Positively Reinforcing New or Scary Experiences for Dogs

Bri Fair

When discussing animal behavior with clients, some common statement we hear are:

“my dog is always scared at the vet”
“my dog hates car rides”
“my dog is nervous around new people”

Sadly, many clients believe this is just how their pets are. Luckily, these behaviors can be shaped by using positive reinforcement techniques!

Just like us, all of our furry friends have some sort of favor, or reward that they will work towards. In most cases, people either want money, fun, or food. Our pets share similar interests: Fun and Food! These items can be used as a distraction to keep your pet comfortable in new or scary situations. Most owners can find that a high value treat (i.e. chicken, peanut butter, cheese, pepperoni, and hotdogs) keep their pets attention. But for some owners, their pets may ignore treats in high stress situations and may need some other type of stimuli, such as a tennis ball, squeaker toy or tug toy. Have an assortment of these rewards available and try something fairly simple like neighborhood walks. Keep your pet engaged and see what they respond to best. Ask them to perform basic tasks like “sit”, “down” and “stay” with their focus on you. Once that “ah-ha” moment occurs in which their favorite reward is determined, slowly start introducing them to new experiences. Remember to always make these experiences FUN and always deliver the treat or toy when desired behavior is achieved. No one likes to work for free!

Some safe ideas would be trips to Lowes, Home Depo, or Dicks Sporting Goods, where all dogs are leashed and in a semi-controlled environment that won’t be overwhelming for your pup! During this experience, if your pup gets nervous, just walk back to where they were last comfortable and try again! Once this confidence is built try moving on to bigger tasks like the veterinarian’s office. There are no fees for a brief social weigh-in, ask your dog to sit on the scale (get lots of positive attention from the staff). Your pup will realize nothing “bad” happened and begin to have a positive association with the veterinary clinic. ALWAYS end your adventures on a positive note.

* For fun new ways to engage with your pet try Puppr school app with your smart phone*

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