Sunday, 22 September 2013

Fear - a ramble about how fear happens and how the fearful mind 'thinks'.

For those of you who have me as a friend on the mighty Facebook, you might have read my status update yesterday about a spider.

That incident has proved... interesting and I want to examine it and subsequent events a bit further.

To start with, prior to yesterday I would not have said I was scared of spiders.

I can watch them, I know a fair bit about them (they have hydraulic legs man, that's SO cool!), I can remain calm in the presence of them...

What I did not like was a spider ON me, particularly one on me, unexpectedly, which has happened perhaps five times in my entire life.

Yesterday though a spider crawled up my sleeve - I felt something tickle and thought it was a crane fly as we have got tons of those at the moment. Brushed it off, didn't see anything, continued doing whatever I was doing...

Then I felt a tickle in my cleavage - ooh err missus, so I peered down the front of my top...

And a HUGE  house spider peered back! For those of you not in the UK, (and those truly terrified, sorry for this!)...

This is the guy I saw..

He was probably not far off the size he appears on your screen now (body about 1.5cm, huge leg span of around 4inches).

I stood up, screaming, tore off my top shaking it, still screaming, he fell to the floor and ran under my desk, squeezing past the dog who was lying with his back against the wall.

He was so big the DOG felt him trying to squeeze past, got up, looked, saw the size of him and ran away!

I took a little while to calm down - notably I could not calm down until I made my partner find the spider AND kill it, a step I have never needed before (just being clear that the spider was not longer ON me has always been sufficient in the past).

If it were not for the fact that I take beta blockers, I suspect I would have had a raised heart rate, certainly the cup of hot sweet tea I had immediately after did its job!

So, to cut out all the waffle - I was scared, by a spider. The spider met its maker, end of story?

Errr, well - no.

Because there are more spiders, in fact until earlier today there were at least three more I was vaguely aware of, having seen them in certain locations repeatedly in the last few weeks.

I have to point out here, I know about house spiders - they breed in early autumn, ie, now, and the females tend to stay put in their tube type webs, with the males roaming around trying to find them. It is this roaming around that leads to us seeing them as, for most of the year they stay hidden, eating woodlice and whatever comes their way.

Unlike most spiders, Tegenaria (both T. domestica and the large T. gigantea) males do appear larger than the females. Actually they aren't, their leg span is bigger but their bodies are smaller - however that is NOT what you see when you spot one scuttling along the floor or peering up at you from between your boobs!

What you see are HUGE HAIRY LEGS, mainly!

So - whats happening now is both weird, and interesting.

Even though I understand why these huge hairy male spiders are hurtling about my house, even though I know they really can't hurt me (you can feel their bite but they are not going to cause you even the pain of a wasp sting), none of this matters...

My brain is now in spider spotting mode - and this is the interesting bit that relates to canine behaviour modification.

I am scared - therefore my brain is working hard to SPOT the trigger for my fear. I am actively looking for the scary thing!

Most people with a fearful, reactive dog, miss this. We tend to think if our dog is scared of something, they want to avoid it, and so we don't recognise that actually they may be on high alert, LOOKING for that trigger, because no matter what it is you are scared of, its always going to be slightly less scary if you KNOW where it is, than if its going to leap out at you in an ambush!

Today another spider 'attacked' me - it didn't actually attack me of course, but it ran down the landing and into the bathroom when I was sat on the loo and of course, my brain still being hyper-aware and looking for spiders, saw it SPRINT down the landing and run UNDER my legs... and I was trapped!

I'm quite impressed I saw it in some ways because I was sat on the loo, reading a book, (sorry if its TMI on my toilet habits!), the point is I was not consciously looking for spiders, I was involved doing other things...

What I was however, was trapped and vulnerable (I don't think I need to explain just how vulnerable one is when sat on the loo, I think we all get that!).

This incident actually sent my heart racing despite the beta blockers, it was in many ways MORE frightening than the 'spider down the top' event of the day before.

Immediately following this, I spotted and had Mike kill two more big spiders, cashing in on my brains hyper-awareness to identify spiders from shadows or clumps of dog fur on the floor (ok ok so i read on the loo and I don't hoover that often, so sue me!).

So, to translate this further to dog behaviour modification..

Stress from a particular incident does NOT go away immediately - I was still stressed and hyper aware 24 hours after the 'spider down the top' incident.

Fear leads us to subconsciously spot the trigger, because the trigger we SEE at least, cannot then ambush us.

Even when occupied with something else, the hyper-aware state of the brain will continue to spot the trigger.

Being trapped and vulnerable and already stressed will INCREASE the stress of any subsequent incident, even if that incident is apparently far less upsetting than the initial one was.

  Now, I fervently hope my fear does not escalate - I should think that knowing my OH can come and remove a spider for me will help with that.

It is interesting to note that for a variety of reasons I am not compelled to kill the spiders myself (though, having OH kill them IS an increase in fear on my part, previously I have been happy to remove them myself and throw them outside). I suspect in part this is just my personality, I'd rather not kill things. In part it is a peculiar fear in itself, I don't like the pop or the mess or the feeling of crunching an exoskeleton, even under a shoe!

Similar things will happen with dogs - though for different reasons (probably, I can't swear there aren't dogs out there that plain don't like the feeling of biting something) - some will want to run away, some may make an aggressive looking display that is really a bluff, some will actually be aggressive and intend to do harm.

I do think that all this reinforces my belief that, when dealing with a fear problem, we should absolutely NOT go looking for triggers to try to desensitize our dogs to. Our fearful dogs are going to be a million times better at seeing those triggers, long before we do - if we try to expose them on purpose, even below threshold, we increase the stress and we really risk making matters much much worse.

It also helps me understand 'stress stacking' - there is no way I'd have screamed and made OH come and kill todays spider IF yesterdays incident hadn't occurred. (I know this because its happened before). It was the stress from yesterdays incident that made todays incident all the more scary, simple as. So it really hammers it home to me HOW important it is that we give our dogs a break and we DON'T expect them to progress at our pace, handling one thing on day one, two things on day two etc etc.

Tuesday, 17 September 2013

SHUT THAT BLOODY DOG UP!!! - Inappropriate barking, why it happens, how to solve it.

Excessive or Inappropriate Barking...

Probably one of the number 1 complaints from non-dog owners about other peoples dogs, and one of the most frustrating problems for a dog owner to solve.

Barky dogs are annoying, to you, to me, to your neighbour to the man down the road who can still hear them at 3am.

For the dog owner, there is not just the annoyance of living with a barky dog, but the added pressure of knowing your neighbours are getting pissed off too. Maybe it is even worse than that, maybe your neighbours are making complaints, sending nasty stroppy letters or reporting you to some relevant authority.

What all this means is, when we have a barky dog, it is very very easy to focus on the symptom - the barking - and not the cause OF the barking. We are driven to 'shut that bloody dog up' and in some cases even actively discouraged from figuring out WHY, because after all, our neighbours actually don't care why, it is just very irritating to listen to!

However it is extremely important to seek out the reason WHY your dog is barking excessively or inappropriately, because attempting to treat just the symptom will not work in the long run. It might even create some bigger problems!

Why Dogs Bark:

  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Fear - to drive something away
  • Frustration - seeing something exciting they cannot get at
  • Communication - dogs bark (and growl and howl and snarl and  yap and squeak and huffle) to communicate with us and to a certain extent, with each other

Why Dogs Carry On Barking...

  • Boredom - barking is in the absence of any other activity, self rewarding. The dog gains some enjoyment from repeatedly barking. Not a lot, but then if there is nothing else to do... anything is better than nothing.
  • Loneliness - barking will eventually 'work', in that someone will eventually reward the dog by coming back, by shouting at the dog, by in ANY way interacting with the dog. And the dog thinks 'ah ha! if I only bark long enough, someone WILL respond and I will know I am not entirely on my own!' The dog has no idea that someone was going to come home eventually anyway, he has no idea that the person shouting 'shuttup you bloody animal' wants him to shuttup - all he knows is, he wanted a response or someone to return and he got it, result!
  • Fear - some dogs bark to drive things away, this is particularly common in dogs left alone in front or rear gardens particular when there is a footpath or pavement the other side of the fence, and also in dogs left to look out of a window with a view onto a footpath.
    What happens is the dog barks at the sight of something, that something goes away, the dog is therefore rewarded for barking, because HE thinks, his barking made the person (or dog, or whatever) go away.
  • Frustration - this is very similar to the fear thing - the dog barks at things that are moving and exciting, people passing by, cars, wildlife etc. The barking often appears to make that thing move more (or so the dog thinks!) and so the barking is rewarded!
  • Communication - everyone needs to communicate and barking along with the other sounds listed, are some of a dogs ways of doing this. They actually communicate far more with body language, but we humans are desperately poor at reading this, and it is obviously no good for communicating with someone who is out of sight.

So, how DO I fix this problem... he is still barking!

Lets go back to why he was barking. Is he bored? Is he lonely? Is he scared or frustrated, maybe he is a combination of these things.

When does your dog bark?

If he is outside when he is barking, is he out there alone? Dogs actually aren't very good at amusing themselves shut out in a garden on their own. Most of the things dogs like to do outside either can't be done in your garden, or you don't want him to do in your garden. These are things like digging, running long distances, chewing things, chasing prey animals, killing prey animals...

Dogs also don't naturally cope well with being alone, so if your dog is outside and you are inside its highly likely he is going to want to be with you and will bark to get you to come back. If your dog IS spending a lot of time outside and thats not his choice, on his own, ask yourself why do you have a dog if you don't want to spend time with him?

If your dog is barking when he is indoors, again, why might that be? Is it when you are out, is he barking because he can't cope being left behind, is he shouting at things through the window?
Or is he barking when you are home, alerting you to the things he sees, or frustrated or fearful of the things he sees?

Some dogs are reactive to sounds, they will mooch about happily outside and then go nuts barking at something on the other side of the fence.

This is one of the easiest anti-social barking problems to solve - it is so simple. Teach your dog that these sounds now mean he gets a reward. Sound = treat, don't wait for him to react and don't withhold the reward if he does, its simple classical conditioning. It does mean you have to be out there WITH him, with high value treats and whilst you change his habit, you can't allow him outside alone (or he will practice the unwanted behaviour) but it does work!

Dogs who are left outside and bark through boredom or loneliness are a bit harder - you'll need to change the way you live with your dog to fix these to some extent. First of all, stop shutting the dog outside on his own. Next, make his life much more fulfilling, more walks, more play, more training and mental stimulation. Then if he does have to spend time outside on his own, ensure he has a warm dry shelter, plenty of interesting toys (toys you can stuff with food are good) and gradually reintroduce him to the idea of being alone.

Dogs that react to the view out of the window are THE easiest to fix, bar none. Simply remove the view, you can get very attractive frosted window films that are not hard to apply to your front windows, and are removable should you move. They cut out around 80% of the view (or more), meaning the dog can no longer identify things to bark at, but let in 95% of the light so you aren't left in the dark!
This will reduce 'barking out of the window' by 95% in just a day or so - and it only takes that long because some dogs are reacting to the sound as well as the sight (which you can address by classical conditioning as I outlined above!)

The hardest type of barking to fix is separation anxiety when your dog is left in the house alone - this requires a lot of work, and really will only be fixed with a lot of patience, time and kind methods. I strongly recommend you get a reputable, force free professional in if you think your dog has separation anxiety, but I can assure you, punishment will NOT fix the problem, only make it worse.

Why not just punish the dog for barking so that it stops?

If your dog is barking because he is lonely - is punishing him for it going to make him any less lonely? If it is because he is scared, how will punishing his fear help there?

Punishment carries its own problems, the first of which is how do you actually punish a dog for it to be effective.

Punishment requires good timing - the punishment MUST happen within a second or two of the behaviour occurring that you want to stop.
Punishment MUST be aversive, the dog must find it unpleasant, which seems obvious but this raises two further points:
1/ How do you know for sure that the dog will find it unpleasant? If you go out to punish a lonely dog barking in the garden, really no matter what punishment you give, the FIRST thing that occurred closest to his barking was... you, coming back to him! And that as I pointed out earlier, is a reward.

2/ How do you know how unpleasant to make it, if it isn't unpleasant enough then you are just being mean to your dog without effect, thats not training, thats just abuse. If it is TOO unpleasant then you will create some more problems, mainly that your dog will not trust you any more, he will want to avoid you and dislike you - that's not why you got a dog is it?

Much unwanted barking actually happens when the owner is not present, so how do you punish a dog when you are not there?

Well there are for barking, two main options.

1/ Bark activated spray collar.
2/ Bark activated electric shock collar.

Please note, in Wales the shock collar is  now illegal.

So, option 1 is a collar that you put on your dog and the sound of him barking activates a spray mechanism that sprays citronella scent up his nose. Dogs find citronella very unpleasant so asides from the initial shock of the spray sound, he gets a nasty smell, and a dogs nose is very powerful so this probably isn't just a nasty pong but a painful experience for him (ever smelt a REALLY strong smell like smelling salts? Or too much vinegar? Ouch.)

Whilst this would seem to be the answer, there are problems with it.

Firstly the spray collars can be activated by other sounds, for example another dog barking, the dog growling or coughing or sneezing. It would be horribly unfair to punish your dog for these things and if that happened enough it would make the punishment much less clear and effective.

Secondly, the punishment goes on FAR longer than the one second spray, because the dog can smell the citronella for a LONG time after the spray. This again makes the message you intend to put across much more vague.. is it barking he is punished for? Or is it something he did a few minutes later when he can still smell that horrible pong?

Thirdly - dogs are not stupid, some dogs figure out to twist the collar round so the spray jets off harmlessly at the back of their necks. Some dogs (a LOT of dogs) figure out that if they bark repeatedly for a few minutes, they can empty the collars spray unit and then it will no longer work.

The reason these two things occur is because as I say - punishment doesn't address the reason WHY the dog is barking. The dog has a reason, that reason is still there, so he still needs to bark. Further more, if a spray collar actually does stop a dog barking, most dogs will do something else instead - options range from howling, digging, and chewing things up to actually escaping and running away or being fearful of going outside or wherever it is they wear the collar!

So, option 2, the electric shock collar.

Like the spray collar this is activated by the dog barking, and like the spray collar it can also be activated by other loud noises close to the dog.
The shock collars tend to come with a range of shock levels, it is up to you to determine which is appropriate for your dog and here you again have no idea what is enough, what is too much, what is too little and you risk getting it wrong and making the problem worse, or scaring the living daylights out of the dog.

Shock collars are the subject of massive controversy - as I say they are illegal in Wales, deemed not humane and theres a pretty big fine or potentially a prison sentence if caught using one.

The shock collar works by causing pain - there are no two ways about that, if they did not cause pain they could not ever work.

How much pain is almost impossible to tell - you can try one on your own arm (you'll note manufacturers state not to put them around your OWN neck... and the reason for that is that you can achieve some level of nerve damage or worse!) and it might tickle, or sting... or it might make you  yelp and jump.
One of the major points to take in when thinking about trying a shock collar on yourself, is this though - when  you try it yourself, you know what is going to happen, you know why it is going to happen and most importantly, you know WHEN it is going to happen, because you are in control of it.

Pain that is expected and predictable is much more easily tolerated than pain that is unexpected and unpredictable - you can grit your teeth and bear it when you get a jab from a Doctor, but if someone randomly stabbed you with that same needle you would jump and yell out!

With both the shock collar and the spray collar, one of the selling points is that the unpleasant event is not associated with you, the dog does not know that you caused it. The idea is that he figures out HE caused it, but that unfortunately is not guaranteed to be the case.

If your dog sees a cat, barks, and gets a zap from the shock collar - is he going to realise it was his bark that did it? Or more likely, is he going to think the CAT caused it, because after all, he was focusing on the cat at the time, the bark was a sub-conscious reaction not a planned out action.

There have been plenty of cases where dogs wearing shock collars have become too scared to go out into their yards, or have become dangerously aggressive to cats, other dogs, whatever it is they bark at.

There are other unpleasant side effects too - just as with the spray collar the dog could quit barking and take up digging or biting at the fence or chewing things or escaping.

The collar unit can malfunction and cause nasty burns on the dogs neck, or the batteries can die and your dog learns that sometimes he CAN bark (and if you learn that sometimes a thing works, thats actually more reinforcing than learning that it 'always' works! Just look at how many people are addicted to gambling on fruit machines as opposed to people addicted to buying from vending machines!)

So, for lots and lots of reasons, punishment here is not the answer, it carries big risks of failure, of hurting your dog, damaging your relationship with your dog, and making the problem worse.