News: Guest Posts
In honor of national guide dog month, I'm reprinting excerpts of an interview I did several years ago with seven experienced blind people who've used guide dogs most of their lives. Here they compare problem solving strategies between 36 dogs representing six breeds. Compared to my usual posts, it's a lengthy conversation, but if you've lived with a Lab, Golden, German Shepherd, Aussie, Border Collie, Flat Coat, Poodle or hybrid of these breeds, you'll be fascinated by the comments.
“Because we can’t see, we don’t know the particulars of what we’re commanding our dogs to do. The dog has to stand up to us, to get it through to us that something is there that we don’t know about, then find a way to get us out of a dangerous situation. A dog that isn’t comfortable holding his ground isn’t suited to the job.”
Some blind handlers argue that there are marked differences in each breed’s approach to guide work, while others think that the traits that make good guides neutralize the larger behaviors that characterize each breed.
One blind handler who has worked with a German Shepherd for 10 years, a Lab for seven, two different Golden Retrievers for 15 years, and now has two years’ experience under his belt working with a Golden-Lab cross says that there are some physical characteristics that are different among breeds, such as the gait and how the dog feels through the harness. “Even so, the dog’s unique personality, combined with the person’s — how they work together and what they expect of each other — that’s where the differences are.”
“It’s a 50-50 relationship,” says a handler who’s worked with one Lab, two mixed-breed Labs and two Goldens, and now is partnered with a Lab-Poodle cross. “Neither one of us is in total control at any given time. Both of our lives depend on what the other one does. Neither of us may be able to make a safe street crossing alone, but together we do it gracefully."
“How my dogs dealt with obstacles isn’t, in my opinion, a function of breed-specific differences,” says a seasoned 25-year guide dog user who has partnered with an Airedale, a Border Collie mix, an Australian Shepherd and, briefly, a Siberian Husky. “My Airedale, as I recall him, was quick to generalize about the concept "obstacle” but wasn’t particularly good at scoping out his environment and making decisions in advance.” The Aussie and the Border Collie mix seemed to generalize quickly.
“The Border Collie mix had very high head carriage and was by far the very best dog I've worked when it came to overhead hazards,” he said. “The Aussie has been harder to teach naturally occurring overheads like tree limbs, but whether that's a breed thing or a result of their tendency to work with their heads a little low, I'm not sure.”
Another woman who has worked with two Shepherd guides and one Lab-Golden cross said, “In my opinion, you might say that the retrievers’ style provides more information about the specifics ofthe environment, but the Shepherds’ style makes for more efficient travel. My Shepherds, in comparison to my retriever, both typically looked farther ahead as they guided. They corrected for upcoming obstacles from a distance and our travel path was typically a smooth line. Sudden turns or stops happened only in response to an obstacle that unexpectedly crossed our intended path. My retriever cross clearly does not take the same approach. In general, this dog will stop and show me the obstacle, and he will almost always seek prompting from me on which way to go next.”
Another typical difference between dogs, explains a blind handler is their approach to routes.“Personally I find that my retrievers enjoyed familiar routes. In comparison, my Shepherd gets bored with routine, so you have to get creative with routes and mix things up,” she says.
She adds that retrievers are looking to please the handler, as if asking, “Did I do what you wanted, am I making you happy?” whereas her shepherds have been motivated by doing the job and solving the problems. “With Shepherds, it’s not so much about what pleases me as it is about pleasing themselves,” she says.
A guide dog handler who has worked with three Labs, a Lab mix, a Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd explained, “If I were to generalize,” she says, “I’d say my Labs often worked up to an obstacle before deciding what to do about it, while my shepherd would decide in advance what to do, perhaps starting the turn more gradually as we approached the barrier. My Golden would stop to show me before trying to work it out.”
Eight guide dogs and 34 years later, a handler contemplated her experiences with four Labs, two Goldens, one Shepherd, and one Flat-coat Retriever. “My Flat-coat solved problems by coming to a full stop. Sometimes he would just stand there and I could feel his head moving. People said that he looked like he was weighing all the possibilities. Then he would make his decision. And in nine years of partnership he never made a mistake.”
One woman got her first German Shepherd in 1996 after working with three Labs. She says she had to learn the body language that was unique to the Shepherd. “At first I thought when my Shepherd would insist on going a certain way and I wanted to go another that she was being stubborn or willful. I soon discovered that if I acknowledged her for what she was showing me, and then asked her to go the direction I wanted to go, she was totally fine with that. My second Shepherd is the same way.”
Regardless of genealogy, each dog takes a unique approach to problem solving. “I noticed that the Aussie I’m working with now had a very strong preference for traveling on one or another side of a street when we walked home from work,” explained his handler. “Eventually, I figured out the preference stemmed from whether it was or had recently been raining. One side of the street was commercial, the other had lots of trees with branches that hung low when wet.”
“My Goldens were much more attuned to my reactions to things. If I did hit a branch, I needed only to flinch and they both acted as if they had been corrected. I would describe my Labrador as being solid, but she had the attitude that things would move for her or she would move them. She was careful, generally, but also had no compunction about moving me through some tight gaps. It wasn’t always pretty, but she would get you where you needed to go safely and with enthusiasm.”
Person and dog work as a team, each contributing to a relationship built on trust that begins during class, then deepens and broadens over time. Says a guide dog user with 35 years of experience, “I think developing trust is incumbent on the person. That’s who sets the tone of the partnership so that the dog learns to be, in essence, not just a guide, but responsible for the person’s safety.”
A blind woman who has traveled with guides since 1968 said, “My assumption is that my dog is acting to keep us safe until he proves to be distracted or is putting his agenda ahead of mine. Sure, if that sudden plunge proves to be because my Lab dove for a French fry, the appropriate correction needs to be made. Extra work to minimize that behavior may be called for, but ‘follow your dog’ has to be the first response if we are going to learn to trust and read each other. My safety depends on my ability to read their reactions and go with it and figure out the ‘whys’ later.”
“Working a guide dog is like dancing,” she explains. “And being responsive to my partner’s moves is how it works best for me. I've had had two very large Labs both with a lot of initiative. They seldom asked for my input, made quick swift movements and expected I would be able to keep up and go with them. They were more likely to try to interpose their bodies between me and muscle me out of the way or into safety. My Golden, and my small Lab were likely to be cautious and refuse to leave the curb until they determined that a car they watched was not going to move toward us.”
One man described all his dogs as having been keen observers.“They’ve all had similar complex personalities,” he says. “They enjoyed their work and have been more than willing to guide and do things such as squeeze into small spaces and stay for hours, only because I have asked them to.”
A thirty year guide dog veteran summed it up. "I've owned plenty of dogs as pets, but my relationship with the half dozen guide dogs I've worked with was different: All of my guide dogs seemed to own me rather than the other way around.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Stay Loose: Dogs’ impressive ability to cope with novelty
Dakota had previously struggled with behavioral issues, but this time, he really went bananas. When the cell phone began to vibrate on the table, he panicked, which is why he jumped through the window, shattering it and scaring a couple of kids riding by on their bikes. Luckily, his guardian was able to calm him down, and his injuries were minor. Is he a bad dog? No, the situation was just more than he could handle. It would be unfair to call his response “bad,” though it was certainly undesirable. Oh, and Dakota isn’t a dog, technically speaking. He’s a wolf hybrid, and like most such animals, reacts strongly to anything new—a sound, a person, an object or a situation. The difficulty that a majority of wolf hybrids have with novelty is one of the reasons I caution people against having them as pets.
Dogs are different; their tendency to respond more easily to new things is one of the many reasons they make great pets. Their ability to take “new” in stride is part of what makes dogs who they are. Perhaps best of all, they easily form new social bonds throughout their lives, which is why many of us are able to have loving, close relationships with dogs whose first home was not with us.
Most dogs are able—even expected— to face new situations without blinking (and, for that matter, without barking). Think of what we typically ask dogs to contend with. Many are placed with new people in a new home at the age of seven to 10 weeks. Some stay in that home, but others are rehomed, in some cases multiple times. Even dogs who stay with the same family will face much that is new.
They might be taken out in a canoe, or spend the night in a kennel while the floors are being refinished; eat a different kind of food; endure a loud party; welcome a new dog or a new baby or a cat to their household; move to a new home, a new town, from the city to a rural area, or vice versa. They may have to stay with a dog sitter, greet a new dog walker, accept regular rearranging of the furniture or a change in routine when their guardians start working in an office instead of from home. Even if the household remains steady, dogs generally meet new dogs as well as new people, and go many new places throughout their lives.
When facing unexpected craziness in my own life, I tend to say, “No worries! I’m a mom. I’m nothing if not flexible,” but dogs have a far stronger claim to that characteristic. The range of situations, objects and social partners that most dogs take in stride is enormous. Though we tend to take it for granted, their ability to roll with whatever situation they find themselves in is really amazing, and far from typical in the animal world.
Of course, things don’t always go smoothly. Some dogs freak out when they walk on snow for the first time, or when the baby cries in the middle of the night. Many dogs struggle to deal with “newness” of one sort or another, or perhaps anything new. Even dogs who appear to accommodate it may find it stressful. Though dogs tend to handle novelty better than most other species, there is still considerable variation in individual reactions.
Their responses depend on personality and experience, both of which contribute to how they react to stress and how they solve problems, and also to how distressing they find the new thing. A dog may bark, cower or hide. A few will growl or lunge; the occasional dog will bite. Some seek comfort from their guardians; whine, freeze up or approach tentatively; head for their crate; or retrieve a comforting toy. Similarly, responses to a positive novelty can run the gamut from leaping and spinning, sniffing, grabbing, jumping, whining, or barking to offering a behavior that has been reinforced in the past, or a tail wagging that’s vigorous enough to cause a mini tornado of fur. Behavior has a genetic component; dogs are genetically predisposed to be flexible and adaptable. Yet, genetics do more than account for differences among species. They also explain various behavioral differences among breeds and individuals, including disparities in dogs’ ability to cope with changes in their environment. As in other aspects of canine behavior, this ability also varies. That’s why certain traits such as gregariousness, shyness, curiosity and fearfulness can actually run in lines of dogs.
So, some dogs come into this world with greater potential for enjoying newness, or at least successfully coping with it. Still, full development of this potential requires the right kind of experiences at the right age.
In order for dogs to maximize their ability to respond well to the unfamiliar, frequent and positive exposure to a variety of people, places and situations early on is essential. Without those opportunities, they may not be able to manage the unexpected as adults.
Puppies who encounter grass, cats, concrete, elevators, paper airplanes, toys, kids, blankets, music, oven timers, men and women, stairs, other dogs, people with canes, rugs, bells, hair dryers, fish tanks, mirrors, and a wide variety of other elements of their world are far more likely to develop into adult dogs able to handle them, as well as other novel things, later in life.
Socialization, or exposure to potential social partners, has received particular emphasis from behaviorists and trainers. Socialization is the process of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. For dogs, it involves making sure that puppies have positive experiences with other dogs and people at the age during which they are most receptive to being influenced by those exposures.
Even brief encounters in the first few months of dogs’ lives can have a large impact on their future behavior. Absent these opportunities, no amount of contact later in life can make up for the deficiency. Dogs whose worlds were limited during puppyhood are rarely as comfortable around new things, including potential social partners, as those whose early months were rich in experiences.
That is why dogs raised in severely impoverished environments—tied up outside or used as breeding dogs in a puppy mill, for example—struggle to adjust to what most would consider a “normal” environment once they are liberated. In many cases, the problems they face are less a result of the bad things that happened to them and more about the good things that did not happen. For such dogs, anything new poses a serious challenge, and it can take them months, if not years, to improve. And in the end, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to deal with novelty as easily as dogs with more generous upbringings.
However, even well-adjusted, flexible, happy dogs can be shaken by traumatic incidents. Such events will affect some more than others, but no dog is immune to the effects of something extremely scary or upsetting.
A study of pet dogs who survived the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed them showed that these dogs had issues and behavior consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Compared with a control group of dogs who were not involved in the disaster, these traumatized dogs had a harder time learning new skills in training sessions, as well as greater difficulty connecting with new people (caregivers in their rehabilitation program).
Dogs can also be negatively affected by less harrowing, but still aversive, experiences. They may struggle when meeting new dogs who resemble one who attacked them when they were young, develop a reluctance to go to the park after being caught in a thunderstorm there or become uncharacteristically terrified of strangers as a result of being home alone during a burglary. On the other hand, many dogs do more than just accept new things in their lives; they sometimes actually prefer them. In a recent study, dogs were offered three toys—two familiar and one novel—and chose the new toy first in nearly 80 percent of the trials, indicating a preference for the new item over the well known.
Dogs’ ability to handle a great majority of what we present them with impresses me both in an intellectual, scientific way and in a “Wow! Gee whiz!” way. One of the great joys of working with dogs is that they regularly amaze me, making my own life seem ever new—in a good way.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A dog struggles to figure it out
One day, Marley showed us a limitation in his problem solving ability when he failed to come when called. He just looked at me, cocked his head and stayed exactly where he was. That’s not like him, because he has a good recall. This was definitely not a matter of him being distracted or refusing by choosing to do something else rather than responding to my cue.
His recall may not be proofed in every situation yet, but at our house, it is rock solid. If he is able to come, he will do so when told. When I say, “if he is able to come,” I mean that if he can figure out how to get to me, he will head that way immediately. This time, he literally did not know how to reach me, even though he was standing in our backyard and I was only 20 feet away.
That 20 feet was not on the ground though. I was above him on the upstairs balcony, which does not have access to the ground floor. To respond to the cue appropriately and come to me, Marley would have had to run away from me to go through the backdoor downstairs, run through the house, up the stairs, through the hallway, into the master bedroom and exit through the sliding glass door to the balcony. I suspect he was unable to figure out that there was a way to come without running directly to me.
To help him solve this problem, we broke it down into three smaller steps. My kids called him to come inside and reinforced him for that. Then my husband called him from the top of the stairs, and also gave him treats. Finally, I called him from the balcony, and this time he was able to respond to my cue and be reinforced for doing so.
It will take him additional practice to be able to do the entire recall from the backyard, into the house, up the stairs and onto the balcony, but he has progressed already. He can complete this complex recall in two steps now instead of three, and I expect that he will soon be proficient at the task which once completely befuddled him.
Has your dog ever struggled to come when called because of confusion about how to reach you?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Take two and double the fun
If you’re like most dog folks, sooner or later you may think, “As wonderful as one dog is, two would be even better!”
There are many great reasons to add another canine family member: more to love, more to be loved by, companionship for Dog One, saving a life, companionship for a child and more. There are also many reasons not to: more vet bills, more food and toys to buy, more poop to scoop, less individual attention for Dog One, more potential behavior problems…
Assuming you’ve carefully considered the pros and cons and made an educated decision to adopt another, here are some tips for a successful introduction of your new dog to your existing canine pal(s):
1. Make sure Dog One is dog-friendly. If you don’t already know that One is the life of the dog park, find a friend with a very dog-friendly dog and introduce One to Friendly in a safely fenced neutral territory. One may tell you in no uncertain terms that he’d rather be an only dog. If so, consider maintaining your one-dog status. Or, if you’re dead-set on another dog, find a good, positive trainer/behavior consultant to help you convince One of the benefits of having a canine pal. If the introduction goes well, take the next step.
2. Select the right dog. If your current dog is very assertive, adding another “top dog” could be the equivalent of holding a lit match to an open gasoline can. Look for a dog who defers to your “Boss Dog.” However, if your current dog is a Wilting Willie, an assertive new dog may take over. Willie will probably be fine with this, but you may have a hard time seeing him pushed around. If so, look for a non-assertive dog.
Size needs to be taken into account. If you have a three-pound mini-dog, there are inherent risks in adopting a large-breed dog. Even in play, big dogs can cause serious, sometimes fatal, injuries to toy-size canines. It’s not impossible to have very disparate sizes in a household, but it requires committed supervision and management.
Grooming and energy levels are still other considerations. If Woolly Bully requires daily grooming to stay mat-free, perhaps a shorthaired dog is in order. Or, if you finish brushing Woolly and are eager for more, a second Old English Sheepdog may be right up your alley.
If your current Border Collie mix is an Energizer™ bunny, another active dog might help wear her out—or you could end up with two bunnies.
3. Script your introductions. Set up your introductions in that safely fenced neutral territory. This is best done prior to your commitment to adopt Dog Two. Both of you armed with hot dogs, have a friend, hold one leashed dog at the far side of the area while you enter with the second. Watch body language; they may become alert and a little tense, or act all waggy and playful—both are acceptable responses. If one or both dogs exhibit serious aggression—lunging, frenzied barking, snarling or snapping—stop the introduction and seek professional assistance.
When the dogs notice each other, calmly feed hot dog bits, until each is focusing on the person providing the treats. Now slow the rate of hot dogs until the dogs glance at each other, then look back at you for hot dogs. If both dogs appear happy and/or reasonably relaxed in each other’s presence, drop the leashes while still at a distance and allow them to greet each other. Leash restraint can sometimes cause otherwise compatible dogs to behave aggressively. Leave the leashes on for a few moments so you can safely separate the dogs if necessary. When it is clear that they are getting along, call them back and unclip the leashes so they can play without becoming entangled (which can also cause a fight!).
At home, introduce them again in your fenced yard, and, to minimize indoor stress, don’t bring them into the house until they’ve tired themselves out playing.
4. Train and manage for success. Installation of baby gates and tethers in strategic places can help keep the peace. When dogs are still getting to know each other, separate them when you’re not home. If there are food-bowl or feeding-station issues, feed the dogs far apart, perhaps in separate rooms or crates, to avoid confrontations. Make sure there are enough toys to go around, and ample beds located in low-traffic areas.
The more dogs you care for, the more important training becomes. You can survive one ill-mannered canine, but two poorly behaved dogs—or several—will make your, and their, lives miserable. Your benevolent but firm leadership lends itself to peace in the pack. Something as simple as consistently requesting them to sit for a cookie before going out serves as a constant reminder that you’re in charge.
I have four dogs of my own; I stand squarely in the “more is better” camp. The thousands of dogs awaiting homes in shelters and rescue groups second this emotion. Think it through, make introductions carefully, train and manage well, and you’ll have another lifelong love.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Many puppies need a little help
Try crawling down a flight of stairs on all fours, and the experience may give you instant insight into why so many dogs hesitate about going down. Having your head aimed down at such a steep angle takes some getting used to. There are dogs who struggle to go up and down the stairs, but it is far more common for dogs who lack experience with them to be especially resistant to going down.
Luckily, most dogs respond well if they are taught how to negotiate stairs in an (appropriately named) step-by-step process. The key is to teach dogs how to go down one or two steps at a time, avoiding having those steps be the ones at the top of a full flight of stairs, where the view seems a bit scary to most dogs.
Ideally, begin by working with a dog in a place that has just a single step, if one is available to you. Typically, dogs are comfortable taking a single step down onto a long stretch of level ground. Using a smelly delicious food treat, you can lure a dog up the step, and immediately lure him back down. If the dog is small, you can lift him up and then lure him down the step, enticing him to step down by having him follow the treat. I prefer to lure both up and down, so the dog feels more in control of the situation. Do this several times in multiple short sessions until the dog is going up and down the step without any hesitation.
The next phase of training involves having the dog go down a few steps at a time. If you have a place with only 2-4 steps, that is ideal, but if not, you can use the bottom few steps of a flight of stairs. It’s easier with small dogs who you can lift up to the step and then lure down, but with bigger dogs, you can lure up and down if the dog is able to turn around on the step.
If the dog is too big to do that comfortably and safely, then either try to find a place with just a few steps, or work at the top of the steps, but hold a blanket or pillow to block the view of the full flight of stairs and lure down 2-4 steps at a time and then move the visual blocker and do the next few steps. Sometimes just standing below the dog on the steps is enough to block the view or reassure the dog and give him the confidence to descend one step at a time. If you have stairs with a landing in the middle, consider yourself lucky because you can do half as many steps and get the dog down on solid flat ground. That makes for a nice intermediate stage.
Once the dog is comfortable with several stairs (depending on your options, this may be 3 to 7 stairs at one time), expand the number of steps until the dog can go down an entire flight of stairs on his own.
The following video shows a small dog named Radar who recently learned to negotiate stairs with this step-by-step process.
As with any training, don’t force the dog. Work slowly within the dog’s physical and emotional comfort zone to avoid falls. Be patient, only progressing to a harder task when the dog is clearly comfortable with the current one.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It often happens naturally, but can be taught
Many dogs know the names of the humans sharing their home. It’s only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people. Many dogs will react to the names of their guardians with great enthusiasm when they are not present, perhaps anticipating their return. In the natural course of things, we humans use each other’s names a lot, saying hello, getting each other’s attention, and calling out into the void to see if they are around. We also use it to announce someone’s arrival, as in, “Rich is home!”
Training dogs to know people’s names on purpose is also possible. One of the easiest ways to teach a dog the names of everyone in the family is with a game called Family Circle. One person says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog to come. If he comes to me, he gets a treat or other reinforcement, but if he goes to someone else by mistake, he will be ignored. Then, it’s my turn to cue the dog about where to go, and I might say, “Where’s Rich?” at which point Rich will call him, and going to Rich is the right thing to do to get reinforced. This game works best with at least three people. With only two people, the dog may learn that the correct response is to go to the person who did NOT just say ‘Where’s . . .?” without necessarily learning names.
In the early stages of training a dog to play Family Circle, the dog should always be told the name of the person he must go find and hear that person call him to come. The person should also be within sight of the dog. Later on as the dog becomes competent at the task, the cue “Come” can be dropped, and later still, the game can be played when the person he must find is out of sight, so the dog must go search for that person.
I love this game because of its practical applications in the event of a lost person, or even one who has just gone out of sight or earshot briefly. Not only does it solidify their understanding of names with a game can be very useful, it also teaches dogs to find the person in response to the cue and gives them great practice with their recall. Among the other benefits are that the dog can get physical exercise without the people having to move, and it can help keep a dog occupied mentally when we are too busy to engage in more active play.
I’ve been thinking lately that dogs who live with only one person don’t have the same opportunities to learn guardian names. If there are no other people in your household, how often is your name spoken aloud in the presence of your dog? I wonder two things about dogs who live with one person: 1) Does the dog know the person’s name? 2) If not, does it matter?
If you live in a family in which you are the only human member, do you think your dog knows your name? What about those of you with multiple people in the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
This means “heel” but I use it for kids
Whatever skills you have from your career or any other experiences in life may get used in surprising ways once you have kids. For me, as a dog trainer and behaviorist, there are many obvious parallels between the way I treat my dogs and the way I behave with my children. To use just one example, I like to keep both kids and dogs in physical contact and right near me when there is any danger from cars.
Parking lots and streets are the scariest places in the world with either dogs or kids. In the dog world, that’s what leashes and heeling are for. I’m a tyrant about it with my kids. The rule since they were old enough to toddle was that whenever we were in the street or in a parking lot was that they had to hold my hand or touch the car. (This compares to having your dog on a leash.) When they got a little older (around 3 or 4 years) they graduated to “Stick Close.” In this video, my three-year old is holding my hand as we cross the street but my four-year old is “Sticking Close,” which looks a lot like heeling.
In fact, the only reason I called it “Stick Close” instead of “Heel” is because I didn’t want the other moms or the neighbors giving me weird looks. After we shot this video for me to use in a talk called “Applying Dog Training To Our Relationships With People” at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference, my three-year old son wanted to practice “Stick Close” which I had just started to work on with him. As I do with dogs, when learning something new, I work with only one student at a time, so my husband held onto my older son while I took only my younger one with me across the street.
On the first attempt to stick close, he bounced across the street. I was going to stop and start over, and then I thought, “It’s just like a shaping the behavior of a dog.” Shaping behavior is common in dog training and it means working gradually towards successively closer approximations of the true behavior that you want. In this case, the first approximation is that he was not running off, but generally staying next to me and moving in the right direction.
Later I worked towards having him walking rather than bouncing and paying closer attention to me and where I was going. Once I got into that dog trainer mode of shaping behavior and thinking about what I would work on next, listen to how much more of my dog trainer voice I acquired as I praised him. I was a dog trainer before I became a mom, and sometimes that shows!
Have you taken skills and ideas from your experience with dogs and applied them to other situations?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Understanding and helping fearful dogs
For the first month after he was adopted, Sunny spent his time in the corner of one room, in which he ate, slept, eliminated and watched the world go by. Murphy whimpered, barked, and chewed the carpet and the door whenever she was left alone. Tucker growled and lunged at every man he encountered. Maggie was inconsolable during thunderstorms— pacing, whining, circling, jumping in and out of the bathtub. Zoe was so shut down that she was unwilling even to face the door of her crate. Molly yelped and trembled when a chair was moved to a new spot; the vacuum, dishwasher or washing machine was turned on; or the door was opened.
All of these dogs have one thing in common: their behavior problems are a result of fear. But because fear-based behavior can vary so widely—from cowering under the table when a truck roars by to lunging at and even biting visitors—people don’t always recognize that the dogs exhibiting it are fearful.
According to Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, canine behavior specialist and author of Help for Your Fearful Dog, “There are lots of fearful dogs, but people call because of the symptoms. They rarely say, ‘I need help because my dog is fearful.’ They call because their dog is barking at visitors or shredding things.”
These fear-based behaviors don’t improve until the underlying issues have been dealt with. Further, as the fear worsens, so does the problem behavior. Dan Estep, PhD, CAAB, notes that, unfortunately, early and perhaps subtle signs of fear—ears pulled back, tail tucked, avoidance—are often discounted as things that all dogs do. If these signs are ignored, the signals may become more obvious and include panting and dilated pupils. Even then, it may be possible to distract the dog from the fear source. But, over time, fearful dogs act more intensely, become harder to distract, and then become destructive or reactive. Only then, when the problem is much more serious and harder to resolve, do people seek help. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of fearfulness in dogs and intervene before the behavior becomes more difficult to deal with.
According to Estep, “fears have behavioral, physiological and subjective components.” Some dogs flee in an attempt to avoid the stimuli that elicit fear; these dogs may hide under the bed or behind their guardian, or simply turn away from whatever it is that frightens them. The appearance of some dogs’ eyes change when they are afraid—the pupils may dilate, or more of the sclera (whites of the eyes) may be visible in an expression known as “whale eye,” which may be the result of a dog watching what frightens him by moving his eyes so he can see it without looking at it directly. Or, a dog may scan an area repeatedly in a highly vigilant manner.
Fearful dogs may also adopt telltale body postures: crouching in a lowered body position or lying down and freezing. Many dogs whine, bark or make other distress vocalizations. A fearful dog who is forced to confront or contend with what’s scaring him or her may become defensively aggressive while still exhibiting signs of fear.
Dogs who are fearful exhibit many physiological changes: the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, which means an increase in heart rate and respiration and possibly shaking, trembling or panting. As Estep observes, “No one of these signs by themselves is a reliable indicator of fear or any other emotional state. It’s the pattern of these things together that indicates fear.” Both Estep and Wilde note that most common canine fears are related to loud or sudden noises, separation anxiety, and unfamiliar people. A fearful dog can be afraid of just about anything new, whether it’s a man in a hat, an umbrella, a garden statue, a double stroller, a unicycle or a motorized toy.
Just as the behavior exhibited by fearful dogs can vary, so can the reasons for the fearfulness. This may be because fear is such a common emotion. As Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, writes in For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, “Surely fear must be the universal of emotions, given its importance to survival. Without it, even civilized urban dwellers wouldn’t live to pass on their genes, because they’d stroll in front of buses and forget to lock their doors at night.”
McConnell’s example is apt: fear has an important function. Without fear, it would be difficult to recognize dangers to which the appropriate reaction is critical for survival. So, fear is not itself a bad thing. It becomes a problem when individuals of any species, including dogs, are scared of so many things, or the fear is so intense, that it interferes with their enjoyment of daily life.
Why Is My Dog So Fearful?
Experiments done with Pointers in the 1960s demonstrated that you can breed for fear of people in dogs.* Additionally, many dogs who are fearful have littermates or other relatives with this problem, which suggests a genetic predisposition. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of early experiences and genetics. For example, an entire litter of puppies could also be fearful of people because they were raised with no opportunity to meet them; proper socialization could have resulted in puppies without such fears.
Socialization is indeed important. It’s critical to expose puppies to new people, places, animals, sounds, objects and anything else they are likely to encounter throughout their lives. As Estep succinctly says, “Positive early experiences are critical for preventing fearfulness.” From ages three to 12 weeks, puppies are especially receptive to learning that the unfamiliar is not to be feared.
Not all fears develop in puppyhood, however. At age eight, a Miniature Schnauzer named Maxine suddenly developed a fear of other dogs, reacting with barks, lunges and growls whenever a dog approached. She even reacted to her companion dog—a four-yearold Miniature Schnauzer who had been her playmate since being adopted as a puppy. I met Maxine when I was working at a dog camp, and wondered if she were in pain, since sudden reactivity at an older age is consistent with the presence of pain. When the camp veterinarian examined Maxine, she discovered inflammation along the dog’s spine and noted that she yelped when that spot was touched. A canine chiropractor treated Maxine, and once her health improved, so did her behavior. A dog who knows that it is going to hurt when dogs leap on her or roughhouse with her could become one who reacts with behavior that’s intended to make them go away.
Not surprisingly, negative experiences may also lead to fear. For example, a dog who is hit by a car may become afraid of cars. Similarly, a dog who accidentally knocks over a bunch of two-by-fours in the garage may develop a fear of any long object such as wood, brooms or shovels, or become afraid of the garage.
Can Dogs Get Over Their Fears?
There are so many misconceptions about treating fearfulness in dogs that before discussing what to do, it’s important to know what not to do. Ascribing to any of the following myths is detrimental to progress when working with a fearful dog.
Dogs will grow out of it. Expecting a dog to “just get over it” is wishful thinking.
He must have been abused. The behavior that most commonly elicits concerns of abuse in a dog’s past is that the dog is only scared of men. While it’s possible that a man has harmed the dog, fearful dogs are often more reactive to men than to woman or to children, and this is particularly true of dogs whose socialization experiences were inadequate. It’s likely that men— with their larger size, deeper voices, broader shoulders and stronger jaws— appear more imposing to dogs.
He must have had a traumatic experience. It’s natural to assume that a dog who is scared of children has been teased by them, or that the only reason a dog would react badly to a broom is because of a terrifying experience with one. Yes, bad experiences sometimes lead to fear, but often, dogs are afraid of things that are new or unpredictable. So, the dog may fear children because they scream and move around in crazy ways, or he may fear brooms because he’s not used to them.
He should be punished. Punishment will make the dog more fearful, and must not be used as a way to change any fear-based behavior. When bad things happen to a dog in the presence of what scares him, it makes the fear and the problem behavior worse, not better.
A drug can fix this. In some cases, and always under the supervision of a veterinarian, pharmacological intervention may be appropriate, in conjunction with behavior modification and other techniques for helping fearful dogs. However, there is no magic pill that instantly cures fearfulness in dogs.
He’s just being stubborn. When a dog refuses to get in a car or crate, resists allowing the vet to examine him, or won’t go down the steps to the basement, many people perceive his behavior as obstinate. But with fearful dogs, stubbornness is not the problem, any more than a kid standing on the high dive and refusing to jump is being mulish.
He’s trying to dominate. Status is a fact of life for many social species, but when dogs are afraid, their social standing is not the issue. Trying to fit all behavior problems under the heading of dominance does far more harm than good. Happily, more and more people recognize this perspective as outdated and counterproductive.
Petting or consoling him will reinforce the fear. Pia Silvani’s comment on this common misconception is simple and to the point: “With all due respect, this does not make a bit of sense.” It is okay to reassure your dog that everything is fine in a calm and confident manner. To ignore him when he is clearly distressed is about as logical as refusing to hug your child when she wakes up from a nightmare. They are not going to become more fearful when they are reassured, but failing to do anything risks teaching them that you are not available when they need you most. Wilde tells her clients, “Be affectionate with your dog, but if you are overly worried, your dog will be, too. It’s fine to reassure your dog casually with an upbeat tone, but don’t coddle them with nervous energy.” McConnell devoted an entire Bark column to explaining why it’s not only okay, but actually helpful to soothe dogs who are afraid. (“I’m Okay, You’re Okay,”).
You just have to live with it, or get rid of the dog. Thankfully, this is not true, but resolving a dog’s fear-based problem does take effort. As Jacobs puts it, “It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated.” Many dogs recover completely, and still others improve greatly, though they may always remain on the cautious side; some situations may always be overwhelming and should be avoided.
So, How Can I Help My Dog?
Visit your veterinarian. The first step should be a thorough medical evaluation to determine if health problems are playing a role. Dogs who are in pain may develop fear of anything that exacerbates the pain, such as being touched, being approached by a playful dog, a leash or collar, or a sport class like agility. Older dogs may develop fears and phobias following physical changes, including cognitive deterioration or loss of sight or hearing. A myriad of other physical problems can be in play as well, and any underlying medical issue should be resolved.
Do all you can to protect your dog from frightening situations. This may involve being an advocate for your dog, such as stopping strangers from petting him or refusing to let a family member use power tools until you get the dog out of the house. Management of the environment is a lot of work, but it’s work that pays big dividends. Protecting a dog from exposure to situations that scare him is a great way to start, because every time a fearful dog becomes afraid, the problem is compounded. And as Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, says, “One of the most horrible experiences of life is to be stricken by sudden terror. Another is to be continually consumed by the persistent feelings of anxiety that gnaw away at you, destroying your sense of security in the world.” For dogs who are reactive to the point of snapping or biting, preventing situations in which the dog feels the need to do this is essential for the safety of others as well as for the well being of the dog.
Never force your dog to approach something that scares him. It’s not going to help, and it may make the situation worse, adding yet another scary experience that confirms his belief that something is worth being afraid of. Wilde advises that we allow the dog to make the decision about approaching or avoiding a potentially scary situation.
Help your dog develop confidence. Developing your dog’s confidence can help him overcome his fearfulness because these two states of being are not compatible. Anything that allows a dog to experience success is good for his selfesteem and adds to his self-assurance. Training dogs to perform behaviors on cue—standard obedience exercises, targeting, responding to their names or performing tricks—can build confidence. So can getting their nourishment from food-reward puzzles or foodstuffed toys, because accessing the food is an accomplishment. Play is also a way to help dogs feel confident. Once a fearful dog is comfortable enough to happily engage in play, a positive feedback loop develops. The more they play, the more confident they are, and the more confident they are, the more they play.
Practice desensitization and classical counterconditioning. These techniques are often the core treatment for fearful dogs. Systematic desensitization is a structured way of repeatedly exposing your dog to something that he fears, but starting at a low level so that fear is not induced. Then, gradually, during many sessions over a period of weeks, months or even years, the intensity of what frightens him is increased so that he can get used to it at each level before moving on to the next. Scary things are made less scary by being smaller, slower, quieter, farther away or otherwise less intense. Exposing your dog to what frightens him at an intensity level that is too low to induce his fear is completely different than forcing him to confront what he fears by overdoing it and actually scaring him. (For details on these techniques, Patricia B. McConnell’s booklet, The Cautious Canine, is a great resource.)
Classical counterconditioning consists of pairing up what frightens the dog with something the dog loves more than anything else; eventually, the dog realizes that the scary thing predicts the wonderful thing. If your dog fears people, then every time he sees someone, he should immediately receive a fantastic treat or highly prized toy or other item. Eventually, the dog will have a positive emotional reaction to seeing a person, because he knows that something good is about to happen. Exposing your dog to the trigger that scares him, starting at very low levels of intensity and gradually working up to more intense exposures, is most effective. In practice, desensitization and classical counterconditioning are often done together.
Some dogs progress rapidly, but others make progress that can only be detected when viewed long-term, over years or perhaps over the dog’s entire life. No matter which pattern describes your dog, it’s important to work gradually, and as Wilde says, “go at the dog’s pace.” You must only move to more intense triggers when the dog is clearly comfortable at the previous level of exposure. Fearful dogs must be handled carefully and with endless patience.
Build a good foundation. Most behaviorists and trainers agree that in addition to specific behavior modification, a good foundation for helping dogs overcome their fears is built from many aspects of their daily life. Good nutrition, regular exercise and predictable routines are all helpful. Other potentially therapeutic techniques or alternative and complementary therapies include massage, Tellington TTouch, anxiety wraps, Bach f lower essences, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
What Determines How Well a Dog Will Do? Almost all fearful dogs can improve, but the degree to which a dog overcomes his fear depends on many factors. Estep and Wilde agree that the human partner is a huge factor in the eventual outcome. Motivation is critical for success, as is an understanding of the situation and the amount of time the person is willing to commit to it. The use of gentle, positive methods is also linked with improvement. Mild fears or those of recent development have a higher likelihood of successful resolution. The dog’s genetics play a role as well; the stronger the genetic component of the dog’s fears, the harder it may be to overcome them.
Wilde sums up the basic approach to helping fearful dogs: “It takes time and patience … Always be gentle, positive and kind … Never, ever use physical force or corrections.” Jacobs echoes this advice: “Your dog’s trust in you is the most important building block in the foundation for building her confidence. Never use any type of punishment or correction which scares or intimidates your dog.”
Though it can be gut-wrenching to watch a dog live in fear, there are also positive aspects, and that may be part of the reason why some people are drawn to fearful dogs. Wilde has a long-standing history of relating to them: “I always had an empathy for the fearful ones. I was drawn to the shaking dog in the corner.” She points out that having a fearful dog “teaches you a lot about subtleties of canine body language. You become tuned into your dog. You learn to manage things. You gain increased empathy for your dog. You expand your knowledge and patience.”
Helping a dog who lives in fear is a common undertaking—many people, knowingly or not, end up living with a dog who is afraid. To succeed in treating a fearful dog so that he can conquer his fears requires knowledge, consistent effort and extraordinary patience. It’s not easy, but it’s gratifying to see the difference in a dog who has been the beneficiary of this hard work. While it is an experience that is likely to have lows that are lower and highs that are higher than expected, many guardians report that it is immensely rewarding to work with their dogs and help them overcome their fears. As though we needed further convincing that dogs of all types, including the fearful ones, enrich our lives!
The Bark had a chance to speak with Ken Ramirez about his experience with clicker training and what the future holds for him in his new role as Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for KPCT.
The Bark: Why is it important that people successfully train their companion dogs?
Ken Ramirez: There are so many reasons that training is important. It is a critical part of good animal care, just like veterinary care, nutrition and a safe environment. You cannot give animals all they need unless it includes a training program. Good training helps teach animals how to live successfully in our world, and helps to build a strong lasting relationship between people and their pets.
Bark: Tell us about your professional experience with operant conditioning or clicker training.
Ramirez: I began my training career working with guide dogs in a very traditional training environment. However, right out of college I had the opportunity to work with a variety of marine mammals, birds, and big cats in several zoological facilities. That is where I was introduced to the world of positive reinforcement and marker-based training. That experience changed my life as I experienced how powerful this type of training is. Not only is it force-free and fun for the animals, but it assists in developing strong relationships with each animal partner. I went back and re-read all my animal behavior text books, made contact with my professors, and began trying to understand why this type of training was not more wide-spread, except perhaps in the world of marine mammal training. My quest for knowledge exposed me to Karen Pryor and some of her early works. I read every positive reinforcement training article I could find, sought out conferences and training organizations that could forward my knowledge and understanding of effective positive reinforcement training. I had the good fortune to travel to many corners of the world and work with a wide variety of species of animals, and discovered just how universal this technology really is. In 1989 I was hired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to oversee the development of their animal training program. Since joining Shedd, I have had the good fortune to oversee the care and training of more than 32,000 animals representing over 1500 species. I continued to consult with many zoo and aquarium programs worldwide. Then, in 1997, Western Illinois University asked me to develop a graduate course on animal training, which I still teach today. In 1998, I returned to dog training as a consultant to several search and rescue dog teams, which led to my involvement in many other working dog programs including service dogs, law enforcement, and a return to guide dog work. When Karen Pryor decided to start ClickerExpo, she chose Chicago as her inaugural location. She invited me to that Expo as a guest speaker, which led to an invitation to join the faculty the following year, and I have been on the faculty ever since.
Bark: What has been the biggest revelation about this method of training animals?
Ramirez: The biggest revelation for me every time I train an animal is how much they enjoy the process and how it assists in relationship building. Additionally, as someone who began my career more than 35 years ago using more traditional training methods, I always marvel at how well positive reinforcement works and how much stronger and precise behavior is trained in a fun force-free environment.
Bark: Is it your experience that most animals enjoy learning and training exercises?
Ramirez: Absolutely. That’s what makes positive reinforcement so effective—the animal is a willing partner in the process and it is so much fun for them.
Bark: What has you most excited about working with Karen Pryor's clicker training programs?
Ramirez: I am excited about everything that Karen Pryor Clicker Training represents. Karen was an inspiration to me personally as I was seeking good information about the use of positive reinforcement training during the early stages of my career. I am passionate about educating people about the power of positive reinforcement and the beneficial impacts it has on the welfare of the animals in our lives. Each program, whether it be the ClickerExpos, the Karen Pryor Academy, or the production of positive reinforcement books and training tools furthers the education of the public about marker-based positive reinforcement training. I am excited about helping to continue and further the amazing body of work that Karen has produced over the years.
Bark: Do you currently have a dog, cat or other pet?
Ramirez: I have had dogs my entire life. Sadly, my 12-year-old Spaniel that I adopted from a shelter after my first Clicker Expo 11 years ago, recently passed away. I will probably look for my next dog at one of the local Chicago shelters sometime later in the year. However, I established a dog training program with dogs adopted from local shelters at the Shedd Aquarium several years ago, and I consider the four dogs in that program close companions and training partners. These four dogs include a Pit Bull, an Airedale, a Shepherd, and a Lab.
Ken Ramirez is a regular consultant for zoos, oceanariums, and parks around the world. He has held top leadership positions in most of the profession’s associations, including as past president of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association). As part of his leadership, Ken has been involved in the creation of a certification process for animal trainers in zoological settings. He has been featured on television and in the media numerous times, including as host of a popular Australian television series Talk to the Animals. Ken has been on the faculty of KPCT’s ClickerExpo conference since 2005; he also teaches graduate-level courses at Western Illinois University.
Ken began his training career working with guide dogs for the visually impaired and has maintained a close connection to dog training ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium, Ken spearheaded the development of a program to rescue dogs from animal shelters and to train and care for them in order to show the public the transformative power of marker-based positive-reinforcement training. Outside of Shedd, Ken’s canine work includes training for search and rescue, guide and service work, scent detection, animal husbandry, and more.
A winsome Pit Bull lands a role on the Great White Way
When actors James Franco, Chris O’Dowd, Leighton Meester and Jim Norton take the stage in the Broadway adaptation of John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men at the Longacre Theater, they share it with a geriatric—though spirited—co-star. Resting comfortably on a quilted pillow for much of the show is Violet, a deaf, 14-year-old Pit Bull.
Because Violet, who plays ranch hand Candy’s (Jim Norton’s) dog, has a wandering eye and has become fast friends with fellow cast members, she is banned from the green room. Instead, she shares a dressing room with Lydia DesRoche, an NYC dog trainer—and the first female dog trainer on Broadway—who has successfully taught her when to walk onstage and where to sit for the seven minutes she appears during each performance.
“Violet’s task is to connect with Jim (Candy),” DesRoche says. Based on his dapper looks, DesRoche’s own 15-year-old Pit Bull, Blue, whom she rescued as a puppy from a junkyard in Harlem, was originally cast in the part. He was replaced by Violet, his understudy, one week later, when he repeatedly missed his cue to get up from the makeshift Depression-era pillow he was parked on for the show. (Offstage, Blue, now the understudy, and Violet occupy the same, large, pillowy bed. Even though there are two, they prefer to share.)
In the play, Candy’s dog is unnamed, but both he and his dog have outlived their usefulness on the ranch. “The other ranch hands lack sensitivity towards animals; the dog has no purpose and therefore, they want to shoot her,” says Norton, an Olivier and Tony award–winning Irish actor and dog lover who has raised his own Boxers in Ireland.
“Because Violet’s deaf, she always looks at you very intensely. Her deafness enhances her ability to concentrate, to pay attention,” he says. “We’ve done 23 shows, and as it comes to the moment when Joel [one of the ranch hands] takes her away from me, each time she looks at me more intensely. Dogs are so perceptive. They have qualities we don’t know about.”
A veteran stage actor, Norton admits to being more calm and “very relaxed when on [stage] with Violet. They [dogs] live in the moment. It’s interesting to observe how content they are to sit.”
Although Norton was raised with dogs in Dublin, he had never before acted with one. “Star quality is the ability to displace air,” he says. “Babies and animals are not aware of how attractive they are. They don’t try to get attention, so everybody’s drawn to them. Actors can learn a lot from Violet. She takes the spotlight because of her stillness. Everybody’s looking at her.”
Violet was given up by her owners to Brooklyn Animal Care and Control, one of the city’s kill shelters, in 2011. Then, her name was Cheyenne and she was about 10 years old. She was also emaciated, had an abscess on her neck (most likely the result of a dog bite) and her ears had been unevenly cropped close to her head. Despite that, she was sweet-tempered and became a favorite with the shelter staff.
“She had the most pleading eyes,” says Christy Allen, who had owned a Pit Bull before she adopted Violet. Allen, with her 10-pound Miniature Pinscher, Bella, in tow, took the subway from their home in Central Park West to the shelter in East New York. The next day, she brought Violet home. Allen and DesRoche are neighbors, and when Allen needed help with dog training, she called DesRoche.
I work as a vet in city shelters, and can testify that Violet’s adoption was nothing short of miraculous. Geriatric dogs in general are harder to place than younger, healthy ones, and dogs of any age surrendered by their owners do not require the same mandatory five-day hold in the shelter as strays. They can be euthanized to make space. However, dogs are kept longer if they endear themselves to the staff and are healthy. Violet’s flirtatious “eye,” sweet demeanor and sheer luck saved her life.
There is also, of course, the stigma that Pit Bulls carry. Nationwide, approximately 75 percent of all Pit Bulls and Pit Bull mixes who wind up in shelters are killed. Some cities and countries have Breed Specific Laws (BSL) that ban outright the ownership of Pit Bulls. Denver, Colo., is one of them; Ireland, Jim Norton’s home, is another. “They’re so gentle and so sweet,” he says. “It’s awful the way they’ve been abused and used as aggressive guard dogs. It’s a problem of our making.”
At every show, DesRoche is stage left. Violet’s deafness spares her the loud gunshot in each performance, but it also deprives her of the audience’s applause. The trainer continues to work with Blue in the event he’s needed as an understudy and, thanks to her positive reinforcement training methods, he’s now getting up on cue. “They never stop loving to learn,” she says, observing her ancient dog’s newly found youthful spirit.
Of Mice and Men is due to run through July 27, 2014. In between shows, Norton spends downtime with Violet, enjoying her company. “When the show’s over, I’ll miss her terribly.”
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