Recently I followed up with a client about the training, management, and medical intervention that we put in place to help their dog with anxiety, and her owner wrote back that the tricky treat toys seemed to be helping, but they were not a silver bullet.
This phrase–“silver bullet”–got me to thinking about how to set expectations around training, because there never are silver bullets. The trainer who tries to sell you one is doing both you and your dog a disservice.
This is especially true for anxiety and fear-based behaviors in dogs. There is no one-stop, easy solution to convincing your dog that they don’t have to be concerned about the situations, people, or dogs that they fear.
I have fears (spiders are a big one on mine), even though I have both language skills and fairly decent reasoning skills. I just can’t help that surge of adrenaline and cortisone that plagues me when I see a little 8-legged creepy crawly skittering across my floor. In my head, I know that the spiders where I live are not poisonous or even interested in biting me. I understand with my head that they even are helpful, keeping down fly and mosquito populations, which are really the pests I should fear.
I don’t know for sure, but I think I can imagine how my dog feels when she thinks the UPS guy is trying to break into her home.
I am no dog whisperer. I can’t speak soothingly to a dog and somehow convince her that the UPS delivery person doesn’t intend her or her home any harm, and in fact, is a really helpful because they deliver dog food. I can’t demonstrate for her my own fearlessness with regard to the UPS delivery. I could yell at her to stop barking, but then she’s not only afraid of the UPS guy, she’s also going to feel I’m off my rocker and I’ve become an unreliable human.
The changing of a dog’s feelings of fear and anxiety requires lots of slow, patient, incremental, and most importantly, non-triggering work, to teach your dog that the scary thing is actually to be rejoiced over. It must be planned out, step by step. Even with the best of plans in place, there’s no guarantee that we can speed through the work because the dog, and her feelings, must always, always set the pace. Go no faster than she can tolerate, or the flooding she experiences will ultimately slow you down.
Training plans are amazing things, and they do work. With fear and anxiety, you’re also going to have to do a lot of management to prevent your dog from rehearsing and further cementing her fearful behavior. Sometimes this is as easy as using a baby gate to prevent access to the triggering area. Sometimes it means walking a different path to get where you’re going instead of the most direct one. Sometimes it means getting up WAY earlier than you wanted to get a walk at the quietest part of the day.
In addition, most dogs benefit from environmental enrichment; in other words, making her work for her calories (every single one! Throw away that dog bowl, you don’t need it anymore!) so that she can spend some of her energy on her “food-finding job” instead on her “apartment-guarding job.”
In the rare cases, your vet might prescribe an anti-anxiety medication. This might seem like a silver bullet, but of all the the interventions, this is the least effective without ALL the other elements in place. Merely giving your dog fluoxetine without managing her environment and taking advantage of her lowered anxiety level to do some training will leave you with a dog that is still very anxious.
Sometimes you need to do “all of the above.” There is no silver bullet. Luckily for us and for our dogs, there are incremental training plans, management, enrichment activities, and, sometimes, medication.