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: The Dog Whisperer

The Dog Whisperer, by Paul Owens

No, it’s not Cesar Millan. This is Paul Owens, who called himself “The Dog Whisperer” five years before Millan’s show appeared on the National Geographic Channel. Liz (Bo‘s mom) lent me this book and said that she’d read it before she brought Bo home.

Paul Owens wants to be the yogi for your dog training. He’s a positive reinforcement trainer who believes very strongly in Eastern principles of breathing, meditation, and holistic health treatments. I thought it was certainly an interesting approach to dog training. Aside from his breathing exercises, though, Owens doesn’t offer a lot of new information in the way of positive training. I agreed with most of what he said, but I think I’d be more inclined to rely on Pat Miller‘s straightforward and helpful training guide for my own dog.

One thing that Owens does talk a lot about is that you should never speak soothingly to or try to comfort a frightened dog. A lot of dog training books tell you this. But is it actually true? Can trying to comfort your frightened dog actually reinforce her fear? Patricia McConnell, my all-things-dog hero, wrote an insightful article on her blog, “You Can’t Reinforce Fear: Dogs and Thunderstorms,” about this very issue. I tend to trust McConnell’s word on this one. She has a Ph.D. and is an applied animal behaviorist and she has the science to back up her experience. Even though Owens is also qualified, I’m inclined to listen to McConnell on this one. I highly recommend her article and its follow-up companion on the issue to anyone who’s received this advice before.

I did enjoy Owens’ section on what we feed our dogs. Dog food is something I’ve been doing a considerable amount of research about. It’s not something that I know about and I was astounded at how complex the dog food industry can be. There are a lot of different opinions floating around about what to feed our dogs, but the general consensus is that most brands of widely available dog food are absolutely terrible. I’ve really enjoyed the content on this extremely helpful website, Dog Food Advisor. I’ve already been researching the different types of kibble that I’d feed my dog and it’s been an extremely helpful place to start.

I’m curious to hear from you on this one. How did you decide what kind of food to feed your dog? Did you ever make any changes? Since I don’t know if I’d try a raw diet right away, is there a particular brand that you would recommend?