Category Archives: Brags

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Four through Seven (and Adoption!)

Recently we covered formerly fearful puppy Chowder’s second and third week at our house. At the end of this time period, Chowder was beginning to warm up to us if we moved slowly and allowed him to come to us. He occasionally enjoyed stroking and was learning the routines of our home. His skin issues had cleared up, and he finally got to meet Layla.

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At this point, we began taking Chowder to regular puppy play sessions at our local humane society. He was initially overwhelmed, but within five minutes began to respond playfully to the other puppies’ advances. By our third puppy play session, Chowder was zooming around the room, happily engaging with all of the other puppies. He loved playtime!

I also enrolled Chowder in a Puppy Kindergarten class taught by another local trainer. While I was a bit disappointed in the four-week-long class, which primarily consisted of the puppy owners sitting in a circle on the floor, holding our puppies still and listening to the instructor lecture, I was proud of how Chowder did. His ability to focus and engage with us improved each week, and he was also able to settle quickly when held on my lap. He enjoyed meeting all of the other puppies in class when he was finally allowed to interact off-leash on week three, and handled the chaotic off-leash environment (by far the craziest playtime he’d yet encountered!) without getting overly aroused himself. He continued to be cautious about the instructor and the other people in class, but would investigate if given a bit of time.

Working his charm with my students.

Working his charm with my students.

In the classes I taught, Chowder began to really come out of his shell. My students deserve all of the credit for this. Everyone was so kind about tossing or handing treats to Chowder, and he began to sit right in front of his ex-pen instead of hanging back by his crate, charming everyone who approached him. He offered sits and high fives to all of his favorite people, and also began to accept petting from his new friends.

In nose work class, Chowder was no longer worried about putting his head in boxes and instead started trotting around the whole room like he owned it, checking out each new box or item in turn. Different students volunteered their time to be his “date” in class each week, and I’m incredibly grateful to Laura, Stan, Jeff, Sara, Aaron, and Sue for the Friday evenings they gave up to spend with little Chowder. He even became brave enough to “break out” of his pen one night, visiting all of the dogs in their crates before he was corralled. What a change in just a few weeks!

At home, Chowder began the process of potty training. While he had been pretty reliable about hitting his potty pads (or potty-pad-like objects, such as rugs) from the start, we were glad when he was finally comfortable enough on leash to be taken outside. His early days as an outdoor puppy definitely cemented his potty preferences, and he was a rock star about going to the bathroom as soon as he was taken outside.

Friends with Layla!

Friends with Layla!

With his growing reliability about not having accidents indoors and his successful introduction to Layla, Chowder began to be allowed more freedom in our home. Surprisingly, he and Layla actually became great buddies! While Layla rarely plays with other dogs, she began to solicit play on a daily basis from Chowder and the two dogs interacted very nicely together. I’ll be honest: this almost convinced me to keep Chowder. While I’ve successfully fostered over 100 dogs, Chowder came very close to being my fourth foster “failure” and staying with us forever. The only thing that stopped me was the knowledge that I wasn’t the best home with him. While I felt that he could be happy with me, I also had concerns that he wasn’t physically a good candidate for the high-level obedience and agility dog I wanted in my next pet. The last thing that I wanted to do was to put him in a situation that he wouldn’t be equipped to handle, risking injury. I knew that there was a better home out there for him where he would be an amazing buddy for a lucky family or individual, and resisted my urge to keep him.

And Chowder was definitely well on his way to becoming a wonderful pet. He handled his neuter surgery well, but later had to return when his incision opened up and became slightly infected. While he was frightened returning to the facility, he handled the examination well and also handled the daily cleaning of his surgery site at home wonderfully. Peanut butter helped! We were relieved when the daily discomfort caused by cleaning his surgical site failed to halt his forward socialization progress.

When a colleague of mine contacted me about Chowder, I was delighted to hear of his interest. His family already had two other dogs, which was one of our adoption requirements as Chowder continued to feel the most comfortable if he had a brave canine companion to look to for guidance. While we had initially looked for a home with older or no children for our special foster puppy, we decided to do a meet and greet with this family even though they had two young children.

Chowder snuggles with his new "sister," Muriel.

Chowder snuggles with his new “sister,” Muriel.

Chowder exceeded everyone’s expectations and quickly became comfortable with the two kids, and after a successful meet and greet with the family’s dogs, he officially became a member of their family. I cried when he left – equal parts happiness for him, pride in how far he’d come, and sadness to say goodbye. The photos and updates from his new family have made it all worthwhile. From feral dog to beloved family pet, Chowder is one of the sweetest success stories I’ve been honored to be a part of. His new family understands his special needs and will continue to support him as he grows up, and I’m very glad he’s their forever dog.

Have you ever fostered or adopted a fearful puppy? How did Chowder’s progress compare to your charge’s experiences? Please share in the comment section below!

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Weeks Two and Three

Last week, we covered formerly feral puppy Chowder’s first week in our home. By the end of the first week, Chowder was snuggling with us in the evening and enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout. He would still run away when approached and flinch if we reached towards him. His crate was his safe haven, and he ran to it whenever he needed a bit of space – a behavior that made it easy to move him from one location to another without having to handle him, as we could carry the crate with Chowder inside wherever we needed him to go. Chowder would still freeze if handled or held, but he was beginning to cautiously investigate his world.

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When Chowder first arrived at our home, we’d noticed some odd hairless spots on his legs and feet, and over the next few days these lesions began to crack and bleed. Soon new spots appeared, and a trip to the vet was in order. When I arrived at the vet clinic, the tech attempted to take Chowder into the back room. I firmly but politely refused, and instead stayed present for the entire skin scraping procedure, feeding Chowder bits of hot dog and cheese. He wasn’t able to eat while being restrained as he was too scared, but quickly returned to munching on bits of treat after the procedure was finished. We played some sniffing games where I scattered treats on his bedding for him to find, and these increased his comfort level and confidence noticeably.

This vet visit brought up an important point about fearful dogs. You are your dog’s advocate. It’s always okay to stand up for what’s best for your individual dog. I knew that had the vet tech taken Chowder to the back room, she would have reached into his crate to pull him out (gently, because she was a kind person who loved animals, but still in a way that would frighten Chowder). While he would comply with this, it would break the compact we’d formed with him where his crate was his safe, private place and no one would ever remove him from it. Since Chowder wasn’t likely to come out of his crate on his own and we needed to handle him, we instead took his plastic crate apart and removed the top half of the crate. While still stressful, this allowed Chowder to remain safely planted on his dog bed with four walls around him, and minimized the amount of handling he had to endure.

Chowder’s skin scraping was negative, so he returned to the vet clinic a few days later for a second visit so that he could be seen by a veterinarian. This time he remembered the sniffing games he had played before and cautiously came out of his crate on his own to search for treats which I scattered all over the floor. We repeated the skin scraping, which was again negative, and also ruled out most strains of ringworm by looking at his skin under a woods lamp. Since he wasn’t itchy but his lesions were getting worse, the vet decided to start him on an antibiotic to see whether the spots might be caused by a bacterial infection. Luckily, this turned out to be the case, and the swollen spots on Chowder’s legs and feet stopped bleeding and became less inflamed. By the time the course of antibiotics was over, Chowder was growing new fur over the spots and looked much better!

During the next couple weeks, Chowder continued to accompany me to training classes three times a week, where helpful students tossed him treats. My nose work students were especially kind, and a different student stayed after their own dog’s class each week to take Chowder through the last of the three nose work classes I taught on Friday evenings. Nose work is one of the best confidence builders for shy and fearful dogs. On the first week of his class, Chowder was reluctant to move more than a couple steps away from his safe spot near his crate and was too worried to put his head into a cardboard box in order to eat treats. We placed the boxes near his safe spot and put food on the outside of them, and Chowder sniffed his way over to eat the chunks of chicken and hot dog. By the second week, he was able to eat treats out of shallow boxes, and we started to see him perk up as soon as the boxes were in sight.

I noticed that, while Chowder was making strides in bravery, he continued to have a very difficult time recovering after something startled him. This was a problem, because at this point in his limited experience with people, everything startled him. If someone reached towards him too quickly or a noise spooked him, Chowder often hid and remained jumpy for hours. He would stop taking treats and shut down.

I consulted with a veterinarian friend of mine, and she agreed that the potential risks of using anxiety medication for Chowder were much lower than the risks to his developing brain and body from such constant stress. She recommended that we try a very small dosage of a common anxiety medication, alprazolam, which I already had on hand for one of my own dogs and which has been safely used in human children.

The results were beyond our wildest dreams. While the drug didn’t make Chowder brave, it did help him recover quickly (within 2-5 minutes, instead of hours) from startling events. After making sure he reacted well to it at home in a quiet environment, we used two doses of the drug: once while he was in an ex-pen during a training class and once when I brought him to a friend’s home for game night. After just these two doses, I noticed that Chowder’s ability to recover from stressors even without the medication was greatly improved. Because he’d had success in these situations, he had learned that he could handle them. We discontinued the medication, and he has continued to make lovely progress without it. While my veterinarian friend was quick to point out that these results aren’t typical, she also theorized that perhaps because the medication was used so early in Chowder’s behavioral modification and before he’d had many scary experiences, it was much more successful than it may have been had we waited months or even years to try it, as many people do. Just as doctors often recommend taking pain meds at the first sign of discomfort after surgery in order to keep on top of the pain, getting on top of Chowder’s anxiety and offering him help right away made a big difference in preventing his fear and anxiety from spiraling.

Along with all of these successes out in the world, Chowder also had a very exciting thing happen at home: he finally got to meet Layla. Because Layla is dog aggressive, we waited for two weeks before the two dogs met without a baby gate between them. The meeting went well, and the two dogs were able to hang out in close proximity without fireworks. We didn’t yet allow them to interact beyond casual sniffs as they passed by each other and made sure that there weren’t any valuable resources (such as knuckle bones) that Layla might guard. Chowder’s body language with Layla was beautiful – respectful and friendly without being fearful. On the few occasions when Layla felt uncomfortable and snarked at him, Chowder responded appropriately by backing off but was not frightened. His dog skills really were suburb for a tiny puppy!

At the end of his third week with us, Chowder had developed the ability to calm down and recover quickly if something scared him. He continued to learn new things (“high five” was his favorite trick!) and explore his environment. He had also made several dog friends and eaten treats from over fifty people. He was learning that we would respect his choices and that he could investigate his world when he was ready to do so. Even more importantly, Chowder was learning that he had the power to influence the behavior of those around him. If he moved away, people would back off and give him space. If he sat, people would hand him treats. His confidence was growing every bit as fast as his body (which doubled in size in the space of three weeks, from seven to fifteen pounds).

Have you ever brought home a fearful puppy? What did you do to socialize your new charge and build his or her confidence? What would you do differently if you could do it all over again? Please comment with your tips, tricks, and stories!

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: Week One

Last week, I covered fearful puppy Chowder’s first three days in our home. After three days, Chowder was reliably taking food from our hands, enjoying regular play sessions with our dog Trout, and beginning to play with us.

Chowder’s overall ability to cope with life in our home took a great turn for the better after the first 72 hours. He continued to be a champ at using his potty pads and settling in his crate, and we were able to use his crate to move him from one area to another. He would run into his crate as we approached, and we could then shut the crate door and move the crate wherever we needed him.

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Because of this, we were able to expand his world from our kitchen and bedroom to include my office downstairs. Our house has a relatively open floor plan, so we used an ex-pen to gate off the downstairs living room (which has white carpet) and a baby gate to close off access to the steps. Chowder could then run around my office and the adjoining room, which were both set up with water, toys, and potty pads.

Once Chowder could hang out with me while I worked, I began doing hourly training sessions with him. The clicker was an important tool in shaping his brave behaviors. Each hour, I would spend sixty seconds clicking and treating for brave behaviors. Whenever he took a step towards me, I clicked and tossed a treat away. This provided him with double rewards: not only did he get a treat, but he also got to move further away from me, which made him feel more comfortable. I wanted to be sure not to put too much social pressure on him, and this game allowed him to approach to a distance that felt comfortable without the conflict of moving into my space to eat.

Over the next week, Chowder learned the hand target game and quickly came to enjoy following my hand all over to earn clicks and treats. On his fourth evening with us, we discovered that he really liked popcorn. He began offering sits, which I clicked and rewarded with a small piece of popcorn. Within a couple minutes, he was offering to sit on a verbal cue with confidence.

One interesting behavior pattern that we noticed with Chowder was his differing level of confidence throughout the day. He was consistently timid and fearful in the mornings, and grew in confidence as the day progressed. By evening, he was much more likely to approach us and allow us to touch him, but would then regress overnight. We took advantage of his bravery in the evening by letting him snuggle in bed with us each night before he went into his crate to sleep. We set his crate up on the bed with the door open, and let him choose to come to us. Popcorn and cuddles became nightly themes, and by the fifth night in our house he actually fell asleep on our bed in between us.

We began having Chowder wear a body harness, which we put on each morning with lots of patience and food. Handling was still difficult and putting the harness on frightened Chowder, but he recovered quickly and we felt that the benefits of the harness outweighed the potential damage done to our relationship in putting it on. Had Chowder been too scared to eat while having the harness put on, we wouldn’t have done this. We attached a dragline to this harness and began allowing Chowder to spend short periods of time loose in the house when we knew he was empty (having just used a potty pad). Layla was confined when Chowder was loose, since the two dogs were still not ready to be loose together. Chowder loved these periods of freedom to run around with Trout and cautiously explore the house.

During this first week, I began bringing Chowder to the classes I was teaching. I set him up in an ex-pen in a corner with access to his crate and potty pads. A sign on the ex-pen told students, “Hi! My name is Chowder and I’m shy. Please don’t try to pet me, but you can feed me treats. Thanks for helping!” My students were wonderful at tossing treats into Chowder’s area when they were nearby, and he would cautiously come out of his crate after they moved away to eat. He watched the other dogs in class avidly, wagging his tail whenever he saw a new dog.

By the end of his first week with us, Chowder had made some remarkable progress from the near-feral puppy we initially brought home. He’d fallen asleep in bed, was accepting gentle petting in the evenings, and knew a couple trained behaviors which he could use to interact with people in positive ways. He was still quite timid and would run away if approached or if we reached for him, but he was on his way!

Next week, I’ll talk about Chowder’s second and third weeks in our home. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought a fearful animal home? How did you go about socializing him or her?

Diary of a Fearful Puppy: the First Three Days

My current foster puppy, Chowder, was found living in a culvert with his mom and three brothers as an eight-week-old puppy. This is his story.

My first view of Chowder and his siblings told me a lot about their socialization history. Huddled against one another at the back of their crate, they attempted to block out the rest of the world during their intake at the rescue’s headquarters. When lifted out of the crate for vetting and photos, the puppies froze still with fear. As is typical of young puppies, who tend to freeze rather than resorting to fight or flight when they’re incredibly overwhelmed, all four pups were compliant for vetting but uninterested in treats or in interaction with the kind rescuers who were caring for them. When back in the crate, two of the puppies started to take offered treats. Chowder and his brother Flapjack continued to refuse, huddled behind their braver siblings.

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The first 72 hours with a fearful dog or puppy can make or break that animal’s relationship with his human caretakers, and I kept that fact in mind as I brought little Chowder home. I wanted to make his first impressions of our home and of his new foster family as positive as possible. It takes an average of three days for cortisol levels (a common stress hormone) to return to baseline after a stressful event, and I knew that Chowder’s transport from Oklahoma to Minnesota, as well as his subsequent separation from his mom and brothers, hadn’t been easy on him.

We set Chowder up behind a baby gate in our kitchen, with his crate, potty pads, water, and toys. I spent the first evening with him sitting on the floor, reading a book and ignoring him. He huddled in the safety of his crate, watching everything with wide eyes. The only time he became more comfortable was when he spied either of our two dogs, Trout and Layla. Upon seeing another dog, his tail came out from between his legs and wagged slightly, and he would come out of his crate briefly to sniff noses through the gate. He felt safer in the presence of dogs than people.

Chowder ran into his crate every time he saw a person, but soon became comfortable enough to venture out of his crate when we weren’t around. He quickly caught on to using his potty pads. He also loved the toys we left out for him, and would bring them back into his crate. He amassed quite a hoard of toys in the first couple days, preferring soft stuffed animals that he could cuddle with.

All of his meals came from our hands. He became comfortable with my boyfriend, Matt, before he became comfortable with me. He would tentatively approach us as we sat with our backs to him, nibbling on food and treats that we held flat on our palms. If we reached towards him, he still darted away into the safety of his crate, but he was fast becoming comfortable with the idea that people provided food and other good stuff to eat.

Knowing that other dogs helped Chowder to feel more comfortable, we began allowing him to have playdates with our younger dog, Trout. Chowder loved Trout, who tolerated his rough puppy play and biting with mostly good grace. The two dogs enjoyed wrestling. Chowder also seemed more comfortable with Matt and me when Trout was around, and was more likely to allow us to gently scratch his itchy skin in the middle of a play session. We continued to keep Chowder separate from our older dog, Layla, who required longer introductions as she could be aggressive towards unfamiliar dogs. Layla and Chowder were both given treats for polite, social behavior towards one another on opposite sides of the baby gate, and Layla quickly began to offer sniffing noses with the puppy to earn a food reward.

On the second evening at our house, we plugged in a DAP diffuser for Chowder. The results on both his and Layla’s behavior were noticeable. While not as remarkable as drug therapy, Chowder’s recover from stressful events became much faster under the influence of DAP. Instead of taking an hour for him to recover from hearing a loud noise or from a sudden movement near him, it took mere minutes for him to choose to venture forth from the safety of his crate.

Making sure that Chowder felt safe and that he was given opportunities to choose rather than being forced into interactions were the most important themes of his first three days (and indeed, these themes have continued throughout our foster time with him). By allowing him choice, Chowder learned that he could be brave and that retreat when he became overwhelmed was always an option. He started to play with us – little tug and pounce games at first from within the safety of his crate. By day three, he was willing to come out of his crate briefly to grab a rabbit-fur tug toy, which he would pull back into his crate and tug on as we held onto the other end. He also enjoyed a grabbing and shredding game that he and Matt invented with pieces of toilet paper. His confidence increased, and he started to move more like a puppy and less like a wild animal. We still had a long way to go, but by the end of the first three days Chowder was showing some promising progress.

Next week, we’ll discuss what we did with Chowder in his first week at our home. This special little guy is still looking for a forever home of his own and is available for adoption! For now, I’d love to hear from you. Have you ever brought home a fearful animal? What did you do during that animal’s first few days to help him or her feel safe?

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.

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!

 

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!