08 August 2018

Interview with Jane Sigsworth

Jane Sigsworth on the things people find hard when they have a fearful dog, and the beauty of a safe space for dogs to be off-leash.

An interview with Jane Sigsworth (pictured) about working with fearful dogs and the beauty of a safe space for dogs to be off-leash


Recently I wrote about desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training. As a talented dog trainer who helps clients with fearful and aggressive dogs, Jane Sigsworth uses this technique often. I spoke to her to learn about some of her case studies – and the holiday cottage where reactive dogs can roam free.



Zazie: How did you get into dog training?

Jane: A long time ago I had a dog who, looking back, didn’t really have many issues, but I felt he did at the time. He was a big barker and I was concerned about what my neighbours would think about him. So I started to look for information about how to deal with it and went on what can only be said was a very circuitous route initially. I did courses and workshops that didn’t contain good information. At the time I didn’t know anything so I didn’t know any better back then, put it that way. It was really to solve my own dog’s problems, but it wasn’t meant to be a career change. It became a quality of life issue for my husband and I. We spent the first 16 years of marriage always living apart because of our jobs and shifts. That’s why, in the end, I decided to make the career change to have a better quality of life, but that wasn’t initially my intention. Really the short answer is to solve my first dog’s issues.

Zazie: I think that probably applies to a lot of people, that they find their way into dog training because of a problem (or something that’s perceived as a problem). So, tell me about your business.

Jane: I have two sides to my business. I have Dog Knowledge, which is my behaviour and training side. I run puppy and adult training classes, and I do one-to-one behaviour consultations and training appointments, and a little bit of day training. The training classes are at a venue but the rest of the time I’m fairly mobile in where I work, either working from the places that I do my training classes or I go to people’s houses.


"Just a couple of weeks ago the vet was able to listen to his heart for the first time, to get close enough."


And then the other side of my business is Holiday With Your Dogs, which is a holiday cottage. It stemmed from my interest in fear and aggression issues, because I realized there are a lot of people who had issues with their dog and couldn’t come and go and let them off-lead because they felt that they were aggressive towards other dogs or they didn’t like strangers. And also people with dogs like retired racing Greyhounds that couldn’t let them off the lead because they were afraid they’d kill the neighbour’s cat. So the holiday cottage started out of that but it’s kept quite separate to my behaviour business. I like people to be able to come and have a relaxing holiday. Not many guests know what I do for a living because I don’t want them thinking that I’m looking at them in the field and thinking ‘well that’s why you’ve got a problem, you’re doing X, Y and Z.’ So I do tend to keep the two sides of the business very separate, but the holiday cottage business came about because I realized that there weren’t very many safe places where people could go and were comfortable letting their dogs off-lead, and also people with multiple dogs. You know if you’ve got five or six dogs, where can you go on holiday with your dogs? Where can you take them? So that’s the two sides to the business.

An interview with Jane Sigsworth about the holiday cottage (pictured) where dogs can roam free, and working with fearful dogs


Zazie: That’s fantastic. I think it’s so useful and relaxing for people to have somewhere like that to go. How would you describe the area in which your holiday cottage is?

Jane: Stunningly beautiful! It’s located in the Cothi Valley in south-west Wales so it’s very lushly green everywhere all year round. And they’ve got 22 acres of secure paddocks where they can just come. It’s been designed like a country park so there’s woodlands and walks and dog waste bins and benches and picnic tables and things all around. So it makes it feel like they’re in a country park but they’re not having to look over their shoulder. So they can come to a beautiful part of the world. It’s quite rural, you don’t want to be looking for a cash point [ATM] locally – well we do have one not too far away but certainly not supermarkets and things.

Zazie: It sounds gorgeous! So back to your dog training business, I was wondering if you could give me an example of when you use classical conditioning to help a client’s dog?

Jane: A lot of my work involves fear and also aggression. It tends to be dogs that have resource guarding issues, either dog-dog guarding issues or dogs to people guarding issues. Also body handling issues, dogs that dislike grooming or any hands coming towards them. And fear of strangers whether that’s globally – anybody new – or just particular types of people. Men or children are the common ones. They would be the three main areas where I use classical conditioning in my work. But because I do a lot of dog-dog work where fear isn’t an issue, one of the prerequisites for the work that I do, if I’m going to be introducing dogs and we don’t have known play histories, a prerequisite would be that the client’s dog is muzzle trained. I would use classical conditioning then because it might be they’ve never seen a muzzle before so they don’t have any fear or anxiety about the muzzle, but we don’t want to be just putting it on their faces. So we would enlist classical conditioning techniques in order to help the dog feel comfortable wearing the piece of equipment before we’re going to go and put them in a field with another dog. They’re the main areas that I use classical conditioning.

Zazie: Do you think there are any aspects of it that clients find particularly hard?

Jane: Yes, I think clients do find it difficult. It’s not intuitive to them. They hear all the time about reinforcing the behaviour that they want and not reinforcing the behaviour that they don’t want, so it feels wrong to them to be what they think is rewarding unwanted behaviour. It’s difficult to get their head around the fact that classical conditioning isn’t behaviour-dependent. I would always recommend, if there’s fear and aggression there, for clients to get professional help because a professional is going to get them through the protocol so much faster and more efficiently than trying to do it themselves. I think the technical aspects of classical conditioning are quite difficult for people. There’s aspects of getting the order of events correct. I think owners can be so focussed on thinking ‘I’ve got to feed, feed, feed, I’d better get a handful of food out now because a stranger’s just walked around the corner’. They might have seen the stranger before their dog has, so they can get the order of events incorrect. I think classical conditioning is really tough for people to do, to maintain the one-to-one ratio and to not get their CSs and USs in the wrong order. I think it’s really tough for owners.

Zazie: I think you’re right. I wonder if you could talk me through a case study?

Jane: I’ve got tons of case studies!  These are a couple of my cases at the moment. I’ve got a dog called Sasha who’s a 16-month old Siberian Husky. She’s got quite bad body-handling issues. It started off as growling and then progressed to snapping at her owners and she occasionally catches their arms when they go to put the harness over her head. They persevered thinking that the harness was going on to take her for a walk and so she’d enjoy the walk and get used to the harness. But actually all she’s done is sensitize to it, and now any hands coming towards her for anything, or even if it’s not necessarily going towards her but she catches it out of her peripheral vision, she’s snapping. She’s getting pre-emptive snaps in. So with her, we’ve used classical conditioning. We got a new harness and a new lead so they didn’t come with any existing negative CERs. And I’ve been working with the owners with a protocol to help her change the way that she feels about first of all seeing the equipment. Now over time the equipment has reliably predicted great things happening and we’ve slowly progressed to the harness going over her head. The sound of the clips was a little bit loaded for her so we’ve worked on all those aspects until now she’s comfortable with the harness going on. And we’re working with members of the family because it’s quite a big family that lives with her and some of them are a bit scared of her now to be honest, so some of it is working with them. But that’s going really well and I’m really pleased with that. She’s learning that the new harness predicts all things great.


"I realized that there weren’t very many safe places where people could go and were comfortable letting their dogs off-lead"


Another case is a dog called Rocky who’s a 12-month old Border Collie. He’s terrified of all strangers globally, it doesn’t matter whether they’re children, females, men, men with beards, men wearing crash helmets, it doesn’t matter. He’s just afraid of anybody new. That’s been a case of using classical conditioning and the usual protocols to help him learn that strangers and new people predict great things are happening. Going back to clients finding it difficult, he’s really struggling with the technique. Even though the training sessions with me are going really really well, and I’ve talked to him about not walking the dog in areas where he’s going to be in close proximity to people that will take him over threshold, the owner finds that really hard to get his head around. He has a dog, dogs need walking, going to the park is a nice place to walk even if it’s bank holiday weekend when it’s going to be packed. And that's why he got the dog, so that's hard.

Archie, my own dog, he’s a Saluki-mix, basically a desert dog from Abu Dhabi. I guess genetically not programmed to live in captivity. He came with major body handling issues and major fear of people and just global anxiety about anything. If it existed, he was afraid of it. With him, he’s on medication. It’s been a long journey because in Abu Dhabi we couldn’t get meds for him, anti-anxiety meds. So since we’ve been back we’ve been working on finding the right medication and the right dose, which has helped enormously and we’ve made great strides since we’ve been back. Part of that has been The Husbandry Project [from the Academy for Dog Trainers]. I’ve been part of that, working with him, doing the preparatory work and then taking him to the vet, which is amazing. Just a couple of weeks ago the vet was able to listen to his heart for the first time, to get close enough.

Zazie: Wow!

Jane: He went into lateral recumbency and stationed in the vet room and she listened to his heart, and we were kind of pulling these faces. We wanted to scream and say “Yay!!!” So that was really nice. It just shows you the power of this method. Before that he had to be muzzled, it was deeply traumatic for all concerned if we had to take him to the vet. So they’ve not been able to get a lot of hands on with him before. He’s doing really well!

"I spend a lot of time with recalls because I think it’s the most important behaviour"


Zazie: That’s such a wonderful change. Brilliant. Now, what’s your favourite thing to teach clients and their dogs?

Jane: I have loads! My absolute favourite thing is to have off-lead play in puppy socialization classes, and to teach clients about play behaviour, consent tests, and normal dog behaviour. I absolutely love that. When you have people who are really nervous and uptight if there’s any growling or pinning down and then you see them develop and say ‘well I’ll do a consent test but I  know he’s going to run straight back in to play’ and they do that and feel comfortable about it. I absolutely love that.

In terms of behaviours, I love teaching recalls [coming when called]. I spend a lot of time with recalls because I think it’s the most important behaviour. If they don’t get anything else on board I always think at least recall is a life-saving behaviour. So I’m really trying to teach them to build strong recalls and do lots of different games and things with recall to make it fun for them and the dog. I think those are my favourites.

Zazie: Tell me about your dogs.

Jane: I have four dogs. They’re all rescues. They all have various issues. My two English dogs came with aggression issues. I guess this is why I’ve been drawn to fear and aggression issues because of the dogs, and I probably select those kind of dogs. Those two are great now. Then I’ve got Archie who is fearful of everything and aggressive to make the stimulus go further away. Then I’ve got Alfie who will run away and hide and make himself really small because he’s a bit scared of things.

Zazie: Thank you!



Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list or subscribe to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.

About Jane Sigsworth:
Jane Sigsworth holds a Master's degree with Distinction in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare from Newcastle University. She is also an honours graduate of the prestigious Academy for Dog Trainers. She has over fifteen years' of experience in private consulting and animal rescue centre work.

This interview has been lightly edited for space and some dogs’ names have been changed.

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.


05 August 2018

Companion Animal Psychology Book Club August 2018

"It not only brilliantly opens up the world of dog behavior, but also helps us understand how we can make our dogs’ lives the best they can possibly be."

The August book is Canine Confidential by Marc Bekoff


The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club has chosen Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do by Marc Bekoff as the book for  August.

From the cover,
"For all the love and attention we give dogs,  much of what they do remains mysterious. Just think about different behaviors you see at a dog park: We have a good understanding of what it means when dogs wag their tails—but what about when they sniff and roll on a stinky spot? Why do they play tug-of-war with one dog, while showing their bellies to another? Why are some dogs shy, while others are bold? What goes on in dogs’ heads and hearts—and how much can we know and understand?

Canine Confidential has the answers. Written by award-winning scientist—and lifelong dog lover—Marc Bekoff, it not only brilliantly opens up the world of dog behavior, but also helps us understand how we can make our dogs’ lives the best they can possibly be.  Rooted in the most up-to-date science on cognition and emotion—fields that have exploded in recent years—Canine Confidential is a wonderfully accessible treasure trove of new information and myth-busting. Peeing, we learn, isn’t always marking; grass-eating isn’t always an attempt to trigger vomiting; it’s okay to hug a dog—on their terms; and so much more. There’s still much we don’t know, but at the core of the book is the certainty that dogs do have deep emotional lives, and that as their companions we must try to make those lives as rich and fulfilling as possible. It’s also clear that we must look at dogs as unique individuals and refrain from talking about “the dog.”"

Canine Confidential: The cover of the book


You may be interested to read my interview with Marc Bekoff about the book.  And you can follow him on Twitter.

Are you reading Canine Confidential too? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

01 August 2018

The Danger Hidden in Plain Sight in Photos of Dogs and Children

Three lessons we need to learn to keep children and dogs safe.

Three lessons we need to know to keep dogs and children safe. Do you think this young child crawling towards a dog is a risky situation?
Photo: Profotosession / Shutterstock


I don't know about you, but some of the photos of dogs and children I see on social media make me feel uncomfortable, even while others find them cute. The reason is we misjudge the risks of dog bites, and young children – often with their faces at the same height as the dog’s mouth – are at the greatest risk of dog bites (Davis et al 2012).

I’m not talking about staged photos, where we can assume the photographer and parent are both present and keeping a close eye. I’m thinking of the everyday photos people take at home.  We don’t know if there is anyone else in the room ready to intervene, whether the interactions pictured are common events, or even, in some cases, why someone hasn’t already stepped in.

But the advantage of a static photo is it gives us time to think about what’s going on. Here are three things to bear in mind when supervising young children with dogs.


1. Don’t assume a familiar dog is safe


One study found 72% of children who have been bitten by a dog were bitten by a dog they knew. Amongst children aged 0 – 2 years, the figure rises to 88% who were bitten by a familiar dog rather than an unfamiliar dog (Reisner et al 2011).

Of course, children probably spend more time with familiar dogs, but that's not the whole story.

When a dog is familiar, people are less likely to perceive the dog as a risk. One study found that when parents were shown photos of dog-child interactions, many of which were considered risky by experts, parents were less likely to say they would intervene if they thought the dog and child were familiar to each other (Arhant et al 2016).

It’s important to remember any dog can bite.

The bottom line is that even when a dog is familiar, you have to supervise dogs and children carefully. That means being close enough to intervene if needed.



2. Don’t let small children approach a dog that is resting


The same study of children who were bitten by dogs found that, for children under 7 years old, the bites often occurred when the dog was resting and was approached by the child.

A simple takeaway from this is to not let young children approach a dog that is sitting, standing or lying still. One possible reason this is risky is that it takes away the dog’s choice in interacting (see how to pet cats and dogs and the right to walk away).

Children can be noisy and unpredictable and, without meaning to, they can easily scare or hurt dogs.

Instead, if the child wants to interact with the dog, help them call the dog over. If the dog chooses not to come, that’s fine. If the dog does come, help teach the child how to pet the dog nicely.

It may be surprising that this is a common scenario for dog bites, but Dr. Ilana Reisner et. al. write,
“The recognition that ordinary or ‘everyday’ interactions can lead to bites is an important step towards their prevention.”


3. Don’t assume the dog is happy and relaxed


It takes practice to learn to read a dog’s body language. Some of the signs of fear, anxiety and stress include licking the nose or snout, turning the head away, sniffing the ground, and a lowered body posture. (For more signs, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?).

Unfortunately, people often assume dogs are relaxed and confident in interactions with children even when they are showing signs of fear or anxiety – and dog owners are worse than non-dog-owners when it comes to making this mistake (Demirbas et al 2016).

Even when people recognize there is a risk they do not necessarily change their behaviour as they believe it won’t happen to them (Westgarth and Watkins 2015; see my interview with Dr. Carri Westgarth for more).

When it comes to taking care of little ones, it’s important to pay attention and not assume the dog is okay.


Conclusion


These are many factors involved in dog bites and these are not the only ones, but they are important to know: don't assume a familiar dog is safe, never let a small child approach a dog that is resting or keeping still, and learn to read body language rather than assume the dog is relaxed.

None of this means we should leave negative comments on people’s personal photos of their dog and child. We weren’t in the room at the time of the photo, and there is too much negativity in the world as it is. But we can share good information so more people learn what to look for.

And it’s up to us to intervene if we think there’s a risk of a bite.

Let’s consider the photo above with these three points in mind. Imagine that instead of being a professional photo-shoot, the scene is unfolding in front of you at home. What do you see?

The dog and child are familiar to each other. The child is crawling towards the dog while the dog is lying down. Notice the dog’s nose lick.

If you were supervising an interaction like this, would you intervene?


For regular deconstructions of dog bite incidents, you can follow Reisner Veterinary Behavior Services on Facebook, who is on my list of pet people to follow in 2018. And subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and happy cats.


You might also like: Educating children reduces risky behaviour around dogs and moral panic about dog bites in the medical literature.



References
Arhant, C., Landenberger, R., Beetz, A., & Troxler, J. (2016). Attitudes of caregivers to supervision of child–family dog interactions in children up to 6 years—An exploratory study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 10-16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.007
Davis, A. L., Schwebel, D. C., Morrongiello, B. A., Stewart, J., & Bell, M. (2012). Dog bite risk: an assessment of child temperament and child-dog interactions. International journal of environmental research and public health, 9(8), 3002-3013. doi:10.3390/ijerph9083002
Demirbas, Y. S., Ozturk, H., Emre, B., Kockaya, M., Ozvardar, T., & Scott, A. (2016). Adults’ ability to interpret canine body language during a dog–child interaction. Anthrozoƶs, 29(4), 581-596.
https://doi.org/10.1080/08927936.2016.1228750
Reisner, I. R., Nance, M. L., Zeller, J. S., Houseknecht, E. M., Kassam-Adams, N., & Wiebe, D. J. (2011). Behavioural characteristics associated with dog bites to children presenting to an urban trauma centre. Injury prevention, 17(5), 348-353. http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/ip.2010.029868
Westgarth, C., & Watkins, F. (2015). A qualitative investigation of the perceptions of female dog-bite victims and implications for the prevention of dog bites Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.07.035

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

25 July 2018

How Can I Tell if My Dog is Afraid?

A guide to spotting fearful body language in dogs, and a chance to test out your skills.

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? A guide to spotting fearful body language in dogs, as shown by this frightened Chihuahua
Photo: Utekhina Anna / Shutterstock


You have to learn to read dog body language if you want to know when or if your dog is afraid.  This is a guide to spotting the signs.

Many people find it hard to tell when their dog is afraid and may even think their dog is okay when that’s not the case. This is very common but it can mean people are risking being bitten without knowing. And we can look after our dogs better if we know how to read canine body language.


Dog Body Language: Signs of Fear, Anxiety and Stress


There are many signs of fear, anxiety and stress in dogs. Things to look for include a tucked tail, ears back, licking the lips or nose, whale eye (wide eyes showing the whites of the eyes), looking away, lifting a paw, trembling or shaking, a low body posture, yawning, panting, grooming, sniffing, seeking out people (e.g. looking for comfort from you), hiding, not moving, a stiff or frozen posture, urinating and defecating.

Some of these are what’s known as displacement activities. For example, sniffing and grooming. Yes, it’s possible the dog is sniffing an exciting smell, but if the dog is scared, the sniffing is likely a displacement activity.

Similarly, a dog may yawn because they are tired, but it could be a sign of stress. If you see a yawn, ask yourself why they might be yawning.

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? A guide to dog body language. Illustrated here by a fearful puppy



Body Language of a Happy Dog


People find it much easier to tell when a dog is happy.

Look for a relaxed body posture, a soft open mouth, relaxed eyes, relaxed ears (whether the dog has prick or floppy ears), a nice loose wagging tail (that sometimes involves the whole body wiggling), and maybe some playful behaviour.

That soft, open mouth is like a dog’s way of smiling. You may see some teeth, but the lips are not drawn back to show lots of teeth and the dog is not snarling or growling.

How to tell if a dog is afraid. A guide to dog and puppy body language, illustrated by a happy black Labrador Retriever puppy
Photo: Mila Atkovska / Shutterstock



Use All the Body Parts When Reading Dog Body Language


One thing to remember is that we can use all of the dog’s body language and not just concentrate on specific parts.

Experts use more body parts when assessing a dog’s body language, and they are more likely to pay attention to a dog’s ears (Wan et al 2012). In terms of recognizing fearful dogs, people said they particularly found the face useful (including ears, eyes and mouth).


Take the Context into Account


As well as looking at the dog’s body language, we should also take account of what is going on at the time, as this will help us determine how the dog is feeling.

There are some situations in which we might expect dogs to be scared, such as at the veterinarian or when there are fireworks, but studies show people still aren’t very good at reading dog’s body language.

30% of dogs are highly stressed in the vet’s waiting room but owners did not always recognize this (Mariti et al 2015). The most commonly-observed signs include nose licking, panting, low ears, grooming, crying and yawning.

Many people also miss signs that their dog is afraid of fireworks (Blackwell, Bradshaw and Casey, 2013).  Signs include trembling or shaking, barking, hiding, and seeking out people.

Another time when people tend to miss fearful or anxious body language is when dogs are interacting with small children. Unfortunately, in these circumstances many people think anxious dogs are actually relaxed and confident, and dog owners performed worse than those without dogs at reading the body language (DeMirbas et al 2016).  People do not supervise dog-child interactions closely enough, fail to recognize the dog’s body language, and especially let their guard down when the dog is the family dog rather than an unknown dog (Arhant et al 2016).

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? A guide to reading dog body language with particular attention to fearful dogs like this one


One time when it can be quite difficult to decide if a dog is afraid or not is leash reactivity, when the dog lunges and growls at other dogs. This can be to make the other dog go away, because the dog is afraid, but it can also be because the dog is frustrated the leash is preventing the opportunity of greeting the other dog. In the latter case, the dog will be prosocial and friendly with other dogs when off-leash, but the behaviour in the moment of growling and lunging can be hard to interpret.

It’s important to figure it out because it would be a real shame to prevent off-leash socializing for a friendly dog who likes to play with other dogs. This is one reason it's important to help people understand signs of play in dogs, like the play bow (see also: bringing play back for sequestered dogs).

As well as knowing whether the dog is usually friendly to other dogs, there are some body language signs. In cases of frustration, the dog may show signs of wanting to approach the other dog before it ‘goes off’, and there may be signs of excitement such as yawning or circling. If it’s fear, the dog may show signs of fear before ‘going off’, such as ears back, a low posture, looking away and a tucked tail (Mills et al 2014).

If you think a dog is afraid, don't try to pet them. See how to pet cats and dogs to learn how to give pets a choice.


Breed and Other Artefacts


When we look at dogs, we see different characteristics depending on the breed. Some dogs have pricked ears while others have floppy ears. Some dogs have lovely long tails while others have tails that are corkscrew or naturally short. Does this make a difference to body language? You bet!

Then there are the cosmetic changes that some people make to their dogs. While ear cropping and tail docking of dogs is banned in BC where I live, these procedures are unfortunately still legal in some places.

The tail is an important part of canine communication. Tail docking can interfere with communication between dogs, and between dogs and people (Mellor, 2018).

When interpreting dog body language, it is harder for us if the dog’s ears are cropped and/or the tail docked. How can you tell if the tail is low or not if it is only a little stub? And it’s harder for other dogs to recognize too, which can put the dog at a disadvantage in social canine interactions.


Dogs in Costumes


When dogs wear costumes, like Santa outfits or Halloween costumes, it can make it difficult to interpret their body language too. The costume can interfere with the dog’s communication.

How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Many dogs don't like to wear costumes. See how this Chihuahua's ears are back and he is lifting a paw.


For example, the costume might fix their ears in a particular position, so we can’t tell where they would be if the dog weren’t wearing the costume. And a costume can interfere with movement of the tail or other parts of the body too.

Many dogs don’t like to wear costumes.

It’s not fair to make your dog wear a costume when they hate it. So, if you want them to wear a costume and they don’t like it, you can use it as an opportunity to teach them to like it. This can be good practice at learning to like being handled, which some dogs also don’t like, but which has to happen e.g. at the vet or if the dog has to wear a rain jacket or sweater in winter.

Even if you think your dog will like the costume, it’s best to use treats when you first introduce it. See the best dog training treats for ideas.


Dog Body Language Practice


It’s Christmas in July! Take a look at these dogs in Santa costumes and see if you can figure out the meaning of the dog's body language.

To make it easier, let’s stick to two categories: ‘happy’ and ‘worried,’ where worried means showing any signs of fear, anxiety or stress. But it's more about seeing if you can spot any signs than assigning a label.

Of course, each photo is just a moment in time and the dog may have been showing different body language before and after (since I’ve been browsing the photos, I can vouch for this). That's the disadvantage of looking at photos instead of video. You can only decide for the specific moment in time captured in the photo.

On the other hand, body language can be fleeting, and with a photo you have time to contemplate the whole picture.

Instead of concentrating on labels – happy or worried – take note of the body language signs you are using to make that decision. Look where the tail is (if it's visible in the photo). Look at the mouth and eyes. Look at the ears, and take into account whether the dog put them in position or if the costume has affected their movement. And don't forget to consider posture too.

If you’re struggling, start by identifying the dogs which are definitely happy, and take it from there, because people seem to find it easier to identify a happy dog.

If you like, you can leave a comment on the body language you see.

Body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Look at this Chihuahua in a Santa hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 1



Body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Look at this mixed breed dog in a Santa hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 2



The dog body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid or happy? Look at this Golden Retriever in a Santa hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 3


The dog body language quiz: How can I tell if my dog is afraid? Look at this dog in a Santa costume (see the tucked tail?)
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 4



Dog body language quiz: Is this dog fearful? A chocolate lab in a reindeer  hat
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 5



Dog body language quiz: Can you tell if this French Bulldog in an elf costume is happy or stressed?
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 6




Dog body language quiz: Is this Siberian Husky in a Santa hat happy or fearful?
Dog Body Language Quiz Photo 7



What if My Dog is Afraid?


Getting more practice at reading a dog's body language can help us know when dogs are fearful, anxious or stressed. I recommend Barbara Handelman's Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook for lots of photos, the book From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias by Marty Becker et al., and The Cautious Canine-How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears by Patricia McConnell.

There are many ways we can help a fearful dog. Often, simply recognizing the fear means we can do something to help, such as by intervening to prevent someone from patting our dog when the dog doesn’t want it, or removing the dog from a difficult situation. Sometimes, it can take a long and gradual training program to make a difference.

A powerful technique to help dogs overcome their fears is desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Because it can be hard to get it right, you might like to find a good dog trainer to help. In some cases, you may also wish to speak to your veterinarian to find out if they advise the use of medication.

Some trainers use a technique called negative reinforcement with fearful dogs. This is an aversive method. To see why I do not recommend it and what I suggest instead, see my post on negative reinforcement in dog training. You might also like seven reasons to use reward-based methods in dog training.

If your dog is afraid at the vet, see my list of resources on less stressful vet visits for dogs and cats. You might also like to check out Fear Free to see if there is a Fear Free veterinarian near you.

And you might be interested in the Husbandry Project from the Academy for Dog Trainers, which is currently recruiting dog owners and trainers to test out training plans aimed at teaching dogs to like vet visits. More info here.

Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and happy cats. And stay tuned for more posts on this blog!


References
Arhant, C., Landenberger, R., Beetz, A., & Troxler, J. (2016). Attitudes of caregivers to supervision of child–family dog interactions in children up to 6 years—An exploratory study. Journal of Veterinary Behavior: Clinical Applications and Research, 14, 10-16. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jveb.2016.06.007
Blackwell, E.J.,, Bradshaw, J.W.S.,, & Casey, R.A. (2013). Fear responses to noise in domestic dogs: Prevalence, risk factors and co-occurrence with other fear-related behaviour Applied Animal Behaviour Science : 10.1016/j.applanim.2012.12.004
Demirbas, Y. S., Ozturk, H., Emre, B., Kockaya, M., Ozvardar, T., & Scott, A. (2016). Adults’ Ability to Interpret Canine Body Language during a Dog–Child Interaction. Anthrozoƶs, 29(4), 581-596. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08927936.2016.1228750
Mariti, C., Raspanti, E., Zilocchi, M., Carlone, B., & Gazzano, A. (2015). The assessment of dog welfare in the waiting room of a veterinary clinic Animal Welfare, 24 (3), 299-305 DOI: 10.7120/09627286.24.3.299
Mellor, D. J. (2018). Tail Docking of Canine Puppies: Reassessment of the Tail’s Role in Communication, the Acute Pain Caused by Docking and Interpretation of Behavioural Responses. Animals: an open access journal from MDPI, 8(6). 10.3390/ani8060082
Mills, D., Karagiannis, C., & Zulch, H. (2014). Stress—its effects on health and behavior: a guide for practitioners. Veterinary Clinics: Small Animal Practice, 44(3), 525-541. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cvsm.2014.01.005
Wan M, Bolger N, & Champagne FA (2012). Human perception of fear in dogs varies according to experience with dogs. PloS one, 7 (12) PMID: 23284765

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

22 July 2018

Companion Animal Psychology News July 2018

Cats high on catnip, the heritage of mutts, and sunk costs for mice - don't miss a thing with the latest news from Companion Animal Psychology.

Companion Animal Psychology News July 2018


Some of my favourites from around the web this month


“It takes patience to let the student run the show.” The pause that refreshes by Patricia McConnell PhD.

 “You know exactly what I'm talking about. There's a dog. Right there, right in front of you.” 10 things to do instead of patting that service dog by Kristi Benson CTC.

“Experts did little better than dog lovers — and nobody did very well — when asked to describe the heritage of various mutts.” What breeds make up this mutt? By James Gorman at NY Times.

Can we ever really know if animals are happy? Anna Brooks tackles an important question.

"Like so many other humans, you might find cats to be mysterious creatures. But believe it or not, it’s not that hard to make friends with a feline, if you know what to do." 10 science-backed tips for getting a cat to like you by Mikel Delgado.

“Whatever is going on in the humans is also going on in the nonhuman animals.” Mice don’t know when to let it go, either, on sunk costs and decision making by Erica Goode at the NY Times.

Should shelters and breeders require literacy in animal behaviour?Marc Bekoff on “the importance of becoming literate in "dog"—learning about the basic behavior patterns and needs of the nonhuman animal one chooses to bring home.”

"A big part of the problem is that breeds like French bulldogs, pugs, and English bulldogs are what's called brachycephalic—bred to have that cute, short muzzle." Are we loving French Bulldogs to death? At National Geographic,  Linda Lombardi looks at the issues facing these brachycephalic dogs.

Photos of cats high on catnip. By Alessia Santoro with images by Andrew Marttila.

Dog photographer of the year 2018 – in pictures. The Guardian highlights the best photos of dogs.



Animal Book Club


The Companion Animal Psychology Book Club takes a break in July. In August, we will be reading Canine Confidential: Why Dogs Do What They Do by Marc Bekoff.




Help Researchers Understand Separation Anxiety in Dogs


Separation Anxiety expert Malena DeMartini and Dr. Nathaniell Hall of Texas Tech University are conducting a survey to get a better understanding of separation anxiety in dogs.

The questionnaire is for dog owners, dog trainers, and dog lovers, even if your dog does not have separation anxiety.



Take the survey here. Everyone who completes it will be entered in a draw to win either a copy of DeMartini's book, Treating Separation Anxiety in Dogs, OR a spot on the online course, 'Mission: POSSIBLE.'



Support Companion Animal Psychology


Companion Animal Psychology has a mission to bring pet owners free information about science-based ways to have happy dogs and happy cats.

If you love Companion Animal Psychology, you can support me on Ko-fi. (Ko-fi does not charge fees).






Here at Companion Animal Psychology


I had two new posts on my Psychology Today blog Fellow Creatures: Does owner personality affect dog training methods looks at an intriguing new study, while Pet behaviour problems: In the eye of the beholder considers what makes us decide a pet’s behaviour is problematic.

Here on Companion Animal Psychology, Prof. Hal Herzog generously shared his time with me and answered questions from me and the book club on his book, Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Read the interview here, and if you haven't read the book, I highly recommend it.

I wrote a post about desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training, which explains the basics you need to know to use this technique to help fearful dogs.

And I spoke to Lori Nanan about her online course, Nailed It! which makes good use of desensitization and counter-conditioning to help dogs learn to like nail trims. Check out what she has to say. At the end of the post, you'll find discount codes if you want to take any of the courses available on lorinanan.com.

This month I answered some questions from Slate about what the What the Fluff? videos tell us about canine cognition. I spoke to HuffPost about how the 'cat lady' trope came to be. And I talked to Fupping about the importance of puppy socialization for their post on things to consider when buying a puppy (scroll down to number 12).

As always, thank you for the kind comments and shares of my posts. It's proving to be a busy summer for me as I'm working hard on edits to my book! Whatever you're up to, I hope you're having fun.



A Better World for Dogs and Cats


These are the latest images from the series about a better world for dogs and a better world for cats.


A better world for cats - part of Companion Animal Psychology News


A better world for dogs - part of Companion Animal Psychology News



A better world for cats - part of Companion Animal Psychology News


Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

18 July 2018

Interview with Lori Nanan

Lori Nanan on training dogs to love nail trims and why slowing down is good for us.

Interview with Lori Nanan, pictured, about helping dogs love nail trims


Last week I wrote about desensitization and counter-conditioning in dog training. Lori Nanan’s course Nailed It! shows people how to use this technique to teach dogs to love having their nails trimmed. I caught up with Lori to find out more (scroll down for the discount codes!).


Zazie: Why did you decide to write the course?

Lori: It started a few years ago. I had a dog, Rocco, who for his entire life nail care was pretty traumatic. I was never able to make it right and it really kind of ate away at me for most of his life. And when we brought Hazel home, I was sort of determined that that would never be the case for any other dog of mine. So I guess in 2014, 2015 I wrote a blog where I laid out steps that I followed in a training to plan to get Hazel comfortable with my handling of her legs and paws and restraining for toes, getting her to love a nail file – I actually used a nail file at that time – and then being comfortable and relaxed with me filing her nails. And the blog was very successful. I got lots of feedback from lots of people that they were actually able to use it, which was fantastic.

And then at the beginning of 2017 I suddenly got this bug in my ear that I had to take on the next level of challenge which was in my mind using a Dremel. And so I bought a Dremel and it literally sat in the box for about 2 months because I was so afraid to try to use it on her. Then I buckled down and got myself comfortable with it and had success with it. And my initial thought was ‘Okay well I’ll write another blog’. But then the more I thought about it the more I thought there was a bigger opportunity to get this particular information and related information out to people. So I decided to create the course.


"Slowing down is as good for us as it is for the dogs."


As I was creating the course, I had different people testing different implements, taking their own dogs through a plan, just to make sure that it actually did translate as well from nail files to Dremel and then clippers as well. And just like with the blog, these people were able to successfully maintain their dog’s nails and gain an understanding of things like desensitization and counter-conditioning and classical conditioning, and why I felt it was important for a lot of dogs and help people to use those methods rather than operant conditioning and say give me a paw, I clip your nail, you get a treat. That’s the quick and dirty of the whole thing, which has been way more successful than I ever would have imagined. I knew that people had this problem, I just had no idea that there were so many of us.

Zazie: I’ve seen the course materials and it’s fantastic so I’m not surprised so many people are finding it helpful. Why do you think nail trims are difficult for so many dogs?

Lori: There’s a couple of reasons. One of them is an intrinsic evolutionary biology thing about restraint. A lot of dogs don’t like being restrained and that has to do with wild ancestors being prey animals, being injured in the course of being predators, and if you lose a leg, guess what you’re not going to be able to chase prey any more. And that means you’re going to die, you’re not going to be able to reproduce and continue your lineage. So there’s that, that’s just sort of in there in the dog.

Many dogs have bad experiences. We’ve for decades and decades performed procedures on dogs without their consent and sometimes they’re painful, sometimes they’re simply uncomfortable, sometimes the dog isn’t comfortable with the stranger or the person doing it and the procedure might be okay but then they make an association between the two and things can go downhill. One bad experience can cause a lifetime of negative reactions to things.


My Rocco, the very first time I clipped his nails as a puppy I cut the quick, which is the blood supply through the nail, and it was traumatic for both of us. He was definitely afraid of letting anybody come near his paws after that and I was definitely afraid to do it because it was awful. And so it becomes charged for people if they have had that bad experience doing it themselves on their dogs, or had a bad experience seeing a veterinarian do it for their dog. And that one bad experience can really ruin it for a dog for life, unless we get to work in a way that is systematic, gradual, granular, and step-by-step to help them feel comfortable again.

Zazie: You said that you thought it was more appropriate to use classical conditioning rather than a DRI in this case. Can I ask you why you think that?

Lori: I think I’ve seen it probably hundreds of times at this point, where people say ‘My dog used to be comfortable with giving me a paw, me clipping, and then giving a treat’. But I think that for some of the reasons I explained a couple of minutes ago, that becomes too expensive for the dog. The payoff of a treat for a clip is often just not enough, because they’re probably truly not comfortable, they’re just doing it because dogs do those sort of things. They’re pretty good sports in a lot of cases, they go along with things maybe because there’s a payoff but maybe just because they’re good sports and docile and they put up with a lot from us. But I’ve seen it time and time again where people will say my dog used to be comfortable with that, give paw, get clipped, get treat, or my dog used to be comfortable using a scratch board and then getting a treat, and eventually the payoff just is not enough for the dog.

Zazie: So it’s too hard really. One of the things that you focus on in the course materials is that people need to have a 1:1 ratio. I was wondering if you would mind explaining for blog readers why that’s so important.

Lori: It’s really, really, important when we’re doing things like classical conditioning or counter-conditioning or desensitization that we keep the criteria clear for the dog. So we do the thing and this is what happens. We really want the dog to be comfortable with the whole process. It’s a way of ensuring that the dog is comfortable with the whole process that we’re not pushing past where we are currently just because we feel like it. It’s sort of a contract that we’re making with the dog. And any time we break that contract or don’t keep that clear, we weaken the association that we want to make. Which is, touching your arm is not scary, touching your foot is not scary, because we’ve done it in a way that keeps you comfortable every step along the way.

Zazie: Another thing that I really like is you say, you can never go too slow or be too generous. Do you think that’s a message that people find easy or difficult to get?

Lori: In our human world, we are very used to instant results. We’re very used to getting information at the touch of a button, we can make purchases at the touch of a button, we have pizza delivered to our house in 30 minutes or less. We’re used to things happening fast, fast, fast. And so when we ask people to slow down and do things at the dog’s speed, yes it’s absolutely hard.


"We’ve for decades and decades performed procedures on dogs without their consent"


For a lot of us, it’s not a way that we’ve always interacted with our dogs. We just kind of take for granted that they’re going to go along with things. And slowing down is as good for us as it is for the dogs. It helps us be more mindful of what we’re doing and it helps us learn how to pay attention to what’s happening for our dogs. For some reason, I see it all the time and I’ll be honest even with my own pups, we like giving dogs treats, we’re pretty generous with that. But when it comes to working with dogs, people tend to get a little stingy. Being generous for me means okay we’re going to upgrade, we’re not going to use kibble we’re not going to use commercial grade treats from the grocery store. We’re going to use something super delicious that the dog really likes and we’re not going to be stingy about it because this thing matters and that’s what helps the dog make the association between the process and enjoying it.

So I want people to slow down to bio-speed a little bit and be more observant of what’s happening with their dog, and be generous throughout the process because we really need for these associations to be strong. And we also want the dog to like processes like this. In cases that go beyond nail care, like veterinary care, we need the dog to like the process in order for it to go smoothly and successfully.

Zazie: I also wanted to ask you about different ways of clipping nails because you have plans for the nail file, Dremel and clippers. Do you have a personal preference now for one of those?

Lori: I have to admit that based on my experiences with my Rocco years ago, I’ve not been able to get over my clipper fear. So that’s definitely the lowest on my list. I am in awe of people who are comfortable with clippers and I give them major props for that. For me the margin of error with clippers is much bigger. I think the opportunity to accidentally clip a dog is bigger with clippers. The Dremel goes quicker than the nail file, but for me I like the nail file. I use a Dremel currently. Every once in a while I switch back to a nail file. I feel like I do the best job with a nail file and I think it’s the easiest for people to get comfortable with, even for big dogs. I used the nail file on Hazel for 2 years before I switched. You can do a dog’s nails sustainably with a nail file so the Dremel is definitely quicker but it doesn’t have to be just a starter tool. I was able to do it for 2 years. I just bought bulk files from Amazon and worked on Hazel’s nails about 2 times a week. Which is about what I do now, I try to fit in to the schedule. Either a nail file or a Dremel are the easiest for people, and I do recognize that I have a little bit of a bias there.

Zazie: People can find Nailed It! on lorinanan.com but I heard that you’ve got some other courses in the works, so what else can people look forward to finding there?

Lori: We currently have a course out with Malena DeMartini called Separation Anxiety: Mission Possible. Malena has written a book on separation anxiety, she’s the expert and she travels the world speaking about it. We also have another course called Pestering Pooches with my friend Kristi Benson which is all about teaching dogs not to jump on guests when they come in the house, not to pester and bug people while they’re eating, and it’s super fun. Kristi’s got a fantastic sense of humour and a fantastic way that she presents information. I’m actually taking Hazel through all of the plans because for her entire life with us so far we’ve kind of allowed her to jump on people because she was afraid of people when we first brought her home and now she loves them. And so we want that to be the way that things are but she could probably be a bit more polite about it. So we’re going through the training plans and it’s actually been a lot of fun. And then we’ve got some other things in the works but they’re a bit further down the line right now.

Zazie: Tell me about your pets.

Lori: Hazel is a 7 year old. She’s considered a pit bull mix, she’s really just a bunch of terriers and bulls that put together have a little bit of a blocky head. Her blocky head is not as blocky as many other pit bull type dogs. We adopted her from Philadelphia Animal Care and Control and she is just wonderful. I call her famous. She’s the face of a lot of things that I do, a great dog for training and just a lot of fun. She really loves people so she’s a joy.

And then we have a cat named MooMoo who my husband adopted the day before we met, about 11 years ago now. And MooMoo is a very sweet and personable cat who happens to not like other cats. So we’re a one cat, one dog family at this point. And I’ve actually trained MooMoo to sit for a verbal cue which feels like a massive accomplishment for me because cats are different from dogs. She works for dried minnows, she likes those.

Zazie: Nice! Thank you so much for your time.


Lori has provided discount codes for anyone interested in the courses at lorinanan.com:
Nailed It= 40% off coupon code CAP
Pestering Pooches= 40% off coupon code CAP
Separation Anxiety: Mission POSSIBLE= 20% off coupon code CAP
There is also a free course called Where Advocacy and Behavior Meet.

About Lori Nanan:
Lori Nanan is the owner of LoriNanan.com, a company which creates online courses for dog owners and professionals, as well as marketing and support services for reward-based dog trainers. She also works for The Academy for Dog Trainers as a project manager and is the founder of the nonprofit Your Pit Bull and You. Lori lives in New Hope, PA. with her husband, Paul, their cat MooMoo and a dog, Hazel, who is the love of their lives and serves as inspiration for everything they do.

Companion Animal Psychology has published interviews with talented scientists, writers, trainers and veterinarians who are working to promote good animal welfare. See the full list, or subscribe to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats. And stay tuned for more posts on how we can help fearful dogs!

Companion Animal Psychology is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Companion Animal Psychology is also a participant in the Etsy Affiliate Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Etsy.com.

11 July 2018

What is Desensitization and Counter-Conditioning in Dog Training?

A user-friendly guide to desensitization and counter-conditioning for fearful dogs.

How to do desensitization and counter-conditioning to help fearful dogs like this little Maltese hiding under the bed
Photo: Alzbeta / Shutterstock


Whether you want to use counter-conditioning to get your dog to like other dogs, or desensitization to teach your dog that alone-time is okay, this guide is for you. It explains what these technical terms mean – and, importantly, the tips you need to know to get it right.

First, we’ll look at how to spot a fearful dog, because these techniques are often used to help resolve different kinds of fear.

Sometimes, desensitization and/or counter-conditioning are used alongside medication. If you are concerned about your pet or want to know if medication might help your dog, speak to your veterinarian.


Recognizing signs of fear in dogs


It can be difficult to recognize signs of fear in dogs, and people often miss it, even in situations where we know many dogs are afraid (e.g. fear at the vet or in response to loud noises).

This means many dogs are not being helped with their fears because their owner does not realize their dog is afraid. Another issue is that when dogs are afraid of fireworks, people may do their best to help their dog cope at the time – and then forget about the problem until a night like Halloween or 4th of July is coming up again.

When is the best time to start to help your dog get over their fear of fireworks? It’s actually right now, because this is something that takes time.

Some of the signs of fear to look for in your dog are a tucked tail, ears back, lip licking, looking away, lifting a paw, trembling or shaking, a lowered body posture, yawning, grooming, sniffing, seeking out people (e.g. looking for comfort from you), hiding, not moving, urinating and defecating.

For more information and some practice at spotting signs of stressed body language, see how can I tell if my dog is afraid?

Desensitization and counter-conditioning for dogs. The poster shows a fearful Jack Russell hiding under a blanket



Systematic desensitization


Desensitization means very gradual exposure to the scary thing, starting at a very low level and building up very slowly. It should be systematic, which means you have a plan to build up gradually. At every step on the way, you dog should be happy and comfortable.

If instead you notice your dog is even a tiny bit scared, you need to immediately go back to an easier stage of the plan. If you jump ahead too fast and frighten your dog, then you might be doing sensitization (making it worse) instead of desensitization!

As an example, suppose your dog is afraid of fireworks. You find a recording of firework sounds (such as the recordings from Dogs Trust that come with a booklet explaining what to do). You can’t start by playing the sounds at anywhere near normal volume, because you already know that frightens your dog. Instead, you start at a really low volume – maybe even barely audible.

Then gradually over time, always making sure your dog is comfortable, you keep turning up the volume a notch. Then another notch. And so on. Over time, assuming you get it right, your dog will learn to tolerate the sounds.


Counter-conditioning


Counter-conditioning is a type of classical conditioning. Have you heard about Ivan Pavlov and his dogs, how when he rang a bell the dogs salivated because they had learned it predicted they would be given food? Then you’ve heard of classical conditioning!

Classical conditioning involves automatic responses, like salivation, changes in heart rate, or nausea. These are involuntary reactions (not behaviours).

Most classical conditioning uses a neutral stimulus (like the sound of a bell). In counter-conditioning, we are trying to teach the dog to like something they already don’t like or are afraid of.

For example, suppose you have a dog that is afraid of other dogs, and you want to teach her to like them. In counter-conditioning, every time another dog appears, you would give your dog some very delicious food. Over time, she will learn that other dogs predict yummy food, and so she will learn to like other dogs.

Did you notice I said every time another dog appears? That’s because we want to have what’s known as a 1:1 ratio. If instead, sometimes when another dog appears your dog gets food, but sometimes when another dog appears they don’t, this won’t work very well.

Therefore, if you’re counter-conditioning something you might run into outside training sessions (like other dogs), you need to have a plan to either manage it (so it doesn’t happen) or to always have treats on you so you can still do counter-conditioning on those occasions too.


Open bar/closed bar


Jean Donaldson’s open bar/closed bar technique is a great way to do counter-conditioning. What it means is that when the scary thing appears (e.g. the other dog, or the sounds, etc…) the bar is open: treats will keep on flowing. Yay! It’s like a party! (Hopefully that’s what your dog will think).

Then when the scary thing stops (e.g. the other dog goes away, the sound stops, etc.) the bar is closed and the flow of treats stops. Now, nothing happens – the party is over.


A positive conditioned emotional response


Learning to recognize a positive conditioned emotional response is an essential part of doing desensitization and counter-conditioning, because you can’t move on to the next step until you’ve got a +CER.

Look for signs that the dog is happy and expecting food, such as a wagging tail and a happy, open mouth.



Desensitization and counter-conditioning


Desensitization and counter-conditioning are often used together. Trainers often abbreviate it to dscc.

If we stick to the example of a dog who is afraid of other dogs, we can use desensitization by keeping a suitable distance from the other dog. We should also take account of other aspects of the experience (for example, a moving dog might be more scary to your dog than one that is still, so a moving dog would need to be further away).

At the same time, we can use counter-conditioning by feeding delicious food as soon as your dog notices the other dog. Using these two techniques together works really well.

Desensitization and counter-conditioning is a good alternative to negative reinforcement because it does not involve aversive experiences for the dog.

There are some cases where we might use desensitization on its own. An example is to help a dog with separation anxiety get used to being left alone for gradually-increasing periods of time. The good news is that new technology can help in separation anxiety cases, because it enables you to see video of your dog at home to check she really is okay.

If your dog has separation anxiety, as well as speaking to your veterinarian, I recommend trainers with a certification called CSAT (Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer). They are specialists in resolving this problem, and many offer distance consults.

And at times when desensitization is not possible (or, due to a mishap, went wrong), you can still use counter-conditioning on its own.


Some common mistakes


There are some common mistakes that people make with desensitization and counter-conditioning. If you’re thinking, “I tried it and it didn’t work,” see if any of these might apply.


Not using good enough food


A common mistake is to not use good enough food. For counter-conditioning, I recommend using good food like chicken, cheese, or roast beef. For more ideas, see the best dog training treats.


Getting the timing mixed up


Your aim in counter-conditioning is to teach your dog that the scary thing predicts good stuff like great food. Have you ever had the experience of doing counter-conditioning, and then finding that when you offer your dog food, she starts looking round to see where the scary thing is? That means the timing was wrong and the dog now thinks food predicts something scary!

The thing to look for is when your dog notices the other dog (or whatever the scary thing is), and feed then. You have to pay attention to your dog in order to get this right.


Going too fast


This is probably the most common mistake of all: starting at too hard a level and going too fast for your dog.

Learning how to do desensitization and counter-conditioning will teach you to slow down, because you have to go at the dog’s pace. This will vary from dog to dog, but it will usually be very slow at the start. Then hopefully it will speed up along the way. But this dog training technique is not for the impatient!

Signs you are going too fast include the dog having a harder mouth when taking treats or only sometimes being interested in treats. Also watch out for any signs of worried body language such as a low tail or low posture. If you see any of these, go back to an easier step in the plan.


Not reading the dog’s body language


Learning how to read a dog’s body language is a skill that times time to acquire. To use desensitization and counter-conditioning, you need to be able to recognize when a dog is afraid (so you know these techniques are relevant, and so you notice if you accidentally go too fast). If the dog is afraid, you risk making things much worse instead of better.

You also need to be able to recognize when you have got a positive conditioned emotional response – a happy reaction to the previously-scary thing. It’s only when you see this that you can move to the next step in your plan.


Using a clicker


When we use a clicker in dog training, it’s to mark a behaviour that will be rewarded. In counter-conditioning, we are not teaching a behaviour; instead, we are trying to change the dog’s emotions. So there is no behaviour to click.

Even if you love using a clicker when doing operant conditioning (teaching a behaviour), put it away when doing counter-conditioning.


But I only want to feed the dog for being good


Sometimes people only want to feed the dog for being good. But the thing is, counter-conditioning isn’t about behaviour; it’s about changing the dog’s underlying feelings. So it does not matter what your dog is doing.

Sometimes we make a mistake and get too close to the scary thing. We’ve all done it! For example if you get too close to another dog and your dog lunges and growls at it. Sometimes people compound this mistake by telling the dog off for lunging and growling, but this won’t help and might make things worse.

Instead, you should get your dog further away from the other dog and then offer the yummy food anyway. The reason is that in counter-conditioning they should get the food every single time they see the scary thing. If they don’t, it’s basically an extinction trial that is starting to undo your training.

This can be quite difficult to do in public with other people looking on. But you shouldn’t feel embarrassed for doing the right thing for your dog.

So if your dog goes over threshold, get away as fast as you can and then feed them anyway. Of course, you might also like to say sorry to the owner of the dog yours just growled at as you move away, but you don’t have to get into a discussion.

The other thing you need to do is make a mental note that next time, you need more distance. Think about whether there were other things going on that might have made it more difficult for your dog – this is known as trigger stacking. And then plan to do better next time.

Remember, you’re trying to teach your dog – but it’s also a learning experience for you.




What about a DRI instead?


Sometimes dog trainers will choose a DRI (differential reinforcement of an incompatible behaviour) instead of counter-conditioning, with the aim of getting a classical conditioning side-effect. You can read more about this, and about the factors that will help you decide which to do, in my post on negative reinforcement. (Look for the section on alternatives to negative reinforcement).


A word on punishment


If you have a dog that is fearful or afraid, it’s important that you stop using punishment on your dog. Punishment is stressful and there is a risk it will make your dog’s fear worse, or even make your dog afraid of you. Punishment may suppress behaviour, but it does not teach your dog what you would like them to do instead. For more information, see my post on positive punishment in dog training.

If you are using any kind of punishment (including prong and shock collars), stop. This is an important part of helping a fearful dog.


Summary


Desensitization and counter-conditioning are powerful techniques that we can use to help dogs learn to like something they are afraid of. They can be used in many dog training situations, from fear of loud noises to fear of being left alone, fear of implements like nail clippers and stethoscopes, and fear of strangers.

These techniques are more advanced than obedience training, and it will take practice (and a good plan) to learn to get them right. Hopefully this article has helped explain the basics. Stay tuned for more posts!

If you need help with your dog’s issues, see my article on how to choose a dog trainer.

Subscribe to Companion Animal Psychology to learn more about how to have happy dogs and cats.


Further Reading


Interview with Jean Donaldson about The Culture Clash

Dogs Are from Neptune by Jean Donaldson.

The Trainable Cat: A Practical Guide to Making Life Happier for You and Your Cat by John Bradshaw and Sarah Ellis. Systematic desensitization and counter-conditioning is one of the key skills taught in this book, and there are plenty of examples of its use with cats.

From Fearful to Fear Free: A Positive Program to Free Your Dog from Anxiety, Fears, and Phobias by Marty Becker, Lisa Radosta, Wailani Sung, Mikkel Becker, edited by Kim Campbell Thornton. Lots of tips, including sections on desensitization and counter-conditioning.

Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in plain English how dogs learn and how best to teach them by Pamela Reid.


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