Archive for May, 2009|Monthly archive page

It’s In Their Head!

Finn, Sunny's mentor in all things frisbee.

Finn, Sunny's mentor in all things frisbee.

It would seem that many of us put more thought into what color we’re going to paint a wall than we do into thinking about what dog to live with for the next 15 years. I’m not pointing fingers, I am right in there with the best/worst of them. When trainers want a dog to work as a service dog, or search & rescue dog, or scent detection dog, or herding dog, or obedience competitor, they carefully consider the temperament and physical capabilities of dogs they adopt or purchase.

Compare that to how many of the rest of us choose a dog:

“Oh my god she looks just like Muffy, the dog I had as a kid!”

“Now that is one good looking dog.”

“Awww he’s so sad and scared in there.”

“Check out the bold one running around with the toy!”

“A dog would be good for the kids.”

“I’ve always wanted a German Shepherd.”

Is it any big surprise when we get home and discover that the dog we’ve chosen may not be the best choice for how we live and what we expect of it? Heck we even do it with the people we choose to include in our lives, but that’s for someone else to blog about.

My parents may have wanted a kid that could be a classical pianist but they got a kid whose claim to musical fame was that I was able to learn to play ‘Love Story’ really fast. Perhaps, given the right motivation, time and training, I might have been able to become a concert pianist, we will never know, it turned out that neither my parents nor I really cared all that much about a possible career for me in playing the piano. I’m glad I had the opportunity to learn to play, such as I can, because I think it was good for my brain to practice and learn the skills involved in learning to play even easy pieces of music, fast.

When we find ourselves with a fearful dog it can be disappointing and frustrating. The puppy or dog that was afraid of most everything when its life included only a dozen different things is now afraid of most everything when its life includes hundreds of different things. The dog I’d hoped would join me for swims at the nearby pond can barely tolerate the ride in the car it takes to get there, never mind that the presence of other people is going to dampen his enthusiasm for getting out of the car once we do.

One of the most important and helpful steps I took in regard to my scared dog Sunny was to understand that for whatever reasons he ended up living with me, a good or bad decision on my part, his fears are quite literally, all in his head and it’s not his fault. For me to do anything that scares or hurts him is not only counter productive, it’s just plain mean.

If you took a baby and kept them tied to a chair until they were two years old, during the time when they learn to walk (and I am not suggesting that you do this, even if you feel like it sometimes), when you untied them not only would they not be able to walk, their brain would be different from the brain of a baby that had been able to move, practice and learned how to walk. A whole bunch of brain circuitry would have been created for ‘walking’. A similar sort of thing happens when a dog does not experience variety and novelty during the time when its brain is learning to deal with new stuff, it’s brain doesn’t have the wiring in place to deal with ‘new stuff’. And if that dog was startled and scared on a routine basis, then its brain would develop some very nifty circuitry that caused it to repeat the behaviors it practiced when it was scared. Well… maybe not so nifty.

It happens that brains, both dogs’ and humans’, are remarkable organs, their ability to change and compensate is astounding. I read a story awhile back about a man who it was found, was missing portions of his brain, a congenital deformity which no one was aware of until he was an adult. He had lived a fairly normal life, different portions of his brain had developed the ability to take over tasks and functions that they might not have otherwise developed the ability to do, had the entire brain been present.

What does this mean for our fearful dogs? To me it means that a dog that was not properly or appropriately socialized needs to change its brain in order to behave and react in ways that we want. The fact that they don’t or can’t is not their fault, it’s just the way their brain works. The process of training or rehabbing them involves encouraging and promoting this change. The same is true for dogs that have learned fearful responses to situations, they too need to change the way their brain responds and reacts. To expect this to happen quickly or easily is to set them up for failure and to set ourselves up for frustration and disappointment. Some changes many never occur, there are no guarantees.

I have come to accept that some of the expectations I have for Sunny might never be realized. I also have seen how given time and training he has made strides and improvements. He has learned skills that make both of our lives easier, less stressful and downright fun at times. It’s not his fault that he does not have the brain to deal with certain people or situations, my goal is to help him develop it to whatever extent is possible. In the meantime, he’s not playing any concertos, but we do make some beautiful music together.

Finding The Right Foot To Get Started On

Never enough frisbees.

Never enough frisbees.

I was having a conversation with someone who complained that the activities that were the most rewarding and motivating for her dog were behaviors she didn’t like, barking at, and becoming aroused by strangers the main bones of contention. Her frustration was easy to understand since it was impossible for her to interrupt and distract her dog once this behavior got started. It made me wonder though, was there nothing that her dog enjoyed that included her in the equation? Had she never found ways to be her dog’s best friend?

Some will argue that a dog like this doesn’t need someone to be its friend, and I would say that friends don’t let friends drive drunk or let them chase the cars being driven by someone who’s been drinking or not, it’s not about giving a dog free rein (or reign for that matter).

Most of our dogs are here because originally they were bred to interact with humans, in one way or another. Some may be more inclined to focus on their humans making training easier. As a border collie owner I have long since given up on trying to take a shower without being accompanied by at least one dog into the bathroom, but I am very pleased to have dog boarders who barely raise an eyebrow when I leave the room while they lie on a bed in front of the woodstove.

When Sunny first came to live with me he had no skills for interacting with people at all. His response to being around people was (and in most cases still is) to avoid them as much as possible. I believed that somewhere inside that poor brain of his was some coding that would help us find some common interests and they would likely have to be based more on his preferences rather than mine. As much as I might enjoy cuddling up with a dog to watch a movie, it wasn’t likely that Sunny was going to find that enjoyable. Food, while a no-brainer for getting a dog’s attention, is a very powerful tool for working with dogs and its value should never be underestimated. I added some gentle handling and scratching to my relationship with Sunny and he soon learned that there were places only I could reach, and with some coaxing with his paw I could be convinced to get to them for him.

When I worked with rescue groups from Puerto Rico and would receive a shipment of dogs, getting them out for a walk in the woods was a top priority for me before I brought them to our local shelter for adoption. I enjoy doing it and it was a great way to lower the dogs’ stress levels as they recuperated from vet visits, a plane flight and complete change in environment. While I don’t recommend that anyone let a dog off leash if they have any question about its safety, I routinely brought dogs I had known for only a day or two, on long woods walks armed with nothing but good treats, a pair of hiking shoes, and my dogs to act as role models.

There was nothing magical about my ability to get the dogs’ attention or keep them with me. Perhaps as a story teller and tour group leader I have an inclination toward the dramatic which helps me out and I rarely found it difficult to convince the dogs that I was worth paying attention to, they were after all dogs and not rocket scientists that I needed to entertain. There is nothing wrong with acquiring a dog for one’s own personal needs or reasons, but it would be silly to assume that the dog comes without its own needs or preferences. And it doesn’t require a rocket scientist to figure out what those preferences might be, though creative thinking is often in order.

Finding ways to get and keep a dog’s attention is a logical first step in any training program. It might be food, balls, tug toys, squeaky mice, kicking up leaves, or dancing a jig that stops your dog in its tracks, makes it turn on its heels, cock its head and think, “What the heck is the tall one up to now? Better go see.” Sunny is a frisbee and tennis ball fanatic, loves string cheese and wishes I would let him keep the furry, squeaky mice I sometimes hide in my pockets. Most of our interactions include activities that he enjoys and often initiates. It feels like a friendship even if I’m the one with control of the doorknobs and treats. Maybe when he cuddles with me on the couch he’s just humoring me, and it is kind of him. And when I stop him from barking at passing cars or joggers he knows that I usually have something worth paying attention to up my sleeve. One day it just might be one of those squeaky mice and I’ll be feeling generous.

Creating The Foundation

Sunny is one of the lucky fearful dogs that landed in his forever home straight out of the rescue after the hoarder that had him and 476 other dogs got busted for operating what was most definitely not an ‘animal sanctuary’. It was not the plan and like many other foster caregivers for a fearful dog I could not part with him. Not only had I grown fond of him, I also believed that he did not have the skills to be rehomed with anyone looking for a pet.

One of the goals I have for Sunny is that he could live with someone else were anything to happen to me. I’ve long since accepted that Sunny may always be a fundamentally fearful dog. He may always startle more easily than other dogs, and may never be the social butterfly my chubby, old female cocker is, but I do believe he has developed some skills that would serve him well were the worst to happen (I have given specific instructions to a family member about what I hope would happen to him if I was not around and they include euthanizing him if my preferred alternatives could not be arranged).

By using counter conditioning and desensitizing techniques to change Sunny’s emotional reactions I believe he’s come a long way in being able to deal with triggers that earlier debilitated him. The basic training that he has received has made it possible for him to relate to and understand people in a way he was unable to when he first arrived. While filming the video ‘It’s All In The Game’ showing Sunny with my niece, when she asked him for ‘a kiss’ and he complied, I nearly fell over. Sunny willingly and eagerly went nose to nose with someone who has never even pet him.

By using dog friendly training techniques Sunny has learned that people asking him for behaviors is a good thing, the end result always pleasant. When asked to perform behaviors he has been taught he can engage in a sort of ‘conversation’ with a person other than myself. I hope to continue to build on this ‘foundation of comfort’ that Sunny has so that even if I do manage to stick around, he can get out there and have a chat with just about anybody. And believe me that when that happens I won’t mind sharing his attention.

Taking It Slow

More than just tolerating!

More than just tolerating!

Early during my search for information about how to help my fearful dog Sunny, one rescuer of border collies told me that she ‘didn’t have the time that I had to work with her dogs’. Her point was that all the DS/CC I was doing might be nice but just making dogs deal with things worked for her, and was faster. I never doubted her success, though I had to wonder if she was working with dogs as shut down and lacking in skills as Sunny.

I have always wondered if I was taking things too slowly with Sunny, but recent conversations with trainers of fearful dogs seem to support my approach. Too often owners and trainers settle for a dog’s ability to ‘tolerate’ its triggers and move on, rather than continuing to work with them until they get to ‘completely comfortable’ with triggers, or even to ‘loving them’ if that is ultimately possible.

Imagine if when you asked the owner of a large breed, guard dog, if you could pet their dog, and their response was, “Sure, he tolerates people most of the time,” compared to, “Sure, he loves people,” would you feel safe with that dog? When someone asked your partner, spouse, or family member how they felt about you and they replied, “Oh I tolerate her,” are you as pleased as if they had said, “I enjoy nothing better than being with her.”?

Suzanne Clothier commented at a seminar that when working with a scared or reactive dog the process should be like ‘watching toast brown’, so gradual that the improvements are barely perceptible. This is not to say that one won’t ever see leaps in progress with their dog, but most often the kind of changes we want to achieve with our scared dogs occur slowly. It is tempting to get to ‘tolerate’ and want to plunge on ahead, increasing our dogs’ exposure to their triggers.

Only I know Sunny well enough to determine how much he can handle and when tolerating something just isn’t enough (vet visits are usually only tolerated by even the most stable of dogs). When it comes to his feelings about people I will not feel safe unless his emotional response to them is joyful and enthusiastic, anything less than that and we run the risk of set-backs or worse, aggression if I increase the pressure on him to be near them. I continue to see improvements in Sunny’s behavior around people, but each step forward brings new training challenges, but fortunately both of us do much more than tolerate each other and I hope he’s as happy with the company he’s sharing on this journey as I am.

Opening Doors For Sunny

sunnytennis2When Sunny first came to live with me I figured it was just a matter of short time before he’d realize that he had landed in paradise. Surely it wouldn’t be long before he’d be a happy normal dog. Apparently I had set my sights a bit high at that point.

I have always had goals for Sunny and while the big picture goal, comfort with all humanity, is still a bit lofty, we continue to meet other goals. Here are some of the goals I’ve had and continue to have for him:

*He would look at me and wag his tail-This took months but it happened and now I can make Sunny wag with a few words, even waving to him. It never fails to make me smile.

*Be able to come inside on his own-This took over a year and he is still sometimes reluctant and hesitant about it but I no longer have to go out in the dark of night to guide him in. We did lots of practice in & out, plus some incompatible behavior stuff with Sunny having to come inside to target my hand in order to get me to out and throw the tennis ball.

*Get in and out of the car on his own-Got it! Love this, now I can let him out in places, he can have a bit of a leg stretch and get back in the car easily. This took over two years.

*Go up and down the stairs in the house-Got it! He slinks up at night to sleep on the floor next to the bed, then slinks back down when my husband gets up.

*Come when I call him-He’s got a decent recall which took over a year and a half to nail, it’s still hard for him to come to me if something is scaring him, for that he has a ‘wait’ and I can approach him and get him on leash.

*Not be afraid of my husband-Still working on this one. Sunny has learned that when my husband comes home he ‘might’ go out and throw frisbees and is ready to head out and play. Sunny can’t get close to my husband and often does not even go after the frisbee but he’s having positive experiences with him and that’s what we need. Neutral is just not good enough for Sunny.

*Not be afraid of other members of humanity-Sunny is better with women (not unusual for a fearful dog) and after a short time, in comfortable locations, is often able to target a hand and take a treat. But out in the world people are scary unless they happen to have a frisbee in their hands. He does not rush up and greet anyone and even when approaching me he offers lots of body curves, lowered head and a grin, very sweet.

Recently I was sitting on the back stoop, my treat bag full of good stuff and all my dogs gathered around for hand-outs. This is the door which I use to go in and out of the house most often. It is not a door that Sunny can get himself to come in on his own. Sunny was looking on with interest, showing some concern over the dog crate that was nearby, but was willing to come and target my hand while I sat on the bottom step. All the pieces were there for a ‘teachable moment’, the attitude of the other dogs was upbeat and they were focused on the dried liver which appeared when they stared hard enough, sat down, or offered their paw.

I began to slide myself up step by step, getting Sunny to target my hand and drawing him up toward the door with me. We took a break after he got to door level but on his return he was comfortable enough to join me on the top step immediately. The door was latched open and the scene was set for him to follow the other dogs as they passed by him and went into the house. And he did. Another first for Sunny, three and a half years in the making!

In the scheme of life with Sunny, having him be able to come in this door is only slightly more convenient for me. I was happy to have him able to come in ANY door, but it shows that he is learning and gaining more skills. I pick and choose which behaviors I am going to spend time working on with Sunny, since the possibilities are endless, it’s nice to have obvious milestones like this to remind me that change happens, slowly perhaps, but it happens.

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