Archive for July, 2009|Monthly archive page

In A Court Of Law

I recently had a brief, somewhat unpleasant email exchange with someone living with a 100 pound American Bulldog that was aggressive, to the point of having bit the owner in the face. From the description of the dog- it had been a timid, cowering in the corner puppy- it sounded as though the dog had learned some effective methods for keeping people and other dogs away from it. The owner was asking about ways to work with a dog that was constantly trying to ‘dominate’ them.

I encourage people to find a local trainer who can help them since it is impossible to accurately assess a dog’s behavior and then explain how to work with them, via email. It was not my goal or purpose when I created the website. But I understand and empathize with owners who are struggling to find someone they can contact for help. This owner was very clear that they were not willing to pay a trainer to help them with their dog. The potential expenses from vet, doctor or lawyer bills would far exceed the cost of a trainer, but this argument was not enough to sway them.

The exchange got unpleasant when I tried to explain that their dog probably did not have a dominance problem, it likely had a fear problem. They assured me that they ‘knew’ what dominance looked like: the dog was jumping on them and other dogs, it was growling, snapping and biting, they weren’t stupid! I tried explaining it this way-“If you were afraid of snakes and I came at you with a snake and you pushed me away, were you trying to dominate me?” If you want to use the dictionary definition then sure, the dog is trying to control its environment and if it happens to weigh 100 pounds it stands a good chance of doing that by using the tools at hand, its body and teeth.

The problem is that if you handle a dog with fear issues as though you have a confident dog that is a bully, you are likely to make the fear problem worse. Indeed you might even make the bullying problem worse in a confident dog as well.

If you are five years old and are afraid of someone you might scream, cry, try to run & hide or perhaps even struggle (doing little damage if what you’re afraid of is bigger than you). But if you’re an adult and someone threatens you (we feel fear because we feel threatened in one way or another) and you happen to have a pistol in your hand, you might pull the trigger. In the future you might decide that brandishing a weapon is more effective than cowering, pleading or running. As dogs get older and bigger they too can discover that certain behaviors are more effective in making what they want to have happen, happen. So they give up the subtle doggie communications of ‘looks aways’, yawning, lip licking, rolling over, cowering, even moving away, and replace them with displays of aggression. If subtle displays of aggression don’t work, lip raises, growls, air snaps, they may learn that more intense displays of aggression, lunging, barking, biting or muzzle punches, do.

Trying to stop an aggressive response by making the dog feel bad about it, by using punishment, is not a long term solution. Yelling at, yanking on, hitting or kicking a dog that is behaving aggressively can backfire. The dog may redirect its energy toward the handler or something else nearby. For many dogs the application of any kind of punishment only makes a bad situation worse. They are punished AND the scary thing does not go away. For long term success in changing a reactive dog’s behavior you must change the dog’s emotional response to what scares them AND teach the dog an appropriate behavior which not only works to keep bad things at bay, it provides other rewards as as well.

In a court of law if a person injures or kills someone who has threatened them they will likely be treated with leniency. Unfortunately when a dog threatens or bites someone they will not be shown the same leniency, nor should it necessarily be the case that they are. As much sympathy as I have for a fearful dog that bites, it poses a very real threat. In a court of law and opinion, aggressive dogs usually lose. Fearful dogs who are treated as though they have a dominance problem are likely to become more aggressive, not less. Before your dog needs a lawyer, find a trainer that understands fear-based aggression and how to help dogs that exhibit it.


Guest Blogger: Eric Goebelbecker

Discovering that I was not alone when it came to the challenges of living with a fearful dog helped me to keep my sanity when Sunny first came to live with me. Understanding that his behavior was not unusual for a dog that was not properly socialized, and getting advice and suggestions from other fearful dog owners and trainers has been key to the progress he’s made.

Eric Goelbecker owns and runs Dog Spelled Forward dog training part-time in Maywood NJ, while working full-time as a software engineer on Wall Street. He hopes to transition Dog Spelled Forward to full-time in a few years. He is a Certified Pet Dog Trainer (CPDT.)

After adopting a puppy that was a “bit of a handful” in 2000, Eric discovered modern dog training via classes at St. Hubert’s Dog Training School, experiencing first hand what can be done with dog-friendly techniques.

Gage’s Tale

gageinatorI have a fearful dog. The good news is I sometimes have to remind myself of that fact. Gage leads a pretty normal life, all things considered.

Gage is a “failed foster.” My wife and I had been volunteering at a rescue for a while and decided that Caffeine, our back-in-those-glorious-days-of-only-one-dog dog, was ready to share the house with a foster. We took her to the rescue and she got along very well with Gage. Gage seemed a little shy, but we didn’t see anything that afternoon that foreshadowed his fear of new people and well, just about anything else new. He rode home with us, settled into the house very well, and immediately took a shine to Caffeine.

Soon thereafter, we saw the fearful behaviors. Gage was afraid of just about anything new: a trash can, an open closet door, an open laptop carried like a pizza…a pizza. Any novel sight drew a least a startle response, if not flight.

Gage was also very afraid of traffic. We brought him home on a weekend, so he didn’t see real traffic for almost 2 days. His reaction that Monday was very bad, and my wife had to cut the walk short.

At that time my only experience was in obedience training. I did a few web searches and found the shy-k9s Yahoo Group, signed up, read the information in the documents section, and a whole new world opened to me.

For a while the goal was to get Gage to a good place and then adopt him out. I was still only considering the idea of becoming a professional trainer and Gage served as a good way for me to try different things.

I signed up for classes with a clicker trainer that has a good reputation for success with shy dogs and set up a behavior modification plan at home for his issues with traffic.

The problem was, working with fearful dogs takes time and frequently if you do it right, you end up pretty attached to the dog. (At least I did.) As I progressed I became more and more attached and Gage ended up being “my” dog.

Gage is one of the family now. He’s never going to fully accept a new person. He is able to focus on one of us when we we stop to talk to someone during a walk instead of fixating on the person. Strangers coming into the house require some management, but he can cope and calm down in another room. Traffic took a long time, as keeping a Gage under threshold was very difficult and we don’t control the cars. He’s come a long way, but we still need to be careful around garbage trucks and a fire truck is a big problem.

I can’t stress enough how effective the targeting games on the site are. Gage will now slow down when he sees an “unexpected” object and then frequently just reach out his nose and tap it on cue. Giving him something to do instead of just panicking is a very powerful tool.

I was pretty much on my way to becoming a trainer when we found Gage, but he put things into high gear and made me a much better one. I owe him for that.

You can find Eric on Twitter @dogspelledfwd

Sunny’s Hoarder Arrested in Vermont!

I met Sunny at The Humane Society of Louisiana’s rescue site, Camp Katrina, set up after the hurricanes in 2005. He was found at the Every Dog Needs A Home ‘sanctuary’ in Gamaliel AR, run by Tammy Hanson. At the time the authorities and HSUS arrived on the site there were 477 dogs (news reports are saying close to 600 but I think this is the information that was originally released early on before the final numbers were in). Despite being convicted on several counts of animal cruelty, Tammy failed to appear at her sentencing hearing. She along with her husband have been fugitives ever since.

Many of us with dogs from the EDNAH site and volunteers at Camp Katrina, have never forgotten about Tammy Hanson. It was assumed that she had moved to a new location and was likely hoarding dogs again. At this time the news reports do not indicate whether she was discovered with dogs here in Vermont where she was apprehended Saturday along with her husband. It might be a cause for celebration but unfortunately the punishment rarely fits the crime when it comes to animal abuse, and it rarely stops or prevents the hoarder from collecting animals again once they are released or pay a fine. Some towns will only ban a hoarder from owning any animals in their county, so hoarders simply move to a different one.

It might also be a cause for celebration except that right now in almost every town across the country there are animals living in over crowded or just flat-out inhumane, disgusting conditions. Chronic hoarders are mentally ill and need more help than is available to them or is ever required by law after their convictions. I may not be celebrating but I am glad to hear that Tammy Hanson has been arrested and at least for the short time she may be in jail, no dogs will be forced to live in the conditions Sunny grew up in.

You can read more and see a short slide show at this website:

Guest Blogger Ali Brown Author of Scaredy Dog!

My guest blogger is Ali Brown, dog trainer and author of Scaredy Dog and Focus Not Fear. I asked Ali some questions and she kindly took the time to answer them. If there are nails to be hit on the head, Ali’s aim is right on!

AliPortraitHow did your interest in working with fearful dogs originate?

It all started just like everyone else did…when I realized I had a reactive dog! Acacia, my now 11-year old Belgian Sheepdog, was reactive toward people and dogs, and it came to a head when she was 2 years old, right after I spayed her. Prior to that she was a show dog.

Reactivity, in my book, is based in fear and anxiety. A fearful dog can either curl up and hide (turn in toward himself) or make a big scene to try to make the thing that scares it go away (turn outward, look aggressive, etc). Reactive dogs fit into the latter category. Most people think they are aggressive, but given the opportunity, reactive dogs will make alot of noise and then run away rather than bite.

Is there any training technique that you think is essential for trainers/owners of fearful dogs to understand/use?

Oh yes! A good understanding of classical conditioning is critical to being able to help fearful dogs. A dog’s underlying emotional response toward a stimulus must be changed before any operant learning can take place. So lots and lots of classical conditioning, and classical COUNTER conditioning, in particular, must be a huge part of the work done with a fearful dog.

What is one of the main mistakes you have noticed trainers/owners make with fearful dogs?

Oh boy, they do lots of things. They yell at the poor dog, put choke chains, prong collars, shock collars on them, flood them (expose them nonstop to the very things they are most fearful of until they ‘cease’ being fearful of it …which is ineffective, by the way)…all sorts of really sad and horrible things. Most folks don’t intend to further their dogs’ fears, but this is often what happens. Or the dog just shuts down entirely. Becuase the dog isn’t showing any behavior, the owners think the dog is ‘fixed’. In reality, the dog has completely shut down…not a very good quality of life.

Have your methods of working with fearful dogs changed during your time as a trainer?

Only in the sense that I have developed more and varied activities to do with fearful dogs! But my philosophy hasn’t changed one bit. Acacia is a testament to the loving, trusting relationship that we have developed as a result of the work we did together!

I know I have lots of other questions for you and readers might as well. What’s the best way for them to find out more about your ideas for working with fearful dogs?

The best thing they can do is go to or they can read Scaredy Dog! and/or watch the Scaredy Dog! DVD. I also have a second book out called Focus Not Fear, and we will be doing a companion DVD for that this summer. I hope!

Scaredy Dog!Focus Not Fear