Archive for the ‘training’ Tag
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.
Every now and then a Cesar Millan fan will find my blog and do their darndest to convince me of the error of my ways and assessment of his. I have to give them credit for their efforts. They are right to accuse me of moderating many of their comments. I didn’t always but I decided that he has gotten enough airtime without my blog giving him more. My blog, my choice.
The arguments presented by these folks are at once amusing and stomach churning. One commenter suggested that I edify myself by visiting the websites of trainers who were open-minded and informed trainers (and who of course agreed with his methods). I got as far on one webpage to where the trainer states they used both “rewards and consequences” to train, when I had to just stop. This is akin to someone saying, “I speaks english real good.” Ummm….no you don’t. Rewards ARE consequences. I know what they are trying to say, but their inability to say it properly belies their lack of understanding of learning theory. Oh and in regard to “learning theory,” I was told I could keep my “science psycho babble.” Honestly.
There seems to be the misunderstanding among these people who call themselves trainers that anyone who actually bothers to learn about animal behavior and training, cannot provide practical advice for pet owners. They misrepresent rewards-based training as “purely positive” and that what they do is “balanced.” Again this only indicates how little the trainer understands about….well about “learning theory,” oh here I go again, muddying the waters with scientific psycho babble. Meanwhile they go on about “dog psychology.” Sorry. I give up.
One of the aspects about dog training that I love so much has been the opening up of worlds I didn’t realize existed. There’s the history of Skinner and Pavlov, the practical application of skills by Bob Bailey, the insights of trainers who I don’t even dare try to list for fear of leaving someone deserving out. I am tickled pink that I am able to rub shoulders with and learn from people with more education, skill and empathy than I can hope to attain in whatever time I have left on this planet.
I have come to terms with the fact that having a conversation about dog training with someone who quotes Cesar Millan is like trying to discuss civil rights with someone who recites passages of the bible. Don’t bother.
Anyone who has lived with and cared about a dog has experienced moments when they are looking at a dog and wondering what the heck is going on. A trainer friend shared a story with me about a client’s dog who had started barking, at seemingly random times, at the refrigerator. We had been griping about the reasons some vets or trainers come up with to explain a dog’s behavior and then justify their recommended response to it. Among the worst being the idea that a dog’s behavior is based on their desire to move up in a pack hierarchy to justify the use of any number of inappropriate responses. The vet suggested that the dog was barking at the food in the frig. Not barking for the food, but barking at it. Don’t ask me, I don’t get it either. My friend suggested that the owners clean the coils under the refrigerator (something we should all do I learned from the repair guy). The collection of hair and dust had changed the sound of the refrigerator motor when it kicked on. The dog had noticed it and the barking ended once the original sound returned. Figuring out what is driving a dog’s behavior makes us all Sherlock Bones.
It can be especially challenging if we suspect illness or injury. Here in Vermont we have finally gotten a break from bitterly cold temperatures. Too much of a break unfortunately, and instead of a snowstorm, it’s pouring rain. This morning my border collie Finn got up from his bed on the floor next to me and moved to the other side of the room, by the door leading out to a balcony. Did he need to go out? Was he too hot and seeking out the cooler floor by the door? When he put his front paws up on the bed (he can’t jump up any more) I got up and put him in bed with me. He was trembling. Finn was treated for lymphoma and though I try not to obsess about it, know that it could return at any time. Was he feeling poorly? He also suffers from arthritis in his hind end, was he hurting?
I gently stroked him and drifted in and out of sleep while the recent episode of This American Life played on my iPod. Eventually his trembling stopped. It had been raining and I’d grown used to the sound of it falling on the metal roof, but I realized that something was different. It sounded as though a giant windstorm was raging outside. Windstorms mean trees fall down, trees falling down mean we lose power, when we lose power there’s no water. I got out of bed prepared for bucket filling action and noticed that the trees outside the window were still, there was no wind. The sound I was hearing was the river.
We live on a dirt road across from the Green River. When we have hard freezes the river builds up thick sheets of ice. During the spring thaw the river rises up and the ice breaks off in giant chunks that rumble and tumble downstream. The first time I heard it I thought a convoy of huge trucks was driving past the house. Last night’s rain had caused it to happen in January. The sound I was hearing was the river rushing by carrying the smaller chunks of ice and slush that follow after the biggest pieces have washed down. I had slept through that part. My guess is that Finn didn’t. Even the smaller pieces churning by can sound like thunder rumbling for minutes on end. Finn is afraid during storms. Was this the reason for his trembling? I suspect it was.
As frustrating as it can be to be unsure of why a dog is behaving the way they are, it is also an opportunity to get into the habit of looking at our dog’s behavior. Actually looking, not just reacting to it based on a preconceived notion of why it is occurring.
Living with a dog with fear based behavior challenges impacts our lives in many ways and the freedom to be away from home for more than 8 hours can be among them.
A couple of the options available for our dogs’ care when we need to be away are; someone comes to our home and cares for them or they go somewhere for boarding. Your dog and the options available to you in your area, will determine which, if either, you choose to use. There are a variety of factors to take into consideration, and obviously your dog’s physical and emotional well-being top the list. It’s impossible for me to list all the considerations an individual pet owner needs to look at. Some guidelines to follow include:
1. Speak with a vet about medications or supplements that can lower a dog’s overall level of anxiety.
2. Create an environment in which the dog feels safe and can retreat to if they need to.
3. Desensitize and counter condition a dog to basic handling.
4. Find and educate the person, or persons who will be providing care for your dog.
In-home care is often best for many dogs, especially those with a range of fears. The challenge of finding appropriate care-givers and the expense will impact whether or not you choose this option. It’s helpful if you can set up an environment which facilitates easy management of your dog. Having a door which leads to a fenced in yard works well if your dog is able to respond to cues for going out and coming back in. A care-giver need only be a door opener and food deliverer. But if a dog is too scared to move for someone we have to come up with alternatives.
It may be necessary to create areas where a dog can urinate and defecate without going outside. It is not a given that a dog who does this will forget their housetraining skills. My own two fearful dogs were provided with papers or pads and used them early in their lives with us. Once they were given access to the outdoors they chose that area, and not inside the house, for toileting.
Giving a dog a few basic skills, and teaching a caregiver how to interact with your dog can allow them to get your dogs outside for toileting and exercise. Having a leash put on their collar or harness is one skill. Being able to walk with a long line attached to their collar or harness is another. Adding a short tag line (approx 12″) to a harness or collar with a loop or ring in the end can make it easier for a caregiver to leash up a dog without having to put as much pressure on a dog as grabbing a collar or harness will. I was able to instruct care-givers on how to put a leash on my dog, get him to follow them out of the house, and go for walks. I was very clear that my people-fearful dog did not need or want any social interactions in addition to feeding, leash walks and toileting. I made sure there was an ample supply of my dog’s favorite treats and care-givers were instructed on how to give them to him; no eye contact, no petting, no bending over the dog, no chatter.
There are professional pet and house sitters available. Be on the look out for anyone who assumes that all dogs will like and feel comfortable with them. These folks, good intentions aside, often try too hard to connect with a dog, a dog who may have no interest in connecting with them. They will need to be able to put their egos and anything they’ve learned in the past about dogs, aside. Some will be willing and able to do this, others will not. I had good success with a young woman who worked with cats at the local humane society. She was comfortable with dogs and able to understand that a fearful dog is not unlike a scared cat. Try as you like, you are not going to make a scared cat like you. Our neighbors were also a great help to us, and continue to be. Vet techs are another good population of possible candidates for pet care.
For some dogs being boarded away from home can be both a physically and emotionally safe, option for them. The understanding of fear based behaviors by the people handling your dog is crucial. A dog who is comfortable with other dogs may enjoy the opportunity to be with them during play time. A boarding kennel may be a safer place for a dog if you do not have a secure, fenced area at home. If you have more than one dog there is often the choice to have them share a kennel, providing them with the comfort and solace of a buddy. Look for kennels set up so that your dog does not require handling for cage cleaning or feeding. A safe space can be created, a crate to hide in or a barrier to hide behind for example, while cleaning occurs.
Staff who understand fearful dogs or are willing to follow instructions regarding how your dog should be handled and interacted with, is imperative. Large kennels may employ a collection of low skilled workers who may like dogs, but may have misguided ideas about them. People professionally involved with dogs can assume they know more about your dog than you do. I was surprised to hear one kennel owner tell me that she thought people gave too many drugs to dogs. When a dog I knew stayed at her kennel and was sent along with behavioral medications, she did not give them to the dog, despite the owner’s instructions. The kennel operator decided that the dog was fine without them. I was dumbstruck. There are medications which require a specific withdrawal protocol before they cease to be used. To abruptly stop their use can be dangerous. As for the dog appearing to fine, the medications may have been reason!
In-home boarding is popular and many pet owners assume a better option than a commercial facility. Whether this is the case will be depend on the people providing the care, your dog’s triggers, and the adequacy of fencing on the property. I offer in-home boarding and have turned away dogs and suggested a boarding kennel instead. Home life, especially a home with other unrestrained dogs, is unpredictable. A fearful dog may fare better with the predictable routines of a kennel, along with the isolation option it provides. I will not board a fearful dog who does not have a recall. Unlike a commercial kennel the opportunity to slip out an open door or find a way out of the fence yard exists. Most dogs don’t choose to leave me or my other dogs, but a fearful dog, once outside of the confines of my home or yard may be impossible to catch.
Every dog and every situation is going to be different. By giving a dog a foundation of basic skills, experimenting with medications to help relieve a dog’s anxiety, and researching both in and away from home options, it is possible to have a life away from your fearful dog.
I have been involved in ‘rescuing’ and finding home for dogs. I have worked with shelters and on my own. I have been negligent in performing the things I am going to address in this blog post so my high horse is not quite as tall as it sounds. I acknowledge the good intentions, hard work and struggles that most people involved in animal rescue experience. I am aware of the argument that it’s better to save some, even if others suffer. I happen not to accept that this is as good as it can get. There are plenty of reasons and excuses for turning a blind eye toward the practices and outcomes of rescue operations. We can do better and making excuses isn’t the way to get there. It won’t happen overnight but we need to start kicking the bar up a notch when it comes to what we call ‘rescue’.
When I buy a car one of the criteria I have for choosing the make and model is how long I can expect it to last and its resale value. A good car will be a good car longer and the company that makes it gets my business. I am not likely to buy a car from a company which cannot demonstrate that their vehicles are still road worthy 5 years down the line, or from a company which sells cars with brakes that routinely fail. If I am buying a car from an individual I take it to my mechanic to check it out before I make the decision to buy it. No one is likely to tell me I am expecting too much from car manufacturers or dealers.
When a rescue group waves the banner and is cheered for the number of pets they have found homes for I wonder why they are not also sharing information on how many of those pets are still happily living in the original homes they were placed in. Or how many did not survive the ‘rescue’ process. I know the reasons they could give for not doing this, but I am going to suggest that the main reason the data isn’t shared is because no one is doing it routinely, and that we need to expect it.
If we are serious about our love for animals and respect them for their unique abilities and personalities we should be serious about adding accountability to the ‘rescue’ process. We need to put as much effort into finding out how well someone is doing their ‘job’, unpaid or otherwise, when it comes to finding homes for animals as we do when buying a car. How can we know how well our protocols are working unless we follow up and track results? Not only will we gain insight and knowledge but we’ll improve the service we are providing both the animals and the people taking them home. As trendy and politically correct ‘rescuing’ a shelter dog is there are still people who because of a bad experience with a dog, will head to the pet shop or mill breeder in the belief that they are more likely to get a ‘better’ pet out of the deal.
When we buy an unsafe car we might be killed, when an animal is rehomed inappropriately they’re the who is less likely to survive the experience.
I have the opportunity to talk to many people about their fearful dogs. One thing almost all of them have in common is that they waited too long to get help for themselves and their dog. I’m not pointing a finger of blame at them, I understand the delay. Most of the dogs we’ve lived with have been adaptable, resilient and tolerant. Some have been shy at first but they quickly have ‘come around’. Others have retained some level of fearfulness but it wasn’t enough to impact our lives significantly.
It’s helpful to have a picture of what an emotionally healthy dog looks like. An emotionally healthy dog starts off looking like an emotionally healthy puppy. Puppies should be curious, they should be attracted to people and other dogs, they may startle and move away from something but so long as they are not hurt or scared again by it, should investigate it. Puppies follow people around, they greet other dogs, they pounce on toys and chew computer cables. Puppies lick your face and nibble your shoe laces.
Red flags should go up if a puppy repeatedly moves away or hides from people. An emotionally healthy puppy may display some timidness or wariness when in a new location with new people but this shouldn’t last long. Hours of this type of behavior is a warning sign, days of it should have alarm bells ringing. Don’t mistake aggressiveness based in fear for puppy bravado.
If you have any inkling that somethings isn’t ‘right’ with a puppy, run don’t walk to your nearest reward based trainer. The sooner a dog with fear based behavior challenges is handled properly the better their chance of learning skills to feel comfortable and safe in their world.
It’s true, sh*t happens and when it does it’s good to know about it. It’s like those fast food restaurants with the sign in the bathroom that says ‘Please let us know if this restroom does not meet our high standards for cleanliness’. If sh*t happens and you don’t know about it, how can you clean it up?
In the industry of animal rescue, and find fault with my use of the term ‘industry’ if you like, there is a lot of sh*t going on that doesn’t make it into the reports and stories created to provide PR and donations for the group doing the rescue.
I catch sh*t from people who insist that getting a dog into a home and out of a shelter is worth doing, whether there has been adequate evaluation of the dog’s and future owner’s needs and skills or not. Some will say that the odds are better for the animal, 100% chance of dying in a shelter vs. some unknown percent chance of suffering in a home, or wherever they end up. But make no mistake in plenty of cases they die anyway. They may suffer emotionally and physically while being passed from home to home or shelter to shelter. They may be forced to live a life of confinement or isolation. They may be ‘adopted’ by dog traffickers who sell dogs to labs or fight rings. If the dog is intact they may be used for breeding. They may end up as part of a hoarder’s collection and receive inadequate care. In a surprisingly high number of cases they may flee from their home and never be recovered.
How many shelters and rescue groups have statistics regarding how many animals are still in their original home, with contented owners, a year after being adopted? And if they don’t have them, why not? How can we raise our pompoms and cheer for dogs being placed in homes if those placements are ultimately unsuccessful? How can a group learn to improve their assessment of dogs and potential owners unless they can see the results of their current practices and procedures? I already know all of the excuses for not doing this kind of follow-up, time and money being high on the list. But I just don’t buy them. If we seriously want to declare ourselves ‘animal advocates’ then the ‘out of sight out of mind’ rationale doesn’t hold water.
If we are committed to the animals in our care we can find ways to ensure that we are doing the best we can for them. But we’ll never know how to do that until we are willing to expand our vision to include the ‘big picture’ and not just the snapshot ‘feel good’ moment of adoption.
Years ago when my husband worked at a Boys & Girls Club he came home one evening and shared his day with me. The adventure of the day occurred when one of the kids attending an after school arts & crafts program became upset and shut herself inside a locker. The little girl, living with her mother and brothers in a hotel room to escape from an abusive father was 6 or 7 years old. Her peaches & cream complexion was framed by long, wavy, light brown hair, the kind often seen in Raphealite paintings of young women.
What happened to send this young girl, crying and using curse words that would embarrass a sailor, into the locker, was unclear. What we know about children who suffer from trauma or abuse is that it doesn’t take much to ‘set them off’. They’re the kids who haul off and slug someone for bumping into them by accident in the corridor at school. When my husband approached the locker and spoke to the little girl he was met by a barrage of cursing to which he replied, “Wow those are some big words for a little girl, want to go get a snack?” Her response was to come out of the locker, sniffling and nodding her agreement. Together they went and sat at a table, ate a snack and talked a bit about how next time she might try to respond differently to whatever affront she felt she suffered.
Later during a staff meeting he was met with criticism about how he handled the situation. He had ‘rewarded’ the little girl for her bad behavior and had provided no punishment. When he told me this story the wife and partner in me sided with him immediately, he had worked with kids for over 2 decades and had good reflexes when it came to getting behaviors he needed from them. The dog trainer in me went on to explain why what he had done was exactly the right decision.
It is not hard to understand why this little girl would be suffering emotionally. Even if her response was to not being able to have the color crayon she wanted and seemed exaggerated to her instructor, this was a kid without a lot of extra resources when it came to tolerance and coping. Her response, however overblown it appeared was a reflection of her distressed emotional state. Punishing, or threatening to punish her, was not likely to ease this distress. Attempting to reason with her, and get her to acknowledge the error of her ways while she was crouched in a dark locker, would also likely be unsuccessful. We don’t think very well when we’re upset. Our legal system even has a definition for crimes committed when one is overcome with emotion, we call them ‘crimes of passion’. Typically it is used to describe crimes based on jealousy, which has clouded one’s judgement. Distracting her and using whatever means possible to calm her down, in this case the offer of food, diffused the situation, stopped the swearing, and helped her ‘think’ about the situation.
I don’t know whether her swearing and locker hiding persisted into the future, I wouldn’t be surprised if it did, not because she was ‘rewarded’ by my husband, but because she was a kid living on the edge, with a parent who may have also been struggling to ‘keep it together’. When I first started my journey of thinking about how to help fearful dogs I was given a paper to read on the effects of childhood trauma and abuse on behavior and physiology. It was apparent that though differing in specific responses, the behaviors we see in fearful dogs is not unlike that of these children. The parts of our brain that ‘process’ fear are the same so it is not unreasonable to make the assumption that a dog experiences the emotions associated with fear in ways very similar, if not exactly, as we do.
As upsetting, scary or frustrating a fearful dog’s behavior may be to us, it’s important to remember that they are suffering. If they could they too might say a few things that would make a sailor blush.
A light bulb moment occurred for me in regard to my fearful dog Sunny when I understood that he was limited in his abilities by his brain. It wasn’t that he was choosing not to come to me, or that he refused to move out of the corner, as conscious choices, it was that given the development of his brain, these behaviors were how he was ‘wired’, so to speak, to perform. And any changes I wanted to see in him were going to be connected to changes in how his brain worked.
Although Sunny will likely always be limited in some ways by the deprivation of his early life, and possibly a genetic predisposition to startling easily, like a person who is short can find ways to reach the cans on the top shelf of the cupboard, Sunny too has been able to find ways to achieve certain goals despite his disadvantages. His brain has changed.
Not too long ago it was thought that the brain that you were born with was the brain you had for the rest of your life, you could take advantage of what you had, or not. Now it is understood that brains are far more plastic than anyone ever realized. You can make a brain better through stimulation, stimulation that does not cause chronic stress. This interview with Robert Sapolsky looks at stress.
What is stimulating to a brain? Just about everything! Sounds, smells, physical sensation, movement, problem solving and novelty. A major problem for many dogs is that they did not experience novelty during early brain development. Being stuck in a cage at a puppymill, tied to a tree in a backyard, or stuck in a hoarder’s home, limit the novel experiences a dog has. Even well-loved and cared for dogs can suffer when they are not exposed to other dogs, noisy children, cars, etc., in safe ways when they are young. The lack of exposure to novelty makes it scary when something new appears on the scene, something/one appears, or the dog is put into a new environment. The pattern can then be set, new things are scary, even if they cause the dog no harm.
Because brains can change, and introducing novelty is a way to do it, people living with fearful dogs can look for ways to change what their dog experiences, in non-threatening ways. Moving food and water bowls to different locations, leaving different toys out for the dog to investigate, playing calming music, massage, moving furniture for the dog to navigate around, introducing new scents to the environment, are just a few of the ways you can add novelty to a dog’s world. Sunny takes agility classes for the non-habitual movement the courses require him to perform. We practice obedience skills and learn new tricks to encourage him to think and figure out what is expected of him.
Living with an extremely fearful dog added stress to my life, but the novelty sure has been worth it!