Archive for November, 2009|Monthly archive page

Thanksgiving Thought

As challenging and frustrating as living with a fearful dog can be, learning to work with one successfully is the best education any trainer (and we are all our dogs’ trainers) can have. Here is my Thanksgiving thought of the day:

One of the ways that shy dogs help us become better trainers is they force us to acknowledge that they are behaving the way they are behaving for a reason, and even if we don’t like and can control the behavior, it behooves us to consider what elicited the behavior in the first place. We can suspect that for many dogs, but especially our shy ones, stress of some kind and at some level is motivating them. Our response can either add to or help decrease that stress, you make the choice.

Don’t forget to cut up some leftover turkey into small bits and put a few bags in the freezer so you have them on hand for counter conditioning sessions with your dog. And go ahead, eat too much pie!


Games One Shy Dog Owner Plays

Laurie from Saskatchewan recently shared some of the ways she discovered for inspiring her fearful dog Chewy to play. I didn’t want them to get lost in the ‘comment’ section of this blog so with her permission am sharing them with you here. Thanks Laurie!

Will that be cash or kibble?

Fetch is usually Chewy’s activity of choice so I’ve used that to teach her numerous words and phrases. (She knows approx 100 words/actions and related hand signals so far). It worked well right from the beginning (in the house) because we could interact in close proximity in an exciting, fun way without any physical touching unless she approached me directly.

I would sit on the floor several feet away and roll a ball to her or past her. She quickly became an incredible goalie. The only way I could win was to cheat- throw it over her head. She then learned to leap in the air and “grab” or “catch” those too.

The “go find it game” is one of the best teaching, bonding and confidence tools I know and fabulous mental exercise for her- a must for all dogs IMO and especially border collies. I started with hiding her ball or other favorite toys in plain view (behind me) while sitting on the floor and telling her to find it. Then I put on a jacket or hoodie and hid a toy on me while she watched-in my pockets, in the hood, up the back, get her excited and then tell her to find it. You can use a treat as well if your dog isn’t into toys. Once she knew the game, I would tell her to “stay”, then leave the room, hide it on me and return to sit and let her go at it.

The main reason I hid them on me in the very early days is that it made her eager to interact with me physically (sniffed me from head to toe, shoved her nose in my pocket, down my neck, pushed up the back of the hoodie to get the toy out). It always made me laugh out loud and she loves when I do that. Again, I just cheerily sat there without making a move to touch her at first.

Within a few months, she could find numerous objects by name in complex hiding places – upstairs on top of a door frame, on top of dressers or tables, under quilts and pillows, in the laundry hamper etc. If she can’t physically bring them to me, she signals she found the item by sitting or laying beside it.

When we go out, I ask her to find and bring her collar, leash, poop bag, my keys, purse. (Still won’t carry the latter. Too heavy maybe? lol) These items are never in the same place, so it’s actually very helpful. Helps me gather up laundry too.

She picks up items if I drop them at home and even at pet stores. There she carries them to the cashier and jumps up and puts it on the counter. As you can imagine, this took months but has done wonders for her confidence.

We did a lot of fun work at pet stores for very short stints at first at least 3x per week. It was scary for her at first with new sights, sounds and people, but it wasn’t long before she loved going there and we then moved to manners and polite greetings (feet on the floor please).

I also used a nearby park when no one was there to teach recall in a fun way. I used a long drag line (30′) at first. When she had explored for too long without looking at me, I would hide behind a tree and call her name and tell her to come find me. Other times I would just hide without calling her and she would always come barreling over to see where I’d gotten to. She was sooo excited to find me and it wasn’t long before she always kept an eye out for me to ensure I didn’t get lost.

Her reward for coming each time? Big praise, laughter, and being told to “go play”. My reward is now having a dog who will stop on a dime no matter what she’s doing, chasing dogs at the dog park, escorting a cat or squirrel out of the yard, and come to me every time I call her.

I also find it very effective to either squat down or go down on one knee and open my arms wide in getting her to come when I called her. Many people stand and bend forward over the dog as they arrive which can be very intimidating and threatening. Now all I have to do is drop into this position and she’ll come roaring over without me having to say a word. Great for longer distance communication too!

So for me, educating a fearful dog is at the top of my list. But if I do it right, she’ll never know that’s what it is.

Teaching A Dog To Play

Sunny making up with Derby

One of the search terms that landed a reader on the Fearful Dog’s blog was ‘how do I teach my shy dog to play with other dogs?’ Owners often want to give their dogs the opportunity to play with other dogs, which for a dog that enjoys playing with other dogs, is a kind and reasonable thing to do. But for many dogs, playing with other dogs is not their definition of a good time.

To answer the question though, the best way to teach a shy dog to play with another dog is to find a playful, socially adept, non-threatening dog to give the lessons. Watching dogs play is fun and an easy way to get them exercised, but if a dog is afraid of other dogs, is an older dog, or never had the chance to play with other dogs, it might be simpler and less stressful to all involved to find other ways to play. Dogs don’t have to play with other dogs to get along with them or feel comfortable with them.

We say ‘different strokes for different folks’ and the same is true for dogs. My shy dog Sunny grew up in a pen with other dogs, he is a playing fool and adapts his style of play to suit his playmate. I’ve watched him play with Italian Greyhounds and Great Pyrenees (not at the same time!). The newest addition to our household, a five year old female Cocker Spaniel, appears to try to engage dogs with playful intent but it’s too aggressive for most and usually backfires. I actively discourage her from trying to play with other dogs, and she’s fine with this because her attempts often end badly for both dogs. Perhaps there’s a dog out there that would be a good match for her, but I’ve yet to find one. In the meantime she’s content to go for runs in the woods with other dogs, chase balls and gnaw on stuffed toys. I don’t think she suffers from the lack of dog play at this point in her life, though earlier experience with a well mannered player might have made her better at it.

Rough and tumble play between dogs is important for social development but not if a dog is uncomfortable with it or becomes too aroused by it. If you’re not sure what is appropriate and fun play between dogs find a trainer who can help you learn. If your dog doesn’t want to play with other dogs, don’t worry about. Try to find ways that you can become your dog’s favorite playmate.

P.E.T. Therapy: A Protocol For Fearful Dogs*

Play: Begin by figuring out what rocks your dog’s world. If the dog is too afraid to engage in playful behaviors with or without your involvement you need to lower their stress level. It may mean changing their environment, giving them a place where they feel safer or are exposed to triggers less often or intensely. Changing how you and others interact with the dog may be in order. Speaking to a vet about medications that help lower your dog’s stress level & also improves their ability to learn new skills and behaviors, should be at the top of every fearful dog owner’s list.

Do not limit your definition of what play is, it will vary from dog to dog. A young dog might engage in more rough and tumble play while an older dog might enjoy a game of finding hidden treats or chewing on a bone.

Exercise: Studies have shown that exercise helps animals cope with stress. While any type of exercise is likely to be beneficial to a dog’s health, try to find activities which allow the dog freedom of movement so that they have the opportunity to use their bodies in varying ways. Exercise can look like or be play.

Training: I could ruffle feathers and say that ‘training is the last thing a fearful dog needs’! The reality is that we are training our dogs whether we are conscious of it or not. But rather than begin our work with a fearful dog by thinking about what we want or need from them and focusing on that, begin by discovering what makes your dog feel happy and playful. A fearful dog is very good at feeling afraid and reacting in fearful ways, most are less competent at feeling happy and positively excited about life. By giving them the opportunity to practice feeling good we are also making it easier for them to focus on what we are trying to teach them.

Training should be done in the most dog-friendly ways possible. Anything that scares or stresses your dog, especially early in your relationship is only going to make the process of rehabilitation more challenging. If the training you are doing with your dog looks like play even better!

P.E.T. Therapy will help change your dog’s brain and thinking about it will change yours as well.

*copyright 2009 Debbie Jacobs

‘My Doggie Says’ Radio Show Broadcast

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Fred Haney of My Doggie Says radio show and podcast. He asked me to speak about my website and about fearful dogs in general. When Fred told me to just start talking he didn’t know what he was in for! I appreciate Fred’s interest in the subject of fearful dogs and for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts and feelings about the way fearful dogs should be handled.

You can find this broadcast on the My Doggie Says website and also on iTunes under podcasts at My Doggie Says, the episode is titled “How Do You Deal With A Damaged Dog?”.



Helping Owners Understand R+ Training

For those of us who use positive reinforcement training to work with dogs, as opposed to techniques grounded in punishing inappropriate behaviors, it is easy to forget that though in practice it’s not difficult to do, it can be challenging to explain. Here’s one way to think about it.

If someone calls you, they have a jar and threaded lid, and need to know how to put the jar on the lid, you might say, “It’s easy, just put the lid on the top of the jar and screw it on.” They follow your advice, put the lid on the jar and turn the lid counter clockwise and darn it, it’s just not working! During their next call to report that they’ve tried what you’ve suggested and it’s ‘just not working’, you clarify yourself and explain, “Put the lid on and turn it clockwise.” On this attempt they put the lid on and give it a quarter turn clockwise and with a small amount of jostling the lid falls off. You can sense the disillusionment in their voice when they call yet again, your method must be wrong because, it’s ‘still not working’.

There happens to be a fellow in town who is known for getting lids to stay on jars, he employs the use of hammer and by banging on the lid is able to get it on securely. On occasion he breaks a jar or two, but the owners of these jars are not on his reference list, and he asserts that a defect in the jar caused the shattering, not his technique. The jars that explode because the hammered on lid allows pressure to build are also not his responsibility, or so he attests. His job is getting lids on. There are, he claims, lots of jars out there with lids on that owners have him to thank for.

It’s easy to lose owners to the lure of the quick fix, whether it employs a hammer or not. Providing information and direction that will lead to success takes time, patience and practice. I believe that the majority of people who consult with a trainer want to learn the best and most humane ways to train their dogs and can even become excited about the untapped potential both they and their dogs share. What seems obvious to positive reinforcement trainers may not be to someone else. If we strive for clarity and simplicity we might not put the guy with the hammer out of business but we might decrease his market share.

It Ain’t All Bad

GENTLEFACEOn Saturday evening I presented my shy dog talk at the Windham County Humane Society in Brattleboro, Vermont. In attendance was a local trainer who had kindly sent me a flower essence potion when Sunny first arrived to live with me. Perhaps in the presentation I had over-stressed my belief that owners need to have a reality check in regard to the challenges of living with a fearful dog because he reminded me that it isn’t all hard work when it comes to living with a fearful dog.

Deciding to keep a dog with serious behavior problems is usually life altering. On the surface it changes how you live on a day to day basis. If your dog is reactive to other dogs or people you might find yourself walking your dog in the wee hours of the morning or at midnight to avoid potential encounters. Management of your dog can become a 24 hour job. Finding care for a fearful dog can be challenging and many owners chose not to travel rather than kennel their pets.

Most people are not looking to restructure their life to accommodate an animal which may never be able to fully participate in it. For many owners making the concessions and changes necessary to incorporate a dog without fear issues into their lives is challenging enough. It doesn’t seem fair to either the dog or owner to disregard how much time, energy, training and expense, a fearful dog can require.

I tend to steer away from believing that things happen ‘for a reason’. I might find a reason, but I’m far too much of a pragmatic New Englander to believe that some kind of predestination was responsible for getting my fearful dog into my life. But there is no doubt that my dog Sunny changed my life, for the better. Working with an animal that is damaged in any way can force us to draw on parts of our selves that may not get enough daily exercise- our ability to be patient, to be compassionate, to move beyond our current set of skills and learn new ones, to list a few.

It’s not uncommon to hear from fearful dog owners that they have learned things about dogs and about themselves that they might never have come to understand if their dog had not come into their lives. My goal has been to show Sunny that a world full of people isn’t all bad, and though I’ve had some late nights and frustrated days with him, adding him to my life has not only not been all bad, it’s been pretty darn good.

Now That Feels Good!

that feels good!Dogs have different ‘systems’ in their brains for dealing with their environment. One of those is the fear/stress system. In a dog with general fear and anxiety this system is very efficient so it doesn’t take much to get a response. In some situations this might provide a biological advantage. A prey animal that spooks easily may live to reproduce as opposed to the animal that when exposed to a potential threat doesn’t react quickly or spends too much time deciding what to do. The gazelle that looks at other members of its herd and asks, ‘Hey, does that look like a lion to you?’ is probably going to be meat before it gets to be a parent. For dogs with fears and phobias life can be overwhelming and they may develop inappropriate behaviors and responses in order to deal with it.

Like us, dogs also have a reward/feel good system in their brains. If you’ve ever been sick, sad or depressed you may have noticed that your interest in things wanes. Even things that might have made you feel good in the past just don’t have the potency they used to. A dog that is afraid much of the time may also experience this shortcoming in his ability to feel good.

As an owner of a fearful dog you can help your dog by limiting the opportunities your dog has to rehearse fearful reactions and increase the opportunities for feel good experiences. It can take time and management to make this happen, but it becomes easier for both of you with time and practice. Using positive reinforcement training gives you the opportunity to reward your dog and provide these feel good opportunities routinely.

If you believe there is nothing that makes your dog happy think about how you can restructure its environment and experiences so that scary things (this includes punishment and ‘corrections’) happen as infrequently as possible (or never in the case of punishment). Talk to your vet about a behavioral medication and start using your big brain to find ways to tickle your dog’s fancy.

For more ideas on how to help your fearful dog visit website

It Depends On The Dog

ACTIONPLAYOne of the disservices done to fearful dogs by trainers, who I will assume are well-meaning, is giving owners the impression that all dogs can be ‘cured’ of their fearfulness. Since we will never know the exact reasons why our dogs are fearful, it is worth continuing to work with them, throughout their lives if necessary. But believing that your timid dog is one day going to become a social butterfly may create more frustration than hope for many pet owners.

Don’t get me wrong, I retain a dream for my fearful dog Sunny, and that is that one day he will be able to enjoy all the wonderful people, places and things that I can share with him, and I have never stopped learning about ways to achieve this goal. However the damage done to Sunny occurred long before he came to live with me and though he has made huge strides the scars remain in the form of missing neural pathways, imbalanced hormones and neurotransmitters and superhighways of communication in his amygdala.

I have been tempted to bite at the shiny lure that a trainer’s special ability or technique will undo the damage done by the lack of early socialization and what may be a genetic predisposition to being sensitive or fearful. Some trainers even claim to be able to turn back the clock of brain development and re-socialize a dog in some kind of doggie rebirthing process. No doubt they have success with some, since for some dogs any type of consistent, predictable handling will enable them to figure out coping strategies and behaviors that are acceptable to people.

Deciding what will work for your dog means that you have to understand how animals learn new behaviors and how you change emotional responses to triggers. The magic you will see occurs when you learn how to communicate effectively with your dog and create situations that help, not hinder, learning. How much progress you will see depends on your dog, but if you are using appropriate training techniques the progress never ends.

Check out this page on the website for a list of books that will help you learn how to help your dog.