In fact, we all do. Known as the amygdala, it consists of an almond-shape set of neurons located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe. This part of the brain plays a key role in the processsing of emotions, and when we're working with dogs who are overreactive, it is this part of the brain we as dog trainers are contending with.
The amygdala is hungry, selfish, horny, and when stimulated, more often than not, produces feelings of fear. Critical for survival in the wild, the role of the amygdala modulates our reactions to events that warn us of imminent danger. What we also know is that the amygdala also informs our reactions to events like the presence of sexual partners, rivals, children in distress, and food. (And now you know a big part of why positive reinforcement trainers love to work with food - it's neuroscience!)
This is where we, as science based dog trainers working with reactive dogs, live and operate. To help a reactive dog become less reactive and better in control of his or her own emotions, we must quiet down the lizard brain and get our dogs working with their limbic system. If we can get our dog's lizard brain's to quiet down, we can start to effect the change in associative behavior we need. But how do we get the amygdala to just shut up?
1. Slow down. Instead of charging our dogs into every scary new interaction or situation, we need to slow things right down. Take our time getting out the door. Engage with our dog's higher reasoning long before anything frightening is on the radar. Control of this nature takes time, patience, and forethought, particularly with a dog that is used to charging out the door, but it can and should be achieved with every dog.
2. Get space. Not all dogs need to be interacting with everything they encounter. My Cocker Spaniel Gus, for example, has a real fear of unusual things left out on the street. One great example is the pair of us walking at around 9pm last fall, and just down the street someone had left a sink on the curb. About 30 feet from the thing Gus comes to a dead stop and stares at me. Confused, I tried to encourage him along. The only way he was going to proceed was to do a big wide arc around the sink - he had no interest at all in engaging with this inanimate, shadowy object in the distance. I had a choice here: I could have dragged him past it at my convenience, and paid no attention to a fearful reaction based on no real or present danger, but what would be the point? To add to his terror? To save me a few extra steps?
Acknowledging your dog's fear allows you to moderate the response, keep it from becoming a full blown panic attack, and going forward, gives you the opportunity to do some conditioning work to change the reaction. But it doesn't have to happen all at once. What's the rush, anyway?
3. Get some help. Sometimes we're so close to our dogs it can be hard to see the forest from the trees in terms of their behavior. Identifying what triggers emotional overreaction in our dogs is not an easy task, particularly when those triggers are numerous and the fear response incomprehensible to us in those particular situations. Figuring out how to manage an ever-changing environment to ensure your reactive dog has the space he or she needs can be challenging. Knowing how to systemically and humanely that underlying fear requires a number of interrelated approaches applied according to schedules and intervals of reinforcement that can be, particularly at first, difficult to apply consistently. Finding someone who specializes in helping fear reactive dogs to support and teach you how to do this work will allow you and your dog to have a much happier, calmer, and more enjoyable life together.
4. Get educated. If your dog trainer isn't imparting these handling principles to you, and teaching you how to apply what they do in an everyday way, find a new one who will. There is nothing mysterious in dog training. We are not magical, dog-speaking animal whisperers to whom the secrets of everything dog have been imparted. We are specialists, and the best of us do this work with a hope that what we know and have learned to apply to our clients becomes common knowledge. So that no dog has to suffer in fear without help any longer than absolutely necessary.
I thought quite a bit about this blog before writing it. Working with reactive dogs is my specialty as a dog trainer, and while the work isn't easy or quick it is, by far, the most rewarding work I've ever done. So what constitutes the framework surrounding what we do when brought in to work with a reactive dog? Well, it looks a lot like this:
1. It's often slow-going. And when I say slow, I mean incrementally slow. Reactivity is habitual, can be difficult to pin down (in terms of first causes), and is often informed by fear. Identifying what is provoking the reactivity, the environments in which it is most deeply habituated, getting a handle on the behavioral and medical history of the dog, what motivates the dog, and what management methods have been used before, are all critical components of this process. And not necessarily in that order!
2. It's a lot like working with a person who has panic attacks. When a human has a panic attack, reasoning and rationality goes out the window. There is no explaining to the panicked person that the danger they perceive is not an immediate threat, that they are safe with us, and that their reaction is disproportiate to the issue at hand. All we can do is hang in there, wait for the panic to pass, and then start to address the underlying cause. The method by which we manage reactive dogs in action is very similar.
3. No immediate response on our parts to the episode of panic will change or stop it. What we can do is prepare for the next spell which will, invariably, appear at some point in the future. It might follow close on the heels of the previous reactive spell, or not appear for some time. Much of this is inextricably linked to what we do in the interim.
4. It has a great deal to do with a pair of hormones: cortisol, and adrenaline. Having, at minimum, a baseline understanding of how these work in the body is critical to helping reactive dogs recover from its mental and physical fallout. Cortisol levels alone take up to 72 hours to return to normal and its over-production is often activated by stress. Adrenaline, on the other hand, is a much swifter 10-20 minutes, and is what informs the fight-or-flight response. The role of these hormones starts to make sense when you think about the behavior of your reactive dog.
5. Every dog's reactivity looks a little different. Some dogs bark uncontrollably, some lunge and growl. Some jump in the air, others still spin around in circles. Some dogs are excitable in their reactivity, some are positively terrified. Canine body language provides the clues we need to determine what's informing the response, and it is our job to read those cues while the dog is sub-threshold. That is to say, we have to catch these physical cues often within a second or two of their presentation and a) get our client dog to a safe (non-reactive) distance, or b) capture their full attention (at those times when there's just nowhere to go) until the reactive trigger has passed.
6. Reactivity does not have to be forever. Reactivity can be addressed, and when it's done with appropriate canine handling and scientific behavior modification principles, we can make a massive contribution in relieving our dogs from this terribly uncomfortable, certainly unpleasant, and socially maladaptive state of body and mind. Embarking on this journey may be the most important work you do with your dog. You may even find you have a real knack for it (like I did), and that not only does it change your dog's life, but like me, it changes yours as well.
Have you ever wondered what the cause of your dog's fear might be, and how you can help him overcome those fears? This blog is designed to help you identify fear in your dog, what to look our for that might be causing fear, and what to do when faced with something that makes your dog afraid.
This issue is often misunderstood among dog owners because the way dogs express fear (reactivity to include, but not limited to: growling, lunging, barking, staring, piloerection (raised hackles), pulling, or alternatively, cowering, running, and hiding) is often termed "bad behavior." These expressions do not make your dog a "bad dog", they're just the only way they know how to express how they're feeling in a fearful situation.
Left to cope on their own, these behaviors in your dog can become habits. As we well know, habits are really tough to break! The stresses of living in a human environment can be extremely stressful for our dogs, particularly when they just don't have the tools to cope. So, what can we do to help?
The first piece to this puzzle is learning to see the world through your dog's eyes. We want to become kind, benevolent leaders in their world who respond appropriately to their fear. Remember, emotions cannot be reinforced. Consoling your fearful dog is OKAY. When your dog is reacting out of fear, you can think of it a lot like a panic attack we humans might have. The dog is incapable of processing information normally, and therefore trying to train our dogs during these times of panic is simply impossible.
Our best course of action is to desensitize a dog to that which he or she fears. Desensitization is all about gradually and incrementally exposing our dogs to what they fear in a controlled way. We want to expose our dogs at a very low level of engagement (read: before they react) and slowly, over time, increase the level of intensity. By pairing what the dog fears with something they love, we can help him or her overcome these fears. Depending on how long the fear has been left unattended, the desensitization process can take weeks, months, or even years. The goal here is to change the underlying emotional response to that which the dog fears from panic and dread to positive anticipation.
When searching for the right trainer to help you desensitize your dog, you're looking for the following things:
1. A trainer that uses positive rewards.
2. A trainer that uses science-based training methods.
3. A trainer that is proficient in canine body language.
4. A trainer that specializes in helping fearful dogs.
If you can find these things in your trainer, you're on a great track. Move forward, tackle these issues with positivity and hope, and you and your dog will be well on your way to changing those fears for good!
The subject of this post is a critical one to me, and is likely to raise the ire of some who disagree with its content. Placing guilt, blame, or pointing a finger is not of interest here, though those of us whose methodologies it touches upon may feel that way. There are a number of very real dangers in the dog training world, and I'm not talking about tainted food, diseases, or the various contraptions or apparatus' that populate the field.
They are ideas.
These ideas are not based in the scientific research or study of canine behavior. They are not based on carefully collected observations, or hypotheses tested over many years and documented.
These are the ideas that we, as humans, somehow innately know how a dog should be treated in all situations and circumstances. That we have the answers to questions far outside our realm of experience or field of expertise. Any time we are faced with a training methodology that does not rely firmly and heavily on scientific principles of behavior and reinforcement, we should be asking the question, "Why?"
"Why does this work?"
"How do we know it works for a dog in this context/environment?"
"How do we quantify, or track, our dog's aptitude with this particular methodology, to ensure we are seeing a change in the behaviors we do not want, and an increase in the behaviors we do?"
Allow me to be clear. Any trainer possessing a dogmatic, fixed belief that their methodology is the only one that works, in the absence of scientific proof (read: data) to back it up, should be second guessed. The fallout from untried, untested, and unproofed training processes can result in lifelong challenges for any dog, no matter their breed, upbringing, and temperament. If you think rationally, and apply simple logic, it becomes clear that any approach to training dogs not supported by well tested evidence that said methodology is effective may not only result in new, unwanted behaviors, but may in fact make these behaviors worse.
Without a scientific foundation, any training path should be heavily questioned as to its effectiveness and how long it takes to reach any level of reliability whatsoever. I'm going to bet that in most instances, reliability cannot be realized without using a scientific approach and some dogs will show no progress at all until appropriate research and study is taken into the methodologies appropriate to canine learning.
"Well," you might be asking at this point. "How can I make sure my trainer or behaviorist is using principles well founded in scientific research?"
It's not that hard, actually. You can ask questions like:
"How will we measure my dog's training progress?"
"Do you have any training statistics regarding the dogs you've trained in the past who have shown significant improvement?"
You see, quantifying and qualifying our work may be the most important thing a dog trainer does for the dogs in their care. Not only does it allow us to perfect the methodologies we've learned through our studies, but it allows us to share our findings with other dog trainers in an unbiased, objective, and logical way. A dog trainer that does not evaluate their own work can expect little or no improvement in their own processes, let alone the improvement of the dogs they're charged with. The majority of dog trainers will not provide an unbiased gauge for their own work. Why? Probably a few reasons. The first being that it's much more hard work to track our observations, the efficacy of our work on the canines we train, and then modify our methodologies to ensure a better standard of training as we progress through our careers. Secondly, it may mean that the dog trainer in question might have to reconsider the manner in which they train, when they're already so good at promoting their own work that they have many people believing that it doesn't get any better. Ever.
Many well meaning dog owners have been convinced by these silver tongued trainers that their methods will transform their dog for life, no matter how unpleasant, or fun, the training may be. And when the training doesn't stick, they can't explain why. This is what evaluation allows for most importantly of all - the ability to identify and nail down what's going wrong, and then work to change it into something going right. The consequences of well reasoned, scientific dog training are immediate and powerful.
This is not an issue that should be pushed under the rug. Ensure your dog trainer can not only back up his or her claims of behavior formation and change with good research before taking their advice. Being open-minded is a wonderful thing, but not without a healthy dose of skepticism, analysis, and groundwork. After all, your dog's life may be at stake.
Many of us have, or know, a shy or over reactive dog. These dogs are aroused by certain events, or 'triggers' in their environments, and we often call them anxious dogs. These dogs experience states of high, prolonged anxiety that shows itself behaviorally in any number of ways. Some of the things we may witness are: lack of focus, spinning, panting, shaking, jumping up, snapping at the air, barking, growling, whining, an inability to eat or disinterest in food, and still more. These are all symptomatic of a dog's anxiety.
As a dog owner, understanding that anxiety is at the root of these behaviors is important in helping to teach your dog that the fear he or she is experiencing isn't necessary, and that they can depend on you, via a solid bond of trust, to handle all of the strange and unexpected things the world has to offer.
While we love them, shy or over reactive dogs can be difficult to live with. It may be only a single trigger your dog has to contend with, or there may be several. In order to change the reaction, first one must identify precisely what the trigger is and then change the dog's emotional response to the trigger. There is a right way to do this, and a wrong way.
Behavior modification is absolutely the way to go for your anxious or over reactive dog. It begins with careful observation of your dog's behavior and body language, and then analysis of this behavior to determine best practices for behavior modification going forward. First, the trigger or stimulus that precedes the reaction needs to be reduced (and in some cases, eliminated) to a degree that gives no response from the dog. This allows us to 'get in there' and recondition the emotional reaction to the trigger, and in time, recondition the dog to offer some appropriate behaviors. And it is important to note here: if your trainer/handler offers you a 'solution' to your shy/reactive dog's behaviors that involves fear, force, or pain, decline their services. These approaches will result in one, if not both of the following: a dog that has shut down completely due to fear of punishment and is, in essence, a powder keg waiting to explode, or a dog that is even more reactive as a baseline than when you began.
If you have a shy or over reactive dog, enlist the help of a handler who can help you develop the observational and anticipatory skills needed to guide your dog into healthy, appropriate emotional responses to life's daily challenges.
There are many ways to keep your dog happy, stimulated, and enriched in day-to-day life. One of the most fun is through scenting games. Dogs naturally love to scent. Believe it or not, some dogs use not only their wet noses but also their ears to track a scent. Your dog smells literally thousands of times better than you or I. For comparison, dogs have about 50 smell receptors, while us humans only have one!
Scenting games are a wonderful way to keep your dog's desire to sniff engaged. In this blog, I'm going to go over a fun scenting game you can play with your dog.
The Game: Find it
1. To begin, do one of the following: either have someone hold your dog's leash, tether your dog to something sturdy, or simply put your dog in a sit-stay.
2. Show your dog you have something she likes. Place the item on the ground in front of the dog far enough away that she will have to move to get it. Walk back to the dog and take hold of the leash.
3. Your dog will immediately start to pull toward the item she wants. The moment she stops, say "Find it!" and release the leash. When your dog gets the item, say "yes!", praise your dog, and play with her.
4. Repeat this exercise, each time placing the item a little farther away. This game has multiple benefits as you can probably already tell: increasing the length of the sit-stay, teaching self-control, and eventually, as your distance increases, changing the search from a visual one to a scent-based one.
The trick with this game is to never let your dog get the item if he breaks from the stay. Always ask him to sit and stay a moment before permitting him to get the item. Be sure not to move too fast with this one. If your dog is unable to find the item, move closer to it yourself, but don't give the game away. Allowing your dog to find the item on his own will help build self-confidence. Be sure to let him win this one!
how to prepare for your new dog: a guide for all life stages And what the other blogs won't tell you
If you're thinking about adopting a dog, whether a puppy, adolescent, adult, or elder dog, there are a number of resources you want to have at your disposal to ensure the process runs as smoothly, safely, and successfully as possible.
The first stage of this process is finding your new forever friend. This is a process that should be undertaken with great care and concern for not only your own welfare as a new dog parent, but also the welfare of your dog. Be sure to thoroughly research the breeder, rescue, or individual with the dog you want to adopt.
If you're obtaining your new dog from a breeder or individual, be sure the breeding lines are sound, and that the dog is in good health. You'll also want to be sure that the conditions in which the dog is being raised are up to par. Be very careful as regards the language to any adoption contract you plan to sign (read the fine print!), and make sure you're comfortable with all terms and conditions contained therein. One particular contractual obligation that is becoming more and more common with household breeders is the right to breed your dog after adoption for a specified period of time.
If you're adopting your dog from a rescue organization at any life stage, be certain that the organization in question is employing force-free, humane handling methods with their rescued dogs. It is becoming more and more evident (and the science backs it up) that aversive handling methods (aka Cesar Milan, with protocols like pinning, rick-rolling, earthquaking, hitting, kicking and shouting in order to get obedience from dogs who may be traumatized in some way) and the use of aversive handling tools (pinch or prong collars, choke chains, etc) result in a massive uptick in the likelihood of human-directed reactive (aggressive) behaviors. Make sure you know how your rescue organization of choice is handling the dogs in their care. It could mean the difference between a happy, healthy, well-adjusted homelife with your new dog, and a dog who is shut down or severely reactive to humans or other dogs.
Having a solid understanding of the history of the dog you're adopting; where he's from, what he's experienced, and the types of traumas (if any) he's endured, will allow you to set yourself up with the support systems you need well in advance of adoption. Does the dog suffer from anxious behaviors related to alone-time? Hyperactivity or a need for near-constant stimulation? Has the dog been well-socialized? Questions like these will determine what you need to ensure a successful relationship going forward (scoping out a great doggy daycare or walking service, finding a humane dog trainer, a force-free groomer, etc) long before the dog enters your home.
Equipped with the information I've outlined above, you can then take a look at budgetary considerations. Can you afford an extensive fear-free protocol for your traumatized rescue? Are you aware of the behavioral changes a dog in heat, male or female, undergoes, and how other dogs around them may or may not react? Are you prepared to meet the medical needs of your new dog with a solid insurance plan? Are you willing to invest in the equipment you require to ensure sound management of your canine companion?
If you can answer yes to these questions, you're more than ready to welcome a dog at any life stage into your home, and into your life. With good preparation, forethought, and planning, the experience is bound to be one of the most rewarding you will ever experience.
By Guest Writer and All Dogs Dog Walker, Merita Kligerman
The dog park can be a fun and vibrant place for dogs and humans alike. It provides our dogs with opportunities to socialize with other dogs and people, and get lots of exercise via running and play. But in order to maintain a fun and safe environment, it is imperative that dog owners follow some basic yet crucial rules when bringing their dogs to the dog park.
Pay Attention to Your Dog(s). The enclosed space of a dog park and the presence of other dog owners may give you a false sense of security when you’re there with your furry friend. You may find yourself distracted by your phone or an engaging conversation with a fellow dog owner, but it is critical that you keep an eye on your dog and her interactions with other dogs and people. It takes a split second for a playful situation between dogs to turn into a frightening interaction. A dog may be triggered by a behavior they see as a threat—prolonged eye contact with another dog, for example—or the instinct to protect a toy or treat, which might result in warning behaviour, or even an altercation. Actively watching your dog can help ensure friendly and respectful canine play.
Listen and Communicate. I have come across numerous dog owners who come into a dog park already wearing earphones or earbuds. This is a potentially dangerous situation because it means they will not be able to receive crucial information from other dog owners. It is absolutely essential that open and clear communication exist between dog park patrons in order to relay information regarding a dog’s triggers, sensitivity to specific breeds, personality traits, reactivity to certain people, pre-existing injuries or sensitivitiess, and so on. Having this essential information from other dog owners can help you and your dog avoid potentially dangerous situations. And don’t be afraid to ask questions of other dog owners regarding their dogs. The more you know, the better your experience in the dog park will be.
Pick Up After Your Dog. So simple yet so necessary. If you are distracted and don’t see it happen, or if you choose to ignore it, you will be called out by other dog owners. There is no escape from this responsibility in the dog park. Just do it. It makes for a more pleasant experience for all dog park attendees, both human and canine.
Undoubtedly, going to the dog park can be a joyful and active experience for both you and your dog. Friendships develop, hilarious moments take place, and you can bring your dog home tired and happy after a number of play sessions with other dogs. But it’s up to us as dog owners to ensure that we are aware of what’s happening in the dog park, that we communicate with one another clearly and effectively, and that we all participate in maintaining a clean and healthy space.
We all know that dog that just about takes our fingers off every time we offer her a treat. We can feel those sharp teeth and we can see the barely contained excitement at the prospect of something yummy. Instead of enduring this time after time, you can teach your dog to accept treats from you in a calm, controlled, polite manner.
Start with a pouch full of stinky, yummy treats, and a hungry dog.
Step One: Put your dog in a 'sit'. Position your hand above her head with a treat between your fingers or in your palm. Be careful not to drop it! Slowly drop it down close to your dog's mouth. If your dog attempts to reach, jump, snap, or move in any way to grab the food out of your hand, immediately remove your hand up and over the dog's head.
The idea here is to wait until your dog's mouth is closed and her body position is relaxed and not in motion (up or forward) before delivering the treat.
As you repeat Step One above, the rapid movement of your hand will instruct your dog that the only way to get the treat is through calm patience. As your dog becomes proficient with this, you can thing bring your hand to your dog's mouth from different positions and on different angles. If you find your dog is just too aroused to do Step One well, use lower-value treats, along the lines of her every day kibble, for example.
Step Two: Add the training of a soft mouth to this exercise. Place the treat in your closed hand and offer it to your dog, letting her sniff, smell, and nose at it. When the dog begins to mouth, nudge, and push at your hand, say "OW!" and freeze your hand in position with the treat still held inside your closed fist. When your dog moves back from your hand or licks it gently, say "Good. Take it." and open your hand, palm facing up.
Repeat the above until your dog stops mouthing, biting, and pushing at your hand. Repeat every day over 14 days to practice and proof. This exercise is wonderful for training your dog to have polite manners when food is around and potentially accessible. Consistency is key here: do not allow your dog to have treat unless they are taken politely and with control. This will ensure good behavior around children, adults, the elderly, and anyone who just might be around with some food in hand.
Dogs greeting new guests at the door is a common household complaint. The truth is, your dog's excitement isn't a case of disobedience, he just doesn't know how to properly do it. The advice I'm going to give here is appropriate for dogs who are happy and over-stimulated at the door. My next blog post on the subject will touch on unhappy, fearful dogs at the door who are poorly conditioned to unfamiliar humans.
A happy, overstimulated dog is hugely social with everyone he encounters. The moment the doorbell rings or someone knocks at the door, this dog is racing over, barking away, and bouncing about. Often times, in the midst of this, a frantic owner is trying to get ahold of the dog by the collar and hold him back from the door and the arriving guest. The new arrival then makes a huge commotion over the dog, with high-pitched voices, petting, and overall exuberance. No amount of scolding, yelling, or physical withholding can contain this dog who is soon labelled 'hyperactive'.
In this scenario, the behavior from both the owner and the visitor in fact reinforces the dog's behavior, in terms of owner restraint and attention from the new visitor. What's important to understand here is that in this over-excited, aroused state, the dog's limbic system (or emotional, "hind" brain) is active. When the limbic system is at work, the cortex, (or analytical brain) is unable to take over. It is a biological mechanism that your dog is unable to control.
What we as dog owners must do, then, is to set up scenarios in which the dog can rehearse instead the behaviors that you do want. Place your dog on leash, and a rug or dog-bed approximately six feet from the door. Place treats on the outside of the door, and arm yourself with a pouch full of them as well. They should be highly valuable to your pooch. Enlist the help of an adult your dog knows well and likes.
Step One: As the guest enters (with a treat in hand), stand back on the rug or bed with your dog firmly on leash. This is to ensure your dog cannot jump up. Stay calm, even if your dog isn't. Have the guest approach one step at a time until she can deliver the treat to your dog (but ONLY if your dog is still in a sitting position). Once this happens successfully, praise your dog and retreat into the rest of the house.
Remember, practice makes perfect. As you do this exercise again and again, it will become boring to your dog, and his excitement will wane and then disappear as he learns exactly how he is expected to behave when this particular visitor comes to the door. This is precisely what we want. Once Step One is firmly rehearsed with your dog, repeat and practice with different guests at different times, and let your dog amaze you at what he is capable of!
Camille Salter is the founder of All Dogs Pet Services and a certified, knowledge-assessed dog trainer (CPDT-KA)