Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Fearful dog update-guest blogger

Recently Jack, co-caretaker of Mollie, wrote to share what has been unfolding with Mollie, his fearful dog.

Too often the information we get regarding changing dog behavior comes in the form of programming for television in which all the hard work, set-backs, struggles, frustrations and failures, are left on the editing room floor. Between commercials we see what is tantamount to a miracle. Bad dog to good dog right before our eyes and despite the ‘don’t try this at home’ and other notes of caution and warning, it’s hard not to feel disappointment in our own dogs’ progress and our own abilities to foster it.

When we speak to owners and trainers of fearful dogs we discover that it is indeed a long haul for many of these dogs. The word ‘patience’ has taken on a whole new meaning for us.

I asked Jack if I could share Mollie’s journey with you and thank him for his willingness to do so. Here is his reply-

Feel free to share whatever info you think would be of benefit to others.

woman holding t shirt that says the dog likes me bestThis has been a challenging and rewarding journey for us (any wonder that those two aspects of endeavor seem to be combined so often?). You may or may not recall that I (Jack) am a clinical psychologist and Jackie is an early childhood development expert. It is intriguing to realize how much of our familiarity with behavioral psychology is complimentary and pertinent as we interact with Mollie. Both in terms of our behavior as well as hers! She has been telling us all we need to know — we just have to be adept at listening and recognizing what she is saying.

This is a follow-up to a consult we had with you after buying the Fearful Dog Ebook last September. Our names are Jack and Jackie and our dog’s name is Mollie. We live in California. We got her from an organization that rescues golden retrievers.

She was 4 yrs old and had spent her whole life in a breeding kennel. She was very fearful and shut-down/depressed. A week or so after we got her, she had a gran mal seizure. This led to immediate changes in her diet from commercial to home cooked foods with good results — no additional seizures. However, subsequently we discovered that she has a chronic renal condition – one kidney completely atrophied and shut down, the other trying to hold its own, but lab blood tests show abnormal readings. After months of consultations with veterinary nutritionists, additional diet modifications and various treatments with medications, it appears her renal functioning, while still impaired, has improved and stabilized. The vets tell us that her current functioning should yield a long life.

Along with handling these health issues during the past 6 months or so, we have of course been dealing with her fearfulness. We are very happy to report that she is no longer the withdrawn shut-down dog that she used to be. At first, it was not possible to get any positive responses out of her…shied away, turned her head, slunk to the ground, no eye contact, lying “hidden” in the corner all the time, etc, etc, whenever we would try to pet her or engage her in any way. Today, she has bright eyes, frolicks off-leash when we go for walks on our rural roads 2x a day, comes when called, has learned to come to us and sit at attention whenever an occasional car comes by, remains completely relaxed (even seemingly asleep) when we come to pet her (particularly likes to have the top of her head rubbed with pressure — pushes back up against our hands) .. “talks” to us when she wants to go out and over-all appears to be comfortable with us and even strangers. All of these mannerisms are more accentuated with Jackie than with me, but she continues to interact with me more and more as time goes on.

Now, she still doesn’t “play” very much…toss around chew toys, fetch a tennis ball, get into tug-of-wars with toys, etc. To our mind, it appears that she wants to, but doesn’t know how. She’ll show some spark, jump into emptying out a basket of toys we have, only to quit after less than a minute. When we try to engage her directly, she shows interest, wags her tail, prances around a bit, but then doesn’t really do anything. As I said, these moments typically last less than a minute and then she usually just lies down and looks at us.

We much appreciate the supportive help and suggestions we obtained from you. We were lost – you got us going in the right directions. I want to emphasize and confirm with you one element of assistance you emphasized which we consider invaluable and completely pertinent. That is….PATIENCE. Of all the things that people working with fearful dogs might do, maintaining patience is essential.

If you would indulge me, I would expand this admonition a bit so that the instructional phrase becomes….”ACTIVE Patience”. To our minds, this isn’t the kind of patience in which you sit around doing nothing and just wait for the dog to become less fearful. This is the kind of patience in which you steadfastly and consistently actively observe and study your dog and offer it your kindness and safety by whatever means you’ve developed and in whatever way it seems to fit and then be alert so that you will be in position to actively accept and welcome the dog’s positive responses – as slight or minimal as they might be. This is what we’ll continue doing with Mollie — looking forward to the day she licks our faces, chases and fetches the ball and engages in a tug-of-war with one of her toys.

Thanks again,
Jack, Jackie and Mollie


Don’t make me beg (don’t make me bite)

Scared dog at hoarding siteDogs try. You have to give them at least that much. They try to figure us out, try to do what we want them to do, and most do a darn good job of it even when we don’t make it easy for them. It’s harder for fearful, shy or anxious dogs to sort us out. It’s not easy to be at your thinking best when you’re scared and stressed.

One of the first things I do when I meet any dog is to find out what common languages we share. A dog who notices and cares about the treats in my hand and plops their butt down in front of me and gazes up expectantly, understands. This behavior has worked in the past to get them a treat, and I do not disappoint them. I want them to know that I understand them as well. This, probably more than the treat itself, helps many dogs relax. It provides the same kind of relief you might feel when you’ve been lost in a strange place and someone hands you a road map.

Life is easier for dogs who have a vocabulary that gets them what they want or need.

“If I stare at the slow moving one long enough she will share that sandwich with me.”

“Scratch at the door and the one who couldn’t tell the difference between the scent of boy dog pee and girl dog pee if her life depended on it, will come and open it.”

“Bark when outside and one of the ones that can’t even hear the nest of baby mice in the walls will let me inside.”

It’s up to us to help them learn which behaviors are going to work best to get what they want. And also up to us to help them understand when asking isn’t an option (try to get this across to a frisbee-crazed border collie).

Dogs that are scared have it rough. Not only do their fear and anxiety make it harder for them to learn to communicate with people, there’s a good chance that in the past they have tried and their requests were ignored or disregarded. A dog that lowered their head was still handled, kissed or hugged. A dog that looked away was still approached. A dog that went belly up ended up with a giant hovering over them. A dog that growled was threatened and punished.

We can help dogs out by learning more about canine body language. By doing this we can respond more appropriately to them and become better advocates for them. “No, that dog is not trying to dominate you and become leader of the pack, he’s terrified and doing the only thing he can to convince you to leave him alone.”

Most dogs start by asking nicely, but we shouldn’t expect that they’ll plead with us forever.

Saving island dogs

staff at vieques humane societyIn my ‘other’ life I organize active, outdoor & cultural adventures. Years ago a teacher approached me and asked about organizing a trip for her students to Puerto Rico where they could be immersed in a Spanish speaking culture.

My partner and I decided to visit the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques to see what sort of itinerary we could put together. The beaches were gorgeous, the people were friendly, the food was tasty and the carcasses of dogs killed by cars bloated in the sun on the sides of the roads. When we ate at open air restaurants kittens weaved through our legs begging for scraps. Homeless, diseased dogs, languished in the shade of parked cars and foraged for food in vacant lots. Packs of dogs straggled out of the forest where groups of picnickers tossed them their rubbish. I saw Siberian Husky pups for sale in the window of a pet shop.

On the island of Vieques there are descendants of the horses brought over from Spain called Paso Finos. When you see a herd of them grazing along the beaches it seems idyllic but the reality is stark. These are wild horses living on an island with little access to fresh water and only coarse scrub for them to eat. They starve, become dehydrated, are hit by cars, get tangled in barb wire and fall into crevasses and holes where they die unless someone notices and summons help. As I went from hotel to hotel looking at potential accommodations, I mentioned to someone that I did not think I could return to these islands, what I was seeing was not conducive to any sort of holiday I’d want to take. I was told to find ‘Penny Miller at the Seagate Hotel.

When we first arrived at the hotel Penny wasn’t there, but I was given a tour by her father who apologized for his daughter’s absence, she was out tacking up posters for a vaccination drive the local animal shelter/clinic was hosting. Even on this small island measuring just 5 x 21 miles, hundreds of dogs, cats and horses were struggling to survive and Penny, along with others, had noticed. The question that had been going through my mind since I had arrived in Puerto Rico, “Why isn’t anyone doing anything?” was answered, someone was.

I return regularly to Puerto Rico with groups and include a visit to the Vieques Humane Society where students can walk dogs, play with cats, bathe puppies and even pick up poop in the dog yard (only if they’re lucky I tell them). We donate money and 2 dogs returned to New England with teachers who gave them loving homes. Over 100 dogs found forever homes here in Vermont through an adoption program at my local humane society. The people in Puerto Rico are stepping up to the plate and having their dogs spayed and neutered and using preventative treatments to protect their pets from common diseases such as heartworm. But the conditions homeless animals on the islands face remain dire.

Pet shops in San Juan and other cities get regular shipments of dogs from puppy mills in the United States. It is these dogs which continually add to the breeding population sato dog in puerto ricoof strays, called satos by Puertoriqueños. There are people in Puerto Rico who care and who have devoted their lives to making a change for animals on their island. They need our help. We can help by donating money, we can help by contacting the group Save-a-Sato when we vacation on Puerto Rico and help them transport dogs back to the States for adoption. We can help by shutting down the puppy mills in the U.S. that supply dogs to pet shops in the Caribbean.

We can help by supporting the people who witness the misery we can leave behind when our vacation is over. The people who are being the change for the animals they share paradise with.

Fearful dogs & trauma & abuse

traffic sign black arrow red arrowEarly on in my search for information to help me understand my fearful dog someone sent me a paper on the effects of abuse and trauma on children. I would thank her and share the paper if I remembered who it was and hadn’t given my only copy of it away. Sorry.

This was a pivotal event for me. I realized that my efforts to change Sunny’s behavior were secondary to my ‘understanding’ of why he was behaving the way he was. I don’t mean that I needed to know the exact events he experienced. Many owners of fearful dogs believe that if only they knew what happened to their dog they could more easily ‘cure’ them. While knowing a dog’s history is helpful, one need not know the specifics of the dog’s experience to understand how to work with the dog.

In Sunny’s case, he did not have the opportunity to experience novel and enriching events when he was a pup. That’s all it takes to mess up a dog’s brain. From here on in many or most of the ‘normal’ experiences a dog is going to have can be traumatic for them. If more people understood this puppymills and backyard breeders would go out of business. These dogs are born into deprivation. Imagine someone trying to sell cars that on any given day were built when half the workers who assembled them were absent. You wouldn’t know whether all the parts were securely attached, or there at all. At least with a car, if the deficit doesn’t get you killed you can have it repaired. It’s not that easy with an animal. A recent study shows that dogs in mills suffer lasting psychological damage.

Here is a list of signs and symptoms of early childhood traumatic stress. Most could be applied to dogs suffering from fear based behavior challenges.

There are a variety of therapies available to people who want to change how they behave. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of them. Even though we do not have the option of speaking (and reasoning) with our dogs to help them change how they think about things, it is worth understanding how cognitive behavioral therapy is applied. I cannot ask my fearful dog to take a deep breath and consider how what he is thinking is affecting his behavior, but I can interact with him and manipulate his environment so that his emotional response to things changes.

CBT is a collaborative effort between the therapist and the client. Cognitive-behavioral therapists seek to learn what their clients want out of life (their goals) and then help their clients achieve those goals. The therapist’s role is to listen, teach, and encourage, while the client’s roles is to express concerns, learn, and implement that learning.*

We can suggest that when a person looks at a cheesecake and rather than responding to the mouth watering appeal of the pastry, envisions the damage the pastry can do to their arteries. Instead of putting it into their shopping cart they head to the fruit aisle and choose an alternative. With our dogs we need to find ways we can make alternative behaviors and responses rewarding to them. When people appear I ask Sunny to get his frisbee so he can play (this seems to be his main goal in life). Though Sunny is still startled and scared by the appearance of people, this response has diminished in intensity and more quickly switches to a more neutral or positive response.

But change isn’t easy. Imagine how you respond when you hear the sound of fingernails scrapping on chalkboard. If you’re like me, even thinking about it elicits a feeling of chills. Now imagine someone expecting you to stop feeling that way, because they think you should. How successful is that going to be? How successful are they going to be by threatening you to stop cringing and covering your ears? How are you going to feel about them if they forced you to sit there and listen to sound of fingernails on a chalkboard over and over again?

Fearful dogs are suffering and many of the ways they are handled and trained contribute to this suffering. If you stop and think about it, you may be able to change your behavior and achieve goals that both you and your dog probably have in common.


Actually, it IS all that bad!

skier going over a cliffA common misconception among dog handlers and pet owners is that simply exposing a dog to something they don’t like or fear, and having nothing bad happen, the dog will learn that it’s ‘ok’. If we can just lure the dog over to us with a piece of cheese the dog is going to realize that they can approach us safely. Makes sense, and in some cases it might even be true. If a dog is mildly apprehensive about something, given the opportunity to investigate it they calm down. Here in the woods in the winter, tree stumps that have been there for ages look like hunched over black bears (at least they have to me!) after a snowfall silhouettes them against a backdrop of white. When one of the dogs discovers the intruder, they bark and parry an alarm, only to discover what I may have realized just seconds before they did, it’s a tree. Whew, that was a close one.

For many fearful dogs being exposed to something, even if it doesn’t hurt them, and even if they get a bit of cheese in the process, doesn’t make it better. If the negative emotional response the dog is experiencing is powerful enough, it will outweigh the lack of ‘nothing bad’ and the ‘something good’. When someone says they have tried using treats to help a dog around their triggers, and it hasn’t worked, it may be because the balance of this equation is off. And with fear based behaviors we need more than balance, we need to tip the scales in favor of good in a big way. Nothing bad happening is rarely enough.

I’d guess that most of the people who are afraid of snakes have never actually had one bite them or slither over them while they slept preparing to crush the life out of them. Indeed most of the stuff that we humans fear or stress out over have never happened to us either. Some of these fears serve a real purpose. Being afraid of heights makes sense if you’re walking on a trail with a precipitous drop on one side. This fear may encourage you to check your shoelaces to make sure they’re tied so you’re not likely to trip and plummet to your death or the intensive care unit. If it causes you to freeze and be unable to move, and you stand there with your eyes closed, even if someone coaxes you to move along, is cliff side walking likely to be on your next holiday must-do list?

One of the first trips I went on with my husband was a skiing adventure in the Tetons. He’s an avid telemark skier and I ‘barely hold my own’ on the slopes. At the time I not only lacked skills I lacked confidence in what abilities I had. We spent a long day, into dusk, skiing down from a pass, the entire time my heart was in my mouth and though I managed not to burst into tears, I was planning on how I was going to escape from this ‘vacation’ as soon as I got to the bottom. I never hurt myself, or took a bad fall, I was just scared. I did not downhill ski with my husband again for close to two decades.

What I did in that interim was take up cross country and skate skiing. My skills and confidence increased and as I learned to control my descents, I began to enjoy the downhills as much as the straightaways where I could get into the lovely rhythm of gliding on snow. I have since gone downhill skiing and though it is not my recreation of choice these days, that’s due more to the cost and crowds. But I do not trust that my husband will guide me to the lifts that will take me to trails that I will feel safe on (sorry dear). I ‘may’ be skilled enough to ski on more difficult trails, but I do not enjoy it.

The next time you get your fearful dog to do something or interact with someone they are afraid of and find yourself thinking, “There, that wasn’t all that bad was it?”, it may be that it was.

Fearful Dogs’ Blog-A Retrospective

Thanks to Amy Burkert of & Edie Jarolim of Will My Dog Hate Me for giving me the opportunity for a bit of New Year’s reflection. Without further ado-

fearful dogs blog1. When d id you begin your blog?

I wrote the first blog post in December of 2008. OMG. 2008.

2. What was your original purpose for starting a blog?

I think that the title of the post says it all: How To Be Friends With A Fearful Dog

3. Is your current purpose the same?

Yes. My purpose remains to be to provide people with information about the most effective and humane ways to interact and work with fearful, shy and/or anxious dogs.

4. Do you blog on a schedule or as the spirit moves you?

I’m a ‘as the spirit moves me’ blogger. The spirit however seems to move me once or twice a week. I know media ‘experts’ will say to blog on a schedule but it just doesn’t happen for me. And if I do write a post I’m so excited about it I can’t wait and schedule it for a later date. I have to post it.

5. Are you generating income from your blog?

I do not have any paid advertising on the blog.

6. What do you like most about blogging in general and your blog in particular (bragging is good!)?

The pet bloggers’ community is a fabulous one and I have been thrilled to meet so many wonderful writers and animal advocates by being part of it.

I am ALWAYS thinking about how to help fearful dogs. I live in a rural area and spend most of my day with dogs, with few people around to share my thoughts and ideas with. And even if there are people around most of them are sick of hearing me talk about little else besides working with fearful dogs. I suspect even my dog training friends feel this way as well. Blogging gives me the opportunity to explore the ideas I have during my daily walks or training with dogs. It has sanctioned all of my ‘talking to myself’ behavior.

7. What do you like least?

Finding typos & grammatacal grammatical errors.

8. How do you see your blog changing or growing in 2011?

I am planning on moving the blog off of WordPress to its very own domain. Anyone with experience doing that, please let me know!

Shaping happy

Every dog is different. There is no way anyone can know the progress their fearful dog can make. There may be indications that point to the star they’re following; A dog that slithers over, meekly wagging after a few minutes of baby talk and an offer of cheese, is likely to progress faster or further than the dog who sits, eyes half closed, pressed against the farthest wall. It’s easy to believe that any dog can achieve what the last fearful dog you (or your trainer) worked or lived with, did. Or vice versa. Having lived for years with a fearful dog who, though happy and active, remains challenged by his fearfulness, that that possibility exists for any dog is very real to me. But change happens.

We can’t force a dog to stop being afraid of something, anymore than you could be forced to stop being anxious about something, or like something. Imagine your most dreaded food, and now try to imagine someone ‘making’ you like it. What we can do is learn how to behave around fearful dogs so as not to increase their fear, and to create situations in which they can feel safe and be successful at behaving like a dog who isn’t afraid. A little melted cheese goes a long way to making broccoli more palatable for many 5 year olds.

We can improve the palatability of things our dogs are afraid of in much the same way we shape tricks we want our dogs to learn. We begin by rewarding even the slightest muscle movement the dog makes which will lead to the behavior. Want your dog to raise their left hind paw? Watch for a weight shift to the right, mark and reward it. The beginning of change can often look like no change at all. But with practice we get better at noticing these subtle shifts and create opportunities for them to occur. It becomes like a refined night vision, when you can see things better out of the corner of your eyes than straight on. You learn to respond to the shadows that precede behaviors.

Here are a couple of images of Sunny. The first is how he looked most of the time when he initially came to live with us. The second, taken about a year after. I didn’t handle Sunny properly in the beginning. I didn’t know any better. It may not have mattered for him in the long run, but in the short run I certainly could have made his life better by structuring his environment differently. Or it may have mattered. I’ll never know. I have watched other shy or fearful dogs progress and become friendly and sociable, with only the faintest tint of the shy dog they were apparent in their movements and responses, while Sunny still finds most people overwhelming. He’s not as overwhelmed as he was, for as long as he was in the past, but nonetheless, he remains afraid.

Each day gives our dogs the opportunity to feel safer, more confident and to learn new skills. The ability to be happy may be the most useful skill any of them can have.

black & white dog with basketball

Encouraging naughty

shiba inu dog on caveletti course

Kaiju on the caveletti course

In the fall I met with a couple from the Boston area to talk about their fearful dog, a young Shiba Inu named Kaiju. Friends of mine have a Shiba, an engaging and attentive little dog, so I had an image of the potential that existed for their dog. I realize this doesn’t make sense. A dog’s breed is not necessarily an indicator of what they can achieve (though getting my cockers to herd sheep may take more work than getting my border collie to do it). We know that pit bulls can be fabulous pets and golden retrievers can bite children. But there you have it. I looked at the shy dog and could see flashes of goofy Jasper, my friends’ dog, chasing leaves along the trail and plunging his head into the river to retrieve treats.

Recently I was sent an update about the shy Shiba and was told that their vet has prescribed ‘reverse domination’. Any mention of the word domination causes red flags to pop up in my mind. The word has been misused and inaccurately defined by pop culture dog trainers. I asked what they were told to do and the reply was basically- let the dog be naughty. I loved it!

Once you get past the knee jerk response of, ‘don’t let dogs practice inappropriate behaviors!’ allow the idea to percolate a bit and it makes so much lovely sense.

Dogs that are fearful, shy or anxious will often display this by wariness, reticence to explore, stilted movement, and an overall tightness in their body and posture. What we often define as inappropriate or ‘naughty’ behavior by our standards is normal dog behavior. Dogs chew things, they dig, they jump, they sniff crotches. Behaviors that we frown upon seem good fun to our dogs. When I see a dog sniffing the ground lower her head and shoulder getting ready to drop and roll, I invariably shout out a loud, “NOOOoooo!” I can’t help it. Cleaning unidentifiable, stinky animal poop out of their fur and collar is not my idea of a good time, but I cannot deny the enthusiasm my dogs display when they find something to roll in.

If our immediate response to a fearful dog who is being ‘naughty’ is to attempt to stop them (we stop behaviors with punishment of some kind), we are further hindering them from developing new skills and denying them the opportunity to gain confidence in relation to things in their environment. I don’t think their vet was suggesting they let the dog destroy their sofa but rather to stop putting so much focus on training and control and putting more on play and engagement. The benefits of play for fearful dogs cannot be emphasized enough.

Finding ways to let my fearful dog enjoy himself was key to the progress he has been able to make. Every day includes some kinds of ‘feel good’ activities for him, though I still draw the line at engaging with poop. Some cultural constraints are hard to let go of.

Fire in the belly

I never truly understood what it meant to have a ‘fire in your belly‘ until Sunny came to live with me. I always enjoyed the adventure travel business I run, and loved working outdoors as a river or mountain guide, but I didn’t appreciate what it felt like to be so motivated by a purpose, that like a fire, it consumed me. Living with a dog who was so debilitated by his emotional suffering hit me hard.

As I began to struggle with Sunny’s challenges and I learned about fear based behaviors in dogs I realized that a giant hurdle in the way of success for these dogs was their handler’s beliefs about the best ways to help them. I knew this because I held beliefs about fear in dogs that were passed onto me by trainers and other dog owners, and unfortunately by a popular TV trainer, and they were not helpful. The knowledge most of us have regarding how to work with fearful dogs is limited to some version of, ‘make them deal with their fear until they are over it’, and more and more includes the idea that any resistance on a dog’s part to do what we ask is based on some innate desire to be dominant, especially if their resistance includes any form of aggression. These dogs are often labeled as ‘stubborn’ or ‘stupid’, both unfair characterizations of their behavior.

I created the website to provide foundation information for handlers of fearful, shy or anxious dogs and subsequently created the ebook, A Guide to Living with & Training a Fearful Dog (which in 2008 was a finalist in the Dog Writers Association of America’s annual competition). I am excited to share that soon the book will be available in hardcopy, a beautiful paperback version that I am proud has made it into the real world (as opposed to just the digital).

Both the website and the book contain the advice and information that I wish had been handed to me when I first realized that Sunny was a fearful dog. I would have done many things differently with him at the start and I think it would have made his life easier and more comfortable. They also contain the information which I learned as I ventured down the path of studying how fear affects bodies, brains and behavior. My goal is to provide information for handlers of fearful dogs so they can look at their current understanding of fear in dogs and see how it affects their responses to their dog.

When we are working with a fearful dog the onus is on us to respond in ways which help them gain skills and feel less anxious. At any moment we’ll be called upon to give our dog feedback, and how we think about our dog’s fear based behaviors, will affect the feedback we provide. It is this step in the process of rehabilitating a fearful dog which continues to motivate me in ways I am grateful to have discovered.

In the New Year I want to thank all of you for your support and for your feedback. Each day gives us the opportunity to be better, more compassionate and skilled caretakers of the dogs that come into our lives. I hope you enjoy the journey with your dog as much as I have with mine.