Archive for the ‘reinforcing fear’ Tag

Food Is Not A Problem

small black dog with cottage cheese container in his mouthThis morning my mother was having her breakfast and on the TV was an early morning cooking show.  She remarked, “I don’t know why I watch these shows, I don’t even like to cook.”

Food is a primary reinforcer. Looking at it feels good, thinking about it feels good. Mmmm..hand churned ice cream with fresh peaches, sweet corn on the grill, garden fresh salsa with just picked cilantro. That’s why you keep watching, mum.

In the world of dog training food is still being given a bad rap by some. The misuse of food as a bribe is often cited as reason to avoid using it. The argument that dogs become dependent on food would almost be funny if folks weren’t serious when they made it. I have yet to sort out how to break my dogs’ dependency on eating.

Different dog trainer camps each have their own set of premises as to why they prefer not to use food in training. And ironically enough on the spectrum of trainers understanding how behavior works (from haven’t a clue to enough understanding to make stuff up and sound like they know what they’re talking about), and developing a method or style, both the dominance and force-free advocates have adopted other supposedly more natural alternatives.

Years ago I ran into a neighbor who had purchased two chocolate lab sister pups. I asked if she was planning on breeding them. “No,” she answered. How about spaying them? “No,” again. “Why not?” I queried. “Because it’s not natural,” she claimed. Had I been drinking coffee there’s a good chance it would have come out of my nose. Natural!? As IF there is anything natural about a chocolate lab (no offense to them or any other breed of dog). The pressures of artificial selection have created very different animals than the pressures natural selection would have created.

This hasn’t stopped trainers from jumping on board the it’s natural bandwagon (I have yet to understand how food has been relegated unnatural, and am not going to spend much time on trying). There are the trainers who seem to be taking their lead from dogs from another planet, those mother dogs who use bites to the neck and muzzle holds to teach their puppies how to walk more slowly on leash, come when called, or poop outside and not in the house (that those mums start out by eating their puppies’ poop is natural enough but few recommend owners go that route). And the trainers who extoll natural, organic, functional rewards (other than food) for training behaviors such as stop running away from me and turn and come to me, or stay in a crate for hours, a behavior which I daresay might be as unnatural as it gets as far as a dog is concerned. Some leap of logic has been made that even though we are going to train behaviors that go against what is likely very much in a dog’s nature; chase stuff, chew stuff, eat stuff, shred stuff, guard stuff, pee on stuff, we are obliged to do so by someone’s random definition of what constitutes natural.

Most troubling are the trainers who just flat out do not understand how counterconditioning works and avoid using food to create positive associations with triggers. Or fail to see how the use of food in operant conditioning can impact the dog’s emotional response to where the food is being given, what’s around, and probably most importantly the handler who’s supplying it, right along with performing the behavior itself. Those who assert that the dog’s good feelings when food is used only applies to the food, and not the handler providing it, are identifying themselves as lacking an understanding in classical conditioning, and it’s value to us.

Before anyone feels the need to comment and remind me that there are other things besides food that dogs can find positively reinforcing and motivating, I get it. I’m not arguing against the use of whatever a dog finds positively reinforcing in training, but those dogs who needed help yesterday and those dogs today who remain wary and fearful or are facing being returned to a rescue or shelter, or euthanized because they didn’t get the memo that they should be able to be trained or counter conditioned without the use of food, are the victims of the very bad advice to avoid using or minimize the use of food in training.


The “Somebody Told Me” Effect

One of my goals for this blog, my Facebook pages, group, and tweets, is to try to stave off the inclination pet owners and many dog trainers have to jump on any bandwagon that comes along in regard to training dogs, or to keep throwing different sh*t against the wall and hoping something sticks. There is no shortage of advice, methods, equipment and supplements out there being touted as helping dogs. Some actually do.

I know that when I explain to someone that what they are doing with their dog is inappropriate that I may come up against the but “somebody told me” effect. If what somebody told them made sense to them, even though it was not being effective, or was in fact causing the dog’s behavior to become worse, I know that I have my work cut out for me. For many it doesn’t even matter who the somebody was. Once I hit a brick wall with a client whose dog had started biting him when he was alpha-rolled. One recommendation I made was to stop alpha-rolling the dog but apparently the advice given to him by the folks down at the corner grocery store trumped the advice he was paying me for. Not only did the original advice mesh with this fellow’s thoughts about dogs and how they should be interacted with, my advice made his behavior the problem. It was another nail in the coffin for modern dog training advice.

It’s easy to be led to believe a particular training method is appropriate because something about it resonates for us. Training is a dance we do with our dogs, we pass our energy through the leash while the dog naturally discovers the ways to integrate their behavior with ours while attaining organic reinforcement for reaching a level of communication only possible when we get in touch with both the dog’s and our true nature. The preceding statement may have created any number of different emotional responses in you. If your response was “right on sistah!” there’s a good chance you’ll be onboard with whatever else I recommend, even if what I said makes no real sense at all. But if you read that and your response was “WTH is she talking about? Sounds like a load of crap to me,” I may find it more difficult to convince you that anything I have to say is worth spending the time listening to it. Or if you are told to, “Up the rate of positive reinforcement for a desired behavior after considering both establishing and abolishing operations,” you may react to the jargon by either being impressed or frustrated because not only do you need to figure out what to do with your dog, you also need to grab a dictionary. Alpha-rolling is pretty straightforward and somebody already told you to try it.

Somebodies come in all shapes and sizes. They may even brandish degrees and certifications. Pay attention to your reaction when faced with advice that is contrary to what somebody else told you to do. When you see yourself digging in your heels to resist it out of hand or are ready to pick up a banner and rush into battle to fight for it, take a step back, a deep breath, and talk to somebody else. Being able to weigh the benefits and risks of how we train means we need more information to put on the scale.


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.

Assume They Bite

border collie with ball and baby sitting in front

Even a “good” dog has teeth.

During his early time with us Sunny never growled or lifted a lip toward me or my husband. No one was more surprised than I was when he landed a bite on my neighbor’s calf when she was walking in front of our house. I soon learned  from other, more experienced fearful dog owners, that there was nothing surprising about Sunny’s behavior. He was essentially a dog who never had the opportunity to learn to feel good and comfortable around people, especially strangers, and I had encouraged my neighbor to toss tennis balls for Sunny when he went down to the road and barked at her. OMG. I can hardly believe it myself. What was I thinking? Fact is I didn’t know what to think. I never had a dog who was as prepared to bite people as Sunny was. Learning that the dog you are living with has the increased potential to, and in all likelihood will, bite someone is a crushing realization. I felt terrible about what happened to my neighbor, who was beyond understanding and generous in her response. I baked her a maple walnut pie and still am upset about Sunny biting her.

Since that time Sunny has put his teeth into another calf once. Again it was a predictable, and therefore avoidable situation. There was the perfect storm of conditions, I assumed one thing, the person engaging with him assumed another and “bam” it happened again. That sinking gut feeling is one I can do without. Again, the recipient of the bite was kind and generous and in fact was even unsure as to whether she’d been bitten or scratched, but I knew better, those marks were from teeth.

Recently I found out that another of the little dogs who was part of the same confiscation from a breeder as my Nibbles, had started biting people. Of all the shy dogs I met of that group, this little guy had the most skill and comfort around people. I never would have guessed that he’d end up biting, my money would have been on Nibbles. It’s been a couple of years since the dog had been adopted and I’m going to assume that this new propensity to bite has been building. The conditions the dog had been living in were leading to the creation of the behavior. Don’t get me wrong, the people he lives with are loving and kind. The dog is adored and well cared for but the, what are often subtle, signs of discomfort and fear were not seen or heeded.

When we live with a dog with “issues” of any kind we have two options that are often best combined. We manage the dog so that they are not put into situations in which they are likely to experience fear or discomfort and then fail at being good dogs. For pet owners without a lot of training background or skill, this is the go-to approach. Your dog lunges at dogs while out walking on a leash, stop walking your dog where or when you’re likely to run into other dogs. Your dog barks and charges guests who come into your home, put the dog in a crate or another room so they can’t.

The second thing we do is a combination of changing how the dog feels and teaching them new behaviors. Both of these are often most easily done using super good food treats. It can take some skill development on the part of an owner, but a good trainer, well versed in positive reinforcement methods and protocols can teach you. It’s a gentle and kind process that is a joy to watch unfold. As you are learning and practicing good management, your dog is learning and less likely to feel stressed and pressured, and less likely to bite.

I live with four dogs. My cocker Annie and border collie Finn have teeth and like all dogs can bite, but I don’t have the same degree of concern about their behavior with people as I do with Sunny and Nibbles. Annie and Finn have a buffer of tolerance and resiliency to being stressed by people. They are not afraid of people. Both Sunny and Nibbles have come a long way in their ability to feel more comfortable and safe with people, but the first feeling that washes over them when they see a person is probably fear, worry or concern. My goal has been to change that feeling to one of gleeful anticipation. In Sunny’s case it might be a frisbee toss across the dog yard. For Nibbles it’s a treat. For both dogs it means no handling or social pressure to engage in a conversation that decreases the distance between person and dog without the dog’s stamp of approval.

By assuming that your dog will bite you might save yourself and someone else having to deal with one. It’s painful.

Too Sensitive?

Dog - SadIt wouldn’t be the first time someone has used my discomfort with something they said or did, to turn the tables and make it my problem, but it was happening and for some reason I couldn’t let it go. One of the skills we all need to practice in this day and age of instant communication is to push ourselves away from the keyboard. Just stop, end your part of the engagement. Let the sting of a comment fade and move on, do the dishes, weed the garden, read a book. Though I reminded myself of this for some reason I was like a dog with a bone, I couldn’t let it go.

I had for a few days been answering someone’s questions about their dog’s fearful behavior via Facebook’s messages. I was glad to do it. I know how it feels to find yourself living with an extremely fearful dog. But at no time do I ever believe that my words of wisdom typed into a 1 inch box are likely to be adequate in fully addressing the challenges owners are facing. I offered to either schedule a time for a consult or assist  in finding a trainer near them. The reply I received stunned me, though it was not the first time I, or any trainer, has heard it in some form or another.

“I can see your (sic) in a business to make money sorry I bothered you”

Move away from the keyboard, I thought. But not only didn’t I do that, I couldn’t do it. Perhaps it has something to do with being a middle-aged woman (a label I will probably continue to use long past the time I should switch to “older” or “senior”). It’s not unusual for young women to shut up, to worry about being impolite or hurting feelings. At my age I no longer feel the need to bear the brunt of someone’s rudeness without providing them with a response. There are consequences to behavior. Maybe it was because I hadn’t had enough sleep the night before. Whatever the reason, I had to respond, to express the fact that I had been insulted by the insinuation that my motivation for doing the work that I do was purely mercenary.

After I pointed out how the comment he made insulted me, I was told it was not meant to be insulting and that I was “too sensitive.” This was an odd way to offer an apology. Again I could not let it go and replied. The conversation continued in this fashion, me pointing out how I was interpreting his comments and was met with a justification for each and admonition to “chill out.” The author even included the number of twitter followers he had. Why? My interpretation was it was a threat to expose me for the sensitive person that I am. He denied this, labeling me a “very negative person” to even think it. Then why include it in the conversation? I was feeling very confused.

Then it occurred to me why this conversation was so compelling that I couldn’t walk away from it. The ease with which my perspective of the conversation was discounted was glaring. That I might feel upset had nothing to do with the author’s behavior from his point of view. I was accused of trying to turn the conversation into a conflict. I was too sensitive. Any misunderstanding was my fault.

His dog defecated when picked up. How could he get the dog to stop behaving this way? The answer was ultimately complex but immediately simple, stop picking the dog up. The dog is sensitive, the owner’s behavior was being interpreted as threatening, scaring the dog. The only way for the dog to change was for the owner to change. But how can someone change if they are unable to consider that their behavior and actions might be perceived differently than they are intended?

Dogs are telling us how we make them feel all the time. If we are serious about helping them become less sensitive we have to acknowledge their perspective, their feelings, and stop putting the blame of misunderstanding on them, expecting to find an answer to changing their behavior that doesn’t include a major overhaul of our own.

Fearful Dog Fails

2 dogs and people walking in the woods

Sunny gets to decide where he feels most comfortable around people.

One of the reasons I go on like a broken record about the importance of using reward based training methods that have been designed based on the evidence available garnered through the study of animal behavior and research is because working with fearful dogs can be so darn challenging. So challenging that if you don’t start seeing improvements soon you might become frustrated and disillusioned and the dog’s behavior can continue to degrade.

It’s the same reason I repeatedly remind people about behavioral medications that can help the process of changing how a dog feels about things that scare them. The risks of putting a dog on an approved behavioral medication for a few months, following the protocol recommended by a veterinarian, may be fewer than the risks we take by continuing to expose a dog to triggers without them. We can add more fears to a dog’s list of triggers, or further sensitize them to the ones they already have. It’s something to think about.

The gold standard for working with fear based behaviors in dogs is to use a combination of desensitization and counter conditioning. These are easy enough to understand, but not always easy to implement successfully. When a dog’s behavior does not improve, though the handler is employing these techniques, there are some common “fails” that may be occurring.

One common fail is to expose the dog to what scares them at a level that overwhelms them. It could be that the scary object or event is too close, too big, too many, too loud or around too long. Being able to eat treats is not a guarantee that a dog is what we commonly refer to as under threshold. It is possible for a dog to be motivated enough by something, to tolerate something scary or unpleasant to them in order to get it. It’s why it’s not recommended that a dog who is afraid of people be invited to take treats from a stranger. The same way you might be willing to pick up a paycheck every week and still hate your job, a dog may be willing to snatch a treat from someone and still wish they weren’t there. This does not mean that we can’t help a dog who is routinely over threshold, sometimes we have no choice, but until you have a good relationship with a dog and have given them coping skills it’s best to strive for less bothered rather than more.

Another fail is to assume that you are actually counter conditioning a dog to what it is they are afraid of. Our understanding of classical conditioning is based on the work of Pavlov, the man who turned getting dogs to drool into an art form. Classical conditioning is learning by association. We all do it, all the time. Counter conditioning is changing an already established classically conditioned response. A dog who is afraid of ________ learns to love children, loud noises, other dogs, car rides, vacuums, getting their ears cleaned, men with hats, etc. The scary thing which once predicted being scared now predicts cheese or a frisbee toss. It can take countless repetitions for some dogs to get this new association to replace the old one. A handler may be feeding steak in the presence of a trigger for years and not make this switch. The problem may be that the trigger is not what is predicting the treat for the dog.

Life is not always orderly. What can seem obvious to us is not to our dogs. If there is something that is relevant to us we often assume it is relevant to others, and it is not. There can be things and events in the environment that take precedence over another for a dog’s attention. We may be assuming that because we noticed the trigger and fed our dog treats, that the dog will make the association that it was the appearance of the trigger that made the treats appear. This isn’t always the case. Even if the dog notices the trigger it might not be the event in the environment that the dog is learning makes treats appear. If this goes on long enough, you reaching for a treat when a kid on a skate board goes by, the dog may eventually learn to feel ok about the skateboarding kid, but not as quickly as he would if it was the kid on the skate board that predicted the treat, and not your hand movement or that you stopped and turned in a particular direction.

Another common fail is that whatever is being used to counter condition is simply not good enough. Many dogs will eat anything, any time. I have no trouble motivating my dogs for a training session using treats, after they’ve had a meal. This is not true of all dogs, but by my dogs’ reactions to seeing me gather up training paraphernalia; clicker, treats, target stick, toys, bait bag, you’d think they’d never had a square meal in their lives. One of the reasons for this is that it’s not just the food that they enjoy. Figuring stuff out is fun for dogs too. But when you are working with a dog who is really afraid of something whatever you are offering them to create a positive association, needs to be amazin. Sometimes this is tough, and is why we combine counter conditioning with desensitization, to tip the scales in our favor. Suffice to say if someone wanted me to feel good about seeing Rush Limbaugh walk into a room they’d have to take out a loan. It’s not always easy to change how a dog feels about something or someone.

As the dog’s emotional responses change we can increase the level of their exposure to a trigger and we may find that what used to require filet mignon to get a tail wag only requires a smile and word of praise from us to get a positive response from our dog. If what you are doing isn’t working, it’s not that the process of desensitization and counter conditioning doesn’t work, it’s that your technique may need some work.

There Are No Secrets To Dog Training

imagesThere are no secrets to dog training, or weight loss, despite the endless amount of spam trying to sell both.

Good dog trainers who understand how to train dogs are like bad poker players grinning like fools and showing their hand with all the aces to the people sitting beside them. We want people to know how to change their dog’s behavior and can’t keep this a secret no matter how hard we try.

Many of us have chosen methods to do this that use little to no force or coercion. Some choose these techniques because ethically they think it’s how we should interact with animals in our care. Others choose them because they understand how effective they are. I work with a population of dogs that offers me little choice in the matter. Using force, pain or the threat of either with these dogs is contraindicated and counter productive in the long run.

I am not saying that either dog training or losing weight are without their challenges. The professional trainers I know, spend a lot of time and money learning how to deal with the challenges that arise with dogs. They learn to look for physical or medical causes for a behavior, no sense punishing a dog for not sitting when asked if their hips ache or if they can’t hear or see well. We explore ways to motivate dogs and identify what components of a dog’s life can be changed to increase the chances that we’ll get more of the behaviors we like and less of the ones we don’t.

You don’t need to be a dog psychologist to understand why dogs do what they do. There is no need to come up with either simple or elaborate stories, as interesting and compelling as these may be, to explain why dogs do what they do. If we keep seeing a dog perform a behavior we know they are doing so because they are being reinforced for it. If they are unwilling or reluctant to perform certain behaviors we know it is because they have been punished for performing the behavior. This, if there is a secret to sell, is it. It’s not always simple to tease apart the reinforcers and punishers in a dog’s life, but if you’re going to pay for anything, find a professional who can.

Sew Buttons On Your Underwear.

Anyone who has spent time with prepubescent or adolescent humans has had or heard a conversation that goes something like this after an adult makes a statement or request-

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “It’s important.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “I feel insulted when you talk to me that way.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “That’s a rude thing to say.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “I’m losing my patience when you say that.”

Kid: “So?”

Adult: “I want you to stop that right now!”

Kid: “So?”

An experienced adult knows that when an immature mind has latched onto the power of the word so, there’s only one reasonable response and that’s, “sew buttons on your underwear.” I learned this from my grandmother who understood that any attempt to discuss the inappropriateness of the so response would end up in a maddening loop. For a two-letter word so packs a double punch. It demeans the request and slights the person making it.

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.”

It’s a conversation style that I observe often between dogs and owners.

Dog: “I’d like to sniff that.”

Owner: “So?”

Dog: “Hang on a second I think I should pee on that.”

Owner: “So?”

Dog: “I’d like to get out of here.”

Owner: “So?”

Many dogs give up and give in. They may have been punished for doing otherwise. There are others for whom the request is of such importance that they will keep asking until they are taken seriously. When that finally happens they may be labeled bad dogs or red zone dogs. Once that occurs their future hangs in the balance. Will they find someone who takes their requests seriously or someone even more adamant in their commitment to demean them by creating labels such as; dominant, stubborn, alpha or mean, for these requests?

No one enjoys having to take so for answer.

No sleight of hand

cartoon magician with rabbit on his headThere is no magic to what we do to help fearful dogs, however you define magic. It’s time, energy, and effort all resting on a nice bed of patience.

In order to survive every species has to have reason to crawl out of bed every morning, or evening if they’re nocturnal. If they can’t it’s an indication something is wrong, seriously wrong. If we have dogs who are not fearful an unwillingness or inability to eat or engage in something fun is a big red flag. Sure our dogs get old and slow down, but when they start refusing food or ignore invitations to go for a walk we start to dread the writing on the wall. Often we head to the vet. An otherwise healthy dog who is not interested in food or doing anything that dogs typically enjoy doing, is in trouble. No magic is going to help them, we are.

First we eliminate any medical reasons for a dog’s behavior. An injured or sick dog needs to be treated. Once we can be assured that they aren’t hurting we tap into their brain’s reward system and run with it. If we can’t do this using food or fun, we have to do something to make it easier for them to stop worrying about protecting themselves and find ways to help them out of the funk of despair and depression, both responses I don’t doubt dogs experience.

If we can lower the dog’s level of anxiety either by the management of their environment and/or the use of medications we need to do it. We need to take hold of the reins of a dog’s reward system and turn them into addicts for what we offer them. Once we do that it only looks like magic.

What are their options?

Scientists who have studied fear in animals have come up with four responses, one or more of which are common, in one form or another, to organisms ranging from bacteria to humans.

1. Withdrawal, avoidance, flee

2. Immobilization, freeze-up

3. Submission, appeasement

4. Aggression

When working with our fearful dogs it’s important to keep in mind that these responses do not necessarily indicate the ‘level’ of fear a dog is experiencing. It is not unusual to hear people say that their fearful dog ‘lets’ people pet him/her. ‘Letting’ something happen does not mean that the dog is not afraid, it is just that for that dog, in that situation the dog is reacting with option #2. They are still afraid, in fact they may be horrified, but because they have not reacted with options 1, 3 or 4 their owners assume that they are ‘ok’.

At a seminar I suggested that people reward their dog for avoiding what scares them. A participant asked, “But isn’t that feeding into the fleeing?” Let’s just think about it-

When working with a fearful dog we typically set our sights on getting the dog closer to the things that scare them. That is how we are gauging success, and it makes sense, but the devil is in the details. We know that aggression is one of the responses common to feeling threatened, and as handlers or owners of fearful dogs it’s the one response we want to avoid at all costs. A fearful dog who cowers in the corner is likely to be allowed to live in that corner longer than a dog who responds aggressively. Moving away from something scary keeps both the dog, and whoever or whatever the scary thing is, safe. You won’t get bit by a dog who runs away from you (though I still wouldn’t turn my back on them!).

Whether or not we give a dog who has moved away from a trigger (scary thing) a piece of cheese (or other high value food reward), the distance gained is rewarding to the dog. If the dog is able to eat the cheese we are not only addressing their behavior but how they ‘feel’. Eating cheese makes dogs feel good. And if they are a safe distance from the trigger the dog may start to have more positive feelings than they do negative ones. Call it the Ben & Jerry’s effect if you like. This is the first step in helping a dog learn to be anywhere near a trigger and feel better about it. It’s the dog who decides what the appropriate starting distance is.

Studies of brains have shown that aggression is ‘rewarding’, which is obvious when you consider that hockey and boxing probably wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t. Put a dog in the position to respond aggressively and you are flagging a neural network in their brain you do not want them to learn to like.

Check out this video of a chameleon responding to a perceived threat. I don’t know enough about the ethology of these creatures to know if any appeasement behaviors were offered, but you can see what happens when withdrawing, freezing and threatening gestures don’t work to keep the scary technology away. You might want to turn the sound down on your computer. The following video was obviously NOT produced for educational purposes.