Troubleshooting the dog in front of me

I am reading Train the Dog in Front of You by Denise Fenzi and just got a little shock of recognition.

On page 29 she writes:

Dogs who are both curious and nervous are challenging because they are easily overwhelmed, but have no desire to leave. They want to see what’s going on, yet they do not handle the novelty well.

Yes!!! This is exactly my dog. She can seem desperate to greet someone — a person she knows well — and to solicit touch. Then, all of a sudden, she growls and pulls away. We’ve been trying to respect her limits by allowing touch only when she asks for it. So how do you manage a dog who asks for what she can’t handle?

Fenzi’s description helped me see that I am not crazy. This dog is not crazy. She simply cannot handle — right now — what she wants.

On the surface it looks like a contradiction. But I wonder if it’s more of a continuum, or tension. Fear is a response to information. Curiosity is information seeking. Both are in play in all of us. Sometimes we are “simply” curious. It has little to do with survival. Sometimes we are driven to find out — like when I hear that my kids’ school is in lockdown, but don’t know why — because we want to prevent calamity. And sometimes we are so afraid that we shut ourselves down. We can’t cope. In each case, the tension — of wanting (or not) to see what’s “behind the door” — causes stress at varying levels and durations.

Ah, but I need to tweak the word “novelty”. Lyra’s fear/curiosity tension is mild with most strangers. The truly novel. She will approach and sniff, but is not frantic. If the stranger frightens her, she wants distance. Her wariness (of human touch) is easier to manage because she — at least — does not demand contact. Why, then, does she demand it from people she knows well? People who are less novel than strangers?

Enter another emotion: attachment. My hypothesis is that Lyra feels most intense about the people she met early on. She really wants to be with them. The tension is thus amplified because she wants to be there. Up close. Only, suddenly, her fear gets triggered.

By contrast, she seldom shows fear when I touch her (unless I absentmindedly kick her when she’s sleeping under my desk). I am so known to her that her fear and curiosity are both diminished. There’s less tension (ergo, less stress). When others appear, she is more curious/fearful. If she also wants to be with them, you can watch the intensity build — very quickly.

(Lyra is, in general, more environment- than handler-focused — another idea I got from Fenzi’s book).

The picture isn’t static, of course. The needle in my diagram moves. Lyra can get bored of people if they stay around long enough. And she does feel nervous around me sometimes; she can feel pressured (due to her temperament and my clumsy handling of it). When she turns her happiest face to me, it’s not to say “I love you and feel totally safe with you”; it’s to say, “What are we doing next, Meg?”


I love that face. But I am hoping to increase her feeling of safety — with everyone.

Lyra has got to learn to calm herself near people-she-knows-but-is-excited-to-see. The nearly novel. I’m reminded of when she was a very young pup. She used to scrabble at us frantically, and bite, like a toddler in meltdown. The only way to stop her was to put her in an x-pen (gently, with toys and treats) and to sit close to her and talk indirectly. Then I’d let her out, and we’d try again. It’s the one thing that — finally — helped us turn a corner. That, and the fact that she finally got bored of me.

I’m very aware that we need to counter-condition her to the trigger of a person looming over and/or reaching out to her, or behind her head. That will be a separate post. Here, I’m talking about my plan to work on the arrival of the exciting person.


  • Set up baby gates to create a safe zone in the front hall for the “highly desirable person” (HDP)
  • When the HDP enters the house (in the safe zone) give high value treats to Lyra regardless of Lyra’s behaviour.
  • When Lyra begins to calm down, ask the HDP to approach the gate. If Lyra gets frantic again, feed treats while HDP stands still. Repeat.
  • Lyra is permitted to reach HDP only when she is calm enough to do so.
  • HDP can touch her once, if Lyra solicits it, then I will divert again with a treat.

My reasoning

It is safest to guess that Lyra feels some fear — or at least ambivalence — when an HDP arrives, so I want to use counter-conditioning: hence the high value treats when HDP arrives. It’s clearer that Lyra feels some fear when the HDP touches her (the growl and pull back): hence the treats when she is touched. In the latter case, my plan to divert her with a treat (draw her away from the HDP) is to give her the distance and time lag that she isn’t asking for but probably needs.

However, I also think there’s a self-control issue going on. So I want to use Premack (access to HDP) when Lyra offers calm behaviour. I believe that most of her frantic behaviour is over-excitement; the gate prevents her from practising the behaviour of pawing for attention.

I’m not suggesting that it’s a great idea to mix counter- and operant conditioning (and management tools) on purpose. Ideally, I would work on Lyra’s fears separately. But the reality is that HDPs (like, my husband) come into the house. It has to be managed as a whole event. So this is my attempt to improve the emotional state of dog, HDP, and me in those moments.

Progress to date

So far so good. I’ve tried it twice, and she seems to calm down more quickly. Next, I am going to work on a plan that is more specific to her fear of being touched.

Caveat: I am not a dog trainer, and any stupid ideas in this post are mine alone. In general, I think it best to work on issues in small pieces.


4 comments on “Troubleshooting the dog in front of me

  1. Ooooh boy, another dog book to add to my library. That quote describes Miller too: curious yet easily overwhelmed. He wants to sniff new people, yet if they respond to him in any way (a look, and extended hand) “No!” is his response. Consequently, we very carefully manage how we introduce new people. This is an ongoing piece of work with people I know out and about and those who come to our house.

    • The “lightbulb” moment for me was realizing that Lyra is not being inconsistent. Her feelings may be “mixed”, but the ingredients — if you break them down — are pretty consistent! As you say, the work goes on. I really like the way Denise Fenzi identifies basic traits, without over-simplifying, as a way to analyze and work with a dog’s (changing) temperament. Say hi to Miller from Lyra 🙂

  2. Thought of you guys this morning when we encountered a florist’s panel delivery van with 3 daisies painted on it. Miller growled at the largest (and fair enough, I could see how its composition resembled a face staring at him). I could see he was curious, and no people or dogs were around, so we stayed long enough for him to assess. I reached out and touched one of the daisies let him sniff my hand, touched another one, ditto; etc. It seemed to help. Then he wanted to sniff the tires. He had a nice shake off at the end.

  3. It makes a great difference when your dog is able (because of time and stillness) to investigate safely; to learn, truly, that all is well. I love those shake off moments 🙂

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