From Fear to Confidence (for your dog)

A local dog training non-profit organization, Your Dog’s Friend, hosted a lecture called, “From Fear to Confidence”, a few weeks ago. It was given by Tonya Wilhem of Raising Your Pets Natural, a behavior professional from Toledo, Ohio. It was a very interesting talk with lots of food for thought, so I thought I’d share my notes!

    1. Bringing a young dog into your home is an opportunity to prevent fearful and anxious behaviors through positive reinforcement of which you should take advantage! Tonya gave the example of lavishly rewarding her puppy for calm behavior during thunderstorms (for years!), before he started developing storm anxiety. I’d note that it’s probably never too late to use positive reinforcement to prevent undesirable behaviors – so give your dog a treat for being good pupper whenever!!
    2. It is an owner’s responsibility to prevent (and if necessary, manage) situations that will put their dog over threshold. “Threshold” is a term meaning the point at which a stimulus will provoke a reaction. So my Luna can see a squirrel down the street and not react, but if a squirrel pops out of a few feet from us, you better believe she’s going after said squirrel. Thus, Luna’s squirrel threshold is somewhere between “down the street” and “a few feet from us”. For a dog that is suffering from anxiety, it is vitally important to keep the dog under threshold and that may mean the owner has to determine some areas and activities are off-limits. A dog-reactive dog just should not be walked in an area frequented by other dogs, and a stranger-reactive dog should likewise not be walked where loads of people will be.

      It’s worth noting that “reactive” and “anxious/fearful” can be synonymous for some dogs. A dog may be reactive (i.e. barking, lunging, and generally carrying on) for many reasons: frustration, fear, excitement, etc. You have to know your dog and your dog’s body language to tell the difference!

    3. Know your dog’s body language. How do you identify your dog’s threshold, prior to doggo becoming a lunging, barking mess? The dog’s body language! It is unfortunately true that some proportion of dog owners misinterpret canine body language so it’s a good idea for any owner to brush up on their canine body language in general and to carefully study their dog’s body language in a variety of situations. This piece on dog body language from the ASPCA is a good place to start but remember that every dog may be a little different.
    4. Use counterconditioning to change your dog’s emotional response to fear-inducing stimuli while your dog is under threshold. Counterconditioning is the process of pairing a stimuli that elicits an undesirable response with something positive with the goal of changing the dog’s immediate response to that stimuli. The key here is to use counterconditioning when the dog is well under her threshold! So I’ve used counterconditioning extensively with Luna – one example is with the neighbor whose yard abuts ours. For whatever reason (I’ll withhold my non-charitable thoughts about how this guy has never even said, “Hi!”, to me despite my perfectly friendly overtures), Luna has decided that she does not like him and will be barking at him at any given opportunity, thank you very much. To counter-condition Luna’s reaction to him, I kept her on leash (to keep her below threshold) and as we walked around our backyard at some distance from the neighbor, she would get treats for looking at him and not barking. Over many weeks, we slowly closed the distance between the fence and Luna, and now she (mostly) does not bark at him. Counterconditioning win!
    5. Appropriate tools and products are helpful, but they will only get you and your dog so far. Some pet products on the market will definitely make life harder for you and your anxious dog, because anything aversive -or force-based, like shock and prong collars, loud noise canisters, etc., will likely induce further fear and anxiety and undesirable behaviors. Great tools that will help you manage an anxious dog safely are widely available, such as front and back-clip and front-clip harnesses (Freedom Harness, Easy Walk, etc.) and head halters (Halti, Gentle Leader, etc.). In the way of counterconditioning, there are also products designed to help you deliver that special positive counterconditioning treat on the go, like treat pouches, LeanLix, Treat Toobs (fill with yogurt/pureed pumpkin/peanut butter/etc.), a really special toy, etc. And that’s just to name a few, and not including appropriate veterinary care, supplements, food, psychopharmaceuticals, and other products that may be helpful to an anxious dog.

      The bottom line is that a holistic approach to a dog’s anxiety is the only way to move your dog from fear to confidence!

If you enjoyed this entry, please give it a, “Like” and leave a comment below! I’d love to hear about your experience with an anxious or reactive dog.

If you’re in the DMV (that’d be DC-Maryland-Virginia area for you non-locals!), check out Your Dog’s Friend for other FREE dog behavior seminars like the one describe here (and great opportunities for fee-based classes too!)


How do you build resilience in dogs?

According to the American Psychological Association, resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy or even significant sources of stress. This process is obviously seen in humans, but what does it have to do with dogs?

The ASPCA and other animal welfare professionals are concerned about resilience in dogs because, for some dogs that end up at a shelter, a lack of resilience is a major obstacle to successfully rehoming the dog. Despite shelters’ best effort to mitigate the stress of being in a shelter, the stress of being in a shelter can lead to some dogs developing pretty depressing and challenging behavior, such shutting down, becoming frantic, or even defensive aggression.

Recently, ASPCA Professional hosted a webinar called “Building Resilience in Dogs” by Dr. Patricia McConnell, a professor of zoology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. (If you’d like to see the whole webinar, follow that last link – you can register to receive the recording of the webinar!)

I amimg_4819 personally interested in resilience in dogs because my younger dog, Luna, is the least resilient dog in the world. OKAY – that may be a slight exaggeration! However: Luna’s recovery time from a single stimulating event (which includes things such as: playing with a toy, going on a walk, someone coming to the house, etc.) is hours if not days.  Since I have organized Luna’s routine to accommodate adequate recovery time, many of Luna less-than-desirable behaviors (including becoming frantic and inappropriate defensive aggression) all but disappear.

This can be tricky though, if we have to have a handy man over to the house and then Luna unexpectedly needs to go to the vet – or a hundred other eventualities that I’m sure you can imagine! Hence my interest in building resilience in dogs: if I can build up Luna’s resilience, maybe I won’t have to be quite as vigilant about guarding Luna’s recovery time.

A dog’s resilience seems to depend on her genetics, early life experiences, and current environment. By the time a dog enters shelter, there typically isn’t much that can be done about those first two factors. Fortunately, Dr. McConnell, the ASPCA, and other animal welfare professionals have identified five ways we can set up a dog’s current environment to help foster resilience.

Dr. McConnell talks extensively in the webinar about the following strategies in the context of a shelter environment (so really, check out the webinar recording!!). Here, I am going to illustrate these strategies with things that I have tried, am trying, or would like to try in my own home for my own un-resilient dog!

1. Sense of safety and security. In general, dogs take in a lot for stimuli than us humans and it can be overwhelming, especially for a dog that is already feeling low on resilience due to a stressful event. Think rock concert + strobing light show + an entire perfume department: you might want a break too! Additionally, for a dog suffering from a lack of resiliency, knowing that it’s safe to sleep, when the next meal is coming, where and when she can go to the bathroom, etc. can be sensibly comforting. How can you create a sense of safety and security? Two main ways: avoid sensory overload and create predictability.

  • Avoid sensory overload
    • Give the dog a seclude “quiet spot”, like a crate or a room that is out of the way of household traffic and let everyone in the home know that the dog is “off-limits” when she is in her quite spot. Encourage or enforce your dog’s use of the quiet spot both during down time at home and when things are a little hectic.
      • Maybe even cover the dog’s crate with a blanket (not for dogs who chew and/or eat cloth, obviously!).
    • Train your dog to wear a ThunderCap, which reduces visual stimuli.
  • Create predictability
    • Create (and stick to!) a routine. Meals, exercise, playtime, and down time should all occur at roughly the same time every day.
    • Teach your dog cues to indicate something is going to happen. For example, Luna gets worked up over treats (she is a lab) so I say her name before I give her a treat and I say my other dog’s name when I am about to give my other dog a treat. Luna does not have to guess who is getting the treat!
    • Other times cues can be useful: nail trims, taking a turn or stopping during a walk, baths, meal times, end of playing (“all done!”), hitting a bump while in the car, etc.
    • Classical music adds to the calming predictability of home (or just the dog’s quiet spot) by adding predictable sounds (and maybe even blocking out some unpredictable sounds!)

3. Social support. Dogs tend to like other dogs – they just speak the same language! So it can be helpful to provide the company of dogs on the way to a resilient recovery…but it might not. Dogs that have not grown up around other dogs or who have had bad experience with another dog in the past may prefer the company of humans. Regardless, dogs are social creatures who (generally) enjoy social interactions.

  • Spend time with your dog in a way she img_4863appreciates (i.e. snuggles with a dog who likes that, quiet time (or read aloud!) with a dog who is not so touchy-feely).
  • Arrange for one-on-one play with another friendly dog or visit a well-maintained dog park.
  • Arrange a walking club. For dogs that may not be comfortable with off-leash play, introducing a dog friend as a walking buddy (when both dogs are leashed and kept at a comfortable distance) may be helpful.

4. Sense of autonomy.  Autonomy means, for a dog, having a choice. And let’s face it, the dogs in our lives do not have many choices: we decide the what, where, and when of her eating, going to the bathroom, playing, sleeping, going on a walk, visiting the vet, and so on. Providing opportunities for a dog to choose what they want to do, when they want to do it.

  • Use the basic principles of no force. A no brainer if ever there was one – never, ever force your dog to do something she does not want to do.
  • Teach behaviors that the dog can initiate herself, such as ringing a bell to go outside or going to a quiet spot.
  • Teach the dog tricks. This gives the dog appropriate behavior options to offer to you and also, when you ask the dog to perform a trick, you’re setting up a situation where the dog really does have a choice to perform the trick or not (with no negative repercussions).

5. Healthy and Balanced Internal Physiology. Just like humans, it is hard for dogs to behave well when they are feeling bad. And beyond veterinary care and good food, dogs need mental and physical exercise to be at their best.

  • Time outdoors. Given her own experience and the results of many research studies in humans, Dr. McConnell feels that time outdoors can be profoundly therapeutic to dogs. While I do agree, this is something that Luna struggles with because A) squirrels, B) sticks, C) people walking down the sidewalk, D) noises…you get the picture.
  • Regular exercise. This is so critical for so many dogs. A tired dog is a happy dog, some say – although really, it should be, “a satiated dog is a happy dog”. Overworked and overwhelmed dogs are tired, yes, but happy? Nope.
  • Mental games, like teaching and performing tricks and using puzzle toys. Luna is so helped by mentally taxing work, especially scent work. Sometimes she is not able to go on our near-daily walks, but she is always able to play “sniffy boxes”. If you have an anxious dog, I highly recommend finding a trainer who does scent work.

Have you tried any of these strategies with an anxious or un-resilient dog? Do you have any suggestions for building resilience in dogs?



Private: Suds & Cheese: Tips for a minimally painful & non-human-soaking dog bath!

Wisconsin recently treated me to a few days of shockingly warm weather – on the weekend, no less! I try not to bathe my dogs in the winter as much as possible but it can get a little stinky so I took full advantage of the freakish warmth! Below are my tried and true tips for a maximally peaceful, minimally self-bathing dog bath!

Tip 1: Gather your supplies. My pup cleansing supplies are 2 full sized towels, 2 hand towels, a high-quality conditioning shampoo, and cheese. Yes, CHEESE is vital. Few dogs like baths and the ample application of cheese before, during, as after baths can really make everything much more enjoyable for everyone.

Tip 2: Consider your dog’s preferences. 
One of my dog’s prefers warm-to-hot bath water, especially when it is not warm outside. Neither of my pups want to stay in the tub very long. So I trial-and-error water temperature for my pups (lucky for me, Allie will give me a *snappy comeback if the temp isn’t right). And I make sure bath time goes as fast as possible by having purchased a shower head with a long hose and getting together all my supplies before asking the pup to get in the tub. (Also, I have used the cheese tip so much that my dogs both climb in the tub willingly – so no wrestling my 85lb!)

Okay, I know the point of giving your dog a bath is to make her smell nice but puppy noses are approximately 1,000-10,000 times more sensitive than our pathetic human schnozes. And if your dog could pick a smell that was 1,000 times stronger to her than it is to you, do you think it would be tropical mango? Probably not!

Tip 3: Strategize. So you may have read my first tip and thought, Why on earth does she need so many towels?  The answer is strategy:

Exhibit A: Two towels for stability/grip.
  • Possibly the best dog bathing tip I have ever found was from Dr. Marty Becker’s book, “Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual”. He calls it the three towel tip but I have modified it slightly. I put the two hand towels in the bottom of the tub pre-pup. Slipping in the tub can be a real source of bath hatred for dogs, and the wet towels underneath the dog can provide much-appreciated stability.I used two hand towels because I’ve noticed that putting a regular towel in the tub –
    as Dr. Becker suggests – can

    Exhibit B: The after bath splash zone minimizer

    get bunched up and pushed out of the way easily. As soon as I’m done rinsing the pup, I put the first large towel over the dog (see Exhibit B) to decrease my likelihood of ending up in the splash zone of the after-bath shake. I use the second large towel to actually dry the dog.

  • Reconsider washing your dog’s head. The thing is, your dog’s head isn’t really that smelly. Or at least, if your dog doesn’t have an ear infection or bad teeth, your dog’s head shouldn’t be smelly. Most dogs dislike water pouring over their heads and it can even increase the risk of an ear infection with water gets trapped in their ear canals. So skip the head washing! I used grooming wipes on my pup’s heads if I feel so inclined but honestly, even that is generally unnecessary!


Let’s Ruin: Dog Shaming – Excessive licking

I follow Dog Shaming on Tumblr. While their posts are occasionally good for a chuckle, many of the photos make me cringe (“please don’t tell me you actually believe that’s why your dog did that” or “it’s not a shame your dog did that, because she’s a dog” or “as your dog’s owner, how did you continue to let that happen? Because your dog could have been seriously injured/killed.” or “you know that’s a behavior you can work on with your dog, right?“). I totally understand the desire to publicize your dog’s odd behavior – like how my dog seems to think her collar is a cozy nap buddy – but the posts that suggest a bizarre rationale for a dog’s behavior, or complain about a perfectly normal dog behavior that could/should have been managed better by the owner, or bemoan a real problematic dog behavior that apparently is going unaddressed by the owner…it’s worrisome!

I understand that Dog Shaming is supposed to be funny, but I’ve got to ruin it. So many of us have welcomed pups into our homes and there seems to be a good portion out there that don’t really understand how dogs think or normally behave. Without understanding what normal dog behavior is and why dogs do the things they do, humans tend to resort to inefficient and potentially inhumane ways of coping with or changing the dog’s behavior – or even ignoring a behavior that is a sign of real distress or harmful to the dog.

Example #1: A recent Dog Shaming post reads:

Sadie is a Jack Russell Terrier mix that my wife and I rescued 3 years ago. She is a complete sweetheart and loves to groom herself while sunning on our bed. However, she has careless disregard for what she is licking while primping herself and always leaves a gross wet lick spot on the comforter. Fortunately, I can’t stay mad at that face for too long.

The Sign reads :
96% Comforter 4% Paw –
I think this is an acceptable lick ratio when grooming myself
– Sadie

Guess what? Far from being a eye-tongue coordination issue, excessive licking in dogs has been shown to be a pretty fair indicator of an undiagnosed gastrointestinal (GI) disorder! In a study from the University of Montreal Veterinary Teaching Hospital, researchers found that nearly 75% of dogs that excessively licked surfaces had an undiagnosed GI condition and once that condition was addressed, the excessive licking behavior resolved. The researchers hypothesized that the excessive licking may pacify feelings of nausea or abdominal discomfort for dogs.

People: it turns out we’re not dogs (to dogs)

Title: A comparison of dog–dog and dog–human play behaviour

Authors: Nicola J. Rooney, John W.S. Bradshaw, Ian H. Robinson

Published: 2000 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science


General overview:

The authors noted that there is a general acceptance that dogs view people – especially their owners – as conspecifics (members of the same species). This wisdom has been incorporated into popular culture but it has also been promoted by behaviorists in the past: ‘‘…there is no doubt about the fact that the dog considers its human master as a socially superior member of its own species — as a member of its pack…’’ (Heini Hediger, known as the “father of zoo biology”). These authors question assumption because there has been little empirical exploration of dog-to-dog interactions in comparison to dog-to-human interactions.

To provide an empirical exploration of dog and human interactions, these authors conducted three studies: a visual survey of people walking their dogs, an analysis of data collected for a nationwide pet food survey and finally, a comparison of dogs playing with dogs and then with humans. In the visual survey of people walking their dogs and the analysis of the nationwide pet food survey, the authors were looking for information about how often single dogs played with their owners vs. multi-dog household dogs played with their owners. In the comparison of dogs playing with dogs and then playing with humans, the authors were considering the actual composition of play: what behaviors dogs displayed when playing with other dogs vs. the behaviors dogs displayed when playing with humans.

The authors demonstrated that intraspecific play (that is, dog/human play) does not reduce interspecific play (dog/dog play): dogs in multi-dog household were, in general, more likely to engage in play with their owner than single dog households. Furthermore, the authors showed that the structure of dog-human play involving a toy (object-oriented play) was statistically different that dog-dog object-oriented play.

My comments:

Why has the idea that dogs view humans as “one of them” been so widely accepted? As humans, we have a tendency to anthropomorphize everything. In our haste to make any aspect of our world like us, it is not a great leap to assume that other species do that same to us. Dogs make that assumption even easier than nearly any other species, given their proclivity to seek out human attention and interactions. However, dogs are “human social” because we bred them that way. Dogs understand many human social cues – does if necessarily follow that this is because dogs view humans as conspecifics? These authors argue that it does not: in the context of play, dogs appear to have a motivation to play with humans that is not satisfied by playing with dogs – or else the authors would have seen a diminished propensity for dog/human play in multi-dog households (but they in fact saw the opposite).

What implications does this have for human/dog interactions? Because most dogs are kept (in the Western world) as companions, a vast array of popular literature on modifying the relationship between dogs and people has amassed. The authors point out that some of this literature attempts to modify dog behavior based on behavior traits viewed in a distant relative to domestic dogs (wolves), a rationale which has since been soundly debunked as fallacious for a number of reasons. Furthermore, some of this dog training literature asserts that dogs attempt to form hierarchies with humans and owners must assert their position as “alpha” in order to maintain an appropriate relationship with their dog(s).

So do dogs attempt to form hierarchies with humans and is it necessary for an owner to establish their “alpha” position? The dogs studied here demonstrated marked differences in how and how often they played with humans vs. dogs, indicating that dogs do not view humans as conspecifics or “one of them”. The authors conclude that if dogs do not view humans as conspecifics, it is very unlikely that they try to form hierarchies with humans. (And more on this point: domestic dogs probably don’t form hierarchies with other dogs – dog/dog interactions are most likely context-specific.)

Why don’t dogs view humans as conspecifics? The authors theorize that dogs differentiate between humans and dogs due to the domestication process. Domestic dogs were selected over the centuries for their cooperation skills with humans and seem to have lost much of their cooperation skills with other dogs along the way: some domestic dogs will fiercely guard food from other dogs and feral dogs seldom hunt cooperatively. Dogs do, however, hunt cooperatively with humans. Especially for breeds in the “sporting group“, dogs will share and even surrender “prey” (whether that be toys or actual prey) to humans.

In summary, these authors did not conduct an experiment to explain why dogs don’t view humans as “one of them” but their study did strongly conclude that dogs do not behave as if humans and dogs are interchangeable in their eyes. These findings cast serious doubt on trainers and dog professional who use pack hierarchies, anthropomorphisms and/or dominance theories to explain and modify dog behavior. It appears that the relationship between dogs and humans is much more sophisticated than those out-dated and myth-based ideologies: using science-based behavior management and modification techniques should be paramount for any dog owner, trainer, veterinary staff, grooming staff, etc.