How To Create Predictability for Fearful Dogs

Revolutionise Your Dog Training

How To Create Predictability for Fearful Dogs

October 10, 2023 Uncategorised 0

Many of us spend weeks, months or even years trying to help our dogs feel better about unpleasant situations.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not that we’re putting dogs into awful situations. It’s just that there are things they’d rather not do. Vet visits, for instance. Grooming or handling sometimes. Usually these involve mildly unpleasant situations that vet staff do their absolute best to make less unpleasant. Despite that, our dogs can sometimes react as if their life is at stake.

Or we end up with a bad case of avoidance at home.

You may be familiar with this one: you need to do something to the dog, and they spend a good period of time playing ‘keep away’. Maybe it’s time for them to go into their harness, and they’re spending ten minutes dancing around and avoiding you. Another situation would be grooming: plenty of dogs play ‘keep away’ when the brushes come out.

It can be the same for muzzles, wound treatment, administering medicine or even using a collar to prevent them licking or bothering wounds. You know, you’ve taken off the lampshade to give your dog (and your shins) a bit of a break, only for your dog to play merry hell in getting it back on again. Nothing makes you feel more like you wish you’d not bothered!

Behaviour we might see when dogs find things unpleasant

When our dog has already learned exactly what it is we intend to do, many professionals will use an approach where they build up through progressive situations. Start small, then build up.

You might have done this with a harness, lead or muzzle, perhaps. Few puppies are happy with the lead the first few times we put it on. They immediately try to pull away, and when they can’t get away, this can cause them to panic. Most of the time, our young puppies get over this panic because they come to know that leads means walks, and walks are usually good things.

But that’s not always the case.

Some puppies who are very fearful may never feel safe in that situation. This is particularly true when we use the lead to coerce them or jolly them into doing things at our pace, not theirs. Often, their first time on the lead is paired up with visiting people or going to the vet. Perhaps it also involves getting in the car.

The lead can then become a powerful predictor of unpleasant experiences.

Some dogs try to escape in those situations. That’s the kind of behaviour we notice immediately.

Other dogs may even become aggressive. That’s behaviour we recognise as well. We all know what a growl means, or what the dog means if they try to bite us or the lead.

But behaviour is not all or nothing. Some dogs just do less on the lead. They’re in partial freeze mode. They don’t have to hit the deck and refuse at every single step of the walk.

Other dogs feel uncomfortable so they fidget. Maybe they mouth or bite the lead a little. They might nibble at our clothes a bit or search for something comforting like a toy.

Traditional approaches to overcoming fear

When we notice that our dog feels uncomfortable with things, we usually use a very common approach to improve things.

For instance, we might notice that our dog is very fidgety around brushing. Perhaps they try to bite the brush or escape. Maybe we have to hold on to them or lift them up onto a table just to make things more manageable.

When we realise how uncomfortable our dog feels, we may use an approach to help them get used to brushing. That approach involves using a scale with least bad at the bottom, working all the way up to the tricky stuff. Maybe we find a softer brush, or we keep the sessions to a quick swipe here and there. This gradient of exposure builds up to the dematting combs we know we need to use around some areas to pull out knots – the things we know our dog struggles most with.

This approach is often called desensitisation. We are trying to help our dog get used to things.

We can even do this with novel items like harnesses and muzzles. It’s much better to introduce things gradually at the beginning and build up from there.

Sometimes, trainers and behaviour consultants may also add in another method called counterconditioning. This is where we pair up the bad stuff with good stuff, like giving the dog access to a chew while we groom them, or meaning that having nails clipped predicts good stuff happening.

Why traditional methods fail

Sometimes desensitisation using a gradient of exposure, or counterconditioning pairing unpleasant things up with food don’t work effectively. There are two main reasons for this.

The first reason is because initial experiences are very strong. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. That kind of thing. If an animal’s initial experience with something that removes their choice or freedom is negative, that memory is likely to be stronger than many that come after. Likewise, if an initial experience with handling and restraint is unpleasant, that memory is likely to be more sticky.

Humans are not very good at planning ahead, despite our many talents. We fail to prepare our dogs for cars, muzzles, harnesses, leads, grooming and vet visits for example. We could have had five or six really positive experiences with these things, and instead, we leave it until the last minute, impose it on the dog and then we’re surprised when the dog says, ‘No thanks!’ the next time.

And because our dogs often accept things the first time, we assume it will work the second.

For instance, we may be able to muzzle our dog without any preparation the first time they need it. Then we assume they tolerated it and we’ll be able to do it again. Lots of dogs then resort to running away, avoiding us or even behaving aggressively to us next time they see the muzzle.

The second problem is that we can work to desensitise or countercondition these things, but the moment they become uncomfortable or unpleasant again in the future, emotions and behaviour return immediately. This is known as reinstatement.

When our dogs re-encounter the unpleasant bits

Reinstatement is a real problem for unpleasant situations. Say our had a bad first experience at the vet. Maybe they panicked as they were lifted onto the table, or they had to be restrained.

Perhaps they tried to escape or avoid handling, and when that didn’t work, they may have growled or tried to bite.

Some dogs simply acquiesce and submit, staying very still without complaint. In many ways, this is worse because we assume that they are tolerating the procedure when really they are learning that they have no choice than to simply shut down.

And other dogs are fidget, meaning we have to use more restraint to keep them still.

We’re not monsters. We noticed that they felt uncomfortable. We definitely noticed if they panicked or behaved with aggression to warn us they felt uncomfortable. As a result, we probably will try to make things better for our dogs by trying to chance how they feel about the experience.

We may try to countercondition, pairing vet visits up with treats and rewards. Or we may go at a gentle pace, starting with simply presenting the item to the dog, or popping into the clinic. We might switch to a softer brush and keep grooming sessions short.

The problem comes when the situation becomes uncomfortable for the dog once again. If we’re desensitising them to grooming, that might come if we pull at a knot on sensitive skin. If we’re in the vet, that may come when the animal feels restraint again or the pinch of an injection. Or if we have a dog who is sensitive to the lead, if they panic over something they find and try to escape but cannot, that moment means the lead is once again connected to that feeling of panic.

Reinstatement of Fear

Re-experiencing the unpleasant bit can lead to the partial or full return of fear. This is reinstatement.

Fears come back for many reasons.

Sometimes they come back simply because time has passed. Say for instance our dog panicked because the comb hit a snag, we desensitised them to the comb and added in some treats, but we’ve not brushed them for a while. We may find that getting the brush out after a gap may cause fears to recover.

Other times, they come back because we’re in a different context. We may move house and go to a different vet surgery only for our dog to behave as if we hadn’t spent a lot of money working with a trainer to help them feel safe at the vet. In this case, fears are renewed.

Sometimes, we can teach the dog that they can stop procedures should they want to. Maybe we do things like cooperative care or Chirag Patel’s Bucket Game to teach dogs to communicate their consent. However, when we try to use these approaches when we can’t let the dog stop the procedure, we’re likely to notice that fears come back in a phenomenon known as resurgence.

Reinstatement is a very specific phenomenon that relates to the way fear responses return when stuff becomes unpleasant again.

In other words, if we know it’s likely we will hit a snag in our dog’s fur, the lead will restrain the dog again in the future, or the vet will have to restrain the dog, then we should expect that fear behaviours may return again.

Control & Predictability

In 1985, Mineka and Henderson published research about the effects of control and predictability on unpleasant experiences. What they wanted to know was whether it made individuals tolerate unpleasant experiences if we knew we could control them or end them, or if we could predict them.

What they found was that where individuals couldn’t control unpleasant or scary experiences, these were the kind of events which were likely to lead to long-term fears. Think about real world events like fireworks and thunderstorms for our dogs, and why they can often be so hard for us to work against… often that relates to the fact that our dogs have no control over them.

Compared to controllable events, where individuals can control how unpleasant things are or when they can withdraw, uncontrollable events are much more likely to cause long-term panic, anxiety or fear. They referred to Martin Seligman’s research to demonstrate this, which was actually conducted on dogs. Those dogs who could stop the bad stuff did better and had fewer symptoms of stress than the dogs who had no choice.

In other words, choice and control matter if we want to reduce fear.

In the same research, they also explore the effects of predictability on the development of fear. Where bad stuff is signalled, it’s much more tolerable to individuals than if it is not. Warning is a good thing.

Often we try and surprise our dogs with the bad stuff, clipping their nails or trying to groom them when they were not expecting it. While this may work the first time, if we do it repeatedly, it’s likely we’ll cause our dogs great anxiety because they’ll never know when the bad stuff might happen, so they’re constantly on guard.

Giving our dogs control and predictability

The best time to get our dogs used to unpleasant, restrictive or uncomfortable experiences is long before the point we’ll need them.

If we can’t do that, we will need to understand that it’s likely fears will return.

However, we can add in choice and predictability. When our dogs understand the procedures that will happen to them, we often find that they choose to participate. Even if it would be very uncomfortable, they still participate.

These activities, known as cooperative care or husbandry procedures, give dogs choice to participate. Many people ask what happens if or when the dog hesitates or refuses to participate. The truth is that because we start with minimally unpleasant stuff, that rarely happens. Control and predictability help us tolerate even very painful procedures at times.

Many rewards-based dog trainers call these ‘start buttons’. For example, we present the brush and the dog steps up to be brushed. We ask the dog to ‘hop up’ or ‘step up’ onto a grooming platform and grooming will start. We present the nail clippers and the dog has learned to give us their paw to participate. Or we might present the eye drops for our dog to come forward for eye drops.

Other things can help too, like teaching dogs to station on a raised platform. That helps them know were to position themselves. We can teach dogs to step into harnesses, muzzles and even lampshades.

Instead of trying to countercondition these experiences, it’s often more useful to reward heavily at the end and to have a clear signal that things are over. We often notice our dogs shake off when we give them that cue, showing us that they understand the uncomfortable bit is now over.

These things can make a real difference for our dogs.

If you’re looking for more…

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