It would be great if positive training and behavioural science made everything perfect and wonderful with dogs. Most of the time, it does exactly that by providing a way to communicate effectively with our dogs. But sometimes things can break down. Eric Brad shares a story of a frightened dog that needed more than food treats and positive reinforcement.
It was a normal Thursday evening and the barn was bright and golden with the summer sun of June. As usual, my dog Tiramisu was barking in excitement as I asked her to wait at the start line before we could begin our agility practice. It was very much like any other night at practice. I gave her the signal to “Go!” and she took off like a shot. But as she bounded over the third jump, we were all startled by the loud BANG! of a small bird cannon from the farm next to our barn. I recovered quickly and, knowing Tira is sensitive to sounds sometimes, I cheerfully clapped and encouraged her to go on. That’s when I knew something was wrong. With ears down and tail tucked, Tira trotted warily towards the exit, looking over her shoulder fearfully.
She was clearly upset but it wasn’t until I caught up with her that I realized that she was truly terrified. She trembled violently and there was no consoling her. This dog, who has been called “the barracuda” because of her voracious appetite for any and all kinds of food, would not take any kind of food treat. We spent 30 minutes or so calming her down and eventually just put her out in the van to let her recover in peace. The following week at practice, Tiramisu was herself again and barking and happy at the start line. She ran that evening with all of the enthusiasm I could want. But things still weren’t right although we couldn’t see it at the time.
Quietly Melting Down
The following month, we took the motor home down to Port Moody, Washington for an agility trial. It so happened that the trial was being held on the weekend following the July 4th celebrations in the U.S. After a great day of agility runs, we were settling in for the night in the motor home when some of the locals broke out the fireworks. They were not close and they were not that loud, but the bangs and pops of the fireworks were clearly getting Tira upset. Within a few minutes, she was drooling and trembling in fear. Each time another pop or bang would sound, she would get more upset. All I could do was wrap myself around her and hold her as she trembled with each firework.
Fortunately, this didn’t go on for long, about an hour all together. But it took another hour or so to calm Tira down from her trembling state. And she still didn’t look all that comfortable. We put her in her crate for the night and we would see what the next day would bring. As it turns out, Tira ran 6 runs the next day quite happily and again, we thought everything was fine. Just an isolated incident of stupid kids and their stupid fireworks.
Six weeks later, in August, we were running agility again at a trial we were hosting. Midway through a run, Tira suddenly slowed to a crawl. I knew the look. She had gone into that fearful state I had seen at our practice back in June and she looked at me uncertainly. I tried to get her back in the game by sending her over a few more jumps. She has loved agility for years. But it was no good, she wanted out of the ring. It was the last run of the day and it seemed a total mystery to me why she had shut down until my wife caught me after the run. I didn’t hear it, but apparently some workmen had dropped a load of metal scaffolding during our run and the loud clanging was enough to startle Tira. It was the first time she had ever stopped like that mid-run at an agility trial in her 6 years in competition.
In September, we travelled to southern Washington state for an agility trial. It was held in a large barn and it was unseasonably hot for late September. Fortunately there was a large, noisy exhaust fan that was used several times on the weekend to create airflow to make things comfortable for the dogs. The weekend went well for us again until, in the middle of a run, Tira suddenly shut down as she had done at our August trial. After a bit of coaxing I took her off and waited for the last two runs of the day. I put her in her crate to rest for the hour or so we would have to wait.
To my surprise, when I brought her out for her next run, her ears were down and her tail was tucked. She glanced around warily at the start line as if something was about to get her. When I said “Go!” she trotted after me and through the obstacles as if waiting for the devil himself to swoop in and carry her off. I picked her up at the finish line and carried her off trembling. We were done for the weekend.
Four weeks later, on the second day of our next trial, someone dropped some equipment next to our van where Tira was resting in her crate. The loud clatter set her off again and my wife told me to be aware the she was upset. When I brought her in for her next run, she was fearful and nervous and would only trot through a few obstacles and then wanted out of the ring. We called it a day and went home.
We had hopes that returning to our own trial a few weeks later would help Tira recover some of her confidence. But midway through our first day, the wind caught the large barn door and sent it slamming with a loud BOOM! behind us as we waited to run. Once again, Tira shut down trembling and would not run for the rest of the day. When we returned for our second day of runs, Tira was uncomfortable and subdued. At the start line for her first run, she looked fearful and nervous. When I said “Go!” she trotted toward the exit. This was not the dog I had run with in agility for the last 7 years who loved it so much that she would bark at me for more. Something was wrong. Bad wrong.
What Can The Matter Be
There were any number of behavioural approaches to working with Tira on this issue. Clearly she was developing a phobia about loud, sharp noises and it was affecting her emotional state and her ability to work with me. There was Counter Conditioning that would try to make the noises a “good” thing by reinforcing Tira after any loud noise. There was Desensitiazation that would introduce noises gradually, increasing their intensity over time to help her learn to tolerate them. There was even the “she’s just gonna have to suck it up and work through it” kind of Tough Love approach that some trainers advocate (“Don’t let her get away with not working for you!”). But there is one lesson about dogs that remains paramount with my wife and I – if we see any significant major behaviour change in our dogs go to the veterinarian and look for a health problem first.
Tira showed no outward physical signs that she was unhealthy. No limping, no seizures, no vomiting, and her appetite, away from the incidents, was a healthy as ever. In fact, she would run and play with our younger dog Rizzo as if nothing had happened. Sometimes in the same day! And that’s was the problem. How do you diagnose a health issue when the only symptom is a perceived behaviour change to fearfulness? And even then only under very specific circumstances.
We know that our dogs aren’t human. And so we don’t try to treat them as humans in daily life together or in trying to diagnose behaviour problems. We also don’t think of dogs as the near mindless simpletons we once believed them to be from books we had read decades ago (mostly Traditional Training approaches). We weren’t about to make Tira tough this one out.
One of the benefits of moving to a positive training approach for us has been getting to know some really great, really smart people. Most of those people have dogs and use behavioural science to train. It was through reaching out to that community of positive trainers that the solution (at least part of it) to Tira’s health and behaviour problems would come about. We are so very grateful to that same community and other dog lovers for the help and support they have provided as we work through this.
In the next instalment, I’ll tell you what we found and what we have been doing to bring Tira back from this frightening experience. You may find it as surprising as we did.
Until next time, take good care and have fun with your dogs!
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Photo credits -
All photos copyright Petra Wingate 2008-2012