Fear.

[Disclaimer: This is not a dog training post. And it’s a story of the past – a story of pre-COVID-19 times.]

 

I don’t know how long she had been walking next to me. I’d been speeding up, inadvertently, as I always do when I sense her behind me. She always catches up though. She politely kept her distance until I was ready for her. Half a meter between us – the distance a stranger will keep from you on a busy pedestrian street. The kind of street I was walking on when I finally noticed her: la Avenida 20 de Noviembre in the historical center of San Cristóbal de Las Casas. It’s a street filled with restaurants, bars, cafés, bakeries and souvenir shops, musicians, street vendors, and benches. And people – so many people! Give people an entire street, and they will take it over, like a river of humans, vibrant, humming in constant conversation. An Ed Sheeran song wafts through the open doors of an Italian restaurant, soon getting indistinguishable from the sounds of life in the street. A Shepherd dog is eating a taco someone dropped on the sidewalk.

She is walking closer to me now – the distance of a good friend. Drifting right, away from her, is no use. Soon, our arms will touch every couple of steps. Accidentally, an unknowing observer might think. Giving me goosebumps. Her arms are suntanned; her skin is warm, warm like her hazel eyes. She’s shorter than me. Her hair is sun bleached and curly and wild. She’s an outdoors kind of person. I breathe in and out.
In.
And out. She’s still here. Inconspicuous, yet inescapable. Another block, and she’ll put her sun-tanned arm around my shoulders. It’s a comforting gesture. I feel her hand on the soft skin above my hip. Her touch is gentle and warm. It’s the touch of someone I’ve known long and well.

She’s never been mean to me. She’s loyal, like Churchill’s dog. “I promised you I’d be back.” Her eyes are soft. “I’ll be back anytime you are ready.”

I didn’t know I’d be ready today. I thought I had time –.

I listen to her – I don’t feel like talking. There’s nothing to say. Our hips are touching every second step now. We’re walking close to each other, falling into lockstep.

I breathe in.
And out.
In.
And out. I have to keep walking. I can’t stop when she’s with me. If I stop, I’ll be hers.

“You’re alone,” she says gently. “You’ll always be alone.”

I keep walking in silence.

“The people you meet and connect with …”

“…”

“Yes?” She always gets me eventually, leaving an unfinished sentence hanging in the air until I can’t bear it.

“They are temporary, those people. They’re not yours.”

“You go places. You meet people. You make that social shit look easy. And in the end of the day, you go home alone. You fall asleep alone. You wake up alone. Noone will make you tea when you’re sick. You’re fundamentally alone, my friend.”

“Don’t worry. I’m right here. I always am. It’ll be dark, and I’ll hold you. I’ll gently kiss your forehead. I’ll smell of sunshine, sand, and wind-dried sweat. You’ll curl up under your blanket, all alone and so fucking exhausted. I’ll wrap myself around you, and you’ll cry. I’ll gently stroke your hair, and you – you just sleep. Sleep, my friend. I’ll be right here when you wake up.”

She’s soft-spoken, as always. We know each other well, and she – she means no harm, she says, and as always, I almost believe her. “I’m holding space for us,” she reassures me. “I’m holding space for you, and then I’ll fill it up until you drown.”

The Death of a Chicken

I need to learn how to pluck a chicken.

Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.

The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.

We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.

We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.

The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.

Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.

chicken politics

I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.

The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.

In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.

Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Touch

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

This is part two of the sample translation of chapter 8.3 (Early interventions for fearful puppies) of my German-language puppy book. Click here for part 1: Protocol for Proximity.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Special thanks to canine sports medicine extraordinaire and FDSA colleague Sue Yanoff for proofreading, and for her thoughtful feedback! 

 

Work through the Protocol for Proximity before working on the Protocol for Touch.

Protocol for Touch

 

Your Dog’s Chest

 

Now it is time to raise criteria again. Approach your puppy just like before. Squat down. This time, reach towards the front of her chest, but stop your hand at about 10 inches distance – do not touch her. Click, drop the treat, and retreat. Wait 15 seconds between reps, and stay at this level of difficulty for at least 5 reps. If your puppy is comfortable with the hand reaching towards her, move your hand 2 inches closer the next time. Click, treat, retreat. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat. Raise criteria only when your puppy appears confident and relaxed.

 

You should soon be able to move your hand up close to your puppy’s body. Now you are ready to gently touch the front of her chest. Gently put your hand on her body, barely touching her. Repeat this step at least five times without your puppy showing the stress signs described in the ladder of aggression (see body language chapter). She should remain perfectly relaxed: the muscles are soft, the tail rests on the floor or wags gently in expectation of a treat. The body isn’t stiff, but loose. Rolling over onto one hip is a good sign.

dog training, fearful dogs, protocol for touch, puppy training, counterconditioning, desensitization

 

Did your dog stay relaxed or show signs of happy expectation? Excellent. In your next rep, put a little bit of pressure on your dog’s chest with your hand – the same amount of pressure you would use when petting a dog. Repeat this step at least five times, and make sure your dog is comfortable. Once you can do this, you are ready to slowly stroke your dog’s chest. Move your hand over her chest for three inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. After five reps of this, move your hand over her chest for 6 inches. Click, drop a treat, and retreat. Repeat five times, and raise criteria to 9 inches. (If your dog is very little, 2, 4 and 6 or even 1, 2 and 3  inches may be better suited!)

 

Your Dog’s Chin

 

Once this works well, it is time to move on to a different body part. Your dog’s chin tends to be a good second spot. Again, start with extending your hand towards her. Stop your hand at about 10 inches distance from your puppy’s chin, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Work your way up to touching her chin, just like you did with her chest. Once you can touch her chin, scratch her with your fingers for one second before clicking, dropping the treat, and retreating. Gradually extend the time you spend scratching your puppy’s chin by counting in your head: “One good puppy.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies.” Click, treat, retreat. Work your way up to 5 good puppies before moving on to the next body part.

 

Your Dog’s Side

 

Next, you will desensitize your dog towards touching her side. Just like before, start by reaching towards her without actually touching her body, and work your way up to a 9-inch stroke (less if your dog is very small).

 

Your Dog’s Withers

 

A good fourth spot to work on is your dog’s withers. Be patient – this may be more difficult for your puppy than the previous body parts. Follow the protocol until you can stroke from the withers back to her rump. Does she seem enjoy you touching her rump? If so, step five should be initiating touch there, and gently scratching her rump with your fingers. Work your way up from “One good puppy” to “Five good puppies!” of rump scratching. If she doesn’t enjoy her rump being touched, leave out this step.

 

Your Dog’s Head

 

Equally difficult is your dog’s head – your sixth spot of touch. Take your time, and only increase criteria when your dog is completely comfortable with the previous step. Your goal is being able to stroke from her head down to her withers.

 

Your Dog’s Chest and Belly

 

Number seven in our list are your dog’s chest and belly. Start when your dog is relaxing on her side, but not asleep. Allowing you to approach while exposing the belly is a sign of trust! Gradually build up your approach again before physically touching her body. Your first spot of touch is just behind the front legs. Build up to stroking her all the way back to her belly. If your dog doesn’t usually rest on her side when you are around, that is okay – skip this step for now, and move on to spot number 8. On the other hand, if your puppy enjoys being touched on her chest and belly, feel free to experiment a litte and gently scratch different parts of her belly. Never keep your hands on her for more than 5 seconds at a time (“Five good puppies!”) before clicking, treating, and retreating.

 

Your Dog’s Legs

 

Now you are ready to work on another sensitive body part: your dog’s legs. Start with the shoulder of a front leg, and gradually increase how far your hand slides down. Most dogs prefer a medium amount of pressure to a very gentle touch on their legs. Your goal behavior is slowly sliding your hand down from the shoulder muscles to the toes. Go through the protocol for both front legs, followed by both hind legs.

 

Generalization

 

Repeat all steps when your dog is standing instead of lying down. Choose a time of day where your puppy is calm and relaxed, and start from scratch: take a step towards your dog, click, drop a treat, and retreat. Gradually decrease the distance, and then add touch. Start with every new body part like you did when your dog was lying down: the front of her chest, her chin, side, withers and back, head and neck, chest and belly, front legs and hind legs.

 

Puppies under 16 weeks of age should be able to go through the protocol for proximity and touch relatively quickly. Dogs that age are still behaviorally flexible. The fear response isn’t fully developed yet, and positive experiences quickly lead to positive associations. Nevertheless, a puppy between 12 and 16 weeks will already require more time and patience to learn to like your touch than a puppy under 12 weeks would. The socialization window has already started to close.

 

dog training, puppy training, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, desensitization

Have you successfully worked through the entire protocol on your puppy both when resting on her bed and when standing upright? Good! It’s time to generalize what she has learned! Keep practicing in different rooms of your house as well as outdoors. At the same time, the other members of your household should work through the protocol as well. Dogs do not generalize well. Everyone who works through the protocol needs to start from the very first step. Don’t worry though – with every new helper, your puppy will make faster and faster progress. Once your puppy is comfortable being touched by your entire family, it doesn’t hurt to ask dog-savvy friends to work through the steps as well. Choose calm helpers you trust with your dog, and give them clear instructions on when to feed and retreat. Click for them in order to help their timing. The more people your puppy learns to trust in this way before the age of 16 weeks, the better: women, men, children, and elderly people. Equally important is generalizing proximity and touch to as many different environments as possible. Work in different indoor and outdoor locations in order to generalize her positive associations to touch as widely as possible.

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Registration for Out and About , her April class at FDSA, is still open! Join me to learn more about advanced recalls, leash manners, getting past distractions, and keeping everyone safe on your dog-based adventures!

 

The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

Fearful Puppies: Protocol for Proximity

dog training, puppies, fearful dogs, counterconditioning, treat and retreat

I’ve been too busy to blog, but I recently finished translating a second sample chapter for Nur Mut! (click here for the first English sample chapter). Here’s a sneak peak at one of the protocols from chapter 8.3 Early interventions for fearful puppies. Part 1 is my protocol for proximity. Part 2 will be the protocol for touch.

While these are sample chapters from a geeky book about working with fearful puppies, the protocols are relevant for fearful or insecure adult dogs as well.

Protocol for Proximity and Touch

[…]

Part 1: Protocol for Proximity

 

Before diving into the protocol itself, you need to establish how close you can get to your puppy without causing a stress reaction. No matter whether her threshold is 3 feet or 15 feet – add 2 steps to this distance. This is your starting point – a point where your puppy is perfectly relaxed.

 

Click – Treat – Retreat

 

Choose a time your puppy is resting calmly on her bed or another comfortable spot, but not asleep. Walk up to your starting point. Mark her relaxed body position with a click. Throw a treat to her. Turn around and retreat.

 

Retreating is an important part of this protocol. Not only do you pair your approach with food (classical counterconditioning), but you also negatively reinforce your puppy’s relaxed position by means of removing yourself – a potentially stressful stimulus – from her space. Wait 15 seconds, and repeat the exercise. Again, you will walk up to the starting point defined above, click, treat, and retreat. Keep your session to 5 minutes or less, and give your dog a break. Then, start the game again by means of walking up to your original starting point, treating, and retreating. You are explaining to your dog that you are playing the game she already knows. All she has to do is keep relaxing and wait for you to throw her a treat. What a great deal!

 

Do not walk closer to your dog until you are convinced she understands that your approach predicts a treat. Watch her body language: does she lift her head and start wagging her tail when you walk towards her? She is beginning to understand that something good is about to happen!

 

Once your dog is clearly happy about your approach, you are ready to walk one step closer your next rep. Click, throw a treat to your dog, and retreat. Stay at your new click point for at least 5 reps. Does your dog look equally relaxed and happy about your approach as before? Good! Walk another step closer in rep number 6. Click, treat, and retreat! Stick to your new click point until your dog looks forward to your approach. Then, walk one step closer again.

 

Depending on your starting distance, you may already be standing directly in front of your dog at this point. Avoid leaning over her and looking into her eyes. Dogs can find this typical primate posture threatening. Instead, look at the floor between you and your dog – right at the spot you are going to drop the treat. Make sure to not let your session run over five minutes before giving your puppy a break.

 

dog training, protocol for proximity, fearful dogs, puppy training, counterconditioning, treat and retreatIf everything went well, start your next session one step behind the final starting point of your last session. The first rep of this new session is just a little bit easier than the last rep of your last session. Gradually work your way closer again, just like you did before, until you are standing right in front of you puppy. Is your puppy perfectly comfortable or happy and curious? Excellent! Bend your knees just a little before you click and drop the treat. Straighten up, turn around slowly, and retreat. Again, wait 15 seconds in between the individual reps.

Can you do five reps of walking up to your puppy, bending your knees, and dropping a treat between her paws with her looking perfectly relaxed or happy to see you? (Review the body language chapter if you need help reading your dog!) You are ready to raise criteria! In your next rep, you will squat down completely, click, and reach towards your puppy’s front paws with your treat hand. Do not touch her paws, but drop the treat in between or right in front of them. Get up slowly, turn around, and retreat. Repeat this step several times, waiting 15 seconds in between each rep. Your puppy should look perfectly relaxed or happy to see you – anytime she appears concerned, move your click point back one step!

 

Cold Trials

 

Before we raise the level of difficulty again, it is time for a cold trial. You are going to test whether your puppy has really learned that you squatting down in front of her and reaching out with your food hand is not a threat – even if you do not gradually work your way closer. Choose a time when your puppy is relaxed, but awake. Walk right up to her and squat down. Does your puppy appear just as comfortable with you being close as before? Great! You are ready for the next step.

 

Does she cower, retreat, bark, growl, snarl or snap? Freeze your movement the moment you notice her insecurity, and wait for your puppy to calm down. Count to five in your head: “One good puppy, two good puppies, three good puppies, four good puppies, five good puppies.” Then retreat and give your puppy a break. The reason I am asking you to freeze and count to five before retreating is that we do not want to negatively reinforce the potentially operant behavior of barking, growling, snarling or snapping by means of rewarding it with an increase in distance. Instead, we give the puppy five seconds to calm down or stop barking, and then reinforce her calm behavior with an increase in distance. Anything that doesn’t resemble offensive behavior does get reinforced by your retreat. In either case, try to avoid the need to use this kind of extinction of unwanted behavior in the first place. Ideally, all your training sessions will take place well under threshold. If your puppy hasn’t calmed down after 5 seconds, retreat either way.

 

Take a deep breath. Have a cup of tea and think about something else before you go back to training. Frustration and disappointment don’t make good teachers. Remember that all behavior is information. Now you know that your puppy isn’t yet ready to stay calm when you walk right up to her without gradually decreasing the distance. That’s okay. Go back to your last successful click point, and explain the game to your puppy again. Gradually work your way closer, just like you did before. End the session squatting down and dropping the treat between her paws.

 

Take a longer break, and then do another cold trial. Does your puppy stay confident and relaxed this time? Excellent! If your puppy struggles, be patient and explain the game from the beginning. If your puppy still struggles the third time you do a cold trial, find a competent trainer or behaviorist to help you develop a plan for your puppy to learn to tolerate and even enjoy your approach and touch (See chapter 10.6 Finding the right trainer or behaviorist).

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Guatemala, and teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. In April, she will be teaching Out and About at FDSA – a class that is about a passion of her own: taking your dog on urban walks, nature hikes, and other adventures while having fun and staying safe. Registration opens today – come join me!

 

The pictures featured in Nur Mut! and in this post were taken by Olga Maderych of Gadabout Photography.

What happens in your body when you run into a lion?

I’ve been translating parts of my German-language book on fearful puppies, and decided to rewrite and extend my introduction to the specific training protocols for helping young dogs conquer their fears. All my protocols stress patience and working under threshold. Here’s the reason why:

Psychogenic distress has a number of physiological effects we should be aware of when trying to help a puppy overcome her fears. There are two systems that get activated under stress: the sympatho-adreno-medullary (SAM) axis, and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Let’s look at them by means of an example.

Imagine you are walking to the supermarket. Suddenly, a lion jumps out of a driveway. The SAM axis responds immediately – your adrenaline levels rise quickly, and you are getting ready to outrun or fight the lion! A few minutes later, your adrenaline levels drop back to normal again. The same holds true anytime your puppy meets “her lion” – no matter whether that’s indeed a lion, a person on crutches, a strange dog or a teenager on a skateboard.

The HPA axis, on the other hand, is activated more slowly and remains active longer. It leads to the release of cortisol. Indeed, your cortisol levels will only peak approximately 20 minutes after you ran into the lion, and elevated cortisol levels can be measured in your body for up to an hour or two after the stressful event. Again, the same things happen in your puppy’s body when she encounters a trigger.

Why is this relevant when trying to change your puppy’s negative associations to skateboarders, men in hats, or strange dogs? Staying under threshold in training is significantly more effective than training in a state of mind our dog would be in if she saw a lion: anytime your puppy experiences distress, her ability to learn is compromised. While we do want to face the triggers your puppy is concerned with, we need to stay at a point where they do not trigger the physiological responses associated with distress. A puppy’s brain is most receptive when she is in a relaxed and attentive state of mind. That’s why, in order to maximize the training benefits for your sensitive puppy, you should stick to the recommended maximum duration of the training protocols as well as the minimum relaxation times in between sessions. If your puppy “goes over threshold” (i.e. the physiological stress response is triggered), you don’t only lose the benefits of your current desensitization session, but also of the following reps: the physiological stress response takes a while to subside, and only when your puppy’s body has returned to homeostasis can you effectively change her association to a trigger by one of the protocols described below.

Stress Stacking

Earlier in this chapter, we learned that adrenaline and cortisol levels don’t immediately drop back to normal the moment a real or metaphorical lion disappears: adrenaline levels stay elevated for several minutes, and cortisol levels for up to two hours. When several minor stressors happen immediately one after the other, the total level of stress keeps rising. That is to say the puppy doesn’t process them one after the other (image 1), but simultaneously (image 2).

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 1: Meeting several minor stressors in a row isn’t all rainbows and unicorns

An isolated trigger that is only perceived as slightly stressful by your puppy might cause your puppy to run away, freezy, alarm-bark or air-snap if it happens simultaneously or soon after another minor or major stressor. Stress stacking is also the reason many moderately reactive puppies and dogs don’t react to the first or second trigger they meet on a walk, but will react to the third one.

stress stacking counterconditioning dog training
Image 2: … but more like meeting a lion!

Thresholds and Relapses

And there is another reason I recommend always working at a distance to the trigger that is great enough to avoid fear reactions. Experiments show a connection between elevated heart rate during training sessions and future relapses. This hasn’t only been studied on animals, but also on people undergoing exposure therapy in order to conquer phobias. The results showed that the subject was most likely to relapse when the level of fear they themselves reported to be experiencing was out of line with the level of fear indicated by their heart rate. This is why I don’t like using food lures when socializing fearful puppies: a food-motivated puppy may be tricked into approaching someone she wouldn’t approach otherwise, only to realize she is in way over her head once she has swallowed the food.

Special thanks to FDSA instructor Jessica Hekman for making making sure I got the science right! Jessica also pointed me to one of her articles, which wasn’t only helpful, but also interesting and enjoyable to read. Check it out if you want to learn more about psychogenic stress in hospitalized dogs!

Chrissi travels internationally learning about dogs, and makes money to support her roaming by teaching online at FDSA, in person in Guatemala, and seminars around the world. Contact Chrissi for more information.

The Lack-of-Choice Routine

We just flew from Thailand to Austria. In order to be allowed to do so, I needed an export license and a health certificate for my dogs. Getting these documents required a trip to the animal quarantine office at the cargo area of an international airport in Bangkok, where the dogs were examined by the airport vet. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of experience and the kind of environment dogs like Grit handle well, so I stuck to a routine I have for situations that might overwhelm her. It’s a simple and helpful routine that can be applied to all kinds of unavoidable experiences, so I thought I’d walk you through it. Maybe some of you will find it helpful for your own dogs.

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

Freedom and Agency

I’m about to talk about taking away my dog’s choices and putting her in a situation she’d rather not be in. If you know me and my dogs, you know that they usually have a great deal of freedom. In no way am I suggesting that the lack of agency I’m about to describe should be applied in everyday life! It is meant for exceptional situations – ones that you couldn’t or haven’t prepared your dog for, but have to get through.

The lack-of-choice routine is a management tool, not a training replacement.

I believe that medical and husbandry training are invaluable, as is building a positive relationship between your dog and your regular vet, and learning how to do routine procedures yourself (some vets – at least in Austria – will let you do things like read your dog’s microchip or take her temperature yourself). However, I also believe that we can’t prepare for everything, and that sometimes, a sensitive, fearful or anxious dog will be put in a situation you haven’t or couldn’t prepare them for. It’s part of life, and we have to find a way to get through it. The lack-of-choice routine helps in these situations. It’s not a replacement for training, but a management tool.

In my experience, adult dogs – even sensitive and insecure ones – are generally able to handle short periods of discomfort without being traumatized by them, and without developing new behavioral problems because of them – as long as you, the human on the other end of the leash, handle these potentially scary experiences wisely. Once a dog’s personality is fully developed, it is pretty resilient. That is to say: it is hard to change it. It takes longer to increase an adult dog’s confidence than to increase a puppy’s confidence, for example. The upside of this is that it also takes longer to decrease an adult dog’s confidence than, say, an adolescent dog’s confidence.

Have a plan that helps you feel in charge! Know what to expect! Have helpers if you need them!

I made sure I knew in advance what the airport environment would be like, and what would happen there: it would be in a busy cargo area; there would likely be other people with dogs and cats, crammed together in a small waiting room; and I would probably have to wait for a long time. The vet would read the microchip, take the temperature, and check the skin and fur for ticks and fleas. Knowing these things in advance helped me prepare for them.

I had a helper come so he could stay at the car with the dogs while I was gone, and leave the engine and AC running. I would leave the dogs in the car, bring their EU pet passports and paperwork into the office and let the vet know that I would get my dogs – one after the other – when it was our turn. That way, we didn’t have to sit in a crowded waiting room amongst cats and dogs for an hour or two. I informed the vet that I would bring in the first dog, then take her back to the car and bring the second dog, then take her back to the car as well, and return to pick up the export licence and pay.

Lay your plan out to whoever you are talking to before you get your dog. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people tend to agree with it, even if your approach is unusual or uncommon. For example, don’t ask if you can leave your dog in the car until it’s your turn – just be friendly, and state that you are going to get your dog from the car when it is her turn. That’s just the way it is going to be, not something up for discussion. Having all the paperwork ready helps, too: you don’t want to take up any more of the staff’s time than necessary. They are probably busy and stressed out, and looking forward to the end of their work day! Don’t make it harder than it already is.

Do something for your dog that relaxes both of you!

Before leaving for the airport, Grit and Game got a good off-leash walk and swim. They got to run and play and sniff to their hearts’ content, followed by breakfast. I added Zylkene to Grit’s breakfast. I don’t know if it makes a difference for her, but it does for me: it makes me feel like I’m helping her get through the day and taking good care of her, which in turn helps me feel relaxed and confident about our plans for the day.

If necessary, do something for yourself!

If you tend to get nervous in situations that are stressful for your dog, take something that helps you relax yourself! Nervosity is contagious. If you are freaking out, a sensitive dog will likely get nervous too – even if she would have been fine otherwise. By ensuring you yourself will be okay, you are also helping your dog.

Don’t give your dog the chance to make bad choices!

That’s a big one – maybe THE biggest factor.

In training, I set up scenarios in which I can give Grit the freedom to make the right choice herself. When we work on her confidence around strangers, I make sure to not set her up to fail. I try to have sessions where Grit’s reaction looks completely normal to an observer. A good session of working on confidence is one a bystander wouldn’t recognize as such, like this example of walking in a residential street.

I want Grit to learn to choose to walk away when she is uncomfortable. I have seen way too many fear-aggressive Malinois, and I try to be proactive about teaching Grit the opposite reaction. I suspect that genetically, Malinois are a breed that is more likely to choose “fight” over “flight” or “freeze” when they feel threatened. If they are worked over threshold, fear aggression is a common result. This leads to a vicious cycle where the “dangerous dog” is severely punished in order to get rid of the “fight” response and get a “freeze” response instead. A dog who “freezes” when scared is probably safer than a dog who “fights” (bites) when feeling threatened, but I don’t think that dog is a happy dog. Personally, I want neither fight nor freeze. I would like my dog to not be in situations where she feels like she needs to do any of these things at all, but if she does get into these situations – and sometimes, life happens and she will! – I want Grit to be able to walk away in order to increase the distance to a scary stimulus rather than attack it. My strategy is practicing in situations where she is able to make the right choice, and avoiding opportunities for her to make the wrong choice. I want walking away from instead of towards a scary stimulus to become a habit she doesn’t have to think about.

Sometimes – like when I needed the export license from the animal quarantine office – I need to put Grit in a situation where she, given a choice, would probably choose badly. I don’t doubt that if scared and cornered, she’d resort to biting the person she felt threatened by. And why not? It’s a natural reaction, and in her breed, probably one that has been – on purpose or as a by-product of other breeding goals – selected for.

I make sure that Grit will not be able to choose in situations where I don’t trust her choice-making, and I use contextual cues that let her know from the moment we get out of the car that this is a situation where I am in charge, and I am not asking her opinion. This happens rarely – my dogs have a lot of freedom in their lives, and their opinion matters almost always to me. But there are situations where I take away the choice, and I’m very clear about it.

If Grit felt threatened and bit, it would be a reflexive, emotional reaction – one that just happened rather than a conscious choice on her part. A classical reaction. However, operant learning can still occur. If the person being bitten or growled at withdrew their hand, or jumped back – and most people will, of course! – biting or growling would be negatively reinforced. We cannot reinforce an emotion, but an action based on an emotion can be reinforced by its consequence. Fear is an emotion. Biting is an action often based in fear. Withdrawing the hand is a direct consequence of the dog’s bite/growl – and it’s a consequence a dog who would like the scary thing to go away will get relief from. Negative reinforcement is likely to happen.

When Grit has choice and agency (which is most of the time), she wears a collar, a harness, or nothing at all. When she doesn’t have choice, she wears a head halter. It is very easy to guide a dog in a head halter wherever you want them to go. It lets you turn their head where you want to turn it, so you even control what they look at and see. I use a lead with a snap on both ends for situations like this, because I’ve seen dogs get out of head halters. One end will be on the head halter, and one end will be attached to a harness or collar. Grit will wear a Baskerville Ultra muzzle over her head halter. I like this muzzle best because it’s sturdy, I can feed through it, and it fits most dogs (unless they have long noses like collies or sighthounds) well. Grit knows that when she is wearing both a halter and a muzzle, I am not asking her opinion.

I hold the leash close to Grit’s head. She can’t really walk or sniff where she wants, and it’s clear that I expect her to walk next to me, which she does.

When we got into the waiting room, the vet was just finishing up with another client. I sat down, and Grit climbed in my lap. She does this when she feels insecure, and I encourage it. I believe it’s a good thing when our dogs turn to us for safety.

When it was our turn, I led Grit to where the vet wanted her, told the vet I was going to hold Grit for her, and then secured her. There’s no science behind the way I hold her – this is just what I’ve found to work well for holding dogs still. I kneel down, and wrap my left arm around the dog’s chest and neck, and use it to hold her head against my body. My right arm goes over her back and under her belly, holding her body against my body. Now the vet could check out her skin and fur, take her temperature, and if she had wanted, she could also have taken a closer look at Grit’s eyes or ears. Grit knows being held this way. She doesn’t struggle – she knows there is only one option: hold still. We were done quickly, I thanked the vet, told her I would return Grit to the car and then come back, and then we left. She shook off the stress, and happily jumped back into her car crate to continue with her day.

Why it works

The lack-of-choice routine has been working well for Grit in situations like this. She is able to go right back to everyday business – sleeping, hiking, working, playing, eating … as soon as the stressful situation is over. I assume this is because (1), we have a relationship based on trust, and (2), Grit knows to follow my lead any time she is wearing a halter and muzzle and being led on a short leash. Her job in this situation isn’t to figure out how to get out of it or solve it, obsess about it or panic over it, and she accepts this fact. Would she rather be somewhere else? For sure. Does it stress her out completely and ruin her day (or her week, month, or life)? No. It enables her to get through an uncomfortable experience with my help, and then move on with her life – a life filled with freedom, agency, and choice.

Your management tools are most helpful if they themselves don’t increase your dog’s stress level even more! Practice in relaxed, everyday situations!

If I only ever used the head halter, muzzle and my way of securing Grit in scary situations, she’d start feeling stressed as soon as she saw me get these tools or touched her this way. I make sure to use them in everyday life as well. For example, we’ll occasionally go for a nice off-leash walk with the muzzle on, and I’ll briefly hold my dogs like I do at the vet office during personal play or cuddle sessions. Grit has also learned to be comfortable in a head halter away from scary situations, and long before I ever used these tools in scary places. I’ll sometimes use it to get from A to B in everyday life.

Here’s a demo video. In the first clip, you’ll see it’s no big deal for Grit to wear the muzzle and happily run off leash. She feels about the muzzle like I feel about my glasses: I forget that I even wear them. She is also used to being led on a head halter and short leash (clip 2), and to wear a muzzle as well as a halter (note that I’d put the muzzle and halter on a little more tightly in real-life situations). I do not ask her to put her nose in the muzzle or into the halter – this would be like asking her consent to be handled in potentially uncomfortable ways. In the situations I want to use these tools, I’d be lying to her if I pretended that she had a choice about it.

The final clip shows me holding Grit in the way described above. She isn’t a hundred percent comfortable here – her tail is a little too low, and her wag, front leg lift and facial expression a little too appeasing for my taste. I’ve used this way of holding her twice in the last week – once the day before we flew from Thailand to Austria, and once the other day in Austria, when I got her health certificate for the next leg of our trip. He reaction here tells me that we need to do more practice sessions in fun and relaxing contexts in order for her to feel better about it again! In any case, you can see how I can move her head this way, and lift her up in case the vet needed to examine her belly.

What is your favorite way of getting your dog through an uncomfortable situation you haven’t been able to prepare her for?

With Patience and Time …

Grit has been nervous around strangers since she had to stay at a vet clinic at 6 months of age. We’ve been taking it slow and focused on doing the things we enjoy.

For the first time since her surgery, I took her to a workshop last weekend. The presenter was Denise Fenzi, which made it a perfect opportunity to see how Grit would do in a training building. I wouldn’t have taken her to an indoors seminar in a small space if it had been a different trainer, but with Denise, I didn’t need to worry about being pushed to work Grit even if she was overwhelmed. Grit ended up having a really good experience, and so did I. I’m really happy with how she has started to improve! Day 1 of the workshop was about engagement and play … So going from acclimation to engagement to a little personal play worked nice for us, and Denise’s guidance was very helpful. The second day was Handler’s Choice for Obedience. I didn’t know if Grit would be at a good place to do work, and Denise said it was okay if she didn’t – then we’d just stick with acclimation and engagement. Grit did well and got to work and play a little on day 2 – she had really improved! I’m so happy she is regaining confidence around strangers!

I don’t have a video of the first time I took Grit into the training space – the first time was very brief, just a walk-through before everyone had arrived.

2nd time in the training space. I have no food and no toys on my body.

3rd time. I have food in case I need it, but Grit doesn’t know.

4th time. I have food, but Grit doesn’t know.

Day 2

5th time. I have food and a toy, but Grit doesn’t know.

The only goal here is to give her the opportunity to acclimate and feel comfortable. I don’t care if I will work or even play with her, but I want her to learn that nothing bad happens in this room full of people. Yes, the space was small, and yes, Grit was obviously nervous – but she improved quickly. This is because she is given all the time she needs.

It would be easy to ask Grit to do things for me, or to play with her right away. I’ve tested this – she is able to respond to cues even when she is quite uncomfortable and stressed, and she will play even when she is desperate and scared. She is drivey, and it is easy to overwhelm her fear with toy play or work. But she’d be tense and on edge, and she’d have moments of checking out and then back in again. I don’t want to build these negative emotions into training or play, so I choose to not go down this road. In scary environments, I want to give her the opportunity to look around, explore, and see that the world is a safe place. I want her to learn that I won’t let bad things come near her, and that I won’t let her go near bad things. In environments that aren’t scary, on the other hand, I work with her, play with her, train her, and have fun. And as time goes by, there will be more and more overlap between these two kinds of environments.

Dogs – and insecure dogs in particular – need leadership in order to feel safe. It’s easy to confuse this with not giving a dog the choice to keep her distance from the things that scare her, or forcing engagement and not allowing her to look around at all. Appropriate leadership depends on the situation as well as on the dog in question. In the situation you see in my videos, leadership means mainly that I prevent Grit from making bad decisions and getting closer to a stranger than she can handle. I don’t need to jerk on her leash to do this, and I don’t need verbal commands to control her – I just use the leash to stop her when she gets too close to someone she shouldn’t get close to. I should probably have kept the leash even shorter and prevented her from jumping up on her friends, too. But she did okay.

You can see that I’m not leading Grit by intimidation or force … Quite the opposite, actually. I’m not big or scary; I’m just myself. I try to forget about the other people in the room … It’s just me and my dog, and Denise’s guidance. We’re in a new space, but unlike Grit, I know it is a safe space. So I act like I do in safe spaces: I’m relaxed (once I have managed to forget about the audience), I talk to her about the people in the room, the smells on the floor and the objects she investigates, and I tell her she is a good girl. (You can’t hear me because the camera is so far away that it only picks up on Denise’s microphone, and I’m not talking loudly.) I let her investigate the room whichever way she wants, as long as she doesn’t put herself in a situation she can’t handle. I sit down and scratch her ears and her chest, like I know she enjoys. I am gentle and playful, like we are in our own living room.

You can see how my relaxation eases her worries, and that she comes to me for comfort. She has learned that she is safe with me, and when she gets stressed, she asks for emotional support.

All dogs are different. Some don’t like to be touched when they feel insecure. Grit likes it – emotional support and our invisible connection are huge for her. This is what gets her through the situation and helps her relax more and more. It’s not something we just did for the first time in this space. We have built this connection since her puppyhood – not because I expected to use it in this way, but because it is one of the ways I like to relate to my dogs. I make sure to maintain this kind of relationship throughout a dog’s life, and not stop interacting this way as soon as she is grown up. It gets woven into everyday life, into cuddles on the couch and morning rituals. It’s strong enough that we can take it with us to a new space like this. I’m happy with what Grit gives me here!

(If you want to improve your play and handling skills, check out Denise Fenzi’s Relationship Building through Play and Amy Cook’s Bogeyman class at FDSA!)