Better Than Average

Black & white dog looking quizzicalIn my world the reality is that those of us living with a dog with fear-based behavior challenges must be better than average pet owners. I say this meaning no offense to average pet owners. Anyone who chooses to live with an animal is ahead of the curve in my book. Most however do not add a dog to their lives in order to have to become a competent dog trainer. And the majority of dogs don’t need them to be. But many of us are living with Mike Tyson and trying to turn him into a ballet dancer.

Dogs from puppy mills, hoarding situations or who have been isolated or abused will require more than simply time and love. Anyone who makes the statement implying that to be the case has identified themselves as either a novice or sadly misinformed about dogs and behavior. That someone was successful with a dog by providing only time and love is little solace to the owner living with a dog who can’t leave their crate, walk through doorways, or be in the same room with their spouse. And it’s little use to a dog who needs skilled handling. Anyone re-homing, selling or adopting out dogs with fear-based challenges who suggests that all that is needed is time and love should get out of the business, there is no excuse for it.

On a daily basis I receive email and Facebook messages asking for “tips” or suggestions regarding how to help a foster dog or a newly adopted dog who is displaying any number of behaviors due to fearfulness and inexperience. I want to help but know that what is needed goes beyond well-meaning advice. The solution they are after doesn’t exist. There is no answer to “what should I do?” when the question should be “what does the dog need?” and that may not be a short list.

If you have chosen to keep a dog and work to help them have a life that isn’t plagued by anxiety, vigilance and fear, you can be better than average. If you have decided that you are not prepared or have the desire to devote the time, energy and expense required to effectively and humanely work with a dog, plan your next move wisely and compassionately. Fearful dogs are a vulnerable population. They are often subjected to abuse in the name of training or rehabilitation. Every move is stressful and scary and their behavior may degrade. Their suffering does not end just because we can’t see it anymore. It’s not easy to be better than average when it means making tough decisions for dogs we care about and are responsible for.

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27 comments so far

  1. Mel on

    How well said. I worry all of the time about the vulnerable ones. It’s why I have been so frustrated with shelter show hand out mill dogs to anyone who wants them, but doesn’t take the time to educate these new owners on what to expect or how to begin helping their dogs.

    • fearfuldogs on

      I appreciate that people want to help dogs. I really do. But I don’t think we’re doing many of these dogs or the people taking them on, any favors.

  2. rangerskat on

    As usual a spot on post. Living with a profoundly damaged dog with fear based issues is a life changing choice and it is very hard work. Not that it isn’t often really rewarding but it is always hard. You get used to it and these days I don’t usually notice how hard it is to be constantly vigilant and to plan everything carefully so as to keep everyone, canine and human alike, safe. It’s paying dividends now with my fearful Finna, she’s becoming steadily less reactive to the things that a well socialized dog considers simply a normal part of living with people. We continue to measure her progress in millimeters but enough millimeters and you’ve made a meter’s worth of difference.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It is an example of the profound compassion we humans are capable of when we struggle to give these dogs a decent life.

  3. sara, oreo and chewy on

    I think the hardest thing for many is the reality that their dog may never be a ‘regular’ dog who can simply go for a walk in the park. Living with fearful dogs is challenging and disappointing at times, but boy, do you learn a lot!

  4. Rama's Mama on

    It is challenging and hard work. Bless you for doing it. I have nominated your blog for the Shine On award. When you get a chance, stop by and pick it up! http://walkswithrama.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/weve-received-another-blog-award/

  5. Auryaun (aka) Noelle Hughes on

    I wholeheartedly agree. You’re not just a pet owner and trainer, you’re also a therapist, trying to help heal the wounded animal. Each animal suffers in its own way, so there can’t be a catch-all solution. Those kind enough to want to help these creatures need to understand the depth of commitment required to truly make a difference.

  6. Charlie's Best Chance on

    This is so true. After 2 months with my fearful dog, Charlie, he has shown great improvement (with miles to go). Every aspect of training requires careful analysis and problem solving when you can’t just reward with treats. Right now, he trusts me … to a point, and he finally-curled tail and playfulness in the house tells me he’s becoming happy. But, I work from home, and I’m willing to do what it takes in the hopes of seeing that tail wag. I hope I’ll be that above-average dog owner and give him the life he deserves.

    • fearfuldogs on

      There is a good book available by Malena DeMartini Price called Treating Separation Anxiety. She details the protocol to help with this challenge.

      • Charlie's Best Chance on

        Thanks. I’ll look into it, but separation anxiety may be one of the few problems Charlie DOESN’T have. Oddly, he’s fine around firecrackers (war zone around here in July) and thunder storms. But step on a dried leaf, and it’s a whole different story!

  7. Alexandra on

    I have a pet/working dog that I believe has gone trough all possible fear phases of development. He a livestock guardian dog.
    Now he is an year and a half old and still shows some fear based aggression towards strange people and strange things. I refused to use with him any aversion training tools. I have just an attitude of if you want to do this ( meet dogs, people, get a treat) you are doing it my way. Otherwise we are going I the opposite direction.
    It is a beautiful experience working with Ursu and I see progress each day by unfortunately I don’t have many tools available. He doesn’t work for treats while outside, just maybe for access to other dogs or people he likes.
    If I think of such a dog in the hand of persons not skilled enough or not willing to put into the effort… You will end with a dangerous dog that maybe ands up euthanized or in a small pen for life. And I’m not a professional trainer, but just a dog owner of “difficult dogs” for the last 20 or so years.
    I’ve talked with trainers that said to use humane methods and then when the dog refused their treats proposed me the prong collar…. And I’m using with him just a harness with a frontal clip, or a large leather bucle collar.
    Also Ursu gets scared of thing that for us are normal things while he is sound on other thing that I things should be scary for him. For Ursu more than sounds there are threatening smells. He just seems to go into panic mode for no reason. I found that for him it is better to ignore the panic moment and as soon as he is calmer I will give him a cue and prize for it. But I never prize directly for being calm.

    • fearfuldogs on

      You can certainly do what you are doing but it’s important to understand that if we decide to counter condition to triggers, the receipt of the food is not dependent on the dog’s behavior or doing any cued behavior.

      • Alexandra on

        The problem with Ursu is that I cannot point out the triggers, being mostly smells. And mainly I believe is adrenaline or some other hormone or perfume. He seems to pick up one person in the middle of a busy road/park and react to her/him, with no apparent motivation.
        There are also two categories of persons that trigger him (drunk people and aggressive people) that I also can distinguish so I usually I find a very nice bush a little bit away for the commotion and send him to do its business.
        Now is getting a little bit better, or maybe I am getting better on reading him and distracting him, or both.

    • Charlie's Best Chance on

      Alexandra, reading the story about your progress gives me much-needed hope for Charlie. After four months, he has not changed much outdoors (although now that he’s a healthier weight, he pulls more forcefully, which I’ve been correcting by slowing down to my preferred pace, and, when needed, suddenly going in the opposite direction, which seems to effectively allow loose-leash walks).

      Indoors, he has developed much more confidence, which he displays with constant mischief. This little guy actually stole a 15-oz bottle of coffee creamer the other day. Today it was a tube of hand lotion, and facial tissue is not safe. And, with extremely long legs for a 10-pound dog, he started stealing things from my bathroom counter.

      After recognizing his affinity for plastic, I finally found one toy that interests him — Nylabones — so I try replacing forbidden items with this toy, with little success. Today I reached the end of my patience and decided it was time to take a sterner tone (not yelling, though) to correct misbehavior — and feed him after I eat, rather than beforehand.

      I think maybe I was being too sympathetic to his fears before, because this new approach seems (at least) initially effective, and he seems to be showing respect, rather than fear, to the new tone. I think he needs to recognize who the boss is.While I’m eating, I tell him to “go lie down,” and, surprisingly, he actually does it!

      Even after lots of hand-targeting exercises, he absolutely does not recognize the concept of any type of reward, so every step I take with him involves analysis and creativity. Alexandra, I hope you continue to report on your progress!

  8. fearfuldogs on

    I don’t think the issue is you being too sympathetic or that respect is figuring into the equation. Dogs do what works for them. We need to show them very specifically what behaviors we want, instead of focusing on the ones we don’t, and pay them for performing them. Dogs repeat behaviors they get reinforced for. It’s not so much a question of analyzing and being creative as much as coming up with a training plan based on using positive reinforcement and following it. If we need to we first desensitize and counter condition if the dog is anxious or afraid. We need to be better trainers, not better bosses.

    • Charlie's Best Chance on

      When I said I was too sympathetic, I meant largely that I was sort of rewarding Charlie for his fears. As far as paying him for performing what I want, well, that’s pretty hard when he doesn’t understand any form of payment — treats, toys, or even different vocal tones. He was completely unsocialized when I got him. He understands some words, now, but he also freaks out with many words, oddly, anything beginning with “s” like sit. This is what I mean by analyzing. I’m trying to find patterns so I can find ways around them. At any rate, I’m coming to realize that I probably need professional help to guide me toward a training plan, since the methods I’ve been trying to desensitize and counter-condition him are clearly not working.

      Thanks for the input.

      • fearfuldogs on

        There is a difference between how respondent and operant behaviors respond to “good stuff.” So we don’t talk about rewarding or reinforcing fear by doing anything nice because it doesn’t make sense. No one actually feels more fearful when someone does something they like (people can pretend to feel more fearful for sympathy, but it’s not something animals do). We all come equipped understanding reinforcement, no one has to teach it to a dog, unsocialized, feral or whatever. Behavior is driven by consequences, and those consequences are apparent to the dog, if not to the handler. Trainers understand that they can increase or decrease behavior using either R+ or R- or P+ or P-. Or we can put behaviors on extinction.

        I think you are right on to seek the help of a professional to help you get your head around how DS/CC and R+ are used to change behavior. I am not fishing for work here, but I do offer phone or skype consults on this very subject. You can email me if that’s something you’d be interested in.

      • Charlie's Best Chance on

        Thanks for the offer, but I have used a specific local dog trainer (to be accurate, more of a dog-handler trainer, of course) in the past with amazing results. I prefer the training to be in person (“in canine?”). Meanwhile, we made some progress today. It sort of comes in spurts.

      • Alexandra on

        For the S… words try a softer/shorter S, or to replace command, many dogs especially feral dogs are afraid of a prolonged SSSS… its somehow hard coded. It is the sound of a snake. Many trainers use de SSS.. or SSHT to give a correction.
        Maybe you can reassociate the sound of the S with good stuff using desensitization techniques. It is just an idea. I don’t know if it could work.

      • Charlie's Best Chance on

        Good tip — I’ll give it a try. I was going to use a different word, but it’s an important command that I want anyone to be able to use, if necessary. Heck, I don’t like snakes, either, but maybe if I start with just “it,” barely saying the “s” at all, it will make a difference (or at least stop him from running away). At this point, I’d settle for a cocked head to show curiosity.

        Good stuff is still a challenge because he absolutely has no concept of rewards. I even tried repeatedly giving him his favorite treat and clicking (with my mouth) every time he took it just to use the sound as a signal of good stuff. He’s happy to take the treat, and the sound does not scare him, but he’s certainly not one of Pavlov’s dogs — I can’t later use it to, for example, get him to come to me. In fact, when he does something right and I offer him a reward, he just doesn’t take it.

        My vet said he thinks love is Charlie’s reward, but I know a dog who doesn’t recognize treats or praise certainly doesn’t have the concept of love under his belt (collar?). Vets aren’t exactly good training advisers.

  9. Alexandra on

    I had another interesting episode of fear aggression with Ursu. It’s kind of funny. It was towards a statue – bigger than human size but not so big that wouldn’t recognize the human shape; obviously there wasn’t any human smell, so it was even scarier.
    It was a copper statue of a men sitting on a big chair. Ursu first stared at it the began the furious bark of get away otherwise… circling at a safe distance from the statue. I gave him space, but no commands, fortunately I had a long lead on him and then I approached the statue myself, petting it.
    Ursu looked a little bit startled and continued to growl, after a minute or so he finally approached the statue and gave it a good sniff. As he approached I told him good boy in a very positive tone but not too happy, to let him concentrate on the statue.
    Afterwards ears down, tail relaxed looked at me as … ok I am a big silly dog.
    Then he brought his tail up, ears up and began walking really proudly as he did the greatest thing on earth. He was just rewarding himself for being brave. And I let him do it, I just told him let’s go as if nothing happened..
    The second time we passed near the same statue he just minded his own business of sniffing the trees and bushes, It wasn’t the first statue we passed by, of men, woman or animals, but this one send him into fear mode. I would expected from him to have better generalization skills.
    So, I’m still learning.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Statues must be weird to dogs because they are shaped like people but don’t move at all. Freezing is a common response to being afraid and aggression may follow, it’s not surprising that if the dog recognizes the figure as human that it would cause concern. I wonder if instead of understanding that she’d been “brave” your pup was feeling relieved to discover that the scary thing wasn’t a threat. Just a thought.

      • Alexandra on

        Usually when he feels relieved he gets playful (mouthy). I think to shake off the stress.
        This time it was more like “I did it!”. I am the king of statues!. He can express himself pretty well. It has the same expression when he manages to do something challenging, to follow a cue in a different/difficult scenario etc.
        This “I did it” is somehow self rewarding. I noticed that he likes more to do difficult/challenging things than anything easy to do. He gets bored pretty easily. Usually we rehearse the same behavior every two ore three days, if I am doing with him the same thing everyday, the third day it fails to respond.
        And on the opposite he gets depressed or frustrated when he is not able to manage something. I know I am using human terms but I cannot find better words to describe his behavior.

  10. Alexandra on

    I was thinking about Charlie, did you try to use his curiosity to build up some reward system. He likes plastic things, that in someway are rewarding to him. Why you don’t use this? Reward him with a special toy and pair it up with some goodies. This way you could build an association, and afterwards associate to it the good dog, etc.
    When I first took home Ursu, he was 2 months old and he had no idea that petting is good. So I had to teach him that is a nice relaxing thing. I believe that the puppies didn’t spent enough time with their mother. She is a working dog, so mainly she was just nursing them and got back to the goats. And also the shepherd was caring very well for them in terms of food shelter etc, but he spent no or little time with the pups. So I had to teach him everything about human interaction, and dog interaction also.
    The only really smooth thing with him was potty training. We had I think 4 incidents in the first three days of having him home. I followed a tide schedule with him but it worked up pretty well. I had a two weeks leave just for him. Once he discovered that he can actually ask to go out was the happiest dog on earth. He is a clean dog, at least in dog terms.

    • Charlie's Best Chance on

      Charlie’s preferred toy is (not surprisingly) a Nylabone. After he rejected a wide array of toys, his affinity for plastic gave me the clue as to what he would like. Since he also likes Pupparoni treats, I can stick a piece on a Nylabone to help make the association and, as you said, extend the association to ‘good boy,” etc. Of course, I still want the plastic theft to stop, so when I catch him with a bottle top (or whatever), I take it from him and give him a Nylabone. He’s actually a smart dog, so I think he’s starting to understand, but he gets bored while I work, and all the dog toys and puzzles in the world don’t seem to stop him from trying to get my attention.

      Born into a hoarding home, Charlie had no meaningful human contact, and I have no idea if he got a proper upbringing from his mother, but I doubt it. At this point, I’m still experimenting with vocal tones because he’s still trying to figure out to interpret the difference between praise and correction. He knows quite a few words, but he can react differently to them based on how I say them.

      Potty training was quite easy, though. After a few first-thing-in-the-morning accidents, I just got up and dressed quickly and carried him to the yard (easy to do with an 8-pound dog). Once he got the message, that was followed by leashing him and walking him through the house to the yard. After breakfast, we take our first real walk, and I could set my watch by his elimination. We still follow that basic routine. I get up first and get ready while he continues to sleep. I’m naturally extremely routine-driven, so it works well for us.

      • Alexandra on

        You can teach him to search the house for his toys. Usually works very well to get a dog tired. Just start in small steps. First do some nose exercises. Hide a little bit of food under a cardbox etc. You can find several in Internet. Then teach him the real thing. At first just show him where you hide the toy. Then maybe put it under a piece of paper etc. increase the difficulty but just a little bit, to keep him motivated. In no time I think that he should be able to search the whlole house. Usually Ursu gets so tired after 4 or five rounds of search that he needs settle down and take a nap. It takes max 10 minutes for 4 search rounds. He likes to search for his favorite ball. I ask him to lay down in a room, I show him the object, then I lay a trace, usually with at least 2 false tracks and then I get back to him and ask him to search. I never use food for search exercises. He needs to follow my scent so has to work harder. The forth time I usually he gets tired and I need to encourage him. When he finds the ball we play a little bit and then he just is to tired to do anything else. So finally peace and quiet!

  11. Alexandra on

    There is another problem with Ursu I wasn’t able to teach him to enter and actually stay in his dog house. When he is in my apartment he settles down well. And sleeps wherever he likes. Often uses the table in the living room as his den. I have a pretty long cloth over it. But we have another house in the countryside and we spend there weekends etc. there I have other two dogs, now pretty old. When we are at the other house Ursu wants to stay only outside but doesn’t go into his dog house. The other two dogs usually sleep inside or outside in their dog houses. So he should have an idea of what are those things.
    But Ursu sleeps on the mat of the front door. And it is getting chilly ( 2-3 C at night). The last year the same. It was a struggle to bring him inside the house and it was still manageable. But he wouldn’t go into his dog house for more than 5 minutes.
    I’ve tried feeding him inside, playing with toys inside… Putting the mat inside and nothing…. I entered his dog house and he found it pretty funny… And still nothing. I will give it a go with some hay maybe he likes it. But I don’t believe it too much. I don’t know why he rejects the idea so badly. He also has a good vision over the entrance of the house and the front gate so he should feel ok for guarding.
    Do you have any suggestions?


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