Archive for December, 2012|Monthly archive page

Is there life away from home when you live with a fearful dog?

Play time with other dogs can be a perk at a boarding facility.

Play time with other dogs can be a perk at a boarding facility.

Living with a dog with fear based behavior challenges impacts our lives in many ways and the freedom to be away from home for more than 8 hours can be among them.

A couple of the options available for our dogs’ care when we need to be away are; someone comes to our home and cares for them or they go somewhere for boarding. Your dog and the options available to you in your area, will determine which, if either, you choose to use. There are a variety of factors to take into consideration, and obviously your dog’s physical and emotional well-being top the list. It’s impossible for me to list all the considerations an individual pet owner needs to look at. Some guidelines to follow include:

1. Speak with a vet about medications or supplements that can lower a dog’s overall level of anxiety.

2. Create an environment in which the dog  feels safe and can retreat to if they need to.

3. Desensitize and counter condition a dog to basic handling.

4. Find and educate the person, or persons who will be providing care for your dog. 

In-home care is often best for many dogs, especially those with a range of fears. The challenge of finding appropriate care-givers and the expense will impact whether or not you choose this option. It’s helpful if you can set up an environment which facilitates easy management of your dog. Having a door which leads to a fenced in yard works well if your dog is able to respond to cues for going out and coming back in. A care-giver need only be a door opener and food deliverer. But if a dog is too scared to move for someone we have to come up with alternatives.

It may be necessary to create areas where a dog can urinate and defecate without going outside. It is not a given that a dog who does this will forget their housetraining skills. My own two fearful dogs were provided with papers or pads and used them early in their lives with us. Once they were given access to the outdoors they chose that area, and not inside the house, for toileting.

Giving a dog a few basic skills, and teaching a caregiver how to interact with your dog can allow them to get your dogs outside for toileting and exercise. Having a leash put on their collar or harness is one skill. Being able to walk with a long line attached to their collar or harness is another. Adding a short tag line (approx 12″) to a harness or collar with a loop or ring in the end can make it easier for a caregiver to leash up a dog without having to put as much pressure on a dog as grabbing a collar or harness will. I was able to instruct care-givers on how to put a leash on my dog, get him to follow them out of the house, and go for walks. I was very clear that my people-fearful dog did not need or want any social interactions in addition to feeding, leash walks and toileting. I made sure there was an ample supply of my dog’s favorite treats and care-givers were instructed on how to give them to him; no eye contact, no petting, no bending over the dog, no chatter.

There are professional pet and house sitters available. Be on the look out for anyone who assumes that all dogs will like and feel comfortable with them. These folks, good intentions aside, often try too hard to connect with a dog, a dog who may have no interest in connecting with them. They will need to be able to put their egos and anything they’ve learned in the past about dogs, aside. Some will be willing and able to do this, others will not. I had good success with a young woman who worked with cats at the local humane society. She was comfortable with dogs and able to understand that a fearful dog is not unlike a scared cat. Try as you like, you are not going to make a scared cat like you. Our neighbors were also a great help to us, and continue to be. Vet techs are another good population of possible candidates for pet care.

For some dogs being boarded away from home can be both a physically and emotionally safe, option for them. The understanding of fear based behaviors by the people handling your dog is crucial. A dog who is comfortable with other dogs may enjoy the opportunity to be with them during play time. A boarding kennel may be a safer place for a dog if you do not have a secure, fenced area at home. If you have more than one dog there is often the choice to have them share a kennel, providing them with the comfort and solace of a buddy. Look for kennels set up so that your dog does not require handling for cage cleaning or feeding. A safe space can be created, a crate to hide in or a barrier to hide behind for example, while cleaning occurs.

Staff who understand fearful dogs or are willing to follow instructions regarding how your dog should be handled and interacted with, is imperative. Large kennels may employ a collection of low skilled workers who may like dogs, but may have misguided ideas about them. People professionally involved with dogs can assume they know more about your dog than you do. I was surprised to hear one kennel owner tell me that she thought people gave too many drugs to dogs. When a dog I knew stayed at her kennel and was sent along with behavioral medications, she did not give them to the dog, despite the owner’s instructions. The kennel operator decided that the dog was fine without them. I was dumbstruck. There are medications which require a specific withdrawal protocol before they cease to be used. To abruptly stop their use can be dangerous. As for the dog appearing to fine, the medications may have been reason!

In-home boarding is popular and many pet owners assume a better option than a commercial facility. Whether this is the case will be depend on the people providing the care, your dog’s triggers, and the adequacy of fencing on the property. I offer in-home boarding and have turned away dogs and suggested a boarding kennel instead. Home life, especially a home with other unrestrained dogs, is unpredictable. A fearful dog may fare better with the predictable routines of a kennel, along with the isolation option it provides. I will not board a fearful dog who does not have a recall. Unlike a commercial kennel the opportunity to slip out an open door or find a way out of the fence yard exists. Most dogs don’t choose to leave me or my other dogs, but a fearful dog, once outside of the confines of my home or yard may be impossible to catch.

Every dog and every situation is going to be different. By giving a dog a foundation of basic skills, experimenting with medications to help relieve a dog’s anxiety, and researching both in and away from home options, it is possible to have a life away from your fearful dog.


Conditioned Reinforcers

There are some things I take for granted, things that have become part of the fabric of my life with dogs, that I forget that at one time they were new ideas to me. Creating conditioned reinforcers to use in a variety of ways with my dogs is one of them. Here’s a quick primer on what conditioned reinforcers are, how you create them and what you can do with them.

boy playing with small black dog

Cues can become conditioned reinforcers too!

A conditioned reinforcer is anything that is paired with a primary reinforcer, often food, in a way that imbues the conditioned reinforcer with the impact of the primary reinforcer. The conditioned reinforcer causes the dog to feel the way they feel about the primary reinforcer. The sound of the clicker is a conditioned reinforcer. There are other names for conditioned reinforcers, such as secondary or tertiary reinforcer, but all are conditioned reinforcers. A conditioned reinforcer, before it’s been conditioned, or the dog has learned to make the association between it and the primary reinforcer, has no intrinsic value or does not necessarily create a positive emotional response in a dog. The sound of a clicker, the words “good dog!”, a dog’s name, have little or no meaning to a dog, but we can change that. Once we do, a conditioned reinforcer can be a powerful tool in training a fearful dog.

The way we can create conditioned reinforcers is simple, we follow the presentation of whatever we want the dog to feel good about, with a food treat, repeatedly. The dog hears, sees, feels or smells whatever we are conditioning them to and they anticipate a treat will follow. Eventually, even if a treat does not follow, once something has been conditioned, the good feeling occurs. For years an aunt would send me a birthday card with a check in it. The check, also a conditioned reinforcer, made me feel good. When I would open the mailbox and see an envelope from my aunt, I would feel good, even before I opened it. When I got older the checks stopped coming, but before I realized that the routine had changed, I still got that oh goodie a check feeling, when I saw the envelope.

Dogs fearful of people need to be taught that certain things should feel good to them, unlike dogs who grew up having positive interactions with people from puppyhood on. Praise or petting, which can be reinforcing for many dogs who have positive associations with people, are not necessarily loaded with enough of the feel good effect to cause a fearful dog to work for them. By following words of praise, ear scratches, a smile, your dog’s name, or clapping your hands with a treat, you will have a variety of things you can use to make your dog feel good. If something makes a dog feel good enough, they will try to figure out what they did to make it happen, so they can do it again. This is how we train dogs to do all kinds of things.

How can you use conditioned reinforcers? They can be used as rewards to reinforce behaviors in dogs we would like to see more of as I’ve described above. We can also use a conditioned reinforcer to mark a behavior to point out more clearly to the dog what it is we are rewarding them for. This is how the clicker is typically used. When teaching my dogs to take a nap, I can mark, with either a click or a word, when they lower their head. Then I toss them a treat. In training this is the deal I make with dogs. They do something, I point it out with a conditioned reinforcer and then I give them a treat, or other primary reinforcer. For some dogs the opportunity to chase a ball or play tug, can replace the food.

A third way to use conditioned reinforcers with fearful dogs is to use their value to change how a dog feels about an event or trigger. Take a phrase, silly boy, for example. Say it and then give your dog a treat, over and over again. The next time something spooks your dog and they startle or cower you can tell them him he is a silly boy, and if he is not too terrified the words can help change how he feels. Some people call this jollying.

I use conditioned reinforcers to help scared dogs stop being scared of me approaching or being near them. I pair my arrival with a conditioned reinforcer, often the click of a clicker, and follow that with the toss of a treat. So long as the dog is happy to hear the clicker, go after a treat, my arrival predicts both of these will occur. This is not the same as having a treat predict the appearance of a trigger, which can ‘poison’ the value of the treat. This is an important distinction to  make. Think about luring a dog into the bathtub with a piece of bologna. Imagine how the dog will respond the next time you try to lure them anywhere with bologna. You don’t want this to happen with your conditioned reinforcer.

Pick a few things you can turn into conditioned reinforcers for your dog. Choose words or actions you normally do without thinking about it. Is there something you say when a dog does something you like? Do you cheer or give your dogs a thumbs-up? Grab a bowl of their favorite treats, say it or do it and toss your dog a treat. Repeat until you use up the treats. During the next few days carry treats with you and do the same thing whenever you say or do what you are conditioning. You can work on several throughout the day; smile-treat, yahoo!-treat, good dog-treat, happy hand waves-treat, etc. You will be creating a collection of feel goods and if there’s anything a fearful dog needs, it’s to feel good.

Surviving Adoption

small black dog being held by a man at an animal shelterRay Coppinger studies the world’s population of free-ranging dogs. These are the domesticated dog (as opposed to wild dogs) who are not under the reproductive control of humans. There are millions of them and they represent over 80% of the world’s population of dogs. He has looked at how dogs end up living as pets.

The most common thing that happens is that dogs adopt people. Travel in any developing country and you’re likely to see a puppy or young dog trailing behind a person, often a child. The pup survives on the scraps or offerings of the person they choose to be with. If the food or other necessity such as water or shelter is available on a regular basis, and provides an advantage over not sticking around the person, the dog has found a home.

When I was a kid my mother, having traveled to Florida, brought me home a baby alligator. The person who sold her the alligator told her that we should feed it bread. That my mother didn’t have an understanding of the needs of alligators is obvious, that the person selling her the alligator didn’t care is obvious as well. Martin the alligator (named after my brother) didn’t survive for long in his bathtub by the radiator. People also adopt dogs. One of the required conditions for any animal that is adopted by people is that they are able to survive the adoption process. Dogs for the most part, unlike alligators, have been overwhelmingly success at this.

Fearful dogs frequently do not survive the adoption process. Their needs are misunderstood, and even the most compassionate of people may not be able to meet them. The people responsible for finding homes for dogs with fear based behavior challenges need to be able to either give a dog the skills they will need to be successful as pets, or find someone who can.

Is the pet shop owner, knowing that the majority of baby alligators they are selling to tourists to bring home to their kids will not be cared for appropriately, behaving in an ethical way? If the pet shop owner is unaware of the needs of baby alligators should they be in the business of selling them? What is our responsibility for the dogs we either adopt out or bring home to live with us as pets? How can we increase the chances that a dog will not only survive the adoption process but thrive in it?