A Call for the Dogmestication of Humans, Part II

This is a follow up to my previous DSD blog entry entitled "A Call for the Dogmestication of Humans," so I'll be picking up where that entry left off.

A brief recap of dogmestication:  humans should learn to read dogs to increase the likelihood for greetings which will be enjoyable to both the two and four-legged participants.  Remember, reading before greeting!  Additionally, I emphasize the importance of asking permission to greet, from both the handler and the dog. 

I thought touching on the handler's responsibility might make the dogmestication piece a little too lengthy, so figured I'd split this out into a two part series.  We've already established the responsibilities of the approaching human and introduced some of the signals the dog will give as to how she is feeling about the situation.  But what about you, the person at the other end of the leash?  What is your responsibility to your dog in these situations?

BODY LANGUAGE UNDERSTANDING

You, like individuals greeting your dog, should know how to read her body language.  What does your dog look like when she is afraid?  What does she look like when she sees her favorite human or canine friends?  What does she look like when she is happy?  The resources listed in the Dogmestication piece will help you learn the language of dogs so that you are both aware of and empathetic to your dog's communications. 

KNOWING YOUR DOG

I also recommend honestly evaluating your dog's socialization history.  What types of people does she try to engage in greetings with, and what types of people does she try to avoid?  How does your dog react to the following:

Infants?

Toddlers?

Older children? On skateboards?  Bikes?  In groups?

Men - tall men?  short men? large men? thin men? men with different skin tones?  men with different attire (hats, sunglasses, puffy coats, you name it)?  men with beards?

Women - same concerns as with men, with the hopeful exception of beards

People in wheelchairs?

Walkers?

With disabilities/odd walking gaits?

People in various types of uniforms?

People with crazy hairstyles?  Tattoos? 

People who wear too much (or certain types of) cologne/perfume?

Dogs are naturally suspicious of types of people they were not socialized to as puppies, which means you may need to do some remedial socialization.  Knowing what kind of people your dog is most comfortable around will allow you to manage greetings effectively and create a remedial socialization plan for those types of humans which make her nervous.

TRAINING FOR SAFE GREETING BEHAVIORS

If you have the type of dog that likes to greet many different people, it's your job to teach him the appropriate way to do this.  If he routinely jumps to greet, teach him how to sit politely for greetings.  Do not allow people to greet him when he is jumping, as this will reinforce the unwanted behavior.  You may think it's no problem for your ten pound dog to jump to say hi, but others may not like muddy paw prints all over their slacks. 

REMEDIAL SOCIALIZATION

If your dog is nervous about greeting people (whether it be all strangers or particular "types" of people as listed above), remedial socialization will be necessary.  You may want to consult with a behavior professional experienced and knowledgable on using classical conditioning to create new associations to guide you through this process.  Terms you should expect to hear from a good trainer:  "thresholds", "triggers", "desensitization", "counter-conditioning," "alternative, incompatible behaviors, "conditioned emotional responses."  Avoid trainers who recommend you punish the dog's fearful behavior or responses to the trigger.  Introducing violence to the situation will not reduce your dog's fear about the situation, and has a lot of side effects (behavioral fallout) which may include increased or redirection aggression. 

For a great online resource regarding work with fearful dogs, you should check out www.fearfuldogs.com, a site created by my friend Debbie as a result of her experiences rehabilitating her mill rescue dog Sunny.  You may also enjoy Patricia McConnell's "Cautious Canine" and Emma Parson's "Click ot Calm".

PARADIGM SHIFT

Frequently, dog owners cite an "increased feeling of security" as a reason for obtaining a dog.  Many people want a "guard dog" or at the very least an "alert dog."  They want dogs to alert them to danger.  Dogs make them feel safe.  Whether dogs are a deterrent for crime or should be is a conversation best left for another day. 

What I'd like to discuss today is the flip side of that equation, the paradigm shift - what are you doing to increase your dog's feelings of security?  What do you do to make your dog feel safe?  When he feels as though he is in danger, are you helping him out of the situation or forcing him to "cope"?

You must be your dog's advocate, her protector.  Forcing her to greet people she'd rather avoid will only increase her fear of meeting new people.  Sometimes you may need to be downright rude to other people.  If your dog is afraid of someone who wants to greet her, you must prevent this person from greeting her.  Use your body to block access to your dog.  Train her to go behind you and sit with duration.  Tell the person to stay away from your dog, even if this sounds rude. 

If you're reading this, it's likely that you love your dog a great deal.  If your dog is fearful, and a "scary" person tries to greet her, there are two options available - defend your dog or put her in the position where she needs to defend herself, quite possibly with her teeth.  A responsible dog owner will always choose the former option.  Choose the latter and you're putting your dog's safety as well as the approaching person's safety at risk.

BE YOUR DOG'S SUPPORT SYSTEM

I often liken fear issues, reactivity, and aggression in dogs to alcoholism in humans.  There is a cultural stigma about having a fearful, reactive, or aggressive dog - your dog backs away, lunges, growls on leash and you are seen as a bad dog owner, your beloved pet a killer.  There is also a cultural stigma in human society associated with alcoholism.

The good news for both dog reactivity and human alcoholism sufferers and those that love them is that there is hope for these inviduals.  There are very successful treatment plans available to rehabilitate dogs who suffer from chronic fear and reactivity as well as for human alcoholics.  Another thing that treatment of reactive dogs and alcoholic humans have in common is - there is no cure. 

Alcoholics who no longer drink do not refer to themselves as "cured," they always use the term "recovering alcoholic."  Similarly, reactive or aggressive dogs are never "cured" but are "recovering" for a lifetime.  With an alcoholic, it may only take one drink for the alcoholism to return with a vengeance.  With reactive dogs, it may only take one time of being pushed over the reactivity threshold before a full-blown resurgence of the reactivity is observed.  You must protect your dog all the time.  Allowing someone to greet your fearful dog when she is visibly nervous is like giving a recovering alcoholic a shot and a beer when they are stressed out.  In neither case are you doing those you love any favors, and in both cases you are putting their well-being at risk.

Both reactive dogs and alcoholics need a support group.  Although I don't have any data to support this, I am betting that attendees at AA are more likely to succeed in their rehabilitation if they have plenty of friends and family supporting and encouraging them throughout the process.  For the reactive dog, you are that support system.  You must encourage her throughout the process.  Just as I would never invite an alcoholic loved one out to the bar on a Friday night to have a few drinks, I wouldn't bring a reactive dog who was afraid of people to the park and expect that she'd just "cope" with it successfully.  

A reactive dog often lives a life of chronic stress.  I can't even imagine how difficult it must be for reactive dogs who are forced into situations above and beyond their threshold.  As someone who has a nearly paralyzing fear of needles/injections, I can empathize with fearful dogs at a park or other busy, public place, imagining how I would feel injected by 200 needles at a time and being tied in place so I had no choice but to "cope" with it. 

Close your eyes for a second and think of the thing that most terrifies you.  Now imagine yourself surrounded by it, with no avenue for escape.   This is how a fearful dog feels when forced into suprathreshold situations.  We owe it to our fearful dogs to help them avoid feeling this way; this is not a feeling you'd wish on anyone you loved, regardless of whether they walk on two legs or four. 

FLOODING

Some trainers will advocate a method called "flooding" to "cure" a reactive dog.  If a dog reacts to other dog, in flooding the dog is placed in a situation where she is surrounded by many, many other dogs and only allowed out of the situation when she stops reacting. 

Flooding is very hard on a dog, psychologically.  It's also very hard for humans that love dogs to watch their dogs suffer through this process despite obvious stress and fear.  Also, for flooding to be truly successful, you must wait not for the dog to stop reacting (shut down) but for the cortisol levels in the brain to return to baseline.  This can take a lot of time, time which is stressful for your dog. 

Another pitfall of flooding is that it doesn't teach the animal how to feel better about the stimulus in question.  To learn more about why conditioning a positive emotional response is a better choice than flooding for behavior modification, it is worth reading this great article from the Social Anxiety Institute (http://www.socialanxietyinstitute.org/ccbtherapy.html).  Reading through the article, I was not surprised that cognitive behavioral therapy is recommended as a significantly preferable alternative to flooding techniques for social anxiety in humans.  My experience lends me to believe this holds true for dogs as well.

Excerpted from the article:

Some of the worst advice given to people with social anxiety is to "buck up and face your fears". This will not work. It will backfire, cause more anxiety and depression, and damages lives.

The term "systematic desensitization" is also used as a behavioral technique for social anxiety. This is actually a strategy that will work, given that the therapist knows how to adequately and to appropriately implement it. 

The "systematic" part of systematic desensitization is highly important. In behavioral therapy for social anxiety, the progress must be systematic, step-by-step, hierarchical, and repetitious. If it moves too fast, or if it is too much, this therapy will backfire.  It is very important that any process of desensitization be gradual and systematic.

...

Thus, we are more prone to consider behavioral therapy for social anxiety as a gradual, step-by-step process, one that is never helped by force, pressure, or flooding. We have begun to call these behavioral activities "experiments" to differentiate them from other behavioral terminology that may be confusing when applied to the treatment of social anxiety disorder.

Systematic desensitization?  I think they're onto something!

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

As a dog owner, you should:  learn to read your dog's body signals, learn what types of people make her nervous and work on classically conditioning a positive conditioned emotional response to them, protect and defend your dog from people who frighten her, and teach people you do want to greet your dog the appropriate way to do so. 

I also suggest, if you have a reactive dog, that you reach out and network with other reactive dog owners.  Remember that entitlement complex that most people have, which directly leads to a social stigma attached to owning a dog that does not want to be pet by every person she meets.  People would much rather blame the dog than their own lack of understanding.  Seek out that understanding from others who have been through the experience of living with and rehabilitating fearful dogs, because you deserve a support group every bit as much as your fearful dog does.