Miracle Cure for Dog Aggression!

February 28, 2019

aggressive dog on leash malinois editedI recently came across an online video that stopped me in my tracks. Essentially, it promised to stop dog aggression and reactivity “in minutes”. Naturally, I had to see this miracle for myself. Enter a trio of dogs who were barking reactively at passing dogs. The “trainer” struck the dog who was doing the most barking. Struck as in hit the dog with something that had been given a cutesy name but was actually a rolled up towel. The actual hitting was not shown, but rather, conveyed in text on the screen. (Apparently someone realized no one wants to see a dog being hit.) Not surprisingly, once the dog had been struck and startled, he stopped barking. Dogs are not stupid, and they understand how to behave in the moment in order to avoid being hit again. To be fair, there was mention of some training being done after this since the dogs were now calmer. And so, once again the other dogs were paraded past these dogs, who now remained silent. If you didn’t know any better you might be impressed, and might even believe that the problem had been solved. If you did know better, you’d notice the body language of the newly “trained” dogs, who were displaying subtle signs of anxiety and fear. The trouble is, whether on a television show, a Youtube video, or anywhere else, it’s all too easy to make it seem as though an aggression problem has been solved when in reality, the dog is simply suppressing the reactive behavior to avoid further pain.

Seeing a dog being being hit (or reading about it) gets all of our hackles up, and rightly so. But let’s take the emotion out of the situation for the moment and consider it logically. Does hitting or otherwise punishing a dog who is reactive to other dogs actually solve the problem? The majority of dogs who are classified as “aggressive” to others are actually displaying fear-based reactivity. They’re not comfortable with dogs in close proximity, so they bark and lunge in an attempt to increase the social distance between themselves and those dogs. And it often works, as dogs who are being walked past on leash do seem to move along! But what’s the real problem here? Is it the barking and lunging? No. That behavioral display is merely a symptom of the underlying issue, which is the dog’s emotional response to other dogs.

Dogs make associations between things by learning that one thing predicts the other. It’s simple classical conditioning. To use a human example, let’s say I’m afraid of spiders.  Each time I see one I scream. This really bothers you, and you wish I’d stop. So, you decide that each time I scream, you’re going to smack me. Well, I’m not stupid, so I learn quickly not to scream when you’re around. What did this accomplish? Now whenever I see a spider I’ve got one more thing to worry about, as I’ve associated spiders not only with being scared, but also with being smacked. I think Damn, I knew those spiders were trouble! If, on the other hand, you had shown me spiders at a distance at which I was still comfortable while feeding me enticing morsels of dark chocolate, gradually closing the distance as I became more relaxed, in no time at all I’d be raising my fist in the air and shouting, Bring on the tarantulas! Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. I’d have learned that spiders predict good things. With a bit of patience on your part, I would eventually lose the need to scream when I saw the creepy crawlies, because now they would predict something I really, really like. This example of classical conditioning works similarly for dogs, although it is not, of course, the entire solution to helping a reactive dog. (Just don’t feed them chocolate. Not only is it dangerous, but it leaves more for you.)

The vast majority of the time, behavior modification for serious issues such as fear or aggression is not a quick fix. It takes patience and dedication. It’s not something that is instantly cured as shown in a quick video clip, alluring as that might be. In reality, making meaningful changes in a dog’s behavior can be less than exciting to watch. But you know what? It actually works, and the change in the dog’s behavior lasts a lot longer than the length of a video shoot or the few minutes it takes to brag on camera. Again, real behavior modification takes time. But the reward for all that effort is that the dog’s underlying emotion changes, which naturally changes the behavior in the long term. So don’t be fooled. When things seem too good to be true, they usually are; and that applies double to fixing behavior problems in dogs.
________________________________________________________________________________
Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can find my books (including Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home, Help for Your Fearful Dog, and Don’t Leave Me!), seminar DVDs and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 


When “Come!” Means “Run the Other Way!”

February 21, 2019

recall practice crop smallHere’s a conversation I’ve had many times over the years with owners of small dogs:

He won’t come when I call him. He’s so stubborn!”
Could you show me? Can you call him now?”
The dog comes running…and stops a few feet away from the owner.

Why don’t these petite pooches come closer? Are they teasing their poor owners? Do they get near and suddenly smell something bad? No, and no. Those dogs know all too well that when they get close enough, their person will swoop down and pick them up, so they stop just out of arms’ reach. Not only does that swooping motion seem scary from a small dog’s point of view, but many dogs simply do not enjoy being air lifted.

It’s not only small dogs who learn not to comply with requests to come. There can be many reasons, but they all have to do with consequences. Imagine that you need to leave the house for a few hours and your dog, whose superpower seems to be shredding anything within reach, must be crated. You say, “Buddy, come!” Nothing. “Buddy, come on!” Again, nothing. Is Buddy deaf? Nope. Buddy, smart dog that he is, has learned that if he comes to you he’ll be put into the crate, which he does not love. In other words, Buddy has learned that, “Come!” means Run the other way!

Other unpleasant consequences from a dog’s point of view might include being put back on leash after running free, being removed from a dog park where he had been playing (if you’d like to know my feelings about dog parks click here), having to go back inside when he’d been romping in the back yard, being put in the car when the only places he goes is to the vet or the groomer…you get the idea. Coming to you when called should never result in something your dog perceives as unpleasant. Of course, there are times you need your dog to be with you immediately. In those cases, simply go and get your dog, or use a different word or phrase in a high-pitched, happy tone to encourage him to come to you. The reason for using a different word is that you don’t want to sully the magical recall word that predicts good things only.

It’s funny when you think about it. Don’t your dogs come running every time they hear “Cookie!” or “Treat!”? It’s a no-brainer. But are those words really magical? What if, instead of having used those words, you had instead said, “Come!” each and every time your dogs got something yummy? Don’t you think they’d be flying through space at warp speed to reach you when called? It’s all about conditioning. In the first few examples, your dog was conditioned not to come, whereas here, when he’s being rewarded each time he hears that magical word, he develops a positive association with it and is more likely to come whenever he hears it.

Years ago when my German shepherd Soko was alive, I heard barking in the middle of the night. It sounded suspiciously familiar, but it was coming from far off so I didn’t think much of it. When it didn’t stop after a few minutes, though, I ran out on the porch to investigate. Surprise! Soko had managed to get beyond our fencing and had run down the hill, across the dirt road, and up to our neighbor’s property. To say I was not pleased would be an understatement. Standing on my porch at 3 a.m. in my jammies, freezing my butt off while yelling, “Soko, come!” was not my idea of a good time. And yet, I used a pleasant voice, with the same pitch and intonation I used during training sessions, to call her. As she ran to me, although I was saying something along the lines of, “You little s#$)! You are a very bad girl right now!” the words were said in a happy, encouraging voice. When she reached me, I praised her and got her safely back inside. Had I yelled at her when she reached me, which is something I see so many owners do, I would have been punishing her for coming to me, not for what she’d done before that.

Instilling a solid recall is not rocket science, but we do need to be conscious of our actions not only when we’re training, but in everyday life. If we show our dogs over and over that “Come!” predicts only good things, and we are diligent about practicing around distractions, gradually increasing the difficulty over time, always with a positive consequence, our dogs will reliably come when called.
____________________________________________________________________________________________
Want free weekly training and behavior tips delivered right to your inbox? Sign up for Training Tips Tuesdays at www.nicolewilde.com (click on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop Mailing List). For alerts of new blog posts, click Subscribe at the top of this page. You can find my  books, DVDs (including Train Your Dog: The Positive, Gentle Method) and blog on www.nicolewilde.com. 


Permanent Separation and Strict Managment for Fighting Dogs

January 28, 2019

brown setter pugLast week, I wrote a blog called Dog Attacks Dog in Home: Is This Situation Salvageable? I received a lot of feedback on Facebook and in email, and some on the blog site as well. Unfortunately, many comments related stories of one dog gravely injuring or killing another. They were heartbreaking, horrific situations where management had failed. My heart goes out to those owners. There were also many comments describing how management had been successful and the owners were able to keep both dogs, and had lived that way for many years. But, one poster asked, what exactly is solid management? What does it entail for the average pet owner? Good question!

When two dogs who have previously cohabitated peacefully are suddenly fighting and no other resolution can be found, some owners opt to keep both dogs by implementing a strict management protocol. In a small space such as an apartment, keeping dogs safely separated is likely to mean using the “crate and rotate” approach, where one dog is crated out of sight and reach of the other dog, who is left at liberty. The dogs’ positions are then periodically switched. Of course, no dog should be crated all day; the idea is to rotate the dogs at least every few hours. The free dog gets exercise, potty breaks, attention, and whatever else meets his needs and makes him happy. Ideally, the crated dog would be napping or at least resting comfortably during that time. Sometimes, rather than a crate, dogs are simply kept in separate rooms or gated and let out separately.

In a larger space such as a home with a back yard, one dog normally stays in the yard while the other is in the house. Their positions are then rotated. Care should be taken, however, if there is a sliding glass door where the dogs can see each other, as constant, close visual contact would only cause stress. In that case, the outside dog might need to be kept in an area where he does not have access to the sliding glass door, or the inside dog would be restricted from the room where the door is located. Regardless of the management setup, both dogs should receive adequate daily exercise. If two people are available, the dogs could be taken out for walks, hikes, or runs separately early in the morning, for example, before the owners go off to work. If there is only one person available, the dogs will need to be taken for exercise one at a time. These double-the-exercise owners are very dedicated people who are in very good shape!

I know of many people who are and have been using separation protocols successfully for years. It is, however, very stressful for the humans, and may be for the dogs as well, depending on how it is implemented. It is always vital that no one in the family let down their guard. I have heard story after story along the lines of, “Everything had gone well for years, and then one day my son opened the door to the yard and Buster came in and immediately attacked Goldie.” It takes only one split-second mistake for tragedy to strike, particularly when a dog who means harm to another finally sees his chance and takes it. If there are young children in the home, the chances that protocols will be followed are drastically reduced. Even with the most responsible children, kids are kids and stuff happens. The same goes for teenagers who are distracted or irresponsible. At the other end of the age spectrum, I know of a family where the wife’s elderly father was living with them. The man was highly forgetful and, one day when the couple was away at work, he absentmindedly opened the sliding glass door to the yard. Tragedy ensued when one dog came in and killed the other.

Those are obviously worst case scenarios. Again, there are many who do successfully keep their dogs separated without accidents or unfortunate incidents. This is a personal decision, and the amount of stress and walking on eggshells that one will live with should be considered. People who choose this lifestyle are making a sacrifice for their dogs. Aside from the challenges of daily living, it can be difficult if not impossible to go on vacation, unless one has a pet sitter they trust implicitly. The other consideration, beyond the emotional stress and whether potentially irresponsible parties live in the home, is the age of the dogs. If one dog is 15 years old, it could be that management will only need to be implemented for a few months, or a year or two. The outlook is a lot different when both dogs are, say, under the age of three.

Whether or not to implement a strict management protocol in order to keep both dogs who are fighting is a personal decision, and is often a difficult one to make. Owners should be educated so as to make the best decisions, and should then be respected for their choices and offered support whenever possible.
_______________________________________________________________________________________
You can find my book Keeping the Peace: A Guide to Solving Dog-Dog Aggression in the Home and my other books and seminar DVDs at www.nicolewilde.com. Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly!


Dog Attacks Dog in Home: Is This Situation Salvageable?

January 22, 2019

dogs fighting graphicA trainer friend recently asked my advice about a situation involving three dogs who live in the same home. One of the dogs belongs to a young couple who are living with the girl’s parents, and the other two belong to the parents. The couple’s dog is a 60-plus pound bully breed mix, while the other two dogs are much smaller; one is fourteen years old. These circumstances alone do not necessarily guarantee trouble, but in this case, the larger dog had already attacked each of the other two dogs to the point that they required treatment by a vet. The couple is planning to move out of the house within the year, but what, my friend wanted to know, could they do in the meantime? Could training fix this issue and if so, how?

My response was that although it’s always a good idea for a dog to be trained, in this case, strict management was the answer. The dogs needed to be kept separate until the couple moved. You might have seen a television show where a trainer miraculously causes dogs who were previously fighting to throw their paws around each other’s shoulders and sing Kumbaya, but the reality is that this dog had already showed a willingness to hurt the other dogs. Had the attacks not been interrupted, he might have killed them.

Strict management is never easy. Even with the best of intentions, it is extremely stressful to live in a house where one has to be constantly on guard, constantly rotating dogs between safe spaces, and never feeling truly relaxed. Worse than that is if an owner rationalizes that the situation isn’t quite that bad, that it probably won’t happen again if everyone is being careful, and lets down their guard. Interestingly, someone recently brought up a blog post I wrote back in 2012 called Tough Decisions, which described two arguments that I use to this day with owners who want to keep dogs who are at high risk. The blog was about a 14-year-old dog who was at risk of being injured or killed by another dog in the home:

The first thing to consider: “Imagine that you’re living in a house with someone who has attacked you physically. Although someone is keeping him away from you, you know he’s around and that he wants to hurt and possibly even kill you. How anxious and stressed out would you feel, every single minute of every day you were at home? What would your quality of life be like?” (To clarify, this does not apply to those keeping their dogs completely separated visually and physically.) I went on to explain that chronic stress is not only harmful to dogs mentally and emotionally, but also physically; among other things, it can cause gastric ulcers, and suppress the immune system, which opens the door for a variety of diseases. Chronic stress was the last thing this poor 14-year-old dog, who had lived in the safe haven of a loving home all of those years, needed or deserved.

The other thing I said was, “Imagine that you decide to keep this dog, and the worst happens; she kills your 14-year-old dog. How would you live with yourself, when you knew this could happen and that you could have prevented it?” I have worked with many complicated, dangerous behavioral situations over the years, but when the truth comes down to that the dog should simply not be in the home, I have found posing these two questions helpful to allow owners to come to the right decision.

In the case of the young couple my friend was working with, since they would be moving and this was not a permanent situation, the dogs simply needed to be very carefully managed for a prescribed period of time. In permanent situations, tougher decisions have to be made. This is not to say that dogs who are fighting in a home can’t be taught to get along; to the contrary, as a behavior specialist, I’ve worked with many dogs in just this situation, and it is in fact the entire focus of my book Keeping the Peace. But when there is a huge differential in size and strength between dogs, with the bigger, stronger dog being the attacker, that is one very red flag. The same goes for young dogs attacking seniors. The other red flag is the history. If a dog has already demonstrated a proclivity to attack another dog, the intensity curve normally goes up, not down. Working with an experienced behavior specialist is absolutely warranted in scenarios where change is possible, or to assess a situation properly. But the bottom line is that in truly dangerous situations, for the physical safety, as well as the mental and emotional well-being of all involved, another solution should be found.
__________________________________________________________________________________________
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 


Who Can You Trust with Your Dog?

January 17, 2019

dog looking up at man pixabayDog owners sometimes need a little extra help. Maybe no one is home during the day and the dogs need to be exercised, or there are behavioral problems and training is needed.  Turning to a professional would seem to be the obvious solution, right? It is, but when it comes to hiring a professional to care for or work with your dog, it’s a case of buyer beware. Check out these two recent news stories:

A couple in California hired a dog walker for Olly and Maggie through Wag, a popular app for on-demand dog walking. After a few weeks, the dog walker, Adam Vavrus, called the couple about an incident that occurred during a walk.  Shortly after the call, the couple say, Ollie “threw up blood and just laid there.” The vet told them the specks of blood were signs of severe stress. When the couple went over their home surveillance video from the time of the last walk, they saw that Vavrus had shown up with four other dogs (something that is clearly against company policy). A few minutes into the video, he was seen approaching Olly from behind in a way that caused Olly to snap and bite him. Vavrus told an investigative news show reporter that he, “needed to test Olly and make sure he understood who the pack leader was.” He was also seen on video, in the course of 12 minutes, chasing Olly around the house, growling at him, kneeing him in the chest, and whipping him with a leash. The couple filed a police report and Vavrus was charged with animal cruelty. It should be noted that although Wag does an initial background check, an incident had occurred three months prior where several people at a dog park had called police to complain that Vavrus had been behaving aggressively toward animals there. There was no official complaint, so it’s likely that Wag had no way of knowing about it. Wag did cut ties with Vavrus and offered the couple a refund plus $100 credit toward future walks. I’m guessing those are never going to take place.

In a separate incident, a family sent their rescued dog Oreo to a Sit Means Sit franchisee. Annette Mansfield paid almost $2,000 to have Oreo live in trainer Billy Salcido’s home for a week. Salcido showed her the remote collar (a.k.a. shock collar, e-collar) that would be used, saying it would be set to vibration mode to get Oreo’s attention. When watching a video after the fact of Oreo being trained, Mansfield noticed a bloody wound on his neck. She panicked and demanded that Salcido bring Oreo back immediately, which he did. A veterinarian confirmed there were pronounced burn marks on Oreo’s neck, as well as raw sores on his paws and multiple wounds on his body. The family was traumatized, and so was Oreo. According to Mansfield, Oreo is now distrustful, skittish, and nervous around strangers, none of which he was before. When made aware of the incident, Sit Means Sit pulled Salcido’s license, refunded the training fee, and paid the veterinary bills.

These types of incidents are certainly not limited to these two companies. And I don’t believe that either of these companies, or any company that serves the public’s dogs, ever intend to cause harm. No doubt they hire people they feel will do a good job, or in the case of franchisees, people who will carry out the company’s mission in the prescribed way. And both of those offenders clearly did things that were not company policy or procedure. But how careful can a vetting process really be? It is standard practice to look into criminal records, and to root out sex offenders and people on global watch lists. But beyond that, can you really tell how someone is going to behave with a dog? In the cases of dog walkers or pet sitters, there’s the added liability of the person actually being in your home. Surveillance cameras can help if something happens inside the house, but that offers only limited coverage.

So, what’s an owner to do? When hiring a trainer, pet sitter, dog walker, groomer, or other canine professional, do your homework. First and best of all, try to get a personal recommendation from clients who have used the service before and have been pleased with it. Check with the Better Business Bureau to make sure no complaints have been lodged against the company or individual. Do a Google search to look for any news stories or complaints. If there’s a dog-related Facebook group for your local area, check out the comments about various professionals and post your own inquiry. You’ll certainly get an eyeful, both in recommendations and complaints. As far as pet sitters, mine, who I trust completely with my home and my dogs, is a member of and certified by Pet Sitters International. She is licensed and bonded, was recommended to me by a friend, and was able to provide references from other clients before I hired her. She is also certified in canine CPR, regularly attends seminars to expand her knowledge of dog behavior, and is certainly kind and gentle with my dogs.

As far as training and behavior modification, a personal recommendation is still best, but if you can’t find one, organizations such as the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, the Pet Professional Guild, and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants all have online trainer search functions. Although a license is not required for dog trainers in most U.S. states, you can find a trainer certified by the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, where becoming certified requires a certain level of experience, knowledge, and hands-on experience, depending on the level of certification.  But regardless of which search tool you use, speak to the potential trainer yourself and ask questions that go beyond pricing. You can ask about experience, but keep in mind that just because someone has 30 years of experience, it doesn’t mean they’ve evolved in that time. It might, however, weed out brand new trainers who might not be equipped to address more serious behavior issues. More importantly, inquire about training methods, and ask specifically which tools the trainer will and will not use and for what purpose. I also suggest asking, “When a dog is learning a new behavior, what would you do if he doesn’t comply?” The answer can be very telling. Answers along the lines of, “You just have to show them who’s boss,” for example, beg the question of how exactly that would be accomplished. My own approach to training is to set dogs up to succeed by teaching them in gradual increments. If a dog doesn’t comply while learning a new behavior, we go back to the step at which the dog was successful and build smaller steps from there. If a potential trainer gets their hackles up at these kinds of questions, move on. Ask too roughly how long the trainer thinks it might take to address your dog’s issues.

If your goal is to get your dog into a group class, watch the trainer teach class a few times before signing up. Any trainer who won’t let you do this should be crossed off your list. As far as board and train, be very, very careful. I’m not saying there aren’t good board and train facilities or individuals out there—there definitely are. But any time your dog is going to be not only out of your sight but out of your care completely, caution is warranted. (It’s important to understand too that even with board and train, you’ll still need to continue the training when your dog gets home.) Again, personal recommendations are best, but even then, interviewing the trainer who will be assigned to your dog is a must. Ask the previously mentioned questions and again, check for complaints against the company and do further research online. Ask whether you can watch the trainer work with other dogs before leaving yours in the facility’s care, and ask whether there will be a live feed or at least video of the training that you can monitor. Without any way to monitor the training, I would be very hesitant to leave a dog in anyone’s care.

Of course, anything could still happen with an individual who belongs to a reputable professional organization or works for a reputable company, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect on the organization or company as a whole (unless it seems to happen over and over to a particularly company, in which case, steer clear). And it’s true that there might have been no way for the owners to have prevented what happened in the two cases mentioned above. But in general, it is still incumbent on owners to check things out as thoroughly as possible, just as they would with a child, rather than blindly trusting any service professional with their dog. Above all, trust your instincts. Even with all the right credentials, experience, and everything else seeming perfect, if you get a bad feeling about someone, run the other way. There are plenty of good, qualified, ethical professionals who would be happy to have your business.
___________________________________________________________________________________________
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 


Learned Helplessness

January 9, 2019

scared german shepherd pixabay smallBob and Molly have a female spaniel mix named Ginger. Ginger is known to have fear issues, specifically, a fear of Bob. This Bob-o-phobia is not due to his ever having done anything terrible to her; it’s been this way ever since she was adopted. In the house, she runs from Bob, and will stay out of the room he’s in whenever possible. If gated in a room with him she shows signs of anxiety, pacing restlessly, unable to sit still, constantly darting worried glances in his direction. However, if Ginger is on a leash with Bob when they sit in the living room watching television at night, the couple says Ginger is totally calm. But is she really?

Ginger is displaying what is known as “learned helplessness.” This happens when a dog has learned that there is nothing they can do to escape a frightening situation. Whereas Ginger’s first instinct would have been to avoid Bob by leaving the room or keeping her distance, those options have been removed. When tethered to or forced to be in the room with the thing she fears, she knows she can’t escape or avoid it, so she doesn’t fight. She shuts down. Bob and Molly are not mean people. They simply do not understand the depths of Ginger’s fear, or what her behavior really means.

The story of how learned helplessness in dogs was discovered is not pretty. In the late 60s and early 70s, scientists Martin Seligman and Steven Maier conducted experiments where they would ring a bell and then shocked the dog, in order to determine whether the dog would eventually anticipate that the sound of the bell predicted a shock. Of course, it did. In the next set of experiments, they placed a dog into a box with two chambers divided by a low barrier. One side of the box was electrified and would deliver a painful shock. Without going into details of the experiment, what surprised the men was that the dogs who had learned in the previous experiment that there was no escaping being shocked would now simply lay down on the electrified side, making no attempt to get away. In other words, they shut down, resigned to the pain. The dogs who had not previously been shocked ran to the non-electrified side, thereby escaping the pain.

Those experiments were clearly barbaric. But no less barbaric in my mind is what went on at a workshop a friend of mine attended, given by a “trainer” who is known to use shock collars to modify behaviors from aggression to jumping up on people to having potty accidents (yes, shock collars on puppies). Like me, my friend does not use nor condone the use of shock collars, but she wanted to see for herself what actually went on. One after another, the dogs were brought up to the front of the room, and the dogs were goaded into demonstrating their problematic behaviors. Time after time, a shock collar was placed on the dog, and a high-level shock was administered. And guess what? Without fail, each and every dog stopped the unwanted behavior instantly. Was this amazing? Impressive? An instant cure-all? No. Not even close. It was a demonstration of ignorance on the part of the trainer and learned helplessness on the part of the dog. Those dogs knew damned well that if they jumped (or lunged, or barked) again, they would experience pain and fear. So, they just sat there, laid there, or in some cases stood there shaking. But the behavior had stopped instantly, and if you didn’t know better, you might believe the dogs were perfectly calm and the problem had been solved. Learned helplessness strikes again.

Helping fearful dogs has been close to my heart for a long time. For years, I worked with wolves and wolfdogs in the rescue center I co-ran in southern California. Wolves are naturally afraid of people, and many of our residents had to learn to trust us. I also worked for many years in the L.A. shelter system with hundreds of dogs, many of whom were fearful, and later with clients’ dogs who had fear issues. In fact, when I was writing Help for Your Fearful Dog, I intended it to be a much shorter book than the 400-plus pages it ended up as, but each time I thought it was finished, there was yet another fear-producing stimulus I felt the need to add a chapter about. But regardless of what a dog is afraid of, techniques like flooding, where the dog is forced to face his fear, or harsh punishment, is not the answer and does not solve the underlying problem.

The other issue with learned helplessness is that it’s the unwanted gift that keeps giving. These are the dogs who can have trouble learning new skills, because they are afraid to make a mistake. They are certainly a far cry from the happy, confident dogs who not only comply with requests, but offer behaviors in the hopes of being rewarded. But much worse than simply being less trainable at times, these dogs are anxious, worried, and insecure, afraid to do something for which they may be punished. That chronic stress can impact their health, and certainly does not make for a happy life. If the public were better educated that a dog who is forced to face his fears or is the victim of a painful aversive is not being calm but is simply giving up, there would be less use of flooding and other cruel “training” techniques, and the world would be a better place for dogs.
__________________________________________________________________________________________
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 

 

 


Sudden Changes in Behavior

December 18, 2018













I recently received an email asking for a training referral. The sender had two senior dogs, and the younger of the two was suddenly attacking the older one. There had been problems between the two when they were young, but they’d been getting along for many years. While I did find a trainer for the woman in her city, I also advised her to take both of the dogs in for a complete veterinary exam.

You might be thinking Hmm, a sudden behavior change could be linked to aggressive behavior, but why would she need to take both dogs in? Surely, it’s only the younger one who needs to be seen. While it’s true that the dog who is displaying the aberrant behavior should be thoroughly checked, sometimes the reason the dog has suddenly become aggressive is because the other dog, unbeknownst to the owner, is ill. Think about how in a group of dogs or wolves when the one in charge becomes sick or weak, another member might take advantage of the situation and challenge for rank, especially if his own standing has been suppressed for a while. Dogs often know when another dog is in decline before we do.

Both dogs should have a thorough blood panel done. Vets who are knowledgeable about the effects of physiology on behavior should know what to look for, but it doesn’t hurt to do a bit of research on your own and to share that knowledge with your vet. Check out the link between thyroid levels and aggression, including the work of Jean Dodds, DVM. Look into how issues with the liver can affect canine behavior. Beyond that—and this is something I don’t hear discussed often—I recommend having the dog checked out structurally beyond what normally happens in a cursory veterinary exam. Canine chiropractors are specialists who are much more likely to be able to discern whether a bone is out of place, a nerve is pinched, or something else is happening that’s causing pain or discomfort.

Maybe it’s because I’ve had so many issues with my own back that I understand all too well how, when something is out of place structurally and pain and inflammation strike, anyone can become cranky. Dogs are easily irritated when they’re in pain, and it’s unfortunate that a chiropractic approach is so seldom considered. When my mother was in a nursing home in her late 80s, she kept complaining that her neck hurt. She was clearly in a lot of pain and distress, and though she was normally pleasant and friendly, it made her grouchy and irritable. Who could blame her? The staff kept insisting it was part of what happened “at her age” and just kept pumping her full of pain pills. I told them she needed to see a chiropractor. They wouldn’t listen, and I finally arranged myself for her to be taken to one. One adjustment later and whaddayaknow! The pain was completely gone and she was back to being her own happy self. Doesn’t it stand to reason that something similar could be going on with a dog who was formerly happy and well behaved and is suddenly cranky and aggressive?

Of course, not all sudden aggression has a physiological cause. Changes in the household or the dog’s routine should be considered as well. For example, did someone the dog was close with move out of the home? Did someone new move in? Did a baby arrive on the scene? A change could also be environmental, like a construction site springing up next door. I’m very noise sensitive and can easily understand how a dog who was the same would becoming anxious and might take it out on a canine companion. And what about other senses? Even something like a new cleanser being used in the home could affect an odor-sensitive dog. Chemicals give me raging headaches, and although I haven’t seen any research on the subject, I would think it’s possible that it could happen to dogs as well. And, by the way, it’s not only aggression that can manifest suddenly. If a dog who has seemed fine when left alone is suddenly showing signs of separation anxiety, it may be that he’s feeling needier because he’s unwell or anxious.

Again, many times sudden behavior changes do have roots that are solely behavioral. But when the cause isn’t clear, it’s always best to do some sleuthing to rule out possible underlying factors. After all, if there is a non-behavioral cause, applying behavior modification alone isn’t going to solve the problem. When it comes to sudden behavior changes, a holistic view is always best. And if there’s fighting between your dogs that truly is behavioral in nature, check out my latest book Keeping the Peace for more help.
______________________________________________________________________________
You can find my books, seminar DVDs and blog at www.nicolewilde.com. Don’t want to miss a blog post? Subscribe above and be notified by email of new posts. You can also sign up for my Training Tips Tuesdays by going to www.nicolewilde.com and clicking on Join Nicole’s Inside Scoop List. You’ll get free tips on training and behavior weekly! You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter.

 


%d bloggers like this: