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.


26 comments so far

  1. Hilary on

    Excellent post, Debbie. I must say, when I first got Luna, I was advised to make her “face her fears” and the trainer proceeded to flood her. Forcing her in situations for which she wasn’t ready. I felt uncomfortable with that technique, but this was a “professional” behaviorist/trainer. Luna still has her fears, worse from the experience, manifesting in unusual ways. Thanks for this post discussing this topic in a way we can all understand.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Something to be said for patience & skill! Trick is knowing who has both.

  2. Deborah Flick on

    Spot on, as usual. Thanks for posting on your blog is not to the group in question.

    Now i have a question. What is “magic hands or cookie person games”? Sadie and I are dying to know! We want to play.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There are probably lots of versions of magic hands. I played one with Sunny asking him to target my hand as it appeared in different ways, above his head, from the side, etc. Another way is to offer treats to the dog so that in time the dog puts his head either above or below the other hand.

      Cookie person is getting someone to sit on the floor surrounded by treats and with treats on their legs and let the dog eat them. The person ignores the dog totally. I think treat/retreat is probably better, but it’s just another game to play if you have willing participants.

  3. Pat on

    I agree that you can’t push a very fearful dog. You may well encounter more problems than you expected. It could be kind of like opening a can of worms without knowing how to put the lid back on. That said, I also refuse to sit by and allow a dog to “stay stuck” at one level for an extended period of time. I foster for Papillon Haven Rescue and we often have dogs that come from puppy mill situations. I have gone the clicker training route and agree with touch training but you can get a dog to a point that, without pushing things a bit you might stay stuck! Such has been the case with a little three year old girl we got because she had the good sense to refuse to breed. I suspect she suffered a good bit of abuse as well as a lack of socialization. She had been in foster care for almost a year and in and out of two other foster homes. She came terrified of being touched, refused to make eye contact and hid under the bed. I can’t say enough good things about Wellness Pure Rewards, they stink to high heaven but the smell brought a scared little girl out from under the bed and ultimately to take a treat from my hand. She learned to play, to bounce up and down, wanting to join in the rough and tumble play (or as rough as you can get with a six pound dog)but afraid to make that much contact. She would make eye contact and not run for cover. She would follow me around the house and sleep at my feet while I worked and that’s where the progress stopped. We could be friends, but strictly on her terms. At that point I sought advice from anyone willing to give it and tried several things to no avail. Finally I decided that if she liked me well enough to follow me around, if she would take treats from me, if she would chase the ball I threw she wasn’t that afraid and so I began picking her up when I got her out of her crate in the morning. I put a leash on her in the house so I could catch her several times a day and pet her, scratch her under her chin, pick her up and cuddle her. I’ve been doing this for a couple months…… she cured, nope, but she will come to me now when I call her. She does allow me to pick her up without having to reel her in with the leash. She lets me hold her without shaking and she has just begun to take treats while sitting on my lap. Maybe she will never be “normal” by my terms. But she is beginning to live a life that makes sense to me and, I think, to her. She is happier, more friendly, less fearful than she was a month ago. When will she be ready to be adopted? I don’t know. I don’t want to rush it and if it takes her another year to trust more than just me that’s okay too. Do I wish I’d begun pushing it sooner, maybe a little sooner but at first she wasn’t ready. She had to come half way before I could force the issue. I think one of the biggest measurements is eye contact. I felt a real change in her when she began making eye contact, a change in her confidence level. I wish there was a book of rules to follow in dealing with these terrified little dogs but each dog is different. What works for one may well not work for the next. I have another scared puppy mill girl coming in a couple weeks. She has also been in foster care for over a year. Will what has worked with my girl now work with the next one, maybe not. But I’ve learned things with her, I’ve gained confidence and I’ll keep working with them!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for reading and sharing your experiences Pat. When we talk about giving the dog time to build skills and using CC/DS to work with them, it is never about ‘allowing them to stay stuck’. I’m not even sure that using the term ‘stuck’ when thinking about fear issues is a good idea. It implies that with enough force we can ‘unstick’ them. I instead would say it’s about not sitting by and watching a dog remain unskilled or not give them the chance to polish up what skills they have.

      What I have found is that for any behavior I feel the need to compel my dog to do, there is an alternate, compulsion-free technique that works with the dog’s ability and builds on it. When we do decide to ‘push’ a dog it is often not because it is the more appropriate method, but because either we are unable or unwilling to give the dog the time it might need or we don’t know how to make it happen otherwise. The idea that because forcing a dog to deal with something worked, and so should have been done sooner, doesn’t make sense. Just because I may be able, at the prompting of my husband, to ski a black diamond trail with him, and survive, doesn’t mean that he should have encouraged me to do it years ago when I would not have been successful. Indeed it is likely that had he done so I would never ski with him again (which is actually what happened).

      You are so right that every dog is different. Your willingness to take on dogs like this and understanding that building a positive trusting relationship with them is key is so nice to hear. I hope you and your little charges have a wonderful holiday season and a safe, healthy and courageous New Year.

      • Pat on

        I agree about not pushing and if she were mine, if I had the rest of her life to work with her, I probably would be much more relaxed with her, willing to let her progress on her own schedule. Unfortunately I don’t have that time. Prima is three years old, she is cute and very adoptable, or would be if she was friendly toward people. As she gets older she will be less adoptable and I want that forever home for her. Also, because there are only a couple of us who work with the special needs dogs I am under constant pressure to make a space for another dog that needs to be “fixed.” I am always happiest when they tell me I am getting a dominant/aggressive dog. They are such an easy fix, the scared ones, not at all. Prima has all the confidence in the world with the other dogs and is often the leader of the pack. She is incredibly smart and although I think that kind of intelligence often works against them as they remember everything, it also will help her if and when she learns to trust. I try to be very careful about when and how much I push. My concern is always to move them forward and not back. Because my fosters are so small (usually 5-10 pounds) I spend a lot of time on the floor so I’m not towering over them. I leave leashes on them in the house so if I have to get a frightened pap out from under the bed I don’t have to crawl in after them, adding to their anxiety but can gently tug on the leash. I use a lot of treats and toys, and if there is a dog that I just am not able to bond with at some level I pass him/her off to another trainer to work with. It doesn’t happen often but puppy mill dogs where often mistreated with either a man or a woman. I have one little boy here that loves my son-in-law but is just now beginning to bond with me. His bad experiences obviously stemmed from an uncaring or abusive female. He had been doing a lot of fear biting and it is difficult to find someone to deal with that kind of issue! In any case, with foster dogs, we just don’t have the privilege of time that you have with a dog of your own. With so many dogs needing rescue we need to find ways to help each dog with some kind of time frame in mind. I’m not saying that they need to be “fixed” in two months or a year but it can’t go on for five years because at the end of that time you might have a dog that is reasonably well adjusted but no longer adoptable. My degrees are in psychology and I have found that has served me well in working with these dogs. Typically their body language is easy to read and I am very aware of that as I’m working with them. My constant goal is to bring them as far as possible in each instance without approaching the “fight or flight” line. I want them to associate me always with good things, scratches, treats, walks in the woods, playing with a favorite toy.

    • Lucie on

      Where can I find Wellness Pure Rewards? Your information is wonderful and like you I seek advice form anyone and everyone. I too have a foster who was in a puppymill for six years… and is scared to death of everyone. Will not make I contact, scared to be approached, I pick her up sometimes she runs sometimes she does not. I hold her, kiss her, rub or back but I realize it will take a long time and I have only had her a week… Any suggestions would be great.
      Thanks Lucie

      • fearfuldogs on

        Some petshops sell Wellness products but the only thing magic about them is that the dog really loves them. You could try cheese or any other real meat you have. I would also suggest that you are going too fast with your dog. You are still on first date status with this dog but are already taking liberties! Shy dogs usually respond best when not much pressure is put on them to interact. Just because you are able to catch and pick her up does not mean you should. One day she may love it, and that’s what we want to have happen, but right now you could slow down a bit.

        It would be helpful to learn about triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization. These are the foundation of all the work we do with our fearful dogs. You can find info on the website about these training concepts. A dog that grew up in a puppymill does not have the skills to deal with all the scary things they encounter in a new, real home. They need time to adjust and owners need patience and lots of good treats! I have found that it helps to let a shy dog know that you understand how nervous they are. I do this by responding to their body language, which is telling me “I’m scared” with my own body language saying “That’s ok I’m not going to hurt you”. By handling a dog that is asking to be left alone, running away is about as loud as they can get, besides biting, to say this, the dog has a rougher time learning that they can trust us.

      • Pat on

        I’m sorry that I didn’t come upon your post sooner, Christmas has been crazy for us this year. I love the Pure Rewards because the dogs love them and because they are very clean to give to them, no little pieces of cheese on the floor and the size is perfect for my little charges. I always allow my puppy mill papillons to come to me for treats or just to smell my fingers before I take it to the next step. I have had Prima, my current difficult foster, for almost eight months and she has been in foster care for nearly two years and she is just now wanting to play with me and getting happy about being scratched behind the ears, etc. Last night my son and his family was here, usually she stands at my bedroom door and barks at people she doesn’t know but last night, I suppose because they were here for several hours, she finally stopped being quite so afraid and ventured into the living room. She came and laid close to my feet as she does when I’m in the office working. My son, who is 6’7″ and a tad on the loud side laughed and got up which startled Prima and she stood up, must have felt trapped in her spot and jumped right up on the sofa beside me. These break throughs don’t come everyday and she may not come to me for comfort again for weeks or months but she did it and I’m thrilled! She is such a happy little girl, tail is always wagging when we are here alone, bouncing around, begging one of the other dogs to play with her or bringing a toy for me to throw. Someday she will come to me of her own accord without my son or someone else scaring her into it and when that happens I will be celebrating!

  4. Nancy on

    Great post, great blog, great site. Love it all.
    Do you think that new owners of fearful dogs feel like they need to push and control and reshape their fearful dogs? I remember being that way. Now, however, I’ve accpeted where my fearful dog is in his journey and guess what? I like him better.

    Goodness, we all know somebody who’s either opinionated or funny or negative or supportive. And we all like those people better when we accept them for who they are.

    Finally I’ve been able to hit that sweet spot with my dog and we’re all happier for it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Nancy, appreciate it! Nice to hear that you have been able to accept your dog with all his challenges. What a relief I bet!

      I suspect that many owners of any dog feel the need to control and change their dogs. I think that most of our motivation comes from a good place, we sincerely want our fearful dogs to feel better. We don’t like seeing them scared and unsure. We have so many great plans for them! Many of us just cannot accept that being wary or easily startled may be our dog’s lot in life. As much as I do accept the kind of dog that Sunny is I will admit that a big part of me is in that camp. I just cannot give up the desire to see how far he can go, the things he can learn and the comfort he can develop. I typically frame many of the things that happen here at the house, or if I have Sunny out in the world with me, in the context of how I can use situations to help him.

      But yes, Sunny is Sunny. He’s funny and opinionated. And truth is I adore him as is.

      • Nancy on

        I admit to constantly working on my dog’s development in the shy area as well, but sometimes I wonder if my motivations for doing so are pure enough (if that makes sense). This country is not a good one to dogs who are not above and beyond where behaviors are concerned. There is a stigma attached to shy and unstable dogs (and to owners of those dogs, it’s there) and I think eradicating that stigma keeps me working toward improving my dog’s behavior.

        And I worry that that kind of motivation is not really the right kind for me here. Hmm.

  5. fearfuldogs on

    I know what you mean and I suppose one way to determine if what you are doing is appropriate or not is by honestly accounting how much of your dog’s time is spent near or beyond it’s threshold. I don’t have a clue what the right amount is for a particular dog but certainly most of the time a dog, or human, should be feeling as though they are in control of their lives and doing things which make them feel good.

    I feel that if anything were to happen to me I want my dog to have as many skills as possible so that maybe he’d be able to find a new life with someone else. As it stands I hope I outlive him.

  6. melfr99 on

    Great post Debbie.

    I admit that when I first started I just wanted to give Daisy time to acclimate and be comfortable in her environment – I didn’t want to overwhelm her. But like Nancy, I also wanted to reshape her and help her so she wouldn’t look so sad and fearful. I quickly learned that “forcing” her to do something was not the option I wanted because I saw from her body language that it only caused her more fear. I used treats, hand targeting and other methods to help her along.

    It’s funny, but someone recently commented on how Daisy used to have such sad eyes and how she no longer has that look. It totally made my day. Such an uplifting and rewarding comment!

    • Debbie on

      It’s a huge compliment Mel & should make you feel good!

  7. Mayzie on

    Debbie – loved, loved, loved this post. I remember that discussion on the list well and chose to bite my tongue, too.

    One of my biggest regrets with Mayzie was – before I understood anything about fearful dogs – trying to make her face her fears by taking her to a lot of different places. I SO wish I could go back and undo that. I think THE most important thing about living with a dog – but especially a fearful dog – is building a trusting relationship. What I have found with Mayzie is that she now knows that she can trust me to not put her in a situation she can’t handle. She knows that if she gets freaked out by something, I will take her out of it. She knows that I will protect her. And because of that, I think she’s willing to at least take the first step into a situation that she’s uncertain about. So rather than me pushing her, she’s testing her own limits because she knows that I’m going to give her a choice in the matter.

    If I had continued to force her to “face her fears,” I absolutely don’t believe she would be where she is today. Rather than being her safety net, I would be the cause of her fears.

    Amber (MayzieMom)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that. I could only bite my tongue for so long (obviously!). It makes perfect sense with children that if we want them to try something new and scary we first have to get them to trust us and then when we believe they have the skills, can encourage them to go for it. Making a kid who can’t swim jump into the deep end of the pool would just be dumb, yet somehow we think it’s ok to do to dogs, or any other creature we can force into things.

  8. Lizzie on

    Absolutely agree with Amber about building relationships first and foremost with our dogs. It was for Gracie and me the single most important aspect of coping with her fear.

    All the progress she has made has been in her own time when she has felt confident enough to let go of her inhibitions and learn a new skill, backed up with treats of course and positive reinforcement!

    Today we hit another milestone. She allowed my husband to stroke her for the first time, and she was calm and looked happy to do so. That’s a wonderful start to a new year.


    • fearfuldogs on

      That is so fabulous Lizzie. Bet your husband feels good. It’s funny because people won’t bat an eye about a feral cat that takes years to allow handling, but for some reason we expect our dogs to take to it naturally.

    • Sue on

      oh Lizzie..that is such good news…lets hope it is a bit of a turning point and that Gracie might eventually allow your husband to care for her a bit,or maybe take her for a walk. Happy New Year to you all..xx

  9. fearfuldogs on

    Pat, you might want to check out the technique Suzanne Clothier is using called Treat/Retreat. I’m not sure if she has a link somewhere about it, I’ll look. I’ve attended classes and seminars with her. The idea is that we often try to get dogs close to us, paying more attention to that then working on the skills of approaching people.

    By tossing treats away from us or the trigger as well as closer, we give the dog a chance to relax a bit if they are feeling stressed, and often they are, and they get to move toward the trigger again should they be able/inclined. In a nutshell, you might sit and toss treats to the dog so that the treats bring the dog in closer to you, but also toss them back into the space where the dog feels completely safe. Working this way we can give a dog dozens of opportunities to move toward a trigger while feeling safe and without the stress of getting to close or being encouraged to stay there for too long.

    • Pat on

      I do toss treats, make a grand game of it and with most of the dogs, the first step positive step I see is in playing the fetch the treat game. I do the come and get it, go and get it until they get to the point where they take the treat and eat it next to me rather than taking it and running. I just wish I knew of a faster approach. I am doing well with my little charges but I am also under constant pressure in take more and more dogs because of the economy and more and more mills are being shut down. Papillons aren’t the easiest dogs to get past the fears and I think it’s because they have memories like elephants! If you can provide more information on Suzanne Clothier I’d appreciate it and I will go look her up on the internet. Thanks.

  10. fearfuldogs on

    Pat I have heard your comment from people before, “I don’t have the time to work with a dog the way you do because they need to get adopted.”

    The reality for some dogs is that they will never be adoptable by the average pet owner. The research and science have shown us that the lack of appropriate socialization at certain periods of development creates long lasting and permanent changes in a dog’s brain. It does not mean that the dog cannot learn certain skills and can have a good life. Sunny is an example of that. But he should never have been made available for adoption to a population of potential owners looking for a family pet. Were Sunny able to ‘come around’ in a few months rather than years, he would have.

    The ability and skill to see this potential (or lack thereof) in a dog is something that many rescuers do not have. And I would add the willingness to accept it when the potential does not exist, is not there either. We all want to think that any dog can have a good life in the ‘right’ home. Most of those ‘right’ homes already have too many dogs as it is. As good hearted and well intentioned as most rescuers are, too many shy, anxious or fearful dogs are adopted out to unsuspecting and unprepared people. I know this because I hear from these people every day. People who will never adopt a dog again because they are dealing with a dog who may never be able to live happily in the home they have been placed. Or dogs who when handled appropriately by their foster care giver were able to develop a level of confidence, but when placed with unskilled owners (who should not need a degree in psychology or animal behavior to have a pet IMHO) suffer from a degradation in their behavior. “He wasn’t like that when he was with me,” is not an unusual response that pet owners get when the dog they adopted starts snapping at the kid or visitors in the house and they mention it to the rescue or foster home.

    Counter conditioning and desensitization are NOT about not asking a dog to do more, or not ‘pushing’ them. They are about applying the right amount of pressure so that the dog builds both the skills and the positive emotional response we need in order to know that the dog will be safe around its triggers. The progress any individual dog is able to make is dependent on the dog and its brain and current abilities.

    Someone might want their 6 month old to walk because they don’t have the time to carry them around, but standing them up on their feet and watching them fall on their face is not going to make them walk any sooner than their body and brain are prepared for. It doesn’t mean we carry a kid around until they’re 18 months old either. We give them opportunities to grow and develop the skills they need to walk. We make sure they are in situations in which they can practice and be safe.

    There are techniques you can look into, BAT for example, which combines DS/CC and R-, to help dogs learn and practice new behaviors. It requires the ability to see and identify behaviors to reinforce.

    Also, the information and techniques I talk about on this blog are not my personal form of whispering, but rather represent a compilation and distillation of training and research which have been done by top trainers and behaviorists.

    A degree in psychology should be helpful because it gives you a background in the works of both Pavlov (counter conditioning and desensitization) and Skinner (BAT & training).

    These dogs which appear to ‘obviously have been abused’ by a woman, a man with a beard, a child, etc., may well have been, but more commonly they are responding fearfully to these triggers because of a lack of skill and experience with them.

  11. Pat on

    I have not said I don’t have time to work a fearful dog but I have said that in order for us to have a dog adopted we have to get him/her to a point where the average person can love and appreciate him. Will all of them be adopted, no, of course not which is why some of us who are fostering have six or seven dogs in our houses. But some of them will go to special people with loving hearts and an understanding and love for dogs in general or our particular breed and some will overcome most of their fear and go on to be adopted into homes where they will be a loving contributor. I have had many of my fosters adopted and most of them started out with one problem or another, many with a combination. The fearful dogs aren’t “cured” but they have come a long way. They might still bark at strangers, or hide when someone new comes around but they are able to give and receive love from their people. Desensitizing to triggers is an ongoing process with dogs as well as people. And of course they are responding to triggers (smells, appearance, sounds) because of a lack of skills. I have found a seminar being presented locally by Suzanne Clothier in April and plan to attend that. Unfortunately it is just a day before the beginning of the Papillon Nationals so will make things a little hectic but I am looking forward to learning new things. We do a lot of rewarding positive behavior, ignoring or redirecting negative behavior here and I find that beneficial in working with these dogs. I appreciate your thoughts and responses and continue to look for additional ideas and methods to get to and past the fears that imprison our dogs. Fortunately for little Prima, I don’t think she is unhappy or even fearful much of the time. She will have to be adopted into a home with another small dog because she thrives on the interaction with other dogs. She has so much to offer and I look forward to helping her attain her potential.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sorry Pat I shouldn’t have said that you didn’t have the time, but I do hear that from rescuers, and the meaning is similar to what I think you are expressing- that in order to keep the cycle going, dogs in rescue or foster care need to be adopted out so new dogs can come in.

      It’s great that you found a workshop with Suzanne C.

      I look at dogs and one of the first questions I ask is what is motivating to them, and try to give it to them. If it’s being left alone, they get that. If it’s food (and it gets to that sooner or later) I start to use that. My ultimate goal is to find out what kind of activity will rock their world. If I don’t know what makes a dog happy I am missing a big piece of rehab potential. Before training comes feeling good and for many dogs feeling good involves play and exercise. I focus on these before I worry about training for specific behaviors. Though ultimately they all end up melding together. But as far as ‘thinking’ about a fearful dog. That’s where I start.

      Just sharing.

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