Dr. Zazie Todd: Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe

Dr. Zazie Todd is the brilliance behind the Companion Animal Psychology blog, and Colleen Pelar and I loved having her as a guest on Your Family Dog to talk about making happy dogs happier. This week, however, she has a post on Companion Animal Psychology about Eight Tips to Help Fearful Dogs Feel Safe. As per usual, Dr. Todd is spot on in her approach to helping a dog overcome its fears, and she has some wonderful recommendations on books that might be helpful as well.

Here are her 8 Tips (For details, see the blog post. All quotes are from the blog):

  1. Recognize the dog is fearful.  This may seem like an obvious step, but sometimes owners don’t recognize some of the subtler signs of fear their dogs exhibit. Learning your dog’s particular signals will help you to better discern your dog’s mood and allow you to intervene sooner rather than later. *
  2. Help the dog feel safe.  Helping your dog feel safe is your first priority with a fearful dog. What safe looks like depends on the dog. One pup may need a place of his own to regroup, another dog may need to hold a beloved toy, and yet another may find solace in a predictable daily routine
  3. Don’t use punishment.   “[I]f your dog is fearful, it is especially important to stop using punishment because the risk is your dog may become more fearful or even become afraid of you. Your dog is already stressed by whatever they are afraid of. You don’t want to add to that stress by using aversive methods.” Positive reinforcement is the best way to reassure your dog and teach her that the world is actually a good place to be.
  4. It’s okay to comfort your dog.  When you are scared, does it help to have someone comfort you, offer you something else to focus on and give you a reason to not be so afraid? The same may be true for your dog as well. If he solicits your attention and comfort when scared or stressed, go ahead and reassure him, because “you are a secure base for your dog  – meaning your presence can help them in a stressful situation.”
  5. Don’t force your dog to face his fears.  “Some people think forcing your dog to face the thing they are afraid of will make them get used to it. But what can happen instead is they sensitize to it and get more and more afraid.” You can help your dog become less fearful, but it is a slow desensitization process whereby the dog is gradually exposed to what scares him. And, it is generally best done with the help of a professional trainer or behaviorist so that the process does not become overwhelming to you or the dog.
  6. Seek professional help.  A professional trainer who works frequently with fearful or aggressive dogs can help to expedite the process of desensitizing your dog and make sure you are on the right track. “And don’t forget to consult your veterinarian too and find out if medication can help your dog. In some cases they may refer you to a veterinary behaviourist.”
  7. Be in it for the long haul.  Resolving anxiety and fear can take a long time, and in some cases it may improve, but never fully resolve. “So it’s important to understand that it may take a long time to help your pet, and that fearful dogs can still have a happy life.”
  8. Make the most of available resources. There are a lot of books and blogs out there on helping your dog to overcome his fear. Be sure you get one that employs positive reinforcement training and lots of tasty treats. She lists a lot of books, all of which are excellent resources, but one I have used with success is: The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fearsby Dr. Patricia McConnell.**

And, don’t despair! Fearful dogs can have long and happy lives, especially if we give them the support and tools they need to feel safe and be successful in their world.


*I have several blogs on body language, here are a few: Can you hear me now?, Being Anxious is no Fun for You or Your DogThis is not the dog I wanted… And if you prefer your information orally, Your Family Dog has a lot on body language, but here are   two: What Does Friendly Look Like?, Growling–Is It a Good Thing?

**For more books by Dr. McConnell see these blogs. We also did a couple of podcasts on Your Family Dog with Dr. McConnell, one of which was on trauma in dogs, click here to listen.

General0 comments

Intelligence and Positive Reinforcement Training.

There are innumerable videos on the internet featuring animals, many of which make me cringe. But, there are terrific examples of positive reinforcement training in a variety of species, which show the incredible (and unpredictable) intelligence of a variety of animals, as well as the power of positive reinforcement training. Here is one that I found on Reisner Veterinary Services of a very smart fish who can recognize a picture of an object and match it to the object itself. Amazing!


Trained Fish Show Extreme Intelligence

These fish can recognise and remember shapes and objects!

Posted by ViralHog on Monday, May 28, 2018


So, you may ask, what does a smart fish have to do with family dog training? Great question! Here’s my somewhat convoluted answer:

I think that we have only just begun to see and understand the diverse intelligence of a variety of animals. I doubt that 30 years ago many people would have thought that fish had any ability to discriminate between images of no relevance to their lives, much less associate a picture of some random object with that object. And, I could be very wrong here, but I also don’t think that many zoos and aquariums were bothering to train fish to do anything at all. 

With the rise of food based, positive reinforcement training, however, a whole new window into the animal mind has opened.* Why? My theory is that it is because animals feel safe. Punishment based training is not conducive to creative exploration of the world because the threat hangs over you that if you do the wrong thing, then it will hurt. If animals do not know if a new behavior will bring punishment or praise, then the world is not predictable or safe, and they may avoid trying anything novel.** When dealing with undomesticated animals it is critical to avoid punishment as these animals may completely shut down, unwilling to initiate or even try new things, too spooked to work with any trainer, or they may become aggressive.  According to the Wolf Park website:

Wolves will also avoid at all costs anything that they experienced as unpleasant. So using any aversive on a wolf will have lasting consequences that will be very time consuming to overcome. If a wolf is spooked at all during a physical examination, he/she will be very difficult to handle in the future. When working with an animal that will have such reactions to aversives, it becomes critical for the staff to learn how to shape and reward any desired behavior and stay away from any punitive methods.

This applies to the family dog as well. Dogs who are punished are much more likely to be aggressive. Moreover, as I mention in my blog on The Five Freedoms, “with forced based methods (such as shock collars) many dogs learn not to do try new things as it hurts to do so, so they don’t do anything. This lack of behavior is not the same as good behavior, nor is it normal behavior for canines.” 

On the other hand, if the only downside for trying something new is simply no treat, then the animal will generally give up on that behavior and try something else. As long as the new behavior is not reinforced, it will quickly fade away, without trauma to the animal. Thus, animals who are not punished for trying new things, but are rewarded instead, remain more curious and inventive. My dog Bingley, for example, picked up a clicker one day and discovered that if he put it between his front teeth, he could click it.  This became a great source of fun for him. Whenever he found a clicker, and I was in my office, he would poke his head around the door and click at me. This inevitably resulted in me chasing him down the hall to give him a treat in exchange for the clicker. I doubt very seriously if he would have tried this game if he’d been punished into obedience. Since Bingley knew it was safe to try new things, he remained inquisitive, innovative, and playful, to end of his days.

I have seen the results of both adversive and positive training. Subsequently, I truly believe that for anyone, canine, lupine, piscine, hominid, etc., to be able to engage with it’s surroundings in a curious, intelligent, and robustly satisfying way, it must be safe from fear and harm. Then and only then, can it be free to become the very best version of itself. 

My sweet and curious Mr. Bingley learns what “Right paw green” means…



For some of my blogs on positive reinforcement please see: “Clicker Training 101” Why Family Dog Training?, Love the dog you’re withand, Another post just for fun!

** Blogs on punishment: Why be positive, or what’s wrong with a correction?  Another blog relating to the effects of punishment: Ouch! That really hurt!, and Trauma, trust, and your dog.

Behavior or "What the heck?" Care and management or living together in harmony General Philosophy of training or "Why be positive?" Training or "Why, Why, WHY?"0 comments

More summer fun!

Having blogged and podcasted about summer and your dog, I thought it might be handy to have in one spot my resources and suggestions about summertime with your pooch. If I had to summarize what I have learned it would be this: pay attention to your dog in the heat! He can dehydrate, get sun burned, burn his paw pads, or suffer heat stroke quicker than you might suspect!

One of my favorite summer traditions is the local farmers’ market (not to mention the many markets, street fairs, festivals, and music fests). Many, if not all, of these occur outside and can be hard for your dog to manage for a variety of reasons: heat, noise, and/or overwhelming numbers of people, dogs, smells, etc. I wrote a blog What I saw at the Farmer’s Market which addresses some of the things that your dog may find difficult during these dog days of summer: hot pavements, tantalizing smells, close spaces, inappropriate dogs, and overly excited children. Learn what you can do to make a visit to the Farmer’s market, or other outdoor events successful for both of you.

Summer fun for your dog can include swimming or lounging in a kid’s baby pool (See: Summer fun in the sun and water!) or in streams, rivers, or lakes. If your dog is not a strong swimmer, consider a Dog Life Jacket to help your dog stay afloat and safe in the water. As I mention in my blog, Summertime fun!, this life jacket helped my dog Bingley to swim more effectively, efficiently and comfortably, allowing us to have a lot more fun!

Cool treats are also a great way to help your dog beat the heat. Fill your dog’s bowl with ice cubes (or toss several on the porch, deck, patio, or lawn) to play with in the heat. Our Bernese Mountain Dog, Bear, loves to bat them around with his paws as well as crunch them into smithereens. If ice cubes don’t thrill your pooch, try making a tray of ice cubes made from chicken or beef broth! Or, get a Popsicle mold and make beef-scicles using carrots for the sticks. (Check out Summer fun in the sun and water for other ideas of cool treats for your dog).

A few words of caution: Heatstroke is a real danger for dogs in the summer. 

Dogs cannot sweat through their skin so they regulate their temperature by panting and by sweating through their paw pads. Panting is how dogs “circulate the necessary air through their bodies to cool down. If you’re near a body of water (like the beach), your dog can also regain her ‘cool’ by jumping in.” (Why do Dogs Pant?) While panting can also be sign of arousal or stress, pay close attention to your dog when he plays in hot weather. Make sure he takes plenty of breaks, has a cool place to relax, and plenty of water to rehydrate. (Summer fun in the sun and water.)

Another condition to be aware of is water intoxication. While this is rare, it is a deadly condition whereby a dog (or person) takes in more water than it can handle. When excessive amounts of water are ingested the sodium levels outside cells are depleted and the body responds by increasing fluid intake in the cells. This causes organs, including the brain to swell. When playing with your dog in lakes, ponds, (or even with the hose), make sure he gets breaks from being in the water, pees frequently to get rid of excess water, and when your dog begins to tire, keep him out of the water for awhile as tired dogs tend to swim lower in the water and are at a higher risk of water ingestion. (For more information see: Summer fun in the sun and water).

Summer is half over, but there are still plenty of languid days to enjoy being outside with your pup. For more summer ideas try listening to our podcast,  Summer Fun For You And Your Dog  And, if you are traveling with your dog you might want to check out our podcast, Let’s Take A Road Trip. Have a great summer and remember that a few precautions will help to insure that this summer remains fun and memorable for everyone. 

Zuzu and me kayaking!

General0 comments

Emergency Preparedness: what you can do to prepare for a pet’s emergency.

If you own a dog, it’s highly likely that you will have an emergency at some time in your dog’s life. In a recent edition of the Whole Dog Journal, there was a article titled, “Emergency Preparedness, Five things to do to be ready for a canine health emergency.” Unfortunately, this is one of the articles that you need a subscription to access online, but as I have mentioned in the past, it is worth considering a subscription.

In this article, written by Dr. Catherine Ashe, an emergency room vet, she recommends the following 5 things (along with my observations or notes):

  1. Start an emergency fund. Create a savings account for your pet! Emergencies are usually sudden, and often expensive so be prepared by having some money set aside. You might also consider pet insurance for your dog. There are many options now for pet insurance, so I recommend talking to your vet to see what he/she recommends and is comfortable using. 
  2. Contact the ASPCA Poison Control (888-426-4435) or the Pet Poison Helpline (855-764-7661) for advice on what to do should your dog injest a potential toxin or foreign object.  I have called the Pet Poison Hotline (See: Raisins are not a dog’s best friend…) and found it to be very helpful. The cost is approximately $65. The immediacy of the advice made all the difference for me and helped me to chart an effective course of action. I highly recommend that you post these numbers on your frig, put them in your phone, and have them with your dog’s vet records. When an emergency strikes, you want these numbers at your fingertips.
  3. Do not administer medications to your pet without consulting a veterinarian first. Medications that are safe for humans, may have serious side effects in dogs and could impede a vet’s ability to treat your dog’s emergency. Also, make sure the vet you are seeing or talking to knows the medications your dog is currently taking, as it could make a difference in the treatment of your dog’s emergency condition. 
  4. Don’t forget your pet’s records! I mentioned in #3 that you need to tell the vet any medication that your dog is on, but even better would be to bring the medication with you. Also, be sure to tell the vet anything that you have given to the dog: over the counter meds, supplements, remedies, and when/if the dog last ate. As Dr. Ashe puts it, “It is imperative that we know everything in the pet’s system, especially when treating a possible toxin injection.” She also suggests that you download “a pet medical record app for your phone such as VitusVet or PawPrint.
  5. Be prepared to wait! If you have to wait, this is a good thing, as it means that your pet’s condition is not life threatening. Veterinary emergency rooms triage patients just like human ERs do, taking the most serious patients first. Unfortunately, waits can be long, so try to be patient. On the other hand, if you think your pet is getting worse and needs attention, don’t hesitate to mention it to the staff.* 

Being prepared for emergencies will help you to respond quickly, efficiently, and hopefully, it will also reduce the stress for both you and your pet as you deal with the emergency at hand.


*I was in the emergency room with Mr. Bingley once and we were put into a room and asked to wait. I literally watched him get worse as we waited and finally told a staff member that I thought his fever was rising and his lethargy was worsening. They sent in a nurse and she agreed that he needed more immediate attention. He wasn’t in a crisis state, but he was bumped up the treatment list. Be polite, but if needed, be proactive.


General2 comments

Can dogs get Tetanus?

This was the trap on Zuzu’s leg.

Earlier this year, my lovely Zuzu was racing through a culvert pipe at our cottage in eastern Ohio. Having discovered the joy of tunnel running several months earlier, she always looked forward to this section of our private road. On this cold January afternoon, however, she didn’t pop back onto the road. Little Bear stood anxiously at the top of the bank, looking at her, then at me. Alarmed, I raced over to find my little girl with a weasel trap on her back paw, unable to move because the trap was wired to a stone. I plunged down the embankment, detached the trap from the stone and carried Zuzu up to the road. Getting her to the car, we raced to a local vet’s office.

The vet had left for the day, so they couldn’t x-ray her paw, or give me any pain meds or antibiotics, but they did get the trap off of her paw. So, after calling my regular vet, Zuzu and I headed to the emergency clinic in Canton to get an X-ray and any additional treatment she might need. At the clinic her X-ray showed that there were no broken, crushed, or dislocated bones. She had a soft tissue injury and was bleeding a bit from the wound. I asked for an antibiotic and some pain meds for her and inquired about the likelihood of Tetanus. Surprisingly, while dogs can get tetanus, it is relatively rare in canines. The vet told me that a horse would already be incubating tetanus, a person would want to be sure that his tetanus shot was up to date, but dogs, since it is rare for them to have it, do not have a vaccine for tetanus and the best thing for me to do was to keep a close eye on her. 

Interestingly, this month in The Whole Dog Journal (WDJ), there is an article, Wounded in Actionon determining when an injury is worth a visit to the vet, and there is a sidebar about tetanus written by an emergency room veterinarian with suggestions about how you can protect your dog from developing tetanus.She recommends:

  1. First and foremost, you should clean any wound thoroughly and with care. (She suggests avoiding alcohol as well as hydrogen peroxide to clean a wound.)
  2. Bites and puncture wounds are at a special risk of developing tetanus; bring these to your vet!
  3. Next, monitor your dog carefully after he sustains any open wound. If you notice stiffness at the site of the injury, do not wait to have your dog seen by a veterinarian. The more quickly tetanus is detected and treated, the better your dog’s prognosis will be. 

Having dogs that I let run in fields and woods, play in streams, and swim in lakes and ponds, means that over the course of their lives we will likely have puncture wounds, cuts, scrapes and other injuries that come from living a dog’s life. I have a policy that any puncture wound gets a vet visit, and that when in doubt, it is better to be safe than sorry. As the WDJ article states:

Wounds can seem misleadingly slight, belying significant tissue trauma beneath. Hopefully, your visit with the veterinarian will be a quick evaluation, wound cleaning, and some prescription medications. If not, though, the sooner a wound is evaluated, the better the chances for healing and recovery.

Zuzu ready to roll once again! For more info on her trauma, see our podcast with Patricia McConnell on Trauma in Dogs



*Tetanus results from the bacteria Clostridium tetani being introduced into the body via a wound. C. tetani, is present in some soils and the problem lies with any object, not just rusty ones, pushing the bacteria into an anaerobic situation. The bacteria produces a toxin that binds to nervous system tissue causing painful muscle contractions, stiffness, or rigidity close to the infection site. Dogs may develop stiffness in their faces so that they look as if they are grinning and their eyes bulge, and those pups with generalized tetanus cannot walk. They require extensive nursing and recover may take weeks or even months. 

Care and management or living together in harmony General0 comments

The Dogs of Peru


Recently my husband and I were in Peru to hike to Machu Picchu. Along the way we spent some time in Lake Titicaca as well as Cusco and the Inca Trail, where I spent the vast amount of my camera’s storage space on the dogs of Peru. Here are some of my new friends!


General Toy Box or stuff that doesn't fit neatly elsewhere0 comments

Affection knows no bounds.

I was trolling for ideas for a blog and I came across this video, which I find absolutely delightful. It shows the ability of a variety of animals to show affection/love to people. There is an indelible connection between these creatures and their special people that is difficult to define in a clinical, dispassionate manner. These animals and people have clear emotional connections to one another and I would venture to guess that it makes both of them better individuals. I have long thought that, if you let it, having animals in your life makes you a better person. The joy that comes from being connected to, and caring for, another living creature is not a substitute for genuine human connection, but rather enhances and deepens your ability to care for all who share your life…including, apparently, fish, goats, lions, and turkeys. 




General0 comments