Archive for the ‘anxious dogs’ Tag
It stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.
I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.
The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.
We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.
We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.
What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?
In 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.
During our daily woods walk I spied a piece of birch bark rolled up and lying on the snow. Nibbles also saw it and tentatively stretched his nose toward it for a sniff. I felt myself experience a small hit of adrenalin that often accompanies events that scare or startle me. Other than it being the same size and dimensions of a belly-up grey squirrel, and the brownish-orange colorations on the bark being sort of the same color as blood, it was most definitely a piece of birch bark. Nibbles hesitation to approach it registered in my mind and contributed to my response.
I am not afraid of squirrels, dead or alive, but the “yuck a dead thing” reaction happens regardless of how squeamish something might make me. It wasn’t that I thought it was a dead squirrel, I felt it was a dead squirrel, and there’s a difference. Had it been a dead squirrel I might have had cause for concern. Any animal that might have killed it should have eaten it or moved it off the trail. I would have to decide whether or not to let the dogs think it was Christmas. Did it die from a disease? But I didn’t have to entertain any of those questions because it was clearly a piece of birch bark.
Our brains, and our dogs’ brains, are set up so that information processed by the limbic system, the part of the brain that contains the amygdala, travels faster to the parts of our brain that think and ponder information, than happens in reverse. Had it been a dead squirrel, or something potentially dangerous to me, I was primed to react, even if that only means I would have jumped back and screamed.
How scary or upsetting something might be to us will impact the degree to which we have an emotional response. That emotional response will cause a physical response. Bodies respond to fear in different ways, they freeze, they flee or they fight. With training we get better at responding more thoughtfully when we are afraid, but it’s not easy and takes practice. Even professional actors can experience debilitating stage fright.
When a dog is repeatedly scared by the same thing, and is not given the opportunity, usually through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, to learn to think about it differently, they are likely to continue to feel the same way about it. It’s the feeling that is going to drive the behavior that you see. When we talk about thresholds to triggers we are referring to the level of concern that allows, or doesn’t, a dog to think about what it is they are dealing with. It is up to us to determine the conditions under which our dogs are more likely to learn new responses. Wanting your dog’s response to change is not enough.
On my book shelf is a CD by Wayne Dwyer on the power of intention. It’s an inspirational presentation. But as powerful as intentions are, given the right set of circumstances, habits will win out.
Recently I moved the app icons on my iPod around. I deleted a few and moved some off the main screen. In the process a couple of the ones I use regularly shifted their position. My finger moved to tap the icon for an app that was no longer in the lower left hand side of the screen, but to the right and up a row. I managed not to open the wrong app, and stopped my finger in time. My intention was to open an app, and my habit was to tap the lower left of the screen to do it. I still catch myself aiming for the old, now incorrect, location. Old habits are hard to break.
For up to a year after we moved from one house to another, about a mile down the road past the old house, I would on occasion discover that I was preparing to turn into the old driveway. One day I even made it up the driveway to the house before it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was sleeping at the wheel, I’d not driven off the road into the river, so some part of my brain was doing its job. My intention had been to drive home, but an old habit kicked in.
We want to take advantage of the power of habits when we are working with our fearful dogs. If we can create behaviors that require little thought on the dog’s part, it will be easier for them to behave appropriately in scary situations. If we create those behaviors using positive reinforcement, performing those behaviors can include a positive emotional response at the same time- more bang for our buck.
Sitting and looking at me is a “trick” I’ve worked on with Sunny for years. He will plop his butt down and look at me with the slightest prompting on my part. When the pressure is on, he will do it. It’s become what we call a “default” behavior. If he’s not sure of what else to do, this is his fall-back behavior. I’ve rewarded him with food and praise, a lot, for doing it. It’s proven to be useful at the vet’s office and at the groomer’s. When we’re out and there are people around, he will do it and I can step in between him and the approaching monsters.
Consider helping your dog create the following habits:
- Look at you regularly for feedback
- Feel good when they hear their name
- Sit or lie down easily wherever they are
- Stay or wait when asked
- Come joyfully when called
- Play daily
- Become addicted to learning new tricks
I am grateful to all of you for your continued readership. Your comments and feedback provide me with the reinforcement I need to continue to learn and share information about how we can make life easier and better for our beloved, anxious and fearful dogs.
As a pragmatic New Englander whose views on life & the universe were tempered by years of living in northern California I am able to admit that with this work I feel I have found my calling or bliss, take your pick. It certainly took long enough!
In lieu of resolutions, the following are the ideas I have, in varying stages of development, for 2013 and beyond.
1. Fearful Dogs’ Blog- keep posting!
2. Get more people to ‘like’ the Fearfuldogs.com Facebook page. I want more people to have access to information about how fearful dogs learn and Facebook seems to be a good vehicle for that. Plus, I confess, I am envious of people who have thousands of ‘likes’.
3. Publish Does My Dog Need Prozac?, a collection of posts from this blog. It is currently being edited!
4. Continue writing the next book on my list detailing the steps that can be taken, from first meeting to rehoming, to help fearful dogs become happy pets. It will pick up where A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog leaves off.
5. Offer high quality webinars for people learning to handle fearful dogs. The first one is scheduled for February 19, 2013! I will be joined by Dr. Linda Aronson who will talk about the use of behavioral medications to help dogs suffering from fear, phobias and anxiety. Pretty darn excited about this one.
6. Be available for seminars and presentations about fear based behavior challenges. I am especially interested in getting information out to pet owners, foster care givers, rescue groups and shelters. I know that the information I share will increase the chances of adoption success for many fearful dogs.
7. Create a fun and informative program about animal training and behavior for our local community access television station. I’ve got the go-ahead from the station and have lined up some fabulous folks for interviews.
8. Travel to Puerto Rico with a group of trainers and dog lovers to share information about reward based training methods. I’ve made more progress with this after speaking at an animal protection symposium in San Juan. Any readers in Puerto Rico who are interested in helping with this, let me know!
9. Publish A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog in Spanish and German. Translations are on their way!
10. Don’t start smoking, drinking too much or making a habit of eating maple walnut pie for breakfast.
11. Late breaking opportunity! I have been invited to host a radio show about dogs.
I have also set-up a page where you can purchase a discounted hard copy of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. It will be live until January 31, 2013. Happy New Year to you and yours!
Living with a dog with fear based behavior challenges impacts our lives in many ways and the freedom to be away from home for more than 8 hours can be among them.
A couple of the options available for our dogs’ care when we need to be away are; someone comes to our home and cares for them or they go somewhere for boarding. Your dog and the options available to you in your area, will determine which, if either, you choose to use. There are a variety of factors to take into consideration, and obviously your dog’s physical and emotional well-being top the list. It’s impossible for me to list all the considerations an individual pet owner needs to look at. Some guidelines to follow include:
1. Speak with a vet about medications or supplements that can lower a dog’s overall level of anxiety.
2. Create an environment in which the dog feels safe and can retreat to if they need to.
3. Desensitize and counter condition a dog to basic handling.
4. Find and educate the person, or persons who will be providing care for your dog.
In-home care is often best for many dogs, especially those with a range of fears. The challenge of finding appropriate care-givers and the expense will impact whether or not you choose this option. It’s helpful if you can set up an environment which facilitates easy management of your dog. Having a door which leads to a fenced in yard works well if your dog is able to respond to cues for going out and coming back in. A care-giver need only be a door opener and food deliverer. But if a dog is too scared to move for someone we have to come up with alternatives.
It may be necessary to create areas where a dog can urinate and defecate without going outside. It is not a given that a dog who does this will forget their housetraining skills. My own two fearful dogs were provided with papers or pads and used them early in their lives with us. Once they were given access to the outdoors they chose that area, and not inside the house, for toileting.
Giving a dog a few basic skills, and teaching a caregiver how to interact with your dog can allow them to get your dogs outside for toileting and exercise. Having a leash put on their collar or harness is one skill. Being able to walk with a long line attached to their collar or harness is another. Adding a short tag line (approx 12″) to a harness or collar with a loop or ring in the end can make it easier for a caregiver to leash up a dog without having to put as much pressure on a dog as grabbing a collar or harness will. I was able to instruct care-givers on how to put a leash on my dog, get him to follow them out of the house, and go for walks. I was very clear that my people-fearful dog did not need or want any social interactions in addition to feeding, leash walks and toileting. I made sure there was an ample supply of my dog’s favorite treats and care-givers were instructed on how to give them to him; no eye contact, no petting, no bending over the dog, no chatter.
There are professional pet and house sitters available. Be on the look out for anyone who assumes that all dogs will like and feel comfortable with them. These folks, good intentions aside, often try too hard to connect with a dog, a dog who may have no interest in connecting with them. They will need to be able to put their egos and anything they’ve learned in the past about dogs, aside. Some will be willing and able to do this, others will not. I had good success with a young woman who worked with cats at the local humane society. She was comfortable with dogs and able to understand that a fearful dog is not unlike a scared cat. Try as you like, you are not going to make a scared cat like you. Our neighbors were also a great help to us, and continue to be. Vet techs are another good population of possible candidates for pet care.
For some dogs being boarded away from home can be both a physically and emotionally safe, option for them. The understanding of fear based behaviors by the people handling your dog is crucial. A dog who is comfortable with other dogs may enjoy the opportunity to be with them during play time. A boarding kennel may be a safer place for a dog if you do not have a secure, fenced area at home. If you have more than one dog there is often the choice to have them share a kennel, providing them with the comfort and solace of a buddy. Look for kennels set up so that your dog does not require handling for cage cleaning or feeding. A safe space can be created, a crate to hide in or a barrier to hide behind for example, while cleaning occurs.
Staff who understand fearful dogs or are willing to follow instructions regarding how your dog should be handled and interacted with, is imperative. Large kennels may employ a collection of low skilled workers who may like dogs, but may have misguided ideas about them. People professionally involved with dogs can assume they know more about your dog than you do. I was surprised to hear one kennel owner tell me that she thought people gave too many drugs to dogs. When a dog I knew stayed at her kennel and was sent along with behavioral medications, she did not give them to the dog, despite the owner’s instructions. The kennel operator decided that the dog was fine without them. I was dumbstruck. There are medications which require a specific withdrawal protocol before they cease to be used. To abruptly stop their use can be dangerous. As for the dog appearing to fine, the medications may have been reason!
In-home boarding is popular and many pet owners assume a better option than a commercial facility. Whether this is the case will be depend on the people providing the care, your dog’s triggers, and the adequacy of fencing on the property. I offer in-home boarding and have turned away dogs and suggested a boarding kennel instead. Home life, especially a home with other unrestrained dogs, is unpredictable. A fearful dog may fare better with the predictable routines of a kennel, along with the isolation option it provides. I will not board a fearful dog who does not have a recall. Unlike a commercial kennel the opportunity to slip out an open door or find a way out of the fence yard exists. Most dogs don’t choose to leave me or my other dogs, but a fearful dog, once outside of the confines of my home or yard may be impossible to catch.
Every dog and every situation is going to be different. By giving a dog a foundation of basic skills, experimenting with medications to help relieve a dog’s anxiety, and researching both in and away from home options, it is possible to have a life away from your fearful dog.