Posts Tagged ‘Fear’

When we think of play bows, we think of dog tushes held high in the air, muscles relaxed, open mouths and “play faces,” much like this image of Special Dark. The play bow is the universal doggy invitation to play. Sometimes though, it can mean more than just “I want to play with you.”

Did you know that in some instances dogs actually play bow when they’re stressed?

Remember the old fight or flight response? Well , in actuality there’s quite a bit more you can do than just run away or fight. In study of animal behavior this group of behaviors is called “the 5 f’s.”*

Besides fight and flight, an animal can also freeze, faint or fool around. All of these are adaptations animals have undergone to avoid capture by predators. More often than not, an animal will initially try to escape (flight), when there is no escape the animal may (fight).  The animal may also freeze (stop, stand still and become vigilant), faint (dogs don’t tend to do this, but as a brief aside: while I was searching for references for this blog I found an article that describes fainting as one of the 5f’s in human behavior as an acute response to phobia of blood or syringes—which I have! ! I have fainted at the site of a syringe and always need to be horizontal when having blood drawn and cannot look at needles!  I just never knew scientists were studying this phenomenon; the literature was really very interesting!).

The last F, fooling around, is what I like to call “changing the subject,” it’s essentially being silly to take away attention from the stressful thing or as an effort to cause the stressful thing to change.

Remember that one of the ways you can tell a dog is stressed if he or she exhibits behaviors out of context (the dog all of a sudden starts smelling the chair that’s been present all along; the object is suddenly oh so interesting).

In some instances, dogs will also play bow out of context to “change the subject.” You’ll see the dog perhaps raise a paw or close his mouth or the muscles in his body go tense, you might see the whites of his eyes, etc. and then all of a sudden: a play bow! He might then start to dart back and forth and play bow a few more times.

This is why it’s important to keep in my mind to remember to watch the entire body of the dog, never just rely on one behavior or one part of the body to try to interpret what you’re seeing. Just as it’s awful tempting to assume that a dog wagging his tail wants you to pet him, it’s equally tempting to think when he’s play bowing because he wants to play. He may in fact want to play, but it might be to diffuse a stressful situation. Do him a favor and lighten the mood: take a few steps back, crouch down perpendicular to him, avert your gaze, smile, etc.  get him out of the situation so he can relax and work on changing that negative association to a positive one.

The more you watch your dog and think about he’s communicating, you’ll find yourself noticing things you never picked up on before. It just takes a little practice and before you know it, you ‘ll pick up on things without even thinking about it, reading your dog’s body language will become second nature!

Are there any situations in which your dogs has “fooled around” during some level of stress? Special Dark will occasionally do this when meeting male strangers who stare at him and lean down over him. He also used to do this during brushing sessions, when he’d “had enough,” he would all of a sudden pounce on the pile of hair that was accumulating or a nearby toy (a toy he’d ignored for an entire week, but all of a sudden during a brushing session became ever so exciting!).

Can you think of some other behaviors that might mean one thing in one context and another under different circumstances? What about jumping up? Can you tell when your dog is jumping for attention or to say hi versus when he’s jumping up because he needs you to notice he needs to get out a situation? Think about the human smile or laugh: sometimes you smile or laugh when you’re happy but you might also smile when you’re nervous!

*There are variations in the names for the behaviors depending on where you look, and some variation in the definitions of these terms too.

Take a look at these resources to learn about reactions to fear:

Nicole Wilde’s Working With Fearful Dogs Seminar Video

Bracha HS. Freeze, flight, fight, fright, faint: adaptationist perspectives on the acute stress response spectrum.CNS Spectr. 2004 Sep;9 (9):679-85. Review.

Also, take a look at a behavioral ecology or ethology textbook for more information on responses to fear in animals.


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Well, now it’s easy anyway (if you haven’t had a chance to see Special Dark in action take a look at www.youtube.com/specialpawstraining). But in the beginning…

When we first brought the Staples Easy Button home a couple of years ago and pressed it for the first time, Special Dark was afraid of it. We were so busy with working on so many tricks with Special at the time that it ended up sitting on a shelf for at least a year.

Then one day during a conversation with fellow trainer and chow fancier extraordinaire, Layla Loveless; she mentioned that her pup Alfie had a new trick—to push the Easy Button! I just thought that was one of the cutest things I’d ever heard and decided to try it with Special Dark.

Given that he was quite fearful of the button, it was going to be a bit challenging.

So how did I teach him? I started by placing the button on the floor, and sitting beside it. I had a bag of chicken with me (one of the items on the very top of Special’s reward list!) Every time he came near the button or looked at it from a distance he was praised extra, extra exuberantly and got a piece of chicken!  After a while, every time I set the button down, Special got visibly excited (whole body wiggling, mouth open and all facial muscles relaxed). Then, he began offering more and more behaviors. He started coming closer and closer to the button until he started rushing towards it upon seeing it. He then started smelling the button when I set it down.  Once these new responses of approach and smelling were consistently more frequent than his older ones, I would “jackpot” these responses for him: he’d get a few pieces of chicken for approaching and smelling the button and only one piece for those times he simply approached it and just high praise if he looked at it from a distance.  

Eventually, he would come towards it when I had it in my hand, even before I set the button down. Since Special already knew paw and high five, I began holding the button for a few seconds in my hand. He began pawing at it! This is partly because he already knows that when I hold my hand out a certain way, it means for him to place his paw in mine (or occasionally apparently it means to exuberantly slam his hand into mine—as a woman also once found out when she tried to offer him her hand to smell! Well he recognized that hand gesture as “paw,” so he gave her one! She couldn’t stop laughing and neither could I!).

When he was consistently pawing at the button, he was rewarded with chicken only for the pawing action, and only praised for other button directed behaviors such as smelling it. I began setting the button on the floor again and he continued to paw at it once I had set it down. In time he became so excited at the site of the button he’d run over and paw at it. This pawing response was jackpotted and everything else got verbal praise. Eventually, if he attempted to paw at it while it was still in my hand, he got no chicken– chicken only came when he pawed at it when it was on the ground. When he was consistently pawing at it, I began asking “how was it?” each time before he had a chance to touch it. Next, he would only get rewarded if he pushed the button only when I asked him to by saying “how was it?” If he pushed the button for no question, there was no reward.  Before long, he understood that my asking “how was it” became the verbal signal to paw at the button.  Eventually, I left the button on the ground and whenever he heard “how was it” he’d paw at the button!

Now, I could begin to ask him to discriminate between cues, so I could ask him to do other things, like sit pretty, before asking “how was it?”

As we went on with this I began refining his button pushing too: Special is very gentle when he touches things with his paws so he wouldn’t always make the button “speak.” In fact, often his little paws would simply hover over the button like a game show contestant waiting to buzz in for the correct answer! So I began only rewarding those gorgeous responses when he’d actually make contact and only when he made the button make sound!

There are of course, many other ways to go about this. For one, you might choose not pick up the button the way I did, you could simply wait for the dog to touch the button on her own.

While this little trick is so fun and super cute, it’s also very functional. It’s one more thing Special and I can do together strengthening and deepening our bond even more. It gave him plenty of mental stimulation to learn a new trick and most importantly, it got him over a fear of something. While this is one of those things where you might ask, “so what, he’s afraid of a button?,” the way I see it, the more things in life I can show him are positive and not scary, and the more I can help him become a more confident dog, the better his life is, especially since we didn’t have him during his critical period of socialization. Whether that involves showing him he doesn’t have to be afraid of a tricycle abandoned on its side in the grass, a giant teddy bear by the dumpster in the dark or a button that makes a sound; or if it involves learning cues and tricks, every task he learns builds his confidence and gives us quality bonding time. What could be better than that?

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After much delay, here is the last installment in the “dog training and behavior myths” series of posts. I’m attaching a warning and apology here: unfortunately it ended up being a long post!

16. “It’s okay to roll a dog on his back to pet him.”

Even though your intentions are good, rolling a dog on his back can actually send a very scary message to the dog. Forcing a dog into this position will very often result in defensive or fear aggression.

Another common mistake we tend to make is thinking that when a dog rolls over on his own, he always wants his belly scratched. This isn’t always the case! Dogs will roll over to signal appeasement or to create distance between themselves and a human! While our instinct is to pet the dog on his tummy when he rolls over thinking he’s signaling “please move closer,” he’s actually signaling “please move away!” Not at all a pleasant situation to be in. When dogs roll over in this way, to help build their confidence, it’s best to encourage them upright and then interact with them.

So how do you know when to pet your dog when he’s on his back? Look for relaxed muscles throughout the dog’s body, open mouths (often with tongues hanging out to the side) and general “wiggliness”- dogs tend to roll over in this way during play.  If your dog rolls over and you see any or all of these signs: tense muscles, furrowed brow, closed mouth, tucked tail- it’s best for the dog if you encourage him  to roll upright before interacting with him.

Dogs convey and understand intent very differently than we do. Even though dogs will roll over (or roll each other over) as part of play, prior to executing a rough and tumble move they’ve displayed other signals (such as play bows) to let their play partners know that what they’re doing is play. Don’t forget that a lot of what we think of as polite or comforting in our interactions with other people including facing each other during conversation, leaning in to get closer to a another person etc. all convey very different meanings to our dogs. If you happen to make a faux pas, it’s much easier explaining your intentions to another human than to your pup!

There are many sources available that discuss all aspects of dogs rolling on their backs including what it means when your dog rolls over, when it’s okay to pet your dog while he’s on his back, and the “alpha roll.” Patricia McConnell’s The Other End of the Leash discusses many of the topics in this blog and has great information on alpha rolls.  

17. “It’s best to take a dog that is fearful of other dogs to the dog park or to a dog class to get over that fear.”

Placing a dog into the situation the dog is afraid of at high intensities (including training classes if your dog is afraid of other dogs!) will most often make the situation worse. Your dog could very easily become overwhelmed to the point of shutting down, (essentially paralyzed in fear) not wanting to do anything but be near you and/or may end up biting out of fear.

Instead, speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist about how to desensitize and counter-condition your dog to other dogs or whatever they’re afraid of. Games such as tug of war (with rules properly in place), teaching tricks and even things as plain as working on basic cues with positive reinforcement techniques will also help to build your dogs confidence! 

For more information on fearful dogs, visit www.fearfuldogs.com and take a look at Patricia McConnell’s The Cautious Canine and Nicole Wilde’s Help For Your Fearful Canine.

 18. “You should be able to take things out of your dog’s mouth.”

Teach your dog “drop it” instead. “Drop it” and “leave it” can be life savers. Imagine looking across the lawn and seeing some sort of carcass hanging from your dog’s mouth! Wouldn’t you like to be able to just say “drop it” without having to race over there?

Trying to physically remove objects from a dog’s mouth whether they are food items, tissues, toys, socks, etc. can be very problematic at best and dangerous at worst.  You could actually inadvertently cause resource guarding through taking things away! Dogs should be taught that human hands are not a bad thing around their food bowls, around treasured toys, around favorite treats, that human hands come by their favorite things to give, not to take.

Speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist who can walk you through all the steps including ow to teach “drop it” by playing tug (see Dog Training and Behavior Myths Part II). Also, take a look at Jean Donaldson’s “Canine Fear, Aggression and Play” seminar handouts for preventing resource guarding and Jean Donaldson’s Mine! A Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs for help if you suspect your dog may be guarding anything. 

19. “Dogs should be punished when they growl.”

This is a very dangerous myth. When dogs growl, they are signaling that they are uncomfortable with something. It’s a warning that if we don’t pay attention to the dog’s level of discomfort, it could escalate to a bite.  If we punish for growling the dog may feel the need to escalate right then, possibly to a bite, depending on the situation. Punishing growls could also have long-term effects- if we punish a dog for growling the next time a similar situation arises, he may not growl at all, instead he may go straight to a bite!

While we would of course prefer not to hear growls, the reality is that they are a perfectly normal means of canine communication and it’s very important for us to accept them as such. Every dog will most likely growl at something during his or her life. It’s the equivalent of us raising our voices. Who can honestly say they’ve never done that?

I’m absolutely not saying that if a dog growls, we should just shrug and say “okay, that’s normal.” What we need to do, is to find out exactly what is making the dog uncomfortable and work to change that perception of “this thing is not safe and I will now growl at it” to one where the dog sees the person, place, item, etc as safe. This can be done through desensitization and counter conditioning.

Speak to a trainer or veterinary behaviorist if your dog is growling for any reason.  Take a look at Janis Bradley’s Dog’s Bite But Balloons and Slippers Are More Dangerous for an eye opening, informative and witty look at aggression in canines.

20. “Dogs who growl in places like a vet’s office  or grooming parlor are being difficult”

A lot of times veterinarians, their staff and groomers get to see a side of our dogs that we never see elsewhere. For some dogs the poking and prodding, need sticks, etc. are no problem, but for many dogs these are two of the scariest places to be.  Some dogs a) become so overwhelmed and shut down that they just stand, sit or flop over and can be manipulated every which way (and are usually touted as “good dogs”) while others b) squirm to get away, growl or snap when handled.

Regardless of which of these categories a dog falls into, she is not being “difficult,” “stubborn” or “dominant.” Neither “a” nor “b” are good for pup, both situations indicate fear.  

What do we do? We can do our best to desensitize and counter condition our dogs to these places, people, instruments and techniques. This will involve multiple visits when the dog is not being groomed or going in for shots, etc.  A trainer or veterinary behaviorist can help you do this.

These are just some of the myths out there concerning dog training and behavior. While they may seem trivial to us, a lot of them have very serious meaning to our dogs. These are not by any means the only myths out there: from the notion that dogs love to be hugged (another very common myth) to the notion that it’s great for dogs to be carried to the notion that when two dogs meet they should be restrained to the idea that when an off-leash dog runs up to your on-leash dog there will be no problems.

Dog training and dog behavior aren’t the only topics surrounded by myths. They persist in every field, in every aspect of life. For example, a friend of mine who is a personal trainer told me that many people believe they are doing the right thing by their bodies when they hit the sidewalk for a jog or a run (think of how many you see out there each day). Yet sidewalks are the worst surface to run or jog on because they cause shin splints!

Despite scientific (or medical, as in the example above) evidence to the contrary there are many reasons for why some of these myths have such staying power. It’s our job to be as educated as possible about what is myth and what is fact. Research and question everything you can to make educated and informed decisions concerning your dog. It’s the best way we can make sure they stay safe, healthy and happy.

If there are any myths that weren’t addressed in this series of posts and you’d like to share, please post them here!


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Almost a year after Alex (the world famous African Grey parrot) died, Patricia McConnell wrote an article for Bark magazine (March/April 2008 No. 47, pg. 46-49) about what dogs understand. Can dogs understand concepts such as smaller vs. bigger? Can our dogs understand that the words we say to them can represent objects and actions?

The article was amazing as usual, but it wasn’t any of these questions that stuck with me. It was the end of one particular paragraph where she describes Alex’s first trip to the vet. Alex had to stay at the vet alone and as Irene Pepperberg (renowned scientist and Alex’s human) was leaving him, he said to her quietly “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” Can anything be more heart wrenching?

Reading the story still gives me goose bumps. I always hate seeing Special Dark confused or afraid of anything. I always wonder in particular about what rescue dogs in particular think about certain situations when they’ve just gone to their new homes. The first time Special Dark went to the vet was the day after we adopted him (believe me, this was only because it was absolutely necessary!), and among other things he was feeling, I wondered if he thought this family was done with him too.

There are many times when I’m gushing over Special Dark, talking to him for long periods of time about how I adore him. I know that while I’m doing this he’s looking at me wondering what I want, scanning for words he already knows (sit, down, stay, walk, treat, etc). A prime example of this is when I’m gathering my things to get ready to go out. When I talk to him during these times, I see a mixture of anticipation and confusion as he listens for me to say “come on” or “you’re staying.” He’s searching for the words that have contextual meaning to him in a sea of the “useless” extraneous human words that have no immediate consequence: “I love you, you’re the cutest, aw, look how little you are.” All the words that I, as a human, feel so good saying to him all the while he’s patiently waiting for the punch line! (That’s not to say that these words are all meaningless all the time, I have been known to float a treat just for cuteness!)

You might be wondering what this overly sentimental post has to do with training, here it is: Whether or not dogs feel love, empathy, sorrow or even whether they might offer the above words as an appeasement signal to a human if they could (all topics for another blog), two things are certain:

  1. Dogs experience fear.
  2. Clear communication is essential to any dog-human relationship.

 Dogs can be fearful of other dogs, food bowls, people, wheelchairs, substrates, thunder, etc. The list is endless. Dogs, like every other living thing on the planet, are afraid of pain (think fight or flight). Animals have to be afraid of pain, or the threat of pain, to live long enough to pass on their genetic information.

Aversive training methods suggest to your dog that fear, pain or death could be a consequence of a behavior.  Shock collars, prong collars, choke collars, alpha rolls or pinning dogs down all result in fear and pain. I’ve often had people tell me that these things “don’t hurt.”  I once spoke to the owner of a chihuahua who was wearing a shock collar because he pulled on his leash and he barked too much. They told me that their trainer explained to them that the if the dog shakes and yelps, the collar is working properly. If there is no shaking or yelping, the voltage needs to be increased. The justification for the use of these tools is always “don’t worry, they’re painless.” I ask them, if it’s not through fear or pain, how or why do these items work? They have no answer for me. I can tell them that positive reinforcement methods work because the dog is excited to earn a treat, he is using his mind to solve a puzzle and his solution will result in a yummy bit of food, a toy or a walk, etc., and a wrong answer doesn’t result in fear or pain. When the dog is wearing a prong collar and the collar is popped and then released, is the dog excited about anything? What results will his compliance produce for him?

This is one reason why effective, clear communication between you and your dog is so important to master. It’s hard enough communicating with members of our own species (think about how many misunderstandings or confusing conversations you have had this week)! Now we have to figure out what our dogs are trying to communicate to us and our poor dogs get to try to figure out what we’re trying to communicate to them!

It’s important to learn what they are trying to communicate to us, so we can effectively communicate with them. It’s not important just for training, but to avoid “misunderstandings.” Knowing when your dog is overwhelmed will help you avoid a dog bite to yourself, friends, or strangers. It will help you prevent behavioral concerns from becoming serious. Know the signs of stress or fear. Realize that a closed mouth; dilated pupils; an unmoving body; a yawn; rapid lip-licking can be signs of stress. There are many others too. When people would have you believe that your dog is “calm, submissive,” know that in reality, your dog is fearful and has likely shut-down. 

Being aware of what you are communicating to your dog verbally, as well as with your body language, is also essential. Did you now that simply by leaning over to yell, you are conveying that you are out of control and you might kill him? Your dog now has to wonder which of these times that you’ve lost control you’ll finally carry out that threat! Even though that’s not at all the message you intended to convey, it is the message your dog receives.

It’s the same when you give a verbal cue. When you say “sit,” is it really the word your dog is responding too? Or is it the way your hand moved? Do you always lift an eyebrow or take a step closer to your dog when you say “sit?” For a fabulous discussion on this topic, see Erica Young’s blog on the Dog Star Daily website http://www.dogstardaily.com/blogs/antecedent-intervention.

Likewise, when you say “no,” what does that mean to your dog? If someone says “no” to you right now, what in the world does that mean? Does it give you any information besides possibly getting your attention?

Here’s a really common example: you’re walking down the street and your dog starts veering off to say hello to the dog passing you. You say “no!” “No” what exactly? No, don’t look at that dog, no don’t veer to the right, no don’t turn your head? How should the dog know which one you mean? Tell him what you want from him instead. How about “leave it” or “let’s go?”  Or teach him to look up at you every time he sees a dog until you signal to him to approach the other dog. You could teach him something like “say hello” so when he hears that cue, he knows it’s okay to say hello, when he doesn’t hear it he keeps walking along or looks up at you.

Communicate to your dog when you do like something, not just when you don’t. Reward her for sitting politely while strangers pet her, especially if you didn’t even ask her to!

When I left Special Dark at the vet that day, I could see that he was fearful. I wish I could have communicated to him somehow that we would be back for him. I wish that he could understand what all the procedures and shots are and that no one would ever hurt him on purpose. I try to think about Alex’s experience, and Special’s experience and do my best in the situations that I can control to ensure that there is no fear, no confusion. There are actually very few times when we don’t have control over the messages we are communicating to our dogs. And there are a myriad of things we can do to keep them from being fearful or stressed (including during trips to the vet!). The most important, basic and easy of these is to train and communicate with them in such a way that we are clear about what behaviors we like, to teach them behaviors we would like in place of ones we don’t, and make sure they don’t ever experience the fear that if they perform the wrong behavior, they might be subjected to pain. It’s that easy. You’ll have that well behaved dog you’re seeking, your bond will be stronger, and your dog will be happy.

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