Archive for the ‘anxious dogs’ Tag

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.

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.

 

Dog Trainers, Thanksgiving and Tomatoes

TOMATOI grew up in the northeast of the United States, in an urban area with neither parents nor neighbors who gardened. The majority of the fruits and vegetables I ate were store bought, with the summer time exception of sweet corn, a staple delight of childhood, food you were suppose to eat with your hands and that usually tasted a lot like butter and salt.

I’m not that much of a history buff, but I am aware that a significant portion of the people who first came from Europe to live in my neck of the woods didn’t survive very long. Contributing to their demise was the lack of food. Thanksgiving itself could be considered to be fundamentally about calories. No doubt in mid-March, Miles Standish and his friends would have greeted a crate of oddly squarish, weird orange, and somewhat mealy tomatoes, with relief. I remember my first taste of a tomato straight from the garden. Prior to that I was not a fan of tomatoes, however once I discovered how tomatoes could taste I became one, a fan of tomatoes right out of the garden.

Dog trainers are like tomatoes in that I think many people have never seen a really good one. I’m guessing this is the reason people read my blog posts, like this one published on Victoria Stillwell’s Postively Dogs site, and come to the defense of trainers who are whisperers, pack leaders or dominance seekers. They don’t know that in the world of professional animal training the trend is toward understanding the fundamentals of animal behavior and how we can modify it using techniques that take advantage of the power of positive reinforcement. This being true of all dogs, but especially those with extreme behavior challenges that frequently are provided as examples for the excuse of not knowing how to train using primarily positive reinforcement.

Some of us don’t have much of a choice when it comes to what kinds of fruits and vegetables we have access to, but dog trainers have a choice regarding how they train dogs, and pet owners should understand that they have a choice in who they pay to work with their dog. The use of force, fear, pain and intimidation in training comes with risks much greater than eating tomatoes grown thousands of miles away & months ago. If you’re put off of eating tomatoes your life will not likely suffer, but if a dog is put off of training, they may end up dead. Good trainers are fabulous to work with. Dogs enthusiastically anticipate sessions with them, and owners can trust that their dog is being trained in the most effective and humane ways possible. Training without fear, pain and intimidation saves lives.

The Failing Industry of Dog Training: I’m Sorry Willie

sunnywtoyA friend recently shared an article with me in which this blog gets a mention. They say that any PR is good PR but all this article does is make me sad, and to be lumped in with other “quick fixes” for what is a tragic issue, makes me even sadder. The conclusion the author comes to that some dogs just can’t be helped is instead for a me a story about the dog training industry failing another dog and their struggling owner. I am not sad for myself.

The dog training industry is unregulated so anyone can label themselves a trainer or as what apparently happened in the author’s case, a behaviorist. In practically any other profession anyone who charges for a service and not only fails to deliver that service, but makes the problem worse would be liable to be sued, disbarred, lose their license, be Yelped out of existence, or we’d at least expect to get our money back. But not hack dog trainers. Nope. They just move on to screw up or under serve another dog.

I know the feeling of being a pet owner trying to live with a dog who is too terrified to move, and being given many of the same recommendations as the author. There is no guarantee that anyone can “fix” Willie or any other dog and he’s lucky to be with someone who is willing to accommodate him. The problem is not, as I see it, that we think that everything can be made whole, especially something that might have never been whole to begin with, it’s the fundamental inadequacy of the support and guidance the author (and others like us) received from the industry built to help her and her dog.

Dog Owners Should Stand Up For Their Rights

brown dog with leashDog trainers are a notoriously passionate bunch, and I will not deny that I am among them. However what is going on in the dog training industry extends beyond personal passion for the subject and crosses over into what pet owners should expect when they pay for a service. What they should expect is solid advice and guidance based on the best information available to us regarding how animals learn and how dogs behave.

Though many pet owners may be unaware that dog training is founded on the very solid sciences of animal behavior and learning, this does not mean that dog trainers can be excused for being unaware of it, or choosing to disregard it. A doctor who based their surgical knowledge on a text from the 1800’s or even the 1950’s could expect to be sued for malpractice. A psychiatrist who declared that a person’s behavior was caused by evil spirits in their heads and a hole needs to be drilled to let them out should meet the same fate. But in the world of dog training the selling of nonsense is considered the norm!

“A while ago she started barking at him when he came into an area where i was. This has gotten worse and worse. Not sure if she is being protective of me, or possessive of me. There is a fearful tone to it too. The (insert the name of almost any franchise dog training business or pet shop) trainer, said i should reprimand her for doing this, and that it also signifies that my dog perceives me as weak. I try really hard to behave like a strong leader. But I feel like I am very ineffective at dealing with this barking.”

Here is someone trying to do everything right. They adopt a dog in the hopes of providing her with a better life. They realize they need help and contact a professional, spend their hard-earned cash, and are handed rubbish. Given this dog’s history, she was rescued from a puppy mill, we can assume that the dog was not provided with the early socialization to people and novelty when she needed to have it happen in order to feel safe around a variety of people and in different environments. The impact of this on a dog’s development and behavior is well-documented and any trainer should be aware of it. Even the owner has identified the dog as being “fearful.” What does the “trainer” recommend? Outdated and readily disputed advice about pack leadership and a declaration that would imply an ability to read a dog’s mind and know what she perceives!

In this digital age, when we have access to scientific works ranging from Galileo to neuroscience there is absolutely no excuse for it. None. Zilch. Zero. Don’t even bother trying to defend the ignorance or arrogance of a trainer who doesn’t take advantage of it. This is not about my opinion regarding how to train dogs. We are so far beyond that when it comes to animal training that to try to argue it is akin to asserting that how planets orbit each other is simply one’s opinion on the topic.

There are hacks and shysters in every industry. But if someone is in the business of teaching people how to drive a car and confuse the gas pedal with the brake, they need to be stopped. They pose a risk not only to the driver but to anyone who happens to be on the road with them. And they sure as heck need to stop being paid to do it.

Should This Dog Be Up For Adoption?

black and white drawing of baby carriage and dogs

drawing by Leslie Swieck all copyrights apply

The compassion that people show for dogs with fear-based behavior challenges is commendable. Rescue groups pull them from shelters by the thousands and well-intentioned people adopt them. Given the number of people joining online groups looking for support and advice about how to help these dogs the reality that it requires more than time and love should be glaringly obvious.

I was recently asked by a rescue group how to prepare people who adopt a dog living with a variety of fears, and my honest opinion is that you can’t. No matter how much people are instructed that they need to be patient with the dog, unless someone has lived with a dog who required months or years to learn how to; feel safe in their new home, go in and out of doors, ride in cars, be home alone, walk on a leash, see new people or dogs, they will not understand what they are signing up for. And if they did, they likely wouldn’t.

But the other reality is that the rescuing and adopting out of dogs with fear-based challenges is not going end any time soon. So what can we do?

Get information: Understand that dogs don’t simply “get over” being afraid. The conditions experienced during a dog’s early development can have life-long impact on their behavior. There’s no way back to normal for some dogs. Let go of biases against the use of modern medicine to address stress and anxiety.

Get skills: Despite current appearances in the dog training industry (absolutely anyone can come up with a protocol or method to train dogs or make up reasons why they do what they do), how dogs learn new skills and can change their emotional responses is well-documented and to train them requires an understanding of a few basic laws of behavior modification. There are more and more trainers who have the knowledge and skills to address the issues fearful dogs face in efficient and humane ways. If you don’t have the skills, find someone who does.

Be realistic: It is going to take time and love and patience and energy and money. Spend all of them wisely.

For dogs adopted into homes as pets the onus of change typically falls on the dog. People will only tolerate aggression, destroyed couches, irate calls from neighbors and any of the other fall-outs from the behavioral quirks of fearful dogs for so long. No amount of “Well we told you the dog was going to need time,” is going to cut it for the owner or the dog. So how can rescue groups prepare new adopters for life with a fearful dog? They can adopt out a dog with a few of the basic skills they will need to live as a pet. Expecting a pet owner, as devoted and well-intentioned as they may be, to be able to train a dog to accept routine ear cleaning when the dog currently hides, bites or screams when handled is wishful thinking. As is expecting them to be able to train the dog to; walk through doorways, go outside for leash walks, walk nicely on a leash, get in a car, sit quietly when guests come into the house, etc., etc.

Dogs have demonstrated the ability to learn despite how we train them not because of how we train them. But our fearful dogs are more dependent on the how being as clear as possible. Being re-homed is among one of the most stressful events in the life of a social animal. Being stressed and uncertain is a miserable combination and is not likely to contribute to an improvement in the dog’s behavior. We can prepare the adopters of these dogs by showing them how to cue a trained behavior and reinforce it. By training dogs using positive reinforcement every cued behavior is an opportunity to feel good and to minimize the uncertainty a dog experiences in a new setting. Will this add to the responsibilities of rescue groups? It sure will. Some are already taking it on, and my guess is that it will increase the odds the dog will remain in the home and have a head start on becoming a happy pet.

If we take on the responsibility of selecting dogs to place in homes as pets, we should embrace all that that entails, it’s how professionals operate. When buying a car from a stranger most people will have it checked out by a trusted mechanic (or they would be wise to). We don’t trust that the seller is either aware of, or being up front about possible problems that may be dangerous or costly. People adopting dogs are trusting that rescue groups and shelters are adopting out dogs who will make good pets. They should not be expected to know how to anticipate or deal with fear-based behaviors in a dog adopted to be a pet any more than a consumer can be expected to know about all the things that could be dangerously wrong with a product they are purchasing and hoping to use immediately. And we don’t expect them to know how to fix them.

I know that there will be people who will resent having an analogy made between dogs and products, but I think it’s time we stop closing our eyes to the fact that fearful dogs are returned and discarded all too often and start doing something about that.

The Tragedy of Dog Training

It is not difficult to make a name for one’s self in this industry, and I say that speaking from experience. Come up with an idea or rehash an old one, package it well and people will buy it. It’s not always a bad thing. I like to think that my focus on the sciences of learning and animal behavior for coming up with solutions to help our fearful dogs is among the good things.

Recently on a social media site someone selling a product, which may be a great addition to the industry, described themselves as a “professional holistic dog trainer.” I asked what that meant and received this reply:

“Professional Holistic Dog Trainer means that I take a look at the dog from the physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual aspects of the dog. I have a very detailed background in bodywork and dog biomechanics so I only do training once I know the body is sound and that the back and neck are not being impinged anywhere.

I have spent 20 years studying and practicing Qi Gong and have a pretty sound knowledge of The 5 Element Theory of Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I am an Animal Healer and have worked for the last 20 years with nutrition for many diseases and behavioral issues to rebalance both.

I have been an Animal Communicator for the past 20 years and have assisted hundreds of humans with their health and behavior issues addressing the problems at the root.

I train positively but use treats very minimally and not at all with my product*. I work with dogs based on their awareness of communication via reading their energy and having clear consistent boundaries that are used in a natural manner as we spend time together.

Hope that answers your question.”

Indeed it does answer my question. I see no reference at all to any formal education in animal training, which despite appearances in most TV shows and too many training classes, is based on the sound principles of operant conditioning. Animal training is a mechanical skill and as such we can be good at it, or not so good at it depending on our commitment to increasing and improving those skills. An educated onlooker can spot a good trainer a mile away in much the same way a fan can identify a team’s great athletes or a band’s star performer. Most of us however are not educated onlookers. It’s not an inherent fault of ours, it’s just the nature of the dog training industry. We don’t often have the chance to see many of the really good trainers in action. Given that, we may be perfectly thrilled with a nice red table wine while remaining oblivious to the fact that an award winning zinfandel is available in the next aisle.

Don’t let the veneer of language sprinkled with the glitter of energy, natural, spiritual, blind you to the obvious. At no point did this trainer ever provide me with information to indicate that s/he has the background, education or skill to effectively and humanely train dogs. Indeed most of the information provided is superfluous or contrary to being a great dog trainer. That one practices an ancient Chinese martial art may be good for one’s blood pressure, but it says nothing of their ability to train dogs. Qualifying the use of food in training (minimally) is an indication that one may in fact not truly be capable of communicating with an animal since as a primary reinforcer, and one of the most potent ones, food is renowned as a motivator and is used by professional trainers across the board. That fish tossed to a seal after they wave at the crowd is a primary reinforcer to increase the chances that that behavior will be performed again on cue.

Professional trainers do not apologize for using food in training. This is not to say that we only use food for reinforcement but the mention of limiting its use is a red flag. We don’t get to decide what is reinforcing to an animal, the animal does. If a dog is not motivated to perform for praise, petting, or play I don’t hold it against them, I break out the cheese. Coming from the position that a specific reinforcer will only be used minimally is antithetical to good training (health or medical reasons may impact our decision but it will not change the position that food holds in the training world). We can make the decision how and what to use for reinforcement in the process of training an animal, not create arbitrary dictates.

The tragedy of the dog training industry in its current incarnation is not that people can come up with enticing ways to market themselves or their products regardless of their quality, as consumers we know this is how the game is played. The tragedy is not that some people don’t use or limit the use of food to train. The tragedy is that most pet owners, the main consumers of the products and services, have never seen what good, efficient training looks like. But the industry is changing and we are becoming more savvy consumers who can tell the difference between a really good cabernet and something in a screw top bottle that just provides a good buzz.

*product name removed

 

How Bad Is It?

For those who choose to follow what is called the “humane hierarchy” when training animals (guidelines created by far better minds and more experienced minds than my own) there remains confusion among the ranks. In the hierarchy created by Dr. Susan Friedman, some note that because both negative reinforcement and negative punishment are presented on the same level they must therefore both be of equal invasiveness or aversiveness. This assumption then leads to debates about whether trainers who routinely utilize negative punishment have any right telling people who routinely utilize negative reinforcement that they shouldn’t be.

Few would would argue that there are not degrees to which something is aversive enough to either increase or decrease behavior. My desire to stop getting wet in a rainstorm is likely different in mid-July than it is in mid-February but the observable behavior will look the same, I’ll put on a raincoat. Since it’s my behavior I feel safe in assessing how aversive I found getting wet at the time. I should be cautious to assume I can attain the same level of certainty when looking at an animal’s behavior. There are those among us with the experience with the species and with an individual to assume (guess) correctly. But that’s not a recommended practice among professional trainers who use behavior to guide their choices when training. That’s what the humane hierarchy is for.

The other bit of confusion is that we typically are not choosing between negative reinforcement or negative punishment. One is for getting or increasing behavior, the other for stopping or decreasing behavior. We are choosing between using positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement to get behavior. In this case our first choice should be positive reinforcement. If there is a behavior we want to end or decrease we can choose between positive punishment or negative punishment. According to the hierarchy our choice should be negative punishment. We take away the opportunity for an animal to attain positive reinforcement.

Accomplished and ethical trainers do not punish unless they have adequately provided the animal with information to understand how to behave to get positive reinforcement. It’s not up to us decide how bad something is or isn’t to a dog. It’s up to us to develop the mechanical skills to be good trainers using positive reinforcement and the technical understanding of how learning is impacted by consequences. While we’re doing that this roadmap provides us with good information to guide us. humane hierarchy