Archive for the ‘fearful dogs’ Tag

Old News

dog under desk targeting a ball on the end of a stickAfter years of flipping through the magazines strategically placed at the check-out in grocery stores, it was impossible not to notice that generations of young women are being schooled on how to apply mascara, bake a no-fail chocolate cake, and on what turns men off, assuming any of this matters to them. The faces on the covers have changed, but the information hasn’t since any of these topics were new to me, decades ago. I understand that while not news to me, it is news to some.

With that in mind I am going to revisit the “reinforcing fear” topic. I should explain that the idea that we reinforce fear in dogs by doing anything even remotely “nice” or pleasant to them, is a hot button subject for me. This misinformation was shared with me by a trainer, and accounts for months of mishandling my fearful dog Sunny. It was mentioned in a class I attended years before I had met Sunny, but the information stuck and shaped my interactions with him. I will never know how much this has impacted his current behavior, and I realize that hindsight is 20/20 but it continues to upset me. How much different might he be today if I had not spent months worrying about reinforcing or enabling his fear, and instead had immediately addressed his stress levels, however I needed to, to lower them? Maybe there wouldn’t be much of a difference, but I suspect there would be, hence the relevance this topic has for me.

On my Facebook page, a masseuse made brief comment that discouraged people from praising a scared dog. They didn’t explain why not to do it, but it is apparent to me why they’d say it-the reinforcing fear myth. I tried to be equally as brief in my reply and hopefully not rude but imagine if I had gone on to a page about canine massage and commented that one should not “massage old dogs.” And let’s say that there were people who thought that massage was dangerous for old dogs, that it could stop their hearts. Ridiculous you might think, but no more ridiculous than thinking you will reinforce fear in a dog by comforting them, or handing them a bit of cheese.

And why would I think that I was not qualified to comment on massage? I have after all lived with a body for decades, have had massages, my husband routinely tries to get me to massage his feet, and once I shared a house with two women in massage school. No I had not ever seen a dog’s heart stop when they were massaged, but neither has anyone seen a dog’s fear being reinforced when they are praised or comforted. A dog’s fear might have remained the same or increased when someone thought they were praising (and that praising was perceived by the dog as a reinforcer), or comforting, but that’s not evidence of anything other than that a handler didn’t understand thresholds and counter conditioning.

Not all behavior is created equal. There is behavior that is used to get something done. A dog scratches the door to get a person to open it. There is behavior that is a product of the presentation of something that creates a strong emotional response in a dog (or is part of the set of behaviors that dogs come packaged with, chasing stuff for example). This latter behavior might also produce results, a dog who is scared snarls and makes another dog move away, and dogs can get better at snarling and making dogs move away, but there is a difference between operant, the former, and respondent, the latter, behaviors. Wrap your head around this, it’s important.

If the consequence of an operant behavior is something the dog finds pleasant or beneficial, we are likely to see that behavior occur more often. If the consequence of a behavior caused by a dog being afraid of something, is something the dog finds pleasant or enjoyable, the emotional response is likely to change, from bad to good, and subsequently the behavior that it produced will change. If a kid hates going to school, we’ll probably find it difficult to get them to perform “going to school” behaviors, but if they LOVE going to school, getting them up in the morning, dressed and out the door is likely to be a different scene than for the poor kid who doesn’t enjoy it.

It isn’t easy to change emotional responses, but it is easy for someone to think they’re following the protocol to do it, and they are not. This is not evidence that desensitization and counter conditioning don’t work, just that they’re not being implemented properly.

I have not yet looked at these DVDs produced by Animal Behavior Associates, but I will be. I also will be careful about giving advice on topics I do not fully grasp, and even more careful about the advice I give when I am being paid for it.

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Relationship Capital

When I was in my 20’s I worked as a guide on the Wanganui River in NZ. One day during a hike, one of the participants on the trip, a woman in her 60’s commented to me that she thought I “weighed too much for a girl my age” and went on to give me dietary advice which consisted primarily of switching from butter to margarine on my toast. She boasted about being a “straight shooter” a speaker of the truth which was suppose to absolve her of responsibility for how her comments made me feel. It was as though the value of her advice to me, far outweighed (sorry for the pun) how bad it made me feel.

We spent five days together paddling down the river and from that time the only conversation I remember having with her was this one. I can recall it, not because her dietary advice to me changed my eating habits and my life was inexplicably improved beyond measure, no, it was because it made me feel bad, really bad. There is no doubt in mind that were I to meet her again, almost 30 years later, I would remember this conversation and feel bad again. But this time my bad feelings would be directed toward her, not my thighs.

When people talk about using punishment with their dogs, the problem is not that it can’t work, though it often doesn’t, one serious concern is how the dog can end up feeling about the person doling out the punishment. Most pet owners want to have a good relationship with their dogs.

cocker spaniel looking at woman eating

It’s up to you. Their options are limited.

We want them to wake us up if there’s a fire and save our lives. We hope that if we were stuck in a well they’d go for help. Few mentally sound people want their dogs to be afraid of them. Maybe I could risk it and say no mentally sound person wants this.

The ease which the general population has let the nonsense of trainers like Cesar Millan slide down their gullets is a source of great interest to me. Is it because it gives people permission to be powerful, to assume the role of dictator in their private, small universe? It might be for some, but I suspect for others it’s because they do not comprehend the impact compulsion and punishment have on their relationship with their dog. They are told it will command respect, inspire their dog to follow them to the ends of the earth. That it’s the “natural order” of things. But professional trainers, animal behaviorists and real psychologists know better. Though there are pathologies that exist which cause some people to enjoy being pushed around and treated harshly, most animals will choose, at often huge cost to themselves, to avoid it.

The earlier and more often in a relationship one proves to be willing to do something that scares or makes their dog feel bad, the more difficult it will be to establish trust within that relationship. Training becomes more challenging as stress and uncertainty taint the dog’s ability to experiment with behaviors. If you for one minute believe that proving your dominance over a dog convinces them to respect you, watch your step. If you find yourself in a well, you may be there for awhile.

Snooper Sleuth

Anyone who has lived with and cared about a dog has experienced moments when they are looking at a dog and wondering what the heck is going on. A trainer friend shared a story with me about a client’s dog who had started barking, at seemingly random times, at the refrigerator. We had been griping about the reasons some vets or trainers come up with to explain a dog’s behavior and then justify their recommended response to it. Among the worst being the idea that a dog’s behavior is based on their desire to move up in a pack hierarchy to justify the use of any number of inappropriate responses. The vet suggested that the dog was barking at the food in the frig. Not barking for the food, but barking at it. Don’t ask me, I don’t get it either. My friend suggested that the owners clean the coils under the refrigerator (something we should all do I learned from the repair guy). The collection of hair and dust had changed the sound of the refrigerator motor when it kicked on. The dog had noticed it and the barking ended once the original sound returned. Figuring out what is driving a dog’s behavior makes us all Sherlock Bones.

It can be especially challenging if we suspect illness or injury. Here in Vermont we have finally gotten a break from bitterly cold temperatures. Too much of a break unfortunately, and instead of a snowstorm, it’s pouring rain. This morning my border collie Finn got up from his bed on the floor next to me and moved to the other side of the room, by the door leading out to a balcony. Did he need to go out? Was he too hot and seeking out the cooler floor by the door? When he put his front paws up on the bed (he can’t jump up any more) I got up and put him in bed with me. He was trembling. Finn was treated for lymphoma and though I try not to obsess about it, know that it could return at any time. Was he feeling poorly? He also suffers from arthritis in his hind end, was he hurting?

I gently stroked him and drifted in and out of sleep while the recent episode of This American Life played on my iPod. Eventually his trembling stopped. It had been raining and I’d grown used to the sound of it falling on the metal roof, but I realized that something was different. It sounded as though a giant windstorm was raging outside. Windstorms mean trees fall down, trees falling down mean we lose power, when we lose power there’s no water. I got out of bed prepared for bucket filling action and noticed that the trees outside the window were still, there was no wind. The sound I was hearing was the river.

We live on a dirt road across from the Green River. When we have hard freezes the river builds up thick sheets of ice. During the spring thaw the river rises up and the ice breaks off in giant chunks that rumble and tumble downstream. The first time I heard it I thought a convoy of huge trucks was driving past the house. Last night’s rain had caused it to happen in January. The sound I was hearing was the river rushing by carrying the smaller chunks of ice and slush that follow after the biggest pieces have washed down. I had slept through that part. My guess is that Finn didn’t. Even the smaller pieces churning by can sound like thunder rumbling for minutes on end. Finn is afraid during storms. Was this the reason for his trembling? I suspect it was.

As frustrating as it can be to be unsure of why a dog is behaving the way they are, it is also an opportunity to get into the habit of looking at our dog’s behavior. Actually looking, not just reacting to it based on a preconceived notion of why it is occurring.

The 7 Habits of Successful Fearful Dogs

small black and white dog standing on cast iron pans

“Not sure why you want me to do this, but ok, whatever.”

On my book shelf is a CD by Wayne Dwyer on the power of intention. It’s an inspirational presentation. But as powerful as intentions are, given the right set of circumstances, habits will win out.

Recently I moved the app icons on my iPod around. I deleted a few and moved some off the main screen. In the process a couple of the ones I use regularly shifted their position. My finger moved to tap the icon for an app that was no longer in the lower left hand side of the screen, but to the right and up a row. I managed not to open the wrong app, and stopped my finger in time. My intention was to open an app, and my habit was to tap the lower left of the screen to do it. I still catch myself aiming for the old, now incorrect, location. Old habits are hard to break.

For up to a year after we moved from one house to another, about a mile down the road past the old house, I would on occasion discover that I was preparing to turn into the old driveway. One day I even made it up the driveway to the house before it dawned on me that I had made a mistake. It wasn’t that I was sleeping at the wheel, I’d not driven off the road into the river, so some part of my brain was doing its job. My intention had been to drive home, but an old habit kicked in.

We want to take advantage of the power of habits when we are working with our fearful dogs. If we can create behaviors that require little thought on the dog’s part, it will be easier for them to behave appropriately in scary situations. If we create those behaviors using positive reinforcement, performing those behaviors can include a positive emotional response at the same time- more bang for our buck.

Sitting and looking at me is a “trick” I’ve worked on with Sunny for years. He will plop his butt down and look at me with the slightest prompting on my part. When the pressure is on, he will do it. It’s become what we call a “default” behavior. If he’s not sure of what else to do, this is his fall-back behavior. I’ve rewarded him with food and praise, a lot, for doing it. It’s proven to be useful at the vet’s office and at the groomer’s. When we’re out and there are people around, he will do it and I can step in between him and the approaching monsters.

Consider helping your dog create the following habits:

  1. Look at you regularly for feedback
  2. Feel good when they hear their name
  3. Sit or lie down easily wherever they are
  4. Stay or wait when asked
  5. Come joyfully when called
  6. Play daily
  7. Become addicted to learning new tricks

Webinar-Medications To Treat Fear Based Behavior Challenges

Yes, yes I know, people use too many drugs. People think drugs are the solution to everything. Drugs have side effects. I won’t dispute any of those statements, but at the same time drugs can save lives and the side effects of some conditions are worse than the possible side effects of some drugs.

Being scared is no way to live.

Being scared is no way to live.

The reasoning that one should try alternatives to drugs first, makes sense, sometimes. But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes we should address a disease or condition immediately with drugs. Delaying treatment can allow the problem to get worse, making it more difficult to treat with or without the recommended medication. This doesn’t mean that we should use medications as a first choice in all situations, but sometimes the dog would be better off if we did. In the case of fearful dogs, the sooner we can get a dog to perform new, appropriate behaviors, and reinforce them, the sooner we’ll be able to help them gain skills for being more comfortable in their world. Often medications can help facilitate this process.

Understanding how medications can help a dog with fears, phobias and/or anxiety is key to the process of deciding whether to use them or not. I hope you can join me for this live webinar with Linda Aronson DVM. Dr. Aronson is currently lecturing at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. We will talk about the medications available to help our dogs, how they work, how they should be used, possible side-effects and there will be time for questions.

You can register and find out more information here.

Are Trainers Responsible For The Death Of Shelter Dogs?

cocker spaniel looking at woman eatingIn the dog training world, which has a number of difference sects, stone tossing between them is a common occurrence. I confess I’ve lobbed a few myself. Some of the criticisms voiced are valid and important, others less so. In many cases there is a fundamental agreement between camps, with differing implementations.

The number of unwanted dogs killed daily in shelters around the country is staggering. There are various reasons why this is, and not what this post is about. It is about the assertion, by some trainers, that other trainers are responsible for this situation. When I hear a trainer say that other trainers, because of the way they train, are the cause of dogs being relinquished to shelters my response is, “show me your numbers.”

In a study conducted by the National Council on Pet Population Study and Policy (NCPPSP) researchers went into 12 animal shelters in the United States for a year to find out why dogs were being given up. This finding stands out- most dogs (96%) had not received any obedience training. Read it again and let the implications of this sink in. When a trainer claims that other trainers, because of the way they train, are responsible for the death of dogs because they were unable to get the desired behaviors using their chosen method, they are stretching things more than just a bit. I don’t know how that 4% of dogs were trained, or whether their owners complied with the trainer’s recommendations. We never even met the other 96% and not all were given up because of behavior.

There are likely a multitude of reasons why owners dealing with behavioral issues don’t consult with a trainer. What I have experienced is that when an owner fundamentally has a good relationship with their dog, they are more likely to seek out solutions for keeping them. If this solution requires spending time or money, they’ll at least consider it. If someone does not have a good relationship with their dog it’s easier to give up on them. What constitutes a good relationship will vary, but I’ll risk it and say that part of that relationship includes the dog making the owner feel good. The dog looks at them, cuddles with them, plays with them, hangs out with them, etc. I live with 4 very different, often challenging dogs. They might be considered by some to be pains in the butt, but they’re my pains in the butt and they’re not going anywhere. They make me feel good more often than they upset me. Though it did take time and effort to get there with some of them.

The assertion that not getting a dog to stop annoying behaviors is the cause of their relinquishment to shelters, an assertion I hear too often by trainers, some who I think should know better, seems a shallow conclusion to come to. Getting a dog to stop any of the annoying behaviors that can frustrate and anger an owner is important, but this only addresses a part of the problem. It’s an important part, no question, but that an owner has even consulted with a professional trainer is an indication that a crucial piece of the puzzle is in place, the owner cares enough to do it. A trainer’s goal should be to maintain that caring relationship while other issues are addressed. We need to carefully weigh our options for modifying behavior so as not to damage what might be a fragile emotional bond from the dog’s perspective.

Dogs are failed in many ways, but suggesting that I’m contributing to that by the way I choose to train, is tossing far too big a stone at me. I suspect that whatever methods an individual trainer chooses to use, if the foundation of their training rests on creating trust between a person and their dog, and as a trainer maintains a loyalty to the dog as well as the person writing the check, they too may resent having to dodge stones.

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 Fearfuldogs.com 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!

Project Home Life

2 golden retrievers running

Photo by DVGRR

I love this. Flat out love it. At the Delaware Valley Golden Retriever Rescue in Pennsylvania adult survivors of puppy mills are provided with skills to make the transition to being pets. Not only does DVGRR accept mill survivors they actively seek them out and make relinquishing these dogs easy. Their no questions asked acceptance policy means that more dogs will find their way to them for help.

It’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to have spent every day or your 5 or 6 years of life in a cage. Understanding the challenge of leaving that cage and being confronted with the stimulation of the world outside the mill is important for handlers. As well-meaning as many of the people involved in rescue and foster care might be, the implications of early deprivation are often not fully appreciated or acknowledged. In the rush to give a dog new life dogs are frequently overwhelmed and frightened.

Project Home Life provides mill survivors with the opportunity to learn about houses and the things in them. Several times during the day trainers and volunteers bring dogs into an apartment set up specifically for this purpose. Common household sounds can be scary to dog who has never heard them. A refrigerator door opening can be startling, as can chairs moving, doorbells ringing, and footsteps on stairwells. Assuming that a dog will somehow get used to these and the myriad other new objects and events they will be exposed to, is naive. Pet owners or foster care givers, as committed as they might be to a dog, may not have the skills for effectively desensitizing and counter conditioning to home life and the complete immersion may be too much for a dog regardless of their handler’s skills. Some dogs will adapt but many others will spend their first days or months cowering in a back room. Project Home Life minimizes the likelihood of the latter occurring.

I wish I had known about this program when Sunny first came to live with us. I might have been more sensitive to his needs and his early life with us might have been easier. Even if you are unable to recreate Project Home Life exactly, given your access to resources, understanding why this step is important may help you create new protocols for special needs dogs.

 

 

Take Me To Your Provider Of Consequences

Language is important. The words we use to convey ideas matter. Times change and language changes with it. It is helpful to know that when someone is describing something as fat, they mean it’s phat. There’s nothing wrong with being gay and happy, or gay and homosexual, but using the word gay as an insult, as in that’s so gay, should be discouraged, even if the kid saying it does not realize its implications.

Frequently I am asked for my opinion on trainers who I have never met or have seen working with dogs. When someone with a fearful dog is going to consult with a trainer, often a coup in itself, the skills of that trainer matter. With nothing other than a website to go on I have to make assessments as to whether or not that trainer has the ability to help a dog struggling with what may be extreme fear based behavior challenges. And helping the dog means helping the owner understand and work with the dog. I am well aware of, and share with owners, the limitations that exist with my long distance appraisals. One of the things I take into consideration is the language a trainer uses to describe the relationship between the owner and their dog.

toddler feeding treats to a cocker spaniel and small black dog

This toddler doesn’t need to know anything about being a pack leader in order to get these dogs to behave in certain ways

Years ago, some of the best trainers in the world used the term pack leader to describe that relationship. But times have changed and like a poisoned cue, the term has become outdated and potentially dangerous. There can be endless debates regarding the different definitions of leadership and how we implement that leadership, however one need not have a shred of leadership ability (whatever the heck that means anyway) in regard to dogs in order to effectively look at and come up with ways to change their behavior.

A trainer who advises dog owners to act as leaders may do no harm, and even some good, when dealing with dogs who are only lacking in basic skills and manners. But once you move on to dogs who need more help in changing their emotional and behavioral responses, the leadership recommendation is often sorely lacking and frequently misleading. Owners don’t need to be better leaders, they need a better understanding of what is setting their dog up to behave the way s/he is and the steps to take in order to change that behavior. Even the parent model, or otherwise benign leader model does not give owners the skills they need to effect the changes they want to see.

Dog owners don’t need to become professional dog trainers in order to help their special needs dogs, they need information about behavior and what ends or maintains it. It’s a much simpler and safer solution than encouraging owners to come up with ways to be respected as pack leaders, which is something even dogs don’t have a definition for.

The Beautiful Flow of Experimentation

marbles of different sizes and colorsWhen we are living with any dog, but especially a fearful dog, we need to be prepared, at any moment, to reinforce behaviors we like. This is what behavior modification is all about.

If you sat two children down, one with a pile of marbles, the other with a bucket of tennis balls and gave each the task to put these objects into a milk jug, what do you think is likely to happen? Start off with- which child is more likely to be successful? Assuming that the marbles are all small enough to fit into the jug and the child has the dexterity and hand/eye coordination, the child with the marbles will be. What about the child with the tennis balls? Even if they have the ability to try to perform the task, how many attempts do you think they will make before they give up altogether when they discover that tennis balls don’t fit into milk jugs? I’m going to guess, not many. Why bother?

If we were to bring in another child and give them a variety of different sized marbles, some which will fit, some just barely, others not at all, how many attempts do you think they will make before they stop? Let’s assume that putting marbles in jugs is fun for the child or that we’ve promised them their special treat for doing it, and I’m guessing that they will keep trying until they have put all the marbles that fit into the jug and have a pile of those that don’t. If we asked them to do this a second time they might even do it more quickly if there were easy ways for them to differentiate between the sizes of the marbles; all the red ones fit, blue ones don’t.

When our dogs are interacting with us and their environment there is a continuous flow of experimentation of behavior. Each behavior provides the dog with information as to whether they should do it again or not based on what outcome the behavior produces. Does the behavior fit? If we always provide our dogs with information that tells them that a behavior is the right one, they can be prepared to use that behavior again in the future. If we resort to punishment too often, which for a fearful dog may be just once, they may, like the child with the tennis balls, stop bothering to experiment to come up with the behavior that fits.

We don’t need to hit them over the head to let them know that a behavior isn’t fitting. If they have learned a variety of ways that tell them that a behavior does fit; food treats, praise, smiles, cheers of approval, a click, the word YES, when one of these does not occur, they are prepared to experiment with another response until they are successful.

In life, on rivers, or when training a dog, there are advantages to going with the flow.