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?


26 comments so far

  1. Rosemary on

    Absolutely. Apart from any other considerations, if the importance of developmental sensitive periods is ignored it makes it easier for “puppy farm” dog breeders to argue that it doesn’t matter if puppies are kept in horrible conditions that are virtually sensory deprivation.

    • fearfuldogs on

      So right Rosemary. I have often thought that if people understood this they would not even consider buying a pup from a mill (except for the heartstring tugging effect of puppies wherever they come from).

  2. Crystal on

    I think your message that not all fearful dogs will recover fully is sensible, realistic, and encouraging. I say encouraging because I, personally, find nothing more frustrating than being told that something is possible yet being unable to do it. If I am a good trainer, why can’t I properly desensitize and counter-condition this dog? Why isn’t anything working… or at least, not working enough?? What am I doing wrong? What’s wrong with me?

    It is better, I think, to know that improvement is possible, even if full recovery is not. Do your best, help your dog become comfortable, but there is no need to pursue foolish goals. It’s frustrating for the human and stressful for the dog. Accept “good enough.”

    • fearfuldogs on

      I try to keep my expectations realistic but never let go of my dreams for my dog. I have never given up on his potential for improvement. Or mine 😉

      • Crystal on

        I do the same. I expect that Maisy can and will get better, but I don’t expect that she’ll ever be “normal”- whatever that is.

  3. Sue on

    Why don’t these ‘know it alls’ remember that not every dog is the same. I’m sure that trainer could train a lot of dogs to do what he/she wanted. However, they could also make a fearful dog a lot worse and could possibly undo all the progress you have made with your dog.
    It makes me cross when people say ‘give me your dog and in 6 weeks i will make them do this, this and this.’
    I often read about how some ex breeding puppy farm dogs are transformed in a few weeks.
    1 year on and although my little girl is a different dog now, she is nowhere near ‘normal’. With her past i don’t expect her to be. I prefer the gentle ‘tiny baby steps’ approach, rather than the ‘i will force you do it in 6 weeks no matter what’ approach!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I call it ‘scared dog time’. It takes how long it takes.

    • Mel on

      Hear! Hear! Sue!

  4. Mel on

    Well, this certainly is a “hot button” issue for me. I would love to know what “cure” means to these people or person. And, by what means will they be able to “cure” my dog, or yours?
    I am realistic about Daisy’s abilities and fears. Counter-conditioning and desensitization helps, but it will not completely “cure” her of all that she has experienced in a puppy mill, nor will it completely erase all of her fears. That she has come as far as she has is amazing to me. She cuddles, loves belly rubs and is now confident enough to greet new people – on her own terms. I suppose I could teach her to rollover if I wanted to, but I prefer to give her a quality life that SHE enjoys and that I can enjoy with her.

    If these miracle workers are so good perhaps they should start “curing” children who have come from abusive situations. I am sure they would appreciate such miracle working.

    • fearfuldogs on

      The other think I have a hard time with Mel is people talking about doing things that ‘work’. The lack of specificity bugs me. ‘Works’ for who? the owner, the trainer, the neighbors, the breeder, the dog? Never mind that once something is labeled as ‘working’ it no longer seems to matter ‘how’.

  5. Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

    Unrealistic expectations do no one any good, and just set people up for a life of disappointment with their dogs. It also sets the dogs up for a life of never being accepted for who they really are. Sad situation for both. Accepting who you are does not mean you don’t keep changing, accepting who your dog is doesn’t mean you won’t keep helping them live a more confident life, but it does go a long way to reducing human anxiety along the journey.

    This week Maizey has been very stressed, very close to threshold all week. If I was hung up on how she was not how I wish and know she can be, if I was holding on to false hope from some supposed trainer, I would have wasted a lot of the energy I was able to put into helping her. How sad that would have been for both of us. I appreciate a good dose of reality, so thanks for giving it to me!:)

    One question:
    About a dog rolling over you said, “It’s a way of asking to be left alone.”

    I have been wondering about this with Magnus. He LOVES other dogs, but lots of times he greets other dogs by rolling over. I know what you say is true, but I don’t know how that piece fits in with this happy puppy who after a greeting, even one where he rolled over, even with more rambunctious dogs than he is, always goes back for more play time. Any ideas for me? I know it’s a bit of a random question and not much to go on, but if you have some idea of what I’m missing I would love to know.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Dogs can control situations by offering behaviors and I didn’t mean to say, and probably should correct, that rolling over is necessarily a bad thing, even when done to get other dogs to give space. It’s a way dogs communicate and a dog can still enjoy the company of other dogs. Watch her. See how her behavior affects the dog she’s rolling over for. Notice when she does it. See what/if any behaviors the other dog is performing (or preparing to perform) are interrupted or avoided by her roll over.

      I was thinking about fearful dogs faced with a trigger.

      • Katie, Maizey and Magnus on

        Thanks Debbie, my thoughts were similar. Since Magnus is not my fearful pup, it doesn’t really worry me. He has so much dog language I am not as familiar with since Maizey is really limited in that area. He has sent me to studying hours of calming signals and other dog language. It’s so fascinating.

        Your specific suggestions are interesting and I will watch for those situations, esp what behaviors the roll over interrupts, that is very interesting. Thanks for the thoughts!

  6. kenzohw on

    You are a great source of inspiration for us to help Viva with her fears. It is up to Viva how far she wants to take this, and what works for her and what doesn’t. What is really discouraging is there are “still” people around that claim everything is fixable in 6 weeks.

  7. hipparchia on

    “… not all dogs can completely become desensitized and counter conditioned to the things that scare them.”

    truth! keep on reminding dog owners of this, whatever your detractors do or say.

    it’s true that this can be incredibly disheartening to hear or read, especially if you’re a newbie dog owner and possibly feeling overwhelmed by the non-dog aspects of your life as well, but ultimately it’s a disservice to the dogs [and their people too] to NOT acknowledge this.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Hope spring eternal. Which is a good thing most of the time 😉

  8. Cade'sOwner on

    I like my duck! 🙂

  9. KellyK on

    I would think the idea that “not all dogs can become completely desensitized to things that scare them” would be common sense. After all, not all *people* can be completely desensitized to things that scare them, and it’s way easier to communicate with people to help them past their phobias. For example, you can explain to someone who’s terrified of flying that air travel is, statistically, safer than driving. But because fear isn’t fully rational, there’s always going to be a limit, and things that scare people will probably continue to scare them, to some degree.

    I don’t think that realistic expectations are disheartening at all. Like Crystal said, it’s much more frustrating to try to meet the unrealistic expectation and fail, thinking you must be doing it wrong.

    I may have said this here before, but one of the most helpful things our trainer (CPDT and a CGC trainer) has said is to work with the dog you have. I have a shy, nervous shar-pei mix who most likely dealt with a lot of chaos as a puppy and is easily overwhelmed. I now have a much less shy and nervous dog than I did when we first got her, and with more work, we’ll see more improvement. But there is no amount of training that will turn her into an outgoing, uber-confident dog. She’s not a golden retriever or a lab; nor is she a dog who was socialized perfectly. That’s okay. She’s an awesome duck, and I wouldn’t trade her for a flock of swans.

  10. Lizzie on

    It matters not what the breed, what matters is the personality inside the dog.

    I have a big Lab girl who, according to her breed type, should be out going, loving people esp children, eager to please/work and confident. My girl is non of those things, well she does please me, but she is still a Lab and in my eyes no ugly duckling.

    All dogs are unique, and I feel that you must accept them for who they are and try your best to help them to become the best and happiest that they can be, no matter what.

    • KellyK on

      Good point. Personality is shaped by a lot more than just breed.

  11. Donna and the Dogs on

    Another great post, and this can hold true for non-fearful dogs too. Take my Lab. He is a very willing worker in the Rally ring, always tail wagging and happy, so much so that people often comment they wish their dogs had so much enthusiasm in the ring. I must mention here that he has never been collar corrected while learning any Rally skills.

    However, we have a hard time with the food bowls (I did say his is a Lab right?) and some ring running issues, that I have been trying hard to solve using positive means.

    Many people have remarked that he could be so much better if I would just use corrections, and that I could solve his leave it and recall issues, and make him a better competitor.

    But I say, to what cost? Maybe, it might solve his issues – but will he be as happy of a worker as he is now. And would I, knowing I had to bully my dog into behaving? I think not.

    The bottom line is, some people will always think they can do it better, but they do know our dogs as much as we do.

  12. Karleen and AnxietyFreeZoey on

    I love reading your posts, Debbie. I do agree with everyone here that a dog who is truly fearful, who might have experienced something terribly traumatic in puppyhood or whenever, may never totally overcome that fear.

    My mom is 85 and has been deathly afraid of flying in an airplane her entire life, even though she managed it once in order to get to Hawaii! She can understand that it is a phobia and that it is unfounded. She could have sought out self-help to get over her fear, but she chose not to. No one could force her to overcome her fear.

    It is totally unrealistic to assume we can somehow force (coax, coerce) a fearful dog to overcome deep-seated fears completely when we can’t even explain to them what it is we are trying to help them with. There are many ways to help fearful dogs find some peace and make progress up the right path, but I believe patience and acceptance are the most important tools for us to use.

    Zoey made a lot of progress in the first 6 weeks I had her, but I cringe to think of what could have happened if I had tried to “fix” her fear problems completely during that time. She will never completely overcome her fears because they are too deep-seated, but she has come so much further than I ever expected and she is the most beautiful “duck” in our household.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Most of us do not go into pet ownership (or whatever you want to call it) with the idea of revamping our lives to accommodate a dog, or ‘their’ preferences. Dogs are so incredibly adaptable and resilient, for the most part, that it’s hard to acknowledge that there are dogs who are not. But for many of us, having a fearful dog, and accommodating them has added to our lives more than detracted. I know that the years I have left with my duck of a dog, will not be enough for me. Zoey is a lucky girl.

    • fearfuldogs on

      And thank you BTW.

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