In the 80’s there was a campaign to keep kids off of drugs and the mantra was “just say no to drugs.” I thought the better advice to give kids about what they should or shouldn’t do when it came to their physical and mental health was “just say I’ll think about it.” I would apply the same advice to people with fearful dogs and the consideration of behavioral medications. Think about it.
It’s not easy to think, really think about whether or not to consult with a vet about behavioral medications that could help our dogs by lowering the level of anxiety and stress many are experiencing on a daily basis. We leave important pieces of information out, specifically the very real risk of NOT using medications to address anxiety in our dogs. We tend to put a lot of weight on the possible side-effects of medications and fail to consider the impact chronic stress and anxiety has on our dogs’ health and quality of life. We have a knee-jerk distrust of big pharma which we consider is out to suck our wallets dry by selling us unnecessary meds and hold the marketers of sugar pills and unregulated and untested remedies in high esteem.
It’s difficult to acknowledge and assess the baggage that we carry in regard to the use of behavioral medications, for people or dogs. For many of us it’s about how their use makes us feel. It feels not quite right to us and we come up with excuses and reasons to justify those feelings. Meds are a cop-out. If only we did something else they wouldn’t be needed, and we just need to figure out what that something else entails. They are an indication of laziness on our part. The need for meds means we failed our dog, we weren’t good enough. Few of us are willing to accept that and so we keep looking for alternatives that will make us feel more successful.
The other problem we run into is that we put more merit into anecdotal information about untested or unproven remedies than we do into the data and research available regarding the efficacy of meds. Someone’s cousin’s dog was put on an anti-depressant and their behavior got worse. If we are reluctant about using meds we will latch onto this information like a tick on a warm body. With no other information other than that statement we will write off meds as an option for our dogs. If someone’s sister’s best friend used a homeopathic remedy and saw improvement in their dog we’ll race out to the local shop to buy some. And this is where our thinking is cloudy.
In any group of dogs, some will get better and some will get worse whether we do anything specific or not. If a dog who was likely to get better is also given a magic potion (many of the products that are available have never been tested let alone shown to be more effective than a placebo) you can guess what will be credited with their improvement–the potion. I would surmise that when we start to think about how to help our dogs we are often changing more about how they are handled and managed than simply adding a few drops of something or other to their water bowl. We are likely increasing the odds of them improving because of these changes in management, and the drops are credited for it.
Two years ago my border collie Finn was diagnosed with lymphoma. I did some online searching for information and met with an oncologist. The prognosis for this disease if left untreated isn’t simply not great, it’s bad. But there is a well established protocol of chemotherapy that could increase his chances of surviving beyond the time the disease would kill him. Given all the factors; the type of cancer, his otherwise good condition, his age, the availability of treatment, credit cards, etc., we decided to treat him. He’s still with us (and even I can’t resist superstitious thought-touch wood). Don’t feel bad about the struggle to think critically about the use of traditional medicine to help our dogs, Even smart guys have a hard time with it.
If you enjoy thinking about the best ways to live with and train dogs you might enjoy my latest book Does My Dog Need Prozac?
In 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.
Dogs who grow up in a home have dozens of opportunities a day to approach people and be reinforced for it. This means it’s a good thing from the pup’s perspective. They might get a treat, a cuddle, a scratch or the chance to tug on your shoelaces. Dogs, like my dog Sunny who spend their first months or years kenneled with little positive human contact may have had no opportunity to practice the “move toward human” behavior. For dogs like Sunny, moving toward people is not only something they’re not used to doing–they’re being asked to jump off the high-diving board and they can’t swim, they are also afraid of people and so the pool appears full of sharks.
In order for me to achieve my goal of being able to walk with Sunny off-leash I needed to be able to get him back on leash at any time. Since approaching me was still scary for him early on, I taught him to “wait” which allowed me to approach him and clip on the leash. It was a compromise that worked for us until he did feel safe enough and was able to learn a recall.
I continue to reinforce Sunny for stopping and waiting for me, and any other behaviors I would like to see more of from my dogs. Don’t take behavior for granted, pay for it.
I suppose that when one has lived long enough it’s easy to slide into waxing philosophical about life, and I have definitely stepped onto that slope. Having been fortunate to have what I needed in life as far as my physical needs being met–safe home, food, medical care, etc., I have had the luxury to invest time, money and energy into the things that bring joy, add adventure and more often than not, have me looking forward to the future. As much as I appreciate the “stuff” I have in my life I am far more grateful for having discovered something that motivates me to act, to plan, to dream, to change.
Like many others I enjoy the company of dogs, feel pity, sorrow, and compassion when I see them in distress. For much of my life I felt too small and insignificant to make much difference in a world that seemed too big, busy and racing toward a variety of disasters. Comparing myself to others with more energy, education, and creativity left me feeling that I came up short. I waited for acknowledgement, affirmation and support from others, getting it enough to keep me plodding on, but not enough to make me feel completely confident in my efforts.
Years ago a friend told me that during an audience with one of her chosen gurus she was told to “find your work and do it.” I want to extend a huge THANK YOU to all the people who have made it possible for me to do the work I feel passionate about– helping people learn about the most humane and effective ways to work with fear-based behavior challenges in dogs.
Most recently I had the good fortune to travel to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group of passionate and committed dog trainers and enthusiasts. Like missionaries for the humane and ethical treatment of dogs we; sang songs with toddlers, colored and glittered with children, demonstrated that a dog does not have to demonstrate its intelligence by figuring out how to avoid being punished faster than other dogs, and witnessed the struggles of people on the frontlines of rescue and sheltering homeless animals. I am already looking forward to next year’s visit to continue with our work.
I suspect that those of us who work with dogs in any capacity, love them, respect them and want them to have the best lives possible. Yet I can’t help but be surprised and disappointed when I hear and read information about dogs being shared that does more harm than good, or opportunities to educate the pet owning population are missed. Research on the social development of dogs has been available for over 40 years. Veterinarians, of all people, should understand the importance early, positive exposure to novelty, dogs and people plays in the development of puppies. Yet there are still those who recommend isolating puppies from social interactions with other dogs during the time when a puppy’s brain is experiencing dramatic changes on a daily basis that allow them to grow up to be adaptable, resilient dogs. Changes that may not be possible as the weeks go by.
I sat in a vet clinic recently and watched a giant flat screen TV as it aired information about basic husbandry practices pet owners should undertake with their dogs. Dogs were shown having their teeth brushed, ears cleaned and nails clipped and not once were they offered a food treat in return for holding still through the process. What a missed opportunity to educate pet owners on how professional trainers use food to teach dogs who may not already be sitting calmly for a nail trim. Often it doesn’t take much to convince a dog something isn’t as horrible as they think it is, and it would be nice to never read another story about a groomer who has injured or killed a dog using force and restraint to do their job.
Online the forums for pet sitters and dog walkers, people who also are offering services as professionals, are replete with archaic information about dog behavior. Pet owners are paying for services being provided by someone who in the 21st century isn’t even using 20th century information to guide their behavior. Rescue groups post tear-jerking videos of dogs snatched from near death being subjected to forced handling and so long as in the end they are wagging their tail the donation checks keep being written. And heaven forbid the suggestion is made that other techniques and protocols are available that are less stressful on dogs. No doubt I’ll be chastised for even suggesting that too many (not all of course!) rescue groups aren’t doing a good enough job at what they are soliciting money for doing.
There is no excuse for continuing to use force and coercion to get or end behaviors in dogs. Universities have been teaching about animal behavior and learning for decades. Vocal groups of animal trainers have been providing reasons and resources to get information out into the general pet-handling population. We’re passing you the ball. Are you going to make the play or not? We’re all are on the dog’s team after all.
In May I’ll be traveling to the islands of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques with a group to contribute our energy to the cause of changing how people handle and train their dogs. No doubt there will be people who will embrace the information we’ll be sharing about force-free and coercion-free training with the enthusiasm of someone who has been adrift at sea waiting for the life raft to show up. Others may be at a different stage in the process of changing their understanding of animal behavior, how animals learn and their relationship with their pet.
I don’t know what they’ll look like or how I’ll tell them apart. I don’t know how old or which gender they’ll be. I don’t know what they’ll be wearing or how they will be behaving. I do know for some we will be sharing ideas and information that will be new to them, they may also conflict with ideas they already are holding onto firmly and been practicing for years. It may be behavior they have been rehearsing not only with dogs but also with the people in their life. We may only be able to loosen the grasp some have on the myths and misinformation which have been available about dogs and why they do what they do. Though I trust that for many people they will gladly discard the advice they’d been given to punish in any of the myriad ways people have devised to punish dogs. They’ll need direction and demonstrations of the equally numerous ways we can provide a dog with information and reinforcement without scaring or hurting them to get the behaviors we need or want from them.
I’m very excited about this trip, not only are these islands filled with environmental gems, we’ll meet people who are involved in different aspects of animal welfare. We’ll spend time with children who are passionate about treating animals with kindness and are role models for their community. We’ll visit shelters and sanctuaries where people take on the challenging and often disheartening task of making life better for animals, knowing there will always be more tomorrow needing their help. We may be separated by distance, oceans, age and culture, but it quickly becomes obvious that our hearts overlap.
To find out more about the trip visit this webpage.
One of my goals for this blog, my Facebook pages, group, and tweets, is to try to stave off the inclination pet owners and many dog trainers have to jump on any bandwagon that comes along in regard to training dogs, or to keep throwing different sh*t against the wall and hoping something sticks. There is no shortage of advice, methods, equipment and supplements out there being touted as helping dogs. Some actually do.
I know that when I explain to someone that what they are doing with their dog is inappropriate that I may come up against the but “somebody told me” effect. If what somebody told them made sense to them, even though it was not being effective, or was in fact causing the dog’s behavior to become worse, I know that I have my work cut out for me. For many it doesn’t even matter who the somebody was. Once I hit a brick wall with a client whose dog had started biting him when he was alpha-rolled. One recommendation I made was to stop alpha-rolling the dog but apparently the advice given to him by the folks down at the corner grocery store trumped the advice he was paying me for. Not only did the original advice mesh with this fellow’s thoughts about dogs and how they should be interacted with, my advice made his behavior the problem. It was another nail in the coffin for modern dog training advice.
It’s easy to be led to believe a particular training method is appropriate because something about it resonates for us. Training is a dance we do with our dogs, we pass our energy through the leash while the dog naturally discovers the ways to integrate their behavior with ours while attaining organic reinforcement for reaching a level of communication only possible when we get in touch with both the dog’s and our true nature. The preceding statement may have created any number of different emotional responses in you. If your response was “right on sistah!” there’s a good chance you’ll be onboard with whatever else I recommend, even if what I said makes no real sense at all. But if you read that and your response was “WTH is she talking about? Sounds like a load of crap to me,” I may find it more difficult to convince you that anything I have to say is worth spending the time listening to it. Or if you are told to, “Up the rate of positive reinforcement for a desired behavior after considering both establishing and abolishing operations,” you may react to the jargon by either being impressed or frustrated because not only do you need to figure out what to do with your dog, you also need to grab a dictionary. Alpha-rolling is pretty straightforward and somebody already told you to try it.
Somebodies come in all shapes and sizes. They may even brandish degrees and certifications. Pay attention to your reaction when faced with advice that is contrary to what somebody else told you to do. When you see yourself digging in your heels to resist it out of hand or are ready to pick up a banner and rush into battle to fight for it, take a step back, a deep breath, and talk to somebody else. Being able to weigh the benefits and risks of how we train means we need more information to put on the scale.
Our interest in the latest new thing is at once a good thing, possibly benign or potentially dangerous. If someone wants to spend weeks seeing if they can teach their dog to ring the doorbell by demonstrating the behavior and hoping their dog will imitate it, unless being able to ring the doorbell is an important skill the dog needs to have, I figure they can knock themselves out and see what happens. But if someone has a new dog in their home and housetraining is an issue, I’d suggest that not only is time of the essence (pooping and peeing in the house is a surefire way to get a dog returned to the shelter), I’m not so thrilled with the prospect of having to explain to an owner how they will implement an imitation-based protocol for this one.
Sometimes we behave less like the general population in regard to jumping on bandwagons than we do like someone heading to the Bahamas in 3 weeks who wants to lose 30lbs. Eating only tuna fish and grapefruit juice may “work” but we know that it’s not healthy and not likely to lead to long-term weight loss. There is no end to the diets one can try and apparently are working for some. Some of those diets may even claim to offer behind the scenes kinds of benefits, increased metabolism, happier brain chemistry, you name it. They may even offer all kinds of “evidence” supporting their claim. But the bottom-line remains that when it comes to losing weight the formula is simple (though not easy to follow) it’s about calories, eat fewer, burn more. Any diet based on this formula is likely to be successful.
Learning to be discriminating and thoughtful when it comes to how we train dogs, especially those with life-threatening behavior challenges (i.e., the dog will be relinquished to a shelter or euthanized) is important. Sometimes by the time we find which sh*t is going to stick to the wall the owner’s patience and the dog’s time is up. Or we subject a dog to a life of chronic suffering.
Jean Donaldson will be featured in this upcoming webinar on the importance of standard operating procedures in the dog training industry. Creativity and innovation can be wonderful things, but it’s helpful to be able to know how to kick the tires on that bandwagon before you climb onboard.