Wednesday, April 28, 2021
Wednesday, April 21, 2021
Over the weekend, I got a private message from a woman who follows my collie, Desi, on his Facebook page. Well, actually, Desi got the note, I just answer all of his messages for him! Anyway, she indicated that she'd seen his posts about helping a little girl overcome her fear of dogs. She wanted to know how we'd done it and if what we'd done would work with an adult. You see, she'd been bitten as a child and was profoundly afraid of dogs in real life. She loved looking at dogs on Facebook (hence her being one of Desi's "top fans"), but she still was terrified of any dog she encountered out in public. And her fear was really isolating her more and more. The pandemic meant more people working from home and walking their dogs at all times of day which meant this woman rarely felt safe walking, even in her neighborhood, anymore.
Cynophobia, the clinical name for fear of dogs, affects 7-9% of the general population. While that might not seem like much, that's roughly 30 million people whose quality of life is affected by their fear of dogs. What that fear looks like can vary from person to person. Some people with cynophobia can't even look at pictures of dogs or watch a TV show, movie, or even a commercial where dogs are present. Others can look at pictures of dogs and watch quiet dogs on TV, but if the dog barks or growls all bets are off. And some are fine with dogs in all forms until they see them out in public spaces. This is a difficult situation since dogs are the most popular pet here in the United States and dogs are allowed to go with their humans to so many public places. For the woman who reached out to Desi, she couldn't even watch her kids' soccer games at the park on weekends because some of the parents brought their dogs along to cheer the kids on. Really a heartbreaking situation for her and for her family.
While it is fairly common for a person whose been bitten or chased by a dog to fear them, not every instance of cynophobia is due to a bad experience with a dog in the past. It is often true that phobias like fearing dogs are passed on from one person to another in a family. Perhaps your mother was chased by a dog as a child and now she projects her fear onto you about taking an abundance of caution around all dogs. This is often why children are afraid of dogs. It is also definitely the case that people with more sensitive temperaments are prone to specific fears such as cynophobia. For some adults, just reading about a serious dog bite incident is enough to trigger a fear of all dogs.
As with any panic-related episode, people experiencing cynophobia can have an increased heart rate, tightening in their chest, profuse sweating, trembling, feeling dizzy, and trouble breathing. They often feel an intense need to run away or escape; often they report feeling completely helpless and like they were going to die. Children experiencing cynophobia will often scream, cry, run, or cling to a caregiver, all of which can attract undue attention from the dog that triggered the panic to begin with.
I should point out at this juncture that I am not a trained, human psychologist or psychiatrist. What I am is someone with an undergraduate degree in Psychology and a Master's Degree in Animal Behavior. As such, I have studied fears and phobias in both humans and animals. I have worked both alone and in conjunction with medical professionals to help treat cynophobia using my trained therapy dogs to desensitize people who are seeking treatment. My first collie, Cooper, was a natural at this work. He helped a half dozen children overcome their fear of dogs with repeated exposures to his calming presence and desensitization to his movements, sounds, etc. Desi is also incredibly suited to this job. He will stand completely still for an inordinate amount of time for someone to get used to his presence. When they are able to approach him, he will lay down, facing away from them, and not move at all. I truly mean that. He doesn't move at all. He doesn't pant and he doesn't move to get up. He just lays there. When they can touch him, he will allow all handling thus giving that person a chance to feel his heart beat, touch his tail, feet, etc. I encourage them to do all of those things with him as I think understanding a dog's physical nature helps to demystify the dog. Over time, we work up to me walking Desi near them and eventually the folks we've worked with get to the point where they want to walk him themselves. Desi will walk with anyone; he'll walk at a distance from you on a 15 foot leash, or closer to you on a 4-6 foot leash, whatever makes the person most comfortable. He doesn't run, he doesn't bark, and he doesn't fuss about anything he sees. Squirrels will run past him and he barely glances when he's working. This brings peace of mind to the person he is helping to overcome their fear. When they get to the point where they can give him treats, he takes them gently. And if they get to the point where they can love on him, he is thrilled, but nonetheless calm. Once Desi and I have helped someone get to the point where they trust him, we talk about how to read dog body language so that they can traverse the world where other dogs are present, confident in their abilities to understand what those dogs are communicating. I always tell them that they don't have to love every dog they meet, nor do they have to approach them or submit to being approached. What they have to do is be comfortable reading dog body language so that when and if a dog approaches them, they will know what their own body language is telling that dog. We talk about how to appear less threatening to a dog and how not to appear afraid either. We talk about what your hands should be doing, where you should look, etc. When they are ready for this step, Desi and I walk with them in dog populated public places. I always tell them that Desi is there to keep an eye on the other dogs for them. You see, that's Desi's super-power. If a dog approaches one of the people he's working with, he will calmly stand between his person and that dog, essentially body blocking the encounter. His charge feels safe and often the other dog moves away. This helps the person we are working with learn to trust dogs and trust themselves to read the situations they find themselves in. We also talk about how to speak to dog owners about their dogs, including telling owners who've let dogs off leash in on leash areas to please leash their dogs! And how to say no, I don't want to pet your dog, nor do I want to be approached. Dog owners really do need to be better about controlling their dogs out in public. It simply isn't okay to let your dog (friendly or not!) just run up to someone who is trying to walk, read their book, have a picnic, watch a soccer game, etc. It isn't okay to let your dog jump on people who are just out using the same public space that you are. While a lot of people love dogs and welcome such approaches, there are enough who don't to make such encounters incredibly risky all around.
So, my response to the woman who contacted Desi was that he and I would be happy to help her overcome her fear of dogs. Wanting to overcome it is the first step in treatment. The second is determining how severe her particular case is, and we'll go from there. Desi is ready, I know. He loves these one-on-one appointments. I know he enjoys them because he prances back inside the house afterward and straight at Ozzie almost as if to say, "I did a good thing today! You should have seen me in action!" Ozzie may not appreciate Desi's gifts, but I sure do. A dog that can help people overcome their fears is a dog I am proud to call my companion.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, April 14, 2021
That was the question my very desperate and distraught client posed to me in our most recent conversation. You see, she has an adolescent dog who bites. Not playful bites, but real bites, drawing blood, putting pressure into the bite, and holding on. The worst part? He's been doing this since he was a puppy. She'd been told that she spoiled the dog and that's why this happened (not true, otherwise most of my clients dogs would be biters, as would my own two spoiled dogs!). She'd been told that he needed obedience training and not going to classes was the reason for his behavior (also not true since biting people isn't an obedience problem, it's a serious behavior problem and not something that can be dealt with in a classroom situation). From our first conversation months ago until now, this dog has continued to bite. His biting frequency has improved as his owners have gotten better at reading the early warning signs and not putting themselves (or the dog) in a position where a bite will occur. The big problem with this dog, however, is that he has multiple triggers. Lack of sleep makes him aggressive, as does trying to move him, walk past him, step over him, or move around him. All bets are off if he has food, a toy, or a sock. While he's better in the morning, as the day wears on, he becomes worse until everyone in the house avoids him in order to keep from getting bit. You may be asking yourself why in the world would someone keep a dog like this, but believe it or not, I know a lot of dog owners who are living with dogs who are very much like this one. Let's dive into this a little deeper.
Any dog who bites has a better than 90% chance of biting again. I've been helping pet owners for almost 30 years at this point, and I can attest to the validity of this statistic. Every dog bites again IF you don't change YOUR behavior. Read that sentence again. You aren't changing their behavior, you're changing your own. You see, aggression isn't a curable problem per se, it's more about learning what triggers the aggression and anxiety and controlling those triggers to the best of your ability. So, if your dog is triggered by children and tries to bite your kids (or does bite your kids), then your dog can't stay in your home unless you plan to re-home your kids, which most parents are unwilling to do! Any dog who bites children has no place in a home where kids live, visit, or stay for any length of time. And if your dog resource guards the couch, your bed, or the doorway he's blocking, then he can't be allowed on the couch, your bed, or to lay in doorways. Yes, that means your dog will be restricted as to where he can go and what he can claim as his own. It's for his own good; you aren't being mean to your dog if don't let him on the furniture. It's worse to let him up there and then have him bite you when you sit down or try to move him. I've had clients bit on the face and neck for sitting near their dogs on the couch or climbing back into bed after a trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
I always get asked about where aggression comes from. I know dog owners feel overwhelming guilt and shame about their biting dogs. They feel like they are being judged by their family members, friends, and neighbors for keeping their biting dogs. They are afraid that they did (or didn't) do something that they should have and that's why their dog is aggressive. I always make a point of telling them it isn't their fault at all. I've seen severely abused and neglected dogs who NEVER make the choice to bite someone, so abuse isn't where aggression comes from. I've seen lots of rescued dogs as well and being rescued isn't an excuse for aggressive behavior. Dogs behave aggressively because the aggressive behavior works for them. It is a choice to bite. A dog who doesn't want to move off the couch could simply growl to tell the owner "Hey! I'm not moving!" There's no reason to escalate to a bite. Listen to your growling dogs! Change your behavior so they don't feel compelled to escalate and make a choice that could be their end. Nothing in life is free. Some dogs need to be reminded of that and need to work for their meals rather than eating in a bowl that they will guard aggressively, for example.
And here's the part that's really hard for some dog owners to grasp: aggression is heritable. Dogs whose parents (or grandparents) were aggressive are likely to have issues in aggression as well. It goes without saying that reputable breeders don't perpetuate issues in aggression by breeding dogs they know are aggressive. When you get a dog through a puppy broker, puppy mill, foreign rescue, etc., however, you won't know anything about your dog's family tree and there's risk involved in not knowing.
While owning any aggressive dog is risky, owning a dog that bites people is the biggest risk. There is liability involved if you know you own an aggressive dog and your dog bites someone. It doesn't matter if you told the person not to approach your dog; it doesn't matter if you had the dog in another room and someone accidentally let him out; it doesn't matter if the gate was unlocked and the worker came into your yard unannounced. In all of these cases, you are responsible for your dog's actions and when you get sued, you will be held monetarily accountable. You can love your dog to the moon and back, but if his behavior means you will lose your house when you get sued over a dog bite, this changes your perspective.
I know that no one, least of all veterinarians, wants to talk about euthanizing a healthy dog. But the fact of the matter is, dogs who bite people aren't mentally sound. It isn't normal to make the choice to bite people. In the case of my client's dog above, he literally bites someone weekly, and some weeks, he bites more than one person. Euthanizing him can be considered a public safety act. My client doesn't want to think about euthanizing her dog, I know that. When I broached the subject with her a few months back, she just couldn't see them doing it. They wanted to change their own behavior so that they could reduce risk and keep their dog. The problem is that no amount of changing their behavior has changed the way this dog behaves. He is a risk to his owners, guests in their home, and workers on their property. This latest bite may get them sued, a risk that I also explained to them months ago. I don't like saying "I told you this could happen," but here we are. I'm frustrated too. They spent a lot of money acquiring this dog and he's not a healthy, happy dog by a long shot. I really hope that when we talk tomorrow, she makes the right decision and we talk to her vet about guaranteeing this dog never bites anyone again.
I know this has likely been a tough post to read. For those of you who've lived with, or are living with, aggressive dogs, this probably felt like picking a scab off of a fresh wound. But, it needed to be said. You should not be held hostage by your aggressive dog. Seeking help is good, but accepting that the problem isn't fixable is important too. I can't make your decisions for you, but I truly hope that you will hear what I tell you and understand that I don't enjoy telling you your dog needs to be euthanized. I just want you, your family, and the community to be safe. I love dogs, but I love their people even more. I have to try to protect you if I can. It's part of my job.
As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.
Wednesday, April 7, 2021
I'm pretty sure I've said this before, but I feel like it bears repeating over and over until we all just relax a bit. Nobody's perfect. No dog is perfect. No owner is perfect. Perfection is an unrealistic, and often detrimental construct that people try to achieve as they compare themselves to their neighbors, family members, friends, co-workers, and influencers they see on social media. The problem with this is that none of us really knows what goes on behind closed doors/once the cameras stop rolling, etc. Just because your neighbor's dog appears angelic to you when you see them out on walks doesn't mean that dog's owners aren't dealing with separation anxiety, destructive behavior, or even aggression at home. You likely won't see any of that out on a walk! And those social media influencers whose dogs are always photographed well-groomed, surrounded by flowers, and with cute music in the background? That's all staged! I know a couple of social media influencers (they are my clients too!) who have told me exactly what it takes to get those photos and videos, and I'm here to tell you, it ain't easy! So, why am I sharing this with you? I want you to stop being so hard on yourself. Let's think about what that really means.
First of all, let's set some realistic goals. If you have a new puppy, I can certainly understand wanting to do "everything right." But what's right in your home, may not be what's right in your neighbor's house. And while I will guide you in this regard, you need to tell me how you run your home so that I can make sure that the rules we establish for your new puppy coincide with the way you want the relationship to go. So, for example, I met a new puppy owner last week with 5 small children. Yep. Five little kids and a new puppy. I admire her strength! I was tired when I left there! Her primary goal is to have a puppy who is safe around kids. Period. While she'd obviously like the puppy to be well-mannered and housetrained, having the pup be good around her kids is paramount. I love that she said that and that she made that clear from the get-go. That means that when we work together, her kids will be present, and I will be watching them interact with their new puppy to insure, to the best of my abilities, that that relationship is a solid one, built on the the kids respecting the dog and vice versa.
Next, don't beat yourself up if you have a rough day. Rough week. Or even a rough month. I get that too. Your dog will understand if you're too tired to do two walks every single day. Yes, it IS good to plan on doing two walks a day with a healthy, adult dog, but sometimes it just isn't feasible. Maybe you can toss a toy for your dog instead, or have him chase a flirt-pole. If you're too tired for that, maybe just give your dog a bone to chew on so he can burn off his extra energy that way. But don't beat yourself up about those missed walks, late meals, forgotten bones, etc. It happens. Dogs are creatures of habit, but they can clearly see when we are having a bad day. Maybe you should just plunk down next to your dog and pour your heart out to him. Dogs are great listeners, even if they do appear to fall asleep while we are talking. They listen better with their eyes closed. Tomorrow is another day. You can walk him then. For now, enjoy his company. Dogs lives are short and a few missed walks is not a big deal in the grand scope of their lives.
And finally a word of caution. I had a client tell me a couple of weeks ago that she now felt bad for looking down on her sister-in-law whose dog was always so ill-behaved on family outings. My client had always had dogs who, in her own words, were easy to train and who fell in line quickly. That was until she acquired her current dog who is, to put it mildly, hell on wheels (her words exactly). She said she now feels bad for talking "mad trash" about her sister-in-law's dog training abilities because now she sees that it wasn't her sister-in-law, but the dog she had that caused all the problems. Now my client feels like SHE is being judged by her sister-in-law, and rightly so. While I try not to involve myself in family drama, I can see her point. It's time to apologize to her sister-in-law for being so judgy before and start putting in the hard work to get her current dog under better control so that family get-togethers aren't a nightmare of tipped over tables, stolen food, and knocked over guests. Her new dog is just 9 months old, so we still have time to make changes that will have lasting effects!
Be good to yourselves. And, as always, if you are having behavior problems with your pets, you know where to find me.