Coping with Failures and Setbacks

Everyone has those times when things go wrong, and your training is set way, way back. If you can think through those moments, you can often mitigate some of the trouble. The rest of it, we just work through. This is my set back story, so you can see where I messed up, what choices I made and why (for good or ill; in most cases only time will tell!), and how I mitigated it as much as possible.

I have a new foster. He’s a year and a half old pittie that I boarded this past spring for five days to try and fix some major behavioral problems. Those problems improved greatly, but in the end his owner realized that a small apartment and a 12-hour-a-day job wasn’t right for a young dog, and it would be better for Champ to be re-homed. (His owner had inherited Champ after a death in the family.)

It had become apparent during the initial boarding phase that Champ had some congenital aggression issues. (Congenital aggression means the dog was born with it; there’s some funny hardwiring in the brain or body, much like people with personality and mood disorders. Much like people with disorders, what the dog goes through in life will partially determine in what way and how severely the disorder develops.) We’d implemented behavioral changes that helped quite a bit, but since I started fostering him (just two weeks ago) I thought blood work and medication might be a helpful route, as well.

Today, we needed to do blood work. As it happens Champ’s vet is the vet I use, and they already know many of his issues. (The vet, owner and I were all working together. I love having good working relationships with the vet!) I didn’t have to prep anyone, which was really nice. Champ and I were let into a room for a tech visit to draw blood, and I spent a few minutes practicing his handling skills; holding his head still, giving a treat. Holding his legs, giving a treat. I did as many of these types of things as I could think of.

When the tech, Amy, came in she had a muzzle with her. Champ is  muzzle trained due to vet issues in the past, and I was able to put it on him with not much fuss. Amy suggested we use a hind leg instead of a front leg, as it might be easier. I agreed.

Here’s where things went haywire. I held Champ in a big bear hug, head restrained and body snuggled up against mine. We needed two vials of blood, and the first one went pretty well. It was mostly full when he decided he was done, and kicked out.

In kicking out, the needle blew his vein. This isn’t anyone’s fault; this is animal medicine. When Amy tried to switch to his other back leg, things fell apart.

In most dogs with learned aggression, there are a few body-hold tricks you can usually do to make them submit and give up. I don’t like using these, although I will in a dire situation. This was a dire situation: it would take six months of training to MAYBE get Champ to let a stranger take blood from his back leg. We don’t have that kind of time; if we can figure out what’s wrong and treat it through supplements or pills, his whole life will get better and training will go much smoother immediately.

Back to Champ and our vet visit. He started thrashing, but wasn’t growling. I did a few restraining maneuvers while Amy tried to get blood, but each time he felt the needle Champ would thrash madly. He began growling. Knowing it might not work at all (but hoping), I decided one of those submissive-give-up holds might be kinder in the moment. If I could get him to give up, then we could get blood and be done. I could build back up trust later.

I tried a couple of different holds; Champ kept growling and fighting. One of the most common symptoms of congenital aggression is that dogs don’t give up. “Normal” dogs realize when they’re trapped and will not win, and go lax. They give up. Alternately, they realize when they’re out matched in a fight, and flee (or stop the behavior you’re trying to eliminate). This is where the idea of an “alpha roll” or pinning a dog down comes in. (For the record: I prefer to use many other methods.)

So, what did I say? Oh yeah. Common symptom: they never back down. Champ doesn’t have many of the common symptoms (and has many uncommon ones) of congenital aggression, so I was hoping a pin to make him give up would work. You can pin a dog in various ways, both to the floor and not. For a moment, I had him on the floor and I thought it was working. He took a breath, settled, and relaxed, belly-up. I cooed and rubbed with my fingers for a minute — and then he lost it again. When I couldn’t hold onto him, I knew that wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, I got his head restrained in such a way that he couldn’t toss us around anymore (me sitting on the floor, his shoulders against my chest, my arm wrapped around his head in a head lock — thank goodness pitty heads are so big!), but I didn’t have enough hands to keep his back leg still. Amy got another tech, and we finally got the blood.

The whole process took about 20 minutes. (Props to The Whole Pet Vet and their awesome techs, especially Amy, who didn’t give up on us and didn’t panic about the snarling, thrashing, 60-lbs pit bull in my arms!) Afterward, Amy and the tech (whose name I didn’t catch) left, giving me permission to use the room for as long as I needed.

To give you an idea of how much thrashing there was, my abdomen is scratched and was bleeding slightly through my shirt, I have bruises mottling one thigh despite jeans, more bruises across my arm, and I believe I either pulled or bruised my bicep and deltoid muscles. Because I was taking the battering rather than letting Champ hurt himself, he came out of it better than I did!

From a training perspective, what just happened? Well, I’m not ashamed to say it was a clusterfuck. While I know that getting blood to get him on meds was important for the long term, I also know that this is a major set back in the short term. For a dog who is already wary of strangers, he just had a horrible experience. Thanks to the staff, I was able to mitigate it as much as possible.

Still sitting on the floor, I held onto Champ until he was no longer rigid. I didn’t want to let go of him until he was willing to be with me, relaxed. While we have a relationship, I had broken his trust, pinning him still while strangers did scary, painful things to him. I needed to make sure that he and I separated with him remembering that I also provided love and cuddles.

When I felt that he’d relaxed, I let him go. He retreated, and I reached out to take the muzzle off, but didn’t otherwise try to pet him. I pulled out my phone and played Candy Crush, giving him the time he needed.

A “normal” dog is going to snap back to love pretty quickly, but Champ isn’t that. If I press love onto a normal dog while they’re stressed and anxious, they will probably respond with relief and love. If I press an abnormal dog in the same situation, they’re not going to be able to think clearly, and may even react aggressively. So my next step was give him time to relax and calm down, so that his maladapted brain could function a bit better.

I let Champ set the pace. He laid in various spots in the room, sniffed the edges, munched some fallen treats, did a lot of panting. I kept an eye on him, and when he started relaxing still more, started calling his name. If he didn’t come, I went back to my game and gave him more time. But eventually, he started coming over to take a treat. At first he would immediately leave. The temptation is to catch a dog at this point and force pets on them, but I’d already broken his trust. I wanted him to come to me of his own free will.

Bit by bit, he started coming to me and staying long enough to get petted. By the time he was lying on the floor within the reach of my arm, about fifteen minutes had passed.

My next goal was to make sure I could touch his back legs without him freaking out. I wanted to do this now, before the idea that people touching his back legs was horrible became set in his mind. I worked carefully, with lots of treats and quiet persistence, until he was all right with it. (Initially, he chewed lightly but with frustration on my hand. I would blow on his ear to catch his attention, give him a treat when he looked up, and let go. My goal here was to reward him for being calm while his leg was being held. Note: I knew that he wasn’t aggravated enough to bite me more than a pinch, maybe a bruise if it got out of hand.) If I wasn’t holding onto him and he walked away, I let him go. This wasn’t the time to bring him back by his leash; I want him learning that he can always walk away, that walking away is more effective than aggression.

Finally, when we could manage all that, we left the room and sat in the waiting area. We did more foot-games. When someone went into the room we’d been in to clean up, we walked to the door and watched her. I gave her some treats to TOSS to Champ — between his general wariness of strangers, his new extra wariness of techs in scrubs, and his general agitation, I didn’t want him jumping at her if she tried to hand it to him and, in his unstable state, he thought she was attacking.

We went BACK to the main waiting area. We did more foot-games, and calmed down even more. I wanted his surety of the vet as The Place of Evil to be shaken, though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to undo it in one session. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t set in stone.

Goals: get him to be calm in the vet’s office, calm seeing the techs, and allow me to handle his feet again. Done.

As we were leaving, I messed up and had to adapt one more time. The vet’s office was actually closed and they were putting things away for the night, and they’d locked the doors and had to let me out. As we stood there, I asked the receptionist (in scrubs much like the tech’s) to give him a treat open palmed, without touching Champ. She said no problem! He took the treat, but then jumped at her, catching the edge of her sleeve in the process. She froze (appropriate) and I made him let go of the cloth.

I had thought he was calm enough to take a treat, but that’s the thing about congenital aggression: they don’t always signal when they’re in distress (he hadn’t), and it takes them hours to come out of distress, instead of the minutes it takes other dogs.

I baited him past her with a treat, then asked her to toss him some treats. Again, I wanted him to know that aggression wasn’t working (he had to go in and do it again, instead of leaving like he wanted, and he STILL had to walk past the receptionist again), but that vet people were awesome treat dispensers. I can always work on his trust with me, so I don’t mind being the “bad guy.” I want strangers to always be the awesome treat dispensers.

Let me tell you: that is a lot of set backs for one day. It’s a lot of set backs that are going to take time to overcome. I’m lucky: I have a fabulous vet and staff who are willing to work with me, and Champ is incredibly intelligent. We’ll get through these.

Some time in the next six months, he’s going to become an amazing dog. He’s already loyal and protective, happy to cuddle, pretty good at walking, great with other dogs, and allows all sorts of indignities such as being laid on and having his ears and tail tugged. (I did check!) The rest of this, it’s trauma and biology. That can be overcome.

As for me, I’m covered in bruises. But hey, given the responses from the vet staff (some of whom I hadn’t met yet) I think my reputation as a badass is firmly lodged. *laughs!*



Dealing with Human Anxiety

As you’re dealing with your dog’s aggression, anxiety, or over-submissiveness out in the world, our anxiety as humans can increase — especially if you know each dog-dog or dog-human interaction may not go perfectly! We remember what our dogs have done in the past, and those memories re-play themselves.

Dogs pick up on our stress and anxiety, and our stress and anxiety can even get in the way of our training. If it’s a miserable experience for you even when things go well, then it’s unlikely you’re going to continue training.

So how do we lessen the anxiety for people? I don’t know. I’d have to be a therapist! But these are things that work for me, and things that have worked for some of my clients.


I visualize things going well. But I also visualize things going horribly, and me somehow saving the day so it all ends well, anyway. This re-frames each experience so that, good or bad, I end feeling confident. Visualizing is one of the best things you can do to help yourself be able to stay calm in the actual moment. With very anxious clients, I suggest they visualize (and write it down if they’re amenable!) at least daily.


Sounds silly, I know, but I can’t tell you how many people forget to breathe when they’re thinking about what their dog may or may not do in the next twenty feet. On a physiological level, when you hold your breath your heartbeat picks up and your muscles have to work harder. It increases stress! (It also stresses out your dog.)

Furthermore, if you stop and tune in to taking deep, slow breaths, it fractures your hyper-focus on what might happen, because you’re also having to focus on breathing.


You can always stop. I can’t tell  you how empowering it is once you realize that, hey, you don’t have to keep walking forward! Any time I’m feeling a little unsure, uncertain, stressed, out of control (physically, emotionally, or mentally) I stop walking. I often even back out of the way of whatever is approaching, taking the dog with me. I take stock of what’s going on, what I might need to do to solve it, re-organize myself, and start again. Half the time, by the time I’ve done all this the problem has actually resolved itself.

Talk to my dog

Not to the person and other dog approaching. No, I talk to my dog. I say things like, “We can get through this,” and “hoo-whee, this is hard but we can do it!” Talking forces you to breathe, and gives you another focus. If my dog is anxious, then I’m going to talk as if everything is fun. My words might indicate my stress, but my tone is light.

And finally,

Focus on my dog

If I’m working with a dog who gets super submissive and rolls over to show her belly to another dog, then sometimes gets stressed and snappy when they take her up on her offer and sniff her too much, then I’m going to focus on talking to my dog, keeping my tone light and happy, taking her away when she starts to roll over — probably trotting backwards with her, then trotting forwards with her to see the strange dog again, on our feet instead of her back. But I’m going to focus on my dog, and her body language. Is her spine relaxed, indicating a positive mood? Is her tail tucking, indicating she’d like to leave now? Are the whites of her eyes showing, indicating she’s stressed and we should leave the situation? It doesn’t matter what my dog has done before. What matters is what my dog is doing this instant. To know that, I have to watch her body language. It’s the easiest way for them to communicate!

Other general ways to lessen human anxiety are things like meditation, relaxation, quiet time for yourself — the usual things you read about! And while you’re doing that, think about how awesome your dog is going to do at the next formerly-difficult situation. It helps.


Doc: Dealing with a Rescue

Cash and Lily are getting older and are about ready to retire, so I decided it was time to get a new dog. Since I’d rather deal with anything instead of a puppy, I walked to the Martinez Animal Shelter (just a couple of blocks from my house) and asked them for the dogs they couldn’t adopt out. From the short list of dogs I could take, I chose a blue nose pit bull they thought was about 15 months old. (I now believe he’s younger than that, given some behavioral traits, but we’ll never know for sure.) Known problems were escape artistry (he’d been picked up as a stray three times, and adopted out twice), and — the big flag — leash reactivity/frustration that led to him twisting around when unable to get to a dog, and instead putting his teeth on a human. (He didn’t bite down, but it’s still a big flag.)

These were problems I could deal with! Heck, I deal with these problems all the time!

I walked him home and put him in my car while I put all my other dogs in the back yard. Then I walked him into the house and put him in an x-pen. He refused to go in a crate, and an x-pen doesn’t have a top, so since I didn’t know how aggressive he might be to the other dogs (and if he’d just leap the x-pen), I enlisted my neighbor’s aid. She let dogs in one at a time, starting with the calm Lily, while I held Doc’s leash and a squirt bottle, inside the x-pen with him.

As it turned out, a squirt from the squirt bottle pretty much stopped the aggression. Within half an hour he was settled in the x-pen, relatively calm, the dogs were inside, and I was on the couch (where I could squirt him as needed!).

All of this is actually not what I want to talk about.

When you rescue a dog you don’t really know what problems they’re going to have. Doc, as it turned out, had wonderful off-leash social skills and, compared to what I normally deal with, mild to medium leash reactivity.

You get a better idea of what you’re dealing with when you get a dog from a rescue where they do fostering, but even then you’re not going to get a great idea. A foster probably has multiple dogs, which will change the way your new adoptee behaves. (In one notable case, a client of mine adopted a dog that had been fostered with a bunch of other dogs. Within a few weeks of bringing him home, he was so dog aggressive that he couldn’t get within a block of a dog without becoming incredibly violent. Things can be that different.)

Within the first few days of adopting Doc it became clear that the biggest problem wasn’t leash reactivity, but separation anxiety. This isn’t something the shelter could have seen. I started working on getting him crate trained by feeding him in an open crate — he has crate trauma, and didn’t trust it at all at first — and in the meantime, took him with me everywhere. When left on his own, he destroyed things or escaped the house. (My neighbor caught him, thankfully!) We are in our sixth week now, and he can be crated for 5 hours at a time while I’m off running errands or working. After that, my assistant comes and gets him out for a few hours.

Other instant problems were problems I consider a lack of manners: he jumped on furniture, people, had no sense of personal space (a problem mostly when I’m eating), chewed up things that weren’t dog toys. All of these I’d kind of expected, and for the most part I took a squirt bottle to him if he broke one of these rules. I also used positive reinforcement: he might get a knee in the chest for trying to jump on me, but then I’d ask him to sit and reward him when he did. When I pushed him away because I was eating and he stayed away (this usually takes 4-8 pushes), I told him he was very good and gave him extra pets. When I saw him consider the counter and decide not to jump up, I told him what a smart dog he was and gave him more pets!

The other instant problem was housebreaking. He’d spent most of his life in a kennel in the shelter, on his own, or probably in a yard (which he escaped from!). Each time I caught him peeing in the house, I chased him outside while scolding him. Each time I took him out and he peed outside, I rewarded him. It took him a few weeks to get this, especially since my bigger priority was everything else. You can only ask a dog to learn so many things at once! I knew I could get him housebroken, and just needed to keep an eye on him to avoid as many accidents inside as possible.

All of this I learned in the first few days, and spent the next several weeks working on these issues. (Some of it we’re still working on; jumping on guests, for instance, and the separation anxiety will take months. He also still has some limited leash reactivity, but it’s very minor and only occasional.)

But here’s the thing: when you adopt a new dog, you have a 4-6 week honeymoon period. During that time, they’re on their best behavior. All of this was stuff Doc either just didn’t know, but learned quickly, or behavior that was really a problem. The faster you start work on these behaviors, the more likely they’ll change during that honeymoon period.

The other thing is that as you leave the honeymoon period, other, less ingrained behaviors crop up. Usually they start small and, if you don’t do something, grow. The same thing happened with Doc.

At about week three, he started resource guarding. Not just any resource, oh no. I was the resource he wanted to guard. It was very small; he and I were cuddling, Cash came and snuffled him around his neck, and he lifted his lip and gave a small snap.

It was small enough that I could have ignored it. But here’s the thing: old bad habits (and new bad habits) start small, and then grow if left unchecked. So instead of ignoring it I shoved him off the couch with a firm, “No!” I allowed him back up immediately, petted Cash, and petted Doc when Doc tolerated Cash. After that, I became very aware of petting them both and rewarding Doc for tolerance when Cash came to say hi while we were cuddling. (Cash isn’t a cuddler; he gets too hot!)

That wasn’t the end of it, though. Twice more the next day he tried it. Once I did as above, and the second time I also put him in his crate for a twenty-minute time out. (Five minutes will do, but I was too lazy to get up again right away. After five minutes your dog has forgotten why they’re in there. If you leave them in there they aren’t learning anything, so he spent 15 minutes just chilling in his crate, chewing on his bones. Since he does, in fact, need to learn to rest in his crate, he actually was learning something constructive!) That was a week ago; he’s had a couple of lip-curls since then trying to guard me, which I respond to with a shove away but not much more (the annoying punishment equaling an annoying crime), and I’ve been very aware of setting him up to tolerate the other dogs, and then loving on him for doing so. The problem seems to be getting better.

Now we’re at the six week mark, and today for the first time he tried to resource guard his food bowl. This resulted in me pushing his face away with the flat of my hand (NOT a technique I recommend for many, many reasons, but my hand was the only thing I had available. I couldn’t bump into him with my body, because the other dog was between us. I pushed his head quickly but gently, to get his attention and stop his lunging at the other dog) and then shoving him away from his bowl, out the back door (which was also handy). I picked up his food, let him back in, and set his food back down while the other dog was still standing there. I kept the other dog from sniffing his bowl, and praised Doc for being tolerant, then took the other dog away. A few minutes later I watched first Lily and then Cash sniff around the base of his bowl while he ate. He watched them both with one eye (white of the eye showing, much stress!) but didn’t react, and I praised him like crazy before calling them away. I want to apply a little pressure so he has to choose what to do, but then allay the pressure when he does the right thing. (This is actually negative reinforcement; removing something = negative, to increase a behavior = reinforce. The behavior I’m increasing here is tolerance, and the thing I’m removing to increase his tolerance is the annoyance of the dogs. The removal of the dogs is actually a reward.)

Do I think we’re done finding new things he’s going to be weird about? Not at all! In fact, I’ve been watching him play and he has this habit of grabbing other dogs by the scruff while they’re wrestling. I think I’m going to have to step in and tell him to stop; it’s too rough for most dogs to enjoy.

So, what’s the point of this post? What you see and what you’re told isn’t always what you get. When adopting a dog, watch the behaviors for weeks afterward. When they’re comfortable with you and finally settling in is when most people stop looking for hiccups, but that’s really the time to start. When you’re extra vigilant is when you end up with a rescue that’s a beautiful companion you can take anywhere!


PS for more updates on Doc and what we’re doing, as well as photos and shenanigans, you can head on over to our Facebook page!

Building Confidence Around People: timid dogs 2

Last week I started with this:

Dogs are like people: they’re born with a leaning towards confidence or timidity (or any number of other things), and then their experiences layer over the top of that to decide how they will be later in life.

Also, much like people, young dogs often go through a fearful phase. I’ve seen it hit most often between six and eight months, but can happen before or after that as well. How you deal with timidity, in either a young dog or a rescue, can make a big difference in how they feel about the world, about trusting you, and their confidence levels.

One of the scariest things is, to many owners’ surprise, strangers. Whether your dog is an adolescent going through a phase, or a rescue overcoming previous trauma (emotional or physical), there’s some basic things you can do to help them dramatically.

The basic steps are these:

  1. Stop them from fleeing.
  2. Protect them from the “monster.”
  3. Gently reward bravery.

There’s two ways in which timidity shows itself: flight or fight. Now, I’m going to assume that you’re dealing with timidity/confidence with people issues, and not fear aggression. Regardless of whether your dog falls into the flight or fight category, the basic steps are the same. How much we correct and where, however, differs. So, two case studies! (You know how I love my case studies!) This week we’ll look at Max, a fleer, and next week we’ll look at Tildi, a fighter.

It’s now “next week” and time to look at how to work with a fighter!

Tildi: Fight

There’s a big difference between fear aggression and timidity. Fear aggression has already escalated to a dog that’s lunging forward with clear threat; timidity-fight is going to be a dog that barks from a distance, or is just starting to try and scare a monster away with little pushes or hops forward.

Tildi is only six months old, and she’s in this latter category. If she were with a big group of dogs and she barked at something in alarm, they would first check out what she was barking at. If they saw it was nothing dangerous and she, upon seeing their disinterest, stopped barking, they would reward her with grooming and play. If she ignored their disinterest and continued barking, they would often either move on and abandon her (at least until she decided to catch up!), or they would nip at her until she was quiet, and then reward her. In this way, young dogs can learn what they should and should not be alarmed about.

There are — well, many — theories about what to do in Tildi’s situation (barking from a distance), but one major one. The major one says you should do the same thing you’d do in a flight case, but start from a greater distance and move closer slowly. I think this is great in theory, but in practicality it’s almost impossible. You can’t control if people on your walk are moving toward you, and it’s very difficult to set up enough strangers coming to your house and staying for a long enough time to train in this manner. So, this is what I do instead.

Step one: stop them from fleeing. This really isn’t much different; we put Tildi on a leash to keep her from running away and avoiding the problem.

Step two: protect them from the “monster.” In Tildi’s case, she was protecting herself from the monster by barking at them and trying to scare them away. (This can rapidly become fear aggression, especially if it works.) So first we had to tell her that she’s no longer allowed to try and scare them away. If she starts barking at someone, we can pull her away on her leash, squirt her with a squirt bottle, or bump her away with our knee/shin/side-of-our-foot. In Tildi’s case, bumping worked best. We had to face her and bump her about twenty feet back initially, but as she started to “get it” that became dramatically less. (Once dogs realize you’re more persistent than they are, they start giving up quicker. Usually you can do this in one fifteen minute session with someone acting as the provocateur.) If you use a leash to pull your dog away, remember you must loosen the leash for them to learn anything. If they’re still pulling on the leash to get closer, they haven’t learned to stop barking/hopping/intimidating!

Once we can get a dog to stop barking, then we can protect them from the monster. In Tildi’s case, this meant giving her treats when she hung back quietly, and praising her when she decided to leave when she was frightened rather than barking when she was frightened.

The downside of this step (and the reason many people don’t like it), is that while we’ve eradicated the bad behavior (barking/hopping/etc), we haven’t created a single lick of confidence, and your dog might be slightly more fearful because they now associate people with getting squirted/bumped/etc. Now, however, we can start protecting. Now Tildi’s owner can say, “Yes, Jenna, come in! No, you may NOT touch Tildi.” From here, we can build the trust that Tildi’s mom will protect her, and from there, we build up Tildi’s confidence just as we did with “flight” dogs. (See last week.) In my experience, the downside isn’t enough to prolong the timidity around people. In fact, because dogs who are willing to try and chase off a monster usually have more confidence than dogs who aren’t, these dogs still seem to come around very rapidly, much faster than “flight” dogs.

Step three: gently reward bravery. In a fight dog, this starts with, “You didn’t bark this time! So wonderful and brave!” and then continues to, “you stayed closer!” “You tried to sniff!” “You took a treat!” and so on. From here, it’s once again the same as a “flight” dog!

There is a final step you can take, if your dog is pretty good around people, but you’d like them to be better. I mentioned it briefly, but it deserves it’s own note. Once your dog is willing to take treats and sometimes be petted, you can have strangers ask your dog to sit, shake, high five, or anything else you like. (Anything that involves laying down is hard for these dogs, as it puts them in an even more vulnerable position. Hard things should be avoided, as they create more stress.) This gets your dog happily engaging with strangers, thinking about something other than whether or not the stranger is a monster, and doing fun bonding stuff.

One last note: if you’re apparently afraid to touch a stranger, why should your dog feel safe getting petted? Start shaking hands and, where appropriate, giving hugs. You can model brave behavior for your dog, and that will help, too!


Building Confidence Around People: Timid dogs 1

Dogs are like people: they’re born with a leaning towards confidence or timidity (or any number of other things), and then their experiences layer over the top of that to decide how they will be later in life.

Also, much like people, young dogs often go through a fearful phase. I’ve seen it hit most often between six and eight months, but can happen before or after that as well. How you deal with timidity, in either a young dog or a rescue, can make a big difference in how they feel about the world, about trusting you, and their confidence levels.

One of the scariest things is, to many owners’ surprise, strangers. Whether your dog is an adolescent going through a phase, or a rescue overcoming previous trauma (emotional or physical), there’s some basic things you can do to help them dramatically.

The basic steps are these:

  1. Stop them from fleeing.
  2. Protect them from the “monster.”
  3. Gently reward bravery.

There’s two ways in which timidity shows itself: flight or fight. Now, I’m going to assume that you’re dealing with timidity/confidence with people issues, and not fear aggression. Regardless of whether your dog falls into the flight or fight category, the basic steps are the same. How much we correct and where, however, differs. So, two case studies! (You know how I love my case studies!) This week we’ll look at Max, a fleer, and next week we’ll look at Tildi, a fighter.

Max: Flight

Step one: stop him from fleeing. Max was timid of people, not because of any prior abuse, but simply because he’s a very timid creature without much inborn confidence. His “mother,” wisely, got on top of this as soon as she saw it might be a problem. The first thing we did was to put him on a leash, so he couldn’t run away completely. Some running is great; flight is always better than fight! But dogs are notorious for running from a problem and, therefore, never learning that it’s not a problem after all! We wanted to limit how far he could run, so we put him on a leash so he couldn’t leave the room.

Step two: protect him from the “monster.” While he might be on a leash, we don’t want him feeling cornered or pressured. If Max wants to run away to the end of his leash and hide from the stranger in the room, that’s completely fine. By simply being in the room and catching the stranger’s scent and seeing that the stranger isn’t eating him, he’s learning that there’s nothing to fear.

In fact, our job is to make sure no one touches, talks to, or otherwise pressures him! The more they pretend he’s not there, the more likely he is to feel safe enough to check them out. The more we keep him safe, the more chances he’ll take. As he sees that we protect him and never put him in a situation that ends badly, he’ll begin to believe he can trust us. If he trusts us and knows we’ll help him out and support his choice to escape, then he can take risks — like sniffing the monster or taking a treat — because he knows that if something happens, we’ll step in to help him. We need this basis of trust to build confidence from! (Note: if your dog ends up in a situation that ends badly, don’t panic! It’ll be a little setback, but just move on from it. Your dog will move on, too.)

Here is one of the places were many, many people go wrong: they try to encourage, and even push, a young or timid dog into a stranger’s hands to see that petting is nice. Oftentimes, even if your dog eventually sees it’s okay, the experience will still be tinged with stress and anxiety. They may remember the stress and anxiety, rather than the end result of petting! Thus, the following are reinforced in their mind: They cannot trust you, because you pushed them at the monster and they had no choice, and their fears were correct — it was difficult and frightening.

If, instead, we tell our dogs, “You don’t have to be petted or deal with this human; you just can’t run away entirely,” then they get the chance to see that nothing bad happens, they’re supported, and the stress levels stay low.

Step three: Gently reward bravery. We don’t want Max to feel pushed into engaging, so we give him time to decide on his own. Bravery is always measured against his standard. At first, it was simply going to the end of his leash and being calm enough to sit, instead of stand. We told him how wonderful and brave he was, and gave him treats. Then, it was sitting behind his mom instead of at the end of his leash. Again, we told him how brave he was. Soon he was sniffing peoples’ feet (head down = not sure they want to engage, so we told people not to touch him yet) and then taking treats from people (life started to get better!) and very quickly thereafter, petting. We did not encourage further bravery, just rewarded what he was willing to give us.

Now, in Max’s specific case, while he grew much better with people outside the house, there was one person inside the house that still frightened him. We invited that person in, and did a little extra with step two. After just letting them sit in the same room for a while, when Max relaxed we had his mom (holding his leash) sit beside the “monster,” bringing him closer as well. When he relaxed about that, we had his mom and the monster walk around, with Max trailing behind them. When he became comfortable doing that, the monster took the leash and, without looking or acknowledging Max, walked around trailing Max behind him. When Max finally relaxed again, the monster started giving him treats… and Max finally realized it wasn’t a monster after all! Sometimes, extra steps are necessary. Those steps can include the ones above, or a “monster” asking a dog to sit and rewarding with a treat (which gets the dog to engage in a more positive manner), or you making a happy fuss over the “monster” yourself, so your dog sees how much you like it and aren’t afraid of it, and many other techniques. You take it at the dog’s pace, and remember that it isn’t always linear progress!

Next week: Fight!


Older dogs: what to expect, how to deal

Lily will be 12 in February, and Cash 9 in August. My dogs are officially elderly (not that they’d believe you if you said it!). If you know your dog’s history, you’re probably going to have a decent idea of how they age. I may not know if Cash is going to get arthritis, but I do know he’s had a good diet with supplements and exercise all his life, which decreases the chances of aliments in general.

But what about those people who don’t know their dog’s history, or who maybe only learned later that diet and exercise can make a difference? What can you expect if you rescue an older dog?

Dog abilities change as they age; that’s no surprise. The behavior can change, too. Dogs are like people; some get less energetic, others retain their energy, some minds slow down, others don’t, some bodies break down, others stay healthy. We’re going to take a look at some of the things you can probably expect, and what to watch for.


Physically, dogs suffer from all the same ailments that people do. By the time a dog is 7, they’re considered a senior, equivalent from a biological perspective to a fifty-year-old human. (I know, we humans don’t feel senior at fifty! Dogs don’t feel senior at 7, either, but that’s when arthritis and the ilk set in.)

If you haven’t started supplements, now is the time. I recommend Dasuquin, for the way it removed Lily’s minor hip dysplasia (started when she was 9), and fish oil for the joint lubrication and mental sharpening facilities.

You might notice that whereas your dog could play fetch for four hours straight before, he can still play fetch for four hours straight… but now he’s stiff the next day. Watch for these types of things. Like us people, it might be fun to do something like that, but it’s not healthy. Unlike us people, dogs don’t stop and think of the consequences. Start cutting back on your dog’s behalf, if necessary. (Note: dogs can have one coated Aspirin every 24 hours. If you’re needing to give them more than once a month, though, take your dog to the vet and get some proper doggie pain meds.)

By the time most dogs are 9, age is noticeable. Cash, for instance, didn’t jump high enough to get into my van the other day. After that, he was hesitant to try again, and needed the confidence boost of a running start. He’s missed before (usually for reasons like not waiting until I moved something), but he’s never felt particularly hesitant afterward. This is my cue: his body isn’t working like he expects, and it’s startling to him. I’ve made a mental note, now, to keep an eye on how often I ask him to get in and out on a given work day. This is a consideration I already take for Lily (who can get in and out 3-5 times, depending on the day, but after that might need a hand).

Some time in here you’ll also often see fatty lumps on your dog. Have them checked out, but know that often they’re benign tumors. Warts appear as well, and have those checked out, too.

As your dog gets sore easier or surprises herself with NOT being able to get in the car, make sure you’re going for walks. Like people, dogs do better with steady, low-impact exercise. I’ve had to recently make it a point to take Cash and Lily for walks, instead of using work as their exercise, even though work is, in many ways, enough. They need help building muscle and keeping lean now, in a way they didn’t when they were younger.

Dogs are going to stay strong or deteriorate at their own rate. Our job is to keep watch, because they can’t tell us when something is wrong. Once a dog reaches 10, if you have no health issues, give yourself a pat on the back. Things are going remarkably well!


Mentally, it’s a different ballgame. As your dog ages, they’re most likely going to become less tolerant of whippersnappers (both human and canine). If you have a young creature in the house, protect the dog. They didn’t choose to have this critter join them, and grandparents shouldn’t have to babysit if they don’t want to!

If you haven’t taught your dog how to retreat when annoyed, now is the time. Set up a safe space for your older dog, where they can go and be left alone. When they retreat from annoyance, reward them. When they don’t, show them how. (You can tell if a dog is stressed because the ears pinch, the whites of the eyes show, and they pant heavily. For photos of this, check for stress in the body language tag. If your dog is showing any of these signs around a whippersnapper, remove your dog.)

As they become less steady or more arthritic, they may also become more defensive of their personal space. Often, the first inclination we have that our dogs are uncomfortable is when they get snappy in situations that they’d been fine in, before. (I jokingly refer to this as “cranky old dog syndrome.” “I don’t want to deal with whippersnappers, I’m sore and don’t want them near me, and they need to GET OFF MY LAWN!”) While supplements or pain killers might help, you want to make darn sure that you also keep your dog from being jumped on. Just because they don’t feel pain doesn’t mean it won’t damage them.

A playful elderly dog will most likely shift to tug of war, or standing in one place wagging and occasionally snapping playfully while the younger dogs run around them. That’s fine! If they’re enjoying it, encourage it. The more active your older dog stays, the healthier they will stay as well.

You’ll see odd habit changes, too. Cash has decided he’d rather sleep in Lily’s smaller beds with the bumpers than his own large bed or on the floor. It’s entirely likely that his joints are getting achy on the floor, or he’s getting tired holding himself in a ball instead of letting the bumpers on the bed do it. (I bought two more beds so they can always have one.)

You might see your dog get needy. This can be a sign of discomfort somewhere, but it can also be a reaction to being unable to do the things they used to. Keep a schedule that your dog can keep up with (this might include daily walks that are shorter than they used to be), so that your dog knows the rules are still the same. Let your dog know that the rules are still the same! Maybe now we have stairs to get onto the bed, but they still have to ask before coming up, for instance. You might have to adjust the way you do things; if you normally bump your dog out of the way when they jump on you, you might need to shift to using a squirt bottle to keep from tweaking joints.

Finally, while some dogs slow down mentally, not all of them do. Bones, toys, puzzle bowls, kongs — all of these are things that will help keep a dog mentally sharp, even if they move a little more stiffly than they used to.

Watch for physical and behavioral changes, and find a way to work around them. If your dog suddenly has a major behavioral or physical change, call the vet and then, if needed, call a dog trainer. The biggest thing with age is to make sure it’s not a physical issue before working with the behavior!

As for when all of this happens, any of it can happen any time after 7. What order it happens in, or if it happens at all, depends on the dog, their history, and their genetics. The important part is to love your dog, and remember: they’ve earned their assisted living apartment!


Excitement Barking: 2

Last week I talked about excitement barking, what it is, why we don’t want it, and how to fix it using positive reinforcement. But sometimes, you need the dog to stop barking NOW or you’re going to get evicted. So, how to bring the energy levels down faster? Let’s see…

 Adversive training method
The goal here is to bring the excitement levels down fast, and make your dog understand that barking isn’t acceptable.

Sometimes you’ll hear people (myself included) use the terms “correct” or, if they’re trying to make it sound bad, “punish.” This is adversive training: we bring in an adverse stimulus to make the dog stop. My favorite adversive tool when a dog is barking from excitement is a squirt bottle.

There’s two rules with a squirt bottle:

  1. If you pick it up, use it. If you don’t, your dog will think, “I can keep being rotten until Mom gets the squirt bottle and aims it at me! Then I can get out of my bad behavior just by looking sad.” If your dog looks pathetic only after you pick up the squirt bottle, squirt them once for good measure so they learn to stop before you pick up the squirt bottle, that once you have it it’s too late to apologize.
  2. When you squirt your dog, you keep squirting until they turn around and leave. If they don’t leave, they’re learning they can withstand a squirt. If they don’t realize they can leave — for instance, they’re sad and pathetic but not leaving — then while still squirting, take your hand and nudge them away. Then stop squirting. They quickly learn that leaving will get the squirting to stop. (This, additionally, helps them to learn that they can leave to avoid a bad situation. If they know they can leave, they don’t need to fight!)

The beauty of a squirt bottle is that it’s surprising. They don’t add noise and therefore aren’t missed under the barking (which, sometimes, noises like Pet Correctors are), and they don’t increase anxiety. Since part of the problem with being over excited is that it can increase anxiety, we don’t want to further that along with a correction that will also increase anxiety.

The downside is that you’ll have a wet dog. But, hey, better than a barking fiend!

But say you don’t have a squirt bottle or your hands are full or you have beautiful hardwood floors you don’t want to ruin with water?


The I Do Not Have Time For This method

Get yourself a citronella spray bark collar. For most dogs, the small dog version works just fine. I recommend a brand that says it only reacts both when the dog barks AND it vibrates from barking (otherwise another dog barking can set it off). These days they run $40-$60 on Amazon, and they’re worth every penny. Much like a squirt bottle, it sprays a mist under the dog’s jaw, surprising them into not barking. Unlike an electric collar, they’re not painful, don’t create anxiety, and they actually tend to work better. You can get scentless sprays, too, in case you can’t stand citronella. (I’d recommend getting an extra can of refill spray if you have more than one dog.)

When you first use a citronella collar, it may work brilliantly. Or it may not seem to work at all. Keep using it! The thing with the spray collars is that they’re annoyance training, as opposed to painful or truly scary. As the dogs come down from their excitement high, they’ll notice the spraying and stop, confused and a little offput. This will happen sooner and sooner, and before you know it your dog won’t be barking unless it really is important. If your dog is barking to go out with you for a walk, then just stand there and wait for them to stop barking, and let the collar do its work.

What is the collar really doing? Breaking up the over excitement with confusion. Hooray!

Important: try and get some giggles out of the very confused look on your dog’s face. This is always entertaining to me. In fact, take a video and send it on over, would you? I can always use a laugh!

(I know, I know, I’m terrible. But the looks on their little faces are still hilarious as they try to find the source of the spray!)

Finally, oftentimes dogs who are excitement barking are just that: excited. But sometimes they’re bored. Make sure that your dog doesn’t need to find excitement in its life. Provide that excitement through regular exercise, fetch, treat balls, bones, fun toys, and petting. All those will help, too!