Archive for May, 2011|Monthly archive page

Ready, set, rescue!

small dog in a cageRecently I ruffled some feathers on an online forum. It was not my intention and I usually try to stay out of most of the networking site forums because they are often too upsetting, but something moved me and I posted a comment. The original posting was about a 15 year old girl who had started a rescue group. It was an upbeat, ‘isn’t this heart-warming’ post and I could not shake the not so heart warming reaction I was having. Had I realized that the girl was a member of the forum and would read my comment I probably would not have written a thing, but that’s history now.

I tried, apparently without success, to express my unease with celebrating an animal rescue headed by a 15 year old, while supporting her intentions and motivations. I strayed from the ‘You go girl!’ response and the hits started coming. I was the grumpy lady who needed to worry more about people who weren’t doing something to help homeless animals, and not about the ones who were. I was wrong to assume that a 15 year old would not have the skills or abilities to do a good job rescuing animals. I was the naysayer trying to squash the hopes and dreams of a motivated, caring, young human. I felt like Scrooge in December.

I gave it a couple more shots at trying to explain myself, and then excused myself from the room, but I was surprised. The forum was specifically about animal rescue and I found it difficult to imagine that no one else shared my concern that good intentioned as anyone may be, animal rescue is a complicated and challenging task, and as bright and conscientious as this young woman might be, at 15 how much could or should we expect from her?

I am not naive, nor so far removed from reality that I expect animal behaviorists and professional trainers to be starting animal rescues in droves, but I do believe that animals deserve that level of skill and expertise when it comes to determining their future. Their lives depend on it. The belief that all they need is ‘time and love’ is so far off the mark for many of them that I cringe when I hear someone involved in rescue say it. That sentiment is naive and removed from reality.

The attitude of many seems to be that not only can anyone who grew up with a dog and having watched a few seasons of the The Dog Whisperer be a dog trainer, anyone can start an animal rescue. Even barring the hoarders and dog traffickers involved in rescue, there is no shortage of well intentioned people who cause extreme suffering to the animals in their care. The fact that it’s unintentional is beside the point. The impact of a ‘bad’ placement extends beyond the immediate dog and family. I have lost count of the people who have told me they will never adopt a dog again because of bad experiences with dogs who needed more than time and love.

At this point the best I can do is wish this young woman good luck in her endeavor, the dogs are going to need at least that, and more.


The path of the heart

indian shaman womanBack when I was in university I attended a class on Carlos Castaneda’s books, The Teachings of Don Juan series. Ah, those were the days. For the uninitiated, the books, written as a recounting of Carlos’ experience with the shaman Don Juan, are full of magical experiences and lessons for living what some might call, an enlightened life. They were, and still are by many, believed to be a non-fiction account of Carlos’ adventures both spiritual and physical in the deserts of Mexico with his teacher and guide Don Juan.

Written in the late 1960’s they were perfect for the introspection and questioning of the status quo of the decade and the age of the readers, college students faced with the challenges of entering a soul-sucking world. Don Juan was a ‘facing your fear and doing it anyway’ kind of guy. It’s not necessarily bad advice for people, except maybe teenagers who are contemplating doing something really stupid and would be better off listening to what their fear is telling them. But Don Juan was all about potential. And there was the peyote.

I’ve had a saying in my head for years which I attributed to one of the Castaneda’s books but now wonder if perhaps it was Lao Tsu who penned it, “A warrior is able to advance or retreat from any position.” I can’t find it, so let me know if you do. I like it. I think of it often in regard to fearful dogs. They too need to be able to advance OR retreat from any position. Too often the option to retreat is removed. It was Lao Tsu who said, “I would rather retreat a foot than advance an inch.” Probably another good one for fearful dog owners to keep in mind, though I’m not sure what it means in regard to war strategy.

The following quote comes from one of Castaneda’s books, it’s one of Don Juan’s lessons for Carlos. And per usual I think about it in the context of dogs. Dogs who, when given the chance, seem to always choose the path of the heart.

“Before you embark on any path ask the question: Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path. The trouble is nobody asks the question; and when a man finally realizes that he has taken a path without a heart, the path is ready to kill him. At that point very few men can stop to deliberate, and leave the path. A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy; it does not make you work at liking it.”

One of the most fulfilling aspects of spending time with dogs has been paying attention to each individual and discovering what path their heart was on and being invited along for the journey.

Nothing wrong with a duck

duck cartoonI have found myself being taken to task, chastised and berated for putting information on my website that says that not all dogs can completely become desensitized and counter conditioned to the things that scare them.

Some who label themselves trainers, and others who will not identify themselves at all, have claimed that this is a disservice to people with fearful dogs, that it is not just disheartening, it is wrong. They assert that they have been able to ‘cure’ all the dogs they have worked with of their fears. One described a process akin to ‘rebirthing’ and offered to take my dog for 6 weeks and return to me a dog that takes treats from my hand and rolls over. I declined. Not only was the price tag of several thousand dollars too steep for my budget, I already had a dog that would take treats and I was not at all interested in a dog that would roll over when approached by a person. In case you weren’t aware of it, dogs will roll over to indicate their lack of intention to be confrontational. It is the source of the misinterpreted ‘alpha roll’. It’s a way of asking to be left alone. (Not all rollovers are for this reason. Go ahead and give that belly a rub if you know the dog is asking for one.)

What I should have suggested to this person (who refused to give me any information as to who they were) was that I would consider their offer if in 6 weeks they came back to me fluent in a foreign language. Fluent, not just able to order a meal or find a toilet. I say this because the development of language in a human’s brain has a sensitive period during that brain’s development when the acquisition of language is most efficient. There is also a sensitive period in a dog’s brain development during which the ability to interact with novelty, and the skills to engage socially with people and other dogs, also occurs. Once this period of development is over it does not mean that a person cannot learn a second or third language, or that a dog cannot learn the skills to interact appropriately with novelty, but that some will be better at it than others, and that some will always speak with a funny accent.

I don’t want to toss out the baby with the bathwater in regard to their message to me. My goal is most certainly not to discourage people living with fearful dogs. An important piece of the equation is that as we work with the dog, both of us learn new skills. The challenges we face with our particular dog become easier along with the development of these skills. In order to learn these skills we need to be grounded in the foundation of how behaviors are built and changed. We need to understand that behaviors can be driven by powerful emotional responses that we should acknowledge and address.

Understanding how a dog’s brain develops is important. If you have a duckling and are expecting it to grow up to be a swan, you may be disappointed, but what’s so bad about being a duck anyway?

We’re not out of the dark yet

image of someone being tortured during dark agesI have been struggling this week with a website a friend shared with me. On the site a ‘trainer’, who seems to boast no qualification other than maybe owning the boxed set of TV’s The Dog Whisperer DVDs, proudly describes and documents with chilling videos, how a ‘dominant’ dog was put in his place.

The dog, a breed which is known for its wariness and tendency toward being hypervigilant has shown an unwillingness to perform behaviors on cue ‘unless he feels like it’. He has resorted to biting on multiple occasions, including members of his family. The dog’s unwillingness to go for walks is ascribed to the dog’s desire to be with his ‘subordinates’, i.e., the people he lives with. The dog, supposedly a power hungry maniac, ‘whines anxiously’, and pees when spoken to in an angry tone of voice. Both tactics employed by the stealthiest of confident dogs apparently. The author deserves an award in fiction, because the entire piece is that, fiction. The cause and motivation of the dog’s behavior has been ‘made up’ in order to fit the author’s view on dog ‘psychology’, that being the desire of dogs to wield power in relationships.

The videos included are painful to watch. The dog appears to have on two collars, one of Cesar Millan’s illusion collars and a choke collar, and in order to balance the playing field, a slip-on muzzle which the dog was forced to wear through 4 hours of coercion and abuse (keep in mind that a slip on muzzle, unlike a basket muzzle does not allow a dog to pant and breathe normally). Watching a dog fall to the ground to avoid being made to move is wrenching. Yet the trainer sees it as one more tactic of a manipulative, dominant dog resisting the will of the true ‘pack leader’. As the dog lies on his side in a last ditch effort to avoid going anywhere, the handler (for I have ceased to be able to call her a trainer) pulls the dog’s tail out from between his legs to ‘change his energy’. Skip the certification for dog trainers, let’s require IQ tests as a start.

Finally, after 4 hours of being pulled, dragged and forced to comply, and no video tape left to film in the dark, the dog walks along with the handler.

When someone is caught on videotape abusing a dog there typically follows a round of petitions calling for the perpetrator’s arrest. Yet cyberspace is replete with images and videos of dogs being abused and no one bats an eye. They don’t bat an eye because the abuse is labeled ‘training’. There was a time when people argued that animals did not feel pain, and this justified and excused the most horrific of treatment. Few would debate that issue today, accepting that dogs have nerves, and those nerves register painful stimuli. It is accepted that dogs experience emotions, and one of the most obvious emotions we can observe in dogs is fear. That anyone with a heart, nevermind a brain, could subject a fearful dog to hour after hour of torment is beyond me.

I am reminded of Augustine’s words, “Since God has spoken to us it is no longer necessary for us to think.”

Apparently we are not out of the dark ages just yet.

* I have not included a link to the site because I do not want it to get any additional hits.

The deep end

It’s hard not to do, and invariably we do it. We are working with our dog and getting good responses and rather than quit while we’re ahead we push, one more time. When trying to work on a behavior modification protocol with a fearful dog (whether they are prone to fleeing or fighting), we give them another opportunity to behave inappropriately, i.e., to fail.

Even though my dogs do know that something good is afoot when they smell the treat roll being sliced, or hear a clicker being used with another dog, a dog that is being worked with to change challenging behaviors does not know that one minute we are training and the next we are just trying to get from the car into the house. I was reminded of this when I was showing a client with a reactive-to-people dog, how to do set-ups in a parking lot or area where there was not likely to be a lot of foot traffic.

The goal for this dog is to be able to walk through town without barking and lunging at people. Because he is small enough and easily controlled on leash, the owners thought they could work on the behavior using the ‘look at that’ protocol, with the dog under threshold sometimes, and the rest of the time, they’d take their dog into town as they’d been doing. They’d use LAT if they could on these walks, or otherwise they’d restrain the dog as they had practice doing.

This is like taking a kid you are teaching how to swim and tossing them into the deep end of the pool some days and giving them a kick board and asking them to blow bubbles on others. Even if you’re there to drag them sputtering and gasping to the shallow end on those deep end days, it’s not helping them learn to swim or feel very good about being in the water.

Imagine being told by a friend they want to stop drinking-

“Great goal!” we say, “How about we meet at the pub to talk about it?”

Um. Bad idea. We wouldn’t do it. Why set someone up to struggle and run the risk of failure?

One day someone with a drinking problem may be able to sit in a bar and raise a glass of tonic water in a toast while surrounded by gin & tonics and whiskeys on the rocks, and feel no inner struggle. But until that day, we can be a good friend and not put them in situations which draw on the need for skills they do not yet possess.

The 10 mile dog

compassBefore there was the GPS unit there was the map and compass. It was imperative that anyone traveling into the backcountry, especially going off marked trails, understood how to use them. Despite common knowledge, compasses do not always point north, in fact they never do. They point to magnetic north which is different from ‘true north’. Maps indicate which way is ‘true north’. In order to use the compass you first have to adjust the declination, the difference between magnetic north and true north, something which is dependent on where you are at the moment on the planet.

If you are trying to get to a specific location you orient the map with the compass and come up with a bearing to follow. If you happen to be a degree off when you begin your journey it may not matter if you don’t have far to travel, but as that distance increases, that one degree will send you further and further away from your destination.

With many dogs it does not matter if the way you think about their behavior and respond to it is off slightly from true north. The route you follow may get you close enough to where you hope to be heading that it doesn’t matter all that much. But if you are working with a dog who requires a longer journey, that small inaccuracy grows the further along you travel until you are so far off track that you may never get to where you are trying to go. Indeed you may even lose sight of it. And in the worst cases, you may lose the dog to aggression.

Many of us are following a bearing with our dogs that is getting closer to our goal with them. But even still, we may be off just enough that it will impact the outcome. Hopefully we have adjusted for declination by knowing that it’s not enough to try to stop inappropriate behaviors and need to teach our dogs how we want them to behave. But I think we need to adjust our bearings even further, and it’s a very subtle shift. Instead of trying to get our dogs to perform the behavior we want, rather than another, we need to look at the actions that make up that behavior. The actual behavior of the behavior.

Moving toward people is often very challenging or impossible for a fearful dog. Yet we want them to come to us when called. We need them to come to us when called. So we work on recalls. We create situations in which the dog can practice coming to us and being rewarded for it. It’s not a bad idea, but there are many dogs out there who never had the chance to practice, and get good at, the ‘moving toward people’, behavior. We’ve gone from-

“How do I get my dog to stop running away from me?” to-

“How do I get my dog to come when I call him?” and now need to ask-

“How can I give my dog the opportunity to practice behaviors that make up the ultimate behavior I want?”

In my dog’s case I used targeting to help build a recall. I asked him to touch an object in my hand, which I would then toss for him to chase, to give him the chance to work on moving toward me. Before he could come to me on cue, he could come to me to target something. I could have used targeting as a recall cue, but I didn’t. I did not want to give him any reason to not want to continue practicing the ‘moving toward a person’ behavior. So targeting remains a game which rewards him with the chase. The treat/retreat protocol Suzanne Clothier teaches works on this principle as well. The tossing of treats gives a dog the opportunity to move toward and away from a person. The objective is not to lure the dog closer to a person, but rather to give the dog numerous opportunities to practice the ‘moving toward a person’ behavior.

We can think about any behavior we want our dogs to perform in this way. It may only be a one degree shift in thinking, but for the dog with miles to travel, it just might help us reach our destination without much backtracking.

It’s not just the walk

2 black & white dogs in a riverI don’t mean to downplay the importance of providing a dog with exercise, but the reason for getting dogs out for a good leg stretch goes beyond the attempt to tire them out. The frequently heard statement that a ‘tired dog is a good dog’, makes me cringe. A good dog is a good dog whether they are exhausted or not.

Anyone who has walked with an off leash dog has witnessed that although running and movement is a big part of the activity, there’s lots more going on. Walks for dogs are about exploring, tracking, hunting and playing. Exercising a dog on a treadmill or on leash with business-like efficiency, while they have their benefits, is like getting calories from fat by eating a chunk of lard rather than a bowl of ice cream slathered in hot fudge. The job gets done with the lard, but a lot is lacking from the experience.

I notice that during our woods walk that I spend as much or more time encouraging my dogs to move away from me, as I do requesting that they come to me. When I see my cocker put her head down and her little stump of a tail begin to wag furiously I cheer her on, ‘find it Annie!’ as she burrows into rotting tree stumps. When a squirrel chirps and the dogs freeze and look toward the sound I say, ‘go git it!’ because I love to watch them run through the woods and I know they stand little chance of catching anything and they appear so happy doing it. Because I frequently reward and always acknowledge my dogs anytime they look at me, wait for me or come to me, I get those behaviors a lot. Most recalls are followed with an upbeat release.

Dogs need exercise and when no other options are available I suppose any movement is better than no movement, but the idea that we exercise our dogs just so they are quiet and leave us alone the rest of the day, troubles me. I take my dogs out on walks because it’s what dogs like to do. It’s what I like to do with dogs. If after a long run in the woods my dogs settle down nicely and require little to no management from me, it’s a perk of, not the reason for the walk.

Critical incident stress information

This dog is suffering from his fears.

For over 25 years I worked setting up and leading outdoor and cultural adventures for students and women’s groups. Since I became obsessed with thinking about helping dogs with fear based behavior challenges, I’ve steadily begun to do less traveling. That and along with the fact that spring is in the air, I decided to empty out a filing cabinet of old paperwork. I managed to toss out two folders, one was already empty, but then opened a folder that had resources for training leaders to deal with ‘critical incidents’.

One of the first pieces of paper I looked at included information about ‘common signs of a stress reaction’. As I read the information, which was written about stress responses in people I of course began to think about how they related to similar responses in dogs. Since dogs and people have a mammalian brain structure in common, it is not unreasonable to extrapolate that some reactions to stress in people will be similar to some reactions to stress in dogs.

The responses were broken down into four categories: Physical, Cognitive, Emotional and Behavioral. Let me share a few with you. Under ‘Physical’ were; fatigue, nausea, muscle tremors, rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, visual difficulties, weakness, dizziness, profuse sweating, headaches, chills, symptoms of shock. We know that fearful dogs will exhibit signs of many of these responses. We can see them shake, notice sweaty paw prints, and if we are monitoring their heart rate find that it is elevated. What struck me most were the signs that were not easily noticed by us, or impossible for us to see.

Imagine a fearful dog suffering from nausea, weakness and a headache having a collar and leash around their neck and being dragged up a flight of stairs, or out a door, or into a room full of people. Imagine feeling that way yourself and being forced to do something. How well do you think you’ll be able to perform or comply? How helpful are threats, pain or intimidation likely to be to improve your performance?

In the ‘Cognitive’ category were; poor attention, poor decisions, poor concentration, hypervigilance, poor problem solving, heightened or lowered awareness, confusion. So there’s a dog, scared almost literally ‘out of their head’ and someone is expecting them to learn a new skill, perform a behavior or make a good choice. How realistic are our expectations that a dog will do well in any of those events given a level of stress which induces those responses?

The list of ‘Emotional’ responses to stress are; anxiety, severe panic, emotional shock, uncertainty, loss of emotional control, depression, inappropriate emotional responses, apprehension, feeling overwhelmed, intense anger, irritability, agitation. ‘Nuff said.

‘Behavioral’ responses include; change in activity, withdrawal, emotional outbursts, suspiciousness, loss or increase in appetite, anti-social acts, nonspecific bodily complaints, hyper-alert to environment, intensified startle reflex, pacing, erratic movement.

The paper went on to explain that, “Reactions to traumatic events might be immediate or delayed by months, while the signs and symptoms might last for hours, days, months or longer. With the understanding and support of loved ones stress reactions usually pass more quickly. Occasionally the traumatic event is so painful that professional assistance may be necessary.”

Never underestimate the impact stress, anxiety and dread have on a dog’s behavior and health.