Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

Steps Toward Success

Shy Malinois with terrier pal

Shy Malinois with terrier pal

Too often when we are working toward a goal, whatever it is, we are so focused on the long term outcome that we fail to notice the progress we’re making along the way. This is true when working with a fearful dog as well, we do not notice the small steps our dogs are making away from fear.

The behavior which makes my heart swell, is Sunny’s ability to take more and more steps, tentative at first, toward exploration. Even though his body language shouts ‘wariness’, he stretches his neck to sniff a book I’ve set on the coffee table or takes a few steps into a room he was reluctant to enter in the past. He lingers a little longer in a place he usually races through.

Outside in the woods Sunny is a warrior, he races after the squeaks and chirps of chipmunks and squirrels and he leaps from stone to stone in the river. Inside the house, car or other building he is a different dog, slinking, resisting, cowering and always with an eye on the exit. I watch the enthusiastic wandering of dogs that aren’t fearful as they check out the rooms in my house, racing up stairs and returning with a bone or toy they’ve claimed as a prize from their discovery mission and long for the day Sunny is able to show the same boldness.

Noticing the small steps that Sunny is making is important, as is rewarding him for them. It is not any different from training a dog that is not fearful. All the parts that a behavior can be broken down into need to be noticed and considered. When working on a recall trainers understand that the behavior is not just the end result of a dog racing toward its owner. It starts with the dog acknowledging the cue, a glance, head turn, spin around, movement toward the owner and finally getting close enough to be put on a leash if necessary. Each of the pieces of the process should be reinforced and rewarded.

Find ways to reward your dog for the steps they are making, however tiny they may seem. Learn how to use a clicker to make this easier for yourself and clearer for your dog. Keep your goals in mind but don’t miss the successes and be sure to reward your dog for them.


Thinking is Good!

Studies have shown that thinking and learning can slow or even reverse the effects of aging on the human brain. Learning new skills, like playing the piano or line dancing, doing crossword puzzles or brushing up on quadratic equations, is important for humans at any age. It seems that the axiom, ‘use it or lose it’ is true for our minds.

Sunny with basketballI thought about this when I began my journey of working with Sunny. When he first arrived he spent all of his time in a corner of our living room, too afraid to move. After spending all of his life in a pen with other dogs, his brain had not had the chance to develop in the same way my other dogs’ brains had. He was also displaying ‘learned helplessness’ meaning that nothing he had tried to do to escape his situation had succeeded so he stopped trying. It was heart wrenching to see and I wish I had given him a more comfortable place to hide in, but I was still acting on training advice that dogs should not be comforted when they are afraid. It is the biggest regret I have in how I have worked with Sunny over the past 3 plus years.

I decided that movement should be a part of his rehabilitation. It began slowly, with me enticing Sunny to go after a tennis ball I rolled past him or out into the room. My border collie Finn and old cocker Bugsy, helped infuse the activity with positive excitement, running after the ball themselves. In time we were able to move on to a harness and long line for walks down the dirt road or through the woods.

When I finally let Sunny off the leash to join the other dogs in their explorations of the scents and other delights of the forest, it was a joy to see him behave exactly as a dog should, with enthusiasm and curiosity, his brain processing new information and hopefully becoming better at it. At home I began to work on providing him with novelty in ways which did not frighten him. Many fearful dogs find any changes in their environment scary. I used different bowls to feed him, moved his water dish to accessible but different locations, introduced new toys, and began working on targeting.

Think about ways you can add new experiences to your dog’s life with the goal of arousing their curiosity, not their fear.

Way More Fun Than Photos

I have been shooting videos of Sunny since he started being able to engage with the world. Prior to that I rarely took pictures of him, it just wasn’t worth scaring him for it. Now of course I wish I did have some footage of him living in his corner, rather than just few grainy photos shot indoors without a flash (thought it would scare him). You can find some videos about Sunny on this blog but I have also created a page at with more.

The clips on this page can only be 12 seconds long, and I love that. I have been editing out 12 second clips of dog behavior that I think that you will find interesting. And if you don’t find it interesting, you’ve only wasted 12 seconds.

Check it out and while you’re there you can also visit my other 12 second page at

Medications for Fearful Dogs

Time outThe topic of using medications to help a fearful dog can bring up some strong reactions in folks, both for and against. It makes good sense to learn about how the medications available today work and how they can help a dog, rather than just dismissing them outright. Not all fearful dogs need medication to help them feel less stressed or to aid in the learning of new behaviors, but for the ones that can be helped in this way, the meds might just feel like a godsend to both an owner and their dog.

There are a variety of alternatives or supplements to medications available. I encourage owners to do their research and learn about; body wraps, DAP, Ttouch, acupuncture, herbal supplements, etc. The use of any medication or alternative to medication must be used in conjunction with a behavior modification training program. My decision to use a behavioral medication with Sunny came after realizing that ‘anything’ that I could offer him that would lower his stress level was ultimately going to be beneficial to his health and behavior.

Medications like Prozac and Clomicalm have been tested on animals, specifically on dogs, and are used by humans. People report that they ‘feel’ better, and since we can only guess how animals feel based on their behavior, we’re probably safe in assuming that they too ‘feel better’ by the positive changes in their behavior that we see when they are on medications. More research and studies need to be done on the efficacy of the many alternatives, but there is plenty of anecdotal information provided by pet owners that indicates that they too can help our dogs ‘feel’ better.

For my dog I took the following into consideration:

  • cost of a treatment or therapy
  • amount of time needed daily to devote to the treatment
  • ease of use or application
  • trainer recommendation
  • vet recommendation

As much as I’d like to say that cost does not matter when it comes to the health of my dogs, it does. While there were supplements that appeared to provide my dog with some relief, the cost became prohibitive because my dog needs help every day, all day. A bottle of ‘Composure’, recommended by my vet, would have cost me hundreds of dollars a month to provide him with the dosage he’d need on a daily basis. I am able to purchase his prescription for Prozac for under $10 a month. I have no reason to believe that one was going to be ‘safer’ or healthier than the other.

I have begun acupuncture treatments for Sunny after reading studies about the use of acupuncture to help people with PTSD. The acupuncturist recommends at least four treatments before deciding whether or not it is having the desired effect. Depending on where you live, the availability and cost of acupuncture will vary. It’s worth a try and I hope it helps, but even the acupuncturist agreed that medications which provide relief to an animal should be continued. I have tried body wraps and Ttouch but either have not been persistent enough, am not applying them properly, I’ve not seen any appreciable gains in Sunny’s behavior by their use. This does not mean they are not helping, something may make Sunny feel better but not change his behavior noticeably, so I’ve not eliminated them from the work I do with him.

The ease of application is important to me because I have 4 dogs, and something of a life to lead aside from their care and training. Any treatment or technique that I don’t think that I can realistically add to my day is not going to happen and so is not likely to work. I suspect that the amount of time I’ve had to devote to Sunny’s rehab may be more than what many dog owners have and may be reflected in the quality of our relationship, and the improvements in his behavior.

In Pam Dennison’s book Bringing Light To Shadow she shares details of the work she did with her fear aggressive dog. It’s an informative story, but I found myself thinking that Sunny was doomed if his rehabilitation was going to rest on me having the same skills, time and resources as Dennision had. I do what I can, how and when I can, the addition of meds may lower the bar for what is needed from me on a daily basis in order for Sunny to improve. Rather than think of them as a cop out, they give Sunny a nudge in the direction we’re headed.

For more information about medications for fearful dogs visit: &

How To Help A Fearful Dog? Stop Scaring Them!

They grew up too quickly!In a blog about fearful dogs you wouldn’t think that I’d pay so much attention to this whole dominance virus that has infected the health of our relationships with our dogs, but it’s major. I run an in-home boarding business for dogs. It’s a nice set-up for the dogs and the owners that use my services are conscientious pet owners. It’s not a scene that every dog would appreciate, but for those that do, it’s not only a nice way to spend a few days, it helps them brush up on rusty social skills since most live as solo dogs.

A potential client and I had an email exchange recently about her dog. She described him as a friendly, good natured dog that had some issues with select dogs when he first meets them. He barks at them. She went on to say that she never had an ‘alpha’ dog before and was learning how to deal with it. Certainly a dog that sees other dogs and barks at them must be trying to dominate them right? Ah…no.

Confident dogs, or dogs that are intent on being the big dog on the block rarely spend a lot of time barking at other dogs, far from it. They get their point across with their bodies and their eyes. Well socialized dogs, even in situations in which they are establishing their place in the playground hierarchy, rarely even fight. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a group of socially adept dogs determine ‘who I am to you’. With looks, stances, paw & head placements, the messages are conveyed and then the games can begin.

So what difference does it make if someone mistakenly believes that their dog is trying to be ‘alpha’? It matters because our responses are usually based on what we think is going on, AND how we feel about it. The results of our responses to our dog’s behavior may or may not be what we were after, and if our responses don’t make things better, they can make what we see as a problem, worse. It is probably not far off track to assume that most of the behavior problems seen in dogs relinquished to shelters or by trainers, have been caused by inappropriate responses to their behaviors, by their owners.

Fearful dogs that never bit anyone in their life can be provoked into biting by a handler assuming that the dog’s behavior is a challenge or attempt to dominate the situation. Physical intimidation, promoted by National Geographic’s Dog Whisperer, Cesar Millan, is exactly the stuff that can make this happen. Remember that one does not need to hit or touch a dog to scare or intimidate them. I remember cringing through one episode in which a dog that was afraid of the bathtub was man-handled until it finally bit Millan. His response to this bite was along the lines of ‘good, he was just having a tantrum’. Someone like Millan who doesn’t seem to mind the occassional bite can intimidate a dog enough so that it does not learn that biting works to keep scary things away. But for most of us the prospect of being bitten makes us back off, which is what the dog has been trying to communicate all along by cowering, growling, lowering its head, rolling over, etc. Now an owner has effectively taught their dog that biting works, that the dog basically needs to shout since the owner has proved themselves hard of hearing.

The dog whose owner believed it is trying to be an ‘alpha’ dog is one of the lucky ones. This owner is not into harsh or intimidating techniques of managing her dog. But what of the other scared dogs that are not so fortunate? Many defenders of trainers like Cesar Millan will say that it’s not his fault if people do not use his training techniques appropriately (even used as directed they can have disasterous results). I disagree. He is promoting the domination of dogs and is responsible for the outcome from that. Supporters seem to be willing to give him credit when the outcome is positive but not when it isn’t. When a leader of a country says publically that AIDS is not a sexually transmitted disease (as has happened) and therefore people do not need to take the appropriate precautions to prevent contracting the disease, I believe that he is responsible for the potentially deadly results of his actions.

The results of the belief that dogs need to be dominated can be deadly, especially with fearful dogs.

The Face That Launched A Website

I always have envied people who felt so passionately about something that it offered them meaning and structure in their lives. Here’s a look at the ‘something’ that inspired me to create the website. Meet my fearful dog Sunny.

Can't we just play?

Can't we just play?

Energy Wise : The Sequel

smile!‘The Power Of Intent’ by Dr. Wayne Dwyer was being aired on PBS, though I’d listened to it on CD I decided that the message of his presentation was worth hearing again and so stayed awake to watch it. The presentation, like many other things, had me thinking about my fearful dog Sunny.

Since Sunny arrived in my life I have been inspired to help him and to help change the way fearful dogs are treated by too many owners and trainers, as if their fearfulness was a behavior they are choosing and need to bullied out of. The site was created to help in this goal and the ebook, A Guide To Living & Working With A Fearful Dog (which was nominated by the Dog Writer’s Association of American in 2008 in their annual competition) was written for the same end. It is only a small contribution to the body of knowledge available to dog owners, but I’m glad that some dog out there might just be getting some chicken instead of being yanked by their collar because someone happened upon the website, or this blog.

Research, and the experience of many fearful dog owners has shown that the use of anti-depressants like Prozac, medications which increase the amount of the neurotransmitter serotonin available in the brain, help our dogs feel less anxious (we know this because their behavior improves). In his presentation Dr. Dwyer referenced a study that showed that serotonin levels in the brains of humans that experience an act of kindness, increase. Whether you are the provider of the act, the recipient or merely observing the act, the serotonin levels in your brain will be increased, you will feel better than you did when the levels were lower. The energy of kindness makes us feel better.

When Cesar Millan, talks about how an owner’s energy affects their dog’s behavior, and recommends ‘calm assertiveness’, I don’t take umbrage with the idea that energy is important, but rather with the energy he recommends. What does it mean to be ‘calm assertive’? You might think you know, his examples of Oprah’s, John Wayne’s & Cleopatra’s energy might make sense to some but seem too open to variation for my tastes. There are a variety of definitions of ‘assertiveness’ but none of them include kindness. When we are asserting our will, however calmly, on another being, we are not being kind. Assertiveness requires a forcefulness that is not associated with kindness.

Since the brains of humans and dogs are alike in enough ways that we can make assumptions about what dogs experience emotionally, particularly in regard to fear, it leads me to believe that acts of kindness are much more powerful and effective ways of helping our scared dogs ‘feel better’ than the energy of ‘being alpha’. The forceful and aggressive energy of  ‘assertiveness’ only adds to their stress, causing their behavior to degrade. If you believe that dogs are masters at picking up on our energy, being calm does not change the essential energy of your assertiveness.

While one goal we have with our scared dogs is to change their behavior, we also must change how they feel. Few examples need to be presented to convince us that when we feel better, we behave better, relative to whatever situation we’re in. We get along with people more easily when we feel good, we get more work done, and we score higher on tests.

I would suggest that the energy we create by being kind provides more potential for successful changes in our scared dogs’ behavior than does assertiveness. What if kindness is not something dogs understand? Being fed because someone feels an obligation to provide you with food may not seem to be any different from someone feeding you as an act of kindness. Or perhaps it does.

Dogs are able to detect changes in the body chemistry of people with diabetes or epilepsy. They can identify urine samples from people with cancer. Perhaps dogs know, with their noses, when we are being kind, and feel better themselves because of it. As for love, I wouldn’t be surprised if we found out that to a dog it smells a lot like pepperoni.

The Gift of the Growl

I make no pretenses about it, I am obsessed with my fearful dog Sunny. Not only do I think about him, I am always looking for ways to help him, and other scared dogs. Leafing through an old issue of Newsweek I read a quote attributed to Tibet’s Karmapa Lama and of course, thought of scared dogs. 

“For any living being, when you feel the force of being cornered time and again, more and more, the time comes when you have nothing else left except to explode.” 

He is not speaking directly about dogs, but of the Tibetan people, yet sadly for both humans and dogs, too often when we protest about our situation we are either ignored or punished. In either case we may feel compelled to escalate our response. 

Pay attention to how dogs are treated when they attempt to make their feeling known, often they are reprimanded, “Bad dog!”, No!”. Their intentions are misinterpreted, instead of people understanding, “Please leave me alone!” they are told by some trainers that their dog is trying to be dominant or challenging them. Punish a dog that has asked, in one of the few ways that dogs can, ‘leave me alone’ and you can end up with a dog that may become even more frightened. Punish a behavior and you may stop that behavior, but you don’t necessarily stop the emotion that causes that behavior. Prevent a dog from communicating with a growl and they may resort to a bite. 

Wouldn’t it be great if those people who considered themselves the leader of the pack, whether it was a pack of dogs or a country, were willing to hear what those they were controlling were asking for? What most of us want is just to be able to live our lives free from fear and oppression. Don’t put your dog in situations in which it feels the need to growl or protect itself and you are on your way to not only changing how your dog feels but you are also preventing your dog from practicing a behavior you also want to change.

Play It Again!

Games are good!

Games are good!

Dogs that are afraid of people find very little about being with us pleasant, even if nothing ‘bad’ is happening to them. Just being near people is enough to get their hearts racing and adrenalin flowing. In order to change how a dog feels about people (or anything it’s afraid of for that matter) you have to provide the dog with some very good reasons. Food is an obvious and powerful reason to think that people may not be all that bad, but for some dogs there are other, possibly even more valuable reasons for deciding that sticking around humans is a better response than fleeing.

In my own dog’s case I assumed that because he appears to be a border collie mix, he had a border collie’s inclination to ‘do something’. Sunny had my other border collie Finn to watch and quickly discovered the joys of running in the woods and chasing after just about anything I was willing to toss. But even if your dog does not have another dog role model, you can make some good guesses as to what activities your dog might enjoy. It’s easy to spook a fearful dog so go slowly, and in some cases ignore your dog while you play with a ball or some other toy until it sparks their interest.

Here are some ideas for playing with your dog:

Name Game-Toss or hand your dog a treat every time you say their name. This not only helps a dog learn its name, it creates a positive association with it.

Treat Toss-Like the Name Game this simple game consists of tossing treats to your dog. There are some dogs which find the action of catching a treat more rewarding than just being handed one. Try using popcorn for dogs that haven’t quite got the catch down.

Hand Shell Game-Hold a treat in one closed fist and offer your dog both hands to sniff or paw at. Open the hand that is ‘targeted’ and show the dog either an empty palm or treat, which they get to eat. Start off with a treat in each hand so that the dog can get the idea of the game.

Outdoor Shell Game-Make piles of snow, leaves or dirt and hide something your dog is interested in one of the piles. You can start the game by having something hidden in each pile until your dog eagerly goes from pile to pile looking for the hidden treasure. For terriers or other dogs that enjoy digging consider creating an area where the dog can dig. Hide toys or treats in holes for the dog to go after.

Treasure Hunt-Hide treats or toys around the room and let your dog search for them. It’s ok for the dog to see you hiding the treasures until they learn the command to start looking. I say ‘treasure hunt!’ and they start sniffing.

Any training you do with your dog can feel like a game. My female cocker spaniel is not much for ‘playing’ but thinks that anything she can figure out to do which gets her a treat is a great game. You can do a search here for books on games you can play with your dog.

Won’t or Can’t?

Big dog greetingImagine you’re at a party and you ask someone to dance. Instead of jumping up and enthusiastically accepting your offer they look away and confess that they don’t know how to dance. Now imagine you repeat your request this time extending the invitation to someone who moments before had been dancing up a storm. This time your offer is also declined. I suspect that you feel very differently in each case. In the former the person was unable to perform the requested behavior because they couldn’t, they didn’t know how to dance, in the latter, they wouldn’t, for whatever reason. I’d guess that you feel worse about being turned down in the second case than in the first.

We often face similar situations with our scared dogs when we ask them to perform a behavior and in many cases their inability to do so is because they can’t, not because they won’t. If you are terrified of snakes and I tell you to go over and pick one up, not only is it likely that you won’t, there’s a good possibility that you can’t, you’re just too scared. When our training mindset is that dogs are refusing to do what we ask of them because they are making a conscious choice ‘not’ to do what we ask, we may be wrong. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but often even a dog that appears to be calculating whether to come when called or chase a squirrel (and chooses the squirrel), has not been given adequate training to be able to respond to the command when faced with a tempting distraction. This takes training and practice, something few dog owners take the time to do.

My scared dog Sunny was unable to come to me on command for over a year, he was just too scared. Forcing him to do it, punishing him for not doing it or becoming upset with him was not going to help matters. By using positive reinforcement training, counter conditioning and desensitizing Sunny to situations or objects that scared him, he has become a dog that still has many fears, but is able to perform behaviors that in the past he was unable to.

Since getting a recall from a fearful dog is challenging for many owners, here’s a tip-teach your dog a ‘wait’ command. While walking on a leash stop your dog from proceeding by putting tension on the leash, give her a treat. Do this several times on a walk adding the verbal ‘wait’ command. Add a release command, I say ‘let’s go’. When off leash Sunny was able to stop and wait, allowing me the opportunity to move to him, long before he could come on command. I pay careful attention to his responses to me and choose my reactions to his noncompliance carefully.