Archive for January, 2013|Monthly archive page

Competing Motivators

pictures of an apple and chocolate cakeMotivation. Everyone talks about it. Did you make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym? There are blogs devoted to helping you stay motivated enough to actually do it. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning requires a level of motivation we may question whether we have or not. Some motivators are very powerful, while others lag behind, yet even if that is the case, they still manage to get us to behave. Lying in bed, snuggled warmly, comfortably and blissfully, under the blankets with a dog or two, when the temperatures are far below freezing is a huge motivator for maintaining my lying in bed behavior. But there are other motivators that will impact my behavior. The initial shock of a cold floor is tolerable because there’s morning coffee brewing and I should get to work. Sometimes I’m motivated by what I am going to get, and sometimes I’m motivated by what I’m going to avoid (caffeine or poverty as examples of the former and latter).

Fear is an important motivator. It may be the most important motivator animals, including us, have available to us to increase our life span. The chances of being killed accidentally climbs until after the age of 19 when it accounts for nearly half the number of deaths among humans aging 15-19. Young children do not have enough experience to accurately assess their environments and so behave in ways that put them at risk. Experimenting with forks and electrical outlets and toddling at the top of a flight of concrete stairs are a couple examples. Teenagers may not only be poor assessors of risk, they also may have keys to a car.

Every day I receive emails from people asking me what they should do to help their dog. It’s impossible for me to answer their question with any specificity or if I do, to not sound flippant (“My dog is scared of me, what should I do?” “Stop scaring them”). If their dog’s behavior is motivated by fear whether that means remaining shut down in a corner or lunging at anyone who walks into a room, they need to address the motivator. Options fall into two categories, decrease the motivator, i.e., the fear, and/or find a motivator that out competes the fear to get behaviors the owner prefers. How they should do this I can’t say for sure. What options are available to them for decreasing the fear and creating other motivators? The answers will vary depending on the dog (the dog has the final vote regarding what is or is not motivating) and what are the resources or environments available for creating alternate motivators.

Sometimes motivators are glaringly obvious. Fear is motivating a dog to cower or growl. Food is motivating a dog to stare and drool. Sometimes the motivators are misidentified or mislabeled, not so glaringly obvious to some. Behaviors motivated by fear are attributed instead to the motivation to move up in status in a relationship with an owner or other dog. Sometimes we can easily control the motivators, or the conditions which motivate, sometimes we can’t. We can control food, but we cannot control thunderstorms.

It’s a damn difficult thing to help many of our fearful dogs. I try to offer ideas and hope that a similar kind of brain that figured out how to create wifi can come up with ways to address a dog’s fearfulness. Those of you living or working with a fearful dog will need to assess the motivators which are driving the dog’s behavior, and don’t forget to have a look at your own while you’re at it.


The Competitive Edge

In last season’s edition of The Master Skier Annual Cross Country Ski Journal, I came across this information in an article by Dan Heil (Competitive Edge p. 55).

“The ability to physically perform and respond to stress (i.e., adapt and recover) can best be described as a moving target for the master athlete.”

I dare say it’s true for any athlete, not just the aging one (“master” is a nice way of saying you’re no spring chicken anymore). It’s also applicable to dogs who are training for sports or fearful dogs who are training for life. Heil goes on to say,

“There are two principles of exercise training that serve as the foundation for any type of formal training program: The Overload Principle (The body must be challenged at a level above what is “comfortable” before it will adapt), and The Specificity Principle (Adaptations are most specific to the type of overload experienced).

When beginners start training for any sport, however, there is almost no need for a formal training plan because the body is adapting to both the novelty of the activity (specificity is not needed) and the overload experienced by every system in the body. In short, every exercise performed by the beginner’s body is an overload.”

I could kiss this guy. Or at least thank him. When we are working with fearful dogs both the Overload and Specificity Principles can be applied, and they are, in some form by many people. I was accused of keeping Sunny “trapped” in his fear because some felt I was not challenging him enough for him to adapt to increasingly stressful conditions. However when using desensitization and counter conditioning to work with a fearful dog the process of desensitization incorporates this principle, so their claim was unfounded.

What they were reacting to was that I was not using the same degree of overload they routinely apply when working with dogs. A degree which I would label “flooding.” The Overload Principle has its limits. Push a body too physically hard and you can wind up with injuries, serious ones in some cases. Even if there is no physical damage it is possible to turn the activity into an aversive event. Take a beginner skier to the top of a black diamond trail and shove them down and you may find that in the future they resist your invitations to go skiing again. Frustration and fear can be the result when the overload taxes the system too much. Bodies and brains should and do enjoy challenges, exemplified by dogs who perform 3 minute uninterrupted freestyle dance routines in crowded stadiums and the space shuttle.

The Specificity Principle plays very nicely into the dog’s limited ability to “generalize.” My own fearful dog will behave one way with people under a specific set of conditions, outside with frisbees flying, for example, and another way under different conditions. It is best not to assume that a dog can positively adapt to levels of stress that were appropriate under one set of conditions, applied under another. You might faithfully run on the treadmill at the gym, and consider yourself to be in good physically condition but after an hour bicycling outside start dreaming of a hot bath and a couple of aspirin. You can use your big brain to understand that bicycles are not machines of pain and torture, and if there were aspects of the experience that you found pleasant, gladly hop on a bike again.cocker spaniel with a worried face

The goals we have for our dogs’ behavior are also “moving targets.” Achieve one goal and new goals suddenly appear. A dog learns to get into the car by himself but leaps to the floor when he sees people when out driving. It never ends and we can either find that exhausting or exhilarating, or more likely both depending on how much overload we are experiencing.

Perhaps the most insightful statement Heil makes for us is in regard to beginners experiencing everything as overload. When a fearful dog is captured, adopted, bought or relocated they are beginners and we can assume that they are experiencing overload. When studies are done this overload can be measured in their cortisol levels. Pet owners, foster care givers, shelter workers or rescue groups don’t need to run tests on blood or saliva to know this, it should be assumed and form the basis for how these animals will be handled and managed.

Sew Buttons On Your Underwear.

Anyone who has spent time with prepubescent or adolescent humans has had or heard a conversation that goes something like this after an adult makes a statement or request-

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “It’s important.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “I feel insulted when you talk to me that way.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “That’s a rude thing to say.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “I’m losing my patience when you say that.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “I want you to stop that right now!”

Kid: “So?”

An experienced adult knows that when an immature mind has latched onto the power of the word so, there’s only one reasonable response and that’s, “sew buttons on your underwear.” I learned this from my grandmother who understood that any attempt to discuss the inappropriateness of the so response would end up in a maddening loop. For a two-letter word so packs a double punch. It demeans the request and slights the person making it.

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.”

It’s a conversation style that I observe often between dogs and owners.

Dog: “I’d like to sniff that.”

Owner: “So?”

Dog: “Hang on a second I think I should pee on that.”

Owner: “So?”

Dog: “I’d like to get out of here.”

Owner: “So?”

Many dogs give up and give in. They may have been punished for doing otherwise. There are others for whom the request is of such importance that they will keep asking until they are taken seriously. When that finally happens they may be labeled bad dogs or red zone dogs. Once that occurs their future hangs in the balance. Will they find someone who takes their requests seriously or someone even more adamant in their commitment to demean them by creating labels such as; dominant, stubborn, alpha or mean, for these requests?

No one enjoys having to take so for answer.

The 7 Habits of Successful Fearful Dogs

small black and white dog standing on cast iron pans

“Not sure why you want me to do this, but ok, whatever.”

On my book shelf is a CD by Wayne Dwyer on the power of intention. It’s an inspirational presentation. But as powerful as intentions are, given the right set of circumstances, habits will win out.

Recently I moved the app icons on my iPod around. I deleted a few and moved some off the main screen. In the process a couple of the ones I use regularly shifted their position. My finger moved to tap the icon for an app that was no longer in the lower left hand side of the screen, but to the right and up a row. I managed not to open the wrong app, and stopped my finger in time. My intention was to open an app, and my habit was to tap the lower left of the screen to do it. I still catch myself aiming for the old, now incorrect, location. Old habits are hard to break.

For up to a year after we moved from one house to another, about a mile down the road past the old house, I would on occasion discover that I was preparing to turn into the old driveway. One day I even made it up the driveway to the house before it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was sleeping at the wheel, I’d not driven off the road into the river, so some part of my brain was doing its job. My intention had been to drive home, but an old habit kicked in.

We want to take advantage of the power of habits when we are working with our fearful dogs. If we can create behaviors that require little thought on the dog’s part, it will be easier for them to behave appropriately in scary situations. If we create those behaviors using positive reinforcement, performing those behaviors can include a positive emotional response at the same time- more bang for our buck.

Sitting and looking at me is a “trick” I’ve worked on with Sunny for years. He will plop his butt down and look at me with the slightest prompting on my part. When the pressure is on, he will do it. It’s become what we call a “default” behavior. If he’s not sure of what else to do, this is his fall-back behavior. I’ve rewarded him with food and praise, a lot, for doing it. It’s proven to be useful at the vet’s office and at the groomer’s. When we’re out and there are people around, he will do it and I can step in between him and the approaching monsters.

Consider helping your dog create the following habits:

  1. Look at you regularly for feedback
  2. Feel good when they hear their name
  3. Sit or lie down easily wherever they are
  4. Stay or wait when asked
  5. Come joyfully when called
  6. Play daily
  7. Become addicted to learning new tricks

Creating Harmony

When I was a kid I had piano lessons. It was obvious I was no prodigy, and my enthusiasm at the keyboard was in seeing how fast I could play Love Story, but I don’t think the lessons were a complete waste of time and money, even though I convinced my parents that they were. Before I succeeded in ending the lessons I had a teacher who introduced me to chords and how they could be broken down and played note by note in ascending or descending order, one hand taking over for the other in a ballet dance over the keys.

When neuroscientists talk about and study the brain they often describe systems in it going from the bottom up or the top down. The bottom being primal systems that create feelings or emotions, and the top being where executive functions that include decision making occur. For a long time it was believed that humans, especially, operated mainly from the top down- conscious observation and learning creating emotional responses, which they can. What we’ve learned from the study of humans and other mammals is that in many situations it is the responses that occur at the bottom, on the emotional level, which start the process of creating behavior. If one was a gambling kind of person the safest bet would be on the bottom up usurping the top down for dominance in many situations.

Since we’re talking about an integrated system we should assume that in either case, something of both is going on at the same time. The left hand is playing an ascending chord in forte while the right is descending in pianissimo. And because life is dynamic the tune is changing all the time. When we are trying to help a dog who is afraid we are constantly observing these changes and using them to base our decisions on how to respond. Can we slow down the rush of information from the bottom to the top? Can we provide the dog with learning opportunities that help to strengthen the information flowing from the top down? Can we take an experience currently being played in tones of fear and panic and alter it enough so that the descending notes can take on a more central role?b & w sketch of a music conductor

We can, to some extent, in many dogs. The more rehearsed the responses are the more challenging it will be. We may find that the resources we have to work on this process are limited. We may discover that we always need to fall back on managing a dog appropriately so as not to provide opportunities for inappropriate responses to occur. Our ability to do this may be limited, for a variety of reasons.

If we are committed to trying we need to acknowledge the information flowing, quickly, from emotional responses to parts of the brain that form memories and motivate behavior. We need to learn to anticipate these responses so we can minimize them or prevent them from occurring, because once they do, it’s history. At the same time we take advantage of the brain’s system that seeks out rewards. We teach our dogs to do something. What that something is (or somethings are) doesn’t matter so long as it provides a reward. Teaching a dog to sit when you ask, or target your hand, make eye contact or give you their paw, strengthen the top down process.

Most importantly, whatever we do should be founded in creating feelings of what we might call joy. And it begins with us. We become the cue that lets the dog know that the following piece is to be played with light heartedness and a lack of worry.

Webinar-Medications To Treat Fear Based Behavior Challenges

Yes, yes I know, people use too many drugs. People think drugs are the solution to everything. Drugs have side effects. I won’t dispute any of those statements, but at the same time drugs can save lives and the side effects of some conditions are worse than the possible side effects of some drugs.

Being scared is no way to live.

Being scared is no way to live.

The reasoning that one should try alternatives to drugs first, makes sense, sometimes. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we should address a disease or condition immediately with drugs. Delaying treatment can allow the problem to get worse, making it more difficult to treat with or without the recommended medication. This doesn’t mean that we should use medications as a first choice in all situations, but sometimes the dog would be better off if we did. In the case of fearful dogs, the sooner we can get a dog to perform new, appropriate behaviors, and reinforce them, the sooner we’ll be able to help them gain skills for being more comfortable in their world. Often medications can help facilitate this process.

Understanding how medications can help a dog with fears, phobias and/or anxiety is key to the process of deciding whether to use them or not. I hope you can join me for this live webinar with Linda Aronson DVM. Dr. Aronson is currently lecturing at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. We will talk about the medications available to help our dogs, how they work, how they should be used, possible side-effects and there will be time for questions.

You can register and find out more information here.

Are Trainers Responsible For The Death Of Shelter Dogs?

cocker spaniel looking at woman eatingIn the dog training world, which has a number of difference sects, stone tossing between them is a common occurrence. I confess I’ve lobbed a few myself. Some of the criticisms voiced are valid and important, others less so. In many cases there is a fundamental agreement between camps, with differing implementations.

The number of unwanted dogs killed daily in shelters around the country is staggering. There are various reasons why this is, and not what this post is about. It is about the assertion, by some trainers, that other trainers are responsible for this situation. When I hear a trainer say that other trainers, because of the way they train, are the cause of dogs being relinquished to shelters my response is, “show me your numbers.”

In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) researchers went into 12 animal shelters in the United States for a year to find out why dogs were being given up. This finding stands out- most dogs (96%) had not received any obedience training. Read it again and let the implications of this sink in. When a trainer claims that other trainers, because of the way they train, are responsible for the death of dogs because they were unable to get the desired behaviors using their chosen method, they are stretching things more than just a bit. I don’t know how that 4% of dogs were trained, or whether their owners complied with the trainer’s recommendations. We never even met the other 96% and not all were given up because of behavior.

There are likely a multitude of reasons why owners dealing with behavioral issues don’t consult with a trainer. What I have experienced is that when an owner fundamentally has a good relationship with their dog, they are more likely to seek out solutions for keeping them. If this solution requires spending time or money, they’ll at least consider it. If someone does not have a good relationship with their dog it’s easier to give up on them. What constitutes a good relationship will vary, but I’ll risk it and say that part of that relationship includes the dog making the owner feel good. The dog looks at them, cuddles with them, plays with them, hangs out with them, etc. I live with 4 very different, often challenging dogs. They might be considered by some to be pains in the butt, but they’re my pains in the butt and they’re not going anywhere. They make me feel good more often than they upset me. Though it did take time and effort to get there with some of them.

The assertion that not getting a dog to stop annoying behaviors is the cause of their relinquishment to shelters, an assertion I hear too often by trainers, some who I think should know better, seems a shallow conclusion to come to. Getting a dog to stop any of the annoying behaviors that can frustrate and anger an owner is important, but this only addresses a part of the problem. It’s an important part, no question, but that an owner has even consulted with a professional trainer is an indication that a crucial piece of the puzzle is in place, the owner cares enough to do it. A trainer’s goal should be to maintain that caring relationship while other issues are addressed. We need to carefully weigh our options for modifying behavior so as not to damage what might be a fragile emotional bond from the dog’s perspective.

Dogs are failed in many ways, but suggesting that I’m contributing to that by the way I choose to train, is tossing far too big a stone at me. I suspect that whatever methods an individual trainer chooses to use, if the foundation of their training rests on creating trust between a person and their dog, and as a trainer maintains a loyalty to the dog as well as the person writing the check, they too may resent having to dodge stones.

Happy New Year!

3 happy dogs facing the cameraI am grateful to all of you for your continued readership. Your comments and feedback provide me with the reinforcement I need to continue to learn and share information about how we can make life easier and better for our beloved, anxious and fearful dogs.

As a pragmatic New Englander whose views on life & the universe were tempered by years of living in northern California I am able to admit that with this work I feel I have found my calling or bliss, take your pick. It certainly took long enough!

In lieu of resolutions, the following are the ideas I have, in varying stages of development, for 2013 and beyond.

1. Fearful Dogs’ Blog- keep posting!

2. Get more people to ‘like’ the Facebook page. I want more people to have access to information about how fearful dogs learn and Facebook seems to be a good vehicle for that. Plus, I confess, I am envious of people who have thousands of ‘likes’.

3. Publish Does My Dog Need Prozac?, a collection of posts from this blog. It is currently being edited!

4. Continue writing the next book on my list detailing the steps that can be taken, from first meeting to rehoming, to help fearful dogs become happy pets. It will pick up where A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog leaves off.

5. Offer high quality webinars for people learning to handle fearful dogs. The first one is scheduled for February 19, 2013! I will be joined by Dr. Linda Aronson who will talk about the use of behavioral medications to help dogs suffering from fear, phobias and anxiety. Pretty darn excited about this one.

6. Be available for seminars and presentations about fear based behavior challenges. I am especially interested in getting information out to pet owners, foster care givers, rescue groups and shelters. I know that the information I share will increase the chances of adoption success for many fearful dogs.

7. Create a fun and informative program about animal training and behavior for our local community access television station. I’ve got the go-ahead from the station and have lined up some fabulous folks for interviews.

8. Travel to Puerto Rico with a group of trainers and dog lovers to share information about reward based training methods. I’ve made more progress with this after speaking at an animal protection symposium in San Juan. Any readers in Puerto Rico who are interested in helping with this, let me know!

9. Publish A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog in Spanish and German. Translations are on their way!

10. Don’t start smoking, drinking too much or making a habit of eating maple walnut pie for breakfast.

11. Late breaking opportunity! I have been invited to host a radio show about dogs.

I have also set-up a page where you can purchase a discounted hard copy of A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog. It will be live until January 31, 2013. Happy New Year to you and yours!