The Long Road with a Fearful Dog - German Shepherd Dog Forums
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post #1 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-04-2013, 04:22 PM Thread Starter
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The Long Road with a Fearful Dog

I've mentioned in several other threads that Pongu, my Very Special Dog, is a severely fearful little guy. I adopted him from a city shelter at 16 weeks, having absolutely no idea what I was getting into as a first-time owner. He is now 3 years old, and much better than he was, but there's no cure for a fearful dog. There's improvement, but you never finish the journey. You never get a "normal" dog.

Just this past weekend, I left him outside a bakery while I stopped in to grab a loaf of bread. Pongu was not there for more than two or three minutes, which I figured was within what he is currently able to tolerate, but in that time a car pulled into the parking spot beside him and the awning on the next storefront flapped in the wind, so when I got back outside, he was completely terrified and cowering and had pooped himself. After three solid years of rehab and confidence-building, after thousands of hours and dollars with the best trainers and behaviorists in our region, I can't leave him tied outside a store for two minutes.

That's my Pongu. He's a scaredybutt.

He's also my competition dog.* Because of his mental (and some physical) issues, the only sport he can really do is Rally. (Well, to be fair, he can also do canine musical freestyle, and that's actually where we first began. He's pretty darn good at it. But I can't dance, let alone choreograph a half-decent routine, so we never made it to competition in freestyle.)

Pongu can't tolerate a stranger approaching him; he'll never do the Stand For Exam in obedience. He can't tolerate loud noises or unstable footing; he'll never do the teeter in agility. Flyball, dock diving, and of course all the protection sports are completely off the table for this dog.

But he can do Rally. On his good days, he can completely kick butt in Rally.

On his bad days, he melts down at the start line and we never get off the ground.

And there are a lot of bad days. Competing with a fearful dog is not much fun sometimes. Even more than with a normal dog, you have to be willing to put your ego aside and do what is best for your dog to avoid damaging his confidence, because he doesn't have any to start with. You have to accept that the brilliant, snappy, precise dog you see in practice will very often not show up at trial, because the trial venue is a NEW SCARY PLACE!! and little tiny things that other dogs don't even notice will cause your fearful dog to implode.

That's hard for me. By nature I'm an overachiever. I like to win. I don't like seeing my dog collapse like an overcooked souffle because there's an overhead fan blowing on the course and he can't deal with that. I really, really want to tell him to suck it up and tough it out and yell FOR GOD'S SAKE YOU CAN DO THIS WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU.

But I can't do that, because that doesn't work with a fearful dog. What does work is patience and practice and patience and practice and gritting your teeth and telling him that why yes he is wonderful for taking that ($*&(#*&$ stupid jump on the third try after you've already NQ'ed in front of everybody for the fourth straight run and wasted 12 hours of your life and $150 in entry fees.

It can be incredibly frustrating.

But there are moments of glory too, and those are what keep me going. There are those perfect golden runs where everything is in harmony and Pongu is smiling and happy and I don't have to say a word or give a single formal cue and we finish the course in total communion. Moments like that are beautiful with any dog, but you never expect to have them with a fearful dog. To me it's worth everything else to have those moments where Pongu is confident and happy and winning.

In this thread I hope to chronicle our long, slow journey to the ARCHMX -- the highest title offered in World Cynosport Rally. In so doing, I hope to provide some insight to other owners of fearful dogs about what it's like to compete with such a dog. It is possible, if you're patient and willing to listen to your dog. I was told many times never to expect Pongu to set foot in the ring at all, but we do compete and sometimes we do well, and it boosts his confidence more than anything else in the world.

(* -- you might reasonably ask: what about Crookytail? It's true, I have two dogs, and Crooky is not fearful in the slightest. He is a perfectly friendly confident normal dog. He's spectacular with the fosters and endlessly funny and a source of constant joy in our lives.

He's also dumb as a box of rocks and incredibly boring to train. I'll take the brilliant crazy dog over the genial dopey one every time, thanks. Crookytail has been retired from every sport I've ever tried with him after getting his novice titles, because that is as far as my patience goes.)

ARCHMX TDCH Pongu the Insane, CD-C, RE, RL1X6, RL2X5, RL3X2 (GSD mix, b. Apr 2010)
Crookytail the Tigerwuff, RL1, ITD (Akita mix, b. Jan 2011)
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post #2 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-04-2013, 04:25 PM
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I like your writing a lot. I'm looking forward to what you have to say.

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post #3 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-05-2013, 02:28 AM Thread Starter
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Thanks! I'll try not to be too boring.

This past Friday we trialed at the Bella Vista Training Club outside Harrisburg. It's a very nice facility that usually draws a moderate-sized, friendly, and supportive crowd for the Friday night Rally runs. It's spacious and usually not too crowded, so Pongu has done pretty well in the past there.

Unfortunately this most recent trial was not one of his better visits. It was an unseasonably hot and humid day, so all the dogs were hot and grouchy, the bugs were out in force, and the club staff had turned on enormous standing fans to cool the place down.

Pongu doesn't do well with fans. Or bugs. Or anything the least bit out of the ordinary. He came out of the box squeaky and stressy, and our day got off to a real bumpy start.

On his first Level 1 run, Pongu broke a Stay on the bonus exercise. Breaking a Level 1 Stay is brutal. It's the kind of mistake that foretells disaster ahead: if Pongu can't keep it together on a Level 1 run, I know we are in for bad times. Also, that mistake cost us all the points for the bonus exercise, so we ended up with a final score of 197, the second-worst score we've gotten this year, and the worst we've done since February. Inauspicious beginnings, boy howdy.

Our Level 2 run was even worse. This ring was full of flies that had come in from a nearby field. Pongu has an obsession about chasing flies. He can ignore them when he's happy and focused, but it's hard for him. He absolutely cannot ignore them when he's anxious -- he runs around chasing them in the same frenetic desperate way that some trichotillomaniacs obsessively pull out their hair to relieve stress. We NQ'ed on the first sign when I pulled him off the course because trying to get him to focus under those circumstances was hopeless.

Level 3 was yet another failure. It was a whole lot better than our Level 2 attempt, because at least we made it halfway through the course before NQ'ing, but I knew it was going to be a bad run when Pongu sat down to do some stress scratching at the start line, and indeed so it was.

Slow, laggy, unfocused. Pretty much the only good thing I can say about this run is that his Sits were mostly in the right place and I might have gotten two nanoseconds of actual attention Heeling at some point. It's not the worst run we've ever turned in, not by a long shot, but it sure ain't much good.

In World Cynosport Rally, you are permitted to feed your dog on the course at certain specified signs. However, time counts for placements, and in the regular classes you can't feed your dog while moving. Therefore, whenever you feed your dog you're losing time, and as a result serious competitors tend not to treat on the course because it slows them down. For that particular run, though, I already knew from the get-go that we were not in contention for placements, so I treated Pongu every time the rules allowed.

You're also allowed to use verbal encouragement on the field and can give your dog simultaneous verbal/signal cues (these have to be given at exactly the same time though, or else you get dinged for repeating cues). Throughout this run I was more or less training on the course -- lots of treats, great big hand signals, etc. -- because Pongu was squeaky and stressy and I already knew we'd be lucky to hobble through the course with a qualifying score at all. It helped a little; he started to perk up more and squeak less as we got further along.

But even a crappy score was not to be. We were wobbling along, not pretty but passing, until Pongu ran past the jump uprights; that's the instant at which we NQ'ed. I sent him back to do it again so that I could treat him for getting it right on the course (we'd already screwed up that run, no reason not to use it as a Teachable Moment for the next one), but he moved forward on the Stay and knocked the bar on his second try, freaking himself out completely.


By the end of our third lousy run, I was thoroughly demoralized and on the verge of scratching our remaining runs and going home, because I always have a million other things to do and what is even the point of sticking around just to suck mightily.

But first I took Pongu outside to just sit in the sun with him and walk in the grass and look at the flowers... and take a bunch of deep calming breaths which I needed pretty badly right then.

He seemed to be feeling better after we'd been outside for a while, so I asked him to do some Heeling and some Stay drills, and he executed those beautifully. You can barely see him in the picture below, and that's the point.

He ignored the bugs. He ignored the bees. He ignored the neighbor setting off fireworks or shooting cans in his yard or whatever that guy was out there doing that night.

And he was happy. Happy and snappy and quick.

So we went back in and did the rest of our runs, and this time Pongu was able to work. He pulled high scores in his second set of runs: 209 in Level 1, 208 in Level 2 (taking that godforsaken jump, the continual bane of our existence, perfectly for the first time ever in a trial). We NQ'ed in Level 3 again but at least he did better than he did on his previous try. We'll get it someday.

Overall it wasn't our greatest trial, but it also wasn't our worst. I'm proud of Pongu for taking that Level 2 jump smoothly, since he's never been able to go over a strange jump without massive hesitations before. Normally it looks like the double botch on the video of our Level 3 attempt.

And I'm proud of him for recovering so nicely after a real shaky start. It's a much bigger mid-trial improvement than he's ever pulled off previously.

Progress! And another QQ toward ARCHX. Two to go.

ARCHMX TDCH Pongu the Insane, CD-C, RE, RL1X6, RL2X5, RL3X2 (GSD mix, b. Apr 2010)
Crookytail the Tigerwuff, RL1, ITD (Akita mix, b. Jan 2011)
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post #4 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-06-2013, 09:23 AM
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This is a thread to follow for sure. I have a dog that is not really fearful, she just takes a long time to acclimate to new places. She is a monster on agility, nice obedience, working well in tracking and herding.

Extremely intelligent and keen. I really think the combination works against her in that she has difficulty focusing if a bug flies by.

A training challenge for me and a real exercise in patience.


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post #5 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-06-2013, 12:11 PM
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Hi, I appreciate your post and really connected with it. I've a fearful / weak nerve dog that has improved over time and every success that is normal for a normal dog warms my heart tremendously. I too have come to realize patience is key with these dogs and she'll be ready when she is. She's incredibly brilliant and obedient when she can set her fear / paranoia aside. I am thankful that her fearfulness has taught me so much about dogs - because when you have one, it forces you to learn more!
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post #6 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-06-2013, 12:34 PM
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I'm definetely going to subscribe to this thread. Thank you for the encouragement and I wish you all the best in working with Pongu and look forward to more updates


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post #7 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-06-2013, 01:01 PM Thread Starter
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Originally Posted by Kayos and Havoc View Post
A training challenge for me and a real exercise in patience.
Well, like everyone always says, "it makes you a better trainer, it makes you a better trainer, it makes you a better trainer." Sometimes I close my eyes and (semi-)silently chant that to myself as a mantra when I'm clinging to sanity by the ragged edges of my fingernails. I'm still not sure it helps, but at least it's something to say.

In all seriousness, though, I do think that fear/anxiety is the hardest thing to overcome for a competition dog. (In terms of training, I personally have the most difficulty with a dimwitted dog, which is why Crookytail doesn't even make it to trials anymore. I just get bored too quickly working with him, poor guy. But back when I was trialing with him, he'd Q just fine; his performances were just as good [or bad] in the ring as they were in practice. The jump from class practice to the trial ring was nowhere near as hard for him.)

But with practice and patience (repeat x infinity), and constant reassurance to the dog that yes! you're good at this!, yes! I'm really proud of you!, it does get better.

This is a video from the very first time Pongu and I ever set foot in a Rally ring, which is also the first time either of us had ever done any kind of dog event.

I was absolutely petrified (ring nerves like woah!), and he was too. I actually kind of hate looking at that video because it's so excruciating to relive that experience. The terror just soaks through the screen. I've never been able to make myself watch all the way through in one sitting.

Anyway, that was last August. At that point, my goal was just for Pongu to beat 170 and get a Q. I had no aspirations beyond that, because I didn't want to impose expectations on my little basketcase beyond what he could do. At that point I thought it was an utter miracle that he could even go into the ring and do ANYTHING like a "normal dog."

We earned a 196 on that run (I think the judge was being nice, seeing how scared we both were and knowing it was our first time ever) and placed almost exactly in the middle of the field, to my everlasting astonishment. So I raised my goals to getting our RL1 with an Award of Excellence for all three Qs over 190.

Then we proceeded to NQ twice in a row at the next trial we entered, which was 100% my ring nerves causing us to implode. That was completely and totally my fault, and I learned a painful but valuable lesson about trusting my dog and giving him a chance to do his thing instead of panicking and flailing and bringing us both down. Oh well. Best to learn that lesson early, I guess.

At our third trial Pongu finished his RL1 and got his Award of Excellence and, for the first time, broke 200 and placed in the ribbons (due in no small part to most of the other competitors having advanced out of our class by then, significantly lowering the number of other entries we were up against; it is not that we were an awesome team!). Accomplishing that goal encouraged me to aim a little higher.

And then once again we proceeded to NQ a bunch because Level 2 is the first off-leash level and Pongu got scared by that for a while. Also, Level 2 is when you start encountering jumps in World Cynosport Rally, and Pongu has problems with strange jumps to this day. The jumps at class are no problem, and the jump at home is no problem, but any strange new jump is CLEARLY a horrible dog-eating monster in disguise.

But eventually he got his RL2 with another AOE, and then he got his ARCH, and now we're midway through the ARCHX and well on track to continue racking up the advanced championships. All with a dog that spent his first six weeks in class hiding behind a barrier and shaking uncontrollably.

It's been a bumpy road, and it continues to be bumpy. But the more we practice, the better he gets. Right now, we mostly either score high or NQ completely. There's not much in between. It's either brilliant or disaster.

On a day-to-day basis, it often feels like we aren't getting anywhere, because progress is so incremental and it zigzags back and forth. It's not a straight line up. But then I look back on our first run, and remember how completely over the moon I was that Pongu EARNED A Q!!, and it puts things a little more back into perspective. His huge big success then is so much worse than his "failures" now, and we haven't even been doing this a year.

He's a good dog. He puts his whole heart into the work. Every time Pongu goes in there, he's wrestling down a huge monster of fear. And more often than not, these days, he's winning that match.
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ARCHMX TDCH Pongu the Insane, CD-C, RE, RL1X6, RL2X5, RL3X2 (GSD mix, b. Apr 2010)
Crookytail the Tigerwuff, RL1, ITD (Akita mix, b. Jan 2011)
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post #8 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-06-2013, 02:43 PM
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Good for you for sticking it out with Pongu and for starting this thread!

I adopted a fearful gsd at age 4.5. His name was Basu. He was not genetically fearful but had been abused and neglected for 4.5 years. He was severely undersocialized and had spent most of his time locked in a cage in the garage or hiding in a crate in the house. He was let out twice a day into a nice field where he was bullied by the family's other dog.

Somewhere on this board I've told his story but the short version is that I lived in Madison, WI at the time, was active in gsd rescue and was fortunate enough to be able to attend classes with Basu at Patricia McConnell's training school. He eventually graduated Advanced OB and by the time he was 10 I could leave him in the room with strangers for a minute or two without fear of him biting them. He came a long way in the 6.5 years he lived with me and although he was always fear aggressive and had a really short trigger, I learned to predict his behavior and how to manage him and he had a pretty happy life.

After Basu died I adopted a gsd x acd (best guess) named Kai. Kai's mother was semi-feral and he was genetically fearful. Therefore rehabbing him was a completely different game than rehabbing Basu! He was more like your Pongu--one day (out of the blue) the eating area chandelier was the scariest thing in the world and he started crawling to get into the kitchen. I had to be super creative with his training because he really wasn't that predictable. He was super smart though and so devoted and willing to work with me. I lost him in an accident when he was a year old but the 7 months we spent together were quite a learning experience for me!

I look forward to hearing more about your adventures with Pongu!

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post #9 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-08-2013, 02:01 PM
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This is a great thread! I will be following it closely. Some of Pongu's behaviors remind me so much of my Tanner. Tanner's triggers are different, and his stress relievers of choice are to have explosive diarrhea in the ring and to launch a preemptive strike against the dog outside the ring who might look at him at some point.
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post #10 of 133 (permalink) Old 06-08-2013, 06:01 PM Thread Starter
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Oof, explosive diarrhea is no fun. Pongu did that the first time I took him to a groomer, with bonus bloody streaks mixed in. He's never done it in a trial ring, though. I don't think I'd ever have the courage to go back if he did!

Also: thanks, everybody, for your responses and support.

I really recommend World Cynosport Rally and CDSP obedience as great venues for trialing fearful dogs. Both of them allow verbal praise, touch rewards, and the use of treats in the ring. The rules are structured so that you're put at a competitive disadvantage by stopping to pet or feed your dog, so people who don't need to use rewards do get a boost, but those of us with fearful dogs are able to reinforce our little scaredybutts for scraping together the courage to even go in there.

With Pongu, I'm not rewarding him for doing the behaviors. He knows how to do the behaviors. What I'm rewarding him for -- and I think this is key with a fearful dog -- is going into a trial ring. Just setting foot in there and not immediately freaking out and fleeing. That's what he's earning treats for: being brave.

It helps a LOT to be able to reward your fearful dog in the ring. Even if Pongu could tolerate the Stand for Exam (which he can't, otherwise we'd be trialing in CDSP too), the limited voice reinforcement permitted in an AKC obedience ring would probably cause him to melt down hard in there and come to view the obedience ring as a Very Bad Place. In venues where I can constantly tell him he's a Good Dog, that issue is mitigated, and while I don't have to do it nearly so much anymore, I relied on that very heavily when we were first getting started.

So I really, really recommend those particular venues to people who are looking for something they can do with a dog who needs a whole lot of hand-holding to not totally collapse into a puddle of panic.
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ARCHMX TDCH Pongu the Insane, CD-C, RE, RL1X6, RL2X5, RL3X2 (GSD mix, b. Apr 2010)
Crookytail the Tigerwuff, RL1, ITD (Akita mix, b. Jan 2011)
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