Archive for April, 2009|Monthly archive page

Change The Picture

It has been years since I have made Sunny hit the dirt and go into panic mode, but that record is over today.

We all were having a nice lie down, it’s close to 90 degrees here. Sunny was with me, calm as could be. I got up and decided to carry an armload of wooden parquet tiles down the stairs, Sunny was next to me. Even though the stack was on a piece of plywood it was as though the plywood split (it didn’t) and the whole stack came crashing down next to and onto Sunny. He fled down the stairs flat as a pancake, crashed into the baby gate at the bottom and was out the door. Oooops. This would have scared any dog but it has added implications for Sunny since he remains cautious while indoors most of the time.

When I went out to see how he was doing he was giving me that wide eyed look that I was so familiar with. I stopped apologizing and said ‘get your frisbee’ his favorite game, and up went the tail, he pounced on a frisbee and then tried to get me to take it from him, his second favorite game. Whew.

Finding something that your dog loves and associating it with a verbal cue can come in handy.


A Sigh of Relief

shelter dogA friend recently contacted me to get information for her father who was soon to be acquiring a puppy. I sent her Ian Dunbar’s resources and wished him well. Last night I received an email from my friend, this time informing me that the puppy was timid and afraid, did I have any information about that? It just so happened I did. I directed them to the Fearful Dogs website and sent her a copy of the ebook A Guide To Living & Working With A Fearful Dog which I wrote in 2008 to help people struggling to understand how to work with their fearful, shy, timid dog.

This morning while driving home from a yoga class I thought about ‘relief’. While in a particularly challenging pose, trying hard to breathe through it, I could not help but long for the instructor’s direction to move from that pose into ‘child’s pose’ a lovely, comfy stretch on the floor. We are repeatedly encouraged not to hurt ourselves but just find our edge and gently explore it. Once out of the pose that had me ready to fall off the edge, I exhaled with relief. Whether it’s physical discomfort or emotional suffering, it feels so good to have it end.

Imagine what it would be like to be terrified, truly terrified, on a regular basis and the person that you are suppose to connect with either ignores your fear, whether it’s displayed by cowering or snarling, or shoves you from behind into what you perceive to be the jaws of death. Now imagine the relief you would feel if instead that person acknowledged your fear, and gently led you away from the horror, reassuring you that all would be well.

There are many ways to help scared dogs, but the first step is to get the dog to trust you. Call it leadership if you like, it’s not my first choice of terms. Due to the guidance of trainers like Cesar Millan, too many ‘leaders’ view any refusal or reaction to their demands to be a challenge to their authority or that their dog is trying to dominate them. A fearful dog is just a fearful dog, doing what it feels it needs to, to protect itself. So whether it’s refusing to follow you down a flight of stairs or growling when you approach its crate, it’s just afraid, plain and simple.

I thought about what could be said to someone first embarking on the journey of working with a scared puppy that would be simple to understand and relate to. I came up with this-Think about your scared dog as if it were a young child, a girl perhaps, with chubby cheeks and big eyes that gaze up at you adoringly, and then see those eyes go wide with fright and concern. Treat your dog the way you’d treat that young child. Understand that their fear may not seem reasonable to you, but that doesn’t change its intensity for them. Consider how you would ease their fears and then take them away and think about how tomorrow you can make it a better experience for them.

We can never know what a dog is thinking but because we share the same part of the brain that processes fear, it’s reasonable to assume that we can imagine what a dog’s fear feels like. Hopefully few of us are ever as afraid as many dogs are, but try to imagine what a dog is feeling, and then offer them some relief.

Punishment & Stress

good dogIt often happens that the dogs most adversely affected by punishment are the ones that end up dealing with it the most. Young dogs, inexperienced dogs, immature dogs, sensitive dogs, fearful dogs, aggressive dogs, all of which can be unclear on the rules of the games their humans are expecting them to play. All dogs can be adversely affected by punishment improperly applied but we’ve all run into the dog that isn’t stopped from wanting to continue to launch into all that life has to offer because of harsh words or physical corrections. Being told off when their nose gets too close to the cheese and crackers on the coffee table doesn’t stop them from checking for crumbs on the floor .

I board dogs at my home. When owners come with their pet for an initial meet & greet to determine if my set-up is appropriate for their dog I have the opportunity to see a variety of owner/dog interactions in play.

It’s not unusual for a good dog to be stressed when they arrive in a new place and are introduced to unfamiliar dogs. If a dog’s response to this stress is treated as if it’s bad behavior (e.g. jumping, growling), and the dog is reprimanded or physically corrected, the dog often becomes more stressed, and their inappropriate responses can escalate.

Untrained, inexperienced or immature dogs can fall victim to this type of treatment because they do not have the skills to know how to behave appropriately and as their anxiety level increases their behavior degrades even further. It’s a bad cycle and not obvious to many owners who attribute the failure of their dog to behave to the quality of the correction, so like someone shouting to someone who is deaf, they assume louder and more forceful is in order. Fearful and aggressive dogs are already suffering from an emotional overload that punishment only fuels.

You can stop raising both your blood pressure and your dog’s by changing your focus and noticing and rewarding appropriate behaviors instead of just being annoyed by the inappropriate ones.

The Basics

pupI’m going to keep this one short and sweet. If you are working with a fearful dog you must at the very least understand the concepts of counter conditioning and desensitization.

Desensitization is the gradual introduction and increase in exposure to the things your dog is afraid of. The exposure is only increased when the dog exhibits comfort with the situation or object. Go too fast and you set yourself back by causing a fearful reaction to whatever you’re trying to get the dog used to. This usually requires more time and patience than people give it. When it doesn’t work they blame the concept and not the way they implemented it.

Counter conditioning is the pairing of something the dog is afraid of, with something the dog loves. It’s classical conditioning except that you’re changing a negative association to a positive one. It is done in combination with desensitization. If the dog cannot engage with whatever you’re using to create the positive association, food treats or a toy for example, then you are not counter conditioning. If your dog will refuse to eat a super favorite treat when someone is 4 feet away, then try having the person be 10 feet away and see what happens. The biggest mistake that people usually make is not having the reward be of high enough value, and using enough of it, often enough, to outweigh the negative feeling the dog has for its fear object.


Got attention?I never gave much thought to the risks of using corrections when training dogs until Sunny, my fearful dog came into my life. Even the casual ‘uh uh’ that I would use when one of my other dogs’ noses was getting precariously close to the cheese on the coffee table, would have sent him cowering off. I had to find ways not only to get this dog comfortable with me, but I also had to train him. How can you train a dog if you can’t correct inappropriate behavior?

I have come to realize that the answer to the question in most situations is that unless a dog has a crystal clear understanding of what is expected of them and been give the opportunity to practice it repeatedly, there is no disobedience. I may not like the behavior, I may want the dog to do something differently, but the dog is not being disobedient or bad. Some trainers might say that any behavior performed by a dog which is not what was requested of them, is due to ineffective training, the handler’s problem, not the dog’s.

I have more thinking to do on that one, but have learned from my scared dog that his failure to perform a certain behavior usually has to do with something making it difficult for him, something scaring or distracting him. In effect he is not unwilling, as much as unable, to do what I ask him to do. This does not mean that it is OK for him to not follow through when asked for a behavior, it means that I need to think about how to make it so he can perform the behavior, and we can practice it. Raising my voice, snapping his leash or some other form of correction would only turn him into the scared zombie I worked so hard to vanquish from the corner of our living room.

I provide kennel-free boarding in my home. The folks who bring their dogs to stay with me are among the best pet owners on the planet. Yet almost each one assumes that their dog is being disobedient when it does not do what is asked of it. When dogs and owners arrive at my house for the ‘meet & greet’ during which I assess whether we are a good match, I let dogs have a roam around the place and meet other dogs. At some point I want to determine if we share any common language, I offer the dog a treat and ask for a ‘sit’, trying out a couple of common hand signals and body postures for the cue. If the dog does not know how to sit when asked their owner tells me.

Dogs which have been trained and are comfortable may try to gobble up the treat or if I have managed to say or do something the dog understands, they snappily put their butts down. But many dogs will not sit and to date few owners have ever responded with anything other than ‘S/he knows how to sit!’ at which time they usually raise their voice and say, ‘FIDO SIT!’ as if the problem was that their dog did not hear me or needed to be addressed with more forcefulness. Fido may turn his head at the sound of his name and then refocus on me, I am after all the one with the cheese stick, or he turns and goes to his owner, often displaying appeasement body language, unsure why he was just shouted at. For a nervous dog this does nothing to lower their stress level and few dogs can arrive in a new place, be surrounded by strange dogs and humans and not feel somewhat unsure and stressed.

I know that owners feel like they are being tested and that I am checking to see how well trained their dogs are, but I am not. I am looking for common ground to establish a relationship with their dog. I don’t doubt that their dog does know how to sit when asked, but realize that they have not had the chance to practice this behavior in enough places, with enough distractions, being asked by enough people, to be able to perform it their first few minutes with me. But if even great pet owners can be unaware of the fact that dogs do not generalize behaviors easily, what of the other dogs that are living with people quick to assume that their dogs are being disobedient and just as quick to correct/punish them for it?*

When I was growing up, before she headed off to work, my mother would leave pieces of white paper, from small notepads (this was pre-Post Its), on the kitchen counter. After school I would return home to find these pieces of paper with benign chores for me to perform written on them. Dust the woodwork, vac the living room, peel potatoes, and the like, nothing horrible except that they were being requested of a kid who would have preferred watching TV, going outside to play or just do nothing. I began to dread seeing those slips of white paper. It was years later when I realized how I had been conditioned to feel a certain way about those bits of paper.

My mother sent a care package to me while I was away at college. The box made me feel happy and excited to see what was inside. After slicing through the tape that sealed the box I lifted the flaps and there on top of my prizes was a slip of white paper on which she’d jotted a note. I felt my stomach tighten and drop. The note was short and positive, “Enjoy! Love, your mother” yet it had elicited in me the same feeling of dread I had experienced for years as I had when I was growing up and saw those too familiar sheets of white notepaper asking me to do something I didn’t want to do. I knew it made no sense, the box had good stuff in it, but I could not help that initial reaction.

So what, you might ask.

We can create similar feelings of dread in our dogs when we pair training with corrections. For some dogs it may not make much difference, they can tolerate a raised voice or collar yank without so much as batting an eye, but for many other dogs their intial reaction to being ‘trained’ may be an immediate feeling of concern or dread, especially when they do not understand why they are being shouted at or yanked. The timing needed to make punishment effective is not a skill that even many professional trainers have. Unsure of what is expected of them dogs may delay their response, trying to sort out what to do next in order to avoid or prevent the correction. Unfortunately this can create a cycle of increasingly harsher ‘corrections’ which unless the dog catches on quickly, can escalate into a situation which many trainers are familiar with, the owner who professes to have ‘tried everything’ to get their dog to behave the way they want. It’s good for business, but not so good for the dog whose owner throws up their hands and delivers it to the nearest shelter.

While it is important that owners of fearful dogs pay careful attention to how they work with their pets, it’s worth any pet owner reconsidering the use of corrections when training their dogs. It doesn’t mean that you let your dogs go for the cheese on the table, you train your dogs to understand a cue which means stop what you’re doing and check in with me for more information.

As for me and those white slips of paper- I got over it, must have been those peanut butter filled, glazed, chocolate cake treats that began to accompany the notes.

*Punishment is anything that causes a behavior to decrease. Corrections are used to stop behaviors that are not the ones being asked for (stop not sitting!, stop not coming!), so are punishment.

Guest Blogger Roxanne Hawn

Fearfuldogs: Tell me about your dog Lilly.

Roxanne: Lilly is a nearly 5-year-old smooth coat border collie, adopted at 6 months old from a progressive humane society in Boulder, CO. She came in as a transfer. So, she lived in two shelters and a foster home before we adopted her. She passed all temperament testing with better-than-average scores even though she did show some shyness/fear. She lives with us and a nearly 9-year-old Lab/Greyhound mix named Ginko.

Lilly has always been fearful, which we’ve always worked on, but at around 2 1/2 years old (social maturity), she developed an extreme intolerance of other dogs. She decided that a good offense was the best defense. We’ve been working on that ever since … along with severe generalized anxiety/fear that I have only fully understood in the last year or so.

Our behaviorist says that if you combine genetics, a deprived puppyhood (poor socialization), and numerous illnesses (including parvo), you’ll get dogs just like Lilly again and again.

Our blog, Champion of My Heart, tells the tale of this once promising agility dog who is too afraid to run a course in front of other dogs. At home, she’s great.

I talk about nearly accepting we’ll never be good at agility, but the real story is what else I’ve learned along the way. Our working goal is a book deal, but having each other is what matters. Lilly is the most important canine relationship of my life.

Fearfuldogs: Was there a time when you thought twice about keeping your dog? If so why, and why did you decide to keep her?

Never. When I first looked into getting help from a behaviorist, that’s one of the first questions they ask, and it made me think our situation wasn’t so bad, if my answer was no.

I’m a big believer in “Dog-girl, know thyself,” and as difficult as Lilly’s fears can be, it’s nowhere near my breaking point. I know from experience that one thing I cannot live with is a dog I don’t trust — a dog that shows aggression toward me.

I trust Lilly with my life. She is an amazing dog — smart, funny, loving, active. Do I wish she didn’t worry so much? Sure. Would I trade this experience for anything? Nope. She makes me a better person and an infinitely better dog trainer.

Have you had to modify or change your lifestyle because of your dog?

Roxanne: Before Lilly, my dog training experience was of the Petsmart variety (no offense). Now, I joke that I’m earning a Ph.D. in dog behavior from the University of Dogs with Issues, so in that way, she is a major undertaking. I spend a lot of time and money on consults, training, medications and such. Even with some financial shifts, like giving up weekly yoga classes (after 10+ years of study) to pay for dog classes, Lilly feels more like an improvement, not a sacrifice.

That said, until I find a boarding kennel equipped to handle a sensitive dog like Lilly, I do not travel.

The only other thing is that I cannot open the window over the sink in the kitchen. We had some windows replaced a couple years ago, and Lilly is afraid of them. I’ve successfully desensitized her to the ones that go up and down, but the one over the sink slides side to side and squeaks ever so slightly, even though we’ve oiled it, etc. If that window stays closed for another 10 years, I’m OK with that.

I’m sure there are other things that have become so normal I can’t think of them.

Fearfuldogs: During the time you’ve had your dog what has been the most exciting improvement in her behavior you’ve witnessed?

Roxanne: We took a long break from weekly group classes (advanced pet dog training), when we began working with a behaviorist from Colorado State University in July 2008. After avoiding drugs and trying all manner of holistic options, our current plan includes medications (clomipramine & alprazolam) and detailed, regimented behavior modification work, mostly in the classical conditioning model.

I learned I had been doing far too much operant conditioning (trying to get Lilly to act her way out of being afraid), rather than trying to change how she feels first.

We attend a group class, outdoors in various locations, about once a month now. A couple of times recently, other dogs accidentally challenged her, but Lilly handled it beautifully and with restraint.

The first one, a young, rambunctious lab, who lives with a training pal of ours, came flying toward Lilly flapping a weasel toy. Lilly was working off leash at the time. When she glanced up and saw him running toward her, I said, “Leave it.” And, she did, going back to work.

 Funny enough, after she headed toward me as the second part of the exercise, the pup came racing back the other direction. He would have bowled her over, but she waited for him to run past and then continued toward me, stopping perfectly into a down … just as I’d asked before the encounter began. 

It was the cutest thing. Lilly had this look on her face like, “Look at this goofy pup.”

The key was that he was more interested in the toy, than Lilly. I always tell people that Lilly doesn’t mind other dogs as long as they don’t pay attention to her.

Then, a few weeks later, a young, pushy German Shepherd got loose from her owner and came flying at us at class. This dog arrived wearing a shock collar, which our trainer won’t allow and which, I believe, is telling.

I was giving Lilly a break when the dog ran up, so Lilly was up on a big rock at the time. Lilly shot off one warning bark, dropped her head, and offered a convincing show of teeth. The dog did not relent. So, Lilly jumped down and offered another stiff-bodied warning, where she gave her best Border Collie Eye (intense stare). The dog did not relent.

So, even though I think Lilly was justified in her correction, I stepped between them, and Lilly and I walked away. The dog followed, but we kept moving away. Eventually, someone got her, but I kept Lilly far away from the group for several minutes to give her recovery time. She was upset, but bounced back.

After class, our longtime trainer (the only one who didn’t give up on us) said she felt like it was a huge breakthrough for Lilly to handle a challenge like that with such poise. Even weeks earlier, she felt the encounter would have been awful.

Other classmates, who’ve known us for years, also say Lilly seems like a different dog. So, while it’s hard for me to see the change day to day, others notice.

It’s a long story, but Lilly has a best-best dog friend named Katie (a young, wild Borzoi), who nearly became our third dog recently. Katie has amazing dog-dog savvy and helps Lilly practice her dog-relationship skills.


We blog at least five days a week. On Fridays, we always post a training update, for those following our saga.

Fearfuldogs: If anything was to happen to you, what are your plans for your dog?

Roxanne: I’m married, so my husband would take care of Lilly if something happened to me. While he doesn’t do the hands-on training, he knows enough about the methods to keep her happy and safe.

Fearfuldogs: Where does your dog spend most of her time?

Roxanne: At my side. As a professional, freelance writer, I have the luxury of working at home. So, we’re pretty much together all day, every day. She usually stays in my office with me, either on a bed under my desk or on her doggie sofa near the windows. We often let both dogs snuggle with us for a few hours at night, before they head to their crates to sleep.

My husband works at home too, so especially in the summer, we work outside and hangout with the dogs.

You might think this means Lilly is a prime case for separation anxiety, but I’m happy to report that’s one fear she does not have. She’s completely fine being left alone in the house or in the car (when weather allows).

Fearfuldogs: Thanks Roxanne! Be sure to check out Lilly’s updates at