Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Treating PTSD With Natural Dog Training

 

Play vs. Prozac 
In a previous article here (Canine PTSD: Its Causes, Signs & Treatment) I wrote about the very real probability that millions of pet dogs in North America may have developed post-traumatic stress as a result of being mistreated, abused, lost or abandoned. This is particularly true of rescue dogs. Of course not all rescue dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress. And symptoms of trauma can be found in non-rescue dogs as well. However, it’s important to understand that, due to the release of certain neuro-chemicals in the brain, both during the initial traumatic event as well as in subsequent flashbacks, a dog can actually develop neurological damage similar to what’s seen in traumatic brain injury. This is why it can be very difficult to bring dogs who’ve suffered emotional trauma back to anything close to normal. It’s not your fault. And it’s not the dog’s fault.

There seem to be only two ways to undo this kind of damage. One is through the use of medications like Prozac. The other is through rough-and-tumble outdoor play which, according to research done by Jaak Panksepp and others, releases tremendous amounts of brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs), associated with new neuronal growth and brain plasticity. (Human subjects with PTSD have been helped by playing video games like Halo and, oddly enough, Tetris.)

The only problem with using play to heal emotionally wounded dogs is that most of them have forgotten how to play. However, in this article I’ll provide readers with two very simple exercises that can help rescue dogs relearn how to play. I use them all the time in my training practice in New York City, both with my paying clients and with members of my Rescue Dog Owners Support Group. The exercises were created by former police-dog trainer Kevin Behan as part of a system called Natural Dog Training. 

Behan created 5 Core Exercises specifically designed to achieve optimal emotional flow in dogs with “stuck” emotions.

1) Bark (the dog speaks on command)

2) Push (the dog pushes into the handler while eating)

3) Collect (the dog moves backwards into a relaxed down)

4) Supple (the handler massages the dog’s shoulders) 

They all lead to the most important exercise,

5) Bite (the dog plays fetch and tug, and brings the toy back) 

I’ll focus here on the first two exercises. 

The 4 Quadrants of Natural Dog Training

Before I describe the exercises I should point out that they might not make much sense at first because they don’t operate through the more commonly known principles of dog training, i.e., dominance and submission or positive and negative reinforcement. That’s because Natural Dog Training operates through the physical and emotional properties of attraction & resistance, and tension & release. 

What does that mean? 

A simple example of attraction would be a puppy who, on his first walk, sees a leaf blow by and chases it. Why? Because anything which exhibits a certain type of movement stimulates feelings of attraction in the pup, and thus exert a kind of “magnetic pull” on the his body and emotions, drawing him toward them. Meanwhile things which engender resistance would cause a pup to move away from them. Common examples might be tall men in hats, sudden loud noises, etc. 

You always want to generate more feelings of attraction than resistance. For instance, it’s not uncommon for an older puppy or adult dog to feel that his owner is generating both attraction and resistance: “She feeds me and plays with me!”—and—“She scolds me and won’t let me eat cat poo!” So the pup begins to ignore or “disobey” the owner in some circumstances while running excitedly toward her in others. 

I hope that gives you a window into attraction & resistance. 

However, we could also look at a puppy chasing a leaf through the lens of tension and release. The leaf’s movement stimulates actual, palpable feelings of tension and pressure within the pup’s body, causing him to run toward it. His movement provides a subsequent yet small feeling of release from that pressure. He would get a lot more release if he could actually bite the leaf and rip it to pieces. In fact, many times when a pup is prevented from “killing” something he’s been chasing, he’ll jump around, bark wildly, or start digging in the ground. We tend to think of these behaviors as nonsensensical, yet they serve a very important biological purpose: they release tension. 

Using these principles we can see that behavioral problems most often arise when a dog is feeling more tension than he’s able to handle or release.  One very practical reason for understanding this is that it may give you a new insight into your dog’s specific behavioral problems, so can you begin attacking them from a new and different angle. 

Standing Your Ground 
Let’s start with two very common problems: fear and aggression. First of all, on a certain level there’s virtually no difference between fear and aggression because all aggression is caused by fear. Fear manifests, behaviorally, in three ways: fight, flight, or freeze. In the last two the dog is feeling a great deal of tension with little or no release. But the dog who’s able to flip fear over on its head, and fight back, is releasing all that tension and more by “standing his ground.” 

One example of how this can help dogs involves my Dalmatian Freddie, who many years ago (in 1993) started having severe panic attacks, sparked by any little noise on the street. I tried everything I could think of to help the poor dog but once he was in his panic state, all I could do was wait it out.

Then I learned that a friend of Freddie’s, a Sheltie named Duncan, had cured himself of thunderphobia simply by barking at the lightning. 

Brilliant! I thought. He’s barking at the thing that scares him! 

After that, every time Freddie went into a panic state—ears back, tail between his legs, head down, ready to run off in any possible direction—, and I gave him the speak command, as soon as he barked, he became a different dog, almost as if he couldn’t understand why we’d stopped walking to the park.

One practical way this idea can be put to use is by doing what Duncan the Sheltie did on his own, i.e., teaching thunderphobic dogs to bark at the lightning. Begin by teaching the dog to speak on command in different locations, so that the behavior becomes reliable and automatic whenever the cue is given. (You should also teach your dog to be quiet on command.)  Then, on a day, when a storm is due, before the dog starts to panic, you give her the “Speak!” command. In most cases, once she’s able to bark at the lightning she’ll no longer be frightened of the thunder ever again.

Why? Because instead of freezing or fleeing—where the dog’s fear gets stuck in her body, and has nowhere to go—, she’s pro-actively fighting back against the scary sound. It doesn’t matter that the thunder and lighting don’t stop or go away. She doesn’t care because she’s no longer afraid of them. This is similar to a kid who’s being harassed by a bully. Once the dog finally stands her ground and fights back, the fear is no longer controlling her behavior and the thunder/bully no longer has any power over her. 

Hunger, Balance & Fear 
Another important aspect of how fear operates is illustrated by a lost and wounded dog who hides in the woods until he’s hungry enough to take food from someone. Being in a weakened and unstable condition creates feelings of resistance toward rather than attraction toward people who might be in a position to help him. Eventually, hunger overrides those feelings, the dog comes out of hiding and will take food. (Many volunteers at shelters cite the first day that a scared dog finally took food from them as the moment when things started to turn around for that pooch.) 

So, to recap, hunger cures fear. How? Through increasing a dog’s feelings of social attraction. And aggression cures fear. How? Picture the body language of a dog who’s frightened. His head and shoulders and tail are all down. He’s cowering. Picture that same dog barking furiously at the lightning. His body and tail are erect and his four paws are firmly planted on the ground. 

The fact is that whenever a dog (or human) is frightened, anxious or nervous he a) doesn’t feel hungry, and b) doesn’t feel grounded; he feels off-balance both physically and emotionally. In fact there is virtually no difference between being off balance physically and being off-balance emotionally. It operates on a purely Pavlovian level. (If you still don’t think there’s a connection between fear and balance this little factoid might help: in puppies the first fear development phase comes around the same time that the pup begins learning how to stabilize himself physically.) 

Playing and Pushing: Stabilizing  Unstable Dogs 
So I’ve given you one tip on how to reduce (or release) emotional tension in dogs: have them speak on command. But there’s still another hurdle the dog has to cross, which is a reservoir of unresolved emotion that may cause him to fling a ball or rope around on his own instead of bringing it back to you for a therapeutic game of fetch or tug.  

How do we bridge that gap? 

A few years ago I got an email from a veteran dog trainer in Virginia who had just brought home two Jack Russell pups. This woman was having problems housebreaking the female, who’d been the runt of the litter. Plus she was frustrated that the dog seemed withdrawn and a bit nervous. I suggested that she do “The Pushing Exercise,” essentially hand-feeding the doggie all her meals outdoors in a very specific way.

This trainer didn’t understand why I made this suggestion, but she did it anyway. A few days later she called to tell me that not only had the doggie stopped doing her business inside the house, but the pup brought her a toy for the first time ever!

Now, some readers may balk (or feel resistance toward) the idea of having their dog push for food. “I don’t want my dog to get pushy over his dinner.” This is something I also felt initially. Then one day, one of the dogs staying with me, who was normally very social and easygoing, exhibited a fairly severe case of resource guarding; he wanted all the food in all the doggie bowls! So I pulled him away and fed him separately for three days, using the pushing exercise. On the fourth day, when I put everyone’s dinner bowl down, he was happy with his own food. There were no residual traces of aggression.

Here’s how the exercise works. At a time when your dog is hungry, take her to a quiet place outdoors where there’s a platform of some kind—a bench of a flat rock—that she can jump up to or climb on. Bring along her favorite food, either in a pouch or a bait bag. It’s not a bad idea to wear latex gloves if the food is messy.

Take a handful of food out of the pouch, holding it in your non-dominant hand (i.e., your left hand if you’re right-handed). This is especially important for large breeds. Show her the food, waving it around a little, if necessary, to pique her interest. Then say, in a pleasant tone, “Wait…” And then close your fingers over the food, move it under her snout, say, “Ready?” then open the hand and let her eat.

While she’s eating, surreptitiously cup your dominant hand, palm up, against her chest. If she balks, pull that hand away or stroke her gently wherever she likes being stroked while inviting her to eat from your other hand. With some dogs you have to work gradually, day by day, so that all resistance to feeling the second hand against her chest dissipates. With others you practically need to wear chain mail gloves! (This brings up an important point: some dogs arent as careful about where their teeth go as others, so proceed with caution.)

The idea is that while she’s eating, you gradually increase the amount of pressure the dog feels against her chest. You don’t do this by pushing the dog! You do it by pulling your food hand away slightly, in small increments, until she has to push into you in order to feel the pleasure of eating. You want to get to the point where the dog is up on her back legs, totally off balance, while pushing into you as hard as she can. 

Why is it therapeutic? 

Because she’s being put in a position where the person she loves most in the world is hand feeding her in such a way that she doesn’t even realize that the harder she pushes, the more off-balance she becomes. (She won’t really be off balance because you’ll be her balance beam.) You’re also triggering a little of the good kind of aggression, where the dog feels confident enough to stand her ground. 

If you’d like to learn more please visit my website. There is a downloadable pdf, giving a more detailed description of the exercise, along with 4 demonstration videos.

There are no immediate guarantees. In some cases, it may take several months or longer to get the final results. In other cases, the changes can be quite dramatic and manifest within only a couple of days or weeks. Just keep pushing. It’ll help your dog stand her ground against all her fears, not to mention all the internal tension, pressure, and resistance causing her behavior problems. 

On her blog Jenya Chernoff gives a very good, and I think important description of Natural Dog Training. 

The real-world of Natural Dog Training is by nature a bit intuitive and improvisational (according to my husband, its just jazz.) That said, there are some fundamental exercises that could be summarized as follows: bark, bite, supple, push, collect. Not necessarily in that order. I like to describe it as part primal scream therapy, part dressage for dogs. Training the bark (speak) brings the drive to the surface; the bite resolves it. Pushing for food, mirrored by collection, elaborates into the behaviors heel, sit, stay, down, etc. Suppling your dog through massage relaxes her and accesses her primal puppy memories. 

I am, like so many modern humans, action-oriented, goal-driven, and addicted to formulas and schedules. Less is more may be one of the hardest things for me to internalize. So I get that its often a tough sell for the OC among us when were told Just work on building these skills, and everything else will fall into place. Work on problems indirectly? Trust your improvisational skills? Wax on/wax off? 

Whatever.

But seriously, kids. It works that way. 

Lee Charles Kelley
Life Is an AdventureWhere Will Your Dog Take You? 
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Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Case History No. 4—Oddy & Penny

Why do some dogs develop PTSD while others experiencing the same trauma don't?


PTSD Develops in Different Ways in Different Dogs
This is the 4th in a series of case histories of dogs I’ve worked with who may have suffered from PTSD, which statistics suggest may be much more common in pet dogs than it is in military dogs.

This series of posts is meant to be a helpful diagnostic tool for veterinarians, shelter and rescue workers, as well as dog owners and dog trainers to hopefully prevent more cases of Canine PTSD from going undiagnosed and, therefore, untreated. (A Canine PTSD symptom scale can be found here.)

The first case history (of my own dog Freddie) can be found here. In Freddie’s case, I witnessed the original trauma first-hand, and saw the resulting behavioral disorder that developed very quickly as a result. There was no guesswork. This is the easiest type of case to diagnose, the one where the owner was witness to the original trauma.

A second case involved a boxer named Fancy whose stress was probably the result of being kept in a crate at the vet’s office during an important social development phase. Fancy’s story can be found here.

A third case, of Noodles, a dachshund, who was biting his owners, his dogwalker, and eventually me, can be found here. Noodles was easier to diagnose because his affect and behaviors were off the charts.

Now comes the story of Odysseus and Penelope (Oddy and Penny), two miniature schnauzers who were attacked by another, much larger dog, while out on a walk. Penny actually came pretty close to dying from her wounds, and was in the hospital clinging to life for several days. She pulled through, but, oddly enough, didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress. Oddy, on the other hand, who wasn’t hurt as badly, did.

Why the difference?

Entangled Schnauzers
First it’s important to understand how the dogs' personalities differ. They’re roughly the same age. Penny is about two months older than Oddy. She’s also much smaller; Oddy is almost the size of a standard schnauzer. And while they have some surprisingly similar character traits in some ways, they’re also quite different.

When I first met them, I found that Penny was very playful, a little mischievous at times, and liked to roll over on her back for tummy rubs. She was quite a bit smaller than her “brother,” but seemed to be in charge of things. She also seemed to dislike going on walks, which I thought might have been a repercussion from the attack, but was told that she’d always been like that.

Oddy, on the other hand, didn’t know how to play except with Penny. He also exhibited more tension, stress, and showed less emotional elasticity than his “sister.” For instance, I never saw him roll over on his back for a tummy rub or for any other reason.

They would play together every day, but if Penny found another dog she liked to play with Oddy was unable to join in.

Another difference is that Penny had been a part of the household since puppyhood while, for various reasons, Oddy had been kenneled (at the breeder) during certain important developmental phases, and hadn’t been brought into the household till he was nearly six months of age. I don’t know for certain that this accounts for the difference in their responses to the traumatic event, but there is evidence showing that children in foster care may be five times more likely to develop PTSD than children raised in a traditional family setting.

Personally, I believe that the dog-human bond which develops during puppyhood bears some important similarities to having a normal childhood with loving human parents.

There may be another reason Oddy was more affected by the event emotionally, though Penny sustained the most physical damage.

Life-Threatening Physical Injuries & Hypercathexis
In 1920 Sigmund Freud wrote about the symptoms of PTSD (then referred to as “the war neuroses”). He said that “two characteristics emerge prominently: first , that the chief weight in their causation seems to rest upon the factor of surprise, of fright; and secondly, that a wound or injury inflicted simultaneously works, as a rule, against [their] development.” (“Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920.)

If this is true, it might explain why Penny didn’t develop symptoms of PTSD, and why Oddy did. It also explains why, generally speaking, a soldier who isn’t seriously injured is more likely to develop symptoms of PTSD than those who are.

First, I think it’s important to understand why Freud refers to what we now call PTSD as a neurosis. Neuroses are anxiety-based behaviors or sets of behaviors, where the energy invested in them is out of balance, either with the normal reasons for producing such behaviors or with the amount of energy that might normally be expended on them. In dogs the 1st might be something like humping inanimate objects or chasing cars, and 2nd might manifest as separation anxiety or showing obsessive guarding of toys or other objects. Second, most if not all neuroses are the result of repressed emotional energy. I believe this is true in both humans and dogs.

In Freudian terms, the mind's "control panel" (the ego) has the job of deciding which internal and external stimuli (excitations) should be a) paid attention to, b) ignored, c) have their energies blocked (repressed), or d) have their energies projected (cathected) onto persons or objects in the environment including the subject's own body. So the gross physical trauma--the sheer mechanical force that accompanies a serious, life-threatening injury--demands that none of the mind's energy can be wasted on "mere trifles;" it all has to be projected onto the body itself so as to enable healing and/or self-preservation. Or as Freud put it, “the physical injury, by calling for a narcissistic hypercathexis of the injured organ, would bind the excess of excitation.” (610)

Meanwhile, for the subject whose injuries aren't as serious, those same emotional energies aren't projected (or cathected) onto the body, they're repressed by the mind, resulting in what Freud called "the compulsion to repeat," which is one of the chief features of PTSD (i.e., the subject is unconsciously compelled to repeat the feelings surrounding the initial trauma over and over again).

Furthermore, Freud made it quite clear that fright, fear, and anxiety were not synonyms; they represented clear distinctions in how we relate to danger. Anxiety, he said, “describes a particular state of expecting the danger or preparing for it, even though it may be an unknown one. ‘Fear’ requires a definite object of which to be afraid. ‘Fright,’ however, is the name we give to the state a person gets into when he has run into danger without being prepared for it; it emphasizes the factor of surprise.” (598.)

Once again, if we look at the stories we hear from veterans about how their PTSD developed it’s not uncommon to hear them say that the danger “came out of nowhere,” or “I wasn’t prepared for what happened.” And since PTSD is classified as an anxiety disorder, and anxiety is a state of “constantly expecting … danger or preparing for it,” this makes sense.

While I don't believe dogs think about their experiences, or try to explain or understand them through internal monologues, I think the basic principles can still be applied.

If I'm right, then Penny's injuries necessitated that whatever psychic (mental or emotional) energy she had available at the time be focused (or projected) solely on to the tasks of self-preservation and healing. Meanwhile the excess energy the traumatic event had stimulated in Oddy had no place to go. It got stuck, which in turn created an unconscious compulsion to repeat the event over and over.

I recently heard from Oddy's owners and they say that while he's still prone to act protective, he's much more relaxed and playful and has, in all other respects, become a completely different dog!

LCK
“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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Friday, March 1, 2013

Case History No. 3—Noodles

Miniature Dachshund or Incredible Hulk?



You dont want to make me mad. You wouldnt like me when I'm mad.— Bruce Banner

Three Ways to Diagnose PTSD in Rescue Dogs
This series of blog posts is intended to show the different ways that pet dogs can show symptoms of PTSD, and how to determine if your dog, or a dog you’re working with, might have the disorder. It’s also important to know that rescue dogs are probably more at risk for PTSD than military dogs.


Another important piece of information is that the brains of patients with PTSD show a signature similar to those who’ve suffered a traumatic brain injury. This means that PTSD carries with it significant long-term changes in brain connectivity, making treatment and recovery more difficult than with other behavioral/emotional problems. Anti-anxiety medications can reportedly restore brain plasticity, reversing neurological damage. 

So can hard vigorous outdoor play.

How do we diagnose PTSD in dogs? There are 3 basic ways:

  1. Through first-hand knowledge and observation of the precipitating event, followed by subsequent behavioral responses that seem to be tied to the original trauma in the form of exaggerated responses to a similar stimulus or set of stimuli.
  2. Through second-hand accounts of the dog’s history, followed by careful observations of the dog’s behavior over time.
  3. If no history of trauma is known, yet the dog’s behavioral responses are exaggerated in the form of fear or aggression—especially when no real threat is at hand and the responses are repeated consistently in a stereotypical fashion—then the owner or trainer can make reasonable assumptions about the possible nature of the original trauma.

Miniature Dachshund or Incredible Hulk?
In the case of Noodles—a miniature dachshund who exhibited fear aggression and other signs of previous abuse or trauma—his owners and I started without knowing what, if anything, had actually traumatized the little guy. His original owner, a single male, reportedly gave up the dog for “financial reasons.” This information came second-hand from the rescue organization that took in Noodles, not from the owner himself.


However, since Noodles was biting people, and biting them really hard—sometimes for no apparent reason (such as when he was being petted)—I thought it was more likely that he’d been given up because of that specific problem behavior. I also thought it likely that the original owner had abused or mistreated the little dog during his oral and social developmental phases. That’s because when a puppy’s oral impulses are repressed, especially in a punitive manner, it almost always results in some form of behavioral problem in the adult dog.

After he was given up by his original owner, Noodles then had two different owners, both females, each for a period of about two weeks or so. These women both reportedly gave Noodles up because he was “too much work.”

His final owners, Mr. and Mrs. H., saw him on the street one day, dressed in a skeleton costume, and fell in love with him. The rescue group told the couple about the dog’s previous owners but didn’t mention anything about the biting behavior. Was this because Noodles hadn’t bitten his original owner or the two women who'd briefly adopted him?

It’s possible, though it seems unlikely.

As is often the case when a dog finds himself in a strange new environment, Noodles was on his best behavior for the first few weeks with Mr. and Mrs. H. (This may be why it took the two previous adoptees several weeks before they realized that Noodles was “too much work.”)

Then, Noodles became overly attached to Mr. H. and started biting his wife. These were really hard, deep pressure bites. Noodles would go into an altered state of pure rage when no real threat was present. In fact, being cuddled and petted, which for most dogs stimulates feelings of social bonding, could bring on one of these fits.

Noodles rarely, if ever, bit Mr. H., whom he seemed to adore in perhaps an overly-dependent, unhealthy way. The dog only bit Mrs. H. This didn’t seem to gibe with the fact that the dog’s original owner had been a single male: if his original owner had abused him, wouldn’t Noodles have been more wary of men than of women?

This suggests the possibility that one or both or his temporary female owners had been the abuser, and that’s why Noodles was targeting Mrs. H. and acting lovey-dovey with her husband. The only problem with that idea is that the behaviors Noodles was exhibiting were so beyond the normal range that the trauma almost had to have come during the dog’s developmental phases. And his original owner hadn’t given Noodles up until long after those phases were over.


Identifying With One’s Abuser
One of the strangest behaviors I saw in Noodles was his infatuation with an intact male dog who lived on my block. Whenever we’d run into Pushkin (a shepherd mix), Noodles would pull toward him, then do a crazy dance around the much bigger dog, zipping this way and that in a kind of happy—though perhaps overly-anxious—frenzy.


At first I thought there was just something about Pushkin that Noodles liked. But on a couple of rare occasions Noodles had a chance to meet other intact males, and acted in a similar fashion. This suggested that Noodles—unlike most neutered dogs—was highly attracted to whatever scent was being given off by Pushkin's normal testosterone levels. It also suggested that the reason for his infatuation with Mr. H., and his general disdain for and desire to attack Mrs. H., might have been based simply on the difference between male and female hormones.

Again, this didn’t seem to make any sense. After all, if Noodles had been abused by a male he should show signs of vigilance around men.

Then I remembered something Freud wrote in his 1925 paper on negation: “There is a most convenient method by which one can obtain a necessary light upon a piece of unconscious and repressed material. ‘What,’ one asks, ‘would you consider is the most unlikely thing in the world in that situation? What do you think was the furthest thing from your mind at that point?’ If the patient falls into the trap and names what he thinks is most incredible, he almost invariably ... makes the correct admission.” (General Psychological Theory, p. 217.)

Dogs can’t tell us why they behave the way they do. They can’t even explain it to themselves. But as I put the pieces of this puzzle together, I realized that if Noodles had been abused by his first owner—as seemed very likely—and had now formed a deep, long-lasting emotional bond with another male figure—which was less likely—it was probably because he’d formed a deep emotional bond with his original owner, not despite the abuse but because of it!

Dr. Frank Ochberg, M.D., an expert on PTSD in humans, says that victims of abuse often develop positive feelings toward the victimizer including strong feelings of attachment. And in some cases such victims actually identify with their abusers.

In an earlier article on Canine PTSD I said that a traumatic event or series of events can make a lasting imprint on a dog’s character and personality. Before I started working with Noodles he was almost always in “danger” mode. When he was with some people this was seen clearly in his bitey-ness. With his male owner it was made manifest as a neurotic overfriendliness. I think both behaviors come from the same source: a deep and lasting imprint of fear and pain that came at an important time in his early social and oral development. Both the biting/guardedness and the zippy, anxiety-based “happiness” were derived from the same original trauma.

Once we started working on Noodles’ PTSD—through making him feel safe, having him push for food, and getting him to engage in rough-and-tumble outdoor play—he at times began to show more affection for Mrs. H. than for her husband, though he adores them both.

Noodles hasn’t been totally transformed. Not yet. But there’s a looseness to his gait now that wasn’t there before. And he’s always engaging me and his owners in play, particularly late at night. Plus he’s happy to meet new people who come over to his house. He plays nicely with children. And he loves most other dogs he meets.

Yes, he still occasionally makes a snarly face when I try to pet him, and makes as if to bite my fingers. But he restrains himself beautifully. It’s as if the fixed-action pattern is still in evidence, but there’s no real juice (rage) behind it, and his bites aren’t real. 

Overall, Noodles is an amazingly sweet dog.

LCK
“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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Thursday, February 28, 2013

An Open Letter to New York Dog Trainers

This blog post was originally posted on my other training blog, and was written for all owners and trainers, everywhere. It's about an exercise that's vitally important to treating Canine PTSD.


Can One Technique Solve All Behavioral Problems?
I'd like to introduce you to a wonderful new training technique. It can help shy dogs become confident, turn aggressive dogs into love- muffins, eliminate fear, decrease unwanted barking, make dogs happier and more playful, increase obedience, and can even help with housebreaking issues. In fact, it does all that and a lot more.

I must be joking, right? 

Nope. It's called "The Pushing Exercise" and here are just a few case histories:

Ginger: I got an e-mail from a veteran dog trainer of 35 years who started out using “pack leader” methods but switched several years ago to an “all positive” approach. She wanted to know how to get her “shy,” 11 month-old Jack Russell terrier Ginger to stop eliminating in the house. Since the little Jack wouldn’t play, I suggested that the woman spend some time on the floor every day, letting the dog jump on top of her, and that she hand feed all her dog’s meals outdoors, using what we in Natural Dog Training call the pushing exercise. Within a week the little doggie had not only stopped eliminating in the house, she was much less shy and actually began bringing her owner a toy. 

Ba’sia: Some members of an online behavior board read about the pushing exercise here on this blog, and several of them tried it, just to see what changes if any it created in their dogs. Within 4 or 5 days the owners of a Belgian shepherd named Ba’sia, whose only real behavioral problem was that she loved to chase the Frisbee but wouldn’t bring it back, began bringing it back to her owners, on her own, with no prompts. She just suddenly “felt” like doing it. 

Fancy: When Fancy, a boxer, was a puppy she was sick for several months and had to be kenneled at the vet’s office. As a result she had trouble interpreting social signals from other dogs and was getting into skirmishes a lot at the park and at the dog run. I did the pushing exercise with her for a few days, and she slowly began to learn how to play nicely with other dogs. 

However, there was one unanticipated, yet encouraging, side-effect. Her owners called me about four days in to doing the exercise to ask if I’d also been working on her fear of sidewalk grates. I told them I hadn’t. In fact, I hadn’t even known about the behavior.

“Well, whatever you're doing is working like a charm. She’s no longer afraid of them!”

Kyla: A German shepherd mix (mostly shepherd) named Kyla had a very “dominant” temperament, and one problem she had was that she could not be bribed, cajoled, or coaxed with treats away from her intense focus on squirrels. She also pulled constantly on the leash, ignored her owner’s commands, constantly got underfoot at home, was always jumping up on the bed or the couch, barked incessantly at other dogs at the dog run, and scavenged like there was no tomorrow. But Kyla slowly and gradually became a totally different dog. She now loves to obey all her commands, she no longer pulls on the leash, she still shows a strong interest in squirrels, but is easily called away, stays off the furniture, and no longer scavenges. 

Why? Because of the pushing exercise.

Caleb: A Welsh springer spaniel named Caleb, who sometimes stays with me overnight, was starting to exhibit a very severe form of resource guarding whenever other dogs were staying with me as well. At meal time he felt he had to attack any dog who came near any food, even the food in their own dinner bowl. All food was his! This was an otherwise wonderfully social dog who had a knack for making almost any other dog love him, no matter what it took. But at meal time, with other dogs around, he became a monster. So, as an experiment, I did the pushing exercise with him for 2 days, and guess what? He never showed any signs of resource guarding ever again.

Muskoka: This is a Westie who had 2 problems — leash aggression and an absolutely frantic fear of walking anywhere near 72nd Street between West End and Broadway (the location of her vet’s office). She’s now no longer leash aggressive, and is slowly getting used to walking nearer and nearer the dreaded place where she gets all her shots and examinations, and used to get her toenails clipped.

Dudley: He’s a cocker spaniel who’d had separation anxiety for seven years, and during that time had also forgotten how to play. He was so frightened of being left alone, he was found by his owners several times, trembling in a corner covered in his own excrement, his eyes practically spinning with terror and despair. It took much longer to bring this poor little guy back to normal, but one of the primary ingredients was — you guessed it — the pushing exercise!

How is it possible that one simple exercise — whose only point seems to be to teach a dog to be pushy about eating — have such diverse effects, one of which is that it actually makes dogs less pushy?

If your background is in dominance training (or being the pack leader), this exercise would make no sense to you for a lot of reasons, the main one being that by simply allowing (not to mention outright encouraging!) a dog to push into his owner to get his meals every day you would be setting up the exact opposite dynamic of what the pack leader culture believes in. You would in the clearest of terms be allowing your dog to “dominate” you. And yet the exercise makes dogs more, not less obedient. It makes them less pushy about food. It makes them more likely to stay off the furniture, come when called, and less likely to get into fights or engage in resource guarding. In other words, it makes them less “dominant.”

If your background is in the “all positive” approach, the exercise probably makes no sense to you either because from a learning theory perspective all the exercise is doing is reinforcing a specific behavior, pushing for food. And yet it makes dogs less pushy!

How is this possible?

Working for a Living
Dogs are designed to work for a living. Pet dogs no longer have the utilitarian function in our lives that they once did. They don’t have to hunt, herd, or guard our flocks for us to get their daily provender. Their expectation (learned and reinforced by their owners) is that a bowlful of food will appear in the kitchen or on the back porch 2x a day, and that’s pretty much it. Oh, sure, sometimes they might have to perform tricks to get an extra treat now and then, but for the most part all the energy they’re designed by evolution to expend on working for a living goes into, what? Playing with other dogs at the dog park? Going on long walks? Playing fetch with a Frisbee or tennis ball? Patrolling the back yard for gophers? All worthwhile pursuits, but hardly dirty-fingernails, blue-collar, working-class stuff.

If they’re lucky — and if they’re suited for such tasks — they might get a chance to do Schutzhund or go to agility trials and dance through some weave poles. But again, it's hardly the real 8-hr. day, punching the time-clock down at the elk herd type stuff, is it?

Meanwhile our species, the human animal — who also used to hunt (and gather) for a living — now expend much less of our physical energy toward putting food into our dinner bowls. Sure, some of us still farm the land and pull nets full of fish out of the sea. But the difference (or one of them) is that those of us who engage in that kind of hard, physical labor on a regular basis don’t need gym memberships. Most of the rest of us do.

Why is that? Why do we go to the gym, or the golf course, or go hiking or kayaking or play tennis or go skiing?

Because pushing feels good. Whether your thing is lifting weights, jogging on a treadmill, doing pilates, playing golf or tennis, hiking, kayaking, skiing, or going to a spin class, you’re pushing against something to get a result. And the pushing feels good.

Think about it: in a spin class you’re pushing the pedals on the bike. In tennis you’re pushing your back, leg, shoulder, and arm muscles to go after the ball so you can put the right force and spin and velocity on it to “push” it back over the net. In golf you’re using those same muscles to put enough force against that little ball to drive it (push it) down the fairway. If you’re on a treadmill you’re pushing your leg muscles to work past your own internal resistance. If you’re doing pilates you’re pushing against your core.

Why is Michael Phelps the best swimmer in the world? His physical gifts are part of it, but there are other swimmers with his height, his reach. Why does he consistently perform better? Why do some football teams always seem to come from behind in the final minutes to win a big game while other teams tend to fade in the clutch? The kind of athletes who come through, when others can't, usually do so because they’re good at pushing past their own internal resistance, past that internal voice that says to the rest of us, “I can’t do this.”

Do dogs have such an inner voice?

Not exactly. But if the dogs I described in the case histories I cited above could talk they might very well say things like this:

“I can’t hold my bladder muscles until I get outside the house!”

“I can’t bring the Frisbee back to my owners!”

“I can’t walk on sidewalk grates!”

“I can’t control myself when I see other dogs eating!”

“I can’t obey commands or not chase squirrels or not be dominant!”

“I can’t walk down 72nd Street!”

“I can’t be left alone in the apartment!”

Well, my little doggies, the truth is, “Yes, you can!”

You just have to learn how to push past your own internal resistance. You just need to have someone with a nice big pouch of food, take you outdoors, and teach you how to push for your dinner. You don’t have to push very hard at first. You don’t even have to push at all if you don’t want to. But slowly and gradually, the more you learn how hard you can push, and how good it feels to push that hard, and then even a little harder, and a little harder after that, you’ll start to realize that:

You can do anything!

And guess who’s the one teaching you that wonderful lesson?

That’s right. It’s the person who loves you. He or she is the one who’s like Michael Phelps’ trainer, or Tom Brady or Joe Montana, the one person who knows you can do it. That you can come from behind, you can get out of the hole you’re in, and prevail! That you are a strong doggie with a wonderful, wild heritage. And that you can do anything.

All you need is a little push…

LCK
“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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My Puppy, My Self (archived)

Can “Bark Therapy” Cure Canine PTSD?

Like Talk Therapy for Humans, Bark Therapy Helps Some Dogs
August 31, 2012.

 
How a Sheltie Helped “Cure” My Dog Freddie’s PTSD
In 1993, when my Dalmatian Freddie first developed PTSD, he was having daily panic attacks brought on by any number of noises coming from the city streets: the air brakes from a city bus, a loud horn honking, the gate being closed on a beer truck, etc, etc, etc. 


We lived 4 city blocks from Central Park, where we went every morning to play Frisbee or chase sticks. In the park, Freddie was fully alive and completely happy. But most days it was torture to navigate our way there without some sudden noise causing a panic attack.

I had been training dogs for only a few years at the time, but I was constantly studying the subject, looking for answers on the best ways to train these wonderful animals, but more importantly the best ways to help them deal with emotional issues.

Just prior to the onset of Freddie’s PTSD I went through what I call my Karen Pryor phase, where I was fired up by the seemingly unassailable truth Ms. Pryor merrily puts forth in her book Don’t Shoot the Dog! Pryor was convinced about the complete and total effectiveness of operant conditioning. To Pryor—and to me at the time—behavioral science seemed to be as inevitable as the law of gravity.  

The trouble is, no matter how hard I tried, nothing I could find in the OC bag of tricks was of any help to Freddie. Nothing, nada, zippo. And while each of Freddie’s attacks didn’t last very long, they kept happening, over and over, day after lonely day.

I began talking to any and every dog owner I knew, hoping to find something that would keep Fred from going into what seemed like constant episodes of pure terror. One person I spoke to was the owner of a Sheltie named Duncan. Duncan and Freddie often played together in Central Park when they were young pups.

Duncan’s owner commiserated with my dilemma, then he said, “You know, come to think of it, Duncan used to be afraid of thunderstorms.”

“Really?” I asked, desperate to know the secret. “How did you fix it?”

“Oh, I didn’t. Duncan did it on his own.”

“Okay... How did Duncan fix it?”

“Well, one day he barked at the lightning, and he was never afraid of thunder again.”

Of course, I thought. Instead of going into the flight part of the fight-or-flight response, Duncan was fighting back, he was “attacking” the thing that scared him.

Luckily, I had already taught Freddie to “Speak!” So for the first time in months I was actually looking forward to his next panic attack, just to see if what had cured Duncan of his phobias might cure Freddie as well.

We were on our way to the park when the next attack came. 

Poor Freddie's ears went back, his eyes started to “spin,” his tail went between his legs, and he seemed ready to run in any possible direction.

I held the leash firm and calmly said, “Freddie, speak!”

Nothing happened.

I tried it again.

Again, nothing.

Finally, on the 4th or 5th try, a deep rumbling bark emerged from Freddie’s throat. And when it did he was instantly a different dog. His ears pricked up, his tail and shoulders returned to normal, his breathing became light and steady and he looked at me as if to say, “Why are we just standing here? I thought we were going to the park…”

Over the course of the next few weeks I used this technique repeatedly until a funny—or I should say a wonderful—thing happened. Freddie’s panic attacks became less and less frequent.

One important caveat: when using this technique with some dogs, the barking is such a release that it interferes with their normal impulse control behaviors. In other words the barking gets the dog too revved up to be able to settle down as quickly as Freddie did. For such dogs the next step after releasing the bark should be to give her something to bite or hold onto with her teeth and jaws. Doing that should settle the dog’s nerves quite nicely. Of course all dogs are different, so your mileage may vary. But that’s what works for me.

So how do you teach a dog to speak in the first place? And what do you if the dog won’t stop barking once he’s started?

How to Teach a Dog to “Speak!” and Be “Quiet!”
Teaching a dog to speak on command is a fairly simple procedure. You start by showing the dog a treat. You tease her with it, then growl a little. Then you bark a little. Keep teasing her with the treat, keep barking and growling.


At some point—it might take 3 seconds or it might take 30 minutes—either a bark or a small noise of some kind will start to tickle the dog's throat. When it does, immediately give her the treat, then say “Speak!” as she takes it in her mouth.

Repeat several times, and you’re done till the next session. It’s important to re-teach her the command in different locales, at different times of day, etc.

Note: It took Freddie over 30 minutes of frustration, on his part and mine, before he finally uttered a sound. It’s easier if you do your training at a time of day when your dog’s emotions are already primed for barking, for example when you first come home.

Once you can reliably get the dog to speak on command, the next step is to teach her what “Quiet!” means.

Here's how:

Tease her with a treat. Say “Speak!” and as she barks, keep repeating the command. Get her to bark 7 or 8 or 10 or 15 times, however long she seems able to sustain the barking. Then interrupt her by giving her the treat and saying “Quiet!” in a hushed, not angry, voice.

Again, repeat several times, then re-teach her the command in different locales, etc.

Once the dog is totally reliable with the “Speak!” command you can begin to use it to dispel all kinds of fears. 

For instance, I had 3 dogs staying with me recently on the 4th of July. Two of them had been taught to speak on command, and one hadn’t. Once the fireworks started, and the sound of “thunder” began to roll in, the two who had been taught to speak were unfazed by the racket, though one did have to be reminded to bark at her fears before they went away. The other dogthe one who hadn’t been taught to bark at her fearswas quite trembly for some time.

Does the Barking Cure Work on PTSD?
Severe traumatic stress creates a lasting imprint that's difficult, though not impossible, to erase. But teaching a dog to bark when he's frightened can help reduce or alleviate the fears he or she may be feeling in the now moment. Again, it’s a matter of switching the dog’s survival responses from freeze or flight to the fight component. [1]


With Freddie I had to do a few other things beside have him bark when he was in a panic before his symptoms disappeared entirely. But I think that speaking on command was the first chink in his PTSD armor.

LCK
“Changing the World, One Dog at a Time”
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My Puppy, My Self (archived)

1.) If part of the dog's PTSD symptomology already involves excessive barking, this technique may be somewhat counter-productive at first, so please proceed with caution.