Sunday, March 18, 2012

Feeling Safe

Recently, I watched this YouTube video by Suzanne Clothierhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KwnSdvHI8mg that I think does a brilliant job of describing what we're up against with Finna. There are many things that frighten or did frighten her. Her fear has different levels of intensity.  At a low level of fear where Finna says "I'm uncomfortable with this" she can in fact habituate to whatever makes her uncomfortable. An example is dogs barking in the distance; this is something that used to worry her that now she is able to ignore.  At a medium level, think of it as Finna saying "that's scary" classical counter conditioning can work pretty well. The sound of the garage door was initially a frightening sound but now the sound of it opening predicts a scattering of kitty kibble and  her reaction to that sound isn't a panic attack but a beeline to the catfood bin. At a high level of fear "I'm so terrified I can't even think" the equation changes. If Finna feels terrified nothing is going to change. At that level she's too frightened/feels too unsafe for any learning to take place.

I've been struggling with ways to make my fearful Finna feel safe when my husband is moving around. It's no longer just him in general that is frightening for her it's him moving when she doesn't know where he's going or why. In the mornings when he has a very predictable routine she doesn't react fearfully, in fact she often doesn't even move from where she's sleeping. With his morning  routine she feels perfectly safe. It's in the evenings when he tends to wander from project to project depending on his mood or what he considers most important that she is terrified. She's willing to train with him and take treats if he's just sitting in fact she's becoming conditioned to him sitting being a sign that treats will be forthcoming. But even dropping a steady stream of high value treats while he walks around isn't enough to compensate for the terror she feels when he moves around in ways she can't predict/anticipate.

Things we've tried; maintaining one room of the house as off limits to husband so she has a safe territory; providing a crate as a safe place in her safe territory; acting as if we were body blocking him to show that we'll keep him back from her (that just persuaded her that he really is a threat); having him spend more time just sitting, shoveling treats, and watching TV (frustrating to an active man); having him play with her outside (she's a fetch fanatic) where she feels safer (she ignores him and brings the ball to someone else and if no one else is out there she takes the ball and hides it); calming signals (if she's scared enough she doesn't respond to them but they sometimes work if given early enough); allowing her to sit on my lap (this works for lower levels of fear but not when she feels like she has a gun pointed at her head); removing her from the house and playing ball with her outside while he does whatever he wants to do (this is management only but it does allow us all to live together).

This is a subject that really resonates with me right now and something that we're really struggling with.  We need to answer two questions. First, why is it that his unpredictable movement is so terrifying. I feel like if I could understand why it is terrifying I'd be in a better position to figure out ways to help her feel safe. It's very frustrating especially since much of the time when his movement panics her he's actually moving away from her. And second, and more importantly, how can we make her feel safe so that she can learn. So far we haven't been successful but that doesn't mean we're going to give up. It does mean we'll be spending a lot of time thinking about what being safe feels and looks like.

Here's Finna waiting for me to throw the ball again. Camera angle distorted her proportions.

Here's one that gives a better idea of how she's built. 

In both photos you'll notice she's very focused and poised to move in whichever direction I chuck the ball this time. 


  1. Something else we do is to sing to her since she likes music. She'll start barking and I'll start singing whatever nonsense comes to mind. Sometimes that helps. If the singing makes no difference I'll start blowing raspberries at her. For some reason this is often a distraction. If nothing else it makes my husband laugh.

  2. Hi Kat,

    Wasn't able to post using OpenID for awhile. Just wanted you to know we didn't stop reading your entries :-).

    Have you thought about using a behaviorist? I know you spoke with one when you first got Finna, but maybe a different perspective would be useful. I think you've done phenomenal progress with Finna, but new eyes couldn't hurt. Tip of your hat to your husband!


    1. I have a call in to the behaviorist again. She helped a lot last time so I'm looking forward to talking to her again.

      All credit to my husband; after a particularly bad evening I asked him if it was time for her to go. His reply was that he hates to give up on anything and she should stay.

      Thank you for your kind words. I'm very thankful for this place where I can vent and where there are those who encourage and support us in our effort to recover this badly damaged dog.

  3. Meant, "tip of my hat".