Bringing Up Chickendog
I see so many posts on the internet asking how to help fearful and abused dogs. It's about time I completely wrote out what I did for my Aussie, Copper. Not that it's anything new or different, or even incredibly successful, just this is what I did, and it seemed to work for us.
Copper is the poster boy for the Can We Help You site. He's never been overtly abused (I know all but his earliest history), but I have reason to believe something happened to him, maybe an accident of some kind when he was very young. [Note: Since I originally wrote this article, I've learned he also has poor vision from Progressive Retinal Atrophy. This is probably a contributor to his fears. Always have the vet check out your dog.] I have a great advantage though, in knowing him since he was about 6 months or so, and he already knew and liked me. He's severely afraid of noise, and was never helped through it, he may have been teased over it a bit too. It was mostly ignored and he had been a backyard dog for many years. When he came to me as an 8 year old, in February 1999, he was flighty, insecure, and quite fearful, with warnings that he's not housebroken. His basic manners were already pretty good though, he'd gotten some good training when young.
Due to his timing in arriving in my life (less than a month after my husband passed away), ignoring him at first was not a problem - I had too many of my own problems to deal with to do more than just what was absolutely necessary for him. This gave him a chance to adjust to us a bit, to grieve losing his own family, to just see how things went around here, and learn about living in a house. I didn't realize how severe his fears were until about 2 weeks after I got him, I used a stapler. He went bailing out the dog door like the devil was after him!! Closing my lap top, knocking a ring against a table, dropping a fork - these things were cause for running off into other parts of the house or yard. The silverware drawer was truly evil for him. Walking him at the park was just awful, ball games scared the daylights out of him, often resulting in a bucking, panicking dog at the end of the leash. I had him thoroughly vet checked, no possible physical cause with his hearing, nor thyroid levels making him anxious. We did discover old skeletal scarring, which led my vet to think there was the possible accident. His previous owner, a good friend of mine who won't BS me on this, knows of no reason for this scarring, and I don't remember of any incident at the time. But, it's evidence that something happened that may have left him permanently freaked out. You can check out Copper's Story too, for more of the personal side.
Sorry, but no dog o' mine is gonna be this way if there's anything I can do about it. Educating Copper had to begin. I knew it would not be easy or fast, and success might be quite limited, but I had to try. I was aiming for zero tolerance - no panics at all. Copper was just simply not allowed to act afraid anymore. Not that he couldn't be afraid, just not allowed to act out as he had been. I knew better than to coddle and try to comfort him. Doing this only reinforces the behavior I don't want. So, I had to give him alternate behaviors. While I may not be able to make him not scared, I can at least try to change how he responds to those fears. Fear, and uncontrolled response to it, is how I got him in the first place, after biting some one.
First I had to make sure he was never in such a situation again, that he always had his flight instinct available whenever possible and never felt trapped into biting. Fortunately, he seems to always try his flight instinct first, he's actually very inhibited with his mouth. So, if he goes running out the dog door, fine with me, he gets totally ignored. When I have guests with kids, I tell the kids they are not allowed to follow him around the house or yard - he has to be able to leave the room at will. And I enforce that too, at the risk of being a poor host. Because I can and do enforce this, and I very closely supervise my dogs when I do have guests, I have not felt the need to lock him away when guests arrive. My guests know this is part of the package too, after all, they are my friends. But if I don't look after my own, no one else will. But this way, he gets to give and take what he's comfortable with. Also, I put Copper on Rescue Remedy, a homeopathic treatment for fear and anxiety, 4 drops in the water bucket every day. I continued him on it for several months.
I also had to learn more about his breed and this helped. I found that Australian Shepherds often are standoffish with people outside their immediate family. So, even in the best circumstances, I could probably never expect him to be as outgoing as my mutt girl. Fine, at least now I know.
But what to do when he panics and can't get away, such as during a walk in the park on leash?? His panic behavior consisted of pulling at the end of the leash, usually behind me, bucking and thrashing and biting the leash in a desperate attempt to escape. I decided that I would try to give him an alternate behavior. Asking him to sit next to me in a sit stay would not only give me a reason to praise him, but would only reinforce my "pack leader" position and teach him that, as a good pack leader should, I will protect him. "Just leave it to me, old man".
(This has backfired a little bit, in now that he wants me to take care of everything, and has become more of a problem barker as he becomes more confident in me. He alerts me to things he doesn't like - such as people just walking past the yard, which is quite often. Not impossible to deal with of course, but it will take work. I prefer it this way actually, rather than him try to handle it himself and either withdraw in fear or become aggressive. The barking is more normal dog behavior, and as his confidence builds, and I work with him on it, the barking should and already has in some circumstances, decrease.)
In practice of course, all this was easier said than done. I first had to dust some very old cobwebs off his training, and in the relative safety of my home and neighborhood, teach him to sit for everything. Sit for dinner, sit for a cookie, sit before going through the gate, sit before jumping in the car.....just sit because I told you to and get praised for it. That he had my other dog as an example surely didn't hurt. Her confidence has helped him quite a lot.
Then we did lots of sits on leash when out and about. I rarely took him out alone, I usually walked him with my other dog. I made sure he had a slip proof collar, I use what's called a martingale, aka a greyhound collar (click here to see what it looks like ). The advantage of this collar is it can be adjusted to not close too tight, which would only add to his panic, but he can't squirm out of it. He had to sit at every curb now too. But, more importantly, whenever I saw him getting worried about something we were approaching, I asked him to sit. I had to be quite aware here, it wasn't easy to catch his unease as soon as possible. I would ask him to sit, then praise him. Since I always carry treats, I would offer one. Sometimes he was just too nervous to take food though, so praise had to do. If he was already bucking, I would tell him a level noooo, (just enough to let him know this wasn't what I considered good behavior), then ask for a sit in a normal voice. That gave me something practical and positive I could really enforce. I would walk back to him and make him sit. I could then take more steps forward, then ask him to sit again. This is where my pack position became more important, that he trust me to protect him as a good pack leader should. At first, of course, we would often get to a point that was just too much for him. At that point, I would cross the street or turn around (we're rarely going anywhere particular on our walks). This also reinforced that I would not put him in unbearable situations when possible.
The day came though, a couple of months later, when we had no choice. Construction at the park had forced us into only one way home after we had already set out. I felt awful, but I didn't know what else to do. We had to go past some tennis courts, and he was panicking, he was trying to be resolute in not going forward one more step. So, I dragged him towards me a couple of steps and gave him no choice in the matter. I made him sit, physically forcing him into it, and gave him LOTS of praise. Went to the end of the leash again, dragged him another foot forward, sit, repeat. I had to be very careful here, gentle and supportive while still forceful, so he didn't challenge me directly nor get frightened enough to bite me (he was already biting the leash). I broke it down into the smallest possible behavior piece I could, literally one step. I had to get him to realize he had no options this time but to obey me and realize that he'd live if he moved that paw forward. By this time, he must have learned some trust, because I did not get bitten while putting him into the sits. After a few times of this, he gave up the resistance and walked on his own, though practically velcro'd to my knees. (In case you're wondering, I just turned Leilah loose through all this; I just dropped her leash - she wasn't going to go anywhere and could care less about what was frightening Copper - it was a safe place to do this, thank goodness!).
While I do NOT advocate dragging dogs for most any reason, gentle force apparently does have it's place in communicating that there's no alternative, if done when the dog is ready. That he gave up after a few minutes instead of escalating it indicates to me that he was pretty much ready for it. I was just awfully lucky!!! I could have caused a major set back just as easily, probably even more easily, but I wasn't willing to just stand there with a panicking dog for possibly hours until the construction cleared away - I felt I had no choice. After that, the panic attacks were much less, like he had some kind of breakthrough. I like to think it was in trusting me and I've never had to do it again.
Eventually we got to where we could walk reasonably near basketball courts (not too close though), past tennis courts, gardeners and their machines, and the truly evil balloons in front of the party supply store. Traffic noises weren't so terrifying anymore. At first I was also able to hike with him a lot. For the first couple of weeks, he was never off leash. But, it was a secure area, so I finally let him off leash. We did LOTS of recall work and even more sits, and since he was now having more fun than he'd had in years, it was all very positive for him. He and my other dog, Leilah, would romp and play together. I was so amazed how a fearful old man like this could have so much fun hidden in him, to be so silly and happy after all, even if for limited amounts of time.
The hiking area closed, and we started going to the high school baseball field, a local informal dog park on weekends. Uh oh, more balls to scare him. I kept the rescue remedy close at hand for several months, dosing him on the spot if he started shaking in fear. While he doesn't like it too much when there's lots of others there, he did get better and better. He would not look at other people, but I discovered that for him, if he was within reach of someone, he could be pet and would not move away. So, I encouraged every one to pet him when he let them and be free with goodies if they were so inclined. Anything I could do to give him positive experiences. More and more he'd go running with Leilah. If she was chasing a ball, he'd go running after her. While he never was real outgoing with other dogs either, that's been improving quite a bit. He's never fought, but can cuss like a canine sailor if he doesn't like another dog's behavior. He's gotten to the point where he'll run if Leilah is running with other dogs.
One thing cannot be underestimated, is the incredible help I've gotten from Leilah. She's not a real dominant dog, but not too submissive around other dogs either. She's well socialized, and has set some great examples for Copper. It can't hurt that she's not afraid of things like he is. She brings out the puppy in him too. He's her favorite toy, and pounces on him with softened teeth and her evil sounding play growl. He's never misinterpreted it, and rarely has told her to bug off (though when he does, she respects it). I found a way to use this to my advantage, I put a command to it! "Beat him up" soon became the cue for her games, and she would pounce against his neck, and of course I would praise her. Now, I had another way to distract him when he started getting worried! Leilah's a good girl, she's highly trained (thank goodness or all of this would have been ten times harder), knows how to learn, and eventually was pouncing on him on her own whenever he started getting worried. She often caught it before me. And, it works, it does often distract him from whatever he was worried about. This has helped prevent lots of panics for him.
As for the housebreaking problems. Turns out that with a dog door, there's no problems, and even when the dog door is closed, he's not had a single accident. I later found out that it was actually submissive urination problem, combined with never being taught to ask to go out. Ok, so he has let loose a couple of times at the vet's and once at my in-law's (noise from my niece's skates frightened him), but he's never had a problem when dealing with me. I think that's because I have made major efforts to cater to his confidence. I have found over time that he's actually a fairly dominant dog if given half a chance, more dominant than Leilah, though still submissive with humans.
For rare occasions, such as 4th of July, I get Acepromazine tranquilizer from the vet for him. I have also had to give them to him after an earthquake. Surprisingly, possibly because of his years living outside, he's not too afraid of thunder. As I mentioned earlier, he got Rescue Remedy quite a bit at first. I also tried St. John's Wort more recently. It did seem to help a teeny bit, he did play with other dogs more often. And, as I expected in his case, his confidence with others did stay there once I took him off it. This is because he rarely goes backwards once he learns something. It wasn't helping as much as I'd hoped though, after almost 3 months of it, the results were barely noticeable at all, and I took him off it.
One other technique I used a bit is called, in horse training, "sacking". It's not usually used on dogs, but in careful doses it helped Copper a lot. With horses, you basically take a burlap bag to them, hitting them with it, waving them around, until they realize it's nothing to worry about, that noise and contact isn't going to hurt them. Of course you start very gentle and work up to it. Most police horses have been thoroughly sacked. Copper would flinch if I moved too quick, or threw my socks across the room into the hamper. So, I started gently tossing my socks towards him, than eventually at him. He's not at all toy motivated, so I wasn't worried about chewed socks. I'd be speaking to him in a praising, silly, playful voice at the same time, making it a game. I also started say, putting a shirt on his back while I was changing clothes (yes, usually the dirty one). I could eventually lay it over his head. I could also move faster doing it. Now I can throw clothes and bedding over him, he just stands there, a shoe hitting the floor is no longer reason to leave. His tolerance for my movements and things flying around the room has increased immensely. I can now also pat him more roughly, and he enjoys it, either under cloth or not!
I think our nightly doggie races were a direct result of the sacking, where Copper is now actually playing with ME. Every night now, after I get home, the dogs race back and forth from one end of the house to the other. I pat him hard as he runs by, which eggs him on even more. I can pick up his front end, and give him a vigorous belly rub, pat him and ruffle his fur enthusiastically. A year ago, I would have never thought any of this possible.
We still have to take things one at a time, as new things crop up. It was easy to learn that balls and balloons were scary for him, and relatively easy to deal with and start desensitizing. Presumably, both make noise and so he was afraid of even seeing them. He had made many associations between objects and noise, I often didn't discover this until I picked something up and he ran out. Got a couple of cheap balls, started playing with them (gently) with Leilah in the yard. He's now no longer afraid of their mere presence. Hung balloons in my room, he got used to seeing them too. Large sticks too, so I carried a broom handle around at the dog park for a while (handles like that go with noisy chores I guess). Now I can scoop poop and he doesn't worry. Found out that spray can noises frighten him, we're still working on that.
I've tried many things to get his confidence up, and bring him out of himself. That training Leilah is my hobby doesn't hurt, and I like working with my dogs. But, due to many possible reasons, training methods that work for Leilah doesn't often work for Copper. I even tried to take him sheep herding, so I could see that great dog come out more, but he never really turned on to it (though the day I brought Leilah to help his confidence, we discovered that Leilah loves it!). So, I'm still in search of something that will turn him on, some kind of work we could do together, to bring out more of the potential great and happy dog I keep getting glimpses of. Due to some physical limitations, he can't do agility, if he gets a bit more confident, he'll probably make a great tracking dog. He's already moved up from lawn ornament to happy house pet, now he's up for promotion!
Update May 14, 2004
Update 2007: Copper ended up having a blast in his doggie wheelchair before I lost him a few months after he turned 14. Check out my Wheelie Boy!
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