In his book, “Dog Psychology: The Basis of Dog Training”, Leon F. Whitney, D.V.M., describes the varying needs that dogs experience throughout their lifetimes. There are the basics; like food, play, and shelter, but then there is the most prevailing need of all animals, “the need to escape”. While dogs are beloved members of our families, they are essentially “modified wild animals” as Whitney puts it; meaning they too can be overwhelmed and driven by the need to flee potentially dangerous situations and or people.
Whitney argues that dogs learn at a very early age to fear and avoid certain objects and animals, and that this learned behavior is carried over into a fear of humans. However, it is possible to overcome this innate shyness with careful training. The author goes on to tell a very enlightening story of his Redbone coonhound, Tall Boy. Tall Boy was frightened at the sound of the gun firing when they went hunting and would run off, not to be seen for days. This behavior was, of course, problematic for Whitney who needed the dog to hunt with. So, he cleverly devised a plan to override this fear-reaction by replacing the negative association of the gunshot with a happier one. The next time they went out together, the dog chased a raccoon into the tree and barked, signaling to Whitney it was time to shoot. Tall Boy was chained at this point, and thus could not escape when the gun was fired. He jolted, but quickly overcame his fear and ran up to shake the raccoon that had fallen from the tree. Whitney repeated this process later that same day and Tall Boy’s fear already seemed to be dissipating. While he still jerked at the sound of the gunshot, he didn’t have nearly the same reaction as the very first time he heard the frightening sound. The author reasoned that the dog had learned to associate the sound of the gun with the happy experience of a raccoon falling from a tree and that this positive connection was able to override the negative one.
Whitney argues that this process has wonderful applications for training. He points out that many shy dogs fear humans, and that this fear is difficult to surpass, even by treating the dog with love and respect. He says that the dog may even still exhibit this fear behavior once any actual, instinctual fear of its owner has receded. However, Whitney’s successful training of his own dog, Tall Boy, can be applied to help a dog overcome his wariness of humans as well. By properly utilizing his technique, and creating a positive association with an originally fearsome stimulant, much can be accomplished and the “need to escape” can be successfully overcome.
Whitney, L. F. 1. (1971). Dog psychology: The basis of dog training. New York: Howell Book House.