Knowing When

One of the most important aspects of helping a fearful dog is knowing when your dog can handle more.

Change is good for your fearful dog, just like it’s good for a “regular” dog. It may even be better. Dogs like Silas are intense about their environment. New sounds, new smells, new people, new surfaces, new sights; those things are all extremely present to a fearful dog. Everything gets noticed. One of the frustrations of a fearful dog, in fact, is that your dog notices a hundred things that you couldn’t possibly notice, and will sometimes react in a seemingly random way.

It’s easiest by far with a fearful dog to use a rigidly controlled routine. We turn left at the corner, and nothing bad happens, and then we turn right at the next corner, and nothing bad happens. We eat breakfast at 8:30, and nothing bad happens. You can trust the people in this room at this store. There are no dogs in the good park at 3:30 on Tuesdays.

What I’ve noticed with Silas, though, is that the more we lock into a routine, the more suspicious he gets of anything that is not a part of that routine. Going a different route at the park, for instance, gets harder and harder for him the more times we go the same way.

While you might think that there isn’t any harm in something like going the same way at the park every time, we’ve seen some bad fallout from it. Sometimes trails are closed. Sometimes the park changes. The formerly “best” park is now the “scariest” park, because some trees got cut down.

The balance between familiar-enough and horizon-expanding is, for me, the hardest thing about life with a fearful dog. Too much, too soon, and you reinforce the idea that the world is really scary. To a certain point, the comfort that comes from routine is a confidence booster. Not enough, and you get increased fear of anything out of the ordinary.

Here’s what I’m discovering: you are going to mess it up sometimes, but your dog is more resilient than you think. As long as we’re on the scale of minor infractions–being wrong about going to a new park, for instance, or taking a too-large step while counterconditioning against reactivity, you’ll both be fine. You’ll also get some good feedback about what not to do next time.

Product Review: Through A Dog’s Ear, Volume 1

I never thought I would see the day that I bought my dog his own music. Really.

CD Cover

That was then, this is now, as they say.

The “Through a Dog’s Ear” CDs are acoustically engineered to be soothing for dogs. They’re not just pretty piano pieces; they’re selected and modified in various ways to maximize your dog’s relaxation. I, personally, don’t notice anything obviously different about them. The effect is, I think, mostly in pacing and selection.

There is some debate about how generally effective these are. Lisa Spector, a pianist, and Joshua Leeds, a “psychoacoustic expert,” post some fairly compelling data on their own website. Patricia McConnell, on the other hand, recently blogged about a new study that found the engineered pieces less soothing to shelter dogs than “regular” classical music. (She notes that the study played one track on a loop, which is not how the Dog’s Ear pieces are meant to be used.)

Here’s the thing: I don’t care what the research says. This CD is not magic. It doesn’t tone down Silas’s overall behavior at all. While I don’t find these tracks to be generally soothing, though, they do one thingĀ incredibly well. That thing is stopping what I call the anxiety spiral. Sometimes when Silas gets tired, he can’t sleep because he’s worried. The more tired he gets, the more anxious he gets. He’s been in this loop for an hour or two now. I turned on this CD, sat down to write this review, and he was asleep by the end of the first track. If he isn’t in “the loop,” like I said, I don’t find them to make a huge difference. But they’re just enough to calm him down enough to help him sleep. If that sounds like a weak endorsement, you’ve never had a nervous dog.

I do play other classical music, as well as other “regular” music in a pretty wide range of genres. This CD is more effective than the others, although any background noise is preferable to none. I will say that the classical music my husband and I like is on the clash-y modern side. Less Brahms, more Stravinsky, if you will. I would be interested to see if more traditional recordings of the same or similar pieces, with their full orchestral backing, produce a similar effect. If you don’t already have a library of gentle classical music, or know what to buy, the Through a Dog’s Ear CDs are definitely handy.

The Curse

The best of our local pet stores is cursed. From Silas’s perspective, anyway. Until this week, I’d taken him one time. He had a meltdown when someone came around the corner of a high counter and startled him. Since then, we’ve gotten back into the habit of going out together, so I thought I would try again. One quick pass around the store, then he could wait for me in the car.

The first 3/4 of the store went great. No barking, polite but not overly interested greetings of the staff. We were standing in the corner of the toy aisle, minding our own business, when the shop cat poked its head around the corner. “Hmm,” I thought, “I don’t know how Silas will like a cat maybe we should move.” And then Yowl/Hiss/Snarl/Bark!!! I have no image in my mind of what happened. Cat looked around corner, I had my one thought, and then BAM. Noise, and the pet store clerk running over to get the cat.

If you’re expecting that Silas charged the cat, who got too close to the end of his leash, you are wrong. This is the one fact I do know, because Silas emptied his entire bladder, and the puddle was exactly where we were standing when I first saw the cat.

Which means apparently the cat saw Silas and moved toward him at considerable velocity. According to the clerks, this is not the first time the cat has taken it on herself to rid the world of dogs, although she doesn’t do it consistently enough that they’ve felt obligated to close her up permanently.

The staff did everything they should have–closed the cat up in the office, got Silas some treats, loved on him. I didn’t think to make sure the cat was okay, in part because I didn’t realize that they’d really made contact. Until I saw this:


Poor Silas, he just can’t catch a break. I do hope the fast, positive response by the staff minimized his psychological trauma. While a fear of cats won’t ruin our lives, since I’m allergic, the last thing he needs is proof that the world is out to get him.

We found a completely empty little park to run in afterwards, which did seem to cheer him up a bit.


Raw Food: Variety and Supplements

When I first started looking into raw food, I quickly came to the conclusion that those people were crazy. Very serious discussions about feeding whole animals, complete with fur, for instance, or the best place to find Llama meat. I’m still a little squicked by the former, but the latter I can now, sadly, empathize with.

Pragmatically, you should feed your dog a reasonable variety of things. Some meats have more of some nutrients, and you do run a risk of triggering food problems if you’re too exclusive. I think the typical recommendation I’ve seen is to rotate through four protein sources. The most mainstream choices are beef, chicken, lamb, pork, and turkey, which are all fairly standard grocery store fare. If you live near an ethnic market, you may find that whole fish, duck, goat, or rabbit is also an easy and surprisingly economical choice. Duck at my Asian grocer is a quarter the price of lamb at my regular store.

There’s no reason, though, to worry about hunting down “weird” things if you don’t want to. You also don’t have to go crazy trying to distribute your dog’s diet evenly amongst your usual proteins. If you can only find ground turkey or can only afford lamb once every few months, it isn’t going to hurt anything. And, truthfully, while living with serious food issues has made me hyperventilate a little over people who only feed their dogs one protein source, the chances of it causing an actual problem are fairly small. UNLESS your dog is already prone to food issues. Then watch your food variety very, very carefully.

The other definitive turn-off for me was the arm-long list of usually quite expensive vitamins and supplements people give their raw-fed dogs. On that one I can only offer the advice of practical experience–it won’t hurt you to skip them at first and gradually add what seems most appropriate to you. Even now, the only thing that I definitely give 100% of the time with every meal is fish oil (half a dose with each meal, although just one full dose would be fine), and we didn’t start that right away, either. Note that I’m not saying to skip all of them forever, just that the “perfect” handful of supplements is not going to make or break your dog’s diet from day one.

Improvements You Don’t Expect

I’ve made what seems like a dozen lifestyle changes lately. More classical music in the daytime. A DAP diffuser. More use of Silas’s thundershirt. Some new vitamins. Changes in Silas’s training. More counter-conditioning. More empathy. More interactive toys. Going to the park more and going on more errands. Meeting more people.

There have been some improvements, although because this is reality none of them have been instant or dramatic.

In Thundershirt at park

On Thursday I took Silas to the park in his Thundershirt. It turns out, Thundershirt+dehydrated liver=willing to take treats outdoors. Even when strangers are coming. So, instead of just having to physically restrain him (stepping to the side and holding his harness while he scrabbles desperately; he wants to be friendly, but I can’t let him greet people because if they don’t do it just-so he panics.) I could get him to the side, hold his harness, and feed him treats! Big revolution. Of course, he hated being at the park in his Thundershirt and kept trying to scrape it off on things. I’m hoping a couple of trips will get him in some good new habits that we can sustain minus the shirt.

Some of the lifestyle changes are more about improving general confidence, the positive (in the sense of additive) side of trying to remove his anxieties. And, even though I didn’t expect it, this is where we’re finally starting to see some real changes. One evening his ball hit the fireplace grate pretty hard, with a big unusual noise. Silas was taken aback, but after a tiny momentary pause he went over to check it out.

Then, we had what is either our biggest breakthrough ever, or the weirdest fluke of all time.

It was time for Silas to get a spa day. You know, nails and bath. He’s not the worst dog ever about having his nails done, but he’s pretty bad. I’ve never quicked him, but our old clippers were dull and it took a lot of probably uncomfortable pressure before they would slice through. The way we’ve learned to do it is for my husband to hold a huge spoonful of peanut butter for Silas to lick while I do all his nails quickly with the new sharp clippers. This time he was actually pretty good.

Then it was the bath. I ran the water, got all the things arranged, took Silas into the bathroom, and got his collar off. And he started walking toward the bathtub. Cheerfully, I said, “Hey, let’s get in the bathtub!” Now, Silas hates baths, in the kind of “I will tolerate this, but I am deeply depressed and offended” way that he gets about me putting his on his harness. I have to bodily lift him into the tub, while he cowers against the far wall of the bathroom. People, he jumped in.

Into the bathtub! With the evil water!

The Work of Food

One of the things that can push new people away from raw food is how much work it seems like. Which is funny, because over time people who feed raw start to take a bizarre kind of pride in exactly how complicated they can make things. (The same is true for price and variety, which is something I’ll talk more about later in the series.)

The truth is, the quantity of work depends largely on your local resources and your dog. The raw diet is composed of basically three parts–meat with bones, meat without bones, and organs. If you can get just the right things at the store, you can basically put any of that straight from the meat department packaging into a dish.

Sometimes you have to work at it, though. Silas, for instance, is a small-medium dog who can only eat food that comes in fairly large increments. Even the dainty turkey wings from Whole Foods might weigh a pound each, when his dinner is supposed to be six ounces, so I have to spend three or four minutes cutting each one into sections. I’ve also been driven to some time-consuming things–at Thanksgiving, I completely jointed and carved two entire raw turkeys in one evening. Silas also won’t eat boneless meat that’s in chunks or large pieces, so I have to mince it. (A pair of very good poultry shears are the #1 must-have for raw feeding.)

With that said, let’s walk through the process a little:
1) Buy meat. Now, depending on where you live, what your dog can eat, and your budget, this can be the easiest part or the hardest part. If Silas could eat chicken and beef, I could do all of his shopping at the regular grocery store while I’m picking up our groceries. I could, strangely, do the same in the extremely rural area where my parents live, because the “weird” meats, like liver, gizzards, necks, and backs, are all still eaten or used as seasonings. For most of what we buy, I have to drive about 45 minutes to the pet food specialty store.

2) Process meat. There are a few ways to do this, depending on how you shop. Some people choose to get meat in bulk, either because it’s cheaper or because that’s their best option, which really front-loads the work. These are the people that you’ll see defrosting chickens in the bathtub. I don’t buy in that kind of quantity. My maximum is about one month of food at a time. I do try to come right home from the store and cut the big bony pieces into meal sizes, but some things don’t need it. Usual process: defrost just enough to cut through, divide into ziploc bags with a few meals’ worth, and refreeze. Since Silas is still living on those turkeys I divided at Thanksgiving mixed in with some already serving-sized pork, my average daily work right now is: rummage in freezer, find something in the right category of food, put it down in the fridge to defrost.

3) Mealtime!: As with kibble, plunk food into dish. This gets more elaborate only because raw food people are often geeky control freaks, but my most complicated actual meal is maybe two parts. It takes longer than feeding kibble mostly because of the %$@&ed deli containers that organs come in. Or, if I was lazy on the prep work, I might have to cut something up.

4) Cleanup: Whatever makes you comfortable. I’ll confess, after years of mocking people mercilessly for it, I’ve finally given in to the disinfecting kitchen wipe. (Although I buy the Seventh Generation ones, which are ostensibly less toxic and horrible.) A quick swipe of the counter, if I spilled or dribbled, and a quick wipe around Silas’s eating area, and we’re all done. If you have kids, elderly, or otherwise immune-suppressed people around, you’ll want to be a good bit more careful.

If this kind of thing interests you, remember to enter my book giveaway for a copy of Lew Olsen’s Raw and Natural Nutrition For Dogs. Entries open until Friday.


The thing about counterconditioning your dog’s most common fear is that you are forced into a constant awareness of it. My husband and I are, no kidding, easily over 15 instances of various lengths a day. Now, sometimes that’s the same person on the street, having a loud conversation and then being quiet and then starting it up again. Or, there are clusters around particular times of day–school letting out, say, or the popular hours for going/coming from the restaurant down the street. (Have I mentioned that we live in a terrible neighborhood for Silas?) Still, it’s a pretty rare half an hour that goes by between 10:00am and 9:00pm that one of us doesn’t have to intervene.

The other important thing is that you are probably responding to sub-incidental occurrences. That is: Silas only gets hysterical over a few things. While that number has been on the uptick since the plumber came (hence, urgency of this process), those 15+ incidents a day are not times when he would be absolutely inconsolable. That’s every time he woofles, every time an ear twitches, every time his head pops up from a nap.

This is wearing. Yesterday, when some people were moving in across the street, I couldn’t go long enough without dispensing treats to get my hair combed so that we could leave the house. After a day or two, your patience and empathy start to get a little thin.

It’s also depressing. Really watching your dog for reactions will make you feel like a terrible person. “How did I not notice before how upset he is?” “Am I ever going to be able to fix this?”

I’m hoping that we’re at the low point right now. Please oh please.

There is a little ray of sunshine, though. Today I realized that I can beat his reactions. Sometimes, even for some pretty loud triggers, I can get the treat in his mouth before he starts barking. When I can’t get to him, he seems to be less upset than before.

Also, somewhat ironically, the one thing he didn’t react to today? The lawn service.


The plumber coming was apparently more traumatic than I realized.

Silas has always barked at people going by in front of the house or people opening our front gate. We didn’t like it, but nothing we did about it helped, so there it was. I say that it’s his only real behavioral problem at home. The rest of it is just regular dog stuff–absconding with stray socks, or carrying off the couch pillows. And truth be told, the barking is also pretty typical dog stuff. The Westies who live around the corner are just as bad. I don’t like it, in part because it’s loud but mostly because it’s fear driven.

Since the plumber came, though, the barking has been serious. Over everything. None of this “just a bark or two if someone opens the gate and walks the other way” stuff.

Apparently, the plumber moved a hypothetical danger–that is, someone is out there and might do something–to a very real threat that someone will invade the house and I won’t be able to stop them.. And because Silas’s default fear behavior seems to be “get it before it gets me,” the result is crazy, terrified barking.


In that timely way that you run across things when you need them, I’ve been watching Patricia McConnell’s For the Love of a Dog DVD seminar. I read the book ages ago, back when Silas was a wee pup without many problems.

One of McConnell’s discussions is about fear. Think about what happens when something startles you–you hear a loud noise, you jump, and then you think, “oh, it’s just a car on the road out front, nothing to be afraid of” McConnell pulls from Temple Grandin the idea that dogs are comparatively lacking in the ability to take that last step. That action depends on an area of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, that just isn’t incredibly developed in non-human animals.

In cases of genuine (or perceived genuine) danger, even the human brain is capable of skipping the step where we decide what to do. People being attacked, for instance, don’t think, “Ok, I’ll hit here, and then kick there.” People with snake phobias don’t stop to decide if that thing on the ground is poisonous; they just run.

Those snake=run type pathways in the brain are incredibly strong. They’re also difficult to change, because your brain is deliberately not engaging the part of your brain that has the capacity to say “Stop running, idiot, that was just a stick.” And that’s in a human brain, where that rationalizing capacity is incredibly well formed to begin with.

But what if you were biologically incapable of that thought process? What if it was almost impossible for you to ever say, “Just a stick, keep walking” or “I’m afraid, but I don’t have to run” or “Oh, that’s just the dog walker going next door”? While it isn’t absolutely impossible for dogs to do those things, it is a difficult and incomplete process at best. (Stop and think about what kind of life you would lead if you couldn’t talk yourself out of your fears.)

McConnell’s proposal is that classical conditioning is the only way to help a dog out of the loop. Through many, many, many repeated pairings, you can retrain the purely illogical impulse of “snake=run” into the equally sub-logical “snake=cookie.”

The trick of using classical conditioning to modify a fear is that it does not matter how the dog is behaving. You are not rewarding the barking or the cowering; you are attempting to reprogram a neural pathway. Scary thing=cookie is the only goal. The dog is, whatever we might wish to the contrary, not in control of the barking or the cowering.

The other good thing about scary thing=cookie is that the cookie can redirect attention. Not only is the process of eating inherently satisfactory, on a neuro-chemical level, it takes the dog’s attention off that scary thing for at least the microsecond it takes to locate and chew the treat. For certain kinds of fears, especially for something transient, that diversion of attention can be enough to stop the whole process.


Don’t forget to enter my book giveaway. Entries open until Friday.

Training, Right Now

It’s been a while since I posted a training update. Truth be told, for a while I lost the motivation.

That’s finally shifted again, and suddenly I have an arm-long list of things to work on. This is thanks, on one hand, to my New Year’s Resolution to get him through the Protocol for Relaxation. We haven’t started it yet. Instead, I’ve been doing a little foundation work to help get through what I can foresee as some of the Protocol’s rough spots–staying while I jog around, for instance, or through a knocking noise. I’ll probably start the Protocol “for real” in early February, after we get back from (yet another) trip.

On the other hand, we’ve been having to do some serious counterconditioning of outside noises. It’s going incredibly well, incredibly quickly, thank goodness, but it is tedious. More on the “why” side of that tomorrow.

Last, but definitely not least, someone pointed me to Susan Garrett one day last week. I’d heard of her before, thanks to her popular Crate Games DVD, which I haven’t watched, but what I didn’t realize is that she is genius. While we don’t see eye-to-eye on quite everything, the way that she uses play and games in training was the biggest lightbulb moment I’ve had in dog training. Go “like” Susan on Facebook and watch her free “Stand” video. (It’s right under the header image, toward the right hand side). I think Garrett’s tactics are “old hat” amongst agility people, but since we are not agility people, it’s all new to me. I’ve been reading her blog like crazy over the last few days.


In the world of tiny details, I’ve also borrowed from Garrett a new release cue. I’ve never liked “free,” because it implied that stay was some kind of prison. The “ok” I used instead was too weak and too conversational, though. Garrett’s “break” is a great alternative. Also, I have to say, changing your release cue after your dog is pretty good at a behavior is kind of an easy way to do it.

It’s funny–I didn’t sign up for the January Pet Training Challenge, but I seem to have naturally gravitated that direction anyway.


Oh, don’t forget to enter my book giveaway. Entries open until Friday.