Archive for the ‘reactive dogs’ Tag

The 3 Steps To Helping Fearful Dogs

shy dog in cageIt has been over a decade since my fearful dog Sunny came to live with us from a rescue camp set up to help care for the animals impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I met him at Camp Katrina where I went to volunteer several weeks after the hurricanes hit. As much as I thought I knew about dogs and dog behavior, training and how dogs learn, I soon came to understand it was a drop in the bucket compared to what I needed to know in order to help and train a scared dog.

But I learned. It wasn’t always a smooth road and even today I realize how much more there is for me to understand about how behavior works and Applied Behavior Analysis, but there is no question in my mind about how to approach interacting with fearful dogs, including aggressive dogs.

The in a nutshell version is this-

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to for each dog. We want to see fearful reactions decrease or end. It may mean ceasing to talk to or interact with the dog beyond routine care. It may mean providing them with a safe haven where they can escape from whatever is scaring them on a daily basis.
  2. Change how they feel about the scary stuff by changing what it predicts. This is called counter conditioning. Usually we have the scary events become a reliable predictor for something yummy or fun. The scary thing does not have to be the source of the good stuff, only a predictor of it.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you need them to do using a high rate of positive reinforcement to build strong and reliable behavior. You can use a clicker if you like and know how, but you don’t need to. What you do need is to know what the dog values enough to change its behavior to get.

Common responses to these steps include;

But if the dog isn’t exposed to scary stuff how will they learn to deal with it? 

This question is like asking, “If someone doesn’t keep almost drowning how will they learn to swim?” We can’t teach someone to swim if they’re too afraid to get into the pool! We start by eliminating the need for the dog to worry about bad things happening to them. From there we can teach them everything they need to know.

I tried counter conditioning and it didn’t work!

This is often an indication that the conditioning was not done properly. Unlike a laboratory where all the different objects and events in the environment can be controlled to a greater degree than we can in the real world, it can be tricky for the dog to isolate that it’s the thing we are trying to condition them to, that is responsible for the fabulous good stuff they are receiving. There are always lots of other things going on around a dog and each or any of them might have also been conditioned to previously. A dog who is afraid of men with hats and beards might also be conditioned to feel afraid when on the sidewalk where men with hats and beards have been encountered, or the smell coming out of the door of the hair salon at the spot where a scary man was last encountered.

My dog isn’t interested in food when scared.

Fear and anxiety impact a dog’s digestive system. It’s not unusual for them to not want to eat. See step 1.

I don’t want to use food. 

Food is a primary reinforcer, as such it is among the easiest, most portable and salient things we can use to train. Use it. If your dog is motivated by toys and play, lucky you, use them.

What if I don’t have food. 

If a dog has been trained to perform a behavior because food was provided as a consequence, and that has happened a lot, the behavior is usually strong enough to persist even if at some times we don’t have food. We can also condition other things to work as reinforcement as well. Don’t worry about it, a good trainer can show you how it’s done.

My mission is to help people living with or working with fearful dogs to have a better understanding about how to help them. My fearfuldogs.com website has lots of information and resources. If you need more help you can schedule a phone or skype consult. Webinars and seminars are also available. Before you let anyone handle or train your fearful dog make sure they know these important 3 steps.

 

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Between A Rock & A Hard Place

small dog looking at toySometimes we have to do something because it needs to be done. If we grab someone about to fall off a cliff we can worry about having to apologize later for having touched them without their permission. But we need to be careful not to use the excuse that needing to get something done absolves us from understanding what it is we are doing.

If ever there was a group of professionals who could use the excuse that something needed to be done, it’s veterinarians. What we are seeing today, happily and gratefully, is the recognition that how something is done to an animal can have serious implications for that animal in the future, and any decisions made regarding how to handle and treat animals should be done with a thorough understanding of those implications.

There remains resistance among some in the rescue and sheltering community to, at the very least, acknowledge that decisions made regarding how to handle and train a dog can matter in the long term for that dog and the people living with it. It is reasonable to determine that the time and resources to work with some dogs in ways that minimize the risks of creating fear and possibly instigating aggression, are not available. However it’s important to consider whether we are holding onto and justifying familiar practices because they are what we are used to doing. Perhaps they work with enough dogs that dogs who require a more systematic or less aversive approach, can be considered an unfortunate, but acceptable loss when they fail to make it as a pet.

When a dog’s life depends on being trained, train as though their lives depend on it.

Keep the dog feeling safe. Help them feel safe.

Counterconditioning to the scary stuff. Incorporate gradual exposure to them as necessary.

Train. Use food, toys or play. Use lots of food, toy or play. 

Clean-up On Aisle Dog

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

If you happen to be privy to the chatter that goes on between dog trainers, what I am going to say will not be new to you. Daily, dog trainers are contacted to help an owner with a dog, a normal, healthy, fully functioning dog, whose behavior has become untenable or even dangerous. Sometimes we’re contacted within a few days or weeks after the problem behavior has been identified. More often it’s been months or years before we get the call (or text or email).

We may be their first hope, often we are their last. We are not usually going where no trainer has gone before. On the contrary, we are stepping in to try to fix a problem that another trainer (or trainers) failed to address, contributed to, and yes, even caused.

Whether an owner followed the bad advice shared by; a trainer’s TV show, book, seminar, a sales person in a pet shop, or the folklore of a culture, it becomes our turn to step up to the plate. Though the deck has been stacked against us, bases are loaded, with 2 strikes, all eyes are on us to win this thing.

Cleaning up a behavior problem that is based on a schedule of positive reinforcement is like getting a water soluble stain out of synthetic. Behavior problems caused by the use of punishment (P+) or other aversive methods (R-) are more like oil-based stains on silk, good luck to you. Even if you do manage to get it out, the fabric may never be the same as it was before it was stained.

Be careful how you handle a dog, any dog, but especially one that is fearful and fragile. If in doubt as an owner or trainer, visit the Fearfuldogs.com website for more information about the most effective and humane ways to train. Join me in Concord NH in February 2018 for a day of learning to Train As If Their Lives Depended On It.

Doing What Comes Naturally

cartoon of shrugging dog with questionsWe live with animals and it’s easy to lose sight of the fact. When it comes to dogs we are living with animals who are designed with varying degrees of proficiency or intensity to; hunt, chase, catch, kill, chew, shred, mark and bark. They also breed and poop, and often at times and places we’d rather they didn’t. We’ve brought these animals into our homes and begin the process of trying to get them behave less like animals. Of all the animals on the planet, dogs seem to excel at accommodating us (much of the time). To be fair, many of us are willing and able to accommodate them when they continue to behave like the animals they are.

Often the easiest thing to do, and something we have a long and rich history of doing with all kinds of animals, including humans, is to use force and punishment to get what we need from them. We find no end to the reasons to justify our actions. Societies enact laws to help guide its citizens in making more just, and humane choices to achieve goals, given our tendency to resort to threats of and actual violence.

Behavior is lawful. When we understand those laws we can make humane, and effective choices to modify it. We start with humane management. This means creating an environment in which the animal can live safely without needing or being inclined to perform the behaviors we decide need to change. We ensure this environment provides them with good reasons to live; things to do, positive outcomes to attain. We consider the needs and normal behaviors of the animal when choosing or creating environments for them to live in. Bringing working dogs (and any other category of healthy dogs) into our homes and providing a minimum of enrichment and exercise is as unreasonable as bringing a goldfish home and tossing it on the sofa and expecting it will live a long and healthy life, and thank us for it.

Given that the practice of bringing or placing dogs into homes without full consideration of what their care will require is not likely to end soon, our best chance at success, and their best shot at a decent life, will be achieved by using our big brains to come up with solutions. There are professionals- vets, vet behaviorists and trainers who have studied the sciences of health and behavior who are able to formulate plans for addressing the challenges we are facing with our dogs.

Should we find ourselves routinely resorting to force, fear, intimidation, punishment and restraint to manage our dogs we should consider the possibility that we have failed in one or both of two ways. Either we lack the skills to efficiently modify behavior without them, or we have not adequately assessed the ability of an animal to be successful given the conditions they will be required to live in. If we are going to punish dogs to end our own suffering and inconvenience we can at least be insightful enough to admit it.

Getting To Yes With Your Dog

Dogs who grow up in a home have dozens of opportunities a day to approach people and be reinforced for it. This means it’s a good thing from the pup’s perspective. They might get a treat, a cuddle, a scratch or the chance to tug on your shoelaces. Dogs, like my dog Sunny who spend their first months or years kenneled with little positive human contact may have had no opportunity to practice the “move toward human” behavior. For dogs like Sunny, moving toward people is not only something they’re not used to doing–they’re being asked to jump off the high-diving board and they can’t swim, they are also afraid of people and so the pool appears full of sharks.

In order for me to achieve my goal of being able to walk with Sunny off-leash I needed to be able to get him back on leash at any time. Since approaching me was still scary for him early on, I taught him to “wait” which allowed me to approach him and clip on the leash. It was a compromise that worked for us until he did feel safe enough and was able to learn a recall.

I continue to reinforce Sunny for stopping and waiting for me, and any other behaviors I would like to see more of from my dogs. Don’t take behavior for granted, pay for it.

Folk Healers

boy getting a dog to stand on its hind legsWe have a long, rich history of folk healing. In modern times many of the remedies people still rely on either include or refer back to cures used before people understood the cause of disease. “Hair of the dog,” the term used to suggest that having a drink to help ease the effects of a hangover may go back to a time when the hair of the dog who bit a rabies sufferer was incorporated into the treatment. Folk healing survives not only because the people in need of healing are gullible, but also in part because many of the providers of the treatment believe in it themselves. And we know that belief is a powerful thing. Brains are impacted in numerous ways by the placebo effect. We also know that we have the very real inclination to see whatever it is we want to see, and why scientific studies factor that in when research is being gathered and attempt to eliminate it as a factor in the conclusions being reached.

Dog training is replete with folk healers as well. We don’t have to look far for solutions to our dog’s behavior problems that include energy, force fields, faulty or unforgivably inaccurate declarations about the true nature of dogs and their “needs.” It is virtually impossible for someone without a background in animal behavior to know when they are buying a cure or snake oil. Whether it is because of an intent to deceive or the supplier’s actual belief that they are selling something of value, in the end it is the dog who pays the ultimate price when the cure is ineffective. Adding to the challenge of owners knowing whether they are being sold a “bill of goods” or not is the suave marketing of their product by the retailers. In the internet age it doesn’t take much for an idea to catch fire, and the association with an already established brand will increase the perceived worth of a product or method. Being hosted by National Geographic and heralded by Oprah provided Cesar Millan with a boost to meteoric fame. His theories on dog behavior were so far off the mark that they would be laughable if it wasn’t the dogs who weren’t getting the joke.

The sprinkling in of “truth” can make it difficult for even the savviest of consumers to know what they are buying. That providing a dog with the opportunity to exercise is a good idea and that the addition of it may improve not only the quality of a dog’s life but also their behavior, is not a reflection that the rest of the “alpha dog” prescription for dog training has merit. That a dog may learn a new desirable behavior without direct instruction from their owner does not mean that focusing on changing energy, or attempting to discover balance, are efficient ways to get the behaviors we need dogs to perform. By the time a pet owner consults with a trainer they usually needed the dog’s behavior to have changed yesterday. Messing around with remedies that might help is time consuming and potentially deadly. And I refer to both the use of folk training methods, however new age and trendy they may be, and the addition of dietary and other supplements to a dog’s environment.

Fearful dogs are vulnerable and at risk. It is up to us as their trainers to use methods that are both humane and effective. Create environments where a dog feels safe. It is the perceived threat to their safety, actual or not, that creates most of the inappropriate behaviors we see. Change what the appearance of the threat predicts. The fearful response to a scary object is faster than the speed of light traveling on nerves into the parts of the brain that think about making choices. We need to quickly and reliably add something to the picture that makes the dog feel good. This is what counterconditioning is all about. At the same time we give a dog skills. We teach them to do something. Not only is this what an owner so desperately needs, a dog who can do something other than the inappropriate behavior, but it is through positive reinforcement that we can take full advantage of the ability of a brain to change. Doing this effectively and efficiently is the magic we should be spending our time and money on.

The Belly Button Rule

blond haired baby smiling in bathtub

Creating positive associations with water in a safe place

When I was a young child and our family visited a body of water to swim in my parents instituted the the belly button rule. The older, more proficient swimmers could swim out to rafts in the middle of the lake or play in the waves, but the little kids could go no deeper than their belly buttons. If we lost our footing we would be safe and it was deep enough for us to pretend to be swimming. With our hands on the bottom of the lake we could kick our feet, put our faces in the water, blow bubbles, all the skills that one needs in order to swim, for real.

People living with fearful, shy or reactive dogs are often reluctant to limit their dog’s opportunity to go out into the world, for walks or car rides because they feel as though they are depriving their dog of exercise or variety. It’s thoughtful to take a dog’s needs in these areas into consideration, but not if they routinely end up over their belly buttons and have a bad experience because of it.

I remember wanting so badly to be able to swim with the big kids. My father shot Super 8 movies of me putting my entire face into the water and then coming up, wiping the hair and water from my eyes triumphantly. This was a milestone enroute to becoming a swimmer. My parents did not feel guilty that they were limiting my exposure to deeper water. They did not impede my ability to learn when they called me in when I went too deep or my lips turned blue and my fingers wrinkled.

Until a dog has the skills to come into contact with the things that cause them to react negatively, don’t risk them getting in over their heads. I didn’t have to almost drown to learn to learn to swim.