Category Archives: Trainer Development

The Fake Service Dog: a Concerning Trend

“Do you train service dogs?” the voice on the other end of the phone asked. It’s become a more common question over the past few years, as more owners are learning that they can owner-train their own service dogs instead of buying a dog from an organization.

“Absolutely! We can help you with all of the basic training and begin doing some skills work, then connect you with a local service dog organization to assist with your final public access training. What sort of assistance skills are you hoping to teach your dog?”

“Oh, I don’t actually need my dog to do anything. I’m not really disabled. I just want to be able to take her with me to the grocery store and bring her on planes without paying the extra fees.”

There are plenty of dog-friendly places (like this Dairy Queen's patio eating area) where you can bring your well-trained pet. Stick to these locations, and don't try to pass your pet off as a service dog.

There are plenty of dog-friendly places (like this Dairy Queen’s patio eating area) where you can bring your well-trained pet. Stick to these locations, and don’t try to pass your pet off as a service dog.

“I’m sorry, but we can’t legally help you train your dog as a fake service dog. Only dogs who are trained to assist their disabled owner in day-to-day tasks are allowed into grocery stores or on planes like you described. Lying about the status of your pet dog is a serious crime, and I wouldn’t recommend that you pursue it. If you’d like some help polishing up your dog’s manners or even registering her as a therapy dog so you can volunteer at hospitals and nursing homes, we’re happy to assist with that.”

“Oh. Are you sure it’s illegal? Because my friend paid a trainer to certify her dog as a service dog, and she doesn’t have any sort of disability. My dog’s really well-behaved, and I would like to take her everywhere with me.”

And that’s the rub of it… there are unethical trainers and organizations out there that do just this, “certifying” fake service dogs so that people can bring their pets with them everywhere. If this idea appeals to you, I would strongly advise you to think twice. Lying about your dog’s status is a serious offense, and can not only result in legal troubles for you but also makes it that much harder for the people who really need their legitimate service dogs.

So, what is a service dog? Service dogs are trained animals who assist people with disabilities in their day-to-day lives. It’s not okay to ask what disability the person with a dog has, but you can legally ask that person two questions. First, you can ask them whether the dog with them is a trained service dog. If the dog isn’t, it can be asked to leave your business or workplace and has no more rights to be there than any other pet dog. If the dog is a true service dog but is disruptive or dirty to the point of posing a safety or health hazard, even a trained service dog can be asked to leave. A dog who eliminates on the grocery store floor, for example, does not have to be allowed to continue assisting his or her owner in that store. Asking a service dog and his or her handler to leave your business because you’re not comfortable with dogs, though, would not be appropriate. Service dogs are allowed to enter businesses unless and until something truly unacceptable happens.

You can also ask what tasks the dog is trained to perform for the owner. True service dogs perform trained behaviors that help their owners navigate daily life. These tasks will vary depending on the disability the person lives with, but may include retrieving items, opening doors, bracing or pulling the owner, alerting to sounds or strangers approaching, letting the owner know about that person’s impending seizures or migraines, pressing buttons, forestalling panic attacks or flashbacks, and many more. True service dogs are trained to perform these specialized skills so that their owners can enjoy more freedom and a better quality of life. If you see a service dog or a service dog in training out in public, it’s important to treat that animal much as you would treat an inanimate piece of medical equipment such as an oxygen tank or wheelchair. Don’t try to interact with or distract the dog unless you’re specifically invited to do so, and respect the right of the owner to have their medically-necessary dog with them unmolested. Give the dog space from children or other animals so that he or she can focus on his work, which is often very physically and mentally demanding for these special dogs.

But what if you truly do have a disability that would be helped with the assistance of a service dog? Can you train your pet dog to perform service tasks? It’s possible, but it depends a great deal on your dog. Many dogs simply do not have the physical structure (solid hips, elbows, eyes, heart, etc.) or mental soundness (eagerness and ability to learn; friendliness towards people of all ages and sizes and to all animals; solidness in the face of noises, traffic, crowds, food, and other distractions; and ability to focus for what may be hours at a time without getting distracted). Take an honest look at your dog or better yet, have an experienced trainer evaluate your dog for you to make sure that what you’re asking is reasonable and fair to your dog. Asking a dog who’s not cut out for service work to take on those tasks is incredibly cruel. Remember, even dogs who are specifically bred and trained for service work sometimes flunk out of their programs. If your dog was not acquired with this purpose in mind, it’s important that you honestly evaluate whether you should be asking him or her to take on this responsibility before you start.

But what if you don’t have a disability? What if you just want to bring your pet with you? There are plenty of pet-friendly stores that will happily accept your well-trained companion. Check around your area, and give your business to the stores that welcome your dog. Many home improvement stores, bookstores, banks, craft stores, hobby shops, and clothing stores will allow well-behaved dogs if you ask politely. Stores and restaurants that prepare or sell food often aren’t able to be quite so welcoming due to health code policies, but many of these as well as coffee shops and bars will allow your polite pooch to accompany you where outdoor seating is available.

You can also consider training your friendly, stable adult dog to become a therapy dog. Therapy dogs do not have the same rights as service dogs, but trained teams who have passed a test and become registered with a national therapy dog organization are permitted to volunteer at hospitals, nursing homes, libraries, schools, and other places where a connection with a friendly animal can be helpful to others. Therapy visits can be hugely rewarding for dogs and their handlers, and there’s always a big need for these specially trained dogs to spread some comfort and cheer to those who could use it most.

After several more questions to see whether I would consider bending my rules for her, the caller hung up, frustrated. I wasn’t willing to say her dog was a service dog for any price, nor would I recommend anyone who might. I reiterated how unethical passing a pet dog off as a service animal was, and hoped that the caller got the message. Faking your need for a service dog is every bit as taboo as taking a handicapped parking space when you don’t need it.

Have you ever heard of someone passing their pet dog off as a service dog? Did you call them on their behavior? Please share your stories and tips in the comments section below, and consider sharing this blog post with your friends to spread the word about the fake service dog problem. Enjoy your dog in and at the places where it’s appropriate for you to do so, and be thankful that you have the independence not to need him for more specialized assistance. Pet dogs have a very important job too, and respecting your dog’s place is a great way to respect the amazing individual he is.

[Mostly] Wordless Wednesday

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The master has failed more times than the beginner has even tried.

-Stephen McCranie

Got a minute?

The alarm on my phone chimes as I’m putting together behavioral case notes to send to a client’s veterinarian. I switch it off, then count 15 treats into my hand. Setting my phone’s stopwatch for one minute, I grab the toenail clippers and call Layla over. As the stopwatch starts, I quietly hold out a hand. Layla eagerly places her paw into my hand, and I click with my tongue and hand her a treat, letting go of her paw as she swallows. She puts her paw back into my hand and gets another click and treat. We do this four more times, and on the seventh try I gently tap one of her toenails with the nail clipper, clicking and treating her for holding still. She gets three more clicks for offering her paw, then I calmly clip the very tip of her dewclaw for another click and treat. We end the session with four more clicks and treats for offering her paw. I stop the stopwatch on my phone. It’s been 47 seconds since the start of our session. I thank Layla, give her a release cue, and return to writing my case notes. My phone’s alarm will go off again in another hour, and it will be Trout’s turn to enjoy a short training session. I decide that I’ll work on her newest trick, yodeling on cue.

Photo by Walter Rumsby

Photo by Walter Rumsby

This sort of training session is common in my household and in my client’s homes. Setting aside five, ten, or fifteen minutes to train every day can be difficult for the busy family or professional, but it’s easy to find a minute of time to work with your dog. A lot can be accomplished in sixty seconds!

Setting an alarm to go off once an hour whenever you’re home is a great reminder to work with your dog. Decide what you’d like to work on ahead of time, then keep it short and sweet. Ideally, it’s best to choose a skill that you can reward frequently: ten to twenty treats in a minute is a good goal to shoot for. If you count the treats out ahead of time and have them ready to go, so much the better.

So, what can you train in a minute? Here are just a few skills that I commonly have my clients work on:

- Loose-leash walking: snap the leash on your dog’s collar and spend sixty seconds walking around your living room or driveway.

- Recall: toss a treat across the room, then call your dog to come, grabbing her collar when she reaches you and then feeding a treat. Repeat this game as many times as you can in a minute.

- Muzzle or Gentle Leader love: click and treat your dog for targeting the muzzle or Gentle Leader. As your dog gets the idea of the game, begin feeding the treats inside the basket of the muzzle or through the nose band of the Gentle Leader.

- Stay: click and treat your dog for holding still as you shift your weight in front of him, gradually increasing the difficulty until you can jump up and down in front of him, turn in a circle in front of him, and walk in a circle around him without him moving a muscle.

- Ears, nails, and tails, oh my: if your dog doesn’t like to be touched somewhere, spend some time teaching him that touch predicts food. Touch the offending area (or the closest area you can touch without stressing him), then reward. This is a great way to teach dogs to enjoy brushing, nail trimming, ear cleaning, toothbrushing, or any other sort of handling.

- Sits, downs, and stands: can your dog differentiate these cues? Practice your sit-down-sit-stand-down-stand progression, mixing up the signals in an unpredictable order.

- Tricks: trying to teach your dog to fetch a tissue when you sneeze, bow, spin, or sit pretty? Work on it in little bits!

- Leave it and Zen: can your dog offer eye contact while you hold a treat out to the side? Can she ignore a treat in your open palm? Can she offer hand targets while a pile of treats is sitting on the ground?

- Noise desensitization and counterconditioning: if your dog hates thunder, beeping, or other noises, you can play those noises softly on your computer, following each with a tasty treat.

- Crate games: reward your dog for running into his crate. Practice manners when the crate door is closed. Teach him that the crate is a magic food spot where wonderful things happen.

- Attention outside: click and treat your dog for checking in with you as the two of you stand near an open door with your dog on leash. As your dog gets better at this, practice in your front and back yards.

- Scary objects: if your dog hates the blender, the vacuum cleaner, or the mop, pair the offending item with treats. Start with the scary thing stationary, turned off, and far enough away that your dog can eat treats. Gradually work on getting closer, then add movement, and finally noise.

These are just a few ideas, and pretty much any skill can be worked on in little chunks if you’re creative. Set a goal to train your dog for sixty seconds every hour you’re home, and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll accomplish! So, what do you plan to work on this week? Share your one-minute training goals in the comments section below!

3 Puppy Life Hacks

Recently, I started fostering again after a one-year hiatus. While I’ve fostered over one hundred dogs, this was the first foster I’ve had since moving in with my boyfriend and his brother. Both guys commented on some of the choices I made for Alex the foster puppy. While these choices seem like common sense to most trainers, many pet owners neglect them to their puppy’s detriment. So, here’s a list of my three favorite life hacks for puppy raising.

alex wobbler

1. If you love it, put a leash on it. Would you allow your toddler to roam about your house unsupervised? If not, then why would you give that freedom to a puppy?

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Even in our fenced-in yard, Alex wore a leash.

Puppies learn about their environment through exploration. Lacking opposable thumbs, most of this exploration is done with their mouth. In addition, until your puppy has learned where you want him to toilet, he’ll do so whenever and wherever the urge hits him.

Keeping your puppy on a leash gives you the chance to supervise him and help him make good choices. When I could watch him, Alex dragged his leash. If I couldn’t watch him, he was tethered to me (I hooked the handle of the leash to my belt loop with a simple carabiner) or to a sturdy piece of furniture. Had I had Alex longer, he would have gradually earned off-leash privileges when I knew he was empty (right after a toilet trip outside) and when he was consistently able to make good choices about what to chew on.

2. Throw out the food bowl. Alex ate about five cups of puppy food a day. He got some of this food from puzzle toys such as Kongs, the Kong Wobbler, and the Magic Mushroom. These toys kept him entertained when I couldn’t supervise him, such as when I showered, as well as keeping him happy in his crate when I had to leave. They also provided important mental enrichment for his developing brain. The only time he ate out of a food bowl was if I was practicing food bowl approaches.

puppy zen

Alex demonstrates puppy zen with several pieces of his kibble.

The food that didn’t get delivered in puzzle toys was hand-fed to Alex throughout the day for making good choices. I carried a bait bag with two to three cups of his food in it whenever Alex was out of his crate. Any time he sat, lay down, chewed on puppy toys, or pottied outside, he received several kibbles. He also received a lot of food during short (thirty to sixty second) training sessions a couple times an hour. We worked on leash manners in my driveway. Alex learned about hand targets, focusing on me, stay, puppy zen, and leave it. With his age and natural intelligence, he quickly picked up on this basic obedience, all while eating his daily food ration.

3. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Puppyhood is a lot of fun. It’s also a very short window of time in which lots of important experiences will shape who your dog becomes as an adult. By the time you bring a puppy home at 8 to 10 weeks, you have less than a month before the first socialization window closes forever. It’s much harder to socialize an adult dog than a puppy, and even harder to help a dog overcome bad experiences from this time.

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Playtime with friendly adult dogs is one important part of socializing your new pup!

Remember that socialization refers to positive experiences with new things. At four months, Alex was a bit past his primary socialization window, and this showed in his tendency to be suspicious of anything new or different. He needed a little bit of time to hang back and observe when he encountered anything new. A few times, he growled softly and hid behind me, telling me that we needed to start further away from the new thing. That said, he was still young enough that he quickly gained confidence and became curious in new situations with a little time to habituate. He never refused treats in these situations and explored within a few minutes.

During his week with me, Alex met close to sixty new people. Most of them fed him treats. Many of them were men with facial hair. He met different ages, including children, as well as different ethnicities. He met old dogs and young dogs, playful dogs and crotchety dogs. He rode in the car both crated and wearing a seat belt. He met kittens, nice cats, and a mean cat. He met chickens. He was crated at dog classes in four different facilities. He got to try nose work. He had his toenails trimmed and his teeth brushed. He saw flapping plastic bags, all sorts of vehicles, bikes, a hose, a balloon, and even power tools from a distance. He worked for treats and toys, learning about tug and fetch. He napped in several new locations and played in several more.

Alex has been adopted, and I hope his new family will continue teaching him how to be the good dog he wants to be. If you have a new puppy, he or she wants the same thing. Help your puppy succeed using the tips above in addition to enrolling in a good puppy kindergarten class, and you’ll be well on your way!

 

5 Tips for Traumatized Dogs

In recent weeks, we’ve discussed fearful and brittle dogs. Some dogs can have the best start in life and still grow up with behavioral concerns. Other dogs missed out on critical socialization experiences as puppies, which impacted their development. But what about dogs who have had it even worse? How does trauma impact dogs?

Some of the dogs we take into our homes don’t just come from neglectful pasts but have lived with outright abuse. Sometimes this abuse has been due to mistreatment at the hands of a past owner, and sometimes it has happened in the current home despite to the owner’s very best intentions. Trauma has a lifelong impact on many dogs.

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Training is still an unregulated field, which means that there are still many so-called trainers who use aversive training techniques to address behavioral problems. There’s a reason why the AVSAB, the organization for the premier experts in animal behavior, has a position statement regarding the use of punishment in training. Manufacturing fear or avoidance in an already panicked animal does not create an environment where critical learning can take place. I’ve heard of trainers shocking dogs who suffer from separation anxiety for barking in their crates, hanging dog-aggressive dogs by their neck when they lunged at others, and strapping electronic collars to dogs’ genitals in the name of behavior modification.

Remember that you are your dog’s advocate. If something doesn’t seem right to you, it is up to you to put your foot down and protect your dog. Even something as seemingly mild as squirting a reactive dog with a water bottle or gently placing a frightened dog into a fear-inducing situation (such as setting a dog who is afraid of slippery floors onto the middle of the kitchen floor) and preventing that dog from leaving can have long-lasting consequences. While you may have had the best intentions when you followed the advice of the trainer on TV or tried a technique that your coworker swears by, if your dog responded by panicking or shutting down and if you’ve noticed that your dog’s behavior has deteriorated since that time, it’s possible that your dog could be experiencing a canine version of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also known as PTSD.

PTSD is most well-known as a disorder frequently experienced by veterans, but any survivor of trauma may experience the symptoms. Little is known about why some individuals experience symptoms that can range from mild to debilitating while others who were present in the same event can emerge unscathed.

Extreme fear oftentimes results in altered perceptions of the event. Triggers associated with the fearful event do not engage the hippocampus, which is usually responsible for memory, but rather the amygdala, which is responsible for emotions. Strong flashbacks to the original panic state can be instantaneous, and are not under the dog’s conscious control. Just as you’re unable to control the contraction or dilation of your pupils when you feel strong emotions, a dog experiencing Post Traumatic Stress symptoms such as this is absolutely unable to stop feeling the way he does in the moment.

The triggers for this flashback state may not make logical sense. Scents, textures, certain movements, and even the time of day can all trigger this instant fear reaction. While some triggers are easily explained, such as Layla flinching and dropping to the floor the first time I carried a rolled up newspaper into the house or a previous foster dog slinking away if he smelled alcohol on a visitor’s breath, others are less easy to tease apart and may never be completely identified. A foster dog several years ago would occasionally yelp when he was touched, even after soliciting attention, but the vet could find nothing physically wrong and his quick fear reaction never manifested twice when the same area of his body was touched. Another dog that I’m working with right now will begin trembling for no apparent reason several times a week, hiding under the bed and occasionally voiding her bladder in terror. While her owners are keeping diligent notes, they haven’t been able to pinpoint the source of these episodes.

If your dog has a history of trauma, whether suspected or confirmed, here are some guidelines to remember.

1. The dog determines what’s traumatizing, not you. While you may not have thought that holding your dog down for a simple nail trim was that big a deal, your dog may have a different opinion. Watch your dog’s body language for signs of stress such as lip licking, yawning, slower or faster movement, freezing, and turning away so that you can intervene if a situation starts to go south. Pushing through such situations can almost guarantee that they’ll create new fear triggers in many dogs.

2. Create safe places. One of the reasons that mat work is so very helpful for so many dogs is due to its clear structure of safety. By making the mat a positive place where treats, relaxation, and massage take place, we can create a positive conditioned emotional response to the mere presence of this training tool. Once the mat becomes a safe place, make sure to keep it that way. Don’t let anything bad happen to your dog on the mat. You can create other safe spaces as well – places in your dog’s environment where good things happen and where there is no pressure placed on the dog.

3. Give your dog choices. One of the fastest ways to traumatize any mammal is to take away all of his or her choices. Manufacture opportunities for your dog to make choices about his or her environment, schedule, and care as much as possible. Whether you let your dog decide which way to turn at the end of the block, wait for your dog to offer a foot for nail trimming, play with nose work, or give your dog several different beds to choose to sleep on, choice is hugely important. Set your dog up to make good choices, then reward those choices to build the dog’s confidence.

4. Always try to end on a good note. Research has shown that people who experienced identically unpleasant procedures created very different memories of those procedures depending on how traumatic the final moments of the procedure were. While we don’t know whether dogs have the same cognitive recall abilities, it certainly doesn’t hurt to try to make the last few seconds of any unpleasant experience as pleasant as possible. For example, Layla is very concerned about having her feet handled. I file her nails instead of clipping them because this is more comfortable for her, and she is in control of how fast or slow nail trimming sessions go. She is also free to leave at any time if she gets too scared. At the end of every nail-trimming session, I practice simply touching the nail file to her toenails for less than a second, followed by a food reward. Because each session ends with these quick successes, she’s more comfortable allowing me to handle her feet when it comes time for the next session.

5. Your dog is not his story. If your dog has a history of trauma, it’s important to be aware of that past, but equally important to help your dog succeed in the present. Too often, we get caught up in the stories we tell ourselves about our dogs’ pasts, and forget to pay attention to the animal in front of us. While trauma can have lasting consequences due to its huge impact on the way the brain develops and processes information, patient behavioral modification and an environment of safety can have equally powerful effects. See your dog for who he is in the moment, rather than who you expect him to be. He may surprise you.

If your dog has a history of trauma, make sure to read the posts on fearful and brittle dogs for more tips on helping him recover, and please share your stories in the comments below!

Fearful Dogs

Last week we discussed brittle dogs, those dogs who have a hard time coping with stress despite the best start in life. The dogs we discussed were born that way, and couldn’t deal with scary or uncomfortable situations even with their golden-spoon upbringing. But brittle dogs can also be created in spite of a solid genetic basis. Today, let’s discuss those dogs who don’t have the best start in life.

Some dogs lose the socialization lottery. Maybe your dog was born or raised in a puppy mill or kept in someone’s barn or garage. Maybe your dog was a stray. Maybe your dog grew up in a no kill shelter that didn’t have enough volunteers to get all of the dogs out and about or which kept puppies sequestered due to concerns about disease. Maybe you just didn’t know about the importance of socialization and so didn’t get your dog to puppy class before his socialization window closed between twelve and sixteen weeks.

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Photo by Peter Kemmer

Whatever the reason, if your dog missed out on critical socialization he may still be okay. Or he might not be. If you have a brittle dog whose early experiences were less-than-ideal, studies show that you could have a long haul ahead of you.

Ongoing studies on Romanian orphans have shown us just how crucial early development can be. The “socialization window” during which the majority of social brain development outside of the womb seems to take place appears to be about two years in people compared to the shorter three to four months for puppy development. However, many of the developmental processes are identical.

So, here’s what we know: children with neglectful upbringings do not develop the same way as children with supportive and enriched environments. Their brains are physically different. They develop less white matter, or myelin tract, which leads to deficits in their abilities to form neural connections. The neural pathways in their brain are weaker and the electrical activity of their brains is significantly reduced from children who grew up in supportive environments.

In addition to this alarming physical deficit, many of the children from neglectful environments also appear to suffer from adrenal impairment. Their bodies produce significantly less (or in fewer cases, significantly more) cortisol, a stress hormone, than other children’s bodies, and this causes them to show altered stress responses.

The parallels to our dogs who come from neglectful, unenriched environments are obvious. Many of the dogs with the very worst behavioral issues that I work with have low heart rates even in situations that obviously cause them a good deal of stress. These dogs sometimes appear to suffer learning disabilities and to have issues with impulse control. Their owners report that the dogs develop new fears at the drop of a hat, but that it takes months or years to get over any fear even with appropriate behavioral interventions.

Taking all of this in can be overwhelming to the owner of a brittle dog. If your dog’s history suggests developmental disabilities, it’s important to realize that your dog is not a normal dog. He has special needs. Asking your dog to suck it up and go to the dog park or to stop cowering behind the couch every time visitors come over dismisses the very real disability your dog lives with every day. It’s as insensitive as calling someone in a wheelchair lazy or laughing at the retired combat veteran next door when he asks you to please give him a head’s up before you light off firecrackers. We wouldn’t ask a dog who was missing a limb or an eye to engage in behaviors which were potentially dangerous to him, but because we cannot see the damage to the brain of our previously-neglected dog with our naked eyes we oftentimes forget to give him the same respect. It’s unconscionable to ignore a disability just because it’s not instantly visible.

So, how can you help your brittle dog? Once you acknowledge that your dog needs some special help, the research is very promising! There’s a lot we can do to help these dogs become more confident, happy, and behaviorally healthy with some simple interventions.

First of all, the five suggestions for brittle dogs with positive socialization histories apply here. Go review them now. We’ll wait.

Finished? Great! In addition to supporting your dog in all of the ways mentioned last week, research also suggests that you work to create new neural pathways for your pet. The brain is remarkably plastic, and new neural pathways develop anytime we learn a new skill or experience a new sensation. The trick is to do this without putting more pressure on your dog. Introducing your dog to TTouch obstacle work, agility (with a skilled instructor who will free-shape your dog to interact with the obstacles on his or her own terms), trick training, or canine nose work can allow them to interact with their environment in new and interesting ways. Feeding from puzzle toys or using other search and find games can also be helpful. Anything that engages your dog’s curiosity is good! Be patient and let him or her progress at the pace that makes sense for them. Encourage exploration and applaud small efforts.

The progress many of my clients see in their previously fearful dogs when we create safe places, actively teach coping skills, socialize appropriately, utilize classical conditioning, consider medication, and promote the development of new neural pathways through nose work or trick training is absolutely astounding. These dogs flourish in ways that they’ve never done before. They grow and they learn and they surprise the hell out of us at every turn. They impress us to tears. There’s nothing quite like the first moment when a fearful dog completes a successful search in nose work class or works up the courage to eat in the presence of a stranger. These magical moments of bravery show us how hard these special dogs try and how very much they can overcome with patience and a plan.

If you have a brittle dog, one of those special dogs who lost the socialization lottery, I hope this blog post has given you a better understanding of your dog’s very unique needs and a sense of hope at all that you can achieve together. I’d love to hear your stories, tips, and tricks about your own special dogs, so please share them in the comments section below!

Brittle Dogs

Raven is a petite little mix of a dog. Dainty and precise, her movements are as graceful as a dance and she never seems to put a paw out of place. Her long legs and tail, sleek, short coat, and sharp muzzle remind me a bit of a canine supermodel. She learns new tricks at the drop of a hat (or a clicker, as the case may be), and is highly obedient.

Raven is beautiful and intelligent. She’s also alarmingly unstable.

Photo by Chris Suderman

Photo by Chris Suderman

The problem doesn’t lie in Raven’s owners. They’re lovely people, experienced in dog care and training. When they brought Raven home at 10 weeks of age, they started her in puppy classes right away and socialized her diligently. She became very friendly, playful, and polite with unfamiliar people and dogs, and enjoyed going to new places.

Then Raven had a scary thing happen to her. Late at night while her owners were walking her, a neighbor set off a firework. Just as the firework boomed, Raven noticed another neighbor walking past in the dark. She panicked, fighting and pulling to get home. Her owners were unable to calm her, and in her frenzy she was like a wild animal. By the time they got home, all three were exhausted, and Raven’s owners were very confused. Nothing like this had ever happened before.

After that scary night, Raven became highly reactive towards strangers after dark. She would lunge and bark at them, eyes huge. She was constantly on alert. Her owners started working on basic counterconditioning exercises with her and tried to get her walk in before dark each night. They were relieved that Raven was still friendly towards everyone she met during the day, and continued her socialization.

Then something else happened – this time, a painful procedure at the vet. Suddenly, Raven became afraid of new indoor environments. Taking her to new buildings became nearly impossible because she would refuse to go through the doors. She was on alert all the time in new places. She wouldn’t take treats or toys.

This pattern continued. Every time something even a little bit scary or uncomfortable happened, Raven’s behavior would shift dramatically. Her owners had never encountered fear reactions as intense as Raven’s before, and were at a loss about what to do. They had used the same socialization and training program successfully with multiple previous dogs. Nothing truly terrifying had ever happened to Raven. Yet within a year of the first incident, Raven’s owners found themselves living in a bubble.

Everything frightened their previously social and charming dog. Her owners no longer had company in their house because she barked at visitors. They no longer went on walks or took her with them to eat at outdoor restaurants. They brought a trainer into their home, but fired her after Raven’s behavior vastly deteriorated with the use of an electronic collar and some “hard love.” They talked to their vet about anxiety medication, and Raven started on Prozac.

So, what was going wrong?

Dogs are an amazingly adaptive species. They’ve evolved and been selected by us to live in every climate, every living situation, and with every species. Dogs guard vast herds of sheep in mountainous regions, trot down the busy Manhattan sidewalk amidst throngs of people, and work as a team to pull sleds in the frozen north. Dogs are kept as companions to adolescent Cheetahs in zoos. They guide the blind, sniff out explosives, and provide companionship.

Most dogs are every bit as adaptive as the history of their species would lead us to expect. With appropriate socialization, they can handle new problems with aplomb. Yet occasionally, I encounter a dog like Raven. These dogs do great as long as nothing bad ever happens, but fall apart at the seams when they encounter something frightening or uncomfortable. Once something has caused this general breakdown once, they seem to spiral even further down the rabbit hole, never recovering to their previous level of confidence. These are what I call “brittle” dogs, and if you’ve never lived with one, you can count yourself lucky.

Think of most dogs like a rubber band. If you pull on them a bit by exposing them to a situation that they were not socialized to as little pups, they may stretch out slightly, but will eventually return to their usual shape once the situation has returned to normal. They get stressed, but they have the coping skills to recover. They’re stretchy and flexible.

Other dogs, like Raven or like my dog Trout, are more like old rubber bands that have dried out. They look just like other dogs from the outside, but their core strength and elasticity is missing. If these dogs get stretched too far, they break. They shatter like glass, and no matter how hard their owners work to put the pieces back together, they’ll never be able to be used like a regular rubber band. They can only handle a little bit of stretch, and then they snap apart instead of snapping back together.

If you have a brittle dog and you know that your dog’s puppyhood and socialization were solid, there’s very likely to be a genetic component. These dogs are just wired differently. Nature provides lots of variety in the way it mixes the genetic cocktail of each dog who’s born. Variety is the stuff of survival, and desirable traits help their host live on to pass on the superior genetic advantage, while undesirable traits cause the host to die out. Except that our undesirable dogs are lucky enough to live in an environment where very little to no natural culling takes place. They don’t die out. They come to live with exceptional people like Raven’s owners, people who do their very best to help their dog become a normal rubber band.

Raven was four years old when I met her, but the truth is that she could have been any age. Had she not been startled by the stranger at the exact moment fireworks went off, or had she not had to have a painful veterinary procedure shortly after that, or had any of the other perfect storm of bad experiences not happened to her, she would probably be a happy, outgoing dog to this day. Bad luck and bad genetics ganged up on her and her owners in a very unpleasant way, and so instead of a bright and charming dog I met a stressed and fearful one who was absolutely not equipped to deal with my presence in her home.

So, what can you do if you suspect that you have a brittle dog?

1. Socialize, socialize, socialize. Remember that socialization refers to giving your dog positive experiences. Use treats, toys, and play to make new experiences fun and rewarding. Since brittle dogs put so much more weight on negative experiences than on positive ones, you need to make sure that the vast weight of your dog’s positive experiences can override the potential fear of one bad experience. Consider a dog who’s had thousands of good experiences with other dogs, meeting polite dogs and having a blast playing with them. This dog is much more likely to recover from being attacked by an unfamiliar dog than one who has only had five, ten, or even one hundred positive experiences with members of her own species.

2. On that same note, classically condition everything. Anytime your dog hears thunder or fireworks, meets a new person, goes to the vet, or encounters something new, turn the experience into a fun game using treats, toys, and play. Brittle dogs need extra feedback to know that novelty is not something to be feared, but rather an occasion to engage their curiousity. Since we know that brittle dogs develop fears and phobias more easily than most members of their species, the best thing we can do is to change their emotional response to new situations to one of joy and excitement.

3. Protect your dog. Brittle dogs are more fragile than most, and it’s helpful to keep this in mind. Since one bad experience could cause a dramatic shift in your dog’s ability to cope, take extra care to only expose your brittle dog to situations that you know he or she can handle. Understand that I’m not telling you to wrap your dog in bubble wrap – it’s still important to let him be a dog and to encourage him to explore new opportunities. But do be sure that you’re not setting him up to fail. Brittle dogs, for example, should not be dog park dogs, because you don’t know whether the other dogs at the park are always going to be friendly. A stable dog would be able to deal with the occasional snarky or possessive dog encounter at the dog park, but your brittle dog can’t. Instead, set up safer doggy play sessions by walking and enjoying off-leash time with known stable and friendly dogs.

4. Proactively teach your dog coping skills. Don’t just assume that your brittle dog can handle new situations. Instead, prepare him for each situation he’ll need to handle ahead of time. Teach him general relaxation skills using the Protocol for Relaxation, for example, or do some pretend blood draws while feeding peanut butter by gently restraining him, splashing cool water or alcohol on his leg, and poking his vein with a capped pen to prepare him for an upcoming vet visit. If you wait to work with your dog until he shows you where the problem areas in his socialization lie, it may be too late. Instead, assume that everything requires some proactive involvement on your part and avoid those issues altogether. Remember, an ounce of prevention will save you from a pound of cure!

5. Consider medications. Like Raven’s owners, you may find that your dog has a true chemical imbalance that needs to be corrected by medical intervention. Just as some dogs need insulin or thyroid supplementation, some brittle dogs need daily medication to increase the available serotonin in their system. Medications can also assist your brittle dog in overcoming new fears. A veterinary behaviorist is the best person to work with as you figure out which meds will be the most helpful.

So, do you have a dog who was given all of the proper socialization and early training but who just can’t cope with stress, or is your dog flexible and stable? And what about those “brittle” dogs who didn’t get the right socialization – how are they different? We’ll explore that topic next week! In the meantime, please share your experiences, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments section below.