Archive for the ‘anxious dogs’ Tag
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.