By Sherri Romig CPDT-KA

Working with dogs that have extreme trust and fear issues can be difficult. Often, the training methods that we are familiar with are simply too much for these dogs, and it is necessary for us to look outside the box for another way to relate to very timid dogs.

The lure-reward method is a gentle and popular way of teaching behaviors. For this, you hold a treat to the dog’s nose and move your hand so that the dog moves his body into the correct position, and you release the treat when he gets it right. This is a very simple and effective method and makes for easy training success.

However, with some dogs, even this mild method of training just too scary. My Chihuahua, Fox is one such dog. If we try to use a lure with Fox, she becomes so stressed that she just shuts down. With Fox, we needed to find a much gentler, hands-off approach if we wanted to get anywhere with her. The errorless learning approach that we used with Fox is excellent for very fearful dogs and helps to build trust and confidence.

Errorless Learning

I started by introducing Fox to a behavior marker (I used a clicker, but there are other options) that would indicate to her when she offered the correct behavior and earned a reward. Then, I sat down with Fox, a clicker, and treats, and waited. The plan was to click and reward any behavior Fox offered that I liked.

The first behavior that Fox offered was a spin. Fox has always been a circler, so I simply clicked and treated when she circled, then waited for her to offer that behavior again. Before long, Fox understood that she could make clicks happen by spinning and began offering that behavior like mad. We were ready to add a cue.

I said “spin” and waited for Fox to circle, and click-treated when she did. We practiced this several times. If Fox circled before I said “spin”, she didn’t earn a click-treat. If she waited for the cue, she earned a reward. Before long, Fox understood the cued behavior, and we were ready to learn something new.

At the next session, I didn’t give Fox the “spin” cue, and didn’t click her for circling. Instead, I waited for Fox to offer a different behavior. She sat and I clicked that. Following the same procedure we used for “spin”, we soon had “sit” on cue. Then “lay”, “bow”, and “ears up” (for perking her ears). These behaviors were always chosen by Fox. She had complete creative control during our training sessions.

One of the biggest differences to this method of training is that it is dog-directed. When Fox and I sit down for a training session, I never know what we are going to learn until Fox shows me. I don’t come in with an exercise in mind, as we do with lure-reward. I simply come with an open mind and click what Fox offers.

This method of learning is errorless on the dog’s part. Fox never hears “eh-eh” or gets it wrong. Fox offers behaviors and I choose to click the ones I like. If she offers a behavior that I don’t like, I simply don’t click it. She has learned that I don’t want behaviors that I don’t click and never offers them more than once or twice; she simply moves on and tries something else.

This is tremendously important for building confidence in a damaged, fearful, or sensitive dog. With Fox, if I attempted to correct her behavior, even with a quiet “eh-eh”, this would be so traumatic to her that she would shut down and the learning would be over. By allowing her the freedom to experiment without judgment, I am establishing a trust with her. By rewarding her for behaviors that she chooses to offer, I am helping to teach her an internal locus of control (“what I do has an effect on my environment; I can affect what happens to me”) and therefore building self-confidence.

By allowing Fox the freedom to choose, and a safe way to interact, she has blossomed. When Fox first started learning, she was soft and hesitant in trying new behaviors. Today when a training session begins, Fox is eager to offer new behaviors that she thinks I might like. This confidence has carried over into her everyday actions and relationships with people. Fox has learned the skills to approach a new situation, rather than revert to her old behavior of cower and shut down.

When we are working with timid dogs, building trust and confidence are of utmost importance to their training and well-being. By using errorless learning, we can accomplish this while helping the dog to develop new skills and behaviors at the same time.