Thursday, June 21, 2012

Zainey Goes to the Shrink!

Timid boder collie mix puppy
First bath in her new home, Oct 2008
Zainey has always had a few issues; she came into our lives a lively yet timid pup and grew to be quite reactive at times despite our very best efforts at training, socialization, and exposure to new situations and people. At the age of two she also started developing slight noise phobias that have since grown into full blown 'panic attacks' complete with inconsolable panting and shaking. As her fears of new people, certain dogs, and various situations have grown, so have her reactions and undesirable behaviors. All the while, our lives have gotten smaller and smaller in order to accommodate her special needs and personal space requirements. ...

"Whoa! This beach is scary!"
We have worked with several trainers over the years - some of them
for fun, like training for sports and agility, and others to address more serious problems such as Z's fear based growly and reactive issues. They have all been positive based trainers with a solid foundation in canine behavior and we were able to learn something from each of them. I've done my best to keep up with the most recent studies in training and behavior modification and have even tried to digest some of the science behind it all. I've ordered every book that trusted sources have recommended (see list at bottom) and I've become pretty educated myself about canine behavior. For all the time I've spent reading and researching, I probably could have graduated from some respected training program, but I didn't - it's all been for one single, silly, conflicted mess of a dog - my Zainey. All the good this has done me though, since Zainey's fears and issues have seemed to grow, morph, and deepen. I have to give us some credit though; her reactivity toward other dogs out in public is better than it used to be, we were able to completely change her association toward bicycles to where she no longer fears and lunges after them, joggers are a non-issue, and there are plenty of other 'little' accomplishments such as getting her to accept walking over metal grates on sidewalks. ...And have I ever mentioned the fact that she is able to perform in agility competitions!?!

Despite our best efforts though, Z is just not an easy fix and frankly, I think whoever you are and however much you may learn about modifying a dog's behavior issues, unless you are a true qualified expert- the owner will always be too close to the issue and inside the problem in order to work without the assistance of a professional.

On May 14, Zainey had her long overdue appointment at U.C. Davis with Dr. Melissa Bain, DVM, DACVB, MS. In short, Dr Bain is a board certified veterinary behaviorist with an additional master's degree in advanced clinical research; the link at her name however will direct you to a more comprehensive list of her qualifications.

Turning to a veterinary behaviorist for assistance will not provide a quick fix by any means (there are no quick fixes for these types of issues and anyone offering anything along those lines is most likely going to include some form of adversive method in their so called 'training' which might seem to offer a solution initially, but will only make the problem worse in the long run). Instead, the process is quite thorough and can be quite time consuming. Before our appointment we were required to fill out a 13-page pre-history form, we chose to provide the 'optional' videos of our dog that show her behavior in the real world (I put 'optional' in quotes because who, once they've commited to this process, wouldn't want to provide as much information as possible), and we had a comprehensive blood panel and urinalysis done through our regular vet (the awesome Dr. Raj Singh, DVM, Sunnyvale) in order to rule out any problems that may stem from a health issue and also to check her values should medication be added to her program.

The initial appointment with Dr. Bain went about as I thought it would, which is good. There weren't any huge revelations or new methods discussed that I hadn't heard of, thought about, or tried. I think I would have been a little disappointed in myself if there was something major we should have done that was obvious and I just missed it. What Dr. Bain is able to do is to see the whole picture through very skilled eyes and put together a plan that addresses the needs of both the dog and the owner (or guardian, or parent, - choose your own word here, I will not get into that debate). While I may have a very basic understanding of the different training methods and techniques available, I am not the expert who should know which ones are best applied to our situation and in what order, and at what frequency and intensity they should be implemented. She was able to clearly explain where some of our techniques were off and get us on track to better help our little Z-monster.

Earlier days
(when off-leash was an option)

The Goal:
~ For Zainey to gain independence
 and learn to make decisions on her own

Our Starting Plan:

~ To (possibly) help Zainey's emotional state while we work with her through a behavior modification plan, Dr. Bain recommended we try both a D.A.P. collar (which has some scientific studies backing the efficacy) and the green tea extract nutraceutical, Anxitane (which contains the amino acid, L-Theanine, the efficacy of which is primarily anecdotal at this stage with some research and studies).
~ For the time being, while we are working through this program, we should avoid walking her in areas where there are large numbers of dogs or people as a way to keep her from becoming stressed and possibly displaying the problem behaviors which could perpetuate the problem.
~ Make her less demanding of me which includes majorly ramping up the NILIF program ('Nothing In Life Is Free' requires a dog to perform a specific behavior in return for any sort of resource, activity, or interaction and can be as simple as performing a 'sit' for petting) and implementing exercises that have her both more relaxed and independent of me at home. The exercises at this point consist mainly of her gradually being further away from me in the home in a relaxed 'down' with some sort of stuffed kong, or other treat to keep her attention, for increasing lengths of time.
~ Work on desensitization and counter-conditioning (DS/CC) in a more 'on-off' setting. That is, to find a place where the triggering stimulus is coming in and out of view, at a distance where she is comfortable seeing the trigger, and we are able to reward her calm demeanor. While this is similar to training we have done in the past, it provides an 'off' period vs. having a constant flow of activity. The idea is to create a positive conditioned emotional response (CER) to a stimulus where there is currently a negative association.
~ Use the clicker instead of verbal cues since she is so very sensitive and can pick-up on the slightest emotion that we may think that we are able to hide (such as our own apprehension or nervousness).
~ We now have a Gentle Leader Headcollar to work with in situations where I may feel I need or want more control and the option to add a Calming Cap to our arsenal is out there should we feel the need to take her out without having to deal with practicing our training.
~ Keep a log of our training progress and any issues or questions we come up against.

I have to admit that over time, I either quit practicing certain areas of our training or failed to execute them with the precision that is required. I started accepting some less than desirable behaviors from Zainey because I truly believed that we'd worked them to the max. I figured at some point, she was who she was, and I didn't think her behavior or her ability to learn to make new associations could improve beyond where we had already progressed. So, I have been rewarding her and luring her with treats in situations where she was either already out of her comfort zone or I just needed to get her out of a situation before it escalated into something worse and, in doing so, I left little room for any new positive associations to develop.

We'll see how this new-improved-tweaked protocol goes. I will absolutely follow through with the instructions we receive as I completely trust the doctor and the methods she uses. I guess there was one surprise at the appointment; knowing what we have already done with Zainey and the work we have put into her, I held out little hope for any kind of positive answer when I asked for a prognosis. I was quite surprised and very happy to hear Dr. Bain say that it's not unreasonable to think that we can get Zainey to a point where she will accept strangers into our house without losing her mind. I look forward to the day when I can happily open my door to someone without having to lock a barking, crazy beast in her crate in the back of the house. No, she won't ever be the happy go lucky dog who wants to interact with everyone, but she doesn't need to be and I don't care that she won't, I only want her to be able to kick back, relax a little, and live a life without so much fear.

    (It has now been several weeks since our initial visit. I will update our progress in the next few days)

Recommended Reading:
Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin
Leader of the Pack, Patricia McConnell
The Cautious Canine,  Patricia McConnell
The Other End of the Leash, Patricia McConnell
Feisty Fido,  Patricia McConnell and Karen London 
Play Together, Stay Together,  Patricia McConnell and Karen London
Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson
Control Unleashed, Leslie McDevitt
Click to Calm, Emma Parsons
The Dog Who Loved Too Much, Dr. Nicholas Dodman, BVMS, MRCVS


  1. I need to grab some of those books! You and Z are seriously an inspiration! Glad I have the chance to train with you both and see the amazing progress you are making in the agility world :-)

    1. Thanks so much! I couldn't imagine going through the agility learning and trialing process without you. Who would remind me what runs I was entered in and who would push me to at least try the weaves when we're running a course that we don't even need the 'Q' in?!?!