Pressure games - for when your dog is scared of thresholds or approaching something


Some dogs can suddenly become nervous of thresholds or objects, sometimes inexplicably. Maybe your dog is scared of going into his crate, through a doorway, past a bush, into the car. When this happens, our "go to" is often to try to coax, cajole or lure the dog towards the thing they're uncertain about, but that can make things worse.

Trying to encourage your dog to do something he doesn't want to can put a lot of stress on him, even if you're doing it in the nicest possible way. You're creating conflict; the dog wants to do what you're asking, or wants to get to the food, but he's still scared of The Thing. Conflict like this can be aversive to particularly sensitive dogs, and that means they will be less likely to want to do the thing you're asking them to do, rather than more so.

So, what to do about it if luring is bad?
Well, firstly, it's not "bad", and it's worth a quick try to see if it'll work. Shake your head, say "don't be a silly sausage, there's nothing to worry about" and cross back and forth yourself a few times. It may work to show the dog there is nothing to be worried about, and he'll happily trot after you. It's worth a try before launching into a whole training protocol. Just stop before you start pleading with your dog. If it doesn't work after ten seconds, you're probably flogging a dead horse and it's time to try something else.

So, *drumroll please*, I introduce to you.... pressure games!

This is a really straightforward idea. It's in our nature to want to only reward movement towards the thing that we're trying to get them to approach. For simplicity, I'll use the example of a doorway, but I've used this for stairs, walking past certain objects, getting into the car... the game remains the same. The principle is that we "ping pong" the dog both to and away from the doorway. By allowing them to move away, we are giving them respite from the pressure they feel as they approach the doorway, and that allows them to push on further.

Let's break it down.

Stand in front of the doorway with your back towards it, at a distance your dog is comfortable with. There shouldn't be any sign of worry at this distance.
Throw a treat in front of you, away from the door, so the dog increases his distance to it. Pressure off.
As soon as your dog lifts his head from eating, mark with a click or a verbal marker so he looks up, and drop a treat by your feet. He moves towards the door to grab it. Pressure on.
As soon as he's eaten it, mark and toss a treat away again. Pressure off.
This time, turn slightly and drop the treat on the side of your feet closer to the door, so the dog will be a few inches closer than he was last time. Pressure on.
Throw the next treat away from the door again. Pressure off.

You can see where I'm going with this, I hope. You start slowly moving the "pressure on" treat closer to the doorway, and always follow it up with a "pressure off" treat. The dog gets involved in the rhythm of the game and, whilst they are aware of what they're doing (otherwise it wouldn't work in a therapeutic way), the pressure play allows them to break through the plateaux they would otherwise experience.

Think of it a bit like if you're lifting heavy things; you keep lifting and lifting (getting closer and closer to the door) until you can't lift any more (get any closer). But if you have a break for a few seconds (pressure off, move away), you can suddenly make the effort and lift that next heavy thing that you wouldn't have had a chance with if you'd not given yourself that little break.

If your dog doesn't take any treat that you toss towards the door, don't worry. Just leave it there, toss away again to relieve the pressure and then go back to the beginning of dropping by your feet. Getting the rhythm back is the important thing in this situation, so make it easy and then gradually build back to where you were; you may find that your dog decides after a couple of reps that he's ready to go and grab that treat that he didn't take before, which is great.

As always when you're working with dogs that are showing concern, you want to keep in the "pre worry" window. If he's looking hesitant, you're moving too close too soon.

This is a bit of a postscript, so don't let it confuse you if you're not interested in the finer points.
For a summary of the difference between classical and operant conditioning, see here: Operant conditioning vs classical conditioning

Normally when I am discussing working with dogs' emotional responses, as I am here, I keep two feet very firmly planted in the "classical conditioning" box. That is, I'm not trying to train out the problem behaviour, I'm trying to change how the dog feels so that the problem behaviour goes away of its own accord.
In this case, though, we're using a marker word and a reward, which puts it into the "operant conditioning" box. That is, we are looking for a behaviour (the dog looking up after eating), for which we offer a consequence (another treat). I am very much describing working with behaviours, rather than emotions. So what gives?

Well, it's not always easy to compartmentalise classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is something that is always going on whilst we are training our dogs; if they are doing something that makes them feel good, they will be classically conditioned to associate the training with good feelings. If a dog finds training stressful, then they will be classically conditioned to associate training with bad feelings. So by using treats in this game, and keeping the dog in the "pre worry" window, you're keeping the good feelings flowing. They're not "OMG, THIS IS AMAZING!" feelings that I often want to work with; but by having lots of reps of the game, we are building a very strong reinforcement history around the thing that they find uncomfortable.

The game is simply a tool that we use to enable the access to those those good feelings. The rhythm of the game as they ping-pong back and forth gives them really easy rules to follow. It's predictable which allays fears of the unknown. If they choose not to take a treat, they have learnt they have a choice - that in itself is reinforcing for dogs, who so often have very limited ability to make their own choices in their lives with us. The game builds confidence; confidence they have control. Confidence they understand how it works. Confidence that they are getting to move away from the Scary Thing every time they get close to it. That, too comes under the banner of operant conditioning: the behaviour is moving towards the Scary Thing; the consequence is moving away from the Scary Thing. That is reinforcing and so makes it more likely the dog will move towards the Scary Thing again and again. Compare this to constantly moving towards a Scary Thing - we move closer, the dog feels a little more uncomfortable. We feed the dog and then move closer again. We can very easily end up punishing the dog's behaviour of going closer, by asking him to go closer still, which makes it less likely he will repeat it.
Simply put: rewarding your dog for approaching the Scary Thing by allowing him to retreat from the Scary Thing makes it more likely he will approach the Scary Thing in future.

So, yes, I'm using operant conditioning here, but as a tool to change the dog's emotional response. I'm not working directly on the behaviour (of approaching the door) itself, otherwise I would only be marking those steps towards the doorway. The game is simply a game of ping-pong, which just so happens we're playing near a Scary Thing. The behaviours I'm marking are behaviours of the game, not behaviours of the "problem". There is some overlap, sure, but that's the beauty of the game :)
The behaviours of the game give the framework of good feelings that we can then apply to the situation so classical conditioning can come into force.
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I know it's not an object or threshold but nevertheless it made Charlie uncomfortable. Example, my sister visited us on Wednesday, 3 boys 17, 13 and 7 Charlie loves the 17 and 13 year old but was clearly uncomfortable with the 7 year old and has been on previous visits, turning his head away, ears down etc. I took Charlie away to his bed and explained to my nephew that he needed some space and to leave him alone in his safe space. Everytime this boy came into the room Charlie left. Now Charlie is a very person focused dog and has never, ever shown any anxiety around anyone else big or small and loves any affection, playtime he can get his paws on!!. I know how he feels, heaven help me he is an awful child :oops: Charlie played happily with all the other children in the house all day and everyone had fun. As they were getting ready to leave Charlie was sitting on the mat in the kitchen with me when the 7 year old sat down with Charlie who just rolled over and enjoyed a good tummy rub :cautious: 7 year old is not a nice boy and has in the past stamped on Hattie's paws, I told him off :mad: I don't know if at some point in the past he has hurt Charlie and he hasn't forgotten. I can't think of anything else, we don't see them that often. How do you think I should deal with it in the future to remove the pressure from Charlie? Thanks xx


Hmmm, if he only has this response to the one child, as opposed to every child that is of that age/height etc, and as you don't see them often, I don't think there's much you can do to change Charlie's mind, especially if the child is still likely to be bothersome to him. I think that your best course of action is continuing as you have and keeping them apart - it sounds like Charlie is doing a very good job of that himself!

If you have the right sort of relationship with your sister, then I would be making it very clear that it's her responsibility to keep the child away from Charlie, and certainly never allow him to sit on one of his beds with him. Seven years of age is perfectly old enough to be able to adhere to simple rules like that. I'd also be tempted to use a bit of positive reinforcement with the child. Praise him for leaving Charlie alone and for making good decisions. Rather than "luring" the behaviour ("if you leave Charlie alone for ten minutes, you can have X") try to capture it, by noticing when he ignores Charlie, even if this is unintentional at first, and make a point of thanking him for it. In time, he might just choose not to pester Charlie in order to get praise and/or treats from Aunty Helen :D
It's just this child. Charlie was excellent at removing himself and going to his bed. I have a good relationship with my sister and she did tell him to leave Charlie alone. I can't even begin to explain how awful this boy is and he's my nephew which makes me feel terrible :( No sitting in Charlie's bed that's for sure. They were not left alone, Charlie chose to stay with me or go to his bed which I said was out of bounds. As for positive reinforcement with my nephew think on, he is an ipad kid, the first thing he asked for before he even said hello to me was the Wifi code o_O rude, bad manners etc. etc. you get the picture. So trying to capture his good choices or behaviour is almost impossible. Charlie has far better manners and behaviour :) Never one to give up, I will try :) Thanks Fiona xx