Reinforcing Fear: A Link Roundup

I keep revisiting the same conversation with people. That is, that you can’t reinforce fear by comforting a dog.

Yes, dogs seek to repeat rewarding behavior. You give them a cookie for sitting, and you increase the likelihood that they will sit again.

However, sitting is not an aversive event for the dog. No cookie or hug that you can give is “worth” panicking over a thunderstorm or cowering in terror from a stranger. Would you have a panic attack on purpose, just because people hug you when it’s over? Could you have a real panic attack on purpose, even if someone offered you a million dollars? And you’re a human; we have infinitely more rational control of our emotions than dogs do.

But don’t just take my word for it:

Possibly my new favorite dog video:

Also, Patricia McConnell, Part 1 and Part 2. This third article contains the very important reminder that “The one way you can make a fearful dog worse…is by becoming scared yourself.”

My initial introduction to that video clip came from here, with an accompanying article. Courtesy of Debbie Jacobs’s wonderful Fearful Dogs Blog .


The takeaway from these articles is that the only way you are going to increase a dog’s fear by becoming involved is when your own response is negative. And I don’t just mean punishing the dog for being afraid; if your “comfort” for a scared dog helps the dog to feel like you are equally scared or upset, you will feed his feelings of fear. That isn’t because saying “Poor baby!” is reinforcing. It’s because saying “Poor Baby!” with the attitude you only use when something is wrong emphasizes the “fact” that something is wrong.

Resolutions, Three Months In

I had two resolutions for Silas in 2013. Now that it’s almost April, I thought I would check back in with a status update.

First, I said that I wanted to get him out more. At the time I meant taking him on more errands, so that he could get more exposure to parking lots and different parts of the city. That’s been done in fits and starts. For some reason, my husband and I haven’t been going on many dog-friendly trips, even if you expand “dog-friendly” to include “short enough that he can sit in the car with the other human.” I need to jump-to on this one, because it’s about to get too hot for dog or human to sit in the car, even for five minutes.

We have been going to the park and to the pet store much more, and it has been a resounding success. We’re at a pretty consistent three days a week, sometimes more. We’ve expanded the comfort radius from one park to four. This is both timely and near-miraculous. It was essential to find him some shorter walks before it got too hot for his regular route.


Status: Check!

Second, I promised to work through the Protocol for Relaxation. I swear, I don’t know what my mental block is about doing it. The mechanics are a little hard, but I’ve worked out a strategy. Still, I do a day or two, and then I stop. I think I’m afraid that some of the later stages are just going to be insurmountably hard. I know better; if I’ve learned one thing from Silas, it’s that I should always give him the chance to impress me. I need to make this a priority!

Silas and Hugh

Aside from Silas, I’ve never been around a dog that took walks on a leash and slept in the house.

It makes it a little hard to live with a dog like Silas, who behaves at his worst out in public, where the other dogs in our urban neighborhood are often behaving at their very best. I don’t get to see (hypothetically) that the sweet little Yorkie chews holes in the sofa, or that the Golden Retriever patiently watching Silas have some kind of panic attack has terrible separation anxiety. All I know about other dogs is those polished public versions.

This weekend I left Silas alone with my husband and drove a few hours to see some friends of mine. Since I was there last, one of them has adopted a German Shorthaired Pointer, Hugh. He makes for a very interesting comparison.

Hugh is the anti-Silas. Hugh loves people. Hugh loves walks. Hugh follows my friend through a crowd, devotion shining from his big eyes. Hugh’s tongue happily lolls out of his mouth, and his stubby little tail wags all the time.

Hugh also vibrates with energy. He’s so excited to go on those walks that it takes five minutes for him to calm down enough to get the door open. When he wants to go in the back yard, he jumps straight up in the air, as high as the top of the door. Over and over and over. If he gets left alone in the back yard, he will catch and kill birds. He will run after a toy as long as your arms can throw it.

Silas, on the other hand, is pretty happy with whatever level of activity he gets, whether that’s sitting on the sofa all day or going to the park to run two miles.

Maybe I just need to meet more dogs.

Creepy Crawlies

Insects have been popping up all over the blogs this week. I guess we’re collectively preparing for “bug season.” shudder

Our worst problem, far and away, is mosquitoes. I’ve counted twenty on me at a time in the park after a rain storm. And that was just my front side. For dogs, mosquitoes mean heart worm. My state is very high up the list of heart-worm prevalence. In the one exception to my general medication paranoia, Silas is on a heart worm preventative year round. We use the cheap and easy HeartGard chewables. Silas adores those things. They’re beef flavored, which can set off an allergic reaction in susceptible dogs, but we’ve been fine so far. Bonus, for us, is that ivermectin also kills hookworms and roundworms. Since Silas is an inveterate snarfer of wildlife poop on the rare occasions that he has access, I like that. (It is not effective against tapeworms, which are especially prevalent in rabbit droppings, so we keep an eye out for those.) We do still have the nuisance of the mosquitoes themselves, so if you know a good, dog-safe deterrent let me know.

I dance a happy jig every summer that Silas has such short white hair. Dog chewing himself? Look around, find the flea, kill the flea. We used Comfortis for a while, before I put two and two together and realized that he didn’t need it. (Please, please, read M.C.’s post about Comfortis dosages if you have a small-medium sized dog.) Silas is not a good candidate for topical flea treatments, because of recurrent skin issues that have been especially bad in the summer.

We had two major tick infestations last summer. Make that, “every time we left our area.” Ticks aren’t a bad problem locally–I suspect that we get too much sun. We very foolishly trotted off to the Ozarks on vacation with our dog who is on no tick prevention of any kind. Silas loves to root around in underbrush. I had to pick baby ticks from between Silas’s toes, among other places. The second one was, we thought, late enough in the year that we didn’t have to worry. I was wrong. The vet took one look at Silas and put him in a tick bath. (We’ve also done a tick-borne disease panel since then, don’t worry.) She then recommended a Preventic collar for the rest of our outings. The ostensible benefit is that it will kill and detach even ticks that are already present. I’m a little on the fence about actually using it, but last year was so horrific that I feel compelled.

What’s the worst creepy-crawly in your area? How do you and your dog cope?

People Person

For a long time, Silas has had one rule about people. He wants to play a little hard to get. You reach quickly for him? You are done, and are told so with some volume. You hold your hand down and let him come to you? You get the sweet and pitiful routine. Closest analogue:

I’ve honestly been fine with this. I mean, it might be nice to have a unanimously friendly dog, but I don’t. It’s okay with me that he has rules, now that I finally understand them. I learned to call out to people in advance that he’s nervous, and 97% of the time these days we have the good reaction. (Actually, as a side note, I’m not really sure that these break down into “bad” and “good.” A lot of the time the barking is kind of playful, like he thinks you were going to chase him. He’ll even drop into a play bow with some people. The “sweet and pitiful” routine is so excessive that I worry about it. But barking is not socially acceptable, and making big eyes is.)

The problem that’s been lingering, though is the fallout from option one. Startled Silas will bark every time he sees that person move, until I can finally leave whatever situation it is. The rare exceptions to this have been professional dog people. He doesn’t sound really upset at any point in the whole process. Just, “Hey! Be still!”

We’ve been making real progress, though! I think the credit goes to the fact that we’ve been going out at least three times a week since January, if not four. He’s getting a lot more practice with people, and most of it good. Last week at PetSmart, we had a tremendous first. The employee who wanted to pet him reached down a little too fast. Silas barked and backed away. I said, “He’s nervous.” She said, “Oh, I see,” and stood quietly. Silas stopped barking and went right back up to her. I almost fainted.

Running Gear

I’m going to throw this out there, dear readers:

I need bag that I can run with. It needs to carry two bottles of water, poop bags, my car keys, and my phone. Room for a spare leash or a tiny toy would be nice.

I have plenty of “serviceable” options (have I ever mentioned that my husband adores buying outdoor gear?), but I’m kind of in the Goldilocks position.

The bag I carry when I run solo only holds one bottle of water, like this one.

Not mine, but similar

I can share with Silas if I pour from the bottle, but yesterday we went through a whole bottle in a thirty minute run. Pouring is wasteful, and our steel water bottles don’t have the squeezy kind of sport cap. Have I mentioned that it will get twenty degrees hotter than it was yesteraday? (At that point I won’t be running at 2:00 in the afternoon, but yesterday’s high was still cooler than what we’ll be running in before long.)

The bag I carry when I go to the park with Silas recreationally has acres of room, but still only one water bottle pouch. (You can click through to my review here.)

Option three is, on the other hand, too much. Or, rather, too hot. I could carry the pack my husband bought me for mountain biking. (HAHAHAHAHA) It carries 100oz of water, with a squeeze-type hose where I could easily dispense water for Silas. It has plenty of room for all of his park stuff. I could stop switching bags, and keep the frisbee, the long line, the extra short leash, the poop bags, the squeaky ball, the tug toy, and all of my stuff in one bag all the time. It has room for summer emergency supplies, like sunscreen and bug spray. But it is a full backpack, albeit a light one. Do you know how hot it is to run in a backpack at 90 degrees? Let alone one that’s full of ten pounds of water and dog gear.

The backpack

How do you manage, athletic people? Does your dog not stop to beg pitifully for water every three minutes? Do you own clothes with lots of large pockets?


To be as neurotic as he is, Silas bounces back from fear very, very well. I’m thankful for this every day.

The one of us who doesn’t bounce back well is me. I worry too much about other people judging my crazy dog, and I worry too much about exposing him to situations that have ended badly in the past.

I’ve mentioned before that one of the hardest things about having a fearful dog is that you have to know when it’s okay to push them to do something new. Standing still is moving backwards, as the saying goes. Or, in a more zen way, you need to walk forward, even if it is very slowly. The more you let your fearful dog sit in his comfortable rut, the deeper the rut gets and the harder it is to climb out of.

In a way I’m lucky that we live in such an urban area. It gives Silas a lot of opportunity to prove what he’s made of. Even at the quietest park, at the weirdest time of the day, there’s a 75% chance that we’ll meet at least a person, if not a person with a dog.

I’d been dragging my feet about taking Silas out running with me again, after he had a pretty reactive moment with another dog on the trail a week ago. (I think this was a classic case of “Stop looking at me like that!” The other dog didn’t seem to be doing anything bad to me, but Silas never goes that crazy.) Nothing happened, but it set me on edge.

Today I gave in and took him with me. We met not one but three huge dogs, who were off leash when we first saw them. The owners were perfect and leashed them back up instantly, but I still had to get Silas through the pack. I went to my “calm place,”shortened up his leash, and walked on; and he was perfect. Of course.

Now he’s sacked out with his mouthful of blanket. It’s getting hot here to be out at mid-afternoon.

Do or Don’t

Jen at The Elka Almanac got me thinking this morning.

If you ask an average person what a good dog looks like, they’ll tell you a list of things like this that a good dog doesn’t do. Good dogs don’t bark. They don’t steal shoes and underwear. They don’t eat the garbage. They don’t try to pull you on their leash. They don’t run after squirrels. They don’t dig in your flowers. Chances are, in fact, that your dog does one of those things, and you, too, are bothered by it.

You have three options when faced with any of these problems.

First, you can shrug it off. “Dogs do that,” you say. It irritates you a little, but it’s not a big deal.

Secondly, you can manage the problem. Put the garbage can behind closed doors. Buy landscaping material that your dog cant get through and a completely dog-proof laundry bin.

Third, you can train the problem away. That negative list of things a good dog “doesn’t” do isn’t very helpful as a training project, though. Sure, you could take that list of “don’ts” and punish your dog every time he does one of them. If your punishment is successful, you’re likely to get a dog who doesn’t do any of those things. He also won’t do much of anything else, because he’s never sure what sets off that crazy lady with the rolled up newspaper. The completely passive dog as model of “good dog” is, I think, why punishment is still so pervasive in dog training. Worse, even the heartiest, most resilient dog is going to be afraid of you at some level of his brain.

So, what are those of us who aren’t interested in punishment to do?

Let go of the word “don’t.”

You can’t positively train a “don’t.” Even the most brilliant trainer in the world can’t clicker shape a dog to “not eat underwear.” Instead, you have to decide on a do. What behavior would you like to see from your dog? What would you prefer your dog to do instead of that “bad” thing? Be careful not to answer that with another “don’t”–you can go around in circles all day. Now, go out and train that.

Spring Break

Big stick

I have to confess, I’ve been hiding this week. It’s spring break, you see, and the weather is perfect.

We had a bad encounter early in the week (at the “bad park” of course) with some adolescent dogs and their teenaged handlers. They were obviously not used to being at the park. I took it as a sign to avoid anywhere that there might be off-leash dogs for the week. Silas’s regular walking park hosts spring break camp every year. Meeting an entire camp full of children on those narrow trails is the kind of thing I have bad dreams about. The tug-and-fetch park hosted a horse event a few weeks ago. They did not clean up afterwards.

On Thursday I realized I was being a big baby. As long as I avoided the park full of children and the park with the bad dogs, there was really no reason to stay home. Silas is fine with people at the park, even a fairly dense crowd of them, as long as they aren’t actually reaching for him. Honestly, he’s getting a lot better about even that. He’s only barked at one person in weeks, and he immediately gave her a second non-barking chance.

I put on my big girl pants and went out.

We were almost the only people in the park. Oh, irony. We played frisbee. We found the world’s most awesome stick (says Silas). Silas did tricks for treats. That’s right–he ate at the park.

Still, I’ll be glad when everybody goes back to work and school next week.