Making trust a terminal behavior

10406639_415430078597678_2549083595657712614_nWhen training fearful dogs, the simplest behaviors, the ones us humans take for granted, often become the most rewarding. The most important component in a fearful dog’s training plan isn’t a behavior or a command at all. It’s trust. Without it, a dog’s world becomes a scary place.

Those of you who follow my blog and Facebook page may remember Lana, a stray dog rescued as a puppy who was incredibly fearful of her environment, both indoors and outdoors. Simply leashing her up to go for a short walk put her body through stress. The simplest of obedience behaviors, like “sit,” “down,” and “stay,” were difficult for her because the anxiety in her brain overrode her ability to learn efficiently. Her brain was too busy gauging whether her world was safe or dangerous, and her body too inundated with the effects of stress for her to focus on sitting for a cookie.

Through medication, desensitization and counterconditioning, Lana began to see more stimuli in her world as safe. Her startle response lessened. Her recovery time after encountering something scary improved. With trust in her environment and in her handlers, she had room to expand her behavioral repertoire.

My training sessions with Lana, when viewed with a superficial lens, probably appeared boring. We would play the hand targeting game, move around small portions of her house using a “find it” game with cookies, and simply sit together, me being quiet while she explored a toy or Kong. If I moved too fast (literally and figuratively), the foundation of trust weakened, and I had to work to get it back. If Lana didn’t trust me, she wouldn’t be comfortable following my food lures or hand gestures, or engaging in play or exploratory behavior.

In a fearful dogs’ training plan, trust is not only the foundation, it’s the terminal behavior.

I recently experienced another milestone with a fearful dog. From the outside, it resembles more a grain of sand than a stone. The dog, Bunny, is a rescue from Tehran. For the first few years of her life, she was hidden indoors. Then, after an hours-long plane ride in a plastic crate, she arrived in California to an unimaginable amount of new, frightening stimuli.

Her owners have made incredible strides with her, and are able to take her for walks, rides in the car, handle her, and play with her. Her mind and body, however, are wired for fear. She has little trust that stimuli in her environment are safe, resulting in leash reactivity and fear-based aggression.

When I began working with her and her owners in early January, I had to start with trust. Bunny needed to believe that I would not force her into a scary situation, invade her space, ignore her body language, or hurt her. Given Bunny’s background and predisposition for fear, it has not been a quick task. A few tossed cookies will not suffice. Now, a little over seven weeks later, she wags her tail when she sees me. She will make eye contact for brief periods, target my palm with her nose, and play several training games. This past weekend, we reached the aforementioned milestone: After a warm-up session and a gradual training plan, I was able to enter her house with her owners and sit at the dining table for 30 seconds while Bunny did a down-stay on her bed. For a dog without fear, this wouldn’t be a tough task. But for Bunny, it was the result of five once-weekly sessions involving desensitization, counterconditioning, and training games.

We have a long ways to go, and I still need to go slowly in order to keep the foundation I’ve built with Bunny strong.

The underlying theme in all sessions with fearful dogs: Trust.

For excellent support and resources on working with Fearful Dogs, visit 

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the founder of The Muzzle Up! Project and owns Mutt About Town dog training in San Francisco, CA. Get in touch at

2 thoughts on “Making trust a terminal behavior

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