Archive for November, 2010|Monthly archive page

Affirmations for a fearful dog

black dog standing at the edge of a pondOne of the challenges for people working with fearful dogs, especially dogs who have suffered from confinement or restraint during their early development, is getting these dogs to offer behaviors for which they can be rewarded. Do not confuse this with trying to change how a dog feels about things using counter conditioning and desensitization, for that we can reward the dog for doing nothing more than being in the presence of whatever scares them, regardless of how they behave.

I’m going to repeat that a different way, because it’s so important. Do not wait for a fearful dog to offer calm behavior before rewarding them in the presence of a trigger when counter conditioning. If a dog cannot be calm or respond to a cue, you have not managed them properly, and they should not be punished for this by having to remain close to something that scares them, while you wait for them to do something you think is appropriate.

There are techniques which you can use to help fearful dogs which do require that the dog offers some kind of calm behavior before they are rewarded, often with negative reinforcement, which is when we take away something that the dog is afraid of, in order to see more of the calm behavior. But that’s not what I’m addressing in this post. I’m thinking about the dog who has not yet learned that they have the power to change their environment or experience.

When you show a dog that by doing something they can earn a reward, get ready to watch the fun begin. Look for simple behaviors that your dog is able to perform in your presence. It might be something as basic as eye contact, looking at you, or looking at an object you place in front of them. From this we can build up to more complex behaviors, but don’t rush. Enjoy watching a dog sort out that by shifting their eyes to your face they will be handed a super tasty treat.

I have been trying to find ways to entertain the dogs during hunting season (only 2 more days to go!) when we cease our daily woods walks for safety’s sake. It has been awhile since I have done any clicker training with Sunny and do I regret it! He practically beams when I bring out the clicker and a bowl of meaty, smelly treats. Today we worked on putting his front paws on an object (a small frisbee). After each successful touch I picked up the frisbee and put it down somewhere else while Sunny’s tail never stopped wagging. “I can do this!” he seemed to say with each delighted slap of the frisbee. “I can make good things happen in my life!”

Help a shy dog learn that they too “have the power” by letting them work for something they want. Isn’t it about time they have that opportunity?


How dare you!

cartoon of dog looking confusedI often wonder why people are so quick and ready to choose coercion* as a method for dealing with their dogs. Perhaps we believe that they are not smart enough to learn any other way. But I think that one of the main reasons is because their behavior often makes us angry or frustrated.

When I walk a dog on a leash who pulls it really bugs me. I do not like to be dragged along nor do I like to feel like ‘the help’ at the other end of the leash, there for the sole purpose of taking the dog outside. When I reach for something on the floor and a dog gives me a hard eye stare and begins to grumble I think, “What the heck? My house, my stuff buddy.”

I spend a lot of time thinking about why dogs do the things they do and how to change the things I don’t like (along with figuring out how to get them to do things that delight me, such as getting my cocker to rest her head on her front paws on cue). After my initial emotional response of “How dare you!” I have a list of alternatives I can try to get the dog to comply, or more accurately to teach them the appropriate response to me asking them for the marrow bone which is starting to chip and I’d rather was thrown away.

The choice to use compulsion or coercion is often based on the sense of immediacy we feel, and which may at times be justified. “Drop that box of rat poison now!” But more often than not, what we require from our dog does not have a ticking time bomb attached to it. This is especially true with many of our fearful dogs. If a dog ‘must’ become a stable, socially adept, fearless dog in under 30 days (or whatever time frame has been assigned), I would question the understanding of the basis of fear based behaviors which the handler has. One of the only regrets I have in regard to the way I handled Sunny was that I was not patient enough, and that I forced him to do things which to this day I can see the negative impact of.

At a Clicker Expo I lingered after a presentation by Ken Ramirez, the head trainer at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, to ask him a question. “How,” I asked, “Do you get a wild animal to trust you?” He told me that they use a process of counter conditioning and desensitization that starts with only a small amount of exposure to a trainer, who presumably is a cause of fear for the animal. No animal is forced to do anything and the only punishment is the withholding of a reward should a cued behavior not be performed. Why then, I wondered, do we think that we need to use force to work with our dogs who have generations of genetic coding which make them even more likely than a dolphin, to want to associate with us?

Now, instead of fuming and saying, “How dare you!” I take a breath and ask, “Why can’t you?” when it comes to dealing with changing my dog’s behavior. Often the answer I get is, “I don’t know how….yet.”

*Coercion (pronounced /koʊˈɜrʃən/) is the practice of forcing another party to behave in an involuntary manner (whether through action or inaction) by use of threats, intimidation or some other form of pressure or force. Such actions are used as leverage, to force the victim to act in the desired way. Coercion may involve the actual infliction of physical pain/injury or psychological harm in order to enhance the credibility of a threat. The threat of further harm may lead to the cooperation or obedience of the person being coerced. Torture is one of the most extreme examples of coercion i.e. severe pain is inflicted until the victim provides the desired information. From Wikipedia

Elementary my dear Watson

silohette of sherlock holmesAs much of a pain as it was to find myself with a project instead of a pet, I not only adore my fearful dog Sunny (who I am upgrading to my ‘super cautious’ dog Sunny) I am grateful to him for bringing the joy of inquiry back into my life.

As a kid the world was full of endless discoveries and questions; certain types of mud stick very nicely to the soles of your bare feet, peppermint stick and hot fudge make an awesome combination, why was it that if you stand in a doorway with your arms by your sides and push against the door frame hard and long enough when you step away your arms will float up? Adolescence and hormones brought a whole new batch of discoveries (which I will decline listing, in case my mother decides to read my blog) and the questions took on a new philosophical bent. It’s not that the questions and discoveries cease when we become adults, but the electrifying edge they have seems to dull.

I have always enjoyed being with dogs and training them, but it wasn’t until Sunny that I started to find myself experiencing ripples of pure delight when I discovered topics like learning theory and neurochemistry. One of the reasons was because Sunny didn’t make anything easy for me. Why wouldn’t he come out of the corner? How could I get him to stop being afraid of me? Why was he afraid of me? Might he always be afraid of me? What should I do? Each of these questions pointed me toward something interesting and eye-opening. Sometimes the answers were simple and appealed to my common sense. Other times the answers were neither simple, nor constant.

Working with dogs is like being a detective. First I have to figure out, as best as I can, why a dog is doing something. Then I get to think about how to get them to either keep doing it, stop doing it, or do something else. The easy answer can seem to be, just make them.

Years ago I was bequeathed two cocker spaniels. Prior to this I felt no particular preference for the breed. In fact I initially thought they were too small and cute to count as real dogs. But as you might imagine, I fell for them. The fact that they need to be groomed, must have their ears, eyes and lip folds cleaned regularly, was certainly not part of what endeared the breed to me. But it came with the package.

When I didn’t know much about training the only solution to performing unpleasant housekeeping on my dogs was to use compulsion, suck it up and deal little dog. The problem with this was that not only did I get resistance from the dog, it made the process unpleasant for me, making it less likely that I’d do it, more likely that infections would set in, which caused the cleanings to be painful for the dogs, and made their resistance even more extreme. It became more expensive for me when I brought them to the vet so someone else could make my dog deal with it. This was not a very good system.

Compulsion, bribery and trickery came with an even higher price. My behavior became suspect. Was a recall being asked for because ears were going to be cleaned? Hands reaching out could be going to grab a collar for restraint, so should be avoided. Even a small head duck offended me. That was not the kind of relationship I wanted to have with any dog, never mind my own.

Then I discovered methods like desensitizing and counter conditioning, rewarding for behaviors I wanted and even better, getting the dog to be an active participant in whatever the process was. I discovered that even if my dogs did not enjoy what was being done to them, they could comply with my request for them to hold still while I did it. Even though some procedures require restraint (I’m not sure how to convince Annie that having her anal glands expressed is a necessary evil) I am always pleased when it’s over and she shakes it off and then looks at me as if to say, ‘ok lady not sure why you felt the need to put your finger up my bum, but you did, so how about that liver treat’. Fortunately most of the things I need my dogs to do, don’t require me to force them to comply, but even then, the manner of their compliance is tolerant and accepting, liver treat or not.

Whenever I find myself thinking that the only solution to a dog’s behavior problem is to make them do something, I know that I haven’t asked enough questions. Sucking it up and dealing should not be the main skill any dog should have to learn, despite the fact that many are masters at it.

It’s what I usually do

black dog sniffing in outdoor stone fireplace

Sunny checking out the fireplace after an ice storm

Daily I head out with the dogs for a walk through the woods on trails not far from our house. Old carriage trails, built by the farmer who had his homestead at the top of the hill to get down to the river road and into town, wind through what were at one time pasture land. Now forested with pines, oaks, maples, ashes and hemlocks, each trail has its attraction. One leads to an old cabin site at another summit, its stone fireplace all that is left standing amidst the debris of the fallen down structure. The remains of a shoe from the early 1900’s appeared one day (perhaps uncovered by the explorations of a 4-legged critter) and I placed it under the cover of the fireplace for any other, though likely rare, visitor to enjoy. My regular route is a loop which heads up to an old apple orchard, down through a red pine forest and across two streams which the dogs especially enjoy.

It’s a running joke in our house for my husband to ask me which route I took on my walk, because my reply is most often the same, “The way I usually go.” I am a creature of habit, some good, some bad, some I’m not quite so sure why I bother with them. At one point I decided that walking up the mountain was easier if I traveled counter clockwise on the loop. Why I should persist for this reason doesn’t make a lot of sense when I also go the gym during the week for a ‘workout’. The difference between clockwise and counter clockwise is probably not that great. It’s just what I’ve gotten into the habit of doing.

My dogs have their habits as well. Sunny sees people and is in the habit of worrying about them. Finn sees people and is in the habit of bringing them a frisbee. Annie sees people and she’s in the habit of barking at them. Bugsy the old cocker, well, he’s in the habit of sleeping through a lot of stuff. Trying to get my dogs to change their habits can be a challenge. But as with anything that really matters to us, like getting dogs into the habit of peeing and pooping outside, we can achieve it, if we make it easy and worthwhile for them to create a new habit.

One of the best ways to create a new habit is to start doing it. If I floss my teeth before I go to bed each night for a week straight there’s a good chance that I’ll floss my teeth on night number eight. I stand a better chance of creating a tooth flossing habit if I make it easy to do it, the floss is in the bathroom and not out in the car. I buy the kind that slides easily so I don’t have to wrestle it out from between my teeth leaving shredded bits behind to drive me crazy.

If I mention to a friend that I am trying to cut back on eating sweets and pastries, imagine what I’d think if she suggested that we meet for lunch at a local bakery. Or if a friend of mine says he’s going to quit drinking, why would I offer to meet him at a local bar after work? Yet we often do this to our dogs, we set them up against so much temptation, or competing stimulation that they are doomed to fall back on their old, well rehearsed, inappropriate routines.

Helping my dogs build new habits takes time, repetition and the same kind of commitment it takes me to get to the gym a few times a week. Changing what we ‘usually do’ is often just a question of getting started, making it easy to succeed and discovering the reward in the habit.

Candy aisle etiquette for dogs

starburst candies imageSometimes I have the fun of confirming for an owner that the dog they have recently rescued is a star. I had initially dreaded meeting McGregor, but he quickly became one of those ‘other people’s dogs I wouldn’t mind having as my own’.

A friend had recommended that McGregor’s owner bring him by for an evaluation to see if he could board with us. The owners weren’t sure about him, he had a dog friend he played with but he had been ‘aggressive’ toward other dogs when out on leash walks. I ask a lot from my own dogs having other dogs staying here with us that any dog being added to the mix should not be one they have to worry about. On-leash aggression does not necessarily indicate that a dog is dangerous but I wasn’t sure if McGregor’s behavior was limited to the leash.

The owner thought that he was afraid of other dogs and if that was the case being on a leash around them could have caused the reaction she was seeing. I prepared for their visit with a pouch full of smelly treats, gates were in place, I had a long line ready and put a can of citronella spray in my back pocket, just in case.

McGregor was a Petfinder find, chosen for his looks, a reason I understood immediately. With a broad spaniel head and black rimmed eyes, a shiny red gold coat, and an extra long white-tipped toller tail, he was a sweet faced, handsome dog. The fly away hair on his long ears gave him a bit of a clownish cast, something I did not mention to his owners for fear of it not being taken for the compliment it was. He also turned out to be a dog who knew how to make good choices when it came to interacting with other dogs.

McGregor had the in-your-face exuberance of a young dog. Sunny loved him instantly, initiating a game of chase around the yard that had me smiling and praying everyone’s knees survived the fun. Finn the border collie tolerated his advances but quickly ignored him as if to say, “Yeah yeah kid now out of my way so those people you brought can throw my frisbee.” Annie the cocker would be the ultimate test. I watched as McGregor made the wise decision to opt out of the interaction he had initiated with her, showing what was an impressive amount of self-control in the process. I wanted him.

So what about his reaction to other dogs when he was on a leash?

When a dog’s experience with other dogs has primarily been to play with them, or in the case of young, energetic, social dogs, it should come as no surprise when they see another dog their thoughts turn to the potential fun to be had. But in the real world, when out walking on a leash, meeting or seeing new dogs often means nothing more than a passing raised nose air sniff and a ‘maybe another time’ glance. I suspected that this was not something that McGregor understood.

If every time you were standing in the grocery store check-out line you bought a candy bar for your kid, and then one day decided that practice was going to stop, would the ensuring whining, pleading and pouting come as a surprise? It shouldn’t.

Giving our dogs the opportunity to play with other dogs is a great thing, but dogs also need to learn that sometimes they can’t have the candy, even if it is right in front of their nose. I suspect that McGregor is going to turn out to be an even more awesome dog than he already is. Annie may even help him learn that it’s best to avoid some candy altogether.

Finding our way with our dog by heart

man & border collar playing frisbee in snowYears ago a fellow named Vince, out in Colorado contacted me to purchase a collar pendant for his dog Ellie. I sell pendants made from gemstones that are suppose to help the wearer feel more courageous. Mostly I think they just make us feel good because they look nice. I suggested that Vince also try cheese and counter conditioning, just in case.

Over the years Vince has kept in touch, sending me updates on his life with Ellie. Like Ellie I think that he shares a bit of the border collie’s commitment to the task at hand. He never gave up on becoming Ellie’s friend. Thank you Vince for sharing the following story with us.

Ellie was terrified. I knew then that she would not stay in that despicable emotional or physical space. He told me she was not for sale. He didn’t understand! Her name then was Kay. Even today when lavishing praise a certain care needs to be exercised when saying “okay.” The books said change her name. They never said it would change my life. So I named her after my mother and looked for that extra bit of strength.

Ellie’s Long Road home had begun. It was, and seemingly will continue to be a long strange trip. The rest stops now are shorter and the smiles, dogs smile you know, almost nonstop.

Was Ellie a fearful dog or just suffering from PTSD. I chose the latter and gave her the space to do the work. It could’ve turned out another way but then that would be a different story. We are very fortunate; 15 acres of good pasture and 1/4 acre fenced grassy forests around the house where a dog could hide once she actually left the house. I am fortunate because my lovely bride Lefty was always Ellie’s protector, her caregiver in those first six months. Months that I rarely saw Ellie except for a flash of red and white in the tall grass or sitting still as an owl behind a Stickley chair. Anyplace where she was confident that I could not reach her.

We got Ellie in  the spring, and soon she had a path worn along the fence perimeter from hideout to hideout; the Holler, The Corner Pocket, and The Dew Drop Inn. It is most important to respect these hiding spots for two reasons. First they need to build trust and second even a lightning bolt won’t catch a border collie. You need to know  if they are fearful or just very cautious; the words stubborn, manipulative, spoiled, self-centered little… Come to mind but then I figured two things. First how she would flood so completely lying on Lefty’s lap and I came near and second, now three years later, when she is talking to me with her eyes; no kidding! Remember the dog does all the work. You just think of the opportunities. Sure despair, frustration, anger, rejection and hurt all exist in the same bag as hope, delight, joy, acceptance and happiness. Oh I forgot the boatloads of patience.

This is the dog that would only eat ice cream if she was at least an arms length away from me. My sleeve length is 38 inches. She’d take a graham cracker but only if I first dipped in milk. Even the Vet said you can’t do that. She will never eat dog food. Hell, I had already bought every food and type of dog food on the face of the earth. Now she eats her lamb and rice with a little cheese as long as I am sitting behind the counter. She’s a kick.

So okay what worked. We all know border collies are obsessive compulsive. In themselves not bad traits. It’s what makes them such hard workers. If you can put an obsession in front of a fear then you win. We found, kind of like Columbus found America, something that I saw her eyes watch more than me; A Frisbee; a flying squirrel to be exact. She would sit near Lefty just as we as we started throwing the frisbee to each other. She watched it like it was a herd of sheep and she was hooked. She still wouldn’t come in or out of the yard if I was near the gate but she would play frisbee. She wouldn’t come closer  to me than 15 feet but that wasn’t too bad even when you’re lying in a ground blizzard staring into those amber eyes just taking each others measure with no flooding.

There were red letter days When I got to scratch her stomach “no scratch no catch” worked. We played baseball with the frisbee. She would crouch on the ground ready while I kept up the color and play-by-play; He looks, gets the sign, checks the runner on first and third; goes into his windup, and she’d be off running where I looked or maybe was football. We’d line up, wide receiver split outside; set; 31 and BAM she’s off! Now she’ll come right to me roll over on my lap, get scratched until I say “number 31”  and she’s off. This is the same dog that in year 2 I could hold if Lefty was near and sing “Ellie Girl”  to the tune of “Danny Boy.”  But, year 2 passed into year three and we still had her in spite of those days when I would have traded her for a dry cow. Can’t sing “Ellie Girl” anymore; that took some learning. Things can work for a while and then they become part of the past; part of all bad memories. If it worked and then doesn’t lose it. That dog is ready to move ahead. Still the frisbee kept flying. Now when I see her in a full speed run both of us knowing I can hit her on the fly almost brings me to tears.

Then we got another border, a pup. I do not recommend this to everyone. There are so many ways it can go wrong. We were lucky. Hank and Ellie became fast friends almost at once. It brought Ellie back her childhood and she grew back up again.

She Saw Hank get in the truck and come back. She saw Hank come right to me and take a treat like a  graham cracker. She’ll do that now but they still have to be dipped in milk! She leaps into the future and trusts. This took some doing on her part. Don’t be afraid when things go south now and then. Imagine trying to build your life without words and what you need to do it. Remember the dog does all the hard work. You just need to understand and adjust; unafraid to try anything. Your life is like a taxi ride; it goes where you want it to. The dog’s life is like a train; on set rails.

You try everything and believe everything will work and when it doesn’t try something else. I bought Crystal charms, shameless plug it is, I think they worked. Single-handedly I kept the dog food industry in business. Now she eats Milkbones from my hands. For over a year I thought I might never leave the ranch. I was afraid I’d never get Ellie in the truck. Now sometimes I can’t get her out. Sure sometimes she needs to do some obscure ritual before she gets in but she gets in and that is the point right? Years went by when she would not come in the house when I was there. Now I can snap my fingers and say up and she is on the bed. Would I do it again? Yeah. You don’t leave dogs in small cages.

Was it worth it? Most definitely. When we are hiking in the woods and she comes turning back to me jumping up saying Thanks; that’s worth it. She learned to trust and I learned patience. Just watch out for the first few years try everything; push but don’t shove, open yourself to the dog and let them close that chasm which to you looks so small but to them may be miles across. Sounds a lot like life doesn’t it!

The Good Samaritan Law

painting of a good samaritanI spent 3 days at a workshop with Suzanne Clothier focusing on the treatment and handling of fearful and reactive dogs. The fabulous Deborah Flick of the The Boulder Dog Blog came out and joined me and I can’t imagine a better time.

One of the questions asked of Suzanne was- when was it appropriate to ‘correct’ or ‘punish’ a dog. Her response made me think of the ‘Good Samaritan Law‘ which applies to people who volunteer to help someone who is sick or injured and prevents them from being held liable for their actions. In practice this means that should you stop to help someone at the scene of a car accident, you cannot be sued if the victim chooses to claim that your actions caused them harm. The purpose of the law is to ensure that people continue to assist others in need without worrying about being sued for it. However, if you are a professional, an emergency room doctor let’s say, the same law may not apply. You will be held to higher standard for your actions.

Suzanne’s response regarding when it was appropriate to ‘correct’ a dog was based on whether or not she could be completely sure that the dog not only knew the behavior being asked of them, but that their skill level also met the challenges of the situation (were they an emergency room doctor or lay person?). A dog without the skills for the situation would not be punished for noncompliance. The punishment does not teach them the skills they need nor does it make it easier for them to learn. A dog without the skills to sit quietly when other dogs approach or when people come to the door needs to learn those skills, not be punished for not having them.

As with the good Samaritan we don’t punish a dog for trying to the best of their ability and making choices based on that ability. We want to teach them the skills they need to be successful. At the same time we want to cut the emergency room doctor some slack if they are unable to perform up to their skill level on the side of the road.

I have tried to give my fearful dog the skills to be successful in as many different situations as possible, but should he need to he can defer to my greater expertise. He may think a tourniquet is necessary when I suspect a bandaid will do the trick. It’s been a long time since he’s argued with my decisions.