May issue

May issue
May issue

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Help me overcome the scars of her past

In January, inspired by Dogs Today we proudly rescued a seven year old Miniature Schnauzer who had come from a puppy farm. She was with the rescue for six months before we adopted her and is still very shy. When I stroke her she sometimes licks her feet - is this a sign that she is stressed or that she is enjoying it? She does not run off when we do stroke her so I am hoping it is a soothing action but cannot find any information online to confirm and do not want to do it if she does not like it.

Secondly, we would like to give her some basic training for her safety such as sit, wait and lie down. However using the traditional sit training method standing over the dog holding something in your hand so they look up and automatically sit - as she is frightened of people and has been mistreated in the past she understandably does not like people standing over her - does anyone have other ways in which I can train these basic commands in a non domineering and gentle way?

Zoe Scotton, via email

Karen Wild, behaviourist advises:

Often a dog that is mildly uncertain will engage in a displacement activity such as licking themselves. It is not necessarily a sign of great stress but I think you have a good rapport with her and can see that it is a coping mechanism for her. She is probably not used to being handled but often, touch can calm both us and a dog. Why not consult with a T Touch practitioner who can help you with calming touches for her? In this way you both benefit.

It might be that she needs to learn that hands are always kind – that they always have something tasty in them no matter how they move or where they go. I would spend a few days or longer just holding smelly food she loves in your hand. Get her to follow your hand as she sniffs. If you can get her to move her head, progress to luring her round in a circle. This may help. Alternatively, get a very quiet, gentle clicker (or muffle one in your pocket) and as she sits naturally, click, then treat her. Keep doing this every time she sits without you trying to prompt her (known as free-shaping). She will learn that by placing her bottom on the floor, something good follows from you (after the click has alerted her to this!). Eventually, add a ‘Sit’ vocal instruction to pair the movement with your cue. This is a very rewarding process and will give her the confidence to try things out for herself.


  1. I also have a very nervous dog who licks his feet and bites his legs, I think it's a distraction technique, he wants the fuss but isn't truly comfortable, I think he's waiting for the slap or kick which was his usual previous contact with humans. I taught him to sit, lie down etc by sitting down myself and holding a treat above his nose until he naturally sat to receive it, then told him 'Good Boy'. Sitting down is less threatening than standing over him. Your dog will come to trust you in time, when she knows you won't hurt her. It takes a lot of patience and gentle handling and quiet voices, but she will bond to you and in a year or so you'll be suprised how far you've come. I wish you the best of luck

  2. Robert Stuhldreer23 February 2012 at 01:25

    Hi there
    Firstly well done for taking on a rescue dog. I wish more people would be as considerate.
    Re: the issues you are facing.
    May I make a few suggestions?
    I would recommend, in the first instance, that you take your dog to the vets. The vet should be able to make an assessment as to whether there are any underlying physical or possibly psychological reasons as to why your girl may be acting in the way she does.
    I would also strongly recommend that you enroll in a dog training school. This can be great for socialisation, both for you and your dog. Ask local dog owners/walkers or your vet for a good trainer/dog school.
    It might also be worth your while contacting the Schnauzer Breed Club...I'm sure that they'll be listed on the Kennel Club website. They might be able to give you a breed specific insight and tell you whether the behaviour your girl is exhibiting is peculiar to her or might be breed specific.
    Any training should be through positive re-enforcement (reward based)and never punitive. All dogs thrive through this method of training.
    Hope this helps. Please let us know how you get on. Regards Robert Stuhldreer

  3. When you stroke a dog, you're acting out their grooming process, it's possible that she's joining in. If it's only sometimes, it's probably ok. If she's licking the bottom of her feet, it's also possible something could be irritating her paws. Carpet powders, floor cleaners etc. can do this, so check her pads regularly to rule this out. If on the other hand she's licking incessantly, this could be a sign of stress and you should avoid turning it into a habit. Some frustrated dogs have been known to lick themselves raw and this can be distressing for both dog and owner. It should be obvious to see the difference between a little grooming and obsessive licking. Don't try anything corrective until you have fully earned her trust and even then, a simple redirection should be all you'd need.

    Regarding training, the most important lesson to teach a dog is recall, as long a you can call her back to you, away from any dangers, you can relax with most of the rest. Lack of basic recall is probably the most dangerous trait in the parks to date and could lead to fines if someone were to believe she was 'dangerously' out of control. The word 'dangerously' is being expanded and only needs to be a perceived threat, not an actual one.

    To teach 'sit' in this instance, I would probably begin from her level. Try holding the treat in a closed hand in front of her to sniff, as she does, gradually raise your hand up and over her head. This should make her begin to back up (sniffing, not fearful) and hopefully her bum will begin to go down (to avoid walking into anything). Stop if anything in her body language indicates fear or worry. This may take a while at first, but she should eventually sit. Reward her the second her bum hits the floor.

  4. dogs read body signals as much as verbal commands. It sounds like you are being very gentle with her, and that is what she needs, but clear messages are really important. My advice (I've always rescued, I'm not a trainer but both of mine came from puppyfarms) keep doing what you are doing. Start by training her to sit, while you are also sitting next to her. Get down low. She won't mind. Wait for her to come to you looking for something to do, hide a bit of food in your hand to get her curious, let her take her time. Give her the treat all the time at first and don't ask her to do anything. Second day, do the same, let her come to you but give her a physical indication, by putting her body in a sit, then give it to her and just repeat. I know I'm probably preaching to the converted, but every success must be rewarded. Never punish, never raise your voice, never over demand. She'll come around. I've had my oldest for a year and I've only just let him off the lead, only just started doing real training with him. It just takes time. With the licking, I'd suggest it's a nervous reaction, just gently put your hands over her paws so she can't lick, every time you stroke her. give her loads of tidbits while you are stroking her. Always let her come to you. Confidence takes time, she will eventually come around. Is there another dog in the house? they learn from each other really well. I would always say they are better in twos. Maybe you;d like to consider rehoming another small dog that has some skill and has lived in a home before. they can learn together. Just some thoughts. Hang in there, she will come around. They will always have scars but they do come around to bonding and loving and trusting you.

    1. Hi, thank you for the advice. She has a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel to keep her company who we have had since a puppy so training him was relatively straight forward and has taught us a lot about supportive positive training. He is teaching her that we are 'safe' people and we are seeing progress every day we just want to make sure we are doing the right things for her. Thanks again, zoe

  5. With rescue dogs it is best to keep a calm quiet approach and try not to think of what may have happened in the past as your reaction to this may only enforce the fear. Calm quiet consistent. Positive quiet reward and patience. The quickest way for a dog to get over a fear of what may have happened in the past is to not be reminded of it in what you do (if that makes any sense) in a similar way as you would not over fuss your dog if it has a fear of fireworks as this only confirms to them that they have something to be afraid of. In time they will come to learn that they have nothing to be afraid of with you.

  6. Dear Zoe,

    firstly bless you for giving this girl the home she deserves after the life she's had. I work as a Dog Behaviour Consultant and have fostered many 'ex' puppy farm breeding dogs. I wear the proud badge of 'failed fosterer' as i ended up adopting two of them. Puppy farm breeding dogs have spent all their lives in horrific conditions with very minimal human contact and no familiarisation with the outside world so understandably when they are rescued they are terrified of just about everything. It is always best to rehome an ex puppy farm dog into a home where there is another gentle resident dog/dogs as canine companionship is all they have known and the presence of another dog is almost a 'safety blanket' for them.
    The most important thing that these dogs need is TIME. Give them space allow them to realise for themselves that they are under no threat. Don't pressure them to 'perform' if they are not ready so in the beginning very little eye contact and just now and again a gentle 'good girl/boy' then look away again. Having a crate in your home that you can cover over and make into a nice safe warm 'den' for them helps too as that gives them somewhere they can take 'flight' to and just sit and watch in safety.
    You have come a long way already if your girl is sitting with you for cuddles :) so well done!
    If there are no underlying medical issues for her paw licking and it's not 'obsessive' then i wouldn't worry about it. She obviously feels relaxed enough that she can tend to her own needs while you're stroking her. If it is constant then don't draw attention to it by speaking and telling her to 'stop'. Just gently lay your hand over her paws or give her something else she can lick.
    As for the 'training' .. that will come. Wait until she trusts you enough that standing over her isnt a problem, you can also teach her to 'sit', 'down' and recall while you are sitting on the floor so less threatening. Reward with gently praise and a treat when she does what you ask her to do and make it a 'good' treat, a piece of cheese or sausage. Something of 'high value' that she will really want to work for.
    I would not take her to training classes until she is more confident as putting her into a situation where there are other humans and dogs could set things back. Wait till she trusts YOU and then slowly familiarise her to other things gradually.
    Always use kind positive training methods and be patient, she will get there.
    If you would like any more help or advice then please do get in touch I would be more than happy to help a fellow fosterer/rescuer of puppy farm dogs :)

    Carmen Cole

  7. Wow - Thanks all for comments so far! She has been to the vets for full check up and no issues there and she is licking the top side of her feet not her paws so I am hoping it is her doing a little self grooming as well. In relation to dog training classes, this would be too much for her at the moment she is very nervous around people she does not know and being surrounded by them and lots of dogs would be overwhelming for her. Going down to her level is a great idea thank you for that I will give it a go.

  8. As a part of a small rescue, I have fostered a lot of damaged dogs and before I worry about any kind of training, I work on there confidence. I make sure I project relaxed, kindly leadership. I go against my instincts and do not give sympathy when the dog is stressed, but tell him or her that they are just fine and distract them with a toy or food. It takes time, but in my experience, when they start to depend on me and trust me, training becomes easier. Any repetitive behaviour, I again try distract away from as like any habit, it can become a problem. Bones, filled Kongs, throwing a toy, anything really to take there mind off it. Good luck, I am always amazed by the ability of dogs to turn there lives around and not dwell on the past, they do get reminded sometimes. But I have had very similar dogs to how your describe your boy and after they have learned to trust one person, they gradually learn to trust others too. Good luck x

  9. Hello, If your dog only does the licking when you are stroking her I would not worry about it. If on the other hand she does it often and nibbles/licks away at the same area it could be a sign of discomfort elsewhere in her body or even boredom. As long as she has not made the area which she licks sore and this action continues to be in the main restricted to having a fuss I don't think it is a cause for concern.
    I'm no expert though, just a dog owner the same as you.If it continues to cause you concern I would advise you to look on the Kennel Club website for a Schnauzer breeder and ring them for advice.
    In relation to training her basic obedience if the dog is hand shy I suggest using a Clicker. It's used in conjunction with food rewards and dogs catch on fast. Clickers come with instructions on how to use them, but in addition to this I suggest you do a you-tube search for demonstrations by handlers on how to use them before starting, or contact a dog trainer in your area who teaches using this method. I could go into detail of "How" to use it here but it would be to long and drawn out, plus watching how to do it rather than reading how to do it is far easier and more interesting. Good luck with your dog. :-)

  10. Hi Zoe,

    Not sure if you'll have seen the message I left on Facebook:

    Where is she based? I would be happy to offer some 1-2-1 training at no charge to help her if she's in my local area :)

    I'm in the Bristol area - let me know :)



  11. Hi, I too have a miniature schauzer dog who is just over 6 years old now. I was drawn to your post as you describe your dog licking her feet. This is exactly what my dog does!

    He has only done it for the last 18 months, and it started when he had a problem eating a while back. A full check up at the vets gave him the all clear and we're still not sure what the problem was, however he has continued the licking. He doesn't do it all the time, but for him it is triggered by him eating his dinner and is something that has obviously become a habitual thing from him. I have regularly checked his legs for mites, skin problems etc and there is nothing there so have come to the conclusion that it is just a habit for him.

    He was, and continues to be a happy go lucky little dog, that has his days filled with company, play and the occasional agility class... so it isn't unhappiness that triggers the licking. I'm guessing that perhaps something in your dog's past has acted as a trigger too?

    Your little dog is very lucky to have you and I wish you all the best with her training. I know you'll both be brilliant :)

  12. I've had two rescues and used Bach Flower Remedies Star of Bethlehem for all the nasty things that may have happened in the past and Walnut for change of environment. You can buy both bottles and mix one of your own using two drops from each bottle into a mixing bottle. Then use 4 drops at least 4 times a time. It is not the quantity but the frequency of giving Bach remedies. I know many people who have had success with Bach remedies. Launch the remedy chooser to help you choose any other remedies you think might benefit.

  13. Zoe - why not look at 1-2-1 training in your local area? Lots of us provide that service for nervous or aggressive dogs who can't be in a training class situation.

  14. in response to the training arm yourself with a clicker. stand some distant from the dog and throw treats on the floor, each time she eats the treat use the clicker. the dog will start to associate the clicker with something pleasant, most dogs look up to the owner when the treats stop coming, if she does that click and treat. you can then start introducing the word watch. as soon as you have mastered the watch you should then be able to go on to sit down etc, but take it slowly, dont expect miracles, you will eventually be able to do everything with the dog. I would reccomend takeing the dog to dog training classes, this will boost her self esteem and her confidence, only use rewards and no punishment, if her behaviour is naughty ignore it but always reward the behaviour that you want.

  15. Olwen Turns MAPDT -

    I haven't read through the other replies I'm afraid so sorry if I repeat advice.

    Start hand feeding her, every meal if possible but one meal a day at least, asking nothing of her other than to be able to approach you. Sit on the floor so that you are at her level and not being looming and scary. You can do this for training too.

    Progress to a clicker, if she finds the noise to be too much try using a pen or a low quiet whistle, or a word that means "you got it".

    If you haven't got a good, APDT UK or INTODogs trainer or behaviourist in your area who can do one to one training with you then I suggest that you invest in the online training or the DVDs available from Sarah Whitehead or Jean Donaldson's book "train your dog like a pro" which comes with a free DVD too.

    You are welcome to contact me (via my website) for more advice or for a referal to a local trainer.

  16. I don't use a food lure to teach a sit. I simply wait for the dog to sit, mark it (I use a clicker, or you can say YES), then toss a treat so that the dog has to get up to get it. Then I wait for her to sit again, mark, and toss a treat. Rinse and repeat. At some point the dog thinks, "Hey, you are rewarding me for sitting," and starts to offer them on purpose. Once you are sure that the dog is aware of what she's doing, you start saying "sit" and/or giving a hand signal just as she's starting to lower herself. In this way, you can teach the cue in minutes without having to use any body movements that can make her nervous.

  17. As others have said, well done for taking on a rescue dog :) Although your dog clearly has some things to overcome, you should find the experience very rewarding as you see her gain trust.

    With regard to the foot licking, as you've had a vet check and got the all clear, I would hazard that this is a displacement behaviour - i.e a natural behaviour but seemingly out of context. This may be her way of distracting herself and feeling more comfortable - my dog tends to choose to lick her genitals when she's had enough of being fussed. It's quite handy to recognise these signals as it can help you to understand your dog, and back off when she's feeling less than comfortable.
    With regards to training, I also have a very nervous rehome. Building of confidence has helped no end, along with a strengthening of the trust she has for me - i.e not pushing her too fast or too far, but working within her emotional limits. Short training sessions are probably best, only a few minutes - leave her wanting more!! Also, it's probably enough for her brain to cope with. Make the training very easy for her to succeed at - this should help build her confidence no end. For the 'sit' training in particular, I totally agree with those who have suggested that you bring yourself down to her level as yes, from her eyes someone towering above her probably is a bit disconcerting. You can gradually increase the criteria as she grows to trust you and enjoy the training, but at her pace. Clicker training has worked incredibly well with my sensitive dog - if you can get hold of a copy of Karen Pryor's Clicker Training for Dogs (available cheaply second hand on the net), this is a fantastic book which is explained in a very user friendly way.
    Lastly, as your dog doesn't like approaches so much and is nervous, I would suggest that if she's uncomfortable taking treats from your hand, or from anyone elses, that the treat is dropped on the floor away from you/other person, so that you're not pressurising her to go beyond what she's comfortable with by having to take it from someone's hand.
    Good luck with her, I'm sure you have many great times ahead :)

  18. I have written a couple of articles that appeared in a dog training magazine here in the U.S., and I would be very happy to share them with you. I work a lot with very fearful dogs, including puppy mill dogs and semi-feral dogs. I adopted a semi-feral, highly traumatized puppy mill dog myself, so I know how difficult it can be. If you'd like me to send you the articles, just email me at rise @ (without the spaces). Others in a situation similar to yours have found the articles helpful, so that's why I'm offering it to you.

  19. If you've only had her for a few weeks, I really wouldn't worry about training just yet - you have her lifetime ahead of you for that :)

    The first thing you really need to do with her, is to build confidence, especially around her family, once she is more comfortable with you, the rest will fall into place.

    I seem to have picked up a penchant for 'troubled' dogs, my latest addition is a (now) 17 month old non-working sheepdog. He came to me at 10 months old, practically scared of his own shadow, and with time, patience, positive training, and understanding he's now starting to shine - just last week he passed his Association of Pet Dog Trainers' Foundation Award with flying colours.

    I think, what Inka has taught me, is the importance of finding what your dog really enjoys, and using that to your advantage. Inka adores agility, we started classes about a month after he came home, it was almost as if his 'obedience' training kicked in & he realised why we were doing "boring" things, once that'd happened, he really started to shine.

  20. i have three rescues each came with different problems the last one was very badly beaten among other things he was hand shy i got him out of that by scratching him under the chin it gets them to hold their heads up it seems to give them confidence and trust it will make training her a little easier having another dog in the house helps i wouldnt swap any of mine for anything it can take a little longer with rescues thats what makes them special all your tlc will pay off and youll be so proud the day she sits in front of you i wish you loads of luck and many happy years together