Hanging on to a sinking ship

a ship sinking in the oceanLearning about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs has given me plenty of opportunities to ponder why people behave the way they do. I am not the first to wonder why it is so difficult for people to give up- or even less- question why they continue to believe the things they do when evidence mounts against them. I am also not the first dog trainer to be confronted with the death grip people have on using force or punishment-centric techniques to train dogs, when routinely new studies and research come out proving that it’s time to let go.

For the past several months I have had foster dogs. I have also been responsible for finding and choosing their new owners. This means I have to read and interpret answers to questions on an application form. I haven’t had a lot of them but I have been both surprised and disappointed to read the answers responding to how new owners would deal with challenging behaviors. Some people lack experience, they are not sure how to deal with some of the behaviors they are asked about. This is neither surprising nor disappointing, and is less of a concern than the others with lots of experience and describe the ‘old school’ methods of changing behavior; scold the dog for peeing in the house, yank on the dog for growling, to name a couple of the red flag responses.

People who are not sure how to respond, but are still interested in a dog who requires they know how to respond, are usually open to suggestions. The others folks often less so. I recently turned down an application for a dog in my care. Instead of beating around the bush and figuring out a way to let them down gently (and not in a completely forthright way) I decided to lay my cards on the table-I am not comfortable adopting a dog to anyone who chooses to use training techniques employed by Cesar Millan, as this person had mentioned they would do in their application. For force/coercion-free trainers this will seem like a no-brainer, but for others, the routine use of punishment to change behavior does not have the same implications. For me those implications include an underlying misunderstanding of dogs and why they behave the way they do. This lack of knowledge becomes more important the more challenging a dog’s behavior is likely to be, as is the case with fearful dogs.

But there are some things that no matter how nicely you try to say them, are going to be upsetting. “It’s me, not you, but I don’t love you anymore and I’m leaving,” is one example. “I’m sorry but I will not adopt a dog to anyone who uses CM training techniques,” is another. Nonetheless I do try to say things nicely. I learn as much by the response I get as I do from the original answers. It’s one thing to think that something is true and hang on to it so tenaciously that blood starts to ooze from your fingernails scraping the skin, and it’s another to be able to loosen your grip and reach out and consider something new and potentially exciting, eye opening and effective.

You can always go back to your sinking ship when it comes to training dogs, but be sure you have tested the waters of force-free training before you do.

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33 comments so far

  1. Jen on

    Good for you! I’m glad you turned down an adopter for that reason, and I’m glad you told them that reason.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks Jen. But as one might expect my message was not heard. Maybe someone else will share the same one again in the future and it will fall on a more open mind.

      • Jen on

        It’s very frustrating sometimes, when you’re trying to get the no-force point across. Especially because I wasn’t always in that boat, not because I thought it was necessary to push my dog around to be “dominate” (sic), but because I didn’t know there was another way.

        Keep trying, though, even when it feels like you might as well be talking to a hole in the ground. Because once it gets through to anybody, it’ll be worth it.

  2. meghan on

    I love how you “protect” your fosters from parents that might not be right for them, I have worked in shelters before and it was incredibly frustrating working with those dogs and seeing them every day and then having little to no say over who took them home (the shelter just needed to get them out of there, so there was little to no background done, etc).

    I read this blog and understand that you do not agree with CM’s training methods, do you have any articles specifically on here that you can point me to on training methods you DO recommend?

    My dog Moose is quite people shy, it has VASTLY improved over the 3 years I’ve had her, I’m not sure what I’ve done that’s been right, and what’s been “wrong” but that’s besides the point. Despite being people shy, she is an absolutely goofy sweetheart with me, and she can tend to take a more alpha position with other dogs when we go to the park or on walks. She also seems to be “racist”. She does NOT like huskies in any way shape or form, and German Shepherds also elicit a snippy “get away from me now!” response. The shepherd problem I attribute to her being attacked by a dog that was trained for “protection” who was very unstable and in heat, NO idea about the huskies though!

    I do encounter certain problems on walks, including pulling/lunging (only at certain dogs, and some of them look perfectly calm and balanced, minding their own business), so I started using a gentle leader with her. She HATES it, you can see her attitude visually decrease when it’s on, if we stop somewhere near grass, she’ll rub her face all in it. And I HATE that she’s so unhappy, I just am unsure of what to do! With a normal collar, if she lunges, she (is only about 55lbs) can easily make me fall because I have a balance disorder, but I don’t want to make her miserable either, it defeats the entire purpose of the walk. I want her to trust me, and to help me help her. I just don’t speak dog as well as I’d like to 😦

    Anyway, any help would be greatly appreciated, I’ve literally consulted 13 different trainers, most of whom have recommended making her “push through” her people fear by being inundated, using a prong collar and “correcting” her when she showed fear (that was one I NEVER did), and one even wanted me to make dog-gruffing noises at her when she misbehaved (which I am sure was highly entertaining for the people watering their lawns on our walking route).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for asking!
      fearfuldogs.com
      rewardingbehaviors.com
      dogstardaily.com
      abrionline.org
      ahimsadogtraining.com

      To give you just a few to start with!

    • KellyK on

      Can you try a back clip harness? It takes away some of the impetus to pull without messing with a dog’s head the way a halti or gentle leader does. Also, are there places you can take her where you won’t encounter any other dogs? Even if it’s just a wandering pee and sniff tour through your or a friend’s backyard, it might be good to get her used to not pulling before you ramp up the distractions. It might also be helpful, when you do add those distractions in, to have someone who she can’t physically pull off their feet walk her.

      The behaviorist who helped us with my dog’s fear of people recommended that we do things at her pace and accept what she gives us. If you’re introducing her to people, don’t let them corner her, don’t let them touch her in ways you know she finds threatening, and make sure she has an escape route, were the recommendations that seemed helpful to us. Also teaching her hand targeting and giving visitors the really good treats to give her.

      • Merciel on

        Did you mean a front clip harness (EasyWalk, Freedom Harness, etc.)? These prevent or reduce pulling by redirecting the dog sideways when he tries to lunge forward. I find them very helpful and use them with all my foster dogs (…especially after one of them managed to slip her collar and run down the street literally two minutes after I got her home, oi).

        Back clip harnesses actually allow the dog to pull harder because they can put their whole body into it. I would not recommend one for a puller.

      • KellyK on

        Yes, I meant front-clip, not back-clip. Sorry for the confusion!

  3. Sherron on

    Good for you!! I get a lot of pushback from Caesar lovers. I loaned the last one a Patricia McConnell booklet, but he didn’t like it.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am all for trying to educate people and share ideas but sometimes it can be simply maddening. Feeling that way about this experience.

      • KellyK on

        I forget which blogger I got this from, but someone talking about online arguments said to always ask yourself “Is this conversation productive?” and if it’s not, walk away.

        Hopefully you planted a seed that someone else can water later on.

  4. Merciel on

    I’m going to be trying to place my new foster dog in a couple of weeks too (once she has enough basic training/socialization for me to feel 100% confident about her chances for success) and am not looking forward to screening applications. Honestly, advertising for and screening adopters is by far my least favorite part of the whole thing. I just want to foster! Blah.

    Anyway, Pepper (current foster mutt) is SUPER soft. She collapses at a raised voice. But she’s a sweet, sweet dog — gentle, snuggly, eager to please — and the easiest-to-train foster I’ve ever had. She is an ideal family dog. For the right family. Which means someone calm and supportive, and NOT anyone who believes in force-based training.

    So yeah, this could mean some interesting conversations ahead. But, to be fair, I watched a lot of CM before I got my first dog. Just plain didn’t know any better, and didn’t know where else to start. So, having done that myself, I’m sympathetic to others who did the same… as long as they’re willing to listen to why that is not, in fact, such a great way of doing things in the real world.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If the potential adopter had asked me about the ‘other ways’ to train that I suggested as being more effective, I might have considered the placement, but the responses I got went from bad to worse. I am happy to assist cross over trainers start the journey, but in this case I was not asked for that help.

  5. Merciel on

    p.s. THANK YOU for writing about your use of Xanax with Sunny at obedience classes. I tried it with my own fearful resident mutt last week, and it was a great success for the anxiety. For the first time since we started going to classes, he actually relaxed and had fun. The instructor was amazed. I felt like cheering: “Yes! My dog actually knows these things! He just can’t do them when he’s shut down from terror!”

    Alas, the Xanax also played merry hell with Pongu’s coordination, so it is not going to work as a long-term solution for us. Hard to do canine freestyle when your back legs are too wobbly to function. But hopefully he’ll remember how much fun he had before, and relax a little more readily next time.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You might look at adjusting dose and/or the timing of it. Talk with your vet about it. You might also experiment with timing at home. See if he’s different 4 hours after dose compared to 1 hour. Glad it’s helping! FYI, I stopped needing it for Sunny when we’d attend classes in the same location after awhile.

  6. Kim on

    Thank you, Debbie. I too have turned down adopters because I see those “Red Flags” on the application. It is not easy, but my first and biggest responsibility is to the dog and I will do whatever I need to do to set that dog up to be successful in hi/her new home.

  7. megan on

    I routinely have to deal with this type of thing… I foster for a local rescue and they do not require the dogs be placed in force-free training homes. My fosters, however, will only go to homes like that, and more often than not, I have to discuss training with applicants once they are already approved for adoption. It is quite difficult to explain to them that sure, they are approved, but I’m not giving them MY foster dog. I do my best to speak with people about their training methods, and very often I try to show them how easy it is, and how much better it is for the dog and humans, but it doesn’t always hit home. Or, I get blind opposition.

    And, I thought going through this process and telling people “No” or attempting to show them something different would get easier, but it doesn’t, no matter how many times I do it. Worse yet, it’s troublesome to explain to the rescue that the “perfect approved applicant” for my foster dog wasn’t perfect because I have higher standards than they do. I just keep hoping that the more I talk about it, and the more I talk about it to more people, the more likely the message will eventually trickle down.

  8. fearfuldogs on

    I knew I wasn’t alone on this one! Each email message that I received from the person only further confirmed that I had made the right decision.

  9. Clementine on

    While we are on the subject of Xanax…. I used to use chlomicalm for a dog that had separation anxiety, but gave up. It didn’t do the trick for her. Does anyone think it might help my fearful Boo? (Who has, incidently been given an adjustment to his name: Bushi, which in Japanese means Samurai warrior… we are hopeful!)

    • fearfuldogs on

      You should find a vet or vet behaviorist to help you figure out which med is likely to give you the best results for the issues you are dealing with in regard to your dog. If you want to try it for your dog, talk to your vet about it and get Boo started on a protocol, see what you get. Keep in mind that behavioral meds rarely ‘cure’ fearfulness, they need to be used in conjunction with a behavior modification protocol. Every dog is different and it can take changing meds and dosages to find the one that helps a dog make more significant progress. The anti-depressants need to be used for several weeks before their impact can start to be determined.

    • Merciel on

      It might help but yeah, you should talk to a vet who can actually evaluate your dog in person and get a more detailed case history.

      Pongu is on Prozac (fluoxetine) because that’s my vet’s first line of treatment for general anxiety. If it doesn’t work then we might try Clomicalm next. He’s only been on it for 2 weeks, though, so as yet I have noticed no change at all (good or bad) in his anxiety level.

  10. Kerry M. on

    Just to throw a different opinion in the mix, I think that while it sounds like this Cesar Milan fan might not have been a good home for your dog, that doesn’t mean that all won’t be.

    While I’m not a Cesar fan, my best friend is and I know he has a great relationship with his dogs and I wouldn’t hesitate to place any dog with him. While I don’t foster, he is my choice of in-case-of-emergency for my own dogs. Because he loves Cesar and loves to debate, I can tell you that he is frequently pointing out when I use Cesar methods. Turns out I love body blocking and so does Cesar. Also, Cesar and I both believe in exercise for our dogs. There’s more, but I do tend to tune him out when he is raving about Cesar so forgive me if I don’t remember them.

    My point is that it’s good to be selective and find the right home especially so for fearful dogs you’ve been working with, but liking Cesar can be a sign that you have an interested and motivated dog owner. I don’t know if you saw this article on DogStarDaily -> http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/why-i-love-cesar-milan-fans I thought it was a great way to start a conversation about training that doesn’t put the fan on defense.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing Kerry. The issue I have with people who hang on to CM as a guru of dog training is that it is an indication to me that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of dog behavior and training. Even a stopped clock is right twice a day as they say-sure I distract my dogs to interrupt inappropriate behavior & they get lots of exercise, but neither of these is unique to CM, nor I would suspect are the techniques which you find you have in common with him. The person involved in my situation showed no interest, whatsoever, in questioning or hearing what these ‘other’ more effective techniques I mentioned might be. So that pretty much clinched the deal for me. Had I been asked I might have cracked the window of possibility in regard to the adoption, but it didn’t happen. It was in fact what I had hoped for when I used it as a reason for not being accepted as an adopter for him. I still have hope that down the line someone else will bring this up again with them and they might at that point, be curious and open-minded enough to ponder the subject or modern dog training.

      Nibbles is a special needs dog. He requires someone with more in their tool bag than just verbal and physical corrections. I do not doubt that many who use CM techniques love dogs (or claim to), but the bottom line is that a fearful dog needs more than that. I am not just speaking about tossing a dog a treat, but a fundamental paradigm shift which will in turn create different emotional responses on the part of the human. I have read the post on DogStarDaily, but sometimes feel like Jack Nicholson in a ‘Few Good Men’,

      “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it! I’d rather you just said thank you and went on your way.”

      I really just wanted them on their way.

  11. nobuko on

    Our dog is a special needs dog, too. And I am afraid to even board him at any of those seemingly nice boarding places, let alone training. Even with just one case of mishandling, he’d be traumatized for a long time. And all the tiny little progresses we have made with him so far could be reverted. At least that’s what I fear.

    I’m wondering how you discovered that those people believed in the training methods with which you don’t agree. Are there good questions (even trick questions) we could ask that may reveal red flags when looking for a service for our fearful pup?

    Even with the trainers who advertise that they use reward-based training methods, when they come over to meet my pup who sits and refuses to walk because he’s frightened, they end up telling us stuff like “Just take 3 steps forward. Dragging him a bit would be okay”. It wasn’t okay. He ended up being even more scared of that particular street for months and months. It’s so hard to tell whom we can trust, sometimes.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I ask people who their favorite dog trainer is and then look them up if I need to. Or I ask them what was the last training book they read. Or book they read which related to their training. I ask ‘how would you handle…such and such a situation. All let me know where they are coming from. If they do not use food rewards, this tells me a lot as well.

  12. meghan on

    Thank you guys! I will definitely check out these links. And the harness I just went out and got. Is it sad when you have more fun shopping at the local petshop than at the mall?

  13. Rachel on

    My experience with dog training before I adopted my dog was essentially watching Cesar and Victoria on TV.

    Overall, I think that I took what I found to be useful from CM and left the rest. It was actually watching CM that made me understand the importance of dog body language and how to watch dog-dog interactions.

    What I took from CM is that faking confidence can make the dog feel a little better if he’s nervous (if the trigger is far below threshold and I’ve forgotten to bring cookies for counterconditioning), that I should keep on eye on dog-dog interactions at the park as not all dogs are necessarily friendly (and you can often tell if something is growing out of control before it hits fever-pitch), and that dogs feel more comfortable when you ignore them. All the intimidation, leash pops, e-collars, and flooding, I left.

    Granted, I understand these things in a different context now (for instance, I don’t tell people to ignore my dog because we’re dominant, but to reduce social pressure). I’m very committed to the DS/CC positive reinforcment methods.

    I think I was lucky to adopt a fearful dog that LOOKS fearful, even to the untrained eye. And by that I mean that he cowers and runs away rather than growls or lunges. It was impossible, even in the beginning when I didn’t know any better, to employ any force-based methods on my cute boy. It would have been like kicking him while he was down. I did try a bit of flooding, but I found it frusterating and counterproductive, so I stopped and found a different method.

    In my mind, the real problem with training methods like CM is that when people insist that these are the “correct” and “natural” ways to change a dog’s behavior and that if it isn’t working, it’s the person misapplying the method. If the only tool in your dog-training toolbox is CM, then every dog behavior problem looks like dominance (and the cure for every behavior problem is an exhausively long walk on a short leash).

    • fearfuldogs on

      Thanks for sharing that Rachel. You make some great points about how we think about dog behavior.

  14. Lizzie on

    In response to nobuko; I too felt that I couldn’t leave my fearful Lab, Gracie with anyone as I wouldn’t be able to trust them to understand that she has special needs. I worried that any trauma might set her back and undo all the work that I have done with her over the past three years.

    I had been recommended to a woman who home boarded and when I spoke to her on the phone she gave me the impression that she understood Gracie’s needs and was willing to look after her. Different story when I actually met her and she saw Gracie.
    Long story short, I wanted to see for myself how Gracie would cope being around a stranger in a different environment, but had no real intention of leaving her with this woman for any length of time as she was a fan of CM. So after a few initial visits I agreed to leave her overnight. The next morning I went to pick her up. She was not ‘shut down’ as I had feared but came out of the woman’s house on her own, (no lead) couldn’t wait to jump into the car, and as soon as she knew the car was in our garage she was back to her usual Lab self, excited and bouncy like nothing had happened.

    My point is that I feel that she has learned to cope better with the world and people, (who scare her the most), so I don’t worry quite so much now.
    Someone said something to me the other day that made me think: ‘you’ve had Gracie for three years now haven’t you, that’s about twenty in dog years isn’t it?’

    Yes it is a long time, but Gracie has come a long way, and is still learning, I hope!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Fortunately for us, the good work and progress we make with our dogs is not as easy to get rid of either!

  15. Kate on

    I’m reading through your older blog entries; hope you don’t mind me commenting on old ones if you still get notifications about them! I’ll try not to leave too many “oh how wonderful blah blah this relates to horses in some way!” comments. (This post does as well, but I’ll talk about dogs instead ;P) Loved this one. It’s a topic I’ve thought about a lot. I’m not actually in a position to rescue or foster dogs (I’ve reached my limit with a number of special needs – fearful, aggressive and so on – animals who have found their forever home here), but I’ve thought a lot about “what if” and I’m not sure I could do it, just because I would be SO picky about the new home. Would the home have to be 100% “perfect”? No. But it would have to meet certain minimum standards, and that absolutely includes the type of training. Glad to know I’m not alone in that!

    I’ve often wondered about what others would think of this – I suspect I would be judged pretty harshly for not just getting a dog into ANY home that would provide adequate food/water/vet-care/exercise and maybe not regularly bash the %$&# out of him or her – but that wouldn’t be good enough for me.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I am thrilled that you are reading, and finding thought provoking information on older posts Kate! Comment away!


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