BY MANETTE KOHLER, DVM, FREELANCE WRITER
As a behavior consultant, I wish I had a penny for every call I get that starts with, “I just adopted a rescue dog from (insert southern state here) and he/she is afraid of (insert triggers here). There are all sorts of reasons for dogs to be shy, in general, or fearful of specific things, noises, people, other animals, etc., including genetics, lack of early positive socialization, negative prior experiences and learned behaviors. Sadly, this can leave these dogs ill-equipped to handle the many typical daily experiences common to being a pet dog.
One such dog entered our lives six years ago. He was a 4-month-old male and mixed breed puppy with a shy nature and big heart. One look into those big brown eyes and we melted. This is his story. He’s not a “Celebrity,” except in our own eyes, but he represents the multitudes of rescue dogs out there that are emotionally damaged or just ill equipped to handle normal life pressures.
After guiding so many families through the process of helping to teach their fearful rescue dog that the world could be a safe place, I now had a fearful dog of my own. As we explored our neighborhood with our new pup, various common sights and sounds were met with a low tail, big eyes, ears lowered and an occasional cowering stance or an instinct to hide behind us.
We embarked on a typical classical counterconditioning (CC) and desensitization (DS) plan with Bentley, pairing the appearance of any possible trigger with great stuff which, in Bentley’s case, was cheese and chicken. Over time, his threshold distance shrunk. He also learned a handy coping skill of looking at us when a trigger appeared (i.e. another dog, men, lawn mowers, etc.).
A major setback occurred one year when, on four separate occasions, off-leash dogs approached us on walks and frightened Bentley, two of them rushing up to him snapping and two of them attacking him. The result was fear, heightened emotional arousal and barking/lunging whenever he saw another dog. Again, we worked on our behavior modification, and again it helped. He became much more confident navigating our neighborhood and really enjoyed his walks, but going new places was still sometimes met with uncertainty.
It was about this time that I heard about a canine activity called nose work. Kathy Edstrom, Certified Nose Work Instructor (CNWI) and owner of Paws-A-Tive Choice, LLC, teaches nose work and shared with me how this activity can be a great confidence builder for shy and/or reactive dogs. “It gives the dogs something enjoyable to do, and they get rewarded for doing something that comes naturally for them,” says Edstrom.
This makes sense given that one-eighth of the canine brain is devoted to olfaction. They see their world through their nose. “In dogs, scent goes straight to the limbic system that regulates mood and drives emotions and memory,” says Victoria Stilwell, Editor-in-Chief of Positively.com, and passionate advocate for positive reinforcement dog training methods. “Food is an important part of the learning process,” she adds, “and can help nervous and anxious dogs overcome their fears.”
“Bentley seemed very concerned his first night of class,” says Edstrom. “He was worried about me being in the search area, and he did not have much interest in searching the boxes until he realized there were food rewards to be found.” Edstrom saw a beautiful transformation between his first and last search of that initial introduction to K9 Nose Work. “With every class, he became less nervous and more confident,” she adds. Shyness when going into novel environments fell away as he worked his way through the nose work levels. “He is now working advanced hides, at various locations and has no problems doing it,” says Edstrom. “He no longer exhibits the reactive behaviors because he has had nothing but positive experiences in our classes,” she adds. “He comes in and is ready to work”.
While nose work can help shy and reactive dogs, Edstrom believes it also depends on how the class is taught. She works with many shy and reactive dogs so she structures her classes so that there are no other dogs near the search area. “If dogs are reactive toward other dogs or are shy of people or dogs, I don’t want them to be concerned about that,” explains Edstrom. “I want them to be completely focused on the game and not afraid of a dog potentially coming into the area,” she adds. She has seen some incredible transformations with shy and reactive dogs, Bentley included. I’ve witnessed several of Bentley’s shy and/or reactive classmates make great strides as well.
Every new location is a new opportunity to play the fun game. I’ve enjoyed watching this transformation in Bentley. Working our way to the advanced levels of nose work training has been a really fun way to teach Bentley that the world is a safe place to explore. Have a shy or reactive dog? Explore for yourself how the world of Scent can benefit your dog.
For more info on Kathy Edstrom’s nose work classes, visit www.pawsativechoice.com