Yesterday, I saw a story announcing the opening of a new center dedicated to helping fearful dogs. The center, located in New Jersey, is a project being led by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). Now dogs who have lived their whole lives in puppy mills or have come from a hoarding situation or were victims of animal cruelty will have the chance to get help meant just for them.
If you have ever had a fearful dog, one who has had little exposure to the world or has been abused, then you know that rehabilitation takes time. Unfortunately, time is not always an option for them. Many are euthanized because the amount of time and dedication (and money) it takes to work with a fearful or traumatized dog is more than most shelters can give.
This center is a source of hope for these dogs and the people who rescue them. The Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J. will take dogs from shelters across the country as well as those that come those animal seizures involving the ASPCA. Their first guests, Malamutes, are coming in from Montana in the next few days. These were the dogs who were seized from a breeder charged with animal cruelty (I wrote about them a couple of months ago).
Dogs who come to the center will stay on average about 6-8 weeks, but they are not putting a strict time limit on their stay. As anyone who has worked with a puppy mill dog knows, sometimes it can takes a year or more before a fearful dog can really function in their new environment. Knowing there is a center, and people, focused on helping these dogs is really encouraging. I hope that what they learn can be used to help more dogs in the future. I suspect Debbie Jacobs from FearfulDogs.com could tell them a lot, but I am hoping that more will be learned from their work that can be used by rescuers across the country to help dogs like these, like Daisy and Cupcake.
I’ll be watching to see what they learn. How about you?
Recently, Debbie Jacobs from Fearfuldogs.com shared a video demonstrating how we can misinterpret a dog’s behavior.
Is your older dog suddenly refusing to sit on command? Maybe it’s arthritis.
Is your dog suddenly afraid to go outside? Maybe those new wind chimes you placed outside is scaring them.
Does your dog suddenly stop and refuse to move on a snowy street during your walk? Maybe the salt the city put down is hurting their paws.
Our dogs are telling us something all of the time, we just have to take the time to listen to them. I think the biggest mistake we (myself included) make when it comes to our dog’s behavior is not taking the time to understand the “why” behind it. Is it because there is something of higher value to them in their environment? Possibly. Did he have a bad experience in this environment that is affecting his ability to do something now? Could be. Is what we are asking of our dog confusing? Very likely.
It’s so easy to scold our dogs and assume they are refusing to obey us because they don’t want to do it or they don’t want to listen, but before we jump to the easiest, and most often the incorrect, conclusion we may want to take time to really listen to what our dogs are telling us.
Before making a judgement about their behavior we should… Watch. Look. Listen.
Here is that video Debbie shared. Take a look and let me know what you think.
For as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by animal behavior. When I was a child I would sit for hours observing the Canadian geese that lived in the pond across from my house. I even took an animal behavior class in high school. Dog behavior is just one more area in which I am often fascinated. I love watching my dogs figure things out or adjust their behavior to a new circumstance or puzzle.
When my friend Debbie over at FearfulDogs.com shared this piece on Neophobia (fear of new things) in dogs, I immediately went to check it out. Not just because it was about dog behavior, but because it was one more piece to the puzzle in understanding my own dog’s behavior.
When Jasper was about a year old (I adopted him at 9 months), I took him to training class at the shelter where I volunteered. During our weekly training sessions, it soon became clear Jasper was frightened by everything new that was introduced into his environment. He refused to go near a dish full of food because he had never seen it before. He refused to go near any of the dividers or other equipment because they were something new he had not seen before. He was easily startled if something new was brought into class and would often freeze in fear or back up or look for an escape route to get away from it.
Unlike most puppies, Jasper was not curious about new things. In fact, he was outright fearful of all of them and would shut down as soon as they appeared. I remember our instructor, a friend of mine, mentioning that maybe he suffered from something called “brittle dog syndrom,” or neophobia, as a result of not being exposed to a lot of new things when he was a puppy. I had never heard of such a thing, but I now know she was right on.
So what is Neophobia?
Some of the behaviors dogs display when they are confronted with something new in their environment are:
- avoidance or attempts at escape when around new things (In Jasper’s case, he avoids and barks what I call his “chicken little bark.” The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Alarm! Alarm!)
Many dogs who display neophobic behaviors were not socialized as puppies. In Jasper’s case, he spent the majority of his early life in a puppy mill, and then in a pet shop store window. He was “rescued” from that environment at around 8 1/2 months. Before coming to our shelter and then to me, he had very little opportunity to be exposed to many new things, except people, which he has no fear of at all.
Some neophobic dogs can also be so as a result of genetics or breed disposition (i.e., some breeds appear to display it more than others). Although I have no expertise in this area, I would not be surprised to discover that Shelties are a breed who falls into this category. One only has to look at the number of lost Shelties who were lost, after they bolted in fear, to suspect this to be the case.
Since Jasper is a Sheltie and had little socialization as a puppy, he has two strikes against him. However, I have been able to manage his fear of new things by removing him from the object he fears and/or rewarding him with treats when he examines it with curiosity. It takes work, time and patience, but a neophobic dog can learn to live a fairly normal life, depending on how bad the fear is and how well you manage it.
If you have a dog you think may suffer from Neophobia, check out the great article on the ASPCA site. It’s definitely worth the read. My thanks to Debbie Jacobs for sharing it.
This week I’m doing something a little different for Favorite Video Friday. I’m sharing a video from our friends, Lizzie and her dog, Gracie (see below), and some pictures of my dog, Daisy.
Lizzie and Gracie live across the pond (that BIG pond we call the Atlantic Ocean) in the United Kingdom.
When Lizzie first wrote to me in May of 2009, she had found Daisy’s blog through a mutual friend, Debbie Jacobs of fearfuldogs.com. She read Daisy’s story, and her search to find her inner Lab (after spending years in a puppy mill as a breeding dog), and shared her own story about her dog, Gracie. Gracie is also “an ex breeding dog from a puppy farm” , and even though Lizzie and I and Gracie and Daisy live so far apart, we have much in common. Both our dogs are from puppy mills, both are fearful, both of us were (and are) learning how to work with our dogs and to help them to be less fearful, and both of our dogs are Labs. Yellow Labs to be exact, and not just that, but yellow Labs that look so similar they could be sisters. Maybe that’s why I feel such a kinship with Lizzie and with Gracie. We’re both going through the same things at the same time and making real progress.
When Lizzie sent me this video, I cried. Why? Because in every picture I could see Daisy as she used to be (even though it was Gracie in every photo) and I could see the progress in Gracie as I had with Daisy. There is nothing to describe the joy you feel when you see a dog that is so fearful that they will chose to hide in a laundry basket (see the video to understand) rather than come to you blossom into a happy dog who wags their tail and is happy and finally enjoying life, love and affection. I don’t know if everyone will be able to relate to Lizzie’s loving tribute to her dog Gracie, but I hope that all of you will appreciate the progress Gracie has made and celebrate her success. Lizzie – you are a wonderful mom.
“I know how much I’ve learnt from Gracie but I look at those early shots from time to time just to remind me how utterly terrified she was, and how bad she must have felt. The photos of her in the laundry basket were taken on her first day here; she saw the open door under the stairs and leapt into the basket where it was dark. I can tell you I had a job to get her out, as at that time I could not get near her!” Lizzie
As an addendum, I have added some pictures of Daisy that mirror the ones of Gracie. Can you see the resemblance?
Happy Friday everyone!
I have been wanting to interview Debbie Jacobs (from FearfulDogs.com) for some time now. Her dedication to helping fearful dogs and their owners makes her not only an interesting person but also a great one. But, I think she is a great resource for ANY dog owner. That’s why I wanted to highlight her on my blog. Read on to learn more about Debbie Jacobs and fearful dogs.
Debbie Jacobs CPDT-KA, CAP2, is the author of “A Guide To Living With & Training A Fearful Dog”, which was a finalist in the 2008 Dog Writers Association of America’s annual writing competition. This popular Ebook is now also available in hard copy.
She lives in Vermont with her husband and 4 dogs and created the fearfuldogs.com website to help owners and trainers learn about the most effective and humane ways to work with fearful dogs. She met her fearful dog Sunny, the inspiration for the fearfuldogs website at the Humane Society of Louisiana’s Camp Katrina after the hurricanes of 2005.
Debbie – Thanks so much for agreeing to this interview. To start with…
What is a fearful dog?
Good question. Plenty of dogs are afraid of some things, some of the time. Being afraid helps keep animals alive. Zebras wouldn’t last long if they weren’t afraid of being eaten by lions. I use ‘fearful dog’ to describe dogs that suffer from anxiety related disorders or phobias.
What causes a dog to be fearful?
Certain medical conditions can cause dogs to behave fearfully. It is important to rule these out. Pain or injury can cause a dog to behave in a fearful way. If your back hurts when people pick you up, you might start acting afraid when you are going to be picked up. If your hips hurt you might try to avoid going up stairs.
A genetic predisposition can cause a dog to be fearful. Anyone who has raised children can attest to the fact that personalities in children can be observed from very young ages. Some kids rush right in, while others hang back. Dogs can be the same way. Since we cannot test for this and since many of us get our dogs as adults, we will never know if this is why our dog is fearful, shy or anxious.
Trauma and abuse can cause a dog to become fearful. Most people assume that a dog that behaves in a fearful way was beaten, hurt or abused. That well may have been the case but one of the leading causes of fear based behaviors in dogs is the following- The lack of adequate and appropriate socialization when the dog was a pup. There is a window of opportunity during which puppies need to be exposed, safely, to novel objects, situations, new people, sounds and experiences. If this doesn’t happen, there is no going back and ‘fixing’ it.
Are there certain characteristics or behaviors people are more likely to see in a fearful dog?
Most people can identify when dogs are afraid if they cower, hide or run away. These are ‘big’ behaviors that are easy to notice. There are many other ‘smaller’ more subtle behaviors that dogs perform which indicate varying degrees of fear or discomfit. A dog might yawn, lick their lips, lower their head, turn their head, tuck their tail, squint or close their eyes, freeze, pant, drool, shed, sweat from their paws, pee or roll over. A dog behaving in an overt aggressive manner is often afraid. When we see aggression in dogs it can be scary to us and we are less inclined to empathize with the dog. Most dogs go through a series of attempts to make whatever scares them go away or leave them alone, When it doesn’t work they may begin to escalate toward a more aggressive response. This is not an attempt to ‘dominate’ their owner, a stranger or other dog, it’s how a dog says, “Really, I mean it, back off.”
How does a fearful dog’s behavior differ from a “normal” dog?
In some cases a fearful dog can behave like other dogs that are not fearful. If a dog is not exposed to the things that scare them, they may be happy and confident. It is only around these things that their fear based behavioral responses are seen. Dogs without problematic anxiety or fear, typically recover quickly from being scared or startled. A fearful dog may need a longer time to recover from a scary episode. Fearful dogs’ behavior will often get worse, rather than better the more they are exposed to things that scare them.
You help a lot of people with fearful dogs, what are some of the common issues you come across?
Common issues for the dogs include; fear of people, other dogs or novelty (sudden changes in their environment)
Common issues for owners include; a lack of understanding of how to handle dogs that are afraid. They usually don’t realize the time, energy and patience their dog is going to require in order to develop more confidence.
What are some common mistakes people make when working with their fearful dog (i.e., one they adopted)?
In general most owners put too much pressure on their dogs without understanding how counter conditioning and desensitization are used. They try to change their dog’s behavior rather than try to change their dog’s emotional response. Change the emotion and the behavior usually changes along with it. People often want and need their dog to behave a certain way and use force or coercion to get these behaviors from their dog. Dogs are punished, corrected, yelled at and generally scared, in the name of ‘training’.
So what are some basic things an owner can do to help/work with a fearful dog?
Understanding triggers, thresholds, counter conditioning and desensitization provides the foundation for the work with do with our fearful dogs. To begin with, stop putting your dog in situations in which the dog is afraid. A dog will not learn to feel good about something or someone until they stop being scared by it. Each fearful response just makes it more likely that that response will be repeated in the future. Our fearful dogs’ brains have become very good at being scared and easily startled. We need to stop having them practice that. Keep your dog in situations in which the dog feels safe and never feels the need to run or resort to aggressive behavior to protect themselves. Only when you understand how rewards are used to change how our dogs feel should you begin to expose your dogs to its triggers. Figure out what rocks your dog’s world. What do they love to do, what makes them feel great? Give them as many opportunities during the day to experience these activities. Building a positive, trusting relationship with your dog is also key. Few of us would want to hang out with someone who always made us do things that scared us. Why would our dogs?
What videos/blog posts/etc (from your website) would you recommend a new fearful dog owner check out?
Owners should visit fearfuldogs.com and click through the site. There’s lots of information and resources. The first step to changing our fearful dogs’ brains usually includes changing ours.
My many thanks to Debbie Jacobs for this interview!
As an added note, I would also recommend you check out Debbie’s blog. She not only shares some great food for thought (applicable to all dog owners), but also some additional info for owners with fearful dogs. It’s also a great place to meet other people with fearful dogs. We’ve created a nice little community of support there which has been greatly helpful to so many people, including ,myself.