Category Archives: Trainer Development

More Than Meets the Eye

I have an autonomic disorder called Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome – POTS for short. It’s a mouthful that means that I have issues with low blood pressure, a fast heart rate on standing, and chronic nausea, among other things.

Having a chronic health condition like this impacts my life, but with lifestyle changes such as keeping hydrated, avoiding standing for long periods of time, wearing support stockings, and eating a diet high in salt, I’m able to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that my heart, blood pressure, and nausea meds help to manage symptoms.

What does this have to do with dog training? Well, quite a bit. You see, my dog Layla has a chronic health condition too. She was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder – GAD for short – in 2008. This disorder causes her to be hypervigilant, hyperalert, and to have difficulty resting.

Having a chronic health condition like Layla’s impacts her life, but lifestyle changes such as keeping to a set routine, managing her auditory environment, providing plenty of physical and mental exercise, and avoiding anxiety-producing situations help her to function quite well 95% of the time. Medications help too, and I’m grateful that Layla’s daily sertraline and situational trazodone and alprazolam help to manage her symptoms.

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My POTS was not easy to diagnose, but after extensive testing and a definitive tilt table test, it became very clear what my disorder was. Before diagnosis, I often fainted multiple times a day upon standing, and was too lightheaded to work or carry out daily life tasks. Now that I have a diagnosis, my condition can be managed with regular blood pressure and heart rate readings. I simply monitor these numbers from supine, sitting, and standing positions to get a better idea of what’s going on with my body at any point in time.

Layla’s condition was not easy to diagnose either, but after extensive training and behavioral modification it became clear that she needed further help. She simply wasn’t making the progress that a “normal” dog would be expected to make. I kept records on her behaviors and took representative video of her life, which were reviewed by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. Based on her symptoms, the behaviorist diagnosed Layla with GAD.

Unlike POTS, GAD doesn’t have handy numbers we can look at. We can’t measure the level of available serotonin in Layla’s brain to see whether she’s lacking. We don’t know whether the early trauma she experienced caused her hippocampus to shrink or her amygdala to become larger than normal. We can’t even begin to test the levels of the complex stew of neurochemicals in her brain.

We can’t measure anxiety-related issues as easily as we can measure heart-related issues. That doesn’t mean that they’re not every bit as much of a physical problem, though. My POTS is not my fault, and I can’t just “get over it” with lifestyle changes and a positive attitude. Layla’s anxiety is not her fault either, and she can no more “get over it” on her own than I can suddenly have an autonomic system that functions normally. Her brain doesn’t function normally, but it works much more normally now that she’s on medications. In fact, that’s a big part of how she was diagnosed. When we tried anxiety medications for her, they made such a huge difference in her ability to function that it was clear that they were correcting a true chemical imbalance. The dog whom I’d never seen sleeping was suddenly able to take naps. She was less twitchy, less explosive, and suddenly all the training we’d done together started to show. Her personality didn’t change, but it was like the static of the anxiety was turned down enough for her to access the skills we’d been working so hard on for the past three years. Before her diagnosis, Layla was frantic the majority of her waking time, and awake much more than most dogs. With medication and a diagnosis, Layla’s condition can be monitored with regular attention paid to her sleep cycle and reactivity.

Invisible disabilities come in many forms. People don’t know that I have a chronic health condition from looking at or talking to me. They also can’t tell that Layla has a chronic health condition from watching her work or play. I look like any other person, and Layla looks like any other dog. However, the physical abnormalities in the way our systems work are very real.

One of my greatest hopes is that someday we’ll be able to measure anxiety, to point to a definitive test and say, “yes, your dog has a neurochemical imbalance that needs to be addressed with medication” in much the same way we currently address thyroid or heart issues. How many dogs like Layla are currently suffering without treatment for lack of a diagnosis or their owner’s misunderstanding of the very real chemical basis of anxiety?

One hundred years ago, my fainting issues would have been seen as “female hysterics” and dismissed out of hand. Today, we look back on that attitude with horror and sympathy for the people who lived with very real autonomic issues.

My hope is that one hundred years from now, we look back on the current treatment of mental health issues like Layla’s GAD with much the same horror and sympathy. When we know better, we do better. I’m so grateful that I was able to do better by Layla. Her life, and mine, are all the richer for it.

Thank you for rehoming your dog.

I can’t always be the person I want to be. But I can try to be the person my dog needs me to be.

This thought hit me as I snuggled Layla the other night. My boyfriend and friends were out, but I’d chosen to remain at home to be with my dog. Layla was struggling with the side effects of some medication changes, and while I knew she would survive if I went out for the evening, I could also tell that it would be very difficult on her. She paced for awhile after Matt left, agitated with the stress of the day, but eventually settled to chew on a toy before sighing deeply and drifting off to sleep.

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While not common, this scenario has happened a handful of times over the nine years of Layla’s life. Just as there are times when I need her to anchor me and help me discover the joy in small things, sometimes she also needs some extra help. And isn’t that what a relationship is all about?

Balancing our needs with the needs of those we love is never easy. It’s important to remember that dogs are their own selves, individual as each of us. They have their own likes and dislikes, their own little peculiarities. Their individuality is part of what draws us to them, even as their alien culture sometimes confuses us or sets us at ends. We’ll never know what it’s like to live in their world of scent, just as they’ll never understand the joy of a sunset over a lake. But we can still connect over our shared interests, and that’s a pretty biologically amazing thing.

A good number of the training challenges I encounter are due to an imbalance in the human-canine relationship. While some give and take is healthy, when one side pulls more than the other side can bear, problems come to light. Often this is a case where neither party is a good match for the other. Perhaps the human wants an agility dog who will love the excitement and competition of a trial, while the dog just wants to hike in the quiet suburbs. Or sometimes it’s the dog who’s pushing, needing more and more physical and mental exercise while the person just wanted a snuggly companion to relax with on the couch after work. Mismatches like this can learn to live together, but making a better choice of companions in the first place would have saved a lot of heartbreak and frustration on both parts.

But what if you’re already stuck in a mismatch? Not all relationships are meant to last, and that’s as true for people and dogs as it is for people and other people. It’s sad that people are often guilted into keeping a dog who is a truly awful match for them.

Understand that I’m not saying that dogs can be thrown away or changed out like shoes with each new season. However, if you’ve found yourself in a truly unbalanced match with your dog, I think that rehoming that dog can often be a very kind and responsible choice. If your dog will not be able to live happily or safely with you but can do so with someone else, one of the best things you can do for that dog is to help him or her find that perfect match. Living in an unbalanced relationship solely because you’ve been taught to believe that a dog is a lifetime commitment is at its best selfish, because you’re letting your fear of what others will think interfere with your dog’s right to live in the best home possible for him or her. At its worst, this sort of situation often resembles the most abusive of human relationships, with one party for all intents and purposes held hostage by the other’s needs. It’s not healthy, and it’s a very strong thing to recognize that and take steps to repair it… even if those steps lead to the rehoming of your dog.

If you’re in the difficult position of considering whether to rehome your dog, it’s important to take an honest look at the situation and to do your homework. First of all, honestly explore whether your dog is a safe and suitable candidate for rehoming. If your dog has a bite history or has significant behavioral issues, consult a qualified trainer to get their opinion on whether your dog should be rehomed. In some states, you can still be held liable for your dog’s behavior (including bites) even after rehoming him or her to a new owner with full disclosure of any history of aggression. Other behavioral issues than aggression also deserve a thorough evaluation. Separation anxiety or fear issues can be very difficult to live with and modify, and if you, the person who cares for your dog the most in the entire world, are unable or unwilling to put the effort into solving these issues, what makes you think that someone else who doesn’t yet have that bond will do so?

Finally, do your homework. There are lots of rehoming options out there, and it’s important to choose the one that will be the best for your dog. If you’re rehoming your dog privately, make sure to thoroughly check references and perhaps perform a home visit before giving your dog up to anyone. Be honest about your dog’s personality and history, and ask open-ended questions to get a better idea about the sort of home your dog will be living in.

Rehoming a dog is never easy, but if done responsibly it can often be the very kindest option when there’s just not a good match between dog and owner. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. However, if you do need to rehome your dog for any reason, please be honest to yourself and others about what happened. Make sure to do your homework in the future so that you can make a better match with your next dog.

Layla would have been a horrible match for most families. She’s simply not what people usually look for in a pet. She’s quick and smart, but also anxious and touch-sensitive. She doesn’t tolerate fools (human or canine) and isn’t afraid of making a point with her teeth. That said, when I adopted Layla I made the sort of match that most people dream about. Instead of being at odds, our personalities complement each other. We understand one another and work well together. I’m forever grateful to her previous owner for recognizing that their relationship was never going to work. By giving Layla up, she gave both Layla and myself an amazing gift. She gave us each other.

May every family be so lucky.

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.

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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.

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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!