Archive for the ‘pack leader’ Tag

Got Change?

cocker spaniel sleeping on lounge chair outside

Nothing to worry about here!

When we are training our fearful dogs we are facilitating a change in how they respond to events or objects (including us and other animals) they are exposed to. There is likely an endless array of ways we can come up with to do this, but ultimately what we are doing is making the scary stuff either neutral or good enough so that the dog can continue to seek out rewarding, reinforcing activities while in its presence. The ways that this can be done are based on how a nervous system reacts to stimulus.

Habituation occurs when constant exposure to something stops producing a response and in a sense becomes a non-event. When a collar is first put around a puppy’s neck it can be a big event. The puppy feels the collar and may be upset about it, some more, some less. Eventually, like us and a watch strapped around our wrist, the puppy doesn’t notice the collar, they habituate to wearing it. The challenge with using this approach with something that has scared a dog is that animals don’t habituate easily to things that they felt threatened by in the past. It doesn’t make sense for this to happen. What didn’t kill and eat you yesterday might just get you tomorrow. This makes our efforts to change how dogs feel about things very challenging and why simply exposing a dog to the scary thing is often not successful.

We can use a process called desensitization to increase the amount of the scary thing that is required to produce a fearful response. By starting off with small doses of it, and gradually increasing how much of a trigger a dog is exposed to, how long they are exposed to it, how many they are exposed to, how close they are to it, we can change the dog’s tolerance of it. This can be very effective but as you might guess, sorting out and controlling the “dose” of the trigger can be tricky. A big risk, and not one to be taken lightly is that if we go over the amount necessary to build tolerance and cause the dog to have a negative reaction we can increase the dog’s sensitivity to the trigger. This means that in the future less of the trigger will be required to produce the fearful response. If yesterday you fled from the monster when it was 10 feet away and you survived to tell about it, tomorrow when you notice that monster you will up the odds of getting away if you flee when it is 15 feet away. Now the reaction you had yesterday at 10 feet away from the trigger is occurring at 15 feet and as the monster gets closer your negative response to it increases so that at 10 feet away today you may be more afraid than you were yesterday at the same distance. Ooops. We didn’t mean for that to happen!

Counterconditioning is changing what the dog has learned the trigger predicts. For most of our dogs triggers predict feeling scared. That alone is enough to kick in the dog’s automatic responses so they behave in ways that might ensure their survival. They may run, they may hide, they may fight, they may beg for their life. It’s not easy to change this. It’s better to leap away from a stick and have it turn out not to be a snake then to bend over to pick up a rattler to use as a cane. The most effective way to countercondition is to combine it with desensitization, but if we make a mistake with the desensitization piece and the trigger causes a negative response from the dog we can still attempt to countercondition and maybe get the point across. And the point we are trying to get across is that men with hats and beards predict that fabulous things are going to happen. For most dogs some kind of smelly, greasy, real, food will do the trick. It may take numerous repetitions for the dog to make the association that it’s the scary monster man that is the heads-up notice that cheese is on its way, but when it does you can see it by the way the dog reacts. Instead of the trigger predicting fear is on its way, he now predicts that something good is going to happen and the dog behaves in a way that demonstrates they are anticipating the good thing. At our house when the scary monster man comes home Sunny runs and picks up a frisbee because the monster now predicts that games will be played. Sunny likes games.

By using our big brains we can come up with all kinds of ways to take advantage of how animals can change their response to stimuli they are exposed to. We can talk about what is going on for the dog in any number of ways as well; the dog is gaining confidence, learning they have control, making choices, learning skills, etc., but at the end of the day they are habituating, desensitizing or being counterconditioned to the trigger.

My goal for a fearful dog is straightforward, I want them to be able to function in their world easily enough that they can seek out positive reinforcement. I want them to have a reason to get out of bed in the morning (or out of their crate or the corner they’ve hunkered down in). I want them to be able to enter new environments and be capable of looking for ways to feel good, to do something fun and rewarding, or to find a good spot for a nap. I want changes in their environment to elicit curiosity or the anticipation of something good, including the opportunity to do something they’ve been taught and get a treat for it, not terror or worry. We have our jobs cut out for us with our dogs that’s for sure, but by taking advantage of desensitization, counterconditioning and using positive reinforcement to train we are using our time, and our dog’s time wisely.


Use Protection

I returned home yesterday from a multi-day workshop on training birds at Natural Encounters in Florida. Watching and learning from the best bird trainers on the planet (and that is not hyperbole) was inspirational along with educational. One of the take-aways for me was new language to use when talking about training, any animal.

Many of the participants at the workshop were zoo keepers. People working with animals who have the potential to injure or kill them, i.e., large, wild animals, use the term “protected contact” to describe training in a setting in which the animal can’t touch you. At first glance it looks like a set-up designed with the human’s safety in mind, but it also provides the animal with the information that the human can’t get them either.

The first step we need to take when working with a fearful dog is to provide the dog with an environment in which they feel safe. How we do this depends on what is scaring the dog. Many of the dogs people contact me about are afraid of people. Unless we are able to manage the dog so they consistently feel safe in the company of people, we are not likely going to see progress in their ability to interact with us, or that progress will be painfully slow. It may be so slow that the conclusion is reached that the dog is unsalvageable. We may need to find ways to work with our dogs using “protected contact.” In the following video you will see how I created an environment in which I was able to work with a new foster dog (and yes he is now my dog) to help him learn skills while maintaining his ability to choose how much contact we had. You don’t need to watch the entire video to see how I set it up to make sure that he did not have to worry about me trying to touch him.

It will be easy to find excuses as to why providing this kind of protected contact is not possible with your dog or the dogs you work with. Those excuses will not change the reality that an animal who has to worry about their physical safety is not going to learn new behaviors as easily as one who knows they are safe and can begin to build a new repertoire of skills and behaviors.

History Matters

I’ll be at my vet’s office tonight running a class called “Vet Ready!” to help owners and dogs feel more comfortable coming to the clinic. Few things are as clear as how they respond to handling to give you an idea of what they have learned to expect from you. For some owners the way their dog responds is….well….history. The dog has learned that visits to the vet are not happy events. Their behavior will reflect this and both dog and owner are likely to be upset and stressed.

Today my 15lb dog Nibbles got a bit of wood stuck in his teeth. It wasn’t dangerous but it was annoying. Initially I wasn’t sure what he had in his mouth and thought that it was a bit of food that he’d easily dislodge. But when he began to paw at his muzzle and become more upset I thought I better have a look.

Years ago I had a dog get a stick stuck between his teeth on the roof of his mouth. When I saw him his fur was tinged pink from the blood his pawing to get it out had caused. I didn’t know this at the time and feared he’d been in a fight with a critter. Off we went to the vet. Because he was not comfortable with me handling his muzzle and looking into his mouth he resisted my efforts and I called the small piece of wood the vet removed his $40 root canal (this was back in the days when a vet visit and sedation only cost $40!). Had I been able to get a better look into his mouth I could have popped it out myself.

Nibbles came to me a dog afraid of being handled by people but I have put time and energy into changing this. He let me run my fingers along the sides of his teeth to find out what the problem was. I was able to flick the splinter out from between his teeth and with a few licks he’d spit it out. I didn’t have time to teach Nibbles to let me do this, but our history of gentle handling and my efforts to teach him what to do instead of using force and restraint paid off. This video by Chirag Patel shows how simple it can be to create a positive history of handling with your dog. If you are fostering a dog consider working on both restraint and restraint-free handling with your charges. Show them that their bad history will not repeat itself.

Take It When You Can Get It

approach1In November Sunny will have lived with us for 8 years. He has remained wary and afraid of my husband for those 8 years. There are likely a variety of reasons for this. John is a man, dogs tend to be more afraid of men than they are of women. Early on in their relationship there were several events that scared Sunny, quite literally sh**less (it usually fell on me to clean up after those episodes). One day the metal food bowl that John was carrying dropped and chased Sunny down the stairs where he slammed into the wall before recovering and getting into his safe spot under my desk where he hid out for hours. One day during a run John tripped and fell, Sunny on a long line emptied his bladder on the spot. There was the flexi-lead debacle that I describe in my blog post Don’t Take My Lead On This One!

Another factor could be that as much of a nice guy and dog lover John is, he’s not into dog training in the same way I am. He works away from home, I work at home. By virtue of that arrangement I have had more time to work with Sunny and more inclination to do so. Tagging along with this is “I wish I knew then what I know now.” Since it has fallen on me to come up with ways to help Sunny, and early in our time together I was not up to speed on exactly what those ways should be, mistakes were made. Both Sunny and John lost the motivation to work on their relationship. Neither got enough positive reinforcement.

All relationships require positive feedback. It’s not easy to live with a dog who is afraid of you. People will converse longer with someone who offers a nod or smile, compared to someone who does not. Humans and dogs seem to share this as motivation for engagement. Live with a dog who avoids you and runs for cover when you appear and there’s not much “feel good” value to the relationship. As for the dog, well, they’re feeling fear and that’s worse than being snubbed.

For years John has been happy to go into the yard and toss frisbees for Sunny and Finn. John likes to count and see how many frisbees Finn can catch and the dogs just love the game. Gradually I’ve seen Sunny’s reaction to John’s evening return morph from what was complete concern to a mix of concern and frisbee-tossing-anticipation. This felt like an improvement.

Recently something changed. Several times during the past couple of months John has joined me and the dogs on our woods walk. Initially he came along to get the trails ready for winter skiing. He toted a chain saw or pruning shears to clear downed trees and build walkways over the streams that will ice up your skis if you break through the snow. I brought treats. Sunny preferred keeping John in sight, and his preference extended to seeing John walk away from him, rather than toward him. I doled out the treats whenever John was nearby. As the number of our walks together increased Sunny’s comfort having John on the trails with him increased as well. Off leash Sunny is able to choose his proximity to John. I even managed to convince John to toss a treat to Sunny now and then when Sunny came up behind him.

Yesterday I watched as the dance of desensitization, counterconditioning and training between the two occurred. Initially Sunny would get within 5-6 feet of John who was ahead of him on the trail. John would stop and toss a treat for him and keep walking. After eating the treat Sunny would move back to within 5-6 feet of him, and another treat would be tossed. In front of my eyes I watched Sunny decrease the distance between the two of them until he was taking treats from John’s hand. Today the same thing happened. At one point John stopped and tried to lure Sunny to his extended hand with treats, but Sunny would have nothing to do with it, but seconds later after performing the “move toward man” behavior on his own he happily took the offered treats.


By the end of the walk Sunny was able to take treats even if John was facing him.

Everything about the “picture” of the trigger (John) mattered to Sunny. I complimented John on his ability to hand out treats without scaring Sunny. He responded, “I’m not looking at him and keeping my upper body turned away from him.” Bravo! Eight years of living with my chattering on about fearful dogs was not for naught!

Some would say that it has taken 8 years for Sunny to make these gains with John but it’s as much based on the fact that it took 8 years for John to find that tossing treats while walking with Sunny was worth the effort.

P.S. Sunny missed out on positive experiences with people and novelty during the first year of his life. There is no “do-over” for the lack of whatever needs to happen during critical periods of development in a dog’s life. He has learned skills to be comfortable around people, but he will never be like a dog who had the benefits of play and enrichment with people during the first few months of their life. Sorry to break it to you if you were unaware of the importance of early puppyhood experience.

Alternatives to Alpha

Alternatives to Alpha

When we know better we do better. It’s about time that more people knew better. More voices are helping to get the better information out there. If you still think that dogs need pack leaders, and that you must use dominance in order to live happily with your dog, this free webinar is worth every second. 

Can you let go of out-dated ideas that you may be hanging on to?

Missing Ingredients

small black dog yawning while being pet on the chestIt stands to reason that if we have not ever lived with a seriously scared dog that we would not have developed the skills to work effectively with them. Even if we’ve assisted other people living with a dog like this, there’s nothing quite like 24/7 to put our feet to the fire.

I regularly speak with people embarked on the bumpy journey to change their dogs. Many, after hearing the suggestions I make, express regret that they had been going about it ineffectively for as long as they had. It was obvious that what they were doing was ineffective, but unaware of the protocols used to change emotional responses and behaviors in dogs, had no way to discern if the problem was with the dog or with them. Many were following the advice of misinformed trainers or veterinarians and doubted their own ability to apply what were ineffective protocols to begin with.

The two ingredients which are essential to the process of helping fearful dogs are skill and patience. We can often stumble along making slow headway if we are missing one or the other, and it’s what most of us do when first confronted with the challenge of training fearful dogs. It’s when both of these key ingredients are missing from the mix that it becomes frustrating and potentially deadly for the dog. It is often our lack of patience with a dog that compels us to put too much pressure on them and some will snap, literally snap. Dogs who bite people or other animals run an increased risk of being abandoned or killed.

We improve our skills through education and practice. It takes time and energy. That education can also help increase our patience with a dog. When you understand that a terrified dog can’t do what you are trying to get them to do and is not being willfully disobedient it’s easier to cut them some slack. No one stands a 9 month old baby on their feet and implores them to walk or is surprised or disappointed when they don’t. Or we become able to see their behavior for what it is, a warning or a plea.

We shouldn’t be surprised that someone who has only ever lived with happy, social dogs would struggle when an unsocialized or abused dog lands in their home. We need to extend some of that patience to ourselves as the dog’s trainer and caretaker. We too can continue to become more confident and competent in the way we communicate and go about the unending process of becoming better than we already are.

What are the other ingredients you add to your work with fearful dogs?

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.

We may love them, but we sure don’t respect them

small black dog from puerto ricoIt would seem that it is too much to expect that people who decide to make a living from “working” with dogs, actually spent some time learning about them. There are plenty of jobs out there that don’t require any education for someone to excel at them. If you want your lawn mowed and raked hiring a neighborhood kid with the tools is probably not a big risk. But if you want your fruit trees pruned you’d better be careful before you give that kid a pair of clippers.

Awhile back I caught grief for suggesting that as admirable as her intentions might be, having a 15 year old run an animal rescue might not be the greatest thing in the world to happen to animals. A similar thing happened when I suggested that stopping to let a newly freed group of rescued laboratory beagles out of their crates to explore the great outdoors, might not be the best choice. That any animal copes and thrives when handled inexpertly is not an excuse for the handling method.

The pet industry is booming. Anyone can label themselves a trainer or behaviorist. Log on to any chat board and it’s apparent that many of these so-called trainers base their understanding of dog behavior on what they’ve seen on television. There’s a saying that if you can’t “dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” One of the problems is that many of the bafflers have no idea that they’re doing it (some do and are laughing all the way to the bank).

I was asked to go through the hand-outs that a vet gave to new clients with puppies. The information came from another vet who made the rounds on the speaking circuit. I was aghast at what I read. Despite the lack of evidence that dogs form rigid social hierarchies or live in packs, the literature was full of advice for owners on how to securely position themselves at the top of said hierarchy. The methods for doing so ranged from cruel to absurd. This came from a vet who, like the rest of us, has access to information about animal behavior and the science of learning. That they were unaware of this information, or chose to ignore it in favor of their own, scientifically unfounded hypotheses on behavior, is inexcusable.

Anyone can start a day care center, dog walking or sitting service. These are people who will be in direct contact with an animal, or numerous animals. If you’ve got a happy dog who only needs to get out for walks, finding someone who enjoys being with dogs may not be a bad decision. But once someone sets themselves up in business they should be held to a higher standard of behavior. I recently heard about a day care center that employed one of the most misunderstood forms of punishment, the time-out. A dog who became overly aroused and did not play well with others was removed from the group and isolated in an area where he could see, but not get to the group of dogs continuing to play. Did the staff expect that by doing this the dog would come to the conclusion that he needed to play more appropriately?

Since I brought it up, the time-out is a tool that is used to end a dog’s ability to continue to perform an inappropriate behavior and then set them up so they can be rewarded for performing the right one. Putting a dog into a time-out and expecting that they’ll come out when they decide to apologize is as silly as it sounds, but yet, it is not far off from what people think is going to happen.

Someone who labeled themselves the “top behaviorist” in their country (I discovered that it’s crowded up there at the top with other self-appointed “tops”) called me an idiot for suggesting that comforting a fearful dog did not tell them they were correct in being afraid. Though they had an impressive history working with and training dogs, they held no certification or credentials as a “behaviorist.” This is not uncommon in the dog world and pet owners would be wise to cotton on to it.

When someone decides to label themselves a surgeon, and goes on to perform surgeries, they end up in jail when they are finally caught. And within the medical industry a surgeon who practices psychiatry, without first taking (and passing) the requisite courses is also frowned upon. If you are inclined to suggest that performing surgery and training dogs are completely different things, maybe you should think about it from the dog’s side of the equation. Screw up a gall bladder operation and you might end up with a dead patient. Screw up teaching a dog to stop resource guarding and there’s a good chance you end up with a dead dog. As someone who takes animal behavior and training very seriously, this thought is never far from my mind.

If we truly love and care about our pets as much as we claim to, we have to put our money where our mouth is. The hope I hold in my heart is that when the art and science of dog training and behavior modification is respected for what it is, and people who put the time, effort and money into learning about it, are both respected and compensated for it, one day the knowledge that we have will filter out into the general population. It will replace the misinformation and myths currently touted and adopted as truth, and dog trainers will have fewer behavior “issues” to deal with and can focus on teaching dogs to open the refrigerator and get their owner a can of soda.

Competing Motivators

pictures of an apple and chocolate cakeMotivation. Everyone talks about it. Did you make a New Year’s resolution to go to the gym? There are blogs devoted to helping you stay motivated enough to actually do it. Sometimes getting out of bed in the morning requires a level of motivation we may question whether we have or not. Some motivators are very powerful, while others lag behind, yet even if that is the case, they still manage to get us to behave. Lying in bed, snuggled warmly, comfortably and blissfully, under the blankets with a dog or two, when the temperatures are far below freezing is a huge motivator for maintaining my lying in bed behavior. But there are other motivators that will impact my behavior. The initial shock of a cold floor is tolerable because there’s morning coffee brewing and I should get to work. Sometimes I’m motivated by what I am going to get, and sometimes I’m motivated by what I’m going to avoid (caffeine or poverty as examples of the former and latter).

Fear is an important motivator. It may be the most important motivator animals, including us, have available to us to increase our life span. The chances of being killed accidentally climbs until after the age of 19 when it accounts for nearly half the number of deaths among humans aging 15-19. Young children do not have enough experience to accurately assess their environments and so behave in ways that put them at risk. Experimenting with forks and electrical outlets and toddling at the top of a flight of concrete stairs are a couple examples. Teenagers may not only be poor assessors of risk, they also may have keys to a car.

Every day I receive emails from people asking me what they should do to help their dog. It’s impossible for me to answer their question with any specificity or if I do, to not sound flippant (“My dog is scared of me, what should I do?” “Stop scaring them”). If their dog’s behavior is motivated by fear whether that means remaining shut down in a corner or lunging at anyone who walks into a room, they need to address the motivator. Options fall into two categories, decrease the motivator, i.e., the fear, and/or find a motivator that out competes the fear to get behaviors the owner prefers. How they should do this I can’t say for sure. What options are available to them for decreasing the fear and creating other motivators? The answers will vary depending on the dog (the dog has the final vote regarding what is or is not motivating) and what are the resources or environments available for creating alternate motivators.

Sometimes motivators are glaringly obvious. Fear is motivating a dog to cower or growl. Food is motivating a dog to stare and drool. Sometimes the motivators are misidentified or mislabeled, not so glaringly obvious to some. Behaviors motivated by fear are attributed instead to the motivation to move up in status in a relationship with an owner or other dog. Sometimes we can easily control the motivators, or the conditions which motivate, sometimes we can’t. We can control food, but we cannot control thunderstorms.

It’s a damn difficult thing to help many of our fearful dogs. I try to offer ideas and hope that a similar kind of brain that figured out how to create wifi can come up with ways to address a dog’s fearfulness. Those of you living or working with a fearful dog will need to assess the motivators which are driving the dog’s behavior, and don’t forget to have a look at your own while you’re at it.

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.