Sarah Wilson

Dog Expert

With Fearful Dogs, Focus on Progress


Standing in line at PetSmart this AM, buying some pill wrapsshy dog training, my client dog stands next to me, his hind legs trembling. A mother with a young daughter makes a sympathetic sound toward him.

Is he a new rescue? 

No, he’s not. I reply with a smile.

What’s wrong with him?

He’s scared. I say, but he’s less scared than he used to be. He’s doing great today.

The dog glances up at me, wags twice then tucks his tail again.

Other people see a scaredy cat, I see a dog with courage I can only imagine. He and I have been working together for many months. He started out more terrified of the world than any pet dog I have seen. But he’s lucky; his people both adore him as is and keep working to help him improve.

What observers see is a dog, standing next to me, trembling. What I see is a dog who isn’t plastered to the floor, a dog who can walk, a dog who isn’t shaking stem to stern, a dog who follow me willingly around the store with moments of real curiosity thrown in, a dog who matches my movement on a slack leash, a dog who, thankfully, hasn’t stress pooped in the store.

He and I are having an excellent errand!

Then I come home and find the Huffpost piece on How Long Does It Actually Take to Form a New Habit? (Backed by Science), which says, “On average, it takes more than two months before a new behavior becomes automatic — 66 days to be exact. ” 66 Days? Really? But if you read on, they say (not in bold but much more realistically): “the truth is that it will probably take you anywhere from two months to eight months to build a new behavior into your life…

That can be true for a straight-forward behavior that has no downsides and isn’t trying to replace something more powerful or addictive. In fact, for dogs, it doesn’t take them that long to adopt a new simple behavior. Dogs can pick things up startlingly quickly and, with the right support, be reliable much faster than 66 days.

But, if the habit you’re working to develop is counter a behavior that is rewarding to the dog or causes a major bio-chem response of some kind in a dog then it can may take more than 8 months to develop a solid replacement. The behavior can be in place much sooner but be a true self-sustaining habit? That can take a while sometimes. With this dog, his fear response has a massive, primal impact on his brain and body so change comes more slowly. Habits that are fighting such powerful responses are just trickier. Ask any one fighting with an addiction.

But you and your dog can get there. Just don’t put a time limit on the journey. Do keep a detailed list of your successes. Today, this dog ran from my backdoor to the car and tried to hop in. He used to have to be carried. That goes on his list.

And, as he snores quietly at my feet, recharging from his big adventure, I smile. I’m so proud of him. He’s gonna make it. Not in 66 days or 8 months but what does that matter? He is improving steadily and when we get there it will be that much sweeter.




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