Archive for June, 2010|Monthly archive page

Shy dog seminar

sad black and white dogA fearful dog’s best chance of learning new skills and becoming more confident in the world often rests on their handler’s understanding of how fear affects a dog’s behavior. The goal of the shy dog seminar is to present information to trainers, rescuers and rehabbers so that they can respond appropriately to a dog’s behavior in any situation and continue to work toward improvement in a dog’s behavior.

Also included is information and guidance on interpreting a dog’s behavior and the techniques that can be used to help them practice appropriate skills and behaviors. Whether or not we have treats, a clicker, or other training aids we always have our brains with us (hopefully) and the more we understand about how a dog’s brain responds to triggers which cause fearful arousal, the more likely we are to respond in a productive way.

What has been accepted as common knowledge about fear based behaviors is often inaccurate and when owners and handlers base their training and responses on this information they can inadvertently make a dog’s fear based behaviors worse. Shelters, rescues and graves are full of dogs because of the mishandling of their fearful behavior.

This seminar provides 2.5 CEUs for CPDTs. Find out how you can help the trainers, owners and rescuers in your area learn more about the most humane and effective ways to help fearful dogs by emailing me at


You talking to me?

face of black & white dogDuring our woods walk, as we headed down the mountain toward the Roaring Brook, Annie the cocker had stopped, standing perpendicular in the narrow trail, her gaze off into the woods as she processed a scent. Behind me I heard the pounding hoof beats that was Sunny barreling down the trail toward us. As he veered left to avoid Annie, she headed in the same direction to pursue the scent. I watched breath bated, as they connected and Annie was knocked off her feet and sent rolling down the trail.

I had, as is my habit, treats, so we can work on different skills during our walk; whiplash turns, heeling, stays and recalls. I prepared myself to quickly respond to the scene by offering Annie treats as I fully expected her to get up spitting nails, as she has done for lesser intrusions on her space or body. But instead she got to her feet, oriented toward the scent and raced off into the woods after it.

If a scent could cause her to be oblivious to being trampled and tumbled is it any surprise that she might not notice when I say her name?

Just what is it we expect?

brown dog with leash

Why not?

My border collie has a high tolerance for pain. When his attempt to herd an SUV a couple of summers back proved to be a dismal failure, I was amazed and at the same time heartened to see his tail wag as I carried him into the vet’s office- a hind flank degloved, opposite hind leg broken, fractured pelvis and other lacerations- when the staff greeted him. Shock was likely providing him some degree of numbing, but it still couldn’t have felt good. Keeping him from overdoing it on any limb that has shown tenderness is a challenge when the opportunity to run after something presents itself. Unlike my cocker who when sore or injured would scream in anticipation of the pain.

So I was surprised when Finn the border collie snapped at the vet’s hand when he was having stitches removed from a paw pad. I was equally surprised by the vet’s response, she shouted at him and popped him on the nose with her fist. It wasn’t her physical response that surprised me, it must be tough working with clients who can send you in for stitches yourself, and I’ve had knee jerk reactions when scared by a dog, but rather it was her emotional response that surprised, and disappointed me. She was angry with him.

More than the reprimand and even the pop on the snout it was her lack of acknowledgment that he had a good reason for his behavior that didn’t sit right with me. I’m not making excuses for my dog’s behavior, I don’t need to, he didn’t do anything wrong, though he did do something we didn’t like. He applied a controlled ‘bite’ to try to stop something that was painful to him. After suffering through several stitches he couldn’t tolerate it anymore. He needed a break and this was his way to get that point across.

I communicated recently with a woman who was having trouble with her dog on walks, he would stall in certain places. A physical exam showed no apparent reason for the dog’s reluctance and hesitation to go for walks, and the fact that he was a fearful dog led us to assume that something was scaring him. The concepts of desensitization and counter conditioning were explained but the owner was concerned that her dog might just be being ‘stubborn’. What did she mean by that?

When people use ‘stubborn’ to describe their dog (or other animal for that matter) they typically mean that they can’t get the dog to do what they want it to do. Just because she couldn’t figure out why the dog was behaving the way it was didn’t mean the dog didn’t have a reason for choosing one behavior over another. We don’t have to like or support whatever reason that may be, but we sure as heck need to accept that it’s important enough to the dog to affect his behavior.

Why is it we seem to expect things from our dogs that we don’t even expect from ourselves or other people? When working with fearful dogs it can help if we change our thinking by changing a few letters in our assessment of their behavior. It may not be that they ‘won’t’, it may be that they ‘can’t’. Instead of being upset and punishing the ‘won’t’,  help them learn new skills so they ‘can’.

More resources for fearful dog owners

Thought I’d share a couple of great resources with folks.

Roxanne Hawn has created MP3 files of Dr.Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol. Check out her blog for stories about working with her own fearful dog Lilly.

Casey Lomonaco of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training is Dogster’s oracle on fearful dog behavior this month, creating posts with resources for fearful dog owners. Check out her website for lots of great training information.

The responsibility of rescue

Thanks for helping me find the best place for a dog like me

I recently returned from a trip to Puerto Rico, where in my other life, I often travel with groups for my work in organizing active, educational travel adventures for women and students. While staying at the Seagate Hotel, run by Penny Miller, who years ago was among the go-getters who helped get a shelter and clinic built on the island, I met several of the dogs who have been lucky enough to have found a home, even if only temporary, there with her.

Stray dogs in Puerto Rico are called ‘satos’.  Many people believe the name to designate a particular breed of dog, an idea which is supported in part because there is a certain ‘look’ to these dogs. A typical sato has short legs, big bat ears, a long body and a tail that would make a larger dog proud. But because dogs are imported to the island (from puppy mills in the U.S.) for sale in pet shops and because as a territory of the United States it is possible to transport dogs to and from the U.S. with only a health certificate, you will find any and all breeds of dogs, and their subsequent, too often homeless, offspring, wandering the streets, beaches, forests and parking lots, foraging for food.

It was my experience in traveling in Puerto Rico and witnessing the suffering of the homeless dogs on the islands that I became involved in rescue work. Along with the support of shelters and rescue groups on the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques and the local shelter in my hometown I helped to find homes in Vermont for satos. Due to the fact that there are few small dogs available at our local shelter, the little dogs of Puerto Rico were quickly adopted. I like to think that all of their stories have happy endings, but I know too much about the realities of rescue to believe that to be true. In my enthusiasm to get dogs into homes I realize now that, despite my and the shelter’s best of intentions, some dogs likely did not find the pot of gold at the end of their rainbows. It has been several years since I have done more than allowed dogs to be flown back to the States as part of my baggage (since 911 dogs can no longer fly unaccompanied) but I still feel a connection to these often resilient and as often clownish, pooches.

While attending a seminar about the handling and capture of feral dogs, presented by Mark Johnson DVM of Global Wildlife Resources I met a woman who had adopted two satos recently rather than see them euthanized due to their extreme fearfulness. Her frustration with both trying to help these dogs along with the knowledge that someone chose to send these dogs to another shelter where other dogs like them were euthanized because they were not adoptable, was palpable and completely justified in my opinion. I understand why people become upset about the transport of dogs from one area of the country or world to another, in order to find them homes. Groups like the Massachusetts Animal Coalition strive to help the homeless animals already in their area.

And although I understand the reasons why someone might not support the transport of dogs for rescue I am also of the mind that ‘a life’s a life’ whether it started in my town, Puerto Rico, Kuwait, Tennessee or a reservation in the Southwest. It is true that both the financial & environmental costs of transporting dogs are higher the further away the animal is, the cost of ignoring their plight seems much higher to me. I am always inclined to support someone when their motivation comes from a place of compassion and caring. It is a human response which we need more of. So even though constructing a new building may be less expensive, I can understand and support why people might fight to refurbish a historic, old, crumbling gem- or spend their nights chained to a sequoia tree to prevent its felling. When someone questions, usually derisively, that, why when there are so many homeless, starving children in the world, am I so bothered with helping dogs, my response is this: There is plenty that needs to be done to make the world a better place, and while no one person can do it all, each of us can do something. Find what moves you and act on it. If helping children, or elders, or environments, or cultures, moves you, than do something. Especially do more than just finding fault with what someone else is doing.

Knowing that a fearful, anxious dog has been handled, transported, handled again, gone through vetting and neutering, possibly rehomed and returned to the shelter a number of times, before he is ultimately put down, nags at me though. I imagine the suffering and horror that the dog has had to endure and rue any of my involvement in facilitating that to occur. I routinely speak with people who profess that they will never adopt a dog from a shelter again after an experience with a fearful rescue dog. And who but the people doing the rescue have the experience and the responsibility to prevent that from happening? I know that rescue work is not easy and I’m not meaning to find fault with any particular rescue group or dogs from any specific place, fearful dogs can come from anywhere, but we need to remain diligent and educate ourselves on the realities of fear based behaviors.

I think it is good to be moved to help dogs and compassion for them should be nurtured and reinforced however it manifests, but our responsibility is great because we often know more than most of the people adopting these dogs and certainly more than the dogs themselves about what possible future awaits them. Our responsibility lies not only in finding dogs homes but in ensuring that the people who adopt them will seek out shelter dogs again in the future, wherever in the world they are from.