Sunday, May 26, 2013

Getting rid of Dog Anxiety behaviors

Ok so my post on the results of teaching Griean, the Irish Wolfhound, how to cope around people and other dogs and how to not be so anxious got a lot of attention.  That tells me there are a lot of you out there with similar problems.  In fact, I feel fairly safe in saying that from the amount of dogs I have seen with anxiety problems, it's reaching epidemic proportions.  The more we come to understand what problems and behaviors stem from anxiety, the more I see it everywhere.

It can start before you bring your pup home.  The quiet shy dogs tend to develop anxiety issues more often than their outgoing siblings, seeing as they are already a bit more nervous around strange new things, however one incident can change all that.  

Say you are on a walk with your dog and you pass someone else doing the same thing. One dog is more likely than not to be more outgoing and wanting to check the other dog out.  If your dog is more shy it will more than likely feel trapped and then fear sets in.  Now there are a number of ways this can play out, lets say the other dog gets really excited and highly aroused at the sight of another dog, so it starts to pull and can seem a bit aggressive to your shy dog who just wants to be left alone.  The other person gets the hint and after a few moments of terror for your dog, the other person succeeds in dragging his dog away and the scary moment has passed.  Or so you think.  What has been taking place in the mind of your dog may not be the same thing that is taking place in yours.

How would you feel if you were tied to a rope and couldn't get away and suddenly a big, tough looking guy came running up towards you?  Does your pulse quicken a bit? You feel a bit of that fight or flight syndrome starting to take effect?  The thing is a dog can't tell itself that "things will be ok," dogs live in the moment, they don't think much beyond the time they are in.  So here you are stuck in the is fight or flight state with no real means of rational thinking. All you can think of is "Please leave me alone", "Don't hurt me," and if that doesn't seem to be working, then teeth get barred and the thought process turns to "I can protect myself."  See your dog is stuck to you, it can't run and hide, or even maneuver away from the other dog, it's stuck face to face with a terror that won't leave.  When it does leave it is normally a lot of times after your dog has showed aggressive body language.  So if your dog finds that showing aggression when it feels threatened and the threat retreats believe you me it will do it again.  It reinforces in your dogs mind that in order to get rid of a threat it needs to act aggressively.

No all dogs have good doggy manners.  Most dogs are in new homes at the time their mother would start to teach them the dos and don'ts of doggy manners.  6 weeks is way too young for a pup to leave it's mother.  Her job of keeping her pup alive is done, but she hasn't even begun to teach the little ones how to interact with others.  Even 8 weeks only gives them a little lesson.  If you take your puppy home by that time it is up to you to find and provide the appropriate positive socializing for your dog.

Now that you have a slightly better understanding of why your dog is acting the way it does it's time to learn how to fix the behavior.  For every dog the time table is going to be different, but most see a dramatic change in their dog within two to four weeks.

I will give you the "recipe" for getting rid of the fear of people, and you can take and apply it to the fear of- fill in the blank. 
Above you see me holding a clicker.  They don't cost more than a few dollars and you can pick on up at your local pet store, or online.  The clicker works by creating a positive memory in association with it's use.  So if your puppy (or dog, age does not matter) is scared of something you want it to start to have positive interactions with what scares it.  This will counter the negative memories or fears that it has and pretty soon that scary looking person over there becomes something that always brings good positive feedback.

So, step one, buy a clicker.

Step two buy your dog's favorite treats (you can be creative, use canned dog food, a cooked cut up chicken breast, or the the dog treats that I have found most successful are the Greenies Pill Pockets, or Bill Jack dog treats)

The way the clicker works is you click for the wanted or desired behavior, in your case not acting scared, and then you give your dog a treat. (you can use toys such as balls or rope tug toys if your dog  LOVES them more than anything else, otherwise I recommend starting off with treats, then you can move over to using toys later).

These are all types of clickers ranging in price from 1-5 dollars

Now if you can set up this scenario with a friend it works the best, if not you can normally find plenty of people at a your local pet store or on a walk who would be willing to help you.  You will need to watch your dog closely to know just how close or how far away other people or dogs need to be before your dog starts to get nervous.  This is the line you don't want to cross.  If you are walking down the street and your dog's behavior changes from easy go lucky to alert or stiff, this is too close.  You want to be able to click and treat while your dog is still in happy go lucky mode.

So you see a person approaching, your dog is still ok, click and treat.  The person is getting closer, your dog is still ok, click and treat. ( I tend to count in my head and click and treat about once every second or two at this stage)  If your dog is still acting happy (and a lot of them are because they are getting clicked and treated) you can keep moving forward while clicking and treating.  As soon as you notice your dog loosing interest in you or your treats, or looking nervously at the approaching person, have the person (if they are working with you) stop and back up a bit, till your dog is looking relaxed again, then start the click and treat while the person stands there.  If your dog can relax good, end there and start again the next time a little before there and continue.  If you don't know the person walking towards you, cross the street or turn down a different block so the person is no longer in view, if your dog regains it's composure, you can start to click and treat again. Once you can return back the way you came, do so.   Remember your dog is seeing this approaching person as a big scary looking goblin or monster.  Don't simply blow your dog's fear off because "it's just so and so from down the street."  For whatever reason (which you will most likely never know) your dog is scared and does not understand that that person (or dog) is not going to try to hurt it.

To help move things along a bit faster it helps if you can use the clicker for things at home too.  Teach your dog to spin, or roll over.  Teach him to touch your hand with his nose or put a paw on a box or basket using the same method as above.  Put your hand out in front of your dog's nose, when he puts his nose on it (most dogs do to investigate) click and treat, and then repeat! The more positive things you can teach your dog with the clicker, the stronger the positive meaning the clicker will carry.

As soon as you can get your dog to not be scared as the person approaches, start having the other person give your dog the treats.  They can toss them to your dog on the ground, or if you are sure your dog is ready,you can have the person's hand the dog the treat after you have clicked.  Soon people become walking treat dispensers and your dog won't remember what was so scary about the fun treat dispensers!  After your dog is happily greeting others, you can phase the clicker out along with the treats.  Thought it might still be a good idea to once in while give your dog a treat after all he has come a long way and it has been a lot of work for both of you.

Please feel free to comment on how it has worked for you, or ask any additional questions and I will try to address them as well.

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