When is your anxious dog calm?

On our last night of our reactivity class, our trainer Deven asked me: “Is Pyrrha able to be calm and relaxed?”

I said that she was, but as I was thinking about it, I sadly realized that her ability to be truly happy and calm is limited to very specific environments. Deven was asking to determine if Pyrrha may need more serious behavioral intervention (such as medication). I’m not sure we’re at that place yet, but the conversation did make me think about the particular spaces and times in which Pyrrha seems to let her guard down and let that worried face and anxious body fall away.

Portrait of a lady. #pyrrhagram
Portrait of a (shy) lady.

Pyrrha is calm and happy when:

  • I’m at home with her.
  • she’s playing with another dog.
  • she’s on a walk (with no other dogs in sight).
  • she’s riding in the car.
  • she’s in her crate.
  • we’re eating or cooking at home.

I say “calm” even though many people wouldn’t look at Pyrrha and see an anxious dog. Her fearfulness rarely displays itself in any kind of frenzied energy or reactivity (with the exception of seeing other dogs on leash). But over the year and a half since we’ve had her, I’ve become a mini-expert in her moods (as many of you are with your own dogs, I imagine). It’s helpful that her big shepherd ears are like signals for how she’s feeling. “Oh, she’s got her ‘scared ears’ on,” my husband will say, once Pyrrha spots a trigger. I, of course, want to do everything in my power to have her wearing her “happy ears” as much as possible.

Food is a HUGE help for us in this. We’re lucky that we have a dog who is such a deep, committed beggar that she will lovingly place her head in the lap of “scary” people (e.g., men) just for a crumb. Food, somewhat amazingly, seems to overshadow many of her triggers, so this has been a great advantage to us in training. Deven said that she’s OK with begging if Pyrrha is begging from her fear trigger (e.g., my husband). Reinforce bravery and confidence when you can, even if it’s not exactly “polite.”

Now that we’re in a foster-less phase for the next few months, until we get our housing situation settled, I have time to really focus on Pyrrha. And I am realizing that she does continue to need our help and guidance. We have days of frustration and backsliding (forgetting to reinforce her for seeing dogs on walks, neglecting her mental state), and we have days of progress and encouragement (like last night, when she got on the couch next to Guion and put her head in his lap without any bribery). One step forward, one step back.

If you have a fearful dog, when or where is (s)he truly happy and calm? What do you do to maximize these moments?

Review: Don’t Shoot the Dog!

Don’t Shoot the Dog!

This classic book by landmark trainer and behaviorist Karen Pryor has been on my to-read list for almost a year now. Our public library didn’t carry a copy, but then I stumbled upon it at a used book sale for a $1. Perfect!

I actually had no idea that this book wasn’t exclusively a dog training book; Don’t Shoot the Dog! is actually a general primer on the techniques and methods of positive reinforcement training, applied to all kinds of animals–humans included. The book is not a step-by-step training manual, but rather a primer on why these positive techniques work in the first place.

Pryor is best known for being a leading proponent of clicker training, a method of reward and reinforcement that she began using while training dolphins. Clicker training has widespread application to many different types of animals and dogs, of course, respond very well to the use of clickers.

The book discusses the application of clickers in positive reinforcement training, but it spends more time explaining why clicker training works. Why do animals respond so well and so quickly to this schedule of training? Pryor has the answers, and she presents them cleanly and clearly in this book.

I almost wish I had read it earlier, as it would have been a nice foundation for my introduction to positive training. As it stands, however, I’m still glad I read it and glad to have that extra assurance that this is the type of training that is respectful and effective. I am looking forward to continuing to learn these techniques and put them into practice with my own dog in the coming months!

Review: Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence

Surviving Your Dog's Adolescence.

Carol Lea Benjamin is a name you will see a lot in dog books, especially in dog books written in the late 1980s or in the early 1990s. She was a big name trainer at the time. Benjamin has now retired from dog training, but she still writes a blog and works with her own dogs. I was excited to find her book Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence, because it sounded like an interesting and relevant focus on a particularly trying time in a dog’s life. I also thought it might be pertinent for us, since we’re aiming to adopt a young adult dog.

After having read this brief and snappy little book, however, I found myself confused by the book’s subtitle, which says it’s “A Positive Training Program.” This was surprising to me, because the book relies heavily on physical punishments and lots of “leash pops” to get your teenage dog in line. Not much of Benjamin’s recommendations fit with the guidelines of positive reinforcement trainers like Pat Miller, Patricia McConnell, or Karen Pryor.

Rather, Benjamin’s book focuses primarily on the outmoded and damaging concepts of dominance and “alpha” leadership models. Her book assumes that your job as a trainer is to never let your dog get the upper hand, something which he is continually trying to do, because he’s like a wolf. This line of thinking, as we now well know, is false and based on inappropriately applied research, but it’s a philosophy that is still extremely prevalent among modern American dog owners (thanks to the damage done by popular trainers like Cesar Millan).

This book was published in 1993, so I can’t really fault Benjamin for not knowing this at the time. She was clearly doing what she thought was best for the dogs. Compared to other training manuals, this book isn’t nearly as harsh as some of the others I have read, and Benjamin does have some good overall advice for people with adolescent dogs. It’s just not a book that I would necessarily recommend to anyone as a training manual.