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Training the overly submissive/timid dog


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Our newly adopted girl, Seeka, is getting along quite well and integrating into our household nicely. However, there may be some training roadblocks ahead that I want to address a priori: Seeka has some real confidence/submission/fear issues and they seem to be taking up 90% of her attention leaving little to concentrate on learning.

Some of the fear/confidence manifestations:

• She is afraid of things that you carry in your hand. This makes it very hard to brush out her beautiful red coat. If I pick up a brush as I walk outside, she’ll hunker down, grovel, roll over and piddle. I’ve resorted to cutting the handle off her brush so I can palm it.

• She is continually trying to ingratiate herself. This takes the form of jumping up, the aforementioned groveling and piddling, and generally trying to suck up at every opportunity.

• When training, if you don’t give her the treat right away (even if she doesn’t get it right) she’ll slam down and start groveling, as if she thinks that’s what she needs to do to get the treat. She loves treats like piranhas love hapless movie hikers, so that makes the groveling almost insistent!

 

The latter issue is the real training killer. She’s a smart dog, but the immediate degradation into groveling basically ends any possible training session. I know she probably feels like the outsider trying to become a member of a new pack, and this may be the root of the issue. How do I ease her fears and let her feel more confident of her place? Cerb (the prince) isn’t helping matters much, in a passive aggressive sort of way. No overt fights or anything, but he does let her know, in no uncertain terms, that I am his.

 

Seeka seems to be very perceptive and I want to get this right from the start. I’m probably missing a lot of cues and behaviors (hers and mine) so ask me any questions you want and I’ll try to answer them.

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Ignore her when she grovels. Secret has the bad habit of melting into a puddle when she sees someone she likes at trials. Nobody pets her unless she is standing or sitting nicely -- groveling gets her nowhere. Thankfully we do not have the added issue of submissive peeing, but all the more reason to completely ignore her when she behaves that way.

 

In training, I would find a way to make sure she doesn't reach that stage. Either deliver the treat faster or make the exercise easier. Once her confidence starts to build you will be able to do more, but right now life is ALL about building that confidence.

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Ignoring the grovelling will help, as will using a marker (clicker, whistle...preferably something not your voice which has inflection and you use for other things) can help too. It clearly defines the behavior you want and then you can toss the treat on the ground if she collapses when you reach out to deliver it. It would help eliminate her confusion over what shes being rewarded for and would likely cut down on the grovelling. Chances are, grovelling has worked to appease other humans so its becoming a fall back behavior for when she is not sure what you want.

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Also, re: grooming. Set the brush down where you want to groom her, then quietly collect her, lead her to that spot and ask her to lay down next to you while you sit on the floor. Move the brush towards her on the ground and let her see it, then gently move it up and brush. Say (quietly) what you call it (I say: lets get a brush out) so she starts to associate the words with the actions and then will know what to expect when you say it. When I say to my dogs "ok, time to be brushed out" they know and expect it and will come lay next to me. No surprises, be consistent and kind.

 

Define the "grooming time" as specific in your movement and actions and she will then learn what its all about and be less anxious about it. Don't move towards her with brush in hand, and I really don't recommend hiding it and then sneaking up on her with it in your palm (which you may not be doing, its just hard to tell from your comment). You don't want her wondering whats happening. In secure dogs gain confidence via trust and repetition.

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These are great suggestions. I really appreciate the help. Seeka's a sweet little girl who picks up on EVERYTHING. It's imperative I get this right.

 

Speaking of submissive behavior...Often, when we're sitting down she'll come over and put her head on one of our laps. This really appears as ingratiating behavior. Should we ignore that too? I’ve already got the family turning their bodies to throw her paws off when she jumps up. She only gets pets and attention if she is invited and sits for it or when we approach her.

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Yeah, submissive (and fearful) dogs are really hard to train - but, as a trainer, it really stretches you and makes you more observant and tolerant and, hopefully, more creative in trying alternative approaches.

 

Suggestions above are very good. I would also try to get her excited about clicker training. My senior dog would shy away and grovel when she first heard the clicker. It scared her. You have to dampen the noise - put it in your pocket, find a less noisy clicker, or start with a clicking pen. Also, I wouldn't "train" her to do anything until she is excited about the clicker. Just click and throw a treat. Ad infinitum. Then say her name, she looks at you, click and throw treat. If she follows you, click and throw treat. When she is lying on the floor being quiet, click/treat. With a submissive dog, I like to keep them moving. I think stopping or sitting can sometime reinforce some submissiveness and/or can be demotivating. Give treats while she is moving. Throw at first, then try to see if she will take them from your hand while you are slowly walking. Make sure she really likes the click and treat game before formal training (sit, down, stay, etc.) begins.

 

You will probably have to keep Cerb out of the room in the beginning. Depending on how she progresses, you may want to bring him in once in a while and train both at the same time.

 

You have to start with real baby steps and work your way up to where many pups start.

 

Re: putting her head on your lap when you are sitting. I don't think that it would hurt anything to occasionally pet her when she does that, but also ignore her at times. If she uses the pathetic "head in the lap" to start crawling into your lap, then just stand up and turn away (as you already do). I will also sometimes sit on the floor and pet the dog in response to a dog putting his head on my lap. I believe this tells the dog that petting doesn't happen when they intrude into your lap, but that if they stay on the floor, they will get pet. So you also have to initiate petting/play time while you are on the floor.

 

Oh, and yes, I would also ignore groveling behavior. Once Seeka gets up, immediately give her a treat.

 

Jovi

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Bess puts her snout on my lap when she wants something... prior to getting desperate and barking. (Out to potty for instance. Had she not done that, I'd have never figured out when she had to go until it was too late... we did the bell on the door and that was abused by wanting to go out...period for no known reason.)

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Bess puts her snout on my lap when she wants something... prior to getting desperate and barking. (Out to potty for instance. Had she not done that, I'd have never figured out when she had to go until it was too late... we did the bell on the door and that was abused by wanting to go out...period for no known reason.)

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I'm late here, but I will add my voice to those who recommend ignoring her groveling. My own Senneca was the softest dog I have ever met and I struggled hard to find the right balance. In the end, the (not so) secret was to simply reward the behaviours that I wanted and ignore those I didn't want. Treats weren't a lot of use -- really sensitive dogs pick up your body language so fast that clickers and treats are superfluous. They know instantly when you're happy with a behaviour and likewise when you aren't. [This is pretty much how their ancestors -- and modern wolves -- learn, so it's the most natural way possible.]

 

As for putting her head in your lap; I'm fairly easy going with that (Sweep does it too). I allow it in moderation, but will put Sweep down if it's inconvenient or if he's over the top. That sort of needy behaviour will diminish as Seeka becomes more confident.

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She loves treats like piranhas love hapless movie hikers

 

You have so much going for you then. A bright dog and a reward she really wants.

 

I'm with those who have suggested clicker training.

 

I'm rather envious of you as I'm currently trying to train a friend's springer x collie that has no desire to work and little interest in either treats or toys. She behaves as if she is semi feral despite having been brought up with them from a small pup.

 

I have no doubt at all that I could get through to her by clicker training if she were mine but once a week makes it hard. Progress is very slow as it is.

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Additional to many of those things, I would find the kind of agility trainer that teaches the basic stuff along the obstacles. One, it gives the dogs a reason to stay for example. Or sit before a jump. Two, if she likes it focus comes of the unwanted little issues and confidence in itself can be build that may carry over.

I would stay far away from any drill repetitive type training that does not carry rewards in itself along with treats.

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