Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

What It Takes

I had a call recently from a concerned owner with a service dog who was becoming more and more reactive to sounds and changes in her environment. The dog was described as “timid” even on arrival into the home of her new handler. I will not address the reality that someone trained and placed a dog to be a service dog in the community who was timid and wary from the get-go. I wasn’t joking when I told the owner that he was going to be his dog’s service human.

As the conversation progressed I learned that they were located in a town where I knew there was a good trainer. A trainer who understood how animals learn, who has studied and practiced teaching new behaviors to animals, who knew how to discern between her ability to teach a behavior and an animal’s ability to learn it. This latter point is important. As trainers it’s important for us to be able to see when our own skills are lacking and not immediately assume that an animal requires more aversive techniques to be trained. Or if we do decide that we need to move up the scale and punish a dog we consider which type of punishment we will use and how it might adversely impact an animal’s behavior. I trusted this trainer to be able to do that intelligently.

My faith in humanity is always buffed up a bit when I speak with people like this fellow. He had already demonstrated compassion toward his dog and was doing some of the things I would have recommended; jollying and playing with the dog when she was afraid (as opposed to punishing her or making her deal with what was scaring her). As we were wrapping up the conversation he told me that he would do anything to help his dog and if what one trainer told him didn’t work, he’d find another. And suddenly the conversation wasn’t almost over.

I understood what he meant, and in practice changing trainers may be the best thing to do especially if a trainer has recommended the use of punishment but in this case I knew that if what my colleague advised him to do wasn’t working, he should return to her to find out why. Often when a training technique doesn’t work it’s not because the technique itself is flawed, it’s the application of it or that the process requires more time. Trainers hear it almost daily, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” the implication being that someone’s dog is especially recalcitrant, stupid, or aggressive (and far too often the justification for the use of training equipment designed to hurt or scare a dog). In this day and age when we can all be experts in the trivia of practically everything thanks to the non-stop availability of television shows, it’s easy to think we actually know something.

Most of our dogs do not require the subtlety of surgeons when it comes to being able to be trained to be good pets. But add fear, anxiety or phobias to a dog’s make up and the skill required to help them increases. Doing something right becomes paramount because of the risks involved with doing it wrong. To assume that a technique a professional, force-free, trainer recommends isn’t working, or working fast enough and moving on to find the next magic bullet can be a mistake.

Being willing to do what it takes to help a dog is admirable. And on that list should be knowing whose advice you are taking.



boy in chair surrounded by dogs he is training

The neighbor kid has enjoyed learning how to train dogs

For the past two summers I’ve been staying with my mum near Cape Cod. I know that having her youngest, and least fastidious daughter come and stay along with her four dogs is a challenge for her, but it’s a trade-off she’s had to make. Despite needing to spray the couch with Febreeze every day (Sunny’s preferred sleeping spot) I think she actually enjoys having them around. There’s no need to worry about whether she’s locked the doors at night. There’s not an icicle’s chance in hell that anyone would be able to so much as walk to the door, let alone actually open it without a chorus of barking. That chorus is another issue, but it’s getting easier for the dogs to end them when asked. Having a new home for the summer requires some adjustments for them as well.

Overall it’s been good. I have been able to see the skills they’ve developed and which need more work. There are more people coming and going and not only does that require more effort on my part to manage them it actually gives me the opportunity to practice the behaviors I want with them. Both Nibbles and Annie have learned to cut down on their initial barking and Nibbles has also learned that yapping and snapping after someone who gets up or walks by is not a good choice to make. I started by using lots of treats for recalls and sits and then added in a brief time-out (about 5 seconds alone in the bathroom) for infractions. Nibbles was a quick study but Annie has a more difficult time not voicing her opinion on things. Sunny is put in a place where he feels safe and where he cannot move toward people arriving.

A time-out is a form of punishment. We take away the dog’s opportunity for reinforcement (barking is very reinforcing for many dogs) by removing them from the situation and then returning them so they have the chance to behave the way we want them to for some other form of reinforcement, in our case it’s food. It can take a few trials for the dog to figure out why they are being walked off to the bathroom (or wherever you choose to put them) so don’t get frustrated or upset when you have to repeat the process. With Annie it’s a tricky one because if left there too long she’ll start barking to be let out, and I don’t want to have to deal with getting that to stop because I’m doing this when we have guests (which is why they are barking) so I’m juggling welcoming people into my home while I’m picking up leashes and leaving the room. But I would prefer to do this rather than shout at the dogs to shut up, which can also work. One reason is that I don’t like to yell and another is that I don’t want to make the association between guests and being yelled at for my dogs. So long as they don’t bark they are welcome to stay, maybe even get a treat or two from me or a dog-loving guest.

I hadn’t planned on writing a training post this morning. I wanted to share the photo of me in my rowboat (which we’ve had since I was a kid) along with rowboat in lake with 2 people and 2 dogs in itsome friends. Even Sunny managed to climb in for the ride. I also wanted to invite those of you who may not know about it to like the Face book page. I try to post something fearful dog related there every day for education and inspiration.

I will also be traveling this fall offering full-day seminars on fear-based behaviors in dogs and the most humane and effective ways to help them.

For my friends in the northern hemisphere I hope you are enjoying your summer and the living really is easier.

I Confess

4 dogs sitting on the end of a pier with a lake in the backgroundI live with 4 dogs who I enjoy the company of, care greatly about and wouldn’t trade for the world. I like to think that they feel the same about me. But lately, as friends get sturdy puppies who are growing up to be confident and handsome dogs, I find myself feeling nostalgic about dogs from my past. And dreaming of dogs in my future.

Before this current group of dogs I could grab a map of local hiking trails, load up a backpack, get the dogs in the car, and head off for the day. There were no worries about what I’d do were we to run into children, men with hats, beards, and walking sticks, or other dogs. Don’t get me wrong, those dogs had their share of challenges. They barked too much at cars driving by the house, rolled in stinky, dead things, one could locate discarded baby diapers from 1/2 mile, and they stole their share of sandwiches from picnicking toddlers. But at the end of the day I could stop and visit a friend, the dogs either joining me inside or waiting contentedly in the car until I returned. Those were the days.

Now I live with dogs who require constant thought and planning. Annie barks a lot, likes to ride in the car but never settles if I leave her in it. She’s not destructive but I feel guilty returning after an hour shopping trip and finding her, front feet on the dashboard, in the same position I left her, watching for me. Nibbles is terrified riding in the car and the last time I left him for any amount of time, he vomited all over our suitcases. At home he’s always on alert, waiting for someone to jog, bike or drive by so he can charge and bark. There have been improvements in this behavior, but nothing is ever not a big deal to Nibs. Sunny can’t join the big, wide world except in very small and controlled doses. Thank goodness he’s ok in the car and doesn’t seem to mind having to wait in it when I’m gone. And then there’s Finn my border collie–my most normal dog is a border collie, if that gives you perspective.

I’m not complaining. I know that one day, all too soon, I’ll be missing those faces.

Work Toward Play

black dog playing with a plastic food toyWe are familiar with the experience of living with an aging creature and being caught by surprise when we realize how much they have changed before our eyes. This routinely happens to me when I look in the mirror, “When the heck did THAT happen?!” The same thing can happen with our fearful dogs. Their progress can be so slow that it’s difficult to notice until we take a step back and look.

It’s not unusual for people to tell me that their dog is either not interested in food or in playing. This may be an indication of a dog who is not feeling well physically, or emotionally. A fearful dog needs to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that they are safe in order to begin to experiment with new behaviors. A dog who feels under the weather or is in pain may not be interested in doing much of anything except protecting themselves from a perceived threat.

During a consult with a caring owner of a fearful dog it was clear to me from her description of the dog’s behavior how much he had improved. He had gone from being aggressive toward the man in the house, to actively seeking him out during storms to snuggle with. One of the safest bets we could make is that a fearful dog can become an aggressive dog unless handled appropriately. That this dog did not escalate his aggressive behavior toward someone in the house, and actually began to seek him out when feeling frightened, is no small feat.

One concern the owner had was that the dog often seemed sad or depressed and with further questioning we discovered that he had not had the opportunity to play with food toys. They either scared him or appeared to be of no interest to him. We began to explore ways to change this. It may be safe to say that the dog WAS feeling sad and depressed and along with medications we could try to make changes in his brain so that feeling happy and enthusiastic was easier for him.

Our goal is to get him to work on getting food out of a stuffed Kong. As with any behavior we want to teach a dog, we break it down. If the dog showed wariness about the object itself we’d start there. There are a myriad of ways we could eliminate his concern about a novel object. There was another dog in the house who displayed resource guarding behaviors so leaving Kongs around for the fearful dog to get used to, wasn’t an option. The owner had been playing targeting games with the dog so one suggestion I had was to smear baby food or something tasty on the Kong and letting him lick it off after performing a cued behavior. Or the dog could target the Kong for a treat. Once the Kong no longer seemed scary to the dog, a few bits of yummy food, that would fall out easily, could be put into it and then given to the dog.

This may seem too simple to matter in the rehabilitation of a fearful dog, but it is the start of encouraging a dog to begin to solve problems-how to get the food. When a problem is solved we can expect that the dog will feel good about it, “SUCCCESS!” From here we can gradually increase the difficulty of getting at the food. I work toward being able to put a combination of dry and wet food into the Kong and freezing it. This takes longer for the dog to get the job of getting food out, done. Other games to try include hiding a bit of food under a face cloth or piece of cardboard for a dog who is unwilling to engage with novel objects.

Play provides a number of benefits that are worth working for.