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How to Help Your Fearful Dog: Become the Crazy Dog Lady

Originally published: 10/01/2009

I'm not crazy—I'm just training my dog

My two dogs and I were out for a walk one morning, enjoying the fresh air and the exercise. Mokie and Monte walked next to me with their tails wagging happily. They were probably laughing at me as I hummed along with my iPod.

About three blocks away, a dog rounded the corner and began walking toward us. Despite Monte's full-body hackling, despite his rigid and tense body posture, and a deep, low, rumbling growl, I quietly told him what a good boy he was. I began shoving meatballs, liverwurst, and smoked Gouda into his large jaws at a rapid pace, creating as much distance as possible between the approaching dog and the three of us. I continued to feed Monte until the dog was out of sight, at which time the tasty treats disappeared back into the abyss of my faithful treat bag.

St. bernard

I've often thought about having shirts printed with our company logo on the front and the phrase "I'm not crazy—I'm just training my dog" on the back.

I bet that many of my neighbors think I'm quite insane. Frequently, I can be seen chasing squirrels with my dogs, yelling "Let's get ‘em!" or walking around the neighborhood putting hot dogs in my footprints to set up scent games for the dogs. I pick up every pile of dog poop I see along the way, and practice heeling while skipping, jogging, running, and spinning in circles. Balls and tug toys drip from every pocket, and I can pull a mashed-potatoes-and-gravy-filled food tube, or can of EZCheese, out of thin air!

To any observer, it appears as though most of the things I do are strange, and the rest of the things I do are totally wrong. For example, the instant Monte noticed that other dog on our walk, he began growling. At the very same instant, he had liverwurst shoved into his face.

Positive trainers often say "you get the behaviors you reinforce." So wasn't I reinforcing growling by providing "reinforcers" as that behavior occurred? Really, why does that crazy woman shove treats into the mouth of, or encourage a tug game with, that "aggressive" Saint Bernard of hers?

There are good answers to these questions!

What scares you the most?

What are you afraid of? Snakes? Spiders? Being approached from behind in a dark alley? Let's assume you're afraid of snakes.

You're reading in the backyard, soaking up some sun. Over the top of your favorite book, you notice a snake slithering through the grass, approaching you. You're terrified. Your heart races, you scream (something that can be perceived as an act of aggression in humans), you grab the nearest weapon, and you frantically attempt to ward off the harmless garter snake (also an action that could be perceived as aggressive).

I approach you, pat your back and say "Hey, let's get out of here," and lead you inside, away from the snake. Inside I give you a hug and some iced tea. Did I make your fear of snakes worse? Better? Chances are, no. You're probably just as afraid of snakes as you were. The only change may be how you feel about me. The next time you see a snake, your heart may still race, you may still break out into a cold sweat and grab for the nearest shovel—and you may also wish for a friend to help you cope with the stressful situation.

Now, let's say you saw a snake, and, as soon as you grabbed a shovel as a weapon, I smacked you. Would you feel less afraid of the snake? Can you have the fear of snakes "slapped out of you?" If I slapped you when you reacted to a snake, how would you feel about me being near you next time you ran into one—more or less anxious? Your fear of snakes would likely be as intense as it ever was. The only difference would be how you felt about me when a snake was around—and at any other time!

Deep breathing versus snake

Deep breathing helps people relax. But when the snake approaches you in the backyard, do you think about your reaction to the snake, the dilation of your pupils? Is screaming a conscious decision? Is grabbing the shovel a reflex or a conscious thought? Do you consider the calming effect of deep breathing and how it might help you relax?

I'd guess that you don't think of deep breathing (an alternative, incompatible behavior to screaming, and also an operant response) when you see that snake. You're in survival mode; you are reacting rather than acting in an operant manner.

Similarly for dogs, growling, hackling, lunging, and snapping may be symptoms of an innate desire for self-preservation when they are confronted with stimuli that make them fearful.

For dogs, growling, hackling, lunging, and snapping may be symptoms of an innate desire for self- preservation when they are confronted with stimuli that make them fearful.

Symptoms of fear are not conscious reactions. Just as you don't choose to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up when you see a snake or spider, your dog doesn't decide, "That dog makes me nervous. I should raise my hackles and growl!"

Even if you know deep breathing may help alleviate your fear, chances are that the thought doesn't pop into your mind when you most need it—in the face of extreme anxiety or fear. Likewise, your lunging dog's mind may be more focused on surviving than on performing even well-proofed cues for behaviors that are incompatible with the aggressive display.

Giving treats to a growling dog

Operant conditioning is a way all animals learn; it's based on the theory that the relative frequency or infrequency of a behavior is controlled by the behavior's consequences. In operant conditioning, the dog learns that his behavior can result in one of four possible consequences: positive reinforcement (good stuff happens), negative reinforcement (bad stuff stops happening), positive punishment (bad stuff starts happening), or negative punishment (good stuff stops happening). If behaviors are reinforced, they are more likely to occur in the future. If behaviors are punished, they are less likely to be offered in the future.

Remember Pavlov's dogs? Dogs salivate when presented with food. This is not an operant behavior, but a physiological response. Pavlov learned that after repeated pairings (lab coat or bell reliably predicts the arrival of food) previously neutral stimuli were able to elicit the same salivary response that the presentation of food would elicit.

Think of Pavlov's dogs when using classical conditioning to modify aggressive or reactive behavior. The stimulus (trigger) should predict the arrival of food—just as a bell or lab coat would for Pavlov's dogs. The reinforcement is contingent not upon the dog's behavior, but upon the presentation of the stimulus. The dogs got fed no matter what they were doing.

Just as in Pavlov's experiment where the lab coat, rather than the dogs' behavior, predicted the delivery of the primary reinforcer, the appearance of the other dog on our walk predicted the delivery of my treats.

Desensitization and counter conditioning

When you are working with aggression and reactivity, the trigger (generally other dogs and/or people) is no longer a neutral stimulus to the dog. Using desensitization, it's possible to "neutralize" or "shrink" the stimulus by manipulating distance. Counter conditioning uses a primary reinforcer to classically condition a positive emotional response.

To begin desensitizing the dog, accurately identify the triggers—what is the dog reacting to? Once triggers are identified, decide what the dog's threshold is for each trigger—how far away does the dog need to be from another dog without reacting? In other words, to desensitize, manage the environment to avoid provoking a full-blown reaction; remove the opportunity for the dog to exhibit reactive behavior.

To desensitize, manage the environment to avoid provoking a full-blown reaction.

The dog should notice, and even feel mildly anxious about, the stimulus at the threshold distance. To determine the threshold distance, watch the dog's body language—what are the first steps of the reaction? If your dog is happily taking treats at a distance, but gets mouthy and starts chomping on your fingers to get the treats as you move closer, you are nearing his threshold. Dogs cannot eat when they are extremely stressed, so if your hungry dog will not eat even the best of treats, he is over his threshold. The best thing to do at that point is to create distance using a previously taught "Let's go!" cue.

When the dog's triggers and the threshold distances are known, it's time to begin counter conditioning. Counter conditioning conditions an emotional response that is incompatible with the aggressive behavior; the goal is called a positive conditioned emotional response (CER). For counter conditioning, you will need some great treats, and could also benefit from the help of one or more stimulus dog/handler teams. This training works best if your dog is somewhat hungry (has not just finished a meal).

The CER is achieved using what Jean Donaldson has called the "open bar, closed bar" technique. When your dog sees another dog, the bar opens immediately. When the dog is no longer in sight, the bar closes. These are the rules—regardless of how your dog is behaving. The appearance of the other dog, not your dog's behavior, predicts the delivery of the reinforcer, a reinforcer that is only provided in this context. What should you serve at "the bar?" Really good stuff! Find out what your dog loves best, and only give it to him when the counter conditioning bar is open.

Over time a dog's threshold will decrease. Only move closer when your dog is able to see another dog and look back at you happily, tail wagging, expecting delivery of the ultimate treat—that is the CER you seek. End each session on a success, and always leave your dog wanting more.

Remember to reflect the behavior you want your dog to display, also. If you tense up when you see another dog, that tension will travel down the leash to your dog. Go for practice walks without your dog and rehearse deep breathing when you see another dog, so that you can display the same relaxed confidence you'd like to see in your dog.

Being the crazy dog lady is a good thing

Be prepared for the likelihood that your neighbors will not understand the training you are doing. Remember that it's your job to be your dog's guardian—gaining his trust by not allowing bad things to happen to him.Remember that it's your job to be your dog's guardian—gaining his trust by not allowing bad things to happen to him.

If your dog is aggressive toward other dogs and a neighbor walking her dog says, "My dog is friendly!" as she approaches, be prepared to intervene on behalf of your dog. Create distance, move in another direction. If your dog is afraid of children, use your body to block a child from running up to your dog. You may need to be the "crazy dog lady" in the neighborhood to rehabilitate your dog successfully.

Sometimes doing what is right for a dog is not easy. There is a stigma associated with owning an "aggressive" dog. There is also great responsibility, and great liability.

A supportive network can boost your morale and commitment if you get frustrated. It's important to establish a support network that includes, at minimum, a behavior-savvy veterinarian and a behaviorist with experience using desensitization and counter conditioning (D/CC) techniques to modify aggression and reactive behavior in dogs.

Ideally, your network should also include some supportive family and friends, and, whenever possible, other pet owners who have been through similar experiences with their own dogs.

Other considerations for aggressive and reactive dogs

Working closely with your veterinarian and behaviorist, you may find that additional tools beyond D/CC are required. More elaborate management techniques may be necessary. You may also need to desensitize your dog to wearing a muzzle if he has a well-established biting history, or if you are doubtful of your ability to manipulate the environment so that your dog can remain below his threshold consistently.

Some fearful and aggressive dogs benefit greatly from medication. These medications are not tranquilizers, but are medications given to correct chemical imbalances in the brain. Providing a fluoxetine prescription for a dog or human is just like providing insulin to a diabetic patient—both are medications intended to correct hormonal and chemical imbalances within the body. Unfortunately, I've seen a cultural bias against pharmaceutical treatment of mental illness extend to four-legged creatures, too.

All the training in the world cannot correct a behavior problem that is caused by pain or faulty brain functioning. But, medications are not a cure-all either. Just as humans taking anti-depressants see the most rehabilitative results when they attend therapy sessions, medication for reactivity must be accompanied by appropriate and thorough dog training. A full medical evaluation is required for all dogs displaying aggression problems, and a complete thyroid panel is strongly advised.

A number of holistic treatments may also be helpful in managing reactivity and aggression. It never hurts to bring a holistic veterinarian to the consultation team. A good holistic vet should be able to talk to you about how diet and dietary changes can contribute to or improve your dog's behavior. He or she may be able to suggest herbs, supplements, flower essences, homeopathic treatments, or massage techniques to set your dog up for rehabilitative success.

For a dog owner there is no reinforcement greater than seeing a rehabilitated dog greet life without fear.

Rehabilitating an aggressive dog is not easy. It can be a frustrating process, and can seem as if you are taking one step forward and two steps back. However, for a dog owner there is no reinforcement greater than seeing a rehabilitated dog greet life without fear. So, be crazy if necessary—the results are well worth it!

Be sure to check out our resource section for aggressive and reactive dogs.

About the author
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Casey Lomonaco, KPA CTP and a member of the APDT, is the owner of Rewarding Behaviors Dog Training in Binghamton, NY. Casey offers private and group instruction in collaboration with Steve Benjamin, KPA faculty, CPDT, of Clicking with Canines, and Abbie Tamber, KPA CTP.