The Anxious Greyhound, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Leash

Leash anxiety can be a common behavioral problem in dogs. Here are some great positive reinforcement tips on how to overcome it.

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Question: We have two Italian Greyhounds, a seven year old male and a four year old female. The female has not allowed us to leash or harness her since she was about six months old. She is extremely nervous and skittish and generally difficult to deal with. She can run in circles for hours. As you can imagine, getting her to the vet or anywhere in general is a nightmare. Have you ever heard of this, and can this be corrected? We have had no problems like this with the older dog. Thanks.
Answer: While it might seem as if you’ve got one single issue with your younger greyhound, from what you’re saying it seems as if there are smaller, individual problems that are snowballing together.

On the one hand, she seems as if she’s leash-phobic, which isn’t entirely uncommon, and on the other she seems to be exhibiting the signs of a more general type of anxiety.

Let’s address the leash sensitivity first since it presents a pressing safety concern for her.

Almost no dog is born liking their leash. It’s something they eventually learn to love, tolerate, or even hate depending on the rewards associated with them putting it on.  Going for walks, play, and general fun will make the leash much more attractive for a dog who likes those things.

Stepping back for a moment and putting it in human terms, in many ways on a behavioral level a leash to a dog is the same as a tie is for a man.

No man, young or old, likes wearing a tie the first couple times, but if they’re consistently told they look handsome in it – or if they get paid a million dollars to wear it – they’re going to learn to really like it.

Alternatively, if someone has to wear a tie to a job that they only kind of like but they get paid pretty well to do it, then they’ll tolerate the tie but – more often than not – will look forward to pulling it off the second they’re out of the office.

Finally, if the only time someone wears a tie is to go to funerals then the powerful negative associations they’ve made to the tie will essentially guarantee they’ll hate every second of wearing one.

Bringing it back to your anxious greyhound, for whatever reason she’s put herself in the “funeral” associative camp and your job is to get her from there to tolerating and then loving her leashes or harnesses.

Here’s my advice for how to deal with the leash issue:
  • Since her anxiety levels likely spike if she even sees the leash or harness, in the very beginning just bring it out so she can see it and give her jackpot handfuls of her favorite dog treats (or a tidbit of something super-yummy like cheese, hotdogs, etc.).
  • Do this once or twice a day for the first couple days to allow her to begin to associate the presence of the leash or harness with something really, really good.
    • Please remember that if you are using the jackpot method, you will need to cut down on her regular meals – she does not need extra weight.
  • When she begins to display excitement as you bring the leash out – even if it’s just excitement for the treats – bring the leash or harness over to her, put it on the ground next to her, and give her the same jackpots or cheesy tidbits as before.
  • At this point we’re trying to build comfort with proximity to the leash or harness and repeat this process once or twice a day for a couple of days.
  • Now that she’s displaying excitement with having the leash next to her on the ground, hold the leash in one hand while feeding her the jackpot or other yummy goodies with the other.
    • Like before, this is about building comfort with both proximity and having the leash or harness near her head and face so you’ll want to do this for a couple days as well.
  • Finally it’s time to move on to putting the leash on her collar or harness on her body – and like before it’s going to be jackpots or other super-yummy snacks while you clip her up and walk her around wearing the leash.
    • Like the man in the example above learning to love his tie because he gets paid a million dollars to do it, your jackpots are her million dollars.

Once you’ve gotten to the point where she’s happy to wear her leash or harness, you are going to go very slowly as she builds up her confidence while she’s wearing it.

Dogs feel at a disadvantage when they’re leashed so you must be very careful so you do not undo all the work you’ve done.

(As an aside, I’ve written before on the topic of how best to handle leashes – Leashes, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Mad About Leashes, or How to Manage Leash Aggression.)

My advice for the anxiety is…

Check with your veterinarian to be sure that she is healthy and find a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who has experience with anxiety in dogs. That person will need to help you set up a protocol for desensitizing and counterconditioning your dog so you can change how she feels about the the scary things in her life.

There are a number of over-the-counter approaches that are worth exploring:
  • D.A.P. – Dog Appeasing Pheromone – is something that I’ve used with both my private and shelter clients. I’ve seen encouraging anecdotal evidence that suggests it does help the dog to reduce their anxiety levels. D.A.P. is nice because it comes in a wide variety of forms from house diffusers to collars to pocket-sized sprays, and I’ve noted no negative side effects from its use.  (I’ve written about D.A.P. A Little DAP’ll Do Ya, which you might find useful to read.)
  • Thundershirts – like D.A.P., the Thundershirt is something used to address dog anxiety.  Essentially, the Thundershirt is a body wrap that cinches snugly around the dog and functions in very much the same way that similar deep touch pressure calms patients with autism or ADHD. In short, the pressure exerted on the body causes the wearer to relax.  Some dogs to not take to the Thundershirt if they are not the kind of dog happy wearing ‘clothes.”
  • ProQuiet help the dog produce more serotonin and is very useful for moderate anxiety re: car rides, some thunder or firework issues, mild stranger anxiety, etc. It is great for right-before an anxiety producing situation.
  • Rescue Remedy is for very mild anxiety situations, but it is worth a try to see if it supports your work.

Ideally you will need to address both the leash sensitivity and anxiety in parallel because the confidence she builds from the leash training might lessen the anxiety while the lessened anxiety from the over-the-counter approaches might allow her to better focus on the training.

All of this will take time and patience on your part, but desensitization and counterconditioning through positive reinforcement does – and can – work wonders.

And don’t forget while you are working on these items please seek out professional help to assist you with the root cause of your greyhound’s anxiety.

Good luck and let us know how it goes! Stay positive!

Things Your Dog Will Love: MannersMinder

The MannersMinder is a wonderful positive reinforcement tool that allows us to reward good dog behavior at a distance but is a bit pricey.

Do these scenarios sound at all familiar:
  • There’s a knock on your door and it’s a race between you and your dog to see who can get there first?
  • Is the first thing company hears when they come for a visit the sound of barking and you on the other side of the door trying to get your dog to sit quietly?
  • How often do your guests have to greet your dogs before they can say hi to you?

These are all incredibly common behaviors in dogs and ones that I’m consulted on frequently, but they can also be extremely difficult for owners with less-than-stellar compliance to deal with because the things in play – a knock at the door, the commotion of guests coming, and the possibility of someone new entering the house – all can combine to push a dog’s buttons for good or bad.

Luckily, there’s a great tool out there for situations just like this that I’ve been using since it came out: the MannersMinder.

In short, the MannersMinder is way to dispense treats remotely for times when you just physically can’t give them to the dog or when you want to redirect the dog into a different location.

At its heart, the MannersMinder is a base unit that sits on the floor, filled with rewards, and a remote control. When the remote is clicked, the base unit makes a distinctive beeping noise and the treat is dispensed into a small tray on the side.

In addition to the manual remote control, the MannersMinder incorporates into the base unit volume control for the beeping and a good selection of automated timing controls that allow you to manually set the variable reward schedule. Similar to how it works remotely, when the automated timer goes off the base unit makes the same beeping noise and the treat comes out.

When you first start using the MannersMinder you’ll need to show your dog what it does the first time or two, but you’ll be amazed by how quickly they realize that it pays out and before long they’ll camp in front of it like seniors at a bank of slot machines.

Don’t just take my word for it, though.  Here are photos of two of my students, Boomer and Stella, demonstrating the awesome power of the variable reward schedule:

Now that you know what the MannersMinder is and what it does, why would you want it?

Let’s go back to the scenario above: someone knocking on your front door.

Rather than the mad dash to the front door to corral the dog with all the barking and jumping, when the doorbell rings just grab the MannersMinder remote, give it a click, and your dog will go running to the base unit rather then to see the company. Keep it in-hand and give it a click every now and then and your dog will be too distracted by yummy snacks that you’ll be able to greet your guests on your own terms and let them get comfortable before their furry friend comes to say hello.

Another great use for the MannersMinder is when you simply can’t physically get to your dog in order to be able to treat them for good behavior.

For example: we have very high ceilings and walls in our house and we’re frequently up on tall ladders painting.

If you’ve ever house painted you know that there’s a million different things that you don’t want your dog getting a hold of – wet mixing sticks, damp cleanup rags, paint lids, etc. – so if you’re up on a high ladder and you notice your dog going for something it shouldn’t have, how do reward them to leaving it alone when told to?

Simply click the MannersMinder remote that you’ve taken up with you.

Now this isn’t to say that the MannersMinder isn’t without a couple of areas for improvement:

  • The MannersMinder is on the pricey side. Most positive reinforcement tools are very economically priced, but this one comes in on the high side of things.
  • The MannersMinder only ships with one single remote control. If your dogs are like ours they may very well learn that it’s the remote that causes the yummy beeping, so the remote can become a valued resource they will want to get a hold of. A second one in the box would be great.
  • The batteries the MannersMinder remote control uses isn’t one of the normal type that you’re used to – AA, AAA, C, D, etc. – but is one of the kinds that you’ll need to look around for or order online. Stocking up is necessary.

Those minor quibbles aside, the MannersMinder is a great positive reinforcement tool that allows us to maintain our reward schedules without needing to be within close physical proximity to our dogs.

I find the MannersMinder to be an invaluable tool in my positive reinforcement bag of tricks and, if you choose to make the investment in one, I’m sure you will, too.

Everyone’s looking forward to Halloween, but what about your dog?

While Halloween is great fun for us, it is often very stressful for a lot of dogs. Here are some helpful tips and products.

Halloween is one of my favorite holidays of the year.  

It distills everything that a holiday should be – fun silly enjoyment with chocolate!  

Halloween also happens to be the day we adopted Boo, but that’s another story.

The air is crisp and kids are running around acting and dressed strangely.

There are knocks on your door constantly and there’s food being handed out from bowls that are probably at dog height.

Halloween activities are all great fun for us, but can you think of a combination of things that could put a dog more on-edge?  (Unless, of course, you added firecrackers into the mix?)

One of the reason we like holidays so much is that they are departure from the norm of everyday life.  We do different things. We adopt different schedules. In a word, things are different.  For a large number of dogs an unexpected change in routine is like fingernails on a blackboard and can set off a spiral of stress-related, unhealthy behaviors.

Where to put the Chocolate?

The bowl of mostly chocolate should be up and away from the dog. Your dog should not be able to reach it by jumping or putting his paws up, or knocking it over.

What about all the knocking strangers in weird costumes at the door?
I can’t see anything through this Peephole!

Your dog doesn’t need to be right by the door. Have your dog in another room as far from the door as possible. Give your dog a stuffed kong or other puzzle toy so he/she is happily occupied. A stuffed bone, or goat horn would be good too.

I have written a number of blog posts on anxiety aids and have a number of products that can help in the Boo-tique.

If none of the anxiety aids or toys helps reduce your dog’s stress, your veterinarian may be able to prescribe some anti-anxiety medication.

Then it will be time to call a Certified Professional Dog Trainer and/or a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant so that next year your dog can have a

Happy Halloween.

Mad About Leashes, or How to Manage Leash Aggression

Helping a dog to overcome leash aggression can be difficult, but here’s a proven training plan that uses positive reinforcement techniques.

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Ask Professor Boo is our recurring, positive reinforcement dog training and behavior question and answer column. If you have a question that you would like to ask Professor Boo, please feel free to contact him.

Q:  I have a 4 year old miniature schnauzer named Ozzie who has lived with me since last June. He is a rescue dog and he’s practically PERFECT in every way. However…..he almost always freaks out (barking, pulling, snapping) when we see another dog on-leash. I can never tell which dogs Ozzie will react to, and it’s only when on-leash. It’s much worse in the apartment complex where we live but it happens elsewhere too. We went to a trainer and she gave suggestions but they don’t work. When Ozzie is that upset, he couldn’t care less about treats! Nothing will distract him. When I tried to get between Ozzie and the offending dog, he actually bit me once! I try to avoid other dogs as much as possible, but I ‘want’ to go on long walks with my dog! What can we do, Boo?????

Woof,
Marian and Ozzie

This is a very common issue for a lot of dogs. I personally get a little pushy when I meet a cute lady dog and they often snip at me for getting a little randy if you know what I mean, but I digress…

Boo Answers…
Leash aggression can have several components:
  1. Fear is probably the most common one and it usually builds over time. This can be a result of a lack of early socialization and/or have a personality component.  It can also have grown out of generalized fear after bad encounters with other dogs.
  2. Frustration is second in terms of creating ongoing arousal at the end of the leash.  This can actually come from a great desire to go see that other dog for fun and games or be a combination of fear and excitement.  Then, when the arousal is unfulfilled and hampered by a tight leash on a neck or head collar, it makes the frustration go from “I wanna, I wanna,” to “Aarrggg!” resulting in high levels of aroused behaviors.

The great news is that the fix is the same no matter what the underlying cause is so we don’t have to get Ozzie on a couch and ask him how he feels about his mother, etc.

What we do need to do however, is have a real good understanding of how desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) work.

But first, a word on equipment:  Dogs have what is called an oppositional reflex – so when you pull tightly on a neck collar they will actually crank up more.  This is used by K-9 officers to crank up their dogs before letting them go after a bad-guy and it’s also used in dog fighting to increase the “game-ness” and arousal of a dog – nasty business that dog fighting!  So, your job is to completely take that out of the mix so the humans are not adding anything to Ozzie’s excitement – only removing levels of arousal.

Front-clip harnesses are lovely for this:  The Easy Walk Harness, the Sensation, or The Freedom harness will all work well.  This takes the oppositional reflex out of the equation and if you absolutely have to move Ozzie by putting pressure on the leash it will be a more easy pressure on him via the harness.  Head-halters can add to a dog’s frustration and are not good for physically moving a dog out of Dodge if we get stuck, so we prefer the harness.  I wear a front-clip harness whenever I’m out walking ‘cause it’s just easier on me overall – and I do tend to get stuck on smells – again I digress…

Desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) in short (and I do mean very short – this is the life’s work of many behaviorists and others and I am condensing their hard labors into a couple paragraphs):  we need to change how Ozzie feels about the approach of another dog and change the default (conditioned) behavior he has adopted when they approach.  This means that we take a primary reinforcer (treats) and we pair them up with the appearance of the other dog – in the world of neurology the phrase is “neurons that fire together wire together.”  It has to be a primary reinforcer of Super High Value (SHV) because when we are trying to organize neurons to fire together for one thing – i.e. the behavior we want – the thing that is greater in value (either for good or evil) will win the firing supremacy.  In other words the primary reinforcer needs to more valuable than the trigger is scary.

For example:  if you have a dog who is afraid of cars and you just keep putting them into the car thinking they will just get over it, they may if they are going somewhere that is bigger in the positive sense than their fear of the car is in the negative sense.  However, if the place they are going or the treat they get for the ride is not bigger than their fear of the car the dog will simply learn to hide from you when they know you are going to put them into the car because you have not changed how they feel about the car for the better but you have increased their fear to include you picking them up to put them into the car.

Here’s what may have been missed in previous attempts.
Desensitize/counter-condition for every dog

DS/CC needs to be done for each and every dog you guys see because we don’t know which one will set him off and if we aren’t proactively working our DS/CC program on each and every dog Ozzie could have an outburst which would be self-reinforcing and the reactivity would continue.  Another reason this needs to be done for each and every dog is because although Ozzie may not be having an outburst he may still be cranking himself up inside.  This is not unlike my human when she drives over a bridge:  she doesn’t scream anymore, but her knuckles are white on the steering wheel so I know she’s not in a good state of mind and over-threshold.

Stay sub-threshold

Another thing that may have gone wrong with the other DS/CC attempts is that your timing has to catch him where he is what we call sub-threshold.  This means that he is not over-the-top reacting and can actually focus on the treats and a simple command to do nothing when approached by other dogs.  My human uses either “look at that,” “who’s that” or “oh boy,” for her simple “do nothing” command since these are non-offensive to anyone passing by and are pretty easy things for most humans to say in a bit of a panic.  Remember:  all Ozzie has to do here is NOTHING and eat his treat in the presence of his trigger. So how do you stay sub-threshold?

Distance is critical

You may not think Ozzie has spotted the other dog because he is not over-the-top, but canine senses are so acute that if you see the dog you can be certain that Ozzie knows full well there is another dog nearby. So always work at a greater distance where Ozzie is sub-threshold then slowly close up the distance over time.

Timing is crucial

With a good enough distance for Ozzie to be able to focus on the treats you would say “who’s that” or “look at that” and IMMEDIATELY give Ozzie that piece of cheese or hot dog. (Oh yeah that’s the other thing – explore the world of SHVT [super high value treats] to see what will make Ozzie vibrate with joy and begin with that. Later you can work your way down to something less HV as he gets better and better around other dogs.  Remember as the trigger gets less scary you can either close the distance or lower the value of the reinforcer.

Repetition

This is what breaks most humans down. Remember, we dogs don’t generalize the same way humans do.  And although we are working on a neurological level when we are changing the way Ozzie’s neurons fire together, i.e. meaning that SHVT = Dog, it does take a while for new pathways to be really well-formed in the brain.  Also, please remember that we are also asking him to learn a new behavior in the face of his old trigger – the other dog – so this can take a lot of repetitions.

Avoidance

As you are practicing your timing you will need to walk Ozzie in areas where you know you can control all potential doggie encounters so you can keep him sub-threshold.  My human often tells people to plop their dog in the car (if they like cars) then drive to an empty parking lot or a strip mall where they know there won’t be too many other dogs and practice there. Then, when you are feeling good about your timing and awareness, you would start to shadow other dogs in a controlled environment.  This is usually across the street from a vet’s office, or a down time at the local dog park where dogs will be going in and out, also pet stores can be a good location for this – so long as there are not too many other dogs and there is enough distance for Ozzie to be sub-threshold.

Set your dog up to succeed

Once you and Ozzie have a good working understanding of your new command – your “look at that” or the “who’s that” command –  and he is responding to you reliably on whichever of these you use when you see other dogs and you have decreased the distance on the shadowing adventures to equal the same distance you would encounter in your apartment complex then you are finally ready to “try this at home.”  Remember to bring those SHVT out again in a heartbeat and be ready to retreat (get out of Dodge) if it goes badly and return to shadowing at a distance until he is ready to try again.

Have an escape plan

This means that if Ozzie is reacting you would move him a bit away from the other dog using some tension on the leash, then take a handful of those SHVT, rest them for a moment right on his nose so he can smell them, and then gently toss the snacks from his nose into the opposite direction of the trigger dog.  He will follow the snacks if he is not too far over threshold and you can then relax tension on the leash and follow Ozzie in that direction and, if need be, keep the go-sniff treat-tossing up as you “Hansel and Gretel” him out of Dodge.  (We place the snacks right on his nose provided he wouldn’t redirect onto you – which it sounds like he might given that he once redirected to bite you. In which case you would move him farther away just using the leash before attempting the “go-sniff.” Once he gets better at all of it – you will be able to just “go-sniff” him away when disaster strikes. Remember, you will have to practice the “go-sniff” when there are no distractions – so he knows it when you ask him for it in times of trouble.)  Keep in mind that it is not ideal to muscle a dog around using the leash, but it things go badly – you got to get out.

As you can see, there are way more components here than just having treats in the presence of another dog.  There is still way more than I was able to put into this response before my poor paws got tired from the typing.  Just try typing by paw-pecking.

There are a number of books out there that may help and you can find the best ones my human has found in the Boo-tique:

Feisty Fido by Patricia McConnell, PhD and Bringing Shadow to Light, How to Right a Dog Gone Wrong by Pam Dennison, CBDC will offer you guys some great training tips.

Calming Signals, on Talking Terms with Dogs by Turid Rugaas will offer you a primer on canine body language.

For the Love of a Dog: Understanding the Emotion in You and Your Best Friend by Patricia McConnell, Ph.D will offer your human insight into the dog’s emotional world.

Hope this helps Ozzie and you, too!

The Comfy Chair It Ain’t

The Pet Safe Stay Mat has absolutely no place in positive reinforcement dog training.

Usually on the Three Dogs blog we like to bring you guys notices of classes, updates to the web page, and items of interest that may help you and your dog(s) live a happier, healthier life.  However, sometimes we have to warn you about things and this is one of those times.

Imagine you have gone to visit your neighbor because you are new to the neighborhood.

They kindly offer you a necklace as a house-warming gift and they then proceed to go make some tea.  You are sitting in a chair in the neighbor’s living room and notice something outside the front window.  You get up to investigate the commotion out the window just across the room.

Suddenly, you hear a funny noise then the pain begins and at first you can’t tell where the pain is coming from.  You begin checking yourself and find the pain is coming from the “necklace” your new neighbor just gave you.  You try to get it off but it doesn’t come off.  The pain is non-stop.  You begin to run around to see it you can find something to help get it off, something to make it stop – something to stop the agonizing, confusing, scary pain.

As you are running, you brush the chair where you were sitting before this all began and for a brief second the pain stopped.  That couldn’t be it – no.  So you keep running; keep pulling at the necklace, now you are screaming and asking any deity to help you make it stop.  You ask yourself, “What have I done to deserve this?  What lesson could this possibly be teaching me?”  But no good answer comes in the language you speak.  The pain just won’t stop.

Unexpectedly the new neighbor grabs you and forces you back into the chair.  You sit in the chair shaking and breathing heavily – afraid to move; afraid even to breathe too hard for fear it will start all over again.  Even though the pain is stopped, the fear, the anguish, and confusion are all still there.  What the hell was that???

It was the “Pet Safe Stay Mat”* brought to you by the people at Pet Safe who encourage shocking a dog into scared submission  rather than easily rewarding them for doing what is fun and makes everyone happy around them.

Here’s their explanation:

The Stay! Mat functions by detecting your dog’s weight on the mat. If your dog leaves the mat while the unit is turned on, the mat will send a radio signal up to 6 feet in all directions. The receiver collar will receive the radio signal and produce a beep or beep and static correction until your dog returns to the mat. The correction type depends on the setting you choose. Once your dog returns to the mat, the beep and static correction will cease. (Two week training period required.)

In the words of Karen Overall,  M.A, V.M.D., Ph.D from Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals:

“Shock collars are seldom used correctly, are more often overused or inappropriately used, can make any aggressive animal more aggressive, and may tell us more about the people who feel that they have to rely on them than about the pet’s problem…”

In the instructions for the cold-hearted “Stay Mat” it says there is a two week training period required but I can easily train a dog to hold a position on a mat for rewards in an hour or less.  I can proof that behavior in a couple of 10 – 15 minutes sessions and have it reliable with distance and distraction in a couple days.  So, why spend more time, more money and torment your dog in the process by using this device?

When looking at various training methods we have to consider what is the scientifically best proven approach – it is and always will be positive reinforcement because it has been proven to be both more effective and more humane than coercion.  AND we have to ask ourselves:  how would you like this done to you?  Yes we are talking about dogs not people.  But when we are talking about dogs we are talking about animals whose capacity to feel, emote, love, fear, and forgive is equal and sometimes greater than we humans can produce.  And it is necessary to keep in mind that the way a dog’s brain and our brain processes pain and fear are almost identical – fight or flight.   So it is valid to ask if this is something you would like to endure.

Please tell Pet Safe, PetSmart, and others who are carrying this product; tell your friends, your neighbors and anyone who will listen – this is not the way to teach an easy settle command.  But it is a great way to torment your dog, teach them fear, and break down any hope at a trusting relationship with them since you will be the one putting them back “into the non-comfy chair.”