Archive for the ‘dog behavior’ Tag

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.

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.

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.

Dog Trainers Are Behavioral Mechanics

Frank Swanton was driving down Route 53 when the car he’d had for a year started making a loud clanking noise and was pulling hard to the right whenever he stepped on the brake. He had noticed that there were some problems early on after he bought the car but they didn’t seem too bad so he didn’t bother to have them checked. But today they were bad and there was a brake or transmission smell and he wasn’t sure he’d make it home. He remembered there was an auto repair shop about 2 miles up the road. He’d never been there before but he decided to stop.

Melissa Brandon picked up a rag and was wiping the grease off her hands as she hurried away from the car she was working on when she heard the bell announcing someone had entered the shop. Ever since she was a kid she loved cars. When she was small she played surgical scrub nurse to her father who slid around under the old Buick he drove, barking out, “3/4” socket wrench!” “Vice grip, the big one!” He took pride in his young daughter who had learned the names of tools the way his friend Ralph’s kid could name dinosaurs. “Stegosaurus, smegosaurus,” he’d wink at her, “that kid doesn’t know the difference between a crescent wrench and an allen key,” and she flushed with pride because she knew that by the time she was five! If she did get it wrong it was only once. After placing the tool in her father’s outstretched hand it would disappear under the car, reappearing in seconds accompanied by a single word, “Nope,” he’d say and she’d hand him her second choice. “That’s better,” he’d mumble. She had worked nights to pay for two years at technical college and busted her knuckles at the Audi dealership for 3 years in their service department before deciding to open her own shop.

“What can I do for you?” she asked the obviously distressed fellow who had called out, “Can someone help me please?” as soon as the door close behind him.

“There’s something wrong with my car,” he replied. “It’s making this clanking sound as though there’s someone in the engine with a hammer. There’s a bad smell, I’m not sure if it’s coming from the engine or the exhaust, and it’s hard to turn the steering wheel to the left if I put on the brake.”

“Did you want to leave it and have me get one of the mechanics to check to it out, or did you want to schedule an appointment and bring it back?” she queried.

“I need it fixed, he insisted. “Can you tell me what to do to fix it? Can’t you just give some suggestions? Or what about a book or a website?” he was practically pleading.

Melissa looked at the car, a late model sedan, similar to the cars she’d worked on during the course she had recently attended to learn about the new electronic systems being installed. She’d spent three, eight hour days studying the schematics of the computer boards, and had invested several thousand dollars in equipment for the shop to help perform diagnostics in situations like this. She knew where to start to teach someone to fix a car, but she also knew that a few tips and some random advice were not likely to solve this car’s problem.

“It would make more sense to leave it or bring it back so one of the mechanics can look it over and make the necessary repairs,” she politely replied.

This was when Frank threw the first verbal punch. “Oh I get it,” he snorted, “I thought you loved cars, but I can see you’re only in it for the money.”

Mrs. Brown, who had dropped her car off this morning as pre-arranged and agreed to pay for parts and labor, would be coming in at 5pm to pick it up. Melissa had left it up on the lift when she heard Frank come in the door. Mrs. Brown worked two jobs and had found someone to give her a ride after her first shift to return for her Camry that needed new brake pads, a job Melissa was only half-way through. If she was going to get paid for that job she’d need to get it finished. Last week she had discounted the work they’d done on the van for the kid’s club, the senior center’s mini-bus and Roger Ferris’s old VW. She had been friends with Roger’s wife who was dying of cancer, Roger had taken leave from his job at the soda packing plant to take care of her.

The monthly nut for the mortgage on the shop, including taxes and insurance meant Melissa had to work 5 days, sometimes 6, to cover it. Then there were the weekly salaries of the 2 other mechanics she hired, along with withholding and insurance, and she couldn’t forget that someone had been heavy handed with the sink in the men’s bathroom and the threads in the handle of the hot water faucet were stripped and she needed to replace the entire unit, and she was still not sure what happened to the wrench set she had to special order to work on a foreign car one of her customers had recently bought.

“If I can get it home can I give you a call tonight to talk about what I should do to fix it?” he suggested, seeming to forget his previous insult.

Two days a week she volunteers at the high school, an after school program to teach kids how to work on cars. She has to leave the shop early, but Buddy the part-time mechanic is happy to pick up more hours. She thought about Ellie Barton who had been giving her mother so much trouble, and how she had turned into a wiz kid with hybrid engines, and was able to explain some of the tougher information to other kids who were willing to pay attention. Billy Frankel, the kid who’d been suspended 3 times last semester had a knack for body repair. When he was done with a fender or hood even a professional had to look twice to notice a repair had been made at all. He’d even asked Melissa to help him pick out an old car from the salvage yard to fix up, and they’d left towing an old Impala that if he followed through on would be worth a pretty penny.

“I’m sorry I won’t be available,” she apologized, “my son has a recital tonight.”

“If I leave it how much is all this going to cost me?” he asked, his brow furrowed. “I bought this car at a fundraiser for the community food kitchen, I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on it.”

Two weeks ago a woman had brought her car in, convinced that the problem was the same one she had heard described on a call-in radio show. Two clever and funny mechanics diagnosed car problems on the air every Saturday morning. When the mechanic had a look at the car she discovered the problem was entirely different, a large part of the exhaust system had rusted out and would need to be replaced. When Melissa explained this to the car’s owner the woman wailed, “It’s even the same make and model as the one they talked about on the radio and they said it only required a $25 part to fix!” grabbed her keys and drove off. There were shops in town where they would happily take the woman’s money, replace the $25 part and send her home with a car no better, and maybe worse off than when she’d brought it in. But Melissa would never even consider it, though it meant that she lost a potential customer.

“First I’d have to have someone take a look at it to know what needs to be done, then if we need parts I’ll have to put in an order for those.”

She did some quick calculating, knowing that she couldn’t guarantee anything without having even looked under the hood but he was insistent. The range of how much time it might take to work on the car was wide, and the lowest cost possibility was still high enough to make him visibly cringe when he heard it. “Nevermind,” he huffed as he turned to walk out the door, “I thought you could help me.”

She stood for a moment as he got into his car and worked hard to turn the steering wheel as he pulled out of the lot. The sinking feeling in her stomach would pass, this wasn’t the first time someone had complained about the cost of repairs or expected her to take the time to explain, step by step, how to replace a fan belt, or figure out whether it was a fuse that needed to be replaced or something else in the electrical system. She did what she could, suggesting the easiest things that could be checked, repaired or replaced by an owner, and it felt bad to be accused of being mercenary.

As the car faded into the distance, smoke billowing from the tail pipe, Melissa turned and headed back to Mrs. Brown’s car. If she hustled she should be able to have it ready by five.

Dog Displaying Fear or Aggression? Don’t Make Them Repeat Themselves

boy sitting on pier with 2 dogs looking at the water

Go on Sunny, there’s fun ahead.

When a dog performs a fearful or aggressive behavior it’s as though they are saying, “I don’t have the skills to behave in any other way in this situation.” Why would you want to make them repeat themselves?

If you were to drop a kid into a pool that was just deep enough they didn’t feel completely safe you could expect them to try to get out. Some kids might find the exercise educational and learn to tread water, kick their feet, blow bubbles, or dog paddle. Others might continuously get themselves to the side and hang on. If the latter is good enough for you, then keep doing it, but it’s a step short of what would help them feel better about being in a pool and give them skills so that if they find themselves in any body of water they are less likely to drown.

Skill building is not only what the dog training business is all about (or should be!) it’s incredibly rewarding to see a dog develop the skills they need to find other ways to enjoy their life. Not being able to swim keeps many people from participating in activities that are healthy and fun. Not being comfortable in places where there are people or dogs puts limits on the opportunities to discover the joys of simply being alive.

If they need support and feel better hanging on to the side, that’s ok let them. But remember that the combination of counterconditioning and training using positive reinforcement can lead to the day that rather than trying to avoid the water they embrace their ability to float and start having fun in the pool. While they’re learning, their desire to keep heading for the ladder out is information that they need more counterconditioning and reinforcement for kicking their feet and practicing strokes.

Does My Dog Need Prozac?*

The subject of using medications to treat dogs with fear and anxiety issues is a controversial one among pet owners and trainers, and one I frequently feel inclined to address in regard to working with fearful dogs. Drugs have been a blessing and curse for humans. They can both save and destroy lives. Deciding to give a scared dog medications is often a struggle for owners. An incomplete understanding of why they are being used is often at fault.

There is an immediate emotional response to the idea of giving a dog a medication for a behavior issue, and for some people it’s a bad response and for others it’s more neutral. There are few pet owners who thrill to the idea. That some people mis-use medications with their dogs, and by this I mean that they assume that training challenges, or the failure to provide a dog with enough stimulation and enrichment on a daily basis will be remedied with a pill, does not take away the benefit these pills can have for many dogs.

A common misunderstanding about the use of behavioral medications is that they are being used to sedate a dog, this is especially the case when a dog is fear aggressive. Owners assume that the dog will be “doped-up” and spend the rest of its life in la-la land, unable to function. People often worry about potential side-effects of medications, but have given no consideration to the impact chronic stress (which a medication might alleviate) has on their dog. And if a medication does not prove to be effective or there are negative side-effects the option always remains to stop using them. There are a different medications available, and one might work better for one dog compared to another.

colored pills spilling out of a bottle

If you step on a rusty nail and suffer a deep puncture wound, even if you develop an infection there is a chance you will survive. Antibiotic medications will likely play a role in this. If you wait too long to take the drug the infection may progress to a point where the drugs are not effective or your life can be saved, but not your leg. While we are hoping that our dog’s problems can be addressed with soap and water, a kiss and a bandage, the infection may be setting in. We know what normal, healthy dog behavior looks like. If you are unsure as to whether or not it’s time to stop hoping the problem will resolve on its own find a trainer** who understands the challenges of working with fear-based behaviors and talk to a vet or vet behaviorist to explore ways you can ensure you save the leg.

**Any trainer who recommends the use of force, coercion or punishment to help a scared dog “get over” their fear should be avoided. At no time during training should a dog be handled in ways that are designed to elicit fear in your dog.

*This is also the name of my upcoming book.

Is Food Really the Problem?

boy in chair and 4 dogs looking at him

Guess what these dogs are looking forward to getting?

From the comments I’ve been hearing and the stuff I’ve been reading on the internet one would be inclined to think that the use of food in training poses great problems or risks. I cannot think of one conversation I’ve had with a trainer who laments that their clients reinforce behaviors with food too much. Indeed it’s usually the opposite. Having trouble with the duration of a down/stay? I’d put money on that it’s because the behavior is not being reinforced with food soon or often enough, or in the right place. Dog won’t come when called? Put me down for a fiver for the same reason.

I’m not suggesting that there are not other reinforcers that can be as effective as food or that we don’t need to be aware of how we use food in training, but do we really need to be out there warning pet owners about the dangers of using food to train their dogs? Have we already won the battle of helping owners understand how positive reinforcement works and how to implement it in their relationship with their dog? And so what if a dog likes steak?

If you get dog as a pup it’s likely that you’ll have the opportunity to create hundreds, hopefully thousands, of positive associations between you and good things or events in the dog’s life. Well-handled young pups will often follow us around regardless of whether we have a treat in hand or pocket, our shoe laces may be the draw along with our companionship. We have become conditioned reinforcers to our dog through the lovely organic process of living gently and playfully with a social animal. It’s not so seamless with rehomed dogs, and even more challenging with scared dogs.

If we are lucky someone along the way has provided a dog with a reason for feeling good about people. My border collie, adopted at least 2 other times from what I know about his history, was given the gift of learning to love as only some dogs can, catching and retrieving frisbees. When life seems uncertain and perhaps a little scary, there’s always frisbee. That my dogs who are not 100% comfortable with people will perform behaviors in order to get a tidbit of treat is a blessing for all of us. Sure the vet smells funny and wields tools of ear and anal prodding capability, but there’s always gorgonzola to mitigate the discomfort.

Travel anywhere in the developing world and the most common relationship you’ll see between people and dogs is based on food. Dogs follow children who drop crumbs of bread, or they hang out at roadside food stands gobbling up discards. I am aware of those torturous studies done on baby monkeys that showed that they spent more time hanging onto a soft facsimile of mother monkey compared to the wire mother monkey who provided milk. I am not attempting to downplay the relationship we can create with our dogs that does not include food or that animals derive comfort and relief in a variety of physical ways other than through eating.

Can our relationships go beyond food? Of course they can, and do. But so what if food plays a major role in that relationship, at anytime during its creation? Try and tell a grandmother that her corned beef with carrots or key lime pie don’t matter in her relationship with her grandchildren. Try believing it yourself the next time you plan a party and decide that the food you serve doesn’t matter. It may not be just about the food, but the food is definitely part of the equation. Our social engagements don’t have to include food, but interestingly they often do.

If a dog is only responding to an owner because of the promise of food, the food is not the problem, and the relationship might not be the problem either. Advising pet owners to ditch the food treats and replace it with “relationship” may not be prudent. Food is a part of the relationship and may be the only salient reinforcer a new pet owner has to use with their dog. And I say, “So what?” By pairing interactions with their owner with food the “feel good” power of a primary reinforcer rubs off on them. Instead of warning owners off of food we should be instructing them on how to use it effectively for creating strong, reliable behaviors. That one can over-hydrate and die is not a reason to advise against drinking water. “Stop using food” is one of the most misguided pieces of advice I’ve heard today.

Fixing What Ails You

french fries with ketchupIt seems that many of us go through our lives trying to make something better or fix something that we hold responsible for our troubles.

Years ago I was traveling with a couple of friends. One an ex-housemate who I enjoyed and laughed with, the other, his girlfriend was a friend only the most superficial of ways. We worked at the same place and we liked hanging out with the same guy. She always seemed to be struggling with something in her past that kept her unhappy with her better than average body, her prettier than average face and her smarter than average brain. Luckily her richer than average parents were able to provide her with decades of therapy. Even this seemed to be a cause of dissatisfaction and guilt.

I found her tiresome and self-centered. At dinner one evening when she asked how I would “feel” about her having some of my french fries I thought, “I’d feel like stabbing you with my fork,” but I am an adult and my future will hold many more french fries so, “Help yourself.” In retrospect she might have been a good dog trainer. Considering a person’s emotional attachment to their french fries certainly would set one up for understanding a dog’s attachment to a bone, or old sock.

I’m not sure if this woman ever found the solution to her nagging discontent, but no doubt it motivated many of her behaviors. When I look at dogs I often wonder what nagging discontent is motivating their behavior. Why does one find it impossible to walk outside, or another to race frantically from window to window to bark at the slightest movement or sound? What problem is their behavior trying to solve? And I understand that whatever reason I come up with may be right, but may also be very wrong. The best I can hope for is that whatever I come up with motivates me to change the dog’s environment and my or the owner’s interactions in ways that help solve the problem, rather than contribute to it.

In the dog training world more people take relationships into consideration. There is the realization that how we feel about each other will impact how and what a dog learns. And the relationship the dog has with their environment will also play a part in how they choose to behave or are triggered to behave. Dogs will find behaviors that make them feel better or provide some kind of relief, even if those behaviors are maladaptive to our homes and our lives.  Indeed these behaviors may be maladaptive to their own lives. We need to find solutions that help them solve their problems in ways that are constructive and safe.

I try to extend my compassion and understanding to people as well as dogs when it comes to being patient with behaviors that annoy me. But it’s probably still a good idea not to reach for my fries. I may be having a bad day.

Want Some Candy Little Girl?

wooden swing bridge in vermont with a dog on it and a dog waiting a other endOne of the often misused techniques for getting new behaviors from fearful dogs is luring. And the most often used lure is food. Besides being unfair, it can backfire, big time.

The unfair part of it is that dogs need to eat. It’s one thing to bait a trap to catch a dog and count on the dog’s hunger to be motivating enough to get them into the trap. It’s another thing to try to draw a dog closer to something that scares them in order for them to get food for training purposes. Dogs who are fearful are often also anxious. They are constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop, so to speak. The world is unpredictable and scary. Sometimes people approach them and force them to do something they’d rather not do. They are chronically stressed. Eating may be the only time their brain actually gets the chance to feel good.

Using food to lure dogs into performing behaviors, such as going up or down stairs, walk on unfamiliar surfaces or approaching a scary person can backfire if during the process of getting or eating the food, the dog is startled. So instead of getting the beauty of counter conditioning we have taught the dog to be suspect of food because it predicts something scary might happen. We have lost one of the most powerful tools we have in the rehabilitation of fearful dogs- food. The use of food as a lure in training dogs who are not afraid does not present the same risks, though it’s to our benefit to “fade the lure” as soon as possible and switch to using it as a reward.

There are other ways we can take advantage of a dog’s fears inappropriately, in order to coax behaviors from them. As usual, each situation will be different and trainers, using their brains and understanding the implications and potential negative fall out of any technique they employ, can decide whether or not to use them.

In order to access the snowmobile trails in the woods across the river we have to cross a swing bridge. Crossing it is a scary proposition for many people and dogs. When I am out on a walk with the dogs it’s not unusual for a new dog in the group to get to the bridge and balk at setting foot on it, or get midway and then turn and high tail back. For some dogs being left behind is a powerful enough motivator for them to work up the courage and cross it. They slink across like army comandos. Some, after doing this discover that it’s safe and crossing the bridge is no longer scary for them. Others, once across will refuse to set foot on it for the return home. They pace and whine searching for an alternative way to rejoin the group. It’s stressful for them and their apprehension for  facing the bridge in the future will impact their desire to go for a walk with me next time the leashes come out. And a dog who has not developed a strong enough relationship with their owner or the other dogs they live with, may not find being with the gang enough of a motivator to even try to cross.

The way we help dogs learn new behaviors, whatever they are, is to ensure that the dog feels safe and trusts us. This will go a long way and is worth taking the time to figure out how to achieve both. Then teach the dog something. Give them behaviors they can perform on cue. If you use force-free and reward based training methods, asking dogs to do things makes them feel good because you are giving them the opportunity to get something they like. Push a dog too soon in the relationship or when they still don’t feel comfortable enough to cope and you could be setting the stage for aggression to appear as a response.

Every journey begins with one step. We’ll be getting to plenty of bridges to cross with our scared or anxious dogs. Make sure each step is a good one. In the picture accompanying this post Nibbles is hesitating before joining me on the other side of the bridge. He’d been given the opportunity to cross with me getting rewarded along the way on numerous occasions. I could have put him on a leash and encouraged him to come, or carried him. I chose to let him make the choice this time around. He crossed and we celebrated on the other side.

Support Systems

There is so much progress that needs to be made in regard to how people “think” about animal behavior and training that it can seem overwhelming. But seven years ago I had to seek out and search for information regarding the most humane and effective ways to help dogs with fear based behavior challenges, whereas today it streams on my Facebook page and twitter account. Articles like this one, sharing the research done on how our intervention when a dog is scared can help alleviate their fear, is becoming mainstream. The science and research is being repackaged for mass consumption. It’s about time. But don’t think that everyone is buying it.

There are those who, due to an inconsistency in the terms we use to “talk” about behavior, will go on endless semantic journeys to dispute the claim that “comforting dogs does not reinforce fearfulness.” Comforting will be termed coddling and the methodology for applying either will be criticized. In one way it’s good. It means people are thinking, but when pieces of the puzzle don’t belong there, it’s difficult to come up with the right picture.

One such piece is the misunderstanding that people have regarding the use of the term “reinforcing” and how it is applied to behavior versus emotional responses. Behaviors that are reinforced can be expected to increase. Behaviors based on powerful emotional responses, if paired with what one might label a “reinforcer” (the same bit of cheese that increased the chances that a dog would sit when asked) cause a decrease in the emotional response, and subsequently we are likely to see a decrease in the behavior associated with the emotion. This is because we are counter conditioning the emotional response. Not all behavior is created equal.

Let’s use “hunger” as an example. Though not exactly an “emotion” if we feed an animal who is hungry, their hunger will decrease, and unless there is an eating disorder involved, the behavior associated with hunger, eating, will decrease. We do not reinforce hunger by feeding an animal. We do not reinforce fear when we comfort an animal. In both cases what constitutes food or comfort is dependent on the animal’s definition of them. One dog may find being stroked and held comforting, another might find it annoying. A hungry lion would not look at a bale of hay and see a meal, but a horse would. In either case if we know what a dog finds comforting or an animal thinks is tasty, and give it to them, we are likely to see a decrease in the behaviors associated with either being scared or hungry (after they’re done chewing of course).

I am going to propose that since the word “comfort” seems to be difficult for people to accept, even though it can be clearly defined-

1. To soothe in time of affliction or distress.
2. To ease physically; relieve.
n.
1. A condition or feeling of pleasurable ease, well-being, and contentment.
2. Solace in time of grief or fear.
3. Help; assistance: gave comfort to the enemy.
4. One that brings or provides comfort.
5. The capacity to give physical ease and well-being: enjoying the comfort of my favorite chair.*

can be replaced by the term “to support.”

My aging border collie Finn was walking down a flight of stairs in our house when I could hear his nails scrambling on the wood. I got to him in time to prevent him from tumbling down. I helped him right himself and supported his hind end as he continued down. At the bottom I gave him a cheer and opened the door so he could go outside. I provided him with what he needed to get down the stairs unharmed. It is likely that he will avoid the stairs, and until I can put a runner down I would prefer that he did. But I did not want him to be injured to learn that lesson. Ultimately, when it is safe for him to do so, I want him to continue to go up and down the stairs on his own.

When we offer a stressed and scared animal our support we do so based on the needs of that animal. It does not make sense to state unequivocally that we should not attend to these needs because we may not be clear on what that support should look like. Or having provided that support inexpertly in the past it is proof that it doesn’t help. Our goal is to help a dog develop the skills and confidence they need so that continuing support becomes unnecessary, but until that happens it would be foolish to stop providing it.

Advising that supporting someone trying to learn to swim will keep them a life-long non-swimmer doesn’t make sense, and it’s dangerous. Someone may not need you to hold their hand as they walk into the waves, but someone else might lest, they be swept under and drown.

*thefreedictionary.com/comfort