Q. I have a 7 month British Lab. Outstanding pup, very good with obedience and retrieving—in the backyard. However, she is very skittish in new surroundings: school yard, fields, park, etc. She won’t retrieve or listen to me anywhere except the backyard, but she does heel very well for more than twenty minutes around our neighborhood. I have tried MANY new locations, recently walking her on a 6′ lead in the same field seems to help a little. Will she outgrow this shyness or is there other methods to assist? Thanks.
A. To arrive at a solution for your dog’s problem, you have to attempt to analyze the possible causes. Situational shyness, as you describe, could come from three specific areas:
1. genetics – the parents portrayed these traits/the dog’s personality
2. improper early puppy pre-conditioning, socialization and backgrounding (the lack thereof)
3. inadequate training methods
Assuming that we have no genetic traits that could be the cause of this problem, then we have to focus on the other two. Even if you have genetic issues that are causing the shyness, progress can be made by slowly introducing variables in the dog’s life for desensitization. Item 2 can be equally difficult. Early socialization of a pup is imperative to build a great foundation for future learning and the ability to deal with new situations. Opportunities lost cannot be regained. Similarly to the genetic issue, this will be a slow process of progressive introductions. One success at a time.
Training: One thing that is interesting is the dog does fine in your backyard but is not easily transferring these skills to other locations and/or situations. There are four levels of training… yard work (teaching the basic skills in a familiar area which you have done), field work (teaching the pattern drills, exercises and skill necessary for hunting, adventure, service, etc.), transitional training (moving the basic skills taught in training to realistic field activities/experiences/situations). Transitional training is where a lot of people break down with their dogs. A few exercises in the back yard, then it’s off to an abandoned lot and we thing we’re ready for a hunt. The result: the wheels run off. It’s called generalization. Dogs don’t easily move/transfer skills learned in one location to another in a rational manner. It has to be experiential. Each skill has to be practiced 5 times in 5 different locations.
Now, in your pup’s case, he’s confident in the back yard, but this confidence is lost when moved to a new area. In gundog training I call this sensory overload or to use popular terms today, the stimulus package. When we are asking skills of our dogs and the stimulation, diversions, and distractions are too high or extreme, we have two choices… simplify the task while maintaining the stimulus or keep the task and reduce the level of the stimulus.
Plan of action: Perfect one or two skills of your choice in your back yard. Then, move one of these skills to a new area but with no activity, just new ground. Perfect the single skill there. Then move the same skill to a new area with a bit more activity. Focus only on one or two skills and gradually vary the locations only after the skill is perfected in each, then increase the stimulus slowly. Here’s the Wildrose rule: Each of our skills must be practiced 5 times in 5 different locations before we can assume the skill is an entrenched habit. Be careful that you do not subconsciously reinforce the fear factor. When you move to a new area, do it with a great deal of confidence which should be displayed in your body posture, tone, gait and attitude. Don’t be thinking your dog is going to fail. Also, don’t coddle the fear. Walk briskly and aggressively as the pack leader letting your dog know there is nothing to fear.
The last of the four levels of training is an actual field activity, hunt, adventure, competition, the public area, etc. Your first experience in any field situation is not about your participation in the activity. Your focus is on training your dog. Example: Your first hunt is not a hunt at all; it’s a training opportunity. Keep in mind Wildrose law #5 as you deal with the fear factor: “Make haste slowly.”
Best of luck,
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