Archive for the ‘fearful dogs’ Tag
Childhood 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.
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.
Anyone who has lived with and cared about a dog has experienced moments when they are looking at a dog and wondering what the heck is going on. A trainer friend shared a story with me about a client’s dog who had started barking, at seemingly random times, at the refrigerator. We had been griping about the reasons some vets or trainers come up with to explain a dog’s behavior and then justify their recommended response to it. Among the worst being the idea that a dog’s behavior is based on their desire to move up in a pack hierarchy to justify the use of any number of inappropriate responses. The vet suggested that the dog was barking at the food in the frig. Not barking for the food, but barking at it. Don’t ask me, I don’t get it either. My friend suggested that the owners clean the coils under the refrigerator (something we should all do I learned from the repair guy). The collection of hair and dust had changed the sound of the refrigerator motor when it kicked on. The dog had noticed it and the barking ended once the original sound returned. Figuring out what is driving a dog’s behavior makes us all Sherlock Bones.
It can be especially challenging if we suspect illness or injury. Here in Vermont we have finally gotten a break from bitterly cold temperatures. Too much of a break unfortunately, and instead of a snowstorm, it’s pouring rain. This morning my border collie Finn got up from his bed on the floor next to me and moved to the other side of the room, by the door leading out to a balcony. Did he need to go out? Was he too hot and seeking out the cooler floor by the door? When he put his front paws up on the bed (he can’t jump up any more) I got up and put him in bed with me. He was trembling. Finn was treated for lymphoma and though I try not to obsess about it, know that it could return at any time. Was he feeling poorly? He also suffers from arthritis in his hind end, was he hurting?
I gently stroked him and drifted in and out of sleep while the recent episode of This American Life played on my iPod. Eventually his trembling stopped. It had been raining and I’d grown used to the sound of it falling on the metal roof, but I realized that something was different. It sounded as though a giant windstorm was raging outside. Windstorms mean trees fall down, trees falling down mean we lose power, when we lose power there’s no water. I got out of bed prepared for bucket filling action and noticed that the trees outside the window were still, there was no wind. The sound I was hearing was the river.
We live on a dirt road across from the Green River. When we have hard freezes the river builds up thick sheets of ice. During the spring thaw the river rises up and the ice breaks off in giant chunks that rumble and tumble downstream. The first time I heard it I thought a convoy of huge trucks was driving past the house. Last night’s rain had caused it to happen in January. The sound I was hearing was the river rushing by carrying the smaller chunks of ice and slush that follow after the biggest pieces have washed down. I had slept through that part. My guess is that Finn didn’t. Even the smaller pieces churning by can sound like thunder rumbling for minutes on end. Finn is afraid during storms. Was this the reason for his trembling? I suspect it was.
As frustrating as it can be to be unsure of why a dog is behaving the way they are, it is also an opportunity to get into the habit of looking at our dog’s behavior. Actually looking, not just reacting to it based on a preconceived notion of why it is occurring.
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
Yes, yes I know, people use too many drugs. People think drugs are the solution to everything. Drugs have side effects. I won’t dispute any of those statements, but at the same time drugs can save lives and the side effects of some conditions are worse than the possible side effects of some drugs.
The reasoning that one should try alternatives to drugs first, makes sense, sometimes. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we should address a disease or condition immediately with drugs. Delaying treatment can allow the problem to get worse, making it more difficult to treat with or without the recommended medication. This doesn’t mean that we should use medications as a first choice in all situations, but sometimes the dog would be better off if we did. In the case of fearful dogs, the sooner we can get a dog to perform new, appropriate behaviors, and reinforce them, the sooner we’ll be able to help them gain skills for being more comfortable in their world. Often medications can help facilitate this process.
Understanding how medications can help a dog with fears, phobias and/or anxiety is key to the process of deciding whether to use them or not. I hope you can join me for this live webinar with Linda Aronson DVM. Dr. Aronson is currently lecturing at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. We will talk about the medications available to help our dogs, how they work, how they should be used, possible side-effects and there will be time for questions.
You can register and find out more information here.
In the dog training world, which has a number of difference sects, stone tossing between them is a common occurrence. I confess I’ve lobbed a few myself. Some of the criticisms voiced are valid and important, others less so. In many cases there is a fundamental agreement between camps, with differing implementations.
The number of unwanted dogs killed daily in shelters around the country is staggering. There are various reasons why this is, and not what this post is about. It is about the assertion, by some trainers, that other trainers are responsible for this situation. When I hear a trainer say that other trainers, because of the way they train, are the cause of dogs being relinquished to shelters my response is, “show me your numbers.”
In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) researchers went into 12 animal shelters in the United States for a year to find out why dogs were being given up. This finding stands out- most dogs (96%) had not received any obedience training. Read it again and let the implications of this sink in. When a trainer claims that other trainers, because of the way they train, are responsible for the death of dogs because they were unable to get the desired behaviors using their chosen method, they are stretching things more than just a bit. I don’t know how that 4% of dogs were trained, or whether their owners complied with the trainer’s recommendations. We never even met the other 96% and not all were given up because of behavior.
There are likely a multitude of reasons why owners dealing with behavioral issues don’t consult with a trainer. What I have experienced is that when an owner fundamentally has a good relationship with their dog, they are more likely to seek out solutions for keeping them. If this solution requires spending time or money, they’ll at least consider it. If someone does not have a good relationship with their dog it’s easier to give up on them. What constitutes a good relationship will vary, but I’ll risk it and say that part of that relationship includes the dog making the owner feel good. The dog looks at them, cuddles with them, plays with them, hangs out with them, etc. I live with 4 very different, often challenging dogs. They might be considered by some to be pains in the butt, but they’re my pains in the butt and they’re not going anywhere. They make me feel good more often than they upset me. Though it did take time and effort to get there with some of them.
The assertion that not getting a dog to stop annoying behaviors is the cause of their relinquishment to shelters, an assertion I hear too often by trainers, some who I think should know better, seems a shallow conclusion to come to. Getting a dog to stop any of the annoying behaviors that can frustrate and anger an owner is important, but this only addresses a part of the problem. It’s an important part, no question, but that an owner has even consulted with a professional trainer is an indication that a crucial piece of the puzzle is in place, the owner cares enough to do it. A trainer’s goal should be to maintain that caring relationship while other issues are addressed. We need to carefully weigh our options for modifying behavior so as not to damage what might be a fragile emotional bond from the dog’s perspective.
Dogs are failed in many ways, but suggesting that I’m contributing to that by the way I choose to train, is tossing far too big a stone at me. I suspect that whatever methods an individual trainer chooses to use, if the foundation of their training rests on creating trust between a person and their dog, and as a trainer maintains a loyalty to the dog as well as the person writing the check, they too may resent having to dodge stones.
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!