Lyra - Working Through Fear

Today’s blog post was supposed to be a video illustration on teaching a dog to “out” (let go) of a toy.

Lyra had other ideas.  She decided that my video assistant, Katie, was a potentially scary person, and playing with me and my silly toys was not as important as monitoring the lady with a camera in front of her face.

This post is now a video illustration of the problem, and I how I chose to address it.

I start by asking myself,  "How great is the dog’s fear?"  In this case, Lyra’s fear is mild.  Most of the time she is not watching Katie - a very concerned dog would not take her eyes off of the fright inducing circumstance. Lyra is not alarm barking, growling, hiding behind me, or stopping motion to stare for seconds at a time.  She is curiosity sniffing the ground (not avoidance sniffing), and she able to function (albeit at a low level) with me and a toy.

Under these circumstances, I decided to ignore the issue and let Lyra figure out for herself that there was nothing to be concerned about.  I made no effort to hurry this process.   I do not introduce her to Katie – she does not need to meet Katie to understand that she is not a threat.  I do not encourage Katie to make friends.  Yes, that would make Lyra comfortable, and Lyra would see that Katie was a friendly, harmless person, but Lyra already knows that people who call to her are friendly and harmless.  She also knows that video cameras are harmless, when held by people she knows well (such as my husband).  Now she needs to learn that new people who stand and stare in her direction with cameras are also harmless.  THAT is the issue to be dealt with, not cheerful people calling her to visit while holding cameras. I want her to learn that staring strangers with video cameras are neutral people; nothing to worry about.  The way to learn that is to have neutral to positive experiences in the presence of such people.

If you change the interaction, then you’ve dealt with a NEW interaction, not the problem inducing one.    This might have value if the dog were completely over faced.  For example, if no one had ever videotaped Lyra, or if she were uncomfortable with people in general, then I would have treated this situation differently.

Let’s look at the tape:

5 sec:  Lyra moves sideways away from Katie while watching her.  This is my first indication that there is an issue.

11 sec: Lyra comes when I call her, but keeps her front end partially oriented towards Katie rather than coming into me directly.

25, 31, 33 and 36 sec:  Lyra moves towards me to engage with the toy, but sneaks quick peaks at Katie

36sec:  Lyra is offered the toy but she does not grab it.  She looks at Katie instead.

42 sec: I start moving slightly away from Katie.  The additional distance allows Lyra to function and to play.

49 sec:  I pull her back into Katie’s direction and she disengages to look at Katie again.

50 sec:  She is able to fetch in a direction away from Katie, but all the way back she is looking back and forth between the two of us.

1min, 2sec:  Lyra continues to orient with her head/front in the direction of Katie.

1 min, 14 sec: Note that Lyra is again able to engage if I increase distance from Katie.

1 min, 18 sec:  Lyra is beginning to relax.  She is playing with me (though tentatively) and maintains focus.  She is able to keep her rear end to Katie, which suggests much improvement in her comfort level.  While I can “feel” that she is not 100%, I also see that we’ve progressed from where the session started.

After this I stopped playing with Lyra and chatted with Katie for another five minutes before ending the session.  During this time, Lyra wandered around the yard, mostly sniffing.  She also walked around near us as we talked.  Katie never visited with her, but if she were to visit, this would have been a good time for it.  Then Lyra could make the association between staring camera people becoming  social people later in time.  I chose not to go this route because I prefer not to have new people interact with Lyra in my training area.

If I had been carrying food on my body, I would have given up the toy idea almost instantly, and I would have worked with the food.  But in real life, you get what you get, and you deal with it according to the circumstances as they are at that moment in time.  Hence, the interactions as shown on tape.   Hindsight is 20/20.


Carla Baker

It was especially cool having your time indexed run down to go along with watching the video. There are things I might have missed the first time through watching the tape. Seeing them in real time with your girlie will hopefully enable me to see it in real time with my own.

Lyra – 7 months Distractions « Denise Fenzi

[…]  For an example of that with fear, see my blog post on Lyra and fear of a camera person at: The discussion is the same; if you change the situation you are no longer training the same […]


I love the way that you work with the dog where she is without worrying about sticking to a “plan.” Thank you for share so much of your training and your thought process.

Lucy Newton

I had to think about this for a bit – the little kennel mal that I am working with can act in a similar manner sometimes. I am used to pushy obnoxious dogs (I would have had a totally different problem with Steel in the above scenario) so I have been giving a lot of thought to this lately. IMO I think it is important to note that Denise is not asking the pup to DO anything in this state except play. I think that is important because if she had, she would probably have had a diminshed performance and then she would be forced to reward less than 100% effort, or else not reward the dog for working through her discomfort. I agree that food probably would have caught her attention better but I wonder if it would have been as effective in teaching Lyra to work through something that seems weird to her. With my little mali project I use “play with toys” as a good indicator of her environmental comfort, food not so much because she can be uncomfortable but still take food.


Excellent Lucy; you’ve made me think.
Lyra is not all that interested in food, so if I had used food, it would have been along the lines of classical conditioning; stand there feeding her cookies while chatting with Katie. Indeed, I intend to have various students stand holding a video camera while I do exactly that. If she relaxes, then I’d ask for simple work with super high reinforcement, on the assumption that she was done looking at video person.
With a high drive trained adult dog who still earns toys/food for their work, I’d work right over their fear (assuming that their fear was as minor as what Lyra was showing) – their training/playing would have eliminated the fear through classical conditioning in a minute or less. Keep in mind that work and play are more or less the same for my dogs. If I had reason to think it was more than very minor, I would not do that.
If the fear were greater, or if I had reason not to want to use toys/food with a given dog, then I’d likely do a down stay at a distance sufficient that the dog would not be bothered (far under threshold) but close enough that they could adapt on their own time. When dog showed me through their behavior that they are comfortable (by looking at me for something to do), then I’d work the dog. This is particularly relevant if a dog is far enough along in their training that they are rarely rewarded with toys/food and I don’t much want to bring them back in to the picture.
CU (control unleashed) exercises are another good option – “Look at that!”
your point that I not ask for work until the dog is comfortable is well taken – bad idea to ask a dog to work with 50% of their brain.

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