This is Finn. He has learned to walk off-leash at the dog park. As you can imagine, that is a very challenging environment. Finn was a chronic squirrel chaser, but the primary reason the family called for behavior help was that Finn had bitten a guest while at their home. His anxiety had advanced to point that he trusted very few people. Finn was also reactive to other dogs who showed insecurity. Another dog's barking would easily trigger to bark and lunge.
Finn had trouble in his relationship with his pet parent. He did not completely trust the relationship and this affected his overall sense of security. A dog's connection to their parenting figure is their primary "safe base" by which they can explore the world. If there are any deficiencies with that attachment, their sense of security will be negatively impacted. As a result, anxiety disorders will take hold and grow like weeds in an unhealthy lawn.
To address this problem we spent many hours working to build family attachments. It was critical that this "1st Dimension" of emotional needs be met before doing any sort of exposure therapies to desensitize him to troublesome sights and sounds.
In particular, we focused on establishing what I call the "Big 3 Boundaries" -- that is heel, wait, and bed. All variations of the "stay" concept, which is the most important expectation a dog can ever learn.
After these boundaries were established in the home, we spent many hours outside teaching Finn to redirect his focus towards his parent. If he was to function normally in society he had to learn to trust her with his life. Therefore Finn would have to learn to embrace vulnerability.
We were careful not to use any toys and treats to redirect his focus towards his parent. Our interest was instead to build family attachments, not give him more objects to fixate upon and manage. Adding toys and treats to the scene would have only exacerbated his problems. His obsession to control things was an outward manifestation of his inward insecurities. Instead, we wanted to alleviate Finn's need to obsessively and compulsively control events and objects that seemed out of control.
Remember too that it is not always a good thing that dogs love their toys. All behaviors -- even the seemingly good ones, should be maintained in moderation. It is good, for instance, if a dog wants to casually play with a toy. It is unhealthy if the dog so desperately wants a toy that they will attack anyone who comes near it. And it is unhealthy for them to choose a toy over a parent's instructions. If a dog chooses a $5 toy over us, then our entire relationship has been devalued to a paltry $5. Conversely, it is unhealthy for a dog to have no urges at all. Both extremes can be dangerous.
All behaviors exist on a spectrum. On the polar ends of that spectrum are harmful dysfunctions. We should strive to maintain balance in our relationship, and balance in our dog's emotions.
One way to know if a behavior is healthy is to ask yourself these questions: "Can I easily turn the fixation off? Can I call my dog off of an activity and have them instantly respond?" If either of these answers is "No", then you have some work to do.
The toys and treats need to be put away and more time spent on family attachment-building. This is done through setting of boundaries, controlling our dog's action plans, giving discipline when needed, and filling them full of affection for making great choices.
Otherwise, keep doing what you are doing!
Once Finn's social attachments were secured, we moved to begin his exposure therapy in the great outdoors. A world that had plagued him for several years; a world he felt the need to control. This was done carefully and incrementally over time.
With each trip outside he became more emotionally stable as his trust in his parent's boundaries worked to stabilize and anchor his thoughts and emotions. Over time, Finn and his guardian advanced into more complex environments.
In these videos we see that Finn has advanced to off-leash and is attentively focused on his parent's speed, timing, and directional changes. What she is doing might look simple, but it is part of a long, carefully-scripted sequence of maneuvers that were chosen for their ability to redirect his focus by controlling Finn's action plan -- goal, route, speed, and timing.
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For more information about dog cognition order Three Dimensional Dog, A Unified Theory of Canine Behavior, and learn to see dog behavior in a new way.
Aaron McDonald is a canine behaviorist, cognitive theorist, and author. He can be reached at www.ThreeDimensionalDog.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org.