Archive for October, 2011|Monthly archive page


I’ve come to the conclusion that I have very similar feelings about competitive obedience as I do about beauty pageants. It’s not that the women in the competition are not beautiful or clever or don’t look stunning in a bathing suit wearing heels. That they can walk so elegantly in those heels has always been a source of envy to me. That they have the nerve to parade in front of cameras and crowds in a bathing suit is another. But who decided that the beauty exemplified by these women was the standard I should be striving for?

I am not finding fault with people who choose to do competitive obedience with their dogs, so don’t get your knickers in a twist. It’s fantastic to set your sights on training your dog with specific criteria in mind, and then taking it on the road and see how you’ve done. However it often seems that this is the only meaningful standard that some will acknowledge as proof positive of a trainer’s and dog’s skill. When I watch competitions I see joyous dogs, their tails wagging, big smiles, waiting for the next cue, and I see dogs that I want to snatch and trade their stilettos for sneakers and the ball gown for jeans.

Here’s my fearful dog Sunny. He’ll never have any titles but he’s got the crown bestowed by the judges of my heart.


Poco a poco

scared dog lying down under a desk

In Costa Rica there is a saying; ‘Poco a poco la hormiga se come el coco’- bit by bit the ant eats the coconut. I use it often in relation to my fearful dog Sunny.

In November Sunny will have been with us for 6 years. He’s not the same dog he was when he first arrived but no one would have any trouble identifying him as fearful of people, unless they only watched him interact with me or someone tossing a frisbee. Sunny is also easily startled; a book sitting outdoors on a table its pages flipping in the wind, a drawer opening or closing, plates settling in a dish rack, the sudden movement of a rocking chair, all cause him to duck his head, pull his ears back and RUN AWAY! But, bit by bit, I have noticed changes in his behavior. Used to be Sunny could not stay in the same room with me while I folded laundry (fortunately for him I’m not big on folding laundry so its not a daily occurrence), each article of clothing pulled from the basket was a source of concern and early on- horror (not a statement on my fashion sense!).

Lately I’ve noticed he’s less worried. The past few weeks he’s been spending more time in the kitchen/living room area with me and other dogs as I prepare their meals. Sudden changes in his environment will still cause him to startle, but often he doesn’t run away. He’s routinely coming inside the house through a door that he avoided, instead of heading to his usual entrance around the house via the deck. That he came in through that door when my husband was in the house was worth noting. After 6 years Sunny remains afraid of him.

Over the years I’ve had people, some well-intentioned, others not so much, offer me advice or criticism, inferring or outright blaming me for Sunny’s behavior. Early on I had my doubts; was I doing the right thing by Sunny? But years of living with him, studying behavior, brains and most specifically, fear, I harbor fewer doubts that the recommendations I had been given were wrong. Most included some form of ‘make him’. Make him walk with you, make him follow you around the house, make him be near your husband. I assume that this technique worked for the suppliers of the advice, but whether they are unable to accurately read their dogs and so are misinterpreting the results, or were handling a dog without the same depth of a problem as my dog, I won’t know. What I do know is that my dog did not have the skills or ability to deal with the things that scared him and come out better for it. For six years I have worked on giving him those skills and as his trust in me has increased (I’ve become predictable to him) I’ve been able to ‘ask’ him to do things that he might not have chosen to do on his own, but together he’s successful.

Dogs do not ever ‘forget’ that something scared them. It doesn’t make any sense to forget that something was once perceived as dangerous. That rustling in the grass may not have been a lion this time, but the animal that gets to breed probably doesn’t ever become laissez faire about it. Even if no physical harm ever comes to a dog the emotional response of fear to a trigger is ‘real’ enough evidence that something is dangerous. We often talk about ‘trusting our gut’ when we’re not sure about how to respond to something. Dogs trust their guts.

This doesn’t mean we can’t change a dog’s behavior, we can, but it takes time and patience. The rate at which a dog is able to change will be unique to them and their particular blend of biology and experience. As our dogs learn new skills and behaviors, so do we. We are also nibbling away at that coconut as we learn about being better trainers and bite off another chunk that teaches us something about compassion. handsome black and white dog smiling at the camera

OCD behavior in dogs

Obsessive compulsive disorder is considered an anxiety disorder in people which can be triggered by traumatic events. There can be a genetic component to OCD. This video was taken while I was volunteering at Camp Katrina in 2005 after the hurricanes. This dog had been rescued from the New Orleans area and sent to the Every Dog Needs A Home Sanctuary in Gamaliel AR, via Camp K. At the time it was believed that Tammy and William Hanson, operators of the Gamaliel property, were running a legit sheltering operation. When HSUS was finally allowed onto the property they found 477 dogs, my fearful dog Sunny was among them. Approximately 200 of the dogs on the site arrived at EDNAH after the storms.

When ‘real’ rescue groups, including Camp Katrina, realized that the Hansons were hoarders they took their dogs back. Sunny was likely born at the site but a volunteer managed to get Tammy Hanson to agree to relinquish him along with the hurricane rescues that had been transported to her property. The dog in this video spent 5 weeks confined outdoors in a travel crate or cage. He had not displayed any compulsive behaviors prior to being transported to EDNAH. The behavior he is displaying in this video went on all day, the dog only stopping when exhausted. Months later when I asked about this dog I was told that he was put on medications to help stop the OCD. I don’t know where he is today.

Stress, anxiety and fear affect dogs. It should be our goal as caretakers of these compromised dogs to provide them with an environment in which they feel safe and physically comfortable. We should do what we can to lower their stress and anxiety levels. The use of behavioral medications to achieve this goal should be among the first, not the last, options we consider. Many of the dogs coming out of puppy mills and hoarding situations are experiencing levels of fear we have never experienced ourselves, luckily for us. Don’t wait until a dog scares someone, bites them, or develops damaging and difficult to change inappropriate behaviors. Help them. Now.

How enriching

cartoon dog wearing clothes juggling balls while riding a unicycleScientists working with lab rats discovered that by providing rats with an enriched environment there was a thickening of their cortices. This is a good thing. An enriched environment for a rat might consist of mazes, toys, and novel objects. Things and activities that provided the rats with the opportunity to ‘think’. But scientists also discovered that regardless of how enriching an environment they could create the cortices of wild rats were thicker than those of the lab rats. I am sharing this information because I don’t think all of those rats should have been dissected in vain. This information is helpful to us as dog owners.

Dogs who grow up in confined or limited spaces are affected much as lab rats are (I am extrapolating on this since I am not aware of any specific studies on dog brains, but mammalian brains are similar in many ways, so go with me on this one, or not). This does not mean that our puppy mill, hoarder or backyard kenneled dogs are stupid but it might mean that we need to give these rescued dogs more time, more attention and consideration when we are expecting them to learn new skills and behaviors. Interactions with humans that make sense to a dog with more early experience with novelty and handling, may not make sense to a deprived dog, and this can contribute to their level of fear and anxiety. Dogs are amazingly adaptable but perhaps their ability to adapt is due in part to their ability to think things through and come to a conclusion that makes sense for them beyond their initial fright.

I am not sure at what point a cortex ceases to grow, or if it ever does, brains it turns out are much more plastic (changeable) than had been thought. But as handlers we can do whatever we can to help our fearful dogs by providing them with the opportunity to change whatever parts of their brains is possible. We don’t do this by flooding them with novelty when their brains are not prepared to deal with it. We do it by providing them with an environment in which they feel safe and then begin to add interesting and non-threatening diversity to it. Giving my fearful dogs the opportunity to feel safe and use their brains and bodies in ways that delight them is good for them, and it delights the heck out of me as well.

What are their options?

Scientists who have studied fear in animals have come up with four responses, one or more of which are common, in one form or another, to organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.

1. Withdrawal, avoidance, flee

2. Immobilization, freeze-up

3. Submission, appeasement

4. Aggression

When working with our fearful dogs it’s important to keep in mind that these responses do not necessarily indicate the ‘level’ of fear a dog is experiencing. It is not unusual to hear people say that their fearful dog ‘lets’ people pet him/her. ‘Letting’ something happen does not mean that the dog is not afraid, it is just that for that dog, in that situation the dog is reacting with option #2. They are still afraid, in fact they may be horrified, but because they have not reacted with options 1, 3 or 4 their owners assume that they are ‘ok’.

At a seminar I suggested that people reward their dog for avoiding what scares them. A participant asked, “But isn’t that feeding into the fleeing?” Let’s just think about it-

When working with a fearful dog we typically set our sights on getting the dog closer to the things that scare them. That is how we are gauging success, and it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. We know that aggression is one of the responses common to feeling threatened, and as handlers or owners of fearful dogs it’s the one response we want to avoid at all costs. A fearful dog who cowers in the corner is likely to be allowed to live in that corner longer than a dog who responds aggressively. Moving away from something scary keeps both the dog, and whoever or whatever the scary thing is, safe. You won’t get bit by a dog who runs away from you (though I still wouldn’t turn my back on them!).

Whether or not we give a dog who has moved away from a trigger (scary thing) a piece of cheese (or other high value food reward), the distance gained is rewarding to the dog. If the dog is able to eat the cheese we are not only addressing their behavior but how they ‘feel’. Eating cheese makes dogs feel good. And if they are a safe distance from the trigger the dog may start to have more positive feelings than they do negative ones. Call it the Ben & Jerry’s effect if you like. This is the first step in helping a dog learn to be anywhere near a trigger and feel better about it. It’s the dog who decides what the appropriate starting distance is.

Studies of brains have shown that aggression is ‘rewarding’, which is obvious when you consider that hockey and boxing probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t. Put a dog in the position to respond aggressively and you are flagging a neural network in their brain you do not want them to learn to like.

Check out this video of a chameleon responding to a perceived threat. I don’t know enough about the ethology of these creatures to know if any appeasement behaviors were offered, but you can see what happens when withdrawing, freezing and threatening gestures don’t work to keep the scary technology away. You might want to turn the sound down on your computer. The following video was obviously NOT produced for educational purposes.

The game every owner should play with their dog

Every dog should know how to catch treats!

Treat tossing encourages eye contact, attention, name recognition and good spirits.

Read before operating

drawing of smiling man and woman holding tools in front of houseLocate parts and compare with diagram.

If any parts are missing or do not match the drawing contact your sales representative or service person immediately.

Assemble parts using tools provided. Do not overtighten.

Failure to follow detailed instructions could lead to injury and/or death.

At the current time recycling options for this product are limited.



How ya feeling?

Seeing as we humans have these super special brains (according to them anyway) you’d think they’d be more inclined to take advantage of all the stuff they are extra special because cartoon image of a brain inside a headof (according to them anyway). Stuff like introspection and self-reflection, a couple of things that that they think other, lesser brains, are not capable of.

Sometimes I have to remind my brain to ask itself  “How ya doing there brain?” when it’s working with one of those supposedly ‘lesser’ brains (and I am referring to a dog’s brain, not one of those human brains that rarely seems to do any self-reflection). Because if my brain responds that it’s; frustrated, tired, angry, upset, impatient or confused, it means it’s time to put on the kettle and make my brain a cup of tea. Because sometimes it’s my gut doing the thinking and it’s telling my brain that it needs to take a break, sit down and wish that it had been clever enough to put those opposable thumbs to good use and baked chocolate chip cookies yesterday so there would be some right now to have with a cup of tea. My gut is usually pretty astute when it comes to telling my brain what’s what.

Living with any other creature on the planet can be challenging. Heck living with some machines can be challenging but my high functioning brain should be able to sort out when it makes sense to take a break. As often as my brain thinks that something needs to be done RIGHT NOW (chocolate chip cookies aside), it often doesn’t matter one way or the other. My brain’s been pretty good about not creating crises that require immediate action, something I would like to thank it for (thank you brain). This means that maybe my dog’s brain doesn’t have to be able to do whatever it is my brain wants it to be able to do RIGHT NOW. Maybe my brain can cut his brain some slack.

It is so not about being tired

“A tired dog is a good dog.”

Ugh. Seriously? A good dog is a good dog from the moment they wake up in the morning.

I understand that many dog trainers think they need to dumb down concepts for pet owners and present them in the context of how they will benefit the owner. “Your dog needs to go for walks, and it will make your life easier. A tired dog is a good dog.” Are pet owners really such simpletons that they can’t grasp the notion that dogs need exercise, in whatever form it takes for a particular dog, because they ‘enjoy’ exercise, and that is reason enough for providing them with the opportunity for it? Dog trainers, bite your tongues.

There are the physical health benefits of exercise, we’ve had drummed into our heads enough in this age of growing waistlines. We’re even beginning to acknowledge the connection between our heads and our bodies and how doing things with our bodies affects our heads. Exercising makes you ‘feel’ good. Even beyond simply feeling good, there is the concept of ‘satisfaction’. Dogs not only enjoy running around and sniffing for things to chase, or discover who wandered through the yard last night, they derive satisfaction from the experience. OK, I haven’t been able to actually ask my dogs if they are satisfied, but given that our brains are similar in many ways, I’m making the leap.

It’s been years since I read Suzanne Clothier’s If A Dog’s Prayer’s Were Answered Bones Would Rain From the Sky, but I remember reading passages and saying to myself, “Yes, yes, yes!” in response to narrative about dogs having preferences. Imagine hooking up with someone (that’s my gender neutral way of saying ‘married’ or ‘making a commitment to’) who loves to dance. You don’t like to dance and not only don’t you go dancing with your partner you prevent them from going dancing themselves. Nice relationship you got going there.

Humans do seem to have the unfortunate habit of making choices which don’t make sense in the long run. We build and buy giant vehicles built for off-road travel when all we ever do is get on the highway and drive to work. We stock our larders with foods made primarily from sugar and fat and struggle to lose weight. We buy hunting or herding dogs and never plan on shooting birds or even looking at sheep.

cartoon girl tossing frisbee for a dogSome might wonder why they are not successful at saving money when they look at their credit card statement every month and tally their gas expenses, or why the scale never shows dropped pounds, or why their dog never comes when they call them. But I truly believe that most of us can figure it out, and in fact know the answers. The answer in regard to dogs is not always ‘get a different dog’ but to acknowledge that you have a dog with certain preferences and that even if you can’t keep a flock of sheep you can find other activities your dog can enjoy. Dogs are great that way, they, like us, can have varied interests and are usually willing to go along with us when we introduce them to a few of them.

If we force our dogs to look elsewhere for ‘satisfaction’ we can’t blame them for trying to get it. If you won’t give your dog a life and find things they enjoy doing with you, I guess you should remember that ‘a tired dog is a good dog’. (ugh)

Something else is sometimes nothing

cartoon dog looking warily at toy dogSome dogs are afraid of stuff. Stuff they are unfamiliar with, stuff they see routinely. Some are ok with stuff inside the house, but not stuff outside. Other dogs are ok with ‘things’ but not people or animals. Trying to get fearful dogs to stop being afraid of anything is challenging and I am often impressed by how many people truly want to try. And they try. And try. And try. I am almost inclined to believe them when they say they have tried ‘everything’. A dog who has been around the mill, as the saying goes, may have been subjected to a variety of different ‘techniques’ to rid them of their fears by the time they end up in our laps, or more likely, in a corner somewhere. Often the first thing we need to do is, nothing.

Create a space where the dog feels safe, however best you can. If a dog wants to hide, let them hide. If they prefer being outside and outside is an option, figure out how to make that happen. We don’t invite first dates into our home and ask them to empty the dead flies out of the light fixtures. We make them comfortable. The flies will still be there later when maybe we can convince them to climb up on the ladder for us.

If a dog is afraid of people, don’t be pushy. There are not many things more unattractive than someone trying to convince you about how wonderful they are. Make a mental note to avoid them at the next dinner party. Find a distance away from the dog where you can sit and make yourself interesting and safe. Sit and eat a roasted chicken, occasionally tossing a chunk to the dog. If the dog eats it, fabulous, if not, get up and leave. On your return do you notice the meat gone? If so, sit and eat some more, toss some more and leave again. Don’t interact with the dog, they’ve already declined your invitation for this dance, don’t embarrass yourself by asking again……yet.

It should go without saying, but I’ll say it anyway, that just because something has worked with one or one hundred dogs doesn’t mean it will work with the dog you are working with now. They are all different and the level to which their brains have been compromised either by experience or the lack of it may remain a mystery to you. Don’t let your impatience or time schedule bump up against biology, there’s a good chance you’ll lose, which is also the dog’s loss.

Even extremely fearful dogs can be taught new skills to help them live comfortably in their world. But in the beginning of the journey, less is often more and the something else you can do is often nothing.