Archive for December, 2008|Monthly archive page

Bad Advice

Advising someone with a fearful or shy dog to expose their dog to whatever induces fear in them, without encouraging owners to have an understanding of thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization, is IMHO, irresponsible.

Every dog is different and just because someone has had success in improving fear based behaviors with their dog or even a number of dogs, using techniques such as flooding or ‘exposure’, does not mean that it is appropriate for many dogs. Forcing a dog to interact with or experience things that scare it can cause a dog to become more sensitive to their triggers (the things that scare them) increase their level of fear toward them and begin to behave aggressively.

I happen to enjoy swimming, as do many members of my family. The children all learned to swim at young ages and are comfortable and safe in deep water. It would be irresponsible for me to encourage any child or adult, to jump into deep water or dive into ocean waves if I am not familiar with their swimming ability. Neither should I advise a parent to allow their child to be unsupervised around bodies of water until they were certain that their child had the necessary skills to be safe in those situations.

Yet people routinely advise owners of fearful dogs to ignore their dog’s fears and put the dog in situations in which the dog does not have the skills to be safe and comfortable. Their intentions are well-meaning but without seeing a dog, the safest course of action for any owner of a scared dog to take is one which acknowledges the dog’s fears and follows a course of management and training that includes counter conditioning and desensitization. As well-intentioned as givers of this advice may be, they are often not there to pull out both owners and dogs that may find themselves in over their heads and struggling.


The Lesser Evil

Last night my scared boy Sunny came slinking up the stairs to join John and I in the loft. This is not something Sunny does on his own. Apparently he decided that being in the same room with John was the lesser of two evils. The other being in the same room with the crated bratty aussie pup. I may have to adopt that dog!

Go Ahead Comfort That Scared Dog!

Sunny my fearful dog

Sunny my fearful dog

I’m not sure why it is people are so reluctant to accept that you can comfort, or reward a dog when it is afraid and NOT be telling the dog it’s ok to be afraid. Doctors give little kids lollipops, we hug people who are nervous, we hold the hand of someone who is afraid and we are not causing them to become more afraid. If we are we should rethink what we’re doing!

Some owners will say, “When I pet my dog, or comfort my dog when she’s afraid it doesn’t help, she gets worse.”

The conclusion they come to is that comforting doesn’t work. How about the conclusion that what they’re doing is not in fact comforting the dog, regardless of their intentions. If indeed they were actually doing something that did provide the dog with comfort or a reward that mattered to them, they would likely see an improvement in the dogs behavior. Why? Because anything that you can do to lessen a dog’s fear or anxiety is going to help them behave more appropriately, or learn how to behave more appropriately.

Studies dating back to the 1940’s proved that you do not reinforce fear by ‘rewarding’ it. It just doesn’t happen, our brains don’t work that way, and there’s a difference between how behaviors are learned and how fear is experienced.

Be a better trainer, not a stronger leader

At an agility meet over the weekend I met a young woman who ran a rescue organization. She was at the event to run her own dog, a small breed mix that should be auditioning for the next Disney film it was so darn cute. Between runs we met in the parking lot, she had a different dog, a pom/chi mix that was visibly nervous. It was relinquished by the owners because it had begun to show aggression toward the husband of the couple that had him. It was young and appeared to have a good shot at becoming a good pet for someone.

I chatted with the woman a bit and mentioned that it was lucky that the dog was given up at such a young age, too often people will tolerate behaviors from small dogs that they never would from a bigger dog, until the day they can’t tolerate them and the dog has had years of practicing an inappropriate behavior and ends up being impossible to rehome.

“Yes”, the woman agreed, “Why treat a small dog differently than a big dog”.

The woman told me that she was doing the ‘leadership thing’ with the dog and had not had any problems with the dog. At that point I could only guess what this ‘leadership thing’ technique looked like, but I was soon to see it in action.

Walking back into the building the small dog came nose to nose another dog and began to growl and back away from it. The woman bent down, grabbed the small dog and shoved it toward the other dog saying, “You’ll deal with it and be fine, that’s how you’ll learn.” I stopped, stared and my jaw dropped. Imagine grabbing your growling pittie or GSD and pushing it toward another dog that it was afraid of. Just because you can do something to a dog doesn’t mean you should.

There is no doubt in my mind that the small dog had no understanding that it was to learn that other dogs were not to be feared, or that it actually came to that conclusion. I will only surmise on a few lessons the dog did learn. Only time and the dog’s behavior will tell how that education affected the dog.

People are not to be trusted. The next time someone grabs you it might be a good idea to try to prevent that from happening.

Growling and backing away from something that scares you only makes you land in its face, try something else next time, biting might work or just give up and shut down.

Places where there are other dogs are where bad things happen.

The woman with this dog obviously cares about dogs and the animals that live with her are among the fortunate ones on the planet. But even skilled handlers still hold on to misconceptions about how dogs learn new behaviors and how you change the associations they have with things that scare them.

It’s not about learning to be a better leader, it’s about learning to be a better trainer.

How To Be A Friend To A Fearful Dog

Are there a lot of fearful dogs out there or am I just noticing them more? Since Sunny landedSunny my fearful dog in our living room, and settled into the corner, my ‘shy dog radar’ seems to have been fine tuned. At the pet shop recently a young woman was browsing the dog treat section, her black and white dog, a young adult, was doing the same. When I turned to speak to the woman, making small talk about ‘kids in candy stores’ her dog took one look at me, ducked his head and stepped back, his eyes locked on my face. I’d seen that look enough to know that I should not return the stare and immediately turned my head. The dog resumed his sniffing of the various dried, animal body parts available to him.

“A bit shy isn’t he?”, I remarked.

“Oh he scares himself,” his owner replied, “Someone looks at him and he looks back and gets scared and starts barking.”

I tried to follow her line of reasoning (he scares himself?), but knew better than to spend too much energy on the task. The list of explanations that owners make regarding why their fearful dog behaves the way it does, and why the owner responds the way s/he does, is long, and might be funny, except that dogs are suffering.

While researchers and scientists may not agree on how animals experience emotion or which emotions those might be, it is accepted that dogs feel fear. Not only is fear biologically advantageous (do something or die), dogs that are afraid behave in ways that look a lot like the ways humans behave when we’re afraid.  We startle, we cringe, we turn away, we run, we scream, we shake- you get the picture.

When I was seven years old I jumped off of a high diving board for the first time. My family was on holiday and the hotel we were staying at had a pool. I watched other kids climb up the ladder, walk out to the edge of the board, leap off into space and plunge into the water below. My father asked me if I wanted to try it. Together we climbed up the ladder and as soon as I got to the top I turned and headed back down, weaving past the line of kids following us up for their turn. My father did not force me to continue.

Back in the pool I watched the other children jumping off and again my father encouraged me to give it a try. This time he said he’d stay in the pool and get to me after I splashed down. For some reason this made me feel more inclined to try it, so again I climbed the ladder, got to the top, walked out to the end of the board and leapt off, keeping my eyes on my father in the water below. I wasn’t in the water for more than a few seconds before I felt his hands on me, giving me support while I caught my breath from the excitement of it all. From that day on I have been a fan of jumping off high diving boards, rope swings, boats, ledges you name it, so long as I’m going to land in deep water.

I don’t share this story just to fill you in on my personal recreation habits or my childhood, but because it is full of lessons on how to work with a fearful dog. Two important components of this scenario which are applicable to the work we do with our scared dogs are these-

1. I had a trusting relationship with my father.
2. I had the skills needed to succeed at the task.
The person encouraging me to do something that scared me was my father. I trusted him. Believe me if a stranger had offered to take my hand and lead me up that ladder I would have been wide-eyed in terror, I might have even reacted the same way if it was my older brother. My father said I’d be alright and I believed him. He was not in the habit of putting me in dangerous situations and I trusted his ability to protect me from anything, in the way that only little girls can (and probably should) feel about their fathers. He had taught me how to swim and for years I had been jumping off the docks and piers a few feet above the surface of a lake where we spent our summers. I had the skills and experience to climb that ladder and launch myself into the deep end of a pool, I just hadn’t done it before.

Stand a 6 month old baby on their feet and let go of them and they don’t start walking, they fall down. Their brains have not developed the intricate and remarkable circuitry to control their movement and their bodies don’t have the physical strength. Someday though they’ll be able to, unless they never get the chance to practice (or have a physical or mental disability). Many dogs, especially puppy mill and pet shop dogs don’t get the chance to practice the skills necessary in order for them to be able to handle the social interactions, the delicate balance of acting and reacting, that a pet owner expects of them.

Some of them, with gentle guidance and coaching, in the hands of someone they trust, will be able to catch up and learn to enjoy being around the things that once made them uncomfortable (or flat out horrified them) but others will not, not ever. The damage was done, there’s no making up or repairing some brain development. All may not be lost, but for the average pet owner a dog like this is never going to be the dog of their dreams (unless they’ve dreamt of having a dog that prefers to live in the closet).

We humans tend to be an impatient bunch and rather than proceed slowly with our dogs, keep trying to make them stand up when all that happens is that they topple over, again and again. Some dogs will begin to actively resist our efforts, growling or snapping, others will give up. Though they may comply with what they are being forced to do, they are not enjoying it. And they are establishing negative associations with the experience, and the human forcing them into it.

It is possible to change how a dog feels and behaves around the things that scare them. And even a dog that isn’t exactly the dog of someone’s dreams can have a good life and provide their owner with companionship and joy. But making this happen usually means changing how we think about our scared dogs. It means questioning the things we’ve been told about dogs and how they learn new skills. It means that we stop tossing them off the high board and into the deep end and expect them to thank us for it.

Debbie Jacobs is the creator of the website and the author of “A Guide to Living & Working With a Fearful Dog”.