Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

The veneer of fear

stripping a piece of furnitureIt’s easy to think that the fear we see our dogs display is just a veneer that needs to be stripped away to expose the solid oak dog. Certainly there are dogs for whom life has tossed a curve ball and they struggle to for a bit as they sort out their new life, but they have the skills for doing that.

Perhaps a more appropriate way to look at a dog’s fearful behavior is to see it as a scab which is protecting the sensitive tissue beneath it. The more we pick and scrape, the more likely we’ll create a long lasting scar. We can cover it with a band-aid, pretend that all we need to do is make the dog do the things they’re afraid of, and all will be well. But for dogs who were born with a predisposition to be wary or were not socialized properly as young pups, take the band-aid off and the wariness and fear remains.

Some dogs have been gifted with skills they take with them, wherever they go, that allow them to feel comfortable in whatever world they find themselves. When I worked with street dogs from Puerto Rico most had mastered the ‘how to work the crowd’ behaviors humans find so appealing. Their survival depended on it. They wiggle and wag, grin and beg. My border collie Finn lived in at least 7 different places before landing with us at age three. He was taught how to catch frisbees and he never meets a person without expecting they can throw one. As far as he’s concerned every person is a potential game player.

We may never know the exact reasons our dogs are afraid, but we can know what  makes them feel good. With this information in hand we can build up the ’tissue’ of our dog’s confidence and skills. For some dogs all that will remain is the faintest of scars that is only visible in certain light. For others we will always need to be respectful of the sensitivity that lingers.


Only a mutt

3 dogs looking at the camera with open mouth grinsWhen people call me to ask about boarding their dogs or for information regarding working with a timid dog, early on in the conversation I will ask what kind of dog it is. It helps me to have a picture of the dog, in the case of boarding it may determine whether the conversation needs to continue or not. Two 9 month old Saint Bernards are probably not a good fit for my in-small-home, kennel-free boarding set-up, but 2 seniors might be. A fearful Yorkie is likely experiencing life very differently than a fearful rottie. When it is not a pure-bred dog, owners will often reply, “He’s only a mutt.”

Only a mutt? You mean your dog might share some of the same genetic coding as a regal German Shepherd AND a goofy, coffee-table-clearing-tailed lab? Or the giddiness of a Maltese and the can-do attitude of a terrier? The easy to care for coat and beautiful musculature of a pitbull and the affinity for water of a Newfoundland? Or perhaps they are living with a dog that has figured out how to open cabinets to get at the trash, or can map the path of a frisbee or ball and know just where they need to be in order to snatch it out of mid-air. Some are living with dogs willing to run for miles along side them when they jog or ride a bike or will happily and gently eat the ice cream cone from the outstretched, chubby hand of a toddler going by in a stroller (unless they’ve been trained not to!). The dog will wait for hours in the car while they work or shop and cuddle up with them on the sofa in the evening, always keeping an ear on alert for anything that might be worth noticing out in the world. Only a mutt?

Dogs, like all the other creatures in existence are nothing short of a miracle, or if not a miracle, one of the best birthday presents ever in the history of the planet, regardless of when they come to live with us. Only a mutt? I don’t think so.

Your dog wants your opinion

What's up?

One of the most useful behaviors any dog owner can teach their dog is to look at them. Trainers teach this checking-in behavior differently. I’ll share my favorite.

Like any behavior, the more a dog practices it and gets rewarded for it, the better they’ll get at it. If I want my dog to pay attention to me it’s easier if I’ve rewarded them whenever they’ve paid attention to me in the past. While I don’t teach the behavior with a cue (‘hey’, ‘look at me!’) it’s simple enough to cue them to do it once they are in the habit of looking at me anyway.

To begin I start by acknowledging and rewarding my dog for looking at me, for any reason, in a place without a lot of distractions. My response is to look back at them, smile, nod, praise them (nice! thank you! yes!) and then hand them a treat. By the time a dog figures out what they need to do to relieve me of treats I swear they must think they are living with the most simple-minded human on the planet.

I’m not asking them to look at me, I am waiting to get the behavior and reward it. Then we take the behavior on the road, literally. While we’re out on walks anytime my dogs indicate that they are noticing me, looking for or at me, I smile, nod, praise and if they are close enough, hand them a treat. If we’re on our off leash walks I let them choose whether to come to me for a treat or not.

Find places with more distractions where you can work on this. It might be sitting in your car, in a training class, in a friend’s living room. Be prepared to wait for the behavior. If I start to feel that it’s taking too long I might do something that provokes the behavior, like clearing my throat or shifting my weight. If I’m in a place where it might be harder for my dog to focus on me the rewards I use are super awesome. Toys can work as rewards as well.

Do this enough and you end up with a dog with a checking-in habit. Should a situation arise which takes your dog’s attention away from you, it’s easier to ask them for their attention and get it because they are already so good at doing it. It does mean that you have to do your part and pay attention to your dog so you can catch check-ins, which for many dogs, happen far more than their owners ever notice. When our dogs do look at us, it’s not a random act, nor is it likely meaningless to them. They are attempting to gather information from us; which way are you going at the trail junction, what do you think of that noise we just heard, or about that person who is walking toward us?

Most of our dogs want to know what our opinion is in many situations. That’s often more then we can say about some of the people we spend time with.

Coddling controversy

egg in egg cupWords are pretty cool things. You can be driving along with a friend and shout out ‘PIZZA!’ and barring the fact that you might be prone to random, nonsensical outbursts, your friend will understand, “I’m hungry. I’d like to eat pizza. You willing to stop and eat pizza with me? Pull into that pizzeria please.” Not bad for a single word.

I may not like the meaning of many words, like ‘torture’ or ‘tsunami’, there are others that I don’t like for less obvious reason. One is the use of ‘nom nom’ on social media to imply that someone is eating something or thinking about how good something will be to eat. It bothers me, I don’t know why for sure, but I have to resist clicking the ‘unfollow’ button when someone uses it. Nothing personal really, the phrase just bugs me. There is another word that bothers me when I hear it used in context with the handling of fearful dogs, the word ‘coddle’. It’s a fairly benign sounding word, almost silly if you try to say it five times fast, but it annoys me because, like the word ‘leader’ it means nothing because it can mean anything.

One of the first things someone working with a fearful dog needs to understand is that it’s ok to comfort a dog that is afraid. It’s ok to give them a piece of cheese or take them away from what is scaring them. These responses will not be saying to the dog, “Yes Rover you are absolutely right to be afraid, keep it up.” It is reasonable to respond to fear in a dog in much the same way you would with a frightened toddler.

Even when someone is willing to accept the above information as truth they often feel obliged to add, “But don’t coddle them.” In my head I have a picture of what ‘coddling’ is and I assume that other people have a picture in their heads as well. Whether or not the pictures are the same is another matter. When I ask people to define to me what coddling a dog means what I hear often translates into someone behaving in a way which protects their dog from what is scaring them. Should you pick up your small dog when a boisterous, young dog comes bounding over? Maybe you should if your dog might be injured or if your dog has been attacked or frightened by a dog.

The argument against protecting your dog from what scares them is that the dog will not learn how to deal appropriately with it. And I counter by saying that by definition the use of desensitization and counter conditioning or behavioral adjustment training or ‘look at that’ (to name a few of the techniques we can use to give dogs better skills for dealing with triggers) is not to ‘never’ expose them to triggers, but to do so in a way in which the emotional response is low enough that the dog can think and you can change how they feel and teach them how you prefer they behave.

If a handler believes that we can reinforce fear in a dog by being compassionate and understanding of their fears, they may be more inclined to go with the alternative which is the ‘suck it up and deal’ route. There are some dogs, dogs whose fears are low level enough that they are not totally freaked out by the presence of a trigger, that are ok with this kind of treatment and because of this it is extrapolated that it is appropriate for all dogs.

Folks involved in rescue will answer that they have too many dogs to fix to be pussy footing around, but I say that if a dog is capable of responding positively to being forced to ‘suck it up and deal’ with a trigger that in all likelihood they will respond positively to being desensitized and counter conditioned to them. A handler’s inability to properly use force-free techniques does not mean that a dog is incapable of having positive responses to those methods. I once called an electrician to repair a light fixture in the ceiling. He spent about 30 seconds assessing the problem and said to me, “Lady, you have to screw the bulb all the way in.” The problem was not with the fixture, it was with my bulb installation skills.

It is possible to behave in ways which we believe should be comforting to a dog but which in actuality are not. We can telegraph our own concern, fear or discomfort to a dog with one inhalation, however this does not change the fact that if we were truly offering a dog comfort or a high value reward, that we can have a positive effect on their level of fear. Ignoring a dog that is afraid is also setting up for possible problems in the future. If a dog is left flapping in the breeze they have to come up with their own solution to finding a way to stabilize themselves. Sometimes they make good choices, often they don’t.

As for the usefulness of punishing a dog for behaving in a fearful way (which can look like aggression) I’m sorry to say that even if you can convince me that you have taught the dog to think that something is ok, and have not just inhibited their response to it, I will not be standing up in the bleachers and cheering. If you have a kid who proudly shows off a wad of cash and explains how they got it by going into a liquor store with a gun and demanding it, I suspect your reaction will be very different to the same amount of cash being waved about if it was gained by shoveling the neighbors’ driveways. How we go about getting behaviors matters.

If a reluctance to acknowledge or protect a dog from its triggers is caused by a concern about ‘coddling’ them, I think coddling just might be a better response. Nom nom.


Blow up sex doll anyone?

blow up dolls male and femaleI often feel an affinity toward ‘dog’ people. No offense to you ‘cat’ people, it’s definitely not because we’re any smarter. In the never ending debate over whether or not it is efficacious or humane to use training techniques or devices that hurt or intimate a dog to get behaviors we want, we seem to prove that over and over again.

There are the reasons, causes and excuses for using force and pain that are directly spewed in mimicry of TV’s top oh so not an expert dog trainer (forget all the rubbish about rehabbing dogs and not training, it’s a sound bite and does not get him off the hook for being a bully either way). And then there are the excuses that make me lower my eyebrows, squint and ask, “You’ve got to be kidding right?”

Along with the, ‘it’s what wolves do’ outdated, disproved nonsense, there’s the ‘it’s what mom does’ absurdity. I recently saw a comment referring to prong collars, explaining that they work because they imitate what a mother does to a recalcitrant pup. Seriously? I am fairly certain that none of my dogs mistake me for either a dog or their mother. I’d also feel safe in saying that even if they did they would be able to differentiate between having an interaction that involved one participant putting their mouth on their neck versus a metal pronged device encircling their throat with six feet between them and another creature.

If you do not understand how and why prong, shock or choke collars work, you need to find out. It’s not that complicated, and it has nothing to do with growing up with the doggie equivalent of Joan Crawford. If you decide to use one, at least base your decision on something that actually makes sense.

They are ‘only’ dogs but not only do we demean them when we use pain or the threat of it, to control them, we demean them when we assume that their cognitive abilities are so limited that they’d not be able to tell the difference in the aforementioned prong collar scenario. Imitates a mother’s scruff grab…puleeeze.

This is like telling a teenager that having sex with a blow up doll is the same as with a living breathing human. “Yes dear, the sensations are exactly the same, and all in all it’s just like the real thing, trust me you’ll never know the difference.”

You gotta be kidding right?

Oxygen as a training tool

dog being dragged on its back by a leash around its neckI’m actually an open-minded trainer and dog owner who has looked at and considered the merits of a variety of different training techniques. If a handling or training technique works I am curious to see why it does, or to assess whether what we are seeing in regard to the dog’s behavior is actually success. A shut-down dog may have stopped doing something  inappropriate, but how’s that going to hold up in the long run? If a technique works, but there are alternatives which achieve the same end using less force or intimidation you can probably guess which route I’ll take.

Today I heard the darndest thing. While speaking with a group of people, all with professional dog handling experience of one form or another I was told about a local trainer’s use of strangulation as a tool for achieving compliance in dogs. Several of the handlers had witnessed the ‘technique’ being used by the trainer and one had been requested by a pet owner to use it on her dog, as she had been taught by this trainer. The handler deferred. The methods employed by this trainer are self-described as ‘natural’.

I must have missed the memo referring to the use of oxygen deprivation by animals to achieve compliance in others. Oh wait. I did read something about that, we call it torture.

Alpha schmalpha

2 dogs lying on couch butt to buttI board dogs in my home. When people call for information about my services I will ask them to tell me about their dog. It is not uncommon for me to hear, “He’s not an alpha dog,” or, “She’s not a dominant dog.”

For years I have lived with 3-4 dogs of my own. Used to be I tried to figure out which of my dogs was the ‘alpha’. Mitzi, Sabu’s mom was a confident, fearless cocker spaniel, Sabu a bit less comfortable with other dogs. Mitzi, being the mom, and Sabu being less confident must mean that Mitzi was the alpha dog, right? But when I put them in the car Sabu got all excited and mounted Mitzi whose response was the equivalent of a sigh and eye roll in a person, must mean that Sabu was the alpha dog, right?

I couldn’t tell you which was the ‘alpha’ dog in my house, but I could tell you this:

Sunny cares enough about the yellow squeaky toy to give a muzzle punch to ANY dog that goes near it.

Finn loves his frisbees and will resist Sunny’s attempts to take one from him, but if it happens he’ll readily snatch it back as soon as it’s dropped.

Annie gets yappy and excited when new dogs show up and can tolerate having one look at her or sniff her for about 3 seconds, beyond that she will snap and tell them to knock it off.

When Nina the chocolate lab is here Sunny will let her lie in his spot under my desk, but he will not allow Buttercup the black lab to do so.

Maddie the Australian Shepherd will ignore all the dogs unless her housemate Lionel is running around playing and then she’ll chase and nip at him putting a stop to his fun.

Sasha the black lab can drink from the water bowl under my desk, but Sunny will not allow Bugsy the old cocker the same privilege.

Nina will happily run and explore with any dog but should one approach her while she’s lying down she will let out a ‘BOOF’ that never fails to make me jump out of my chair (her owners tell me it’s a habit developed after being harassed by the household cat).

When it comes to Daphne the bulldog I will confess to being uncertain sometimes as to whether she’s trying to play with another dog or telling them to move away.

None of my own dogs will try to take a fresh marrow bone away from another dog, but once they’ve been ‘used’ a bit will readily sneak over to snatch one left momentarily unattended. There have never been any fights over bones or chews but I never leave them with the ‘good stuff’ unattended.

All the dogs staying with me can surround me while I dole out treats to them individually. In the beginning some are rude and don’t understand that a hand reaching out with food in it is not necessarily for them and try to snatch it, but so far none of the other dogs have taken great offense to it.

Some would say that I am the alpha and that’s why the dogs don’t have to assume that role. But if that were true, how come I am the one that always ends up without blankets at night because some dog is snoozing on top of them?

p.s. I couldn’t resist and created the ‘Alpha Schmalpha-I’m the one with the thumbs‘ T shirt. Check it out.

Help your dog make good choices

anti-drug poster for kids There was an anti-drug ad on TV that portrayed a sleazy dealer talking to a group of teenagers while the narrator intoned, “If you don’t talk to your kids about drugs, someone else will.”

I was reminded of this ad after hearing about training advice someone had received to help them with their dog who was prone to barking and biting. Granted the advice was given in regard to other issues, which were-demanding attention and enthusiastic greetings-but the real quality of life challenges were the dog’s insecurity, lack of skills and inappropriate reactions to people and other dogs. What was the advice? Simple and often heard-ignore the dog, do not respond to any attempt by the dog to solicit attention. Attention was to be granted at the behest of the owner, never the dog.

Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, sometimes ignoring a dog makes sense. Effusive greetings for dogs with separation anxiety can be problematic. Shy dogs prefer to be ignored and doing so with submissive pee-ers might save you some paper toweling. After I’ve told my border collie that I will not throw the frisbee again I will ignore any continued attempts to engage me in the game. What troubled me about the advice given in this instance, was that by not acknowledging a dog that is seeking attention or information, in effect, not rewarding that behavior, we should begin to see less of it. Not a problem if you don’t want a soggy tennis ball dropped in your lap repeatedly, but for a dog whose first impulse is often inappropriate, wouldn’t it be better if they did look at us so we could share information and perhaps circumvent bad behavior?

Dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for and get better at behaviors they repeat. If anyone is expected to perform a behavior under pressure, whether it’s playing a piano piece on stage, drawing a firearm, rushing into a burning building, or pulling off a triple lutz, their chances of success improve the more they have practiced those behaviors. The same is true for dogs. If we want our dogs to respond to us when they are under pressure they are more likely to be able to if they have opportunities to practice giving us their attention and being rewarded for it.

A dog that wants to engage with their owner is easier to work with than a dog that could care less about the human in control of their life. We can’t teach a dog anything if we can’t get and keep their attention. Sometimes it makes sense to ignore the slimy tennis ball but it may also be a teachable moment that we’d be better off taking advantage of. The behavior we’re trying to fix may not be broken. My dogs should know they can come to me with any questions they have about their triggers, or temptations. I’ll make better choices for them than the pusher in their head.

Don’t keep em guessing

What's up?

Recently I paid a visit to a couple hoping to rehome a dog who from their description sounded as if she behaved aggressively due to fear. After a failed attempt to euthanize the dog (they couldn’t go through with it) they consulted with two other trainer/behaviorists. The couple lived nearby and I knew that a dog with a history of biting to get its point across is not a good candidate for rehoming and that after paying for two consultations and seeing some, but limited change in their dog’s behavior the owners might be reluctant for yet another expense, I offered to stop by and meet the dog at no cost to them. I wanted to meet the dog that cheated death.

When I decided to meet them it wasn’t because I believed I had the magic cure necessary to turn the dog into their perfect pet, but after hearing about the treatment prescribed by other trainers I thought that because I had a different take on the problem of fear aggression, I might be able to offer them a different set of training tools to work with. I understood what other trainers had suggested and why, and some of their suggestions had helped, and my curiosity was piqued.

I sat at their kitchen table assured that the dog would not bite me so long as I was sitting down. I wore my thickest jeans just in case and asked that the dog be on leash. The owner gave me one final warning, “Be careful, she’s cute.”

What appeared to be a long-haired German Shepherd in a corgi body rushed over to check me out, jumped up, gave a sniff and quickly raced off to gobble up the treats I tossed for her. After sweeping the floor clean she came over to me jumped up again, then sat at my feet, tail wagging, giving me one of those ‘I’ll have more of those anytime now thanks’ looks. A few more rounds of treat tossing and I had her targeting my hand, she was not only cute, she was a quick study.

I knew better than assume that the bad behaviors the owners had described were all in their head or their fault, and I got a glimpse of it when I mistakenly moved too fast for the dog’s liking, but her response, though sudden and swift, was controlled, and her willingness to forgive my indiscretion was without hesitation. She had been ok with me petting her on the head, when I, without giving her a clear indication of what I was going to do, in effect asking her permission first, turned my hand and touched her chest. That was decidedly not ok. I was lucky (I think it’s John Rogerson who talks about having buckets, one filled with luck and the other experience and I had just used a ladle full from my luck bucket). There was lots of information in her response. This was why the dog was living with a commuted death sentence.

What I saw was a dog that was not fearful as much as one with very clear lines about what was acceptable in regard to her sense of personal space and safety. At the same time she would happily cross those lines once the outcome was clear, and in my case it meant a piece of some kind of fabulous food would be offered to her. It wasn’t that she didn’t like being handled, or didn’t like strangers, it was as if she needed to be able to predict what the handling and presence of someone new meant to her. When she wasn’t given the information in advance her early warning signals, such as growling, were out of service and she immediately responded with her mouth. It was very effective.

When I left she would have readily accompanied me, and I kept wondering, why was this dog having such a hard time learning to behave appropriately around people? Answers had been offered as to ‘why’ the dog behaved as she did. She needed a job. She thought her job was to protect her owners. She needed to learn who was tops in the household hierarchy.

Assumptions were made about why the dog was behaving the way she was, and so remedies were prescribed which were meant to address the ‘whys’ of the behavior. In some cases the dog was able to figure out different, acceptable behaviors to get what she wanted, but in many others cases, she was not. Not only were guesses (albeit educated ones) made regarding the motivation for the dog’s behavior (and again to quote John Rogerson, “We have all the theories, dogs have all the facts”), the dog was required to guess what solutions she needed to come up with in regard to keeping people behaving appropriately as far as she was concerned, and getting the attention she wanted. Everyone was frustrated by the process. But when presented with a clear picture of what worked for both the dog and handler, she was more than willing to fulfill her end of the bargain.

Many of us living with dogs with behavioral challenges look for the piece of the jigsaw which if only we could find, would make the picture complete. The dog with its new found purpose in life no longer has to be insecure around strangers, or knowing who the pack leader is, no longer needs to worry about riding in the car or being sniffed by other dogs. And maybe it is the case that this piece does solve the problem, but I suspect more often than not it’s only another edge piece of the puzzle, the expanse of solid blue sky is still waiting to be constructed.

I don’t know if I’ll ever see this dog again or where she’ll end up but I hope that someone is able to take the guesswork out of learning for her. Not only is she cute she seemed happy to change her opinion about what was ok and what was not.

Dog afraid of new object

I wanted to share the following video of Sunny’s reaction to a novel object in his environment. Many dogs can be surprised by and wary of anything new in their world. How quickly they recover from the surprise and either ignore or investigate the object can give you a clue into how challenged a dog might be in regard to developing the skills and confidence to function in a world full of new and changing environments.

In this video I am encouraging Sunny to come into the room to be let outside, initially without this encouragement he looked at the object (a leather bag I’ve hung up to dry by the fire) and left the room. At one point he gives a tentative sniff to another new object in the room, a pair of rain pants on a chair.

It is important to note that Sunny has lived in this house for over 5.5 years and his ability to confront novelty has improved. You will see improvement in his behavior around the object and he would, with repeated exposure get used to it, but at that point it would cease to be a ‘novel’ object. Were it to move to a different location, or be something else, he would again show restraint and caution around it. This object is more threatening in appearance than something smaller and lower, but whatever it was, it would register as something of note to Sunny, and his response, while perhaps not as avoidant as with this bag, would still be notable. Other dogs in the room either completely ignored the bag or after a quick investigation of it, disregarded it.

While a dog can learn appropriate skills for dealing with novelty, and their recovery after being exposed to it does seem to be able to improve, can neophobia be ‘fixed’? There is no way to create every single novel experience a dog might have in advance, so they can learn to deal with it. Some dogs, like Sunny, may always show a heightened sensitivity to sudden changes in their environment but each successful interaction they have can help them learn about how to respond to future events. Successful for the dog means a low enough level of stress so the dog can think and learn from the experience. Medications may be needed in order to achieve this lower level of stress if a dog’s environment cannot be managed so that they are not always overwhelmed.

I am encouraging Sunny to move past the object as I film, I am not forcing him to do it, and you can see at one point he changes his mind about leaving the room and returns to the door to go outside. Once outside he’s no longer stressed and would happily play. When he returns inside he does choose to go to his safe spot. The reality for this dog is that even years of living in a space have not completely eliminated his sensitivity to changes in that space. Sunny routinely goes out into the world, but this wariness of novelty travels with him.

This was a spontaneously shot video. In the future one thing I might do differently is clean the kitchen beforehand.