Dog in tunnel

Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?

Often when working with a dog that is generally fearful, one can have a difficult time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.  You find yourself wondering “Will I ever be able to have guests to my home and have my dog be comfortable?” or “Is all this work helping my dog learn and grow?”  Being a dedicated and loving guardian to a fearful dog is a twenty-four-hour job!  You have to be vigilant, but not overly so because it leads to you and your dog being hypersensitive.  You have to know their triggers and be able to anticipate them.  And most importantly, you have to keep your dog feeling safe.

It is hard to step back and see the full scale of all the work you have done.  Mary Lou has progressed from fearful a pancake to a reactive defensive linebacker to her now inquisitive yet reserved self.  Wishing I had been better at recording her progress, I now encourage all my clients to keep a journal of what their dog does now, what triggers them and how they progress.  It allows you to celebrate and reflect on the hard work you and your dog have done together.  We need positive reinforcement just as much as our dogs do.  No paycheck equals no motivation.  No motivation equals no training.  Period.

When Mary Lou’s separation anxiety symptoms went from ‘maybe she has it or maybe the upcoming move is just unsettling her’ to ‘oh, my god, she has it’, was when she attempted to get out of her crate and in the process injured teeth and gums.  Scary bloody mess!  She was put on pain medication as the money was saved to get her a mouth back in order.  The surgery day was impending and I was very worried about my girl and how she would do at the clinic.  Why was I so worried?  Well, she had a single scary event at an emergency vet clinic, that led to her having zero tolerance for clinics.  Despite her general fear, she had always tolerated the visits and allowed staff to examine and restrain her without any issues.  Unfortunately, this one event eroded her tolerance and pushed her to the edge.

One fearful experience can have a huge impact on our companions.

Since then we have worked over the years (yes, years) on changing her conditioned emotional response (CER) from a negative to a positive one.  To start with I contacted my clinic to explain what happened and how I would like to work on repairing the damage done.  It would involve taking trips to the clinic during low traffic times, loaded with treats, to stop and just say hello.  The clinic was very helpful and gave me low traffic times to stop by.  Getting buy-in from your clinic staff is so very important because they and their place of work are what your dog has developed a negative conditioned emotional response (-CER) to.

At home, we practiced having touches, restraint and looming human body movements predict yummy treats. Classical conditioning at work!  Classical conditioning is defined as animals learning about patterns in the order of events around them. “Whenever this happens, that happens next.”  A super example that many are familiar with is their looking at them expectantly when it is dinner time.  They can’t tell time, but they can make connections with events and patterns.  “At this time every day, she comes home, takes off her shoes, and feeds me.”

We are now in a new city, away from our old clinic.  For the surgery, we are at a specialized clinic that also does twenty-four-hour emergency care.  Upon check-in, we communicate with staff that she is a fearful girl and things would have to be taken slow.  Communicating with clinic staff about your dog and things that have triggered fear for them in the past is very important.  This enables them to prepare fellow staff so that they come in knowing what to do and not to do upon the initial greeting in those small crapped exam rooms where it can be very hard to give a dog the space it needs.

On that note, finding a clinic that fits you and your dog’s needs.

What many clients do not understand is that clinic staff have been thoroughly educated on medical care with behavior as an adjunct.  This is not a defect or fault on their part.  Their intensive education is focused on learning and applying skills such as detecting a heart arrhythmia, calculating correct drug dosages, reading x-ray images and analyzing test results; Medical skills that allow them to improve and save lives.  The basic behavior education they are given teaches them how to safely and efficiently restrain animals to get procedures done.

If you have a well adjusted easy going dog, that just loves everybody and lets whoever wants to manhandle them do so with a smile, well then you have little to no worries about visits to a typical clinic.  On the other hand, if you have a fearful dog, finding and working with clinics that are more versed on dog-human body language, how to take it slow and create trust with your dog is vital.  There are clinics out there that have undertaken additional education to learn these key concepts and how it is not only beneficial for the animals, but for them too.  So, take your time and search these facilities out.

Beginning to see the light.

All of the work desensitizing to the clinic setting, work on counterconditioning of her -CER to the clinic, and the confidence building training for her separation anxiety, especially ‘relax/stay’ has paid off!  We checked into the clinic bright and early.  Mary Lou had no breakfast and treats for the scary stuff was not an option since she was going under anesthesia.  What I did have in my pocket to reinforce her with was my eye contact, soothing voice, slow pets, and calm movements.  She was rewarded for being curious, saying hello and checking things out.  Additionally, I was sure to give her breaks outside via mini walks to keep her under threshold.  Meaning when it started to get too chaotic and potential triggers arose that could make her react negatively I anticipated them and we just got out of the situation.

The biggest brightest light during this experience is when she showed her own initiative by going into a relax/stay on her own.  In the middle of the lobby.  Even when other dogs entered and people milled about.  Beaming proud mom here!  Teaching relax/stay is one of the bedrocks for separation anxiety behavior modification.  In addition to training the visual and verbal cue for ‘go to your bed, lay down and relax’, I have been regularly capturing the behavior and reinforcing it.  Reinforcing desired behaviors that an animal spontaneously offers is very effective.  Because of the reinforcement history, she had received for this new behavior, it had become a default behavior for her which allowed me to capture it even more frequently.  With her going into a relax/stay position at the clinic on her own with absolutely no prompting from me, leads me to believe that the relax/stay (further defined as a relaxed state of being in a down body position) is genuinely becoming a coping behavior for her.  By that I mean, she is using it to self-soothe or relax when her surroundings are not so relaxing.

Back to the clinic appointment.  The staff were very understanding.  When then surgeon entered our room, he repeated what we had told the staff.  (Points for excellent communication!)  We explained what her triggers were, holding eye contact, leaning over her, and so on.  He focused us and on explaining the procedure to us and then sat on the floor a safe distance from her.  I got down on the same level in between them and rewarded her for checking him out.  He read her polite signals of ‘give me space’ and did not push her.

My goal was to keep her below threshold.  She was giving clear signals she was upset via tongue flicks, avoiding eye contact, moving away, but she did not go beyond that which is such a huge step for her!  I desperately wanted to keep this as a step forward rather than tumbling backward.  To help achieve this, I offered/requested if I could be the one to open her mouth for him to examine her teeth.  Thankfully he took me up on the offer.  Once the examination was done, I gave her a hug and distracted her while the injection was given to make her sleepy.  We stayed by her side until the drug had taken full effect then off to surgery she went.

Once the surgery was done, we were allowed to visit her as she woke up.  Rounds were being done, which means each patient’s cage is visited and their case discussed by the staff that are changing shifts.  Normally this would be super scary and a huge trigger for her.  But between the drugs and my presence, she did great.

I am so thankful for all the clinic staff support and understanding.  Thanks to them, Mary Lou will continue to forge ahead with her desensitization and +CER work to clinics.  This event has helped me to see all the work and training come together for my girl.  She is well on her way to taking on life’s challenges one confident paw at a time.


Mary Lou with her Eddie head rest after surgery.
Mary Lou with her Eddie headrest after surgery.