Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One.

If you’ve taken the first steps towards becoming a volunteer at an animal shelter, then congratulations!  You’re about to have a fun and rewarding experience.   As I discussed in a previous post,  Volunteering at a shelter (animalnerd.com, there are a lot of ways to contribute to the operation of a shelter and to the welfare of the animals housed there.  My own area of expertise is in handling and socializing shelter dogs, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

The first thing to do is to go through your shelter’s orientation program, paying particular attention to animal handling and safety measures.  I can’t stress that enough.  Second, become familiar with the equipment that you will be using, including how it should fit properly.  For example, martingale collars should be fitted so that you can fit two fingers under them when they’re drawn tight.  And every dog harness fits differently – you should practice putting them on dummies or large stuffed animals before trying to put them on a live dog.  In (  ), I discussed my preferred way to hold a dog’s leash to keep him from pulling it out of your hand, or pulling you off-balance.  You might find it helpful – but if you find a method that works better for you, please post it.  Third, have some appetizing dog treats.  They don’t have to be expensive, a hot dog that’s been chopped into tiny pieces works just as well as designer dog morsels.  The smaller and stinkier they are, the better.

Now you’re ready to deal with a shelter dog.  There are a few of things to keep in mind when you approach one of these dogs for the first time:  First, be constantly aware that this dog is highly stressed and overstimulated.  No matter how much a shelter tries to make itself a quiet and easy place for a dog to be housed, it is still a highly stressful experience for them.  These dogs have been separated from whatever life they’ve known and are in a new place where they’re being constantly bombarded with new noises, new smells and new people who handle them, wash them and perform medical exams and procedures on them.   These pups are completely on edge.   Second, keep in your mind that this dog doesn’t know you.  As far as he’s concerned, you’re just another human.  This may change over time as you handle this dog in days to come, but for the first few times that you handle him, you’re just someone with a treat bag who’s holding the leash.  Third, remember that you are not there to do the specific job of walking the dog:  You are there to help the dog get adopted, and that may mean helping him to cope with the stress.  You are not there to add to his stress level.

Watch the dog as you approach his run and observe his body language and facial expressions.  Do not immediately open the door, just stay relaxed and calm and see what he does as you approach.  Also, do not stand squarely in from of the entrance and lock eyes with him or stare at him, this can be perceived as threatening.  Instead, turn yourself about 45 degrees away from him, and see what you can detect from his general posture and expressions.   Is he watching you or turning away?  Does he approach you as you stand outside?  Is he fearful and guarding the entrance?  I’ve included some good links (Below) for interpreting canine body language and facial expressions, which may help you in decoding the messages that the dog is sending you at first meeting.

Don’t rush your first meeting.  If the dog is so stressed that he is growling or showing teeth, then you might decide not to even go inside his run.  In my experience, this sort of reaction isn’t uncommon when a dog is newly arrived in a shelter.  Just keep yourself turned somewhat away from his run and sit or kneel down outside it where he can see you.  Be as non-threatening a presence as possible.  If possible to put some treats into his run without opening the door or putting any part of your hand inside, go ahead and do so.   And just stay there for a while, so he can get used to the idea that you aren’t scary.  After a while he may settle down and you might be able to enter the run safely.  If not, or if you are uncomfortable going inside, then just maintain a calm presence until he begins to relax, and then let him be while you go handle another dog.  By doing that alone, you are helping him to adjust to the shelter and making it easier for the next person.

Which brings me to my next point:  Work within your comfort level.  If you feel that a dog is too worked up or too strong for you to handle, if you feel that the dog is dangerous or if you are just uncomfortable with a particular dog for any reason, end the interaction on a positive note and leave him in his run.  There’s no problem or stigma associated with that.  In fact, the shelter staff would appreciate that as feedback about the dog.  You can’t help a dog if you are stressed out while working with him.  And part of the reason that you’re there in the first place is to enjoy yourself.

Once you’re inside the run with the dog, continue to relax and take it slow.  You might not be able to leash him up during the first meeting – which is perfectly OK.  The dog can react to you in a number of ways.  You may get an excited, even overly excited greeting, with the dog jumping on you or even mouthing.  If this happens, it is an excellent time to start working on socialization and behavior management.  Just turn your back on him and stop all interaction until he’s stopped with all four paws on the floor, then give him a calm bit of praise.   If he starts over-reacting again, repeat this lack of feedback as many times as necessary.  If he doesn’t stop after five minutes (which will seem like an eternity while you’re in there), then leave and come back later.

On the other hand, the dog may retreat and huddle as far away from you as possible.  If this happens, my preferred response is to sit or crouch down, facing away at a right angle, and let him calm down.   Watch his face and posture for hints as to his level of stress (below).  The key thing is to let him set the pace of the meeting.  Since we have limited time to work with these dogs, I sometimes get the dog to approach by scattering a few treats in the space between him and me.  The important thing is to not increase his anxiety.  If he doesn’t approach you at the first meeting, that’s perfectly OK.  You can leave, let him scarf up the treats that you’ve put out, and come back a little later to try again.  It may take a few visits to get him to relax and approach you.

In any case, there are a few things that you should definitely NOT do.  First, never approach the dog (or any unfamiliar dog) head-on and bend over them.  This is a threatening posture, and he may react either fearfully.  Always turn at an angle and make yourself a little smaller.   Also, do not loom over the dog when you’re attaching a leash or putting on his harness.  Put yourself alongside him, facing in the same direction as him, and spend as little time as possible reaching over him.

That’s enough to cover in this post.  In the next article, I’ll discuss leashing up the dog and handling him on a walk.  As always, please feel free to comment or add your experiences.

References:

Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu)

Guide to Reading Your Dog’s Body Language | PetMD

7 Tips on Canine Body Language | ASPCApro

Volunteering at a shelter

If you’re reading this, you’re interested in being a volunteer for an animal rescue or shelter.  Which, I can tell you, is a wonderful experience – whether you are helping to care for dogs, cats, birds, farm animals or any other of our fellow creatures.  And, as in all things we do, you will find volunteering rewarding in proportion to the thought and effort that you put into it.  I’ve been volunteering for years at a shelter here in Rhode Island and would like to share some of the things I’ve learned.

First, think about what you want to do and carefully pick the shelter that matches your interests.  Take some time and think about what you’d like to do as a volunteer and then look at the websites for the various shelters and rescue organizations that are near to you.  Research their rules and requirements, and their various volunteer programs.  You may find that some are looking for help in areas that do not match your goals.  You may also find that some have hours set aside for volunteer work that do not line up with your available time.  For example, I know of a wonderful avian shelter that has very specific in-house training requirements for volunteers that may be more than you want to take on.  Or you might find that a shelter has specific time slots for volunteers so that they can maintain a certain number of personnel on site during the day, which may be unworkable for you.  Take your time and look at every shelter that interests you and is within a reasonable distance for you before plunging in.

Second, I suggest that you stay local.  If you want to be active with a shelter organization, you should pick one that is within a relatively easy commute.  Your time is important, and you don’t want to spend your day in your car.  If you’ve decided that you can spend “x” number of hours helping at a shelter each week, you don’t want to add a lot more time to that just driving back and forth.

Third, be flexible.   You might sign up to walk and socialize dogs, care for cats, feed the animals, assist with adoptions or do groundskeeping (a very important and often overlooked function), but you might be asked to do other tasks as well.  Many shelters are dependent upon volunteers for their basic functions; you might have opportunities to help with a fundraising activity, transporting animals, or doing other tasks that help the shelter function.  Remember, you’re there to help.

Fourth, check your ego at the door.  Shelter staffs are underpaid and overworked.  They are busy with essential functions every moment they are at work.  Believe me, they appreciate what you’re doing to help them and the animals, even if they don’t always have the time or energy to say so.  Seeing the animals go home with adopters is your reward.

Fifth, watch and learn.   The more you know about the operations of the shelter, the better you can help the staff to run it and the more assistance you can provide.  If you don’t understand why something it being done, ask.  Keep in mind that a reputable shelter must function within strict state and local regulations regarding almost all of its activities, from animal care to fundraising.  Take all the training that the shelter can offer you, from orientation to advanced care.

Sixth, stay positive.  Shelter staffs are stressed and fatigued, and if you can be a positive presence, it makes their jobs a little easier.  And every day won’t be a good day.  You’re inevitably going to find that the animals’ stories don’t always have a have a happy ending.  And if you find that a particular case is heartbreaking, keep in mind that its even harder on the shelter staff.

Seventh, be good at what you do.  If you are there to clean dog runs or cat cages, to do administrative work or to feed the animals, do it well.  If you are there to do maintenance or groundskeeping, do an excellent job.  Each of these functions is essential to the health and welfare of the animals – which is why you’re there in the first place.

Again, these are just my observations.  You might find that there are aspects of shelter volunteering that I’ve missed, or that I haven’t made a point well enough.  Feel free to comment or add your observations.

Dog Pulling, Part 3 – When to consult a behaviorist

This dog is reacting to something that he and the owner encountered on their walk.

In my previous post on this subject, Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash | The Animal Nerd , I discussed methods of managing and training a dog who pulls on a leash habitually.   I also went into detail on the best way to harness and leash a pulling dog, to remain in control of the walk, and some methods on reducing the pull and training him to walk politely with a human handler.

But these methods aren’t guaranteed.   There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and pulling isn’t due to one single cause.  The dog may pull because of a prey drive (Squirrel!!!) or be reacting to something that he sees or hears.  He may be pulling towards another dog, out of either excitement or fear.  The pulling may intensify due to his frustration at being restrained.  At some point, it may become necessary to call in a professional.

Most dog owners do not have the training and experience needed to identify the cause of a dog’s behavior or to correctly determine their dog’s emotional state.  I routinely hear accounts of dogs suddenly taking off or acting aggressively with no warning and taking their owners completely by surprise.  And I have no doubt that this is what the owners perceived.  However, the fact is that dogs are constantly communicating their emotions and excitement level; the owners in these cases just didn’t see the behavioral clues that the dogs were sending them.

So, when in doubt, seek help.  If you find that your dog is lunging towards other dogs, people, etc.; or if you are simply having continued trouble with his behavior on leash, its time to get a qualified professional to help.  And by qualified, I mean a canine behaviorist or behavior consultant who has been certified by either the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC,  International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (iaabc.org)) or the Certifying Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT, Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org)).  By seeking professionals who are credentialed by these organizations, you will be getting help from people who are not only experienced but have demonstrated knowledge in canine behavior and – most importantly – abide by a strict standard of professional ethics Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org).

When you’re hiring a behavior consultant, here’s what to look for:

  1. Look for someone who offers to carefully observe you and your dog prior to identifying the cause of the pulling behavior, and then tailors the treatment of that behavior to the cause and conditions under which it occurs. If he wants to start in with a leash training session without first observing and documenting or recording you and your dog’s behavior, you probably want someone else.
  2. Does he take the time to ask you what result you want, or what you would like the dog to do instead of pulling your arm off? It isn’t enough to make the dog stop doing something, you must teach him what to do instead.
  3. Does he offer to “board and train” your dog at his facility? If so, find someone else.  Your dog isn’t a car that can be dropped off with a mechanic when it acts up.  The whole point of the training is for you to learn how to interact with your dog.
  4. You want a trainer or behaviorist who will abide by LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) principles, Force-Free and/or Fear-Free behavioral methods. You want someone who can help you reduce your pup’s excitement and anxiety level, so he can enjoy a quiet walk with you.
  5. An ethical trainer will use the minimum equipment necessary to reduce the undesired pulling. The proper use of collars, leashes and harnesses was discussed in a previous post.  Any aversive training tools, such as electrical collars, slip leads or prong collars, should be used only as a last resort.   If the trainer mentions these aversive methods as a standard training tool, find someone else.
  6. Take the time to review the CCPDT standard of ethics (above) prior to interviewing a trainer or behaviorist.

I hope this was helpful.  As always, you can contact me with any questions at headnerd@animalnerd.com or in Facebook @animalnerd.

Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash

As we discussed in the earlier post on this subject Dogs Pulling. How to enjoy a loose-leash walk with your dog. | The Animal Nerd, the first step in resolving the issue of a dog pulling on leash is for both of you to get out the door in a relaxed state of mind, without undue excitement.  At the risk of repeating myself, you can’t whip your dog into an excited frenzy and then expect him to behave politely on a walk.

The real fun begins once you and your buddy start your walk.  If you are looking for help in resolving a pulling issue, I can assume that the problem is already well established.  There are a few things to establish before beginning a treatment for pulling:

First:  First, is he just pulling because that’s what he does?  Is this just his normal response to being on leash, does he pull you towards something in particular?   If he just constantly pulls, or just pulling because he wants to get to the next interesting thing, this is a learned behavior.  He has learned that pulling gets him some reward or reinforcement for doing so.  He may be getting to where he wants to be, he may be getting attention and feedback from you, he may be enjoying taking you for a run.  In any case, he has learned that this is how he should act while on a walk. 

Step one: Hold the leash across the palm of your hand with the loop dangling from the top.

 

Before starting on having him relearn his leash manners, you need to have the right tools.

First of all, use a standard 6-foot leash, a martingale collar and a front-clip harness.  I prefer a leather leash, but canvas or any other strong fabric will work just as well.  The martingale collar has pieces:  a collar that fits over the dog’s head, and a circle of fabric that connects to the lead and gets drawn closed when the dog takes up the slack in the lead.  This is not a choke collar – when the fabric circle is drawn tight, it snugs up the collar to the dogs’ neck to prevent him from backing out of it without affecting his breathing.

With regard to the harness, for dogs with thicker coats, an Easy Walk Harness goes on very easily and works well.  For dogs with very short coats, like bully breeds, a Freedom Harness is a little more complicated to put on but has a closer fit with felt padding.  The key is to fit the harness correctly and snugly, so that you can put two fingers between any of the harness straps and the dog’s skin.  And the most important thing is to clip the lead to the front of the harness, on the dog’s chest.  I make a habit of connecting the lead to both the collar and the front ring of the harness, simply because they are both only as strong as the plastic clips used to fit them and to hold the harness straps in place.  By clipping the lead to both, if one of the clips should break, you still have control over the dog.

The key is to have the lead clipped to the dog’s chest.  This way, if he pulls on the lead, he finds himself pulled around to one side, towards you.  Never attach the lead to the back ring of the harness unless you are training him to pull something like a sled.  Many dogs have an oppositional reflex that leads them to pull forward whenever they feel a weight or pressures pulling them backwards.

How to hold the leash:   If you are holding the leash by its loop, or putting the loop around your risk, you are aiding and abetting his pull.   By holding the leash in that fashion, you are giving him all the leverage and allowing him to pull your arm out to its full length and pull you off balance.  The fact is, unless you have a truly giant dog, you are bigger and stronger and should not be pulled anywhere.

Step two: Bring the loop around the back of your hand and put your thumb through it.

 

 

When I’m teaching  leash manners, my favorite method of holding this leash is this:  Put the leash across the flat of my palm with the loop a couple of inches above the web between my thumb and forefinger and the rest of the leash trailing below the bottom of my hand.  Then bring the loop end around the back of my hand and back up from the bottom of my palm, putting the loop around my thumb.  This locks the leash in place so the dog can’t pull it away from me, and by having the lead trail out from the bottom of my fist I have all the leverage provided by my back and shoulder muscles.  Advantage, human.

Once you’ve established control over the dog’s ability to pull, the next step is to teach him that the real fun lies in staying near you and matching your pace.

The first exercise I use is to simply start with the basics.  Start small, in an area with few distractions, leash him up and calmly walk around, changing direction frequently.  Every time you change direction, prompt him by saying something like “This way!” or “With me!”  (I avoid using “Come!” or any other command that I use for other purposes).  And when he joins you in changing direction, reward him with a treat.  You can improve this exercise by making a small maze, using whatever is at hand:  chairs, folded tables, partitions, etc., and walking him through it, making random turns and prompting him.  The result is to teach him to watch you for signals as to where the two of you are going, and reinforce changing direction with you.

Another exercise is the “Lunging Drill”, which teaches him the radius of the leash, and reinforces staying with his handler.    Find an open area with a flat surface, fill up your treat bag with his favorite stuff, leash up your dog, and stand in the middle of that space.  Show him a treat and gently toss it outside the radius that he can reach while you’re holding the leash.  Stand still and let him try to get to it without correcting him or providing any feedback (be a tree).  When he stops straining at the leash, praise him and walk him towards the treat.  If he starts straining at the leash again, stop and stand still until he allows the leash to go slack again.  Then walk him to the treat.  Repeat the exercise until he stops straining for the treat and has learned that the best way to get to it is to stay with you.

Then simply close your hand around the leash, locking it in place. This provides stronger control over the dog.

These exercises should be done for short periods, only about 15 minutes at a time, two or three times a day.  Once he has the basic principles down pat, you can take the treat bag with you on your walks and incorporate the direction change game and the lunging game into your walk routine.   These simple exercises should increase his interaction and attention to you, and help in having him walk with better manners and without pulling or straining at the leash.

Keep in mind that walks are the high point of his day.  He experiences the world through his nose, let him stop and have some good sniffs without being rushed.  If he wants to stop and smell something interesting, let him have a few moments with it before prompting him to continue.  This will further reduce his excitement level and help him calmly move on to the next fascinating sniff.

In my next post, I’ll address dogs who pulling in reaction to something, which could be a person, another dog, a truck, etc.

Dogs Pulling. How to enjoy a loose-leash walk with your dog.

The first step in training a good loose-leash walk:   Getting Out the Door.

You want to have a nice, relaxing walk with your dog.  You want to enjoy the fresh air, chat with people a little, and have some easy and quiet time with your buddy.  And then you find yourself being dragged along by an Iditarod wanna-be, who’s completely obsessed with getting to the next thing he wants to sniff and treats you like a sled.  This is not what you signed up for.  How did this happen and how do you change it?

This isn’t relaxing or pleasant for either you or your dog.

The first thing you have to realize is that going for a walk is a big deal for your dog.  It’s the best part of his day.  He gets to sniff new things, works of pent-up energy and he’s spending time with his favorite person.  He’s excited to get out there and get started.   If he is already over-excited about going outside for a walk, and is jumping or doing doughnuts in the house because he’s so eager to go, then its pretty unreasonable to expect him to immediately settle down and be perfectly polite once you go out the door.  You want him to be in a pretty mellow state of mind when you’re headed out the door, and that begins when you decide that its time for the walk.  So, the first thing to do is to extinguish any over-arousal or inappropriate excitement when you’re getting ready to do.

If he already has an established behavior of over-excitement before the walk even starts, addressing that is the first step in teaching him leash manners.  Before starting this, ask yourself if you are contributing to this excitement.  Face it, how excited for the walk are you?  You probably enjoy it but, as far as you’re concerned, its not a big deal.  That’s the message you want to convey to your pet before you leave.  Don’t make a big deal out of getting ready to go outside.  Don’t ramp him up by asking “Wanna go for a WALK??!!”

If he already has an established behavior of over-excitement before the walk even starts, addressing that is the first step in teaching him leash manners.

Do you have established times of day for going on walks?  Is this part of a set routine?  If so, is he watching you like a hawk as the minutes count down to that time, while his excitement slowly ramps up?  Does he spring into action when you get up and reach for the leash?   If so, then the simplest way to address this is to randomize your walk times.  Go on short walks at varying times through the day, so that he is not ramping up his excitement in anticipation.  There’s no need to stop going for walks at your regular time, just add some random outdoor time to the mix.

Have you, even inadvertently, established a ritual that signals to him that a walk is about to begin and triggers excitement on his part?  Does he start over-reacting every time you pick up the leash?  If so, there are a couple of things you can do:

First off, change whatever you are doing that prompts his excited behavior. (Keeping in mind, you don’t want to decrease his enjoyment of walking.  You just want to change his behavior that expressed that enjoyment.)  If you have a particular sequence of actions (get up, sigh, stretch, say something to your spouse or partner about going for the walk, put on a hat, pick up the leash) that your dog has come to recognize, then modify that ritual.  Mix it up a little.  Don’t send the signals that ramp up his excitement (King, 2019).

Secondly, don’t reward his excitement.  If he is spinning himself into an excited state every time you pick up the leash, then stop reinforcing that behavior.  If you pick up the leash and he responds by excited jumping, mouthing, or any other undesirable behavior; stop, put down the leash and turn your back until he stops.  Don’t give him any feedback at all.  Repeat this every time he has the behavior that you want him to stop.  Be consistent.  Remember, the leash and the walk are the reward he’s been getting for acting like this.  You want to eliminate that reward and stop the reinforcement (Miller, 2008).  It may take a while for it to sink into his head, but if you stick to it, he will learn that the excited behavior gets him the opposite of what he wants.

Note:  In some cases, this lack of reinforcement may result in him increasing this behavior for a short period and seem to be even more excited.  If this should happen, remove yourself from the vicinity and give him a time out.  If it persists, consult a professional canine behaviorist. 

Third, its not enough to make your dog stop doing something.  You want to give him something else to do instead of the behavior you want to extinguish and reinforce the alternative behavior. Have him do something that makes it impossible to act excitedly while being leashed up.  You’ll find this referred to as “Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior” (Chance, 2006).   Presumably, he already has a repertoire of tricks that he’s already been taught; if he knows “sit”, have him do that while you’re leashing him up.  If he doesn’t hold the sit throughout the whole leashing-up exercise, give him a quick “Nope” or “Uh uh” then stop, reset and start over.  Being released from the sit with the leash attached and praise is all he’ll need.  The leash being attached, and the walk starting, is the reward for a “good sit”.

Reducing the dogs’ initial excitement level is the first step in reducing over-excitement and pulling during walks.  In the next post, we’ll look at reducing the pulling behavior while the walk is ongoing.

 

References:

Chance, P. (2006).  First Course in Applied Behavior Analysis.  Long Grove, IL, Waveland Press, Inc.

King, T. (May 2009).  Over Excitement in Dogs.  The Bark.  Retrieved from thebark.com/content/over-excitement-dogs 

Miller, P.  (2008).  The Power of Positive Dog Training, (2nd ed.).  Hoboken, NJ, Wiley.

 

The Use of Aversives in Pet Training

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a new position statement on the role of aversive training methods in training and behavior modification.

The statement says that aversives are not only ineffective, but are counterproductive.   Positive, rewards-based, training is the most effective method in both animal training and behavior modification.
AVSAB-Humane-Dog-Training-Position-Statement-2021.pdf (ftlbcdn.net)

Penny, an update

I wanted to provide an update on Penny.  Her desensitization to stairs is ongoing, and she is now willingly using outside stairs and handicap ramps.  After reviewing her progress, I’m of the opinion that much of her hesitancy to use stairs or door

Winston, Part Two

Continued from Winston:  A Story of Desensitization Winston, a story of desensitization | The Animal Nerd

Keeping in mind the three objectives that we established, I began spending more time with Winston.

Over the next two sessions, Winston’s attachment to me became stronger, as did his social anxiety.  He was able to relax and play when no other people were around but, as soon as other people appeared, he would seek physical contact with me, often positioning himself so that I was between him and other people and avoided looking at them.  This was particularly the case in indoor settings, such as the shelter lobby.  I also noted that he was still not engaging in any self-soothing behavior and that his level of anxiety would slowly increase while in social settings.  On the plus side, the shelter staff has determined that he is well socialized with other dogs; he behaves appropriately and invites play upon meeting new dogs of varying ages and sizes.

He was able to relax and play, and accept more human handlers.

I began by introducing play during both outdoor and indoor sessions.  He enjoyed retrieving tennis balls in our outdoor pen, so I would start the sessions there and let him play until he was in a relaxed state of mind.  Following that, we would have some quiet time, sitting with him and letting him watch the shelter grounds.  After two of these sessions, I found that he would relax during the quiet time and allow some distance between us.  He was also starting to show stress-shedding behaviors, such as yawning and body shakes.

He was also beginning to open up to some of the shelter staff and was showing attachment to them as well as to me.  So, after consulting with the shelter behavior team, I began recruiting experienced volunteers to handle him during walks and play, with the goal of giving him pleasant experiences with new people.  When introducing him to new human friends, we did this in the least stressful way possible, with me leashing him and taking him from his run then starting a walk with the new handler.  After a few minutes I would hand off the leash and accompany them to the play area.  At this point, I would stop reacting to him and have the new person engage in all play and displays of affection.  It never took more than one session for him to accept the new volunteer as a trusted friend.

In indoor settings, I began using the “find it” game (tossing high-value treats within the radius of his leash) whenever he began showing distress or started clinging to me when other people were around. This was successful in getting him to reduce his anxiety level and interact with his surroundings rather than avoid them.  I also encouraged his growing circle of human friends to engage with him when I had him on leash in the shelter lobby.   I continued to disengage from him when other handlers were present, and he has responded to that by engaging with them.  At present, he is able to lie down and relax on the cool lobby floor when new people are present.

Winston is getting close to being adoptable.  The shelter staff will attempt to place him with adopters who already have a well-socialized dog and are willing to commit to a continued management program in order to identify and address any guarding behaviors that may arise as he adjusts to being in a new environment.  From what I can see, his prognosis is good.

Update (8/21/2021):  Winston has been adopted.

 

Winston, a story of desensitization

Last month I was asked to take on another “project dog”.  That’s how I met Winston.

        Affection or insecurity?

He had been returned to the shelter after his adoptive owner experienced problems with him.  Winston had gradually become emotionally dependent on her to the point that he guarded her as a resource and was being aggressive with any visitors to the house.  He was also displaying high levels of anxiety about noises outside the house and was becoming extremely reactive to them.  The owner eventually decided that she couldn’t handle his issues and brought him back.

When I first met him through the glass door to his run, he was extremely reactive.  He was baring his teeth, giving low growls and short, staccato “warning” barks.  I followed my usual initial practice of sitting down on the floor outside his run, facing away at an angle and reading my messages and Facebook feed, while occasionally putting a treat in the run (There are “treat holes” in the glass fronts to the dog runs.  These encourage the dogs to approach visitors and potential adopters.)  I repeated this three times on the first day.

The second day, he was quieter when I approached his run, but still visibly nervous.  This changed when he saw that I was unlocking the run, at which he visibly relaxed. He had come to associate this motion on my part with food and potty breaks, and he was visibly happier and more relaxed.  I was able to leash him up very easily and took him outside.  That’s when I was able to get a good look at him and his behavior.

The shelter has a large, very pleasant, outdoor area that includes a large field, a large, enclosed play area and the grounds have shaded areas with benches.  I took Winston on a walk around the entire grounds so that he could have a few good sniffs and relieve himself, then just sat with him on a bench that had a view of the building entrance, to see what he did while people came and went.  I saw that he became alert whenever anyone came into view, but that he didn’t engage in any self-soothing behavior during quiet times.  I also saw that his level of tension was ramping up, and that he was beginning to seek physical contact with me.  I took him around the building to a quiet area in the back of the building, near a wooded area, and he was still unable to relax.  He began to increase his contact-seeking behavior, putting his head and paw on my knee and pressing himself against my leg.

All this inside of 30 -45 minutes (which is the maximum time that I spend with a dog during behavior modification treatment).   In two short sessions, he had gone from giving me teeth-baring distancing signs to extreme contact-seeking behavior.  At this point, I had a pretty good idea of his issues:  He was an extremely anxious dog who had trouble shedding stress and sought contact with a human handler as a means of feeling secure.  It’s very understandable how an owner could mistake this contact-seeking behavior for displays of attachment and affection and encourage it.   Its adorable, but its also the exact opposite of a healthy, relaxed behavior.

So, the job was to increase his confidence regarding people, help him to relax and engage in self-soothing, and help him to tolerate strangers in his space.

To be continued.

Bird illness – update

Update (August 22, 2021). Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine have advised that, although the reason for the bird mortality is still undetermined, cases are declining the infection appears to be waning.  State wildlife officials throughout the Midwest and Atlantic seaboard have rescinded their guidance to take down bird feeders. Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders | The Animal Nerd

Update – although the mysterious illness that is killing songbirds in the mid-Atlantic and mid-west appears to be declining in those states (Zenkevich, 2021), the Hartford Courant is reporting that cases have now been identified in southern New England (Arnott, 2021).  We are still being asked to refrain from putting up bird feeders and bird baths.

Arnott, C. (August 6, 2021).  Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’.  Hartford Courant.  Retrieved from Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’ – Hartford Courant

Zenkevich, J. (August 4, 2021).  Reports Of Mysterious Bird Disease Decreasing In Pennsylvania. Retrieved from  www.sciencefriday.com/articles/bird-disease-decreasing/