Tag Archives: DS/CC

Sooo proud of Spencer

I haven’t had a lot of time to post in recent months because work and life have been so busy. I hope to share some posts about the highlights of recent months because Spencer has been going through some really interesting developmental phases.

Today, though, I just want to say how proud I am of his performance on today’s walk. Between the weather, my heavy workload and Greg’s knee sprain, Spencer hasn’t has as many — or as long — walks as he would like recently. So this morning, I pretty much let him decide where he wanted to go. As you can see from this map, it was pretty long. But I can’t figure out how to measure the distance. I couldn’t even figure out how to get Google to let me show it as a single itinerary. For some reason, I had to put three itineraries together. This seems needlessly clunky. But I digress.

At one point in our walk (just above the letter A on the right-hand side) we passed through a major intersection at rush hour on market morning. There were people coming from all directions, waiting to cross busy roads and coming off buses in hordes. There were other dogs on leashes, baby carriages and all sorts of potentially threatening things and people.

And Spencer dealt with it all with perfect calm. He stayed by my side, observed, executed my directions, and oriented towards me for reassurance whenever he was unsure if he should be worried or not. It took us about 15 minutes to navigate a safe route through the crowd that wouldn’t put him in a difficult push and push him over threshold, but we managed.

I’m sure it helped that this was towards the end of our walk, and he has expended all hiss nervous energy. At the beginning of the walk when he was chomping at the bit, I doubt it would have been quite so easy, but this shows how much progress he has made thanks to counter-conditioning, BAT and our learning how to communicate with one another. (And Irène had a lot to do with our progress, so if you’re looking for a trainer in Paris, consider her.)


Horsing around

A few months ago, we discovered a new park not too far from our house. It’s an old manor house that is falling into ruins. There are very few people there, lots of open space and a loop trail that’s exactly the right length for tiring out Spencer without him getting overtired. They keep horses and donkeys there, which provides us with a great opportunity for working on Spencer’s fears.

Even though they’re much smaller, he seems to be much more afraid of the donkeys then the horses. Probably because of this guy:

A donkey we met on a walk Continue reading

Making school less scary

One of the principles of managing reactive dogs is to help them learn to make positive associations with Scary Things. For any dog — and especially fearful dogs — it’s important to try to introduce new things and people in ways that the dogs can find the experience pleasant and even enjoyable. This means to not push the dog out of it comfort zone and to pair the new thing/person with something nice like a treat.

One error that people make is to ignore the first part of that sentence. The treat alone is not enough to make the experience pleasant for a dog that is feeling highly stressed. In fact, it is often counterproductive. Continue reading

How dog training can make all your relationships better

It’s been a couple of months since I’ve updated the blog due to family upheaval — we’re at that age where parents get seriously ill and sometimes leave us for good. I’m still not completely caught up, so in the meantime, I’d like to share this video with you from TEDxJaffa. It gives a good explanation of the dog training philosophy we espouse and how it can help you take the conflict out of ALL your relationships. I’ve told people many times that rehabilitating Spencer has been a transformational journey for me — causing me to review the kind of leader, boss, wife and even person I want to be. This short (11-minute) video will help you understand why and how that has happened.

Treats that make Spencer go boing

One of the things that makes people resist the concept of positive methods training is the use of treats to “pay” the dog for desired behaviors. Among other critiques, they often think this will make the dog fat. The easy answer is to remind people that they can reduce their dog’s mealtime food. However, I do have to admit that it’s a challenge to get the balance right when you have a dog that is pretty much afraid of everything. When you’re doing treat-based counter-conditioning all day every day, it’s hard, but not impossible, to manage the dog’s nutrition. In addition to the dog’s calorie intake, you also have to bear in mind that many treats sold in stores are really the equivalent of junk food and not very healthy in large quantities. Continue reading

She started it!

This article is a true story, told from Spencer’s perspective, followed by some commentary from me.

Kristen has been showing me that the world isn’t as scary as I thought. Strangers, barking dogs and buses with terrifying hydraulic brakes all make liver, chicken and cheese appear. And the closer they are, the more goodies I get! I’m still not comfortable getting too close to people I don’t know, but if Kristen shields me, I can now let people walk right past us on a narrow sidewalk, and most of the time we can walk by people, although I’ll keep my eye on them, just to be sure.

I’m also learning that I don’t need to worry about other dogs (but I’m not always convinced). A lot of times, we just walk by them, and Kristen gives me a treat so I don’t get tense. The thing is, a lot of dogs bark at me for no reason. Sometimes a dog across the street starts straining at its leash and barking aggressively when I haven’t even looked at it. Kristen says it’s because my size and my muzzle make them nervous, but it’s unfair. I don’t bark at them! If I strained at my leash like that and barked for no reason, people would say I was a mean dog. When little dogs do it, no one seems to think twice about it.

Anyway, Kristen is teaching me not to freeze when I see another dog, and it does seem to limit the frequency of them being aggressive. This morning, I got to meet a nice little dog. We were cutting through the “park” in the middle of a bunch of apartment buildings, and two women were chatting with their small dogs next to them. Kristen and I started to move away, but one of the dogs was off-leash and came trotting over to say hi.

I was a little nervous, but he seemed friendly, so I didn’t mind sitting down when Kristen asked. Sitting is a way to let the other dog know that I don’t mind him coming closer. At the last minute, I did get a little overexcited and jumped towards him, which I’m not supposed to do, but he didn’t seem to mind and then we were able to great each other calmly. And then he started playing with me! I was happy.

His mistress came over and said something to Kristen, but she was moving slowly and calmly and didn’t come too close, so I didn’t mind. Kristen asked me to move away from them, and I tried, but the other little dog kept following us because he wanted to play. Finally, he disengaged and trotted away. The woman turned away.

Suddenly, my new friend came running over again after checking in with the other little dog. And then, for no reason, the woman veered towards us and charged while yelling angrily! I didn’t know why she was being so aggressive, but I was scared and lunged back and started barking, “Go away! What did I do to you? Back off!”

She backed off, and my new friend left too. I realized Kristen didn’t seem worried and was asking me calmly to come back to her. I stopped barking and turned to her. We moved a few feet away and then she told me that she understood I had been scared but was glad that I had stopped barking and lunging. Because she wasn’t worried, I calmed down right away, and we didn’t have any problems for the rest of the walk.

There are a couple of points that I’d like to stress from this story:

  • If you’re going to have your dog off-leash, please make sure that s/he comes when called.
  • There is a reason my dog is muzzled and leashed and that we move away from you. Please respect our space.
  • If your dog does come over to us, remember that since my dog is muzzled and leash, there’s very little harm he can do to yours. At this point, best just to let the dogs be unless you actually see your dog being in some mortal danger.
  • Calling your dog back in an angry voice isn’t compelling. When your mother called you in a stern voice, did you think, “Yippee! Can’t wait to go find out what Mom wants!”? Or did you drag your feet trying to delay the confrontation as much as possible? If you want your dog to always come back, practice calling him or her in a happy voice and rewarding him with a treat for obeying. We’ve done this with Spencer, and he’ll now even stop barking at something in the yard and come running into the house because he knows that coming back in is the more enjoyable option.
  • It is entirely possible that the woman in this story thinks that Spencer lunged at her “out of the blue”. After all, she’d been near him for several minutes, and he’d been calm (even surprisingly relaxed). But, in fact, he had reacted to a perceived menace. She knew she was yelling at her own dog, but Spencer didn’t. From his perspective, she was threatening him, and he didn’t have to think twice before his self-protection instincts kicked in.
  • Finally, the leash holder’s reaction can make a world of difference. If I had yelled at Spencer angrily, it just would have fed his tension. It’s an incredibly hard exercise in Zen, but learning to gently reel the dog in makes a huge difference in the duration of episodes and in the dog’s ability to recover quickly. I can’t tell you how hard this has been to learn. The good news is that it serves me in my relations with other human beings too. I think this is the lesson of “turning the other cheek”; you can either contribute to the vicious circle as emotions spiral out of control, or you can try to short circuit it.

The dogma of dog training

The world of dog training is fraught with dogma and “religious wars”. I understand some of the differences. Whether you believe violence and aversion-based techniques have a place in training a sentient animal is a basic ethical question. But other conflicts have me more perplexed.

A case in point is an online group about reactive dogs that will only tolerate discussions of desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC). Let me be clear that DS/CC is an essential tool for positive training, especially for reactive dogs. But I don’t think it’s the only useful tool, and I think it has limits that must be complemented by other techniques.

The DS/CC are critical of what they call avoidance techniques. Although I haven’t seen a definition of this term, I think they mean teaching a dog to move away from something that makes it uncomfortable. Their argument usually goes something like this: You’ve taught a dog to avoid children (which scare it) instead of desensitizing the dog to kids. You have some visitors and the dog finds itself in close quarters with a child and can’t get away. It will react, and possibly bite the child.

Fair enough, but depending on DS/CC assumes that a dog has a limited number of triggers that you can densensitize it to. My counter argument would go like this: Your human-reactive dog encounters a person who is different from anyone it’s ever seen (someone on crutches, wearing a big winter parka, shuffling their feet…some dogs are freaked out by seemingly small changes). Since it has never learned to move away from Scary Things, it reacts, possibly biting the befuddled person who doesn’t understand what s/he has done.

This is why I think it’s important combine positive techniques to give the dog the best repertoire of coping mechanisms possible. I think teaching avoidance is especially important for dogs that were poorly socialized as puppies, especially dogs who come from puppy mills, pet stores, etc. My reasoning is based on the concept of learned helplessness: when animals find it impossible to escape from something aversive, they eventually stop trying and just resign themselves to the thing they find aversive. (In the original experiments establishing this principal, the aversion was actually an electrified floor, which the dogs stayed on instead of hopping over a low barrier to safety because they had learned there was no escape in earlier phases of the experiment.)

So imagine you are a puppy mill dog who never gets to leave its crate. When scary people come towards you, there’s nowhere to escape, and you eventually stop trying. At this point, Flight or Fight is reduces to one option: Fight, which becomes your default reaction to every threat.

That’s why I think it is so important to explicitly teach a reactive dog that moving away is possible and can be effective. But it shouldn’t be the only thing you’re teaching him.

I think that DS/CC and avoidance are not only complementary, they’re convergent. DS/CC has reduced our need for avoidance, but it has also reduced the distance for avoiding triggers. It used to be hard for Spencer to walk down the opposite sidewalk from a stranger. Now we can see someone coming down the same sidewalk and just swerve around them. Knowing in advance that he doesn’t have to deal head-on with a stranger (which is a very confrontational approach for a dog), has made it easier to desensitize at ever closer quarters.

I consider it a victory when Spencer doesn’t even pay attention to a nearby Scary Person. (The result of DS/CC.) But I also consider it a victory when we come around a corner and discover in front of us and Spencer automatically moves to the left or right to avoid that person. (The result of avoidance.) In both cases, he’s chosen a more acceptable coping mechanism than lunging and snarling.