Our newly adopted dog, Mia, came from a home where she spent 24 hours a day outside and was not socialized. She was very fearful of new people and for the first two days in our home, refused to come out of her crate. She has come a long way in a few short months but we are still learning about her and the things that make her nervous. On our outings to the dog beach and park we noticed Mia was very scared and reactive when people approached her holding things in their hands, particularly a Chuckit used for lobbing tennis balls. It took a few times for me to figure out the correlation and to confirm I grabbed a Chuckit at home to see her reaction. Mia hit the ground, tail between her legs and rolled over to show submission. Theory confirmed.
I set out to help Mia through this by slowly creating a positive association with something that was deemed “scary” (desensitizing and counterconditioning).
First, I picked up the stick and put it on the floor. When Mia sniffed it I rewarded her with a high value treat (chicken). Then I picked it up and held it in my hand, again, she received chicken. When she was no longer bothered by me holding the Chuckit I mimed throwing a ball with it. At first she cowered but after a few repetitions she wasn’t bothered. As she relaxed I got closer to her and swung it, always followed by a treat. Within 3 short sessions (3-5 minutes each) she was sitting calmly while swung the stick looking at me with a “yeah, and?” expression on her face.
The fact that she trusts me certainly helped her along, so I expect her to still react the next time a stranger approaches holding a stick-like object. But the training will continue in those situations, a stranger walks by holding a stick, Mia gets a high value treat. In a few months I believe the only association a Chuckit will hold for Mia is chicken falling from the sky.
The next time your dog is nervous around a certain object or situation try turning that fear into a positive experience. A little patience and some high value rewards go a long way!