Category Archives: Trainer Development

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Four: Training

Last week I discussed the management techniques I used to keep Trout and Layla safe and separate after their recent fight and resulting injuries. I cannot emphasize how very important management was in our success – without it, I doubt we would have ever been able to get the two girls back together. That said, there was still some work to be done. Today, I’ll cover the training and behavior modification exercises that we employed to reintroduce the two dogs to one another.

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Starting right away, we began to do short sessions with the dogs on opposite sides of their gates or ex-pens. We would take the blankets off the gates so that the dogs could see one another, walk them within sight of each other, then feed them lots of treats. After 10-20 seconds of treating, we would walk one of the dogs out of sight and immediately quit feeding both dogs. The premise was simple – good stuff only happened when the other dog was present.

When we first started these exercises, the dogs were noticeably worried. Trout frequently stared at Layla and sometimes growled, her posture stiff and upright. Layla avoided confrontations, looking away and licking her lips, clearly frightened. This behavior on Layla’s part was quite surprising to me. In the past, she’s always been eager to engage if another dog started something, but I suspect that with her increasing age (she’s nine years old) and injured leg she just wasn’t feeling up to another confrontation. When Trout growled or postured, her handler instantly stopped treating or paying attention to her and walked her away, while Layla’s handler praised and treated her for avoiding conflict while also moving her further away. We never allowed growling or posturing to continue for more than a second before intervening. Remember, practice makes perfect – and we certainly didn’t want Trout to get better at these behaviors!

Within a couple days, these positive conditioning sessions began to show real results. Trout’s posturing became less intense and Layla’s appeasement signals likewise lessened. Both dogs began to visibly brighten when they spied their housemate on the other side of the gate or ex-pen, looking for their treats. They also began to signal in friendly ways towards one another, sniffing from a distance and returning calming signals. We praised them enthusiastically for any pro-social behaviors, and Trout especially seemed to really need this extra reassurance that she was doing well.

As she became less insecure around Layla, Trout’s posturing and growling melted away. This is an important point. Frequently, owners think that their dogs are growling because they’re pushy, mean, or status-seeking. However, much like Trout, these behaviors are often an indicator of a problem with insecurity. Imagine, then, the damage that can be done by punishing a dog for growling or otherwise displaying their discomfort. Not only would punishment have potentially suppressed growling and other very useful indicators of Trout’s comfort level, but it also would have completely reinforced her belief that she was correct to worry when Layla was around. By pairing Layla’s presence with good things (treats! praise! neck rubs!) and viewing any growling as information that the dogs were too close, we were able to quickly change Trout’s reaction to Layla for the better.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and other signs of tension. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

Oops! Sometimes we made mistakes. Here, Trout got way too close to Layla, and began to display whale eye and close her mouth – both major warning signs. We immediately put more distance between the two dogs, and Trout once again relaxed.

At this point, we began taking short walks multiple times a day – just halfway to the corner at first, then all the way to the corner. We started by walking the dogs across the street from one another, moving them in the same direction but allowing for plenty of parallel distance between them. Both dogs were given treats for looking at the other dog in a soft manner, as well as receiving frequent rewards for walking nicely. If either dog began to look tense or nervous, we immediately veered further away from one another, giving them even greater distance. When they were both soft and relaxed, we moved slightly closer, lessening the distance between the two.

Within a week, the two dogs were able to walk side-by-side in a relaxed manner. They began sniffing each other as they walked, and following one another to especially enticing smells. They started to urine mark over special smells together. While they were still kept completely separate inside, their outdoor walks allowed them to start interacting as a team once again.

Inside, we continued to experience problems with guarding. Both dogs guard resources (food, toys, special resting places), so we had to be very aware of potential triggers. If either dog growled or stared at the other, the offender was immediately but calmly escorted to a crate or room for some alone time, while the dog who had been growled at was rewarded liberally with treats and praise for not responding. In just a few days, Layla began to run to the treat cupboard and wait for a reward during the rare moments when Trout happened to growl, and both dogs began to posture and threaten the other less frequently.

To begin working on reintegrating the dogs indoors, I returned to one of my favorite tools for behavior modification – the Protocol for Relaxation. This step-by-step protocol teaches dogs to relax while stuff happens around them, and both Layla and Trout were already quite familiar with it. I started running through the protocol once or twice a day, at first with the dogs lying on mats on opposite sides of a baby gate, and later with them side-by-side but with Trout tethered. After a week of successful protocol repetitions, when both dogs were looking soft and relaxed on their mats, I untethered Trout. Outside of training sessions the dogs continued to be kept separate, but while we were actively working on the protocol they were able to be loose together, relaxed on their individual mats.

These three main exercises – positive associations on opposite sides of the gate, parallel walks, and the Protocol for Relaxation – set the stage for a successful reintroduction. Within a week, we began allowing the dogs to pass by one another off-leash without interacting when switching them into different areas of the house, and later began to allow short (2-5 minute) periods of time when they were loose together but heavily supervised. We continued to keep them apart for the majority of the time, but built up the amount of time they could be around one another gradually.

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together!

Relaxing during the Protocol for Relaxation, off-leash together and all healed up!

Reintroduction after a serious fight is a slow process, but it was worthwhile in the end. After a month of gradual reintroductions, we were able to take the ex-pens and baby gates down completely. The dogs continue to be separated if left unsupervised (something we’d done prior to this incident as a matter of course), but are otherwise peacefully coexisting once again. Three weeks into this process, the two began playing together once again, at first with frequent breaks and exaggerated body language, and then with more relaxed signals as they once again became comfortable with one another. Today their interactions have returned to the pre-fight levels of peace and playfulness.

While I’ve coached many, many clients on reintroductions such as this, I’ve never before experienced inter-dog issues with my own pets at such a serious level. I can empathize with the stress and anxiety of dealing with dogs who don’t get along. My mantra for clients in similar situations has always been that “slow is fast,” and Layla and Trout were proof that this is indeed the case. Anytime we tried to rush through exercises or pushed the dogs, things fell apart. Allowing both girls time to heal, physically and emotionally, and setting them up for success with one another, gave them the tools to progress at their own paces and eventually to rebuild their relationship. We’ll continue to be vigilant in avoiding situations that could trigger a repeat of their fight, however I feel confident in saying that the dogs are better equipped to avoid conflict in the future due to the hard work we put into helping them succeed during this time.

If you’ve ever experienced inter-dog aggression in your own household, I hope your experiences at reintroduction were every bit as successful as ours. Remember, slow is fast, and it’s important to work at your dogs’ own paces. Feel free to share your tips, tricks, and stories in the comments section below.

 

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Three: Management

Over the last couple weeks, I’ve discussed the recent issues between my two dogs, Layla and Trout. After the fight, both dogs had injuries that needed time to heal. They also needed some time to heal emotionally, though, as both were frightened and on edge.

Management during these weeks was critical. By keeping the two dogs separate from one another, we avoided further confrontations and were able to set them up for success. As the days passed, both dogs were able to relax and began to show interest in interacting with one another again.

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The first week was spent in total separation. We divided our house up into separate areas using baby gates with blankets over them to prevent the dogs from making visual contact (Trout did a lot of hard staring at first), exercise pens, and closed doors to keep the dogs apart. Our kitchen became one zone, the upstairs another, the living room and den two more. Because our house has such an open floor plan, it took some creativity to divide it in this manner. While it was an inconvenience to navigate the various gates and ex-pen panels, I really believe that the complete separation was the best thing we did for both dogs.

Remember, it takes 72 hours on average for stress hormones to return to baseline after a big event like the fight. The physical stress on both dogs’ bodies from their injuries, as well as the stress of wearing e-collars (the “cone of shame,” not remote collars), also contributed to keep their overall stress levels high. Trying to reintroduce the two dogs right away would have been like throwing a match onto a puddle of rocket fuel. They were already keyed up and on edge, and we needed to give them the time and resources to decompress.

Knowing this, we immediately plugged in our DAP diffuser on the main floor of the house. We made sure both dogs got lots of individual attention and that we were switching them out of various areas in the house regularly. We provided the best pain control possible to make sure their injuries weren’t preventing them from resting comfortably. Once Layla’s leg was able to hold her weight, we began walking the dogs on short jaunts multiple times a day, letting them stop and sniff frequently to unwind. Our goal was an atmosphere of support and calm.

We used additional management tools, such as tethers and crates, loosely as needed. For the most part, we were able to confine the dogs in rooms rather than in crates. However, there were definitely times when tethering the dogs on opposite sides of the room, such as when I was working in my office, was helpful in keeping them safe while still allowing them to both be near me, where they wanted to spend time. I managed this by attaching short 4′ leashes to each dog’s collar, then placing the handle of a leash on the doorknob opposite the side of the door we were on and closing the door on the leash. I also attached leashes to sturdy furniture, such as my large desk.

We also revisited muzzle training. Layla was already 100% comfortable wearing a basket muzzle prior to this incident, but Trout has always been a bit more skeptical about any sort of equipment, even balking at her regular collar and harness. At least once an hour when I was home, I worked with Trout and the muzzle, until eventually she was comfortable and happy taking treats out of the basket and having it fastened around her neck. Muzzling the dogs prior to interactions served two purposes. It obviously kept everyone safe, but it also allowed the humans involved to relax since we knew that nothing too horrible could happen. Since dogs pick up on emotional cues easily, setting everyone up for success by keeping the interactions relaxed and positive was especially important.

With management in place and both dogs comfortable with the routine, we were ready to begin the training process. Next week I’ll discuss what we did to help the dogs coexist peacefully once again. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you! How do you manage your dogs to set them up for success? Please post your tips and tricks in the comments section below.

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part Two: Bites

Last week, I covered the scenario leading up to a devastating incident in which my younger dog, Trout, attacked my older dog, Layla, and the two dogs fought. While the fight was ended quickly with the fast actions of myself and my boyfriend, the injuries that the two dogs sustained took a bit longer to heal. This week, I want to talk about the story the injuries told me.

Where a dog bites another dog is very meaningful. Different bite locations tell us about the dog’s intentions during the fight – one reason why I always ask where one dog bit another when I’m working dog aggression cases. The severity of the bites is also very meaningful and gives a good idea of how safe the dog is to work with. Past history is a great indicator of future behavior, which means that knowing where and how hard Layla and Trout have bitten other dogs can tell us a lot about what they’re likely to do in the future.

IMG_1941After the fight, both dogs had injuries. Trout’s injuries initially appeared worse. She had a gash over her eye that was bleeding profusely and was eventually closed with two sutures, as well as punctures on her cheek and ear that were also bleeding but which didn’t require any medical care other than thorough cleaning. Since she’s a white dog, the blood from her wounds was starkly visible and very shocking. She fussed at her injuries, trying to paw at the gash above her eyebrow, so her paws quickly became red with blood too. She also had blood around her mouth from Layla.

Injuries to the face and ears such as those Trout received are the most typical injuries sustained in dog fights, and they can certainly be alarming at first. Ears and tongues especially tend to bleed alarmingly, and the wounds on ears often have trouble clotting as the dog shakes his or her head, reopening the wound and causing further damage (not to mention the crime-scene-like atmosphere that the splatter of blood such head shaking creates).

That said, injuries to the face tend to be the least concerning to professional dog behavior consultants. They’re the most common, as the skin there is thin and easily torn, and are also indicative that the dog(s) were not fighting with serious intent to harm but rather disagreeing. It’s the difference between a bar-room scuffle and a knife fight in an alley – there may be a broken nose or cracked knuckles in the bar room brawl, but no one’s actively trying to kill their combatant. Dogs who bite at other dogs’ faces or ears are angry, but not usually serious about causing damage.

Next up in the hierarchy of seriousness are bites to the sides of the neck, shoulders, or hips. These bites are a sign that the dog is taking the fight to the next level, but still is not yet intent on causing serious harm. Even more concerning are dogs who bite at the base of the skull, over the jugular, or on the other dog’s legs. These dogs are trying to disable or kill their opponent. The very most serious of dogs, who typically go for the underside of their opponent in an attempt to disembowel them, are intent not on disabling but on causing death, and dogs who injure in this way should never again be allowed in the presence of other dogs without extremely careful management such as the use of leashes and basket muzzles.

IMG_1943Layla’s injuries initially didn’t look too serious. She was missing tufts of fur and had extensive bruising over her chest and breastbone, and a deep gash on her right hind leg just above her knee. However, these bite wounds concerned me much more than Trout’s very visible and bloody battle scars. The wound in Layla’s back leg required the placement of a drain, and the entire wound took eight sutures to close. Layla was not able to bear much weight on that leg for close to 24 hours, and even today after the external wound has healed she still experiences some weakness and trembling in that leg after exertion, for which we’ve made an appointment with a veterinary rehabilitation specialist.

Bruising without punctures - a Level 2 bite.

Bruising without punctures – a Level 2 bite.

So, what do the pattern of Layla’s injuries tell us? Trout began by biting me on the elbow as I attempted to block her attack, bruising but not puncturing the inner part of my arm. This sort of bite is considered a Level 2 bite out of 6 using Dr. Ian Dunbar’s bite scale, which starts with Level 1 bites (snapping without making contact) and ends at Level 6 bites (where the dog kills the victim or consumes flesh). Generally, euthanasia is recommended as the safest option for dogs who cause Level 4 or higher bites, which refers to dogs who bite deeply enough to puncture more than half the length of their canine tooth, and who may grab the victim and shake or tear flesh as they slash.

After launching herself over me, Trout then began biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone, again bruising (and removing tufts of fur), but not puncturing. During this time, she had decent bite inhibition, a term that refers to how strongly a dog bites down. Bite inhibition is one of the most accurate predictors of rehabilitation in dogs. A dog who snaps without making contact or who bites without puncturing skin is much less likely to cause serious damage in the future, while a dog who has hurt another dog badly enough to require medical attention is much more likely to cause that level of damage in the future.

The fact that Trout was biting at Layla’s chest and over her breastbone tells us that she was much more serious about “winning” the fight than was Layla, who was biting at Trout’s face in an attempt to back her off. However, initially Layla had worse bite inhibition, actually breaking skin on Trout rather than just bruising. This is something I know about Layla, and one of the main reasons I am so careful when introducing her to new dogs. While she’s never seriously hurt another dog, she’s punctured the skin on a face or ear on a handful of occasions.

The intensity of the fight likely escalated after Layla physically hurt Trout. Trout suddenly became even more serious, biting Layla’s back leg badly enough to badly injure her. This wound was deep and wide, as Trout grabbed onto Layla’s leg with all the force she had and then shook her head from side to side. Layla also had bruising and extensive swelling on the back side of this same leg, and I suspect that had we not intervened Trout would have continued to try to seriously injure or kill her housemate. Note that I don’t think that Trout initially meant for the fight to go so far. The earlier bites where she only bruised rather than puncturing tell a story of a dog who started something she wasn’t able to handle, then likely got scared and began to fight more intensely. Of course, guessing this is anthropomorphic and it’s entirely possible that there were other motivations driving Trout’s actions. However, since we can’t ask her and she can’t tell us, I can make a good guess about what happened based on the evidence at hand.

As you can see, knowing the level of commitment and seriousness that different bite locations and varying bite inhibition levels convey provides a great deal of information on the involved dogs’ intentions. They also tell us a lot about safety, providing insights into the future behavior and possible liability repercussions of working with any given animal. Any dog who has done damage to another in the past is likely to repeat that performance given the wrong set of circumstances, and it’s important to go into any behavior modification program with your eyes wide open to the future possibilities of working with your dog. As sad as it can be, I absolutely believe that euthanasia is an appropriate choice in certain dog-dog aggression cases if your dog’s past history indicates a serious danger to other dogs in the future. And of course, no dog who has injured another should ever be bred, as there’s often a strong genetic component to dog aggression.

However, that doesn’t mean that all dog aggression cases warrant euthanasia, and it’s also important to know that given sufficient management and training, dogs who have a history of causing harm can absolutely live out the remainder of their lives safely and happily. In fact, this is one of the most common behavioral cases I take on, as I love helping people have success with their dog aggressive or reactive dogs.

Next week, I’ll discuss what I did to keep Layla and Trout safe after their fight. In the future, I’ll also discuss what I did to help the two girls learn to live peacefully with one another again. I’m happy to report that, other than some lingering weakness in Layla’s hind leg, both girls’ injuries have completely healed, and they’re back to coexisting well. In the meantime, have you ever witnessed a dog fight? What did the injuries tell you about the dogs’ varying intents? Please share your experiences in the comments section below!

Dog-Dog Aggression Between Housemates Part One: the Fight

In retrospect, we should have seen the attack coming. On two separate occasions after full days of running around, our normally sweet and friendly dog Trout had snarked at different foster puppies over food. Both times she stopped quickly without making contact when we intervened, and was then confined to a room to rest. However, both times she also showed a concerning lack of the typical warning signs dogs give off before lunging or snapping, only freezing slightly for an instant before she went after the puppies.

Waiting for treatment at the e-vet

Waiting for treatment at the e-vet

We chalked Trout’s concerning behavior up to soreness and not feeling well. With a mystery illness resembling Addison’s disease, her body struggles to handle stress, including the good stress of exciting events. Her muscles have wasted with the disease progression, and her energy level fluctuates. She has episodes of GI distress where her reflux is so bad that she will attempt to eat anything she can get in her mouth – cloth, cotton batting from dog toys, and even foam from dog beds. She has full-body muscle spasms, twitching and groaning as she lies on the floor. Her cognitive abilities have suffered too, and while on some days she’s the sweet, happy dog we’ve always loved, other days she seems confused by even the most simple routines or cues. We keep her comfortable on a regimen of medications, and she continues to have more good days than bad.

On the day of the attack, Trout was not having a good day. She had run hard for close to an hour at the park the day before, a special treat that we typically wouldn’t let her indulge in. However, it was one of the first nice days of spring, and she’d been doing well for a few weeks. She was extra sore this day, and I could tell that she was having some cognitive issues as we did a short training session. I kept the exercises easy, and at the end of the one-minute session she was able to end on a happy, successful note. I then called our other dog, Layla, into the room where I was working – something I’ve been doing for three years, since I always work one dog and then the other.

Today, that was a problem for Trout. As Layla entered the room, Trout stiffened up and growled, guarding me and the treats. I grabbed for her, missing as she launched across my body and bit my elbow, then attacked Layla. If you’ve never seen your beloved pets fight, the sight is chilling. Layla instantly defended herself, and my boyfriend and I each grabbed a dog. We had to wait for the dogs to let go of one another, as both were holding on in ferocious terrier grips, and pulling them apart would have caused more damage. The fight was over within 20 seconds, although in the heat of the moment it felt like much longer longer.

Unfortunately, that twenty seconds was all it took for both dogs to sustain injuries. We packed them up in the car for a trip to the e-vet as I contemplated the seriousness of Trout’s attack and tried to hold back tears over the sight of Layla’s deep wound.

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be writing about our experiences with Trout and Layla. What did the location of their bites have to say about their intentions during the fight? How did we manage the two dogs to prevent future incidents? How did we re-integrate them into the same household? I’ll cover all of these questions as I discuss living safely with dogs who’ve hurt one another.

In retrospect, we should have seen the attack coming. However, love is blind, and while I likely would have picked up on the warning signs with a client’s dog, knowing and living with my own dogs skewed my perspective. There’s a reason that even professional dog trainers hire other professionals when our dogs have issues, and this story is a good reminder of that. I’m grateful that Matt and I were right there when our dogs went at it. This story could have been very different had we not been – one of the biggest reasons why I never leave the two dogs unattended together.

Have your dogs ever fought with their housemates? How did you handle the situation? Please share your stories in the comments below, and watch for the next installment in Trout and Layla’s story next week as I discuss what the location of the bite wounds told me about the two dogs’ intentions.

 

Rescue Decisions: The Dog, or the Community?

The biggest problem facing American shelters and rescues in my opinion today is the choice of responsibility. Shelters and rescue can choose to side with being responsible to our community, or we can choose to be responsible towards the dogs we want to save. I do not honestly believe that we can always be responsible towards both.

Photo by Woody Hibbard

Photo by Woody Hibbard

The balance of responsibility is almost never talked about outside of the rescue world, because it’s a harsh and sometimes ugly concept. It’s not something we like to think about, but I think it’s something that we need to think and to talk about, openly and honestly. Until we can discuss the balance of responsibility, until we can ask organizations where their individual fulcrum sits and where they’ve decided to place their moral chips, it’s nearly impossible to have so many other discussions about euthanasia and live release rates and what “adoptable” looks like in their organization.

There’s a margin of error on both sides, and within that margin of error live the borderline dogs. Borderline dogs are those dogs who come into the shelter system damaged through no fault of their own. Through poor genetics, lack of socialization, or bad experiences, these dogs are just a little too hot to be pet material. Anyone who’s worked for any amount of time in shelter or rescue knows the dogs I’m talking about. These dogs do well in the hands of experienced animal handlers. We can take these dogs and make them look like stars. They’re usually dog- and cat-aggressive, or perhaps they do great with other animals but show no sociability towards people. Maybe they don’t like to be touched, or maybe they’re guarders. Maybe they don’t like men, or kids, or people who are holding things. Sometimes they have crazy drive and terrible structure. Sometimes they have stereotypies – spinning, licking, jumping. Often they’re quick to lunge and snap, quick to snark, or maybe even have a minor bite history. Maybe they’ve just never been inside, and pancake to the floor or won’t go through doorways. They come in a variety of flavors, but whatever they look like, they’re just a little bit tough without being obviously unsalvageable. They’re workable, but they’re also very likely to hurt someone in the wrong situation.

Do we – should we? – place these animals? With lots of resources, they could do really well. In fact, many blog readers probably have success stories about dogs just like those I described above who did beautifully in your home (I do too!). But, the resources that it would take to get these borderline animals to a place where the average pet owner could handle them would save fifty perfectly lovely other dogs who are dying in southern shelters today. And in my experience, most rescues never get these animals to a place where the average pet owner can adopt them. Instead, they have to wait for the above average pet owner to adopt them, and that takes months or years. That takes so many resources, or it takes unintentionally misleading adoption pleas.

The problem is that either way, you’re going to get some wrong. Occasionally, it’s not going to go well. So, which way do you err?

If your rescue errs on the side of the community, you kill some animals who were perfectly placeable. This is the side that the majority of the ER staff, vets, and trainers I know, myself included, tend to come down on, because we’ve seen the damage done when borderline dogs get placed irresponsibly. We’ve seen the bites to small children requiring plastic surgery. We’ve seen the grief when people’s pet cats or dogs are killed. We’ve seen how devastating it can be when an adopter has to send their new pet’s head off for rabies testing. So we advise that dogs with bite histories or histories of aggression, especially large or powerful breeds or those who already have a bad reputation which would be especially hurt by another poor media portrayal, be euthanized. We advise against placing dogs who we would absolutely work with if they were already in stable, loving homes, because the sad fact is that they aren’t, and that there are hundreds of lovely dogs with no behavioral issues who could use those resources out there who need help.

And I understand how hard that is, too. Because if you work in rescue, you tend to err on the side of the dogs. You’re the one who has to clean up after the world, and it hurts so much to take a hurt and broken dog who’s physically healthy on that last trip to the vet and hold them while they die. So you place them and you cross your fingers and then you feel so happy that everything worked out. And most of the time, quite honestly, it’s okay. Most of the time, things are all right, and adopters make things work, and the dog doesn’t bite anyone. And – I’ll be honest – even if the dog does horribly disfigure the neighbor kid, you’re probably not going to hear about it, because usually the adopter is too embarrassed or upset, so they don’t contact you to let you know, and you go on thinking everything worked out in the end. And you didn’t have to kill the dog. The buck was passed.

Why am I writing this? If you’re not in the rescue or shelter community, you’re probably horrified about the Sophie’s choice of the idea right now. If you are, you’re already aware of it, although you may not have thought of it so starkly before. Honestly, I’ve had a lot of tough cases over the last few months, blog readers, on both sides of the fence. I work with rescues who are doing everything they can to advocate for their dogs, and I admire the hell out of their commitment to their charges. However, I’ve also had a handful of cases where adopters have had to make tough choices about dogs that, in my humble opinion, should never have been placed in their homes or their communities, and in some of those cases children were injured. In one case, a beloved pet died. The dog in question was placed with a known history of aggression towards other animals. Shame on the shelter for passing on the responsibility to their adopter. You can guess which side of the moral debate that particular organization lands on.

Regardless of whether you work in shelter or rescue or not, you can make a difference. Make sure that your donations are going to support organizations whose missions support your beliefs. Even better, support organizations who work to keep animals in their original homes through programs that provide training, veterinary, and educational support to needy communities.

The sad fact of rescue is that sometimes we get it wrong. Behavior is not always predictable, and we’re left making educated guesses about what any animal in our care will do in the future. With that in mind, those of us in the rescue and sheltering community have an important responsibility to both the community we live in and the animals we’ve sworn to help. It’s a balancing act that can seem daunting at times, and each of us must decide at which point on the scale we wish to place our fulcrum. Where will you err? In favor of your community, or in favor of the dog? If you err, who’s going to pay the price?

Why I’m Not a “Force Free” Trainer

Force free. It sounds great, doesn’t it? Of course dog training should be force free! Yet when a recent client asked if I was a force free trainer, I said I wasn’t. My client was taken aback, as many of my blog readers probably are. Let me explain.

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I have several issues with the idea of labeling the training that Paws Abilities offers as “force free.” My biggest problem with the label is that it says nothing about what we actually do. Focusing on negatives like this is one of the biggest advertising gimmicks of all time. “No corn, wheat, or soy!” the dog food package proclaims. Yet, reading the label shows that there’s enough barley, rice, and oatmeal in the food that dogs who have issues with carbs are still going to react negatively. “Sugar free – No Sugar Crash!” the 5-hour Energy drink shouts, saying nothing about how your body might react to the caffeine crash later in the day.

Focus on negatives like this is meant to make you think poorly of competitor’s products or services. When you see the label that says “no by-products” on the dog food package, you start thinking that maybe by-products are bad for your dog, and wondering why other dog food companies would use them. When you see “force free” on a dog trainer’s website, your mental image of a trainer shoving or jerking a dog around makes you feel relieved that at least this trainer doesn’t do that.

What the focus on negatives doesn’t tell you is what the trainer actually does. While I don’t use or recommend choke, prong, or electronic collars, that doesn’t tell you a single thing about what I will do to your dog. Can I solve the behavioral issues you’re experiencing with your pet? How quickly and effectively will I do so? These are probably the bigger questions on your mind, and knowing what tools I do or don’t use isn’t going to tell you a whole hell of a lot about how effective I am. There are good and bad trainers of all training methodologies, and more has to do with the trainer’s experience than with the methods they use.

Which brings me to the second reason I don’t consider myself or my other instructors force free. The dog decides what “force” means, and we can’t always know that until we try a given training intervention. Is it considered forceful to stand on a dog’s leash so that he has enough leash to comfortably sit, stand, or lie down, but not enough to jump up on a stranger? Is it forceful to use body blocks to keep my dog from lunging at a passing bike? Is it forceful to fit a dog with a Gentle Leader or front-attach harness so that when he pulls on his leash he ends up facing his handler? I can’t tell you, and neither can anyone else. Each of these training methods is one that I frequently use, and each of them produces different results for different dogs. For some dogs, these methods might be considered forceful. A soft dog who’s very sensitive to spacial pressure might be really uncomfortable when her handler body blocks her, for example. For that dog, we may have to adjust the handler’s technique (perhaps having her handler lean towards her instead of actually stepping in front of her, for example). But we can’t know until we look at the dog’s response.

I’ve watched as a friend’s dog was happily and quickly recalled using low-level shocks from an electronic collar. While the tool isn’t one I use or recommend, in this dog’s case I didn’t see any body language that told me that the dog was uncomfortable or stressed by the use of force. Rather, the dog understood what the sensation on his neck meant, knew how to turn it off, and had a great relationship with his handler. I didn’t consider the interaction forceful and was not uncomfortable with anything I observed, even though the training tool was not one that I typically like seeing used.

On the other hand, I’ve watched a trainer shape a dog to “bang” the teeter totter using a clicker and treats at a seminar and felt highly uncomfortable. The dog was on a leash but was not being physically guided in any way. Still, she couldn’t go more than 6′ away from the teeter totter, and was clearly uncomfortable with the amount of pressure placed on her by the trainer. The dog’s body was low and she was licking her lips and turning her head away from the trainer. Even though I often use clickers and treats to train dogs, I was very uncomfortable with the interaction and didn’t feel like the dog was enjoying the training or building a good relationship with the well-known presenter at all.

The force free training movement would have you believe that the first trainer is evil because of her use of an e-collar, while the second trainer is good because she was using a clicker and treats. However, I bet if we asked the two dogs which was happier with the training they were experiencing, we’d get very different answers. This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start using an e-collar anytime soon (I’m not), or that I don’t think clickers and treats are good training tools (I do). But we have to ask the dog, and the mark of a good trainer has a lot less to do about what tools are in their repertoire as it does with how they modify their techniques based on the animal in front of them. Dogs are individuals, and cookie-cutter techniques don’t work any better for them than they do for the owners at the other end of the leash. The more dogs a trainer has worked with, the better that trainer will be able to change his or her methods to suit the individual that they’re working with at the moment – and the happier and less stressed the dog will be with the training.

I still get it wrong sometimes. Everyone will. I yelp loudly when a puppy nips me, then watch as that puppy shrinks away and realize that I’ve been too forceful. Next time I’ll need to make less noise. I clap my hands and cheer, offering a tug toy as the dog I’m working with gets into heel position, then feel my heart sink as the dog lags behind me. Next time I’ll need to praise and pet quietly, handing the dog a small piece of hot dog. I back an excited adolescent dog away from the dog he’s lunging and barking at, and watch as he continues to carry on. Next time I’ll need to body block him with a quick verbal “I don’t THINK so,” and be ready to reward him when he quiets down. The important thing in each interaction is that I modify my response to the dog to better work for that individual animal.

I’m not force free. I make mistakes in how I handle dogs. But I strive to be fair, kind, and respectful. I’m not force free. But I am helpful, effective, and a trainer who prefers reward-based methods. And doesn’t that tell you a lot more than focusing on what I’m not?

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!