Archive for November, 2011|Monthly archive page

Sh*t happens

photo of bathroomIt’s true, sh*t happens and when it does it’s good to know about it. It’s like those fast food restaurants with the sign in the bathroom that says ‘Please let us know if this restroom does not meet our high standards for cleanliness’. If sh*t happens and you don’t know about it, how can you clean it up?

In the industry of animal rescue, and find fault with my use of the term ‘industry’ if you like, there is a lot of sh*t going on that doesn’t make it into the reports and stories created to provide PR and donations for the group doing the rescue.

I catch sh*t from people who insist that getting a dog into a home and out of a shelter is worth doing, whether there has been adequate evaluation of the dog’s and future owner’s needs and skills or not. Some will say that the odds are better for the animal, 100% chance of dying in a shelter vs. some unknown percent chance of suffering in a home, or wherever they end up. But make no mistake in plenty of cases they die anyway. They may suffer emotionally and physically while being passed from home to home or shelter to shelter. They may be forced to live a life of confinement or isolation. They may be ‘adopted’ by dog traffickers who sell dogs to labs or fight rings. If the dog is intact they may be used for breeding. They may end up as part of a hoarder’s collection and receive inadequate care. In a surprisingly high number of cases they may flee from their home and never be recovered.

How many shelters and rescue groups have statistics regarding how many animals are still in their original home, with contented owners, a year after being adopted? And if they don’t have them, why not? How can we raise our pompoms and cheer for dogs being placed in homes if those placements are ultimately unsuccessful? How can a group learn to improve their assessment of dogs and potential owners unless they can see the results of their current practices and procedures? I already know all of the excuses for not doing this kind of follow-up, time and money being high on the list. But I just don’t buy them. If we seriously want to declare ourselves ‘animal advocates’ then the ‘out of sight out of mind’ rationale doesn’t hold water.

If we are committed to the animals in our care we can find ways to ensure that we are doing the best we can for them. But we’ll never know how to do that until we are willing to expand our vision to include the ‘big picture’ and not just the snapshot ‘feel good’ moment of adoption.


Living in the moment

drawing of woman meditatingOf all of the silly things I hear in regard to dog behavior the proclamation that ‘dogs live in the moment’ perhaps takes the cake. It is usually used to criticize owners for being understanding of their dog’s past and that unlike humans, that past doesn’t effect them. They are furry zen masters of ‘be here now’.  The idea that it is the owner’s response to their dog’s fearfulness or reactivity that is the cause of a dog’s behavioral problem, not the animal’s history, is an uninformed one.

I’m going to back pedal here for a moment because certainly an owner’s response to their dog can and does effect their dog’s behavior, but to lead people to believe that the events, or lack of them, in a dog’s life have no impact on their current behavior is wrong. It makes no sense for an animal to simply ‘forget’ about things that they felt threatened by in the past. If that was the case then training, whether using rewards or punishment, would be a waste of time, what they learned today wouldn’t matter tomorrow.

Whether a dog is consciously thinking about a scary past event, or is responding based on how they were classically conditioned to respond, may remain a mystery to us as we work with our dogs. Though our dogs may not be worrying about the security of a bone they buried last week (or they might be!), they may be concerned about something that scared them last year. The more potent the emotional charge an event has for a dog, the more likely it will be remembered, consciously or unconsciously, and matter. And that we know something is safe or inconsequential doesn’t matter. There are plenty of people deathly afraid of things that have never harmed them or even have the potential to harm them.

Handlers do need to be aware that a dog’s behavior may be affected by their response to a situation. But they should never downplay the effect prior experiences can have on a dog’s ability to cope with the moment they are in.

Join me!

I’d like to invite you all to visit with me over at the Life With Dogs site where I will be blogging each Wednesday. I’ll be writing about fear based behavior challenges in dogs (of course). I’ll be creating a unique post for both Fearful Dogs Blog and Life With Dogs.

You’ll find a wonderful community of dog lovers and advocates enjoying the antics of Nigel Bugger and friends.

Fear & bum knees

drawing of knee jointOne of the difficult things for people to understand is that fear based behaviors are not often easy or possible to ‘get over’ for all dogs. The idea that a dog will adjust is not always an option. In order for a dog to adjust to a new life, new people, places, objects, situations, they need to have a previously established set point for ‘adjustment’. It’s a place they’ve been before, and know their way back to.

Understanding this seems especially challenging for people who have had dogs, or who are the kind of person dogs like. It’s unimaginable that a dog just wouldn’t ‘come around’ under their care.

Think of fear based behavior as though it was a bum knee. You can do all kinds of physical therapy and with the help of a brace or caution, have a full, active life. But twist it wrong and suddenly you’re limping again. Barring surgery, you’ll never ‘get over’ having a bad knee. Even surgery and healing will leave scars and their impact may not be felt for years, but make no mistake, they’re there and they may get in the way of you ever achieving a full range of mobility.

Treats for tricks

One of my responsibilities when I foster a dog is to give them as many skills as possible for making sense of people. This is helpful for any dog but crucial for a fearful dog. Along with teaching a dog basic life skills such as; waiting at open doors or gates, coming when called, getting in and out of cars, getting off of furniture when asked (sorry folks I’m bad, I let them on to begin with), and walking nicely on a leash, I also try to give the dog a few cute tricks to perform. People love dogs that can do tricks, but that’s only part of the reason to do it.

First of all it’s fun. Most dogs enjoy training when rewards are involved. It helps to create positive relationships and associations with people. A dog who is afraid of people but learns that we do all kinds of things with our bodies, hands and voices that lead to a reward, if they can come up with the correct response, may feel less frightened when a new person makes some of those similar movements or sounds. In the big picture it can mean people lead to rewards. It may not happen easily or quickly but over time dogs can learn.

It’s hunting season here in Vermont so it means no walks in the woods. The dogs and I go a bit stir-crazy these couple of weeks so I try to spend more time tossing toys and teaching new behaviors. It’s not the best set-up for training, with each dog having their own agenda, as you can see in the following video, but I do what I can. I also like working with several dogs because it helps them each learn to be ok having other dogs around when food is involved. Fearful dogs are also prime candidates for resource guarding the human they feel good with. They’ll growl or snap at dogs or people who come to close to their person.

And then there’s all the silly talk and kissy face stuff we like to do with dogs. We often can’t help ourselves, but once a dog feels safe with you it can be a great way to get their tails wagging. When I first met Nibbles there was no way I would put my face near his, he was very clear about not feeling good about that! Now he enjoys a good cuddle and thinks silliness is just fine.

Ta da!

cartoon of woman jumping for joyThat’s all folks! 24 posts in 24 hours. All to help raise money to help animals. Blogathon2011. Your donations to the NE Humane Society are tax deductible and will be matched in kind. Check out the posts from other bloggers, each working to help the people helping the animals they are moved by.

Thanks for stopping by and for your support.

No one of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Find what moves you and act on it.

All the best to you and yours,

Debbie Jacobs, CPDT-KA, CAP2

Using rewards to manipulate behavior

There is still time to make a donation to help the people helping the animals. Your donation is tax deductible and will be matched, a twofer!

As a follow-up to my last post here is a video showing how we use food to give dogs new skills and pattern new behaviors. Kelly was fearful of people and by using food to get him to move around he is building new patterns of behavior-those primarily being approaching a person without being afraid to do it. It can be a slow process, completely dependent on the skills and ability of the dog. But the changes we make are well established.


Make love not war

drawing of hand giving peace signDespite all the evidence indicating that aggressive, intimidating handling can lead to heightened aggressive responses in dogs, there are still people, dog trainers among them, who will insist that unless we use overwhelming punishment or coercion with an aggressive dog (who may be aggressive because they are scared, even if it doesn’t look or feel like it to us), we are doing the dogs of the planet a disservice. I hear it all the time, my carrying the banner of reward-based training leads to dead dogs. Yes, dead dogs. They are dead because ‘cookie tossing’ trainers (as they are disparagingly called) failed to change the behavior of an aggressive dog. The premise being that if only someone had punished the mean out of the dog they’d have ended up with a tail wagging, happy, compliant, pet dog. This is akin to saying that because one doctor failed to cure a disease and the patient ultimately died, that all doctors who attended the same med school would have also been unsuccessful . There are great doctors, and those who are less so. There are also some diseases which can safely and effectively be cured, others not, and those that will require lifetime management.

We know, from studies of rats, and remember that mammalian brains have a lot in common, that if male rats are injected with oxytocin, the hormone responsible for making us feel all warm and fuzzy about someone, or something, they are less likely to behave aggressively and attack rat pups sired by other males. The more oxtyocin, the less aggression. Toss in some of the ‘yippee I won!’ neurotransmitter dopamine, and you have an animal who is feeling right with the world. Being as clever as we are, we can manipulate other humans and animals in our lives to do exactly what we want by increasing the odds that they’ll experience the feelings associated with either or both oxytocin and dopamine. Marketing research is based on figuring out how to do this. When it comes to our dogs it’s pretty darn easy. Even if a dog were to be strongly concerned with their place in a social hierarchy, a hierarchy which exists to ensure access to resources, they are out of their league when it comes to competing with humans. And don’t think they don’t know this.

The primary resources animals establish hierarchies for are food and mates. We control both. We either limit our dog’s access to mates, or remove their ability to mate using surgery. And until they can sort out how to stock and open a refrigerator, they are dependent on us for food, and don’t think they don’t realize this either. Animals can and do change their behavior to get what they need. Animals who have not been compromised by trauma or abuse will do so readily. Those who display debilitating levels of fear and/or aggression will have a harder time. We can make it easier for them by helping them to ‘feel’ better, to get oxytocin and dopamine flowing. We can do this using food and other rewards.

Just because someone has not developed the relationship or ability to motivate a dog to behave appropriately without force, coercion or punishment, doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And because someone may have had success using force to get the compliance they were after does not make it the best means to an end.

There is still time to make a donation to help the people helping the animals. Your donation is tax deductible and will be matched, a twofer!

Essential training even if your dog is hopeless at it

There is still time to make a donation to help the people helping the animals. Your donation is tax deductible and will be matched, a twofer!

Nice to see you!

Nikolaas Tinbergen, an early ethologist said that ‘ethology is the study of animal behavior and we must interview the animals in their own language’, or something to that effect, sorry I couldn’t come up with the actual quote.

We have failed dogs miserably to this end. Dog behavior is horribly misunderstood. TV shows and movies anthropomorphise dog behavior while celebrity trainers make up their own translations of dog behavior that have no basis in fact. Despite thousands of years of coexistence we might as well have just stumbled upon dogs given how much the average pet owner understands about their behavior.

This following video is an example of an exuberant greeting ritual my fearful dog Sunny performs whenever I return from being away for several hours. We can learn a lot by watching our dogs. Stay loose when meeting dogs and you’ll convey your intention to avoid conflict with them.

This post is part of Blogathon2011. I am writing to help raise money for the Nebraska Humane Society. You can donate here. A few dollars here and a few dollars there will add up. You can put your credit card where your intent is.