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.

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22 comments so far

  1. Ashley on

    Like everything related to dogs, I find this topic has two schools of thought. On one end of the spectrum, as you say, people expect the dog to “just deal with it” (and likely these are the people using flooding to “cure” the problem). On the other end, we have people who coddle and comfort their dog so much that they end up reinforcing the fearful response (from what I understand, anyway).

    It’s important for people to find a middle ground. Great post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      You bring up important points Ashley. I prefer not to use the word ‘coddle’ because I’m never really sure what it means. It might mean one thing to one person and quite a different thing to another. Protecting a dog from something which provokes a fearful response is by some folk’s definition, coddling. The fact is that we do not ‘reinforce’ fearful responses in dogs when we do something that makes the dog feel better. Period. We can make a dog more fearful by our behavior and response, but that is usually accomplished by our own nervousness and concern about the situation. This subject is one of the keystone pieces of information, IMO, that affects how people respond to fear based behaviors in dogs. If we believe that by providing relief, however it is accomplished, and however we choose to define it, whether it’s called coddling, comforting, or rewarding, that we will reinforce fear in dogs, we often handle fearful dogs in ways that are less likely to help them improve.

      Counter conditioning and desensitization, recommended techniques for working with fearful dogs, are by definition not about never exposing a dog to its triggers. They are about controlling and manipulating the impact those triggers have on the dog. If I can achieve this by ‘coddling’ my dog, I will do it. Too many owners will allow their dog to suffer because they are concerned about ‘reinforcing’ fearful reactions.

      You might enjoy reading this article by Suzanne Hetts PhD
      http://fearfuldogs.com/myth-of-reinforcing-fear/

      Thanks for reading and commenting and for giving me the opportunity to address this topic, it’s so important. BTW I live in a bit of a swamp here myself come mud season.

      • Ashley on

        Thanks for responding with such great information!

        Obviously, what I’ve been taught previously hasn’t been correct! I will definitely check out that article.

        Thanks again for clearing up some misconceptions that I had.

      • fearfuldogs on

        I think that so much depends on how we define and subsequently understand terms that are commonly tossed about in the dog training world Ashley. I too had been told that I shouldn’t do certain things with a dog because it would be like telling them they were right to be afraid. One of the biggest mistakes I made with Sunny was my initial approach of trying not to ‘enable’ his fear by giving him a safe space to chill out in. No by golly, he was going to have to live in a house so he better start dealing with it from the get go. I had no idea of what was going on with his nervous system and today cringe to think of what I put him through. In some ways this blog is my way of making it up to him and dogs like him.

  2. Mary Doane on

    Yes! You have so many wonderful stories, Debbie. So many ways to remind us that we can make a difference in how our fearful, timid dogs cope with their stressors. By the way, Aaron and I spent an hour in the Water St. Bookstore in Exeter. Talking to people about his journey and how long it took us to be able to get to the point of greeting people in a public place. He was hesitant but he coped very, very well.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Mary, you and Aaron are certainly testimony for how successful force free training can be for shy dogs.

  3. Hilary on

    Wonderful analogy, Debbie! I find that people put labels on everything, including what we should and shouldn’t do with our dogs, as though each one was exactly the same. I enjoyed your discussion with Ashley about this very thing… it’s a fine line, for sure.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Appreciate your reading and commenting Hilary. I was happy for Ashley to give me the opportunity 😉

  4. Donna and the Dogs on

    Very well written thoughts. I agree, there are many different ideas out there of what methods work, but in the end, you really need to know your individual dog.

  5. honeysjourney on

    I may have stumbled on a example of we can’t reinforce fear in dog by coddling, treating or whatever you wish to call it. While crusting the kennel last Friday looking for fearful ones to coddle, I found a 3 year old male of mixed linage, the original Heinz breed and new arrival. Happy and outgoing I said “Hi’ and moved on to the next kennel. While standing next to his kennel I heard a very strange sound. I peered over the wall between the kennels and found he had balled his bedding up and was suckling the corner of his blanket purring like a cat. I would imagine if the blanket was pulled from him he would most likely become more fearful in that strange environment. He had found his own coddling, I believe, and was rewarding himself nicely.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Indeed you did find a dog that was behaving in a way to relieve stress. Sucking in dogs can have a genetic basis, and is seen pathologically in some breeds of dogs. Keep an eye on this one. A lower stress environment may stop the behavior, but if not whoever gets the dog should consult with a vet. Blanket suckers can end up with gut obstructions, and flank suckers can do physical damage to themselves.

      • Lizzie on

        About dogs sucking stuff; Lucy, my perfectly normal adorable Labrador used to gather the edge of her soft bed and suck that from time to time. She only ever sucked that bed, and was never a fearful or nervous dog, except during a storm or if she heard fireworks screeching outside. But during those times she just wanted to hide under the stairs or cuddle up on the sofa next to a human.

        No, I think she sucked that bed simply because it gave her pleasure, although, the fact that her mother’s milk dried up early might just have had something to do with it 😉

  6. Deborah Flick on

    Great story. I was right there with and your traveling companion!

    And, of course, yet another wise post about helping our fearful dogs.

  7. Sweetpea on

    You always have such a succinct way of reminding me of what’s truly important. My fearful dog has learned to leave off the barking at something she’s worried about and come over to me instead. She stands next to my left side, in a kind of heel position, and we face whatever it is together. Then, a simple touch of my hand to her head or back is all she needs these days to find some calm. If she was a toddler, she would be running into this position to hold my hand!
    Thank you.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Ok I’ll admit it, hearing this makes my eyes well up. Geesh I am a sucker for stories about people being sensitive to their dog’s needs.

  8. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Buster still gets a little nervous when I put his seat belt harness on. He’s taken to draping his paw over my arm while I connect the clasps. Some might say that I shouldn’t allow him to do it, but in my opinion it’s not hurting anything and it brings him a little comfort. That little touch makes all the difference to him. When he doesn’t feel the need to do it anymore, he’ll stop.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I think it’s interesting all the stuff we apologize for doing with our dogs. Much of it makes no sense, like not playing tug games with your dog, or if you do making sure that you always ‘win’ (there are very few dogs for whom tug is a completely inappropriate activity). I think a lot of it goes back to the myths surrounding dogs and dominance. Personally I don’t have any problem with my dogs letting me know, however they need to, that something makes them feel uncomfortable or that they want something to stop. If it’s important that they allow me to do certain things with or to them, then it’s up to me to help them gain the skills for at least coping with stuff, if they can’t eventually come to love it. If I ever do have to physically restrain them for any reason I find that their resistance is minimal and when it’s over they recover quickly.

      Have you taken a bunch of cheese or meat bits and put Buster in the car and hooked up the harness, feed treat, unhook, no treat? Repeat til treats are gone.

  9. Kristine on

    Every dog is different, just as every human is different, but I do think that dogs as well as humans want to feel accepted in times of fear. No person wants to feel alone, and neither do dogs I think. Even though physical comfort is the last thing my dog wants when she is stressed, I think my calm presence goes a long way. By staying relaxed and by her side, I try to tell her that it’s going to be okay. Isn’t that what we all wish to hear?

    • fearfuldogs on

      You are so right Kristine and if we have not given our dogs reasons not to trust us, they are more likely to believe us when we encourage them to remain in scary situations and know they will be safe. I love it that I can take my people-fearful dog to the vet and when he gets off the exam table he shakes it off and looks at me for treats. What a relief for both of us.

  10. Ashley on

    Since reading this post, I’ve realized I need to change some of the language in some recent blog posts I’ve published relating to a fear of a specific noise. I want to make sure I’m getting my language right to ensure I’m not perpetuating myths/misconceptions!. These are the statements that may need rewording:

    “Just as we reinforce good behaviours on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule to increase their reliability, her fear has been reinforced the same way. The smoke detector goes off with no pattern or warning. The only predictor or cue she has is the oven.” (To clarify, my dog is fearful when the oven is on, because SOMETIMES the smoke detector goes off, which is what she is really afraid of. Does that statement make sense?)

    The second one is:
    “There was a roast in the oven. She was already anxious and I quite likely further reinforced the ‘fact’ that the oven being on means the scary noise happens.” (Again, to clarify, we were working on desensitizing and counterconditioning by playing the noise at sub-threshold level, but I didn’t clue in that the oven was on, she was already anxious, and I was playing the scary noise).

    Is the language I used appropriate?

    • fearfuldogs on

      I can’t say that what you are saying is ‘wrong’ but I’m not sure that a variable schedule of reinforcement ‘increases reliability’. Variable reinforcement makes behavior more resistant to extinction, which may be the same as reliable. I’d have to look it up for clarification on that.


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