A Coda in My Work with Fearful Dogs
Happy was a year and a half old female German Shepherd mix and the most fearful dog I had ever met. When strangers approached at a distance, rivulets of drool streamed from her mouth. She vomited when loaded into the car and of most concern was her great determination to slip out of her collar when on leash.
I didn’t know then what I know now about exposure, threshold and reactivity. Still somehow, through instinct and compassion I was able to identify Happy’s triggers and humanely teach her to remain neutral in fearful situations. I naively achieved this using positive reinforcement and also by listening to Happy, letting her set the limits and never forcing her toward anything that frightened her.
With time and patience, Happy eventually grew into her name. She became a joyful dog who welcomed affection from strangers and interaction with most other dogs. Even around dogs that made her uncomfortable, Happy expressed her mild anxiety by nervously shifting her weight back and forth and lightly groaning. This was a far cry from the dog who had once been a terrifying flight risk.
A lifetime in dog years later, I was introduced to a couple with a 6-month old male Akita puppy with severe fear issues. They were so bad that the puppy’s anal glands expressed themselves when he encountered strangers or anything that frightened him on his leash walks.
Aptly named Coda, he took me straight back to the first day I met Happy. As soon as I saw him, I knew this would be a training session where I wouldn’t touch or even make eye contact with my doggie client. Fortunately, his owners did not take me for a “dog training quack” and did not ask me to leave.
Fearful behavior abounds in rescue dogs. Coda was unusual because he was a young pure breed puppy who had never been compromised. Happy had been a stray on the rough streets of South Central Los Angeles, so her fear was completely understandable.
According to Dr. Susan Friedman, a pioneer in the application of Applied Behavior Analysis to companion animals, “Experience in a lifetime can change you in ways that can be passed on to progeny. Epigenetics is the study of how interaction with your environment is heritable. ”
Translation: Coda may have inherited his fear genetically from his parents. It is also possible that if his mother had a stressful pregnancy – think puppy mill, Coda may have developed fear in utero.
Knowing that even eye contact with me was beyond Coda’s threshold, I focused on working with his well balanced slightly older sister, Greyson. Dogs do learn through observation and Greyson was a model student as I pulled out my clicker and ran her through some very basic obedience, rewarding her with chicken. Really what I was doing was taking very small steps toward desensitizing Coda from a distance. Greyson gave the protocol a doggie “thumbs up.”
It’s worth mentioning here that again I was fortunate that Coda’s owners didn’t see the click and treat training as a manipulation. There is actually a science to reward based training and it begins with the food causing dopamine in the brain to be released which relaxes the animal. It also develops powerful associations for the dog between the food and its environment.
One of the most frustrating and unfortunate developments in dog training in the last fifteen years is the popularity of Cesar Milan and his mystical “Dog Whisperer” training tactics. While he should receive credit for any non intrusive methods that humanely modify behavior, in the world of professional animal training, Milan’s ideology is recognized as “explanatory mythology” that doesn’t add anything positive to the dog’s environment.
Translation: Scripted “reality” storytelling and clever editing turns Milan’s ability to shut animals down emotionally into modifying their behavior.
As a first generation Mexican American, I recognize his tactics as products of the Mexican machismo that dominates our old world culture and the lawless country itself. In the case of Coda, Milan’s tactics would have been to hiss at Coda when he displayed his fearful behavior then “alpha roll” him onto the ground.
Based on a events last year at Milan’s Santa Clarita, CA training ranch where a pig was injured by a French Bulldog, it’s also reasonable to assume that Milan’s have recommended protocol would be to restrain Coda and force him to confront a stranger walking toward him. Or in the case of children on bicycles (which, on the day of our training session, someone seemed to be cueing and sending in our direction as if we were living in the world of The Truman Show), Milan’s method would be to tie Coda to one of these moving obstacles.
This approach has a technical term and is called flooding. This technique is not proven effective or humane and has very serious negative consequences. What I have observed is that these forceful tactics appeal to people because it makes them feel in control of the environment and of their dog.
The negative consequence is that they make the dogs feel less in control of their environment and more fearful, even escalating the behaviors – easily turning a reactive dog into a biter of humans or a dog who is afraid of strangers on the street or the sound of a trash truck, into a dog who is afraid to go outside at all.
In Coda’s case, being forced to confront a terrifying object would have confirmed for him that bad things really do happen when strangers approach or children on bicycles ride past.
Emma Parsons’, “Click to Calm” methodology for healing the reactive and fearful dog has become my Bible. It is brilliant and humane. With her principles in mind, my goal for our session was not to “cure” Coda of his fearful behaviors or even achieve a walk around the block which was the stated goal of his owners.
Modifying his behavior would be a long process that would require patience, sacrifice and an investment of time on the part of his owners. My suggested goal was instead to train Coda daily in the comfort of his front yard, behind the safety of his white picket fence. This would allow him to feel in control of his circumstances while simultaneously being exposed to the objects and people that scare him – from a safe distance.
Also important was the instruction that Coda be allowed to walk away, even retreat into the house if anything scared him. The reasoning here was to show him he was in control of his circumstances. Also key was that in a situation where we were asking so much of Coda, allowing him an exit was best positive reinforcement we could give him. It was better for him to leave instead of shutting down.
To get him back outside later in the day for some more exposure and socialization could be accomplished by luring him with food, toys or his favorite playmate – his sister Greyson.
The immediate stated goals of Coda’s owners were to be able to do an on leash walk around the block with Greyson and also get him comfortable with a neighbor’s 6-year old child, Mikey, who often visited. I asked Coda’s owners to scale back on expectation with the walk and try to get him comfortable going to the corner and back. It was important to let Coda guide them and show them when he was ready for more.
Implementing the non-invasive methodology included the following:
Always keeping Coda at least 50 feet of whatever frightened him.
Teaching Coda Hand targeting.
Teaching Coda “Look” which would teach him to bounce his eyes from what scared him to his owners and get him to focus on them.
While I always use extreme caution when working with dogs and children, his owners felt confident they could manage working with Coda and Mikey who happened to come by that night with his grandmother.
Here is the email from his owners:
Thanks so much for your help. We had a play date tonight and the little boy came over. Coda was so fearful he ran into the house and retreated. Eventually, he came out with Gerry doing exactly what you said. Ger focused on Coda and did the treat "look" thing. After a few minutes, Coda got comfortable with the boy just sitting 5 feet away. We then let the lesson end and the play date ended.
When I checked in with Coda’s owners a few weeks later, I got radio silence which was concerning. I eventually learned on the phone that he improved dramatically with children but his walks were more challenging and discouraging.
Coda had gone stale on the food reinforcement so his owners had begun using affection as positive reinforcement which was the best thing they could have done. Even though Coda seemed to his owners to be stuck, I heard differently. A critical thing they had stopped doing was “rehearsing” the problem behavior which was they key to moving forward.
Interestingly, it was Greyson, who seemed to have grown tired of Coda’s fear, who implemented what is known as an incompatible behavior – an alternate behavior that Coda couldn’t perform at the same time as his fearful behavior. On their walks when Coda became fearful, she would tackle him and playfully wrestle him to the ground which effectively took his mind off the stranger watering his lawn or the stranger approaching on the street.
In addition to this playful tactic that helped keep Coda on his path, Greyson would also lick inside Coda’s ears when he became frightened to calm him down.
Ten months later, Coda is an adult and according to his DogMom, he is 85% normal. Mikey who started desensitizing Coda by holding cooked chicken in his hand, closing his eyes to avert eye contact and waiting for Coda to come to him, can now lay on top of Coda.
New environments and new people still frighten him but Coda’s owners have learned how to ease him into being more comfortable. Like Happy the German Shepherd, Coda is fortunate to have owners who committed the time and energy rather than looking for a magical spell or an aversive technique to “cure” him.