Desensitizing A Fear Issue – First Steps

It is frustrating when you realize your puppy is afraid of something?

A training issue has come up with our puppy Ira. He is afraid of the noise of the vehicle engine, specifically our van.

I believe the problem started when he was a puppy and we had picked him up during a camping trip. The van was started while he was standing next to it and it scared the heck out of him. Even since then he has been cautious around the van even when it is off, but not nearly as much when it is running.

This is a serious issue and is in need of work.

Starting Out

To start desensitization training for this fear issue I did a couple of tests. First, I took Ira out and judged his reaction to the van when it was not running. He had no problem with it and went directly up to it, put his paws up when the door was opened and took food rewards easily.

No problem standing right next to the van.

Then I moved him away from the van and got Ernie to start it.

Ira alerted, stayed back and did not approach the van. I did not try to bring him closer and made sure we were far enough back from the van that he was at least reasonably comfortable. The key here is to determine when the dog is getting too uncomfortable without putting him in a situation that terrifies him. For Ira this was about 10 feet away.


First Training Steps

In order to have a dog comfortable with the van running, he should be completely comfortable with it NOT running. I want my dogs to be able to jump in on their own if they are able, and more specifically, enjoy jumping in because going for a ride is rewarding and fun.

I click/rewarded Ira was looking at and then stepping closer and closer to the van. That didn’t take long. Then I started opening doors and rewarding him for staying close. Finally for a first session, I rewarded him for putting his paws on the van while the doors were open.

For a first session he did very well.


Next Steps To Come

Once the habit of the behaviour of getting in the van without the engine running is in place, the dog will likely have a really positive association with the vehicle.

When I start adding the running engine to the mix, we will be starting from quite far away, perhaps double the distance or 20 feet. I want to create a positive association with the starting and running of the engine for Ira, and I will do this with high value food rewards and a greater distance.

With my other dog Tommy, who also had a fear of vehicles, we were able to do enough work so that Tommy runs to the door when he hears the van start.

This is what the other dogs do as well, because they know (or think) that they are going for a fun ride!

Although Tommy can only go for rides of short distances so far, he is greatly improved and I have no doubt that I will be able to help Ira with his fear as well. Since Ira is a puppy, there is a greater possibility of success since his fear has not been too ingrained yet.

In our first session we only did about 4 minutes of training. I don’t like repeating something too much so that the dog gets bored from repetition (just like in “normal” training). Stopping the session while the dog is still very interested is important to create the desire to get back training for that particular thing.

It worked for bathtub training so I imagine it will work here as well.

Happy Desensitization!