eileenanddogs
Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

Are Dogs Ever Irritated by Sights, Sounds, or Smells?

That’s a serious question on my part, not clickbait. I don’t know the answer. And I’m not talking about fear; I’m talking about being bothered. I’m wondering about it because of a recent experience.

My little Zani is clinically sound phobic of high-frequency sounds such as beeps and whistles. Because of meds and careful application of desensitization and counterconditioning, her default response these days to hearing any sort of digital beep is a positive one. She turns to me or even runs to me to look for a treat. Take a look/listen.

Caution: the following before/after movie has digital beeps in it.

Once in a while when she will still melt down if she hears something quiet in the distance that’s within her “scary” category It might be a bird, an alarm, or even some kind of clicking. And we still haven’t tackled the low battery chirp of the smoke alarm. But even with the remaining scary things, her recovery time is minutes, rather than the hours or days it used to be.

She has never been afraid of thunder or fireworks (except the whistling kind). She has an apparently normal startle response to unexpected loud noises, but doesn’t stay in a fear state.

Even though she isn’t bothered by booms and roars, what happened the other day surprised me.

What a Lovely Day To Get Some Sun!

This scene is not as peaceful as it looks.

Looks pretty idyllic, right? It was a lovely spring day. And as much as I’d like to leave the punchline inside the movie, here’s a spoiler for those people with dogs who are afraid of roaring engines. There is a terrible noise of that sort in the video.

That noise, my friends, is the neighbor’s generator. It has not one, but two unrelated low frequencies that spin off a pack of unlovely overtones. You probably can’t hear the lower frequencies if you watch it on a handheld. If so, you’re lucky. The full effect is extremely unpleasant—although apparently not for my dogs. Go figure.

Response To Noise: Fear Vs. Irritation

Most studies about noise affecting animals deal with either sounds that are loud enough to be physically damaging, or sudden sounds that evoke a startle response. There is at least one study about the response of dogs to noise. It took place in a shelter and centered on barking. In the kennel environment, the sound was chaotic, varying, and loud enough to cause hearing damage. That’s a crucially important welfare issue, but it doesn’t fit the situation I’m curious about: lower level but constant/repetitive noise.

My teacher reminds me now and then to watch for dogs “voting with their feet.” If something bothers them, they will often leave.

But thinking back, the only time I see them do that is when they are afraid, or when they are being hassled by another dog. (Of course I intervene but I’m not as quick as a dog!) I’m sure it happens when dogs are being bothered by humans or other species as well. But those all qualify as space invasions, either tactile, or via body pressure, or through staring.

Have I ever seen a dog leave the scene because of a sensory irritation? Have I seen them leave in response to an ongoing repetitive noise, blinking light, or even an overwhelming odor? I don’t think so. I’ve seen the equivalent of an “eww” response when a dog sniffed citrus, but they just backed off a little. They didn’t leave the room.

This is especially interesting given the sensitivity of dogs’ noses. We are warned not to overwhelm them with odor. But given the comparative strengths of our olfactory senses, we probably overwhelm them all the time.

Response to Obnoxious Odor

I don’t use many scented products. I don’t use incense (dated myself there!), room sprays, plugins, or scented laundry products. There’s but one exception. I make melt and pour soap, and I do have some small amounts of high-quality essential oils. I sometimes scent the soap lightly. A while back I made some bars of soap, and I accidentally dumped way too much violet essential oil into a batch. The odor was so “loud” it gave me a headache.

I hate to waste stuff. So I tried to get the odor out of the soap. I left the completed bars of soap out in a closed room for a few days to air out. Didn’t help, and the odor in the house was still strong. I let them sit in the sun on the back porch for a few days. Didn’t help. Finally, I remelted them, which the soap mavens say gets rid of fragrance. We’re told that the oil will vaporize before the soap melts. I even let it boil for a while. This did help, but it only took the fragrance down from headache range to obnoxious. But at that point, I was able to bag them up and put them in a drawer, and that was tolerable. The house returned to normal (per my olfactory sense). I take them out one by one to use. I’ll probably never use violet fragrance again after I use them up.

Now, what did my dogs do during this assault by odor? Nothing. They didn’t come in the kitchen saying, “What the hell?” And whenever they were in the kitchen during a bloom of violet odor, they didn’t leave. They didn’t ask to go outside. As far as I could observe, they didn’t respond at all. This seemed like just another stupid human-related occurrence that was irrelevant to them.

What Have You Observed?

Hark, the song of the generator!

I am making no claims about dog behavior in this post. I don’t have enough information. But I’m curious. What have you observed? Have you ever seen a dog leave the scene in response to an ongoing (not sudden) visual, auditory, or olfactory stimulus when they weren’t afraid of it? Have you seen the equivalent of the human irritation response? The “I can’t listen to that incessant scraping/roaring/rattling noise for one more minute!” response?

How about you folks with border collies? Just asking, grin.

I do wonder if it’s a difference in cognition. A lot of the stimuli humans don’t like are repetitive, my neighbor’s generator included. And our irritated response is functional. Noise that is well under the threshold for human ear damage has been shown to have negative neurological and cognitive effects on humans.

I have used brown noise to mask scary sounds for the dogs, but it is not something I would choose to leave on otherwise.

Habituation

We do habituate. But case-by-case, it’s hard to predict whether we will habituate or sensitize to a stimulus. I don’t mind the repetitive swell of cicadas in the summer, that is, when I’m inside. For those who haven’t heard them—they can be loud. When you are out there with them, it’s hard to hear anything else. That’s another possible function of irritation. I am awed by huge waterfalls and crashing ocean waves, but I confess that the masking effects bother me. I don’t feel safe because I can’t hear other things in the environment. That’s another effect my neighbor’s generator has on me, but apparently not on my dogs.

The song of the generator

Competing Reinforcers

Some astute folks are going to point out that perhaps the dogs found being in the sun so pleasant that they were tolerating the noise. That’s possible, but it’s a big yard with lots of places they like to bask. From their behavior, it seems to me that either they really don’t mind, or they don’t know that they could escape at least some of the continuous noise by moving to a different sunny place in the yard. As a friend said recently, “Don’t you wish they could tell us?”

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy—A Review

I don’t know how she did it. How could anyone write a book so comprehensive, so authoritative, and so readable all at once?

Book cover: Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy

I was privileged to be an early reader of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy, by Zazie Todd. It’s a revolutionary book. Dr. Todd identified the major aspects of caring for pet dogs and shared with us what scientific research says about how to do it best. Why do I call it revolutionary? When we consult the research, most often we seek research about dog training. Even though we want to train humanely, we are often seeking the best ways we can get dogs to change or do stuff for us. This book covers training, of course, but the theme is using the existing research to cover what we can do for our dogs, not the other way around.

I believe a whole, evidence-based book about this is unique in all the literature.

This book is comprehensive. I won’t replicate the table of contents here, because you can (and should!) check it out using the “Look Inside” function on the Amazon page for Wag. It covers the major topics you would expect, including how dogs learn, their relationships with people, training, diet, and enrichment. But there are also some things that might surprise you, like the chapter on sleep.

The structure of each chapter is the same. It opens with a gentle story about one of Todd’s dogs. It transitions smoothly (more on that later!) into the research on the topic. Then it ends with bullet points on how to use this information to allow our dogs to express their doggy-ness in our human world. All while keeping them safe. There are generally one or two quotes from subject experts that add even more liveliness to the research. And this structure is all presented in one beautiful, smooth arc. I bow down in admiration to that feat alone.

Zazie Todd’s Writing Voice

Head shot of Clara, a tan dog with a black muzzle,  happy on an outdoor walk
Happy Clara

Dr. Todd’s voice is consistent, whether she is telling a funny story about her dog, summarizing some interesting research and how it can apply to our own dogs, or gently reminding us that positive reinforcement training is the wisest choice.

She writes with compassion for both dogs and humans. I might write a post that is a virtual shaking of the shoulders of people who share dangerous dog and baby interaction photos on the Internet (no, I’m not going to link to it). But Todd writes in her chapter on dogs and children, “What does it feel like to be in a household with children from the dog’s point of view?” What follows are not horror stories or loud admonitions. Rather, an empathetic approach, and plenty of information we can use to help dogs be safer and be happier in their interactions with children.

Because of her comfortable writing style, you don’t realize at first that throughout the book, virtually every single thing she says is evidence-based. And if she opines or extrapolates from that evidence, she makes it clear. That’s another thing. She never overstates what the research says. For example, in the chapter on enrichment, she describes a study that tested whether dogs enjoyed solving a problem for food or whether they just enjoyed getting the food. The outcome is yes, indeed, dogs probably enjoy solving the problem for food. Her summary statement:

This study shows that having control over a situation and being able to solve problems is good for dogs’ welfare. 

Todd, p. 155

How many authors might have instead claimed the study “proves” dogs would rather work for food? Or that control is a primary reinforcer? It may well be, per Paul Chance, but it’s a hard thing to show in a study. It’s only now appearing in behavior science textbooks as a possibility.

It is so refreshing to read a book that is calm, even soothing; authoritative; and not riddled with the hyperbole so common in the dog blogosphere.

Example Chapter: Dogs and Children

The sections in the chapter about dogs and children give you an idea of Dr. Todd’s evidence-based, practical approach.

Dogs and Children

  • The Benefits to Dogs of Interacting With Children
  • How to Recognize When a Dog is Anxious Around Children
  • Teaching Children to Interact With Dogs
  • Preparing Dogs to Interact With Children
  • How to Apply the Science at Home

That last section could be life-saving for both children and dogs. The instructions are concrete and practical and yes, evidence-based. For instance, she recommends teaching children not to approach stationary dogs (sitting or lying down). Earlier in the chapter, she explains why the evidence supports this recommendation. Think of all those YouTube videos where a toddler is lying on a dog, putting her fingers in the dog’s mouth, pulling ears, etc. If infants and toddlers were prevented from approaching dogs, then taught not to do so as their cognitive abilities matured, those interactions wouldn’t happen in the first place.

In fact, the “How to Apply the Science at Home” sections at the end of each section are priceless. These lovely summations are so practical, and they are presented in jargon-free plain language.

Sable-colored dog Summer, showing a happy wag of her tail
Happy Summer

Questions This Book Can Answer

OK, I probably shouldn’t have said “answer.” But this book can provide strong evidence about these topics.

  • When might play be a bad thing? (Chapter 6)
  • Can dogs tell whether we are happy or sad? Does it affect them? (Chapter 7)
  • What’s a “growl ball”? (Chapter 6)
  • If a dog “runs” in their sleep, does it mean they are dreaming? (Chapter 12)
  • If you are planning to get both a dog and a cat, which should you get first? (Chapter 6)
  • What are some characteristics of a good puppy class? (Chapter 3)
  • Is it OK to comfort a fearful dog? (Chapters 6 & 13)
  • Why is positive reinforcement the best approach for training a dog? (Many chapters!)

Tidbits

Small black and rust hound dog lying down in a relaxed way and wagging her tail, looking very happy
Happy Zani
  • Most of us have heard it by now: one difference between dog and wolf DNA is that dogs have genes related to the digestion of starch. But what I didn’t know before was that this was in an area of DNA associated with important survival traits. A lot of the genes in the area have to do with brain function, but here were these genes related to digestion as well! It makes sense that anything to do with what a dog can get nourishment from is a survival trait. But this information changed my perception from starch being an ancillary food for dogs. Perhaps it is now, but there must have been significant populations of dogs during their history with us who had to get nourishment from starch to survive. It was strongly selected for. The fact that Siberian Huskies do not have as strong a genetic indicator of starch digestion as other dog breeds is interesting but non-surprising. Up until recently, Siberians have lived in human communities with a strongly meat-based diet and the need to digest starch would not have been selected for.
  • The chapter on senior dogs has more details on the physiological changes that dogs go through as they age than I have read elsewhere. These are at once fascinating, a little sad, but extremely helpful to know.
  • It was fun to learn that sleep appears to help dogs with memory consolidation, just as it does with humans, and to read about the implications this can have on training.
  • On a related topic, I so appreciated her assessment of the well-known study comparing different training schedules for dogs. The schedules compared were daily vs. once or twice a week. This is another study that is generally presented in a slightly misleading way, and for which she cuts through the hype. It’s easy to come up with a headline like, “Dogs Learn Faster with Less Training!” We might assume from such a title that in a given week, then, a dog trained only once learned more than a dog trained multiple times. Wow! But that’s not how the comparison works. As Todd puts it, “The results found that the dogs taught once or twice a week performed better than those taught every day (although obviously it took longer for them to have enough training sessions to learn the task).” Thank you for the parenthetical remark! It makes all the difference.
  • Here’s a quote from the chapter on fear that shows how Dr. Todd speaks about the dangers of aversive training. “Forcing your dog to face their fears will likely make things worse. If you have been using aversive methods to train your dog, stop, because this adds to your dog’s stress.” So calm, so matter-of-fact. The science tells us we should be living in a post-aversive training world. There just aren’t good arguments for it. Her writing regularly makes that clear without any harsh words or finger-pointing. (This in itself is an evidence-based approach.)
  • In the same chapter, she has an absolutely stunning section titled “It’s Worth Getting Help.” This section is about dealing with dog behavior problems—but also human behavior problems. She approaches both with the same gentle empathy combined with practical, evidence-based information that is typical of the whole book. I’d like to just copy the whole section for you here, but of course, I can’t do that. So see below.

Why You Should Buy This Book

  • It is a great resource. It has 280 references in it! How can she even do that and still have such a pleasant, readable book? Also, you can bet that she checked a whole lot more references than those 280! Those are the ones that made it through the “what’s most important?” filter.
  • It’s fabulously written.
  • You can win arguments. Or at the very least, have evidence at hand for many of the common ones circulating in the dog world. For instance, is somebody saying dogs shouldn’t play tug because it will make them dangerous or “dominant”? Pick up your copy. She’s got a study showing otherwise in the chapter on enrichment.
  • That unique voice. Gentle, empathetic, precise, and clear.
  • Wag is good reading during the COVID-19 pandemic. I don’t say this lightly. But I think it’s important to note the low-stress approach of the book. While it covers a lot of topics that are highly in contention among the different schools of training, there is none of the stress caused by discussions of these topics on social media. There is just Dr. Todd’s calm voice explaining, and not overstating, the evidence. I should note my own biases and life experience here, though. I suppose it could be stressful for someone who strongly disagrees that evidence from science should be a basis upon which we make decisions. But they probably wouldn’t be reading it in the first place. For the rest of us, it’s a way to learn about a topic we are passionate about. We can follow paths into scientific literature or just sit down and enjoy it.

Where You Can Buy the Book

Just Wow

I am a fast reader. I’m usually a gobbler. I go through several books a week. But I chose to read this book over several weeks. It was just not possible for me to read a book with so much information in it without stopping to think—a lot! And to look at the studies myself. I finally broke down and kept a Google Scholar window open on my laptop because I kept investigating the wonderful trails she laid.

One example of such a trail: dogs’ neophilia. She discusses a shelter study about dogs’ responses to old and new toys. There was some tantalizing information in there that led me to check out the study. I learned that one probable difference between novel and “used” toys is the presence or absence of the dog’s saliva. I do rotate toys—now I’ll be sure to wash them before I put them away.  So as thorough and information-packed as this book is, every paragraph is the tip of another iceberg of information about dogs! Talk about enrichment! This book is a banquet.

I try to include criticism when I review books. I want to distinguish my reviews from the paid/affiliate sort that rave about everything. But this book is deserving of rave and I’m hard put to find a flaw. At first, I thought it didn’t have an index. But silly me. It absolutely has an index! I was reading an advance copy. Indices are always created last, because of page numbering. So strike that. I’m afraid I have no criticism of this book!

As a dog blogger, I know how hard it is to write non-reactively. There are hundreds of us out there writing every day about bad-and-wrong things that catch our attention. At times I have specialized in that approach, to my dismay. Then comes this pure pearl of a book. Dr. Todd shares with us the very best practices, the best ways to give our dogs a great life, and how to help them be happy. Think about it: how many evidence-based dog books have you seen with the word “happy” in the title? Not just exercised, not just well-fed, not just kindly trained, not even just enriched, although those are all included. But happy. Kudos to Zazie Todd for writing the most helpful, kind, and loving book possible about dogs.

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Text (except for quotes from the book) and the dog photos copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog

Lower the Pressure! Adapting Play for a Sensitive Dog

Black and rust hound type dog leaning on a green and black squeaky snake toy. This toy was part of our low pressure play
Zani has always loved those toy snakes

Play between a human and a canine is a magical thing. I’ve always loved to play with my dogs, and I’ve appreciated the courses I’ve taken on play and the techniques I’ve learned from trainer friends over the years. (This means you, Marge Rogers! See a great example of her work in the “Holy Grail” section below.) Yes, readers, there really are courses on how to play with your dog! And the cool thing is that many of them can help you observe what kind of play your dog loves the best and figure out how to do it. In other words, the human is the student, even more than in most other training classes.

I’m a decent player. Not an expert, but I’m pretty good at figuring out what my dogs like and adding little fun touches. And I notice when they make up games of their own, and take part when invited.

Summer enjoyed very physical play. She loved it when I would push on her chest, shoving her backward. She would come roaring back forward yelling at me, then ask me to push her again. She also liked me to play “I’m gonna get your bone” with her. I wish I could post a video of this game, but I’ve always figured it would be a bad idea. There are a dozen reasons not to do with a dog what I’m doing in that game. If a person thought the game looked fun and tried it with a resource guarding dog, things could end very badly. The game looked really scary, but we had great fun. She liked to tug as well.

sandy colored dog with black ears and muzzle holding a red ball

Clara will play about anything with me. She loves shredding cardboard (I have to be careful she doesn’t eat any), tugging, and flirt pole play. Most of all she loves to play ball. She’s not an incessant player though. She’s up for about 20 throws, max, but for those throws she is all in. What glorious speed and athleticism! We still use two balls to play. She drops one into a container at my feet and I throw the other. When she wants to stop, she carries a ball to the back door. I let her in the house so she can chew on the ball a little while. (I suspect that’s part of why we don’t do many throws, but also she’s never had a whole lot of stamina.)

Zani is a tugger. She will tug and tug. She also likes stalking-type “I’m gonna get you” games. She’s such a versatile little dog that I achieved the Holy Grail: she will tug in the presence of food and work for treats in the presence of favorite toys. OK, Holy Grail for me, anyway. Pro and competition trainers do it as a matter of course, but it was a big deal for me. Zani likes interactive play and will enjoy any reinforcer I offer.

Here is an example from a few years back of some of Zan’s high-intensity play. She is only just figuring out how the flirt pole works, but her enthusiasm is clear.

Low-Pressure Play

In early 2016, Zani experienced some pretty severe problems with anxiety. She was not a happy camper for several months. She stopped wanting to play. She was too shut down to do much of anything.

As she started to recover, I tried various ways of playing with her again. She just couldn’t do it the usual ways. The intensity of play and the one-on-one with me were too much for her. There was too much pressure.

But I had this feeling: she was ready to play something again. The interaction just needed to be indirect and non-demanding. Even though engagement with our dogs is one of the words of the day, the engagement factor needed to be low for her.

A Non-Demanding Game

The video below shows what I came up with. If you don’t know the context, it is a really stupid-looking game. I look like a lazy trainer who doesn’t even care enough to interact with her dog. I walk around in circles in my yard, dragging two long snake toys with squeakers in each segment. I almost ignore Zani, just saying a word to her now and then. Every once in a while I make a faster change of direction or swing the toy out a little, but I don’t look very involved.

But context is all. I may be a lazy trainer sometimes, but this is not me being lazy. Not turning around to interact with her is purposeful. She didn’t enjoy intense engagement at the time. But you can see her delight with this game. Her tail was happy, and she hardly ever let go of the toy. The length of the snake toys was important. She could choose her distance from me. She was so content to walk around in circles with one end of a snake toy clenched in her jaws while I squeaked the other end. We would do it for much longer periods than this video shows.

What looks like unskilled, almost uncaring play was something I had worked hard to figure out. And it was just right for her at that time in her life.

She enjoys intense play again now, although since her injury and as she ages I’ve toned it down. She has some favorite tug toys, including an old toy with a lot of legs that she loves for me to swing around on the end of a rope. (This game is a little faster and a lot more interactive than snake dragging!) Plus—don’t tell—when she feels extra playful she sneaks into my bedroom, gets a shoe, and scampers out with it, guarding it and inviting me to try to get it. Yes, a shoe. She is going on 12 years old now. She’s allowed.

Because I can’t help being didactic: the shoe idea is a terrible one for a puppy or a new dog.

What Constitutes Pressure?

I identify two common types of pressure in play: spatial pressure and social pressure.

Spatial pressure means moving into the dog’s space in ways that are unwelcome. Zani herself taught me a lot about pressure. She’s sensitive even when she feels fine. So if a dog is unsure of you (or even if they aren’t and you just want to speak dog a little better), you can lead with your side or even your back when interacting. Don’t walk straight up to them, don’t stare at them, and don’t loom over them. Invite them into your space rather than entering theirs. It’s no accident that I have my back to Zani in most of the video.

Social pressure applied by humans to dogs is usually pushy chatter. “Take it! Take it! Look!” What seems like an invitation to us can be intimidating and unpleasant to a sensitive dog. Social pressure can also involve spatial pressure, as when you thrust a toy into a dog’s face. (Called by some trainers the “suicidal rabbit” approach, because it’s not how prey animals act. It’s usually not the best way to start play even with a dog who is in the game. Moving the toy away from the dog is usually a lot more attractive to them!) Looking at my video again, I don’t ever “offer” Zani the toy. I walk away from her with it.

Pressure Can Be Good

Some of the pressure-ful things I mention above can be welcome parts of play with a dog you know well and who enjoys them. Pressure can be part of what makes play fun. Stalking games build up a lot of pressure. But they can be way too much for a fearful or sensitive dog, or for that matter, a puppy. Watch a nice adult dog play with a puppy sometime. They do all sorts of things to make themselves less scary, even though they are faster, more adroit, and usually a lot bigger than the pup. If they build pressure, they never let it get to a scary level.

Green and black squeaky snake toy used for low pressure play

I’m by no means an expert on play. But the snake dragging game gave Zani something fun to do when she was too sensitive to tolerate her usual, high-intensity interactive play.

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Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson: Text, photos, and movies

What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

TL:DR: There is no law that states that you have to interact with them in any way. Leave before they get started if you can.

It is a perennial problem. How can you get people to leave you alone when you are out with your fearful, anxious, or reactive dog? There you are, out with your anxious dog, minding your own business. You went to a secluded spot. On a rainy day. And at a time when nobody else should be out. But here comes that person with the “All dogs love me!” look. Or the “I’m about to give you ridiculous advice about training your dog, whom I’ve never seen before” look. Or the “Can-my-kid-pet-your-dog-here-we-come” look. These folks often have this inexorable zombie walk straight at your dog and just Will. Not. Stop.

Not now, dude!

We all want there to be a perfect solution to this. I have seen it asked dozens of times online. There should be the perfect comment or perfect warning or perfect sign on the dog’s gear so people will leave our dogs and us alone. There must be an answer, right?

I hate to break the news, but there isn’t a perfect verbal solution. Whether you go for a visual signal or choose to try to talk to them, some people are going to ignore the content or try to argue with you. All while not slowing their approach.

Here’s are some of the reasons I think people do that.

 1. Dogs are magnets for a large subset of the human race.
2. There’s so much mythology about dogs that you can’t get people to be sensible.
3. A few people are just overconfident jerks and aren’t going to be cooperative whatever the topic is. 
4. Most of us have a very hard time not engaging socially with humans who approach us.

You can’t control people with words. Not all the people, all the time.

If you ask for a solution to this problem in an online forum, you will instantly get two dozen suggestions about things you can say and products you can buy to ward people off. I’m not going to list them here because not one of them is foolproof. There isn’t a magical solution that works in all situations for all people all the time.

You will get some people who say their method works 100% of the time. Usually, they have been lucky—they just don’t know it. Or they may be using a method that has other severe, even dangerous drawbacks. For example, yelling that their dog has a terrible communicable disease. And even these extreme methods don’t always work.

In my experience, once we start talking to the aggressive or clueless stranger, it’s too late. We’ve made social contact, and once that happens, it is very hard to break it. Even having a sign on the dog’s gear1)In some areas, having a warning sign on your dog’s harness is not advisable from a legal standpoint is a form of communication. There will be people who come in close to read the sign and some of them will want to “discuss” the situation.

What To Do

My modest proposal.

  • Teach your dog a Let’s Go cue or an Emergency U-Turn cue.
  • Leave the scene far earlier than you think you need to, and don’t engage with the human at all.
  • Pick the appropriate body language or combination:
    • There is nothing in the world besides me and my dog
    • We have urgent business elsewhere
  • If you feel you must, you can shout an apology or excuse over your shoulder while you are getting out of Dodge. “Can’t-talk-right-now-bye!” But be sure you are at a safe distance and can continue your escape before you say anything, lest you get sucked in.

Here is a great example. My friend Marge Rogers is working with a client who is learning to turn around and book it in the other direction when someone approaches her dog. You can see that she is also using the universal “Stop” signal with her hand up and facing, palm forward, at the pushy “stranger.” Once she also yells “NO!” Kudos to this great dog guardian! And I’ll mention that while both the hand signal and the “NO!” are forms of communication, they are not ones that invite further response!

I explain to my owners their first responsibility is to their dog. Not some random stranger they will never see again. Let their dog know they have his back.

Marge Rogers

It is perfectly OK not to socially interact with a stranger who is approaching you. Just give yourself permission. (This is also true if your dog is not reactive, or hell, if you don’t have a dog with you at all!) You don’t have to smile, you don’t have to say hello, and you don’t have to make an excuse. You don’t have to stick around for their training suggestions and critique. Do not make eye contact. Eye contact is the beginning of the end. Use your cue and get away when you see that person approaching in that “special” way.

No method is foolproof, even this one. Even if you do the above, sometimes the terrain may prevent a safe escape. Also, there is always that outlier who is going to get pissed at you for not interacting. Angry people can be a danger to you and your dog. All the better reason to escape early if you can. But every situation has to be read independently. Do your best to stay safe.

Tan and black dog Clara taking a rest on a riverbank. I to go secluded areas to avoid people approaching my reactive dog.
Like many people with dogs with special needs, I seek out secluded places

Loose dogs and people with unruly dogs pose an even harder—and more dangerous— problem. That’s a whole other post, one that I don’t feel qualified to write.

These thoughts about escaping intrusive people are mostly not original to me. They are things I’ve learned from a lot of different trainers, so I don’t remember to whom to attribute what parts. But thank you to those sensible people!

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Photo of the young man from CanStock photo. Photo of the adorable dog copyright Eileen Anderson.

Notes   [ + ]

1. In some areas, having a warning sign on your dog’s harness is not advisable from a legal standpoint
Regression to the Mean: Why Our Dogs’ Supplements Often Aren’t Working as Well as We Think

Regression to the Mean: Why Our Dogs’ Supplements Often Aren’t Working as Well as We Think

Last year I had a minor medical problem, more of a bother, really. It’s one for which a few supplements have been shown to help. My doctor said I could try “Supplement X, Y, or Z.” I didn’t do anything at the time I talked to him because the problem hadn’t been happening right then.

But then the problem started bugging me. I had it for about 10 days in a row. I thought, “Hey, this would be a great time to try Supplement Y.” I wrote down in my calendar that I had had the problem for those 10 days, and wrote down the day I started the supplement. And the problem improved massively for the next 14 days.

Yay, it worked, right?

No. I didn’t have enough evidence to conclude that. What I could have been seeing was regression to the mean.

When problems vary in intensity, people tend to try interventions during a “bad” spell. They call the doctor; ask their neighbor; or start a supplement, diet, or exercise regime.

That’s exactly what I did. I started a supplement when my problem was bad. But if a variable problem has been worse than average for a period of time, what usually happens next? It will likely get better. It’s variable. It is so easy to attribute the good spells to whatever intervention we might be trying. We want things to work, and we are wired to grab at such correlations.

Graph of severity of health problem. The first 46 days show a love level of severity, from 0–5. Then follows 10 days of values from 5–10. This is a classic setup for regression to the mean if those last 10 days were anomalous. The health condition in the next time period is likely to be improved.
From earlier data, what do you predict will be the severity of my health problem if I start a supplement on Day 56? What do you predict will be the severity of my health problem if I don’t start a supplement?

I had 10 days of data before I started the supplement, but it was 10 days of **extreme** data. And 10 days is pretty short in any case. (I made up the data on the graph for the first few weeks as a demonstration. It represents the low level of the problem that mostly passed under my radar.)

Regression to the mean is why people frequently will say of an intervention that it “worked for a while then stopped.” When we have that particular experience, the intervention likely didn’t help at all. We were only experiencing the effects of regression to the mean. Things got better because they were very unlikely to get worse. But we are humans, and we assign causation at the drop of a hat.

Health problems that are especially vulnerable to this false attribution include chronic conditions like pain from arthritis or headaches, allergies from unknown triggers, fatigue, and mild to moderate gastrointestinal problems. Any painful or bothersome condition that comes and goes but rarely reaches an acute level. (Because that’s when we go to the doctor for a more aggressive intervention.)

If I want to improve my chances of really knowing whether a supplement helps for a chronic, variable condition, I should take data for as long as possible before starting the supplement. (Almost none of us do this; more on taking data below.) I should start it at a random time. After I start the supplement, I should take it for a preassigned number of days. If there are studies supporting the use of the supplement, I should record data for at least as long as the studies did. I should decide the number of days beforehand and stick to it. (This removes the chance of stopping at a fortuitous time for the data.) I should record my data religiously. After the period is over, I should go off it again for the same amount of time and keep taking data. This is called a reversal design, and give you two chances to look for a difference due to the intervention: when you start it and when you stop it.

Obviously, I am not recommending you ever go off a doctor-recommended prescription medication as an experiment. The reversal design should only be implemented when it is safe to do so. In my situation, my doctor had encouraged me to experiment with the supplements.

Implementing a better structure would have given me a better chance of knowing whether the supplement had an effect. But even then, it would not tell me for sure. Besides regression to the mean, which still could be in play, there are a dozen other reasons and biases that could make it appear that the supplement was effective.

Regression to the mean is both a statistical event and a cognitive fallacy. The statistical event is as described above. When an entry in a time series is at an extreme value, the most likely thing to happen next is for it to fall back toward the mean, or average. This is not the same as the “law of averages,” which is itself a fallacy. Regression to the mean has to do with values over a span of time, and what happens after an extreme value.

If images are helpful to you, check out this article about regression to the mean that includes graphs and a couple of really clear scenarios. Also, it will let you know that some businesspeople and marketers know about regression to the mean and use it to sell products or services.

Regression to the Mean and Our Dogs

The above is not a made-up story. It did happen to me.  I’m sharing it because we do the same thing with our dogs. It’s a cautionary tale about how damn easy it is for us to assign causation when it’s not really there.

It happens all the time in life. How many times on a dog group have you seen someone write, “Yes, Acme Supplement is great, but after a while, it did stop working.” Or “I used Smoke’em Powder and it worked great at first. It was worth it for that period, even though it stopped working as my dog’s condition deteriorated.”

Our perception of skin allergies that come and go is subject to regression to the mean

Again, the way regression to the mean works is that we tend to consider interventions—diets, exercises, supplements—when the condition is at its worst. For example, we know our dog has some arthritis that is pretty well controlled most of the time with a prescription drug. But the arthritis is getting worse. Instead of going back to the vet, we may try a supplement that our neighbor told us about. And when do we tend to try it? When our dog is acting like she is in more pain than usual. When we are having extreme values in the time series.

So we start her on Acme Supplement. Lo and behold, over the next few days, her pain appears to lessen. We automatically attribute it to the supplement. That is how our brains work, noticing correlations and leaping to assigning causation. Between the regression to the mean fallacy and the owner placebo effect (since our dogs may not actually be feeling better—we just wish they were), we feel certain we have solved the issue. Our dog feels better and it’s because of Acme!

These two biases together keep unproven supplement companies in business and whole product lines lucrative. All we have to do is try a certain product when the condition is at its worst. Then when the condition naturally improves, we are certain it is due to the product.

An interesting twist is that even after some time has passed and the product doesn’t seem to be working “anymore,” we don’t doubt its original efficacy. We rarely go back and say, hmmm, maybe it never worked after all! What we say, and tell others, is that it worked, but then stopped working. We often keep recommending it!

You will read versions of this over and over. You’ll see it in dog health, in suggestions for dealing with fearful dogs, in dog training of all sorts, in human health, and in other practices.

Owners of dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction are particularly vulnerable to regression to the mean with regard to interventions. Not only do the dog’s symptoms change from day to day, but the owners know it is a terminal condition and the worsening of the dog’s condition can’t be stopped. If the dog has a few good days in a row, it serves as a beacon of hope. That’s human nature.

Take Data and Be Skeptical of Assumptions

It’s normal to start to pay attention to a problem when it reaches a certain threshold. So it’s rare that we are going along, for instance, keeping a journal about how often we have headaches if we are not often troubled by them. But that’s exactly the type of data we need. We can’t go back in time when our dog develops a problem, but we can start keeping track immediately and also record anything we remember from the past.

Blanche Axton, a champion data recorder about her dogs’ health, wrote a super helpful article about this: “The Importance of Tracking Changes in Dog Behavior.” She is my inspiration.

There are lots of tracking tools available for those of us who like to use technology. When my dog Zani started exhibiting extremely fearful behaviors for which I couldn’t identify a trigger, I started taking data. I used a Mac journaling app called Day One. I created a template that included the behaviors I tracked. With the press of a button, I could pull up a blank template to fill out at the end of the day. This made it as easy as possible to write every day. I could add other notes and often included photos.

My system was primitive compared to what Blanche describes in her article. If you need to start tracking a health or behavioral problem with your dog, I suggest you take a look at hers, my simple lists below, and create something in between in a format that works for you.

Some of the things I tracked for Zani’s mysterious behavior change and included on the template were:

Bad Signs

  • trembling
  • slinking around 
  • unhappy facial expression, ear set 
  • staying at back door 
  • whining at front door 
  • avoiding bedroom 
  • avoiding kitchen when I am sitting at table 
  • coming to me repeatedly for help, then leaving 
  • clingy 
  • refusing food
  • getting in my lap trembling 

Good Signs

  • tail up 
  • playing 
  • enjoying training 
  • came in the bathroom while I showered 
  • did agility enthusiastically 
  • slept in bedroom 
  • hanging out with the rest of the dogs 
  • lying in dog bed on couch (instead of hiding in crate)
  • affectionate

These items were mostly hard to quantify. For most of them, I just answered yes/no for the day, then sometimes elaborated with notes. If you are tracking medical symptoms, you’ll probably need fewer categories than I needed for Zani’s mental breakdown, but you may need more detail about circumstances. Keep in mind Blanche’s system of noting things like times of day and other environmental factors and how much that helped. Perhaps if I had done that, I would have eventually found out what was freaking out my little dog.

Another thing to do is to be skeptical. I knew about regression to the mean, but I forgot and still thought the best time to start a supplement was during a symptom flareup! I think I’ve got the lesson a little better firmed in my mind now, but at the same time I need to remember that there is part of my brain that will grab at correlations whether I want it to or not.

Read the Kahneman book. It is full of examples about our cognitive biases and gives solid instructions about how to fight back against them.

And finally, regression to the mean can keep us messing around with things that aren’t really working. It’s a good reason to take data and be skeptical of our own “intuitive” responses that say something is working. We might be doing this while neglecting a proven intervention that can really help.

My Regression to the Mean Experience

In my case, it is unlikely that Supplement Y worked. After the first dramatic two weeks when my problem disappeared, it came back at about its normal levels (the mean). But then later when I finished the bottle and stopped the supplement, there was no uptick in the severity of the problem. It just continued in its on-again, off-again manner. I would need more carefully planned and gathered data to give me a better idea of whether Supplement Y helped me with my problem. But at this moment, despite those glorious few days when it was at a very low level, it probably didn’t help.

Related Articles

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms Starting NOW

Is your dog scared of fireworks? Don’t wait until the holiday hits. Even with just a couple days’ lead time, 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 starting today or tomorrow.

  1. Check into medications. If your dog gets very anxious about noises and you have never talked to your vet about it, do so now. He or she may be able to prescribe something to help. And if you can’t get in before the holiday, do your best with some of the other ideas here to get through it and call your vet as soon as you can. This is a long-term problem. Sound phobias tend to get worse and are not something to be taken lightly.
  2. Countercondition to noises. 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.

    You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app, CD, or YouTube video with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky.  People who haven’t done DS/CC before run a real risk of scaring their dogs further instead of helping them. This is why I am suggesting this method, which uses environmental noises that are happening anyway. Save the formal training for after the holiday, when you can keep your dog safe from accidental exposures to the sound.
  3. Create a safe place. 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. Also, low-frequency booms can’t be “soundproofed” against except with materials that are much too big to use inside a house. Get the best protection you can in a basement or your most internal room. Despite the marketing claims, dog crates with walls a few inches thick can’t dampen low-frequency sounds to an effective degree. But if a crate is your dog’s safe place, that’s great. Here are some examples of safe places for dogs.
  4. Play sound or music. Experiment with sound masking to find out what is most helpful for your situation. Try some kind of recorded white or brown noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This approach is evidence-based and is called sound masking.

    And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms (Kinsler, Frey, Coppens, & Sanders, 1999, p.318–320). So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! And play it on your best sound system so as to include those low frequencies. It can mask some of the scary noises coming from outside your house more effectively. Taiko drumming is great if your dogs are accustomed to it. You can buy a few songs and loop them or find some on YouTube. But be absolutely certain that the music itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will.

    Household appliances can help. Some floor fans hit fairly low frequencies and can be helpful. You can run the dryer (no heat) with a pair of sports shoes in it for some booms that will probably be familiar and not scary. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.

    The perfect resource for some households is the Bang-Dog Playlist from Triplet Noir Studios. These are heavy metal selections (be aware that some of the language is not family-friendly). Before anyone mentions it: heavy metal has not ranked well in the dogs and music studies, tending to make shelter dogs more agitated. That’s not surprising. But if you play it already and your dogs are fine with it, they are habituated. In that case, this music could be the very thing for you and your dog.
  5. Practice going out. 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? If your dog is not used to being on-leash for potty time, start practicing now, including getting the harness on. Dogs who are usually sedate 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.
  6. Comfort your dog if that helps. LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog, if that’s what your dog wants. Helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, food or a fun game after every scary noise, 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. If they want to hide, let them.
The best part of thunderstorms: spray cheese!
The best part of noisy holidays for Summer was spray cheese!

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

Another good resource is this article by Val Hughes: My Dog Fears Fireworks and Thunderstorms—What Should I Do To Help? Her article has suggestions for both long- and short-term solutions.

Thanks for reading!

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                          

IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson: 2020

IAABC Writing Mentorships With Eileen Anderson: 2020

Are you stymied about how to start a blog? Stuck three-quarters of the way through writing a memoir? Wanting to get a more consistent look and style with your client handouts? Needing information about self-publishing? I can help!

I am offering writing mentorships for trainers and behavior professionals through the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) again in 2020. You can bring any writing projects to the mentorship, from outlines to final drafts, and get intensive one-on-one help. My coaching and the course materials will help you improve your writing and better represent your business. And you can do this while collecting some serious CEUs through your professional organization (see below).

The mentorships start on January 12, 2020. During the eight-week course, I will provide individual coaching to up to 15 mentees with writing projects of their choice. There will be print and video course materials and a weekly videoconference.

There are also spots for auditors. They will be able to view all written discussions in the classroom between the mentor and mentees, will have full access to the supporting course materials, but will not take part in the videoconferences or submit their own projects.  

Read the official mentorship course description and register here. 

The link above will tell you “who, what, when, and where” about the mentorships. But here I’m going to tell you the “how and why.”  How will they work and what will it be like for participants? And why should you sign up?

How Will the Course Work?

I already get lots of assistance with my writing

The mentorships take place in an online classroom. The classroom allows for several kinds of interactions. When I created the structure of the course, I wanted to be sure there would be plenty of material in addition to the one-on-one editing/coaching. I created nine video lectures and supporting printed materials. The videos and printed materials cover style sheets, time management, motivation, organization, voice and audience, writing tools, editing tools, search engine optimization, references and plagiarism, and collaboration.

During the course, I’ll also post resource lists and timely articles on writing and the writing industry. I will provide startup assignments and information on typical business documents for mentees who want help with writing but don’t know where to start. We’ll probably have a silly contest or two. Mentees will upload or link their individual projects so we can work on them together. Auditors and other mentees will view our discussions and the editing process.

Documents we can work on include but are not limited to articles, blog posts, class handouts, behavior assessments, biographies and other marketing materials, announcements, grants, reports, and books. Fiction is welcome.

The mentees and I will have weekly videoconferences. When I started this mentorship, I didn’t realize what a pleasure these would be, nor how they would help the mentees become a community. We usually have some amazing crowd-sourcing moments, and mentees often end up doing peer reading for each other during the course and after it is finished. Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be if you take advantage of the community available through the mentorships.

What’s Special About the Structure of the Course?

  1. I will not be grading anything. We’ll all push aside the “write-it-for-a-grade-and-hope-the-teacher-likes-it” paradigm. That’s not what mentorship is about.
  2. I will be your hired coach. You can tell me the types of assistance and critique you want, or you can turn me loose and say, “Help!” We’ll figure out the best way to work together. My goal will be to help you improve your writing skills so you can turn out some great documents. I’ll help you get unstuck if that’s what you need. My help won’t be painful or embarrassing.
  3. Our chat content will not be subject to critique. We will do a lot of communicating in a chat interface. Even though this is a writing mentorship, the spelling and grammar police are not invited to chat conversations. Abbreviations, shortcuts, hasty punctuation, and other chat conventions will be fine. Nothing in the mentorship will be critiqued except the mentees’ projects, and then only by me unless a mentee requests feedback from others.
  4. Introverts needn’t worry. The group activities are not mandatory, and I’ll do my best not to put you on the spot. I’m an introvert too, and although I love the social aspects of the mentorship, I won’t be pushy about participation.
  5. Psst. You don’t even have to be an animal behavior professional. The topic is writing, and the concepts I teach and that we discuss are universal to communicating effectively in English. Most of the projects and many of my examples are animal behavior-related, but people with other interests or from different professions are welcome.

Why Take the Course?

You can get mega-CEUs at the same time you solve writing problems that have been plaguing you for months! Or you can use the synergy of being with a group of like-minded writers to get a jump start on a whole new project.

Previous mentees have brought full-length books, both memoirs and non-fiction. We have worked on blogging a book and booking a blog. Mentees have brought handouts that present the challenge of technical writing for a lay audience. We have had long discussions on voice and many mentees have worked on theirs. A couple mentees have found out that they can write humor! I have had the pleasure of working together with mentees on short stories. We’ve worked together on the structure of a professional website. And of course we’ve worked on blog posts—lots of blog posts.

The Value of Coaching

Even if your writing is already very clean, you have no motivation problems, and your website is state of the art, you can still benefit from coaching.

Top-level professional singers use vocal coaches for their entire professional careers. Professional athletes likewise receive coaching as long as they compete. Having an expert outside observer and teacher is essential. It allows professionals to get more information about their tasks and feedback on their skill sets. It prevents them from falling into idiosyncrasies. It gives that invaluable second pair of ears or eyes.

So why not writers? Writing skills can always develop; we are always improving. Calling on a mentor doesn’t mean you are helpless or unprofessional. It’s not about getting a grade. It doesn’t have to hurt your ego. It’s about getting an outside perspective and expert feedback.

Improving your writing will help you communicate better with your peers, provide clearer instructions to your clients, and present a more polished public appearance. And participating in this writing mentorship is fun.

Register for the writing mentorship here.

A Note from a Participant

Eileen Anderson is the consummate writing coach and professional who can help weave your human voice into your emails, handouts, and website with all of the proper information including appropriately written science-based references.

Eileen is not only enthusiastic and encouraging, she is also in expert in the field that you are writing about. This class is a rare opportunity to be mentored and coached to keep the level of your written correspondence and materials on par with your knowledge-based expertise.

Benita Raphan
Yes, plenty of writing assistance

Writing Samples

You can read my bio on the mentorship page linked above, but I’m also providing some writing samples here. Since my voice in the blog is casual, I’ve included some documents that demonstrate more formal styles.

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Placebos for Pets? A Book Review

Dr. Brennen McKenzie released his blockbuster on alternative veterinary medicine on November 1, 2019. Placebos for Pets? The Truth About Alternative Medicine in Animals is out, and I recommend it highly. I am not a veterinarian, so keep that in mind as you read my review. But this is a great book for all pet owners, pet professionals, and others interested in animals who need help sifting through all the information on alternative veterinary medicine.

Book on alternative veterinary medicine: Placebos for Pets
Continue reading “Placebos for Pets? A Book Review”
Desensitization of Disgust

Desensitization of Disgust

two images of a bearded man in 19th or early 20th century clothing looking disgusted
Two versions of a “disgust” response. See note in the photo credits about the non-universality of emotions and how they are portrayed.

Disgust can save your life. But sometimes it gets attached to weird stuff, just as fear does.

I’m interrupting this dog blog to talk about human beings for a little while. I have to share something fascinating I learned back while researching a previous post.

I have written a fair amount about desensitization and counterconditioning. One of my more extensive posts was “You Can’t Cure MY Fear by Shoving Cookies At Me!” In that post, I designed a hypothetical DS/CC protocol for my phobia of crawdads. While reading studies for that post, I ran across a pocket of research about desensitizing the emotion of disgust.

Continue reading “Desensitization of Disgust”
Replacing a Poisoned Cue

Replacing a Poisoned Cue

A woman reaching down and shoving her hand in the face of a stuffed dog, as if to tell it to stay. This became a poisoned cue.
“STAY!”

Originally published in December 2012; expanded and revised for 2019. The video in this post was featured at Tate Behavioral’s ABA Conference in October 2019 by Dr. Megan Miller.

A poisoned cue is a cue that is associated with both reinforcing and aversive consequences. Poisoned cues were probably the norm for a period in some types of training, and still are common. If you tell your dog to “sit” and he gets a cookie if he sits but gets a push on the butt or jerk on the leash if he doesn’t, then “sit” is a poisoned cue. The term was coined by Karen Pryor.

Continue reading “Replacing a Poisoned Cue”
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