Guest Blogger! The fearful dog: The obstacles are worth the pay off. by Amy Susney


The fearful dog: The obstacles are worth the pay off

I have been rescuing dogs for nearly ten years. In this time I have primarily rescued timid dogs. In many cases these dogs histories are unknown, but one thing is clear, it has left them with some serious anxiety about very common place situations and objects.

One thing I can say is if you lack patience or the ability to leave behind what your “expectations” of what a dog should be able to do without issue, these fearful orphans may not be for you. The hardest thing for many is bringing a new dog home and realizing that the dog has minimal interest in them, and lacks a desire for closeness. Don’t worry this is normal and your dog with trust exercises and positive experiences will become over time an amazing companion. Your new dog may be afraid to go out to use the bathroom in the dark, it may be terrified to walk past a tree or a mailbox, and can sometimes seem to not settle as if they are waiting for the sky to fall. The thing is, these fears likely have been developed through a series of situations that the dog has survived and left very unpleasant emotions leaving them traumatized. They don’t know that you and their new life is any different from what they experienced prior. I can’t impress upon you enough to make all situations as positive and as fun as possible, do NOT push these dogs beyond their threshold as you can prevent any progress. Your new dog afraid of the leash? Hold the leash talk to it in a happy kind way act like it’s a bag of hundred dollar bills when the dog approaches to investigate give them a treat reward the fact that they even made the attempt to check out the perceived threat. That goes for everything. Reward any behavior you want/desire and ignore any you don’t (unless it can harm the animal or others), punishment serves you no good and will likely make the dog nervous of you.That pesky mailbox at the end of the driveway, you greet it like it’s your long lost best friend. Your excitement is contagious! If you ever find yourself becoming frustrated or angry, please discontinue the activity. Your dog feels everything you do and those things can turn a brief positive training session or walk into your dog’s worst nightmare.

As you and your new friend grow closer and conquer the small things, don’t get cocky! You’re dog has been doing great so you take it to a cookout with thirty people this may set you back ten steps. These dogs revert back to their previous behavior quickly, and any undoing puts you right back to square one many times. Start small, visit a friend or relative with only one or two people present, tell them not to acknowledge your dog, allow your dog to acclimate to them, after a short time your pet may settle and without warning 50 minutes later it’s up frantic in a chicken little moment “the sky is falling”. That’s your cue to leave, this is threshold. It isn’t rude to say thank you for having us, but we need to head home now. Leaving is the reward when your dog is anxious about something. You following your pets lead will help you become a team.

These exercises/daily life are all great opportunities to gain the dogs trust. It can take months or sometimes even a year to really develop a healthy trusting relationship with an animal like this. The payoff is priceless. My best friend and companion is a six and half year old hound mix. She was neglected, abused, and left on the side of the road. The day I almost ran her over, then rescued her changed my life. She is my most reliable, faithful, watchful, and loving dog. I cannot imagine a day without her. It took her six months to eat out of a dish, to not run from me if I was slightly too loud even if it was out of happiness. It took over a month to teach her not to door dart and run away from me. Every time she came back to me I fell to the ground with joy and told her how perfect she is, never once did I punish any of these behaviors. I have gone on walks that lasted 30 seconds because she couldn’t wrap her head around the fact that I thought we could walk calmly past a garbage can or a rain grate. I have been aggravated, angry, and frustrated. I am glad I learned to not direct that at her, but to put those feelings where they belong, with the person who wronged her. If you can gain the love and trust of a timid dog, you have essentially won the lottery.




Nelli and the Otis the puppy


When Roscoe, my beloved hound died, I was convinced that Nellie, my other dog , needed a new companion. All of us were sad, but, she seemed especially devastated. When she wouldn’t even leave the couch for snacks, I felt I needed to do something. So, I set about finding the perfect dog, the “new Roscoe”.  I diligently searched  and of course gravitated towards the floppy eared athletic type. We set up appointments and with great excitement took Nellie to meet “the One”. The first dog was a a Catahoula hound mix. So cool! First the humans met him, we were all  on board,   then we brought Nellie up and SURPRISE!!!  she wouldn’t even look at him. No worries, just not a good match, keep looking!

Well, we went through a series of rejections and  finally Nellie upped her game. She made her feelings completely clear to me the afternoon we went to meet another “perfect match”. We were in a 8 x 10 or so penned in area, this eager young male came running up to her, with 1 message… I want to hump you!  But Nellie was in control,  she gave all the appropriate signals and he actually stopped, things were looking up. Nellie walked up to him and did the doggy hello (aka butt sniff!) . Now we were really hopeful. Then, Nellie looked right at me and I could hear the thought in her head, “really!?!? What are you thinking!!??” Then she turned and walked straight to the gate.

Her little thought bubble said “open the damn door!”

Poor Nellie, she had to pound it in to me , she wasn’t interested in Roscoe lookalike or replacement. We can’t replace our furry friends anymore than we can stay frozen in time. Life moves along, bringing changes and challenges and new joys. That is what finally happened. A friend found a lab/pitt puppy that needed a home. I agreed to foster and all of us, including Nellie, fell in love. Roscoe was the love of her life, he is gone. Now she wanted, perhaps needed, to be Mamma to a rambunctious goof ball.

I did resist for a bit, I thought a puppy was OUT of the question. Sure, I am careening towards an empty nest with my son about to get his license, that implies more free time. But, from my perspective, I didn’t have that time! I have so much to do with running the business and family life. As it turned out, Otis had been through some kind of puppy class, he knew a lot for a 5 month old, plus he IS NOT a hound, so guess what, he actually gets tired and he is super smart so expanding on that training is pretty easy.

So I made it official and adopted him  and I have been really enjoying working with Otis.  After a month or so, I realized something … something big for a trainer.  I was remarking to my husband how it ONLY took 3 weeks to teach him to automatically take his “place” while I cook and we have our meals. He replied, 3 WHOLE weeks ? That was NOT easy!!    And there it is. More perspective. Most people think 3 weeks is a long time, my perspective is that classical conditioning takes a lot of time, so if I can get it done in 30 minute sessions over a few weeks, I celebrate. I realized that despite all the information on dog training in the media and maybe because of it, we all have a different idea of how a dog goes from puppy to delightful adult dog.

One thing I think is true for all of us, our dogs can teach US something every day, and from my perspective, that is a wonderful thing.


Bringing in baby.

There has been a lot of buzz lately about keeping kids safe around dogs.  You can find lots of wonderful info on training and managing your dog if you have kids.  Here is one of my personal favorites .  I hope we all agree, it is vital to prepare and train your dog to be with kids,  even if you don’t have kids it is important that your dog sees kids as a positive thing and isn’t afraid.  But if  you do have children then there is another important aspect of this relationship…the child.  

Yes. The child.

As a parent you will expect to teach your child to ride a bike, to read, do math and someday, drive a car .  But many really lovely people don’t think to teach the real skills needed to be with dogs or any animal.  I guess people think it is something we are just born with,  I don’t actually believe that, I believe some kids are just natural with animals, but many are not.  In either case,  it is, in my opinion, a matter of values.  In my life, compassion, respect and care of all living things is among the traits that make a “good” person.  I know this sound like a really big job.

But honestly,  this one is easy.  You love your child…you love your dog.  Of course you want them to have a safe and happy relationship.  So here it is.

Its not rocket science.

Even before my son could walk he learned how to pet a dog.  I simply held his hand as we pet the dog and said my “pet nice”. So I showed him exactly what I meant by that. Then as he got on his feet, when he was near the dog,  instead of waiting for something bad to happen, I simply reminded him to pet nice and watched carefully .  Did I have to occasionally stop a rough touch or ATTEMPTED ear pull?  Of course,  but I was never too far away to intervene AND eventually,  respecting the dog became the way WE do things.

As a baby, my son was never alone with the dog or on the floor near the dogs, the dogs had their own safe space, on the other side of the gate.

As my son got even more mobile the next set of rules were added.

  • The dog is NEVER bothered when he is eating or sleeping,  in my book,  allowing that is like letting your child play in traffic.
  • Second,  learn the rules of play and then you get the privilege of playing with the dog
  • Bring only good things to the dog, never take anything away
  • The corollary to this is children do not scold dogs. Period. Call Mommy if there is a problem.
  • You do not chase the dog and the dog does not chase you.
  • You NEVER take anything away from the dog again that is a mommy job (I am repeating this for a reason).

These rules are in place until 7 or 8,  it does depend on the child, really until the child is able to follow direction well,  at this point my son learned how to teach tricks, play fetch and yes give and get affection.

What I learned,  I will admit purely accidentally,  is that by teaching your child to respect animals,  you will teach  respect …period .  I am convinced the education of my polite respectful teen (yes I have one) began when he was 9 months old and I taught him to “pet nice”.   This, of course, was followed up by lots of other lessons,  but that is where it began.  Like so many life lessons,  it starts before your child is 3 and lasts forever.

Ha.  … No pressure!!!!

So I hope this inspires you to get more proactive about teaching your children about dogs,  who knows it might lead to a more respectful world or at the very least,  happier teenage years for you!

Cabin Fever!

When the weather is terrible,  your dogs still need some kind of stimulation.  Curling up on the couch with a cup of cocoa is not going to do much for your dog.  So as promised I have put together a few suggestions for entertaining your dogs on snow days.

Play hide and seek

This is fun for families,  Have one person keep the dog busy, have the other person go hide.  Then have the other person call out for the dog,  when the dog arrives give a treat.  Make this really easy at first, so the dog gets the idea, then make the hiding spot a bit harder to find.

Play find it

Your dog should pick this up very quickly.  Start out by placing a treat near your foot and say “find it”.    If your dog doesn’t find it right away, help out by pointing to the treat,  Repeat this several times until your dog immediately starts searching when you say “find it”.  Now you are ready for the fun part.  Put your dog in another room,  hide small treats around the room, then go get your dog and say “find it”,  you can help by pointing  and some dogs will respond to your voice if you give positive feedback as they get closer to the hiding spot.  You can be really creative with this by using empty boxes and leaving some of them empty so they have to figure out witch box has the treat.

Teach your dog a trick

Try teaching your dog to touch your hand on command.  Most dogs learn this one quickly too and you can teach this while sitting on the couch and it’s really fun.

Step 1:  Hold your open palm less than 1 inch  in front of your dogs nose,  say nothing,  when your dog touches your hand with his nose say “YES!” and give a small treat,   Repeat This until the dog consistently touches your hand  when you hold it in front of his nose. Then say the word you plan to use, such as “touch” or , “Say Hi” and repeat the sequence.

Step 2:  Hold your palm in front of your dog,  say “touch”,    when your dog touches your hand  say “YES” and give a treat.

Step 3:  Once your dog has this down,  add variety.  Hold your hand high, then low and make your dog jump to get to it.  Have fun with this

Don’t forget the kongs

If you really want to spend the day on the couch with a good movie and a cup of cocoa, you can help your dog entertain himself.  Give your dog a kong stuffed with something special.  This takes a little pre-plannning,  but stuff your kong with things like peanut butter plus crushed treats, cooked sweet potato, yogurt mixed with kibble, or cheese and lean meat. Freeze it overnight, then give it to your dog to enjoy.

Whatever you decide to do, be safe, we have another crazy storm headed our way!

The Epona Principle

My approach to dog training like many things has evolved.  Having come out of the horse world, force was a pretty normal part of my approach to “teaching” a dog to do something.  The thing is as I educated myself on how dogs learned and I started working with dogs that were not my own it became clear to me that all the force methods we have available are grossly misused.  One of my biggest peeves is seeing someone being pulled by a dog on a prong collar.  They are being dragged down the street and will look at you right in the eye and say this is the only thing that  works.

WAIT… WHAT!?  From my perspective that is not working at all, it is just annoying the dog at best and destroying your relationship at worst.

Another response I get is that a trainer told them to do it.   Ok, I get that one.  I went down that road myself many years ago.  I had a trainer show me the “magic” of a prong collar.  My rowdy very large adolescent dog calmed right down.  I know differently now.  Knowing what I know now about canine body language I can tell  you she was shut down, not calmed down  I also understand that to many people, that is just fine, as long as the dog behaves.  Well, it is not just fine with me.

The reason it isn’t fine is that now that I have taken the “road less traveled”  ( I Am a HUGE Frost fan)  I have received a gift I could not have dreamed of in the days of alpha rolling and prong sticks.  I have made real connections with dogs.  I now live for the moment when I am working with a young dog and it all clicks,  they look at me, not through me, and wait for the next game or task we are to do together.  In the old days they would wait for the next pinch or jerk!

It is actually kind of hard to describe, but I know others can see it too. I have had clients say to me that their dog looks at me in a different way,  or “look how Fido loves you”.  That connection does not come with violence or pain.  It comes with love, compassion and yes, discipline.  But to think that pain is the only way to discipline a dog is so sadly limiting.  We are the ones with the big brains, we do not need to hurt our dogs to let them know how to live with us.  We have reason and 15,000 years of dog domestication on our side, it is time we use it!

So, if I had to articulate a guiding principle to my approach to to dog training it is just that.  Be smart, be creative and be kind.  Not only will you find that it is a lot more fun this way.  You will find as I did, that unlike the old school techniques, you can involve your kids in the training and care of the dog and not worry about anyone getting hurt.  Have fun with your kids and dog, while teaching your dog manners,  what’s not to love?

Hello world!

I have been slow to join the many … MANY voices in the dog training world,  it felt a bit redundant.  Dog training is an odd profession, everyone is an expert,  commentators on dog behavior range from PhD animal behaviorist to someone with a neighbor who owns a dog.  It’s not that I don’t have opinions about how to live with dogs, how to train them etc.,  in fact I have pretty strong positions on all of that.   I just felt that many others were expressing my positions pretty well, so I let it go.  But then I noticed something.  Whenever a child is bitten, and that happens WAY to often, every one chimes in on what should be done, what should have been done, but there is very little helpful commentary on the matter.

So,  I think I have something to contribute to the conversation.  I actually brought a baby into a family with 2 dogs and a cat.  One of my dogs was a large Rottie mix (she is in the pic with my son, he was 2 at the time), the kind of dog that family insists must go when the baby comes along.  That was so not an option.

Before I had my son,  I was a hardcore dog person.  I thought kids were the bane of a dogs existence.  Of course, this was all based on “personal experience”,  like the time I was at a horse show with my big beautiful Rottie mix and a 3 year old boy walks right up to her and whacks her with a stick.  SERIOUSLY!?   I wasn’t actually a trainer yet,  but I knew in my bones that if all my dog knew about kids was that they sneak up and whack you with a stick,  I would soon have a 95 pound problem on my hands,  so I made a plan to create positive kid experiences for her to help her forget about that little demon child.

It all had a very happy ending, I was very lucky that she was not really affected by the kid that whacked her and I lived in an area where there were lots of families with lovely kids.   I had my son a few years later and they went on to become great friends until she finally left us at the ripe old age of 16.  We also went on to have more dogs and my son has grown into a hard core dog person himself.

Now I can look back and see that I did a lot of “right” things just on instinct.  I went on to educate myself about dog training and the latest science of dog behavior.  My mission and my passion has become training the family dog and teaching kids how to understand and happily live with dogs.   So, to that end, I will be sharing experiences and thoughts on life with dogs, and hopefully help spread the word.