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Helping dogs fearful of men through the "peek-a-boo" game

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Among the many fears and phobias dogs may develop, fear of men can surely put a dent in the dog's overall quality of life as this can be a source of constant stress. After all, unlike other fears, this one can be quite challenging to avoid, unless the dog is led to live a lonely, secluded life in complete isolation. Most likely, the fearful dog will meet men on walks, at the vet's office, or even, more disturbingly, in the house whether the man is over for repairs or as a guest. We know that avoidance will not teach the dog anything, but at the same time, we know that exposure causes the fear to pop up its ugly head. So what's left to do?

Understanding Fearful Behaviors in Dogs

We all wished there were quick fixes to make fears and phobias quickly fade away, but unfortunately, changing behavior and its associated emotions takes time, especially since certain behaviors dogs engage in when facing their fears are quite reinforcing. Dogs commonly face their fears in two ways: by hiding or acting defensively.

Hiding is a highly reinforcing behavior as the dog feels immense relief when he moves away from the trigger. The sensation must feel similar to a person with a fear of flying when he or she decides last minute to refuse to board the plane. You can almost hear a sigh of relief.

Acting defensively, on the other hand, can also be equally reinforcing. The lunging, barking and growling displays most likely cause the person to move away, or even better, leave. The dog feels relief when the person moves away, just as a person scared of mice does if he stomps his feet to scare the mouse away. Because these behaviors are reinforcing, they are very fast in putting roots and repeating; therefore, soon a behavior pattern is established.

Helpings Dogs Cope with their Fears

There are two very powerful methods used both in humans and animals to help dogs conquer their fears. These methods are desensitization and counterconditioning. In desensitization, the source of fear is presented in a systematic, less threatening manner. So for instance, in the case of people scared of flying, they are exposed to a simulator so they can get used to the airplanes noises, learn relaxation techniques and better ways to cope with their fears.

In counterconditioning, positive associations are formed so that the fearful person associates them with the source of their fear, and their emotions about it, can be changed. People scared of flying are often encouraged to bring along their favorite snacks on board, a great book or to start an interesting conversation with the person seated next to them.

When both methods are used in synergy, powerful results can be attained. Through desensitization, you get a good boost of confidence as you conquer your fears little steps at a time. At the same time, since the threat appears less threatening, you are better able to cognitively function so you're more open to learn coping skills and relaxation techniques. Through counterconditioning your emotions change and you may even start looking forward to meeting the trigger because of past positive experiences. So let's see now how these methods can be applied to dogs fearful of men.

Helping Dogs Fearful of Men

How can you desensitize dogs to men? First off, you must determine what triggers your dog to react to men. Does your dog react only to certain men? All types of men? Tall men? Men with facial hair? Men with deep voices? Men who walk fast? When does you dog react? When men look at your dog? When men talk to your dog? When men loom over your dog? When they come to your home? On walks? You have to then make men appear less threatening to them and always work under threshold. This means letting them see men from a distance, letting them hear recordings of men's voices, have men move more slowly and so forth. Full exposure to men (flooding) causes setbacks and potentially unsafe situations, don't let that happen!

How do you countercondition dogs who are fearful of men? You make great things happen when a man appears. What are great things for dogs? Most likely, food, play, praise and attention. All these good things must happen in context. That means, they only appear when the man is present, when he leaves, all the good things must stop so it's crystal clear in the dog's mind that it's the man's presence that brings good things. Following are some ideas to help your dog out.

The Peek-a-Boo Game for Dogs Fearful of Men

I came up with this game one day I had a dog boarding with us who started barking every time my husband would show up by the room to tell me something. Since the barking frenzy happened all the time in this context, I thought of trying to play "peek-a-boo." I recommend using a baby gate for safety. This is what I did.

  • Several times during the day, I would say "peek-a-boo!" followed by my appearance by the door and a tossed high-value treat the dog readily ate (treats that make a sound as they hit the floor work better)
  • After a while, the moment I said, "peek-a-boo" the dog would be looking at me for a treat. I knew by now that the dog had formed a positive association between the word "peek-a-boo" my appearance and the treat.
  • In the middle of this, I had my hubby stand out of view and say "peek-a-boo" instead of me, but I would be the one still peeking and tossing the treat.
  • At one point, in the middle of these peek-a-boos I would have my hubby do the peeking, with me saying "peek-a-boo" and him tossing the treat past the dog. Because of all the previous positive associations, and possibly, the fact that his behavior mimicked mine, the dog didn't react and ate the tossed treats.
  • Gradually, I made my husband's "peek-a-boo" appearances increase in frequency, but randomly, so the dog never knew when to expect me or my hubby. The dog though did have a split second notice as the peek-a-boo came shortly prior to our appearance so we wouldn't catch him off guard causing him to startle.
  • At some point, I was able to make him appear several times in a row with him saying "peek-a-boo" and the dog never reacting.

*Note: if a dog ever reacts during behavior modification, it's a sure sign that you're going too fast in the process. Take a step back and do some problem solving to figure out what you can do to prevent these set backs. Increasing distance is often a good way to keep the dog better under threshold. As in training, the saying be a splitter not a lumper" applies to behavior modification as well.

Other Helpful Resources

A similar approach to the peek-a-boo" game is suggested by Ian Dunbar in his answer to a question by a reader asking how to help her dog who hated men. He suggests to invite several female friends, letting them sit on the couch and train the dog to perform this sequence: "come, sit, kibble." When the dog is called, he is asked to sit and he is hand-fed his kibble. Then as some point, male friends will be invited too. At this point, instead of hand-feeding though, it's better for the men to toss the food past the dog, so the dog can retreat when he gets it. This step is very important as it gives the dog relief, but at the same time the opportunity for positive associations to be made. Don't let your dog fall into the approach avoidance trap.

There are several other methods to help a dog who is fearful of men. One of my favorites, is the "look at that" (LAT) method coined by Leslie McDevitt. In this method, when the dog sees a man from a distance, he is fed tasty treats. Before moving into LAT though, I like to do some pre-LAT work by using the other dog's senses. Another great method is Jean Donaldson's 'Open Bar, Closed Bar" method, where the dog would be fed treats while the trigger appears (in this case when a man walks by) and the treats stop when the trigger disappears (in this case when the man leaves).

Disclaimer: behavior modification for dogs comes with risks. To keep everybody safe, please consult with a force-free behavior consultant to help you out.

Adrienne Farricelli, all rights reserved.

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