Does Your Dog Feel Threatened (And Would You Really Know)?

Can you tell when your dog is uncomfortable? With experience, most people can figure it out. They get to know their own dog well and tend to notice when he's not being himself.

There are some typical stress-related behaviors most of us easily pick up on, but just like people, dogs might sometimes exhibit some less common or downright unusual signs of stress. I have a friend who laughs uncontrollably when she feels intense pain, and another who succumbs to giggle fits at really inappropriate times, like during a funeral or, once, while getting fired from a job she loved. Under very stressful situations, these friends respond with some rather unexpected behaviors.

Your dog might also display behaviors that are less than "textbook" when he's stressed. It takes practice to pick up on the more subtle clues, especially when they're a little on the unique side.

The good news is that most dogs will display the more easily recognized signs. The faster you can detect your dog's discomfort, the sooner you can intervene. Doing so will help prevent the development of a bigger fear-based problem, and if one already exists, knowing when and how to intervene can help your dog overcome his fear or discomfort. 

About twice a year I teach a class for FDSA on how to use counterconditioning and desensitization techniques to help treat fearful behaviors. Throughout the course I emphasize the importance of preventing dogs from "going over threshold" — that is, from putting them in a position where they are forced to cope with more than they can handle.

So how can you tell whether you've crossed that line? How much stress is too much?

First, we need to understand that signs of discomfort are often much more subtle than the bigger, more obvious signs that our dog is feeling extremely fearful.

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Understanding Hyperawareness: What Happened When I Showered with a Spider

Today I took a shower with a spider.

It wasn't like I volunteered for this; I hopped in and was well along in the process of getting clean before I saw it in the shower pan. And this wasn't a tiny spider – it was a big one. I'd' say 3″ around or so.

Ok. Maybe it was closer to 1″, including the legs. But it FELT like 3″ when I realized that I was not alone.

I'm not afraid of spiders but I also do not choose to take showers with them. I was particularly unthrilled about the thought of one crawling on me when I shut my eyes to rinse my hair. But I could manage, and anyone watching would not have been aware of the turmoil going on inside of my mind as I kept half an eye on that spider and the rest of my brain on getting done with my shower.

And then my husband unexpectedly opened the bathroom door. I startled, screamed, and am quite lucky I didn't go through the glass.

What happened?

My husband has seen me shower before- after 20 years we're well past any issues there. And I had been showering with that spider for a couple of minutes already so that wouldn't have caused my reaction. But in my hyper aware state I seriously overreacted, likely risking my health a good deal more than anything that spider could have thought up to do to me.

When we are agitated, we are hyper aware. That internal state of awareness may or may not show on the outside, but the effort to continue on in a normal fashion absorbs most of our capacity.

Now let's talk about dogs.

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Language and Dog Training: Do the Words We Use Matter?

Ok, I admit it! At heart I am a scientist. My training is in maths, physics and psychology – I'm proud of my geek status and am happy to own it! However, the people I train on a daily basis are not geeks. They do not get a thrill when confronted with a new scientific bit of jargon to digest; they just want to be able to DO THE THING, dammit! So, wi...
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The Science Cafe: Oh No! It's the Fourth Again!

For July 4th, we brought together Amy Cook, Ph.D.; Deb Jones, Ph.D.; Jennifer Summerfield, DVM; and Jessica Hekman, Ph.D. for the latest edition of the Science Cafe!  Below is the recording from their hour-and-a-half live webinar discussion of phobias, focusing on noise phobias in particular. The summer holidays can be the absolute W...
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Will Peeing On Your Dog Fix His Resource Guarding Problem?

Yes, this is something I actually heard a trainer say at a workshop I was giving overseas.

In fact, having the unique opportunity to travel the world, giving talks about working with and modifying aggressive behaviors in dogs, I've been privy to some really interesting viewpoints when it comes to dog training.

"Spitting in your dog's food to claim ownership" is another one that ranks up there in the bizarre — and appetite spoiling — category.

While it would seem obvious that urinating on a dog will not fix a resource guarding issue, there are still a plethora of erroneous recommendations being doled out as gospel online and by well-meaning dog enthusiasts.

Some of these include:

  • Reaching into a dog's food bowl while they are eating so they "get used to it"
  • Taking their food bowl away while they are eating so "they know you own it"
  • Petting the dog while they are eating so they "get used to it"

This "advice" actually creates a lot of business for dog trainers and behavior consultants who work with resource guarding in dogs. A fair amount of my cases involving dogs who guard food bowls or other ingestible items have a history of being exposed to these annoying human attempts of well-intentioned, but ultimately doomed, proactivity. 

Now, there are some dogs who habituate to these interruptions during what should be a peaceful meal time — but why risk it? 

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The Science Cafe: Science in the Media

Welcome to the Science Cafe! On March 20, 2019, three FDSA instructors with science PhDs hung out for an hour or two and talked science online.

The docs:

The subject: They chatted about a 2017 study on punishment-based dog training and social media coverage of the study. Sometimes, social media coverage is all you get, when studies (like this one) are not open access. How much can we trust this coverage? What does the full study actually say?

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Q&A with Helene Lawler: Beyond the Click with R+ 2.0

​For today's post we posed a few questions on the concept of R+ 2.0 to FDSA Instructor Helene Lawler. Below are our questions, along with her response! 

During your time as a trainer, how has positive training evolved?

I brought home my first puppy just shy of 30 years ago. I remember calling around for trainers and being told to wait until the puppy was six months old, or even older. Finally I found someone who said something that made sense to me: "Your puppy is 9 weeks old? You've already missed two critical weeks of training. Get over here right now!"

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Unintended Consequences: Understanding Poisoned Cues

In positive reinforcement training, a cue is something that indicates to the learner (your dog) that you would like her to do a certain behavior.

Most cues in dog training are verbal or visual. But cues can be olfactory (a dog training in scent work sniffs the odor and sits) or auditory (a click in clicker training), or environmental (you take your dog out of the car at the trailhead, and she knows she is going for a walk). A touch can also be a cue.

The dog learns that when she hears, sees, smells, or feels the cue, and performs the correct behavior, she will earn a reward.

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Thresholds & Dog Training: When is your dog actually over threshold?

 If you manage a stressed dog, you likely think about thresholds quite a bit.

You think about whether your dog is "over threshold" in a given situation, and you may be continually planning how to keep him "under threshold" as much as possible.

Even if you don't have a dog with a tendency toward fear, reactivity, or stress, you want your dog to be in an optimal emotional state for learning, and that may lead you to thinking about what might push your dog "over threshold" and cause you to have to switch gears.

But just what is this "threshold?"

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The Science Cafe: Socialization and Sensitive Periods in Dogs

Welcome to the Science Cafe! On December 10, 2018, three FDSA instructors with science PhDs hung out for an hour or two and talked science online.

The docs:

The subject: Hartley, Catherine A., and Francis S. Lee. "Sensitive periods in affective development: Nonlinear maturation of fear learning." Neuropsychopharmacology 40.1 (2015): 50.

(You don't have to have read the paper to appreciate the chat, but a lot of people did!) 

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How it Works: Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning Explained

If you've been in dog training for a while you've likely come across the learning models of Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning. You can hardly pick up a training book anymore without either one or both being mentioned — and that is a great thing!

However, if you aren't sure what each of these models is, you aren't alone.

Each has potentially confusing concepts, and each governs a different part of our teaching experience with dogs. You're using them both all the time whether you understand them well or not, so let's get them sorted out, shall we? 

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