Archive for the ‘adoption’ Tag

Should This Dog Be Up For Adoption?

black and white drawing of baby carriage and dogs

drawing by Leslie Swieck all copyrights apply

The compassion that people show for dogs with fear-based behavior challenges is commendable. Rescue groups pull them from shelters by the thousands and well-intentioned people adopt them. Given the number of people joining online groups looking for support and advice about how to help these dogs the reality that it requires more than time and love should be glaringly obvious.

I was recently asked by a rescue group how to prepare people who adopt a dog living with a variety of fears, and my honest opinion is that you can’t. No matter how much people are instructed that they need to be patient with the dog, unless someone has lived with a dog who required months or years to learn how to; feel safe in their new home, go in and out of doors, ride in cars, be home alone, walk on a leash, see new people or dogs, they will not understand what they are signing up for. And if they did, they likely wouldn’t.

But the other reality is that the rescuing and adopting out of dogs with fear-based challenges is not going end any time soon. So what can we do?

Get information: Understand that dogs don’t simply “get over” being afraid. The conditions experienced during a dog’s early development can have life-long impact on their behavior. There’s no way back to normal for some dogs. Let go of biases against the use of modern medicine to address stress and anxiety.

Get skills: Despite current appearances in the dog training industry (absolutely anyone can come up with a protocol or method to train dogs or make up reasons why they do what they do), how dogs learn new skills and can change their emotional responses is well-documented and to train them requires an understanding of a few basic laws of behavior modification. There are more and more trainers who have the knowledge and skills to address the issues fearful dogs face in efficient and humane ways. If you don’t have the skills, find someone who does.

Be realistic: It is going to take time and love and patience and energy and money. Spend all of them wisely.

For dogs adopted into homes as pets the onus of change typically falls on the dog. People will only tolerate aggression, destroyed couches, irate calls from neighbors and any of the other fall-outs from the behavioral quirks of fearful dogs for so long. No amount of “Well we told you the dog was going to need time,” is going to cut it for the owner or the dog. So how can rescue groups prepare new adopters for life with a fearful dog? They can adopt out a dog with a few of the basic skills they will need to live as a pet. Expecting a pet owner, as devoted and well-intentioned as they may be, to be able to train a dog to accept routine ear cleaning when the dog currently hides, bites or screams when handled is wishful thinking. As is expecting them to be able to train the dog to; walk through doorways, go outside for leash walks, walk nicely on a leash, get in a car, sit quietly when guests come into the house, etc., etc.

Dogs have demonstrated the ability to learn despite how we train them not because of how we train them. But our fearful dogs are more dependent on the how being as clear as possible. Being re-homed is among one of the most stressful events in the life of a social animal. Being stressed and uncertain is a miserable combination and is not likely to contribute to an improvement in the dog’s behavior. We can prepare the adopters of these dogs by showing them how to cue a trained behavior and reinforce it. By training dogs using positive reinforcement every cued behavior is an opportunity to feel good and to minimize the uncertainty a dog experiences in a new setting. Will this add to the responsibilities of rescue groups? It sure will. Some are already taking it on, and my guess is that it will increase the odds the dog will remain in the home and have a head start on becoming a happy pet.

If we take on the responsibility of selecting dogs to place in homes as pets, we should embrace all that that entails, it’s how professionals operate. When buying a car from a stranger most people will have it checked out by a trusted mechanic (or they would be wise to). We don’t trust that the seller is either aware of, or being up front about possible problems that may be dangerous or costly. People adopting dogs are trusting that rescue groups and shelters are adopting out dogs who will make good pets. They should not be expected to know how to anticipate or deal with fear-based behaviors in a dog adopted to be a pet any more than a consumer can be expected to know about all the things that could be dangerously wrong with a product they are purchasing and hoping to use immediately. And we don’t expect them to know how to fix them.

I know that there will be people who will resent having an analogy made between dogs and products, but I think it’s time we stop closing our eyes to the fact that fearful dogs are returned and discarded all too often and start doing something about that.

Why Are Dog Trainers So Averse To Training?

man feeding treats to dogs in the woods

Building a relationship or a recall?

We are living in a golden age of dog training. The industry has been infused with information from professionals in the field of applied behavior analysis and animal training in general. Mark and reward training (click/treat) and lure/reward are if not embraced, are at least not unknown to most dog trainers and pet owners. Bob Bailey was pulled out of retirement and is once again offering chicken camps to help trainers understand and practice the fundamentals of operant conditioning. The list of educated and accomplished professionals contributing to the progress of dog training continues to grow. So why do so many trainers struggle with the idea of “training?”

I understand attempts to make training accessible to pet owners who may harbor as much enthusiasm for training dogs as I have for changing the oil in my car (very little). Yet often these attempts seem to only further confound or complicate what is quite a basic concept, teach the dog to do what you want. There is relationship training, attention training, engagement training and who the heck knows how many others methods and protocols out there developed to get a dog to do what someone needs them to do.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am all for having a good relationship with dogs and empowering them (whatever that means). Even people uninterested in the mechanics of training likely want to have a good relationship with their pets. And what that means for one person will be different for another and I’m not sure how we can even begin to define what it means to a particular dog. But if we break it down to basics, if a dog is able to understand what is required of them in order to keep them in a home as a valued member of the family, whatever relationship there is is more likely to continue and hopefully improve.

The behaviors required of most dogs are fairly routine; come when called, poop and pee in a designated area, on leash walk slow enough for the human to keep up with you, only chew stuff that isn’t of value to the humans. We can add to this list as we like, but each one of these requirements consists of a what often is an easy to train behavior, if you know how to train. What we call “paying attention” to us could be described very clearly as a specific behavior, in my case it means look at me. Because this is among the behaviors I deem important for a dog to be able to perform, it’s one I reinforce regularly, whether the behavior is performed on cue or not. And as we could predict because of the Law of Effect it’s a behavior I see a lot of in my dogs. I’m not focusing on our relationship, I’m focusing on the behavior. I like to think I have a good relationship with my dogs. They usually come when I call them, they wait for me to catch up to them on our walks in the woods, they would choose to go out the door or into the car with me when given the option.

I appreciate focusing on the warm fuzzy of relationships with owners rather than the cold sounding rate, timing and criteria of training. But what does a good relationship look like? Does it look like an owner putting on their walking shoes, grabbing a leash and going out with their dog? Does it look like hopping into the car and heading to a location where a dog can run off-leash? Does it look like signing up for an agility or nosework class? Does it look like a dog pulling on a tug toy or retrieving a ball? If it does, and it’s not happening because a dog pulls while on leash or lunges at people and cars going by, or takes off and doesn’t come when called, or is too afraid to interact with their owner, as a trainer I know how to remedy this. Train the dog. Make it easy for their owner to get the behaviors they need in order to be successful at keeping up with their end of the behavioral bargain required to create a good relationship; grabbing leashes, driving to off-leash areas, picking up the frisbee.

There are dogs out there who are reaching the end of the rope as far as the energy and patience an owner has for the dog’s inability to do what the owner needs. I may not know how to fix a relationship but I do know how to train a dog, i.e., get a behavior, and put it on cue. I make no apologies about it. Training is not a dirty word in my book.

Grow Up

small dog in a cageAt some point early in the life of a human we develop intellectually and emotionally enough to realize that it’s not always just about us. Hopefully when this happens we’ve had plenty of time to learn to feel safe and loved. It’s not an easy step to take, but a step that most of us not only take, but run with. We go on to become teachers, doctors, nurses, builders, volunteers, dog trainers, psychologists, parents, partners, etc. We find ways to live our lives taking the needs of others into consideration. So what the heck happened when it comes to dogs?

It’s one thing to buy a pair of running shoes and to leave them languishing in the closet, it’s another to bring a dog into your home, a dog who may have been bred to be a working or sporting dog and to leave them languishing on the couch or in a crate for hours upon hours a day. They may be young and fit. They may be designed, through a process of genetic selection imposed on them by people, to not only be able to; run for hours, be fast enough to catch and kill small animals, bark with ease for seemingly interminable lengths of time, dig, chew, herd, guard property and objects. Not only are they able to perform these behaviors they are inclined to perform them.

But what dogs are inclined to do seems to have been lost on many of us (though I don’t expect those of you reading this blog to include yourselves in that group). We want to pat ourselves on the back for adopting a hound dog from a rescue group and then never allow them off leash to run. We’ll have good reasons for this, and other restrictions and will use them to justify the use of bark collars and shock collars, choke chains and prongs, to force them into performing the behaviors we need them to perform in order for them to continue to benefit from the good intentions that brought them into our homes.

Dogs may have enabled us to rediscover our inner child who still wants to believe it’s all about us. Don’t make them suffer for it.

Better Than Average

Black & white dog looking quizzicalIn 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.

Time To Raise The Bar

dog on pavement with caption training shouldn't hurtThere are few fields in which having grown up either performing a task or with the student, is enough to qualify one as a professional and justifies charging for one’s services. Unless of course we are talking about dog trainers.

I grew up reading and might be able to teach plenty of kids to read but if your kid has dyslexia it would be wiser to choose someone with an education in reading science. I’ve been driving a car since I was 15 but I hold no delusions that I could be a good race car driver because of it. I’ve been feeding myself for decades, and I’m still alive, but it doesn’t qualify me to charge people for nutritional advice.

There is a science of animal behavior. How animals learn has been studied and researched for decades. Ignoring this and continuing to train dogs based on one’s own personal system that deviates from the science, would in any other field leave one open to criticism and possibly criminal prosecution. But not so in dog training. ANYONE can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist, and label the criticism close-mindedness or jealousy. I’ve been training dogs since I was a toddler (what else is holding out my cracker and getting the dog to come to me to take it if not training) but it’s no reason to hire me or seek me out for advice.

Dog training is an unregulated industry with no accepted standards outside of those established by professional groups, and they vary even between groups. Before you let anyone put a hand or piece of equipment on your dog, or encourage you to do so yourself, stop. Don’t let their confidence, arrogance or even big words or concepts sway you. You may end up paying a bigger price than you thought.

Suffering the Consequences

small black dog with 3 quills in his noseI heard an interesting piece on NPR’s This American Life radio show. The topic was institutionalized, racial segregation in housing in America. During the 1960′s when people protested, often violently, against this practice a comment made by then President Nixon went something like this, if the demands were met (end policies that perpetuated segregation in housing) the protesters would be rewarded for protesting or rioting, and therefore their demands should not be met.

Knowing that consequences drive behavior we could look at that scenario and agree with President Nixon. We have to be very careful about behaviors we reinforce. Dog owners and trainers could think about the puppy shrieking to get out of her crate. Open the door and the puppy learns that shrieking gets doors open, and that’s not anything we want to encourage. When my husband worked for a youth club years back he was faulted for inviting a young girl to have a snack after she became upset, spewed a litany of swears and hid in a locker. Hadn’t he rewarded her for her bad behavior of swearing and hiding in lockers with the snack offer?

Reinforce it and you’ll likely see more of it. But there’s a piece missing, a big piece, and that’s the reality that when someone, animal or human is upset they may behave in ways we don’t like. If all we are going to rely on is the use of consequences, chiefly punishment, to change their behavior we are in effect forcing them to suffer the consequences, when a goal should be to eliminate the need for those behaviors to be performed in the first place.

If we don’t want people to riot for equal rights or treatment, and accept they should have them, then we either have to provide them with those rights, or provide a way in which they can achieve them without needing to riot. A puppy who screams and whines to be taken out of their crate could be given the opportunity to learn to feel good inside the crate with opportunities to play, rest and chew bones there. They can learn to feel safe and comfortable in their crate for longer and longer periods of time. The little girl who became upset and hid in the locker could be given the tools for expressing herself in a more socially appropriate way. She could have also stood to have had a better home life and this fact makes the use of punishment or the withholding of rewards to change her behavior seem even more inhumane to me.

We are responsible for setting up the conditions for our dogs to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and useful to them. If we can’t create ideal conditions we need to give them skills to be able to cope with less than ideal conditions. Let the consequences drive your behavior. Being able to predict that your dog is not likely to be successful means you can change the conditions to improve the chances that they will be. This will spare you from having to suffer the consequences of your dog’s inappropriate behavior.

Trust Counts

Trust is a central theme of soap operas, TV dramas and political relationships. It’s lauded as being the keystone of good marriages and partnerships. Teenagers are reminded that they will not be allowed to stay home on their own, or out late, or have the keys to the car until they can be trusted. For many people the realization that trust has been “broken” can lead to a lengthy or impossible reconciliation.

If one was inclined to look at the importance we place on trust in a marriage from a biological point of view, the risk of raising someone else’s offspring, or losing the support of a good partner to someone else, could impact the long-term success of one’s own off-spring. But mostly, when someone discovers that their partner was not “faithful,” babies aside, it feels really bad- poem-writing, sad song singing bad.

Dogs are among the few species on the planet who allow us to break trust with them, and not make us pay for it, consistently. Yell at or physically reprimand a cat and you might not see them again, or are at least likely to have to clean out the scratches you received in return. Few believe that the lions in the cage being kept under control with a whip are to be trusted to safely snuggle on the couch with their “tamer.”

We can and do break the trust with our dogs routinely and there is a price. It’s bad enough to wonder if your partner is trustworthy when they call claiming another late night at the office. It’s another to wonder if the person approaching you is going to physically restrain, hurt or scare you. Being at risk physically, even if it’s done leaving no marks, is not something one forgets or puts aside easily.

The risk of losing trust with a dog is greater the shorter the relationship or the smaller the existing trust account. If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them. A dog’s behavior can tell us as much about our relationship with them as it tells us about them. Trust counts.

 

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dogWhen we meet a dog, especially a dog in a shelter or in the rehoming process somewhere, the first piece of information we need to give them is why they should engage with us. Most of us, dog lovers that we are, would never say to the dog, “Because I said so!” when it came to the reason they should pay attention to us. But in effect that’s what we often do. We approach, we pet, we clip a leash on their collar and however gently we do it, make them attend to us.

Our intentions are good. We have time constraints. We think “dogs like me.” It’s for their own good. But none of these are necessarily reason enough for a dog. Especially a stressed-out dog. Erasing first impressions is tough, if not impossible. There are some dogs who it would appear are able to hold onto that first impression for years.

We may be limited in what we can offer a dog, but fortunately for us what is usually most effective is readily available to us–food. We have to start someplace and pairing our appearance or handling of a dog with steak can create a powerful and long-lasting positive emotional response. We know we are more than just vending machines and that there are other things in life that we’ll be able to provide a dog with at different times that food will pale in comparison to– running, playing, tugging, herding, sniffing, exploring, snuggling on the couch–the list goes on, but it’s not a bad or ignoble start.

 

Good Enough?

Scared dog at hoarding siteChildhood milestones in my life could be measured by learning how to swim. There are grainy, black and white home movies showing me leaping up, wiping the hair out of my eyes after demonstrating the newly gained skill of putting my face in the water at our lakeside cottage. I remember learning the “deadman’s float” and pretending to swim in the shallow water, my hands on the bottom of the lake as I practiced kicking my feet. When I went away to college I sought refuge in the pool swimming laps. Waiting for me at the deep end one afternoon was a young man. He had been watching me and asked if I’d like some tips to improve my strokes. I’d never had a lesson and along with enjoying the attention figured, why not?

He suggested some minor adjustments to how I held my head in the water, the position of my arms as they reached to enter the water and start the freestyle stroke, how to loosen up my hands and alter the depth of my kicks. Whenever we happened to be at the pool at the same time he coached me on subtle changes I could make to improve the efficiency of my movements. Soon I was swimming a mile and only stopping because I was tired of the routine, not because I was tired. The things he taught me made me a better swimmer and I took my new found confidence and joy in my abilities and found summer jobs as a life guard and swim instructor. I went from being good enough to being better.

It’s not unusual for us to learn how to do something just well enough to achieve some success and be happy with it. We get the job done, and that’s reinforcing. I have no plans to become a competitive swimmer and am content to go for long distance swims simply for the pleasure of it. Most of the skills I have learned are probably like my swimming skills, I get by with them enough to not see the need to put the energy into improving them. My interactions with my dogs were like that for most of my life, that is until Sunny came along and showed me that good enough was not going to cut it.

There are people involved in dog rescue, training and rehab who seem to have settled for “good enough” when it comes to how they handle dogs. They get what they need from the dogs and that’s reinforcing enough for them to not bother trying to improve on what they do. I recently watched a video of an obviously caring and compassionate rescuer using restraint and force to get a dog to let them handle her. To the casual observer it was heartwarming and the audience broke into applause and shed tears when the dog finally gave in and stopped resisting. Many would say that the ends justify the means and I did not question for a moment the good intentions of the handler. But I’m not a casual observer. No one working with fearful dogs can take the risk of remaining casual when interacting with scared dogs.

I remember reading this rescuer saying that they did not pay attention to what others said or did, they did what worked for them, and without question they were being reinforced routinely by the success they were having with dogs. But I saw someone who though “good enough” by the low standards currently upheld today in the field of dog rescue, had the potential to be amazing. All of the behaviors they were getting they could have attained without using force and restraint. A terrified dog would not have to be subjected to the additional stress and what looked to some as acquiescence in the dog, looked to me like a dog who had simply given up trying to fight anymore. A dog who was saying “uncle.” Why go there if you don’t need to?

We all know that the story continues after the camera stops rolling, the tears have been shed and the money has been donated. Plenty of dogs go on to become happy pets, but there are others for whom “good enough” wasn’t enough. Their failure will be attributed to any number of causes; the dog’s past or genetics. But when will we acknowledge that if all the people who handled the dog throughout the rescue process understood behavior, understood how animals learn, understood that good enough was not always going to cut it, more dogs could be successful pets? It’s one thing to be on the path to improving one’s skills. It’s another to refuse to even step onto it.

Plenty in Life Should Be Awesome

img_1979In order to simplify training for pet owners, and to incorporate training into daily life, eliminating the need to set aside a specific time for it many trainers recommend the Nothing In Life is Free protocol (NILF)*. It has its merits, though an unfortunate name. Tagging along with the technique is a fuzzy notion of “we’re in charge here and the sooner you figure that out the better” or something like that. There is also an unfortunate misunderstanding among many that merely making a behavior a requirement will change how a dog feels about performing it. This leads people with fearful dogs to obedience classes and to the recommendation that the person the dog most fears, does the training.

It is the case that when positive reinforcement training is used to teach behaviors that a dog is likely to feel good about performing those behaviors, but it would be an overstatement to say that they always do. In the case of NILF a dog learns that the food bowl doesn’t get put on the floor, or the door doesn’t open until they put their butt on the floor. This alone is a useful behavior for most owners, if left at that. But behavior, even with a reward, can become rote to the dog while remaining beneficial to us.

Kathy Sdao in her book Plenty in Life is Free encourages owners to look for behaviors to reinforce, rather than require behaviors be performed to earn a reward. It’s a beautiful system and once you get in the habit of it, it hardly feels like “training” at all. Instead it’s an ongoing conversation with your pet, “Hey that is awesome, I like it when you do that, have a bit of cheese.” One day you notice that your dog is performing that behavior with more frequency and you no longer need to block them from rushing out the door because they sit and wait for you to tell them how fabulous they are, and if you happen to have a bit of cheese, that would be nice too.

This is a great technique to apply to your interactions with any dog, but especially a fearful dog. Not only does the dog learn to repeat the behaviors you like, life changes for them. Most of our fearful dogs are very good at feeling scared, anxious and worried. By finding ways to provide them with rewards frequently throughout the day you can help them to develop what in a person might be considered, hopeful anticipation for life ahead. Help your fearful dog learn that plenty in life is awesome.

*Also called Learn To Earn, which removes some of the “I’m the boss around here,” sensibility of the practice.

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