Wednesday, October 26, 2022

The Power of Chicken!

I met with a client this week whose dogs are anxious and hyper-vigilant, one out in public spaces and one at home with guests.  Neither dog is a bite risk per se, but both might snap if they felt cornered or threatened.  This was a new client, so I'm definitely a stranger to these dogs.  I asked the owner to have the dogs on leash for my arrival, and I'd take it from there.  

I ignored both dogs, directing my attention to the owner at the beginning of the appointment.  As I did so, one dog actively sniffed me, the other stood behind the owner and barked.  I asked the owner not to assign any attention to the barking behavior and focus on talking to me.  I began asking the curious dog to do simple behaviors like touch my fingers, sit, and turn in a circle. I rewarded these verbally and with a treat. Funny, he wasn't trying to jump on me anymore, nor was he grabbing my sleeve, two things the owner had hoped to correct but had had little success doing in the past.  The other dog was watching this and the second he stopped barking, I tossed a treat behind him.  He looked a bit taken aback at first, and then surreptitiously went over to see what I'd tossed.  He took the treat off the floor and as his head came up, I tossed another.  This went on for about a minute as I gradually tossed the treats closer to me.  Everything about this dog changed.  He went from anxious to interested.  He went from hiding behind his owner to boldly sitting in front of me, waiting to see what I'd do next.  I then proceeded to toss treats intermittently as we moved around with the owner showing me where her dogs sleep, eat, etc. When we moved out to the yard, a spot where both dogs normally patrol the fence line barking at the neighbor's dogs, the owner was surprised to see that her dogs could easily be called away from that activity and redirected by simply tossing treats in another direction.  

Next, we took each dog separately for a short walk. I often advise owners with multiple dogs to walk their dogs separately, particularly if one or more of the dogs are anxious or reactive when on leash.  Working with one dog at a time is easier on the owner AND the dogs.  You certainly don't want your calm dog picking up on or reinforcing the anxious dog's behaviors; this is a real risk as dogs do engage in observational learning.  It's also true that you want your dogs to enjoy their walks and those pack walks may be less than enjoyable if one or more of the dogs is too anxious to sniff, explore, and do dog stuff.  

One of my client's dogs is a puller on leash.  She thought this was because he was headstrong.  Truly, it wasn't so much that he was headstrong as it was that walks were something to get over with quickly so he could go home and not feel hyper-vigilant and anxious.  I had the owner slow her pace, give him a little more leash, and I began dropping treats for him to sniff and find. It was slow going at first as he's so used to never looking down and speeding along at warp 11.  Once he figured out that slowing down would pay off, I introduced the go sniff command with treats dropped near things I thought would be good to sniff.  Within about 5 minutes, he was walking calmly, not pulling, and looking around/sniffing the ground as we circled the block.  He even peed on a pile of leaves, something he's never done on a walk the whole time the owner has had this dog!  

We took the barker out next.  Normally, he barks intermittently through out the entire walk. He also doesn't sniff or explore.  He doesn't pull on leash so much as he darts around, barking and hiding behind the owner.  For this dog, I tossed a few treats on the ground at the start of our walk, just as a reminder to pay attention to me.  We started walking and as the owner was telling me which houses were most triggering for her dog, I preemptively dropped my hand and her dog took a treat right from my hand.  We walked right past dogs barking in the window with her dog giving them one glance and then returning his focus to me and the treats. He only startled once when a UPS truck drove past us; he was able, however, to let it go and return his focus to the "game" of when-will-that-new-lady-drop-a-treat-again.

The power of chicken, you ask?  Nah, though that's what the owner thought. She wanted to know what treats I was using so she could get them too.  You guys, it's not about the brand of treat per se, it's about the delivery.  I never bribed, cajoled, begged, or inadvertently reinforced any behavior I didn't want to see happening again.  My focus was on the dog, shaping calm, enjoyable behaviors using treats.  I wasn't using those treats to distract her dogs, rather I was using them to motivate her dogs.  She sheepishly admitted that she hadn't used treats in a long time and a trainer she'd worked with told her that the dogs were "too old to need treats to be obedient."  You already know how I feel about nonsense like that.  Everybody likes to get paid regardless of age or capability.  Rewards are a fundamental part of any relationship; if the relationship isn't rewarding, why stick around?  

Part of the problem with these two dogs was that the owner had made the mistaken assumption that training stopped once her dogs weren't puppies anymore.  Learning happens for a lifetime, so you need to be ready to reinforce what you like seeing and redirect from what you don't. While I do love a good training class, these two dogs didn't need classes, they needed structure and consistency and rewards at home. They needed to be gently guided into making better choices. They needed to be separated from each other so that they didn't constantly feed off of each other's anxiety.  They also needed to be trained together, particularly in the backyard, so that nuisance barking, digging, etc. could be curbed and that energy could be redirected to more appropriate tasks.

Using treats doesn't have to be bribery or a crutch.  Rather, using treats is a form of commerce for our pets.  It's a way of capturing their attention and shaping the behaviors you want to see.  For example, barking is a normal dog behavior, so it isn't that we don't want them to bark at all, we just want them to bark at the important stuff (important to us, that is) and stop barking when we ask. If you have treats in your pocket when your dog is barking, you are on the right track!  Whistle, clap your hands, stomp your feet, whatever it takes for them to stop barking for a millisecond and look at you.  Say "Yay!" and toss a treat away from the direction that they are barking (make sure they see you do the toss).  As soon as they've picked up that treat, ask for a simple behavior that runs counter to barking and vigilance (sit, down, shake, etc.), and give them another treat.  Now that you have their undivided attention, send them off on another task (go find your toy, for example) and you are all set.  This doesn't mean they won't bark again at the window when someone walks by, it simply means that they will understand that doing so has consequences.  They were good consequences, desirable to the dog and to you.  

Now, before anyone comes at me with "this is going to make my dog fat," let's be reasonable here.  If you are using treats to reinforce behaviors you like, you can just as easily use their kibble to do so.  You can also feed your dog the majority of their food/calories during training.  You can also just simply substitute calories in their daily allotment, meaning feed them less to counterbalance the treats you are using for training.  It's really not complicated and I don't want anyone to use "too many calories" as an excuse for not having snacks for their dogs in their pocket.  Dogs do not need to eat from a bowl; working for their food is a much more natural, brain-challenging, anti-anxiety activity.

Just to be clear. I am NOT saying that food is love.  What I am saying is that everyone likes to get paid for a job well-done.  Don't bribe your dogs, pay them.  Pay them with food, love, and activities they enjoy. You know, the stuff that makes for a good relationship.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My daughter's smooth collie, Westley, has situational anxiety.  There are several ways we keep that anxiety in check, everything from tricks training to nose work.  This is him giving me a big dramatic bow as he sees me putting treats in my pocket as I head out the backdoor to work with him.  He's ready to work AND ready to get paid!

Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Coaches, Cheerleaders, and Advocates!

I worked with a couple of different clients this week who told me I was better than any coach they'd ever had.  I got such a kick out of this as I've never really thought of myself as a coach, per se.  I'm more of a cheerleader, rooting my clients on to make the best of their relationships with their pets.  And I'm definitely an animal advocate, educating people on the science behind the behavior, why animals behave the way they do, and how we can improve their lives.  But a coach?  How cool is that! It got me to thinking about what it takes to be an effective coach, and I realized that the most effective coaches I know provide solid guidance while also being cheerleaders and advocates for their students.  

It's true; a lot of what I do is educate pet owners.  Yes, I work with their pets directly, and I'm certainly hands on, where appropriate, but most of what I do is teaching people.  These two clients loved that I gently guided them and then cheered them on as they gained confidence and made breakthroughs in working with their anxious pets. Here's the thing:  I love cheering folks on.  I love to see their faces light up when they get reinforced too.  Maybe I should start carrying people treats in my pocket as well as those dog treats.  You see, people need reinforcement just as much as their pets do.  They need to know what they are doing is the right thing; that they are helping their animals become less anxious; that they are providing the best experiences and enrichment activities that will enhance their relationships with their pets. 

Sure, there have been times when I've wanted to holler "ACK!  You're doing it all wrong!" But that kind of response/reinforcement (punishment is reinforcement, after all, just not the kind any of us enjoy) isn't going to help my clients or their pets, though it might make me feel better in the moment.  Pet owners come to me for guidance on serious behavior problems.  Most of them have already beaten themselves up pretty bad over what is going on, feeling like they must have done something wrong to end up in this spot.  A lot have even had friends and family tell them that they "screwed up."  Not helpful, to say the least.  No wonder these folks need a coach! 

So, I'm going to continue to get excited when my clients use the techniques and tools I've given them. I'm going to continue to cheer them on in their pursuit of harmony in their home.  And I'm definitely going to continue to use science and rock solid methodologies in the treatment of behavior problems so I can continue to advocate on behalf of those who have no voice, but rely on us to help them...our pets.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My collie team waiting for their "coach" to give them their next "play!" 

Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Choosing to Celebrate

Years ago, my dear friend, Trish, and I threw a birthday party for our dogs. Our dogs were brothers and we invited their littermates, previous litter half siblings, and a bunch of other collies. We invited people who loved collies, loved our dogs, and loved the things that we loved.  Goofy things like doggie goody bags, a soccer ball pinata filled with dog cookies, cut apples, and cut carrots, and dogs bobbing for apples in a wading pool.  There was a little agility course, just for fun, with hula hoops for jumping through, or just hula-hooping.  Trish grilled for the humans (yes, there were hotdogs for the dogs as well) and we sang happy birthday to our dogs as they turned a year old.  While I know there are some who would look upon that party as a ridiculous endeavor, I treasure those memories.  You see, that was our first collie and he died at a young age.  He didn't get a lot of birthdays, so I'm glad we celebrated that one.  And I am grateful for my friends and family who showed up that day and had a great time.

I've always celebrated the birthdays of my pets, even when they were rescues with unknown birthdates.  We just picked a date that seemed right, and that was that.  My pets didn't care (obviously); they were just happy to be celebrated, regardless of the day.  And that's the point.  Dogs do enjoy being celebrated.  They may not know what the fuss is about, but they like the attention, the treats, and the gifts.  Dogs are terminal toddlers; even the boxes and packaging are a gift to them!

This week we are celebrating Desi's 12th birthday.  This is a milestone in our home as none of our collies have lived this long.  We are grateful for every day with him and happy to celebrate his special day.  This year, he'll get to celebrate twice, once when his buddy Westley can be here, and once on the actual day.  Why not celebrate twice?  Getting to 12 years of age when you're a big dog is a big deal!  

I'm guessing if you've read this far, you're trying to figure out why I've told you all of this, and here's why.  Even if you don't view your pets as family members, or you don't celebrate their birthdays, you need to be kind to those of us who do.  While you may feel it's silly or frivolous, it's important to us.  I have clients who will sheepishly tell me when I arrive for an appointment that it's their pet's birthday. I always get excited and ask if we should sing them happy birthday and ask if they will be celebrating later.  I know that for my clients with their special needs pets, anxious pets, etc., reaching these milestones is a big deal.  By all means, let's celebrate!

So, by all means, celebrate those milestones with your pets. Post the pictures of their parties and gifts.  Don't shy away from doing so on my account.  Those are exactly the kinds of posts I like to see in my social media feeds; dogs and cats being celebrated and enjoyed for just being themselves.  

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Happy 12th  Birthday, Desi!  
Enjoying his cake, his buddies, and the love of his family

Wednesday, October 5, 2022

When Time Isn't On Your Side

I met with a client over the weekend who is feeling quite desperate.  She has two dogs, both with fairly significant behavior problems.  She's been working with a dog trainer on and off for over 6 months, but she doesn't feel that they are making any headway, beyond basic obedience skills.  She's feeling a lot of pressure to do something (maybe even return one of the dogs to the breeder) because she has family coming to stay in both November and December and her dogs aren't going to do well with new people in their home. Her veterinarian suggested working with me as the issues she's having aren't about obedience per se, but about anxiety.

Animals, just like people, experience anxiety.  Some animals are more anxious than others, whether due to genetics, experience, or a combination of the two. Anxiety cannot be erased, but it can be managed, if you know what triggers your pet's anxiety and make changes to reduce or remove those triggers.  Some of the pets I see have multiple triggers and experience anxiety even when home alone with their owners.  For these pets, therapeutic intervention in the form of daily medication is often needed to control serotonin levels in their brains, promoting a more stabilized mood and thus less anxiety overall.

As you may have already guessed, treating anxiety in our pets isn't about short term solutions or quick fixes, but about making those long term changes that will result in a more content and stable animal as a result.  Some of those changes may be difficult for the humans involved; some may even be impossible to do.  You still need to consider those changes, however, in order to understand what it will take to keep that animal safe and improve their quality of life.  Let me give you an example.

If your dog is anxious about meeting new people, hiding behind you perhaps, or maybe even blustering and barking and rearing up when approached by anyone he doesn't know, then it's up to you to control those encounters with new people, even minimizing them so that the fearful/anxious behavior doesn't get continually repeated and thus reinforced. If it's just occurring on walks, you can change when and where you walk, while working on strategies that increase your dog's confidence.  If, however, that stranger anxiety occurs in your home when guests visit, then you will obviously have to make some significant changes in order to keep your dog safe and under threshold when you have visitors.  If those visitors are coming next month and planning to stay at your house, then you may need to either ask those guests to stay elsewhere, board your dog (if possible), etc.  What you don't want to do is "wing it," assuming that you can just put your dog in another room or crate him with the guests there.  That might work as a short term solution for guests coming for a 3 hour party, but it most certainly isn't going to work, and will likely create more anxiety for your dog, if you try to do that while guests stay with you for a week.  

Anxiety will take longer than a month to get a handle on.  And it isn't going to go away just because your veterinarian prescribed Prozac for your dog.  Prozac and other medications of that kind are supportive, not curative. Treating anxiety takes work and an understanding that there will be setbacks along the way.  You have to remain compassionate (and retain your sense of humor) and be persistent in your pursuit of relief for your anxious dog. I find it helpful to give my clients an action list of things they can do right now, things they can do preemptively to help reduce anxiety in the future, and goals to work toward. That way, they have more realistic expectations for what it will take to help their pet going forward.

I do understand that treating a pet for anxiety isn't easy and that it can be frustrating.  I cannot, however, make the process go any quicker for you and your pet.  If it is the case that you simply cannot provide the time and care needed to treat your pet's anxiety, that's okay!  This doesn't make you a failure, a horrible person, or selfish. It just means you aren't equipped to take on a pet with extra needs.  The time to decide that, however, is not the week before you have guests coming to stay with you.  Re-homing a pet, particularly one with anxiety, takes time to find a good match, that is one that won't cause your pet added stress and anxiety.

We humans can be so hard on each other, judging each other harshly, whether that's about our own coping abilities and handling of daily stressors, or that of our beloved pets.  Until you've lived with, cared for, or yourself had to manage anxiety in a loved one (furred or otherwise), you really need to refrain from offering platitudes and quick fixes.  Ask how you can help.  That's what I do.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

My granddog, Westley, is a pretty happy dog most of the time, but he does suffer from situational anxiety.  He has noise sensitivities and he will anticipate stressors (like garbage trucks coming even though it isn't garbage day) which can cause him to be anxious in the absence of an obvious stressor.  Consequently, Westley takes a tincture of CBD made for dogs on days when his anxiety cannot be adequately managed with mental and physical exercise alone. Westley is not alone in being a dog with noise sensitivities. I meet them all the time!