What’s a Functional Assessment in Dog Training? (And Why You Should Care)


Black and brown dog with her head tilted, as if to ask a question

A lot of dog training advice you get on the Internet won’t help.

Pretty strange comment coming from a dog blogger who frequently writes about training, right? But even if people recommend a humane, positive reinforcement-based approach, something is missing that can’t be done in a typical online discussion. That’s the functional assessment.

A functional assessment, or functional behavioral assessment, is a method from the field of applied behavior analysis (ABA). It consists of identifying the functions of a problem behavior through observation and analysis, then making a plan to decrease that behavior and enable a more appropriate one.

Here’s a definition from the textbook that is arguably the “bible” of ABA:

Functional behavior assessment: A systematic method of assessment for obtaining information about the purposes (functions) a problem behavior serves for a person; results are used to guide the design of an intervention for decreasing the problem behavior and increasing appropriate behavior. — Applied Behavior Analysis, Cooper, Heron, & Heward. Second Edition, 2014.

Board Certified Behavior Analysts perform functional assessments of human behavior. Knowledgeable animal trainers, including dog trainers, do functional assessments when dealing with problem animal behaviors. (BCBAs also do something called functional analysis, which is not as common in animal training and I’m not going to cover it here.)

In most countries, anyone can hang out a shingle and call herself a dog trainer. The public needs tools to distinguish between the pain-based trainers, the charlatans, the wannabes, the well-intentioned—and the knowledgeable and ethical dog trainers. To that end, some of us online have created resources to assess professional dog trainers. I have links to some others at the end of this post.

One way to tell is that any knowledgeable and ethical dog trainer will perform a functional assessment before intervening in a dog’s behavior. They may not call it by that name, and they may or may not use scientific terminology when discussing it with you. If they do use scientific terminology, they will define it and won’t just start throwing it at you.

This post will teach you to recognize the process of a functional assessment and thereby help you know whether you have an informed trainer advising you.

word cloud for functional assessment terms like reinforcement punishment observation

Start with the Behavior

A knowledgeable trainer needs to know what the problem behavior is, what prompts it, and what it accomplishes. The first thing a qualified trainer will usually ask you about is the behavior itself. All other questions are pointless unless she has a really good description of the behavior. Not in vague terms like, “The dog is acting dominant,” or “I think he’s being protective.” Those are interpretations, not observations. The trainer will ask you in detail about exactly what the dog is doing. She needs to be able to visualize the behavior from your description.

The questions in this section and following are typical of what a trainer may ask. A trainer may not ask all of them, since some may not apply to your situation. They are a sampling of what type of questions to expect.

If you say your dog pulls on leash, she may ask how hard and in what directions. Does he forge ahead or lag behind? What does the behavior look like? What does it feel like to be on the other end of the leash? Does the dog vocalize? What else is the dog doing while pulling? Is there a way to measure anything about the behavior? What do you observe about the dog’s body language? Tail carriage? Vigilance? She will probably ask you questions to determine whether the dog is scared or not. Does he seem to be trying to get to something or away from something?

Antecedents

She’ll likely ask you where and under what circumstances the dog pulls. How often does it happen? She may what kind of gear you use.  Does he do it when different people walk him? What happens just before the walk? How do you start off the walk? What time of day is it? What is in the environment when you walk? Who and what else is out there? These are questions about antecedents: what sets the stage for the behavior?

For instance, a doorbell ringing might be an antecedent to your dog barking wildly at the door. A fire hydrant in sight might be an antecedent to your dog’s pulling harder on-leash. The trainer needs to know, in detail, what is setting the stage for the dog’s behavior.

Consequences

Then come the questions about consequences. She’ll try to determine whether the dog is pulling towards a goal. She may ask you what he does if you just “give him his head.” She’ll likely ask what you have tried to modify the behavior. She may create a way to measure the frequency or intensity of the behavior and ask you to track it or make estimates.

The trainer wants to know what the dog is getting from performing the behavior. She must know the consequences before she can create a plan to change the behavior. Humane trainers will either help you train the dog another way to get those consequences, or set up other consequences the dog enjoys (aka positive reinforcement) to take the place of the ones she is seeking on her own.

The Big Picture

The trainer will also probably ask you the backstory, even if you have already filled out paperwork. She’ll ask about the dog’s history with you and what you know of his history before you had him. Depending on the behavior you contacted her about, she may ask questions about the dog’s medical history. The leash example is not a good one for this, but what if your dog has started to refuse to jump in the car to go on a trip? Or has suddenly stopped playing with his favorite buddy, or growls when you reach out to pet him? Trainers are not veterinarians, but because medical problems are at the root of some behavior problems, their first recommendation to you may be that you take the dog to a vet.

The trainer’s goal is to get the best picture possible of the problem behavior and the circumstances surrounding it.

In some cases, she will ask to see it, but be aware that sometimes she won’t. If it’s something like leash pulling she may want to observe it and test the dog herself. But if you have called her because your dog growled at your child, she definitely won’t. If it’s a dangerous behavior or if you have to scare your dog to prompt it, she will not want a demonstration. But she will want to observe your dog in other situations and interact with him in order to gather more information about his general behavior. If there are safe ways for her to check aspects of the problem behavior by handling him herself and make direct observations, she may do so.

What a Difference a Functional Assessment Makes

Dogs pull on leash for different reasons. So let’s consider four leash pulling dogs. A functional assessment might illuminate the following.

  • Dog A pulls wildly in the direction of home and appears scared.
  • Dog B pulls constantly ahead of his person because his normal pace is fast. He loves to run.
  • Dog C pulls only when he sees squirrels.
  • Dog D pulls constantly to one side. She has dementia.
small black and white dog pulling on leash

Dog D: Cricket veering left. (I should have had her on a harness.)

Skilled trainers would design very different training and management plans for all of these situations.

Pulling based on fear, differences in speed of gait between the dog and the handler, response to a potent distraction,  and cognitive decline would necessitate completely different approaches.

The Trouble with Internet Advice, Tools, and Protocols

This should be obvious by now, right? If your dog has Behavior Problem X and you post in a Facebook group asking for advice, you will get plenty. And it may include links to some excellent blogs and YouTube videos with well thought-out advice (along with some stuff that is probably not as good, and possibly some stuff that is horrifying). What’s the problem with the good stuff? The advice won’t take your dog’s individual situation into account. And if you are a beginning trainer, you won’t know how to do the functional assessment yourself. You won’t know what is relevant and important to describe about your dog’s situation. You also won’t have the knowledge about dog behavior from an ethological perspective that a professional will.

Beginning trainers (and some not so beginning ones!) also don’t know how to create a training plan. A professional trainer will create a plan to set criteria, track repetitions, and break down the components of a behavior so as to set intermediate goals (approximations of the final behavior) as benchmarks. She will teach you the mechanical skills to implement your part of the plan and help you practice.

So if you have the scared leash-pulling dog and your only resource is the Internet, you could follow the best thought-out, most humane, most straightforward loose leash walking method there is, but it probably wouldn’t work. And even with your good intentions, it might not be humane. You would be taking your dog repeatedly to an environment where he is scared, trying to teach him something challenging when he just wants to run home.

Without a functional behavioral assessment, trying to change behavior is a shot in the dark. Our dogs deserve better.  I hope this description helps shed a little light on the science of learning theory and how to determine whether a trainer you are interviewing or have hired knows their stuff.

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Thank you to the people who read drafts and offered advice about this post. 

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Behavior analysis | 15 Comments

Clara’s Progress at the Vet’s Office

sandy brown dog with black muzzle waiting on floor at vet office

Not calm, but no longer panicked

Here is a little bright spot a few weeks after the sudden loss of my beloved dog Summer.

In February 2013, I posted a set of photos of Clara that I took at the vet’s office. (They were actually video stills.) That post, Dog Facial Expressions: Stress,  was one of my most popular ever. Trainers all over the world have used the photos, with my permission, for educational presentations of all sorts. (The offer of the photos remains open. Anyone who wants sets of labeled and unlabeled photos can drop me a line through my contact page.)

Ever since Clara came to me as a feral pup in 2011, I have worked with her twice a week with a great trainer and friend, Lisa, on socialization catch-up. None of that work has been at the vet’s office. We do far more basic work than that. When Clara has had vet appointments, I have always taken her mat and great food and tried to make it as quick and non-threatening an experience as possible. It has not been any kind of training situation. Just management-with-food.

In February 2013, the time of the photos, she was petrified but functioning. She could respond to some cues. She could take food. But she was trembling, panting, pacing, and hypervigilant before the vet staff even came into the room. She became literally the poster dog for stress. But things have changed. Even though the socialization work we have done with her has not involved vets or veterinary offices, the work we’ve done has generalized. I have seen her get gradually more calm and comfortable at the vet’s.

This week, in September 2017, I took Clara and Zani for a vet visit together. They are both seeing a board-certified veterinary dermatologist for allergies. Clara has already been to this practice several times on her own and I have noticed how comfortable she is becoming, and in particular, how much she likes the dermatologist. Last time she solicited petting from her. This time, with a little moral support from her buddy, she was spectacular.

As we waited in the lobby, she looked with interest and curiosity at the people and dogs. Because of the tight quarters, a woman with a mellow older lab had to go right by us. She was being completely conscientious, but I was cornered and her lab and Clara ended up face to face. They sniffed noses, wagging tails, then I stepped between them to make sure nothing escalated. The woman was apologizing (not her fault) and I don’t encourage such encounters. But given that it happened, I was super-pleased with the outcome. Clara almost never gets to meet dogs because they generally have strange-to-her humans attached to them and I have no idea how she would respond. No problem!

“Hey–where are you going, new buddy?”

When we went to a patient room, Clara was friendly to the tech and mugged her for petting. She charmed the tech with her getting-into-her-harness behavior, as did Zani when she put her feet up on a chair to help the tech leash her up. Then, with just one backward glance from Clara, they went willingly with the tech to the dermatologist’s work area without me.

Taking videos during a vet visit when wrangling two excited dogs is a challenge, but I realized I had a chance to capture a few seconds if I readied myself for their return. I’ve tacked it onto some videos from 2013 vet visit footage to show the progress. I’ve never published those videos before—they are the ones from which I took the stills that I have shared so far and wide.

I hope the contrast, and Clara’s behavior in general, makes you smile. My favorite part is when the vet tech leaves and Clara stands at the door watching her, wagging her tail in relaxed, wide wags.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

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Posted in Desensitization and Counterconditioning, Dog body language, Socialization | Tagged | 8 Comments

Canine Hemangiosarcoma: Summer’s Story

Most stories about dogs with the deadly cancer hemangiosarcoma end sadly and this one does too. Just so you know. But I want to tell the story because canine hemangiosarcoma is so sneaky and can be hard to diagnose. For Summer, it all started with a backache, though it turned out not to be the main problem.

Hemangiosarcoma is a type of cancer that originates in the blood vessels and their linings. It is also called angiosarcoma and hemangioendothelioma. In dogs, visceral hemangiosarcomas are usually in the spleen, liver, or heart, and are almost always fatal. They grow fast and they bleed, episodically or explosively.

brown mixed breed dog lying on a mat, looking tired, soon to be diagnosed with hemangiosarcoma

Summer, not feeling well after a trip outside

Summer’s History

Summer had a couple of flare-ups of intervertebral disc disease in her last years. The first one was from an obvious cause: we were playing with the garden hose. She loved to jump and bite the water. She jumped one time too many and landed wrong and very soon after was experiencing back pain. I was familiar with how dogs’ posture can change with that particular problem because I had had two previous dogs with back issues and I took her straight to the vet.

Summer got a course of steroids and muscle relaxants and soon seemed as good as new. I didn’t let her jump anymore when we played with the hose and was more careful with her activities in general.

She had another bout of back pain a few months later, and this time the cause was not obvious. But I saw that posture again, took her to the vet, and again she responded well to the medication.

In June 2017, when she was 11 1/2, she had a physical with a full blood workup. Everything looked great.

On July 21st, we were playing some very active training games. Too active for a senior doggie, and she slid and fell. She was in that “backache” posture again a few hours later. She was panting and in a lot of pain this time. It was after hours and I took her to the emergency vet clinic. I didn’t crate her in the car because she was so weak that I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to get her out. She threw up on the way to the vet.

Summer after hurting her back

Vet Visit 1: ER Vet 7/21/17

After ascertaining that she probably wouldn’t bite him, a tech carried Summer into the clinic. The ER vet was thorough. He reported to me that he tested reflexes and the back issue was affecting all four of her legs. He showed me which part of the back was likely affected. He mentioned that the nerves that came from that part of the back also went to the heart and lungs so impairment could become serious. He said we were “not nearly at that point” but he wanted me to know. I had brought the meds that my regular vet had prescribed the last time, but he said he preferred a different approach. He prescribed gabapentin and meloxicam. Summer didn’t perk right up, but over the next two days got a lot better.

I needed to accommodate her infirmity. I have 12 steps down into my back yard and we worked out a system of walking around the side of the house—day and night—to avoid the steps. She was a little too big for me to carry safely down the steps. It would have been great if she would eliminate in the front yard, but she refused to go that way. I have no idea why. That refusal was a completely new behavior for her.

Summer on a good day

The pain started to dwindle, but her behavior got a bit strange. She would avoid certain areas of the yard, peering around, seemingly afraid of part of her regular areas. She started acting a little like my dog who had dementia, standing in the bathroom, staring off into space, seemingly unable to turn around to come out.

Vet Visit 2: Our Regular Vet 8/1/2017

On August 1st, I took Summer to my regular vet. She had taken the course of the RX prescribed by the ER et, but she was still showing pain and discomfort intermittently. She panted a lot. It may have been pain, but she was also clearly hot—I started setting up a floor fan for her and she would lie in front of it day and night.

My vet checked her out. She showed me some sluggish responses in her feet that indicated neurological problems related to disc disease. She palpated Summer’s back and identified the same area the previous vet had said was probably the location of the problem. She suggested steroids and muscle relaxants, and I was glad to switch. We both believed that the gabapentin was causing her strange behavior. But Summer didn’t bounce back as she had previously. I texted with the vet the next day because Summer was still very uncomfortable, and she said Summer could also have tramadol to help control the pain. I filled the prescription and ended up giving her the high end of the dosage the vet suggested.

Vet Visit 3: ER Vet 8/13/17

We were in the weaning down phase of the steroid treatment and Summer was having one pill every other day. She was still taking tramadol, and still a high dose. She had never felt great on the steroids and now she was feeling worse again. Sometimes she would just suddenly lie down in the yard while walking. We ended up at the ER vet again on a Sunday afternoon. I felt I had to try again. It was the same practice, different vet this time. They were very busy and we were there for four hours.

This vet couldn’t detect any pain in Summer’s back. She wrote down her symptoms as seizures, “risk of ” back pain, and “risk of” dementia. She was seeing the zoning out behavior that had started when Summer was on the gabapentin. I realized she could only advise on the symptoms she could identify but this was frustrating. She said we could do X-rays but she didn’t think they would show anything. Since we had already been there all that time, and it seemed to me that we were eventually going to have to do X-rays, I asked them to do a set.

The vet showed them to me. Summer’s back looked pretty good to her—no gnarly arthritis or anything obvious. She showed me a couple of places where the discs looked a bit too close together, which could indicate a problem. She didn’t notice the big round blob visible in Summer’s abdomen that was visible on at least two of the slides. I did, but I didn’t know what her abdomen was supposed to look like so didn’t mention it.

I asked the vet what I should do since my dog really was still in pain. She said to keep giving her the tramadol if that was helping. (I guessed it was.) She said I could talk to my regular vet about putting Summer on an NSAID, but that there was supposed to be a two-week washout period between the steroids and the NSAIDs. So I took Summer home and didn’t schedule another appointment right away. Two vets had suggested joint supplements so I bought some.

Summer lying in front of the fan

Summer got more restless at night. She started lying on her side almost all the time when she lay down, preferably next to an air vent or the fan I kept running for her. She started licking the bed covers sometimes, which I knew could be a sign of nausea.

August 20, 2017, was the last day she had a steroid pill, and the last day she ate normally. The next day she wouldn’t eat some of her usual favorites foods. I scheduled an appointment with the vet for August 25th. I was still trying to give some time for the steroids to wash out. But I felt like she was starting to fail physically.

On Thursday, August 24th, Summer was running a fever and also still not eating.  I wondered suddenly about tick-borne diseases. I had already had a rough experience with one dog with that. Many of Summer’s symptoms matched. I called the vet practice to see if I could change Summer’s appointment to that day. I prepared materials for the vet: some videos I had taken of Summer practically collapsing, and the X-rays.

Vet Visit 4: Our Regular Vet

I brought my vet up to date and showed her a video, then the X-rays. She pointed to the blob on the X-ray and said, “I don’t like the looks of that.” She immediately started telling me about tumors on the spleen. I was familiar with hemangiosarcoma but was stunned at this development. The owner of the veterinary practice, an internal medicine specialist, was there and did an ultrasound of Summer’s abdomen.

My vet came back looking grim but said there was some hope. It did look like a hemangiosarcoma, but because it was already so very big and they didn’t see any metastases, there was a possibility it was a very rare, benign type. She said that she normally didn’t recommend surgery because with the malignant tumors the life expectancy was very short even after removal. But if it were her dog, she would get the surgery because of how the tumor looked. And get it ASAP. I looked at that big blob and thought about what could happen, what would happen if this was a hemangiosarcoma.

We scheduled the surgery for the next morning. She told me to be ready for a phone call during the surgery. If the tumor were metastatic, I would need to decide whether to remove everything they could and wake Summer up again or have them euthanize her.

I thought I had gone to the vet with a dog with a bad back. And now I was facing possible euthanization in less than 24 hours. But even in my stunned state, I knew that if the tumor were metastatic, that’s what I would opt for. Summer had had a month of discomfort, the last 5 days of which had been pretty miserable for her. If I had them perform surgery on the metastatic tumor and wake her up again, she would have to recover from major surgery with no future except more tumors coming very soon. It wouldn’t be fair.

18 Hours

Brown mixed breed dog lying on a bed, with a woman's hand reaching out to her and holding her shoulder

My last photo of Summer. Calm but clearly not feeling well.

I took her home and proceeded as if these were our last hours together. Her appetite was poor, but she would eat chicken baby food and beef jerky, so I gave her tidbits through the evening. We sat on the bed together with the other dogs locked out. I wished I had spent more time with her by herself. She loved just being with me. The other dogs didn’t like her and she didn’t like them. We made those 18 hours count.

In the morning we sat on the bed just a little bit more before our dear friend came to pick us up. I gently petted her head and she would put her paw on my hand to ask for more when I stopped. I told her she would feel better by afternoon. That was the only true thing I knew to say about the future.

The Surgery

Leaving her at the vet’s was horrible. I had dreaded it. I could barely think about the fact that possibly her last couple of hours on earth were going to be in a cage, scared, waiting for surgery. But I had no choice. And she had been through procedures before and I had always come back for her. I hoped against hope that she wouldn’t be petrified; that it would just be another episode at the vet for her. One she would survive.

This is one of the many reasons that it’s a really good idea to condition vet visits to be a positive as possible for our dogs.

A technician called at 10:45 AM to tell me they were starting the surgery. At 10:55 AM they called again. This time it was one of the veterinarians and I knew the news when I heard her sympathetic voice.  They had found tiny cancer metastases all over Summer’s abdomen in addition to the giant tumor. And the tumor was bleeding. There had not been blood in her abdomen per the ultrasound the day before but there was no. Weeping, I told them to let her go.

Afterwards

In a later conversation, my vet said that the tumor had probably been bleeding episodically. That’s why she would feel really bad for a period, then recover and clearly feel better.

I’m not upset at the ER vet for not noticing the tumor. At that point, the outcome was predetermined. All that would have happened is that I would have had 10 fewer days with her. I’m sorry that for 5 of those 10 days she was feeling badly, but I’m selfishly glad we had them. From most of the stories I have read, this is actually one of the less awful hemangiosarcoma experiences. Summer was spared the acute pain and trauma of a bleed-out, and I have read stories where it took much longer to diagnose the problem. By all appearances, she was feeling quite good at the beginning of July. She had episodes of pain and discomfort through late August, but things didn’t turn really bad until four or five days before she died. Her last night was a good one and she seemed comfortable and was calm on the morning of her last day.

I do believe she had an episode of disc disease. Both vets did neurological tests and had the same diagnosis. But it’s possible that our rowdy training that day caused the tumor to bleed, rather than causing a back problem. But I don’t think so. Her abdomen was never tender and her back was. It just made things really complicated when trying to track down the serious problem.

I debated making this video, but it seemed important to document the episodic nature of her pain. That’s part of what made it difficult to diagnose.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Note about the video: while perhaps not a really smart thing to ask an 11-year-old dog to do, the jumping in and out of the bathtub training at the beginning of the movie is not how Summer hurt her back.

If your dog exhibits symptoms of apparent pain, weakness, or intermittent fatigue, see your vet. It could be so many different things, but you and your vet need to know.

Summer how I will remember her–this is from a May 2017 video of her first experience with a Snuffle Mat.

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Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

 

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Posted in Dog illness, Euthanasia | Tagged , , , | 44 Comments

Unsung Summer

Summer succumbed to hemangiosarcoma on 8/25/17. I wrote this on 7/10/17 and have left it as it was when I wrote it: a tribute to a dog who I thought had many years left.

I currently have three dogs: Summer, Zani, and Clara.

Clara is the youngster, and has a dramatic backstory. She was a feral puppy, and also my first puppy. Life gave her lemons and we have made lemonade together.

Zani has “all the cuteness going on,” as a friend puts it. She is adorable, wicked smart, sensitive, and feisty—all at the same time. Whenever I teach anything to all the dogs at the same time, Zani picks it up the fastest (unless it’s a verbal cue, in which case she is dead last). Zani has quite the fan club on social media.

Zani helped raise Clara, and they are buddies.

But Summer.

Summer is my oldest dog, currently going on 12 years old, although she doesn’t look or act it. The others tolerate her, and she is part of the group, but they don’t adore her.

But I do.

Summer is not dramatic, except when she is reacting to a delivery truck or an invading dog. She is normally low-key. If you saw her on the street she would be unremarkable. In person, she looks like a rather plain brown dog. She looks beautiful in my blog largely because she photographs amazingly well.

But I have a bond with her that is unlike what I have with any other dog. Even Clara, my puppy, my baby, doesn’t touch my heart in quite the same way.

Brown, sable, mixed breed dog standing in a kitchen looking happy

Summer in the kitchen, ready for a training session

 

Crossing Over

Summer is my crossover dog. For those who don’t know the term, it means that when I first started training her, I used aversive methods. A year or two in, I “crossed over,” and stopped using such methods. I had used a prong collar on her. I had done collar pops. I had used various other amounts of force.

People often observe a difference between dogs who were originally trained with force, then crossed over, and those who were never trained with force. Most force training has the effect of discouraging dogs from offering behaviors, and that seems to create a lasting inhibition with some dogs.

I was lucky. It didn’t with Summer. In fact, when I play shaping games with my dogs, Summer is the most creative. She will try anything and makes up crazy stuff.

Summer was also my first agility partner, and we “grew up together” in agility. She is an unlikely agility dog, with very strong interests in the varmint department. But we have a fantastic teacher who helped me learn what Summer loves. We used those things in agility, and she came to love agility as well. She runs fast and happy, and reads me so well that it feels from my end like we have ESP.

As she gets older she is more and more of a dream to train, and just gets sweeter and sweeter.

Brown, sable mixed breed dog lying down waiting for a command

Training with Summer

Guests in the House

A few days ago my friend Charity brought over her Newfoundland puppy, Lizzy. This was their third visit. She and Lizzy have been visiting with me and Zani, who is friendly to people and dogs. I’ve been closing up Summer and Clara together in a room with loud music (so they won’t have to hear us having fun) and yummy Kongs.

Lizzy is still in her socialization period, so it’s extra important that she not have any bad experiences. This is why I kept Summer (not guaranteed to be dog-friendly) and Clara (guaranteed not to warm up right away to a new human) out of the picture so far.

Brown mixed breed dog sitting in the grass looking happy

Yes, this one is from a training session, too

Today I checked with Charity about bringing Summer out, but keeping a gate between her and Lizzy. She said sure. Summer knows Charity. So Summer was delighted to come out, and she visited with our mutual friend. Then she saw Lizzy (obviously, she had known a pup was in the house) and went straight to the baby gate. Lizzy was on the other side. Head-on meetings are not ideal for strange dogs. Both dogs sniffed each other and were a bit uptight. Summer was a little stiff, so I called her away. It took two calls the first time, but then she came right to me. Lizzy was still waiting at the gate so after I gave Summer a treat, gestured and said, “go see the pup.” She trotted over and they sniffed again, then I called her back. We did this about seven times. Summer was just so fantastically nice and responsive, and so happy to be part of the doings.  Nice low, wide tail wags. She even gave Lizzy one of her odd, truncated play bows.

After that, I left Summer on her side of the gate with a Kong and went back in with the others. Summer was so happy to have her Kong and be in visual contact. She brought the Kong right to the gate once, and of course the pup was quite interested and came to the gate. Summer was again very nice (I didn’t catch any lip curl or other resource guarding) but I gestured that she take the Kong to a mat a little farther from the gate, which she did.

Later I let Summer come in and do a little training with me while Charity kept Lizzy occupied, and she did fantastic.

We didn’t let the two dogs try to play because 1) Lizzy is already getting big and might play too roughly; and 2) Summer has a history of dog aggression; and 3) Summer is almost 12. But I was amazed at how well it worked out without them actually playing. Just occupying the same area while interacting with their respective humans.

And Summer was quietly magical about figuring out what I needed her to do—and doing it.

Different Dogs

My three dogs all have different geniuses. All three are game to try anything I ask of them, which is so cool I can’t believe it at times. But they have different fortes.

Clara has an incredible work ethic and always has. She is up for long training stints.

Zani is a problem solver and usually the quickest study. Plus she keeps me in my place by yelling at me when I don’t train well.

But Summer. Summer is this soft presence, this part of me that got lost and came back via a small town shelter.

So What?

Brown mixed breed dog profile head shot

Summer

This probably doesn’t seem like much of a story to people with friendly, non-reactive dogs. And indeed, it would have been great to provide my friend’s pup with another dog she could safely play with or at least hang out with.

We didn’t have that, but what I had was a dog who has not had an easy time in life who nonetheless kept her wits about her in a challenging situation and was beautifully responsive to me the whole time our guests were there.

I wrote this post because I felt like I don’t write enough about Summer’s quiet, solid presence in my life.


Summer started having health problems on July 21, 2017, and left this world on August 25, 2017, after being diagnosed with a very large hemangiosarcoma on her spleen.

Copyright 2017 Eileen Anderson

 

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Allergy Shots for Dogs: How I Made Them the Best Thing Ever

This post is about how I made weekly allergy shots into a fun event for my two allergic dogs. It’s not about the medical aspects of allergy shots or how to administer them. Be sure to get specific advice and training from your veterinary staff if you will be giving shots at home.

I have two dogs with seasonal allergies that are severe enough to make them pretty uncomfortable, especially in the summer. I recently took them to a board-certified veterinary dermatologist. They got skin tests and the vet specialist determined that they were both good candidates for an immunology protocol. First, they would get shots approximately every three days while the serum strength and quantity were raised. When the shots were up to full strength, they would receive them weekly from then on. Here’s a photo of Clara’s allergy skin test in case you want to see what that looks like on a dog.

What follows is how I made the allergy shots a good experience for my dogs. It is not a “how to”; it’s unique to our situation. But I hope there are parts of it that can be helpful to others.

Allergy Shots Can Hurt

hypodermic needles with the serum for allergy shots

Clara’s dose, on the left, is a full CC

Regular readers know that I use desensitization and counterconditioning to make scary or uncomfortable events pleasant for my dogs. So you may be surprised to hear that I didn’t work on conditioning the actual allergy shots. It is theoretically possible to achieve a positive conditioned emotional response to an originally aversive stimulus, after all. But not very practical in this instance, right? Do I really want to stick my dog with a needle over and over, more than I already have to? With more and more liquid to work up to the quantity of a full-strength allergy shot? No thanks.

I did countercondition the steps up to the actual shot. We worked on my leaning over, feeling around on the dog, pinching up the skin, then touching with an object.

But we needed to go farther than this. The dogs also needed to perform a specific behavior while I gave the shots: they needed to stay still. I approached it as a down-stay on a mat with a (big!) distraction. (The down was the position in which I could best tent up some skin on Clara. She doesn’t have much loose skin!) The down-stay was not hard for them. They are so accustomed to staying on their mats and also getting goodies for various husbandry tasks that there was little training involved.

What I decided to do about the potentially painful shot was to create a reinforcement period afterwards that was really special. Enter the magic treat boxes.

small plastic refrigerator containers with bites of high value foods for dogs

Special containers with novel treats

The Magic Treat Boxes

I bought four small identical refrigerator containers. At any time, there are two of them in the fridge and I put bites of novel, high-value foods in them. In the photo above, the boxes have bites of roasted potatoes and bites of pizza with some creamy cheese on it. I eat a lot of stuff that’s not really suitable for the dogs because of the abundance of onions or hot peppers, so I keep around a few things to fall back on if I don’t have any of my own food to share. Beef jerky is super-popular with my gang and I save it for special occasions. Also, a few spoonfuls of canned high-quality dog food will do. But they really do enjoy the “special bites.”

My dogs are trained that there might be a longish period between an event and their reinforcers, so I leave the container in the fridge and only get it out after the shot is finished.  That way they don’t know ahead of time what they are going to get.

Our Allergy Shot Routine

  1. Start with all dogs out of the kitchen.
  2. Invite in the dog who will get her shot.
  3. Make any remaining preparations to give the shot while she waits. (I have usually drawn it up and brought it to room temperature already.)
  4. Cue the dog onto her mat.
  5. Show her the syringe and let her sniff if she wants. (This is the immediate antecedent that tells her for sure she is going to get a shot.)
  6. Give the shot.
  7. Move my hand with the syringe away from the dog.
  8. Pause. (I don’t want the end of the shot to be a cue for the dog to jump up.)
  9. Say, “Yes!”
  10. Accompany dog to the refrigerator while praising.
  11. Get out the magic treat box, open it, and start delivering the treats, still talking and telling the dog how great she is.

The video includes a real-time allergy shot session for both dogs, with no edits. Note that they have no collars on and no one is holding them. They are not being physically restrained.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

It Worked! Happy Shots!

Clara started her shots about six weeks before Zani did. So right now Clara is up to her full dose and is taking her shots once a week and Zani is still doing them every three days. After I set up our little routine, I didn’t anticipate what might happen when one dog got a shot and the other didn’t.

Dog looking sad because she is not getting her allergy shot and special treat

Sorry Clara, no shot today….

At the end of the movie, you can see what happened the first time Zani got a shot and Clara didn’t. That’s when I knew for sure that my little system was working well.

Since the shots can be painful, I’ve paid close attention to make sure that there is no fallout from the procedure. I’ve been looking for things like the following:

  •  a dog being reluctant to come into the kitchen;
  • a dog being reluctant to get on her mat;
  • a dog getting up and leaving or flinching away as I approached with the injection;
  • a dog getting generally avoidant of me.

There has been none of that. There has been the opposite. Zani and Clara are both eager for their turns. They are each excited to come into the kitchen for their “shot party.”  Their tails do stop wagging during the actual shot, but at all other times, their body language is happy and excited.

This week, the magic treat boxes have bites of some lovely, lightly breaded chicken from a Mexican restaurant. Zani’s shot is tonight and Clara’s is tomorrow. I’ll have to work on some kind of lesser consolation treat for the poor unfortunate who doesn’t get a shot!

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