The older one gets the less in life seems to surprise us. One of the things that should be no surprise to any of us is for a fearful dog to behave aggressively. Aggression is a normal and predictable response to see in animal who is afraid, often terrified, for their life. Brains are designed so that if an animal is experiencing fear, behaving aggressively–as opposed to taking a deep breath and suggesting that other solutions to the current problem might exist–will happen quickly. It might save an animal’s life. Spend a few extra seconds not fighting back and you might be lunch.
One of the main goals for anyone working with a fearful dog is to never put the dog into situations in which aggression becomes necessary from the dog’s perspective. By keeping a dog feeling safe, however that needs to be sorted out for an individual dog, will help prevent the demonstration or escalation of aggressive behavior. If a dog is troubled by people coming into the house we can be proactive and put the dog away in another room where they are safe, have something yummy to chew, and the scary event can occur without any drama.
The next steps we take address how the dog feels about the scary event. We do this by using desensitization and counterconditioning. Change how the dog feels and you generally will see a change in how they behave. Counterconditioning is a straightforward process, but misunderstood enough that people, including dog trainers, get it wrong. Getting it wrong leads to the idea that it doesn’t work. And when this happens people move on to to less effective ways to work with fear based behavior challenges.
Simply put– when counterconditioning the scary thing comes to predict a wonderful thing. The appearance of the wonderful thing is only contingent on one thing, the awareness by the dog of the scary thing. The wonderful thing, usually food but toys and play can be used if a dog finds them wonderful, appear regardless of the dog’s behavior. We don’t want a dog going bonkers at the end of a leash or scurrying under a chair so we add in the desensitization piece which means we don’t expose them to the scary thing so much that they are too freaked out to eat or play. But even if the dog is behaving in ways we wish they wouldn’t the error was ours in that we over-exposed them to the trigger, but the wonderful thing MUST appear if the scary thing has. That’s it. This has to happen often enough for the dog to put two and two together. Or one and one in this case, scary thing leads to wonderful thing.
Concurrently we begin teaching a dog something else acceptable to us to do. We should take pains to make sure it’s acceptable to the dog too. Going and sitting in a crate when people come into the house can work for both the dog and the owner if the dog feels safe in their crate. Asking a dog to sit quietly while scary monsters pet them is not likely to be acceptable to the dog as much as it makes us feel accomplished and successful. The way we help dogs learn new behaviors and continue helping them learn to feel good about the scary stuff is by using positive reinforcement to train them. By running to their crate when guests show up a dog learns that a favorite delicacy is delivered. It’s worth running to their crate when company comes.
Many of us did not break the dogs we are living with, but we can put the pieces back together again. Keep them feeling safe, desensitize and counter condition to triggers and give them skills using good positive reinforcement training mechanics.
In the same way that fast food has provided us with the opportunity to over consume sugars, fats and chemical additives that may be contributing to, if not outright causing, many of the diseases prevalent in the western world, the “balanced” field of dog training has provided us with the opportunities and excuses to be cruel to our dogs, the implications of which are ignored or denied. That a collar not only designed to “choke” with no effort made to disguise its purpose by calling it something else, or that a prong collar, with it’s medieval look is even purchased by someone lacking a fetish for such devices, are examples of how we have become inured to the actual pain we cause or distress we create in our dogs. Euphemistically called a pinch collar–pinching being what we do to chubby babies so how bad can it be–in plastic or metal it is designed to inflict pain.
Pet owners are responsible for their dogs, and in the same way a parent is responsible for feeding their children, need to be accountable for the choices they make in how they train their dogs. As with the consequences of bad diets and its impact on health, someone else is often burdened with paying the price when this does not occur. Our health care system becomes swamped with people suffering from lifestyle diseases, illnesses that would likely not have occurred if the person had not consumed too much fat and sugar in their lifetime. Shelters and rescue groups are overwhelmed by the number of homeless dogs, many healthy and behaviorally sound, but many others who are not. Yet even the sound are often subjected to the cruelties of shock, choke and prong for infractions such as barking at things, for not having been sufficiently motivated to come when called, for growling at people or animals they feel threatened by, for choosing the wrong surface to sleep on, for taking a step off their owner’s property, and the list goes on.
In some cases pet owners might only be faulted for being uneducated and unwitting consumers. The manufacturers of dog training equipment built to “work” because they are aversive to dogs rarely state this fact up front and honestly. The word humane in their packaging and marketing literature is seen as often as the word natural is in the grocery store. Trainers who advocate the use of these devices, even when they themselves use them in ways that are as minimally aversive as is possible, contribute to the ease with which owners of a new dog will leave the pet shop with a shock collar more often than a treat pouch. Our inability to see the progression of behavior problems and their relationship to the use of aversives means that it is the dog who bears the burden of responsibility for behavior change, not the human driving it.
Breeders and rescue groups placing dogs genetically predisposed to: being wary of strangers, sensitive to movement, inclined to bark, follow their nose unrelentingly, kill small animals, etc., are not freed from their responsibility in the puzzle of fitting dogs into pet homes. As either actual experts in dog behavior, or because they have set themselves up as such, they are responsible for making sure square pegs are not going to be battered (choked, pinched, shocked) into round holes. The challenge of addressing animal abuse takes a concerted effort on the part of all of us who care. We can start by stopping the legitimization of inflicting pain and minimizing the actuality of that pain. Or at least we should be straight about the fact we are doing it.
Yes we eat too much sugar and fat because it tastes good, makes us feel good (while we’re eating it anyway), and provides us with some nutritional value. And yes, we find it hard to stop doing it, and though the risks of heart disease and diabetes are increased by our habits, we still find it difficult to change them. We will deal with the consequences of our behavior down the road.
Yes we use pain (both physical and emotional) and threat of it to train our dogs. It often provides us with a quick end to problem behaviors and we don’t know how else to do it. That there may be consequences to our use of pain and coercion to train, we often don’t make that association and use pain to address those additional problems as well. Our dogs will deal with the consequences of our behavior down the road and our training habits may contribute to the shortening of their lives.
Before you put a device or your hands on a dog to correct their behavior, stop and think. As trainers are reminded over and over again by the expert trainer and educator Bob Bailey, “You are bigger and you are smarter.” It’s time we started acting like it.
In the 80’s there was a campaign to keep kids off of drugs and the mantra was “just say no to drugs.” I thought the better advice to give kids about what they should or shouldn’t do when it came to their physical and mental health was “just say I’ll think about it.” I would apply the same advice to people with fearful dogs and the consideration of behavioral medications. Think about it.
It’s not easy to think, really think about whether or not to consult with a vet about behavioral medications that could help our dogs by lowering the level of anxiety and stress many are experiencing on a daily basis. We leave important pieces of information out, specifically the very real risk of NOT using medications to address anxiety in our dogs. We tend to put a lot of weight on the possible side-effects of medications and fail to consider the impact chronic stress and anxiety has on our dogs’ health and quality of life. We have a knee-jerk distrust of big pharma which we consider is out to suck our wallets dry by selling us unnecessary meds and hold the marketers of sugar pills and unregulated and untested remedies in high esteem.
It’s difficult to acknowledge and assess the baggage that we carry in regard to the use of behavioral medications, for people or dogs. For many of us it’s about how their use makes us feel. It feels not quite right to us and we come up with excuses and reasons to justify those feelings. Meds are a cop-out. If only we did something else they wouldn’t be needed, and we just need to figure out what that something else entails. They are an indication of laziness on our part. The need for meds means we failed our dog, we weren’t good enough. Few of us are willing to accept that and so we keep looking for alternatives that will make us feel more successful.
The other problem we run into is that we put more merit into anecdotal information about untested or unproven remedies than we do into the data and research available regarding the efficacy of meds. Someone’s cousin’s dog was put on an anti-depressant and their behavior got worse. If we are reluctant about using meds we will latch onto this information like a tick on a warm body. With no other information other than that statement we will write off meds as an option for our dogs. If someone’s sister’s best friend used a homeopathic remedy and saw improvement in their dog we’ll race out to the local shop to buy some. And this is where our thinking is cloudy.
In any group of dogs, some will get better and some will get worse whether we do anything specific or not. If a dog who was likely to get better is also given a magic potion (many of the products that are available have never been tested let alone shown to be more effective than a placebo) you can guess what will be credited with their improvement–the potion. I would surmise that when we start to think about how to help our dogs we are often changing more about how they are handled and managed than simply adding a few drops of something or other to their water bowl. We are likely increasing the odds of them improving because of these changes in management, and the drops are credited for it.
Two years ago my border collie Finn was diagnosed with lymphoma. I did some online searching for information and met with an oncologist. The prognosis for this disease if left untreated isn’t simply not great, it’s bad. But there is a well established protocol of chemotherapy that could increase his chances of surviving beyond the time the disease would kill him. Given all the factors; the type of cancer, his otherwise good condition, his age, the availability of treatment, credit cards, etc., we decided to treat him. He’s still with us (and even I can’t resist superstitious thought-touch wood). Don’t feel bad about the struggle to think critically about the use of traditional medicine to help our dogs, Even smart guys have a hard time with it.
If you enjoy thinking about the best ways to live with and train dogs you might enjoy my latest book Does My Dog Need Prozac?
In my world the reality is that those of us living with a dog with fear-based behavior challenges must be better than average pet owners. I say this meaning no offense to average pet owners. Anyone who chooses to live with an animal is ahead of the curve in my book. Most however do not add a dog to their lives in order to have to become a competent dog trainer. And the majority of dogs don’t need them to be. But many of us are living with Mike Tyson and trying to turn him into a ballet dancer.
Dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations or who have been isolated or abused will require more than simply time and love. Anyone who makes the statement implying that to be the case has identified themselves as either a novice or sadly misinformed about dogs and behavior. That someone was successful with a dog by providing only time and love is little solace to the owner living with a dog who can’t leave their crate, walk through doorways, or be in the same room with their spouse. And it’s little use to a dog who needs skilled handling. Anyone re-homing, selling or adopting out dogs with fear-based challenges who suggests that all that is needed is time and love should get out of the business, there is no excuse for it.
On a daily basis I receive email and Facebook messages asking for “tips” or suggestions regarding how to help a foster dog or a newly adopted dog who is displaying any number of behaviors due to fearfulness and inexperience. I want to help but know that what is needed goes beyond well-meaning advice. The solution they are after doesn’t exist. There is no answer to “what should I do?” when the question should be “what does the dog need?” and that may not be a short list.
If you have chosen to keep a dog and work to help them have a life that isn’t plagued by anxiety, vigilance and fear, you can be better than average. If you have decided that you are not prepared or have the desire to devote the time, energy and expense required to effectively and humanely work with a dog, plan your next move wisely and compassionately. Fearful dogs are a vulnerable population. They are often subjected to abuse in the name of training or rehabilitation. Every move is stressful and scary and their behavior may degrade. Their suffering does not end just because we can’t see it anymore. It’s not easy to be better than average when it means making tough decisions for dogs we care about and are responsible for.
Dogs who grow up in a home have dozens of opportunities a day to approach people and be reinforced for it. This means it’s a good thing from the pup’s perspective. They might get a treat, a cuddle, a scratch or the chance to tug on your shoelaces. Dogs, like my dog Sunny who spend their first months or years kenneled with little positive human contact may have had no opportunity to practice the “move toward human” behavior. For dogs like Sunny, moving toward people is not only something they’re not used to doing–they’re being asked to jump off the high-diving board and they can’t swim, they are also afraid of people and so the pool appears full of sharks.
In order for me to achieve my goal of being able to walk with Sunny off-leash I needed to be able to get him back on leash at any time. Since approaching me was still scary for him early on, I taught him to “wait” which allowed me to approach him and clip on the leash. It was a compromise that worked for us until he did feel safe enough and was able to learn a recall.
I continue to reinforce Sunny for stopping and waiting for me, and any other behaviors I would like to see more of from my dogs. Don’t take behavior for granted, pay for it.
I suppose that when one has lived long enough it’s easy to slide into waxing philosophical about life, and I have definitely stepped onto that slope. Having been fortunate to have what I needed in life as far as my physical needs being met–safe home, food, medical care, etc., I have had the luxury to invest time, money and energy into the things that bring joy, add adventure and more often than not, have me looking forward to the future. As much as I appreciate the “stuff” I have in my life I am far more grateful for having discovered something that motivates me to act, to plan, to dream, to change.
Like many others I enjoy the company of dogs, feel pity, sorrow, and compassion when I see them in distress. For much of my life I felt too small and insignificant to make much difference in a world that seemed too big, busy and racing toward a variety of disasters. Comparing myself to others with more energy, education, and creativity left me feeling that I came up short. I waited for acknowledgement, affirmation and support from others, getting it enough to keep me plodding on, but not enough to make me feel completely confident in my efforts.
Years ago a friend told me that during an audience with one of her chosen gurus she was told to “find your work and do it.” I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to all the people who have made it possible for me to do the work I feel passionate about– helping people learn about the most humane and effective ways to work with fear-based behavior challenges in dogs.
Most recently I had the good fortune to travel to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group of passionate and committed dog trainers and enthusiasts. Like missionaries for the humane and ethical treatment of dogs we; sang songs with toddlers, colored and glittered with children, demonstrated that a dog does not have to demonstrate its intelligence by figuring out how to avoid being punished faster than other dogs, and witnessed the struggles of people on the frontlines of rescue and sheltering homeless animals. I am already looking forward to next year’s visit to continue with our work.
I suspect that those of us who work with dogs in any capacity, love them, respect them and want them to have the best lives possible. Yet I can’t help but be surprised and disappointed when I hear and read information about dogs being shared that does more harm than good, or opportunities to educate the pet owning population are missed. Research on the social development of dogs has been available for over 40 years. Veterinarians, of all people, should understand the importance early, positive exposure to novelty, dogs and people plays in the development of puppies. Yet there are still those who recommend isolating puppies from social interactions with other dogs during the time when a puppy’s brain is experiencing dramatic changes on a daily basis that allow them to grow up to be adaptable, resilient dogs. Changes that may not be possible as the weeks go by.
I sat in a vet clinic recently and watched a giant flat screen TV as it aired information about basic husbandry practices pet owners should undertake with their dogs. Dogs were shown having their teeth brushed, ears cleaned and nails clipped and not once were they offered a food treat in return for holding still through the process. What a missed opportunity to educate pet owners on how professional trainers use food to teach dogs who may not already be sitting calmly for a nail trim. Often it doesn’t take much to convince a dog something isn’t as horrible as they think it is, and it would be nice to never read another story about a groomer who has injured or killed a dog using force and restraint to do their job.
Online the forums for pet sitters and dog walkers, people who also are offering services as professionals, are replete with archaic information about dog behavior. Pet owners are paying for services being provided by someone who in the 21st century isn’t even using 20th century information to guide their behavior. Rescue groups post tear-jerking videos of dogs snatched from near death being subjected to forced handling and so long as in the end they are wagging their tail the donation checks keep being written. And heaven forbid the suggestion is made that other techniques and protocols are available that are less stressful on dogs. No doubt I’ll be chastised for even suggesting that too many (not all of course!) rescue groups aren’t doing a good enough job at what they are soliciting money for doing.
There is no excuse for continuing to use force and coercion to get or end behaviors in dogs. Universities have been teaching about animal behavior and learning for decades. Vocal groups of animal trainers have been providing reasons and resources to get information out into the general pet-handling population. We’re passing you the ball. Are you going to make the play or not? We’re all are on the dog’s team after all.
In May I’ll be traveling to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group to contribute our energy to the cause of changing how people handle and train their dogs. No doubt there will be people who will embrace the information we’ll be sharing about force-free and coercion-free training with the enthusiasm of someone who has been adrift at sea waiting for the life raft to show up. Others may be at a different stage in the process of changing their understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn and their relationship with their pet.
I don’t know what they’ll look like or how I’ll tell them apart. I don’t know how old or which gender they’ll be. I don’t know what they’ll be wearing or how they will be behaving. I do know for some we will be sharing ideas and information that will be new to them, they may also conflict with ideas they already are holding onto firmly and been practicing for years. It may be behavior they have been rehearsing not only with dogs but also with the people in their life. We may only be able to loosen the grasp some have on the myths and misinformation which have been available about dogs and why they do what they do. Though I trust that for many people they will gladly discard the advice they’d been given to punish in any of the myriad ways people have devised to punish dogs. They’ll need direction and demonstrations of the equally numerous ways we can provide a dog with information and reinforcement without scaring or hurting them to get the behaviors we need or want from them.
I’m very excited about this trip, not only are these islands filled with environmental gems, we’ll meet people who are involved in different aspects of animal welfare. We’ll spend time with children who are passionate about treating animals with kindness and are role models for their community. We’ll visit shelters and sanctuaries where people take on the challenging and often disheartening task of making life better for animals, knowing there will always be more tomorrow needing their help. We may be separated by distance, oceans, age and culture, but it quickly becomes obvious that our hearts overlap.
To find out more about the trip visit this webpage.