But my dog is not food motivated

All living beings are “food motivated” – otherwise they’d be dead. And dogs specifically are opportunistic scavengers, geared to eat whatever they find whenever they find it.

When we say that a dog is “not food motivated” it usually means that they won’t eat in certain contexts. That’s because *the behavior of eating* is influenced by learning, so it is more or less likely to occur in certain contexts. Just like it might be easier to ask your dog to “sit” at home than in the dog park.

Let’s have a look at some reasons why a dog might be labelled as “not food motivated”:

Physical condition/weight

Maybe your dog is just getting enough calories in his normal meals? Not every dog is a lab, willing to eat non stop.

Please note, that the amount of food recommended by manufacturers is just a suggestions. Calory needs are very individual, you should always monitor your dog’s weight.

How much exercise is your dog getting? How big are they? A Chihuahua will be able to “fit” less food than a German Shepherd.

Health!

Often the reason behind “picky eating” is that the food makes the dog feel unwell. Gastrointestinal issues are very common especially in dogs with behavior problems (which is a topic for a separate post).

We like to focus on observable symptoms like vomiting and diarrhoea, but it’s easy to miss other, harder to observe symptoms such as nausea or reflux. If your dog is reluctant to eat or anything seems off (for example they are very “nervous” or very “lethargic”), check if they’re healthy!

Dogs have preferences!

Most dogs prefer moist, smelly treats they can easily swallow.

Large, dry treats (for example some dog biscuits) that take forever to chew are usually not appealing to them. Don’t be fooled by commercial treats, they are often the worst 😉

choose the right treats for your dog

Learned aversion

The dog can be avoidant of food in a specific context (for example when the food is fed from the hand) because they learned that it predicts something icky. This is a “beautiful” example of classical conditioning – the dog has a negative emotional response in this context.

Let’s look at some examples for how this happens:

  • giving food toys before departure to dogs with separation anxiety food toys predict departure/being alone
  • repeatedly using the food to lure dog into uncomfortable situations food predicts a box/car/public transport/unpleasant veterinary procedure
  • making strangers feed a fearful dog from hand, which often leads to them petting the dog food predicts physical touch/interaction with strangers

Arousal (positive or negative)

In terms of eating, we generally see 3 types of responses to arousal:

  • a dog who simply refuses to eat
  • a dog who accepts the treat but spits out
  • a dog who turns into a sharkie

As arousal increases, the ability to eat decreases. After all, you don’t need to be able to digest anything if you’re running for your life. The willingness/ability to eat can give us important information about how our dog is doing in certain situations.

Depending on the context, the solution here might be increasing distance, changing the food delivery method and/or teaching your dog to function in higher arousal.

Therefore:

Just because your dog refuses treats during training, it does not mean they are “not food motivated”.

Just because your dog is “picky” during mealtimes, it does not mean they are “not food motivated”.

Food motivation is a spectrum – depending on the breed and personality of the dog, they might need a different approach to help them eat in certain situations. Stay tuned for the next post where I’ll run through some strategies for building “food motivation”.

Trauma in animals

Nowadays it’s become very possible to say that someone is “traumatized” or “has PTSD” – both referring to people and to dogs – but it’s often not the case. In reality many “behavior problems” do not meet criteria of PTSD or other trauma related conditions. And it’s important to remember that while they might be scary or inconvenient to us, even severe behavior problems are an attempt at coping and they serve a function to the animal. 

Let’s have a look at what we know about trauma related problems in animals.

What are the possible consequences of trauma?

First of all, there is a whole range of reactions to traumatic events:

  • PTS (post-traumatic stress)/PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder),
  • phobias,
  • generalised anxiety disorder (GAD), and
  • depression.

It is estimated that 75% of people make full recovery after traumatic events. There is no data about non-laboratory animals, but a study done with laboratory rats showed a similar rate of recovery.

Phobias

Phobia is a profound, excessive, abnormal fear response that occurs out of proportion to the actual danger posed. Phobias are maladaptive, cause clinically significant distress or impairment in normal functioning (social and pleasurable activities) when the fearful stimulus is present or anticipated.

Generalized anxiety disorder

An animal suffering from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) will typically exhibit constant or near constant signs of fear and anxiety, regardless of the context or the stimuli to which the animal is exposed. Symptoms common in dogs with GAD are scanning the environment, vocalizing and tense/fearful body language such as alert ears, stiff body posture and tucked in tail. Those behaviors can become more intense in certain situations  but are present long-term.

Depression

Depression has been extensively studied in animals both in setting where they were exposed to acute stress and chronic stress. The behaviors exhibited by animals are considered analog to symptoms of human depression. Typically we’ll see withdrawal from activities the animal previously enjoyed (anhedonia), sleep disorders and decrease of investigative behaviors, movement and/or appetite.

PTSD

PTSD is one of the most severe outcomes of exposure to a severely aversive event.

For clinical diagnosis of PTSD in humans, several conditions have to be fulfilled:

  • there was a traumatic event in the patient’s history
  • the patient must exhibit a number of symptoms from each of the four clusters, and
  • the symptoms must be present for longer than 1 month.

The four clusters are:

  1. unwanted intrusions of memories of the traumatic event, often in the form of dissociation, flashbacks, and nightmares
  2. avoidance of anything reminiscent of the traumatic event
  3. negative changes in cognition and mood
  4. changes in arousal and reactivity, including hyperarousal symptoms such as hypervigilance and increased startle response

For animals there is no single model of PTSD that everyone agrees with, which is not surprising, since many PTSD symptoms are hard to study in animals.

Trauma-based approach to treatment

It’s important to differentiate between phobias, GAD, depression and PTSD because they require different treatment protocols.

However, there are some general principles that apply for all cases:

  • Take care of any existing health issues (treat/manage symptoms).
  • Have knowledge, understanding and empathy for the traumatic experience.
  • Have low expectations and be prepared to lower them.
  • Have patience and focus on your animal’s feelings, not actions. Trauma treatment is not training.
  • Create a safe environment, one that is consistent and predictable. Be a companion, not a captor.
  • Prevent re-traumatization. Build trust and resilience by providing choice and control.

Resources

Post inspired by the Control the Meerkat Conference: Trauma in Animals 2021, especially by Dr. Frank McMillan’s and Natalie Light’s presentations.

A must read: “Mental Health and Well-being in Animals”, ed. Frank McMillan, Boston 2020.

A case study: Drax’s Galactic Adventure

Aggression: the rat edition

Since we’re talking about aggression, I have to tell you about our rats. We’ve had the older trio for a year now and the young once arrived in the beginning of March. They could move into a shared cage after two weeks and during that time we had opportunity to observe plenty aggressive behaviors (see video below).

The truth is that we know very little about the social life of rats. And whatever we do know is not 100% applicable to our situation because they looked either at wild rats, or laboratory rats. At the moment we have 6 rats and while we do let them out to roam for 2-3h a day, their territory is much more limited and they live in a much smaller group than wild rats.

What we do know is that rats – as opposed to dogs – do establish dominance hierarchies which are then maintained through a wide range of social behaviors (such as grooming, sharing (stealing :D) good), huddling, sleeping together, submissive posturing and marking). In this case it is also true that once stable relationships are established, the frequency of aggressive behaviors drops a lot.

At the same time, we probably don’t know more than we do just because our experience of the world is vastly different. Two crucial components for rat communication are vocalizations and olfactory communication – we simply can’t hear most of the sounds they make (the frequency is too high) and don’t even get me started on our sense of smell, or rather lack thereof.

Our rats met for two weeks only outside, first on a neutral territory (in the bathroom) and then in my room. We swapped the dirty bedding between their cages so that they could get used to each other’s scent.

And how did we know that they were ready to move in together?

  • the frequency of aggressive behaviors decreased (chasing, fighting, vocalizations, forced grooming etc.)
  • the young rats would come out of their hiding places much faster after conflicts
  • the young rats started eating when they were out with the old rats – after a while they started eating side by side (we scatter feed)
  • they all just started hanging out next to each other, on us and in the cages

One more important fact: during the two weeks no one ever got hurt! I admit it was hard to watch sometimes through the eyes of a dog trainer but I trusted a professional’s advice (Klikk patkányok/Sunny Side Dog Behavior) and there truly was no need whatsoever to intervene. After all aggressive behaviors are a natural part of communication – both in rats and in dogs.

Medication in behavior work

Even though the stigma surrounding psychotropic meds for humans has decreased in the past decades, many dog owners are still afraid of pharmacotherapy. They worry that medication will change their dog’s personality, turn their companion into a “zombie”. Many still believe that medication is a last result, but actually in some cases behavior modification can be quicker and more effective if it is paired with a medical intervention.

When should we consider using medication?

It makes sense to consider including drugs when the dog:

  • experiences a lot of fear, anxiety, and stress on a daily basis,
  • recovers very slowly after stressful events (days/weeks instead of minutes/hours),
  • does not respond to training: the condition either does not improve or even if one “problem” gets solved, another one pops up in its stead (for example the dog stops showing stereotypic behaviors but starts reacting aggressively to something).

What kinds of medication are out there?

There are two main medication groups:

  • “Maintenance” medication which works long-term. It usually takes several weeks before its effect can be observed. It is used when the triggers are frequent and unpredictable (for example the dog is terrified of traffic and the owners live in the city center).
  • “Situational” medication which starts working within a couple of hours. It is used when the triggers are rather rare and predictable (for example vet visits, fireworks).

What is the goal of pharmacotherapy?

Medication is used so that the dog:

  • is calmer and more balanced – the reactions to triggers are less intense and/or less frequent; everyday management is easier and more effective;
  • learns better, responds faster to behavior modification protocols;
  • feels better, because the underlying neurochemical imbalance is adressed;
  • recovers faster after stressful events.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Will the medication “cure” behavior problems?

NO, it won’t. Medication is practically always applied together with behavior modification protocols. It’s very rare that medication itself is enough.

Will the dog have to take medication for the rest of their life?

Just like humans this is an individual matter. Some stay on medication long-term, some can discontinue meds after a while. The start and discontinuation of pharmacotherapy must always be supervised by a veterinarian!

Why is the dosage so high?

Compared to human dosages it often seems like dogs are getting an extremely high dose of medication, but their metabolism is just much faster than ours – the active substance leaves their system much faster. Therefore, they need a higher dosage compared to the human one.

ATTENTION

  • Medication can only be prescribed by a veterinarian!
  • Pharmacotherapy requires regular check-ups!
  • Since animals can’t tell us how they are doing, finding and maintaining appropriate medication regimen can be tricky. The owner must watch their dog’s behavior closely!

Gomba is a charming dog with a lot of issues. Her owners first reached out to me because she was showing some concerning behaviors around guests. Unfortunately, over the following weeks we discovered that this was the least of her problems.

Gomba’s situation is an example of a perfect storm. She:

  • came from an impoverished environment
  • probably did not come in contact with people during the socialization period
  • might have a genetic predisposition (her mother was chained because she bit someone)
  • faced a host of medical issues (prolonged ear infection as a puppy, pseudopregnancy followed by an early spaying, allergies…)
  • fell victim to aversive training (alpha roll, flooding, corrections)

Her owners are some of the most dedicated people I know but it soon became clear that the issue was not the type or quantity of training we were doing.

We encountered all the signs that medication is necessary that I mentioned above:

  • Progress was slow and often as soon as we improved one problem, another one popped up (for example loose leash walking improved but she started barking as cyclists).
  • It was impossible to keep Gomba under threshold because we couldn’t avoid the two things that scared her the most: the staircase of the house and the buses on the nearby road (and people…).
  • A single incident was enough to set us back by weeks.

Eventually Gomba’s veterinarians prescribed her medication and her owners could relax a little:

  • The protocols we’ve been trying became easier to apply and more effective.
  • She can handle minor triggers much better.
  • When she does react, her reactions are less intense.
  • It’s easier to get her to disengage.
  • She can process stressful incidents without regressing.

ATTENTION! The medication is not a magic wand and it did not solve any of her problems. But it has allowed Gomba and her family to get out of crisis mode and start working on them.

 

Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 2

(Disclaimer: It is not my goal to diminish the problem. Aggressive behaviors are not acceptable in our society and showing them can have serious consequences for the dog and their owner, as well as for the victim. Living with an aggressive dog can also cause a lot of stress and anxiety for the owner. It might be a good idea to see a therapist yourself!)

“Aggression” is one of the most frequent reasons for seeking out professional help.  Basically, any strong reaction (barking, lunging, snapping) in any context can get labeled as “aggression” and people usually assume bad intent behind it. While some dogs certainly aim to bite, many – if not most – show aggressive behaviors simply in order to get more space. When dealing with any kind of problems, it is important to separate our narrative from the facts.

This post examines what aggression is and how it can be analyzed. Catch up on what aggression isn’t in part one.

two dogs snarling at each other over a toy Continue reading “Help, my dog is aggressive! Part 2”