Archive for February, 2011|Monthly archive page

Work with the dog you have

4 dogs lying down and looking at the cameraI am tempted to say ‘work with the dog you have until you have the dog you want’, but realized that not only might it be a bit trite, the outcome of working with the dog you have, may not lead to having the dog you want. On the other hand, it might end up that you want the dog you have.

The latter, and a smidgen of the former have been the case for me. In some instances a dog only needs the opportunity to learn and grow to become the dog of our dreams or expectations. This is true of adolescent dogs who test their owners’ patience and training skills. And we know from the population of dogs found at shelters that dogs in this age group are often not the dogs their owners wanted.

I was speaking with a trainer friend about a client I was going to meet to help her find ways to work with her fearful, and sometimes aggressive, mastiff. My friend made the point that it may be necessary to ‘normalize’ behaviors for owners in relation to their dog and breed characteristics. In the same way it is ‘normal’ for an adolescent dog to behave like a knuckled-headed brat, it is also normal to have a dog bred for guarding be suspicious of new people or animals entering their territory. It doesn’t mean that a dog bred for particular traits cannot learn to be tolerant, flexible and compliant in relation to those traits, but in some cases, if the training for this did not begin early in their lives, or fear is added to the mix, it might require an owner to reassess their expectations for the dog.

In my mind I have a picture of what a confident, fearless but not reckless, dog looks like. I have lived with many. When I watch my dog Sunny I can see behaviors which do not fit with this picture. A dog with the right balance of caution and inquisitiveness will explore their environment. They may startle at novelty but within a short period of time (seconds in most cases) should approach and assess the new object or person. Any overt displays of aggression or wariness should end as soon as the neutrality of the novelty is established. Even after living in our home for over 5 years Sunny will often avoid or move away from novel objects placed in his environment, objects which other dogs barely notice. However his negative responses to novelty are not as grand as they were and he may also tentatively approach and check out new objects.

I had to ‘normalize’ Sunny’s responses to novelty in my own head. He behaves the way a dog that was not exposed to novelty as a pup, and perhaps one on the more wary end of the genetic spectrum, might behave. As much as I want him to stop being this kind of dog, I cannot force him to. What I have been able to do is give him skills for dealing with situations that cause his heart to start beating faster, whether it means going to a place he feels safe, or running to find a frisbee and even sitting quietly until the needle is withdrawn from a vein.

Sunny makes me work harder than my other dogs when it comes to getting behaviors that I want from them. I don’t need to work to get my border collie Finn to be happy and confident with new people. Indeed I have had to work with him to tone down his exuberance when potential frisbee tossers appear on the scene. For years I have lived with Bugsy an old cocker spaniel that I will, with some embarrassment and regret, admit that I have done little to no training with. Bugsy just seemed to seamlessly fit into our lives. He’s got his quirks, but none were enough to warrant effort on my part to change, instead I accommodated them.

I never would have thought I’d want a dog like Sunny but one evening in a training class, watching other owners with their dogs Sunny gave me the head toss that had tagged along with the click he got for eye contact and I thought “I wouldn’t trade this dog for any of the dogs in this room.” Both Sunny and I have been able to change and that’s a big part of why I want the dog I have.



child on beachI had a lovely few days visiting with family in Florida. Our seaside accommodations were fabulous and the strip of white sand beach stretching for several miles was soothing to look at. From our balcony we could look down and see pods of dolphins fishing off shore. In the morning I joined the walkers along the tideline. As the sunbathers filtered onto the beach I noticed a striking similarity between the way the beach chairs lined up facing the sun, and the flocks of terns and skimmers doing the same.

I enjoyed watching the future engineers of America building sand castles with systems of canals and moats, and the ‘seeking’ behavior of the shell gatherers along with those with sophisticated metal detectors sweeping the beach. I did however find myself furrowing my brow as the young children raced into the flocks of birds, sending them into flight. It was in fun, and the patterns the black & white skimmers with their red banded bills made as they circled, had me marveling at their grace and the artistry of their flight and there was no denying the joy in the children’s faces. Yet it bothered me. Parents or guardians sat nearby oblivious or watched on with amusement.

I was pleased that our guide during a nature walk (we saw a box turtle!) brought this up and explained why unnecessary disturbance either wasted calories or prohibited the birds from foraging to get their daily allotment. I knew I wasn’t alone in my feelings of frustration watching a new generation show no respect or consideration for the needs of another species, realizing that it was too much to expect from young children, it was their parents who allowed a teachable moment to go by.

Animals help us learn about empathy and how to care for and about the needs of others. Most of the children I’ve met want to understand what animals are trying to tell us. Dogs provide us with some of the best opportunities to be amateur ethologists and professionally compassionate human beings. Who hasn’t envied Dr. Dolittle, even just a little? When it comes to understanding animals perhaps the first message we should be clear about is the one asking to be left alone, whether it’s whispered or shouted.

Solve the problem, change the behavior

cartoon of boy doing a math problemWhat is behavior all about anyway? Why do dogs or anyone, behave the way they do? Why do they make choices to behave one way over another?

In some cases there’s not much choice involved. If I am stepping off the curb and see a car speeding toward me out of the corner of my eye it’s not in my best interest to think too much about what I should do or how I should do it. By the time I come to a conclusion I will likely be a statistic. If my nervous system is working optimally in that situation it will have triggered my muscles to get me back onto the curb post haste.

The behavior we see in fearful dogs is often due to the response of their nervous system responding to a threat, not because they have taken the time to weigh their options. When we are working with our dogs it is up to us to provide them with conditions under which they can think and make choices, and not continually provoke them into jumping back onto the curb.

I think about ‘behavior’ as a way we solve problems. If I need to pay the mortgage every month I have to figure out how to behave in order to do so. I’m sure there are people who would continue to get up early in the morning, sit in rush hour traffic and spend the day in a factory, office, school or other place of employment, even if they weren’t going to get a paycheck at the end of the week, but I feel safe in betting that many would not. Going to work solves a problem. Some people solve the problem of providing a roof over their heads or acquiring food or something else they feel they need, by picking up a gun and robbing liquor stores. This solves the problem of getting money, but it’s generally frowned upon.

When we catch someone behaving out of accordance of rules we’ve established we punish them. The robber goes to prison. Recidivism rates in the U.S. do not indicate that this method of changing behavior is very successful. Sixty seven and a half percent of prisoners released in 1994 were rearrested within 3 years. And just because someone wasn’t apprehended for 3 years doesn’t mean they waited that long to commit crimes again, nor does it include numbers of people who were not caught.

When our dogs behave in ways we think are inappropriate we can punish them, but this does not help them solve the problem they were responding to to begin with. If we want our fearful dogs to change their behavior we need to provide them with acceptable alternatives that not only make us happy, but work for them. If a dog learns that growling and snarling effectively keeps scary things away from them, simply punishing them for this behavior only solves the problem for us, and like a jail sentence, the result is often temporary. Not only does the dog still perceive that there is a problem, but the effects of continuing to suppress, through violence or the threat of violence, a dog’s behavior to protect themselves, is potentially dangerous. If growling ceases to work to make scary things go away, a dog may up the ante by biting.

After having their behavior suppressed, an animal can react in a way that is out of proportion to whatever is provoking the response in that particular instance. In humans we see this in women or children who respond violently toward someone in their life who has abused them. Victims of this sort of attack often suffer what seems like ‘over kill’? I recall reading about a woman who stabbed her husband over 50 times and I had to wonder, didn’t the first 20 do the trick? In the research done in animal behavior we know that reactions like this are not unusual. How many dogs who are defined as ‘dominant’ are only responding to being subjected to painful or threatening control of their behavior by their handlers?

If we can come up with behaviors for our dogs to perform that are appropriate from our point of view, but also help solve whatever problem the dog perceives, we not only have a win-win situation, but the likelihood that our dogs will be willing to practice and be able to replace their old behavior with this new behavior increases.

I want to hold your paw

woman holding small dogI’m not one of those people who easily interacts physically with people I don’t know well (in case you were wondering). Despite years of living in California, I still resist hugging people I barely know and because of the germ theory, prefer not to shake hands. I can do both of those things without distress, I’d just rather not.

Years ago I was on a flight which due to inclement weather was forced to land in Boston, rather than Hartford. The airline put us in taxis to drive the 2 plus hours back to our originally scheduled destination. I was sharing the ride with a woman who had also been on the flight, and we exchanged pleasant small talk and lamented the turn our travel plans had taken.

The driver, clipping along above the speed limit began to rifle through a briefcase on the seat beside him. I immediately felt concern and when he put the briefcase on the dashboard so he could get a better look inside it, leaving his view of the road mostly obscured. My eyes went wide and I glanced at my seat partner who shared my dismay. Before we could complain, in the fog ahead of us brake lights suddenly appeared and our driver hit the brakes. Without a word shared, or any thought, the woman sitting next to me reached out to grab my hand, which was already on its way to grab hers.

Holding hands with someone was not going to change whether or not we slammed into cars ahead of it, but when our hearts started racing and adrenalin coursed through our bodies, we reflexively sought out connection with someone. Babies and young animals can be observed doing the same thing when frightened by something. Who would turn their back on a toddler reaching up for reassurance and justifying it by explaining that they ‘need to learn to deal with’ creepy clowns, slobbery dogs, or other toddlers wielding plastic baseball bats? Why allow puppies or dogs to be similarly scared and overwhelmed and left to face their horror all on their own?

We want our scared dogs to look to us for reassurance and guidance. Leave a fearful dog on their own to deal with something scary and they will come up with their own solution, which for many can come to include behaving in an aggressive way. I am not in control of my dog’s nervous system, and when he is frightened, neither is he! What I am in control of is his environment and what he experiences (to some degree) and by manipulating the things I can, can have an affect on how easy or difficult it will be for him to learn new skills, so he can make good choices on his own.

Some dogs may not want to be handled when they are afraid, others may find reassurance in having a trusted compatriot with them. I always try to remember that frightened dogs can’t control their response to a trigger, but I can control my response to my dog and in doing so just may help speed up how quickly he recovers from a fright.

Funny dog pictures, unless you’re the dog

I have a sense of humor, really I do. I think those pictures of puppies in hotdog buns, chewing on shoe laces and snoozing belly up are cute, I do, really. But amidst the funny and cute are images which make me cringe. This is the latest one, sandwiched amidst the funny and cute-

puppy being dragged into the ocean

Cute? Not so much. Funny? How so? Is watching a puppy being dragged somewhere against their will funny? Could someone explain this to me?

Or as bad, the human on the other end of the leash hasn’t even given a thought to what this pup is experiencing.

Hopefully it didn’t end up being a big deal for the pup, but that’s not even the point, the point is that enough people think that this image belongs amidst the funny and the cute.

And then there’s this gem-

child holding a dog's mouth shut

Put the camera down dad and get little Susie out of there. And thank the dog as you walk away for suffering your negligence in allowing a toddler to handle a chained dog in this way.

I’ll take puppies in flower pots any day over these.

Changing our brains to help change our dogs’

image of earth from spaceMy contention has always been that if we can change the way that we think about fear based behaviors in dogs, the way we handle them will change as well.

A trainer friend shared with me her experience with an owner who did not believe that dogs experienced emotions and was reluctant to use food rewards to help train and modify the dog’s behavior. We don’t have enough hands to tie behind our backs when we think in this way about dogs.

It’s surprising to think that there are still people who are unwilling to acknowledge the emotional kaleidoscope that dogs (and other animals) experience. It reminds me of people who did not believe that the earth was round. The reality that dogs are emotional is apparent in their behavioral responses, if you know what to look for. Still skeptical? Check out the research being done in brain science. The roundness of our planet was also apparent to some who knew what to look for. The fact that some didn’t believe that the earth was round, did not change the fact that it was. Certainly there were sailors for whom this may have required a leap of faith, but experience showed them that they did not have to worry about dropping off the edge of the ocean, even before there were satellite images.

There are trainers who refuse to acknowledge that the emotional stability a dog is able to achieve is not due to the trainer’s superb handling skills, but is rooted in early developmental processes. I am not implying that we cannot help dogs achieve emotional stability or that skill is not involved, but that it often requires a drastic change in the management of the animal to provide the optimal set of stimuli for this to occur. Dogs that are able to positively change their behavior are held up as proof of the validity of certain training techniques (namely flooding) while the dogs that do not improve are labeled in a way which implicates the dog for its lack of success, the dog is ‘too far gone’, for example. Pet owners are also held responsible when dominance or flooding based techniques are not successful.

In a perfect world all dogs would have the opportunity to live a safe and happy life regardless of their emotional and behavioral challenges. In a perfect world we’d work with these dogs to increase their confidence and provide them with skills that allow them to be successful in an environment created to allow them to flourish and change, whatever that looks like a particular dog. In a perfect world we’d all understand that while we don’t run the risk of falling off the edge of the planet, there are edges we can push dogs over that can send them plummeting into the abyss of restraint, aggression and ultimately death. And when they go there, remember who gave them the shove.

Debbie Jacobs is the creator of the website and author of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog.

Tossing dogs into the deep end

In any population of dogs there are going to be some, who for whatever reason; a genetic predisposition, prior experience, health and vitality, will be tolerant of and successful with whatever we or the environment throw at them.

Some animals seem to thrive despite what happens to them, life gives them lemons and they make lemonade. My border collie Finn, is an example of this. We are his 7th home, if you include the rescue groups he lived with in between living with a person or family. It’s likely that Finn was never abused, but he certainly didn’t have the stability that some dogs might have fallen apart without.

We know that not all dogs are like this, and the challenge is determining which dog is going to take things in stride and which is going to be overwhelmed. It’s not always easy, and if you believe that because other dogs tossed into the deep end came up grinning and asking for more, that all dogs will, you run the risk of either drowning one or ending up with a dog who will never want to go to the pool with you again.