Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page
TV’s The Dog Whisperer has made ‘learned helplessness’ all the rage. There is no question that it is possible to get behaviors from dogs using a variety of different techniques. If you stood over your kid with a mallet and threatened them with violence if they didn’t do their homework, you may get the homework done, but at what cost? It is that cost that has gone unnoticed by Cesar Millan and his many advocates when the threat of punishment, intimidation or pain is used to change behaviors in dogs. Dogs that are bullied into behaving certain ways may behave that way so long as the abuser is present, so a resource guarder may allow dad to take his bones away but junior gets bit. It’s not about being alpha, or being the pack leader, it’s about changing how a dog perceives having its stuff handled by people, and that takes training, not bullying.
Worse then just choosing to selectively comply with particular behavior requests is a dog that no longer makes a choice. This is called ‘learned helplessness’ and the laboratory studies done to define and describe this condition are pretty miserable to read about. Basically a dog was subjected to electrical shocks on the floor while in a room with a low divider that had an area on the other side where no shocks were administered. Some dogs were allowed to jump over the divider to escape the shocks, while others were not. The dogs that were not allowed to jump over the divider after repeatedly being shocked stopped trying to escape the shocks, even when the opportunity for escape was offered to them! They basically gave up trying to help themselves.
So what does this have to do with The Dog Whisperer? Ever watched an episode in which a dog was forced repeatedly to walk on a particular surface, be near something, or otherwise be made to deal with whatever scared it? Eventually the dog stops resisting and complies and everyone smiles and feels warm and fuzzy cause the dog has been ‘cured’. In most cases the dog is not feeling warm and fuzzy and has not ‘learned’ to not be afraid of what is scaring it, it has just learned to stop trying to make the terror go away. This may be enough for many dog owners, but it does nothing to create or maintain a positive, trusting relationship with a dog, and has not given the dog, or owner, any new skills in how to manage challenging situations.
I love watching dogs perform tricks, run agility courses, leap for frisbees, fling themselves off docks to chase a tennis ball or sit in front of a toddler with a paw raised and an expectant look on their face as they mug for a treat. A dog performs these behaviors not only because they were trained to, but because the behaviors are fun and rewarding to them. These behaviors were learned by the dog. Dogs can learn all kinds of new behaviors to replace inappropriate ones, but not if they’ve given up believing that their behavior can effect their experience.
Check out this video. The footage of the dog biting its owner after being shocked is a glaring example of negligence by Mr. Millan.
I am straying from the fearful dog theme for just a moment. I have been looking at a lot of shelter and rescue websites. Some are fabulous, many are the obvious and well-intentioned efforts of people who are website novices, too many feature auto-music that starts blaring as the site loads (how can you expect someone at work to sneak a look if they’re likely to be caught out by the refrains of ‘Rescue me!’ blasting from their computer) but design flaws aside, the most egregious flaw is the tone of the content I found often enough to prompt me to write about it.
One site warns that if they deem you ‘GOOD ENOUGH’ they may adopt one of their dogs to you. Another contained a list of 25 reasons why you should NOT call them, the personal pet peeves list of the author which included the lame excuses people give when getting rid of a dog. Having volunteered at our local shelter for years I was exposed to the attitude that many rescue and shelter staff have toward the general pet-owning public and that is that they are the genetic equivalent of a combination of Mike Vick and Elmer Fudd. If they are not outright villains, they are buffoons who don’t know why their dog keeps having puppies.
Doing rescue or working in a shelter is a tough job and I’m grateful that someone is willing to do the hard physical and emotional work of helping homeless animals. But maligning the very population, that being the general population, of people that you hope are going to reach into their pockets to make a donation or open the doors of their home and heart to an animal, is not a good strategy for success.
We know that there are bad pet owners out there, but it’s unfortunate to use the same broad brush to paint all owners because of them.
**It has gotten even weirder! I found one site that will adopt to single people or married couples, but not unmarried couples. They want to ensure that there is stability and commitment for and to the dogs. I suppose that means gay men or women who can’t marry, can’t get a dog. Haven’t these folks ever seen the stats? Married people get divorced, single people lose their jobs and need to move. I’m turned off just by the policy itself.
If you’re an owner of a fearful dog you’ve heard it all before-
“He just needs love.”
“Give her some time.”
“Lots of dogs are shy at first.”
But you’ve probably discovered that it takes more than time and love to help a fearful dog.
If your dog is just afraid of some stuff, you may, with the understanding of counter conditioning and desensitization, end up with a dog that can overcome its particular fears. A dog that scurries away from the vacuum may decide it’s not all that horrible when it also means that cheese treats are doled out. Or a dog that believes that toddlers are some sort of alien beast (and some do seem to be) might be able to learn to see them as cookie dropping, ball throwing creatures they can enjoy.
But a dog that is easily startled and appears afraid of more things that it is not afraid of, is not going to ‘fix’ easily, or at all. It is possible to help a dog like this become more comfortable in its world, but owners and rescuers should remain cautiously optimistic for them. It matters because if the expectations you have for your dog are not realistic you not only risk disappointment you also risk losing valuable insight into the dog’s actual needs and abilities in your rush to find a cure for the dog’s behavior.
Fearful dogs like Sunny can have good lives. Sunny has many moments of sheer joy, if my ability to assess the emotions of a dog romping and rolling in the snow is accurate. I want to continue to help him increase his comfort level around people, since the world is full of them, but on a daily basis he is not required to face his personal demons so much that he is in a constant state of stress or arousal. My dog is a great companion to me and other dogs. He may never be a therapy dog or take home ribbons in agility, but he can come into the house when I ask him to, and even better still, wag his tail while he’s doing it.
Whether or not to use behavioral medications to help your dog is a personal decision, but one which is often based on incomplete information. One comment often made by dog owners is, “I don’t like to drug my dog.” Fair enough. I don’t like to ‘drug’ my dogs either, but I’m sure glad that my dog with no thyroid function has a medication to help with that, and that my old cocker with heart problems has medications that have help improve the quality and hopefully the length of her life.
There are owners who will use herbs, supplements, and remedies without hesitation, yet balk when the suggestion of a tested behavioral medication is made. If we believe that a particular ‘alternative’ treatment is powerful enough to change our dog’s behavior why then do we not also believe that they are powerful enough to do harm to our dogs? Few of the products available to dog owners today have not been tested for their safety, whereas there are behavioral medications that have been.
Another misconception about the behavioral medications available today is that they are used to sedate dogs. While sedation may be a side effect of some of these medications, the reason for using them is not to sedate your dog. In many cases this effect decreases over time.
We know that behavioral medications can help with depression and anxiety in people, and many of these same medications are what are used with dogs. Their use in dogs is recommended along with a behavior modification program and enough of us have had success with this combination approach that it makes sense, to me, for owners to consider their dog’s behavioral issues and whether or not the addition of a medication to their program to help their dog may be beneficial.
We know that dogs get better at any behavior they repeat, inappropriate as well as appropriate ones. If the use of medications makes it easier for a dog to practice and repeat appropriate behaviors then it stands to reason that in the long run the dog will benefit by their use.
While it is wise to question the use of medications to help fearful dogs, it also is wise not to disregard them based on misinformation or the lack of information about them or a long held prejudice against them.
Just my thoughts.
All too often these days people are quick to diagnose a range of behavior problems as a dog’s attempt to achieve ‘dominance’ or pack leadership. I caught a glimpse of The Dog Whisperer last night at a friend’s house. I’d seen the episode before and had to switch channels because I just couldn’t bear to see another scared dog being treated as though it thought it was Napolean.
It was clear that the little dog snapping, snarling and chomping on Cesar’s arm was afraid. Cesar’s use of intimidation worked to subdue the dog, though it probably isn’t a great idea to suggest that owners of dogs with larger teeth and more powerful jaws, attempt a similar technique, regardless of the perceived success.
There are lots of ways to work with dogs, and lots of ways to get dogs to behave the way we’d like them to. One of my dog boarding clients contacted me this morning and we chatted about her dog, who she adores, and wouldn’t part with for the world. That was not always the case. Like many young rescue dogs, her dog provided her with a number of challenges. Essentially a nice little dog, it was clear that he needed training and help in understanding what was expected of him. His owner wisely found a trainer that uses positive reinforcement techniques to help her learn how to manage and train her dog. She added an agility class to their routine to take advantage of his energy and love of running and jumping. This dog is now a source of joy and amusement to his owners. But it could have gone another way.
Believing that his inexperience and anxiety were an indication that the dog was plotting to take over the household, another trainer might have recommended the use of punishment or aversive methods of training. While some dogs end up becoming great pets, regardless of how they are handled or trained, others become aggressive or develop other inappropriate behaviors, when they are trained using harsh or scary methods.
If you are not sure why your dog is behaving the way s/he is, find a skilled trainer or behaviorist that can help you assess the problem and form a plan to address it. I have included a link to trainers on the fearfuldogs.com website.