For the final thesis, ISCP students have the choice of writing about a particularly interesting case study, or an aspect of behaviour, or a research project. Briana Van Dongen, who graduated in Canada today, chose a case study and has given permission for this to be shared.
EMOTIONAL COMMUNICATION AND CALM GUIDANCE: Case Study
Briana Van Dongen
Family’s details (removed for privacy)
Mixed Breed: Javanese/Shih tzu X Yorkshire Terrier
Rehomed August 6, 2016
Previously lived with 11 cats & 1 elderly shepherd mix
Solo caregiver; passed away end of July 2016
Never let outside the home prior to surrendering
Surrendered to kennel July 2016
Neutered in kennel; stayed in kennel 1 week, then rehomed
10-20 minute walks, 3-5 times per day = At 8am, 12pm, 3pm, 6pm, 10pm
Free feeder – Acana Dry Kibble – minimal table scraps
Sleeps in bed with daughter
Will not toilet in backyard; must leave home to do so
Previous conditions: toileted in 1 large cat litter with 12 others
Barking incessantly when someone is at the door
No apparent separation anxiety
Aloof with in-home guests
Fearful of strangers on walks; will bark and lunge
Fearful of some dogs on walks; will bark and lunge
Table of Contents
Case History Form …………………………………………………………………………………… pg. 2
- First Visit: November 29, 2016 ………………………………………………………….. pg. 4
- Results from the Doorbell Drill ……………….…………………………….… pg. 6
- Following Murphy’s Lead ………………………………………………………… pg. 7
- Second visit: December 28, 2016 ……………………………………………………….. pg. 8
- Third (and final) Visit: January 3, 2017– Behavioural Results …………… pg. 9
- My “ah-ha” moment! …………………………………………………………………….…. pg. 10
- Appendix A: Exercises Provided After First Visit …………………………….. pg. 11
- Appendix B: Exercises Provided After Second Visit …………………………. pg. 13
- References ………………………………………………………………………………….……. pg. 15
1.0 First visit: November 29, 2016
I had known very little about Murphy, prior to entering the family’s home. I was told that he was a recent rescue, no prior physical abuse, and was fearful of strangers.
Upon arrival, I rang the bell and there came “Murphy the Terror”, running up and barking very enthusiastically. You could hear the high pitch shouts of excitement, intermixed with the low grunts of fear and warning (Rugass, 2008). Shortly after, Barb entered the foyer and picked up Murphy, holding him as she answered the door. Murphy’s excited bark grew into a low, protective, growl.
I entered the foyer, curving away from Murphy and Barb while avoiding eye contact. I turned my back to them, and calmly removed my coat. At this time, Barb had let Murphy go, as he was now quiet. He ran over to me and jumped up, standing on me and eyeballing, with a low murmuring growl escaping his lips. I, again, turned my back to him and crossed my arms over my chest. I then walked over to Barb, to greet her. At this time Murphy had then retreated off to the side, and was now growling at me from the office. Without looking in his direction, I tossed a treat off into the office and walked down the hall to the back sitting room, to greet the rest of the family. Barb assured me that Murphy would not eat that treat, as he cannot even manage to eat a table scrap in the presence of strangers. Just as she turned to say this, a very relaxed Murphy was eating his treat and trotting off ahead of us, into the family room.
As I entered behind Murphy, I made sure to walk on the opposite side of the room, finding my way to my seat. I avoided eye contact, sat very still and calm, completely ignoring Murphy and his nervous antics. We began to chat, very casually, about Murphy’s previous circumstances. I was informed that he was one of two dogs, in his previous home; the other dog being an elderly shepherd mix. There were also eleven cats in the apartment. The dogs were never let outside, as they were in a 4th floor apartment; and Murphy was toileting in the litter box with the other animals. The previous owner was described as an elderly woman, who had been a hoarder; meaning that her apartment was very cluttered, with virtually no room to sit or move around. She sadly passed away at the end of July, and that was the reason for Murphy’s surrendering.
Within ten minutes, Murphy was fast asleep, lying on his side, in the middle of the sitting room. The Kufskes were shocked! For the first time, Murphy was relaxed in the presence of a stranger. They had been so focused on me, that they hadn’t fussed over Murphy to “calm him”. They had ignored his anxious pacing, and we had given him the distance that he had needed, so he settled. We then chatted about what it meant to show calm affection and how approaching from the head was seen as confrontational, not affectionate. We discussed how to read his body language and what different methods of calming signals we could use with Murphy; as discussed in Turid Rugass’s 1997 book, On Talking Terms With Dogs” Calming Signals. The identified calming signals include head turning, eye softening, turning away, tongue flicking and nose licking, freezing or moving slowly, play-bowing, siting, lying down, yawning, sniffing, curving away, splitting up and using body barriers, and lastly tail-wagging. To help teach Murphy to relax, I asked that the family keep their voice soft and low, move slowly, praise gently, and to just relax in his presence, releasing the notion that Murphy is a rescue; he is adopted and holding him to his past state was counter-productive (Tenzin-Dolma, 2011). All these things will help in the long run. The family was very open-minded and receptive to my suggestions. They were keen on doing anything it takes to help Murphy in his recovery.
We then switched gears, and entered the foyer to practice answering the door. Murphy followed us into the front room, and as we chatted I slowly lowered myself onto the ground. I explained to the family what “good door manners” are, for both Murphy and “us”. I explained that Murphy barks for acknowledgement; it is in actuality a call for help, asking someone to come and take control of the situation. Therefore, we must first acknowledge Murphy, to assure him that we have heard his plea for help. It is important not to reassure Murphy in this nervous state by holding him or giving him lots of extra attention; which is how the family has dealt with this situation in the past. I explained that holding Murphy takes away his option of retreat, and Murphy will have no choice but to growl and lunge at the oncoming fear. I also explained how coddling Murphy in his nervous state, confirms that his fears are legitimate, and he would not develop coping mechanisms as a result (Tenzin-Dolma, 2010).
I asked that upon the ringing of the doorbell, that the family walk calmly to the door, step in between Murphy and the door while holding their hand as a stop sign above his nose for a few seconds, and firmly saying “Thank you”, to Murphy (Rugass, 2008; McConnell, 2001). Murphy will instinctively back away from the door when we step in between him and the door. If he has not retreated, I asked that the family simply take a step forward; dogs naturally herd one another by imposing their bodies in the direction of travel. By calmly leading and imposing with our whole body, it is much more effective at redirecting a dog when compared to being physically pushy with our hands (McConnell, 2001). After saying, “Thank you”, accompanied with a stop hand, the second Murphy stopped barking, the next step was to reward him. I have asked that the family toss the treat into the front office; this room is his “safe zone” and contains his bed (the family previously informed me that the office is his preferred area to lounge when company is over). This way Murphy is encouraged through reward, to cease barking and retreat into his safe zone. I asked that the family also refrain from disturbing Murphy when he is in his bed, as it is important to keep this space as his sanctuary, to allow him to relax and self-soothe. It also allows him to view the entering guests from afar, which will in turn help to associate a calm state with entering company, and further reward this.
As we chatted, I could see out of the corner of my eye that Murphy was slowly coming my way, to check me out. I kept the family chatting, as to not draw attention to Murphy, and so that the family reacting would not induce anxiety in Murphy. I received a gentle and polite nose touch to my knee, and I presented my hand very low and slow. I then calmly raised my hand to shoulder height, and gently stroked Murphy on the side of the shoulder and allowed him to sniff my hand, as I cooed “good boy” to him. Within minutes, I had a very relaxed Murphy, snuggled up against me; and I had a very shocked Kufske family.
1.1 Results from the Doorbell Drill
I had each family member take turns ringing the doorbell & entering calmly, as well as answering the door and working with Murphy. I instructed the family to ensure that they use themselves as a body barrier between Murphy and his source of anxiety. Stepping in front will naturally make Murphy retreat, and to reward a non-barking and calm state. Upon the “thank you” acknowledgement, Murphy stopped barking, was immediately tossed a treat, and the door was answered while Murphy was distracted. In fact, the other family member was able to enter before Murphy was done his treat, and he was much calmer upon greeting as he was able to approach on his own terms. Within half an hour Murphy was getting the hang of it. We had him at the point where he was only barking once or twice per doorbell ring, and was completely relaxed and even lounged on the carpet while people shuffled in and out. This was definitely an improvement!
We then took a play break for Murphy, and I used this time to talk with the family about methods of building trust and the specifics of Murphy’s personality. I discussed that since Murphy is naturally introverted he will be slow-to-warm-up with new people. Also, because he does not have a strong social background, this makes him much more cautious and fearful of meeting new people and pups. Murphy naturally retreats when meeting a new being, (all animals will choose conflict avoidance first, as it is an energetic waste to be constantly fighting with others), however when on-leash this option of flight is taken away from him. I explained how leashing Murphy and then walking head-on towards his fear would inadvertently induce a fight response (McConnell, 1998). He has no choice but to bark and lunge towards his fear source. From Murphy’s perspective, when they hold him or leash him (in the home or on walks) as he is meeting new people or dogs they are actually forcing him into a stressful situation in which his only “out” is aggression. If you are fearful of something, from Murphy’s perspective, you move away.
- Following Murphy’s Lead
When on a walk, the second a stranger or dog is seen, I advised the family to proceed as outlined in McConnell’s books Fiesty Fido: Help for the Leash-Reactive Dog & The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fears. First, calmly cross the street while casually saying, “Come along”. At the first sight of calm behaviour, Murphy is to be treated along with a “good boy” or other words of affirmation. I advised that the family does not expose Murphy to unnecessary stressors; moving far enough away to be able to communicate effectively and reward the calm state. For the first week or so, I suggested that the family cross the street every time someone new approaches, whether Murphy seems anxious or not. If crossing the street is not a viable option, however, turning around and walking away or exiting to the closest driveway and distracting with a “sit” and a treat, will suffice. The goal with this exercise is to first build trust with Murphy. Over the course of the week all stress triggers should be avoided. This will reinforce that Murphy can trust Barb to take him on a calm, safe walk. And treating all signs of calm behaviour will reinforce these behavioural choices as well.
In the second week (if Murphy was ready), I advised Barb to only cross the street when Murphy was exhibiting anxious body language. Since Murphy does not always become anxious when passing people or dogs, and sometimes enjoys saying hello, I did not want to take positive social interactions away from him. This exercise will also say to Murphy that he can trust Barb to keep him safe. Every time he has a nervous trigger, she will calmly walk away or cross the street. Thus, removing any danger he feels is imminent. As soon as his body language relaxes again, Barb is to reward him. I reminded the family to always have treats when on walks; it is important to keep Murphy motivated so that he can continue to learn (Donaldson, 2012). As the laws of learning dictate, rewarded behaviour repeats itself, ignored behaviour stops, and variable rewards strengthen the behaviour when a behaviour is in place (Dennison, 2011).
Please refer to Appendix A for a list of the exercises that were provided for the weeks following the first appointment.
2.0 Second visit: December 28, 2016.
Since my last visit, there had been a new development… Murphy had bitten their daughter (Lauren) on the cheek.
It is very common for Murphy to lounge on the couch between Barb and Lauren in the evening. When they are relaxing all together, it is apparently also common for family members to come very close (face-to-face) with Murphy and give him a “cuddle” or “hug”. Additionally, it is also common that Murphy will growl at these family members, upon which Barb will scold him for growling, and the “hug” will proceed anyways. The evening of the “incident” was under similar circumstances. Murphy was sleeping on the couch beside Barb, Lauren came face-to-face with Murphy and squealed “Oh Murphy I love you so much!”. When she went to hug him, he nipped her on the cheek. The skin did not break, there was no bruising (he clearly used bite inhibition), but the family was all very shocked and horrified. Unfortunately, this meant that Barb and the family now believed they could never fully trust Murphy.
I gently discussed with Barb that when Murphy is cuddling with her on the couch, he is deeming that space as his “safe-zone”. Although it makes him feel comfortable to be close to Barb, he does not necessarily want to be approached or have stimulation in the form of physical affection. I also explained that Murphy growling in this situation was his way of asking for his personal space to be respected. A growl is a warning sign, a form of vocal communication. When it is punished you take away the warning sign; removing his ability to communicate. Murphy has learned that he is not allowed to growl, yet his personal space is not being respected; his only option left is to make you back off, with a nip.
In response to this issue, the family and I created some “house rules”. I asked that Murphy not be allowed on the couch. The couch is a public relaxing space; if he cannot relax in public then he needs to have a private area. Instead of allowing him to make the couch his “safe-zone”, we will create one for him.
Another issue that was raised was that Murphy follows Barb around the house, and tends to be “under-foot” most of the time. It both worries and annoys Barb that she is constantly tripping over Murphy. It appears that Murphy feels unsettled in the house. I believe this is due to a lack of “safe zones” in and around the home. This in turn adds to Murphy’s hyperactivity and barking. I had the family place 3 extra beds in various areas of the house. The first bed was placed next to the couch in the family room, one in the dining room; one remained in the office (where he spends most of his day), and finally one upstairs outside the master bedroom.
I asked that every time Barb enters into a different room, that she simply tosses a treat or food morsel into the bed and carry on with her routine. I also asked that all family members adhere to the “safe zone” rules: which is that no one is to interact with Murphy while he is in his bed. This includes looking at him, talking to him or calling him out, and finally touching him as well. These beds, or “safe zones”, are areas in which Murphy can go to relax and self soothe. Knowing that no one will approach or disturb him in this place will allow him to relax. This, in turn, will teach him self-coping mechanisms, giving Murphy the tools he needs to calm his anxiety and fear.
Please refer to Appendix B for a list of the exercises that were provided for the weeks following the second appointment.
3.0 Third (and final) Visit: January 3, 2017 – Behavioural Results
In the past weeks Murphy’s behaviour has been reported to be much calmer. He still barks and runs to the door when the doorbell rings, but the barking is now limited to only a few barks. He also will willingly retreat into the office and will lay down on the carpet, waiting to greet the new-comers. When greeting guests he no longer jumps up & eyeballs, but instead will calmly sniff their leg when following the group into the back of the home.
I had previously advised the family to provide Murphy with “chew toys”, such as bones or antlers. As, chewing, for anxious dogs helps to release endorphins and can be comforting to them (Tenzin-Dolma, 2012). I believe that the availability of chew toys has also helped Murphy to rid himself of anxious manifestations and to relax in the home. Which I believe has contributed to the observed decrease in barking & territorial behaviours.
I also advised the family to keep up with treats and rewards, even if it is randomized rewarding. To stop positive behaviours from extinguishing, random rewards need to follow learned behaviours. In other words, teach your dog to gamble on good behaviour (Horowitz, et. al., 2014). Since the reintroduction of treats on walks, Murphy’s behaviour was reported to be much calmer and much more social. He has gained social confidence, and has begun greeting new pups & people when on lead. Barb no longer has to cross the street when Murphy becomes anxious; as he is now able to calmly walk off to the side boulevard and sit for a treat.
Lastly, no other growling or biting incidents have occurred since. Murphy now has a respected “safe-zone” where he can go to relax. When out of these areas he now anticipates physical affection and even requests it on occasion. He still tends to be “under-foot” with Barb on occasion, but this behaviour also seems to be decreasing as he learns how to relax & trust.
4.0 My “ah-ha” moment!
In working with the family, I realized that my job is really to access the people in a meaningful way, in order to communicate what their beloved canine needs. Simply presenting the facts isn’t enough – people tend to refute information that they do not agree with. I needed to make people feel what they needed to do.
I was finding that people feel that admitting they need help with their dog (here in North America), as a sign of failure. They feel that as “parents” they have failed their “child”. There is a lot of shame and guilt associated with admitting one needs help. New information that is in conflict with the societal values one has been taught regarding pet ownership/treatment, is taken as an attack to the ego. We have a lot to work on, here in North America, culturally.
So, I began to brainstorm… How could I communicate with the people, in a meaningful way? How can I introduce this new information in a non-threatening manner? Just as I was to teach people about calm guidance, I must first master this with them. I needed to study my verbal language, and what it truly communicated to others. I decided that rather than coming from the societally accepted mind-path, or from the scientific perspective, so to speak; I needed to come from the heart-path. I needed to tap into peoples’ empathy and compassion for other beings. I needed to come from a place of love, to teach them how they too could come from a place of love.
By explaining the emotional value of our interaction with our canines, by evaluating what the root of our beliefs are, and by helping people find their source of their fear, anxiety, and stress; I was able to access a common language – emotion. Our canines, much like a child, are raw states of emotional energy. They do not suppress or hide their feelings. But instead they wear them, very proudly, on their face, in their tails, in their shoulders; and communicate them clearly to the world around them, if we dare to listen.
Emotions are not something to condemn or shame, or hide away from. They are the most basic communication we can have with other emotional creatures. Emotions are what connects us, on a deeper, spiritual plane. It is what gives us compassion and love for other life forms, makes us choose to act with love and kindness, and is what gives us patience in teaching & grace in guidance. By connecting deeply, lovingly, and emotionally, we can turn training into teaching, commands into requests, taking into giving, frustration into understanding, violence into affection, working against into working with; it is what turns owning into adopting, and obedience into cooperation – because isn’t it easier to work with someone, than against them?
Our canines are not property that we need to break the spirit of, so that they obey. They are intelligent, compassionate, loving creatures with whom we get to share our lives with. We need to change our perspective on how we relate to other living beings. We should not own another living being, to be “dealt with” or abused as we see fit. Rather, we are inviting another living being into our life to give and receive knowledge from and share happiness with. Our canines teach us to be present, to find the joy in life, and to give love openly and affectionately. They teach us to welcome others into our lives, to communicate openly, and to connect deeply.
In return we teach them how to be safe in our fast paced, “modern” world; how not to get hit by a car, or learn self control when chasing a squirrel. We teach them how to hone their tracking skills, so that they can help us hunt. We teach them to trust us, to find reward in heeding our advice, and to look to us for guidance when exploring our world. We teach them how to have good social manners as much as they teach us the same. We protect them, provide food & water, we shelter them, and most importantly we love them. When we go from working against the wild traits of our canine, to emotionally communicating with them, we can accomplish amazing things.
5.0 Appendix A: Exercises Provided After First Visit
- FOR: DOORBELL MANNERS
Get between Murphy and the front door (if he is standing at the door: stand with your back to the door and side step in front of him). Hold out your hand in the “stop” position and calmly (but firmly) say, “thank you” (while making eye contact with Murphy). When he stops barking for that moment of acknowledgement (and returns the eye contact), reward him with a treat immediately (by throwing it into the office).
At this point it is assumed that Murphy has backed away from the door and is distracted with his treat in the office, and that you are closest to the door. You can then proceed to answer the door (remember: if you are feeling at all nervous, take a moment to take a deep breath and calm yourself down).
- IF HE GETS UP TO BARK AND JUMP ON THE PERSON AT THE DOOR
When answering the door use your body as a block, between Murphy and the person at the door. If Murphy begins to jump up, ignore all attempts, only turning to reward him when he sits.
By moving your body between Murphy and the door, you are taking control of the situation. By rewarding the calm behaviour, you are creating a positive association with this otherwise stressful event.
- WHEN GREETING GUESTS, INTO YOUR HOME
Ask that all guests ignore the dog for at least the first half hour of arrival. Stand between Murphy (who is assumed to have retreated into the office) and the new guests, with your back to Murphy.
If Murphy has not backed down from the door, simply point to the office and say “out” or what every cue you would like to use. Then walk him to the office, still using yourself as a barrier, as your guests come in.
Then ask that each guest (or each cluster of guests) throw a treat into the office, and then carry on into the back of the house. By asking that guests ignore Murphy you are inadvertently ensuring that your guests communicate non-confrontational body language. By standing between Murphy and your guests you are, again, showing Murphy that you are in control of the situation. And by having the guests throw treats in Murphy’s direction, you are creating yet another positive association with this event.
During this time, when ever Murphy gets up to bark or jump simply turn to him with your hand held out in the “stop” position and firmly say “thank you”. Each time he stops and engages in calm behaviour, immediately reward him.
If Murphy is engaging in severe anxious behaviour, such as shaking, whimpering, or cowering; it is absolutely okay to provide constructive comfort. Instead of picking him up (where he is further restricted from engaging in “flight behaviours”) crouch down beside him, speak softly reassuring that “its okay”, and you can give him a gentle stroke on the shoulder.
It will help to practice this with members of your family a few times each evening. Changing roles of who answers the door and who knocks.
- FOR: ON LEASH NERVOUSNESS
It is important that Murphy feels he has a sense of control and can trust that you will keep him safe. Currently, he is okay with socializing with certain people and dogs, and it sounds like he gives very clear signals of when he is nervous.
Allow him to socialize with whomever he prefers. Keeping up his social skills will help to build his confidence.
Avoid walking in areas that have, in the past, caused stress and anxiety (for example: the busy bus stop, up the hill). And try to mix up the places you are walking so that he is both mentally stimulated and unable to anticipate stressful events.
When someone oncoming is noticeably making Murphy anxious, simply say, “come along”, and casually cross the street. As soon as Murphy is relaxed in his body language, reward him with a treat.
By removing him from the fearful situation you are not only building trust with him, but you are decreasing his anxiety related to that fear-event. By acting casually, but matter-of-fact, you are showing him with your body language that there is nothing to be afraid of. And by rewarding any calm behaviour, you are not only creating a positive association with that event, but also increasing Murphy’s desire to engage in calm behaviour.
- IF YOU CANNOT CROSS THE STREET
Exit with Murphy off to the side (a driveway or boulevard, if walking on the sidewalk), stand between him and the fear-object, and ask for a “sit” in a calm and happy voice. As you are saying, “sit”, hold the treat between your fingers and pull it upwards towards your face. Now you are not only asking for a sit, but also getting Murphy to focus on you, not the fear-object. Reward him as soon as he sits and looks at you. Hopefully at this point the fear-object has passed or moved on. If not, just casually walk on, ignoring the fear object and any anxious behaviours from Murphy. As you walk on, keep a safe distance between you and the fear-object, and use yourself as a barrier between Murphy and the fear-object.
For now, the objective is to decrease the intensity of the fear-related events by increasing the distance between Murphy and his object of fear. By rewarding calm behaviour you are not only creating positive associations, but also increasing Murphy’s desire to engage in calm behaviours; even at times of stress. Thus, helping him practice coping mechanisms.
6.0 Appendix B: Exercises Provided After Second Visit
1. CALM AFFECTION
Non-threatening approaches: curve to the side; make yourself appear small (cross arms, crouch down) and allow Murphy to approach you. Then stroking on the shoulder and under the chin, slowly and gently. Never pat on the head, or approaching top-down, as this is intimidating.
- NOT ALLOWED ON FURNITURE
Beds have been set up in each of the main rooms. Murphy is encouraged to use those to relax, and the family is encouraged to leave him be. This will allow Murphy to set up “safe zones”, self soothe, and feel comfortable to relax in his home; knowing that he will not get unwanted attention. This way Murphy cannot use the couch or Barb as his deemed “safe zone”, which will reduce tension with others in the family.
3. DOOR MANNERS
Upon barking and running to the door, stand between Murphy and the door, hold up your hand in a “stop sign”, plainly say “thank you”. Murphy will retreat from the door (if he does not, take a step forward), when he stops barking for a second, toss him a treat, and then answer the door.
- GUEST ARRIVAL
When the guests enter ask them to ignore Murphy. Having large groups of people or strangers approach him makes him nervous. Toss Murphy another treat while the guests enter, simply ignore, and walk by.
- ON LEASH NERVOUSNESS
When Murphy shows signs of anxiety at an approaching person, group, or dog; simply cross the street or exit to the closest driveway/boulevard. Reward calm behaviour; and if needed, distract with a “sit” and a treat.
- OTHER THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND
* Do not scold growling; we do not wish to take away his warning signals.
* Avoid “hugging” by pressing your face to Murphy’s, as this is intimidating for him.
* Never approach from behind or from above.
* When barking/nervous step in between & reward all calm behaviour
* BE CALM, CONFIDENT & IN CONTROL
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