One of the many strategies recommended by conventional dog trainers to help a dog overcome fear of new people is to counter condition the dog by having new people approach and give the dog treats. This is not a strategy that I personally employ very often and here is why:
Let’s put it into a human context. Let’s say that I have reason to believe that strangers are untrustworthy. Along comes this new person, who approaches uninvited and says “Hey Tyler, come hang out over here…I’ll give you a dollar ;-)” The offer of a dollar is unlikely to make me feel comfortable with this new person, or to earn my trust. In fact, it triggers warning signs in my mind because it’s a little reminiscent of the “Free Candy van”…It’s a little creepy.
Now, let’s say instead that I was in the same room with this person, only instead of trying to bribe my confidence, he recognized that I was uncomfortable. He gave me my space and went about whatever it was he set out to do. Or perhaps he just sat down, enjoyed some quiet time to himself and let me do my own thing. Maybe he occasionally glanced at me, acknowledging my presence in a non-confrontational way, and then again gave me the space I needed to feel free from threat.
In the first example, the seemingly innocuous act of trying to give me a dollar only added to my discomfort. It indicated that there was an expectation of me, a type of social pressure. The person was trying to pull me in, but that act of pulling only gave me something to push back against.
In the second scenario, there is no pressure. The person showed through his behavior that he understands, and he is ok with the fact that I need some space. There is no expectation, and that lack of expectation creates an opening that I can freely choose to explore.
I want to take the second scenario further, but first, let’s go back to using a dog for the example, with the “I” being the role of the stranger.
So, the dog is nervous, and I am in the same room, but have been giving space and zero expectation. The dog’s natural social curiosity may motivate her to explore and experiment. She may come closer, pause, and then move away. Eventually she comes within several feet and air sniffs. As more time passes she begins to become neutral to my presence.
From here, one of two things may occur over time (sometimes this takes hours or even several sessions over several days). Perhaps at this point, when the dog chooses on her own to approach and come near, I casually and without saying anything, toss a treat on the ground, and then go back to whatever I was doing. After several repetitions of this, the dog begins choosing to hang out near me as I toss treats in her direction. The kernel of a bond is formed.
Alternatively, perhaps I notice that the dog really wants to go outside, so I open the door to let her out. She walks over to a tree to sniff. After she passes, I wander over to the same tree and have a look around. The dog shows interest in a stick, so I pick one up and give it a toss, in a way that shows that I share the dog’s joy for sticks. What I am communicating is that I am interested in the same things that she is, and am willing to follow her lead and engage in the activities that she chooses. I am not interested in changing her behavior, I am trying to learn more about her and understand her.
If the dog is a real foodie, the option of tossing some treats (when she is ready and has approached on her own), has a decent chance of working. “Treats! I LOVE treats!” This dog exclaims.
But not all dogs are so enthusiastic for treats. Some dogs like to sniff, some enjoy walks best of all, some like sticks, etc…
If we look at dogs as simple input/output machines in the purely operant sense, it seems like the typical counter conditioning techniques should work. But there is danger in reducing dogs to this simplified view. We should not ignore the fact that, like humans, our dogs think, feel, get angry, get lonely, have motives, instincts, trust issues, attachment issues, angst, and the whole colorful spectrum of emotions. To be fair, even the second scenario that I have outlined is a form of counter conditioning, but it is one that takes into account the dog as a unique individual. It honors the dog and gives her the sovereignty to let us know when she is ready to engage. It respects the uniquely dynamic qualities of dogs that have given us humans the privilege of evolving alongside them for tens of thousands of years.
While I personally think it is important for us trainers to have a firm grasp on the science of dog training, let us not allow ourselves to become too far removed from the spirit of simply being with a dog, striving to understand each individual for what makes them unique, showing compassion through our actions, and letting our heart guide us.