Musings of a dog trainer, on fearful dogs

Being out of ones comfort Zone, make’s one think

Currently  I am sitting on a 38 foot sailing catamaran in Fisherman’s bay at Great Keppel Island.  How wonderful you might think, as you imagine sun, aqua waters and sipping wine.  Well certainly at times that is the picture. But sailing is not all fun.  And the two weeks we have taken to get here has been full of many a stressful and unpleasant moment. This has made me think of what we put our dogs through at times.  How does this relate to the fearful dog you might wonder?  I have worked with many a client’s dog and also my own, on issues of “reactivity” towards something the dog sees as being scary.  When a dog shows signs of either aggression or behaviours that show us (if we can read a little dog body language) he wants to increase the distance between him and the “scarry”, we tend to use the word reactivity. So the dog can be labelled dog to dog aggressive etc.

How we try to change a dog

One way to change a dog’s emotional response to a stimulus that is causing him to show stress behaviours is to do a de-sensitisation and counter conditioning program with the dog.  In brief we slowly expose the dog to the thing he is scared of while he can cope and reward the coping.  The aim is to convince his brain that the scary thing is actually OK and that wow I get good treats when its around.  Myself and many a trainer have had good success with this method, but just sometimes it goes wrong.  Why? In technical terms we end up actually sensitizing the dog to the very stimulus we are trying to de-sensitise.  Sometimes this is inexperience of the process. Either the trainer or the client go to fast to soon.  We all want results and the pressure is there to get them.  But this really is a time to go real slow.  I look at how I worked my own “reactive dog” and realise that because I took nearly two years to see real results that yes I took my time.  And he is one of those always work in progress dogs, as he is a very fearful dog. But improvement was outstanding.


Things don’t always go as planned

Back to sailing, I am not an experienced sailor.  I do not think I am overly nervous, but as the years go on certainly I am more cautious.  So this planned trip was always a concern to me.  What I guess I was hoping to happen was that I would become familiar and better able to cope, yes de-densitised to sailing and all it entails.  But what in fact I have realized has been happening in the last couple of weeks is I am in fact becoming more sensitized to sailing.  I find even the slightest out of norm noise, (and believe me there are lots of noises day and night) will get me on edge. There have been a few things go wrong nothing life threatening just unpleasant. This is also compounded by the fact that I am then so reliant on my husband to sort situations out. And he generally does so all good there but that does not help my internal fear. So thinking from the perspective of an animal who is generally at a disadvantage because they have to rely on us and do not have a good two way communication system, I can begin to understand how some dogs find it very hard to change their internal emotions on something that they find scarry. Another factor here is how much enjoyment/gain is there from the very activity in which you are in where there is the scary part as well.  What I mean is, OK there are great things about this trip I am on, seeing really out of the norm places, some of which are stunning, snorkeling or walking in nature. But the balance of good to bad has to be higher.  And there are other aspects of long term sailing that I could go into that are not so pleasant but will spare you.  So when taking our dogs out on a walk, the balance of good has to be greater. So this then means we have to be observant and take note what the dogs actually enjoys on the walk and make sure this outweighs the scary encounters otherwise regardless of how much de-sentitisation and counter conditioning we are doing the dog still won’t enjoy the walk. Get the balance right and then go real slow with the training and there is at least a good chance that the process could work.  This then brings in the idea of why doing nose work to help dogs that have reactive/fear issues can work so well. Most dogs enjoy using their noses to find stuff. If we then tip that balance of good and bad more to be more good, by allowing sniffing and finding then this can help.  So I just need more wine on this sailing trip.


Is Your Dog Happy

Seriously have a think about this from their perspective. In your mind, be your dog for a day. Now, what happens from the moment you wake up, until you go to bed at night. How do you tell if your dog is happy and his needs are being met. Some people complain that we keep captive animals in Zoos or aquariums, but I can tell you some of these have happier lives than some of our captive dogs. OK dogs have been domesticated for hundreds of years. But that does not mean they can be happy without some of the things they would do in the wild. Are street dogs happy or are they just in survival mode. I am not going to try and answer these questions. Just provoking thought.

For blog post

Have you heard of the five freedoms, this is worldwide
• FREEDOM FROM HUNGER AND THIRST. by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
• FREEDOM FROM DISCOMFORT. by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.

Let’s assume 1 to 3 you are OK with. It’s the other two I am more concerned with. Some dogs are happy just to sniff around in their backyard and then sleep and eat for most of their days. But not that many. Dogs like to explore, (go out on a walk) to sniff out where others have been, (to hunt) but we have to be somewhat restrictive there and have them on lead so as to protect the fauna. We can substitute some of their hunting prowess with games. Get to know what games really turn your dog on, some will enjoy tugging others like ball games, some may enjoy finding things. Most pet owners have no problem seeing that their dog is happy while engaged in a game. But what about when the 5 year old is doing something or the adult visitor is looming over your dog like a giant. Have a look at all parts of the dog, start with ear position, facial expression, eyes (shape and pupil), which way the head is turned, the weight and position of the dog on front or back end, and the tail. Dogs should be free from fear and distress, and that’s a tough one, as we cannot always have that for ourselves, however we should not be the cause of the fear and distress (beware, some training techniques use intimidation). If you have an over sensitive dog (and some are) then even a family dispute will upset the dog. Be mindful of how your dog handles situations, you may need to adjust the way you interact, or train your dog. A big part of what I do as a trainer has to do with education of the owners, to be more in tune with their dog. We have to be aware before we can change.

Together we can improve the lives of animals.

The who’s who in the dog behaviour world

Un-mystifying the world of dog training/behaviour.

Let’s start with what we are all familiar with.  Your local Vet. Vets train at a university level and are doctors, training is long and hard going, predominantly the knowledge base is anatomy and physiology of animals. Some vets do have a keen interest in behaviour, and can advise clients that come to the clinic on some matters. However animal behaviour is a complex subject and therefore there is need for further study.  Some Vets go on to specialize in behaviour, they are then called Vet Behaviourists (VB).

Dog Training is Unregulated

Now for the side that is confusing, dog trainers and those dog trainers who call themselves behaviourists. Unlike Vets and VB’s there are no regulations in the world of Dog training even those who say they are behaviourists, in reality there is no such thing. Some Dog trainers like myself have a baseline qualification in dog training, and then go on to do further study usually via online courses or reading and continuing education at seminars. Then through education and experience feel they have the skills to deal with more than just teaching a dog and handler the basic skills. So then go on to say they deal with problem behaviours and adjust the problem behaviour using recognized behaviour modification programs. Hence the confusing that some trainers will list themselves as behaviourists. I will admit I have been guilty of saying that I modify dog behaviour, but I do not claim to be a VB and in fact I will refer clients to a VB if I feel it is warranted. The other issue we need to cover is money. The dog industry is worth millions however the general populous is still reluctant to spend high on dog training. Now going to a vet is a necessary thing and as a doctor indeed there is a corresponding fee to go with that, the same applies to going to a VB. Because, dog trainers are not doctors they do not have such rates.  Do your best in assessing for yourself the knowledge base and experience of dog trainers who take on behaviour issues. Around my area we have obedience clubs and agility club that run basic dog classes, these are good value as the trainers are unqualified and are voluntary. That does not mean they are not good, most dog trainers start off running classes that way. Then there are privately run dog training classes, costs can be higher. Teaching a class is more about teaching the handler the skills to teach their dogs, and does not require a high level of experience (although this can help). When engaging someone to come to your aid in sorting a behaviour issue, ask question.

If you are experiencing issues with your dog

So if you have issues such as Barking, digging, dogs reacting adversely to other dogs/people, chasing/predatory, guarding resources, then get a trainer in that has experience and knowledge. All dogs should have a basic level of obedience skills to make for more cohesive living arrangements, so attend a class or get private in home training.
I welcome being interrogated before you engage my services, it is a buyer beware situation.

Does your dog watch TV, some interesting research about what our dogs see

Dr Paul McGreevey (Sydney University) discovered by measuring and examining the skull, nose and shape of the head and collected eyes from dogs that had died, that dog’s eyes from different dog breeds are clearly different in their dimensions. This was contrary to the text books to date. Another animal scientist Dr Alison Harman also made a huge discovery. She looked inside the eyes of dogs the retina to be specific. What she discovered is that some breeds of dog have a visual streak and some have something more similar to human eyes that have a retina with a dense area called the centralis.
So what this means is that different dog breeds not only have different shape eyes which will impact on vision but that they will see quite differently. Those with the visual streak will have a great field of vision however the dogs with the centralis will see more like us, the middle bit. Short nosed dogs have a centralis. Long nosed dogs have a visual streak. So a hunting breed like the Afghan with its long nose sees so much more to chase.
But if you think the centralis miss out, no it seems they have three times the density of nerve endings as a visual streak, so see in much higher definition which may explain their ability to be so attentive to their human face and even to watch TV
Oh, and contrary to popular belief, dogs don’t see in black and white. They see in colour. They just can’t see the colour red very well.


Hilary Paull