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Discussion Starter · #1 ·
Any tips for working with a dog that is afraid of something out in public, specifically in crowded places?

First, let me reassure everyone that Dublin is not fear aggressive in any way and i do NOT intentionally put him in situations where he or others could be hurt or traumatized. He's actually not normally a fearful dog at all. Just... occasionally there will be something that sets him off. Not often, but occasionally.

A little bit of a backstory so this question makes more sense: today we went downtown by the lake. It's normally a tourist hot spot with a bunch of touristy shops and attractions but is pretty calm during the off season. He has been there MANY MANY times, including during peak tourist season. Never had a problem. Today, for no reason i can understand, he completely lost his cool when he saw a character shaped a-frame sign in the sidewalk.

I didn't even see it at first. Had no idea what his problem was. He put the brakes on, tucked his tail, and did his "i'm nervous, that's scary, WTF WTF' woofing. I couldn't get him to move anywhere except backwards, and he would look past me at all. I eventually realized he was afraid of that sign. I had to half carry half coax half drag him around it and we were as far away from it as we could get on a sidewalk.

Now, he's freaked out for things before when he was younger - leaf bags one fall, crutches and walkers when we did therapy work, etc. But it was always for something we crossed paths with regularly (IE leaf bags) or something i could bring home and desensitize him to in the house or yard (IE crutches.) This is a unique sign to the store it was advertising, so i can't just get one and bring it home - it's also about 20 minutes away so i don't actually pass by it that often.

I have a bit before tourist season hits so i do plan on bringing him back to that sign and working with him, but... i would appreciate any tips in general about desensitizing AND any tips for working with that when it does start getting crowded. Hopefully we'll be over it with that particular sign by then, but there's always the chance something else will scare him when we're in a place like that so.... tips?

For reference, he enjoys going there. Even when it's crowded. We walk around and he prances, shows off his fluffy white fur, enjoys the people who flock over to pet him. It HAS been a long time since we've been there - with COVID last summer i didn't take him out much (fluffy white dog is a MAGNET for people which is NOT good for social distancing) but up until we found that sign he was really happy and enjoying himself. Once we passed it, he forgot all about it.

I hope this all made sense....

BTW he is fairly well trained and socialized, he listens (mostly), so it's not so much a training thing as it's a "i don't want him to be afraid" and "how do i handle that in public/crowds" thing.
 

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I just noticed this thread never got a response. Here are links to some earlier threads in which people talk about desensitizing dogs to things encountered out in public.



A few of my thoughts. The presence of crowds doesn't change any of the fundamentals of what you need to do to desensitize the dog to a scary object. It just means you are going to be standing in someone's way while your dog stares in horror at the scary sign. I find it helps if you alert the people around you to the fact that your dog is having a problem. I do this by cheerfully mocking the dog loudly enough that the people around me can hear it. "OMG, you've just spotted a poodle eating sign. Oh no, it's moving. Be brave, my little dimwit. You are shaming your ancestors." The jokes amuse the humans, keeping them relaxed, and the tone of voice helps reassure the dog.

I try to avoid forcing the dog to approach or interact with a scary object if he's not ready to. This is where crowds do impact my choices. I don't want someone to bump into him and startle him while he's fixated on the scary thing. There's usually some safe spot I can move the dog for his own protection - next to a planter, into a doorway - and let him wait out his fear for a minute or two while I body block anyone who might step on him. Playing a training game like touch might distract him from the scary object long enough to creep closer into a new safe spot.
 

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I had a situation when I rented a training ring and there was a life size cardboard cutout of the owner and one of her dogs that is a little similar. Javelin was very concerned I think mostly about the image of the dog, but probably also of the person's image to some extent (he also was reactive towards a life sized bronze of Pocahontas that we met in Jamestown, VA). I didn't have a lot of time to do a normal counter conditioning or full out LAT since my time there was limited. He loves to heel so I heeled in laps around the ring and each time we approached the cutout I went a little closer and gave him treats for halting near his worry object. He is pretty resilient so he caught on quickly and I was able to work on all of what I wanted to do pretty quickly. You can teach LAT (Look At That) and then go back to where the "scary thing" is.
 
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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
His reaction to this sign took my by surprise - he's had reactions like this to other things in the past (lawn leaf bag for instance) but it's been a loooong time. We got over previous reactions by doing basically what lily and cowpony have suggested, using training and distraction until he felt comfortable enough to walk by (and eventually sniff). Going slow. Not forcing it. Etc.

The major difference between that and this was/is location - being on a sidewalk meant we couldn't circle wide around it or i would have done that no problem. We would have been in the road if we tried that, though. Thinking about it now, i probably could have just gone back and crossed the street but it didn't occur to me at the time. Duh. Crowds, once people start coming, will be the issue in the future if we don't get over this sign or if he finds another one to be afraid of.

But good point that i can just... make a joke out of it, ignore the people around us, block them from bumping into us, and stuff. That's what i kinda did this time - Oh Dubs, you goofball, what are you so afraid of? It won't hurt you! - but i'm not great with crowds myself (i'm kinda shy) so it might be a WIP for both of us to deal with this once crowds start coming in.

When we circled back around i did work with him a bit on it just to get him to pass by it. I always bring treats on these outings (we do little things in public to work on our obedience - sit, down, stay, etc) so i used almost the whole pouch and just... worked him closer to it so i didn't actually have to drag him by it on the way back. The second i noticed that he saw it i whipped out the treats and started doing some training. Sit, treat, stay (then i take two steps and turn to face him), come, treat, sit, treat, and repeat. It mostly worked. He tried to go around it as widely as possible and i let him, kept him on the outside of the sidewalk. He tried to bolt once we were past it but i did the same thing to get him back in front of me and eventually he would take a treat from a couple feet away.

I made sure to walk him away from it while he wasn't absolutely terrified and called it a day. We're going back Tuesday afternoon to try again. I'll bring higher value treats this time and instead of forcing him to go by it i'll loop across the street and come back down from behind it (seemed to bother him less?) I won't force him by it, but i'll try to use tricks and stuff to distract him into walking past it. It's still relatively slow up there so i won't worry about crowds too much just yet.

It's funny because on the other side of the street there's a store with a HUUUUGE stuffed bear (a realistic one - might even be a taxidermy?) and he'll go right up to that no problem. He won't go near the guy in the frankenstein costume a few stores down, but will walk by him without panic. He does better with other dogs around - he'll follow his dog friends just about anywhere - so maybe i'll try to get one of them to tag along some day for moral support.
 

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Have you tried going up to the sign and petting it?

This is like a weekly thing for us on garbage day. Some weeks the bins are scary and some weeks we walk right by. If she plops her keister on the ground and refuses to move, then we just walk around the block the other way and find some other patch of grass to pee on. If she sees me pet the bin, then she'll usually go sniff it and we can walk on by... Sometimes we can't.
 

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Peggy Sue, Standard Poodle Born May 2019
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Very good advice above, and I have to say that this consistently works exceptionally well for us:

Have you tried going up to the sign and petting it?

This is like a weekly thing for us on garbage day. Some weeks the bins are scary and some weeks we walk right by. If she plops her keister on the ground and refuses to move, then we just walk around the block the other way and find some other patch of grass to pee on. If she sees me pet the bin, then she'll usually go sniff it and we can walk on by... Sometimes we can't.
Rather than training for every possible variable (because even though it’s the sign today, it might be a giant flower pot tomorrow) I think working on that trust is really helpful. Something as simple and stepping between Dublin and the object and oohing and ahhing over it while giving it a few pokes could be enough to show him that a) you’ve got the situation under control and b) the object is benign.

Training a really solid “look at that” is also universally helpful. With consistent practise, you may find Dublin immediately looking to you for a treat or other form of positive reinforcement when he’s spooked by something. It becomes a reflex. I find it really cool now seeing this in action. I’m so glad we stuck with it. My husband, especially, was very diligent about practising while out and about.

We recently encountered a yard full of joyful, shrieking children, who were playing with all sorts of large plastic toys that Peggy had never seen before. There was only the single sidewalk and no way to avoid it. I saw the excitement rise up in Peggy as she took in the scene, and then her head swung to my husband, eyes locking on him, body relaxing. They walked past the very stimulating yard exactly like that. Brilliant.
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
Yes, it's a very interesting place - it's technically one street, but has a bunch of small shops and tourist attractions lined up on either side. It's along the edge of a lake, with beaches (including a dog beach) and boating and stuff. It's very dog friendly, with lots of water fountains and some stores have dog bowls with water and treats. Many of the shops don't mind if you bring your dog in as long as they're well behaved.

We usually go with friends, and their dogs. He's actually much less likely to be afraid when other dogs are around so maybe i'll borrow a dog or two lol. See if that helps. He used to have Kiley, who when he was younger would be the one to show him nothing was scary while we were socializing him. Most recently, prior to her passing, i brought home a giant skeleton horse for Halloween. He wouldn't go near it even with me touching it. She went right up to it no problem. He was mostly okay with it after that. Likewise if i can approach whatever it is, he's less likely to startle....

Hard to do that when he's at the end of the leash pulling me away from whatever is scaring him though. I couldn't get myself within a few feet of that sign, so i couldn't go up to it and show him it wasn't anything to worry about. Maybe if i go with friends/family THEY can do that?

We'll have to work on it. I would love to build up that trust training - maybe get back to teaching the "watch me" command. Get him thinking about other things when he becomes startled. There is a training class nearby that helped us get through TDI, i might reach out to them. They have a puppy class that's geared towards confidence building maybe they have something like that Dublin could do, too. Help him build his confidence, and trust in me as his handler.
 

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Discussion Starter · #9 ·
We went back today - the sign was flipped around the other way. Go figure.

BUT i learned a few important things.

1) We're NOT afraid of the giant stuffed bear. Or the other slightly smaller wooden bear. Or the metal moose.
2) Other signs don't bother us at all. Unless they move, but we're not terrified of them... just a bit startled.
3) Gusty wind is a bit startling too. Just the wind.
4) And occasionally the flapping garbage bags.
5) The other side of the "scary sign" is... kind of scary too, but not AS scary.
6) We're definitely out of shape - three miles and we're on the couch for a nap (we used to hike on average 4 miles).

So, all in all it was a good visit. More people than before, but no where near as many that will be there for tourist season. We walked in the park a bit first and then i looped him to meet this sign head on. Only to find it was turned around the other way. Dublin didn't even look at it. We came back down this time with him on the side closest to it and same, no reaction. I posed him by it and everything. It got the evil eye when it moved with the wind, but no panic.

So i looped him onto the sidewalk behind it and there we go - not as bad of a panic reaction but definitely something about just that side of it sets him off. So we parked it about ten feet away and i just started working him - sit, spin, paw, touch, and treats galore. Every time he did the routine i moved us about a foot closer until i could reach out and touch it (which i did - twice) and he stayed in a sit/stay at the end of the leash.

There was one guy whose family was in the shop that watched us do this routine until i got him to pose (sit/stay) about three feet from the sign and when he commented on how well behaved Dublin was i told him - Yeah, he's a good boy.... last time we were here he was very scared of this sign so i'm trying to help him figure out that it isn't going to eat him. The guy laughed. Dublin got a head rub and a treat.

We left on a really good note. I also noticed as we walked that he would regularly look over at me and/or touch my hand with his nose. He would do it more when the wind picked up or he got startled. I think this is his way of checking in with me? Like hey, is this good? We good? Good! I encouraged it every time he did it.
 

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Peggy Sue, Standard Poodle Born May 2019
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I also noticed as we walked that he would regularly look over at me and/or touch my hand with his nose. He would do it more when the wind picked up or he got startled. I think this is his way of checking in with me? Like hey, is this good? We good? Good! I encouraged it every time he did it.
Love this!! Sounds like you make a great team. :)
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
This is the less scary side:
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This is the slightly scarier side:
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On the docks, because he's cute:
475177


Next time i'll try to get one of him with the bear. Every time we passed it today, people were in front of it.
 
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