Archive for December, 2009|Monthly archive page

Upcoming Shy Dog Talks

Just thought I’d share the locations & dates of shy dog talks that I’ll be presenting.

West Swanzey NH, Monadnock Humane Society January 23, 2010

Concord MA, Concord Dog Training Center February 27, 2010

Each 3-4 hour presentation includes information about why dogs are afraid and the most effective and humane ways to help them. Certified Professional Dog Trainers earn 2.5 CEUs


Annie’s Tale

two dogs

Annie & houseguest Shekels

In September I adopted a six year old female, buff cocker named Annie. In June my 12 year old female, buff cocker Sabu had been struck and killed by a car. I was bereft. I knew I could never replace her but the void left by my cuddly, sweet cocker loomed large for me. With three other dogs in our home it wasn’t as though we ‘needed’ another dog, but like an addict, there I was cruising the pages of looking for my doggie fix. Annie looked enough like Sabu to snag a piece of my broken heart and she was being fostered by the good folks of Lucky Pup Rescue in Maine, near enough for consideration.

I knew that just looking like my lost girl was not a good enough reason to adopt and wanted to be sure I was also getting a dog that would be comfortable in our home with other dogs. Living with one ‘project dog’, my scared boy Sunny, is enough. I listened for all the euphemisms commonly used to describe dogs with behavioral challenges; not good with kids, would be best as an only dog, takes time to warm up to people, needs a quiet household, prefers to be with people, etc. What I heard was that Annie, though initially reactive to new people and dogs, quickly recovered. I believed (and still do) that the reasons she was being given up had nothing to do with her behavior, and decided to bring her home and see how she did.

The description of Annie’s behavior was right on. When new people or dogs appear on the scene she goes into offensive mode, straining at the leash or rushing toward them, barking and lunging, doing her best to warn the intruders off. If her message is heeded she eventually settles down, but if another dog responds in kind to having a dog yapping in their face, the potential for a fight escalates. Unlike my other cocker who would give a growl and move away when other dogs got too inquisitive with her, Annie moves in. She did recover from her initial arousal within a few minutes and I decided that it was a behavior I was willing to work with. Compared to Sunny this example of a fear based behavior seemed minor.

With a behavior display like Annie’s it is almost reflexive to raise your voice, shouting to get the dog’s attention and pulling back on the leash to keep her away from her trigger. This is more likely to contribute to the inappropriate behavior rather than correct it. The first thing I needed to do was to teach Annie to look at me with as little prompting from me as possible. Since she had been loved and well treated this was easy to do in situations without any distractions. Getting that attention when new people or dogs appear on the scene has taken time and practice but her volleys of barking and lunging have consistently become shorter.

I have learned to set up situations so that Annie can practice and succeed at being close to a new dog without snapping in their face. With a baby gate separating the dogs, or keeping both on leash, out of reach of each other, I reward Annie with high value food treats for either looking at the other dog or looking at me. She has learned that new dogs on the scene mean something tasty is about to happen and I can see her struggle with her conflicting emotions; a desire to eat treats versus anxiety about the new dog. It is becoming easier to distract her when I see her freeze and stare at an approaching dog, preparing to launch. With time I expect that her anxiety will be overridden by the good feelings she is experiencing because of the treats. She is also practicing a new behavior, looking at me and not barking at the other dog.

Annie has a prejudice against unknown people and dogs. She is no more to blame for her emotional response than I am when I have to pass a group of unknown teenage boys hanging out on a corner doing their best to look and act tough. I have the choice to cross the street and avoid the boys or walk past, smile and say hello. I want Annie to know she has a choice as well, move away from what scares her or greet it politely. From my own experience either of these options leads to a lessening of my own anxiety, and when I do choose to interact with those boys, I find they usually smile and greet me in return.

What Are We Winning Anyway?

Why are we always keeping score?

I overheard a woman talking about a visit with relatives during which a 5 month old baby, lying on the floor with a toy, began crying. The woman’s son asked her to pick up the baby but she declined claiming, “If I pick him up then he wins.” She then went on to prove that she was correct because after being picked up the baby smiled, knowingly as she tells it, as though aware of it scoring a point on that round.

As I listened my forehead furrowed and my jaw dropped and it was all I could do to not respond, “What are you talking about!” Why was she already assuming an adversarial, competitive relationship with a five month old baby? It’s a baby for crying out loud!

I did know what she was talking about though. She was referring to operant conditioning- baby cries, gets picked up, baby learns that crying gets it picked up. Even still I wanted to shout, “SO WHAT!?” What else was he suppose to do, text her? ‘DIAPER WET PLZ CHANGE’, ‘FOOT STUCK IN JAMMIES HELP’. And so what, if heaven forbid, the kid just didn’t want to be alone on the floor anymore?

Had she gone on to say that after watching the baby she could see that he was frustrated because a toy had rolled out of his reach and if left alone he could work on solving the problem himself, I might have reacted differently. I admit I am woefully ignorant of how much a 5 month old is capable of as far as movement and coordination, but at least knowing that she had given thought to why the baby was crying, and not that it was just scheming about how to manipulate grown-ups, I would have been less offended by her attitude.

People tend to respond in similar ways to dogs. What part of our fabulous human brains have we shut off when we can look at an eight week old puppy, cowering against the back of its cage, the rumblings of a growl in its throat, and think it’s trying to dominate us? How someone can watch a dog trembling in fear at the bottom of a flight of stairs and then proceed to drag it up is beyond me. Or the arrogance of believing we should never allow these displays of emotion. And what emotions are they anyway? It’s fear. It’s uncertainty. It’s pain.

Rather than seeing the baby’s smile as an indication that it was aware that it had ‘won’ a round in a non-existent game, this woman could have smiled herself knowing that the simply act of picking up the baby provided him with comfort and relief. How difficult is it to pick up a baby anyway? How incorrect can it be to teach someone or something that the creatures its life depends on, understand them, respect their points of view and will care for them?

In this era of creating dominance hierarchies with practically every being we live with, I suspect that we’re the big losers.

Change of Heart

In the years I have been living with a very fearful dog I have often thought that shelters and rescue groups that adopt out dogs like Sunny are doing a disservice to the people looking for a pet, and ultimately to the rescue industry. I hear people say that they will ‘never adopt a dog again’ after having a negative experience with a dog which they adopted from a shelter. Fearful dogs are just not good for business if you want people to return in the future for another of your ‘products’.

When you speak to other adopters of fearful or shy dogs they have a different tale to tell. They talk about how much they adore their dog, how the dog changed their life, taught them lessons, how they cannot imagine a life without their dog, despite the challenges.

Sunny came into my life when I had the time and inclination to see what progress I could make with him. He has both frustrated and delighted me. I have come to realize that if I witnessed any person display the courage Sunny displays on a daily basis I’d label them ‘inspirational’. When Sunny chooses to remain in a room with someone that frightens him, or finally gets himself through the tire in agility class, he’s showing the kind of courage I rarely need to muster.

Life isn’t easy for a dog that was not properly socialized, and living with one isn’t easy either. I still believe that the time and energy required to help a fearful dog can be more than many of us have to offer, but when paths cross, planets align or the pieces just fall into place, these dogs don’t just change our lives, they change our hearts as well.

Change of Heart by Holly Near

Behavioral Medications For Fearful Dogs

This dog is suffering from his fears.

Behavioral medications can help fearful dogs. So why the reluctance on the part of pet owners to use them? I will share what mine was.

1. Medications can have side effects that will affect the health of my dog.

2. Medications are a cop-out.

3. I didn’t want to ‘medicate’ my dog.

While there are shy or fearful dogs that can learn new behaviors and change how they feel about things that scare them, without the benefit of medications, many more continue to struggle and suffer. This struggling and suffering could be reduced through the professionally supervised use of behavioral medications.

As for my concerns-

1. Yes medications can have side effects. However the behavioral medications available for dogs from veterinarians have been researched for their safety and efficacy. Many others, while not specifically labeled for use with dogs, have also provided relief. The the list of side effects can be daunting on any medication available today, even routinely used over the counter products.

The side effect of fear is stress. Long term stress has its own long list of health damaging side effects with no benefits. Check out these videos of Robert Sapolsky to learn more about the dangers of stress. For my dog I decided that the risks of ongoing stress outweighed those of the medications which have helped him. A blood work panel should be performed before starting any drug regime with your dog.

2. My non-fearful dog with a heart condition was given daily doses of heart medications prescribed by a cardiologist, they did what they were designed to do and improved her quality of life. I didn’t feel as though I was copping out by using them. Another of my non-fearful dogs with low thyroid, gets two tablets a day and has since grown a thick coat of fur, stopped suffering from skin infections and has increased energy. This wasn’t a cop-out either. My fearful dog with neurochemical imbalances in his brain deserves the same consideration.

3. The misconception that behavioral medications act as sedatives to ‘calm’ a dog down, are just that, a misconception. Though sedation may be a side-effect, it should be short-lived. Do your homework on how behavioral medications can help your dog’s brain improve, making it easier for them to learn new responses to fearful provoking stimuli. From Leashes to Neurons by Karen Overall DVM is available through Tawzer Videos. In it Dr. Overall explains how behavioral medications work and why she views them as a powerful tool in the rehabilitation of fearful and aggressive dogs.

There are a variety of other non-medicinal approaches we can take to help our fearful dogs, and I recommend that owners learn about these as well. Many can be used in conjunction with prescription medications, but check with your vet if you have any questions or concerns.

I have seen the most progress in my fearful dog Sunny through the use of medication. These medications are also the most cost effective product I have purchased, which may not be a selling point for some folks, but it sure helps when you are caring for multiple dogs. It can take time to discover the medication and dosage which provides the most benefits to your dog.

Behavioral medications, namely the SSRIs, TCAs and benzodiazepines are not cures for fearfulness, but along with a playful training program, they sure aren’t cop-outs either.

Risk of mishandling a fearful dog

cute puppyDepending on the situation, when faced with something scary a dog has limited choices as to how to respond. Early in the life of a fearful dog many choose to move (i.e., run as fast as they can) away from things that scare them, if this is an option. This is the behavior that the dog is more likely to repeat as it gets older, which is why ‘catching’ a feral dog is such a challenge.

This changes when we put a collar and leash on a scared dog. When we force a dog to move toward something that scares them, believing that this will help the dog learn to feel less afraid of it, we can end up with unwanted results. One of these results is that we are training the dog to move toward something that scares them. So long as we have a leash on them we can control their behavior, but we’re not controlling their emotions. They are feeling fear and likely of a higher intensity than when they had the option to move away. Move a scared dog closer to what scares them and their behavioral response may become exaggerated. A dog that once cowered and slunk away now growls, snarls or even bites.

Until a fearful dog has the skills to be around their triggers, and their feelings of fear do not overwhelm them, moving away from them is a good choice to make. This keeps the dog, and the people and other dogs around them, safe.

For more information on helping your fearful dog visit the Fearful Dogs website and the author’s articles on dog behavior and training

Keeping Holidays Happy For Your Dog

Life with a fearful dog requires additional management to ensure that our pets are kept safe and as stress free as possible. There are simple steps that an owner can take to help make the holidays a time of joy and happiness for everyone.

Be sure that your dog has a ‘safe’ space to retreat. As much as we might want our dogs to be involved with all aspects of our lives, for the shy, nervous or fearful dog, being in the thick of things only adds to their anxiety. Before the holidays designate a place for your dog where it can be undisturbed and comfortable. For some dogs a crate or mat in the corner of the living room might suffice. Others may need to be further away from the festivities. Good things should happen in this space, marrow bones are chewed, meals are eaten, treats are shared, stuffed toys are disemboweled. Do this well before the holidays so your dog can learn to feel good in their safe space.

Discuss medication options with a vet. For dogs that are afraid of people, having celebrating guests around, even if they ignore the dog, can be stressful. There are medications that can be used situationally to help your dog feel less anxious. If your dog does feel anxious while people are around it will only reinforce that feeling and make it more likely to occur again in the future. There are other calming options available that do not require a prescription from the vet, experiment with these to find ones that help your dog.

Research boarding kennels before the holiday rush. If you must board your dog during the holidays be sure that the staff understand your dog’s needs. Be specific as to how you want your dog handled, do not assume that kennel staff know how to interact with scared dogs. Draping something over their kennel door might be comforting to your pet. Bring your dog to the site several times before leaving them, make it a positive experience for them with treats and games. Medications and other calming options might be appropriate here as well.

Take advantage of holiday roasts. Giving your dog a tasty tidbit (but avoid the fat!) each time the doorbell rings, or someone comes into your home can go a long way toward changing how your dog feels about new arrivals.

A happy and safe holiday season to you all!

They Are What They Eat

It’s not news that the quality of food we eat affects our health. The same is true for our dogs. It is possible however to get too much of a good thing, obesity is a serious health issue which can also impact a dog’s quality of life.

Here are a few simple ways to improve your fearful dog’s health.

1. Purchase the highest quality of dog food you can afford. Research a raw food diet for your pet and the availability of raw foods in your area. You may be surprised to discover that raw foods may cost the same or less than prepared kibbles or canned food.

2. Add a probiotic to your dog’s meals. Probiotic bacteria help to synthesize certain vitamins and support the immune system.

3. Provide your dog with a high quality fish oil supplement. A deficiency of DHA, which is found in fish oil, has been linked with aggression and depression. DHA is essential for brain function.

4. Keep your dog’s weight in its normal range. An easy way to help cut calories is to use your dog’s meals as treats throughout the day.