Wednesday, November 24, 2010

T-Touch and anxiety wraps

A couple of weekends ago Tashi and I had the privilege of attending a T-Touch seminar by Pam Wanveer of Woodside T Touch. Tashi is normally a jumpy young woman, one who hates having her paws touched, won't let you pull out a tick or a thorn without a lot of wiggling and hollering, and for the last few years, one who doesn't even seem to like to be cuddled very much. In her younger days, though, she was a very affectionate little dog who loved to cuddle with her humans.

Lamar in an anxiety wrap, still pretty anxious
In class, she was a complete disaster--I touched her and she jumped a mile, squeaked, and got as far away from me as her leash would allow. 

Pam suggested an anxiety wrap. Take an Ace Bandage, place the center of it flat against the dog's chest. Cross behind dog's shoulders, then wrap again under the dog's armpits. Tie on the dog's side. 

The effect is like swaddling a baby: gentle pressure, evenly applied, is comforting, grounding, and relaxing. 

A few minutes in her wrap, and Tashi allowed me to touch her all over. For the rest of the class we did little circles all over her ears and head.
Cosmo would only let me clip his nails with an anxiety wrap on
Since then, she's been much more like the Tashi of old--she lets me do little circles all over her, she rolls over contentedly instead of trying to get away, she seems happier to see her humans and spend time with us. I think that one session in class broke through to her and reminded her how pleasant contact can be.

The anxiety wrap is such a great tool--I'm going to bring one to class with me and use it for dogs who can't settle down. 
Tashi's orthopedic bed also seems to help her anxiety

Friday, November 12, 2010

Another calming trick: yawning

Like many dogs, Maize was uneasy with the camera  
I think this is my favorite one yet, picked up from reading Turid Rugaas' Calming Signals: On Talking Terms with Dogs. For dogs who are stressed by other dogs, thunderstorms, the sound of approaching trains, we can use the signals that dogs use to calm each other down.

When dogs do something that seems out of context--shaking when they're dry, licking their lips when they're not eating, yawning when they're not tired--often they are displaying a calming signal. When two dogs meet each other for the first time and are not sure of each other, they do a lot of these. 

I see this all the time in my own house.
  • I bring home a new foster, foster comes into yard, Lamar is allowed to see foster, Lamar turns sideways: calming signal. 
  • New dog licks his lips: calming signal.
  • Lamar sniffs the ground: calming signal.
  • New dog approaches slowly, in an arc: calming signal 
  • Dogs greet, sniff, decide they like each other, new dog goes into a play bow: calming signal
  • Dogs romp and play for a few minutes, Lamar yawns: calming signal
  • I get out the camera to capture these fabulous moments on film, both dogs look away: calming signal
  • Dogs start roughhousing again, knock into my legs, I yell Ouch! with some irritation in my voice, both dogs stop playing and shake: calming signal.
What all these signals are saying is chill out! With these communications, dogs are trying to convey that they are a bit uncomfortable with a situation. To another dog, they are saying Remain calm, I'm not a threat. To a person with a camera or a yelling person, they are trying to get us to calm down and remove the camera from their faces or stop yelling at them. 

The most fascinating thing Rugaas relates is the value of these signals in training. She worked with a family that lived by the train tracks, whose dog was terrified, howling, trembling, hiding with every passing train. To get the dog to relax, she tried getting the whole family to yawn when that train went by. Within a few weeks, the dog was transformed--sleeping calmly as the train blew its horn and chugged on by.

I think this is a wonderful tool to be used in conjunction with desensitization and counterconditioning. I tried it last night with Lars and Lamar, who still get stressed and excited about each others' entries in the front door. As Lamar tried to enter, and Lars stood inside, hackles up, I gave them both bits of hot dog as usual while I stood there yawning. And I swear Lamar's hackles relaxed a bit and both of them smiled a bit wider, a bit less tensely, as they chewed their hot dogs and watched me yawn and yawn.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

on adoption events

Many of us in rescue are encouraged to bring our foster dogs to adoption events, by rescue groups that are eager to get their dogs adopted out so they can save more lives. Many rescue groups even have a policy that dictates all foster dogs must go to a certain number of adoption events, regardless of the dog's temperament or background.

This one-size-fits-all policy does a disservice to many of the dogs who end up in rescue, who may not respond well to the pressure of exposure to many new people and/or other dogs all at once. For rescue dogs who are fearful, a few hours at an adoption event just adds another trauma to what may already be a long list, requiring further rehabilitation and training to recover. Many of these dogs may spend the entire event huddled behind a bush, or barking at other dogs, or bristling when people come up to meet them. This not only makes their chances of being adopted very small, but allows them to practice these frightened, reactive behaviors and get even better at being fearful and reactive.

All good training--training that has a chance of teaching behaviors that stick and are well-learned--works with a dog sub-threshold. This means that we keep our dogs in a place where they can remain calm and comfortable, whether by working with them at a distance from things that upset them (giving lots of treats as soon as they see another dog from a distance, but before they start getting upset) or by working with just a mild case of what upsets them (exposing to just one or two new people at a time, instead of a whole crowd).

When you think about it, for many fearful or reactive rescue dogs, an adoption event is a perfect example of the very old-school method of flooding--over-exposing a dog to something in the hopes that he'll "just get over it"--a method that has been shown to increase fear and reactivity in dogs (although in the short term, the dog may appear calmer because it is overwhelmed and just shuts down). At an adoption event, dogs are standing around amidst many other dogs, encountering people they have never met before, many of whom are coming up to them and touching them without asking. For dogs with "personal space" issues, this can be very stressful.

As I realized with my foster dog Pax--who spent the entire two hours of an adoption event barking and lunging--not all dogs are meant for adoption events. I should have realized it even sooner, with my foster dog Foster, who spent adoption events huddled behind me out of sight. Those experiences didn't help Foster or Pax feel more at ease, and they didn't get them adopted either.

In fact, in 3+ years of fostering and placing dozens of dogs and cats, only 1 found his forever home at an adoption event (that was PJ, who was pretty darn well adjusted). The vast majority of my dogs have met their adopters online. Here are some things you can do to promote your fosters without exposing them to the stress of adoption events.
  1. Craigslist ads. Go to, find your town or city, and click on "post" in the upper right. All kinds of people visit craigslist, so you'll have to screen carefully, but you should be doing so anyway.
  2. Petfinder. This terrific site allows adopters to search by breed and by location. You'll have to register to get an account, or ask the rescue group you work with for its ID and password. Be sure to upload a few sweet pictures, or even better, a video.  
  3. Petfinder ads can also be printed out, making it easy to create a flyer you can post at pet shops, vet offices, training facilities, etc.
  4. Get an "Adopt Me" vest or bandanna, and bring your dog to parks or along popular trails. If you are working with a rescue group, they should have some vests you can use; you can also order them from These environments, while certainly too stressful for some shy dogs, may be less stressful than an adoption event because they permit a dog to move around and because there is less social pressure to behave a certain way--for dogs and handlers! If you think your shy dog can handle a trail or a park, be sure you bring treats and reward her for calmly looking at and interacting with other dogs and people.
  5. Outfit your pup in his vest, and go to a pet store. Most pet stores will be happy for you to come inside and speak with prospective adopters, and have your own personal adoption event. This allows your dog to meet new people one at a time, with fewer other dogs around, and is less stressful for the fearful dog...although of course, even this is too much for some dogs! Call first to make sure this is OK with the pet store folk.
  6. Post your pet to neighborhood and community email listserves. 
These are just a few of the ways resourceful rescue groups and fosters can help their pups get adopted, without making them go through a level of stress they may not be ready for. If you have more, please feel free to share them. 

more exercises for impulse control

I was assisting at Al Winder's Control and Focus class with Your Dog's Friend this past weekend, and was reminded of how great some of Leslie McDevitt's exercises are for calming impulsive dogs and helping distracted dogs focus on their people. In Control Unleashed, McDevitt describes a few ways to help distracted dogs that use completely positive methods. Here is one of them:

Gimme a Break
This exercise is great for the dog who is way too  interested in squirrels to focus on you when you're on a walk, or way too distracted by the other dogs to concentrate on the exercises when you're in your agility class. The exercise helps the dog reorient to you by showing him that focusing on you is what's really rewarding...not by punishing those times when he is distracted.
  1. Choose a behavior to work on, and an enclosed, low-distraction area like a fenced yard or large basement to work in. Behaviors you might work on include Go to place,  walking in heel, or even playing tug of war. Have a chair for you to sit in.
  2. Start working on your behavior, rewarding your dog frequently. If you're doing Go to Place, reward your dog frequently as long as he's on the mat. For Heel, walk in a circle and reward as you walk and your dog stays close by you and gives you his attention. 
  3. After a minute or so of working, say your release word like "All Done" or "Break" and turn away from him and go sit in your chair. If your dog disengages first by looking away or going away from you to sniff, immediately go sit in your chair.
  4. For up to a minute, allow your dog to sniff around and do his thing while you stay in your chair. Do not talk to him during this time; remain unengaged. 
  5. The second your dog reorients to you--glances your way, turns an ear towards you, or comes up to you in your chair, you want to reengage him in your rewarding exercise. Resume walking, going to mat, or doing whatever you were doing, with a high rate of reward.  If he does not reorient to you, reengage him and resume the work you were doing .
  6. Very gradually extend the time of your training sessions, but keep them short enough that your dog does not choose to disengage before you say your release word.
Lamar taking a big break!
The goal of this exercise is that your dog becomes less interested in distracted sniffing around, because focusing on you is so rewarding. As dogs practice, they quickly get to a point where they don't even want to take a break--instead, they remain focused on us when we give the release cue and ask us to keep working.

If you work on it in low-distraction environments until your dog is reliably reorienting to you after you release him, you will gradually be able to count on his attention even in very distracting environments--like in the backyard with all those squirrels!