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Slow and Steady Wins the Race: Sage and the Car, Part 2

In many situations, I am not a patient person. Just ask my husband. I hate waiting in lines, and being stuck in rush hour traffic can cause me to spontaneously combust. But when it comes to behavior modification for dogs, I have a lot more patience. Maybe it’s because the emotion that is being modified is often fear, and I empathize. We can’t explain to dogs that there’s nothing to be afraid of, so we’re left with the choice of forcing them to confront their fears, or exposing them slowly and gradually so they feel comfortable at each step along the way. The first choice can easily backfire and cause a dog to have an even worse fearful reaction; besides, it’s cruel. The second technique is the one that most gentle, positive, enlightened trainers use.


You may have read my blog about Sage’s fear of the car. Today is almost one month to the day since I wrote it. You may be wondering how things are progressing. Are we doing park visits? Taking road trips? Not quite yet, but we’re getting there. I did a lot of practice days of Sage jumping in the back of the SUV (back seats are down) to get hot dog bits, at first tossing them in to get her to follow, then switching to a “Jump!” cue and feeding her afterwards, as she stood in the car. I also sprinkled hot dog pieces around the back area so she’d want to stay in there for a bit. She soon came to associate the car with good things, and when I’d walk her in front of the house, she’d actually pull towards the car, wanting to do the fun hot dog exercise.

For the next step, my husband sat in the driver’s seat with a paper plate I’d smeared with canned food (which Sage never gets otherwise, but loves). Once I’d gotten Sage to jump in, I closed the hatchback and, while she was still licking the plate, got into the passenger seat and closed the door. We let her finish licking the plate, and I let her out. The following step involved turning the engine on and off as she licked, and then moving the car a few feet during the plate-licking. Since I didn’t want to keep feeding canned food, plus it was unwieldy to take along, I switched to feeding hot dog pieces as we moved the car a bit. Each of these steps took a few days to a week. It’s possible that I could have gone faster, but I didn’t want to rush things. Remember, this was a dog who was terrified of getting in the car when we first adopted her.


Yesterday and today, we were able to drive Sage down our dirt road and let her out to have a fun sniffari. She loves sniffing and exploring as much as she loves food, so she was in doggy heaven. She still gets startled by the sound of the hatchback closing (she won’t jump in the side door and I have a feeling she may have hurt herself trying it in the past), so we’ll just have to get her used to the hatchback over time. But all things considered, slow and steady is definitely winning this particular race, and I plan to stick with it. Oh, and that photo you see was taken as we were driving back up the hill to our house this morning. Happy face! ____________________________________________________ You can find my books, seminar recordings, blog, and more at and follow me on Facebook @NicoleWildeauthor. My dog trainer mentoring service can be found at Dog Trainer's Friend. And if wildlife photos are your thing, check out my Instagram at nicolewildeart. Books and art make great holiday gifts!

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