Archive for the ‘anxious dogs’ Tag

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.

Getting To Yes With Your Dog

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.

Getting It Our Way

I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents. lex luthor shouting wrong!

As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.

In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.

What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?

I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.

Surviving in the Wilderness

dog under desk touching a target stick When I was younger I trained to be an “outdoor leader” so I could take people into the mountains or on rivers, for days at a time. I studied wilderness first aid and carried a knife to cut ropes, wore a helmet and PFD on rivers, enjoyed shopping for clothes and shoes designed using the latest technology and fabric for keeping me warm and dry, and coveted other people’s back packs for their good looks or ergonomic design.

As leaders we talked about and practiced what to do if something went wrong. We considered the ways we could remedy the problem using the equipment we had on hand or improvising with what we could find. There was always something new available to make the job easier; lighter, stronger paddles and boat hulls or better signaling technology in case you got caught in an avalanche. We learned to prioritize so we would focus on the key issues we’d face in an emergency. The bottomline becomes very clear and helps to direct our actions and to guide us as to what skills we needed to practice. If someone isn’t breathing or struggling to breathe, they’ll die. If they are bleeding excessively or their heart is stopped, they’ll die (and in pretty quick order in the latter case).

In the wilderness of dog training we are often faced with a variety of equipment choices and protocols to use to get basically one thing; a dog to behave the way we want them to. Some of the equipment and protocols we can use can make our jobs easier for us. Regardless of what we choose to use the bottomline remains as clear as it is when we have a medical emergency– we need to get a behavior. And making it even clearer, and therefore simpler, is that just as we know how when done correctly blowing into someone’s mouth will put air into their lungs, we know that when reinforced, behaviors are more likely to be repeated. Both are straightforward, true for everybody, systems. If they are not working then either we are doing something wrong (don’t forget to pinch the nose shut) or there is something very wrong (a piece of steak in the windpipe). We have to remove obstacles to success and follow the protocol for performing mouth-to-mouth correctly.

When trying to live with and train a fearful dog it becomes very important that we understand the basics of the system. Once we do we can break out the special equipment or try a new protocol available to us. And we are safer doing either of these when we understand how the system works. Understanding the purpose of an exercise is important. Good ones are about practicing a behavior and being reinforced for doing it. And being reinforced using something the dog feels good about.

In an emergency one of the first rules is to assess the situation. We assess the situation to ascertain what happened and to ensure our own safety. We want to avoid being the fool who rushes in. We can apply the same rule to working with scared dogs. Assess the situation and make sure that we will be safe and that the dog is safe so no further damage will be done. If someone is on fire for gosh sake, put it out. The faster we can extinguish the flames the less damage will be done. True with our dogs as well. If they are afraid figure out what they need to stop feeling that way. Give them space if they need it, a place to hunker down in, talk to a vet about medications to lower anxiety, or simply stop looking at them. Do what you need to do.

Once a dog is no longer fearing for their life we can work on changing the negative emotional responses they are experiencing and making them positive. We do this by pairing the scary thing with something fabulous, usually super good food. If the trigger comes to consistently and reliably predict the good thing, the emotional response changes. If we are not seeing this change then reassess. Is the dog still on fire? Are they still feeling scared and threatened? If so, you have to change that. Are you sure the trigger has been paired with the good thing consistently? Is the good thing good enough? Have you painted the picture clearly enough for the dog– the trigger predicts the treat– all the time?

Along with changing emotional responses we go back to the other basic– reinforcing behaviors we like. If a dog is still too scared to participate in a formal training session, they are still learning and we can still find behaviors to reinforce using positive reinforcement. Can the dog look at you? Turn their head? Stretch their neck? Sniff a toy? These are behaviors we can reinforce because as simple as they seem, they build the foundation not only for future, more complicated behaviors (pick up that toy and bring it back to me) they also contribute to helping the dog understand how *we* operate and how the system works. We do something, they do something and we give them a treat. We say their name, they look at us, we toss a treat. No need to make it more complicated than that.

I think it’s great that dog trainers are always trying to come up with ways to help dogs and make their lives better. But the best protocols and equipment keep your eyes on the prize. Identify the behavior you want and teach the dog to do it using positive reinforcement. Don’t waste your energy stumbling around in the wilderness. If you don’t understand how to apply the basics, find a trainer skilled enough to show you. In medical emergencies we know that we may have a small window in which to address that emergency. When a dog is really afraid we should be as concerned about addressing the crisis they are experiencing. If we don’t, all the equipment and special protocols may not be enough to save their life.

Use Protection

I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.

Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.

The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.

It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.

Because Why?

I don’t want to come across as someone who trolls the internet looking for other people’s websites, blog posts or videos to criticize. More often I try to ignore most of it. Sometimes it lands in my lap. The link to the video included in this post was shared with me by the manufacturers of a new product designed to eliminate anxiety in dogs. I understand why they’d send it to me and I’m always happy to learn about new products to help the population of dogs I care a lot about.

The first image in the commercial for a calming coat is of a trembling, scared chihuahua used as an example of the dogs the product can help. I understand why they’d do this, but I had to work to not start getting pissed off about it. Princeton is not just feeling camera shy, Princeton is scared. I get it. We all get it. While we’re getting it, and they’re getting footage, Princeton is scared. Why is it ok to scare a dog in order to sell a product? We don’t push old ladies down a  flight of stairs in order to film a commercial for a distress call product to use after they’ve fallen and can’t get up. We don’t sneeze on people to give them the flu so we can get shots of them for a nighttime flu-relief medicine. But for some reason it’s ok to put a dog in a situation that scares them so we can get the images we need, to sell something. Even if what is being sold is of value–people have been using wraps, ace bandages and tight T-shirts on dogs for years to help with anxiety–it only seems to lessen the disrespect for the victim (the real-life animal actor) slightly in my mind.

As the commercial continues a claim is made that the product works because it “simulates a mother dog holding its young.” Seriously? Have they ever seen a litter of puppies being held by their mother? I know that we live in a world in which one can say practically anything they want about dogs and be believed, but this is creepily Orwellian. The myths that dogs need pack leaders, feel shame after peeing on the rug, you should correct dogs by grabbing their muzzle because that’s what mothers do, have just been joined by “mother dogs hold their puppies.” In internet-speak my response is WTF?

I also take umbrage with the assertion that dogs who need daily medications or treatments will no longer need them if they wear the coat. Body wraps do not work for all dogs. If they do, fantastic. If they don’t, it’s better for a dog to remain on daily medications and treatments that are working. My comment (which has since been removed) on their youtube page did not question the efficacy of their product, but rather the claim as to why it worked. I mean come on, “hold its young.”

I asked them to provide me documentation regarding this assertion. I was told that it was tested and veterinarian-approved. OK, that’s great, I don’t want that test info or the names of the veterinarians who have approved it, I wanted to know where they got the information that young dogs are soothed by being held by their mothers. Bottom-line is that there is information out there that supports the use of compression for ramping down nervous systems. With a little homework they could have found it but instead resort to the all-too-common tactic of “making sh*t up about dogs.”

I notice that they didn’t use Princeton as an example of their product working its magic. Though he appears later in the commercial notice his tightly tucked tail, one of the easiest pieces of body language there is to judge how comfortable a dog is. Unless when being held by their mothers puppies also tuck their tails (I just made that sh*t up). The company sent me info about their product and my feedback to them has simply been met with repeated claims that research proves it works. My issue with their advertising is not that their product doesn’t work, but their claim regarding WHY it does.

People should stop thinking they can keep making sh*t  up about dogs and it’s ok.

*Thanks to a reader for pointing out that one of the dogs has an electronic collar on. Aversives are contraindicated for anxiety.

Does My Dog Need Prozac?*

The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.

There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.

A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.

colored pills spilling out of a bottle

If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.

**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.

*This is also the name of my upcoming book.

Assume They Bite

border collie with ball and baby sitting in front

Even a “good” dog has teeth.

During his early time with us Sunny never growled or lifted a lip toward me or my husband. No one was more surprised than I was when he landed a bite on my neighbor’s calf when she was walking in front of our house. I soon learned  from other, more experienced fearful dog owners, that there was nothing surprising about Sunny’s behavior. He was essentially a dog who never had the opportunity to learn to feel good and comfortable around people, especially strangers, and I had encouraged my neighbor to toss tennis balls for Sunny when he went down to the road and barked at her. OMG. I can hardly believe it myself. What was I thinking? Fact is I didn’t know what to think. I never had a dog who was as prepared to bite people as Sunny was. Learning that the dog you are living with has the increased potential to, and in all likelihood will, bite someone is a crushing realization. I felt terrible about what happened to my neighbor, who was beyond understanding and generous in her response. I baked her a maple walnut pie and still am upset about Sunny biting her.

Since that time Sunny has put his teeth into another calf once. Again it was a predictable, and therefore avoidable situation. There was the perfect storm of conditions, I assumed one thing, the person engaging with him assumed another and “bam” it happened again. That sinking gut feeling is one I can do without. Again, the recipient of the bite was kind and generous and in fact was even unsure as to whether she’d been bitten or scratched, but I knew better, those marks were from teeth.

Recently I found out that another of the little dogs who was part of the same confiscation from a breeder as my Nibbles, had started biting people. Of all the shy dogs I met of that group, this little guy had the most skill and comfort around people. I never would have guessed that he’d end up biting, my money would have been on Nibbles. It’s been a couple of years since the dog had been adopted and I’m going to assume that this new propensity to bite has been building. The conditions the dog had been living in were leading to the creation of the behavior. Don’t get me wrong, the people he lives with are loving and kind. The dog is adored and well cared for but the, what are often subtle, signs of discomfort and fear were not seen or heeded.

When we live with a dog with “issues” of any kind we have two options that are often best combined. We manage the dog so that they are not put into situations in which they are likely to experience fear or discomfort and then fail at being good dogs. For pet owners without a lot of training background or skill, this is the go-to approach. Your dog lunges at dogs while out walking on a leash, stop walking your dog where or when you’re likely to run into other dogs. Your dog barks and charges guests who come into your home, put the dog in a crate or another room so they can’t.

The second thing we do is a combination of changing how the dog feels and teaching them new behaviors. Both of these are often most easily done using super good food treats. It can take some skill development on the part of an owner, but a good trainer, well versed in positive reinforcement methods and protocols can teach you. It’s a gentle and kind process that is a joy to watch unfold. As you are learning and practicing good management, your dog is learning and less likely to feel stressed and pressured, and less likely to bite.

I live with four dogs. My cocker Annie and border collie Finn have teeth and like all dogs can bite, but I don’t have the same degree of concern about their behavior with people as I do with Sunny and Nibbles. Annie and Finn have a buffer of tolerance and resiliency to being stressed by people. They are not afraid of people. Both Sunny and Nibbles have come a long way in their ability to feel more comfortable and safe with people, but the first feeling that washes over them when they see a person is probably fear, worry or concern. My goal has been to change that feeling to one of gleeful anticipation. In Sunny’s case it might be a frisbee toss across the dog yard. For Nibbles it’s a treat. For both dogs it means no handling or social pressure to engage in a conversation that decreases the distance between person and dog without the dog’s stamp of approval.

By assuming that your dog will bite you might save yourself and someone else having to deal with one. It’s painful.

Fixing What Ails You

french fries with ketchupIt seems that many of us go through our lives trying to make something better or fix something that we hold responsible for our troubles.

Years ago I was traveling with a couple of friends. One an ex-housemate who I enjoyed and laughed with, the other, his girlfriend was a friend only the most superficial of ways. We worked at the same place and we liked hanging out with the same guy. She always seemed to be struggling with something in her past that kept her unhappy with her better than average body, her prettier than average face and her smarter than average brain. Luckily her richer than average parents were able to provide her with decades of therapy. Even this seemed to be a cause of dissatisfaction and guilt.

I found her tiresome and self-centered. At dinner one evening when she asked how I would “feel” about her having some of my french fries I thought, “I’d feel like stabbing you with my fork,” but I am an adult and my future will hold many more french fries so, “Help yourself.” In retrospect she might have been a good dog trainer. Considering a person’s emotional attachment to their french fries certainly would set one up for understanding a dog’s attachment to a bone, or old sock.

I’m not sure if this woman ever found the solution to her nagging discontent, but no doubt it motivated many of her behaviors. When I look at dogs I often wonder what nagging discontent is motivating their behavior. Why does one find it impossible to walk outside, or another to race frantically from window to window to bark at the slightest movement or sound? What problem is their behavior trying to solve? And I understand that whatever reason I come up with may be right, but may also be very wrong. The best I can hope for is that whatever I come up with motivates me to change the dog’s environment and my or the owner’s interactions in ways that help solve the problem, rather than contribute to it.

In the dog training world more people take relationships into consideration. There is the realization that how we feel about each other will impact how and what a dog learns. And the relationship the dog has with their environment will also play a part in how they choose to behave or are triggered to behave. Dogs will find behaviors that make them feel better or provide some kind of relief, even if those behaviors are maladaptive to our homes and our lives.  Indeed these behaviors may be maladaptive to their own lives. We need to find solutions that help them solve their problems in ways that are constructive and safe.

I try to extend my compassion and understanding to people as well as dogs when it comes to being patient with behaviors that annoy me. But it’s probably still a good idea not to reach for my fries. I may be having a bad day.

Missing Ingredients

small black dog yawning while being pet on the chestIt 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?

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