eileenanddogs

Category: Fear

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

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                                                          

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”
Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training

Aggressive, dangerous dogs (a.k.a. Red Zone Dogs) should be trained with positive reinforcement, desensitization, and counterconditioning. Here’s why.

Training with pain, startle, and intimidation carries huge risks. Decades of science tell us that aggression begets aggression. It’s that simple.

Continue reading “Why “Red Zone Dogs” Need Positive Reinforcement Training”
If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now

What are we here for this time?

Every year I post an article about last-minute things you can do to help your dog who is afraid of fireworks. We are coming up on Canada Day and U.S. Independence Day, and that means bangs and booms. Over the years I have tweaked my list. I’ll be posting it in a few days.

But this year I am posting earlier with the most important tip of all.

  1. See your vet.
Continue reading “If Your Dog Is Afraid of Fireworks, See Your Vet Now”
6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms

Firecrackers exploding in the air

I’m sorry I’m so late with my fireworks post this year. But there are still some things you can do. You can take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.

Continue reading “6 Ways to Prepare for the Bangs and Booms”
My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training

I always flinch a little when people start to discuss dogs’ emotions. What’s coming? Relevant, evidence-based observations or woo? I’ve removed some words from my own vocabulary when talking about dogs because of this. Even though my relationships with my dogs are primary and important, I hesitate to talk about “bonds” or “trust” anymore.  It sounds so…I don’t know…West Coast. (I can say that because I’m from California.)

I believe that the people who are out there focusing on magical energy and bonds and leadership and trust and all those other things we can’t describe concretely are doing dogs (and competent positive reinforcement trainers) a real disservice. Because emotions—the dogs’ emotions—do have a place in training. We can’t see them, but we can often see their results. Emotions and internal states have a place in behavior science.  They drive observable behavior.

Continue reading “My Dog’s Emotional State: Crucial to Training”
Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog

Black dog with brown ears, shot from the back. Ears express alert dog body language

Here’s a little dog body language study.

My dear Zani shows a lot of emotion, which means she is a good dog to observe. She is pretty easy to read and can teach us a lot.

The short video below consists of two quick clips taken less than two minutes apart. In one clip, Zani is afraid, and in the other, she is having a good time.

Continue reading “Scared Dog vs. Happy and Engaged Dog”
My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?

My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?

I wrote this article especially for people who are either new to using a clicker or have not dealt extensively with a fearful dog.

If your dog is scared by the noise of the clicker, slow down. Switch to a verbal marker for now. Don’t immediately focus on trying to achieve softer clicks. Here’s why.

A brown and white rat terrier is looking eagerly up at her human
Rat terrier Kaci says, “Train me!”
Continue reading “My Dog Is Afraid of the Clicker. What Should I Do?”
Rescue Me! (Part 1)

Rescue Me! (Part 1)

If your dog wanted to jump into your lap or hide behind you when another dog was bugging her, would you let her do so? If you did, would you be reinforcing fear?

Friends and Playmates

My dogs Zani and Clara have been playing ever since the day in 2011 when Clara arrived so unexpectedly. Clara was about 10 or 11 weeks old and weighed 12 pounds. Zani was three years old and 18 pounds. Both were and are dog-friendly and good communicators.

Zani played hard with baby Clara, Continue reading “Rescue Me! (Part 1)”

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