Archive for the ‘Fostering Dogs’ Category

The 3 Steps To Helping Fearful Dogs

shy dog in cageIt has been over a decade since my fearful dog Sunny came to live with us from a rescue camp set up to help care for the animals impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I met him at Camp Katrina where I went to volunteer several weeks after the hurricanes hit. As much as I thought I knew about dogs and dog behavior, training and how dogs learn, I soon came to understand it was a drop in the bucket compared to what I needed to know in order to help and train a scared dog.

But I learned. It wasn’t always a smooth road and even today I realize how much more there is for me to understand about how behavior works and Applied Behavior Analysis, but there is no question in my mind about how to approach interacting with fearful dogs, including aggressive dogs.

The in a nutshell version is this-

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to for each dog. We want to see fearful reactions decrease or end. It may mean ceasing to talk to or interact with the dog beyond routine care. It may mean providing them with a safe haven where they can escape from whatever is scaring them on a daily basis.
  2. Change how they feel about the scary stuff by changing what it predicts. This is called counter conditioning. Usually we have the scary events become a reliable predictor for something yummy or fun. The scary thing does not have to be the source of the good stuff, only a predictor of it.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you need them to do using a high rate of positive reinforcement to build strong and reliable behavior. You can use a clicker if you like and know how, but you don’t need to. What you do need is to know what the dog values enough to change its behavior to get.

Common responses to these steps include;

But if the dog isn’t exposed to scary stuff how will they learn to deal with it? 

This question is like asking, “If someone doesn’t keep almost drowning how will they learn to swim?” We can’t teach someone to swim if they’re too afraid to get into the pool! We start by eliminating the need for the dog to worry about bad things happening to them. From there we can teach them everything they need to know.

I tried counter conditioning and it didn’t work!

This is often an indication that the conditioning was not done properly. Unlike a laboratory where all the different objects and events in the environment can be controlled to a greater degree than we can in the real world, it can be tricky for the dog to isolate that it’s the thing we are trying to condition them to, that is responsible for the fabulous good stuff they are receiving. There are always lots of other things going on around a dog and each or any of them might have also been conditioned to previously. A dog who is afraid of men with hats and beards might also be conditioned to feel afraid when on the sidewalk where men with hats and beards have been encountered, or the smell coming out of the door of the hair salon at the spot where a scary man was last encountered.

My dog isn’t interested in food when scared.

Fear and anxiety impact a dog’s digestive system. It’s not unusual for them to not want to eat. See step 1.

I don’t want to use food. 

Food is a primary reinforcer, as such it is among the easiest, most portable and salient things we can use to train. Use it. If your dog is motivated by toys and play, lucky you, use them.

What if I don’t have food. 

If a dog has been trained to perform a behavior because food was provided as a consequence, and that has happened a lot, the behavior is usually strong enough to persist even if at some times we don’t have food. We can also condition other things to work as reinforcement as well. Don’t worry about it, a good trainer can show you how it’s done.

My mission is to help people living with or working with fearful dogs to have a better understanding about how to help them. My fearfuldogs.com website has lots of information and resources. If you need more help you can schedule a phone or skype consult. Webinars and seminars are also available. Before you let anyone handle or train your fearful dog make sure they know these important 3 steps.

 

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Between A Rock & A Hard Place

small dog looking at toySometimes we have to do something because it needs to be done. If we grab someone about to fall off a cliff we can worry about having to apologize later for having touched them without their permission. But we need to be careful not to use the excuse that needing to get something done absolves us from understanding what it is we are doing.

If ever there was a group of professionals who could use the excuse that something needed to be done, it’s veterinarians. What we are seeing today, happily and gratefully, is the recognition that how something is done to an animal can have serious implications for that animal in the future, and any decisions made regarding how to handle and treat animals should be done with a thorough understanding of those implications.

There remains resistance among some in the rescue and sheltering community to, at the very least, acknowledge that decisions made regarding how to handle and train a dog can matter in the long term for that dog and the people living with it. It is reasonable to determine that the time and resources to work with some dogs in ways that minimize the risks of creating fear and possibly instigating aggression, are not available. However it’s important to consider whether we are holding onto and justifying familiar practices because they are what we are used to doing. Perhaps they work with enough dogs that dogs who require a more systematic or less aversive approach, can be considered an unfortunate, but acceptable loss when they fail to make it as a pet.

When a dog’s life depends on being trained, train as though their lives depend on it.

Keep the dog feeling safe. Help them feel safe.

Counterconditioning to the scary stuff. Incorporate gradual exposure to them as necessary.

Train. Use food, toys or play. Use lots of food, toy or play. 

Clean-up On Aisle Dog

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

If you happen to be privy to the chatter that goes on between dog trainers, what I am going to say will not be new to you. Daily, dog trainers are contacted to help an owner with a dog, a normal, healthy, fully functioning dog, whose behavior has become untenable or even dangerous. Sometimes we’re contacted within a few days or weeks after the problem behavior has been identified. More often it’s been months or years before we get the call (or text or email).

We may be their first hope, often we are their last. We are not usually going where no trainer has gone before. On the contrary, we are stepping in to try to fix a problem that another trainer (or trainers) failed to address, contributed to, and yes, even caused.

Whether an owner followed the bad advice shared by; a trainer’s TV show, book, seminar, a sales person in a pet shop, or the folklore of a culture, it becomes our turn to step up to the plate. Though the deck has been stacked against us, bases are loaded, with 2 strikes, all eyes are on us to win this thing.

Cleaning up a behavior problem that is based on a schedule of positive reinforcement is like getting a water soluble stain out of synthetic. Behavior problems caused by the use of punishment (P+) or other aversive methods (R-) are more like oil-based stains on silk, good luck to you. Even if you do manage to get it out, the fabric may never be the same as it was before it was stained.

Be careful how you handle a dog, any dog, but especially one that is fearful and fragile. If in doubt as an owner or trainer, visit the Fearfuldogs.com website for more information about the most effective and humane ways to train. Join me in Concord NH in February 2018 for a day of learning to Train As If Their Lives Depended On It.

Do Something

I call them “chiselers.” Not the swindler kind, but the kind with chisels who show up and whittle away at your resolve, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can be one and cringe when I observe it in myself.
We can be quick to point out the flaws in an idea or plan, or why it won’t work or shouldn’t be done. The internet even coined a term for a form of it, “concern troll.” It’s not that there is no value to having someone point out flaws, we can’t think of everything, and it may be a heads up as to what obstacles we should prepare for. But it’s the rain on our parade and the pin bursting our bubble.

girl decorating a treat pouch for training dogs

When I first floated the idea of having satos (Puerto Rico street dogs) transported to our local humane society I ran into it.

-What about the dogs already in our area needing homes?! Our shelter frequently had empty runs and the dogs I was planning on bringing over were all under 20#, a size which is hard to find in our local shelters. Someone going to a shelter for a small dog is not likely to end up bringing home a 70# lab mix.
-Disease was a concern, and a valid one. It was addressed.
-Why put energy and money into dogs when there were children who needed help? Without question there are plenty of other causes that need to be addressed in the world. Pick your passion. I encouraged those who felt that there were more important needs, to do something about them. I did often wonder if they actual did, or if pointing out the problem and trashing my idea was the extent of their efforts.
When I first created the fearfuldogs.com website I was criticized because some thought that instead of encouraging people to look at a website I should be telling them to find a trainer. A good idea, but at that time the supply of trainers who could humanely and efficiently address fear-based behaviors was even smaller than it is now.
We all have experienced this in some way or another. You are excited about a move to a new area for a job and your aunt keeps sending you articles about bad things that have happened there. It is done out of concern and love, but you can feel it whittling away at your joy. People will claim to be trying to spare you disappointment, or to stop you from wasting your time. My daily posts in my Fearful Dog Group on Facebook were routinely critiqued by someone or another who felt I could have used a better turn of phrase or words to make my point. I rarely found them to be wrong, but the chronic sting of their comments (being made with good intentions I assumed) was wearing and I began to dread posting something in anticipation of chisel.
I have never forgotten the words of advice my brother-in-law gave me over 20 years ago when I was thinking about starting a business. “What if I wasn’t successful,” I asked. “Most people never even try,” he responded.
You don’t have to be like most people. Try.
*The people on the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques are in dire need of support. If you would like to drop them a few dollars for water and supplies here are a couple of reputable options for making a difference in their world.
Go to paypal and “send” to
give@pranimals.org
or click on this link
Vieques Humane Society

 

The Bad News About Fearful Dogs

drawing 3 children 2 covering eyes 1 covering mouthI am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.

When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.

What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.

There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.

That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.

-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.

-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.

-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.

Look for educational seminars in your area about fearful dogs.

High Risk Activities

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.” “So?”

One of the primary goals I have for this blog, the seminars and webinars, and consults I do for folks living or working with fearful dogs is to help them understand how to think about fear based behaviors. When I am contracted to help someone train their dog I can directly and specifically tell them what to do. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the number of dogs out there that need someone to help them. If people have good information to use to come up with reasonable ways to respond to their dog, they are more likely to do so, and that is what needs to happen–dogs need to be responded to appropriately.

Risk management is an important consideration in many industries. It should be in the dog training industry as well. The most obvious reason is that when people get bitten, dogs get put down. But there are other risks. A dog’s quality of life is at risk when they are not handled properly. One of the most high risk activities we engage in is when we expose dogs to objects or events that scare them. This tactic is fueled by a variety of notions espoused by trainers; dogs need to be exposed to things or else they’ll never learn to not be afraid of them, dogs are empowered by being able to choose to investigate something, if something doesn’t hurt them a dog will learn that it’s not something they need to be afraid of, dogs won’t be afraid if you are the pack leader. Each of these, among others not mentioned, can lead people to making high risk decisions about how to manage their dog.

I am not saying that exposing a dog to things, or allowing them to roam around and make choices as to how they will respond to something that might scare them doesn’t ever work. I am suggesting that it is a high risk approach to take with a fearful, shy, anxious or reactive dog. Existing fears can become worse and new ones can be added. We can and should minimize and manage the risks we are willing to take when a dog’s life and the lives of those around that dog are at stake.

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe.
  2. Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you’d like them to do when in the presence of something that does or might scare them. When we use high rates of positive reinforcement to train appropriate behaviors we don’t need to worry about them making bad choices.

The Real Reason You Should Never Hit Your Dog

yellow dog looking suspicious

What is that hand going to do to me?

Hitting a dog is a bad idea. Even one of those “Oh it didn’t hurt them,” swats is a bad idea. And here’s why. Dogs notice what things predict. If a hand has ever predicted getting grabbed, scruffed, swatted or worse, the dog learns that sometimes hands do unpleasant things to them. Puppies will learn this quickly, and even older dogs who were never routinely hit will learn quickly that some hands are not to be trusted should they ever be hit. The question for dogs will be to know which hands they need to be worried about. That’s where the danger lies, they may decide that being safe is better than being sorry, and will avoid or even bite any hand reaching for them.

Think about what many people do the first time they meet a dog. Think about what little kids do. They reach out their hand for the dog to get a sniff or give a pet, except that dogs are not mind readers and they don’t know their intentions. A dog who has been reprimanded or corrected by hands, or by something in a hand, may be more inclined to bite hands. Any trainer who suggests that someone uses their hands to do something scary or painful to a dog, whether it’s suppose to imitate another dog’s mouth (which is frankly a load of malarky) or to forcibly restrain or punish the dog, is behaving in a way that as a professional constitutes gross negligence. They should know better. They should know that the very last thing in the world we want is for a dog to have to worry about what a hand is going to do to them.

In Defense of Education

cartoon of shrugging dog with questionsThe dog training industry may be among the few professions in which people with a lack of understanding and limited or no education are glorified, even given their own TV shows, while those who have chosen to become educated are held up for ridicule. Heaven forbid you know a few big words and have the temerity (temerity: excessive confidence or boldness; audacity) to use them. Chefs probably have a deeper and broader understanding of the science of cooking than many dog trainers have of learning.

Imagine sitting around with a group of pilots and one saying with a sneer, “I don’t know what all this wind sheer and lift is you’re all going on about, I just fly the damn plane,” and the other pilots raising their glasses in a toast and high fiving. Or a physician boasting that they’re not even sure what blood pressure is, they just take out the damn appendix. How about hiring an electrician who admits to not fully comprehending (comprehending: understanding) what amps and voltage refer to and just wires the damn house.

Over a decade ago when I first began my search in earnest to try to find out how to train an extremely fearful dog I was discouraged to find how limited, and too often wrong, the information was. The discovery that dog training is based on a science, with principles and laws that are supported by mathematical formulas, and decades of research, came as a relief. Finally I could quit mucking around and could get down to the business of helping a vulnerable dog learn to navigate the world he was living in.

Dogs who do not do what someone wants them to do are called disobedient, stubborn, or even stupid. They are labeled as “lacking in impulse control.” Instead of trainers looking at what they are doing and realizing that they are not making it clear to the dog what they should do, when they should do it, how long they should do it and why they should do it, trainers blame the animal. They don’t know there is a big picture and that the laws of behavior and principles of learning, when applied properly, can make it more likely the dog will be successful, along with feeling less fear, stress or anxiety. I assume these trainers don’t know there is a big picture, a science to refer to, because what professional would turn their nose up at learning more about what they do or would go out of their way to criticize those who do? Apparently that would be some dog training professionals, who revert to the tactics of the cool kids in high school finding ways to disparage (disparage: regard or represent as being of little worth) the kids who read, knowing that the rest of the herd will look on, nod their head and snicker.

Ignorance is only useful when it compels us to seek more information. Otherwise it’s just stupidity, and there’s nothing admirable about that. Dogs deserve better. All animals deserve better from us. The next time someone boasts of their ignorance and their proud refusal to do anything to change it, don’t turn them into heroes, and you don’t have to give them your damn money.

Is Your Dog Trainer A Professional?

pointy-eared dog looking downFor the majority of my adult working life I was involved in the travel and outdoor recreation industry. Early in my career I was introduced to the reality of legal liability. I make no claims about my depth of understanding of negligence vs. gross negligence or how they would be argued in a court of law, I do understand that providers of goods or services have a responsibility to behave in ways that do not put consumers of those goods and services at risk. If you rent a pair of skis at a ski area, hit a tree or take a bone breaking tumble, the company that rented you the skis is not liable. However if the binding on those skis pops off and sends you careening out of control and you’re injured, and an investigation shows that the person who was responsible for checking bindings was fired 2 weeks ago and was never replaced and binding checks, as dictated by industry standards, did not occur (if such a standard even exists), you have a case.

When no standard operating procedures exist in an industry or no regulations regarding a product’s composition, design or strength are in place there will be those who will behave as though those standards exist based on the best information available. Others won’t due to ignorance, greed, laziness, habit or disregard. Though the US legal system regarding liability is often held up for ridicule for perceived excesses, my experience in the recreation industry was that it meant I was less likely to encounter- waterlogged life jackets that wouldn’t keep a cork afloat, climbing ropes that should have been retired years ago and guides who were likely to behave recklessly and put some other motivation ahead of keeping their clients safe. The risk of being sued shouldn’t be the primary reason for acting responsibly and professionally, but it sure doesn’t hurt to encourage a business operator to have those squishy brakes looked at before sending out a van to pick up clients.

I was shocked to discover that despite the information coming from the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior, the American Animal Hospital Association, The Society of Veterinary Behavior TechniciansThe Australia Veterinary Association and professionals in the industry who study the effects of different types of training on dogs, there are trainers who continue to use and recommend force, pain, threats and intimidation to pet owners for training purposes. It doesn’t take a degree to understand that if an animal connects being hit, scruffed, poked, rolled over or otherwise feels threatened with bodily harm with a specific person, or people in general, we could see them responding, not surprisingly, with fear, and also possibly with aggression. If a professional in the dog training industry (or pretending to be one on television) suggests that a pet owner hit, scruff, grab, poke, roll over or otherwise threaten their dog, and that dog bites them or someone else, why is the trainer not held responsible for this dangerously wrong information? A doctor who recommended an ointment with mercury in it to treat sores or wounds would lose their license and anyone who followed their advise would likely consider legal action against them.

The body of research and information in the pet dog training industry is turning into a mountain of evidence against the use of force, fear, pain and intimidation to modify behavior. The excuses for using these have worn thin and they do not stand up against the evidence or in the court of professional opinion. A trainer who tells a pet owner to use force or fear to change behavior is like an electrician who suggests you stick a fork into an electrical outlet to find out why it’s not working. Knowing what you know about electricity you’d be foolish to follow their advice, and they’d lose their license for suggesting it. There is no excuse for someone selling their services as a trainer for not knowing that the use of force or coercion to get or end behavior in dogs can lead to increased aggression in those dogs. No excuse. None. Zero.

Not convinced or still have a few excuses? Check out Eileen Anderson’s blog on the topic.

 

Food Is Not A Problem

small black dog with cottage cheese container in his mouthThis morning my mother was having her breakfast and on the TV was an early morning cooking show.  She remarked, “I don’t know why I watch these shows, I don’t even like to cook.”

Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.

In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.

Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.

Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.

This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.

Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.

Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.