Even if barking

Yesterday I attended a seminar with Suzanne Clothier to learn more about her Relationship Assessment Tool. It was, as expected, informative and thought provoking, but that’s not what I’m going to write about. I’ll save that for another post.

The seminar was held at the Monadnock Humane Society in Keene NH. It’s a pleasant facility with lots of outdoor space for dogs and an open, cheery entry way, which happened to also be full of cages of cats. Even for a ‘dog person’ it’s hard to see so many beautiful animals, some struggling to engage with visitors, stretching their paws out of cages, mewling and making what felt like pleading eye contact, others seemingly resigned to their lives in captivity. There were play rooms full of cats as well. Too many cats and kittens. I was told that many would be adopted but others might live there for years. But this is also not what I was planning to write about either.

Outside of the dog kennels were containers of treats (good treats in some cases, not just dry biscuits) and on the containers were the instructions- PLEASE FEED ME TREATS EVEN IF I AM BARKING. Huh? Feed them treats even if they’re barking? Won’t that just reinforce the barking behavior? I mean that’s the way it works right? Dogs repeat behaviors they get rewarded for, so giving them treats even if they’re barking means everyone who approached the cage would be teaching the dog to bark, right? Wrong!

What the good folks at the shelter understand is that dogs in shelters, and other stressful situations, are most likely behaving out of anxiety and stress. Some may be concerned about people approaching. The treats are not being used to address the behavior the dogs are displaying but rather the emotions the dogs are experiencing. Feeling a bit nervous about people? What better way for a dog to feel less concerned about people than to pair their approach with something the dog enjoys. Wanting out in a bad way and feeling frustrated and trapped? A treat may not be the perfect solution but it sure beats nothing. Some of the dogs were obviously fearful of having people approach their cages, but none so much that they couldn’t gobble up treats tossed to them. Many then sat and looked expectantly for more.

One of the big challenges fearful dogs face is their handler’s inability or unwillingness to acknowledge that every behavior has an emotion attached to it. We are always addressing the emotion when we handle or train dogs. Sometimes we use their enjoyment and excitement for a reward to get them to perform behaviors, withholding rewards until we get or improve behavior. Sometimes we see that the behavior is driven by fear and use rewards to change how the dog feels realizing that when the fear subsides the behavior attached to it is going to change as well. And importantly, for the handling and training of any dog, understanding we are also causing emotional responses to certain behaviors. How we behave with dogs, whether we shout, yank, hit, ignore, shock, praise or reward, affects how they feel about particular behaviors, not to mention how they feel about us.




19 comments so far

  1. Kathy (Your Holistic Dog) on

    It may sound counterintuitive to some people. But I totally understand this approach for anxious and frightened dogs in a shelter. Sometimes the use of treats can help you gain the trust of the animals.Thanks for sharing your observations. (I’m also curious what you have to say about Clothier’s seminar)

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for your comment Kathy. I enjoy and learn from Suzanne’s perspective and knowledge of dogs. I remember reading her book ‘Bones Would Rain’ and thinking, ‘hey! that’s how I feel too!’. She’s working on protocols which help trainers put what they ‘know’ when looking at a dog or dog/handler team (often on a gut level) into observations they can document and then apply approaches to come up solutions to problems they either are facing or might face in the future. I think her treat/retreat exercise is fantastic for fearful dogs and she will also tell you that some dogs are will never be like other dogs without phobias and anxieties. Trying to force them to be is unrealistic and mean (that’s what I think).

  2. Kristine on

    Sometimes you have to reward everything in order to gain a dog’s trust and create a relationship. For stressed and anxious dogs, it’s all about building confidence and making them feel more comfortable.

    I am very envious of you for getting to spend some time with Suzanne Clothier. It must have been so hard to soak it all in!

  3. Poochie Freak on

    Sounds like a great shelter, just so sad that so many animals all over the world, are waiting for a chance.

    ‘hey! that’s how I feel too!’ – that’s pretty much what I said when I read Bones Would Rain from the Sky too. LOVE that book. Have said before that I think every dog owner should read it – and burn some of the other books they may have in their collection 😉 I do feel it would be enlightening for some and help them to improve their relationship with their dog(s).

    Look forward to hearing about the seminar too. Was rather envious when I read about it on twitter 😉


    • fearfuldogs on

      I appreciate how Suzanne conveys the information that dogs are complex, intelligent and capable of so much more than we give them credit for, or respect them because of.

  4. Jen on

    Rewarding the experience, not the behavior. That’s a good strategy, especially when you read so much about the way dogs’ behavior can and will change when they’re in a shelter environment. I’m glad they have that “protocol” in place!

    • fearfuldogs on

      That’s a nice way to phrase it, reward the experience not the behavior. Thanks.

  5. Donna and the Dogs on

    What a great experience all around – Suzanne Clothier is one of my favorite trainers! Sounds like a progressive shelter, and while it is impossible NOT to feel bad for all of the cats and dogs waiting homes that may never happen, it sounds like these particular ones are in much better hands than many others around the country.

  6. Kirsten on

    Thank you for relating this incredible perspective! Warms my heart to hear about a shelter that operates this way.

    Let me see if I understand: If I have a dog who is reacting out of fear, and I offer her a treat, and she takes it, then she is not so afraid that she can’t begin to build different associations around her trigger?

    With a slightly different focus, but I think I can appreciate it too, is the advice I’m getting in the reactive dog class I’m taking now: when dog is starting to react to another dog, lure dog’s head away from the trigger before treating (avoid treating while dog is still staring). I can see that looking away, and then eating the treat which has been tossed on the floor, could be calming to both dogs.

    Or maybe the trainer advised this because the dog I have in that class is more aroused-reactive, than fear-reactive?

    I look forward to hearing more about the seminar! Thanks again–your blog is a huge help to those of us who have and worry about fearful dogs 🙂

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for commenting Kirsten. It is not necessarily the case that a dog who eats a treat is not so afraid that they can develop a different association with a trigger. Dogs are often willing to eat treats, food is a powerful motivator, but will remain afraid of the trigger. I think of it this way, I may be more than willing to accept a paycheck from a boss I can’t stand.

      There is no black & white in regard to dog behavior any more than there is in regard to human behavior. There are ranges, subtleties and nuances to everything they do. And in turn, how we respond. Having a ‘tool box’ of those responses is what trainers strive for. The point that I always harp on is that we often pay too much attention to the behavior at the expense of the emotion provoking it. How we manipulate that emotional response depends on our skill and the dog’s.

      Distracting a dog by tossing a treat away from the trigger is one way to approach the challenge. We can also use ‘luring’ like this to create a new behavioral response. That can be helpful too. A dog who is even willing to look away from a trigger is telling you something about how they feel about it. I probably wouldn’t take my attention off a train heading down the tracks toward me to pick up a $20 bill (or $100!).

      If something is working, really working, as opposed to merely suppressing an inappropriate behavioral response, go for it!

  7. Kirsten on

    Thank you for relating this incredible perspective! warms my heart to know that there’s a shelter operating this way.

    Let me see if I understand: If I have a dog who’s starting to react, and I offer her a treat, and she takes it, then she’s not so afraid that she can’t begin to make new associations with her triggers?

    With a slightly different emphasis, though I think I can still appreciate it, is the advice I’m getting in the Reactive dog class I’m taking now: when dog starts to react, lure head away and treat by tossing treat on floor behind head…avoid treating while dog is still staring at trigger. It would seem that having the reacting dog stick his nose on the floor could be calming to both dogs.

    Or was I told that because the dog I have in that class is more aroused-reactive, than fear-reactive?

    Thanks again for the great posts! I look forward to hearing more about the seminar!


  8. Amy@GoPetFriendly on

    Great advice, as always. We’re seeing a lot of progress with Buster since we’ve started rewarding him every time he sees another dog – regardless of whether his reaction is to bark, growl, or lunge. The proof is in the pudding!

    • Debbie Jacobs on

      Pudding is always nice!

  9. Bessie Mac on

    Great post. Makes sense to me!

  10. I’ve only seen signs at shelters that say, “Give me a treat when I’m quiet.” This is such a nice change to use classical (not operant) in these situations.

  11. Bridget CGC RN RA on

    Love this forward thinking shelter, thinking outside the box a bit, not worrying about what behavior is being reinforced but realizing that food paired with triggers makes dogs feel better. Food makes anxious dogs feel better. Amen.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Peppermint stick ice cream made me feel better today!

  12. Stefania, Lexi, and Sofi on

    Hi, i saw this post and wanted to know if there was any way i could help my little dog Lexi, Lexi is (we’re guessing) a chihuahua, phoraoh hound (did i spell that right?) mix, maybe with some terrier. She was adopted from somebodies home and heard she had been locked in a bathroom all day with her brothers and sisters, we knew we were taking a risk, knowing she might have anxiety, but we loves her and promised we would do everything to help her. when she got all her shots we started taking her on walks and to the dog park and to training classes, hoping she might see the world wasnt that scary.but then we realized she was scared of people, if somebody comes over she refuses to eat and she’ll hide under furniture and bark, at first we thought it was just one person who came over right after we were hit and run coming back from the pet store, but then more and more people came over and she got more scared everytime. we want to help Lexi, but we ont know how, we love her so much, and so does her little sister Sofi, and we all hate seeing her in distress, we have heard of medicine and “magic jackets” to help with stree and anxiety, bt wedont want to ave to give her pills or make her wear a ridiculous sweater all day. please help us to help Lexi.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If you have not yet done so, the fearfuldogs.com site has lots of information. Medications and a body wrap can be helpful. Neither will cure fearfulness but they can provide the dog with some relief. The site has lots of information.

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