Archive for the ‘shy 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.

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.

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.

Suffering the Consequences

small black dog with 3 quills in his noseI heard an interesting piece on NPR’s This American Life radio show. The topic was institutionalized, racial segregation in housing in America. During the 1960’s when people protested, often violently, against this practice a comment made by then President Nixon went something like this, if the demands were met (end policies that perpetuated segregation in housing) the protesters would be rewarded for protesting or rioting, and therefore their demands should not be met.

Knowing that consequences drive behavior we could look at that scenario and agree with President Nixon. We have to be very careful about behaviors we reinforce. Dog owners and trainers could think about the puppy shrieking to get out of her crate. Open the door and the puppy learns that shrieking gets doors open, and that’s not anything we want to encourage. When my husband worked for a youth club years back he was faulted for inviting a young girl to have a snack after she became upset, spewed a litany of swears and hid in a locker. Hadn’t he rewarded her for her bad behavior of swearing and hiding in lockers with the snack offer?

Reinforce it and you’ll likely see more of it. But there’s a piece missing, a big piece, and that’s the reality that when someone, animal or human is upset they may behave in ways we don’t like. If all we are going to rely on is the use of consequences, chiefly punishment, to change their behavior we are in effect forcing them to suffer the consequences, when a goal should be to eliminate the need for those behaviors to be performed in the first place.

If we don’t want people to riot for equal rights or treatment, and accept they should have them, then we either have to provide them with those rights, or provide a way in which they can achieve them without needing to riot. A puppy who screams and whines to be taken out of their crate could be given the opportunity to learn to feel good inside the crate with opportunities to play, rest and chew bones there. They can learn to feel safe and comfortable in their crate for longer and longer periods of time. The little girl who became upset and hid in the locker could be given the tools for expressing herself in a more socially appropriate way. She could have also stood to have had a better home life and this fact makes the use of punishment or the withholding of rewards to change her behavior seem even more inhumane to me.

We are responsible for setting up the conditions for our dogs to behave in ways that are acceptable to us and useful to them. If we can’t create ideal conditions we need to give them skills to be able to cope with less than ideal conditions. Let the consequences drive your behavior. Being able to predict that your dog is not likely to be successful means you can change the conditions to improve the chances that they will be. This will spare you from having to suffer the consequences of your dog’s inappropriate behavior.

I’ve Got Your Mouth or Worrying About Why

face of black & white dogAt my first appointment with a new dentist after I moved to Vermont I asked if he’d like me to have my charts sent from my previous dentist. His reply was, “I don’t need them, I have your mouth.” Everything he needed to know about my teeth was in front of him.

When we begin to work with fearful dogs it’s not uncommon for us to think that we need to know the dog’s past in order to help them. It’s not that the information would be superfluous, but it likely will not change how we are going to work with the dog. We have their mouth, so to speak. Their behavior will guide us. Whether it’s an 8-week old pup or 8 year old dog who won’t come out from under the bed, our approach will be the same–help them feel safe. The same would be true of a dog growling, we don’t need to determine whether the dog is fear aggressive or aggressive and not fearful, our response to the situation will be the same–do what we need to do to end or prevent the growling without punishing the dog. We take away any perceived threat, desensitize and countercondition, and teach the dog to do something else using positive reinforcement-based training.

I have had clients spend the majority of a consult describing in great detail everything that happened to their dog. They think that something is going to inform me about the exact “fix” their dog needs in order to stop being fearful. If there was a sudden onset of the dog’s behavior it would indicate the need for a vet visit, and even with that, we’d prepare ourselves to work on any newly added fears that occurred due to pain or illness. We’d do this the same way if the dog had been displaying fearful behavior for years.

“Why” can get in the way of developing humane and effective plans for working with a dog. Decide that a dog is being aggressive because they are trying to dominate you and respond in a way to thwart this attempt and you’re likely to start brewing trouble. Knowing whether our dog was timid from birth, spent years in a cage at a puppy-mill, was tied up in a yard for most of their life, was beaten by a man with a hat and a beard may satisfy our curiosity, but it won’t change our training plan. Make sure they feel safe, DS/CC and teach them something.

My dentist did take x-rays. It would be nice to have a machine to look into a dog’s past, but don’t worry that we don’t.

Giving My Dog A Life

lifeGiving My Dog A Life

Please feel free to “like” my latest Facebook page and post your own pictures of the good life you give your dogs. Let’s stop shaming dogs and give them a life!

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?

My I Have Your Attention Please

Stop in for a visit to any one of the thousands of forums or groups devoted to dog training and behavior and you’re likely to bump into a discussion about whether or not it’s acceptable to punish dogs during training. There will be both reasonable and unreasonable comments from either side of the table.

Punishment is a very effective consequence to apply in order to end behavior. The challenge is getting it right. Reinforcement in the form of food is a very effective consequence to apply in order to see more of a behavior, and again the challenge is getting it right. In either case I want to consider what the consequences of me getting it wrong will be. Am I willing to accept, and subsequently have to deal with those consequences? In the case of punishment, often I am not. The reason? The consequences of the misapplication of a reinforcer, though problematic, especially if it’s routine, are likely going to be easy for me to change compared to the consequences of the misapplication of punishment, especially if it’s routine.

There are many reasons why a dog may continue to perform an inappropriate behavior or fail to perform a behavior we ask them to. Punishing a dog for failure to respond to a cue is risky business. What are we punishing? In this case we are often punishing what we interpret as a dog who is being willfully disobedient or blowing us off. There are other reasons why we may not get what we ask for, leading reasons being that the dog has not really learned the behavior, or has not generalized the cue to different locations or variations in the handler’s delivery of the cue.

Check out this video* and keep it in mind the next time you are inclined to yell at, yank on a leash, shock or hit a dog who doesn’t respond to a cue. They may not have even been aware that a cue to perform a behavior was presented to them.

 

*I was among the 70% of the people watching this video who did not.