Archive for the ‘fearful’ Tag
I am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.
When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.
What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.
There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.
That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.
-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.
-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.
-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.
I don’t want to come across as someone who trolls the internet looking for other people’s websites, blog posts or videos to criticize. More often I try to ignore most of it. Sometimes it lands in my lap. The link to the video included in this post was shared with me by the manufacturers of a new product designed to eliminate anxiety in dogs. I understand why they’d send it to me and I’m always happy to learn about new products to help the population of dogs I care a lot about.
The first image in the commercial for a calming coat is of a trembling, scared chihuahua used as an example of the dogs the product can help. I understand why they’d do this, but I had to work to not start getting pissed off about it. Princeton is not just feeling camera shy, Princeton is scared. I get it. We all get it. While we’re getting it, and they’re getting footage, Princeton is scared. Why is it ok to scare a dog in order to sell a product? We don’t push old ladies down a flight of stairs in order to film a commercial for a distress call product to use after they’ve fallen and can’t get up. We don’t sneeze on people to give them the flu so we can get shots of them for a nighttime flu-relief medicine. But for some reason it’s ok to put a dog in a situation that scares them so we can get the images we need, to sell something. Even if what is being sold is of value–people have been using wraps, ace bandages and tight T-shirts on dogs for years to help with anxiety–it only seems to lessen the disrespect for the victim (the real-life animal actor) slightly in my mind.
As the commercial continues a claim is made that the product works because it “simulates a mother dog holding its young.” Seriously? Have they ever seen a litter of puppies being held by their mother? I know that we live in a world in which one can say practically anything they want about dogs and be believed, but this is creepily Orwellian. The myths that dogs need pack leaders, feel shame after peeing on the rug, you should correct dogs by grabbing their muzzle because that’s what mothers do, have just been joined by “mother dogs hold their puppies.” In internet-speak my response is WTF?
I also take umbrage with the assertion that dogs who need daily medications or treatments will no longer need them if they wear the coat. Body wraps do not work for all dogs. If they do, fantastic. If they don’t, it’s better for a dog to remain on daily medications and treatments that are working. My comment (which has since been removed) on their youtube page did not question the efficacy of their product, but rather the claim as to why it worked. I mean come on, “hold its young.”
I asked them to provide me documentation regarding this assertion. I was told that it was tested and veterinarian-approved. OK, that’s great, I don’t want that test info or the names of the veterinarians who have approved it, I wanted to know where they got the information that young dogs are soothed by being held by their mothers. Bottom-line is that there is information out there that supports the use of compression for ramping down nervous systems. With a little homework they could have found it but instead resort to the all-too-common tactic of “making sh*t up about dogs.”
I notice that they didn’t use Princeton as an example of their product working its magic. Though he appears later in the commercial notice his tightly tucked tail, one of the easiest pieces of body language there is to judge how comfortable a dog is. Unless when being held by their mothers puppies also tuck their tails (I just made that sh*t up). The company sent me info about their product and my feedback to them has simply been met with repeated claims that research proves it works. My issue with their advertising is not that their product doesn’t work, but their claim regarding WHY it does.
People should stop thinking they can keep making sh*t up about dogs and it’s ok.
*Thanks to a reader for pointing out that one of the dogs has an electronic collar on. Aversives are contraindicated for anxiety.
When we ask a dog to do something in exchange for something they want it’s not about “no free lunches” or that dogs need to learn to work for what they want. Every organism on the planet, if they are going to be around for long already has this information. If they didn’t there would be no beaver dams, no mice caught by cats, no webs woven by spiders, no carcasses cached in trees by fisher cats, no acorns hidden away by squirrels. When we teach a dog to respond to a cue, rather then making them work for treats, or their food bowl, or an open door, we are making the world a more predictable place. The behavior of humans makes more sense to a dog when they are trained to respond to our cues.
When we use positive reinforcement to teach a dog behaviors we are infusing the whole process, all the pieces of it, from the appearance of the person to the performance of the dog, with “feel good.” We are the ones who label a particular behavior as “work” whereas for the dog it might just be sitting, fetching a ball, waiting or rounding up sheep. It’s something to do, and doing something is often better than doing nothing, especially when good outcomes are the result.
John asking Sunny to target his hand is not being used to lure Sunny closer, he had already shown he was quite happy to be that close. It was not to make him “work” for the treat. Asking Sunny to target his hand enriches the relationship between the two because the human’s behavior now has meaning instead of being a random, possibly threatening, gesture. It was a cue Sunny already had learned from me and performing behaviors to make treats happen is an enjoyable experience.
Build a vocabulary with a dog and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can have with them.
Giving a dog an interim home while they are in the rescue system is a kind and generous act. Few who do it seem to realize how important the role they play is. It goes beyond providing a safe and comfortable place for a dog to reside while a permanent home is sought for them.
Though they are not pack animals, dogs are social animals. For social animals one of the most stressful events they can experience is the loss of their familiar social network, i.e., moving. Even if a dog appears to be happy and outgoing when they arrive in a foster home, we should assume that their level of stress is higher than it would be otherwise. Many dogs are able to cope with this and settle in with little trouble as they navigate their new surroundings and the expectations put on them by people and other dogs. But foster caregivers would be wise to consider how stress and relocation can impact a dog’s current and future behavior. Stress alone does not cause disease or inappropriate behavior, but it can contribute to the equation that produces it.
A dog who in their former life never put a tooth on a person or other dog, even though the opportunity existed, is less likely to do so in a new home than a dog with a history of biting, but add a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of stress and the odds that we’ll see this behavior increases. Within the shelter and rescue system people will look at a dog’s “bite history.” In many cases there are no opportunities for a dog to make an appeal once they have bitten a person or pet.
“But your honor he pulled on my ear and I have a raging infection in there!”
“She sat on me!”
“I was being threatened by another dog and the woman grabbed my collar.”
“I was eating that bone.”
“It was small, fluffy and ran right under my nose so I grabbed it.”
Foster caregivers have the responsibility to ensure that at the very minimum they do not add to the list of things that upset a dog, or provoke a behavioral response everyone will regret. One of the privileges I have is consulting with rescue groups pulling dogs out of shelters where many are euthanized. I see the important role that foster caregivers play. In some cases they literally save a dog’s life by providing a place for the dog to go when its time is up at an open-door shelter. This blog is one in a series which I will write addressing how foster caregivers can move a dog in transition away from the edge of the cliff, and avoid pushing them off, as they begin their journey to safety.
I had a call recently from a concerned owner with a service dog who was becoming more and more reactive to sounds and changes in her environment. The dog was described as “timid” even on arrival into the home of her new handler. I will not address the reality that someone trained and placed a dog to be a service dog in the community who was timid and wary from the get-go. I wasn’t joking when I told the owner that he was going to be his dog’s service human.
As the conversation progressed I learned that they were located in a town where I knew there was a good trainer. A trainer who understood how animals learn, who has studied and practiced teaching new behaviors to animals, who knew how to discern between her ability to teach a behavior and an animal’s ability to learn it. This latter point is important. As trainers it’s important for us to be able to see when our own skills are lacking and not immediately assume that an animal requires more aversive techniques to be trained. Or if we do decide that we need to move up the scale and punish a dog we consider which type of punishment we will use and how it might adversely impact an animal’s behavior. I trusted this trainer to be able to do that intelligently.
My faith in humanity is always buffed up a bit when I speak with people like this fellow. He had already demonstrated compassion toward his dog and was doing some of the things I would have recommended; jollying and playing with the dog when she was afraid (as opposed to punishing her or making her deal with what was scaring her). As we were wrapping up the conversation he told me that he would do anything to help his dog and if what one trainer told him didn’t work, he’d find another. And suddenly the conversation wasn’t almost over.
I understood what he meant, and in practice changing trainers may be the best thing to do especially if a trainer has recommended the use of punishment but in this case I knew that if what my colleague advised him to do wasn’t working, he should return to her to find out why. Often when a training technique doesn’t work it’s not because the technique itself is flawed, it’s the application of it or that the process requires more time. Trainers hear it almost daily, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” the implication being that someone’s dog is especially recalcitrant, stupid, or aggressive (and far too often the justification for the use of training equipment designed to hurt or scare a dog). In this day and age when we can all be experts in the trivia of practically everything thanks to the non-stop availability of television shows, it’s easy to think we actually know something.
Most of our dogs do not require the subtlety of surgeons when it comes to being able to be trained to be good pets. But add fear, anxiety or phobias to a dog’s make up and the skill required to help them increases. Doing something right becomes paramount because of the risks involved with doing it wrong. To assume that a technique a professional, force-free, trainer recommends isn’t working, or working fast enough and moving on to find the next magic bullet can be a mistake.
Being willing to do what it takes to help a dog is admirable. And on that list should be knowing whose advice you are taking.
For the past two summers I’ve been staying with my mum near Cape Cod. I know that having her youngest, and least fastidious daughter come and stay along with her four dogs is a challenge for her, but it’s a trade-off she’s had to make. Despite needing to spray the couch with Febreeze every day (Sunny’s preferred sleeping spot) I think she actually enjoys having them around. There’s no need to worry about whether she’s locked the doors at night. There’s not an icicle’s chance in hell that anyone would be able to so much as walk to the door, let alone actually open it without a chorus of barking. That chorus is another issue, but it’s getting easier for the dogs to end them when asked. Having a new home for the summer requires some adjustments for them as well.
Overall it’s been good. I have been able to see the skills they’ve developed and which need more work. There are more people coming and going and not only does that require more effort on my part to manage them it actually gives me the opportunity to practice the behaviors I want with them. Both Nibbles and Annie have learned to cut down on their initial barking and Nibbles has also learned that yapping and snapping after someone who gets up or walks by is not a good choice to make. I started by using lots of treats for recalls and sits and then added in a brief time-out (about 5 seconds alone in the bathroom) for infractions. Nibbles was a quick study but Annie has a more difficult time not voicing her opinion on things. Sunny is put in a place where he feels safe and where he cannot move toward people arriving.
A time-out is a form of punishment. We take away the dog’s opportunity for reinforcement (barking is very reinforcing for many dogs) by removing them from the situation and then returning them so they have the chance to behave the way we want them to for some other form of reinforcement, in our case it’s food. It can take a few trials for the dog to figure out why they are being walked off to the bathroom (or wherever you choose to put them) so don’t get frustrated or upset when you have to repeat the process. With Annie it’s a tricky one because if left there too long she’ll start barking to be let out, and I don’t want to have to deal with getting that to stop because I’m doing this when we have guests (which is why they are barking) so I’m juggling welcoming people into my home while I’m picking up leashes and leaving the room. But I would prefer to do this rather than shout at the dogs to shut up, which can also work. One reason is that I don’t like to yell and another is that I don’t want to make the association between guests and being yelled at for my dogs. So long as they don’t bark they are welcome to stay, maybe even get a treat or two from me or a dog-loving guest.
I hadn’t planned on writing a training post this morning. I wanted to share the photo of me in my rowboat (which we’ve had since I was a kid) along with some friends. Even Sunny managed to climb in for the ride. I also wanted to invite those of you who may not know about it to like the Fearfuldogs.com Face book page. I try to post something fearful dog related there every day for education and inspiration.
I will also be traveling this fall offering full-day seminars on fear-based behaviors in dogs and the most humane and effective ways to help them.
For my friends in the northern hemisphere I hope you are enjoying your summer and the living really is easier.
Earlier this week I had a two vet visit day. Two different dogs, two different vets. While waiting in the exam room in both clinics I helped myself to some of the treats available on a counter (good treats at that, not just biscuits). I tossed them around the room encouraging dogs to ‘go find it’. I often use the isolated, quiet time to work on different ‘tricks’ with my dogs. It gives both of us something else to think about.
As it turned out Finn the border collie had gained seven pounds since our visit 3 months ago! The vet was not concerned and only suggested he lose 2 of those additional pounds. To see me in the exam room you wouldn’t be surprised that he’d gained weight, with all the treats that were flying around. The main contributor to Finn’s extra pounds was more likely caused by a change in his food. Since our last visit I’d had a nutritionist come up with a diet for him and I’d need to cut back on it. This is something I am more than happy to do. Not only do I think it is healthier for a dog to be at a good weight, it saves me money on food. Nothing wrong with that.
Both the vet and tech were very good about distracting and rewarding Finn while he was palpated, prodded and poked. At one point the tech asked me, “Do you give him treats like this at home?” Her meaning being, “Are you always handing out so many treats?” There wasn’t time for a proper response so I left it at, “No, unless I’m trying to teach them something.” The fact of the matter is that with four dogs I am usually always trying to teach one or the other something.
I’m a training opportunist, rarely setting aside time solely for training, but incorporating it into our day. At some point a behavior should be ‘trained’ and treats no longer needed, and for the most part that is the case. Do I ‘need’ to have food on me to get behaviors from my dogs. Nope. There are dozens of times a day I ask my dogs for behaviors and only reward them with either my thanks or nothing- come, sit, wait, shove over, off the couch, leave it- all happen without being followed by a food reward, or even the chance of one, countless times.
The resistance to using rewards to train dogs remains strong. I often hear a hint of pride in an owner’s voice when they tell me that they don’t use food to train their dog. We all need to continue to work on behaviors we want to become proficient at. I doubt you’d hear a concert pianist say about a piece of music, “Oh I know that one, I don’t practice it anymore.” There’s always room for improvement and one way to get it is to reward it. My dogs may never learn that going to the vet is a treat, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a few when they’re there.