Archive for the ‘stress’ Tag

High Risk Activities

puppy being dragged into the ocean

“I’d rather not.” “So?”

One of the primary goals I have for this blog, the seminars and webinars, and consults I do for folks living or working with fearful dogs is to help them understand how to think about fear based behaviors. When I am contracted to help someone train their dog I can directly and specifically tell them what to do. But that’s just a drop in the bucket when it comes to the number of dogs out there that need someone to help them. If people have good information to use to come up with reasonable ways to respond to their dog, they are more likely to do so, and that is what needs to happen–dogs need to be responded to appropriately.

Risk management is an important consideration in many industries. It should be in the dog training industry as well. The most obvious reason is that when people get bitten, dogs get put down. But there are other risks. A dog’s quality of life is at risk when they are not handled properly. One of the most high risk activities we engage in is when we expose dogs to objects or events that scare them. This tactic is fueled by a variety of notions espoused by trainers; dogs need to be exposed to things or else they’ll never learn to not be afraid of them, dogs are empowered by being able to choose to investigate something, if something doesn’t hurt them a dog will learn that it’s not something they need to be afraid of, dogs won’t be afraid if you are the pack leader. Each of these, among others not mentioned, can lead people to making high risk decisions about how to manage their dog.

I am not saying that exposing a dog to things, or allowing them to roam around and make choices as to how they will respond to something that might scare them doesn’t ever work. I am suggesting that it is a high risk approach to take with a fearful, shy, anxious or reactive dog. Existing fears can become worse and new ones can be added. We can and should minimize and manage the risks we are willing to take when a dog’s life and the lives of those around that dog are at stake.

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe.
  2. Be prepared to make anything that already scares, or might scare, the dog a predictor of something fabulous. Use food. Fabulous food.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you’d like them to do when in the presence of something that does or might scare them. When we use high rates of positive reinforcement to train appropriate behaviors we don’t need to worry about them making bad choices.

Novel ideas

black and white dog with stuffed toy beeA light bulb moment occurred for me in regard to my fearful dog Sunny when I understood that he was limited in his abilities by his brain. It wasn’t that he was choosing not to come to me, or that he refused to move out of the corner, as conscious choices, it was that given the development of his brain, these behaviors were how he was ‘wired’, so to speak, to perform. And any changes I wanted to see in him were going to be connected to changes in how his brain worked.

Although Sunny will likely always be limited in some ways by the deprivation of his early life, and possibly a genetic predisposition to startling easily, like a person who is short can find ways to reach the cans on the top shelf of the cupboard, Sunny too has been able to find ways to achieve certain goals despite his disadvantages. His brain has changed.

Not too long ago it was thought that the brain that you were born with was the brain you had for the rest of your life, you could take advantage of what you had, or not. Now it is understood that brains are far more plastic than anyone ever realized. You can make a brain better through stimulation, stimulation that does not cause chronic stress. This interview with Robert Sapolsky looks at stress.

What is stimulating to a brain? Just about everything! Sounds, smells, physical sensation, movement, problem solving and novelty. A major problem for many dogs is that they did not experience novelty during early brain development. Being stuck in a cage at a puppymill, tied to a tree in a backyard, or stuck in a hoarder’s home, limit the novel experiences a dog has. Even well-loved and cared for dogs can suffer when they are not exposed to other dogs, noisy children, cars, etc., in safe ways when they are young. The lack of exposure to novelty makes it scary when something new appears on the scene, something/one appears, or the dog is put into a new environment. The pattern can then be set, new things are scary, even if they cause the dog no harm.

Because brains can change, and introducing novelty is a way to do it, people living with fearful dogs can look for ways to change what their dog experiences, in non-threatening ways. Moving food and water bowls to different locations, leaving different toys out for the dog to investigate, playing calming music, massage, moving furniture for the dog to navigate around, introducing new scents to the environment, are just a few of the ways you can add novelty to a dog’s world. Sunny takes agility classes for the non-habitual movement the courses require him to perform. We practice obedience skills and learn new tricks to encourage him to think and figure out what is expected of him.

Living with an extremely fearful dog added stress to my life, but the novelty sure has been worth it!