How to Train an Anxious Dog: What Dolphin Training Taught Me About My Fearful Dog

by Jesse Ciletti

What do a six year old Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin and a five year old Sharpei Mix have in common? Everything. Both are adorably schmoopy (aka super cute), both are the loves of my life, and both are afraid of everything—or at least they used to be.

I rescued my Sharpei mix from the Humane Society when she was eight months old. I actually didn’t even see her the first few times walking amongst the kennels because she was the only one hiding in the corner. When I saw her face, I knew I had to save this scared little dog. I ironically named her Kana, which means powerful in Japanese. Having been a dolphin trainer for five years at the time, I thought it would be easy to “fix” her—most of the behavioral issues that came up in dolphin training could be addressed through positive reinforcement and desensitization. Most dolphins just needed time and repetition to feel comfortable with new stimuli, so I spent the next few years bringing Kana to the dog park, to the beach, and to different public places. When this didn’t help her fear, I just thought she needed even more exposure...more dogs, more people, more places. But her behavior just got worse.

Soon Kana didn’t want to get out of the car, became terrified of any new place, and started growling and lunging at other dogs at the park.

At about this time, I moved to a different dolphin area at my job and began working with a young female dolphin named Adela. Adela was unlike any dolphin I had ever trained. Within a few days of working with her, I realized her and my dog Kana were incredibly alike—Adela was in an interactive area yet had a great fear of people. Watching her behavior, I could tell how anxious she was all the time and how any little thing would cause her stress.

Jesse as a trainer at Sea Life Park with Adela

Jesse as a trainer at Sea Life Park with Adela

A Dolphin's Training Plan

I immediately created a customized training program for her based on two things:

  1. Gaining her trust
  2. Managing her environment

I needed to build Adela's confidence by having her first trust me, her trainer, and then she could learn to become more comfortable with other people. I started very small—at first I only brought one person in the water at a time and anytime I asked Adela near that person, she received a fish (positive reinforcement) and then I let her swim away right after (negative reinforcement).


Identifying the Threshold (or "Breaking Point") and Why It's Important

...In this state of mind, the animal’s ability to learn is severely compromised, along with their short term memory and ability to make logical decisions.

If I asked Adela to stay more than 30 seconds near a person during an interaction, she would reach her threshold, and as a result, “break” and swim away from the group. To reach a threshold means that the animal has reached the point where their fear or anxiety takes over. In this state of mind, the animal's ability to learn is severely compromised, along with their short term memory and ability to make logical decisions. Also at this point, they are not finding the scenario reinforcing. As trainers, it's our number one priority to ensure that all interactions between us and our animals are incredibly reinforcing and fun. I learned that 30 seconds was Adela's threshold, so I made those 30 seconds very positive and gave her chances to take breaks and to swim away before she would have reached her threshold.

Acknowledging an animal's threshold, or their breaking point, is so important because it reinforces the animal's trust in you—you're proving to them that you won't bring them into an uncomfortable or unsafe situation.

Within two weeks, Adela progressed to staying near a person for a few minutes at a time and even allowed the person to touch her back. The few weeks after that, she allowed guests to kiss her rostrum and touch her pectoral fins. During this time, I managed her environment to keep it “safe” which was imperative to her progress. I would not allow the guests to move too quickly toward her or touch her face. By managing her environment, Adela learned to trust me, she gained more confidence, and she starting associating people with reinforcing things. And because of that, her threshold expanded. Within four months, she was participating in 20 person groups. Of course, she would always be a little more anxious than the other dolphins, but that's okay! The goal was never to turn her into a different animal, the goal was to reduce her anxiety and improve her quality of life and I can say with gusto that we achieved both of those goals! 

To this day, Adela is my greatest training accomplishment. 

Jesse as a dog trainer in San Diego with her dog Kana

Jesse as a dog trainer in San Diego with her dog Kana

The Training Plan for My Dog's Anxiety

Adela’s training plan came so naturally to me. So why hadn’t I done the same plan for my anxious dog? For some reason I put my dog in a different category than all other animals. But behavior is behavior. Yes there will be some differences among species, but the same behavioral theories can be applied to all.

I realized what I had done to Kana was called “flooding”. Flooding attempts to reduce fear by exposing the animal to the fearful or the aversive stimuli in a closed environment based on the idea that the animal’s fear will decrease because the body cannot stay in a high state of stress forever. In most cases, flooding only makes a fearful dog more fearful and forces it to find different coping mechanisms, some of which can include aggression, self mutilation, or shutting down completely. If you're afraid of snakes and I forced you into a room of snakes, would your fear disappear? Nope, it would probably get worse and you would either knock the door down or curl up in a ball and cry.

Never would I have ever tried to train a fearful and anxious 400lb Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin by bringing her near a group of 20 guests over and over again. So why would that work for a dog with the same insecurities? Yes desensitization works, but only if it is done in a very slow and controlled manner and at the animal’s pace.

How I Worked My Dog Through Her Fear

I still knew walking up to another dog was too much at this point for Kana, so luckily we practiced with our neighbor dog who was behind a fence. When Kana walked near the dog, I asked her to look at me and when she did, I reinforced her.

After realizing the biggest mistake of my training career with my own dog, I created a customized program for her based on what I had done with Adela the dolphin. I had to start from the bottom and took it even slower with Kana.

For the first few days, I sat with her on my front porch and when any stimuli (another dog or person) came into our environment, I reinforced Kana with a super high reward such as meat. When she became more at ease with this situation, we took it a small step further and began short walks near the house. On walks, I continued to reinforce her everytime she saw a new person or dog. I tried my hardest to manage the environment and made sure I saw everything before she could, that way I could be ready to reinforce or to create distance from the stimuli if I knew it was too aversive for her.

The next step was to gain her trust. I did this by asking her to look at me everytime she would see a new stimulus. By doing this, you are telling your dog to look to you for guidance and assurance rather than worrying about the stimulus. I still knew walking up to another dog was too much at this point for Kana, so luckily we practiced with our neighbor dog who was behind a fence. When Kana walked near the dog, I asked her to look at me and when she did, I reinforced her. We did this on every walk and every time we moved closer and closer. (I must note that the other dog was a very confident, calm dog. I wouldn't try this with an aggressive or anxious dog.) Soon, Kana wanted to go to the dog as soon as we started our walk and began excitedly whimpering on the way to him. One day the fence gate was open and the dog was just outside the fence. Since Kana had been doing very well, we took the next step and walked toward the dog — something we had never done before! Kana walked right up to the dog (on leash) and sniffed him and when I asked her to look at me, she did! It was a huge breakthrough! I instantly reinforced her with tons of meat and then ran home and hugged her! I was so excited! In the past, she would have growled and lunged at the dog because of her lack of confidence and anxiety. 

I still am in the process of working with Kana on her anxiety and fear. By applying the same training techniques that I did with Adela, I have seen great improvement with Kana! It’s a long slow process, but the achievements are incredibly rewarding. I had to come to terms with the fact that I will never have a happy-go-lucky dog that I can bring to the dog park or crowded places, but I can definitely have a more confident happy dog that enjoys walks and meeting other dogs in a more controlled setting. Hopefully in the future, I can say I have two greatest training accomplishments.