Please Go Away: Dog Body Language Study

They really do get along! Honest!

They really do get along! Honest!

One of the things I am very grateful for in my life with dogs is that my current three get along. They don’t adore each other, but two of them, Clara and Zani, actually play together and are comfortable in each other’s space bubbles. Zani helped “bring up” Clara, even though Clara got pretty obnoxious pretty fast as a pup. And both of them manage to get along with Summer, who would really prefer to be the only dog in the world. Or at least the only female. But thank goodness they don’t hate each other.

I’ve written before that Summer is bothered by rowdy play and used to go on the attack when she thought Zani and Clara were being a bit too chaotic. I taught Summer something else to do rather than charge in snarling and snapping. I’ve shown some other clips and stills of Summer and Clara in particular vying over resources, but doing it without physical contact or a fight.

But before I ever had Clara, during Zani’s first several months in the household, Summer and Zani played almost constantly. So Summer does know how to play. I’ve always kept a close eye when she did, since her play often has a little edge to it.

Nowadays, every once in a while Summer seems to invite the others to play, or something. Usually she play-bows to Zani, then follows it up very quickly with an attempt to hump her. Often Zani will come leap in my lap when Summer tries that. Sometimes Clara gets between Summer and Zani. Typically, Clara and Zani both get visibly anxious when Summer initiates…whatever it is she initiates.

The Movie

In today’s movie, it didn’t play out quite like that, but I think it’s very interesting. Summer appeared to invite the others to play, and they weren’t having any of it. Zani wasn’t nervous enough to flee, and instead was quite assertive. Clara was her usual blunt self. But even though the other two ganged up on her, Summer remained remarkably calm and unbothered.

The most interesting thing to me was Zani’s extensive nosing of Summer’s ear and mouth, followed by Clara doing something similar. Some people who have seen the movie have speculated that Summer might have something medically wrong that the others were picking up on. But I can say with near certainty that the nosing was not curiosity of any sort (and that there’s nothing wrong with Summer’s mouth or ears). Zani’s automatic, normal response to either of the other dogs coming to get attention from me is to stick her nose persistently into private places–butts, ears, or mouths usually. She can almost always get Summer to move away by doing that. And if you look at Clara’s behavior carefully, she is doing a whole lot more poking with her nose than sniffing.

It’s easy to feel bad for Summer watching this. The other two are so obviously telling her to get lost. But my read on it was that Summer was relaxed about the whole thing. Her initial invitations were, for her, loose and friendly looking. During the whole of the intrusive nosing, she stood there wagging her tail (a nice wag–slow and wide, at three quarters-mast). She had fleeting looks of concern, but mostly her mouth was loose and to me she looked quite pleased with herself. Also–Clara left the scene first. (Clara and Summer headed for two different water bowls for a drink at the end.) I score it Summer: 1; Clara and Zani: 0. Nice try, girls!

Link to the video for email subscribers.

A Note on Behavioral Function

Performing behavior analysis in situations other than training helps me understand things better. Perhaps it does for some of you, too. So I’ll bolster my hypothesis with a tiny bit of it.

The reason I think that Zani’s sniffing/nosing behavior was saying, “Go away” to Summer, is that I have seen it perform that function dozens of times. The usual behavior analysis goes like this:

  • Setting: Summer is standing near me and I am petting her and/or talking to her; Zani is close by
  • Antecedent: Zani sticks her nose in Summer’s butt or ear and presses it there for a duration of time
  • Behavior: Summer moves away
  • Consequence: Pressure from Zani’s nose is escaped
  • Prediction: Summer’s moving away when Zani’s nose is pressed into her will increase or maintain.

This is a negative reinforcement scenario. My dogs are all experts on using pressure on each other (and on me). But the interesting thing is that the prediction didn’t come true.

This time, Summer didn’t move away, even when Clara joined in with the pressure as well. So I’ll have to keep an eye on the behavior patterns in the future. Was this a rare aberration for Summer? Or is she getting desensitized to Zani’s nosiness? And if so, will Zani develop a new tactic? Zani is an expert communicator, and as the smallest dog in the household develops some interesting ways to get what she wants. I’ll report back if something interesting comes of this.

Clara and Zani on day bed

Clara and Zani are comfortable in each other’s space. Summer, not so much.

Do you have a dog who does something non-violent (but obnoxious) to get another dog to move away?

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Posted in Dog body language | Tagged , , | 9 Comments

Coping with In-Home Construction with Dogs

Summer with HammerLife intervenes in our most careful, gradual training programs sometimes. I’ve got a dog that was born feral and a recovering reactive dog, both of whom I work with on their issues, including that I take regular lessons from a very talented trainer. Clara, the formerly feral dog, has made great strides in her ability to be comfortable around humans other than those on her very short list. She was still a wild puppy through almost all of her socialization window. I have done lots of DS/CC as well as positive reinforcement-based training with her over the last three years, and she now does well in many environments that would be challenging for almost any dog. And my mildly reactive dog Summer has been making great progress lately, mostly with an operant approach. But Clara in particular has very little experience with strangers in the house.

Ready or not, though, I couldn’t put it off any longer. I needed some work done on my house that would necessitate the long-term presence of workmen.

Usually when I have someone working in the house for an hour or two, I stash all the dogs in the bedroom with stuffed food toys in their crates. I turn up some loud music to mask some of the sound and we get through it. They do fine for a few hours.

However, this time the workers needed access to almost the whole house, including our major hangouts. And the project was days, not hours.

How We Coped

First, Summer and Zani got to go on a field trip every day. They went to work with our dear friend. They thought it was great. They got in the swing of things by the second or third day and were very cute when I would take them out front to wait for their “ride.” They were so excited when our friend pulled up.

Clara and I took up residence in the study, a small bedroom that was one of the few places the workmen didn’t need access to. This room was completely familiar to her, and a place where she would typically snooze while I worked at the computer.1)It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit. We had a door we could close, but the room was right on the hall that the men had to walk up and down all day. I left it open the first few times so Clara could see what was going on (not sure whether that was a good idea, but she did great), then closed it for the rest of the time. I kept Clara on a harness, dragging a leash, because I am a worrywart about the possibility of doors and gates being left open when there are people coming and going.

I made a couple of really good frozen Kongs for Clara every day. I included high value stuff like some bits of chicken in each one. The men were there way too long each day for Clara to be able to eat the whole time, but I would give her a Kong when they first got here, and then another sometime in the afternoon when things were busiest. I used dog food roll for treats in the interim, and some spray cheese when things got tough. I cut down her other meals accordingly, but she always got a decent breakfast. No point in facing a stressful situation on an empty stomach!

Luckily, Clara is not sound phobic. Nobody likes booms, sawing, or machinery noises, but beyond the startle/annoyance factor, she doesn’t mind them much. It is all about the strange people for her. So her main triggers were the human noises: hearing the guys talk to each other or to me, or hearing them come in the door or walk around, especially right by us down the hall.

Oh yeah, and she wasn’t really fond of it when an electrician had to go in the attic and was obviously walking on the beams right above us. She looked at me like, “You have got to be kidding me!!”

Here is a printable list of our coping strategies: Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Clara asleep during construction

Clara asleep during construction

The Order of Events

Even though it meant that I might get a small barking outburst from her, every day I made sure Clara saw and/or heard the guys coming in before we went into our room and she got her Kong. I wanted to make sure that the prediction went the right direction. Guys coming in the house should predict a great treat. I didn’t want being given a Kong to predict that something scary was about to happen.

After a couple of days Clara learned the sound of one guy’s truck, and would run to the door, ready to bark, when he got there. Instead I would lead her straight into our hideout, and once inside she would turn to me for her Kong.

Throughout the day, whenever there was a triggering event, be it a man’s shout, a door slam, or a startling noise, I generally gave her a treat. I say generally because I had to limit it somewhat. It was just too long a time to be completely consistent, or even Clara would have gotten sick from all the food. So even as she was generalizing, looking to me for treats with every sound, I had to deliver them less frequently. I did my best to save the good stuff for the more dramatic moments, like the predictable time at the end of the day when the last workman would come knock on the study door and give me an update.

One other thing I was careful about–I tend to get hypervigilant when I am expecting visitors. I look out the window at every little sound; I go look out the door, etc. I do this whether I am expecting my favorite people in the world or someone I would rather not see. I just get very anticipatory. I actively fought this behavior on my part this week because I did not want my peering out the window and door to become a predictor for the dogs of invasion by workmen. So I was purposely less vigilant and more discreet when I did take a peek.  I’m pretty sure I prevented that particular connection from being made.

Counterconditioning without Desensitization–                                 No Wait, it’s Management

Following triggers with treats is classical conditioning or counterconditioning–if one can be consistent, if one’s timing is good, and if the dog is in shape to take the treats. But I have to say that because of the long periods of time involved and my lack of control of the process, this wasn’t a training situation, it was management. There were simply too many events every day. My goal was to keep from hold our own and prevent backsliding, and I achieved that.

And there was zero desensitization involved. When we have control over triggers, we can start them at a non-aversive level and gradually increase the proximity or amplitude of the trigger when the animal is ready. (If you add a goodie after each exposure you get the magic combination of desensitization and counterconditioning.) But most real-life situations don’t work like that. I don’t have the means or the time to hire a guy to come impersonate a workman for a month, first just driving up to my house, then walking to my front door, then coming in, then talking to me, then making gradually more noise, etc. All of that would have to be carefully coordinated so as not to be an aversive exposure, include only a limited number of reps per day, and require exquisite timing on my part. Ain’t happening.

So at best, we had management and a bit of counterconditioning. Clara did learn that having workmen in the house predicted Kongs and spray cheese, so I guess I can say that we did build a classical association!

Summer

Summer offering eye contact again

Summer continues to do really well with her triggers and did fantastic the couple of times she had to be around the construction. One day the workmen stayed late and she “came home from work” about an hour before they left. All three dogs came in the study with me, and Summer did phenomenally well, not reacting to the workman talking on his cell phone, whistling, or walking up and down the hall. You’ll see in the video–she looks quite relaxed. (As opposed to Clara, who is looking pretty worn out–it was her seventh hour of commotion, as opposed to Summer’s first!)

Getting the Connection

You can see in the video at least one Positive Conditioned Emotional Response (CER+), where Clara’s tail starts to wag after the man walks by us. You can also see a good handful of “expectant” responses from both Clara and Summer when they hear something. No tail wags or obvious drooling, but the “where’s my treat?” look. This is not all the way to a complete CER+, but think how much nicer it is for the dog than barking, lunging, and panicking.

Link to the video for email subscribers

Did I miss any tips? I can always add to my list. Here’s the link one more time:

Helping Dogs Cope with Construction

Other Posts on Helping Dogs Cope with Hard Stuff

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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Notes   [ + ]

1. It’s not a great idea to go hang out in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar place when you are already interrupting your dog’s routine. Going to the special room can become the predictor that scary stuff is going to happen. If you must use a new place, then it’s good to practice a few days before the actual event and mix things up a bit.
Posted in Classical conditioning, Differential Reinforcement, Management | Tagged , | 7 Comments

Shaping Without a Clicker

no markerMost trainers agree that if there is one thing that the tool called a clicker is useful for in particular, it is for shaping behavior. Shaping consists of marking and reinforcing successive approximations towards a goal behavior. When shaping, the trainer can find herself needing to mark very small or quick movements indeed, sometimes just a weight shift or a breath. When that is the case, the behavior is usually long over by the time one can get food or a toy to the animal.

A clicker or other marker can form a “bridge” between the behavior and the reinforcer, letting the animal know more precisely what behavior we are attempting to reinforce.

The other day I was in a discussion, a common one online, about whether a clicker or a marker word is better for training in general. (Guess what–I have a blog post coming out about that soon!) Someone said that in any case, a clicker was necessary when shaping. I said that it wasn’t. The discussion went a different direction after that, so I decided to demonstrate here what I mean.1)This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.

Everybody who thinks they are about to see three shaping clips with the trainer using some other kind of marker–think again. In these three movies I shape three different dogs to do three different behaviors with no marker at all. No deliberate one anyway.

In two out of the three clips, the dog is working at a slight distance from me, so in that case my motion to throw the treat becomes a marker when they see it. In fact, at one point (in a video not shown here) I did the equivalent of clicking and not treating: I wound up to throw but held back. I saw Summer notice that, bless her heart, but she soldiered right on when she saw that I wasn’t going to throw.

Doubtless the dogs picked up on other behaviors of mine that mean, “Food coming!” But that happens when we use a deliberate marker as well.

Benefits

Why even try such an odd thing?

It’s a learning opportunity, and quite an interesting one. When you take away the marker, what you have left to work with is placement and speed of treat delivery–things that skilled trainer seek to optimize anyway. I would encourage any trainer to try it as an exercise. One of the challenges when working at a distance and throwing treats is whether you can successfully anticipate the animal’s movement and start your throw so that the treat arrives right as she does the behavior. It’s a gamble. Either you wait and the treat arrives late, or don’t wait and risk a “false positive” throw when they didn’t do what you wanted after all. (For instance in Clara’s video, at 2:36 and 2:54, I accidentally reward a weight shift when her paw ends up not moving, well after I should have finished rewarding weight shifts.)

I noticed that I started watching the dogs’ bodies with the intent of predicting when they would make a certain movement. This is a valuable habit for marker training–something I should be doing in any case. But taking away the marker forced me to improve. I learned some things that I think I will retain about how my dogs balance their bodies and how to predict their movements.

If you want to watch only one movie, watch Clara’s. It was the biggest challenge and the most interesting.

Zani’s Task: Nose Target a Piece of Tape on the Wall

This is a known behavior for Zani, and in a known place, but she still had to figure out where to go within our working area, and then to notice and respond to the tape. I deliberately handicapped myself (in addition to not using a marker) by sitting at a distance from the tape.

Link to Zani’s video for email subscribers.

Summer’s Task: Paws Up on a Chair

Again, this is a known behavior. But we have never practiced it without me standing right there, so the distance was new. Also the towel I put on the chair changed the look of the situation. In an earlier session with Zani, not shown here, I had really screwed up my setting factors. I tried to shape Zani into paws up position on the chair, and actually did succeed, but it took a while because of the following drawbacks:

  • The treats (kibble) that I tossed onto the chair bounced off Every. Single. Time.
  • A good portion of the treats that I tossed on the floor rolled under the desk.

So when I tried it with Summer I placed a towel to pad the chair seat a bit and also to block the most direct path under the desk. I also switched to cheese, which is less prone to ricochet. (Lucky Summer!)

I stayed seated until she got the paws up part, but I did jump up at the end to treat Summer in position when she made it up there.

Summer is my crossover dog, but also the most inventive of my three. Be sure to catch her signature shaping move, a kind of sashay while tossing her head. The best one is at 0:59.

Link to Summer’s video for email subscribers.

Clara’s Task: Left Paw Lift

Clara shapingI am really proud of this one. With the other two behaviors shown, a critic could say that just by loading treats over into the area where the target behavior was, I was almost luring the dog  (even though we often do that when shaping with a marker as well). So for Clara, I deliberately picked a behavior I had never trained before that didn’t involve going to a location. This was completely new for Clara, as was the actual behavior, the paw lift (on a side designated ahead of time by me). Also, I’ve never shaped this kind of body movement with her before.

The thing I really like about both shaping and capturing is when the target behavior becomes more frequent and more exaggerated, seemingly even before the dog “knows” what she is doing. You can see Clara’s left paw movement get more frequent and more pronounced starting at about 2:00 in the video. (Yes, and you can see me miss reinforcing some really good ones.) It’s pretty amazing how fast she got it considering that there was a varying time lag between her foot movement and the treat.

Link to Clara’s video for email subscribers.

Clara Makes Choices

You’ll see in Clara’s video that she is slow to get started and also leaves the session twice for a few seconds. There were a couple of reasons for this. When I do nose work in the house with my dogs, I get them to stay out of sight and then release them into the target area. I don’t have a verbal cue for it yet (my bad). So when I released Clara to enter the area, it’s pretty clear she thought that’s what we were doing. It was exacerbated by the fact that I had been using homemade chicken brownies and mozzarella cheese earlier, but I was down to using small kibble at this point. So I don’t blame her for taking a few sniffs around to make sure she wasn’t supposed to be hunting something down.

Do I mind that my dog wandered off in the middle of a session? At first I did–dammit, I was recording! But then I reminded myself that she has that choice. Clara had already had a few sessions and eaten quite a few different types of treats, so the value of the current reinforcement was low, especially considering the difficulty of the task. I have tons of value built with working with me already and she’s normally a very focused worker, so her leaving was not worrisome, as it might have been with a different dog. (Also, the sniffing was clearly with a purpose; Clara was not leaving on account of any stress.)

Often when people talk about giving their dogs choices it centers on the choice to leave something that might be aversive, such as getting their nails trimmed, or seeing one of their triggers. That’s a given for most positive reinforcement based trainers, and my dogs have that choice as much as I can possibly provide it. (Exceptions being things like vet visits, but I strive to make those as non-aversive as possible.)

But in this case, Clara was choosing between two positively reinforcing activities: a shaping session and sniffing around and possibly finding a high value treat. It makes me happy that she and I have such a great relationship that I can give her this choice.

And hey, she came back and NAILED it!

So here’s a challenge if you are interested. If your dog is already shaping-savvy, try shaping without a marker. (If you typically use a clicker or other marker for everything, you might want to experiment with leaving it out while doing something a little easier than shaping at first.) And let us know how it goes. You can even tape your mouth shut. I did for our first sessions!

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Notes   [ + ]

1. This idea is not original to me. I originally read it years ago on the Yahoo group ClickerSolutions, but I don’t remember the author. I’m sorry that I can’t make a proper attribution.
Posted in Clicker | Tagged , | 11 Comments

Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

A sable dog is sitting on the grass outside, gazing up at the photographer with a calm expression

Summer reports in

Recently I published, “Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes.” This post was about my surprise that Summer started reporting to me for a treat when the big neighbor dog was around, instead of getting herself all fired up running up and down the fence.

A lot of things are coming together for Summer right now. Summer is the first dog I ever seriously trained and also my crossover dog. We have been through a lot together. But I had to put some of her training on hold when Clara came into my life. With three dogs and one of me, there is sometimes a kind of triage that goes on.1)Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me. Clara’s issues were an emergency when she came to me, and remained that way for more than a year. While Summer is anxious and has some behavior problems, she has always been comfortable enough in her skin to get enrichment from being out in the world, and is adoptable in the case of something happening to me. That was not true for Clara. With her feral background Clara had and still has a very short list of people with whom she could be comfortable.

But Clara’s training has been coming along beautifully and I feel that I can finally breathe a little again. In the meantime, Summer has learned to come to me when the other dogs play and also when most other exciting things happen. When she comes she gets a treat, and we will usually hang out and do a little training, or she can just earn some periodic kibble for lying down quietly.

After seeing the movie in the earlier post, a reader wanted to know whether the behavior was robust enough that Summer would seek me out even when I was out of sight. That is what the movie is about, and the answer is yes. Take a look.

**NOTE** In the one of the outdoor clips, there is a moving shadow that looks like I am gesticulating with my hand. In another something comes momentarily on camera, and Summer flinches away as she comes to me. Both of those are actually Clara’s tail wagging. I have taught Clara a very strong Down cue that I use to limit her interference with the other dogs’ business, but I didn’t try to do it while wielding the camera.

Summer’s practice at self-interruption has allowed her to halt in the middle of her own barking and come find me in a different part of the house.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

How Did We Get There?

I would much have preferred working with classical counterconditioning with Summer from the beginning, especially with her fears of trucks and loud engine noises. That means pairing the appearance of a trigger with great things happening, no matter what Summer is doing. There is no behavioral requirement for the dog. Done correctly, conterconditioning can change the dog’s emotional response to a trigger, rather than just teaching them coping methods.2)An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog. However, the operant work has still helped Summer enormously, and the behaviors she has learned are handy in a multitude of situations, not only having to do with fear.

That’s why I am sharing here a couple of things I have taught Summer that have built her ability to self-interrupt. Even with a non-fearful dog, these things can come in very handy. Every dog, sometime in its life, is going to encounter situations that are so novel or exciting that she has a hard time keeping ahold of herself. The following two behaviors are ones that just about anybody can practice with their dog, except for with the very most fearful dogs.

1) Capture and shape attention. To start off with this, anytime your dog turns or looks in your direction, mark and treat. You can start in the house. Then if you have a yard, you can do this when your dog is calmly going about her doggy business, doing things such as sniffing around, digging, or interacting with another dog. Your dog doesn’t have to completely stop doing what she is doing and gaze at you, not at first. You are capturing mini-behaviors, and over time, shaping her attention to you. She only needs to lift her eyes, turn her head, or take a step in your direction. Anything that is closer to coming to you or looking at you than what she was doing before.

Also, it’s fine if it is “accidental.” For example, let’s say she took a step in your direction while walking around. She wasn’t really coming to you but that doesn’t matter. Capture and reinforce it often enough and it will increase. You can shape it gradually into a recall (if she is not next to you) or eye contact (if she’s right there). Reinforce all these little things and soon you will become a regular focus of her attention.

This is a basic technique of most positive reinforcement trainers and one that can pay off bigime.

2) Alternate periods of arousal with periods of relaxation.  The most common way to do this is to teach your dog to relax on a mat, then intersperse an active game with the mat work. Lots of trainers have versions of this, some with special names for the exercise. But it amounts to about the same thing: helping the dog practice moving from excitement to relaxation and back. For just two examples: Sue Ailsby has this method in the Training Levels, Level 2 Relax. Leslie McDevitt calls it the “off-switch game” in Control Unleashed. Here are a couple of video examples:

Coming Around Full Circle

I am actually doing counterconditioning now with Summer. In a way, we have been working backwards. First I taught her an alternative behavior to getting excited and barking and running around (come check in with me). She is able to do it earlier and earlier and in more and more exciting events. But I’m now going for the whole banana with her, and hope to take the “scare” out of these triggers entirely, starting with trucks.

Since I have seen that her reactivity to mail and delivery trucks has lessened quite a bit through our operant work, I am hopeful that I can take her even farther with counterconditioning. I had always felt that we couldn’t do much about it since I am not always home when the trucks go by,3)One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great. and I can’t do a controlled exposure through desensitization. The trucks come when they will.  But I am hopeful that by being very consistent when I am home, and perhaps working a bit with recordings,4)There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts. I can chip away a bit more at her fear.

Has anybody else gone “backwards” like this and taught an alternative behavior through positive reinforcement first, then done counterconditioning? Or does anybody want to share success stories using either method?

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me.
2. An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog.
3. One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great.
4. There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts.
Posted in Differential Reinforcement, Reactivity | Tagged , | 14 Comments

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

Summer mid bark keepWhen I filmed Summer barking using the slow motion function of my video camera, I was mostly curious in an analytical sort of way. What could I see when I slowed everything down?

I didn’t realize that I would find the footage so touching.

Slow motion filming is helpful because dog body language is so very fast. A dozen things can happen while we are just trying to process one. Much of it is so fleeting that we never see it at all.

Summer has a very expressive face, and she’s a worrywart. When you see her two little barks in slow motion, the extent of her anxiety is clear.

In day-to-day life with dogs, this is the kind of behavior that can be annoying. You are trying to read, watch TV, or go to bed, and the dog starts fussing because, for instance, the neighbor dropped a board on his back porch. You almost feel like the dog is doing it to annoy you.

But seeing something like this makes things very clear. No, she’s not a princess. No, she isn’t attention mongering. She’s just worried.

I’m glad I have been able to start working with Summer again. I’m afraid her anxiety took a back seat during Clara’s first couple of years in the household, since Summer could function in the world and had people and dog friends, and Clara had only me. Now that Clara is doing so well, the pendulum can swing back. I have been working on some of Summer’s triggers at home and already seeing progress. I’ll be writing about that some more soon.

In the meantime, you can check out how expressive two little barks can be.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What do you see when your dog barks? Does it vary?

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Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

I have written before about Summer’s tendency to be the “fun police” and aggress when my other two dogs are playing rowdily. I taught her to come to me instead and get reinforced for sitting quietly.

This has become a strong behavior, and I don’t have to cue it. The cue is the other dogs’ playing. She responds consistently by coming to me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently, but I was.

This week my neighbors have a visiting dog who spends a lot of time on their back porch. Harley is a large, apparently good-natured golden doodle with a very deep bark. He doesn’t like being in the back yard by himself and barks to be let in and also alarm barks when he hears things in the neighborhood.

This is very exciting for my dogs: a big, noisy dog next door. Luckily for us, Harley is not too interested in coming over by our fence, so there are few actual fence fights. But even so, my dogs can get over aroused and are quite interested in running up and down the back porch steps to alternately get a glimpse or a sniff of him, sniffing along the fence, and generally marching around with their hackles up.

Except Summer.

That’s right. Summer, my reactive dog, has decided she would rather come and sit in front of me and get treats.

Summer on porch

Brava, Summer! But what made you think of it?

What’s the Cue?

I’ve written quite a bit about how dogs tend to discriminate rather than generalize. They notice things that are out of the ordinary and don’t generalize the same way humans do. So, for example, even a dog who is very friendly to women and most men might bark at the first man she sees with a beard or a hat.

So I was curious: What was the prompt for Summer’s nice response when Harley came around? What was this situation similar to?

Here are some possibilities. I have done the following things with Summer over the years:

  1. Treated her in many situations for orientation to me in challenging situations: eye contact, checking in, and the like (positive reinforcement);
  2. Treated her for “sudden environmental changes” like scary noises, including strange dogs barking (classical conditioning);
  3. Treated her for coming to me when the other two dogs were being rowdy (positive reinforcement with an initial element of classical conditioning: dogs playing means food rains down); and
  4. Treated her in the house for coming to me when one of the other two dogs was barking (positive reinforcement). This is a new one. She started coming to me on her own for that, so it was probably a generalization of one of the others.

Wow, after looking at that list I’ve decided it’s not all the surprising that she decided to come to me when the neighbor dog was out there riling everybody else up. But I’ll continue with my speculation.

The most obvious candidate is the noisy, aroused behavior of the other dogs. When Harley was there, they ran around and barked, which was moderately similar to what they do when the play. But any of the other things on the list could have helped, too. (That’s one of the magical things about doing lots of behavioral interventions with your dog. Synergy.)

So I did what any curious person would do. I took Summer outside by herself when Harley was out in the next-door yard to see what would happen without the other dogs there.

Link to the movie for email subscribers

Spoilers

In case you are unable to watch the movie for any reason, I have put a description in a footnote below. 1)In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I think the “main” cue for Summer’s coming to me was my other dogs running around excitedly. Summer did need a little help when she was outside by herself. She got a little “stuck” down in the yard when on her own. However, she instantly responded when I encouraged her to come back up. That part shows the effect of all the practice she has had in interrupting herself from potentially sticky situations. That practice played a big part in her ability to “shake it off.”

This is Not Counterconditioning

Just a word here about desensitization/counterconditioning. Regular readers will probably know that DS/CC is my go-to method for situations that are scary for my dogs.  But what you see in that movie is neither DS/CC nor the results of it. Instead I am reinforcing Summer for performing behaviors other than reactive or aggressive ones. It is an operant protocol. It is not aimed at changing her emotional response to a difficult situation, although over time that may happen as a side effect.

The reason I am not doing DS/CC is that Harley is a visitor and not often around, so this situation is pretty rare. And when he is here, I have no control over his activities and thus no control over Summer’s exposure to him. It would be difficult to impossible to do the true graduated exposures of desensitization.  If he were around a lot I would probably do some straight-up counterconditioning without desensitization, starting out by passing out treats whenever he barked like I did for Clara with Summer’s barking.

Summer nervous

Summer looking worried about something behind her

One clue that this is not DS/CC is Summer’s demeanor, which is anxious at times. This is still much better than running around in a panic, and is not uncommon to see in an operant protocol. But to have a dog looking like this in a DS/CC session for more than a fleeting moment would indicate a failure, as she is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.

Other Good Behavior

I hope it goes without saying that I keep this excited, over aroused behavior of my dogs to a minimum. It can’t be completely avoided, since they do have to go into the yard to potty, but I can generally go with them and encourage the right things. My presence alone puts a damper on the over-the-top behavior, and I reinforce things like coming away from the fence, doing anything other than reacting to the other dog, and of course eliminating.

The cumulative result is that all three of my dogs will come away from the presence of Harley with just a casual word from me. Under normal conditions, when I am ready to go into the house, I call them in conversationally. I say something like, “Let’s go in, girls.”  (I don’t use their individual recall cues for this.) I reinforce my “suggestion” with kibble when they come, and they almost always come running instantly. It was great to learn that they would come even with Harley around.

Their reinforcement history also has the effect of lowering their arousal and engagement in general. They are easily interrupted, and they frequently interrupt themselves to check in with me. They just don’t get as stuck in arousal mode as they would without this intervention. This is a wonderful trait in general, and it all came about because I first generously reinforced attention to me in exciting situations with high value treats, then maintained the habit by carrying kibble in my pocket in the back yard, and passing it around generously for behaviors I liked.

I would love to hear other stories of good behavior generalizing. Got any?

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Notes   [ + ]

1. In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.
Posted in Reactivity | Tagged , | 20 Comments

Flavors: Ideas for Ultra High Value Treats

 

A plate of spaghetti with a red colored meat sauce and a pile of grated cheese on top

Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!

OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.

Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.

But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.

A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.

My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:

Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010

My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls.  And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”

Smell vs. Taste

Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.

I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread.  The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.

Cautions

OK, before my suggestions, here are the cautions. Use common sense about foods that are toxic to dogs. Here is a list:  Foods That Are Hazardous to Dogs.

Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).

Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.

Practicality

So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?

Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.

A pile of plain tortellini on a green plate.

Plain tortellini are popular with dogs and fairly  practical

Things You Can Cut Into Pieces

  • Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
  • Commercial or homemade meatballs
  • Meatloaf
  • Grilled cheese sandwich
  • Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
  • Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
  • Fast food breakfast sandwich
  • Pizza
  • Pumpkin or spice bread  (no chocolate chips)

Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube 

Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with  potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.

  • Spaghetti with meat sauce
  • Barbecue meat
  • Mashed potatoes
  • Omelettes
  • Hash brown casserole
  • Lasagne
  • Many soups, stews, and casseroles

A Little More Common Sense

OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.

Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!

My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?

A brown dog is exiting a set of weave poles, with her eyes on a piece of white bread that her handler is throwing ahead

Summer weaving for plain white bread (with the headless agility handler)

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Photo Credits

Spaghetti image

By Manfred&Barbara Aulbach (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0 ) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html )], via Wikimedia Commons

Tortellini image

By cyclonebill (Tortellini med valnøddeolie og sort peber) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0 )], via Wikimedia Commons

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Notes   [ + ]

1. Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
2. In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well.
Posted in Dog training hints, Enrichment, Treats | Tagged | 36 Comments

5 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms!

Firecreaker exploding in the air

Don’t wait until New Year’s Eve. You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Get Ready

Here are some things you can do today.

  1. Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, including stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises; don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats. 1)You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app or CD with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky. The chances of getting successful conditioning in the three days between this blog post and New Year’s Eve are slim, and there will be a huge tendency to rush. People who haven’t done DS/CC before are far more likely to scare their dogs further than to help them. This is why I am recommending only Step 1 above, which consists of counterconditioning without systematic desensitization, using environmental noises that were going to happen anyway.
  2. Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too, so consider a method to temporarily darken any windows nearby.
  3. Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is the most helpful for your situation. There are two contrasting methods here. Some people find that slow, quiet classical or easy listening music is soothing to their dogs. If you have already found that to be so, use it, but don’t try it out for the first time when the fireworks are going on. It does not work for all dogs, and you might even get “reverse conditioning” and make the music scary to your dogs if it predicts fireworks. The other method is to use some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This “mechanical” approach is more to my liking. And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms. So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. I have a taiko drumming CD that is great for this. But if you try that, be absolutely certain that the music on the CD itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.
  4. Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Otherwise sedate dogs have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen.  Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.
  5. LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog. You can’t reinforce fear, and helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.
The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!

The best part of noisy holidays: spray cheese!

Check out lots more resources and tips on my page “You Can’t Reinforce Fear.

Thanks for reading! Remember to cuddle your dog, if she likes it!

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Notes   [ + ]

1. You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app or CD with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky. The chances of getting successful conditioning in the three days between this blog post and New Year’s Eve are slim, and there will be a huge tendency to rush. People who haven’t done DS/CC before are far more likely to scare their dogs further than to help them. This is why I am recommending only Step 1 above, which consists of counterconditioning without systematic desensitization, using environmental noises that were going to happen anyway.
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Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe

If you have a fearful dog, you probably read all sorts of conflicting advice about what to do about that. Everybody’s got an opinion, and unfortunately some of them include very poor methods.

Even if we rule out the methods that are obviously based on aversive practices, like prong collars or shock systems, we are not out of the woods. A lot of the suggestions made regarding fearful dogs, while well-meaning, are not helpful in the long run and can easily cause our attempts to help the dog backfire.

My favorite way to assess methods is using the three principles that Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com has distilled from the best information available about fear, behavior change, and how dogs learn. They are:

  1. Help the dog be safe and feel safe.
  2. Use desensitization and counterconditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to triggers.
  3. Use positive reinforcement to teach the dog behaviors.

The Hardest Step

Even though #2 and #3 on this list above require mechanical skills and familiarity with concepts that are new to most people, I believe that #1 is the hardest. There is this powerful mythology out there about how to deal with fearful dogs. Sadly, many of the more kindly seeming methods can still end up keeping the dog in a state of fear.

Even the gentlest sounding practice, for instance, feeding the dog all her meals out of your hand, can comprise flooding if the dog is afraid of you. For many dogs without fear of humans, hand-feeding can promote your bond and teach them that great stuff comes from you. But those beneficial effects are not likely with a fearful dog, who gets put into a terrible conflict if she is afraid of you but must come to you to eat.

But the cool thing is that you can use Step #1 to assess almost any suggestion that someone throws at you. Recently I read where someone had asked, “But what does ‘Keeping the dog feeling safe’ look like? What does one actually do?” I thought that was a great question. It’s one thing to believe in it, but it’s another to try to implement it.

So here is my take on what generally fits into “Keeping the dog feel safe”and what does not.

What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Can Consist Of

Zoey claimed her own safe place

Zoey claimed her own safe place

It might be any of the following things.

  • Creating a hiding place for the dog if they are scared of you or any member of your family
  • Looking away from the dog if eye contact scares her
  • Setting up indoor gates and “airlocks” to prevent the dog from accidental contact with family members, visitors, or other animals
  • Setting up an indoor potty area if the dog is afraid of the outdoors or leashes or doorways or traffic noises or…..
  • Blocking windows or using window film
  • Playing white noise or non-dramatic music to mask scary sounds (only if the dog isn’t scared of the music itself)
  • Disabling your doorbell
  • Simply not having people over
  • Ignoring the dog
  • Comforting the dog (assuming you are not scary to her) when she is afraid
  • Protecting your dog from the advances of scary strangers (or even friends)
  • Being directive with veterinary staff about the dog’s needs
  • Exercising the dog in the yard instead of taking her for walks (if she’s not afraid in the yard)
  • Driving her to remote areas for walks (assuming she’s not scared of leashes, you, or riding in the car)

If some of these things seem really hard, well, they are. Having a fearful dog is much more work and takes more emotional stamina than is widely known.

Please check out the other half of this post: a photo gallery of some of the “safe places” that thoughtful owners have created for their fearful or sensitive dogs.

What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Doesn’t Consist Of

Will "hand feeding" this petrified dog at this moment build a bond with him?

Will “hand feeding” petrified Sunny at this moment build a bond with him?

What it doesn’t look like is any of these myriad things people suggest to try to get dogs to accept proximity to whatever it is they are afraid of, no matter how well-meaning.

  • Hand feeding the dog her meals
  • Having strangers give the dog treats
  • Having strangers pet her
  • Having anybody pet her if she doesn’t like it
  • Cuddling or hugging her if she draws away
  • Gazing at her
  • Taking the dog for walks when they scare her
  • Luring the dog with food (except as an emergency measure)
  • Taking the dog to dog parks
  • Taking the dog to a “regular” obedience class
  • Locking her out of her hiding place
  • Trying to get her to sit with you on the couch
  • Tethering her to you
  • “Herding” her with body pressure (except as an emergency measure)
  • Playing recordings of sounds she’s scared of over and over with the goal of habituating her
  • Keeping her in a public area of the house since she might as well get exposed to everybody as soon as possible
  • Forcing her to stay in a crate to “get used to it”
  • Dragging her up to the thing that scares her
  • “Showing” her that whatever she’s scared of isn’t really scary

 That’s Just Step #1

Don’t be dismayed. Yes, the “do’s” are a lot of work. The “don’t’s” are hard to avoid. But the  better you do at helping the dog feel safe, as extreme as some of those measures seem, the faster she may be able to progress.

Step #1 is powerful indeed. But it is a baseline. If you stopped there, you might end up with a dog who lived in your house with fairly low stress, but she might have very little joy in life. The point in taking steps to help the dog feel safe is so she is in a state where she can learn, little by little, using desensitization and counter conditioning, to be comfortable in her skin and happy in her life with humans. Not to mention that you get the satisfaction of knowing how much you really helped her.

I’m not going to write anything about Steps #2 and #3, because they are already beautifully delineated on the CARE for Reactive Dogs website. After we do Step #1, we can use the CARE techniques just as effectively on a dog who is frozen in a corner as we do with one who is hollering at the end of the leash. And by the way, the CARE website does also cover keeping the dog feeling safe, under the Respite and Relaxation section of PrepCARE.

And if you want to learn more about the three principles listed above, you can go straight to the source. Debbie Jacobs gives a great webinar on helping fearful dogs (new dates coming soon). Also check out her in-person seminar schedule on her blog.

Have any additions to the lists above? What does safety look like for your dog?

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Posted in Fear, Management | 7 Comments

Introducing “My Dog’s Safe Place: A Photo Gallery”

I have a new resource page on the blog:

My Dog’s Safe Place: A Photo Gallery

Thank you to all the wonderful people who let me publish photos of their fearful or sensitive dogs’ hideouts and quiet, comfy places.

Amos is comfy in his crate while at camp

Amos is comfy in his crate while at camp

And here is the second part of this project:

Helping a Fearful Dog Feel Safe 

This post delineates what “keeping the dog feeling safe” can actually look like. What do our fearful dogs need? How can we best help them? And what methods would it be better to leave behind forever?

In the meantime, enjoy the gallery. Kudos to these generous and creative people for helping their dogs feel safe.

 

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