Archive for December, 2010|Monthly archive page

Blazing the trail

trail marker on rockIf you’ve ever gone for a walk in the woods or in the mountains and followed a well-used trail, getting from point A to point B is just a question of glancing down now and then to make sure you’re still on the path. In some areas there are blazes on trees, stripes of paint or slashes in the bark, which highlight the correct route. In the mountains we look for cairns, piles of rocks which previous travelers or rangers have built to mark the route.

When I think about dog behavior I often think of it like a path in the wilderness. Either the trail is worn and easy to find or else a new trail needs to be started. The trail that is easy to find, perhaps even deep and rutted from use, might lead to the correct destination, or it might not. It’s not easy to get dogs or people to veer off their beaten path, even if we know that the views are better when we take a different route. It takes trust, practice and convincing that this new path is in fact better.

Many of the training techniques that work best with fear based behavior challenges begin by flagging the correct route. Leslie McDevitt’s ‘Look at that’ activity comes to mind. We are starting at the very beginning of the trail and marking the first step of simply looking at a trigger and creating or rewarding a positive response. Once the start of the trail is obvious we can move further along and continue to mark the route. But like a route in the forest, until it has been well traveled, it can be easy to miss. It becomes important to be consistent so that the path becomes obvious and easy to follow.

In my life with Sunny I have tried to lay down a path for him which gets both of us to a destination we are happy to arrive at. The times I have led us off a cliff, we’ve been lucky that whatever damage done was not irreparable. When I led him down the path of aggression it could have been the case. Fear aggressive dogs are not easy or safe to live with. If we don’t take the time at the beginning to ensure that we are flagging the correct route, or put our dogs into situations in which they have to choose their own path and they lack the directional skills to do so safely, we can begin to see aggression or other inappropriate behaviors.

It’s helpful to remember that even small steps in the right direction get us closer to our destination.


Forcing the issue

brown dog with leashI am a member of different online chat groups pertaining to training dogs, some geared specifically for fearful dogs.

Online communication can be dicey at best. The printed word, without the benefit of inflections or facial expressions can be misinterpreted. Offense can be easily taken and the response often seeming more like road rage than thoughtful discourse. I have been guilty of being both terse and sensitive.

I bit my tongue (or tied my fingers as the case may be) recently when someone made a comment that by not forcing a dog to face their fears we keep them ‘living in their fear’. Lucky for me the moderator of the group in her infinite wisdom addressed the concept that force fixes fear (it usually doesn’t).

So much depends on the dog and what skills they bring to the table. When forcing a dog to ‘suck it up and deal’ works, handlers and trainers come to the conclusion that it is the approach to take with any dog. The irony of this to me is that even professed dog lovers will readily accept that dogs are like cookies, cut from the same dough, and in all their beauty and wonderfulness, are not unique and are without their own individual capabilities or needs.

Following is my reply to a comment, which I chose not to send, but feel strongly about.

The comment:

“And in regards to another post, one might consider it more cruel to have a dog live in fear for years instead of pushing him a little and shorten that time he has to live in fear.”

What I would have said:

I am trying hard not to be offended by the inference that I (whether you were directing your comment to me or not) am like some zealot blinded at the alter of counter conditioning and desensitization and have chosen to be cruel and let my dog suffer rather than embrace alternatives.

If you understood what desensitization and counter conditioning entail you would know that no one is suggesting that we ignore a dog for years while it suffers. If you read the files you would see that teaching a dog to target, or play the magic hands or cookie person games, are not about leaving a dog to suffer with their fears. If you read any of the recommended books on the suggested reading list you’d know that as well.

The idea that pushing them a little is going to shorten the time they are going to be afraid only makes sense if you have given them the skills (or they already have them) to progress from the shallow end of the pool to the deep end. How can anyone suggest that someone force their dog to do something without knowing what skills the dog has? Or that there is a stable enough relationship between the dog and handler that not all trust will be lost should that little push be misjudged?

No-kill shelters have dogs that will never be adopted, not because there are not homes for them but because they have behavior problems that will never be resolved enough by a training or behavior mod program to ensure that they will be safe with people or other dogs. Some of us are living with dogs that should never have been adopted out or sold, and those dogs are lucky that their owners found trainers who advocate using positive techniques.

To suggest that any of us are causing our dogs pain and suffering because we have chosen to follow techniques that are recommended by top trainers and behaviorists would seem cruel to me if it wasn’t just so wrong. If someone has indeed ignored their dog for years while it suffered they didn’t get that advice here.

The economy of incentives and the surprising science of motivation

“It has already been demonstrated that an essential element of organizations is the willingness of persons to contribute their individual efforts to the cooperative system…the contributions of personal efforts which constitute the energies of organizations are yielded because of incentives. The egotistical motives of self-preservation and of self-satisfaction are dominating forces; on the whole, organizations can exist only when consistent with the satisfaction of these motives.” Chester Barnard, The Functions of the Executive

The quote above came from a book on management, written in the 1930’s. That self-preservation and self-satisfaction guide our choices is as true today as it was then.

This presentation by Daniel Pink looks at research which shows how important self-direction is when we want more than just rudimentary skills development.

black & white dog with paw on a basketballThere is a degree of containment in all of our lives, gravity holds us down and the mortgage keeps us showing up at work, however when we are allowed to find a level of freedom within that containment, something happens; we can figure out how to fly. When we allow our dogs, including and perhaps especially, our fearful dogs, the autonomy to think and make choices, they too can discover possibilities beyond those which are either obvious or have previously been required of them.

I am not suggesting that all guidelines for behavior be eliminated, but that when we give our dogs the opportunity to consider a challenge, and allow them the freedom to come up with a solution, it might just be one that works.

Early on in our life together I wanted Sunny to learn a ‘recall’. This was hard for a dog with little comfort being near people. One day I discovered that when I called Sunny to come to me instead of coming to me, or running away from me, he sat down, and he remained sitting until I approached and got him back on leash. This was his solution to the challenge, and it worked for both of us. I got what I needed and Sunny was able to perform within his comfort and skill zone. Today Sunny has a recall. When it became a behavior which was not fraught with stress and anxiety, it was very easy to teach with treat or play rewards.

When provided with a level of autonomy, even without the incentive of an extrinsic reward, we can see an improvement in performance quality. When we see a decrease in performance quality in dogs what we often observe is aggression. It is this aggression which ultimately leads to a death sentence for many fearful dogs. Preventing this aggression should be at the top of the list for any handler of fearful dogs. Punishing a dog for being aggressive rarely works as well as providing a dog with the opportunity to develop the skills they need to come up with other solutions to solve the challenge of being scared.

Due diligence

cartoon of woman & manI was talking to a friend who recently went to meet the person she had been communicating with for months via phone & email. They’d never met in person but both had built a lovely fantasy of what their life together together would be like. They had much in common, respected the paths each other had taken in their lives and found each others pictures appealing.

Unfortunately once they actually were face to face with time together the reality turned out differently. The decision to end the budding relationship was mutual, and although disappointed, both realized they were not likely to see many blossoms in the future. Their fantasies were shattered but the shards of reality inflicted no real harm.

A not so dissimilar scenario plays out daily in the lives of dogs that are adopted by people who, with good intentions, find a dog either at the shelter or online, and create in their minds the perfect future they will share together. They will love each other, the dog will behave appropriately and respectfully in its new home, and any challenges will be sorted out quickly with a minimum of fuss and bother. When reality strikes, or as my mother once said, ‘the bloom is off the rose’, and the decision is made to end the relationship, the consequences for the dog may not be inconsequential.

A common reason dogs end up needing to be re-homed is that they never learned how to behave properly with people, either in a home or out in public. Their behavior may have been annoying, or it may have been dangerous. Either way, each experience they have with people and do not succeed at learning skills, can make their problems worse.

I am not advocating that anyone keeps a dog they feel unprepared to manage properly. Nor am I laying a guilt-trip on people who give up a dog. Indeed, being able to assess one’s lifestyle or environment and conclude that it is not the best for a dog, is important and may provide the dog with the opportunity to move on to a more appropriate home. It is likely however that a dog who is returned to a shelter or rescue and has not grown from the experience in its temporary home is running out of second chances.

Kevin Myers of will be considering how people can ‘keep it real’ when looking to adopt a new dog in the coming weeks.

It’s exciting to think and dream about adding a new dog to your life. Just remember that the snapshot you see of a dog, whether it’s an online profile or during a visit to the shelter, probably hides a few blemishes that in real life could end up being deal breaker if you are not prepared for them.

Guest Blogger-Maizey’s promise

Katie from Lessons From 4 Legs has been kind enough to share the story about her life with Maizey, a fearful Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. The promises Katie had made to Maizey should be ones which we all make to our fearful dogs, and you will no doubt find similarities between their experiences together and your own.

cavalier king charles spanielHaving a fearful dog is a journey of unique challenges and joys. Each challenge leads to its own lesson, each lesson to its own larger joy.

My journey with a reactive dog started before I ever realized that it was a reactive journey.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniels are friendly, out going, loving dogs. But a combination of genetics and poor early puppy socialization combined to give Maizey a predisposition to be fearful.

Now at two years old her fear issues are not severe, but the signs of fear were evident from her first day home. I just did not know they were signs of distress.

Looking back, you can always see more clearly when the fear started or escalated. You wish you knew then what you know now and had done things differently. The “if only’s. . .” are one of the sorrows of owning a fearful dog.

“If only I had given higher reinforcement in that situation.”

“If only I had spoken up for her and not been intimidated by people.”

And for me the worst feeling, “If only I had protected her better.”

But from these “if only’s” can come some of the best lessons and what I call ‘Maizey Promises‘. The main promise I make to her-

“I will always protect you. If I don’t do a good enough job, I will learn and do better next time.”

Maizey is a happy, playful girl. She loves to snuggle, train and learn. She is an expert at figuring things out. She is thinking all the time.

She is my emotional side-kick. She reads human emotions better than most humans I know.

This sensitivity is one of her greatest gifts, but also leads her to hyper-sensitivity. One of her greatest stresses, and my greatest sorrows.

Seeing her inability to handle stress is always sad. She can go from being a happy, playful girl to a stressed out, reacting girl in seconds. After an episode, she will remain watchful, alert and unable to calm down for hours.

This sorrow leads to another challenge. Helping a fearful dog takes full time thought. As Debbie said, “Few people realize the time, energy and patience involved with working with a fearful dog.”

One thing that is vital is the need to control the environment. Unfortunately, at times this is impossible. You can not, even in your own home, fully control everything.

Recently the shadow of our cat was on the door to the next room. Maizey was relaxed, not stressed at all, and the next thing I know she was reactively barking and lunging at the cats shadow.

There is no way I can control shadows, but I can try! I promise to protect her, but when it comes to controlling the environment I have another Maizey Promise. “I promise to help you have the skills you need to cope and I promise to help you use those skills. If I don’t know how to help you, I will learn and do better next time.”

The human element can be a challenge too. People have varying reactions to you and your barking, lunging, 10 pound ball of Cavalier ears and tail.

On a walk one day, a dachshund ran out of his house towards us. I tried to use the skills we have conditioned, but it all happened so swiftly that she briefly put on her best barking, lunging attack dog impression.

It would have been ideal to move along, but the neighbors came out and wanted to visit. Although I repeatedly stated I needed to go, they kept talking. Short of just walking away from my neighbor in mid sentence all I could do was use our skills to help Maizey cope.

When the other dog was contained, and Maizey had calmed down, I tried to salvage the situation by letting her say hello. She ran up with a friendly greeting for our neighbor, who quickly backed away. She was so scared of this “ferocious” little dog that in her haste to get away from her, she almost fell over! I felt terrible, for her and for Maizey.

It’s difficult to convince people who were raised on talk of dominance and aggression that this is a fear based behavior. It’s hard to explain that this happy little puppy with tail and ears flying is not the same threatening, barking apparition of a few minutes before.

So I have developed a new language to help people see Maizey for who she truly is. I have learned to overlook what is not useful in what people say and take away what will work for her.

Although what I do to help her doesn’t always make sense to observers, I know it makes sense to her. Which leads to my next Maizey promise, “I will put your needs first. I will not be swayed by public opinion, I will do what is best for you.”

Though the challenges can seem overwhelming, the joys of having a fearful dog are often found in the smallest things and far outweigh the sorrows.

There are no titles, no strings of letters after their name to show how far they have come. No fancy ribbons and registries that show, “My dog took a relaxed and fun walk today.” Or, “Today my fearful dog played happily with a new dog.” These are the kind of things that make me happy and proud.

Those things, like seeing her think through a problem and choose to offer me a simple behavior instead of reacting automatically show her progress. Even silly things like destroying a cardboard box in fun, instead of anxiety, are all monumental steps for a fearful dog. Steps that deserve recognition and celebration.

Each skill she learns is a tool that helps her confidence grow. Each time she gains more confidence, my confidence grows with her. As our confidence grows so does our joy.

That is my last Maizey Promise, “I will see and celebrate the joys. I will share in your successes no matter how small.”

Having a fearful dog will inspire you as a trainer and a person in ways that others may never see. It is a journey of lessons that can’t be replaced any other way. Like all journeys there are sorrows, but there are more joys.

They are other nations

3 dogs facing camera“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves.

And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animals shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.

They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of earth. Henry Beston The Outermost House

And each one is traveling on the path fate, fortune or luck has put them on. Every time our paths cross with theirs we have the opportunity to choose whether we will make their burdens lighter, their travails less arduous or their fears more remote.

As different from them as we may be, some of the voices that whisper in our ears are sharing the same secrets. It is not always easy, but be patient. It is not always obvious, but choose to be kind.

Free music to calm your dog

image of through a dog's ear CD caseThis is true- my 5-CD player is currently filled with 5 CDs of Through A Dog’s Ear.

From the Through A Dog’s Ear website

“The music of Through a Dog’s Ear builds on the ground breaking psychoacoustic research of Dr. Alfred Tomatis (1920-2001). Known as the “Einstein of the ear,” Tomatis discovered the extraordinary powers of sound as a “nutrient for the nervous system.” His therapeutic discoveries redefine modern psychoacoustics — the study of the effect of music and sound on the human nervous system.

These recordings are psychoacoustically designed to support you and your dog’s compromised immune or nervous system function. When the immune or nervous system is heavily taxed, a natural reaction is to self-limit the amount of auditory or visual stimulation coming into the system. However, the “nutrients” of sound are needed the most when life energy is at a low ebb or when neurodevelopmental (including sensory) issues are present. To facilitate maximum sound intake while conserving energy output, the method of simple sound has been created.”

This week as a gift to you and your dog you can download a new piece of music each day. Don’t miss out, each piece is only available on one day. Get your free download. And as if that wasn’t enough, Lisa Spector and the folks who produce Through A Dog’s Ear, provide free CDs to shelters and approved rescue groups.

If you have never listened to, enjoyed and watched your dogs snooze to Through A Dog’s Ear, now’s your chance to check out this fabulous resource.

Dog training in the real world

man seated surrounded by dogsI’m thinking about the comments I read or hear from people criticizing trainers as ‘cookie pushers’ or some other derogatory term they’ve come up with for reward-centric trainers. It dawned on me that if you don’t know what you are looking at, you might very well just see someone feeding dogs treats. But as with anything else, the more you understand and learn about something, the more appreciation you have for it. My cousin travels around the world tasting coffee. Give him a cup and he can pick out ‘tones’ and acidity levels, and can probably even tell you where it was grown. Give me a cup and I’ll thank you and look for the muffin to go with it.

When I am with my dogs and any boarder dogs I might look like nothing more than a treat vending machine, if you were not aware of my agenda. Daphne the guest dog stops and looks at me while we are out walking in the woods, that earns her a bit of kibble so she’ll continue to check in with me. When Bugsy approaches me and Sunny is nearby, Sunny gets a treat so I can work on changing how he feels about the old coot. Finn practically begs me to let him practice heeling when he’s off leash and why wouldn’t I want to provide a border collie with the chance to show off what he can do? While the dogs splash in the river I call each by name and toss them a treat so they look at me and practice having a positive emotional response when they hear me say their name.

Do I sometimes dole out treats just because I think a dog is too darn cute. Sometimes but even then I wait for eye contact or ask for a ‘sit’. Every interaction I have with a dog gives me the chance to let them know how I feel about their behavior.

“Ooh that’s a nice recall!”

“No need to get bent out of shape when another dog comes near your toy.”

“Better if you don’t pull away when I reach for your collar.”

“So nice to have you wait until I say you can go when I open the gate.”

If you see me with a bunch of dogs and think I’m just handing out treats for the heck of it, you’d be missing the subtle undertones of a cheery relationship, with minimal acidity, and a pleasant after taste.