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Posts Tagged ‘fearful dogs’

What is a dog threshold and why does it matter?

September 22, 2013 14 comments

Jack Russell Terrier SnarlingDespite what we often may think, dogs can be pretty complex creatures. They speak a different language than we do, they have quirks in their personalities that can make them quite unusual sometimes (like us humans) and they often display anxiety and discomfort in ways we don’t.

I’ve written plenty about their behaviors and what they mean, but one of the things I am still learning about is dog thresholds. According to Mardi Richmond at the Whole Dog Journal, a threshold is “when your dog crosses from one emotional state to another.” They might be happy one second and concerned or stressed the next. Often the stress or anxiety comes from an outside trigger, like seeing another dog or a person or even seeing a new object in their environment.

Although I had plenty of experience with dogs crossing thresholds at the animal shelter, I don’t even think I knew what the term meant back then. I just knew that some dogs would go from being relaxed and happy to lunging and barking whenever they saw another dog.

What I didn’t know then, but know now, is that the term can also be applied to dogs who go from relaxed and happy to shutting down or freezing in fear. They might be totally different emotional states, but the same thing is happening. They are crossing a threshold.

In the early days, Daisy had a low threshold for nearly everything in her environment – the car, the house, wood floors, people, noises, sudden movements, and me. Any of one of these could put her into a fearful state, but put two or more of these together and you could guarantee she would pretty much shut down, going into a nearly helpless state. Have you ever seen a dog get a vacant, empty look in their eyes? That was Daisy in the early days.

These days, Daisy has a much higher threshold on a whole lot of things in her environment, but I also know that a combination of any of her triggers could still cause her to shut down again. It’s something I always keep in mind whenever I am trying to decide whether to bring her along with me to an event or to leave her behind at home, where she will be safe. Most of the time I leave her at home, unless I know I can control the environment for her. I do the same with Cupcake as well. She has a much lower threshold for new people and activities than Daisy, but unlike Daisy who just shuts down, Cupcake’s first reaction is to flee. I just won’t put her at risk of getting lost again. She is happier at home anyways.

Understanding dog thresholds has taught me how to keep my dogs safe, but for other people it may be how to keep them calm. Knowing what they are and how they work can go a long way towards improving your relationship with your dog. I know it has with mine.

I don’t know if you’re interested, but I found a great video that explains a little more on thresholds and something called “trigger stacking.” It is really worth watching if you want to understand your dogs better.

Also check out the article from Whole Dog Journal that I mentioned above – “Across a Threshold.” It’s a really good read .

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Daisy’s Tail – A Look Back

September 19, 2013 2 comments

IMG_4339Today I am taking another look back to the early years when Daisy first came to live with me.  Daisy is a former puppy mill breeding dog who was estimated to be four years old at the time I adopted her. She was afraid of everyone and everything. She practically crawled on the ground the first few days she came to live with me. This is an old blog post from Daisy’s blog, “Daisy the Wonder Dog (and how she found her Inner Lab).” It highlights the progress Daisy had made after I adopted her in 2007.

I hope it gives hope to those who have a damaged or unsocialized dog. Progress can be made. It takes time and patience and often happens in fits and starts – for every step forward there are two steps back, but it is so rewarding when you start to take those steps forward.  The key is to never give up hope. You need a lot of patience and understanding. You also need learn to learn to celebrate the small successes.

This post is from March 12, 2009, two years after Daisy first came to live with me.

It suddenly occurred to me today how far my little Daisy has come over the past 14 months.

As I was letting her inside this afternoon and we headed back into the house, I looked at her and patted her on the head. And, then she did something that made me smile – she looked at me and wagged her tail.

That’s when I realized that Daisy had been wagging her tail for a while now.

How did I ever miss that monumental moment when she first wagged her tail at me? When did it happen? How did I miss it? And, come to think of it…When did Daisy stop circling the car every time she came inside? When did I stop circling the car with her so I could hook a leash to her collar and lead her inside? So much progress and yet it passed by in the blink of an eye.

It’s amazing what a little tail wag can do to brighten your mood!

When I first got Daisy her tail was always tucked under her butt to signal her fear and uncertainty. This remained the case for many months afterwards. Everything was so new to her and people were not something she had a lot of confidence in, especially women. So, a tucked tail was completely understandable.

But eventually, over time her tail did come out and it would rest along the back of her legs, not tucked under like before. The tail wagging came much, much later. It may have been when she began to understand that when I asked her “Are you hungry?” food was soon to follow. Or, it may have been she realized that riding in the car usually meant she was going to the dog park to see her friends or hang out with family. Or, maybe, just maybe, it was when she realized that she was safe and that her new mom loved her a great deal.

It makes me realize how much I have waited for this moment; when Daisy would wag her tail just because she was happy. Forget rainbows, just give me another Daisy day like today!

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Daisy and Jasper from 2009

Daisy: Love in Progression – A look back

July 31, 2013 19 comments

IMG_6216Today I am taking another look back to the early years when Daisy first came to live with me.  Daisy is a former puppy mill breeding dog who was estimated to be four years old at the time I adopted her. She was afraid of everyone and everything. She practically crawled on the ground the first few days she came to live with me. This is an old blog post from Daisy’s blog, “Daisy the Wonder Dog (and how she found her inner Lab).” It highlights the progress Daisy had made after I adopted her in 2007.

I hope it gives hope to those who have a damaged or unsocialized dog. Progress can be made. It takes time and patience and often happens in fits and starts – for every step forward, there are two steps back, but it is so rewarding when you start to take those steps forward.  The key is to never give up hope. You need a lot of patience and understanding. You also need learn to learn to celebrate the small successes.

This post is from July 11, 2011, a little over three years after Daisy first came to live with me.

It starts slowly at first. Very slowly.

Hanging out on the couch next to my sweet older girl, Aspen. Her lifeline. Being near me, this strange human, is too much at this time. But with Aspen as a buffer, she can cope with me being on the same couch with her.

When Aspen leaves us, we start again. She joins me on the couch but only if I pretend she is not there. Always, always at the other end of the couch as far away from me as is possible. Uncertain. Fearful. Alone in her own world.

If I leave the couch or the room, she is gone like a flash, with only the hint of a whisper. Silently. Ethereal. A ghost.

Over time, she discovers that an exposed belly can bring delightful touches. Belly rubs. Softly spoken words. Love.

When a new man enters our lives – a furry, curious, attention-seeking little guy. She discovers competition. Attention to be shared. With it brings little movements – a little scooch closer, and then a little more. And always, the exposed belly. Waiting. More belly rubs to be enjoyed.

As time passes, little movements progress into sideways glances and the thump, thump, thump of a tail. “Will you be my friend?” she seems to ask. The answer is “Yes. Always.” And then, slowly, a nose to my cheek.

One day, there is the lick of a tongue and a yellow head on my shoulder and again that thump, thump, thump of a tail. Confidence. Happiness. Joy. A smile. A new light in her eyes.

Three years pass. Patient, loving, gentle years. Now there is the automatic entrance and leap onto the couch followed by the exposed belly and questioning look “Belly rub?” Me on my computer. Working. And, then it happens… the slow, steady scooching. Closer. Closer still. Thump, thump, thump. Sideways glances now coming with steady progression. Thump, thump, thump. A sigh from me and the moving of the computer to a side table. My hand comes up to pet her ears, her head and neck. A kiss to her cheek. Loving words.

Ahhhh. Sweet moments in time. Savored. Treasured. Enjoyed.

Love.

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Fearful dogs – Tread softly. Be gentle. Be kind.

July 30, 2013 22 comments
Daisy close up

Daisy

I’ve been thinking about this blog post, a cautionary letterever since a friend shared it with me the this past weekend.

It is a tale of a fearful dog stuck in a situation that too many fearful dogs are stuck in –  in a home where the owner chooses to go with a trainer who ends up harming the dog more than helping him.

The woman’s story brought to mind all the times I have seen a fearful dog corrected using training methods that were not only less than helpful, but often harmful to the dog.

It reminded me of a blog post comment I once received from a young woman who had taken in a very shy and fearful dog after he had been rescued from living on the streets. She had expressed hope that perhaps one day her new dog would be more like Daisy is today – less fearful and more confident around people and other dogs. She also shared how a friend had recently come over, and after seeing her dog, told her that the way to work with him was to show him she was the alpha. She should show him who was boss and then everything would be alright. (Yeah right. That’ll teach your fearful dog not to be afraid.) I sure hope she trusted her gut and went the other way.

I am truly disheartened when I see fearful dog owners buying into the belief that using an aggressive training approach will lead to better or more  immediate results than time, a gentle touch, an encouraging voice and patience. It makes me shudder to think that Daisy might have ended up in a home where that was approach used on her.

For me, the pleasure has been in seeing Daisy blossom of her own accord. Yes, I helped along the way, but mostly I let her set the tone and pace of her own progress. I didn’t rush her. I let her decide when I was worth trusting. I let her have a say in her progress. In doing so, I believe I empowered her to explore, to try new things, to meet new people and to share her happiness with me.  That’s not to say an owner can’t help a fearful dog along more quickly (without force), but for me it’s always been about the journey. Both of us together. Learning from one another.

I can’t help the woman or the dog who she wrote about in that piece (God I wish I could), but I hope sharing my journey with Daisy has helped some people to see that there is another way. A way that is both gentle and kind and better than the one that uses force.

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Operation Thundershirt gets underway

July 1, 2013 35 comments

IMG_4514Operation Thundershirt has officially begun at Casa del Mel. On Saturday evening the first real barrage of fireworks mayhem began. Unlike many of the ones I usually hear at this time of year, these were pretty mild, but it didn’t matter because Daisy was already in full fear overload. It was time to bring out the Thundershirt.

This time of year can be very frustrating for me and very stressful for Daisy. As a fourth of July baby, you would think I would be a lover of all things fireworks. Um no. Not so much really.Even as a baby my mother said I would cry when fireworks began. Like Daisy, the noise hurt my ears.

I am not opposed to people having fun with fireworks, but the constant barrage over the days and weeks before and after the 4th of July can be a bit much. On top of that is the randomness in which they occur. Day or night, I never know when someone will set off the odd bottle rocket or the humongously loud firework that booms with such intensity one has to wonder if they wouldn’t be better suited for a city’s firework’s display than a small cozy little neighborhood.

I feel fortunate that I only have one dog who is inconsolable this time of year (instead of three), but it doesn’t lessen the stress we all feel as Daisy deals with her fears. The Thundershirt helps, but  it isn’t a cure-all. Unlike thunderstorms, where the Thundershirt will calm Daisy so much she will go back to her kennel and fall asleep, fireworks are much more nerve-wracking for her. At best, I can hope it will take the edge off and make her less jumpy and less unsettled. Often, I just have to settle for cuddling with her and soothing her with my touch or voice. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Last night was one of little success. Even with her Thundershirt on, Daisy was displaying all of the signs of a dog with a sound phobia:

  • Excessively panting
  • Pacing
  • Shaking
  • Curling up into a tiny little ball
  • Getting as close to me as possible and hiding her head in my lap
  • Refusing to go outside as soon as the sun started to go down
  • Unable to leave my side when she does get outside
  • Jumped at the slightest noise or movement (often unrelated to fireworks)
  • Inability to sleep or relax

It was only when the noises stopped that she fell asleep. Thank goodness they stopped fairly early. I cannot not hope that this will be the case as we get closer to the 4th.

Operation Thundershirt is underway, but Operation Melatonin may have to be implemented as a supplementary action. How are you and your dogs faring out there? Are you having much success calming your dogs this time of year?

Living with Daisy in the NOW – A look back

June 26, 2013 11 comments

IMG_4259Today I am taking another look back to the early years when Daisy came to live with me.  Daisy is a former puppy mill breeding dog who was estimated to be four years old. She was afraid of everyone and everything. She practically crawled on the ground the first few days she came to live with me. This is an old blog post from Daisy’s blog, “Daisy the Wonder Dog (and how she found her inner Lab).” It highlights the progress Daisy had made after I adopted her in 2007.

I hope it gives hope to those who have a damaged or unsocialized dog. Progress can be made. It takes time and patience and often happens in fits and starts – for every step forward, there are two steps back, but it is so rewarding when you start to take those steps forward.  The key is to never give up hope. You need a lot of patience and understanding. You also need learn to learn to celebrate the small successes.

This post is from October 28, 2008, almost a year after Daisy first came to live with me.

If you have been lucky enough to adopt a second-hand dog, then you know the wondering that often accompanies their entrance into our lives. You wonder…Was my dog loved in his former home? What was my dog’s former owner like? Does she cower because she was abused? Was he treated well before he came to me? Where did he learn that quirky behavior?

For me, I never had any doubt that my last dog, Aspen, was loved by her former owners. She was such a loving and affectionate dog that I KNEW she had been loved and cared for during her early years. She displayed none of the typical behaviors (cowering, shaking, running in fear, etc.) that would indicate abuse or mistreatment. In fact, I was pretty sure that the decision to give her up was probably not an easy one. She was 9 years old, had medical issues, and likely cost her former owners a good amount of money. However, I did wonder why they surrendered her saying she kept jumping the fence when I knew that her nine-year old debilitated hips could never have allowed her to do so. Were they hoping to avoid giving her a death sentence by stating the truth? Did they surrender her because the medical issues just became too much? Or, as is often the case with an older and sick dog, did they surrender her to avoid having to make the decision to put her to sleep?

With Daisy, I often wonder a whole host of different questions:

  • How bad were her former living conditions?
  • Where did all the scars on her body – the spots where no fur grows – come from? Were they caused by another dog? Or, were they caused by the puppy mill owner himself/herself?
  • Was the puppy mill owner a woman? Is that why she is so comfortable approaching men – even ones she does not know? Is that why she is so tentative with women vs. men?
  • Did she live outside? Is that why her ears have scars? Did the flies bite them?
  • Does she like little dogs so much because they remind her of her puppies?
  • Why did the owner feel the need to tattoo a number in her ear (201)? Were all the dogs that lived at the puppy mill tattooed too?
  • Why was she surrendered to the service organization at age 4? How did she come to escape her personal hell?
I know that I will never have the answers I seek, nor am I sure that I truly want to know all that Daisy has been through, but part of me still wonders. When I am rubbing her belly, something she has only recently let me do, I see those scars and try to imagine what it must have been like for her. Disturbing thoughts I know, but when you love a dog as much as I love Daisy, you think that knowing what happened in the past will help you to erase those memories from her mind. The truth is that I can only start from here. Today. Now.
What I do today can only have an impact her the future, not her past. I choose to give Daisy everything she never had the chance to have before – love, kindness, the chance to run free in the woods, to experience new smells and new friends, and, yes, to have the occasional ice cream cone.
Living in the NOW with Daisy means forgetting about her past and focusing on being with her in the present (and in the future). Being present with her. Spending quality time with her – on her terms, and loving her. Could a dog want for anything more?

What is this dog telling us? Do you see his behavioral cues?

June 24, 2013 70 comments

Last year a friend shared a great video featuring a dog and a vet tech. I’ve been searching for it for a while because I though it would be a great one to share with you. It is a great example of how a dog can be speaking to us, but we may not be listening (or in this case, seeing) what they are telling us.

I also thought it might be a great way to test your knowledge on dog behavioral cues.
I confess that watching it again a year and a half later showed me just how out of practice I have become. I missed a quite a few the first time around. Take a look and tell me what you see. (Note: No one is hurt in this video).

Not sure? I’ve posted a list below. Feel free to read the list and then watch the video or watch the video, check the list and watch the video again. It’s amazing what we miss isn’t it?

Just out of curiosity, did anyone cringe like I did as you neared the end of the video? Do you know why? I think I know what made me cringe, but I’m wondering if anyone else caught it. (PLEASE KEEP YOUR COMMENTS RESPECTFUL. THANKS!)

Behavioral Signals seen in this video

Shake off

Eye blinking

Lip licking (hard to see)

Barking and increasing distance by backing up

Growling

Looking away several times

Stiff body posture

Stillness or freezing suddenly

Mouth closed tightly (a relaxed dog would have a slack jaw)

Hard stares (this is the one that got me at the end)

At no time does this dog look relaxed. To someone who doesn’t know what to look for, it may look like he is going back for attention, but everything else about his body posture and signals says differently.

So what is this dog telling us?

Based on what I see, I think he is nervous and uncomfortable, with both the petting and the close proximity of the vet tech. He cannot distance himself easily due to the small confines of the room. All his signals tell us he wants her to back off, but when that doesn’t work, he lets her know in a more pronounced way.

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