Archive for the ‘nervous’ Tag
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?
The unfair part of it is that dogs need to eat. It’s one thing to bait a trap to catch a dog and count on the dog’s hunger to be motivating enough to get them into the trap. It’s another thing to try to draw a dog closer to something that scares them in order for them to get food for training purposes. Dogs who are fearful are often also anxious. They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. The world is unpredictable and scary. Sometimes people approach them and force them to do something they’d rather not do. They are chronically stressed. Eating may be the only time their brain actually gets the chance to feel good.
Using food to lure dogs into performing behaviors, such as going up or down stairs, walk on unfamiliar surfaces or approaching a scary person can backfire if during the process of getting or eating the food, the dog is startled. So instead of getting the beauty of counter conditioning we have taught the dog to be suspect of food because it predicts something scary might happen. We have lost one of the most powerful tools we have in the rehabilitation of fearful dogs- food. The use of food as a lure in training dogs who are not afraid does not present the same risks, though it’s to our benefit to “fade the lure” as soon as possible and switch to using it as a reward.
There are other ways we can take advantage of a dog’s fears inappropriately, in order to coax behaviors from them. As usual, each situation will be different and trainers, using their brains and understanding the implications and potential negative fall out of any technique they employ, can decide whether or not to use them.
In order to access the snowmobile trails in the woods across the river we have to cross a swing bridge. Crossing it is a scary proposition for many people and dogs. When I am out on a walk with the dogs it’s not unusual for a new dog in the group to get to the bridge and balk at setting foot on it, or get midway and then turn and high tail back. For some dogs being left behind is a powerful enough motivator for them to work up the courage and cross it. They slink across like army comandos. Some, after doing this discover that it’s safe and crossing the bridge is no longer scary for them. Others, once across will refuse to set foot on it for the return home. They pace and whine searching for an alternative way to rejoin the group. It’s stressful for them and their apprehension for facing the bridge in the future will impact their desire to go for a walk with me next time the leashes come out. And a dog who has not developed a strong enough relationship with their owner or the other dogs they live with, may not find being with the gang enough of a motivator to even try to cross.
The way we help dogs learn new behaviors, whatever they are, is to ensure that the dog feels safe and trusts us. This will go a long way and is worth taking the time to figure out how to achieve both. Then teach the dog something. Give them behaviors they can perform on cue. If you use force-free and reward based training methods, asking dogs to do things makes them feel good because you are giving them the opportunity to get something they like. Push a dog too soon in the relationship or when they still don’t feel comfortable enough to cope and you could be setting the stage for aggression to appear as a response.
Every journey begins with one step. We’ll be getting to plenty of bridges to cross with our scared or anxious dogs. Make sure each step is a good one. In the picture accompanying this post Nibbles is hesitating before joining me on the other side of the bridge. He’d been given the opportunity to cross with me getting rewarded along the way on numerous occasions. I could have put him on a leash and encouraged him to come, or carried him. I chose to let him make the choice this time around. He crossed and we celebrated on the other side.
During our daily woods walk I spied a piece of birch bark rolled up and lying on the snow. Nibbles also saw it and tentatively stretched his nose toward it for a sniff. I felt myself experience a small hit of adrenalin that often accompanies events that scare or startle me. Other than it being the same size and dimensions of a belly-up grey squirrel, and the brownish-orange colorations on the bark being sort of the same color as blood, it was most definitely a piece of birch bark. Nibbles hesitation to approach it registered in my mind and contributed to my response.
I am not afraid of squirrels, dead or alive, but the “yuck a dead thing” reaction happens regardless of how squeamish something might make me. It wasn’t that I thought it was a dead squirrel, I felt it was a dead squirrel, and there’s a difference. Had it been a dead squirrel I might have had cause for concern. Any animal that might have killed it should have eaten it or moved it off the trail. I would have to decide whether or not to let the dogs think it was Christmas. Did it die from a disease? But I didn’t have to entertain any of those questions because it was clearly a piece of birch bark.
Our brains, and our dogs’ brains, are set up so that information processed by the limbic system, the part of the brain that contains the amygdala, travels faster to the parts of our brain that think and ponder information, than happens in reverse. Had it been a dead squirrel, or something potentially dangerous to me, I was primed to react, even if that only means I would have jumped back and screamed.
How scary or upsetting something might be to us will impact the degree to which we have an emotional response. That emotional response will cause a physical response. Bodies respond to fear in different ways, they freeze, they flee or they fight. With training we get better at responding more thoughtfully when we are afraid, but it’s not easy and takes practice. Even professional actors can experience debilitating stage fright.
When a dog is repeatedly scared by the same thing, and is not given the opportunity, usually through systematic desensitization and counter conditioning, to learn to think about it differently, they are likely to continue to feel the same way about it. It’s the feeling that is going to drive the behavior that you see. When we talk about thresholds to triggers we are referring to the level of concern that allows, or doesn’t, a dog to think about what it is they are dealing with. It is up to us to determine the conditions under which our dogs are more likely to learn new responses. Wanting your dog’s response to change is not enough.
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.
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.
Scientists who have studied fear in animals have come up with four responses, one or more of which are common, in one form or another, to organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.
1. Withdrawal, avoidance, flee
2. Immobilization, freeze-up
3. Submission, appeasement
When working with our fearful dogs it’s important to keep in mind that these responses do not necessarily indicate the ‘level’ of fear a dog is experiencing. It is not unusual to hear people say that their fearful dog ‘lets’ people pet him/her. ‘Letting’ something happen does not mean that the dog is not afraid, it is just that for that dog, in that situation the dog is reacting with option #2. They are still afraid, in fact they may be horrified, but because they have not reacted with options 1, 3 or 4 their owners assume that they are ‘ok’.
At a seminar I suggested that people reward their dog for avoiding what scares them. A participant asked, “But isn’t that feeding into the fleeing?” Let’s just think about it-
When working with a fearful dog we typically set our sights on getting the dog closer to the things that scare them. That is how we are gauging success, and it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. We know that aggression is one of the responses common to feeling threatened, and as handlers or owners of fearful dogs it’s the one response we want to avoid at all costs. A fearful dog who cowers in the corner is likely to be allowed to live in that corner longer than a dog who responds aggressively. Moving away from something scary keeps both the dog, and whoever or whatever the scary thing is, safe. You won’t get bit by a dog who runs away from you (though I still wouldn’t turn my back on them!).
Whether or not we give a dog who has moved away from a trigger (scary thing) a piece of cheese (or other high value food reward), the distance gained is rewarding to the dog. If the dog is able to eat the cheese we are not only addressing their behavior but how they ‘feel’. Eating cheese makes dogs feel good. And if they are a safe distance from the trigger the dog may start to have more positive feelings than they do negative ones. Call it the Ben & Jerry’s effect if you like. This is the first step in helping a dog learn to be anywhere near a trigger and feel better about it. It’s the dog who decides what the appropriate starting distance is.
Studies of brains have shown that aggression is ‘rewarding’, which is obvious when you consider that hockey and boxing probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t. Put a dog in the position to respond aggressively and you are flagging a neural network in their brain you do not want them to learn to like.
Check out this video of a chameleon responding to a perceived threat. I don’t know enough about the ethology of these creatures to know if any appeasement behaviors were offered, but you can see what happens when withdrawing, freezing and threatening gestures don’t work to keep the scary technology away. You might want to turn the sound down on your computer. The following video was obviously NOT produced for educational purposes.
Years ago a friend decided he was ready to adopt a dog. As a young man he had traveled cross country with his beloved chihuahua and he was hoping to find a small dog to add to his and his children’s lives. Small dogs were not easy to find at nearby shelters so he looked online and found what seemed to be a good match, a small, young terrier mix that he met at the airport with all the nervous excitement a new dog owner can feel. At first the dog’s shyness and hesitation to interact with him wasn’t a worry. Assuming that the dog just needed time to settle in and with the assurances of the folks at the rescue that the dog had not behaved fearfully there, he waited, and waited, for the dog to ‘warm up’ to him.
I began to get phone calls from him and it’s one of those cases of ‘wish I knew then what I know now’. We’d talk for hours about what might be wrong and what he could do differently to salvage what was suppose to be a two-way love affair. When he called me one last time to talk about the dog it was to tell me that he couldn’t bear living with an animal that cowered each time he approached, ran away from him, and which made him feel like some kind of monster. With the assistance of my local animal shelter I was able to rehome the dog and my friend did find some consolation that all the time, energy and money he had spent, had eventually helped get this little dog into a home where it could be happy and comfortable. But he had paid a price.
When we choose to keep a fearful dog, and often it doesn’t feel much like a choice as it seems the only option available to keep the dog alive, we end up paying a price. The dog we had hoped would go for runs with us but is frightened by people and traffic, turns what used to be a pleasant recreation into a stressful, dreaded event. And rather than enthusiastic greetings and the pleasure of watching a joyous dog bound and play, we get the sorrow of watching an animal suffer from fear or the sting of being the source of that fear.
My friend ended up adopting another dog that lived happily with his family for years. I have almost forgotten the months and months my heart ached for my fearful dog that had he not suffered at the hands of an animal hoarder, might have become a confident dog that could enjoy all the activities and travels my other dogs do. Who can say what a dog’s life is worth, but spending it being fearful seems the highest price of all to pay.
If you are living with a fearful dog who has inappropriate responses to the things it’s afraid of, cowering, lunging, barking, growling, fleeing, etc., it is important to understand something about how animals (including humans) behave when stressed. When your dog is afraid, it is experiencing stress. When an animal is stressed and needs to respond it is more likely to perform whatever behavior it has performed in the past, you could call this behavior a habit. So your dog may be in the habit of snapping at small children. As long as your dog feels stressed, and this is the habit your dog has, this is the behavior you are most likely to see when near small children.
People who are required to perform in stressful situations, police, fire fighters, soldiers, actors, or musicians, for example, will practice whatever behavior is appropriate for situations they may find themselves in. A police officer will practice drawing their weapon, aiming and firing, soldiers may practice dropping to the ground, actors will rehearse their lines and stage directions, musicians will practice their piece over and over again. When these people find themselves in a stressful situation they are more likely to perform the behaviors they have practiced and which have become habits.
In order to help a fearful dog behave more appropriately in stressful situations it’s important to give them the opportunity to practice an alternate behavior at which they can become proficient. This will become the behavior which will replace the one that you don’t like. But in order to learn and practice this new behavior the dog needs to be in a situation in which it does not feel stressed or the level of stress has to be low enough so that they do not revert to whatever behavior has become a habit for them.
The way to learn any behavior is to begin slowly, gradually adding to the difficulty of it. The fewer mistakes made in the process the less likely those mistakes will be repeated. If you are teaching someone to drive a car, it’s best to begin in a parking lot, preferably empty, rather than on a busy highway. If you are working to teach your dog to sit and look at you, it’s best to begin in a place where your dog feels comfortable and can focus. As this behavior becomes more reliable in this place you can begin to work in more challenging locations, always striving to practice the appropriate behavior, not the old habit.
When it comes to dogs and people, practice may not always make perfect, but it does make it more likely!
For more information about how to help a fearful dog be sure to visit the Fearful Dogs website