Archive for the ‘Puppy mills’ Category

Doing What Comes Naturally

cartoon of shrugging dog with questionsWe live with animals and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact. When it comes to dogs we are living with animals who are designed with varying degrees of proficiency or intensity to; hunt, chase, catch, kill, chew, shred, mark and bark. They also breed and poop, and often at times and places we’d rather they didn’t. We’ve brought these animals into our homes and begin the process of trying to get them behave less like animals. Of all the animals on the planet, dogs seem to excel at accommodating us (much of the time). To be fair, many of us are willing and able to accommodate them when they continue to behave like the animals they are.

Often the easiest thing to do, and something we have a long and rich history of doing with all kinds of animals, including humans, is to use force and punishment to get what we need from them. We find no end to the reasons to justify our actions. Societies enact laws to help guide its citizens in making more just, and humane choices to achieve goals, given our tendency to resort to threats of and actual violence.

Behavior is lawful. When we understand those laws we can make humane, and effective choices to modify it. We start with humane management. This means creating an environment in which the animal can live safely without needing or being inclined to perform the behaviors we decide need to change. We ensure this environment provides them with good reasons to live; things to do, positive outcomes to attain. We consider the needs and normal behaviors of the animal when choosing or creating environments for them to live in. Bringing working dogs (and any other category of healthy dogs) into our homes and providing a minimum of enrichment and exercise is as unreasonable as bringing a goldfish home and tossing it on the sofa and expecting it will live a long and healthy life, and thank us for it.

Given that the practice of bringing or placing dogs into homes without full consideration of what their care will require is not likely to end soon, our best chance at success, and their best shot at a decent life, will be achieved by using our big brains to come up with solutions. There are professionals- vets, vet behaviorists and trainers who have studied the sciences of health and behavior who are able to formulate plans for addressing the challenges we are facing with our dogs.

Should we find ourselves routinely resorting to force, fear, intimidation, punishment and restraint to manage our dogs we should consider the possibility that we have failed in one or both of two ways. Either we lack the skills to efficiently modify behavior without them, or we have not adequately assessed the ability of an animal to be successful given the conditions they will be required to live in. If we are going to punish dogs to end our own suffering and inconvenience we can at least be insightful enough to admit it.


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.

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!

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?


Are We Their Best Friends?

I was asked by a newspaper to write a review for the film One Nation Under Dog which will be showing at a local film festival. Here it is.

One Nation Under Dog is a documentary divided into three segments exploring the complicated and often eccentric relationships people have with dogs. Though some of the scenes are not appropriate for young children, whether you are an avowed dog lover or have merely found yourself smiling at the antics of a puppy, it’s a film worth seeing. It attempts to address the consequences of our actions and those of our lack of action in regard to the treatment of animals along with what the implications of thousands of years of co-evolution have meant for us and dogs.

The first segment titled “Fear” could have just as easily been labeled “Failure”. Focusing on a dog bite case in Connecticut, it’s apparent that both the bite victims and the dogs were failed, the former by a legal system that should have done more to protect them, and the latter by owners who didn’t do enough to manage and train them. Of note, and something which is not discussed in the film, is that research has shown that there is a correlation between the methods used to train dogs and their level of aggressiveness. The more force and pain used to train, the more aggression displayed. That the dogs with bite histories in the film are seen wearing both shock and choke collars is likely no mere coincidence.

The second segment “Loss” looks at the intense emotional responses owners have to their pets. The extremes of a culture which produces people who can, without a second thought, spend $155,000 to clone a beloved pet and at the same time allows conditions to exist which lead to the killing of millions of a dogs a year will provide fodder for anthropologists and psychologists for decades to come.

“Betrayal” the final segment of the film, confronts with brutal honesty, the realities of dog overpopulation. This, as a public service announcement, should be required watching before anyone steps into a pet shop or goes online, to buy a puppy.

The film highlights the contradiction of dogs being the recipients of our best intentions and also the victims of our worst inclinations. How we think about the animals lauded as our best friends may be best described in this quote by Henry Beston-

“We patronize the animals for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they are more finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other Nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time.”

It is up to us to determine the shape and quality of the nets we are entwined in together. Animals’ lives and of our humanity may very well be defined by how we choose to do this.

OCD behavior in dogs

Obsessive compulsive disorder is considered an anxiety disorder in people which can be triggered by traumatic events. There can be a genetic component to OCD. This video was taken while I was volunteering at Camp Katrina in 2005 after the hurricanes. This dog had been rescued from the New Orleans area and sent to the Every Dog Needs A Home Sanctuary in Gamaliel AR, via Camp K. At the time it was believed that Tammy and William Hanson, operators of the Gamaliel property, were running a legit sheltering operation. When HSUS was finally allowed onto the property they found 477 dogs, my fearful dog Sunny was among them. Approximately 200 of the dogs on the site arrived at EDNAH after the storms.

When ‘real’ rescue groups, including Camp Katrina, realized that the Hansons were hoarders they took their dogs back. Sunny was likely born at the site but a volunteer managed to get Tammy Hanson to agree to relinquish him along with the hurricane rescues that had been transported to her property. The dog in this video spent 5 weeks confined outdoors in a travel crate or cage. He had not displayed any compulsive behaviors prior to being transported to EDNAH. The behavior he is displaying in this video went on all day, the dog only stopping when exhausted. Months later when I asked about this dog I was told that he was put on medications to help stop the OCD. I don’t know where he is today.

Stress, anxiety and fear affect dogs. It should be our goal as caretakers of these compromised dogs to provide them with an environment in which they feel safe and physically comfortable. We should do what we can to lower their stress and anxiety levels. The use of behavioral medications to achieve this goal should be among the first, not the last, options we consider. Many of the dogs coming out of puppy mills and hoarding situations are experiencing levels of fear we have never experienced ourselves, luckily for us. Don’t wait until a dog scares someone, bites them, or develops damaging and difficult to change inappropriate behaviors. Help them. Now.

Fearful dogs & trauma & abuse

traffic sign black arrow red arrowEarly on in my search for information to help me understand my fearful dog someone sent me a paper on the effects of abuse and trauma on children. I would thank her and share the paper if I remembered who it was and hadn’t given my only copy of it away. Sorry.

This was a pivotal event for me. I realized that my efforts to change Sunny’s behavior were secondary to my ‘understanding’ of why he was behaving the way he was. I don’t mean that I needed to know the exact events he experienced. Many owners of fearful dogs believe that if only they knew what happened to their dog they could more easily ‘cure’ them. While knowing a dog’s history is helpful, one need not know the specifics of the dog’s experience to understand how to work with the dog.

In Sunny’s case, he did not have the opportunity to experience novel and enriching events when he was a pup. That’s all it takes to mess up a dog’s brain. From here on in many or most of the ‘normal’ experiences a dog is going to have can be traumatic for them. If more people understood this puppymills and backyard breeders would go out of business. These dogs are born into deprivation. Imagine someone trying to sell cars that on any given day were built when half the workers who assembled them were absent. You wouldn’t know whether all the parts were securely attached, or there at all. At least with a car, if the deficit doesn’t get you killed you can have it repaired. It’s not that easy with an animal. A recent study shows that dogs in mills suffer lasting psychological damage.

Here is a list of signs and symptoms of early childhood traumatic stress. Most could be applied to dogs suffering from fear based behavior challenges.

There are a variety of therapies available to people who want to change how they behave. Cognitive behavioral therapy is one of them. Even though we do not have the option of speaking (and reasoning) with our dogs to help them change how they think about things, it is worth understanding how cognitive behavioral therapy is applied. I cannot ask my fearful dog to take a deep breath and consider how what he is thinking is affecting his behavior, but I can interact with him and manipulate his environment so that his emotional response to things changes.

CBT is a collaborative effort between the therapist and the client. Cognitive-behavioral therapists seek to learn what their clients want out of life (their goals) and then help their clients achieve those goals. The therapist’s role is to listen, teach, and encourage, while the client’s roles is to express concerns, learn, and implement that learning.*

We can suggest that when a person looks at a cheesecake and rather than responding to the mouth watering appeal of the pastry, envisions the damage the pastry can do to their arteries. Instead of putting it into their shopping cart they head to the fruit aisle and choose an alternative. With our dogs we need to find ways we can make alternative behaviors and responses rewarding to them. When people appear I ask Sunny to get his frisbee so he can play (this seems to be his main goal in life). Though Sunny is still startled and scared by the appearance of people, this response has diminished in intensity and more quickly switches to a more neutral or positive response.

But change isn’t easy. Imagine how you respond when you hear the sound of fingernails scrapping on chalkboard. If you’re like me, even thinking about it elicits a feeling of chills. Now imagine someone expecting you to stop feeling that way, because they think you should. How successful is that going to be? How successful are they going to be by threatening you to stop cringing and covering your ears? How are you going to feel about them if they forced you to sit there and listen to sound of fingernails on a chalkboard over and over again?

Fearful dogs are suffering and many of the ways they are handled and trained contribute to this suffering. If you stop and think about it, you may be able to change your behavior and achieve goals that both you and your dog probably have in common.