When could aversive tools be an option? At my last straw


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I have a 6.5 year old Shepherd-y mutt that I adopted at 10 months. He's been extremely fearful and anxious since he was 1, and we've been working with an IAABC behaviorist for the last 2 years.

I've moved from an apartment, to a townhome, to a detached home just to help his intense noise sensitivity and anxiety. I've spent thousands of dollars on medication, house adjustments (window film everywhere, ring doorbells, taller fences for the backyard), vet work, virtual and in person force-free trainers, plus the behaviorist and he is still sensitive to the slightest sound outside. His threshold has improved only slightly despite trialing 3 different SSRIs + situational meds. He lunges, barks, and screams when he sees any dog or human when we're outside for training and/or exercise.

He's never bitten someone. His life is so meticulously managed that I make sure he's never put in a situation where a bite can happen, but I'm not certain he wouldn't bite if that weren't the case.

The problem: he's such a good boy in the house--if you ignore the screaming-barking when car doors shut or dogs walk by. He's never once had an accident inside in the time I've owned him, he's incredibly smart (we did barn hunt and obedience before his reactivity and anxiety got severe), not destructive at all, and he's so so sweet to me.

But I'm exhausted. I don't know how much longer he and I can keep living like this. I firmly follow LIMA methods, but if my options are between BE and introducing a bark or e-collar, am I justified in using aversive tools? Will that help at all or am I just putting another bandage on the mess of his brain?

Maybe I just need someone to tell me I've done enough for him lol but I'm really going through it right now. Support or advice would be greatly appreciated.
@air%C5%8D The fact that you said his anxiety has gotten more severe (unless you haven’t mentioned in your story that he has suffered some traumas since you started training him) makes me thing that he can’t help it, like in the neurological sense.

My dog made huge improvements and in her last years got more and more paranoid over the span of 2 years before suddenly dying from inexplicable causes (vets only saw her post mortem, unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances we couldn’t get an actual necropsy) and vets deemed it likely a brain thing. Yes, she had blood work ups yearly. A friend who went through something similar discovered post mortem that the dog had a brain tumor.

Not saying your dog is going to drop dead. But in the event that they, like I suspect my dog did, have something degenerative, it would be really unproductive and unfair to try and correct a brain issue out of him.

I’m saying all this as an anecdote, and in retrospect. I was torn wide open when she passed away, it took me over a year to come around to the idea that maybe she was given exactly as much time as she was intended to have.
@air%C5%8D Hmm this sounds like the ideal question to ask the IAABC behaviorist you’ve been working with for the last two years.

IMO if you think he is a potential bite risk, then I don’t think aversive tools would be the way to go. The makers of those tools caution against their use with aggressive, anxious, and fearful dogs and do so for a reason.

Are you able to onboard any additional help to ease the pressure on you? A walker or sitter?
@joshuawithmartin I'm honestly worried she'd judge or really disapprove of me if I bring it up, but you're definitely right and I'm going to ask during my next appointment.

I'm not sure if introducing a sitter or walker would be helpful because of how explosive and lingering his reactions to strangers are. I haven't had guests over in years because even if he's crated or loose in my room with a high value, long-lasting chew, he's still pacing and screaming his head off until it sounds like he goes hoarse. He's a lot of dog to handle, especially when we're out of the house so I'd feel bad putting someone else through that.
@air%C5%8D I think if you’re open with her and bring up the things you’ve mentioned here and how you’re struggling, she might value you coming to her and wanting to talk and discuss. I imagine if you just maybe went ahead with using aversives without telling her or ghosting her she might be quite sad.

Not that that is a factor in your decision making but just in terms of her perspective and to say that she might actually really appreciate you coming to her and that it might not be something to dread!

Edit: just wanted to add that she might be the person to ask about finding a behavior walker or sitter so you can get some relief!
@air%C5%8D It sounds like you're really burned out. Having a reactive dog is tough and just so exhausting. You never get a chance to fully relax.

I think everyone else has covered why you shouldn't use any aversives so I just want to encourage you to reach back out to the trainer. Be honest about how you're feeling, what you're capable of taking on right now as far as additional training, and what would have the biggest impact on your own quality of life.. For me, just having some sort of plan set by someone more knowledgeable was such a relief. You may also want to look into whether there's a veterinary behaviorist near you. Assuming you're in the US, look at the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists directory. They can help with medications and training together.

Also, try to give yourself a break. If you have a yard, skip going for walks for as long as you need. Just leave the house for a while so you don't have to hear his barking. You deserve a break.
@air%C5%8D You might be surprised about having a walker or sitter. Often dogs will present totally different behaviour with a new person than they do for their owner.

There is always an adjustment period when transitioning to a new environment where the practiced behaviour patterns are disrupted, and this can be a good opportunity to allow new habits to root.

Clearly for a reactive dog the new person needs to be experienced with reactivity and behaviourally aware.
@air%C5%8D If the person responsible for teaching you makes you feel judged for asking questions they are a bad teacher. You don't need to feel any guilt about asking questions to help you learn about a difficult process.
@air%C5%8D It likely won't help beyond a brief stoppage of the behavior. I've seen dogs who've had them used long term bark through the pain, despite receiving a high shock every time they continue to bark. Learned helplessness can also happen where a dog will just shut down because of the pain, and ultimately associating pain with barking is more likely to lead to a situation where he doesn't express a boundary appropriately potentially leading to bites with no warning.

Have you done any noise therapy with your dog? I would ask your behaviorist to look into some of the various sound therapy options that might work for you. Eileen Anderson just did a great webinar on sound therapy products, and it should be on her website for replay. I highly recommend it - it's suitable for owners, and avoids a lot of the crunch that you find in some of the ones more geared for trainers. She also offers a service to custom make sound therapy tracks through your trainer. I would see if your behaviorist would be willing to utilize that service with you.

I've had a high rate of success for situations like this using a combination of sound therapy, noise dampening panels, and white noise. The noise panels also help your neighbor hear less even if the reactions are still happening. It's not perfect, and unfortunately, inverse wave technology hasn't really hit mainstream availability yet, because that would be ideal.
@mango My biggest worry is my dog building a tolerance to the beep or shock and pushing through it so those are all good points. :/

I haven't done any official noise therapy with him but I am planning on signing up for the noise sensitivity course on Fenzi for the upcoming term. Right now I play a constant white noise video in the living room where he typically sleeps and chills while I'm working. I'll look into Eileen Anderson's webinar--thank you for mentioning it.
@air%C5%8D Yeah - and it's very common for very driven dogs to push through. It's not always building a tolerance so much as the behavior he's pushing through the aversive for is more rewarding than the pain is aversive. Usually it's a combination of the two, or the behavior has become a maladaptive coping method to sooth a deeper feeling.

Without evaluating you and your dog myself, I can't really do more than speculate and offer general advice. While I know a lot of people will argue that it's worth the risks of using pain and fear, I don't think it's ethical to put a dog in a situation where their way of navigating and coping with the world is suddenly adding pain to their life. The risks to the dog are just too high in terms of physical and mental damage.

What I can say is that for dogs who are going bonkers barking at every noise, it's usually driven by a need for whatever threat caused the noise to go away. It's self rewarding because after the noise happens, what ever caused the noise goes away - it's the same reason why it's so hard to train dogs to not bark at the mailman. The dog sees the mailman as a threat, barks until the mailman goes away, and because he still has work left to do, the mailman moves on reinforcing the dog that "if I bark, the scary thing goes away"

The noise sensitivity course looks great - I was considering doing that one too. My reactive senior is extremely noise sensitive, and he's the reason I specialize in reactivity as a trainer.

Eileen's service for creating noise tracks has been the biggest tool in my toolbox for noise sensitivity with my own dog, and I use it with clients too. She's helped me to get my senior to a point that he can cope with *most* noises heard from outdoors while he's inside, though there are a few (like the evil trashcan noises) we can't seem to train out fully, though he certainly reacts less than he did even a year ago .

The noise sensitivity course on Fenzi looks incredible too - I've taken a few of her other courses, and they've been great. I'm sure it's packed full of good information. Wishing you nothing but the best going forward, hang in there!
@mango Thanks for sharing this. I have a very noise sensitive guy. Although I'm still not sure what he is exactly sensitive too, half the time he is relaxing and then leaps up to bark his brains out when nothing is happening outside. But I'm guessing just working on some general noise desensitization and startle response would be beneficial.
@air%C5%8D No personal experience with this so take it with a grain of salt, but I am almost certain those tools would be a very bad idea for my fearful dog. He’s come leaps and bounds with us trust wise, and I’d be concerned he could redirect or start associating us or triggers with even more pain, anxiety, or discomfort.
@air%C5%8D I wonder if the dog needs a complete stop to training and minimal exposure for a while

The minimum walks you can manage and just chill and enrichment at home

It sounds like it is being constantly triggered and really needs months of calm

With just focus on noise desensitisation and confidence building at home

I would far rather try that than expose it to further negatives with avercives

I would discuss a managed stress break with your behaviourist.

Some dogs may just never need taken places and as long as they are calmer and enriched correctly at home they have a good quality of life
@air%C5%8D The balanced training crew will sling "death before discomfort" at situations like yours to justify using aversives to suppress behaviour just so you can say you've tried everything before considering euthanasia. But here's the thing, if the question is quality of life (QOL), then I think all you are doing is justifying reducing the QOL for the dog in order to improve potential wellness outcomes for the human handler. Aversive fallout is a very well documented risk, and why put your dog through the distress of punishment only to have to euthanise them anyway?

Even in studies with healthy/emotionally hardy dogs, where negative stimulus through leash correction, vibrating collar, or prong was introduced as a consequence when training obedience, they were shown to have increased latency to cue and reduced discretionary effort with learner motivation markers (wagging tails, loose body language, frequent engagement with handler) much lower in dogs where punishment was used vs positive reinforcement and errorless learning methods.

I strongly recommend discussing QOL with your IAABC professional, it can be so hard to broach the question "when is enough, enough?" but that is truly what they are here to help you unpack. Sending you a hug from an internet stranger, it's an awful thing to be going through but you sound like such a compassionate owner with so much care for your dog. Whatever you decide on at the end of the day I just know will be done with their best interests at heart.
@booboo222 This is definitely the kick in the ass I needed. I've been hesitant to truly dive into the QOL topic with my behaviorist because I think I'm going to get the answer I'm terrified of getting. No BE evaluation is black and white but I feel like it's another strand of difficult in this case because my dog hasn't actually bitten (yet?) and I don't feel like I'm in danger around him.

I appreciate you mentioning the studies. I've skimmed through a few of them in the past and it wouldn't be fair to do that to a scared dog, you're right.
@air%C5%8D I truly commend you for all you've done to help and accommodate for your dog. I wanted to add, just like your dog has a right to be happy and at peace, you have a right to be happy as well.