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Five tips to help a dog get over a phobia

Teeter terror: The hardest agility obstacle

My mutt and I have been going to agility classes for about eight months. The first couple weeks, Ace had no issues with the teeter totter. He ran across it with no fear. He ran across it so fast that my instructor encouraged me to get him to slow down. This is when we came across a problem: Ever since he walked across the teeter slowly one time, he has been afraid of the teeter.

The teeter has caused us many problems. Ace is very unpredictable. For example, if the teeter is not on the course, he runs beautifully. If the teeter is one of the obstacles, it screws him up just because it’s out there and he tries to avoid it. Other times, he makes it half way up and then stands in the middle barking at me. Sometimes he walks the teeter with some food bribing. And maybe one out of 20 times, he actually runs across it just fine.

Here are some ideas for helping a dog that has a strange phobia. I’m not talking about a fearful, aggressive dog, but a dog that has an irrational fear of something in particular, like water, bikes, cats, gates, horses, etc. I am trying to build on Ace’s small successes with the teeter, in order to overcome his fear. These are the five things I am working on and hopefully they can help your dog, too.

1. Remain calm and confident around your fearful dog.
Ace picks up on my behavior. Any time I show any hesitation walking towards the teeter, he hesitates too. If I get to anxious, wondering whether he’ll do it or not, it is guaranteed he won’t do it. If I walk up to the teeter like it’s no big deal, he will pick up on my confidence. This could be applied to other fears, such as a dog that is afraid of baby strollers. If your dog is afraid of something on a walk, just keep walking like it is no big deal. Seeing a baby stroller is normal, so don’t act like it’s the end of the world by saying, “It’s OK! It’s OK!”

2. Never yell or show frustration to your dog.
I’ve lost my temper before with Ace, yelled at him, forcefully pulled him across the teeter. I’ve even told him he was a bad dog. These actions are only going to make a fearful dog more fearful and hold back even more. If a dog is afraid of bikes and pulls away from an approaching bike, don’t yell “Bad dog!” at her. This is only going to reinforce the negative feelings she gets around bikes. Use calm, relaxed energy to continue moving forward. Never use tension in the leash or show your anger physically or verbally.

3. Reward your dog for small successes.
If Ace does the teeter right, he gets lots of verbal praise, petting and a treat. Even if he takes a few steps in the right direction, he gets a reward. It’s better to reward small successes and ignore the unwanted behavior.

4. Use whatever it takes to bribe the dog.
Sometimes a dog’s regular treats aren’t enough. I will use Ace’s favorite treats while working on the teeter. Sometimes I will use a ball or another favorite toy to get him across and make it as fun as possible.

5. Practice every day, in short periods.
Months ago, Ace had also had a fear of the dog-walk, which is an elevated platform the dogs walk across during agility. His fear was similar to his teeter fear. He was afraid of the height and had little confidence in himself. The four ideas I listed above helped him overcome his fear, but it also helped him to practice every day. There is a railing at our local park that looks just like a dog-walk, so every day, I took Ace to the park (his favorite place) and had him walk across the railing once. After he did that, he got to run and chase a ball. I didn’t spend hours doing this, it was maybe 30 seconds or a minute each day, but Ace began to associate the railing and the dog-walk with fun. Now it’s one of his favorite things to do. I’ve tried to find a park with a teeter, but no luck yet!

Does your dog have any strange fears?

Breed profile: English springer spaniel
An almost perfect mutt