Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two

Let’s talk some more about the best practices for handling shelter dogs.  Specifically, taking them out of their runs.

Assuming that you’ve gone through your shelter’s orientation program and received the basic instructions on safety and dog handling, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the best way to go about your volunteer responsibilities.  Some of the things I’m discussing may not be required at your shelter, but I recommend doing them anyway, as long as they don’t directly contradict any of their procedures or requirements.

First, wear appropriate clothing – clothing that it wouldn’t bother you to get muddied or torn.  Long pants are the best option to protect your legs.  I prefer cargo pants, as the pockets offer places to stow treats, poop bags, cell phone, eyeglasses, etc.  Wear work shoes or boots, or athletic shoes that won’t slip on a wet floor and are easy to clean – keep in mind that from time to time you will step in something unpleasant.

Avoid wearing sunglasses when you’re working with a dog that doesn’t live with you.  Dogs read our facial expressions very well and are constantly checking in with us.  They want to see your eyes and can get nervous when you hide them.  And avoid wearing anything around your neck when you’re dealing with a dog that you don’t know, including lanyards or scarves.  The last thing you want is for a rambunctious or over-excited pup to turn that into a tug toy.

Second, wash or disinfect your hands before entering the shelter, and between visiting any dogs.  There are diseases that can be passed from dog to dog, and you do not want to be the way they’re transmitted.

Third, check in with the shelter staff before handling any dogs to make sure that there are no changes in the dogs’ status, their physical condition or if they have any medical or adopter appointments scheduled.   They should know what dogs you will be working with while you’re on site, and what activities you have planned for them.

In my last post, Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd, I talked about introducing yourself to a shelter dog.  Now, once you’ve sufficiently gained his trust, how do you get him leashed and out of his run?  First, watch him for a minute and see how he reacts to you being there.  What does his behavior and body language Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu) tell you?  If he approaches you quietly; shows a calm, friendly demeanor or offers you a toy then your job is easy:  Leash him up and have a nice quiet walk with him.  If he does anything other than that, then take it slow.  Remember these dogs are stressed and over stimulated just by being in the shelter.  And, to them, you’re just another stranger who’s coming into their space.

First and above all else, your job is to be a calming presence and to reduce the dogs’ anxiety and stress.  If the dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety then, for the first few times you visit him, you can just sit or kneel down, facing away from him at an oblique angle, and relax with him.  Toss a few tasty treats near him and in the space between you to see if he approaches you and takes them.  Don’t stare at him, just be a friend and talk quietly.  Then leave him alone for a while.  You can try again a half-hour later and try again.  Wait until he approaches you and allows you to touch him before attaching the leash to his collar or attempting to put on his harness.

On the other hand, he may be over stimulated and be racing around you, jumping and mouthing at the prospect of going outside.  He may even treat the leash, harness or your clothing like a tug toy.  Even if he responds to a “sit” command, he’ll be vibrating like a guitar string and will only be able to hold the sit for a few seconds.   In this case, the key for you is to not become excited or overwhelmed, and not escalate his arousal and excitement.  Don’t shout any commands or corrections and don’t get into a wrestling match trying to harness him up.  And don’t give him any reinforcement such as bribes for allowing you to harness him:  Remember, you want to lower his stress level and prepare him for life in a home.  Try waiting him out:  Simply stand with your hands, leash and harness out of his reach and do not react to him at all until he calms down enough for you to get him ready for his walk.  If that doesn’t work, stop and get someone to assist you by distracting him while you get him harnessed.  Once the harness is on and/or the leash is attached, you can reinforce him with treats or praise.  Over time, this will become routine for him, and his level of excitement will drop.

Lastly, if, when you approach the kennel, he shows any sign of defensive, territorial, or aggressive behavior (teeth showing, low growls, lunging, warning barks), then don’t enter.  This should be reported to the shelter staff, and they may want to evaluate his behavior before having him up for adoption.  On the other hand, it may only be a matter of having you introduced to the dog by a person he trusts.  In one case, I had the opportunity to handle a dog with sever anxiety issues.  The first time I walked up to the kennel, he had an extremely territorial reaction – it looked like he was auditioning for CUJO.  But when he saw me reaching for the door lock, his whole demeanor changed, and he accepted me as one of the good guys.   But it’s a matter of having the shelter staff and behaviorists involved.

In all cases, when leashing a shelter dog do not – repeat not – stand in front of them and bend over them.  To a dog, this is an extremely threatening posture and can provoke a fear-based reaction.  My preferred method is to put myself alongside the dog, facing in the same direction that he is and have all contact with him as low on his body as possible without ever reaching over his head.  Kneel down and make yourself as small as you can while still being able to stop and stand up easily if he becomes over-excited and you need to stop contact and give him a time-out.

Next, we’ll talk about behavior on walking and socialization.

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)

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.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 2

Continued from Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd

So, with progress made on her overly active greetings, which were affecting the number of shelter volunteers who were allowed to, or willing to, work with her; and with her anxiety at being outdoors reduced to the point that it was no longer apparent, it was time to start work on getting her to tolerate indoor spaces.

I continued taking her to explore outdoor areas and relaxing with her in shady shots where she could watch the comings and goings at the shelter.  And I started experimenting with her behavior indoors.  It soon became apparent that she:  A. Refused to go through any doors except those that were in a direct path the outdoors; B.  Refused to go through any interior corridors; and C. Wouldn’t walk on shiny floors.  She didn’t panic when asked to go to any of these places.  She simply froze in place and refused to move.

All of which would seriously get in the way of getting her adopted.  On the plus side, she was very food motivated, and loves people and other dogs.  So, this gave me something to work with.

In order to get her to tolerate shiny surfaces and being inside a building, I first had to get her to accept going through doors.  I picked an entrance to the shelter that was in a fairly quiet spot and didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, but was near a section of occupied kennels (providing a scent-rich environment).  After she had a nice walk and some down time, I walked her up to the entrance whereupon she balked and froze as soon as the door opened.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  I kept her on leash, propped open the door, sat down and broke out my weapons:  small pieces of sliced of hot dogs, string cheese and the stinkiest training treats that I could buy in my local warehouse store.  I tossed an assortment of them on the ground immediately outside the door and, after some hesitation, she vacuumed them up and got praised.  I repeated this several times, each time tossing the treats closer to the door threshold and praising her every time she stepped closer.  Each time she advanced; I took up some of the slack in the leash without pulling her.  This prevented her from retreating to square one, but also allowed her to establish a new comfort zone.  It also precluded any oppositional pulling.

After several iterations during the following week, I was able to toss the treats inside the door while she stretched inside to get them; then, as I put the treats further inside, she began putting her front paws across the threshold.  And she eventually stepped all the way inside.  Once she was far enough in, I gently closed the door and kept praising her while giving her a good scratch.  That was enough for the first day.  She had earned a good cool down in her run.

The shelter lobby became her favorite place to hang out with her human friends

On the next session, she balked at the door again, but overcame her fear more quickly and with fewer treats.  By the third session, it took half as much time and reinforcement to get her inside.  After that, I was able to get her to stay in the interior corridor without asking to leave, while getting scratches, pets and treats.   I then enlisted some volunteers to join us in the corridor, and she relaxed enough to walk up to each of them and ask for pets.  During the next session we moved further down the corridor and, she willingly entered the main lobby on the following day.

This was the big breakthrough.  After getting her used to being in the lobby of the shelter, I was very quickly able to get her to visit all the public areas in the shelter, and she began to enjoy being around her human friends (e.g., everybody she met).   She willingly used all the building entrances and the shelter lobby became her favorite place.  She was getting very popular with the staff and volunteers, and had lots of positive interaction.

She was still occasionally snapping at the stump of her tail occasionally.  Often when food was provided or she became excited.  I began responding to this by giving her scratches on her butt and  hips whenever she did this.  She initially reacted to my doing this, but after a few repetitions, she began to accept this as a pleasant stimulus and relaxed and leaned into me while I was doing it.  I enlisted other handlers and volunteers to do the same thing, and her self-harming reduced over the next several days as she accepted that activity along  her flanks hindquarters was a good thing.

At this point, we had reduced her fear of being outside her run, had reduced her tendency to self-harm, she was greeting her handlers in a calm and friendly manner and her tendency to self-harm was greatly reduced.  Our staff decided to place her in a foster home to continue her treatment and acclimate her to a home environment outside the shelter, and I felt that she was well on the way.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

To be continued.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning

Part One

So, in late May I was at the shelter, and the Behavior Services manager asked me if I would like to have a “project dog”.  That’s how I met Penny.

She is a 3-year-old, 50 lb mixed breed with a short brindle coat, natural ears and a docked tail.  It turns out that her tail had been docked at the shelter because she was habitually attacking it whenever she had certain stimuli – such as every single meal – and had seriously injured it.

Aside from the compulsive self-harming whenever she was eating or overly excited, Penny showed signs of extreme anxiety.  Her kennel was in a quiet area of the shelter that was closed off to visitors.  Whenever she was taken outside, she would immediately head for the door to relieve herself and then continually try to lead her handler back inside to the safety of her kennel.  She refused to use any door other than the one nearest to her kennel and she would refuse to use any part of the shelter interior beyond the minimum distance between her run and that door.  On the plus side, she was friendly to every person on staff and gave exuberant greetings to her human friends – sometimes so exuberant that it was difficult to handle her – leading to her harness being kept on her at all times.  In her current state, she was a sweet and friendly dog who was completely unadoptable.

She had been held by other shelters and fosters prior to arriving at ours.  And the somewhat sketchy history that came along with her indicated that these were long-standing behavior problems – particularly her tendency to attack and injure her tail.  At this point, she had been in the shelter for almost two months, between her initial quarantine, her surgery and recovery, there hadn’t been much work done on addressing her behavior problems.   After getting the initial run-down of her (many) issues, I worked out a set of priorities with our behavior staff.

  • First:  We needed to reduce the anxiety she had being outdoors.
  • Second:  We needed her to be able to use doors and interior spaces outside the “safe space” of her kennel.
  • Third:  We needed to reduce her tendency to attack her own body parts – even with her tail docked, she was still showing a tendency to snap at her own flank and hip when food was present or she was overly stimulated.
  • Fourth:  We needed to help her control her overly-excited greetings, particularly with new people.

So…I got to work.

First things first:  Getting her to at least tolerate being outdoors.

I took her out of her run as quietly and matter-of-factly as possible.  I found that the usual method of quieting a jumping dog (negative reinforcement – removing the response to jumping, turning my back and standing still) worked very well.  I then stayed to one side of her while attaching the leash to her martingale collar and easy-walk harness.

I then took her outside by her usual route.  She was in a hurry to “do her business” and then wanted to return to her indoors kennel.  By changing direction a few times, I was able to get her to walk at oblique angles to her initial route back to her safe place, and get her to spend some time outside.  I noticed that when she was actively sniffing a new scent, she relaxed.  Her ears went back, her tail went up, her back relaxed, and she forgot to be afraid.   I could work with that.  I found a bench in a shady spot and sat with her for a while, not interacting with her unless she solicited any touching or petting, and just let her experience the day.  She never really relaxed on that first day, but she didn’t try to escape or go back inside until I brought her back indoors.

For the next two weeks, I took her outside and made a point of walking her on the shelter grounds in areas that other dogs frequented and along the tree lines where rabbits and other local wildlife were common.  Basically, anywhere that was a scent-rich environment.  This was a positive experience for her; and within those two-weeks she completely lost her anxiety about being outdoors and enjoyed experiencing the entire area that our shelter encompasses, several acres of open land.

I then took her to our outdoor exercise area, which is a large open grassy area inside a six-foot fence.  The first time I unclipped her leash inside it, she immediately ran to the gate and started leaping at it, trying to escape.  I leashed her back up and walked her around the inside perimeter of the exercise pen, letting her stop and sniff whenever she wanted, before taking her back outside for some quiet time.  After that, I made a point of taking her to the exercise area immediately after some other dogs had been there, creating a scent-rich environment.  Over the next week, she became interested in investigating the scents and was able to enjoy being there and relaxing off-leash.

Step One done. After three weeks, she was no longer anxious about being outdoors, and was associating outdoor time with interesting nose work and relaxation.  And we had made progress made on Step Four.   This was going so easily, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

To be continued.

Do Thundershirts® Work?

In a dog’s world, fireworks and thunderstorms are very similar.  Both involve sudden flashes of light, loud and low-level noises, new scents (ozone from a thunderstorm and gunpowder from fireworks).  Dogs can become very fearful of these experiences, sometimes to the point of developing extreme fear responses or phobias.  Much of this varies according to the dog’s experiences with sudden noises, its early exposure to these stimuli and the dog’s general personality (Blackwell, Bradshaw & Casey, 2013).  In these cases, many owners have attempted to relieve their dogs’ fear by means of a pressure wrap, sometimes marketed under Thundershirt®.

Dogs have a variety of fear-related reactions to thunder or fireworks, including hiding.

Anxiety wraps have been used to treat behavioral issues in autism patients and to aid in reducing fear and stress.  Deep pressure, such as firm hugs and muscle massage has been shown to release endorphins that can relieve pain and provide a sense of well-being in the short term (McKenzie, 2011).  However, the question remains whether a light sense of pressure, such as provided by an anxiety-wrap, can provide the deep endorphin-releasing stimulus that a massage provides; and, if so, whether wearing a wrap for the duration of a fireworks display or thunderstorm is effective.

So, do they work?  Possibly.  But there’s very little evidence to support the claims made by manufacturers and marketers of these products.

First off, much of the evidence presented to support the claims of effectiveness are in the form of testimonials or product endorsements.  This sort of claim should always be taken with a pinch of salt, as they are often simply invented by sales staffs.
The majority of the other claims of effectiveness are anecdotal reports by laypersons, based on their observations of their own pets.  This sort of reporting is generally unreliable, simply because of the strong possibility of unintentional confirmation bias on the part of the dog owner.  That, and the possibility of a sort of placebo effect on the owners’ part, in which they see improvement that may not actually be present.

With regard to clinical evidence, there is very little.  The one quality study that I could find shows that pressure wraps do nothing to affect the physical symptoms of fear and anxiety (measured heart rate) but did result in some changes in the dogs’ anxiety-related behaviors.  Which indicates that the dogs’ fear wasn’t reduced, but their behavior in expressing that fear was affected (King, Buffington, Smith & Grandin, 2014).   This begs the question as to whether the pressure wrap is actually helping the dog.  The dog may appear calmer, but is simply staying still because he feels inhibited in his movements (Buzhardt, nd).   A review of related studies published in 2018 indicated that most studies were based on owners’ subjective assessments of their dogs’ emotional states and concluded that the vests may have small positive effects but that owners should have no expectation or any benefits from using them (Buckley, 2018).

As a behavior consultant, I am skeptical of the anecdotal claims made regarding these products.  As stated above, a fair number of them are dubious in nature (this is the internet, after all) and may simply be cases of “astroturfing”.  And, as discussed above, claims made by individual dog owners can’t be considered reliable, no matter how well-intentioned.  They are not disinterested parties and are not making controlled studies.   Also, the vast majority of owners do not have the training to accurately diagnose dogs’ behaviors, and do not have the facilities to measure heartrate, blood pressure and cortisol levels associated with severe anxiety.
I am also somewhat concerned about the use of these products without the involvement of behavior professionals:   Incorrectly used, a dog may come to associate the vest with unpleasant stimuli that it is intended to alleviate, making the fear response worse.  Also, if worn for extended periods, the dog may become habituated to the vest, making it ineffective.   And, if a dog is overwhelmed by the noise, sight and smells going on around him, adding the stimulus of touch may be the worst thing that an owner can do.

Mainly, I am reluctant to recommend these products simply because they do nothing to reduce the dog’s fears.  They do not address the underlying causes of the extreme anxiety and stress that the dog is experiencing.

The way to alleviate dogs’ (and peoples’) fear of objects or situations is to change their emotional state through desensitization and counterconditioning.   These involve treating the dog’s sensitivity to the event that is causing the fear reaction, by gradually increasing the dog’s tolerance to it and/or by introducing a positive experience that the dog can come to associate with the anxiety-causing event (Todd, 2018).  The goal is to help the dog by reducing the amount of fear and anxiety that he experiences in response to certain stimuli, in this case thunder or fireworks.  The goal of a behaviorist is to help a patient be less afraid, instead of outwardly seeming less fearful.
In some cases, veterinary assistance may be needed.  At the risk of introducing an anecdote, I have been involved in a case in which a dog was left alone in a house during a particularly violent thunderstorm and developed an extreme fear to them.  This was treated by a veterinary behaviorist, who prescribed a low dose of valium to be taken when thunderstorms were imminent.  After a few treatments, the dog “learned” that she was not fearful during the thunderstorms and her reactions to the storms were greatly lessened.

What’s the takeaway?

As stated by King et al, “This pressure wrap can be used adjunctively in a treatment program for dogs with these specific anxiety diagnoses, but should not replace current treatment options (behavior modification and medication) for canine Separation Anxiety and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Caution must be practiced if using the ThunderShirt for dogs with phobic reactions to loud noises or thunderstorms, as this had not been studied with the canine anxiety diagnoses.”

I suggest that they may be used as part of a treatment program that employs science-based behavior assessment and modification techniques to reduce the fear that dogs associate with thunderstorms or fireworks; but should not be relied upon by pet owners as a stand-alone treatment that is administered at home.

References

Blackwell, E. J., Bradshaw, J. W. S. and Casey, R A. (2013).  Fear Responses to Noises in Domestic Dogs:  Prevalence, Risk Factors and Co-Occurance with Other Fear Related Behaviour.  Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 145 (1-2).  15 – 25.  doi:  10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004

Buckley, L. A. (2018).  Are Pressure Vests Beneficial at Reducing Stress in Anxious and Fearful Dogs?  Veterinary Evidence, 3 (1). doi:  10.18849/VE.V311.152

Buzhardt, L.  (nd). Anxiety Vests for Dogs.  Retrieved from Anxiety Vests for Dogs | VCA Animal Hospital (vcahospitals.com)

King, C., Buffington, L., Smith, T. J. and Grandin, T. (2014).  The Effect of a Pressure Wrap (Thundershirt®) on Heart Rate and Behavior in Canines Diagnosed with Anxiety Disorder.  Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 9 (5). 215-221.  Doi:  10.1016/j.jveb.2014.06.007

McKenzie, B. (2011) Pressure Wraps for Anxiety in Dogs.  Retrieved from Pressure Wraps for Anxiety in Dogs | (skeptvet.com)

Todd, Z. (2018).  What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training?  Retrieved from What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training? (companionanimalpsychology.com)