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.

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8 comments so far

  1. Jodi on

    it’s really incredible hearing about sunny’s learning, and it must be so exciting to have a new place to learn with him!

    i’d like to believe that, as you said, the brain is more elastic than was once believed. as someone that has sustained a brain injury, i can attest to the fact that the concept of elasticity of the brain is very accurate. once injured, or in many animal’s lives, being denied the ability to create pathways/learn, the brain does have an incredible ability to create new pathways.

    for myself, i sustained a head injury 5 years ago. i did not hit my head. i was t-boned while driving, and the force of my head shaking back and forth caused a diffuse axonal brain injury. due to the fact that i had just graduated university, and also my personality in general, i was still very much in ‘learning’ mode. immediately after my injury, a neuroshych exam revealed that the knowledge i had pre-injury was still intact, but i had difficulty retaining new knowledge. as part of my therapy, it was suggested that i find a course to take to start to exercise my brain, and to test how well i could retain new knowledge over time. (incidentally, that is how i found dog training, and i’ve never looked back!!!;) )

    i truly believe that in finding something that i was deeply interested in, i have been eager to continue to learn. in fact, i believe that my learning will never stop. i am very grateful to have found something that i am so passionate about. as a result, i continue to improve, and my brain continues to make new pathways. this is not typical for people that are 5 years post-injury.

    in fearful dogs, or dogs that have been denied opportunities to learn new things as they grow (e.g. puppy mill dogs), i truly believe that continuous learning is of tremendous benefit for them. in this respect, i do believe that the brain can be looked at as a muscle that needs to be exercised, and provided with a variety of exercises to continue to grow.

    while mine is not a canine brain, hopefully i’ve been able to provide some insight into how the brain can grow when given the opportunity. i really enjoy reading about sunny, and hope to hear more and more about his advances (which will continue over time)!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and commenting Jodi. I was thinking this morning about writing about novelty and its importance for these dogs, so your comments are quite timely. I’m sorry to hear about your accident, but you sound like you are doing well. I know exactly what you mean about the feeling of inspiration that comes from discovering something that sparks your interest. I feel the same way.

      What is especially exciting about dog training for me is that it encompasses such a range of topics (as I suppose most things do, but perhaps I never cared enough to notice 😉 brain development, animal behavior, learning theory, neuroscience, philosophy and even some detective work. And of course there are the dogs.

  2. Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart on

    That’s terrific. I’m so glad to hear about this specific class. Sounds perfect for your needs, and with Suzanne … I don’t think you can miss.

    Your martial arts analogy reminds me of my hubby trying to teach me a few things (he is a karate whiz), but the lineup of the feet was very different from yoga, which I had studied about as long as he had studied karate.

    He kept saying, “Heel to toe,” but I didn’t understand the body position, so I finally said … “You can keep saying that, but it still isn’t going to make any sense to me.” :o)

    • fearfuldogs on

      I have always found it helpful, as an instructor of different things, to learn a new physical skill and experience what it’s like to be a novice at something. Makes me appreciate talented teachers.

  3. Mel on

    I feel like I learn something new from you all of the time Deb. This was not o nly informative, but helpful. I think I’ve always known that Daisy would never be a “normal” dog, but I have offered the choice to approach people and things on her own terms as well and it really seems to be a much stronger positive reinforcement than anything else I’ve done.
    Now if only Jasper would be brave enough to approach on his own!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’m so glad that you find the blog helpful, I do appreciate hearing it. The class I’ve been taking with Suzanne Clothier is called Treat/Retreat and it’s about structuring experiences during which the dog can be around people, eat treats (or in Sunny’s case chase frisbees) and move closer and further away as they wish.

      I also think that it’s helpful for the relationship when the dog can trust that his handler is not going to make him do something that is too scary for them. This has given me control over Sunny so I can manage him in all kinds of situations, even when he’s not happy to be in them. Either he knows, or can predict, that I’m going to keep him safe.

  4. Lizzie on

    Hey Debbie,

    I just have to tell you what happened today.

    As you may remember Gracie has been avoiding my husband ever since she came to live with us 18 months ago. We had gotten to the point where she will target him on his arm and he would feed her breakfast by putting it in her bowl on the floor bit by bit, but as soon as his hand moves to go down to the bowl she would back away and then come forward to take the kibble. And so we’ve had this backwards and forwards thing going on for weeks now. It seemed to me that she was just scared of his hand moving towards her, as she had no problem approaching him and touching his arm.

    But today for the VERY FIRST TIME she came up onto the couch where I was sitting at one end and my husband was at the other, so inbetween the both of us, and lay with her head on my lap, as she does when it’s just the two of us on the couch. I asked my husband to very slowly put his hand on her back and gently stroke her, and to our utter amazement she didn’t run away, she just lay there and let him do it! I felt myself holding my breath, I couldn’t believe what was happening. She came on the couch as if she’d been doing it all her life it seemed so natural. She turned her head a couple of times to look at him but stayed there for several minutes. Wow I was almost in tears it felt so good. He even moved his hand to offer a treat,(put on the couch) and she took it! Boy I do hope that this is a turning point where my husband is concerned.

    Exactly like you say in this post Debbie, the choice is theirs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Teary eye moment! Congratulations to both of you for having the patience to help Gracie get to this point. You may see this behavior more often, or not again for awhile, either way, it’s something that she has learned to do, so it’s there for her. If she seems disinclined to return, skip the handling by your husband when she does, you do it instead, or you feed treats. The hardest part is getting over our own excitement and wanting our dogs to finally discover, hey there’s something really good in this for you!

      I think it’s an example of the fact that there is stuff going on for these dogs even if they don’t outwardly appear to making many changes. It is very cool to hear. I’m going to tell Sunny 😉


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