Archive for the ‘scared 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.

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.

Training Fearful Dogs: Why You Shouldn’t Make Them Do It

brown dog with leashIn the Fearful Dog Group that I started on Facebook I have established guidelines regarding the methods, techniques or ideologies that are appropriate for sharing with group members.

A common, and often hotly debated piece of advice is to encourage people to be better leaders. Though seemingly a benign suggestion it is ambiguous enough for both the giver and the receiver of the advice to have very different interpretations of the term. Given that we already have more appropriate terms for our relationship with the dogs we are training- trainer or teacher, there is no need to use a word that comes saddled with the baggage of pack leadership, alpha rolls and dominance. Even if this form of leadership is not what someone is suggesting, we can spare ourselves the need to explain our version of leadership merely by using another word. We don’t need to be good leaders in order to train dogs anyway, we need to be good trainers.

Nothing in life is free (NILIF) or closing the economy on a reinforcer- making the receipt of a valued or necessary reinforcer contingent on the dog’s performance of a specific behavior- is another training option that is not recommended in the group. In general there is nothing wrong or inhumane about it so long as an animal receives enough of the reinforcement to maintain good health and quality of life. Understanding how we can manipulate the motivators we have to train a dog is important. It makes sense if one is going out into the woods with their beagle off-leash to practice recalls, to skip the dog’s breakfast and have a pouch full of steak and cheese. Maybe (just maybe) we can begin to compete with other reinforcers in the environment that are going to make it more challenging for Tippy to respond to our recall instead of the scent of the herd of deer that wandered by before we got there.

If parents are struggling to get little Jimmy to pick up his dirty laundry, make his bed, do his homework, etc., and they are tired of punishing him, taking away his allowance, or making threats, knowing that playing video games is something Jimmy loves to do, they can take advantage of this to build the behaviors they are after. By making playing video games contingent on the performance of the desired behaviors, they can stop threatening punishment and put the ball in Jimmy’s court. Picking his towel up off of the bathroom floor and putting it in the hamper earns him 15 minutes of game time, bed making earns half an hour.

It’s important that any behavioral requirement we put on Jimmy (or Tippy) is one that they are capable of performing. If Jimmy is not doing his homework because the math is too complicated or written words are hard for him to comprehend, and he cannot earn his video playing time, we could expect to see him find other ways to be reinforced, or become frustrated. He might stop coming home from school right away to hang out at a friend’s house where he can play video games. He then starts smoking pot, steals cars for joy rides, gets arrested and ends up spending his youth in detention centers. OK, maybe this is an exaggeration, but my point is that it’s important that all animals have the opportunity to participate in activities that are positively reinforcing to them, and it’s our job as teachers to figure out what those are, and make it clear and possible for them to be attained.

In the case of fearful dogs we can assume that the motivator of the dog’s behavior is to protect themselves, to find a way to minimize what they perceive as a threat to their health and safety. Making the receipt of the most primary of reinforcers, food, contingent on doing something we want them to do, but scares them, is not fair. I would like to think that this is so blindingly obvious that it needs no further explanation. It is one thing to close the economy on food to compete with squirrels, it’s another thing to use it to coerce an animal into doing something that terrifies them. 

You’ve Got The Ball: Dogs in the 21st Century

black and white dog with basketballI suspect that those of us who work with dogs in any capacity, love them, respect them and want them to have the best lives possible. Yet I can’t help but be surprised and disappointed when I hear and read information about dogs being shared that does more harm than good, or opportunities to educate the pet owning population are missed. Research on the social development of dogs has been available for over 40 years. Veterinarians, of all people, should understand the importance early, positive exposure to novelty, dogs and people plays in the development of puppies. Yet there are still those who recommend isolating puppies from social interactions with other dogs during the time when a puppy’s brain is experiencing dramatic changes on a daily basis that allow them to grow up to be adaptable, resilient dogs. Changes that may not be possible as the weeks go by.

I sat in a vet clinic recently and watched a giant flat screen TV as it aired information about basic husbandry practices pet owners should undertake with their dogs. Dogs were shown having their teeth brushed, ears cleaned and nails clipped and not once were they offered a food treat in return for holding still through the process. What a missed opportunity to educate pet owners on how professional trainers use food to teach dogs who may not already be sitting calmly for a nail trim. Often it doesn’t take much to convince a dog something isn’t as horrible as they think it is, and it would be nice to never read another story about a groomer who has injured or killed a dog using force and restraint to do their job.

Online the forums for pet sitters and dog walkers, people who also are offering services as professionals, are replete with archaic information about dog behavior. Pet owners are paying for services being provided by someone who in the 21st century isn’t even using 20th century information to guide their behavior. Rescue groups post tear-jerking videos of dogs snatched from near death being subjected to forced handling and so long as in the end they are wagging their tail the donation checks keep being written. And heaven forbid the suggestion is made that other techniques and protocols are available that are less stressful on dogs. No doubt I’ll be chastised for even suggesting that too many (not all of course!) rescue groups aren’t doing a good enough job at what they are soliciting money for doing.

There is no excuse for continuing to use force and coercion to get or end behaviors in dogs. Universities have been teaching about animal behavior and learning for decades. Vocal groups of animal trainers have been providing reasons and resources to get information out into the general pet-handling population. We’re passing you the ball. Are you going to make the play or not? We’re all are on the dog’s team after all.

Dog Displaying Fear or Aggression? Don’t Make Them Repeat Themselves

boy sitting on pier with 2 dogs looking at the water

Go on Sunny, there’s fun ahead.

When a dog performs a fearful or aggressive behavior it’s as though they are saying, “I don’t have the skills to behave in any other way in this situation.” Why would you want to make them repeat themselves?

If you were to drop a kid into a pool that was just deep enough they didn’t feel completely safe you could expect them to try to get out. Some kids might find the exercise educational and learn to tread water, kick their feet, blow bubbles, or dog paddle. Others might continuously get themselves to the side and hang on. If the latter is good enough for you, then keep doing it, but it’s a step short of what would help them feel better about being in a pool and give them skills so that if they find themselves in any body of water they are less likely to drown.

Skill building is not only what the dog training business is all about (or should be!) it’s incredibly rewarding to see a dog develop the skills they need to find other ways to enjoy their life. Not being able to swim keeps many people from participating in activities that are healthy and fun. Not being comfortable in places where there are people or dogs puts limits on the opportunities to discover the joys of simply being alive.

If they need support and feel better hanging on to the side, that’s ok let them. But remember that the combination of counterconditioning and training using positive reinforcement can lead to the day that rather than trying to avoid the water they embrace their ability to float and start having fun in the pool. While they’re learning, their desire to keep heading for the ladder out is information that they need more counterconditioning and reinforcement for kicking their feet and practicing strokes.

Time To Raise The Bar

dog on pavement with caption training shouldn't hurtThere are few fields in which having grown up either performing a task or with the student, is enough to qualify one as a professional and justifies charging for one’s services. Unless of course we are talking about dog trainers.

I grew up reading and might be able to teach plenty of kids to read but if your kid has dyslexia it would be wiser to choose someone with an education in reading science. I’ve been driving a car since I was 15 but I hold no delusions that I could be a good race car driver because of it. I’ve been feeding myself for decades, and I’m still alive, but it doesn’t qualify me to charge people for nutritional advice.

There is a science of animal behavior. How animals learn has been studied and researched for decades. Ignoring this and continuing to train dogs based on one’s own personal system that deviates from the science, would in any other field leave one open to criticism and possibly criminal prosecution. But not so in dog training. ANYONE can call themselves a dog trainer or behaviorist, and label the criticism close-mindedness or jealousy. I’ve been training dogs since I was a toddler (what else is holding out my cracker and getting the dog to come to me to take it if not training) but it’s no reason to hire me or seek me out for advice.

Dog training is an unregulated industry with no accepted standards outside of those established by professional groups, and they vary even between groups. Before you let anyone put a hand or piece of equipment on your dog, or encourage you to do so yourself, stop. Don’t let their confidence, arrogance or even big words or concepts sway you. You may end up paying a bigger price than you thought.

Getting It Our Way

I was having a conversation recently with parents about hitting small children as a disciplinary action. These were by almost anyone’s definition good parents. They loved their children, took great care of them, fed them well, played with them, read stories, and did all the things we would recommend parents do with their children. They also happened to think it was ok to hit them, or use the threat of being hit to get them to do what they wanted them to do. The force of the striking would be considered “low” and from what I saw caused less physical pain than it did fear and upset. I would add that these parents would not hit their dog, send their children to a daycare where children are hit, nor would they hit anyone else’s children. They were also hit by their parents. lex luthor shouting wrong!

As a childless person I know that my opinions on child rearing are considered to be lacking crucial pieces of information, chiefly, not having experienced what it’s like to live 24/7 with a being who is primarily only concerned with doing or getting what they want however and whenever they want it (though one could make the case for that being true of many of the adults they live with and certainly the dogs). I have however spent decades traveling with groups of students ranging from grade school to college age, and think I understand the level of frustration one can feel when faced with trying to explain “why” to a brain that is not fully developed or operating under the influence of newly flowing hormones.

In justifying one’s use of hitting there seem to be categories. The first and most often touted is based on ensuring the safety of the child. Running into the street or sticking a fork in an outlet are obvious reasons in the safety category. And no doubt the emotional distress of the parent witnessing the event might make them more likely to lash out to get a point across. But when safety is at stake we generally find it more effective to prevent bad things from happening rather than rely on punishing after the fact.

What I observed was that majority of the threats of being hit or spanked were because the child refused (or in some cases was not prepared-they were distracted or paying attention to something else) to respond to a request- stop banging on the window, stop chasing the cat, put that down and come over here, hold still while I put your shoes on (I’m already late for work as is!), stop fighting (which should create a huge wave of cognitive dissonance), etc. Parents often resort to using physical force or violence (though in this instance there was never any actual physical harm done to children) to get their way. At what point does a parent decide it’s time to stop hitting children in order to get them to start or stop doing what they want them to? When the parent’s argument for a behavior is able to be processed and accepted? When the child can defend themselves or retaliate?

I empathized with these parents. Our culture does not do a very good job of preparing us with the tools to solve conflicts. We are all too willing and ready to use punishment when rules are broken. We are not given the skills for identifying ways to set up children to be successful or to interrupt inappropriate behavior without creating further upset. I know that in many households the pressures parents are operating under are great. People struggle to do and be the best they can. Few would deny that they want to live in a peaceful world, some would argue that there are times when resorting to force are justified. Even though I can understand the motivation to use force, coercion and physical punishment, I struggle with accepting that its ever appropriate when dealing with populations that are entirely dependent on us for their survival, are incapable of defending themselves, or are already feeling afraid and threatened. And yes, I’m talking about dogs too.

Ducks Don’t Need Quacks Either

cartoon of surgeon with chain sawThere is a science to behavior change in animals. That most pet owners are unaware of that is not surprising. That there are dog trainers out there who are unaware of it is disastrous.

I know just enough about my car and computer to turn them on and use them, when all is going according to plan. When problems arise, even if my cursing and kicking of tires seems to provide a temporary solution, I know enough to know I should contact a professional who understands the way car engines and computers work. Put the wrong fluid in the wrong compartment, delete the wrong file, and I may be in trouble that will be expensive to fix. Use the wrong approach to training a dog and the price just might be the dog’s life.

As you might imagine I hear from many people trying to sort out how to help their fearful dogs. Yesterday I got a call from a pet owner and had there been a board monitoring the ethics of dog trainers, I would have contacted them. But there isn’t so I am left writing to writing blog posts. The dog, acknowledged as fearful by the owners (and one would assume by the trainer) had started to display increasingly aggressive behavior, including biting the owners. This is bad news. Even worse news was that I was not being contacted for training help, the owners were looking for help to rehome their dog. When I mentioned training, from the owner’s perspective, they HAD been training, and since it wasn’t helping (indeed it appeared to making matters worse) they were done with it.

I was not familiar with the trainer they were using but it didn’t take long for me to find the self-described whisperer’s website. Dog whispering ala Millan (as opposed to Paul Owen’s earlier use of the term) is akin to practicing medicine in a barber’s chair. It should be outlawed. That enough people survived bleeding cures is not enough to continue the practice. Should the patient die, the disease can always be blamed.

Fearful and aggressive dogs need competent training by educated, skilled professionals. They exist, but in the historical muddle of dog training information, they may be hard to pick out among the quacks. The topic of competency in dog training will be addressed in this webinar with Jean Donaldson. It may be too late for some dogs but it’s about time we talked about this for the rest.