Archive for the ‘scared dogs’ 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?
Stop in for a visit to any one of the thousands of forums or groups devoted to dog training and behavior and you’re likely to bump into a discussion about whether or not it’s acceptable to punish dogs during training. There will be both reasonable and unreasonable comments from either side of the table.
Punishment is a very effective consequence to apply in order to end behavior. The challenge is getting it right. Reinforcement in the form of food is a very effective consequence to apply in order to see more of a behavior, and again the challenge is getting it right. In either case I want to consider what the consequences of me getting it wrong will be. Am I willing to accept, and subsequently have to deal with those consequences? In the case of punishment, often I am not. The reason? The consequences of the misapplication of a reinforcer, though problematic, especially if it’s routine, are likely going to be easy for me to change compared to the consequences of the misapplication of punishment, especially if it’s routine.
There are many reasons why a dog may continue to perform an inappropriate behavior or fail to perform a behavior we ask them to. Punishing a dog for failure to respond to a cue is risky business. What are we punishing? In this case we are often punishing what we interpret as a dog who is being willfully disobedient or blowing us off. There are other reasons why we may not get what we ask for, leading reasons being that the dog has not really learned the behavior, or has not generalized the cue to different locations or variations in the handler’s delivery of the cue.
Check out this video* and keep it in mind the next time you are inclined to yell at, yank on a leash, shock or hit a dog who doesn’t respond to a cue. They may not have even been aware that a cue to perform a behavior was presented to them.
*I was among the 70% of the people watching this video who did not.
I stood in front of the copy machine, not so silently cursing the manufacturer, the store where I purchased it, and the salesman who recommended it. The darn thing wasn’t working. I pressed the number of copies button, hit the start button and nothing. It didn’t work and if that wasn’t bad enough, after setting it up I was going to have to pack it back up again and return it.
The owner’s manual sat unopened on the desk next to the machine. I hadn’t bothered to read it. Why should I? I’ve been using copiers since they were called mimeographs. I practically grew up using them helping my father produce newsletters for his business. It was just a copy machine for heaven’s sake, how difficult could it be. Fortunately I didn’t embarrass myself by picking up the phone to complain to some poor tech support in India. Instead I read the manual. As it turns out the “start” button was not the same as the “power” button. Tucked behind the machine, out of my sight was the all important on/off button that changed the course of my day. This was nearly as bad as the time I called in an electrician to repair a light fixture because I hadn’t screwed in the bulb tight enough.
Many of us assume that because we have lived with dogs all of our lives that we know how they work, what makes them tick. And unfortunately for many of us if we picked up an owner’s manual written by someone without the requisite background and understanding themselves, we’ve been led astray and our lack of success in getting dogs to do what we want is seen as their flaw, not ours or the method we are employing. When this happens the labels start getting slapped on the dog. They’re dominant, submissive, red zone, vindictive, stubborn, lazy, stupid, etc., ad nauseam.
When we are trying to help fearful dogs not be so fearful the way we do this is through counter conditioning, which means we change how the dog feels about the stuff that scares them. It’s not easy and depending on what it is they are afraid of, we may have limited success, but at the end of the day, it’s what we’re doing. How we go about trying is important. The most important piece of this training puzzle is that the scary thing needs to predict a good thing, before the dog has a chance to experience the fear of it. Given how quickly brains and bodies respond to things that scared them in the past, this isn’t always easy or possible. Sometimes we can get away with having the scary thing be not so scary by keeping it further away from the dog, or making it go away sooner rather than later. But we have to quickly follow its appearance with whatever we are using to counter condition. This is usually some kind of yummy food or a toy the dog loves.
We know that we do not reinforce fear by providing a dog with comfort, food or a toy. This is because when we present something to the dog that they like, immediately after or while they are experiencing the scary thing, we are counter conditioning, not reinforcing. But this will only be the case so long as the scary thing is not so scary that the dog can’t begin to feel good about the treat or toy. If I was in a car crash and someone walked up to me, my knees shaking, tunnel vision setting in, heart racing and stomach turning, and they handed me my first Publisher’s Clearing House check for a million dollars, I’m still not likely to learn to love being in car crashes, even if I wasn’t killed or injured. We also know that the emotional response of being afraid can be made worse if we don’t intervene soon enough or do something that contributes to it, such as yelling at the dog, poking them, yanking on their collar or shocking them.
A common error that handlers make is not providing the treat or toy (the US or UCS) soon enough after the appearance of the trigger (the CS). One of the reasons this occurs is because they are waiting for an appropriate behavior to reinforce. This is not to say that rewarding a dog for an appropriate behavior is wrong, but that if you wait too long for that behavior you run the risk of the emotional response the dog is experiencing, becoming stronger or more intense so when you finally do introduce the reward its counter conditioning “power” is lost. This is the case whether you are using positive or negative reinforcement to create an alternate or incompatible behavior. For some dogs even waiting for them to turn and look at their handler takes too much time and their negative emotional response is too strong to change given where you are and what you are using as a reward.
Once the treat or toy has been paired with trigger it is often possible to switch to rewarding for behavior so long as the dog continues to feel happy and safe in the presence of the trigger. When this happens we can start to build duration in the dog’s ability to remain in proximity to the trigger, or to changes in the trigger’s behavior. When it comes to addressing fear in dogs, what are you waiting for?
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.
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.
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!
There are some things I take for granted, things that have become part of the fabric of my life with dogs, that I forget that at one time they were new ideas to me. Creating conditioned reinforcers to use in a variety of ways with my dogs is one of them. Here’s a quick primer on what conditioned reinforcers are, how you create them and what you can do with them.
A conditioned reinforcer is anything that is paired with a primary reinforcer, often food, in a way that imbues the conditioned reinforcer with the impact of the primary reinforcer. The conditioned reinforcer causes the dog to feel the way they feel about the primary reinforcer. The sound of the clicker is a conditioned reinforcer. There are other names for conditioned reinforcers, such as secondary or tertiary reinforcer, but all are conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer, before it’s been conditioned, or the dog has learned to make the association between it and the primary reinforcer, has no intrinsic value or does not necessarily create a positive emotional response in a dog. The sound of a clicker, the words “good dog!”, a dog’s name, have little or no meaning to a dog, but we can change that. Once we do, a conditioned reinforcer can be a powerful tool in training a fearful dog.
The way we can create conditioned reinforcers is simple, we follow the presentation of whatever we want the dog to feel good about, with a food treat, repeatedly. The dog hears, sees, feels or smells whatever we are conditioning them to and they anticipate a treat will follow. Eventually, even if a treat does not follow, once something has been conditioned, the good feeling occurs. For years an aunt would send me a birthday card with a check in it. The check, also a conditioned reinforcer, made me feel good. When I would open the mailbox and see an envelope from my aunt, I would feel good, even before I opened it. When I got older the checks stopped coming, but before I realized that the routine had changed, I still got that oh goodie a check feeling, when I saw the envelope.
Dogs fearful of people need to be taught that certain things should feel good to them, unlike dogs who grew up having positive interactions with people from puppyhood on. Praise or petting, which can be reinforcing for many dogs who have positive associations with people, are not necessarily loaded with enough of the feel good effect to cause a fearful dog to work for them. By following words of praise, ear scratches, a smile, your dog’s name, or clapping your hands with a treat, you will have a variety of things you can use to make your dog feel good. If something makes a dog feel good enough, they will try to figure out what they did to make it happen, so they can do it again. This is how we train dogs to do all kinds of things.
How can you use conditioned reinforcers? They can be used as rewards to reinforce behaviors in dogs we would like to see more of as I’ve described above. We can also use a conditioned reinforcer to mark a behavior to point out more clearly to the dog what it is we are rewarding them for. This is how the clicker is typically used. When teaching my dogs to take a nap, I can mark, with either a click or a word, when they lower their head. Then I toss them a treat. In training this is the deal I make with dogs. They do something, I point it out with a conditioned reinforcer and then I give them a treat, or other primary reinforcer. For some dogs the opportunity to chase a ball or play tug, can replace the food.
A third way to use conditioned reinforcers with fearful dogs is to use their value to change how a dog feels about an event or trigger. Take a phrase, silly boy, for example. Say it and then give your dog a treat, over and over again. The next time something spooks your dog and they startle or cower you can tell them him he is a silly boy, and if he is not too terrified the words can help change how he feels. Some people call this jollying.
I use conditioned reinforcers to help scared dogs stop being scared of me approaching or being near them. I pair my arrival with a conditioned reinforcer, often the click of a clicker, and follow that with the toss of a treat. So long as the dog is happy to hear the clicker, go after a treat, my arrival predicts both of these will occur. This is not the same as having a treat predict the appearance of a trigger, which can ‘poison’ the value of the treat. This is an important distinction to make. Think about luring a dog into the bathtub with a piece of bologna. Imagine how the dog will respond the next time you try to lure them anywhere with bologna. You don’t want this to happen with your conditioned reinforcer.
Pick a few things you can turn into conditioned reinforcers for your dog. Choose words or actions you normally do without thinking about it. Is there something you say when a dog does something you like? Do you cheer or give your dogs a thumbs-up? Grab a bowl of their favorite treats, say it or do it and toss your dog a treat. Repeat until you use up the treats. During the next few days carry treats with you and do the same thing whenever you say or do what you are conditioning. You can work on several throughout the day; smile-treat, yahoo!-treat, good dog-treat, happy hand waves-treat, etc. You will be creating a collection of feel goods and if there’s anything a fearful dog needs, it’s to feel good.