Archive for August, 2009|Monthly archive page

I Can Do That!

Owners of fearful or shy dogs are often told that they need to build their dog’s confidence, but just what does that mean? I start with the definition of ‘confidence’ which is to my thinking, the ability to reliably predict that your actions will have a successful outcome. A dog’s definition of ‘success’ will affect whether or not something actually helps them feel more confident.

Some dogs, like some people seem ready to plunge into life without a thought about potentially consequences (e.g., teenage boys), while others seem to hang back and need encouragement and time to try something new. Just watching another dog do something that is scary to a fearful dog is not enough for a fearful dog to feel confident enough to try it themselves. I could watch people jump out of airplanes all day and I probably never work up the nerve to do it myself. Anyone that thought that putting me in a plane and tossing me out, so I could learn how much fun it was, would earn a spot on my s**t list. Yet all too often this is how owners treat their fearful dogs. They may not be tossing them out of planes but they are making them stand still while a small monster pets them, or they are putting a leash on them and subjecting them to the attention of gangs of dogs that for all their dog knows, are out for his lunch money.

Toastmasters International is an organization dedicated to helping people learn the art of public speaking. Regular meetings help people learn how to construct interesting speakerand informational speeches, while giving them the opportunity to stand in front of a supportive group of people and practice. Even with practice and a good speech, finding yourself on a stage with dozens of pairs of eyes staring at you can get your heart pumping and thoughts jumbling out of control. But with knowledge of how to deal with this physiological effect, it becomes possible to focus on your task and succeed. Each success leads to more confidence in your ability to perform in front of crowd.

To achieve more comfort in this situation you know your speech backward & forward. You practice at home in front of a mirror or with someone you feel comfortable with. You make mistakes and correct them, practicing until those mistakes are fewer and further between. You learn to take a few deep breaths, slowing yourself down before you jump into action. A good coach will remind you of this as you train. Bit by bit your physical response to being on stage begins to lessen, stage fright may never go away totally, but it becomes manageable. And if you make a mistake you discover that it is not fatal, you move on.

For some dogs much of the world is like a stage where their hearts race and their only thought of success is to flee the scene. By working with your dog to teach them skills they can use when faced with what scares them, they can begin to experience success in other ways. They don’t need to run away or snarl to keep scary things at bay, turning and walking away works just as well (and gets them a treat and some words of praise for a job well done).

Think about the skills you can teach your dog at home, with praise and encouragement, before you ask them to climb onto that big scary world stage.


Practice Makes….More Likely!

Adam & NookIf you are living with a fearful dog who has inappropriate responses to the things it’s afraid of, cowering, lunging, barking, growling, fleeing, etc., it is important to understand something about how animals (including humans) behave when stressed. When your dog is afraid, it is experiencing stress. When an animal is stressed and needs to respond it is more likely to perform whatever behavior it has performed in the past, you could call this behavior a habit. So your dog may be in the habit of snapping at small children. As long as your dog feels stressed, and this is the habit your dog has, this is the behavior you are most likely to see when near small children.

People who are required to perform in stressful situations, police, fire fighters, soldiers, actors, or musicians, for example, will practice whatever behavior is appropriate for situations they may find themselves in. A police officer will practice drawing their weapon, aiming and firing, soldiers may practice dropping to the ground, actors will rehearse their lines and stage directions, musicians will practice their piece over and over again. When these people find themselves in a stressful situation they are more likely to perform the behaviors they have practiced and which have become habits.

In order to help a fearful dog behave more appropriately in stressful situations it’s important to give them the opportunity to practice an alternate behavior at which they can become proficient. This will become the behavior which will replace the one that you don’t like. But in order to learn and practice this new behavior the dog needs to be in a situation in which it does not feel stressed or the level of stress has to be low enough so that they do not revert to whatever behavior has become a habit for them.

The way to learn any behavior is to begin slowly, gradually adding to the difficulty of it. The fewer mistakes made in the process the less likely those mistakes will be repeated. If you are teaching someone to drive a car, it’s best to begin in a parking lot, preferably empty, rather than on a busy highway. If you are working to teach your dog to sit and look at you, it’s best to begin in a place where your dog feels comfortable and can focus. As this behavior becomes more reliable in this place you can begin to work in more challenging locations, always striving to practice the appropriate behavior, not the old habit.

When it comes to dogs and people, practice may not always make perfect, but it does make it more likely!

For more information about how to help a fearful dog be sure to visit the Fearful Dogs website

Guest Blogger Veronica Zimmerman

Over the years I’ve been working with my own fearful dog and learning about fear based behaviors and how to change them, I’ve corresponded with many others who are doing the same. There is something to be learned by each of our experiences with our dogs and Veronica’s post addresses many of the important components of how to go about helping a fearful dog. Veronica is the owner and Canine Clicker Trainer at V’s Cloud 9 K-9 LLC.

Tye not so fearful anymore!I recently took in a puppy, a golden retriever mix, which was abandoned on the side of the road. He was found covered with blue paint ball paint and oil. He was very reactive to people, especially children and men with tattoos. I focused on counter conditioning him to various situations in combination with TTouch. I’ve been working with him for about two months and he is now approaching people with an open mouth, wiggly butt and showing more confidence. This includes men and children. He will still bark at some men, however, he is able to refocus and adapt within a few seconds. He is not the same frightened little puppy I first met.

I combine clicker training with TTouch TM in some cases for fearful or reactive dogs to change the emotional state and help the dog gain confidence. I first start by determining what triggers the dog and what its threshold is. You always want to work one step below the dog’s threshold where he or she will accept treats. In this case I began clicking him and giving him treats every time he turned to look at a person in the distance. I would click him before he had a chance to react. Soon the puppy began looking for people and turning to look at me as soon as he saw someone as if to say “Look, aren’t you going to click me? I just spotted a person, where is my paycheck?” This told me he was ready to move forward. And by forward I mean baby steps, always remaining just one step below the dog’s threshold. This was conditioning him to see people as a positive event vs. a negative one.

I would also use other distractions, such as having him target my hand, look at my eyes and target my shoe when I could not control the distance from people dog massagepassing by. What can I tell you, it doesn’t matter if you put a vest with big letters on your dog that says “DO NOT TOUCH, I’M IN TRAINING”, people see a fluffy puppy and lose their reading and listening skills. In some instances I was forced to get up and start walking in the opposite direction as if we were going to play a game of chase. It’s important to use the “Jolly routine” in these instances so your dog doesn’t feel that you are running from danger but because we are going to go play. I was also using TTouch on his ears, mouth, head, tail and neck. In the beginning I also used a wrap to help ease tension on his hind quarters. People that met the puppy before the training tell me that he’s not the same dog.

I hope this information helps someone else out there with a fearful dog.

Cue Happy Please!

SunnySomething that has helped me with my fearful dog Sunny has been to create ‘cues’ which change how he’s feeling. Most dog owners do this with their dogs all the time, ‘wanna go for a walk!?’, ‘want a cookie?’ probably at the very least cause a dog to perk up its ears and pay attention. If walks and cookies are enjoyable for the dog they will likely even display behaviors that could be interpreted as a ‘happy’ or ‘excited’ when those questions are asked.

Many of the verbal cues I use with Sunny that seem to change how he feels came about in the course of our daily lives. Telling Sunny to ‘go get your friz!’ was positively reinforced by the play that followed my request. I use this cue to interrupt or distract him if he’s getting upset about something, a car or cyclist passing by, or a visitor arriving at the house. When asked to get his frisbee he not only becomes a happier dog, the play that follows, often in the presence of a trigger, helps to counter condition him to it. My husband, who Sunny still wishes lived somewhere else, can say it and will get the same happy response, it’s one of the few ways he is able to get a positive emotional response from Sunny.

I have other cues or conditioned stimuli that have a positive emotional response associated with them. If I wave my hands in the air above my head when I am inside the house and Sunny is outside looking in, he will wag his tail in a happy way. I use the tone of my voice to get him to wiggle and wag when I talk to him, especially when I want to interrupt a behavior I believe is being caused by fear.

It is important to think of how you use cues for emotional responses carefully. I never tell Sunny to get his frisbee if there are no frisbees to be had or if he physically cannot go after it, while walking on a leash for example, it would soon lose it’s value. If a particular cue works in one place but not another, I don’t push it, again I don’t want it to lose it’s value. I tried to use ‘a friend!’ cue to get Sunny less worried about seeing new people (it worked great with my non-fearful cocker to get her to stop barking at guests at the door) but even though paired with super treats his reaction to people is so intense that if I say ‘a friend!’ he visibly prepares to be frightened. Instead of a cue to be happy I created a predictor to be scared!

Think about the things that you do or say that make your dog happy and then look at how you can use them to change how your dog feels in situations which provoke a fearful response.

Pill Popping

I am a member of an online group devoted to discussing fearful behavior in dogs and offering support and advice to owners. After reading several messages about a particular dog it sounded as though it would benefit from the use of a behavioral medication. A reply to my suggestion was posted, lamenting the ‘automatic’ response people have about choosing to pop pills for their fearful dogs.

I decided not to be offended by the assertion that my suggestion to someone, or to use medications with my own dog, was based on an impulse to automatically choose ‘pill popping’ over an alternative. But I was compelled to respond.

There are dogs for whom limiting and controlling their environment may be the kindest thing. I was not ready to make that choice for my dog without at least trying as many techniques and tools available to me, including behavioral medications.

drugsAs I sit at my desk to my left is a bottle of DAP spray. To my right, a 6” ace bandage to use as an anxiety wrap along with a partial burned moxa stick (like charcoal) which the acupuncturist recommended I use to heat up Sunny’s heart and kidney regions (that didn’t go over big with him as you might imagine). I’ve used up the Chinese herb mixture I purchased to help his heart energy in between acupuncture session. Also used up is the Composure liquid sold to me by my vet. In the cupboard in the kitchen you’ll find a jar of powdered herbs for calming, Rescue Remedy is in the downstairs bathroom. Upstairs in the bedroom is the melatonin which was the first supplement I tried with Sunny, and lavender oil is by the bed, Sunny never did seem to like it but I take a few whiffs every night to help me fall asleep.

On the bookshelves in my office you’ll find dozens of books about dog training, Ttouch, herbs, raw food diets, dog breeds & behavior. An overflowing file folder on my desk has magazines, articles and handouts about training, medications and behavior. Next to my bed are dozens of research papers, many of which were very interesting but most bored or frustrated me to tears (actually quite good as sleeping aids). One, written by a trainer from the U.K., who shuns the use of medications, documents how he was able to change the fearful response of dogs that were afraid of gunshots and another of hot air balloons, without the use of drugs. Oh that my dog was just afraid of hot air balloons and gunshots.

I believe that the kaleidoscope of emotions dogs experience goes beyond just varying shades of fear, though when we speak of our scared dogs we rarely say more than that. When I looked at my dog, who spent day after day in the corner of our living room I saw not only fear, I saw what I would describe as depression and I’ll take the risk and say, even sadness. It was because of this that I initially allowed my dog to be my ‘wild boy’ spending his days off leash outside, usually perched on the hillside behind the house, coming down to try to steal frisbees or tennis balls from my other dog. He still was wary and afraid of me, but he was active and engaged and the hours it took me to get him back inside many nights apparently seemed worth it to me.

I did not choose to use medications with my dog because I don’t think that all the alternatives available to us are worthless. Indeed I think that they are all probably helpful in some way and should be used with the same care and oversight that one uses drugs. I don’t stick needles in my dog on my own and I don’t experiment with herbs because I believe that if they are powerful enough to help my dog they may also be potent enough to cause problems. I did choose to use medications in part because they are easy and relatively inexpensive. Fault me for that if you like but I have other dogs and other things to do with the hours in my day, and the dollars in my bank account. And since I was never sure if I was doing Ttouch correctly or if I had actually located Sunny’s heart & kidney regions, I didn’t want to waste time, time which as we all know, is all too limited in the lifetime of our dogs.

Medication alone is not enough to help a fearful dog in the long term (though from my dog’s perspective I’d guess that the short term is more important anyway) so along with counter conditioning and desensitization on a daily basis I attend classes with my dog. I don’t do it because I ever plan on competing in obedience or agility, I do it because training classes are one of the few places where I can control the environment. There are other dogs which make Sunny more comfortable and the people in class usually follow my instructions not to talk to or look at my dog. Though the training is important for managing Sunny I attend these classes because I believe that the engagement in non-habitual movements helps his brain.

When I finally made an appointment to meet with a well-respected trainer in our area, several months after Sunny came to live with me, she, after reading the information I provided about Sunny suggested that I contact my vet and put him on a behavioral medication. I might have balked but had been a member of this group and had read the discussions about meds and followed her advice. It’s advice I wished I’d followed sooner after reading about it here. I wish I had given Sunny an anti-anxiety medication before he raced around the house looking for an exit, defecating as he ran. I wish I’d given him a medication before I made him ride in the car, hiding on the floor or jumping out the window when he got the chance, I wish I’d given him something before he spent a month living in a corner. This list could go on.

As for my decision to use medications being automatic- I don’t think so.