Archive for March, 2010|Monthly archive page

Novel ideas

black and white dog with stuffed toy beeA light bulb moment occurred for me in regard to my fearful dog Sunny when I understood that he was limited in his abilities by his brain. It wasn’t that he was choosing not to come to me, or that he refused to move out of the corner, as conscious choices, it was that given the development of his brain, these behaviors were how he was ‘wired’, so to speak, to perform. And any changes I wanted to see in him were going to be connected to changes in how his brain worked.

Although Sunny will likely always be limited in some ways by the deprivation of his early life, and possibly a genetic predisposition to startling easily, like a person who is short can find ways to reach the cans on the top shelf of the cupboard, Sunny too has been able to find ways to achieve certain goals despite his disadvantages. His brain has changed.

Not too long ago it was thought that the brain that you were born with was the brain you had for the rest of your life, you could take advantage of what you had, or not. Now it is understood that brains are far more plastic than anyone ever realized. You can make a brain better through stimulation, stimulation that does not cause chronic stress. This interview with Robert Sapolsky looks at stress.

What is stimulating to a brain? Just about everything! Sounds, smells, physical sensation, movement, problem solving and novelty. A major problem for many dogs is that they did not experience novelty during early brain development. Being stuck in a cage at a puppymill, tied to a tree in a backyard, or stuck in a hoarder’s home, limit the novel experiences a dog has. Even well-loved and cared for dogs can suffer when they are not exposed to other dogs, noisy children, cars, etc., in safe ways when they are young. The lack of exposure to novelty makes it scary when something new appears on the scene, something/one appears, or the dog is put into a new environment. The pattern can then be set, new things are scary, even if they cause the dog no harm.

Because brains can change, and introducing novelty is a way to do it, people living with fearful dogs can look for ways to change what their dog experiences, in non-threatening ways. Moving food and water bowls to different locations, leaving different toys out for the dog to investigate, playing calming music, massage, moving furniture for the dog to navigate around, introducing new scents to the environment, are just a few of the ways you can add novelty to a dog’s world. Sunny takes agility classes for the non-habitual movement the courses require him to perform. We practice obedience skills and learn new tricks to encourage him to think and figure out what is expected of him.

Living with an extremely fearful dog added stress to my life, but the novelty sure has been worth it!


Sometimes the choice should be theirs

3 dogs looking at the camera with open mouth grinsYears ago when I studied martial arts I was being instructed by a black belt in the class. I was trying to learn how to grab someone by the wrist and flip them over my shoulder. The instructor would grab me by the wrist, turn her body, put my forearm on her shoulder, bend over and whoosh! my body followed and I landed with a thump on the mat. Then it was my turn. I’d grab her wrist, turn my body, try to get her forearm on my shoulder and it wouldn’t work, I was doing something wrong. Had I grabbed the wrong wrist, put her arm on the wrong shoulder, turned the wrong way? I never had time to figure it out as she would once again grab me by the wrist, repeat the process, “Like this!” she’d say, and whump! there I was back on the mat.

Along with my body beginning to ache, I was feeling frustrated and embarrassed. Why couldn’t I figure it out, why did I keep making the same mistake over and over again? I knew I could learn it, I’d learned harder things in my life, but with each wrong attempt all I got in response was another physical manipulation through the motions, motions that I needed to translate, as if in a mirror. Kids are very good at this, being excellent at imitating behaviors, as an adult learner I was at a disadvantage. I knew what I needed, I needed a clear description of what I was to do, ‘grab the right wrist, turn your body counter clockwise’, etc., and I needed time to process the information. Given the culture of martial arts I did not feel as if I could explain to the instructor that while her technique might work well for the kids in class, or even others of the more astute adults, all I was getting from the exercise was a sore shoulder. I finally got it once or twice, more by chance than understanding, and called it quits.

Over the past several weeks I’ve been attending classes with Suzanne Clothier, during which we are learning techniques and skills for working with and helping shy and fearful dogs. This has been very exciting because over the years I’ve attended obedience and agility classes with Sunny, none of them were focused specifically on shy dogs. I’ve worked with classes for shy and reactive dogs, my own dog not in attendance. So the opportunity to have Suzanne’s eyes on both Sunny and me, has been great. I appreciate being coached through new exercises and getting new ideas for handling shy dogs to help them learn new behaviors and emotional responses when faced with something potentially scary to them.

The underlying theme of all of the exercises, is that the dogs are given the opportunity to chose how close they get to things that scare them. They receive both positive and negative reinforcement for moving toward a trigger, in this class the trigger being people. Through the process it is the dog making the decision as to how close they want to get to what scares them, and when done properly, most dogs begin to chose to move closer to people, and receive reinforcement for doing so. The patterns for this behavior are being built into the dog’s brain, and it’s a skill the dog owns and is not dependent on cues or instructions from their handlers.

For a dog like Sunny the prognosis is not as hopeful compared to others. There are some aspects of brain development that given the information and resources we have now, are immutable. During periods of development there are brain cells which are primed and ready to learn the job they were designed to do. And although there is evidence that other brain cells can step up to the plate if certain specialized cells are missing or damaged, it may be difficult or impossible for us to know how to encourage this to happen. An example of how the lack of stimulation during brain development causes life long deficits is the gruesome, but informative study done on kittens, which showed that after having one eye sewn shut during early months of development, that eye, when finally exposed to visual stimuli remained blind, though the structure of the eye itself was not damaged. The nerves and brain cells which would have been devoted to sight in that eye moved to the other eye and did their job there instead.

For dogs the sensitive periods of brain development during which the dog learns social skills both with dogs and people, and the ability to deal with novelty and changes in their environment, occur early in their lives. By the age of 4 months a puppy is already seeing this window of opportunity begin to close. There is also evidence that some patterns and responses, once established, will be difficult or impossible to change. Imagine how successful you’d be at  learning not to startle when exposed to loud crashes occurring at random times. On a more positive note, brains are more plastic than ever imagined and so continuing to work with a fearful dog, in ways that promote the development of new pathways of information in their brains, may lead to positive changes in a dog’s behavior.

How a dog is exposed to stimuli and how they are allowed to process it is important. In much the same way that someone learning to play the piano is likely to become more skilled by having the opportunity to learn to move their fingers on their own, rather then having someone push down on them to show them the right notes, a dog which is given the opportunity to work out the correct behavior on their own can end up with a different set of skills compared to a dog forced into performing a behavior.

Sunny has proven to be a quick study when it comes to learning new behaviors and tricks when he’s not anxious. He has developed skills which can help him cope until we can lower the intensity of a trigger. I have also learned the difference between when he is coping or merely surviving in a situation. I know when I can ask more from him and when I need to lower the pressure on him. Like most dogs I think that Sunny mainly wants to feel safe and have fun. My goal continues to be providing him with the opportunities for both while new skills are learned on the coat tails of security and a balletic midair catch of a frisbee.

Progress happens, for many reasons

I have to admit that after living with this dog for over 4 years, I’m not very good at assessing the causes affecting his progress. I came to the conclusion that I’d have to have the training and the inclination of a field biologist who noted details, keeping track of behaviors, when they occurred, where they occurred, how long they occurred, etc., to be able to come to any conclusions between Sunny’s behavior and any meds, changes in his diet, acupuncture, massage, etc. There are trainers who will tell me ‘why’ Sunny’s behavior changes and improves, often based on nebulous descriptions of energy, polarities, drives, pack hierarchy and wolves. As much as I’d like to nod and believe them, the reality is that, they can’t know for sure either. What I do know is that Sunny is learning new skills and behaviors that help him move more comfortably through his world.

That said, I do believe that he benefits from being on fluoxetine, and I give him alprozalam on occasion (the effects of this are much more immediate & obvious). So I am coming to some conclusions but they stem more from what ‘seems to be’ or from what I ‘feel’ is happening. This information may be based on years of what I have learned by observing Sunny, even if I am unable to explain exactly how I know it. Like ‘knowing’ that a dog is going to bite or snap at you even if you couldn’t describe to someone all the reasons you came to that conclusion. Wouldn’t I just love to have the ability to see into his brain and note the changes occurring there!

Add to my observations the research, anecdotal experiences of others, and recommendations of trainers and vets and I’m onboard with meds & supplements. And though it should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, I am always modifying his behavior through rewards, play and training.

This morning, after about a week on l-theanine, Sunny checked out the far side of the bedroom, which I have never seen him do before (and for anyone who has never lived or worked with a seriously damaged dog, this is the type of incremental improvement I have made note of over the years and which have added up to huge changes in his behavior). Was it because the old cocker was there, the supplement, or having spent a few days with a couple of big dogs in the house, or something else entirely? I probably will never know, but will continue with the l-theanine, especially since I discovered that I can purchase the same quality product at my local food coop for $12 a month (it was on sale!) compared to $100 through the vet’s office (sorry vets). When it was going to cost me $100 a month I was hoping I wouldn’t see any improvements from it! So in this case I’m glad that what I wanted to see is what I’m getting.

*This is not a recommendation of the supplement and pet owners should consult with their vet before adding any supplement, medication to their dog’s diet.

There is a sunny side!

It’s probably just me, maybe it’s cabin fever or hormonal, but I’ve been particularly bothered lately by all the bad press that dog owners have been getting in blogs and tweets that I follow. Sure there are bad owners out there, negligent and even criminal ones, who should never be allowed control of a dog again. There are owners who are naive, or who display an ignorance of what their dog needs, or who don’t seem to care, the relationship being more about what ‘they’ need. But all of those aside, I prefer to believe that there are more owners who truly care about their dogs and are struggling to work with challenging dogs that even professional trainers would not choose to live with.

Although I have not seen statistics on this, chances are good that the majority of the problems people have with their dogs could be remedied by changes in the dog’s routine, training and an adjustment in the expectations that owners have for their dogs. Young puppies should not be expected to behave like adult dogs, and untrained dogs should not be expected to perform like Lassie. Dogs should not be expected to be content spending the entirety of their day waiting for their owners to return to free them from inactivity and boredom. And although I have not seen statistics on this either, I get the impression that an unfortunate high number of the dogs that people are either purchasing or adopting are bringing to the table severe behavioral issues that someone who is looking for a pet, should not be expected to know how to manage or deal with, nor do I necessarily believe they should be required to in order to be considered a good pet owner.

Dogs are dogs because they have lived with people for thousands of years and developed an extensive, and remarkable set of skills for figuring out what we want from them. I applaud the advances we humans are making in regard to understanding our dogs, and as much as I’d like to see everyone educated in the field of dog behavior, I don’t think one should need to be a dog trainer, nor require the services of a trainer, to live happily with a dog. And for the dog to live happily as well.

Those of us who are living with fearful dogs are often accused of being the cause or source of our dog’s problems. Were we only calm enough, assertive enough, a strong enough leader, if we didn’t try to protect our dogs from the things which can in some instances literally scare the poop out of them, they’d be happy, ‘balanced’ dogs. This is both unfair and wrong. Yes our behavior can affect our dogs, and by changing our behavior we may find that our fearful dogs can learn to feel safer in certain situations, but this will not ‘cure’ them.

Every time I hear trainers complain about dog owners I cringe. I have been berated on a public forum by a trainer who, although unwilling to identify themselves, was more than willing to accuse me of having failed my fearful dog. Most of the dog owners I meet truly care about their dogs. They want what is best for their dogs and struggle to incorporate dogs with challenging behaviors into their lives. We don’t have to look far to find pet owners who are not doing right by their dogs, but we also don’t have to go far to find others who have made huge changes in their lives to accommodate their fearful dogs and are pouring their hearts into their animals.

If not the ‘dog friendly’ trainers, then who?

I was helping out with a reactive dog class and a woman enrolled with a Great Dane she had recently adopted. She had been turned away from another class because she was using a shock collar on the dog. In effect she had been sent off to find a trainer who uses shock collars to train dogs. Fortunately she found the reactive dog class, run by a skilled and compassionate trainer. Although the woman was asked to remove the shock collar while in classes, she was not sent off, shamefully, to continue her search for someone to help her manage her dog.

Not to make excuses for the use of shock collars, this woman was afraid for her physical safety when this dog decided he was going to run off after something. Not an aggressive dog, he was primarily a danger to her, pulling her over or knocking her down. He was a sweet, untrained, very big, dog. The only solution his owner had found, up to this class, was the shock collar. In the class the dog was fitted with a harness and his owner shown how to use positive reinforcement to teach the dog appropriate behaviors. As both dog and handler learned new skills, the woman reported that she was using the shock collar less and less for controlling the dog. I have seen similar scenarios played out with people who use prong collars. It seems to me that it matters less whether a dog is wearing a particular type of collar than how often it is used. People can learn how to never use them.

A common gripe of positive reinforcement trainers are the owners who refuse or are reluctant to use food rewards for training. Sure food rewards are powerful, they are also easy to carry and deliver, but they are not the only reinforcers available to us. Some dogs may not learn as quickly when owners forgo the use of food rewards, but the dogs can still learn. And owners can learn to create a variety of other reinforcers for their dog.

I don’t think that U.K. trainer John Rogerson was encouraging people to cheat in competition events in which they are not allowed to use food or toys to motivate or keep their dog’s attention, when he shared this story. Reaching into his back pocket he pulled out not a ‘toy’, but a wallet. The wallet was a conditioned reinforcer for his dog who prior to competitions was given the opportunity to play with it, as a reward for behaviors. Letting the dog see him tuck the wallet into his back pocket before entering the ring, was enough to keep the dog highly motivated during the event. His point being that trainers should not be limited by what they regard as reinforcers.

Owners who don’t want to use food reinforcers may not understand what they are missing when it comes to training their dogs, but they are not ‘bad owners’. A skilled trainer can show them how to create a variety of alternate reinforcers which they can use to help train their dogs. The hallmark of any good teacher is their ability to be creative and come up with ways that meet the learning styles of different students. I have the highest regard for trainers who are able to do this for both of their students, the dog and its handler, while at the same time are using techniques which are least aversive to both. My hat is off to you all!

More management thoughts

I heard a well known trainer say that the hardest thing for many owners to do is to stop putting their dogs into situations where they react inappropriately. Her recommendation that they find alternatives to the ways they are currently managing their pets routinely goes unheeded.

In some cases a certain level of management may always be required to keep our dogs and others around them safe. It’s a bitter pill to swallow at first, not only might it not be how we’re used to dealing with our dogs but it can also impact our lives in ways we hadn’t planned on, nor enjoy. I try to look at it this way-

If I wanted someone to learn to play a piece of music, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to give them the score with errors in it. After they’d learned the piece, errors and all, I’d have to send them back to learn it correctly. What a waste of time and chances are the originally learned mistakes would surface one time or another.

Would I expect them to enjoy learning the piece in front of a crowd, or with me standing over them shouting whenever they made a mistake?

Like a puppy that must be limited access to the oriental rug on the floor, the hope is that one day the rug will be safe and puppy will have the freedom to be wherever he wants to be in a home. But until that time, my failure to manage my dog can cost us both prices it would be better not to pay.

Management & Skills

The process of working with fearful dogs could be simplified and broken down into two steps; management and skills development.

Management: Handlers need to come up with plans for managing a fearful dog so as to eliminate or minimize their opportunities for responding in fearful ways. This can often be challenging and many owners find it inconvenient to do. Walking a dog that is afraid of the hustle and bustle of the streets, at midnight so as to avoid the scary stimuli, may not be high on anyone’s list of ways to have a good time with their pet. However each time a fearful dog responds in a fearful way can be seen as a failure of a handler’s management plan. This doesn’t make someone a bad owner or trainer, but it should be a learning experience so adjustments can be made in the future. And the reality is that it happens. We often do not have control of what goes on around our dogs, but it behooves us to be as conscientious of this as we can be.

Skills development: Both handlers and dogs need to learn and practice new sets of skills which can replace the behaviors and responses which do not contribute to helping the dog become more confident and resilient. It is important to practice these skills repeatedly so that when under pressure they can be performed easily, with little thought. For handlers this might mean learning how to deter people from interacting with their dog and how to respond quickly to potentially fear inducing situations. Dogs can learn alternate responses to being confronted by things which scare them; sitting and looking at their owner or turning and walking away.

Each dog’s situation is going to be unique. We need to become experts on our own fearful dog so we both can learn to feel more confident navigating a world in which scary stuff happens.

The price of a fearful dog

small dog in a cageYears ago a friend decided he was ready to adopt a dog. As a young man he had traveled cross country with his beloved chihuahua and he was hoping to find a small dog to add to his and his children’s lives. Small dogs were not easy to find at nearby shelters so he looked online and found what seemed to be a good match, a small, young terrier mix that he met at the airport with all the nervous excitement a new dog owner can feel. At first the dog’s shyness and hesitation to interact with him wasn’t a worry. Assuming that the dog just needed time to settle in and with the assurances of the folks at the rescue that the dog had not behaved fearfully there, he waited, and waited, for the dog to ‘warm up’ to him.

I began to get phone calls from him and it’s one of those cases of ‘wish I knew then what I know now’. We’d talk for hours about what might be wrong and what he could do differently to salvage what was suppose to be a two-way love affair. When he called me one last time to talk about the dog it was to tell me that he couldn’t bear living with an animal that cowered each time he approached, ran away from him, and which made him feel like some kind of monster. With the assistance of my local animal shelter I was able to rehome the dog and my friend did find some consolation that all the time, energy and money he had spent, had eventually helped get this little dog into a home where it could be happy and comfortable. But he had paid a price.

When we choose to keep a fearful dog, and often it doesn’t feel much like a choice as it seems the only option available to keep the dog alive, we end up paying a price. The dog we had hoped would go for runs with us but is frightened by people and traffic, turns what used to be a pleasant recreation into a stressful, dreaded event. And rather than enthusiastic greetings and the pleasure of watching a joyous dog bound and play, we get the sorrow of watching an animal suffer from fear or the sting of being the source of that fear.

My friend ended up adopting another dog that lived happily with his family for years. I have almost forgotten the months and months my heart ached for my fearful dog that had he not suffered at the hands of an animal hoarder, might have become a confident dog that could enjoy all the activities and travels my other dogs do. Who can say what a dog’s life is worth, but spending it being fearful seems the highest price of all to pay.