Archive for the ‘shy’ Tag

The Bad News About Fearful Dogs

drawing 3 children 2 covering eyes 1 covering mouthI am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.

When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.

What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.

There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.

That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.

-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.

-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.

-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.

Look for educational seminars in your area about fearful dogs.


Shoring up the Foundation

targetWhen we ask a dog to do something in exchange for something they want it’s not about “no free lunches” or that dogs need to learn to work for what they want. Every organism on the planet, if they are going to be around for long already has this information. If they didn’t there would be no beaver dams, no mice caught by cats, no webs woven by spiders, no carcasses cached in trees by fisher cats, no acorns hidden away by squirrels. When we teach a dog to respond to a cue, rather then making them work for treats, or their food bowl, or an open door, we are making the world a more predictable place. The behavior of humans makes more sense to a dog when they are trained to respond to our cues.

When we use positive reinforcement to teach a dog behaviors we are infusing the whole process, all the pieces of it, from the appearance of the person to the performance of the dog, with “feel good.” We are the ones who label a particular behavior as “work” whereas for the dog it might just be sitting, fetching a ball, waiting or rounding up sheep. It’s something to do, and doing something is often better than doing nothing, especially when good outcomes are the result.

John asking Sunny to target his hand is not being used to lure Sunny closer, he had already shown he was quite happy to be that close. It was not to make him “work” for the treat. Asking Sunny to target his hand enriches the relationship between the two because the human’s behavior now has meaning instead of being a random, possibly threatening, gesture. It was a cue Sunny already had learned from me and performing behaviors to make treats happen is an enjoyable experience.

Build a vocabulary with a dog and you’ll be amazed at the conversations you can have with them.

Fostering Success

sheepGiving a dog an interim home while they are in the rescue system is a kind and generous act. Few who do it seem to realize how important the role they play is. It goes beyond providing a safe and comfortable place for a dog to reside while a permanent home is sought for them.

Though they are not pack animals, dogs are social animals. For social animals one of the most stressful events they can experience is the loss of their familiar social network, i.e., moving. Even if a dog appears to be happy and outgoing when they arrive in a foster home, we should assume that their level of stress is higher than it would be otherwise. Many dogs are able to cope with this and settle in with little trouble as they navigate their new surroundings and the expectations put on them by people and other dogs. But foster caregivers would be wise to consider how stress and relocation can impact a dog’s current and future behavior. Stress alone does not cause disease or inappropriate behavior, but it can contribute to the equation that produces it.

A dog who in their former life never put a tooth on a person or other dog, even though the opportunity existed, is less likely to do so in a new home than a dog with a history of biting, but add a healthy (unhealthy?) dose of stress and the odds that we’ll see this behavior increases. Within the shelter and rescue system people will look at a dog’s “bite history.” In many cases there are no opportunities for a dog to make an appeal once they have bitten a person or pet.

“But your honor he pulled on my ear and I have a raging infection in there!”

“She sat on me!”

“I was being threatened by another dog and the woman grabbed my collar.”

“I was eating that bone.”

“It was small, fluffy and ran right under my nose so I grabbed it.”

Foster caregivers have the responsibility to ensure that at the very minimum they do not add to the list of things that upset a dog, or provoke a behavioral response everyone will regret. One of the privileges I have is consulting with rescue groups pulling dogs out of shelters where many are euthanized. I see the important role that foster caregivers play. In some cases they literally save a dog’s life by providing a place for the dog to go when its time is up at an open-door shelter. This blog is one in a series which I will write addressing how foster caregivers can move a dog in transition away from the edge of the cliff, and avoid pushing them off, as they begin their journey to safety.

What It Takes

I had a call recently from a concerned owner with a service dog who was becoming more and more reactive to sounds and changes in her environment. The dog was described as “timid” even on arrival into the home of her new handler. I will not address the reality that someone trained and placed a dog to be a service dog in the community who was timid and wary from the get-go. I wasn’t joking when I told the owner that he was going to be his dog’s service human.

As the conversation progressed I learned that they were located in a town where I knew there was a good trainer. A trainer who understood how animals learn, who has studied and practiced teaching new behaviors to animals, who knew how to discern between her ability to teach a behavior and an animal’s ability to learn it. This latter point is important. As trainers it’s important for us to be able to see when our own skills are lacking and not immediately assume that an animal requires more aversive techniques to be trained. Or if we do decide that we need to move up the scale and punish a dog we consider which type of punishment we will use and how it might adversely impact an animal’s behavior. I trusted this trainer to be able to do that intelligently.

My faith in humanity is always buffed up a bit when I speak with people like this fellow. He had already demonstrated compassion toward his dog and was doing some of the things I would have recommended; jollying and playing with the dog when she was afraid (as opposed to punishing her or making her deal with what was scaring her). As we were wrapping up the conversation he told me that he would do anything to help his dog and if what one trainer told him didn’t work, he’d find another. And suddenly the conversation wasn’t almost over.

I understood what he meant, and in practice changing trainers may be the best thing to do especially if a trainer has recommended the use of punishment but in this case I knew that if what my colleague advised him to do wasn’t working, he should return to her to find out why. Often when a training technique doesn’t work it’s not because the technique itself is flawed, it’s the application of it or that the process requires more time. Trainers hear it almost daily, “I’ve tried everything and nothing works,” the implication being that someone’s dog is especially recalcitrant, stupid, or aggressive (and far too often the justification for the use of training equipment designed to hurt or scare a dog). In this day and age when we can all be experts in the trivia of practically everything thanks to the non-stop availability of television shows, it’s easy to think we actually know something.

Most of our dogs do not require the subtlety of surgeons when it comes to being able to be trained to be good pets. But add fear, anxiety or phobias to a dog’s make up and the skill required to help them increases. Doing something right becomes paramount because of the risks involved with doing it wrong. To assume that a technique a professional, force-free, trainer recommends isn’t working, or working fast enough and moving on to find the next magic bullet can be a mistake.

Being willing to do what it takes to help a dog is admirable. And on that list should be knowing whose advice you are taking.


boy in chair surrounded by dogs he is training

The neighbor kid has enjoyed learning how to train dogs

For the past two summers I’ve been staying with my mum near Cape Cod. I know that having her youngest, and least fastidious daughter come and stay along with her four dogs is a challenge for her, but it’s a trade-off she’s had to make. Despite needing to spray the couch with Febreeze every day (Sunny’s preferred sleeping spot) I think she actually enjoys having them around. There’s no need to worry about whether she’s locked the doors at night. There’s not an icicle’s chance in hell that anyone would be able to so much as walk to the door, let alone actually open it without a chorus of barking. That chorus is another issue, but it’s getting easier for the dogs to end them when asked. Having a new home for the summer requires some adjustments for them as well.

Overall it’s been good. I have been able to see the skills they’ve developed and which need more work. There are more people coming and going and not only does that require more effort on my part to manage them it actually gives me the opportunity to practice the behaviors I want with them. Both Nibbles and Annie have learned to cut down on their initial barking and Nibbles has also learned that yapping and snapping after someone who gets up or walks by is not a good choice to make. I started by using lots of treats for recalls and sits and then added in a brief time-out (about 5 seconds alone in the bathroom) for infractions. Nibbles was a quick study but Annie has a more difficult time not voicing her opinion on things. Sunny is put in a place where he feels safe and where he cannot move toward people arriving.

A time-out is a form of punishment. We take away the dog’s opportunity for reinforcement (barking is very reinforcing for many dogs) by removing them from the situation and then returning them so they have the chance to behave the way we want them to for some other form of reinforcement, in our case it’s food. It can take a few trials for the dog to figure out why they are being walked off to the bathroom (or wherever you choose to put them) so don’t get frustrated or upset when you have to repeat the process. With Annie it’s a tricky one because if left there too long she’ll start barking to be let out, and I don’t want to have to deal with getting that to stop because I’m doing this when we have guests (which is why they are barking) so I’m juggling welcoming people into my home while I’m picking up leashes and leaving the room. But I would prefer to do this rather than shout at the dogs to shut up, which can also work. One reason is that I don’t like to yell and another is that I don’t want to make the association between guests and being yelled at for my dogs. So long as they don’t bark they are welcome to stay, maybe even get a treat or two from me or a dog-loving guest.

I hadn’t planned on writing a training post this morning. I wanted to share the photo of me in my rowboat (which we’ve had since I was a kid) along with rowboat in lake with 2 people and 2 dogs in itsome friends. Even Sunny managed to climb in for the ride. I also wanted to invite those of you who may not know about it to like the Face book page. I try to post something fearful dog related there every day for education and inspiration.

I will also be traveling this fall offering full-day seminars on fear-based behaviors in dogs and the most humane and effective ways to help them.

For my friends in the northern hemisphere I hope you are enjoying your summer and the living really is easier.

Training Treat

Earlier this week I had a two vet visit day. Two different dogs, two different vets. While waiting in the exam room in both clinics I helped myself to some of the treats available on a counter (good treats at that, not just biscuits). I tossed them around the room encouraging dogs to ‘go find it’. I often use the isolated, quiet time to work on different ‘tricks’ with my dogs. It gives both of us something else to think about.

As it turned out Finn the border collie had gained seven pounds since our visit 3 months ago! The vet was not concerned and only suggested he lose 2 of those additional pounds. To see me in the exam room you wouldn’t be surprised that he’d gained weight, with all the treats that were flying around. The main contributor to Finn’s extra pounds was more likely caused by a change in his food. Since our last visit I’d had a nutritionist come up with a diet for him and I’d need to cut back on it. This is something I am more than happy to do. Not only do I think it is healthier for a dog to be at a good weight, it saves me money on food. Nothing wrong with that.

Both the vet and tech were very good about distracting and rewarding Finn while he was palpated, prodded and poked. At one point the tech asked me, “Do you give him treats like this at home?” Her meaning being, “Are you always handing out so many treats?” There wasn’t time for a proper response so I left it at, “No, unless I’m trying to teach them something.” The fact of the matter is that with four dogs I am usually always trying to teach one or the other something.

I’m a training opportunist, rarely setting aside time solely for training, but incorporating it into our day. At some point a behavior should be ‘trained’ and treats no longer needed, and for the most part that is the case. Do I ‘need’ to have food on me to get behaviors from my dogs. Nope. There are dozens of times a day I ask my dogs for behaviors and only reward them with either my thanks or nothing- come, sit, wait, shove over, off the couch, leave it- all happen without being followed by a food reward, or even the chance of one, countless times.

The resistance to using rewards to train dogs remains strong. I often hear a hint of pride in an owner’s voice when they tell me that they don’t use food to train their dog. We all need to continue to work on behaviors we want to become proficient at. I doubt you’d hear a concert pianist say about a piece of music, “Oh I know that one, I don’t practice it anymore.” There’s always room for improvement and one way to get it is to reward it. My dogs may never learn that going to the vet is a treat, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a few when they’re there.

I Can Do That!

Owners of fearful or shy dogs are often told that they need to build their dog’s confidence, but just what does that mean? I start with the definition of ‘confidence’ which is to my thinking, the ability to reliably predict that your actions will have a successful outcome. A dog’s definition of ‘success’ will affect whether or not something actually helps them feel more confident.

Some dogs, like some people seem ready to plunge into life without a thought about potentially consequences (e.g., teenage boys), while others seem to hang back and need encouragement and time to try something new. Just watching another dog do something that is scary to a fearful dog is not enough for a fearful dog to feel confident enough to try it themselves. I could watch people jump out of airplanes all day and I probably never work up the nerve to do it myself. Anyone that thought that putting me in a plane and tossing me out, so I could learn how much fun it was, would earn a spot on my s**t list. Yet all too often this is how owners treat their fearful dogs. They may not be tossing them out of planes but they are making them stand still while a small monster pets them, or they are putting a leash on them and subjecting them to the attention of gangs of dogs that for all their dog knows, are out for his lunch money.

Toastmasters International is an organization dedicated to helping people learn the art of public speaking. Regular meetings help people learn how to construct interesting speakerand informational speeches, while giving them the opportunity to stand in front of a supportive group of people and practice. Even with practice and a good speech, finding yourself on a stage with dozens of pairs of eyes staring at you can get your heart pumping and thoughts jumbling out of control. But with knowledge of how to deal with this physiological effect, it becomes possible to focus on your task and succeed. Each success leads to more confidence in your ability to perform in front of crowd.

To achieve more comfort in this situation you know your speech backward & forward. You practice at home in front of a mirror or with someone you feel comfortable with. You make mistakes and correct them, practicing until those mistakes are fewer and further between. You learn to take a few deep breaths, slowing yourself down before you jump into action. A good coach will remind you of this as you train. Bit by bit your physical response to being on stage begins to lessen, stage fright may never go away totally, but it becomes manageable. And if you make a mistake you discover that it is not fatal, you move on.

For some dogs much of the world is like a stage where their hearts race and their only thought of success is to flee the scene. By working with your dog to teach them skills they can use when faced with what scares them, they can begin to experience success in other ways. They don’t need to run away or snarl to keep scary things at bay, turning and walking away works just as well (and gets them a treat and some words of praise for a job well done).

Think about the skills you can teach your dog at home, with praise and encouragement, before you ask them to climb onto that big scary world stage.

Energy Wise

Pep talkWhile I agree that our own energy has an affect on our dogs, I do find the focus on an owner’s energy to be at times confusing or just plain useless when it comes to training dogs. In Cesar’s Way owners are encouraged to imitate people like Cleopatra, John Wayne and Oprah. Huh? Now while some people out there might think they know what Millan means, how does someone really know what he means? You’ve got a self-absorbed Egyptian despot, a swaggering, gun-slinging film star and Oprah!

If you have spent a lot of time with dogs and are comfortable with them, the idea that your ‘energy’ affects their behavior may not seem so foreign, but for someone who is struggling to live with a dog with aggression or fear issues, who does not have a lot of experience with dogs, channeling Cleopatra is probably not the most helpful advice. Since each of us may have a different interpretation of what a good leader looks and acts like, the recommendation to ‘be’ the leader is not only not good enough, it’s dangerous. When some leaders don’t get what they want from their followers they can feel challenged and angry. Why set dog owners up for this kind of energy?

If you are working with a fearful dog there are actual training skills and techniques that you can use to help your dog understand what you want from it. Patience is probably more important than confidence when it comes to animal training, so don’t worry too much if you don’t feel like puffing out your chest and having your brother murdered so he doesn’t compete with your for the throne. If you are moved to channel anyone consider Mary Poppins, she was on the right track with that ‘spoonful of sugar’ idea.

How Realistic Are Your Goals For Your Scared Dog

Sunny pauses for reflection

Sunny pauses for reflection

If you’re an owner of a fearful dog you’ve heard it all before-
“He just needs love.”
“Give her some time.”
“Lots of dogs are shy at first.”
But you’ve probably discovered that it takes more than time and love to help a fearful dog.

If your dog is just afraid of some stuff, you may, with the understanding of counter conditioning and desensitization, end up with a dog that can overcome its particular fears. A dog that scurries away from the vacuum may decide it’s not all that horrible when it also means that cheese treats are doled out. Or a dog that believes that toddlers are some sort of alien beast (and some do seem to be) might be able to learn to see them as cookie dropping, ball throwing creatures they can enjoy.

But a dog that is easily startled and appears afraid of more things that it is not afraid of, is not going to ‘fix’ easily, or at all. It is possible to help a dog like this become more comfortable in its world, but owners and rescuers should remain cautiously optimistic for them. It matters because if the expectations you have for your dog are not realistic you not only risk disappointment you also risk losing valuable insight into the dog’s actual needs and abilities in your rush to find a cure for the dog’s behavior.

Fearful dogs like Sunny can have good lives. Sunny has many moments of sheer joy, if my ability to assess the emotions of a dog romping and rolling in the snow is accurate. I want to continue to help him increase his comfort level around people, since the world is full of them, but on a daily basis he is not required to face his personal demons so much that he is in a constant state of stress or arousal. My dog is a great companion to me and other dogs. He may never be a therapy dog or take home ribbons in agility, but he can come into the house when I ask him to, and even better still, wag his tail while he’s doing it.

Medications for Fearful Dogs

Whether or not to use behavioral medications to help your dog is a personal decision, but one which is often based on incomplete information. One comment often made by dog owners is, “I don’t like to drug my dog.” Fair enough. I don’t like to ‘drug’ my dogs either, but I’m sure glad that my dog with no thyroid function has a medication to help with that, and that my old cocker with heart problems has medications that have help improve the quality and hopefully the length of her life.

There are owners who will use herbs, supplements, and remedies without hesitation, yet balk when the suggestion of a tested behavioral medication is made. If we believe that a particular ‘alternative’ treatment is powerful enough to change our dog’s behavior why then do we not also believe that they are powerful enough to do harm to our dogs? Few of the products available to dog owners today have not been tested for their safety, whereas there are behavioral medications that have been.

Another misconception about the behavioral medications available today is that they are used to sedate dogs. While sedation may be a side effect of some of these medications, the reason for using them is not to sedate your dog. In many cases this effect decreases over time.

We know that behavioral medications can help with depression and anxiety in people, and many of these same medications are what are used with dogs. Their use in dogs is recommended along with a behavior modification program and enough of us have had success with this combination approach that it makes sense, to me, for owners to consider their dog’s behavioral issues and whether or not the addition of a medication to their program to help their dog may be beneficial.

We know that dogs get better at any behavior they repeat, inappropriate as well as appropriate ones. If the use of medications makes it easier for a dog to practice and repeat appropriate behaviors then it stands to reason that in the long run the dog will benefit by their use.

While it is wise to question the use of medications to help fearful dogs, it also is wise not to disregard them based on misinformation or the lack of information about them or a long held prejudice against them.

Just my thoughts.