be quite severe. To humans, the one-off incident might not appear frightening, but to a dog it can feel life-threatening."

The team headed to a local park where Steve showed Abi techniques she could use so Riley wouldn't need these coping mechanisms any longer, and would instead associate bikes with something positive.

Things boded well as Riley took an instant liking to Steve. Before starting the training session, Steve changed Riley's lead.

"I like using two different leads, as it helps dogs understand when you're training them and when you're not training them," said Steve. "Riley has freedom on the extending lead or long line, and then training on the shorter lead.

"This is the first time Riley will be on the training lead and he'll not understand why. When Abi starts training regularly and Riley associates it with treats, he will soon learn to pay more attention when the training lead goes on."

The first step to overcoming Riley's fear was for Steve to find how near he could take the dog to a moving bike without him reacting. Someone was needed to play the role of the cyclist and ride past while Steve found this critical distance - Your Dog feature writer Michael Hallam was the willing volunteer.

Steve and Abi took Riley on to the grass as Michael cycled up and down the path about 50 metres away. As Michael rode past, Steve called Riley and rewarded him for not reacting to the bike.

Gradually, Riley was brought nearer to the path where Michael was cycling. When Riley was within 30 metres of the bike he reacted, ignoring calls and treats, and barking and pulling on the lead towards it.

"Abi needs to find the distance at which she can train Riley to react positively towards cyclists," said Steve. "We don't want to put him in a situation where he is going to be stressed and react badly. This critical distance is different for all dogs. If Riley is getting worked up while training, the distance between him and the bike needs to increase."

Rewarding good choices

Once the critical distance at which Riley reacted to the bike was established, Steve took him a little further away and focused on showing Abi how to train Riley to change his behaviour.

As Michael cycled slowly past, Abi needed to get Riley's attention and reward him for not reacting to the bike.

"As the bike goes past, say ‘Riley, what's this?' or ‘Riley, look at me,' to get his attention," Steve told Abi.

"If he looks at you, praise him and give him a treat. Riley barks at the bike because he is fearful and wants it to go away. This is a counter conditioning programme where we want to change that emotion, so when Riley sees a bike, he thinks ‘Great, where is my treat?'

"The treat needs to be a high value reward. In this case I am using little bits of sausage and chicken."

Abi asked Steve whether she should still reward Riley if he was looking at the floor and not paying attention to the bike. Steve said that any time Riley did not react he should be rewarded.

"We reinforce any good decision Riley makes with a treat," explained Steve. "Dogs often exhibit what are called displacement behaviours. When they are anxious or confused they will do a normal behaviour, such as sniffi ng the fl oor, to comfort themselves and make them feel better. We still reward these behaviours, as Riley is acting calmly towards the bike."

The key part of the training was getting Riley's attention as the cyclist went past. This allowed Abi to give him a treat which created a positive association with bikes.

"Abi does not want to pull Riley to get his attention," explained Steve. "When the bike goes past Abi should stand neutrally and call him. It is about getting his attention before he is going to react and rewarding his good choices and calm behaviour.

"Ideally, Abi will be able to set up the exercise with someone she knows on a bike at a set distance away. However, that is not always possible. Instead, Abi can come to places such as the park where there is a likelihood of bikes on the path and work at that set distance away.

"Abi needs a back-up for times when she doesn't think Riley will look at her when he is called. A bike may approach quickly while she is out walking, so she'll need something to get his attention.

"She can keep a squeaker in her pocket and use that, then praise and reward him with a treat when he responds. It is easy to remove the plastic squeaker from soft squeaky toys.

"Another method Abi can use is to gently stroke the lead through her hands. It does not pull on the lead but applies a gentle pressure, and often the dog will give you his attention."

Once Abi had developed the techniques she should aim to close the distance between Riley and the bike and lower the value of the reward.

"If Abi consistently rewards Riley's calm behaviour he will get to the point where he sees a bike and looks for his treat," explained Steve.

"Food is a good starting point but eventually Abi can phase that out - Riley values Abi's affection so that becomes the reward. It is going to take time. As with any training it is about consistency and changing locations.

"If Abi were to train him in one location Riley would just learn not to react to bikes in that location. We have to generalise training."

Getting close to the bike

The second part of the training was to allow Riley to get really close to the bike. Michael stood with the bike and let Riley approach. Then he pushed the bike slowly along the path as Steve walked Riley alongside.

"By pushing the bike we are changing the stimulus," said Steve. "There are actually two parts to Riley's fear - the bike and the cyclist - and we are recognising them separately.

"As with the distance exercise, we reward Riley's calm behaviour with praise and a high-value treat. This also helps to desensitise him to the noise of the bike. Riley is aware of the clunk of the chain and the noise of the wheels. If Riley can walk along with the bike, the training can gradually become more advanced, with the bike moving at greater speed."

Riley came near the bike; while his tension was evident he never barked at Michael. He showed a few displacement behaviours and Steve reinforced Riley's good decisions by giving him treats.

At the end of the session, Abi practised finding the critical distance and rewarding Riley's good behaviour as Michael cycled past. Steve complimented Abi on how she got Riley's attention and commented that she had already got a good grasp of when to call him.

"The day was really good," said Abi. "I understand Riley and his behaviour much better. Steve made the training enjoyable and easy to follow.

"I feel I am more able to pick up when Riley is going to react badly to a bike and when I need to focus on getting his attention. This will not only help with training but also when I am out on walks, as I can try to put that safe distance between us and any bikes."

Before and after

Bike fear