Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Training Your Show Dog to Relax for Grooming

One of the things we have to get our show dogs used to is being groomed.  Of course, depending on the breed of dog grooming can be extremely labor intensive or very little work at all. Dogs that are heavily coated need to learn to accept being blow dried, brushed, combed, banded, clipped, nails trimmed, topknots done and so on. My goal is not only get a dog used to it, but I want the dog to really learn to relax and hopefully even enjoy it. 

I recently acquired my first Lowchen and she surely will not be my last. Thankfully, she came from a really proactive breeder, Alexia Rodriguez, who worked on getting the puppies used to all sorts of things including gentle handling, clipper noises and vibrations and various environments. Even though Cannoli had been exposed to it, she wasn't reliably trained to accept it and just lie there and I had to work on that. In this blog post I will go through some of the things I did to teach my now 7 month old puppy to relax and usually fall asleep for her grooming. All this was done using positive reinforcement and gentle methods.

What you will need
In addition to your grooming tools, you will need the following;
  • a towel, blanket, mat or bed to sit on the grooming table
  • a pillow for the dog's head
  • a bag of high value treats
  • a grooming table and arm
First, start out by making the grooming area comfortable and inviting. If your dog is unsure about being on the table or being up high, get her used to that before grooming her up there. Just put her on the table, give her treats and take her down. Stay close and support her. If she is worried you can place the grooming table into a corner so that two sides of the table are up against a wall which can help the dog feel more secure and safe. Place a towel, blanket or dog bed and a pillow up there. Some dogs don't want to lie down on a hard grooming table, but are more than happy to lie on their mat or pad. It doesn't mean you will need it forever, but it is a good idea to use it in the initial stages of training. Cannoli's pillow is fleece fabric rolled up and tied.

Make the table comfortable with a towel or bed and a pillow. 

Next, put the dog on the table and just work on getting her to relax up there. Rather than trying to just push or roll the dog over, teach her to lie down by using food to lure her down. 

Lure the dog down with their chin on the pillow.
Once down, give the treat and then periodically offer treats for staying down on the table. Also, pet and massage the dog on the table to help her relax. Delivering the treats in between the dogs front legs, or in front of the rear foot if they are rolled onto their hip will help to encourage them to stay down and to relax.

Here I delivered a treat in between her front legs to reinforce staying down.

If the dog is relatively comfortable with being on the table AND with being groomed, you can offer treats as you start to groom. Take your time and reinforce OFTEN for staying down.  Practice this until the dog can really relax, even fall asleep on the table. The idea is to teach the dog to love being up there to immediately begin to melt and relax as soon as they get up on the table for grooming.

Cannoli is an extremely active young puppy, but she can relax and sleep while I groom her.

If can be helpful to teach your dog to rest her chin in your hand. I use this for many things including the position for medical procedures like vaccines and exams. This is an extremely valuable tool as it allows you to position the dog's head without any resistance. 

Cannoli rests her chin on my hand while I comb her face and head.
The chin rest on hand transitions nicely to her pillow.

It can be helpful to have someone else available to help with offering treats in the beginning. I was able to just set a bag of treats beside me and offer them every so often. If you need the dog to be standing, consider using a soft food item, such as peanut butter or squeeze cheese on a grooming arm.

Cannoli can lick peanut butter off of the grooming arm while I work on her.

If your dog doesn't like the grooming itself, consider starting to work on the grooming in a very comfortable place like on your lap or on the couch, as she learns how to accept it. Keeps the sessions very short and give frequent breaks and again offer a lot of treats as she begins to accept it.

If you are working with a very sensitive dog or there is already fear or anxiety associated with grooming, you may need to adjust the tools you use and use non invasive, soft tools. Some dogs do not like a slicker brush but may be fine with a wooden pin brush. Experiment with tools and start with ones that are comfortable for the dog.

As the dog begins to understand the process, you can groom for longer periods of time and can offer less treats. In addition to treats, be sure to pet your dog calmly while grooming to build even more positive associations with the process.

Things to Keep in Mind
  • Practice daily with your dog so that she gets a lot of practice. 
  • Be generous with your treats and reinforce good behavior often. 
  • Try to groom gently and thoughtfully without rough handling and yanking on coat. It can be hard sometimes to avoid pulling on their skin, but it is important to work on this so that they can relax and not feel anxious that it will hurt. 
  • If you are working on a sensitive area try to be gentle and offer treats in between very short sessions. This is how I got Cannoli so agreeable when having to comb little knots out of her face.
Grooming can be a really positive and even bonding experience for your dog when you teach it and do it properly. I love brushing out my dogs and all of them will lie on their backs in my lap while I brush and comb them. If they tolerate it easily from the beginning, I reinforce it with food anyway in order to build an even stronger positive association. If they have any fears or reservations about it, I desensitize and counter condition them by doing short sessions that they can tolerate while pairing it with high value treats. 

I did the exact same things for training her for her clipping, nail trims, bathing and blow drying. I offered food and started out with the water turned on low and some peanut butter smeared on the inside wall of the bath tub. I didn't wash her head at first, just got it wet. Now, she actually falls asleep while being washed! 

Same with the blower, I don't force her to stand up all rigid, I let her roll around on the towel at first and then just lie down and relax while I brush and blow dry her. I pet her and talked to her and offered treats while drying her. 

I feel that a lot of times we don't think of something like grooming or gentle handling as things we need to train, but we do. If we want the dog to know what to expect and feel secure in being able to predict what is going to happen, we can make all these things easier and more enjoyable for them.

Picture perfect

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The importance of the collar you choose to use

I work with many show dogs of different breeds, ages and temperament types and have found that the type of collar you choose to use on your dog can greatly impact how much your dog likes or dislikes the ring.  The type of collar can also influence your dog's behavior in the ring which in turn affects his performance.  I always choose the collar that seems most comfortable for the dog.  I am not looking solely for control, but also for comfort.  My goal is to rely on my training, relationship and reinforcement history for my dog's performance, not to rely on equipment.  There are many different types of collars on the market for show dogs so you don't have to use what is "traditional" or what people tell you is the only type of collar to use on a particular breed.  All dogs are individuals and should be handled and treated as such.

The easiest way to change an animal's behavior is to change the antecedent.  The antecedent is simply what causes the behavior to happen.  In other words, if a dog barks at the front window and antecedent change would be closing the blinds or curtains or using a gate to keep the dog out of the room.  Changing the dog's collar is an antecedent change too.  With some dogs you can change their behavior simply by changing equipment.

I regularly work with a very sweet Pharaoh Hound.  She was doing very well in her training and then suddenly, didn't want to be hand stacked or have me examine her.  We went through anything that could be different and the only change was that her owner had changed her collar from a braided leather resco style loop collar to a braided leather martingale with a chain component.  I noticed that her change in behavior started about the same time she got her new collar.  I asked her owner to change collars and she immediately went back to being comfortable being stacked.  It was an easy fix and as simple as that.  She was simply not comfortable with that collar.  We don't know why for sure and likely never will.  It could be the sound, it could be that it pinched her skin or pulled a hair.  We don't know why because she can't tell us and we can't read her mind, but we can measure the change in behavior to determine that the collar caused her to not want to be examined or stacked.  This is not uncommon and this example is just one of many that I have dealt with.

Making sure that the collar you are using with the dog is comfortable for the dog is very important. Because anything happening, pleasant or unpleasant, while the dog is showing will become associated with the show and the show environment.  It should be more about simply using what is traditional or the norm and viewing and working with each animal as an individual and considering what works best for him or her.  There are many choices from martingales to loops or limited slips and a variety of sources that sell ready made and custom made show dog collars.  

So, before settling on what "everyone uses in x breed" or what you see other people doing consider what works for your individual dog.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Newbies Guide to the AKC Show Ring

I keep seeing new people wanting some resources for what to expect in the show ring.  I wanted to offer that here with some information that I hope will be helpful.  What I am sharing here is written in regard to showing dogs with the American Kennel Club.  While much is the same, there are some differences in the different venues, so please be sure to make yourself aware of those things when showing in another venue.

How It All Works (in brief)
Here is a very quick look at how the judging works.

  • Class males are shown first, class bitches are shown second, Champions or Specials are last
  • Staring with dogs, each class (6-9 pup, 9-12 pup, Bred-by, Open, etc) is judged and a 1st through 4th place is chosen.
  • All the 1st place winners from the classes go in for the Winners Class
  • The judge picks a Winner's Dog, this is the only dog that gets CH points at that show for that breed or variety.  The judge then chooses a Reserve Winner's Dog, this dog will get the points if for any reason the Winner's Dog isn't eligible (entered in wrong class for example). Note: If you got 2nd place in your class, stay close by because if the 1st place winner in your class goes Winner's, you will have to go back in for Reserve.
  • The same thing is done for bitches to select a Winner's Bitch and a Reserve Winner's Bitch.
  • After Winner's Bitch all the Champions or Specials go in along with Winner's Dog and Winner's Bitch for Best of Breed or Variety, Best Opposite Sex, Best of Winners and Select for Grand Championship points.

Ring Procedures
In general, it looks something like this...

  • As soon as you are settled in, go to your ring and pick up your armband.  Use one of the rubber bands to secure the armband onto your left arm.  If you have thin arms, you may need two!
  • Dogs are called into the ring in catalog order.
  • The ring steward will tell you where to go.
  • When you get there, stack your dog.
  • At this point, some judges will look at the dogs all stacked up and some will tell you not to bother stacking them (or getting on the ground if you kneel) and just take them around together.
  • Once the dogs have gone around together the first dog in line goes on the table for the exam and in general, the other dogs are free to relax.
  • At this point, many judges will not look at the other dogs in the class at all, and you truly can relax.  However, some will watch the dog go around and then look up the line at all the dogs in the class, if you have a judge that does that, do not allow the dog to showcase something that you don't want the judge looking at again and again.
  • When it is your turn, you will stack up your dog.  Usually, you wait until the dog before you has started his last go around to the end of the line.  Sometimes with table dogs you can put them on the table as soon as the other dog has started his pattern.
  • The judge will exam your dog.  I like to wait until the moment the judge is looking and bait the dog so his head and neck are just how I like it.  The judge will walk up and you want to make sure your lead, hands and body are not in any way in the way of the dog so the judge can see. Do not feed your dog right before the judge will examine the bite. I will sometimes use food to occupy the dog if needed after the judge is done examining his head and bite.  
  • The judge will then have you move the dog.  Usually this will be a down and back, a triangle or a diagonal.  When returning to the judge make sure that the judge is looking at you, that you are moving in a straight line and that you stop far enough away so that the judge can see your dog.  
  • The judge will then have you take your dog around to the end.
  • If there is more than one dog in the class, you will stack your dog once the last dog has been examined and sent to the lineup.  Be sure that you have your dog stacked and looking good as the judge passes.  
  • Some judges will walk down the line and back up to look at rears, some judges will back up and look at the group again, for some breeds you may need to move a few times as the judge walks around.  Some judges for some breeds may have you stack your dog facing the judge.  All things you should practice for and be ready for.
  • The judge will sometimes put the dogs in the order he or she is considering and then move the dogs again.
  • The judge will make the picks and then you go to the stand with the appropriate sign on it (1, 2, 3, 4).
  • If you have won the Open class, you stay in the ring and go to the front of the line for the Winners class.  If you have won another class you simply wait near the ring gate to be called back in for Winners.
  • In the Winners class the judge may move all the dogs again, may put another dog or two on the table, etc.  Be prepared for that.
  • If you win the Winners class, you need to stay close by to come back into the ring for the Breed or Variety judging.
Things to keep in mind
  • Get to the show grounds in plenty of time.  I like to arrive an hour before judging.
  • Watch the judge with other breeds if you can to get an idea of where you will be asked to stack, the patterns the judge is using, etc.
  • Pick up your armband as soon as you are set up and ready to go.
  • Watch the judge but do not disconnect from your dog.  
  • Talk to your dog, have fun and let your dog have fun.
  • Be courteous with bait and toys in the ring.
  • Be courteous about space and make sure to give the dog in front of you plenty of space.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A Cattle Dog Named Stan

So, there's this cattle dog, an Australian Cattle Dog, you know, a blue heeler, the type of dog that many believe you have to be rough with, hard on, the boss of and heavy handed with?  Yeah, one of those.  Stan was adopted by a loving couple who just wanted a nice dog to do things with, to be active with, to take places.  Unfortunately, Stan turned out to be reactive with other dogs.  He would bark and lunge when he saw other dogs and the behavior was getting worse so they contacted a trainer.

Trainer A
The first trainer is a positive reinforcement trainer recommended by the rescue group where Stan was adopted.  The trainer apparently tried to use straight classical conditioning (feed in the presence of the trigger) to modify the issue and change Stan's feelings and reactions to other dogs.  Unfortunately, they did so without the use of systematic desensitization.

Classical conditioning is really just pairing something (other dogs) with something (food, for instance).  Best case scenario is that the dog's emotional response to the "thing", in this case other dog, changes from upset to happy because the other dog has been paired with food.  In my opinion, it is best to do this while also using desensitization.  Desensitization means that you keep the dog "under threshold" or exposed at a low enough intensity level that the dog is not reacting, can learn, eat and think.  This didn't happen with Stan, he is was far too close and while he would frantically eat, he was far from comfortable.  It is my opinion that there would have been far greater success if desensitization was also implemented and if the owner was taught a bit more about the fundamentals of the process and how it should work and how it changes behavior.  While we don't need to be too "science-y" with our clients, we do need to be sure not to dumb it down so that they don't even understand how or why something should work and why.

His owner did not see a significant if any change from this trainer, so contacted another trainer.

Trainer B
Stan was sent to a board and train trainer who uses aversives including shock collars and pinch collars to train dogs.  Stan was basically physically corrected for reacting to other dogs.  This didn't make him feel more relaxed, comfortable or safe.  For weeks he was jerked and shocked for reacting to other dogs before the trainer returned him to her with the information that "there is really something wrong with your dog" and that "I can't fix him".  Stan was as reactive as ever, probably even more so now.

Why would he get worse and why didn't this work?  When using punishment to change behavior a few things have to happen.  First, of course the timing has to be impeccable, however, even if it is, if you are using a tool that can create pain or fear for the dog, you start to lose control of what exactly the dog is associating it with.  You could be and many times are attempting to correct the dog for his reaction to the other dog, but instead are simply making his feelings about the other dog worse. So, how can he possibly stop reacting defensively when he has more and more reason to feel defensive? We need to feel safe to learn.

Best case scenario, for the owner, not the dog, in this case would have been that he linked the corrections with his behavior of barking or lunging and simply stopped doing it and learned how to cope with his fear or discomfort around other dogs.  This happens sometimes and it's why some people feel that this method is acceptable.  See?  It works!  Well, it works if you are only interested in making the behavior stop, it doesn't work if you are interested in making the dog comfortable with other dogs.  I have seen this stop some dogs from reacting to other dogs, but I have never seen it make dogs okay with other dogs being around and it certainly doesn't help with the dogs actual relationship with other dogs if he has any, which would be my goal.  I don't want him to just stop, I want him to feel okay AND stop.  The dog feeling okay is a critical piece for me.

Honestly, I have seen people correct dogs for YEARS for reacting to other dogs. YEARS.  And the behavior never changes and in many cases it gets worse.  Suppressing behavior in the moment is very different from changing the future of the behavior.  Punishment reduces the future frequency of the behavior, so if it is punishment it has to change the future of the behavior.  What is it if it doesn't change the behavior but the dog gets shocked or jerked whenever they see another dog? Physically correcting a dog for reacting to other dogs gives him so much more to worry about.  He is forced to be exposed to other dogs at an intensity level he is far too overwhelmed at,  if he reacts he is in trouble, he can't turn to his owner or handler for help because they are the one doling out the punishment.  Many times you can see the dog squirm and look stressed and uncomfortable but tries to hold it together because he is trying so desperately to avoid being corrected by his owner. Not a great life.

The owner was pretty horrified by this training and would not allow Stan to remain for more training and turned to another trainer who was recommended by a trainer that the owner highly trusted.

Trainer C
Trainer C accused the dog of enjoying reacting at other dogs.  This trainer said that Trainer B did it all wrong, but then proceeded to do the exact same thing as Trainer B with no improvement.  Not surprising since again, it is a very flawed method and will not work with all or even most dogs.

Many trainers who use these methods and simply continue to introduce bigger sticks...stringing him up on a choke chain doesn't work put a pinch collar on him, if a pinch doesn't work, put a shock collar on him, if that doesn't work, put both on him, if that doesn't work, put the shock collar on his abdomen.  None of which makes the dog okay with other dogs!

Finally, the owner just stopped and backed off.  She could no longer stomach watching what was being done to her dog in the name of training.  All she ever wanted to do was help him.  This journey with this amazing companion of hers has taught her a lot.  She eventually went on to learn more about behavior and training.  Stan is older now, she has worked with him using desensitization and counter conditioning and gotten him to the point where they do well together and he is much more comfortable with other dogs in the world.  Had she been exposed to this training plan earlier on things would probably be very different for Stan, but I don't think it could have made their relationship stronger.  Everything she has done with him was done FOR him. She didn't get the help that she paid for or deserved.  But, now she knows and when we know better we do better.

For what it's worth, when you say cattle dog a lot of people will claim to know the breed and what they need.  They talk about being firm, in control, the boss, a good leader and many recommend harsh training methods and treatment.  I have trained, lived with and fostered many cattle dogs and in my experience, for a dog that is bred to work cattle in a way and in a terrain that few dogs could do, they are incredibly sensitive.  As an owner, a cattle dog is not a dog that I want untrusting or suspicious of his human partner.  Be clear, train well, be fair, trust him when he knows better than you and you won't find a better partner.

Finally, it's important to know that just because someone is a great dog trainer or very skilled in training pet dogs or dogs for a certain sport does not in any way guarantee that they understand the ins and outs of behavior problems or how to solve them.

Thank you to Stan and his owner for letting me write about his story.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A quick word about pacing

Just a few thoughts about "pacing".  For those of you who don't know, pacing is when the dog's front and rear leg on the same side moves in the same direction rather than back and forth like a scissors. When a dog paces, it is usually because they are comfortable moving at that speed.  Sometimes it is due to their structure.  Some dogs are not built correctly and so the "normal" trotting gait for their breed is not comfortable for them, so instead they pace.  Sometimes, it's a habit, again, usually due to comfort.  Some dogs will pace as a way to preserve energy.  Occasionally, there is a structrual problem that is causing pain and so the dog is compensating for it.  Sometimes, and I see this often, dogs are trained to walk alongside their owners in "heel" position, or very close to the owners side. Many dogs are trained to do this and get in the habit of pacing to the point that if you then try to get them to trot they simply pace faster.  Some breeds are more likely to pace and some breeds are actually permitted to pace when gaiting in the show ring.

I work with a lot of dogs who have gotten into the habit of pacing and have successfully helped them all learn to trot correctly.  I have several exercises I use from cavaletti work to quick start strategies that help them to pop out quickly in a trot rather than lumber into a pace.  Never, ever do I use leash corrections to modify this movement.  It is not necessary, nor is it fair to punish a dog for moving comfortably.  We are asking them to perform, to look showy and flashy, to allow strangers to handle and touch them, to be physically manipulated and to calmly cope with being surrounded by large groups of unfamiliar dogs weekend after weekend.  It seems to me that we owe it to them to be understanding when they are simply trying to move their own bodies how they are comfortable doing so.  Pacing is not "misbehavior" and should not be treated as such.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Contemplating Competition

I have been training Betty Spaghetti in Beginner Novice OB and rally. Not sure if I am going to compete but I am thinking about it. It has had me thinking a lot about my other dogs. I put CDs on a few dogs and had just started doing matches in Open for working towards Boris' CDX and competing in Open with a friend's dog before stopping due to some life changes.

Slater, my late Dachshund was a great OB dog. I trained him traditionally with treats and corrections. He finished his CD easily with two placements at all breed shows. For those who don't know, back then at least, most OB dogs were Golden's, Shelties or Border Collies  who were just getting into the AKC or out of the miscellaneous group. Dachshunds were certainly not super common in the OB ring and considered a "non-traditional obedience breed".  So, placements at those shows were kind of big. We blew a 193 score once when he wasn't sure I called him so he stopped himself from getting up and coming on the recall and I ended up giving a second command which DQ'd him.  He was a really great dog.

When I got to open with him I started training and then dropped it. At the time the thought among my training friends was that you pretty much had to do a forced retrieve (ear pinch) with all dogs:(  I didn't want to, but followed the herd. I did an ear pinch and made him cry. I will never forget the look on his face. It was like, "What are you doing? How could you?" Truth is, I couldn't and never did again. I just looked at him that minute and said "Let's not do this anymore" and we didn't and that was fine. Slater was trained with treats and corrections and he coped with it, but this was not reasonable or fair or clear to him. He would have worked through it, but I couldn't do that to him. Sad because he could have done so much.

Fast forward to today, about 18 years later and I am training Betty, a dog who I think might be fun to do this with. I still have to be sure she likes it, but I never have to worry about hurting her which always bothered me before. More importantly, maybe, is that now I know how to do it without doing things that upset me and hurt my feelings and hurt my dog.

No pressure on us, but nice to know the option is there for us if we decide to go there. This is fun.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Helping Fearful Show Dogs

Honestly, I thought I had already posted this here, but then realized that I haven't.  I probably keep shying away from it because it is a big topic to cover in a simple blog post.  I work with fearful show dogs constantly and have some solid methods and advice to offer on helping them.  This post won't cover everything, but will give you some tools to help your fearful dog or your client's fearful dog.

One thing I want to say is that I hope that people look for help because they are genuinely concerned for the well being of their dogs and want them to feel comfortable and safe, not just so that they will be successful in the show ring.  Many dogs suffer from fear and anxiety.  One of my most successful classes is my Confidence Building for Marshmallows which was designed to help fearful dogs gain confidence.  A large percentage of my dog and bird training and behavior consulting business is helpling people with fearful dogs and birds.  I see show dogs, pet dogs and dogs that do many other dog sports and activities as well.  It is our responsibility as their caretakers to find ways to help them so that they can live a life that allows them to feel safe, comfortable and trust in someone or hopefully, many people.

In addition to my client dogs, I also live with several fearful animals that have all made spectacular progress.  I have dogs that used to bark and lunge at people on the street, who would try to flee in a panic over vehicles and even parrots who would lunge at the side of the cage bars with their beaks trying to bite, all who have improved so much that you would not believe that they had those issues.  It took some time and it took work, but they got there.  On this point, there is something that I need to be very clear and honest about.  All animals are individuals and will have varying limitations.  There are a handful of dogs that I honestly do not feel will progress enough that putting them in the show ring is humane.  Imagine being terrified of people yet forced to be touched by strangers on a regular basis.  Much of the time we can modify the behavior to the point where the dog can be shown, but sometimes not and people need to be accepting of that.  It is heartbreaking to see people showing dogs that hate it, are terrified but are forced to keep doing it because there owners can't seem to accept the dog without a CH before his name.  And, don't even get me started on using those dogs in a breeding program, but I digress.  Let me just say that being structurally correct or "pretty" is NOT enough to justify putting a dog in the show ring, or in a breeding program for that matter, whose head won't allow him to be okay there.  This is an ethical responsibility we have.  We must put the animal's well being ahead of our need or desire or ego to show the dog.  Work on helping the dog, learn how to modify the behavior, but always listen to the dog and accept it if the dog you had hoped would be your next big special (or agility champion or therapy dog or obedience dog or whatever) cannot do the job you are asking of him or her.  The animal simply MUST come first.

What Not To Do
There are some things that I do not do that pretty much apply to any and all fearful animals that I work with.

  • No pressure or force.  We must allow the fearful animal to set the pace.  There is a difference between slow, steady, honest progression and pushing or forcing.  Don't do it.  You will not only slow the dog's progress, but you will damage the relationship with the animal.  Of course there are sometimes things we must do such as take them to the vet or groom them, but these are things we can condition them for.  Getting into the show ring or into some type of dog sport competition is NOT a necessity and is something that can wait until the dog can do it without being afraid.  
  • Use only methods that protect the dog's comfort level such as classical conditioning, desensitization and counter conditioning and stay away from methods that force or overwhelm such as flooding.
  • Even if things are going well, do not enter your dog in any shows until you are VERY sure that he is ready for it.  Doing so can cause major setbacks.  Depending on the level of fear, I usually have my clients attend some shows but not enter at first.  
  • Do not taking behavior modification advice from non-professionals.  Dealing with fearful dogs is not simply "dog training", it is a whole other level of behavior modification that requires a strong and in depth understanding of animal learning theory as well as applied behavior analysis.  I find it extremely frustrating to be working with a client only to have their friend or breeder or handler or someone else pressuring them that they need to just "make him do it" or "correct him" when we have a solid training plan in place.  
  • Depending on the level of fear and the specific triggers, I sometimes recommend that a fearful or shy dog only be handled by his owner.  Handing a fearful dog off to a stranger or even someone that the dog does not trust very strongly is a bad idea and again a trust breaker.
  • Do not buy into the idea that a dog is being willful, lazy, dominant, stubborn or anything else.  Believe it or not, I have had longtime breeders, I am talking about someone with decades in a breed and "in dogs" tell me that their fearful dog's behavior was a "ploy" and that she knows these dogs and they "do this".  Newsflash, no animal behaves afraid on purpose, they just don't, so get over that one.
  • Do not punish a dog for being fearful.  Fear can look like a lot of different things while still being a fearful response.  You cannot punish someone for being afraid or guess what you get?  If you guessed more fear and anxiety you're right.  Don't do it.  
  • Do not allow yourself to be pressured into entering your dog before he is ready because someone told you he "needs to get over it" or because your breeder wants the dog in the ring or because your dog is needed to build majors.  
  • Do not have other people offer food to your dog if he is afraid of them.  Many people try to force dogs by using food and when this happens you can see that the dog is trying to get the food without getting near the person.  This is dangerous and a very bad idea because it puts the dog in conflict.  Best case scenario is that the dog panics and tries to escape once the food is gone, worst case scenario is that he bites the person once the food is gone, in either case, he didn't learn anything we wanted him to learn.  Whenever I meet a dog that I know is fearful or aggressive I start out with no food.  I need to see if the dog has any interest in people, in interacting or even just "checking me out" before I start using food.  Let me be clear that we do use food, a lot of food in this training, but it doesn't come from scary strangers.
  • Do not put anything above your dog's well being or your relationship with your dog.
What You Should Do
  • Learn about canine body language.  I teach my clients to learn to read their dog's body language starting with the most relaxed and comfortable body language which is at home.  Once they can do this easily, they can learn stress signals which allows them to see the earliest shifts in comfort level.  This is critical because it allows you to monitor the dog and get him out of situations while he can still function, not after he has had a complete meltdown.
  • Use desensitization and counter conditioning to teach the dog to be comfortable with the triggers that frighten him.  More on that later.
  • Move slowly and allow the dog to set the pace.  This is the only way to get honest progress.
  • Have the goal of the dog loving the show ring, not just accepting it.  Tolerating something is different from loving or enjoying something.  We need show dogs to really like it if they are going to be successful.
  • Wait to show the dog until he is more than ready for it.
Desensitization and Counter Conditioning
Desensitization and counter conditioning is the best way to treat a dog that is shy, fearful or unsure.  Desensitization is the process of systematically exposing the dog to the "trigger", which is the thing that scares him at controlled levels so that he is aware of the trigger, but at a distance or level where he still feels comfortable.  This level of exposure is called "sub threshold".  

Again, "sub threshold" is the point where the dog is aware of the trigger, but is not worried or upset.  This is where understanding body language is important.  If your dog's behavior is changing once he becomes aware of the trigger, he may be starting to become anxious and that is when you need to start making decisions about what to do next.  This is certainly not a complete list, but here are some stress signals that would indicate that your dog is become anxious or that his arousal level is rising.  
  • Unable to eat
  • Unable to hear you
  • Unable to focus
  • Scanning the environment or hypervigilance
  • Taking food harder, harder mouth
  • Less blinking, hard eyes
  • Changes in breathing
  • Hard muscles in the face, ridges
  • Curved topline
  • Circling, spinning, trying to escape
  • Avoidance of any kind including avoiding eye contact
  • Sniffing the ground
  • Panting when it isn't warm out
  • Yawning
Most of the time when I start to go over this list with clients with fearful dogs, they start to notice that their dogs do a lot of these things.  The time to increase distance from the trigger, change the value of the food you are offering or make whatever decision is necessary is when you notice small changes in the behavior, not after the dog has come completely unglued.  Once the dog has had a full blown reaction, you are not likely to get him back.

Counter conditioning is the process of adding something that the animal likes with the presence of the trigger.  It's pretty simple, it looks like this:  >scary thing = choice for the animal + the animal's favorite thing< and >scary thing is gone = favorite thing is gone<

With show dogs we have to desensitize and counter condition to different things or multiple things depending on the dog.  I have worked with dogs that we had to desensitize and counter condition to:
  • Table
  • Judge's Exam
  • Other dogs
  • Testicle exam
  • Bite/mouth exam
  • Grooming
  • Indoor shows (buildings)
  • Grass
  • Vehicles
  • Crates
  • Men in suits
  • Hats
  • Eye contact
Here is an example of a good desensitization and counter conditioning program, however, keep in mind that each step is determined by the dog's response to the prior step.  You don't progress until the dog is ready.  

Let's say a dog is okay with the table, but doesn't like the judge's exam.  This is evidenced by moving back from judge, leaning away from judge, freezing when judge approaches, trying to jump off the table, turning to bite, etc.  For this example, let's say that the dog leans away or backs away from judge when the judge reaches to touch the dog.  Note that just strongarming and holding the dog in place forcibly is NOT okay, is extremely disrespectful and relationship damaging.  
  1. Owner puts dog on table, I approach to 1' from table, stop, owner feeds chicken, I turn and walk away.  I repeat this until the dog has zero concern with my approach.
  2. I approach table, pause, owner feeds chicken, I turn and walk away.  We do this until he is comfortable.  With each step, we repeat it until the dog shows no concern AT ALL or looks excited and anticipatory with my approach.  If at any time I approach and the dog is concerned, I back up to the last step or wherever he is comfortable and work from there.  You will be AMAZED at how quickly most dogs progress once they realize that they have some control over their safety and yes, it is safety to them.  Once they realize that you hear them and are listening, the confidence goes way up.
  3. Once he is comfortable with approach and pause, I approach, raise my hand about halfway up, pause, owner feeds, I walk away.  Note that every time I walk away is critical. It is a second reinforcer to the dog, a release of pressure.  It gives the dog a moment to process it, to think about it and it shapes his future responses and decisions.
  4. Next step would usually be raising arm higher, owner feeds, I walk away, owner stops feeding.
  5. Owner will always feed, and I will always walk away, but I am just going to type in my steps now to save space.
  6. Raise hand and reach out.
  7. Raise hand and reach out and pause.
  8. Raise hand, reach out, touch dog.
  9. Touch dog for longer duration.
  10. Pet dog down body.
  11. Then, I would progress through desensitizing and counter conditioning for the entire exam.
I have worked with dogs who in the past had been just forced to stay in position and be touched even though they were terrified and those dogs, understandably, can take longer to regain the trust.  They have lost such faith in their owners that they need time and we have to give it to them. 

Again, the key is always that you must stop or move back in the program if the dog gets worried.  If you have to go back several steps, it is usually MUCH faster to get there the next time.  

Other Things To Understand
  • Dogs do not "act" afraid if they aren't afraid.  Don't buy into thinking that the dog is just doing it.  Fearful responses are not something the dog is doing, it is something that is happening to the dog.
  • Being "in dogs" does not make someone an expert in canine behavior, behavior modification or animal learning theory.  I hear some of the most dangerous, inaccurate and inhumane advice given by people who think that they know everything about dogs because they have been showing or breeding for a long time.  Again, dealing with fearful dogs is not "dog training".
  • A dog who has a fearful episode can remain "heightened" for quite a while.  Dogs that are constantly exposed to things that cause anxiety can literally take days (or longer) to decompress from that level of anxiety.  
  • Fear is very real to the individual experiencing it, even if it may seem unreasonable to you.  For instance, I am very anxious of dental visits and plane rides.  I have never had a bad experience in a plane and have not had a bad experience at the dentist in a very long time, still, my panic attacks are uncontrollable.  Because I can choose to go to the dentist or not, to cancel an appointment, to see a dentist that allows me to stop him if I need to, I have somewhat been able to desensitize myself to it so that my fear of the dentist is much better.  However, I cannot ease myself into plane rides as easily, so that panic (of taking off) remains pretty bad.
  • No matter how well trained an animal is, if they become fearful (or otherwise emotional in some way), the reliability of the training will not be as strong.  In other words, emotional state trumps training.  I have trained dogs to lift their tail on cue, however, if they become fearful and part of their physiological response when fearful is to lower their tail, that will happen and they cannot control it as they can when they are emotionally "even".
  • Our relationship with the dog and the dogs well being comes first, always.
Relationship and Trust
It is critical to me that the dog and owner's relationship remain strong and intact and that we work to build a lot of trust.  Trust that remains, not just until the owner really wants to win, or really wants the dog in the ring, or is really feeling pressure to show the dog.  The trust comes first, always.  Our job is to protect our dogs and to advocate for them.  If the dog doesn't have an owner he can trust, he has nothing.  

Trust in you and the relationship can be damaged easier than you think.  Handing your dog off to someone he doesn't know, especially if that person uses force or physical corrections, forcing your dog to be touched when he is afraid, disappearing at a dog show when he isn't used to that are all ways to breach the trust.  

One of my biggest pet peeves is handlers or breeders saying that an owner "coddles" or "spoils" their dog and has no respect for the owner, blah, blah, blah.  What they are really saying is that they are going to do what they want to do with your dog, your dog is going to cope with it, they know your dog better than you and what the dog deems important isn't.  It is extremely rude and disrespectful to the owner of the dog and the dog himself.

I hope that this post can help people to understand the process of helping fearful show dogs.