Fast food thinking about dogs

Tis the season for bad advice. It seems no matter where I turn-blog posts, website, forums, chats- someone is putting ‘don’t comfort your dog when they are scared’ messages out. The last I read, provided by someone who by choice or certification, is identified as a ‘behaviorist’, was a list of tips for dealing with fireworks and storm phobias included; no cooing or baby talk because it will only be telling the dog that they are right to be afraid. Really? Where I come from the way we let someone know that they are right to be afraid is to shriek, “LOOK OUT IT’S GOING TO KILL YOU!”

I suppose if we’ve paired cooing and baby talk with enough negative experiences then it might reaffirm a dog’s concern. I imagine the scene from a bad crime drama in which the killer calmly looks at his victim, knife glinting in his hands and says, “Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt…..for long.” Hopefully we have not done this, and instead our cooing and baby talk has been used to get a tail wag and to let our dogs know who is “the cutest, fluffiest, most handsomest, doggie on the planet.”

And let’s face it, if you’re really terrified no amount of, ‘don’t worry darling it’s going to be alright’, is likely to help. Often we seem to be either unaware, or unwilling to acknowledge how scared our dogs are. So why, if comforting a dog may not help do I get my knickers in twist when someone advises against it? Because sometimes comforting helps, because if you believe that being kind and gentle with a scared dog is going to reinforce their fear you might take that line of thought, as many do, and assume that making a dog deal, on their own, with what scares them, is the thing to do. And it is not. But more importantly it’s because it’s wrong. And it doesn’t take much deep thinking to see why that is.

It would appear that when it comes to dogs we have adopted a ‘fast food’ way of thinking. All it takes is for someone to assert that; dogs need leaders, that they live in the moment (This one tickles me particularly because it implies that every moment in a dog’s life their brain is a clean slate, that what they experienced yesterday had no effect on them in which case I wonder-how do they remember their name?), that they will try to dominate their owners if given the chance, that their noses should be rubbed in their poop, that a smack with a rolled-up newspaper is an appropriate thing to do-for whatever reason, that every single dog on the planet must be spayed or neutered, that breed is destiny, and you shouldn’t comfort scared creatures.

The next time you read something about dogs and how to handle or train them, after you’ve bitten through the crunchy sugar coating, take some time to mull the information over. You may find that that first bite leaves you with a toothache.

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15 comments so far

  1. sagechronicles on

    I never found comforting my fireworks-terrified dog helped. She still shivered and hid someplace in the house where she felt comfortable. We made sure she had that comfy place; left her alone (knowing she was safe) and checked on her periodically. You have to know your dog and what makes him/her comfortable in scary situations, then act on it.

  2. oreoowner on

    I agree with the fact that we know our dogs best, and too many people are turned in the wrong direction from the bad advice of some people who call themselves trainers. Most people do believe they have to dominate dogs, and that dogs will try to dominate us, which is sad. Our culture has forgotten how to get along and live peacefully with all animals. We have lost the real connection with animals our ancestors may have had. Too many people are looking for fast fixes and too self-absorbed or there are too many things going on to really connect to your dog, realize warning signs, read your dog, and so on. Our culture needs an overhaul and to go back to the basics.

  3. monica on

    Great post as usual. I love your blog & it has helped me many times understand what my fearful dog is going through. During fireworks I give him Bio-Calm which helps to take the edge off a bit. Previously he would shake, pant, & pace – now he is still wary but seems a bit more comfortable. I still reassure him when he comes to me – whether it helps or not I don’t know but I won’t ignore him. I have mild anxiety myself & belive me when I am having an attack being told everthing is going to be ok does make a big difference.

  4. Beckmann on

    I believe the point is how to make the terrified dog comfortable enough to think thunder, firework, storm etc are not scary things at all and how to communicate to the dog that ‘nothing bad will happen’.
    When there are some scary noises, my dog’s comfort place is sit right next to me put his hip and back against my body so whenever there are scary noises, he takes this position. What/how I have been doing is, let him lie down and give him a very slow massage and after 3 min massage, he usually fall asleep. Now he can sleep by himself during a thunder storm, it took over one year but I am very pleased with the results. Still from time to time sound of strong wind etc make him scared or uncomfortable then it’s a massage time:-)
    Sure each dog is different and need to find out what really works, but I believe ‘a little help’ is always a good thing:-)

  5. Critterspal on

    Every person is an individual and we accept that. Why is it so hard for some to understand that each animal is an individual: that they have had their own unique life and experiences which have shaped who they are? One of my dogs would hide under the coffee table and not come out until a thunderstorm was over. Another had to be in my lap – well, half in my lap and half on the sofa beside me – still another laid at my feet – unconcerned, as long as I held a paw which she would stick up in the air. The dog I have now doesn’t care about thunder but fireworks scare her into my arms. As long as I hold her or keep one arm around her, she’s fine. I bought her a Thundershirt on recommendation of a friend but have yet to test it out since there’s been no fireworks in our hood since Halloween. The important thing is to know your dog. If your dog needs hands on reassurance – give it! If your dog is happier under the bed, sofa or your desk – let them be there. Know your pet and give them what they need to be healthy and happy and feel safe.

  6. kenzohw on

    When we were on nosework camp last week, Kenzo run into an electrical fence at the start of day 2. He squeeled and jumped up, came running towards me and cowered behind me, so I was in between him and the scary fence. I comforted him first and after that took him back along a different road. He seemed not affected the rest of the day and happily joined in the activities.

    Some smart-a**es commented by saying “so he can learn it…” That attitude always boils my blood. Thankfully the trainer jumped in and said determined “we like them to have a good experience on camp, don’t we” thereby closing the discussion before it started.

    • KellyK on

      Poor dog! I’m sorry people were jerks about it, and it’s good that the trainer stepped in.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You’re lucky! My dog ran into an electric fence 1/2 mile down the road and wouldn’t turn right out of our driveway (in the direction of the fence) for weeks!

  7. KellyK on

    I did have one animal behavior therapist suggest against baby talk for a reason that made sense–the idea that if your voice gets really high, it can sound like a dog whimpering and make the dog more scared because they think you’re scared too.

    But that wasn’t a recommendation against comforting a scared dog—just a recommendation to try not to send mixed signals.

  8. Donna and the Dogs on

    “This one tickles me particularly because it implies that every moment in a dog’s life their brain is a clean slate, that what they experienced yesterday had no effect on them in which case I wonder-how do they remember their name?”

    Another great comeback. 🙂

  9. Jodi on

    Oh so true! I just spoke with a woman whose dog woke her up one night and it was thundering. The woman normally doesn’t let the dog on the bed, but because the dog was frightened she patted the bed. The dog jumped up and calmed down. When the storm was over, the dog got down. Problem solved.

    I wish people had to pass a test to get a dog.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Sometimes our guts are right when it comes to how we should respond. It’s difficult to watch anyone, human or animal suffer and not want to do something to provide relief.

  10. Alan on

    It’s my position that I want my dog to look to me whenever she is hurt or scared…the alternative is that she would have to find a way to “get away” on her own and that could be a disaster!

    Dany is still a fairly fearful dog. She shows an eagerness to go for walks but then is cautious when going out the door…she does a slow, careful recon before taking a step outside. While on walks, anything MIGHT startle or scare her and I always try to be comforting and clam each time…she is improving a bit at a time.

    This blog, I have read all the entries up to this one, has been an huge help…

  11. Gunnar on

    It is always good to see a fresh perspective on training or comforting. There are many different methods. I believe it is more confidence building from the start than you can choose the right technique for you. You definately have a great point as to how they remember anything then. Some trainers need to give the dog more credit when it comes to their intelligence. good post. Thanks

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment. I wish I could claim to be presenting a ‘fresh’ perspective on the topic. Animal behaviorists and top trainers have been promoting reward based training for decades. You are also so right that dogs need to be given more credit as far as intelligence goes. At a recent seminar Suzanne Clothier quipped, “They are capable of holding more than one thought in their head at a time,” and of course they can! I am more apt to say that one should choose the right technique for ‘the dog’, as opposed to themselves. We know from research that animals learn skills faster when they are rewarded for doing something right, as opposed to being punished for doing something wrong. Punishment certainly can stop behaviors we don’t like, but a dog who has experienced the type of punishment necessary to immediately and permanently extinguish a behavior can also suffer the fallout of being concerned about being wrong in the future. It’s harder to get unique behaviors from dogs who are afraid to offer them.


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