Archive for the ‘timid dogs’ Tag
At a large dog event I watched with some disgust and much dismay, as people who probably really care about their dogs handled them with all I can label was “disrespect.” Dogs were being dragged around on leashes, being reprimanded and jerked for spending too much time (typically measurable in seconds) looking at or sniffing something, not responding to cues fast enough and being left standing on grooming tables while people chatted.
Most of the human behavior was rude though some could be called abusive, and troubling. I realized it was time for me to move on when I found myself watching a groomer handling a young aussie who was not sitting when asked. The dog was being very solicitous, lowering his head and ears, licking and wiggling. I watched as the groomer continued to try unsuccessfully to cue the dog into a sit. Finally she yanked on the lead securing the dog to the stand and slammed his butt down. My own social filters must have been strained because the thought bubble I put over the groomer’s head, and spoke out loud (a tad too out loud) was, “JUST DO IT!”
We know how important good relationships are in all areas of our lives, with our family, friends and pets. I assume dogs are less likely to be given up to shelters or abandoned if their owners feel positively about the relationship they have with them. Working on and repairing these relationships are a part of what many trainers strive to do. But as I watched the groomer manhandle the aussie I realized I had been hoping, for the dog’s sake, that he would just do it to spare himself the wrath I suspect both he and I could see brewing. Why he didn’t will remain a mystery and I prefer to go with the thought that he had his reasons and they were good enough for him and valid enough for the groomer to accept. Maybe he didn’t know what she was asking for, maybe he was worried about something, maybe he would have preferred to have been off the table and had not ever been given a good enough reason for sitting when asked up there. Ultimately it didn’t matter. Life for him at that moment would have been kinder if he had sat when asked.
When you think about it most of our human relationships would improve if the people in our lives did what we wanted them to. It is frequently the daily drag of feeling inconvenienced and ignored that wears away at relationships. If only they; didn’t leave dirty dishes in the sink (get on the furniture with muddy feet), put the toilet seat up or down when they were finished using it (didn’t pee on the carpet), put their smelly socks in the laundry hamper (didn’t chew up our favorite shoes), were on time (came when called), etc. It’s not that we don’t want to feel loved and cared for, but it sure would be nice if they cleaned the bathroom now and then.
As complex as relationships can be, one solution is to teach dogs what it is that their human wants them to do, and put it on cue. Put simply, they do what they are asked to do. The relationship may still require work, but a few well-trained behaviors (using positive reinforcement as the foundation of that training) might act as a tourniquet to keep it alive long enough for the dog to remain in the home where the work can be done.
This is the reasoning behind my upcoming volunteer vacation to three islands in the Caribbean; Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. When pet owners understand how to use positive reinforcement to teach their dogs new behaviors, those dogs are likely to learn and maintain those behaviors, are less likely to end up being part of the sad statistics of homeless animals.
I don’t want to come across as someone who trolls the internet looking for other people’s websites, blog posts or videos to criticize. More often I try to ignore most of it. Sometimes it lands in my lap. The link to the video included in this post was shared with me by the manufacturers of a new product designed to eliminate anxiety in dogs. I understand why they’d send it to me and I’m always happy to learn about new products to help the population of dogs I care a lot about.
The first image in the commercial for a calming coat is of a trembling, scared chihuahua used as an example of the dogs the product can help. I understand why they’d do this, but I had to work to not start getting pissed off about it. Princeton is not just feeling camera shy, Princeton is scared. I get it. We all get it. While we’re getting it, and they’re getting footage, Princeton is scared. Why is it ok to scare a dog in order to sell a product? We don’t push old ladies down a flight of stairs in order to film a commercial for a distress call product to use after they’ve fallen and can’t get up. We don’t sneeze on people to give them the flu so we can get shots of them for a nighttime flu-relief medicine. But for some reason it’s ok to put a dog in a situation that scares them so we can get the images we need, to sell something. Even if what is being sold is of value–people have been using wraps, ace bandages and tight T-shirts on dogs for years to help with anxiety–it only seems to lessen the disrespect for the victim (the real-life animal actor) slightly in my mind.
As the commercial continues a claim is made that the product works because it “simulates a mother dog holding its young.” Seriously? Have they ever seen a litter of puppies being held by their mother? I know that we live in a world in which one can say practically anything they want about dogs and be believed, but this is creepily Orwellian. The myths that dogs need pack leaders, feel shame after peeing on the rug, you should correct dogs by grabbing their muzzle because that’s what mothers do, have just been joined by “mother dogs hold their puppies.” In internet-speak my response is WTF?
I also take umbrage with the assertion that dogs who need daily medications or treatments will no longer need them if they wear the coat. Body wraps do not work for all dogs. If they do, fantastic. If they don’t, it’s better for a dog to remain on daily medications and treatments that are working. My comment (which has since been removed) on their youtube page did not question the efficacy of their product, but rather the claim as to why it worked. I mean come on, “hold its young.”
I asked them to provide me documentation regarding this assertion. I was told that it was tested and veterinarian-approved. OK, that’s great, I don’t want that test info or the names of the veterinarians who have approved it, I wanted to know where they got the information that young dogs are soothed by being held by their mothers. Bottom-line is that there is information out there that supports the use of compression for ramping down nervous systems. With a little homework they could have found it but instead resort to the all-too-common tactic of “making sh*t up about dogs.”
I notice that they didn’t use Princeton as an example of their product working its magic. Though he appears later in the commercial notice his tightly tucked tail, one of the easiest pieces of body language there is to judge how comfortable a dog is. Unless when being held by their mothers puppies also tuck their tails (I just made that sh*t up). The company sent me info about their product and my feedback to them has simply been met with repeated claims that research proves it works. My issue with their advertising is not that their product doesn’t work, but their claim regarding WHY it does.
People should stop thinking they can keep making sh*t up about dogs and it’s ok.
*Thanks to a reader for pointing out that one of the dogs has an electronic collar on. Aversives are contraindicated for anxiety.
The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.
There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.
A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.
If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.
**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.
*This is also the name of my upcoming book.
When we ask a dog to do something in exchange for something they want it’s not about “no free lunches” or that dogs need to learn to work for what they want. Every organism on the planet, if they are going to be around for long already has this information. If they didn’t there would be no beaver dams, no mice caught by cats, no webs woven by spiders, no carcasses cached in trees by fisher cats, no acorns hidden away by squirrels. When we teach a dog to respond to a cue, rather then making them work for treats, or their food bowl, or an open door, we are making the world a more predictable place. The behavior of humans makes more sense to a dog when they are trained to respond to our cues.
When we use positive reinforcement to teach a dog behaviors we are infusing the whole process, all the pieces of it, from the appearance of the person to the performance of the dog, with “feel good.” We are the ones who label a particular behavior as “work” whereas for the dog it might just be sitting, fetching a ball, waiting or rounding up sheep. It’s something to do, and doing something is often better than doing nothing, especially when good outcomes are the result.
John asking Sunny to target his hand is not being used to lure Sunny closer, he had already shown he was quite happy to be that close. It was not to make him “work” for the treat. Asking Sunny to target his hand enriches the relationship between the two because the human’s behavior now has meaning instead of being a random, possibly threatening, gesture. It was a cue Sunny already had learned from me and performing behaviors to make treats happen is an enjoyable experience.
Build a vocabulary with a dog and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can have with them.
For dogs without fear-based challenges it may only take one introduction for the dog to feel safe with you. For others it might require a dozen, and for another hundreds. This is likely the reason many fearful dogs are able to be ok with their primary caregiver(s). There are enough repetitions of positive interactions to tip the scale in their favor. We can’t know how many reps it will take for an individual dog so just keep on adding to the total.
Today on our woods walk I watched as the scale began to tip in John’s favor. For years John rarely joined me and the dogs on our daily walks. But lately that’s changed. Initially I handed out the treats when Sunny stopped and eyed John warily. One day I started doling out handfuls of treats for John to dispense to the dogs, tossing them on the ground for Sunny. I took my chances the next week and handed him a bag of treats and watched as he increased the number of times he stopped and fed the dogs. Sunny began to spend more time close to John looking at him expectantly for treats.
The years of coaching (ok, call it nagging if you will) John on how to avoid making eye contact, leaning toward, or reaching for Sunny actually paid off as John noticed how something as simple as turning his head away from Sunny made it possible for him to take a treat from his hand. Both players were being reinforced for their behavior. Sunny got treats and John discovered that fabulous feeling of watching an animal begin to trust you.
Today I noticed that Sunny decided to sit, granted a safe distance away, and wait for John while he worked on building a log bridge over a small stream. I had continued on with the other dogs and was surprised to find the only one missing was Sunny. Even after Sunny caught up with me he returned to John three separate times.
The journey isn’t over for them but gone are the days when Sunny had to shadow us in the woods, too afraid to stay on the trail with John. Call it a milestone or a miracle.
The most important role a foster caregiver can play in the life of a dog in transition is to ensure that the dog, at the very minimum, does not develop new fears, concerns or reasons to distrust people.
Every dog in the rescue system would have a unique tale to tell, were they able to do so. Some will have had enough positive experiences with people that they are able to withstand a few minor bumps and bruises and not be worse for it. There will be others whose background with people is spotty. Some people have been kind and gentle with them, obviously some have cared enough to get the dog into a foster home. But other people have been less than kind. This lack of kindness may have manifested in neglect, in other cases abuse. When these dogs roll the dice they may not be expecting lucky sevens. They may be disproportionally prepared for the worst. A foster home should prove to these dogs that their luck has changed, that betting on people being good to them is worth the risk. And there are the dogs who despite everyone’s good intentions remain wary and unsure.
What might constitute too much pressure or punishment for one dog, may not for another. It’s best not to assume that any pressure put on a dog to engage socially or any punishment, even if only a raised voice, is tolerable for a dog. Behavior that might be ok with a dog you have developed a positive relationship, may not be with a dog newly introduced to your home. This is true for dog/dog relationships. Fear is unfortunately easy to install in animals and nearly impossible to remove. This is true of all kinds of fears; other dogs, people, cars, storms, etc. And you are not seeing the dog at their best. As addressed in my previous post Fostering Success, these dogs are stressed and stress can negatively impact them in a variety of ways.
Consider the first impression you will make with a dog. Will you be snapping on a leash and pressuring them to follow you with no other incentive other than because you say so? Will you be touching them or putting your face close to theirs without knowing if that is what they feel comfortable with? Are you immediately bringing them into your home and ordering them around; come here, get off of that, leave that alone, go this way? Do you have a pocket full of treats or a squeaky toy at the ready?
If you hold outdated beliefs about dogs and how they relate and interact with other dogs and people, it’s time for an upgrade. Dogs do not need pack leaders, they do not behave in ways to gain domination over the household. They do what works for them, like every other organism on the planet. If their behavior does not work for us, it’s up to us to teach them what does. If you are unfamiliar with the risks of using force, coercion and punishment when training dogs, it’s time you became familiar with those risks. If you do not know how to use positive reinforcement to teach dogs new behaviors you might want to brush up on those skills before you take on a dog whose life may be depending on that you do.
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.
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.
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?