Posts tagged ‘fear’

Personal Coach

If you looked at this photo and guessed that the Chuckster is not thrilled about being dressed up in a blond wig and forced to hold a sequined rose in his mouth you’d be right. The boy’s pinched expression and somewhat whale-eyed glare clearly express annoyance and stress.

If I’d been foolish enough to try this with the boy in the first months he was here, I’d have been in stitches. Literally. Today it just took a few seconds of firm, gentle insistence to get him to agree to it.

Why do I insist on torturing a dog who was seized as part of an animal cruelty conviction?

I do it because if I let Charlie take the easy no-stress route and stay in the deeply dysfunctional place he inhabited when he first came here, he’d still be a miserable, lonely, filthy, unsocialized little wretch. You see, the problem with comfort zones is that they’re such nice, safe, warm comfortable places that if we’re never pushed out of them, we just settle in and stay there. And when we’re allowed to indulge in that kind of intrinsically rewarding avoidance behavior our comfort zones don’t shrink – they get bigger.

Because of a severe lack of early socialization, when I first met him there were a lot more things that Charlie feared or otherwise didn’t like than things he liked (or was even willing to put up with). The boy had also inadvertently learned that he could use his evil, evil teeth to make things he didn’t like go away. When faced with any kind of new or even mildly stressful situation his default reaction was a screaming, spitting, biting tantrum. So it was my job to regularly, fairly – and yes, sometimes forcefully – push Charlie out of his comfort zone so he could develop the coping skills he hadn’t had a chance to acquire in the first months of life.

Basically, I need to act as his personal trainer. It was my job to design a safe and effective mental exercise program to help this dog reach his potential. And I couldn’t always be his buddy when I did it. A good personal trainer must be prepared to push her clients relentlessly.

A lot of people will try to convince you that incorporating any stress or aversiveness in handling or training a dog will make him vicious, fearful and/or neurotic. These people are wrong. Working with dogs like Charlie has convinced me that the idea that we should only share ‘positive’ interactions with our dogs is a deeply flawed one.

Despite what the main stream media tells you, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural thing. Stress is a natural – and necessary – part of every life (seriously, even plant life).  Stress drives evolution, it builds strength and it even enhances some forms of learning. Because stress is absolutely essential to life, the key to dealing with it successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it’s found in developing the strength to cope with it.

The brain’s stress coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles, you’ve got to use ’em or you’ll lose ’em. So in a direct analogy to resistance training, we can use mental training to increase an animal’s ability to deal with stress. The basis of this training consists of a program of controlled exposure to moderately stressful things that increases a dog’s ability to cope with stress. This is strikingly similar to the goal of resistance training which, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute, is to “gradually and progressively overload the musculoskeletal system so it gets stronger.”

If your dog needs a bit of personal coaching follow these rules:

  • When possible give the dog some choice in how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag him toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and then show him how to earn it.
  • If the dog has completely and absolutely made up his mind that he cannot approach that particular scary thing, don’t quit and reward his refusal, just move on to an easier thing.
  • Keep the dog’s mind and body active during the exercise. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to stress responses and they’ll work against you.
  • Increase the difficulty in steps. Watch the dog. His response will tell you how big to make those steps.
  • Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If he has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller or easier. If he rebounds immediately, make it bigger or more difficult.
  • Work in small bits at first. Increase time as your dog increases his mental resources.
  • The last bit of the work you do will be the piece that the dog will remember most clearly, so it is very important to end the work on a successful note. Even if this is only a small success.
  • Don’t overdo it. Once the dog’s confidence is aroused – end the session and give him a break to process what he just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.
  • It is important to realize that if you are working with a genetically shy dog or one who had severe deficits in early socialization – you will need to continue these kinds of mental strength training exercises for the rest of your dog’s life. Maintenance training will be much less difficult and time-consuming than your initial training program, but your dog has to use these skills or he will lose them.

In my experience, when done well, this kind of program will result in geometric rather than arithmetic progress. So while you will probably need to begin by taking tiny steps you should begin to see significant changes as your dog’s resources are built up. Be aware of this and don’t fall into the rut of walking in baby steps throughout your training program.

After many months of regular structured mental resistance training young Charlie has progressed beyond baby steps and significantly increased his ability to cope with stress. He’s gone from a dog who pitched a major fit any time a new person came into our house to a dog who, with just a bit of help, now likes to hop into visitors’ laps to cuddle.

Note the big, relaxed smile. Chuck is really happy to be in Nancy's lap.

Pushing Charlie out of his comfort zone wasn’t always fun, and in the beginning it was very stressful for both of us. But every day he gets stronger. The boy still needs a bit more work, but this crazy, bitey little dog is learning to roll with life’s punches. And more importantly he’s also beginning to recognize the rewards that go along with those skills.

February 20, 2011 at 11:52 pm 7 comments

Great Expectations

My foster dog Charlie passed a new milestone yesterday.  He moved into the house.

Charlie’s been living next door at the training center.  There are a couple of cozy, indoor kennels there along with safe indoor and outdoor exercise areas.  I don’t usually keep foster dogs in the kennel but Charlie spent most of his young life being held as evidence.  He missed out on most of the key early socialization experiences a healthy puppy needs.  Because he had seen so little of the world, coming into the house – or even the garage – was A Very Big Deal to him.  Every item he came across was utterly alien to him and it had to be processed.  And that kind of processing takes up a lot of a dog’s brain power.  So keeping him in the quieter, more spartan environment of the training building helped keep Charlie’s stress at a manageable level while I got him over the initial hurdles of his fear and aggression.

After a little more than a month here Charlie has discovered that he’s rather fond of Mark, Zip, Audie and I and he’s decided that he doesn’t need to attack us.  Yay! He understands that being brushed and touched won’t kill him and that it can even be pleasant.  He’s learned to walk politely on a leash; to sit to say “please”; to come when he’s called; to stop doing whatever he’s doing when I say ‘leave it’; and to accept being crated.   He hasn’t learned to do his business outside and he has absolutely no house manners whatsoever.  He’s prone to over-reacting and he still has a short fuse.

Still, I have great expectations for young Charlie.

Expectations are a vital part of the foundation of our relationships with dogs.  Unfortunately they’re also a place where we often fail them.

When you get a new pet, whether you buy a puppy or adopt an adult dog, you should assume that you will need to teach this dog everything.  If you start out expecting too much of your dog he will, of course, fail to meet your expectations.  And if, in your disappointment, you decide that your dog is stupid and untrainable – he’ll be damned to a life of frustration and boredom.

So what do I expect?  Simply that:

  • It”s my responsibility to set and enforce a fair, consistent set of rules, limits and boundaries for him to follow
  • That I need to put forth a significant effort to keep Charlie out of trouble until he learns to follow the rules
  • That I owe him the time, attention and effort necessary to bring out his best

At this point in our relationship this means that I need to micro-manage just about every moment of Charlie’s life.

When he’s in the house he is either crated, tied to me with a four-foot leash or closed up in the laundry room.  There are no exceptions.  When he’s outside he is either in one of our two fenced yards or on a leash or long line held in my hand.

Because Charlie has seen so little of the world he is amazed by everything.  And when I say everything – I mean every thing.  Puttering around the house with him tied to my waist is a like taking a walk with a charming three-year old child that speaks a different language.  He wants to – he needs to –  explore absolutely everything and I need to find creative ways to nurture and encourage him.  It’s completely maddening – and utterly delightful.

An incredible array of things capture his attention.  It can take a half hour just to walk through a room with him.  When it all gets to be a bit much and he becomes nervous or insecure I don’t console him, I pump him up.  I remind Charlie how brave he is – and then I give him a break.  All I expect from this dog right now is that he explore my house with cheerful curiosity so he can develop the confidence he needs to take the next step in becoming the dog he was born to be.

If  I maintain realistic expectations at each step of Charlie’s training and development it will keep both of us from getting frustrated.  And the successes that come from having fair expectations will eventually lead us to the great ones that will allow him to become a great dog.

October 13, 2009 at 5:36 am 7 comments

I Did a Terrible Thing

I did an unspeakably terrible thing today [hangs head in abject shame].

I wore a hat.

A tan baseball cap with a dog embroidered on it to be exact. It was a cool morning (52F) and along with the warmth the cap provided, I needed something to cover my unwashed hair. I put it on without a thought and I went out to the kennel where Charlie is staying.

Charlie likes me. In fact, he seems to like me a lot. But when I walked into the room wearing that baseball cap he saw me as some kind of ungodly, depraved beast. And he reacted accordingly.

Because he’s small and in a sturdy kennel and I’ve been around a rather large number of staring, snarling, slavering beasts I reacted to his castigation by calling his name out sweetly.  He paused briefly, obviously recognizing my voice – then continued his tirade. ‘Cause, you know – I had done this terrible thing.

I took the hat off and calmly, quietly walked to the kennel door. I didn’t affect a passive or assertive posture. I was as completely neutral as I could be. When I got to the door I turned sideways and crouched down. I spoke softly to Charlie and let him decide when he was ready to approach and sniff me. In seconds he was the soft, happy, wagging teenager I know once again.

I stood up and gauged his reaction to my change in posture. Soft and welcoming. So I opened the door, went in, petted and leashed him and walked him out. When we were out of the kennel I made of show of picking up the Hat From Hell and presented it to Charlie. He stood quietly – but suspiciously – at my side and I calmly held it out to him.  He slowly stretched his nose forward, feet still locked in place, and tentatively sniffed the rim of the hat. I remained motionless and said nothing. He sniffed The Evil Thing again, then sniffed my hand.

I saw wheels inside his pretty little head click into place as Charlie realized that the hat smelled like me.  His posture softened and he grinned up at me with a look that said “Okay, I get it”.  So I put the hat, which was now just an ordinary hat, back on my head and took Charlie for a walk.

August 29, 2009 at 6:36 pm 9 comments

Parsing a Sneeze

In The Feeling of What Happens Antonio Damasio writes, “We are about as effective at stopping an emotion as we are at preventing a sneeze.”  Like sneezes, emotional states are induced through classical conditioning processes where an innate, involuntary behavior (like an emotion or a reflex) becomes associated with a specific event or context. Their basis in these involuntary processes helps explain why emotional reactions are unpredictable and difficult to control.

In his book, Damasio introduces us to a man with extensive damage to his temporal lobes, hippocampus and amygdula.  “David” suffers from some of the most severe learning and memory deficits ever recorded – he is unable to learn anynew fact. Despite this and in spite of the fact that he’s surrounded by people he is completely unable to recognize, David displays consistent preferences and avoidances in his day-to-day interactions with staff and patients.  Intrigued by David’s behavior, Damasio designed a good guy/bad guy experiment to examine how David might develop these preferences under controlled circumstances:

Over a period of a week, we were able to engage David, under entirely controlled circumstances, in three distinct types of human interaction. One type of interaction was with someone who was extremely pleasant and welcoming and who always rewarded David whether he requested something or not (this was the good guy). Another interaction involved somebody who was emotionally neutral and who engaged David in activities that were neither pleasant nor unpleasant (this was the neutral guy). A third type of interaction involved an individual whose manner was brusque, who would say no to any request, and who engaged David in a very tedious psychological task designed to bring boredom to a saint (this was the bad guy).

After the week of controlled conditioning David was not able to recognize any of the ‘guys’ from photographs or in person.  Yet, when he was presented with photographs of them and asked questions regarding hypothetical situations such as “Which one of these people would you ask for help?”  or “Who is your friend,” David chose the ‘good guy’ over 80% of the time. While David’s conscious mind may no longer be equipped to give him an overt reason to recognize, much less choose, one person over another, he is still able to learn to correctly choose the person most likely to react positively with him with an accuracy far exceeding that of pure chance.

So it appears that we can develop preferences and aversions in a completely unconscious manner.  This is fascinating and it may help explain why two- and four-legged creatures so often react in apparently inexplicable ways. While we are aware of the emotions we feel, we sometimes have no idea why we feel them. And this can make emotional reactions incredibly difficult to control – even for us allegedly big-brained humans. Because our emotions can be rooted in factors as diverse as previous experiences, health and our base line emotional state – and because many of these factors lie outside our conscious control – our emotions don’t always make sense to us.  Or to those around us.

Dogs with emotion-based problems like fear of thunderstorms, fear-based aggression and separation anxiety are notoriously difficult to rehabilitate. The dog has no idea why it’s behaving the way it does. He’s much like David, classically conditioned to react to a situation – and utterly unaware of why he behaves the way he does.

This is why the popular idea of ‘psychoanalyzing dogs’ – collecting obsessively detailed case histories in an effort to discover exactly what events in the dog’s past led to the development of it’s emotion-based problems – drives me crazy.  Because these kinds of problems arise from classical conditioning processes – there is likely no single event or simple chain of events that led to the dog’s problem. And, like David, the dog likely has absolutely no idea why he feels the way he does.

Trying to analyze the basis of an emotionally-based behavior problem in a non-verbal species like a dog makes no sense.  It’s like parsing a sneeze.

August 29, 2009 at 6:01 pm 1 comment

Pushing Buttons

Our friend and fellow blogger Heather Houlahan is currently in Billings, Montana evaluating the adoptability of more than 200 dogs recently released to National English Shepherd Rescue after their former owner was convicted of felony animal abuse.  As part of this work she and others are administering behavior evaluations which she describes in a heart-warming post where she writes:

We take each dog to a place she has never been before, and ask her to tell us something about herself.

We do this by challenging her with mild stresses, and giving her an opportunity to show us whether she is bothered by them, how much, and whether she thinks looking to a human is a good way of getting through that. And we see how the dog progresses in confidence as she confronts these mild challenges.

Combined with the absolutely crucial written reports from each dogs’ handler, the results of these evaluations help us sort dogs into categories depending on how much experience and dog chops a potential adopter or foster volunteer might need, as well as any special talents or qualities that the dog has to offer.

No, this is not “poke it until it bites” temperament testing. We Don’t Do That Shit.

One of the most important things we assess is the dog’s ability to recover from something it finds stressful. This capacity, while it can be built and developed, is highly intrinsic to each unique temperament. Good bounceback can take a dog far.

As I’ve posted here before, I’m not a fan of the poke it until it bites method of ‘behavioral evaluation’ either but assessing a dog’s ability to cope with stress is, IMO, the single most important factor in temperament evaluation. An ability to cope with and recover from stress is crucial to a healthy temperament.  And like most of the other traits a dog needs to survive it’s derived from a mix of nature and nurture.

Some dogs, like Harry, are blessed with a lot of bounceback or resilience. Even though Harry had a less than ideal start on life, he’s ready to leave it behind and move on. Other dogs, like my like Zip, are born with a lack of resilience. These dogs need regular coaching to develop and maintain a healthy tolerance for stress.

How did I build up Zip’s resilience? — Simple. I pushed her buttons.


The brain’s coping mechanisms are a lot like muscles. If you were born with the genes of a 90-pound weakling, you may never develop that Mr. Universe physique – but with work, you can certainly improve what you’ve got. Your coping mechanisms are also like muscles because unless you were born with the physique of an East German powerlifter you’ve got to use them — or you’ll lose them.

Contrary to popular beliefs, stress is not an inherently negative or unnatural force. Stress is a natural – and necessary – part of every animal’s life.  The key to dealing with stress successfully doesn’t lie in avoiding or ignoring it, it lies in developing the strength to cope with it when you need to and taking a break to recover from it when you can.  

The tool I use to help my genetically timid, non-resilient dog increase her ability to cope with stress is regular exposure to moderately stressful things. Like choosing the right barbell in a weightlifting regime, the stressor can’t be so intense that the dog can’t deal with it or so mild that she immediately adapts to it.  And like a good exercise regime, this work should also continue for the rest of the dog’s life.

Every day I look for ways to push Zip’s buttons. We recently bought a small and rather nondescript table for our deck. The first time she saw it on our deck, Zip decided this table was a thing of great evil. This provided me with an excellent training opportunity. Zip has an enormous obnoxious amount of desire to fetch. It’s what she lives for. So I brought a toy out to the deck and teased her with it a bit. After I whetted her appetite for the toy I casually tossed it toward the table of great evil. Zip took two steps toward the toy then stopped and looked at me as if to say; “Are you freakin’ kidding me? There is NO way I can go one step nearer that thing!”

It was exactly the reaction I was looking for. Zip wasn’t paralyzed in terror, but she most certainly was not comfortable with approaching the table. So I picked up the toy and tossed it again, this time making sure it landed just a bit farther away from the thing of great evil.  Zip summed up her courage and slunk over toward the toy. She darted in, grabbed it and raced back to me. Party time! I praised my brave girl and tossed the toy again to reward her – this time in the direction opposite the thing of great evil.

Her courage was stoked by success so I repeated the exercise, this time throwing the toy so that it landed a little closer to the table. While her approach was still tentative she was visibly more confident this time. Another reward toss – and we repeat the process again. I continue until my girl cheerfully runs past the table  – which has now faded comfortably into the background.

Important things to keep in mind as you work through this process are:

  • Encourage flexibility by letting the dog choose how to approach the stressful situation. Don’t put the dog on a leash and drag her toward it. Instead, set up a situation where making some approach to the object results in a reward or a release of pressure and let her decide how to achieve it.
  • Keep the dog’s mind and body active. Idle paws are the devil’s tools! If your dog is not fully engaged in the exercise those extra mental resources will be shuttled to her fear responses where they’ll just work against you.
  • Increase the difficulty of the exercise in steps.  The dog’s response will tell you how big to make these steps.
  • Give the dog a short break to shake off the stress after each step. If she has a hard time shaking it off, make the next step smaller and easier. If she rebounds immediately, make it bigger and/or more difficult.
  • The last bit of the work you do will be the piece your dog will remember the best so it is very important to end the exercise on a successful note. Even if it is only a small success.
  • Don’t overdo it. Your goal should be to see an improvement in your dog’s confidence, not to desensitize her in a single session. Once her confidence is aroused – end the session and give your dog a break to process what she just learned. This should be a time for calm, quiet reflection not rambunctious play.

A dog that is frightened of loud things, strange things – even mysteriously afraid of some everyday things – doesn’t necessarily come from an abusive background.  She may just not have inherited a healthy dose of courage and resilience.  It’s easy to mistake this lack of resilience for a “history of abuse”.  And whether a dog has been abused or not, we do her a disservice when we try to shield her from the kinds of stresses she needs to be exposed to to learn healthy coping skills.

Once you ascribe your dog’s fearful behavior to abuse you run the risk of ignoring the other factors that might be involved.  Things like poorly developed resilience, health problems, neglect or a genetically fearful temperament. Things you might be able to change if you aren’t blind to them.  As Julia McDonough wrote, the “abuse excuse” keeps far too many people from giving their dogs the help they really need. 

Convinced that their dog has suffered enough hardship, they decide to “make up” to the dog for his past torment at the hands of lesser humans. This is poisonous, as the overindulgence of a dog is the main reason he fails in a home.

Heather and the other volunteers at Operation New Beginningsdidn’t indulge Harry in an effort to try to make up for the bad start he had in life. They simply took him out of that unhealthy place and gave him opportunities to discover the strong, resilient core inside him. The core that’s ready to take Harry on to the next step in his life.

If you’d like to help the Montana English Shepherds, consider making a donation to support Spay Montana – this wonderful group mustered resources this weekend to spay and neuter over 150 of the dogs.

August 3, 2009 at 3:19 am 8 comments

This -n- That

Today a few links for your edification and entertainment:

First some important safety information.  Find out how to keep your pets safe when they’re on the road — and protect yourself as well, in this excellent post from Christie Keith over at PetConnection.

Caveat blogs on more bad statistics where she correctly points out that using data from a set that only represents a tiny fraction of a very large whole to advance scare tactics predict a trend is not particularly good science. As she says:

With a US dog population of roughly 72 million and a human dog-related fatality count of 33 in 2007 (an all-time high), anyone with knowledge of probability and/or statistical modeling would conclude that the number of events is much too small to be useful.

To put things into perspective, the percentage of fatalities relative to total canine population is 0.000046 (rounded up).

If statistics like that really indicate that rescuing a dog represents a real threat to your safety – we had better hurry up and outlaw swimming pools…  In 2005 (the most recent year I could find data for) over 4,200 people  died in swimming pool related incidents.  Folks, that represents more than 100 times the number of deaths attributed to all dogs (not just re-homed ones) in 2007.  In most cases, our dogs live with us in our homes.  How many people do you know who spend all  their free time in the pool?  That puts a little perspective on the matter, doesn’t it?

Speaking of fear, Wired has an interesting article about a study on human alarm pheromones.

Our findings  indicate that there may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics, in which emotional stress is, quite literally, “contagious.”

So, are the irrational fears we seem to be increasingly overwhelmed by today an epidemiological problem as much as a psychological one?

And last, but not least, in a random bit of fear-related weirdness this bit from the Bloggerator on a woman who jogged 1,5 kilometers with a rabid fox attached to her arm…

November 6, 2008 at 7:42 pm 2 comments

Natural Security vs National Security

“A new book due to come out shortly caught my eye today. Natural Security: A Darwinian Approach to a Dangerous World, is the result of more than two years of investigation and debate by a multidisciplinary group of scientists and security experts lead by Duke University’s Raphael Sagarin and international security expert Terence Taylor. 

The book explores the myriad ways that biological organisms have found to protect themselves from the threats posed by predators, disease, and other dangers in the environment.  “Arms races among invertebrates, intelligence gathering by the immune system and alarm calls by marmots are just a few of nature’s successful security strategies that have been tested and modified over time in response to changing threats and situations,” Sagarin said. “In our book, we look at these strategies and ask how we could apply them to our own safety.”

According to early reviews the book explores how evolutionary models and ideas can be applied to threats ranging from terrorism to natural disasters and the spread of disease.

It sounds like a fascinating premise and I look forward to reading the book.  I think that the current popularity of popular books on cross-disciplinary studies is a wonderful thing. My bookshelves are full of books like Albert-Laszlo Barabasi’s Linked; Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion; Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness and more.  

We’ve reached a wonderful point in world culture where the proliferation of new knowledge and ideas combined with the searchability and availability of information are coming together in an absolutely wonderful way. Not only are we discovering more pieces of information every day, we also have a much better ability to see how they fit together. 

And the fit is often surprising.

A report last year by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirmed what most Americans already suspected. Despite heightened awareness and tightened restrictions, “the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) cannot possibly control all potential threats to airport security. According to Raphael Sagarin “Biological organisms inherently understand this. They realize they can’t eliminate all risk in their environment. They have to identify and respond to only the most serious threats, or they end up wasting their resources and, ultimately, failing the evolutionary game.

Here’s the important thing folks, right from the expert – Mother Nature.  It is impossible to eliminate risk.

So why is our society so obsessed with doing just that? From soccer moms to news reporters and trial attorneys, eliminating (not minimizing) risk is the key issue in modern life. We worry that satellites will fall on our heads, pit bulls will attack us or that we’ll die of bird flu —  when it is far more likely that we’ll die on the toilet, be killed by a loved one or succumb to a common flu virus (even though statistics say that the latter three are much more likely than the first). The unknown scares us. This is an evolutionary advantage, or at least it used to be.  But that fear of the unknown is an ancient piece of our psyches that we focus too much on today, largely because politicians and the media find it convenient to hype issues that focus on fear rather than facts.H. L. Mencken had it right when he said that “the whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety), by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”There’s a great quote in this new book that hits this issue head on: “Whether you’re dealing with al Qaeda or an emerging pathogen, studying animal behavior teaches us basic principles of survival,” Sagarin said. “You can’t eliminate all risks, so you have to focus on the big ones, while adapting to minimize risk from the rest. You have to be aware of your environment, understanding that it’s constantly in flux. And when it comes to adapting and responding to threats, a centralized authority can get in the way. Individual units that sense the environment, with minimal central control, work best.” Are we the enemy, or is the enemy a government and media that control us by playing on our fears?


January 29, 2008 at 6:40 am Leave a comment

Because A Dog’s Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste


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