Archive for February, 2012|Monthly archive page

Hoarder update

Apparently irony is lost on Sunny’s hoarder Tammy Hanson. She is suing the sheriff’s department and others for cruel and unusual conditions she claims she was subjected to while in prison for cruelty involving dogs she had collected on her property.

Certainly jail time is not meant to inflict the same conditions on someone which they were convicted of inflicting on others. Nor is it meant to exact revenge for deeds done. It’s suppose to be punishment for a crime, with the idea being that it will serve as a deterrent to committing the same crime again the future.

After being found guilty  Tammy and her husband fled Arkansas before she could be sentenced. They were discovered 3 years later in Vermont with over 30 dogs. I’m proud that Tammy did not have anything bad to say about the treatment she received while incarcerated here in Vermont before being relocated to a jail in Baxter County.

The reality is that serving time in jail without treatment and therapy is not likely going to stop Tammy and hoarders like her. And even with that, without continued supervision, most hoarders will begin their collections again, with all the associated suffering and horror. Maybe this lawsuit will keep her busy for awhile.

You can read the article here.


Celebrating diversity in dogs

corgi mix dog looking between banister postsFor over a decade I worked at a summer camp in New Hampshire. They were blissful summers, as summer is often remembered by New Englanders who get too little warmth and sunshine the rest of the year. I had different jobs. Some years I traveled with groups of teenagers exploring the world and introducing them to a variety of recreations, alternate years I returned to the camp where whatever my job title might have been, always included days on the waterfront.

The camp was known for the owner’s interest in ‘celebrating diversity’ and one summer I was joined on the docks by a boy from Palestine who discovered the never before experienced joy of sitting in a canoe on a pristine lake and waiting for fish to take the bait. That summer a group of kids from Siberia attended camp, along with a 200+lb chaperone who make me embarrassed for my own self-consciousness about my body as she lazed on shore in a bikini, her pale flesh soaking up the sun like a hiker in the desert finding a cold spring of water.

There were also the kids with different ‘abilities’. One summer a pre-adolescent girl with cerebral palsy attended camp. The route to the waterfront included a long sloping descent that if you forgot your goggles or towel were loath to turn around and head back up. Walking down with the girl who shunned my offers of help I watched with eye widening alarm as she began to gain speed, throwing out her stiff limbs like a tin soldier in an effort to remain vertical. I raced to catch up but didn’t reach her before she lost the battle with gravity. She suffered the tumble with the courage that you routinely see in people who have  lived their lives having no other choice but to get up, wipe their bloody nose on their sleeve and keep going, assuming they have the mobility to do so.

Another summer a boy, recently diagnosed with diabetes, joined us. Fearing the label ‘diabetic’ his parents decided against a camp specifically for kids with the disease. I understood their reluctance to have him labeled but as good as the counselors were we were not skilled in understanding the vagaries of ‘blood sugar’. The night I was awakened to help the nurse because he had tumbled out of bed and could not be roused, I wondered how much better off he might have been if he didn’t have to join us on our learning curve of determining what time was best for a bedtime snack, and how to gauge insulin amounts for upcoming activities. There were camps where kids with diabetes could go where counselors who lived with and managed the disease provided guidance and role models, and where the sight of a kid stopping to take their blood sugar level before a game of softball would be routine. Pretending that a kid isn’t living with a condition that affects their health and well-being doesn’t mean that condition goes away.

I am not a parent but I think I understand their desire that their child be like the other kids. But even if a kid is not like other kids (and heaven knows there are plenty that aren’t and should be proud of the fact) they can learn the skills they need so they can be successful contributors to society and value their own self-worth. My mother frequently remarked, “ long as you’re/they’re happy, ” when I shared whatever path my life was on at the moment or we met someone with different abilities. Both she and my father often hired developmentally disabled people to work in their business.

When I work with dogs I think my mother was on to something. So long as they’re happy the things they can’t do often don’t matter so much.

Placebo effects

colored pills spilling out of a bottleGiven the recent news about antidepressants and the ‘placebo effect’ I thought I’d go there first before folks get themselves all in a lather about those medications and their usefulness treating dogs with fear, phobias and anxiety disorders.

That there are other ways to treat mild depression other than medication is not news. Research demonstrating the ‘placebo effect’ in patients suffering from depression dates back to the 1990’s. That antidepressants have been and continued to be used to help modify behavior in dogs is also not news, nor should it be discounted as the flood of critics of big Pharma (of which I wouldn’t label myself a fan) and medication add the newest studies to their quiver and take aim at medications being used to help dogs.

More accurately the ‘placebo effect’ should be called the ‘placebo effects‘. Placebos don’t all work in the same way. Research into the neurobiology of placebos have been able to identify changes in brain functions. Placebos can work because they help lower the anxiety a sick, or depressed person is experiencing. The possibility and expectation of being healed, along with the attentions of a healer, can be very soothing. Kissed any boo-boos lately to stop the sobbing of a child, hurt and scared by their injury? This lowering of anxiety sets a chain of biological responses in motion, ultimately leading to the patient feeling and being better. That anxiety plays such an important role in healing should be noted by those of us living with fearful dogs. Unfortunately for us and our dogs the attention we give them often contributes to their anxiety rather than lowers it.

Along with the lowering of anxiety there is also the anticipation of a reward, in this case the reward of feeling better. Those of us who use reward based training understand how powerful the ‘expectation’ of a reward is. Our brain’s reward system goes into action even before we receive a reward. The chemicals released in our brains when we anticipate a reward help us begin to feel better. Essentially we create the reward ourselves. The difference between humans and dogs is that we know that the pills hidden in the cream cheese are going to make the dog ‘better’. The dog may not even know they are there at all and does not understand the association between pills and what she experiences in the future.

Placebos also work because medications have taught our brains and bodies how to feel better. If we have daily headaches and take aspirins and an hour later we feel better, we might also feel better if after enough experience with real aspirins we take pills that look like aspirins because our brains learned to do whatever aspirin does that makes us feel better. The medications ‘taught’ our brains how to make the changes necessary for relief. How to apply this to our dogs is a challenging proposition.

A common belief held about placebos is that if they work as well, or can work with a significant portion of the population, it must mean that the drug it is being tested against, doesn’t work. That placebos can work as well as an antidepressant in some people does not mean that the drug is not working at all.

We want to be aware of the potential side effects of taking a medication compared to no treatment at all. Risks needs to be weighed. That the early vaccine for polio caused polio in some instances was not a case against vaccines, but one for a safer vaccine. That the risk of being vaccinated against polio by a safer vaccine was less than the risk of contracting polio is evident today in the absence of polio in most developed countries. The interesting side effect of this success is that there are some who did not grow up during the polio epidemic, and have no experience with the risks of the disease, and eschew the use of vaccines.

If people can grow it or make it we can figure out ways to abuse it. We can use use the things we make or grow inappropriately and suffer and die because of them, or at best, gain no benefit from them. Before you toss the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to using behavioral medications, including antidepressants and anxiolytics to help our fearful and anxious dogs, do your research. That there are other ways to treat fear and anxiety in dogs is not a reason for an owner to discount the use of medication for their dog.

We need to lower the constant stress and anxiety our dogs are experiencing in order for them to be able to learn new skills and responses. If you are not able to do this by managing their environment and teaching them skills that help them cope with the stress they do experience, consider the harmful effects of constant stress on a body and brain. When you don’t see results from alternatives to medications don’t wait for gangrene to set in and lose the limb- talk to your vet about the drugs available to help your dog.

Tread lightly

snowshoeing on a frozen pondThere seems to be a rash of redemption videos making the rounds online. Dogs who once fearful are transformed into confident, huggable dogs by the deft handling and/or love of their savior. The savior varies, from well-intentioned pet owner to professional dog handler, of one kind or another. One thing most of these videos have in common is the use of confrontational handling techniques to work with the dog. So what? you might ask. What does it matter if we can grab a tissue and feel good that another dog has been ‘saved’.

Imagine you have a kid. You’ve tried for ages to get them to go out and get a job. Then one day they come home waving a fistful of cash, lawfully gained waiting tables, shoveling driveways, or some other ‘job’. Now imagine they come home waving the cash and proclaiming that they robbed a convenience store. Does how they got the money matter to you? I hope so. How we get behaviors from dogs matters to me too. As much as I might like the outcome, if we can achieve the same end without adding to a dog’s stress and fear, I’m all for that.

The points I would like to make, so you can finish up and go for a walk with your dogs are these:

1. There are handling techniques that will achieve the same, or better, ends as many of these videos with dogs being forced into interacting with people.

2. Low stress handling doesn’t have to take longer. If a dog’s behavior is going to improve by being forced to interact with someone, they will also improve if we work in gentler, less confrontational ways. And besides, what’s the big rush anyway? Many of these dogs have spent years in a cage or months roaming the streets, why is it we need to overwhelm them in the first hours or days we have them?

3. Know what you are looking at. Skilled handlers understand that aggression in dogs is often suppressed when they are afraid. That dog whose eyes seemed closed in bliss, their ears down, leaning into the wall, is not having a revelation about the joys of being pet, they’re scared. They may be submitting but they’re not calm.

We need to look at behavior in context. Is that paw raise an appeasement gesture, a request to have you keep scratching their ears or are they pointing out a bird in the bushes?

We must consider the dog we are interacting with. Have they had the opportunity to develop any skills with people? If they have not, we should not assume that forcing handling on them is like a Berlitz class in ‘human’- speak human in 2 easy lessons or your money back, guaranteed.

4. The rest of the story. We don’t often see it. We don’t know how that dog is reacting after the camera stops rolling. Novice and inexperienced handlers, believing that forcing a dog to be handled is the cure for fearfulness, overwhelm dogs. They get bitten, or believing in the cure are surprised when the dog snaps at a stranger.

Here in New England if you come across a frozen pond during a hike it’s best not to race across it assuming that the ice is thick enough to support you. To do so would be foolhardy and potentially deadly. When interacting with a fearful, shy or anxious dog, tread lightly, you may not be able to see the cracks in the ice.

No sleight of hand

cartoon magician with rabbit on his headThere is no magic to what we do to help fearful dogs, however you define magic. It’s time, energy, and effort all resting on a nice bed of patience.

In order to survive every species has to have reason to crawl out of bed every morning, or evening if they’re nocturnal. If they can’t it’s an indication something is wrong, seriously wrong. If we have dogs who are not fearful an unwillingness or inability to eat or engage in something fun is a big red flag. Sure our dogs get old and slow down, but when they start refusing food or ignore invitations to go for a walk we start to dread the writing on the wall. Often we head to the vet. An otherwise healthy dog who is not interested in food or doing anything that dogs typically enjoy doing, is in trouble. No magic is going to help them, we are.

First we eliminate any medical reasons for a dog’s behavior. An injured or sick dog needs to be treated. Once we can be assured that they aren’t hurting we tap into their brain’s reward system and run with it. If we can’t do this using food or fun, we have to do something to make it easier for them to stop worrying about protecting themselves and find ways to help them out of the funk of despair and depression, both responses I don’t doubt dogs experience.

If we can lower the dog’s level of anxiety either by the management of their environment and/or the use of medications we need to do it. We need to take hold of the reins of a dog’s reward system and turn them into addicts for what we offer them. Once we do that it only looks like magic.

Skip the dress rehearsal

movie clapboard I am a ‘directional dyslexic’. My thinking is that if our culture found knowing which way was north was important enough they would have provided me with remedial classes in school. As it is, that didn’t happen and lacking specific instructions, when given a choice of going right or left to get somewhere, will choose the wrong way. It happens to me when I’m driving, due to my inability to know or sense which is the ‘right’ way, will even disregard the disgruntled ‘recalculating’ Garmin lady on my GPS unit. It happens to me in shopping malls, leaving through the east wing door instead of the west and wandering the parking lot looking for the car I’d forgotten where I’d parked. I get lost so often that even the wrong way starts to seem right because I’ve been there so many times.

Recently I spoke to someone who had been fostering dogs in the hope of finding a good match for her fearful dog. The question put to me was, “Should I keep the latest dog, who I like, but has gotten into 2 fights with my dog?” The fights had required medical care and even though the dogs ‘got along’ most of the time, unless both impeccable management and successful training were in place, even without a crystal ball I would have been willing to put money on the dogs fighting again. That was all I could say, keep the dog or not, chances are good there would be another fight.

Dogs get better at both emotional and behavioral responses they repeat, whether we like them or not. Preventing dogs from rehearsing inappropriate responses is important. We may never be able to completely change how they will respond to something, but our chances are slimmer the more frequently they practice what we don’t like or want.

Not long ago when I met up with my brother to carpool with him to a friend’s funeral service the first thing he said to me when I got into his car was, “Can’t you wash your car?” Seriously? We don’t see each other for months and that’s what I get? Fortunately I don’t really care if someone finds my dirty car offensive. I live on a dirt road and among the tribe of other dirt road dwellers, my car fits in nicely. I did a bit too much explaining for my liking and decided next time I hear something like that from him I’ll laugh. But it was there, a twist in my gut from the sting of criticism and insult. I was able to nip my first response of disbelief and expletive in the bud. We were after all on our way to a funeral. If there is a next time I hope I can remember my commitment to laugh.

Until your dog is ready for an opening night performance skip the dress rehearsals if they keep forgetting their lines.

Shortcuts to Enlightenment

black & white dog sittingSorry there aren’t any. Thought I’d get that out of the way.

When you find yourself living with a dog who has fear based behavior challenges (one way of saying ‘fearful dog’ for those who eschew labels) it’s not unusual to think, hope, believe, that there’s something, anything, that is going to turn them into a dog who doesn’t have fear based behavior challenges (is not a fearful dog anymore). For some dogs it doesn’t take much. The dog, suffering from culture shock, just off the transport bus, recently pulled out of a shelter, owner gone or no longer able to care for them, digs deep, has the resources and once they put a few pieces together about their new life, are fine. I suspect that many of you reading this blog didn’t end up with a dog like that. I didn’t.

It’s hard to give up the idea that if we could only come up with something-we consult with a communicator to tell us why the dog is afraid, we buy supplements, scents, wraps, collars, harnesses, medication, music, adjust diets, get another dog- all will be well, our dog will be fixed. We move from one remedy to the next, trying what someone else had success with, hope springing eternal. But still our dog startles easily, they flee, cower, cringe, lunge, snap, growl, bite, hide.

Changing how our dogs behave and how they respond to the world takes time. It takes patience. It takes effort. It takes time. It takes money. Most of all it takes an understanding of dogs and how they develop and learn. All of the things we can do and buy to help our dogs may contribute to improving the quality of their lives, but when we spend time looking for shortcuts we may neglect the daily attention we should pay to our dogs, the routine practice that brings competency and mastery of a skill. Doing this requires that we have the ability to acknowledge the dog we are engaging with, at that moment.

Learning to help ‘fearful’, ‘reactive’, or ‘aggressive’ dogs takes practice, and heaven knows our dogs will give us the opportunity for that.