Archive for the ‘timid’ Tag

Trust Counts

Trust is a central theme of soap operas, TV dramas and political relationships. It’s lauded as being the keystone of good marriages and partnerships. Teenagers are reminded that they will not be allowed to stay home on their own, or out late, or have the keys to the car until they can be trusted. For many people the realization that trust has been “broken” can lead to a lengthy or impossible reconciliation.

If one was inclined to look at the importance we place on trust in a marriage from a biological point of view, the risk of raising someone else’s offspring, or losing the support of a good partner to someone else, could impact the long-term success of one’s own off-spring. But mostly, when someone discovers that their partner was not “faithful,” babies aside, it feels really bad- poem-writing, sad song singing bad.

Dogs are among the few species on the planet who allow us to break trust with them, and not make us pay for it, consistently. Yell at or physically reprimand a cat and you might not see them again, or are at least likely to have to clean out the scratches you received in return. Few believe that the lions in the cage being kept under control with a whip are to be trusted to safely snuggle on the couch with their “tamer.”

We can and do break the trust with our dogs routinely and there is a price. It’s bad enough to wonder if your partner is trustworthy when they call claiming another late night at the office. It’s another to wonder if the person approaching you is going to physically restrain, hurt or scare you. Being at risk physically, even if it’s done leaving no marks, is not something one forgets or puts aside easily.

The risk of losing trust with a dog is greater the shorter the relationship or the smaller the existing trust account. If we, from the moment we meet and handle a dog demonstrate that we are safe and worthy of their trust, and should we have to withdraw from the trust account we’ve built, we are less likely to lose it all. We are less likely to get bitten, or growled at by a dog and more likely to have them come when we call them. A dog’s behavior can tell us as much about our relationship with them as it tells us about them. Trust counts.



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.

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?

It’s A Shame

cocker spaniel sitting in a garden facing a wallImagine creating a website where pet owners could commiserate about their sick dogs. They could post pictures of their dogs to share with others who were also dealing with life with a sick dog. Now imagine that people were also sharing advice about illness in dogs (you don’t have to imagine it, just go online) and someone posted in response to an image with the caption “My dog has swollen lymph nodes,” this reply, “Infection can cause a dog’s nodes to swell. Try adding echinacea and golden seal to your dog’s diet for a week. If you don’t see a decrease in the size of the nodes add flax seed oil and try warm compresses.” Now imagine you are a vet reading this and know that there are other reasons a dog may have swollen lymph nodes and that in the case of some diseases waiting even a week before starting treatment can impact whether or not it is successful.

At a recent conference I presented on behavior myths and misinformation and the responsibility of bloggers to make sure they are sharing accurate information about dogs. I gave the example of the site featuring owners’ images of their dogs with placards describing their dog’s transgressions. “I eat socks, I threw up, I shredded mom’s favorite shoes, etc.” Before I continue and come across as a completely humorless, I get the joke. I even find some of the images funny, the dog with what could be called “a shit eating grin” being labeled a “poop eater” pulls a smile from me. But most of the images show dogs looking worried or distressed. It may be that they are afraid of the camera, or their owner chastising them with “what did you do?” that is causing the response. These are not images of dogs who are experiencing guilt or shame because of their actions, they are displaying what are often called “appeasement” behaviors, which in a nutshell could be described as the dog saying, “Please don’t hurt me.” Why anyone would find that funny escapes me, unless they are unaware of what they are seeing.

As luck would have it the creator of this particular website was in my session (and to her credit for choosing to attend) and we also happened to sit next to each other at breakfast the next day. We chatted and she explained that she created the site so that other people who were living with dogs who were naughty could know they were not alone. She defended herself by saying that I had used old images and that she will make suggestions to pet owners, such as telling a pet owner to see a vet if their dog is being shamed for eating chocolate. The site is also being used to find homes for dogs (which I know is suppose to help buff up one’s halo, but it’s not that clear cut for me).

She went on to talk about the dog who was the inspiration for the site, a rescue dog who when left alone was destructive and was a compulsive eater of non-food objects (pica). Her conclusion was that this dog was simply “destructive.” As a dog trainer warning bells went off in my head. The dog might be bored and having a grand time racing around the house and shredding things, or he might be anxious and stressed and performing the same behaviors. Rather than posting images of the dog looking guilty to derive solace from others experiencing similar challenges with their pets, her dog’s behavior should be addressed by a vet or trainer, or both. Gut obstructions would be a serious concern for me.

To perpetuate the misunderstanding that dogs’ brains are sophisticated enough to sort out that chewing a computer cord is appropriate payback for being left home alone all day, is irresponsible. It impacts how people think about their dog’s behavior and subsequently how they respond to that behavior. It may be comforting to know that others are living with dogs who behave inappropriately, but it would be better for the dog if the owner understood that there is an underlying issue that should be addressed for the dog’s emotional or physical well-being. Behavior doesn’t occur for no reason and in the case of our dogs it does not happen out of spite. As sophisticated as their brains are, they’re not that sophisticated. This  does not take away from how amazing dogs and their brains are. Rarely are they ever simply being “bad” for the sake of it.

My goal in pointing this out to the website’s creator was not to “shame” her into changing her ways. The website is hugely popular, a book by a major publishing house is in the works. If our conversation did not encourage her to rethink the premise of her work, at the very least I hope she finds someone to help her out with her dog in between photo shoots.

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.

Freedom To Try

Dogs who come from puppy mills or who have lived on chains or confined with limited opportunity to interact with a varied environment, are lacking in many skills. I’m not sure if ‘trying’ is considered a skill or not, but it’s not unusual for a dog who suffered deprivation in their early life, to ‘give up’ easily. When faced with a challenge, a partially closed door, a ball under a chair, a treat out of reach, instead of trying to remedy the situation, they do nothing. In some cases they may be afraid of what happens when they try, the chair moves, startling them. Or they don’t appear to be inclined to try at all.

It’s easy to come to the conclusion that a dog is stupid when they behave this way, and it’s not a fair assessment of them or their potential. We need to be prepared to provide the dog with numerous opportunities to learn to be successful when faced with a challenge. When we talk about building a dog’s confidence, this is how we can do it. You can help by making sure that the solutions to problems are simple.

Instead of giving a dog a frozen stuffed food dispensing toy like a Kong, put a few bits of meat into it and spread some canned food on the rim. Make it easy for them to get a taste of the food and then let them discover how by manipulating the toy more food can be had. Hide toys and treats in easy to locate, accessible, places where they feel safe. Put food under towels or pieces of paper or cardboard if their range is limited.

Following is a video you may be see circulating on the web. It’s not just a cute puppy playing with a stick, though it is that. It’s a sophisticated animal trying to solve a problem and through her efforts, discovers a solution. Even if Maddie never tries to bring a big stick through the door again she has learned an important lesson- her behavior matters and sometimes it pays not to give up. Maybe it’s a good lesson for the rest of us as well.

The price of a fearful dog

small dog in a cageYears ago a friend decided he was ready to adopt a dog. As a young man he had traveled cross country with his beloved chihuahua and he was hoping to find a small dog to add to his and his children’s lives. Small dogs were not easy to find at nearby shelters so he looked online and found what seemed to be a good match, a small, young terrier mix that he met at the airport with all the nervous excitement a new dog owner can feel. At first the dog’s shyness and hesitation to interact with him wasn’t a worry. Assuming that the dog just needed time to settle in and with the assurances of the folks at the rescue that the dog had not behaved fearfully there, he waited, and waited, for the dog to ‘warm up’ to him.

I began to get phone calls from him and it’s one of those cases of ‘wish I knew then what I know now’. We’d talk for hours about what might be wrong and what he could do differently to salvage what was suppose to be a two-way love affair. When he called me one last time to talk about the dog it was to tell me that he couldn’t bear living with an animal that cowered each time he approached, ran away from him, and which made him feel like some kind of monster. With the assistance of my local animal shelter I was able to rehome the dog and my friend did find some consolation that all the time, energy and money he had spent, had eventually helped get this little dog into a home where it could be happy and comfortable. But he had paid a price.

When we choose to keep a fearful dog, and often it doesn’t feel much like a choice as it seems the only option available to keep the dog alive, we end up paying a price. The dog we had hoped would go for runs with us but is frightened by people and traffic, turns what used to be a pleasant recreation into a stressful, dreaded event. And rather than enthusiastic greetings and the pleasure of watching a joyous dog bound and play, we get the sorrow of watching an animal suffer from fear or the sting of being the source of that fear.

My friend ended up adopting another dog that lived happily with his family for years. I have almost forgotten the months and months my heart ached for my fearful dog that had he not suffered at the hands of an animal hoarder, might have become a confident dog that could enjoy all the activities and travels my other dogs do. Who can say what a dog’s life is worth, but spending it being fearful seems the highest price of all to pay.

Creating A Climate For Change

Ready for action!Imagine you have to study for a big exam or are trying to learn to use a new computer program or figure out your taxes. Do you pack up your supplies and go sit in the middle of a busy city intersection? Or perhaps more realistically do you invite the neighbor kids over to play video games in your living room while you replay in your head all the injustices you feel were inflicted on you by your parents and older siblings? Hopefully you don’t do any of the above if you actually want to get something done.

When working with a fearful dog it is important to create a climate both internally and externally that will facilitate, not hinder, learning. We do this by making sure that whatever scares our dogs is not surrounding them in such proximity or quantity that they can focus on nothing else. In order to learn new behaviors and skills a dog needs to be able to process information and think, something they cannot do if they are scared and overwhelmed.

Changing a dog’s internal climate is not as easy or as under our control. Understanding how classical counter conditioning and desensitization ‘work’ is important for every owner of a fearful dog. The use of behavioral medications can also help a dog’s brain be more open and susceptible to new information and learning. The behavioral meds commonly used today are not merely sedatives employed to depress a dog’s reaction to a trigger. By changing the chemistry of a fearful brain, or a depressed brain, it is possible to create a climate in which learning and change becomes easier for a dog.

By controlling and managing what you can in relation to your dog’s experiences you may find that you can help your dog ace the next test that comes their way.

Taking It Slow

More than just tolerating!

More than just tolerating!

Early during my search for information about how to help my fearful dog Sunny, one rescuer of border collies told me that she ‘didn’t have the time that I had to work with her dogs’. Her point was that all the DS/CC I was doing might be nice but just making dogs deal with things worked for her, and was faster. I never doubted her success, though I had to wonder if she was working with dogs as shut down and lacking in skills as Sunny.

I have always wondered if I was taking things too slowly with Sunny, but recent conversations with trainers of fearful dogs seem to support my approach. Too often owners and trainers settle for a dog’s ability to ‘tolerate’ its triggers and move on, rather than continuing to work with them until they get to ‘completely comfortable’ with triggers, or even to ‘loving them’ if that is ultimately possible.

Imagine if when you asked the owner of a large breed, guard dog, if you could pet their dog, and their response was, “Sure, he tolerates people most of the time,” compared to, “Sure, he loves people,” would you feel safe with that dog? When someone asked your partner, spouse, or family member how they felt about you and they replied, “Oh I tolerate her,” are you as pleased as if they had said, “I enjoy nothing better than being with her.”?

Suzanne Clothier commented at a seminar that when working with a scared or reactive dog the process should be like ‘watching toast brown’, so gradual that the improvements are barely perceptible. This is not to say that one won’t ever see leaps in progress with their dog, but most often the kind of changes we want to achieve with our scared dogs occur slowly. It is tempting to get to ‘tolerate’ and want to plunge on ahead, increasing our dogs’ exposure to their triggers.

Only I know Sunny well enough to determine how much he can handle and when tolerating something just isn’t enough (vet visits are usually only tolerated by even the most stable of dogs). When it comes to his feelings about people I will not feel safe unless his emotional response to them is joyful and enthusiastic, anything less than that and we run the risk of set-backs or worse, aggression if I increase the pressure on him to be near them. I continue to see improvements in Sunny’s behavior around people, but each step forward brings new training challenges, but fortunately both of us do much more than tolerate each other and I hope he’s as happy with the company he’s sharing on this journey as I am.