Fearful dogs class, plus training goals for Rainer

Last night, Rainer and I went to a one-time, one-hour class at Canine Campus, called “Rescue Remedies: Fearful Dogs.”

Rainer in training class
Trying to take photos in class never works out so well. This is the best one I got! Those are his ears.

Canine Campus is where Pyrrha went for her obedience class, and I’m a big fan of the trainer, Deven. Deven has had numerous shy dogs herself, and she seems to really understand them.

While Rainer was mostly unable to calm down for the majority of the class (lots of pacing and circling), I was really thankful that we went. Deven reinforced so many concepts that are easy to forget with shy dogs. The class was also really motivating to me to stop being such a passive trainer. Now that Rainer has acclimated to our lifestyle, it’s time to start actively teaching him things. I can’t just wait around and hope that he’ll learn something.

Rainer lounging at home
Safe at home.

This lesson was really reinforced coming and going to the class. The worst part of last night was getting to and leaving class. This is the issue: Rainer has a severe fear of getting in cars. Severe to the point of nearing the biting threshold.

My husband was gone last night, and I was stuck with the Jeep, so getting Rainer into it was quite the ordeal. It took me about 15 minutes. I was plying him with tons of treats, but as soon as he’d get within a foot of the car, he would freak out: jerk back, trying to pull out of the collar, biting the leash, etc. I was finally able to get him in when I put some treats on the car seat, and he got brave enough to put his paws on the seat, and I lifted his back end into the car. Once in the car, he rides OK; he’s so scared of it that he doesn’t move much at all.

The traumatic part of last night was leaving Canine Campus. After class concluded, I asked Deven and her co-trainer Mary to come out to the car with me and help me strategize. Mary started by treating him for nearing the car, and then throwing treats away from the car, giving him the freedom to back up when he wanted. This went on for 10 minutes, however, with Rainer showing little inclination to get any closer to the vehicle.

Instead of diminishing, his fear was only growing, and when we approached him, his entire body tensed up, and I could tell this was a dog who was ready to bite if we tried anything else. Deven clearly recognized this too and came back out with a sheet and a muzzle. I felt so dejected. I hated to traumatize him further, but we were never going to get him in that car.

We put a meatball in the muzzle, and I could snap it on him; this freaked him out. While he was trying to get the muzzle off, we put a sheet beneath his abdomen, and Deven lifted his back end, while I picked up his front end and put him in the car. He was fighting the whole way. The poor guy. My adrenaline was racing, and I felt so upset. And embarrassed. He was so upset.

Upon leaving, Deven reminded me that this is something we would need to work on every day. Rainer’s fear of getting into cars will not go away on its own. Seeing him in such a state of panic last night really brought that home. This is a dog who really doesn’t know anything about the world; everything is frightening and new to him. It’s our job right now to help him take those baby steps toward confidence.

Rainer lounging at home

So, that said, here are some really basic things I want to teach Rainer in the time that we have him:

  1. Car desensitization. Every day, practice working near and in the car. Treat him for approaching; treat him for just looking a it in the early stages. Move up to getting him to enter the car on his own.
  2. Name recognition. Treat him and praise him for giving us any attention when we call his name.
  3. Sitting for food. I know that this dog can sit, but we cannot get him to do it! I keep waiting for him to offer the behavior at meal time (luring him back with the bowl), but he won’t do it. I also wonder if this has something to do with his bad hips. Sitting could be painful for him, so we may need to find an alternate behavior.
  4. Grooming desensitization. Treat and praise for whenever he submits to brushing, touching paws, opening his mouth. Move up to this gradually; brushing is the easiest place to start.
  5. Leash manners. Learning how to walk politely on a leash; getting him not to freak out when we see other dogs (freaking out, for him, means frantic circling; no barking or anything like that, thankfully). Practice safe zone training (LOTS of distance between the stimulant) early on; only take short walks where I can control the environment without pushing him past threshold.

As you can see, we have a lot of work to do. But I believe in him and in his potential to overcome a lot of these fears, with our patient help.


10 thoughts on “Fearful dogs class, plus training goals for Rainer

  1. Good luck. I give you credit for having the patience and willingness to work with him.. It will be easier for him to find a forever home.

  2. We found Burger King or McDonalds is a great way to get over the vehicle fears for dogs. OK, so the vets and the experts might frown on it, but it only takes a few trips and pretty much any dog, even our Afghanistan refugee runs to any of our vehicles, and a few that aren’t ours. Also, fun places – dog parks, lakes, ponds, anywhere where the destination is the goal, not the journey. Then again, we have too many to train – so we only have the energy to make the ‘offer’ one the dog doesn’t want to refuse. Currently in the process of failing as a foster for a feral we can barely touch – but golly she LOVES to go for rides now!

  3. Wow, I’ve never heard of a dog having such a fear of the car. How sad =( It really does make you wonder what kind of life Rainer once lived.

    I am actually surprised that the car has not been one of Athena’s fears. She loved the car from day one and still LOVES it. I can see how it could be a really scary thing for dogs who haven’t had any experience with it from early on though.

    I’m really hoping that the daily desensitization works with Rainer! Keep us posted!

  4. When our dog Cabana was a guide dog puppy in training, she was afraid of the refrigerated section of grocery stores. It sounds so silly and random, but she would slap herself down on the floor and refuse to budge when we would walk toward the freezers. I don’t know what it was she didn’t like, but we had to work on it a long time. (It doesn’t matter now since she didn’t make it as a guide dog due to other reasons, but that would have been immediate elimination right there.) Anyway, it has its similarities to Rainer’s fear of cars. It took daily practice, lots of patience, tons of treats. I think the McDonald’s or BK idea is a good one–he needs to realize the car means good things (food, park, walks, whatever he likes), once you can even get to that point!

    Sounds like he has a way to go before that, though. Maybe you can even feed him his meals next to the car, getting closer and closer to it, until he will might even eat inside the car.

  5. What you’re planning sounds similar to what Pamela did with Honey for her bicycle cart. He is a handsome boy with a great smile and face, but can imagine how scary he was to get into the car. Good plan with a good trainer. Lots of baby steps…will be fun (from my end) to watch his progress.

  6. So sorry to hear that you are going through such a challenge. It broke my heart to hear how stressed vehicles make Rainer… it sure makes you wonder where those associations are coming from! But I do know that he is so lucky to have you. And remember that while you are training him, he is teaching you as well! And those lessons will only become more natural and automatic to you, which will help you to be a better foster parent in the future. You are doing great things for this sweet boy!

  7. Your story about leaving class reminded me of a painful incident from our past. After my grandmother died, my sister decided she wanted to take her dog home with us and keep her. That was from Alabama to Illinois. The dog hated being in the car. She’d never ridden in the car after she was a year old because they were afraid to push her, which meant it had been a long time since she’d even had vaccinations. It took us an hour and a half to get her in the car the first time. It went downhill from there. If we’d had time to work with her and desensitize her it could have gone so much differently. By the time we got home, my husband, my sister and I had all been bitten, our back seat had been peed on and we spent an hour in Missouri chasing her in a Wal-Mart parking lot. If you can work on this with him slowly, like feeding him in there in the garage with the door closed, it will make so much difference for him!

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