Fearful Dogs Blog

Yes Your Dog Probably Does Need Obedience Training

There is a backlash among some in the dog training community to what is commonly called obedience training. There’s a good reason for the backlash. Obedience training in many minds brings up images of dogs being physically manipulated, verbal corrections & leash pops abound. There is a do it or else mentality to the process.

On the flip side there are trainers who after discovering the power and usefulness of classical conditioning- training that changes underlying emotional and physiological responses by creating predictable associations between one thing and another- avoid diving into operant conditioning or what is commonly called training. We can change behavior by changing underlying emotional responses. Stop feeling afraid of something and you’ll probably stop acting afraid of it. Dog trainers capitalize on another effect of classical conditioning and that is that there are behaviors that shape up when a dog learns to anticipate where the food, being used as an unconditioned stimulus to create or change a respondent/classical/Pavlovian response, is going to appear. We get head turns, dogs moving toward us, stopping, etc., when they learn that the person, object or animal they have become aware of predicts a piece of cheese being handed to them by their owner.

For some dog owners training is about expanding on their relationship with their dog. I have attended training classes with my dogs in almost every format available; rally, agility, free style, tricks, nosework, good citizen, and yes, obedience. My goal wasn’t to get titles or certifications. It was something to do with my dogs that I thought they would enjoy. I also used formal classes as a way to work with my fearful dogs under conditions that could be controlled. I could ask people to leave my dog alone, or get a few minutes of playtime in for a young dog who enjoyed the company of other dogs.

Getting what I call the feel good, is important but let’s not lose sight of the fact that unless a dog can function in a way that is socially acceptable, either in their home or out in the community, their chances of staying in a home, or even alive, are not going to be great. There is a way we can address this head on- train them to do what we want them to do. We can do this without using force, fear, pain, or intimidation. We can do it humanely and efficiently.

Perhaps we need to reclaim or replace the word obedience. What do you think?

Here is an example of a fearful dog being trained. Learning skills at home that can be transferred to the outside world or around other people is key. *The dog is wearing a GPS collar, not an e-collar.

By |2019-02-18T10:22:15+00:00February 1st, 2019|Training|Comments Off on Yes Your Dog Probably Does Need Obedience Training

Do You Need To Be A Pack Leader?

This is a video from 2014. I was testing the waters for producing podcasts. The audio gets cut off a bit in the beginning, but I think you’ll get the gist.

By |2019-02-01T09:03:46+00:00February 1st, 2019|Training|Comments Off on Do You Need To Be A Pack Leader?

Behavioral Medications To Help Fearful Dogs

There are behavioral medications that can help dogs struggling with fear and anxiety. We would not deprive a dog of available treatment for pain or infection. We should consider the suffering a dog experiences due to chronic fear and anxiety as important to treat.

By |2019-01-31T20:56:36+00:00January 31st, 2019|Medications|Comments Off on Behavioral Medications To Help Fearful Dogs

Growing Pains in Dog Training

I suspect that all industries experience growing pains. It may be that they are a constant in any kind of industry, change for the better always being a shining light on the horizon we should be striving for. Thirteen years ago when I first began my search for information to help my extremely fearful dog Sunny, it wasn’t unusual for there to be responses to my queries that included something along the lines of; reinforcing fear, enabling fear, keeping dogs trapped in fear. These comments were rarely challenged. Not so today. Chances are very good that if someone makes the claim that comforting a dog, or feeding a dog when they are fearful will reinforce their fear, more educated voices will chime in. They won’t always be listened to, but I suppose that’s the pain I am referring to.
The future is bright for dogs and other animals as far as how people will train them. More and better information about how behavior can be changed without forcing an animal to do something and without scaring or hurting them to get them to stop doing something, is filtering its way out from the sources that represent the research and science, into popular knowledge about training. More young trainers are getting onboard with it. They are reflective of what’s in store for pets and other captive animals.
We have to remain cautious that we either avoid, or acknowledge and accept, when we have latched onto something that has been packaged nicely and marketed well. This often is identified by its appeal to popular trends in how we like to think about animals. Our personal biases are stoked by descriptions and explanations about why and how someone’s technique or protocol works to change a dog’s behavior. Yes! I want to have a good relationship with my dog. Yes! I want my dog to feel empowered, imbued with confidence. Yes! I want to give my dog the choice to do what they prefer. Yes! It is wrong to hurt a dog. Yes! I need to be my dog’s pack leader.
I cannot sell something I do not own. And I will not sell something that I’ve made up reasons for why it changes a dog’s behavior. We know what we need to do to humanely and efficiently change behavior and emotional responses in dogs. Our goal should be to get better at doing it. The foundation of the technology that allows us to do this is our ability to deliver positive reinforcement to an animal in a timely way that provides them with the information about which behavior gets them the goods. Skilled trainers do this. And they do it a lot (sometimes 8-12 times a minute!).
training pigs
Keep animals feeling safe.
Create good, fun, happy, tasty, associations with objects or events we want them to be comfortable with.
Train them using food or something else good or fun, they want enough to change their behavior to get.

The 3 Steps To Helping Fearful Dogs

shy dog in cageIt has been over a decade since my fearful dog Sunny came to live with us from a rescue camp set up to help care for the animals impacted by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. I met him at Camp Katrina where I went to volunteer several weeks after the hurricanes hit. As much as I thought I knew about dogs and dog behavior, training and how dogs learn, I soon came to understand it was a drop in the bucket compared to what I needed to know in order to help and train a scared dog.
But I learned. It wasn’t always a smooth road and even today I realize how much more there is for me to understand about how behavior works and Applied Behavior Analysis, but there is no question in my mind about how to approach interacting with fearful dogs, including aggressive dogs.
The in a nutshell version is this-

  1. Keep the dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to for each dog. We want to see fearful reactions decrease or end. It may mean ceasing to talk to or interact with the dog beyond routine care. It may mean providing them with a safe haven where they can escape from whatever is scaring them on a daily basis.
  2. Change how they feel about the scary stuff by changing what it predicts. This is called counter conditioning. Usually we have the scary events become a reliable predictor for something yummy or fun. The scary thing does not have to be the source of the good stuff, only a predictor of it.
  3. Train the dog to do exactly what you need them to do using a high rate of positive reinforcement to build strong and reliable behavior. You can use a clicker if you like and know how, but you don’t need to. What you do need is to know what the dog values enough to change its behavior to get.

Common responses to these steps include;
But if the dog isn’t exposed to scary stuff how will they learn to deal with it? 
This question is like asking, “If someone doesn’t keep almost drowning how will they learn to swim?” We can’t teach someone to swim if they’re too afraid to get into the pool! We start by eliminating the need for the dog to worry about bad things happening to them. From there we can teach them everything they need to know.
I tried counter conditioning and it didn’t work!
This is often an indication that the conditioning was not done properly. Unlike a laboratory where all the different objects and events in the environment can be controlled to a greater degree than we can in the real world, it can be tricky for the dog to isolate that it’s the thing we are trying to condition them to, that is responsible for the fabulous good stuff they are receiving. There are always lots of other things going on around a dog and each or any of them might have also been conditioned to previously. A dog who is afraid of men with hats and beards might also be conditioned to feel afraid when on the sidewalk where men with hats and beards have been encountered, or the smell coming out of the door of the hair salon at the spot where a scary man was last encountered.
My dog isn’t interested in food when scared.
Fear and anxiety impact a dog’s digestive system. It’s not unusual for them to not want to eat. See step 1.
I don’t want to use food. 
Food is a primary reinforcer, as such it is among the easiest, most portable and salient things we can use to train. Use it. If your dog is motivated by toys and play, lucky you, use them.
What if I don’t have food. 
If a dog has been trained to perform a behavior because food was provided as a consequence, and that has happened a lot, the behavior is usually strong enough to persist even if at some times we don’t have food. We can also condition other things to work as reinforcement as well. Don’t worry about it, a good trainer can show you how it’s done.
My mission is to help people living with or working with fearful dogs to have a better understanding about how to help them. My fearfuldogs.com website has lots of information and resources. If you need more help you can schedule a phone or skype consult. Webinars and seminars are also available. Before you let anyone handle or train your fearful dog make sure they know these important 3 steps.

Between A Rock & A Hard Place

small dog looking at toySometimes we have to do something because it needs to be done. If we grab someone about to fall off a cliff we can worry about having to apologize later for having touched them without their permission. But we need to be careful not to use the excuse that needing to get something done absolves us from understanding what it is we are doing.
If ever there was a group of professionals who could use the excuse that something needed to be done, it’s veterinarians. What we are seeing today, happily and gratefully, is the recognition that how something is done to an animal can have serious implications for that animal in the future, and any decisions made regarding how to handle and treat animals should be done with a thorough understanding of those implications.
There remains resistance among some in the rescue and sheltering community to, at the very least, acknowledge that decisions made regarding how to handle and train a dog can matter in the long term for that dog and the people living with it. It is reasonable to determine that the time and resources to work with some dogs in ways that minimize the risks of creating fear and possibly instigating aggression, are not available. However it’s important to consider whether we are holding onto and justifying familiar practices because they are what we are used to doing. Perhaps they work with enough dogs that dogs who require a more systematic or less aversive approach, can be considered an unfortunate, but acceptable loss when they fail to make it as a pet.
When a dog’s life depends on being trained, train as though their lives depend on it.
Keep the dog feeling safe. Help them feel safe.
Counterconditioning to the scary stuff. Incorporate gradual exposure to them as necessary.
Train. Use food, toys or play. Use lots of food, toy or play. 

Clean-up On Aisle Dog

worried looking boxer dog

Photo courtesy of Olathe Animal Hospital

If you happen to be privy to the chatter that goes on between dog trainers, what I am going to say will not be new to you. Daily, dog trainers are contacted to help an owner with a dog, a normal, healthy, fully functioning dog, whose behavior has become untenable or even dangerous. Sometimes we’re contacted within a few days or weeks after the problem behavior has been identified. More often it’s been months or years before we get the call (or text or email).
We may be their first hope, often we are their last. We are not usually going where no trainer has gone before. On the contrary, we are stepping in to try to fix a problem that another trainer (or trainers) failed to address, contributed to, and yes, even caused.
Whether an owner followed the bad advice shared by; a trainer’s TV show, book, seminar, a sales person in a pet shop, or the folklore of a culture, it becomes our turn to step up to the plate. Though the deck has been stacked against us, bases are loaded, with 2 strikes, all eyes are on us to win this thing.
Cleaning up a behavior problem that is based on a schedule of positive reinforcement is like getting a water soluble stain out of synthetic. Behavior problems caused by the use of punishment (P+) or other aversive methods (R-) are more like oil-based stains on silk, good luck to you. Even if you do manage to get it out, the fabric may never be the same as it was before it was stained.
Be careful how you handle a dog, any dog, but especially one that is fearful and fragile. If in doubt as an owner or trainer, visit the Fearfuldogs.com website for more information about the most effective and humane ways to train. Join me in Concord NH in February 2018 for a day of learning to Train As If Their Lives Depended On It.

Do Something

I call them “chiselers.” Not the swindler kind, but the kind with chisels who show up and whittle away at your resolve, confidence, and enthusiasm. I can be one and cringe when I observe it in myself.
We can be quick to point out the flaws in an idea or plan, or why it won’t work or shouldn’t be done. The internet even coined a term for a form of it, “concern troll.” It’s not that there is no value to having someone point out flaws, we can’t think of everything, and it may be a heads up as to what obstacles we should prepare for. But it’s the rain on our parade and the pin bursting our bubble.
girl decorating a treat pouch for training dogs
When I first floated the idea of having satos (Puerto Rico street dogs) transported to our local humane society I ran into it.

-What about the dogs already in our area needing homes?! Our shelter frequently had empty runs and the dogs I was planning on bringing over were all under 20#, a size which is hard to find in our local shelters. Someone going to a shelter for a small dog is not likely to end up bringing home a 70# lab mix.
-Disease was a concern, and a valid one. It was addressed.
-Why put energy and money into dogs when there were children who needed help? Without question there are plenty of other causes that need to be addressed in the world. Pick your passion. I encouraged those who felt that there were more important needs, to do something about them. I did often wonder if they actual did, or if pointing out the problem and trashing my idea was the extent of their efforts.
When I first created the fearfuldogs.com website I was criticized because some thought that instead of encouraging people to look at a website I should be telling them to find a trainer. A good idea, but at that time the supply of trainers who could humanely and efficiently address fear-based behaviors was even smaller than it is now.
We all have experienced this in some way or another. You are excited about a move to a new area for a job and your aunt keeps sending you articles about bad things that have happened there. It is done out of concern and love, but you can feel it whittling away at your joy. People will claim to be trying to spare you disappointment, or to stop you from wasting your time. My daily posts in my Fearful Dog Group on Facebook were routinely critiqued by someone or another who felt I could have used a better turn of phrase or words to make my point. I rarely found them to be wrong, but the chronic sting of their comments (being made with good intentions I assumed) was wearing and I began to dread posting something in anticipation of chisel.
I have never forgotten the words of advice my brother-in-law gave me over 20 years ago when I was thinking about starting a business. “What if I wasn’t successful,” I asked. “Most people never even try,” he responded.
You don’t have to be like most people. Try.
*The people on the islands of Puerto Rico and Vieques are in dire need of support. If you would like to drop them a few dollars for water and supplies here are a couple of reputable options for making a difference in their world.
Go to paypal and “send” to
or click on this link


By |2017-09-28T10:06:52+00:00September 28th, 2017|Dog training, Fostering Dogs, Helping fearful dogs|2 Comments

The Bad News About Fearful Dogs

drawing 3 children 2 covering eyes 1 covering mouthI am contacted regularly by people who have found themselves living with a fearful dog and looking for help. They are to a person, kind, compassionate, caring folks looking for answers. And I have them. But I routinely have to tell people things they do not want to hear.
When I mention that veterinarians and vet behaviorists can prescribe medications to help dogs who are anxious, something I do early in the conversation, some people are clearly upset. They paid me for information to help their dogs and I’m suggesting they consider putting the dog on drugs and they do not want to put their dog on drugs (few of us do and I am not saying they should, only making them aware of the option). Others will be relieved to find out there is something they can do tomorrow that could relieve their dog’s anxiety, the chronic startling or hyper vigilance, or the frozen immobility. They will be disappointed when I point out that though medications can be exactly what the doctor ordered for our dogs, there will still be training involved, and medications may need to be changed or dosages adjusted. There will be more effort required to get their dog to a happier place.
What worries me the most is that I know there are trainers who will tell people exactly what they want to hear. They will tell owners that they can fix their dog. What many owners don’t understand is that the way these trainers get rapid behavior change is because they are willing to do things to the dog that the dog doesn’t like. They will use pain, force or intimidation to get the dog to behave differently, and there’s nothing like pain, force, or threats of it, to get an animal to change its behavior. Sometimes it’s easy to identify that a trainer is scaring a dog. Trainers do not lack excuses for why this is required.
There are other trainers who will also use things that a dog doesn’t like or want to have happen to change their behavior but they either are sneakier in their explanations regarding how they are getting the dog to behave differently, more subtle in their use of coercion, or they don’t understand it themselves. They will label what they do with terms like; balanced, natural, functional, intuitive. They will talk about packs or how dogs get other dogs to change their behavior. They’ll call what they do adjusting, pushing or correcting.
That is the bad news about fearful dogs. The good news is that what I, and other trainers who understand how fear impacts behavior and how we can humanely and efficiently change it, have to say is exactly what owners need to hear.
-Keep your dog feeling safe. Do this however you need to. Talk to a vet or vet behaviorist about how you could best relieve your dog’s suffering.
-Make whatever you want the dog to feel good about become a reliable predictor of food or play.
-Find a trainer who knows how to train using lots of rewards to help your dog learn new skills that will help them feel more comfortable in the world they have to live in.
Look for educational seminars in your area about fearful dogs.

By |2017-03-11T11:23:48+00:00March 11th, 2017|Fostering Dogs, Helping fearful dogs|36 Comments