Archive for January, 2009|Monthly archive page

Thoughts on Medications

Few dog owners enjoy giving their dogs drugs. Besides having to deal with the reason medications were prescribed, there’s the expense and concern about side effects. Yet when a dog is diagnosed with a major infection only a handful of people would turn away a vet’s offer of an antibiotic.

There are many ways to manage health issues in dogs. I have the utmost respect for practitioners of holistic approaches to working with health issues in dogs. I wish there were more of them, and at least one lived next door to me. Choosing to give my fearful dog Sunny medications designed to work on his brain chemistry did not come easily to me, but I did make the decision, at the recommendation of several trainers, the agreement of my vet, and I have never regretted the choice.

Often just the way we talk about medications and pets gives us a bad feeling about them. Do you ‘drug’ your dog? Is your dog ‘medicated’? Add that squeamish feeling to the fact that most pet owners do not fully understand the way behavioral medications work (and I suspect that even doctors and scientists are not completely sure) and it’s not surprising most of us dig in our heels and say ‘uh uh, nope, I’m not drugging my dog’. There are sedatives and anti-anxiety medications and medications that affect the level of serotonin and other neurotransmitters in a dog’s brain. Which one is most appropriate for your dog depends on your dog and the situations your dog will be in.

The behavioral medications available for dogs today have been tested for their safety and efficacy (as opposed to most of the supplements and herbs being sold and used without any oversight by a trained herbalist or naturapath) and have a track record in regard to their use in dogs with fear based behaviors. This does not mean that there are not potential side effects or that they are appropriate for every dog, but they deserve careful consideration by owners dealing with a pathological fearful dog. Medications alone will not ‘fix’ a scared dog, and the drug manufacturers state this clearly on the information they provide with their products, but they can make the rehab of a scared dog easier for both owner and dog, but especially the dog.

Being stressed and scared all the time is no fun, it’s not healthy and having spent an extended amount of time in the company of a scared dog I can say that it hurts to see a terrified dog, and as bad as I ended feeling watching Sunny cower for weeks, my experience does not compare to his. Beyond what we see, there are the physiological effects of stress on a dog. We know that stress is a major contributor to many of health problems facing humans and there’s good reason and evidence to support the belief that our dog’s health is also adversely affected by being afraid i.e., stressed, most of the time.

I decided that anything I could do to lower the stress my dog was feeling on a daily basis was worth a shot. Our vet did blood-work to ensure that he was healthy and helped me with dosages. When I decided to change medications she provided me with a protocol for weaning Sunny off of one medication in preparation for the other. I did research on how the medication worked and how long it would take to begin seeing results, and the type of results I might see.

Someday Sunny might be capable of dealing with the stresses of a world his brain was not developed to function in (due to his early life with a hoarder), without the support of medications, but in the meantime I am glad to have them as an option for living and working with a seriously damaged dog.


Pay Attention!

In order to teach anyone, anything, you first have to get and keep their attention. This is as true for dogs as it is for people. It’s not difficult to get the attention of a scared dog, most can’t take their eyes off you. But that attention is based on knowing where you are, much the same way you’d probably like to know the whereabouts of a large, hairy spider you saw crawling around your bedroom.

If your dog cowers or cringes at the sight of you, that is where you have to begin your work of changing how the dog feels. It’s not doing any good if every time your dog sees you it feels terror. Your best bet in working on this includes a reward your dog agrees is indeed a reward. A pat on the head is not only not rewarding to many dogs, it’s actually something that they’d rather not experience.

Try this-get a roasted chicken, go to a place where your dog can see you, but not too close, sit down, ignore the dog, start eating the chicken (if you’re a vegetarian, pretend to eat the chicken). Pay attention to your dog’s reaction, perhaps the dog sniffs the air for example, begin to toss bits of chicken on the floor toward the dog. Don’t make your tosses large and scary, you don’t even have to reach the dog with the chicken, just every once and awhile toss some chicken while you continue to ignore the dog. If the dog moves towards the bits, keep ignoring the dog, keep eating and keep tossing. If the dog doesn’t go for the chicken, get up and while still ignoring the dog, leave the room.

Wait a bit and then go see if the dog has gone for the chicken bits. Assuming that the dog is capable of moving away from its hiding space, she’s probably gobbled up the bits once the coast was clear. Go back and repeat the process and then repeat it again. It will take time and patience but look for changes in the way your dog anticipates your arrival.

I needed to do this with my scared dog for weeks, so take a deep a breath, exhale slowly, and start paying attention to the attention you’re getting from your dog.

Shy Genes?

Sunny smiling a greeting

Sunny smiling a greeting

It is not difficult for anyone who has raised a puppy to believe that there are behavioral traits that animals seem born with. While a ’shy gene’ has not been isolated, scientists continue to discover more about how our DNA affects not only our personality, but also our friends!

A recent article in the online publication Health Day News for a Healthier Living looked at genetic links to sociability and shyness. While the study was done on humans, it’s not a stretch to assume that similar results could be found in dogs. You can read the article here:

The information provided in the article should confirm to dog owners, if we are extrapolating the results of the research to be similar to what we are likely to find in dogs, that early training and intervention is key when it comes to shy or fearful behavior in our pets. Since the interplay between genes and experience is creating the dog, and if by looking at the dog we believe that the genes hint at promoting shyness, experience and training are that much more important to ensure that whatever hard wiring eventually occurs in the brain, it’s to the dog’s best advantage.

Run don’t walk to your nearest positive reinforcement trainer to learn how you can help your dog not just learn how to behave appropriately around the things that scare him, but how you can make the change where it counts, in his brain.

Conditioned Emotional Response

If you’ve ever been the recipient of a suspiciously timed gift or compliment the giver may be guilty of attempting to use a ‘conditioned emotional response’ to affect your behavior. There are some things, objects or actions that we learn to feel a particular way about. We can’t help ourselves, ice cream just makes us feel good, we see a baby smile and feel all warm and gooey inside, someone hands us a box of chocolates in the hopes that the anger expected that we’ll feel, when we discover a dent in the side of the car, will be dulled. You probably have even purchased something based more on how the advertiser made you ‘feel’ about the product, more than by its actually usefulness. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, those women in bikinis at car shows are there for more than window dressing.

With our scared dogs this usually means that there are situations and objects that make them feel afraid, they too can’t help it, it just happens and it’s hard to change these conditioned emotional responses. But why not put the tenacity of these CERs to good use and use them to your advantage with your dog, they don’t all have to be bad!

My scared dog Sunny loves, by anyone’s definition, to have frisbees or balls tossed to him. The mere implication that a ball is going to be tossed gets him excited. All I need to do is talk about frisbees and his ears perk up and his tail wags. He has a positive conditioned emotional response to frisbee talk. Your own dog may have a similar response when you tie your shoes or pick up their leash.

I use these CERs when Sunny is in situations which may be stressful to him. I bring a frisbee along with me to training classes, a few tosses and he’s in a good mood. When we’re out in the woods and a stranger appears I can ask Sunny to ‘go get a stick’ and he goes from alarm to play mode. I even use my voice to manipulate his mood, knowing that a stream of baby talk can often get his tail wagging. I can tell him ‘he’s a silly boy’ when something scares him, and have a good chance of at least dampening the edge of fear and concern that he’s feeling.

Try this with your own dog. Find as many ways as possible to make your dog feel good, away from the things that scare them, and one day you may be able to use one to change your dog’s conditioned emotional response from feeling fear to feeling good.

Blogger book recommendation

The Happy Healthy Pup blog recommends

Neutralize it!

Before a dog can begin to feel good about something it’s afraid of, it first needs to stop feeling afraid of it. Sounds obvious right? It should be but people will continually expose their dog to something that scares them expecting that the dog is going to figure out that it’s ok. It doesn’t work that way. Many people believe that if they show their dogs that something isn’t going to hurt them that the dog will then no longer be afraid of it. It doesn’t work that way. They let people touch their dog, or bring other dogs around to sniff and be friendly, believing that since the outcome is not bad or painful, their dog will not be afraid of it anymore, probably won’t happen.

Think about people who are afraid of spiders, snakes, or flying in a plane. Most have never had a bad experience with the things they are afraid of. They’ve never been bit by a spider or had a boa constrictor wrapped around their neck snuffing out their life, or been in a plane crash. Even knowing that a spider or snake isn’t poisonous or that driving in a car is statistically more dangerous than flying, they remain afraid. Every time your dog is exposed to something that scares it, it experiences fear, whether anything bad happens or not. To begin to change how your dog feels about something your first goal is to stop them feeling afraid of it.

Neutralizing your dog’s experience with something scary can be done in different ways. It may mean keeping the scary thing far enough away, or making it quieter, or smaller, or less active. At the very least you want your dog’s experience of the things that scare it to be as neutral as possible, they see it, they hear it, but are not terrified by it. This is the first step and requires paying attention to your dog’s reactions and managing the situations your dog is in.

Knowledge is power and education is key

Rock Their World!

Finn & his frisbeeIf you are dealing with a dog that is afraid of or shy with people one of your first goals is to find out what rocks their world. For an extremely scared dog it might be difficult to figure this out because they may not respond well to anything you do. With a dog like this, one of the few tricks you have up your sleeve is ‘food’. Dogs need food and while they may be too scared to eat near you, food is still one of the main rewards you have for creating positive associations with your dog.

If the dog will eat food from your hand, that is how your dog should receive each meal. If the dog is too scared to eat directly from your hand, leave small handfuls for the dog and move away until the dog is able to eat. Leave the room if you have to, returning with another handful of food until the meal is over. The goal is to have the dog eating the food more readily while you are around, until eventually it is comfortable taking food directly from you. Don’t rush this process and don’t overwhelm the dog with lots of talk and handling while you work on it. A shy dog is just not into getting attention of any kind in most cases.

Don’t stop with food though. One of the first requests Sunny made to me, with a slight paw raise, was that I keep scratching his chest. If your dog does not enjoy being handled, don’t, but finding a non-threatening way to handle your dog can make both of you feel better. Remember that many dogs do not like to be pet on the head and each may have a body part that they are sensitive about. Find what your dog enjoys, not what you think they should enjoy.

Games and toys can help your dog move on from being scared to being curious and even playful. Experiment with different toys, a tennis ball rolling on the floor got Sunny to take his first tentative steps out of the corner. One of our first outdoor games was chasing stones I’d toss in the river for him. A friend turned him on to squeaky toys which I use in agility classes to get him to interact with some of the more difficult obstacles. Stealing the frisbee from my other border collie, Finn, seems to be a highlight of playtime for Sunny. Sticks make great toys and you can’t beat the price. Other dogs can help a scared dog feel more comfortable. Many shy with people dogs practically beam with joy when they get to interact with friendly, social dogs.

The list certainly does not end here. Once you know what makes your dog feel good you have the key to creating positive associations for your dog with the things that scare him, and you have something which the dog may be willing to work for, offering behaviors that will start him on the road to basic obedience skills. Keep looking for ways to surprise and delight your dog, watching them light up and loosen up is one of the best rewards an owner of a scared dog will get.

What are your options?

It’s one thing for someone like me to say how rewarding and fulfilling it is to care for a fearful dog. It’s another thing to actually live with a dog that can’t interact with you or members of your family, a dog that can’t go for walks outside, that races for cover at the drop of a hat (or pen or cup), a dog that makes you feel sad just to look at it. While it is possible to help a scared dog learn to feel better in its world, no one can tell you how much better or how long it will take.

When Sunny came to live with me he was debilitated by his fear. He could not move out of a corner and defecated if handled or moved. I kept trying to get reassurance that he would ‘come around’. Some folks gave it to me, others did not. I contacted people I read about online who trained dogs or had a scared dog, hoping for some tidbit of information that would crack the code to Sunny’s fear. I had timelines in my head to gauge his success, this person’s dog took two weeks, another two years, another never. As each ‘deadline’ came and went I still had a fearful dog.

Each of us has different skills, lifestyles and expectations for what we want from a pet. If you have found yourself with a seriously fearful dog you do have options. If you got your dog from a breeder you can return it. The breeder should be aware of the type of puppies s/he is producing, and there may be a more appropriate home for that pup. It is harder to think about returning a fearful dog to a shelter or rescue because we know that the options available to them are limited, and we often feel that we may be their best chance of a good life. Shelters and rescue groups need to be better at assessing their dogs so that adopters are not faced with this dilemma. It’s not fair and it puts people off of ever wanting to get a rescue dog again. But if you have rescued a dog you can return it and provide the rescue group with important information about the dog. Perhaps the dog is terrified of kids or traffic. The shelter may be able to place the dog in a home where it does not have to face these things on a daily basis.

No one wants to euthanize a dog but it is worth thinking long and hard about what kind of life a scared dog is going to lead if it winds up in a no-kill shelter or on the end of a chain in someone’s backyard. I have given a trusted member of my family explicit plans for my dogs should something happen to me. In Sunny’s case the plan does include euthanasia if my first choices for him are not available. I hate to even think about it, but far worse is thinking what it would be like for him if he were to end up at a shelter. It is not that I believe that I am the only person on the planet that he could be happy with, or that someone else wouldn’t have the skills to work with him. There are just not enough homes for all the easier-to-have dogs in shelters today, nevermind trying to find a home for a dog that would hide all day. And I adore him just too much to put him through the horror of ending up in a home with well-meaning people who do not understand the depth and quality of his fearfulness.

If you decide that you are going to keep your scared dog it’s not essential that you commit your life to its rehabilitation. It is possible to provide a dog with a good life without having to devote your retirement funds and every spare minute to it. If your dog is happiest outside than you can create a space where it gets to spend as much time there as possible. Or if your dog seems most comfortable inside there is no rule that says it has to go to dog parks or on long walks. You don’t have to keep trying to change how your dog feels about things if you can limit its exposure to them. If you understand the basic concepts of counter conditioning and desensitization, triggers and thresholds you can handle your dog in a way that will not make its fears worse.

Life with a scared dog is not always easy and may require more time, energy and patience than you have. It does not make you a bad person or bad pet owner. There are plenty of dogs out there that need a home and would happily jump in your car, snuggle up on the couch with you and mug all your friends for treats and scratches. Any dog requires effort and expense of course, but if you’re dealing with a fearful dog you’ve discovered the difference in what they require of us compared to a dog that is not extremely fearful. I am not encouraging anyone to get rid of their fearful dog, but I certainly understand why you might.

If you have decided to keep your fearful dog and want to learn more about how you can work with it I created the website to provide ideas and links to resources to help you.

My last post on Cesar Millan

I say this is my last post about Cesar Millan because this blog is not about him, regardless of the benefit of the additional hits it may get me from the Dog Whisperer Ambassadors out there. It is not about trying to convince his loyal converts that he is wrong or bad. I agree with him that many dogs in America have less than stellar lives, as do many people and I’m sure there is a connection. Just giving a dog a life, as he advocates with his focus on exercise is a gift to dogs and owners. I would like to thank all the folks who commented on my last post, your care and concern for the dogs in your lives is obvious. I also appreciate it since the journalist who produced the news clip about Cesar that I included in that post told me that he has received hate mail from many of Cesar’s fans. Your calm assertiveness is appreciated.

In his book, Cesar’s Way, on page 13 Cesar mentions briefly a frightened German Shepherd named Beauty who in “..order to attach a leash to her collar, I have to chase after her, tire her out, and then wait until she submits. I may have to repeat this process a thousand times until she realizes that when I put my hand out, the best solution is for her to come to me.” Now imagine if you will, for just a moment, this scene. The dog is terrified, adrenalin is coursing through her body, she’s running, her body low, tail tucked, ears down and back, glancing behind her as she tries to escape her own personal demon. Then physically exhausted she gives up, perhaps pressing herself to the floor or into a corner as her worst nightmare comes true. Perhaps you can imagine how you’d feel, your mouth going dry, the tightening of your stomach as you experienced fear- heart racing, bowel loosening fear. Or maybe it’s easier to see a dog you care about fleeing in horror, over and over, the act repeated on a daily basis for weeks. This is not humanizing a dog, it is empathizing with the experience of an animal with which we share the same parts of the brain that allows us to feel fear in the same ways.

You may argue that I am taking him too literally that he does not mean 1ooo times. Would you feel better about it if it was only 100 times or a dozen times? But I don’t think it’s off track to take him literally. Dogs do not generalize behaviors easily and fearful dogs are even less proficient at it so his description of needing to repeat this scene a thousand times before the dog learns that her efforts to protect herself are of no use and ‘submits’, is likely accurate. Now I’ll ask you to visit the site and have a look at the videos in which I use targeting to teach Sunny to approach me and other people. It is a simple exercise and what you are seeing is the result of hundreds of opportunities that Sunny had to practice this behavior, maybe even a thousand. Look at him, you can still see his fear, his wariness, his caution but he was never forced to run panicked, until exhaustion, to learn to ‘submit’ to the request to approach my hand. Not once was he forced to ‘submit’ to his demons. Looking at his body language you will still see concern, but you will also see the beginning of a cheerful willingness to be around people.

These behaviors take time and repetition because for many dogs, as Cesar is well aware of, their brains are damaged and for some dogs they will never be repaired, no matter how many time they are chased while they flee in horror, or how many times they are asked to target a hand. And if I were to ask myself the question as to which technique I would choose to test out their learning potential, you probably don’t need me to tell you that I would choose the targeting with positive reinforcement every time.

I am NOT pointing out these videos to show what a good trainer I am, far from it. I am a novice, a novice who has followed the lead of great trainers, many who are familiar names in the world of dog training and others, not so familiar but no less skilled or insightful. Compared to good trainers I could even be called a hack. I point them out for the owners of fearful dogs who are struggling and searching for ways to help their dogs, ways which do not include the risk of being bitten or continually terrifying their dogs, and to realize that neither do they need to subject themselves to being bitten in order to teach their dog that biting is not the best solution to their problem. This is a technique commonly used by Cesar with small dogs who when they do give up, I suspect are feeling something far from relief at finding a leader, unless you also believe that a deer feels relief when it can finally stop running after the wolves have her by the throat.

I will not try to describe what happens in a dog’s brain when it is so afraid it runs or fights for its life. Not only am I not qualified to do so, if I go down that route it will lead to a conversation about how dogs learn new behaviors and how they change how they feel about the things that scare them. It will lead to how positive reinforcement works, not the bribing or luring with treats the critics of PR often mistakenly believe it to be, or inexperienced handlers practice and call it PR, but operant and classical conditioning. I will not go there because then I will be talking about training and Cesar himself admits he’s not a trainer.

You are welcome to comment and share your admiration for Cesar Milan, it is still, as we like to say and believe, a free country (even if it is ‘my’ blog 😉 and we all have something to learn from each other. And like Cesar Milan I also believe that it is the relationship that we have with our dogs that creates the best foundation for any training or rehabilitation success we have with them. I have never been, nor will I ever be the ‘alpha dog’ or ‘pack leader’ I am quite sure that my dogs do not believe me to be a very unfortunate looking dog. I am a human and by virtue of some additional brain matter and thumbs, I control all the resources my dogs need, but do not allow this to lead me to inaccurate interpretations of dominance hierarchies among them.

But I won’t go on any further, I would much prefer to grab my snowshoes and head up the mountain with my dogs, fearful one included. This will occur after they

Sunny my fearful dog in the foreground learning about rivers.

Sunny my fearful dog in the foreground learning about rivers.

go out the door first and run up the trail ahead of me, but bless their hearts, whether they keep checking up on my progress because they think I’m the pack leader, because I call them or out of pity because I can’t keep up, it is the indescribable pleasure I get being with them and watching them, my fearful dog Sunny in particular, which will keep me advocating that no one, no one, causes any scared dog to run for any reason other than the sheer joy of it.

Yours in the adoration of dogs,

Debbie Jacobs