Archive for January, 2012|Monthly archive page

Minimum daily requirements

black & white dog with front paw on a basketballWhen my fearful dog Sunny, or if you are troubled by the labeling of dogs, my dog with extreme fear based behavior challenges Sunny, first came to live with us I had dreams for him. In the summer we’d go to South Pond and people would toss frisbees and balls for him to swim after, we’d take long hikes in the woods with friends, anywhere we go he’d get to join us. I imagined that as soon as he could get himself out of the corner all the pieces would fall into place and we could get on with pursuing my dreams for him.

As time went on the reality of the dog I was living with began to settle in. I set my sights on more mundane activities such as helping him go out of the house without a panicked dash and to come back in without having to be caught and encouraged back in on a leash. Being able to get all 55 pounds of himself in and out of the car on his own took precedence over my South Pond dreams. It did happen to be at South Pond where Sunny hopped into the car on his own for the first time, but it was because the voices of people, traveling over the water from a beach on the other side of the pond, scared him so much he sought out the security of his spot on the floor behind the passenger seat.

We attended a variety of training classes including agility and obedience. Sunny even went through a mock obedience trial where he ‘stood for exam’. But who was I kidding? I had no interest in entering him in any events and his ability to barely tolerate the classes was as far from how I want my dogs to feel when spending time with me, as you could get. Getting himself out of the corner of the living room was a big step for Sunny, much bigger than I had imagined it would be, but it was a step, not a leap.

Today I am content to have a dog who is; housebroken, can go in and out of doorways, comes on cue, gets in an out of the car on his own, stays with me (most of the time) during walks in the woods, can be handled by a vet, loves finding dogs to play with, and can enter a training facility and be excited to chase tennis balls I lob against the wall. I have lowered my expectations for my dog with extreme fear based behavior challenges, but I’ve never stopped dreaming of the fun he might be able to have, someday.


Begging your pardon

How often do you apologize for your dog’s behavior?

I am surprised at how often people, pet owners and trainers alike will beg forgiveness for their dog’s behavior. We apologize for our dogs when they bark, greet someone enthusiastically or stare at someone’s steak and cheese sandwich with unrelenting intensity. I am not taking a stand for allowing rude behaviors in dogs when they are interacting with people, but I do think it warrants consideration that some of those behaviors do not have to be looked on as misdemeanors, let alone felonies.

cocker spaniel looking at woman eatingWhen a friend lost her beloved dog after years of companionship she said to me, “He knew that every last bite of my sandwich would be his.” She didn’t share this to complain about a dog who begged while she ate. She was acknowledging that every meal would be a reminder that her friend was gone, and she would miss him.

Any behavior that our dogs perform in order to get a desired outcome can be tweaked so they can learn how to perform it more effectively. We can teach our dogs that lying down quietly nearby will get them snacks more readily than will staring, whining, or barking- behaviors which have served dogs well for thousands of years. In many places dogs survive by perfecting their methods for separating people from their dinner. In countries with large populations of strays it’s not unusual to find dogs who frequent the same restaurants daily, narrowing in on a tourist who falls for their quiet beseeching stares and tosses them a french fry. I’ve watched dogs go from table to table, knowing when a few more seconds of staring or head tilt will achieve the desired results, and when it’s time to move on.

Many of us living with dogs who are afraid of people would welcome the inconvenience of a dog who greeted house guests as though they were lovers in a past life. If we are less inclined to be proud of this behavior there is no need to change how the dog feels about people through the use of punishment, whether it’s physical or a sharp verbal reprimand, to curb their enthusiasm. We help them learn how to behave so they get the attention and information they’re after without creating dry cleaning bills or knocking granddad over.

It should not come as a surprise that dogs bark. This behavior, like begging, was probably one that helped dogs survive and become useful to humans. They are among the best early warning systems around. Many pet owners want a dog for this purpose, to alert them to intruders. Issues arise when a dog is unable to differentiate between the people or vehicles we want the dog to wake us up for when they are coming up the driveway versus those that can be safely ignored. Add to this the fact that many dogs have little else to do with their time, and you can end up with a dog who is annoying to owners and neighbors alike. Enter the industry of ‘barking solutions’ that range from disturbing sounds, shocks, sprays, and surgery. I am NOT suggesting that we should learn to put up with unending barking, but that we assess the cause of the behavior- anxiety, boredom, arousal, alarm- and address that instead of looking for solutions that scare, hurt or intimidate our dogs.

Our dogs can learn new skills and better manners, but at the end of the day they’ll still be dogs.

Give them something to feel good about

black & white dog with stuffed inchworm toyFearful dogs’ brains have become very good at feeling afraid, startled, anxious and I’d guess that if a person exhibited the same symptoms as many of these dogs do they’ve be considered depressed. To help fearful dogs start having a better outlook on life we have to find ways to provide them with either things or opportunities that make them feel good. The easiest solution should be obvious, it’s the one many of us come up with, we settle down with a pint of our favorite Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Forget about feeling guilty afterwards, I don’t think I’ve met a dog who has said, “Gosh I shouldn’t have eaten all that.” Heck even after puking it up most will eat it again.

There are a variety of good options as far as chews and bones go, and if you buy them english bulldog playing with treats in a muffin tinin bulk, can store them in the freezer and save some money. By far the least expensive and versatile is to buy a few food dispensing toys, like the Kong. If properly cared for- not exposed to the weather, removed and cleaned before a dog destroys them, they can last for years. There are other dispensers which are used for kibble that require a dog to interact with the toy beyond holding and licking. Nina Ottosson makes a variety of these toys. Not only does the dog need to think about ‘how’ to get the food, the toys itself may have moving parts or make noise as it rolls around on uncarpeted floors. This can be helpful for dogs who are startled by movement or sound. Some toys may not be appropriate to leave with a dog unsupervised because of parts that could be ingested.

Dogs can be fed all of their meals from a toy or hollow marrow bone. You can use the dog’s regular food, filling them with their kibble or canned food and sealing the ends with, cream cheese, peanut butter or some other soft food. It may not take a dog much longer to finish off their meal than from a bowl, but if you moisten their kibble, mix it with canned dog food, baby food or other soft food to bind it, and freeze it, it will take longer. I like to put a few bits of kibble in a Kong first, I find that sometimes the dog can’t reach that far and soft food ends up being stuck there. Then I let my creativity run rampant, or just empty out leftovers from the frig. Dogs on low fat diets can have canned pumpkin, yogurt, cottage cheese or baby food. I like to add different textures, dropping in bits of kibble, training treats, apple pieces, biscuits or other crunchy bits, layered in with whatever else I’m adding. I’m not sure if my dogs appreciate this effort, but it makes me feel good. I fill several at a time and keep them in the freezer.

The local thrift shop in our town always has a selection of stuffed animals for $1 a piece. I choose ones with no plastic eyes or other parts a dog could chew off and eat. The stuffing should be fiberfill. Many have either styrofoam or tiny plastic beads. Neither is a good choice. The styrofoam balls will stick to everything and the plastic beads can be found in dog poop days later. Check for squeakers or other noisemakers. I actually feel guilty when I purchase many of these toys as they are in great condition and I know that won’t last once I hand them over to my dogs.

If you have a dog who is too afraid to explore their environment, play or go for walks you need to start somewhere to help them feel better about life. What better way than a guilt-free pint of Karmel Sutra.

Dancing is NOT allowed

large white dog standing on hind legs and sniffing nose of a manEarly in our relationship my husband, an avid tennis player, hoped that I too might learn to enjoy the game. I knew that the chances of that were slim to none, but needed to at least give it a try. My attitude is that if someone really wants to play with me they’d hit the balls to me, rather than try to make me miss them. I quickly realized during the one time I played a game of tennis with my husband that the sooner I hit all the balls over the fence and out of the court the sooner I could leave and get on with things, like a walk with the dogs. My husband continues to play tennis, just not with me.

We give a lot of lip service to having a good relationship with our dogs but I wonder if our dogs could talk, what they would have to say about what is really going on between us. Few pet owners would say they have a bad relationship with their dog, but if questioned about it, it’s often challenging to find something ‘good’ about it, from the dog’s imagined point of view anyway. Sure the food may be welcome and having a safe, comfortable place to sleep is nice, but that should be a given in any relationship a human has with a domesticated animal.

I live with a border collie and sheep are out of the question, and I do feel sorry about this for his sake, so I try to find other activities which make his eyes sparkle. As with most dogs what it takes isn’t much. A few minutes tossing frisbees, some stones splashing into the river, an off-leash run and anything I can think to ask him to do to earn a few bits of cheese may not make up for the lack of sheep, but I have tried to look at our relationship from his side of things.

Imagine that you LOVE to dance and you partner up with someone who not only doesn’t enjoy dancing but is adamant about preventing you from ever dancing again. How’s that for a good relationship? Now imagine your partner was to say that if you really loved them you’d be happy not to dance, that your life should be complete without the music, without the movement. How long before the bloom is off of that rose?

Transforming dogs

cartoon of person doing a bent over stretch Among the mail order catalogs offering sales on winter apparel and spring seeds was a brochure of workshops being offered at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health located in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts. It’s a lovely place and I wouldn’t mind spending time there attending workshops, eating wholesome food and having so much body work that I couldn’t get off the table. I am at heart a pragmatic New Englander and look at New Age practices with a dose of cynicism but it has been tempered from years of school and living in northern California. I do find the opportunity to; rediscover myself, transform my life, find the path of the warrior, nourish my body & spirit, reawaken my life through song, discover the blessing of devastating change, master the art of aloneness, liberate my spine, detox for health & healing, awaken the creative, activate my heart’s intelligence, dance with souls passed, all very tempting.

I’d sign my fearful dog Sunny up for workshops as well, if they were offered for dogs, especially ‘Turning Life’s Triggers into Opportunities to Change’. This process has been part of my transformational practice with Sunny since he arrived here in Vermont to live with us. The description of the workshop included this: Learn how to use life situations that trigger old reactive behaviors and turn them into golden moments of opportunity. In the workshop he’d learn to: Create a new system of compassionate accountability and self-management that engenders conscious choice instead of reactivity.

Since it’s not likely I’ll be signing Sunny up for any courses in the near future I will have to focus on being compassionately accountable myself, and making conscious choices about how I respond to my dog’s behavior. I will continue to evaluate whether I am reacting thoughtlessly or if my responses are based on inaccurate assumptions and assessments of his behavior. I will continue to feed, rather than fight his demons while we both gain wisdom for resolving inner conflict. Or at the very least we’ll go for a walk and eat some cheese.

Put distance seeking behavior on cue

woman sitting with dog outside in a kennelWhen we have a dog who is afraid of people we often focus on getting the dog to move closer to them. What we should be focusing on is encouraging the dog to do whatever makes them feel more comfortable around us. If whenever I stand up, lean or move toward a dog, and that dog moves away, I will put the moving away behavior on cue. The behavior is actually already on cue, my movement is a signal to the dog to get away from me, so what I do is change the cue. This can be helpful when we have a fearful dog living in our home with us.

To change a cue is a simple process, present the new cue then the old cue. With enough repetition the dog learns that the new cue predicts the old cue and begins to respond to the new cue as soon as it is presented. In the case of training a behavior like ‘sit’ we can eventually drop the old cue. This is a fun activity to do with any dog and how trainers come up with cute tricks. Instead of saying ‘sit’ they hold up a sign with the word ‘sit’ on it and the dog appears to be able to read. With fearful dogs the old cues may never be faded, we may continue to stand up out of chairs or walk in a dog’s direction, but they can lose their potency for causing a fearful response.

Let’s say when you take a step toward a dog she skitters away (keep in mind that moving away can also be a polite response from a dog who is not afraid). The dog may be startled or experiences fear by your movement and goes to a place where they feel less afraid. By helping a dog learn to predict your movements you can lower the level of fear they experience. I use a hand gesture and say ‘go on’. What you choose to do or say is less important than being consistent with it. You can also use a treat tossed away from you to prompt the behavior and put distance between the two of you before you move. The hand movement of tossing a treat can morph into the cue.

After giving the ‘new’ cue, I move. In time the dog learns to move away from me before I take a step toward them. When I do move they are already in a place they feel safer and don’t experience the same hit of fear they did before when I moved and they were closer to me. At this point I can toss them a treat or ignore them. By cuing the dog to get some distance before I move I am removing a startling, scary experience, one which is associated with me. With enough practice this causes two important things to occur 1) they learn they will be forewarned before something scary is about to happen, this helps to lower stress and anxiety 2) their response to me moving is no longer based on fear, the dog will position themselves in the place they need to be for the desensitization and counter conditioning process to continue.

In time the dog may choose not to move as far away, or not move at all. When a treat has been added to the mix moving away becomes a positive experience for the dog and is no longer colored by fear. Eventually we may find that if we don’t cue the behavior and simply move toward the dog they no longer have a negative response at all because all our movement ever predicted was that a treat would be tossed to them.

I’ll be talking about this and other techniques for living with and training a fearful dog on January 21, 2012 at No Monkey Business Dog Training in Bow NH. Find more information here.

Is getting another dog helpful for a fearful dog?

belgian malnois and terrier on pink bedIt’s not uncommon for people who are living with a dog who is afraid of people or new environments to wonder if getting another dog would be helpful. It’s a generous thought I’ll give it that, but there are many potential pitfalls to take into consideration before making that leap.

Being around others that a dog feels safe with and trusts can help lower stress levels. This is why comforting a dog who is afraid can be so beneficial. With lowered stress some fearful dogs are able to do things they might not be able or willing to do on their own. If we like the things they are able to do it makes sense that we’d consider providing them with that benefit all the time by adding a dog to our household.

Here are the questions I’d ask anyone considering getting a dog to help their fearful dog-

Why, if the dog you brought home felt more comfortable being around other dogs, did you adopt him to begin with if you didn’t already have another dog in the house?

Unless you deliberately set out to adopt a dog with fear based behavior challenges what makes you think that you, the breeder, rescue group or shelter is going to do a better job a second time around at finding an appropriate dog for you who: not only has to be a good pet, needs to rise to the occasion and be a stellar role model and companion for a fearful dog?

Are you willing to hire a professional trainer or behaviorist to help you find an appropriate dog to add to your household?

Are you prepared to spend more time training and more money for the upkeep of an additional dog?

What will you do if it doesn’t work out as you’d hoped? 

It’s a lovely thought that a fearful dog will see another dog interacting with people, other dogs, novel objects, etc., and learn to do so happily themselves. I could watch a dozen people jump out of a plane and still be reluctant to fling myself out the hatch. There are people who won’t taste a new food even though an entire group of people consumes it routinely, but we expect dogs to do better than this? What if instead the new dog learns to be more wary and cautious of things by following the lead of the fearful dog?

Pairing a friendly dog with a fearful dog for the benefits of social buffering can end up backfiring. I don’t worry when my border collie Finn races up to people to greet them. His behavior may be considered rude but the worst that is likely to happen is that someone will end up with paw prints on their pants. He likes people and sees every human as a potential frisbee tosser. Sunny on the other hand would be better off not being drawn toward people by following Finn’s example. He’s not comfortable with people and getting closer to them can end up scaring him. This could lead to an aggressive response.

Unless I have complete control over Finn’s behavior, being able to stop him in his tracks as he heads off to greet someone, I run the risk of having Sunny join him. Finn’s arousal is benign, Sunny’s is not. Annie, my adult cocker spaniel displays her ‘greeting disorder’ anytime a new person or dog appears on the scene. She is harmless, annoying but harmless. But her reactivity is not helpful when I am trying to train a fearful dog to stay right where he is. In trainer speak we call this ‘proofing’ a behavior, and means that we practice a cue, such as ‘wait’, over and over, in many different situations, with a variety of distractions, in order for the dog to gain the skill to perform the behavior wherever, whenever we ask for it, regardless of what is going on around them. It takes time and effort. Sunny has a solid ‘wait’ in many situations, but he is affected by the arousal level of other dogs, and this makes getting the behavior more challenging.

This is often when people will suggest the use of some kind of powerful punishment to teach the dog that moving is not an option. I will not go into it in depth in this post but the risk of ‘contextual conditioning’ is real. Anything that the dog experiences along with the punishment can become associated with the negative experience, including the thing they already are not feeling good about. To this day I am not inclined to eat cherry snow cones because as a kid I caught a stomach bug and the last thing I ate prior to being sick was a cherry snow cone. The snow cone itself did not cause the vomiting, but was associated with it.

To trust that a dog will not harm something we need to be certain that they are no longer afraid of it. Better that they love it, but short of that, a dog is less likely to bite something they do not feel threatened by. There are no magic bullet cures for fearfulness in dogs. The benefits of social buffering are real, but the tasks of training and using behavior modification are ours. We need to get our understanding of dog behavior and training polished up before we expect another dog to ‘fix’ our fearful dog.