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.


17 comments so far

  1. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    Timely post. I interviewed a PhD behaviorist yesterday for an article I’m working on, and she said that dogs with signs of senility show more improvement in behavior when challenged mentally than when those special drugs for older dogs are used alone.

  2. Blueszz on

    Please keep blogging about this subject and share your thoughts 🙂
    I have a ‘damaged dog’ for almost 5 years now and still work with her on a daily basis. I recognize so much in what you write.
    I need to make time to read your blog and comment to share my findings 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for the words of encouragement, appreciate them. Be sure to check out in case you haven’t found that yet, it’s the site I created because of my experience with Sunny. You might even have some suggestions given the years you’ve spent with your dog.

      These dogs CAN be helped. They may never be able to be just like a dog that had all the benefits in life, good genes,nutrition, and a stable, enriching environment, but with the proper handling and training you can see improvements. It may mean managing these dogs differently than other dogs without fear issues, but with time and training, even that can become less overwhelming for an owner. Sadly there will be some dogs that due to either their abilities or the abilities of the people available to help them, that will be a liability to keep around. But if more people understood how NOT to handle fearful dogs, some of them might never reach that point. Oooppps, I got on my soapbox again 😉

      There is lots of great info out there with fabulous trainers offering good advice and methods for working with them. Your dog is one of the lucky ones, how about a picture of her?

  3. Blueszz on

    I’ll keep in touch with you and send you a picture later 🙂
    I found your address on your other website.

    When I was reading parts of your blog and website I read so much that I did/tried – like hand targetting, re-assuring, possitive reïnforcement only, using medication etc.
    One of the most helpfull methods for her was the way Turid Rugaas adviced on how to learn a dog not to pull on leash. I used this method to overcome her fear for trafic, running, screeming children etc (still working on parts of that). It wasn’t only helpfell in learning how to walk without pulling, but also to help her focus on me when she got nervous about her surroundings (including dogs). This is when I used Turid Rugaas’ method combined with hand targetting.

    It sounds so easy when I read what I just wrote, but it wasn’t, but I guess this isn’t something I need to tell you!

    For most people she looks like a normal dog now, but I know better, as I keep her triggers and tresholds in mind, so that rarely people see her really stressed out. That means she can’t fucntion as a ‘normal’ Beglian Malinois, but she is a happy dog.

    Now, after almost 5 years, she still is improving. I wished I found your website earlier. I wouln’dt have to invent the wheel myself! Although I’m convinced that each dog needs a different approach 😉

    We keep in touch (I hope) and I email je soon from my private email address.


  4. fearfuldogs on

    I’ll look for a link to Rugaas’ technique for pulling, not familiar with it. FYI I have always thought malinois to be the most beautiful dogs. I remember doing an online search to learn more about them after I saw my first.

    Do drop me an email at

    I am recommitted to using the clicker more with Sunny after spending 3 days at Karen Pryor’s Clicker Expo. I always found it helpful, but the science behind it is even more compelling.

  5. Lizzie on

    As ever I read with great interest anything that will help me with my Lab Gracie. I have also read about Turid Rugaas and from what Nicole had said about her book on teaching your dog not to pull on a leash, I thought I would buy it to see if I could change Gracie’s habits.

    However as with a lot, if not most literature about ‘training’ dogs, this book does assume that the reader has a dog that is able to respond to instructions in a ‘normal’ way. If you have a fearful dog chances are, like Gracie, they are pulling because they cannot cope with the environment they are in and all their instincts are telling them that they want to be somewhere ‘safe’ instead.

    Gracie shows the most fear when outside, especially if she sees people, even far off, or hears children’s voices, or dogs barking etc. There really is no where that I can take her where I can control the environment completely. Therefore, for the most part, she is not calm enough to take instuction, does not want to be out there in the first place, her main aim is to get back to where she does feel safe, hence the pulling. Quite apart from the fact that she has OCD and if I try to deviate from a path, or route that she has become familar with she starts to panic again. Basically I have to go where she feels comfortable, but the strange thing is the pulling mainly occurs on the way back to the house/car. Outward bound she circles me on her leash, which is about 2 metres long, going forward all the time and doesn’t pull at all. I think she does this to calm herself and also to scan her surroundings. I fully realise that she is under stress also but at least we both have at least a short amount of time when there is no pulling and she seems calmer.

    She never shakes or trembles or walks with her tail between her legs, in fact, for the most part, she wags her tail and her body language is confident and happy!
    It’s just when she sees other people that triggers her and she starts cowering and trying to creep along the ground. I do not ask her to keep walking at this point, well she wouldn’t move anyway, as she just freezes. But I have been able to teach her to sit and wait till the people pass by, at a distance, but she is still rigid with fear. Mostly I avoid all situations that I cannot control but there will always be times when I can’t.

    BTW I am not talking about lengthy walks here, just 10/15 minutes twice a day. That’s really not much exercise for a large Labrador.

    It’s just this pulling, she puts her whole body into it with head down and chest so near the ground, I swear she could pull a cart. She could certainly pull me over! Needless to say she wears a harness as I don’t want her doing damage to her neck, but I think that the harness simply enables her to pull harder….

    Although she has been with me for 6 months now and has made good progress indoors, there seems no hope that she will ever feel better outside.

    • Grisha Stewart, Seattle on

      Hi Lizzie,

      It may be that she needs more exercise indoors and shorter walks. 1 minute out and back home before she can panic.

      I would try a 2-attachment harness like the Freedom Harness and do lots of training indoors using the Silky Leash method. SL teaches them what light pressure means, rather than assuming they know pressure should be avoided. There’s info in my blog and videos on YouTube.

      Try to have rewards for walking that trump the fear level, either by decreasing the scary stimuli or upping the ante on the reward value. Sticks/tennis balls did it for my dog, but most dogs like string cheese or freeze dried lamb lung. I know, yuck!

      I like Control Unleashed and also Help for Your Fearful Dog. Great books.

      • fearfuldogs on

        Thanks for sharing Grisha!

  6. fearfuldogs on

    Have you spoken with a vet about medications to help this dog? Being this afraid, about so many things, is not fun. I’d at least research and consider it. Meds will not fix her problem, but they may help alleviate some of her stress and make it easier to learn new behaviors.

    Many people with dogs that have this type of problem go out in the early mornings or at night to avoid the possibility of encountering people. The process for changing her fears of people will likely not happen quickly, and every time she sees someone and ‘reacts’ fearfully, it is only making it more likely that she’ll repeat that reaction in the future.

    If you have not read The Cautious Canine by Patricia McConnell or Nicole Wilde’s Help For Your Fearful Dog, they are both worth it. Rugaas’s body language information is good to know in regard to how you interact with your dog or read your dog, but is not going to show you how to counter condition and desensitize your dog to its triggers.

    My own dog is afraid of people. There are some situations that I will not put him in knowing that no matter what I do he’ll be over threshold and terrified. Like walking down a city sidewalk. But there are other places where he now can walk and if we encounter people he’s not happy but he’s not over the top scared. He has learned that no one will approach him, I won’t let them, and he can sit behind me or we move as far away from people as possible until they move past.

    If you are not actively using CC/DS to help your dog you are not likely going to see much improvement. Just having nothing bad happen is not enough to change how a scared dog feels about its triggers.

  7. fearfuldogs on

    Also, if you haven’t checked out

    you might find some helpful info there.

  8. fearfuldogs on

    Another thought for this scared lab. Sometimes food is not the primary reinforcer that works best for every dog. My Sunny is far more motivated by play, than by food. He can be around people, even approach them now, if there’s a frisbee on the scene.

    You have to go slow with this kind of DS/CC, you don’t want to ruin the association the dog has with a toy by going too fast and having the toy become the predictor of scary things.

  9. Blueszz on

    recently I wrote a prive email to Debbie, the owner of this blog. In this email I explained how I worked with mhy Malinois to overcome the fears outdoors, while I walked her. As you could read above I’m still working on issues with her, but she improved so much, that I want to share with you what I wrote to Debbie (She gave me permission earlier to post it here).
    I have to edit the email a bit, to remove some private details, but I’ll do it this weekend and share it here. Maybe you can profit from what I experienced and learned with my dog.

  10. Blueszz on

    I took some private lessons with Ilja, the Malinois. They taught me a way get Ilja’s attention in difficult situations and to lead her without force out of that situation. In stead of using a clicker I make a clicking sound with my mouth. I found that much easier as I didn’t had to hold a device in my hands (I already had a leash and treats, toy in my hands). I don’t know if it’s true for everybody, but I can time my clicks even better when I make them with my mouth, than when I need a clicker to make them. The sound you can make in your mouth is even shorter than the sound a clicker produces, so might be more accurately timed? Besides you can click without other people knowing you are reinforcing/helping the dog with his behavior and feelings. Even when you click very silently, the dog still hears you.

    I started to click and when she looked into my eyes, I gave her a treat. When she did this indoors and outdoors (with distractions) I went to the next level. This outdoors, can be your own garden, or for instance only in front of your door, or when you take her to the woods or a lake. It is about distractions, not about triggers! Keep it simple in this stage.

    I walked her and when I saw stress signals I clicked, waited until she made eye contact with me and turned away from the subject that caused the stress. In the beginning I gave her the treat the moment I turned away and she followed (I lured her with the treat). Later on I clicked, turned away from the stressor and gave her a treat. Timing is important, you have to act on the first signals of stress, for instance more alertness, licking her lips, lowering her tail etc. Don’t wait until the dog is overwhelmed by the trigger. To much stress and the dog shuts down, besides won’t be able to be part of the learning process.

    Next step: I noticed stress signals on the dog, I stopped walking (slack leash), let her observe the stressor. Before tension raised I clicked and leaded her away from the situation.

    So far the click was used to get her attention but as you notice I started to introduce the click to award good behavior (for instance not lunging at dogs but calmly observing them). I realize this is something that can be very hard for people who are not used to read their dogs as the moment of the click is so important!

    Later on I introduced hand targeting. Instead of turning away from the situation I asked to touch my hand with her nose, got followed by a treat.
    First period I still turned away from the stressor. Later on I kept walking forwards if I was possible to walk around the stressor in a huge arc (like Turid Rugaas suggest).

    I combined these techniques for over a year now and it worked but I needed over a year to get her behavior/feeling about one of the major stressors (traffic) 90% better. Nowadays, most of the traffic is ignored by her and if she has problems with the sound of some vehicles or them coming closer too fast, she starts watching me. First I notice some stress signals but without asking, after these signals she watches me without I have to ask. Now a click with my mouth is enough to praise her for her behavior, but most of the times she still gets treats.
    If I’m not sure if she will look at me by herself and she is dangerously close to lungung and barking, I click to get her attention. Followed by eye contact I click again and toss a treat.
    I have to admit she also makes a game from it every now and then and starts to watch me for every car that passes us, ROFLOL. That’s the point were I have to ask myself if she trained me or I trained her 😉 The sight/sound of a car that comes closer even can make her drool in anticipation of the treat.

    At this point I want to refer to one of your earlier postings. You wrote your dog is now able to sit while people walk by, but that she is severely stressed then. I would suggest making it easier for her. Don’t be afraid to click and turn away from the people that walk up to you. This way Gracie learns you provide safety. It did this numerous times when dogs walk towards us and even when cars came towards to us. As long as she kept walking with me, worried or not, she was a ‘good girl’! If she looked behind her, worried or not, but made eye contact with me again, I clicked and rewarded. If she wanted to stay still for a moment and observe, that was OK, but when I noticed she got more worries, I clicked and walked on in the opposite direction of the stressor. If she watched the dog/car not too worried, I rewarded that with a click and treat. This is how they can learn that others/subjects are pleasant, not threatening.
    Later on you can walk in an arc around the subject, as that is something dogs naturally do to calm others and themselves.
    Walking in a straight line towards people or objects is always more threatening than walking in an arc. (Again, Turid Rugaas ‘Calming Signals’ is a must read :-)….)

    As you notice I use my clicks to achieve two things: pay attention to me and make eye contact, and as a reward.
    I discussed this with one of the trainers. They use this technique more for dogs and over time, all seem to understand the different uses of the clicks.

    The hand targeting game is something she really enjoys to do.

    She is scared to death for children but has an extreme ball drive. Imagine the conflict she is in when she sees kids playing soccer. Sadly enough for her, something that is very common in my neighborhood. For 4 years I avoided the area were I could encounter kids playing soccer. This week I could walk around one child playing soccer on a grass field. She didn’t pull, didn’t show a lot of stress but was totally engaged in the hand targeting ‘game’. I was so proud on my girl!!! OK, I kept hand targeting all the time, but the first time in four, almost five years, she was able to ignore and not be stressed out by a running child/ball.

    I think the major changes came after I introduced medication. The result were amazing!

    I started using medication for her after 3 years. I never was able to walk her in the dark, with rainy and stormy weather. The traffic scared her so much that she tried to attack every single vehicle. But now the good news. After 3 weeks on the medication I noticed a change in behavior, without additional training. I could walk her in the dark, with rain, with storm (during fall), even when traffic came towards us (with lights on). Know that sound tires make on a wet road? That combined with the light from cars, always scared her to death.
    Wooow, I was so impressed. Of coarse she still had that learned behavior towards traffic but it was obvious to me that she wasn’t as stressed as before, and because she was under less stress, I could start training. I could reach her!

    Three months ago I decided to wean her off the medication. I don’t know if it’s because she was without medication or that there were too much triggers to feel stressed again. Four weeks ago, 4 majors stressors at once. Damn. After that I noticed more stress on her when she was confronted with traffic (I can’t avoid it here). Also I noticed she got more stressed when she saw strange dogs far away etc, even indoors I noticed she was restless. This was a sign for me to put her back on the medication she got before.

    I have a very good vet, who knows this dog from the moment I got her. During our second vet visit he advised me not to bring her back to the shelter if I couldn’t get her back on the road again. That would not be in favor of the dog (and I agree with that).

    From day one I kept him informed about her behavior. He is a holistic vet and works with homeopathic drugs too. Once we tried Arnica on her and within four days she started to attack every vehicle, which she never did before! I called him and he couldn’t believe it was the result of the homeopathic drug, but he said: take her of it. Surprisingly after 4 days, the attacking of vehicles almost faded away. But after that she still tried it every now and then. From that time I didn’t have the guts to try another homeopathic remedy.

    What a story, what I long road I walked down with her 🙂 but so worth it!

    PS forgive me spelling errors etc. I’m Dutch! 🙂

  11. Lizzie on

    A huge thank you to Debbie & Nicole for your responses.

    To Debbie, yes I have had Gracie on meds, as you suggested this before, both drugs and non drugs, and a Dap diffuser. Nothing has made any difference. Maybe I need to try something different. I talked to my vet about Valium but she would not prescribe it, as it can make dogs aggressive as they become totally uninhibited.

    Gracie has only recently started to show an interest in play, but it is food orientated as food is the ONLY way I have managed to get her to do anything. To go out with a dog like Gracie is enough, I need both hands to hold on to her sometimes, then there are treats, and poo bags etc Toys would not hold any distraction for her. I constantly refer to your website, as I have mentioned before, I also have your e-book. Both have been invaluable to me as I am a novice with this particular behaviour in a dog.

    I do agree with Nicole however, in that every dog is different. Gracie was a puppy mill breeding bitch. I think she must have been there all her life, she is around 6-8 years old. That is a long time. I can understand therefore her fear of people.
    She is OK around me though, will follow me when asked, sit for food, lie down for food, seek out food on the floor, wait when asked, move from her bed when called. She targets me for treats and will come right up to me now for treats. Plus she will allow me to handle her for any reason or no reason. All of the above I have achieved in the 6 months she has been with me. I think that is progress, when she first arrived she was no more than a feral dog.

    I realise that 6 months is not a long time for a dog like this. I just have to find a way to get through to her. And yes I do take her out early in the morning and late at night as well, but then so do some other people I’m afraid.
    To date I have taken your advice either from you directly or from your website/e-book, and I am hugely grateful for it.

    Nicole, could I reply to you directly? I will post my e-mail address if that would be OK with Debbie.

  12. Blueszz on

    Hello Lizzie,
    to avoid Spam it’s better *not* to post your email adddress here. As Debbie posted her address above, you might email her. I’ll send her my address again, just be sure, I don’t know if she kept it or not. I hope, but I think she is willing to help us to get privat email contact, without posting your privat email addy here.

    I look forward to your emails!

  13. fearfuldogs on

    I’m glad that the ebook helped you out.

    You are welcome to share your email address with Nicole, it’s helpful to have someone to share ideas with.

    One thought about using meds, you don’t mention which, is that getting the correct dose and best med can take some experimenting. I started Sunny on Clomipramine and then went to Prozac. I use Xanax with him situationally and do that less now as he’s gotten better at being in new places. He gets Prozac daily and Xanax around a half a dozen times a year. Do some searches for articles written by Dr. Karen Overall about the use of meds. They’re good to have on hand for a vet that isn’t up to speed on behavioral meds.

    I hate the way it sounds, all this drug use, but for a dog that is totally overwhelmed by their world, I can’t help but feel like I am doing him a service. Another piece of the equation is how much change you expect to see. If anyone is looking for dramatic improvements, they’ll be disappointed. I suspect that most of the positive changes that my dog experiences from the meds are not even noticeable, things like reduced heart rate when in a stressful situation, less cortisol production, etc. I did not notice grand changes in behavior right away, but the building blocks are there and I keep him on the meds because I did notice an overall improvement in his behavior over time. But he is and I’m afraid may always be, a damaged dog.

    You are correct, six months is not much time for a dog like yours and it is challenging to live in a populated area with a dog afraid of people. Sunny lucked out in that we live in a wooded rural area where people are rarely seen. But that means I have to really work on taking advantage of situations when people are around for CC/DS. Often I’m too lazy or busy to drop everything and go out and play ‘look at that’, or focusing exercises.

    One game you can try playing with her is Get The Heck Out of Dodge (GHOD). You work on it at home in a safe place so both of you can do it quickly. It’s basically a back up and turn around move. It’s done happily with lots of rewarding. Come up with something to say which is likely to come out of your mouth when you are walking and see something that is going to spook your dog, but say it in a happy voice, ‘OH OH!’ then back up, call the dog, praise, reward, whatever and then briskly walk the other direction away from the problem. It’s just a tactic to have on hand for those walks when people appear.

    I would say that you are getting through to Gracie! The fact that she’ll come to you for treats is huge. Also remember that you are working with an older adult dog. What rocks their world may be a good ear scratch and back rub as opposed to a rousing game of tug.

    I think Gracie is very lucky to have landed with you and that you are going to end up a better trainer for having her.

  14. fearfuldogs on

    Lizzie you can send me your email address and I’ll pass Nicole’s along to you.

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