How Sugi overcame his fear of Commercial Drive

  • Lesson from Sugi: When guiding a dog to overcome a fearful place or object, don’t use frustration, anger, force. Relax the leash! Allow the dog to come to the object or place through his choice using reward and praise.
  • Sugi says, “Just give me a minute while I make sure it’s safe…OK”

Story: One evening a few years ago, Greg took Tom and Sugi for a walk up to the grocery store on Commerical Drive. It was a regular thing we would do, blending a walk with the utility of grocery shopping. If Greg or I went on our own, we would leave the boys outside the shop while we picked up what we needed. Generally, they would wait outside patiently, sometimes shaking a bit with uncertainty.

On this particular spring evening,  it was abnormally windy. While Tom and Sugi were waiting outside the shop, the wind gave a sudden gust and knocked over the sandwich board next to them, startling Sugi. Panicked, he ran out into the middle of the road at full speed heading northbound down Commercial Drive, in the direction of home.

Noticing that the dogs were no longer standing outside, Greg hurriedly left the store. People pointed in the direction of Sugi, and he noticed that passersby ran out to help Sugi and stop traffic so that he wouldn’t be hit. (I am very grateful to the people who assisted a small frightened dog!) Greg was able to catch Sugi who finally slowed down enough to pay attention to his calls.

After that incident, Sugi refused to come within a block of Commercial. Somehow he knew all the streets surrounding Commercial we could not fool him by taking an alternate route. He would freeze and no amount of coaxing or leash pulling would help.

For weeks, I tried different tactics. Anger and frustration were the least effective. Finally, I thought about using treats. By bringing along his favorite treats I could at least get his attention and distract him from the fear. Somehow I figured out that I needed to ease up on his leash when he started to balk, I’d walk ahead of him a few feet, then squat down and call him. He would come, receive a treat and lots of praise! I would do this all the way up the block to the Drive, often taking 10-15 minutes to progress a hundred yards. Patience paid off and he managed to overcome his resistance and fear. (Cesar Millan always advocates for no tension on the leash!)

Turns out that Sugi was also scared of things along the street: sign boards, metal grates in the sidewalk, mailboxes, newspaper boxes. The incident with the sandwich board seemed to have sensitized him to unknown objects. When he stopped before an object and refused to move, I would slow down, even stop and let the leash go completely slack. Sugi would then trot along past and resume his walk. He seemed to be saying “just give me a minute while I make sure it’s safe…OK”. We would give him loads of praise!

Sugi is much more confident now. He’ll even walk over a metal grate in the sidewalk! He’s a persistent and courageous character at heart, desiring to move forward beyond fear.

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