Archive for the ‘medications for dogs’ Tag
One of the reasons I go on like a broken record about the importance of using reward based training methods that have been designed based on the evidence available garnered through the study of animal behavior and research is because working with fearful dogs can be so darn challenging. So challenging that if you don’t start seeing improvements soon you might become frustrated and disillusioned and the dog’s behavior can continue to degrade.
It’s the same reason I repeatedly remind people about behavioral medications that can help the process of changing how a dog feels about things that scare them. The risks of putting a dog on an approved behavioral medication for a few months, following the protocol recommended by a veterinarian, may be fewer than the risks we take by continuing to expose a dog to triggers without them. We can add more fears to a dog’s list of triggers, or further sensitize them to the ones they already have. It’s something to think about.
The gold standard for working with fear based behaviors in dogs is to use a combination of desensitization and counter conditioning. These are easy enough to understand, but not always easy to implement successfully. When a dog’s behavior does not improve, though the handler is employing these techniques, there are some common “fails” that may be occurring.
One common fail is to expose the dog to what scares them at a level that overwhelms them. It could be that the scary object or event is too close, too big, too many, too loud or around too long. Being able to eat treats is not a guarantee that a dog is what we commonly refer to as under threshold. It is possible for a dog to be motivated enough by something, to tolerate something scary or unpleasant to them in order to get it. It’s why it’s not recommended that a dog who is afraid of people be invited to take treats from a stranger. The same way you might be willing to pick up a paycheck every week and still hate your job, a dog may be willing to snatch a treat from someone and still wish they weren’t there. This does not mean that we can’t help a dog who is routinely over threshold, sometimes we have no choice, but until you have a good relationship with a dog and have given them coping skills it’s best to strive for less bothered rather than more.
Another fail is to assume that you are actually counter conditioning a dog to what it is they are afraid of. Our understanding of classical conditioning is based on the work of Pavlov, the man who turned getting dogs to drool into an art form. Classical conditioning is learning by association. We all do it, all the time. Counter conditioning is changing an already established classically conditioned response. A dog who is afraid of ________ learns to love children, loud noises, other dogs, car rides, vacuums, getting their ears cleaned, men with hats, etc. The scary thing which once predicted being scared now predicts cheese or a frisbee toss. It can take countless repetitions for some dogs to get this new association to replace the old one. A handler may be feeding steak in the presence of a trigger for years and not make this switch. The problem may be that the trigger is not what is predicting the treat for the dog.
Life is not always orderly. What can seem obvious to us is not to our dogs. If there is something that is relevant to us we often assume it is relevant to others, and it is not. There can be things and events in the environment that take precedence over another for a dog’s attention. We may be assuming that because we noticed the trigger and fed our dog treats, that the dog will make the association that it was the appearance of the trigger that made the treats appear. This isn’t always the case. Even if the dog notices the trigger it might not be the event in the environment that the dog is learning makes treats appear. If this goes on long enough, you reaching for a treat when a kid on a skate board goes by, the dog may eventually learn to feel ok about the skateboarding kid, but not as quickly as he would if it was the kid on the skate board that predicted the treat, and not your hand movement or that you stopped and turned in a particular direction.
Another common fail is that whatever is being used to counter condition is simply not good enough. Many dogs will eat anything, any time. I have no trouble motivating my dogs for a training session using treats, after they’ve had a meal. This is not true of all dogs, but by my dogs’ reactions to seeing me gather up training paraphernalia; clicker, treats, target stick, toys, bait bag, you’d think they’d never had a square meal in their lives. One of the reasons for this is that it’s not just the food that they enjoy. Figuring stuff out is fun for dogs too. But when you are working with a dog who is really afraid of something whatever you are offering them to create a positive association, needs to be amazin. Sometimes this is tough, and is why we combine counter conditioning with desensitization, to tip the scales in our favor. Suffice to say if someone wanted me to feel good about seeing Rush Limbaugh walk into a room they’d have to take out a loan. It’s not always easy to change how a dog feels about something or someone.
As the dog’s emotional responses change we can increase the level of their exposure to a trigger and we may find that what used to require filet mignon to get a tail wag only requires a smile and word of praise from us to get a positive response from our dog. If what you are doing isn’t working, it’s not that the process of desensitization and counter conditioning doesn’t work, it’s that your technique may need some work.
Last night when I should have been doing other things or at least heading off to bed I was looking at Facebook. A friend had posted a plea for information about how to get ointment into the eye of her resistant little dog. Almost all of the suggestions included using some form of restraint, including wrapping him in a towel, which would create the level of helplessness the owner would need to do what she needed to. The hypocrisy of it was that I suspected had she asked for suggestions as to how to get him to stop pulling on the leash, and had someone recommended a prong or ecollar, fireworks would have followed. It was topped off with a healthy dose of irony as yesterday Lili Chin’s fabulous poster about force-free training had been making the rounds.
I directed her to Canines in Action’s fabulous clicker training video Tucker’s Nail Trim, which remains my all time favorite for showing people how dogs can be trained to ‘be good’ even when being asked to do something they are not comfortable with. In many cases the bigger problem is the restraint, not the task that needs to be accomplished.
It was timely for me because for months a bottle of tartar removing tooth goop had been sitting on the counter, unused. I confess I do not brush my dogs’ teeth and we pay for it at the vet clinic with routine cleanings. When I had tried to squirt some in Annie’s mouth she was not pleased at all. The next time I picked up the bottle of tooth goop she promptly ducked her head and fled the scene. So I didn’t bother with it. But my friend’s request for info prompted me to grab my camera and see if I could show how I’d get a dog used to having something done ‘to them’.
The following video was a slap dash effort, warts, stupid chatter and all, it’s not been edited and professional trainers can find things to criticize but I hope the point is made that what I am doing is something ANY pet owner can do. Annie is very food motivated and we play ‘training’ games all the time, so she’s comfortable with how ‘you do this, I do that’ works. If a dog is not food motivated enough to want to engage in training games then pet owners would do well to come up with other reinforcers for their dog’s behavior. Play, ear rubs, butt scratches, tug, something. You need to have something that your dog finds rewarding enough to do things for. If there is nothing than before you start trying to get your dog to do stuff or change their behavior you need to work on that!
Just because I can forcibly restrain a dog doesn’t mean I have to. In the long run I’d rather not have to deal with the frustration and struggle that using force perpetuates and often escalates. And if I truly care about an animal why would I settle for forcing them to ‘give up’? I was a little sister and remember well the way it felt when someone bigger held me down and demanded that I ‘say uncle’. Sometimes it was funny but other times I ran off to ‘tell mom’. I’m the one policing my behavior when it comes to my interactions with my animals. I try to let the grown up in my head make the decisions.
In order to survive every species has to have reason to crawl out of bed every morning, or evening if they’re nocturnal. If they can’t it’s an indication something is wrong, seriously wrong. If we have dogs who are not fearful an unwillingness or inability to eat or engage in something fun is a big red flag. Sure our dogs get old and slow down, but when they start refusing food or ignore invitations to go for a walk we start to dread the writing on the wall. Often we head to the vet. An otherwise healthy dog who is not interested in food or doing anything that dogs typically enjoy doing, is in trouble. No magic is going to help them, we are.
First we eliminate any medical reasons for a dog’s behavior. An injured or sick dog needs to be treated. Once we can be assured that they aren’t hurting we tap into their brain’s reward system and run with it. If we can’t do this using food or fun, we have to do something to make it easier for them to stop worrying about protecting themselves and find ways to help them out of the funk of despair and depression, both responses I don’t doubt dogs experience.
If we can lower the dog’s level of anxiety either by the management of their environment and/or the use of medications we need to do it. We need to take hold of the reins of a dog’s reward system and turn them into addicts for what we offer them. Once we do that it only looks like magic.
Whether or not to use behavioral medications to help your dog is a personal decision, but one which is often based on incomplete information. One comment often made by dog owners is, “I don’t like to drug my dog.” Fair enough. I don’t like to ‘drug’ my dogs either, but I’m sure glad that my dog with no thyroid function has a medication to help with that, and that my old cocker with heart problems has medications that have help improve the quality and hopefully the length of her life.
There are owners who will use herbs, supplements, and remedies without hesitation, yet balk when the suggestion of a tested behavioral medication is made. If we believe that a particular ‘alternative’ treatment is powerful enough to change our dog’s behavior why then do we not also believe that they are powerful enough to do harm to our dogs? Few of the products available to dog owners today have not been tested for their safety, whereas there are behavioral medications that have been.
Another misconception about the behavioral medications available today is that they are used to sedate dogs. While sedation may be a side effect of some of these medications, the reason for using them is not to sedate your dog. In many cases this effect decreases over time.
We know that behavioral medications can help with depression and anxiety in people, and many of these same medications are what are used with dogs. Their use in dogs is recommended along with a behavior modification program and enough of us have had success with this combination approach that it makes sense, to me, for owners to consider their dog’s behavioral issues and whether or not the addition of a medication to their program to help their dog may be beneficial.
We know that dogs get better at any behavior they repeat, inappropriate as well as appropriate ones. If the use of medications makes it easier for a dog to practice and repeat appropriate behaviors then it stands to reason that in the long run the dog will benefit by their use.
While it is wise to question the use of medications to help fearful dogs, it also is wise not to disregard them based on misinformation or the lack of information about them or a long held prejudice against them.
Just my thoughts.