Archive for the ‘fearful dogs’ Tag
Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.
Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.
Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.
A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.
Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.
If you sat two children down, one with a pile of marbles, the other with a bucket of tennis balls and gave each the task to put these objects into a milk jug, what do you think is likely to happen? Start off with- which child is more likely to be successful? Assuming that the marbles are all small enough to fit into the jug and the child has the dexterity and hand/eye coordination, the child with the marbles will be. What about the child with the tennis balls? Even if they have the ability to try to perform the task, how many attempts do you think they will make before they give up altogether when they discover that tennis balls don’t fit into milk jugs? I’m going to guess, not many. Why bother?
If we were to bring in another child and give them a variety of different sized marbles, some which will fit, some just barely, others not at all, how many attempts do you think they will make before they stop? Let’s assume that putting marbles in jugs is fun for the child or that we’ve promised them their special treat for doing it, and I’m guessing that they will keep trying until they have put all the marbles that fit into the jug and have a pile of those that don’t. If we asked them to do this a second time they might even do it more quickly if there were easy ways for them to differentiate between the sizes of the marbles; all the red ones fit, blue ones don’t.
When our dogs are interacting with us and their environment there is a continuous flow of experimentation of behavior. Each behavior provides the dog with information as to whether they should do it again or not based on what outcome the behavior produces. Does the behavior fit? If we always provide our dogs with information that tells them that a behavior is the right one, they can be prepared to use that behavior again in the future. If we resort to punishment too often, which for a fearful dog may be just once, they may, like the child with the tennis balls, stop bothering to experiment to come up with the behavior that fits.
We don’t need to hit them over the head to let them know that a behavior isn’t fitting. If they have learned a variety of ways that tell them that a behavior does fit; food treats, praise, smiles, cheers of approval, a click, the word YES, when one of these does not occur, they are prepared to experiment with another response until they are successful.
In life, on rivers, or when training a dog, there are advantages to going with the flow.
Sunny is my dog with the most fear based behavior challenges. For short I call him my ‘fearful’ dog. It’s not an accurate description of him, because he is so much more than just fearful, in good ways and bad, but when managing him around people, it’s the easiest label to slap on him. It’s either that or, ‘he’s not right in the head’, which is also true, but I like even less.
There are few people that Sunny sees and doesn’t feel frightened by. I can count them on one hand, and not need to include my thumb. This summer we added one more friend to the list, soon I’ll need that thumb.
I have spent the past two months in Plymouth MA at a lovely lake where the dogs and I have had a blast, as we say around here. The biggest challenge, other than dirty, wet dogs messing up the carpet in someone else’s home, has been their barking. At our home in Vermont there are no neighbors to worry about bothering, and not many people going by to cause the dogs to bark. It’s been a different story here. Next year I’ll have a better fence system.
One afternoon I noticed that their barking was instigated by a young boy who lives across the road. He barked, they barked. I was not pleased, but I’d rather have good relations with people who live near me, especially those whose prefrontal cortices are still developing (there’s no telling what kids will do when they are upset with someone), so I headed to the gate with clicker and treats in hand. Spying me the boy stopped barking, anticipating that I was going to tell him off, but I called out to him to keep it up. “Bark again!” I shouted. Boy barked, I clicked and treated the dogs. “Again!” Soon the barking boy was all but ignored for the click and treats. Realizing he wasn’t ‘in trouble’ he came over and asked if he could play with the dogs. I had reservations, primarily about Sunny, but invited him in.
I handed the boy my treat pouch and instructed him to toss treats to the dogs. Soon he was encouraging them to do their tricks and was thrilled when any of them came up and took a treat from his hand. Finn had a new frisbee tosser and Annie was beside herself having the opportunity to throw out all of her tricks for treats. The boy’s visits became daily events and long story short, as they say, Sunny is happily excited to see him. Here’s why I think it’s gone as well as it has-
1. The boy respects Sunny’s space. I was very clear about this and explained how he should behave with Sunny. During one of his early visits Sunny scared him, doing exactly what I was worried he’d do, one of those charging BOOFS! that makes your heart skip a beat. I wish it could have been avoided but it may have been a good thing. Sunny can seem like a playful, happy dog and many people do not appreciate how easily startled he can be. The boy saw this and became more thoughtful in regard to his interactions with him. My admonishments to this effect were not enough to get the point across, it was something he needed to ‘feel’ was important in order to comply. His own amygdala sorted that one out for me.
2. There was a lot of good stuff going on. Along with tossing treats and asking for tricks, the boy threw frisbees, balls, sticks, stones into the water and generally provided a fun diversion for the dogs whenever he came over.
3. It happened a lot. Sunny needs lots of positive interactions with things that scare him to change that feeling. The boy’s daily visits lasted on average for an hour. During that hour there were countless playful interactions between the two of them. Sometimes Sunny moved away from the boy, but mostly he moved toward him. Sunny was visibly let down when the boy headed out of the gate for home each day.
4. Other than for vetting and grooming Sunny has not had people try to touch him. He can predict that strangers are not likely to do the thing he is most afraid of- making contact with him. He can relax around people, to a degree.
5. Play is hugely rewarding to Sunny. Scared dogs brains can become very efficient at ‘feeling’ fear. I wanted to help his brain get better at feeling good. To do this I used food and play. The pleasure Sunny gets from chasing balls outweighs the concern he feels about the person tossing them.
We’ll be leaving here in a few days and I’ll miss my daily swims in the lake and I know Sunny is going to miss the kid.
They say a rose by any other name is still a rose, unless if you’re naming it ‘tulip’ I won’t know what you are describing. We may both understand that you are talking about a flower, but if you are ordering a dozen roses and ask for tulips you’ll be in for a big surprise when they arrive.
We look at animals and come up with ways to describe and define what we observe. It’s important and helpful work. When we look at wolves and then at dogs we come to conclusions about what is going on among them. The terms we use and the conclusions we come to may be right on, or not. We may be talking about behavior between animals, but if we label something ‘dominance’ and it’s actually ‘fear’ our response to the animal’s behavior may get us a result that surprises us. Or worse, angers us.
Different cultures perceive things differently. This is most obvious when it comes to food preferences. Offer a Nepali a cup of salty tea made with yak milk and chances are good their brains will register that something good is on its way. Hand a steaming cup to someone from the UK and they’ll be challenged to suppress a grimace at first sip. These differences do not end with food. Brains learn to prefer all kinds of things over other things. There are studies which found that American brains register ideas of ‘dominance’ more rewarding than do the brains of people from Japan. Their brains register concepts of ‘submission’ more rewarding. It’s difficult to read about this and not come up with value judgements about which, dominance or submission, is ‘best’. And the culture you come from is likely to affect that conclusion.
Following is a not so uncommon occurrence in our home:
My most fearful dog Sunny is asleep on the floor, somewhere in the path of where I need to travel. As I approach he merely opens his eyes to follow my movement. He does not make any attempt to move out of my way. I step around him.
Is his behavior an indication that he thinks he is dominant to me and doesn’t have to get out of my way or has he simply learned that he doesn’t have to move because I’ve never stepped on him, tripped on him, kicked him or yelled at him in the past when he’s been lying somewhere and I walk toward him?
What if instead of thinking of the social structures among dogs in ways that cause us to feel threatened, as many do when told that their dog is trying to ‘dominate’ them, we thought about each individual within the group having their own traits and inclinations which cause them to behave particular ways. Some are more willing to assert themselves, others more willing to compromise. Some are afraid and behaving aggressively because of it. Others are so excited about something that the last thing on their mind is that you want to go out the door in front of them.
One of the most damaging concepts to come out of pop dog training is the idea of ‘dominance’ being a primary motivator for dogs. Dogs, like other animals, do what works for them. I’m going to guess that few have the same kinds of dreams of power and influence that some people have. Heaven help the dogs who get in their way.
Join me in Santa Cruz CA on September 9, 2012 for a seminar on helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges.
As smart as we humans consider ourselves to be, we can be remarkably short-sighted or inconsiderate of the effects of our beliefs or actions. Antibiotics have saved countless lives and I consider myself among the lucky in history to have lived in an age during which we have access to them. But we have also learned that unless we use them judiciously, the fall out of resistant bacteria is very real and can be deadly. Yet for many, including, surprisingly, doctors, they continue to be misused.
When I meet trainers or dogs owners who believe that dogs need to be dominated in order to be appropriate pets I rarely doubt that they enjoy having dogs in their lives. However the perpetuation of the myth that dogs need to be ‘shown their place’ in the household pack hierarchy may have had serious consequences for breeds of dogs some trainers and advocates have specifically targeted for image improvement. This impact goes beyond the routine effect on a dog who has been ‘dominated’ displaying increased fear and aggression. That alone should be enough to reconsider the practice.
Touting the concept that dogs are inclined to seek a higher status in their relationships with people, including displaying aggression to do it, is scary. Growling, used by dogs to indicate that they want to maintain or increase their personal space, which may include food, locations or toys, is upsetting enough that many pet owners and trainers will punish a dog for it. It scares us. It scares us even more if we believe that it is a rung on the ladder up to domination. ‘Nip it in the bud’ is the tactic employed by many, and can have unintended consequences. Stopping growling does not necessarily stop the preference the dog has for being left alone, anymore than if I was punished for asking the fellow standing next to me on the subway to stop touching me, means I welcome his behavior because I’m afraid to speak up about it.
As sophisticated as humans are we are still ‘animals’ and have retained many of the responses that kept us alive long enough to evolve and achieve our own level of global domination (germs and cockroaches aside). We are as concerned about being attacked as the next fellow mortal regardless of how many limbs they use to walk, or whether they swim or fly. When we incorporated the myth that status seeking in dogs is a powerful enough desire that they are willing to attack and kill humans to get it, red lights started flashing in the parts of our brains that respond to immediate threats which affect our survival. This unfortunately has led to less use of the parts of our brains that are capable of critical thinking.
There is plenty of information, provided by biologists, ethologists, behaviorists, and writers, far more skilled than I, to include the research done on both wolves and dogs which indicates that both animals interact within a system that promotes cooperation far more than it does conflict, especially conflict which might lead to grievous bodily harm, in this post. I welcome readers to include links to that information in comments. My goal for this post is not to address that, but rather to suggest that when you convince people that dogs need an ‘alpha’ or ‘pack leader’ in order to be a safe, ‘balanced’ pet you instill a level of fear in people about dogs which may have led to the increase in breed specific legislation and heightened laws regarding which dogs communities feel safe having in them.
I have rarely doubted that trainers like Cesar Millan and others who follow his ‘premises’ about the relationship between people and dogs, like and love dogs, but the unintended consequences of maintaining the ‘alpha’ and pack leader paradigm, including practices and handling techniques which can increase aggression, may be proving to be deadly to the very dogs they claim to care about.
Strolling a beach who can help but be pleased to find a piece of sanded smooth seaglass? With the sharp edges worn down to safety they are tiny treasures used to make jewelry. Bathrooms around the world contain baskets of the stuff gathered during vacations and holidays. Even with their shiny surface blurred by abrasion we rarely resist the urge to put a piece in our pocket.
As I pick up stones to toss into the lake for my dogs I set aside ones rounded to lozenge-shaped smoothness. My childhood friends and I would covet these kinds of rocks, sharing them with special friends the way teenagers now share friendship bracelets or rings. What is it about these stones that, even as an adult, I find irresistible? Why is something that was once irregular with sharp edges, more appealing now that it has been tumbled and had those edges refined?
Sunny is my seaglass. Once he might have been considered by many to be a broken shard, without worth, destined for the trash heap. But with his edges smoothed he’s one of my most valued treasures. A rare piece of red or blue glass that has put in its time tumbling in the sand and ended up all the more beautiful for it.
At the vet with Finn, who was having his second chemotherapy treatment for lymphoma, I chatted with one of the techs, who was also a dog walker. She mentioned a client’s German Shepherd, I said how I always wanted one, but so many seem to have behavioral problems. Her reply was that for her the worst were small, white dogs, because they are ‘spoiled’.
She’d been bitten twice by small, white dogs so I could understand that she’d come to the conclusion that small, white dogs could be problematic. But because they are ‘spoiled’? I wondered how many pet owners ‘spoil’ their dogs by letting them bite people?
When I think of ‘spoiled’ dog behavior I think of the dog who gets muddy paw prints on your pants when they jump up to greet you. Or the dog who drools in your lap while you’re eating because they’ve been fed at the table. Most of the behaviors I associate with having been ‘spoiled’ may be annoying or unwanted, but they’re not necessarily dangerous, especially when performed by a small dog.
It’s not unusual to hear someone comment that their dog ‘thinks he’s a big dog’ because of the intensity and ferocity of their display of aggression, either toward people or other dogs. No doubt there are dogs who don’t do the math when they are faced with someone who outweighs them by double digits. I suspect terriers are like this by design. The others are likely well aware of the imbalance and are doing their best to make up for it.
Few people or dogs will continue to approach or attempt to interact with a large dog who is expressing their desire that they be left alone. Small dogs are not as fortunate. Videos by the hundreds can be found of small dogs snarling and lunging at people and the camera. People think it’s funny, but it’s no laughing matter. Dogs end up dead because of this behavior.
One of the behaviors associated with a fear based response is ‘freezing’. A small dog who has been overwhelmed by someone may offer no resistance. This can look like tolerance or compliance to the uneducated eye. Since the dog was ‘ok’ with being handled in the past, they are handled again in the future. If fleeing isn’t an option, and freezing didn’t get the point across, they may become aggressive. Some will bite. To ‘spoil’ the dog at this point, and move them away from what is bothering them or tossing them a few treats, might improve the situation.
When we experience aggression in dogs, whatever their size, we can feel fear and anger. If we justify our response by blaming the dog for it we step on a slippery slope, especially if that response is devoid of understanding of what might have provoked the behavior we are seeing. If a dog behaves aggressively toward you and you are inclined to blame the dog or the owner for it, take a step back, both literally and figuratively, and consider how your actions are contributing to the problem. It takes two to tango.
A trainer friend shared feedback with me that she got from clients who have read my book, A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. Some were disheartened by how long it took for Sunny to show progress in dealing with the fear based challenges in his life. This was certainly not my intention, to cause people to lose heart in regard to their dogs. But anyone living with a dog with ‘issues’ is either in it for however long it takes, or they’re not. I make no judgement about people who chose not to be. I understand their decision.
Every dog is different. Some, like Sunny, will spend their entire life having to cope with deficits acquired early in their development. This includes development that occurred in the womb. We can manage these dogs to lower stress and anxiety and help them learn appropriate skills for dealing with things or situations that scare them. In many cases we will see increased resiliency and an ability to tolerate more variety. Most animals can continue to learn throughout their life, which means we should never ‘give up’ trying to teach them when we decide to take on the challenge of helping a fearful dog.
Finding support to help you with your dog can be tricky. I have been surprised to discover that people who I would think would know better, and in my opinion should know better, don’t. Fear based behaviors are treated as though they are bad choices a dog is consciously making. I have been blamed for Sunny’s behavior by people who should have an understanding of dog growth and development and how early experiences, or the lack of them, can have a devastating and long lasting impact on the animal.
I hope that for every person living with a fearful dog who reads my book and finds the slow, plodding progress disheartening, there are people who find hope.
In the contest of who dislikes the thought of putting a muzzle on my dog, I’d come in a close second to the dog who has to wear it. That is unless I think about the alternatives to not wearing one. A muzzle is not an excuse to put a dog into situations in which they’re inclined to bite a person or another dog, but should it occur, the muzzle will help minimize damage.
I have been getting both Sunny and I used to having him wear a muzzle. We will be spending time visiting family this summer and though in the past we have rarely run into people during our daily walks, the more often we do it, the more likely it is that we will. I decided that I’d feel less stress if he was wearing a muzzle. A big step for me was to replace the image of ‘Hannibal Lecter’ with ‘hockey player’ when I looked at him.
The Baskerville Ultra Muzzle has large spaces in the grid of the muzzle which make it easy to feed your dog treats. One problem that I ran into with it is that the holes in the strap are not easy to locate and require a bit of extra fussing when fastening it on. I attempted to remedy this with a pair of vice grips and a hot nail, poking a number of easier to find holes in the strap. It’s not a perfect solution but I think the more I use the ‘right’ hole the easier it will be to find it. I tried the additional head strap which snaps onto the top of the muzzle and reaches over his head to clip on his collar. Maybe I didn’t snug it up tight enough but as the collar slid around his neck it took the strap with it.
So far any of his attempts to remove the muzzle have failed. This is important. If a dog successfully gets the muzzle off they are more likely to continue to try in the future. I am also coming up with sequences of putting the muzzle on and taking it off that I hope will effect how Sunny ‘feels’ about it. Immediately after the muzzle goes on either the door opens and he can run in the unfenced area outside the house, or his leash comes off so he run around where in the past he hunted feral cats. The muzzle predicts good things. I take the muzzle off and bring him inside or put him back on leash. Neither of those outcomes is horrible, but being outside and off leash is better.
This is by far my favorite and the most inspiring training video I’ve seen on teaching dogs to wear a muzzle.
When I was a young child and our family visited a body of water to swim in my parents instituted the the belly button rule. The older, more proficient swimmers could swim out to rafts in the middle of the lake or play in the waves, but the little kids could go no deeper than their belly buttons. If we lost our footing we would be safe and it was deep enough for us to pretend to be swimming. With our hands on the bottom of the lake we could kick our feet, put our faces in the water, blow bubbles, all the skills that one needs in order to swim, for real.
People living with fearful, shy or reactive dogs are often reluctant to limit their dog’s opportunity to go out into the world, for walks or car rides because they feel as though they are depriving their dog of exercise or variety. It’s thoughtful to take a dog’s needs in these areas into consideration, but not if they routinely end up over their belly buttons and have a bad experience because of it.
I remember wanting so badly to be able to swim with the big kids. My father shot Super 8 movies of me putting my entire face into the water and then coming up, wiping the hair and water from my eyes triumphantly. This was a milestone enroute to becoming a swimmer. My parents did not feel guilty that they were limiting my exposure to deeper water. They did not impede my ability to learn when they called me in when I went too deep or my lips turned blue and my fingers wrinkled.
Until a dog has the skills to come into contact with the things that cause them to react negatively, don’t risk them getting in over their heads. I didn’t have to almost drown to learn to learn to swim.