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.

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20 comments so far

  1. Walking and cheese? Count me in!

  2. Amy on

    Very fun post. Assessing our actions when our dogs are reactive are often more difficult than managing our dogs reactivity. How many times have a reinforced my dogs reactivity and fear… Hundreds… Maybe even thousands times?

    I’ve been trying to be more aware and “zen” like when out and about lately. Winter is such a good time to really work on our out and about lessons since for once the streets are less crowded.

    It’s likely people won’t even notice the open wine container and cheese while out and about!

    • fearfuldogs on

      I’d say that unless you are doing something really distressing when your dog is afraid you are not likely reinforcing his fear or reactivity. If you are screaming ‘LOOK OUT IT’S GOING TO KILL YOU’, well then maybe. Most owners and even many trainers do not separate behavior from emotion when considering their dog’s reaction. Behaviors when reinforced will likely be repeated, but behaviors fueled by powerful emotional responses are different. When that is the case we need to focus on lowering the emotional response and focusing less on the behavior.

      • KellyK on

        Good point. This is one I struggle with with Reba, our foster dog. She gets very barky when she’s bored or confined (often even if I’m in the room paying attention to her). I’m still trying to figure out how to address the underlying emotions without unintentionally reinforcing behavior I don’t want. You know, providing comfort when she’s stressed without teaching “If I bark and jump on the door, people will drop what they’re doing and pay attention to me.”

  3. Amy on

    I totally agree with the “fear factor”. I didn’t make that clear in my response… Emotions play a huge roll in reactivity. Too much stimuli fuels the fear/emotion. Although I’ve seen many owners/training missing the timeliness of the reinforcement when their dogs are successful. I’ve been guilty of this too.

    • fearfuldogs on

      When it comes to fear I don’t wait for ‘success’ I go with counter conditioning.

  4. honeysjourney on

    We’ll go with the wine and cheese only, Yoga not so good.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/08/magazine/how-yoga-can-wreck-your-body.html?_r=1

    Nice post!

    • fearfuldogs on

      Unfortunately I think that there are people who approach yoga the same way they approach many things in their life- with little to no introspection, self-awareness and evaluation. The catalog I received from Kripalu played into this, I thought, by christening one of their instructors as a ‘superstar’. We love to create celebrities and put titles on things, dogs included. Then we set our sights on gaining those titles ourselves, often putting important considerations aside.

      • KellyK on

        That’s a good point. A lot of the stuff in the article mentions ego and pressure as major sources of injury–I think a lack of introspection or self-awareness totally feeds into this.

        I do yoga on occasion, primarily for stress relief and relaxation, but also to get the flexibility for the other sports I want to participate in. I think it’s like any other physical activity—not even remotely risk-free, but worth the risk if you find it worthwhile.

  5. fearfuldogs on

    Barking and attention seeking is challenging. Kelly, at least you understand that the dog has reasons for the behavior. I will use prevention, interruption and redirection whenever I can, but with dogs who trust me, and know me, I can also let them know that they can stop, preferably right now, if something they are doing is not ok. I do it all the time with alarm barking. If I can get the ring leader dog (usually my cocker Annie) calmed down with a ‘thank you that’ll do!’ the other dogs settle down as well.

    • KellyK on

      Thanks! It’s funny that you mention the ring-leader because Reba and Diamond tend to get each other going. They don’t play well together, at least not for very long, so they are separated a lot. This means that f one starts barking, the other probably has no idea why, but of course has to bark too. Letting Reba out of the back bedroom to see what’s up when Diamond starts barking does seem to help. I should probably also keep a stash of good treats back there, so I have something else to redirect with besides toys. (She loves her toys, but really doesn’t care about them once she’s worked up.)

      Probably the worst thing is that loud, continuous barking is an anxiety trigger for me. So I get all tense and stressed and *of course* the dog continues barking—something must really be up if the person’s upset! Maybe I just need wine, cheese, and yoga (and I can share the cheese with Reba).

      I’m hoping that as the days get longer and the weather sucks less, the puppies will get more running around time. We do play inside games, but Reba really likes to run and run and run some more.

      • fearfuldogs on

        I also find the barking jarring, which is important to note. If something ‘bugs’ me I’m more likely to behave impetuously and it’s not always a good thing. Same with dogs who pull on leash, I can find myself feeling angry about it and I think it has a lot to do with what I am experiencing physically when it’s happening.

        Ultimately all good stuff to be aware of so we can think about how we want to respond.

    • Heather on

      I found having that “that’ll do” or “enough” helpful to stop my irritation as the alarm or boredom barks can drive me nuts trying to settle. my 2 seem to get into tandem barks some days which just seemed aimed at my sanity. oddly, having a foster dog now has helped shaped some more positive behavior from my own pup. ultimately, we baby step there with my foster. the tough part is remembering the jackpot reward when I’m suddenly relishing the silence!

      • fearfuldogs on

        I often say ‘thank you!’ but I’m thinking ‘geesh shut up already!’ 😉

  6. Lizzie on

    If I could add a comment about pulling on the lead, as it’s already been mentioned. I too find myself feeling angry when Gracie pulls, which to be honest is most of the time. It’s an issue she has always had; she does not like having a lead attached to her collar or harness. I endure endless circling with her keeping herself as far away from me as possible. It’s just another of her obsessive compulsive behaviours.
    I find it so strange as when I am able to let her off lead safely, she keeps close to me and if she does go off sniffing, her recall is instant.
    You may say that in this case I should not be taking her out, but she has no hesitation in leaving the house or having her collar put on, but attaching the lead seems to be the cue to pull like a husky. I do my very best to keep the lead slack but she always takes it up as the other thing she does is walk very fast so much so that I can’t keep up with her.
    She is such a strange dog in this respect, as I don’t think that she pulls to get somewhere because it happens whether we are walking away from home as well as going back. It’s not as if we go to a specific place like the park, all I am able to do is a short route as she still is very reactive when she sees people.

    But as far as the pulling is concerned, I would agree that it’s the physical aspect that makes me angry because it hurts my back and shoulder so much as she is such a powerful dog.

    • KellyK on

      Reba is also a really strong dog, and one of the things that we found helpful was to hold the leash behind your back or hips while you’re working on training her not to pull. That way if she does, the stress is on a stronger part of your body, instead of on your shoulder. Front-clip harnesses are also nice for discouraging pulling.

      Also, if she’s trying to keep away from you while on the leash, she’s probably not convinced that good things happen while she’s walking next to you on-leash. Treats might help in that regard.

      Or the leash itself is something she finds scary, and so she wants to get away from it, and can’t.

      • Lizzie on

        Thanks for the tips Kelly.

        I think that it’s the fact that she feels trapped or restrained when she’s on the lead. As she’s so reactive around people she is always on the lookout for them and so is primed for fleeing. As I said she is much more relaxed off lead, but where we live it’s just not possible to let her off all the time as she’s too unpredictable.

        It’s just something that I have to live with!

  7. Heather on

    Lizzie, if u can find a thresh hold, the spot where your dog feels safe, on leash and with people…even if it’s looking at them 100 yards away while they are across the street…u can begin to work that. we walked at less busy times. it’s slow, but i was able to do it with my girl. now, she knows, people are coming and she’s looking at me, focused on her treat and not focused on the people. we did start at least 100 yards away and across the street. now, people = treats, a good deal. if i don’t have treats, i can sometimes get away with rubbing under her chin as though I had tossed something in the mouth. (Thank goodness she’s part Lab!!) i’ve totally simplified this, and there can be setbacks…seems like Deb has talked about or alluded to this somewhere. I found, for me and my dog, at least 1/2 was my part. i started dreading our walks, not knowing what we’d bump into and if she would be a “complete cujo” (sorry, an awful way to talk about my girl, i know, but gives everyone a picture, right?) her reactivity had become mine and traveled right down that leash. I couldn’t fix her until i fixed myself.


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