Archive for March, 2012|Monthly archive page

Nibbles-the journey continues

So yes, Nibbles in now my dog. I didn’t want a 4th dog, I didn’t want Nibbles, but when the head of the rescue group responsible for him (legally that is) told me they were going to send someone to my house to pick him up and transport him a 7 hour car ride and plane or ferry ride away, I panicked. I had been in communication with the person who was going to adopt him. She’d never met him, and despite my efforts did not seem to understand that I was not just a fussy foster mom worried about her fur baby.

Nibbles and the other dogs from his breeder who were ‘rescued’ went through hell. It was not meant to be hell, and as far as ‘rescues’ go, it wasn’t as bad as some, but for dogs who had never been away from their home, or the dozens of other dogs in it, being put into crates, transported and left alone in barn stalls, it was pretty darn scary. Some of the dogs managed well, others not so much. Of the dogs that I knew or or heard about, at least 3 had run away from their new homes, including Nibbles. One was found a few days later, Nibbles 3 weeks later, and one-never. It’s fair to assume she is dead. Small dogs afraid to approach people don’t stand much of a chance in the woods of Vermont.

I had worried about Nibbles for the weeks he was missing and when he was found offered to take him on and see if I could help him with his fears. For months I worked with him and never heard from the rescue group claiming ownership of him. It wasn’t until someone decided they wanted a fearful dog, just like the one their friend had adopted (another from the same breeder bust) that I was told to either deliver him myself, which I would have done to help him through the transport and transition into a new home, or hand him over to strangers. But when I couldn’t do it ‘right away’ I was told that he would be picked up, and that was that. When the adopter told me ‘not to worry, he’ll be fine’, I felt sick. There was a chance that Nibbles would be fine, but I had seen what ‘not fine’ looked and sounded like for him, and there was an even better chance that there would be a lot of ‘not fine’ first. Someone owed this dog for all the extremely ‘not fine’ he’d already endured. It might as well be me.

Life here would be easier without him. Just this morning he chased a jogger and I was on the phone trying to hire neighbor kids to go by the house so we could work on not chasing joggers. For the past two months we’ve been attending agility classes. There is a supportive trainer who lets me come to classes with my special needs dogs and work with them as I need to. The class also forced me into doing more work to help Nibs feel better riding in the car. Last week on our way to class #8, along with the help of an anti-anxiety medication we finally had a tremble-free ride. Hopefully with a few more of those under his collar Nibbles will be able to relax in the car, which will make rides more enjoyable for both of us.

Here’s a clip of Nibs at agility. Keeping track of little dogs is a bigger challenge than I imagined!


Bad’s already happened

black & white cartoon of man wearing a straw hat wavingA common misunderstanding about ways to work with dogs who are fearful is that we can show them that they don’t have any reason to be afraid of something. We think of it like this (you can replace anything that might scare a dog for the ‘man with hat’).

Dog sees ‘man with hat’-feels fear-nothing bad happens.

If the dog sees ‘man with hat’ frequently enough surely they will be able to put 2 and 2 together and come to realize that ‘nothing bad happens’. When the scary thing isn’t all that scary, producing more of a ‘oh dear you startled me’ kind of response, the dog may do the math. But when the fear response equals one in which deals are being made with god, it’s less likely they’ll be able to do so. One has to be able to think and reason in order to bother with math.

What if we are able to insinuate something between the ‘sees man with hat’ and the ‘feels fear’ sequence? Something like a chunk of cheese perhaps. It’s a good idea, and again can work so long as the intensity of the fear is low enough. But what we are learning about how brains ‘process’ scary events shows us why it doesn’t work as often as we need it to.

With the invention of awesome medical devices like the fMRI researchers are able to watch brains in action. Even before we had the capability of doing this, how brains experience fear has been debated. The ‘sees man with hat-feels fear’ sequence was under question. What researchers have found is that the sequence looks more like this-

Dog feels fear-sees ‘man with hat’-nothing bad happens.

It’s happens to you too. There’s that creepy feeling that someone is looking at you and you glance around the subway car and catch someone quickly averting their eyes. There’s the person at the office who you don’t like, for no discernible reason, and cringe whenever you see them coming toward you. How about those situations in which you always knew something wasn’t right but didn’t do anything until it went wrong.

It turns out that before the part of our brain which defines what it is we are seeing is able to do so, in effect before we even see it, our amygdala has already sent our bodies the signal to ‘feel’ something. Our heart rate increases, our skin crawls, our stomachs clench. When our brains finally see what our amygdala already knew about, our body is giving the order about how to ‘think’ about it. And when we’re talking about fear inducing triggers, it’s bad! And again, depending on the intensity of the response, we may or may not be able to talk ourselves out of the bad feeling. The problem with our dogs is that they can’t talk themselves out of it, and we can’t either.

When we repeatedly expose our dogs to things that scare them we are often only reaffirming for them, it’s bad, because that is what their body is telling them. When we attempt to use desensitization and counter conditioning to change how our dogs feel we do not want the positive thing we are using to change their mind to predict the scary thing. If you’ve ever used a chunk of meat to lure a dog into the bathtub you know how this ends. The next time you want to give your dog a bath and pull out the meat the dog heads the other direction. And for this reason DS/CC often don’t work with seriously scared dogs because by the time we offer the dog the good thing, the bad thing- fear– has already happened.

Trainers and anyone who calls themselves a ‘rehabber’ of dogs with fear based behavior challenges must understand the implications of this and how it will effect the way they work with a dog. If all it took was to repeatedly expose a dog to a trigger to fix them I doubt there would be as many dogs as there are being relinquished to shelters and rescues because of behavioral issues, which is a leading cause of abandonment. It’s the method of choice of many inexperienced, arrogant or flat out mean, trainers and owners. It would have worked already. It hasn’t. Move on.

What’s your standard?

Standard- an accepted or approved example of something against which others are judged or measured.

cartoon of surgeon with chain sawI was recently contacted by someone who was starting a rescue group for dogs with mild to moderate behavior challenges. I’m not sure how ‘mild to moderate’ was being quantified and nothing about the information they readily shared gave any indication that they did either. They may be skilled people who are capable of doing a fabulous job. They may be full of good intent but clueless about the needs of the dogs they are assuming responsibility for. There is also the possibility that they are a scam or worse, hoarders. I no longer feel all warm and fuzzy when someone tells me they do ‘rescue’.

It’s possible in the course of a day to hear or read about all kinds of bad advice freely shared by self-proclaimed ‘professionals’. This morning it was the recommendation to poke an aggressive dog in the neck, using a claw-like hand to redirect their attention toward the owner, instead of the person the dog was attending to. The sharer of this pearl went on to detail how it had worked on a dog they were training. It all sounded so easy and reasonable unless you thought about it, which seems to be rarely done. Touch an aroused dog and you take the very real risk of being redirected on in a big way. In many professions giving advice that causes someone to be injured would be considered gross negligence, not so with dog training.

Imagine joining an online group of professional therapists and reading suggestions and advice that are straight from an episode of television’s Dr. Phil. How about discussing medical options with a surgeon whose only education included online courses and ownership of the complete DVD set of Grey’s Anatomy. That anyone in either case would use the fact that they’ve lived with a mind or body for decades as evidence of ability would seem ludicrous. This continues to go on in the world of dog training today. Barbers are doing the blood letting.

Don’t teach them to run before they can walk

cartoon box of matchesWhen I was growing up it was likely you’d find a box of wooden ‘strike anywhere’ matches in any household. For kids these matches provided hours of recreation and skill building. First we had to learn to light them using the rough siding on the box, but we didn’t stop there, we were determined to put the definition of  ‘anywhere’ to the test. Rocks, sidewalks and zippers worked, even teeth and after much practice you’d truly gain ‘hot sh*t’ status when you could, with one flick of a thumbnail get the match blazing.

Most of us were not reckless with our match lighting skills though I’d guess many could recount one heart stopping moment when innocent exploration turned, or almost turned, into disaster. A friend shared his own poor decision making with me, telling how on two separate occasions he lit fires in his house. Scary stuff. As for me I will never forget- and I know now that the adrenalin surge I experienced when I felt a flash of terror, is responsible for searing the moment in my mind- the day I experimented with a house plant.

A long rectangular planter filled with rat tail cacti sat on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. These slender plants are covered by haze of fine spines. I touched a lit match to the plant and watched in horror as the flame rapidly covered one plant and leaped to the next. Luck was with me that day when as you’d do to a flaming birthday cake I blew on the plant and the fire went out. Not only did the fire go out but it left no evidence of itself behind, not one charred spine to give me away. That was a close one.

With our ‘fearful of people’ dogs we can become so focused on giving them a skill, one which we believe is going to be beneficial, specifically the ability to approach people, that we don’t consider the possible repercussions. We lure them toward people with treats. We teach them to target outstretched hands. We give them ‘move toward people’ skills. Maybe we shouldn’t. I understand all the reasons ‘why’ we’d want to get our dogs to do this. We want them to be able to approach people. We think that we can make it a positive experience for them. Maybe we can, but maybe it will never be positive enough to offset the underlying fear our dog experiences.

There are plenty of dogs who are taught not to go toward and greet strangers. People are asked not to interact with these dogs and it’s not the end of the world. For these dogs it’s not a question of maintaining their safety or the safety of strangers, it’s just what they are trained to do. They  may be sniffing for drugs or explosives or steering their blind handler down a busy sidewalk.

Unless you know with 100% certainty that a dog is going to continue to be safe approaching people, regardless of the circumstances, it may be a better idea not to hand the box of matches over to them and trust they’ll do the right thing with them.

Poor puppy

happy brown puppyI have the opportunity to talk to many people about their fearful dogs. One thing almost all of them have in common is that they waited too long to get help for themselves and their dog. I’m not pointing a finger of blame at them, I understand the delay. Most of the dogs we’ve lived with have been adaptable, resilient and tolerant. Some have been shy at first but they quickly have ‘come around’. Others have retained some level of fearfulness but it wasn’t enough to impact our lives significantly.

It’s helpful to have a picture of what an emotionally healthy dog looks like. An emotionally healthy dog starts off looking like an emotionally healthy puppy. Puppies should be curious, they should be attracted to people and other dogs, they may startle and move away from something but so long as they are not hurt or scared again by it, should investigate it. Puppies follow people around, they greet other dogs, they pounce on toys and chew computer cables. Puppies lick your face and nibble your shoe laces.

Red flags should go up if a puppy repeatedly moves away or hides from people. An emotionally healthy puppy may display some timidness or wariness when in a new location with new people but this shouldn’t last long. Hours of this type of behavior is a warning sign, days of it should have alarm bells ringing. Don’t mistake aggressiveness based in fear for puppy bravado.

If you have any inkling that somethings isn’t ‘right’ with a puppy, run don’t walk to your nearest reward based trainer. The sooner a dog with fear based behavior challenges is handled properly the better their chance of learning skills to feel comfortable and safe in their world.

Sorry about that!

For those of you who got numerous notices about a blog post please accept my apologies! Not sure what happened as I hadn’t even intended to publish the post, it was an as yet unedited morning rant I was having with myself. Something did cause my computer to freeze up and I suspect you can imagine that sinking feeling I had in my gut when on restarting and going into my blog I saw it had not only been published, bad enough, but repeatedly.

In the scheme of things it’s small potatoes, but embarrassing and I can still feel a little of the adrenalin in my fingers and constriction in my chest as I type my apology. But for someone who tries to help scared dogs, it’s a good reminder of the physiological effects of disturbing events.

Still snowing here in southern Vermont. I suspect I should go out and shovel some of my jitters away.