The Power of Options and Choices for Treating Fearful Dogs


I am not sure what function this post will serve… one of these days I’ll write a more thoughtful, organized article about the topic, but this will be more of a freeform rant with bad grammar and poorly constructed sentences.

The video above is of Cafe taken Monday, July 1. Cafe is an Austin Pets Alive! dog currently living with a foster couple who hope to be able to adopt him. Without going too much into it, Cafe has pretty serious fear issues, particularly of people.

I felt that one could easily make the mistake of trying to (over) control every interaction and environment and pressure Cafe into choosing between limited sets of response options in order to get some kind of reward. This is often sets up a pressure-filled situation for a dog, such as “I can stay safe and not get a treat. Or I can get closer to this person and get a treat but he might eat me. Should I risk it?”

Rather than put these kinds of questions to Cafe, I wanted to give him a wide range of response options to choose from and put as little pressure as possible on him to make his choices. And rather than the positive response options leading to reward I wanted the responses themselves to be the reward in their own right. I wanted him to make choices that were intrinsically fun, rather than because the choices would lead to a reward.

Cafe struck me as a dog that needed to learn how to be a dog. He needed to learn about running and playing and sniffing and frolicking and leaping and splashing and chasing. My belief was that once he learned how good the world could be through making choices on his own because they were fun, the trickle down effect would be substantial and he could learn that there was another way he could be.

Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park is a massive off leash park in North Austin with miles of hiking trails and water holes. It’s like Disney World (or maybe Las Vegas, depending on your demographic) for dogs with a cornucopia of exciting sights, smells, and dog friendly stimuli. At the right times of day, you run into a few dogs and people without it being too overwhelming. I know Walnut Creek Park very well. I take my dogs there 3-4x a week. While I can’t know everything that might happen in any given situation, I can do a pretty good job predicting the environment at Walnut Creek Park. This is very important.

So we take Cafe to Walnut Creek Park.  Rather than go gung-ho off-leash, to keep him safe we put him on a 30 foot long leash when we get inside the park. I give him as much leash as he needs and keep it as loose as I can. I want him to feel completely free and feel no pressure from me to do anything. I know he likes dogs, especially smaller ones, so I bring my poodle-mix Alan with us. He is at first reluctant, tail tucked, following us cautiously down the trail, unwilling to engage with the environment. We just keep moving and he keeps following. Soon his tail starts to come up. He starts sniffing here and there. We just let him go to town. Whichever way he wants to go, we go. If he wants to sniff, we let him. We let him take it all in on his own terms. Soon he is scampering about and flash-forward to yesterday’s park visit, and you can see Cafe experiencing just how fun this world can be.

We still have a lot of work to do. But as of now, we’ve started seeing him willingly (albeit cautiously) go up to strangers, and even offered a playbow to one woman. He playbowed with me for the first time yesterday. We’re going to continue getting him to the park regularly, in addition to other things that allow him make his own choices on smaller scales. Anyway that’s Cafe, and I love him.

Please don’t do any of the things suggested here on your own unless you are 100% certain no one will get hurt.

Suzanne Clothier is great to read if you’re interested in understanding more about fearful dogs.

Patricia McConnell’s article on giving dogs ‘autonomy’ is a great discussion of some of the ideas discussed above.