News: Guest Posts
Overcoming fear, Learning to trust again
Many dogs, rescued from the trauma and abuse of puppy mills or hoarders, need lots of extra TLC before they're ready for their forever homes.
Lacking social skills, having lived with fear, pain, and hunger, some remain overwhelmingly fearful even after being removed from their deplorable conditions and given physical, medical and emotional support. Their psychic wounds can cause them to cower, retreat from a loving touch, pee submissively, even growl or bite to keep humans and other animals away.
Such behaviors, while understandable, make them a challenge for shelters already overwhelmed with dogs needing homes. Fearful dogs often become part of a revolving door problem, being returned to shelters by adopting families ill-equipped to deal with the behaviors. Or worse, they may be euthanized because they can't be placed.
ASPCA (American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) has created a flagship program that will attempt to fill the gap between rescue and placement for the most severely traumatized dogs, the fearful ones. The ASPCA Behavioral Rehabilitation Center at St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J. opens this week.
"For some animals, the reality is that after a lifetime of neglect and abuse, the rescue is just the beginning of their journey to recovery," said Dr. Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA's Anti-Cruelty Behavior Team. "The ASPCA recognized the need for a rehabilitation center that will provide rescued dogs customized behavior treatment and more time to recover, increasing the likelihood that they will be adopted. We partnered with St. Hubert's Animal Welfare Center and identified the unique opportunity to utilize their space and collaborate with their behavior and care experts for the rehabilitation of victims of cruelty and neglect."
To start, dogs rescued from animal cruelty investigations will be eligible. To help reduce these dogs' fears and anxieties, the rehabilitation team will gently introduce them to unfamiliar sounds, objects, living spaces and real-life situations that a normally socialized dog handles with aplomb, but can induce trauma and extreme stress in this special population of dogs.
The ASPCA has funded this project for two years. The work done at the Center will become part of a research project, studying and evaluating methods for rehabilitating undersocialized, fearful dogs. The findings will be shared with animal welfare organizations and other researchers nationwide with the goal of helping shelters and rescue organizations rehabilitate abused and fearful dogs coming into their own facilities.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cues to tell dogs to poop
I personally don’t want to be outside saying “Go Poop” out loud to my dogs. I’m not sure why, with all the potty humor I enjoy, that this is embarrassing to me. It makes no sense, especially as I am perfectly comfortable telling them to “Go Pee” in front of anyone, but I require more subtle cues to let dogs know that I am asking them to poop.
It is so useful to have a cue that tells your dog to eliminate. So often, dogs go outside and are occupied with sniffing this and sniffing that or just enjoying the fresh air. Usually, such a leisurely approach to going to the bathroom is not a problem, but occasionally, for whatever reason, we need our dogs to take care of business in a more prompt way. That’s when it’s great to have a specific cue that tells them to urinate or to defecate.
I have used different words to tell dogs to poop, but my two favorites are “Get Busy” and “Hurry Up.” I like these because they allow me to express what I am feeling in the situations in which I am telling my dogs that I want them to eliminate now, before I must go away and leave them for a time. I really DO want them to get busy, and I certainly appreciate it if they can hurry up about it.
Usually, I have had dogs who are quite regular and poop quite predictably morning and evening during walks or runs, or perhaps in the yard before or after such outings. Still, even these dogs sometimes seem a little off, and it helps to have a cue to tell them, essentially, “Go if you can now.”
What cues, if any, do you use for elimination?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Question: My pup was responding well to our recall training at the park, getting reinforced with high-value treats like meatballs and behaving in a way that made us so proud. That all changed when a sweet elderly man at the park starting giving all the dogs Milk-Bones. Not only did our dog fail to come when called while he was feeding her, for the next couple of weeks, she rarely came when we called her in other contexts. My question is about how dogs learn and what makes their training seem to fall apart? What can I do to prevent such setbacks in the future, and how can I know when our dog has really “gotten it” so that I can be sure she will come, no matter what?
Answer: Most people have experienced some variant of what you describe, and these setbacks can be very disheartening. The situation at the park was not so much one in which a dog’s training fell apart as it was one in which a dog was asked to do something that she had not yet been trained to do. Responding appropriately to the cue to come to you when there is nothing particularly new or interesting to distract her is totally different than returning to you when someone else is feeding her treats.
What you learned courtesy of the treat man at the park is that your dog does not know how to come when called while she was getting treats from somebody else. Furthermore, she seems to have learned that even when called, she doesn’t have to come, which may explain why her recall got worse (let’s not say “fell apart”!) and why she did not come when called even in other situations.
The real secret to dog training is that there are 100 steps involved in teaching a dog something so that she can do it in any situation. Step one for teaching recall may be calling your dog to come from five feet away in your living room, with nothing else going on but you and your meatballs, and step 100 is calling your dog to come when she is 500 feet away, chasing a deer. Many people charge from step five to step 95 without realizing what a challenge this is for a dog. This is the equivalent of asking a student to go from addition and subtraction to reinventing calculus, figuring that the student already knows how to do math, so what’s the problem?
Teaching a dog what a cue means is often the easiest part. Proofing the dog to that cue, or getting the dog to respond to that cue in all situations, is the challenge. Just because your dog knows how to come when called when nothing else has captivated her attention doesn’t mean that she can do it when she is really enthralled by the smell of a rabbit, the food she is eating or her best play buddy. Training your dog to come away from these distractions requires that you train her to do so in a series of steps of gradually increasing difficulty.
Avoiding setbacks by not skipping steps is a challenge that requires great discipline on your part. The key is that throughout your training work with her, you must not call your dog unless you are confident that she will respond. For example, if you had never trained her to come when called away from someone giving her food, most trainers would tell you that the odds of success were not in your favor. A wiser course of action would have been to simply go get your dog. Of course, this is not convenient and requires only letting your dog off-leash in areas where you can go get her if she doesn’t come, but it is only temporary.
When you call a dog to come and she doesn’t respond, how you handle the situation is important for your future success with this cue. If you do nothing, or if you keep calling her over and over, you are teaching her not to respond unless she feels like it. Either she learns that she doesn’t have to come because there is no consequence for not coming, or she learns to tune out the “come” cue; it becomes background noise and loses its meaning to her.
One possible response is to go up to her, show her the meatball treat she could have had, and then walk away. Another is to take her out of the park so she learns that if she does not respond, she does not get to stay at the park.
A third possibility is to immediately set up a similar situation as a training opportunity. Put the meatball right up to her nose, move a few feet away and call her to come. Lure her with the treat if necessary—anything to get her to come away from the food the man is giving her, and then reinforce her for doing so. Then, allow her to go back to the treat man to get whatever he has. Allowing your dog to get both reinforcement from you and what she gave up in order to come to you makes responding to your cue a winning situation all around. Setting up winning situations for your dog over and over again in all sorts of contexts is what proofing a dog for a cue is all about.
During training, have something better than what she gave up so she learns that coming to you is always worthwhile. This means that if someone is giving her liver biscotti, you give her chicken. If they are giving her a lot of nice petting attention, you give her a belly rub. If they are luring her with an ordinary ball, you reinforce her with a super bouncy ball.
In terms of your question about dogs really “getting it”—it’s hard to know for sure that your dog is proofed to respond to a cue in any situation if you have not explicitly practiced and trained her to handle a variety of environments. That said, the more situations and types of distractions in which your dog has learned to respond to the cue, the more likely it is she will respond appropriately in a novel context. Eventually, all situations are sufficiently similar that she can be said to be “fully proofed” for a particular cue. Some dogs get there faster than others, but for virtually every dog, it takes a lot of practice in a wide range of situations involving different places, with different distractions and from different distances.
For more information about canine learning, the best book on the subject is Excel-erated Learning: Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them by Pamela J. Reid, PhD. For specific advice on teaching a reliable recall to your dog, the best resource is the video Lassie Come! by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
In dog training, taking things one step at a time can make a world of difference
Maddie was a lovely little dog, with creamy white fur and an open, smiley face. She seemed willing and smart and ready to learn, but her guardian had brought her to me because the dog was driving her crazy. Every time the family asked Maddie to sit and stay, she jumped up and licked their faces. No matter what they did, they couldn’t seem to get her to stay still, even for an instant. Someone told them it was because she was trying to assert “dominance” over them. Someone else suggested she’d been abused. Maddie had nothing at all to say on the topic, but kept cheerfully bounding up like a jack-in-the-box every time she was asked to sit and stay.
The same week, I had another client whose treatment plan included teaching his dog Bruno a variety of tricks. The first trick had him stumped, because no matter how hard he tried, and how many tasty treats he used, he couldn’t get Bruno to roll over. He tried and tried, and finally came into the office convinced that his dog was deficient.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Understanding this—that all actions are actually made up of many smaller ones—can elevate you from a moderately good dog trainer to a great one. The seemingly dim dog Bruno ended up learning to roll over in one session because all I asked him to do initially was to lie down and turn his head toward his tail. Of course, I helped him at first by luring his nose in the right direction with a piece of food, but in no time at all, Bruno was happy to offer the behavior on his own. “Look at my tail for chicken? I can do that!” Bruno began throwing himself down on the ground and enthusiastically twisting his head toward his tail, tail thumping furiously. Next, I asked him to move his head a bit farther back, this time turning it toward his other side, enough that his top foreleg began to rise off the ground. Bingo! More chicken. Step three included luring his head around even farther, until his body followed and completed the roll over in one smooth motion. The humans clapped and cheered, Bruno wagged and grinned, and the pile of chicken pieces rapidly decreased.
Bruno’s guardian, a relative novice at dog training, had tried to teach Bruno to roll over by luring his head around with tasty snacks, but because he thought of “rolling over” as, well, rolling over, it didn’t occur to him to give Bruno the snack until the dog had executed the entire action from beginning to end. Dog trainers see this problem on a daily basis—people who try to teach a dog to sit up or roll over, and end up throwing in the towel because they can’t get the dog to do what they want. This is one of those times when it would help if people were more anthropomorphic (rather than less so as we’re often advised). We don’t wait to praise our children until they play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony perfectly, do we? Yet, that’s common behavior with our dogs—we often expect them to do it right all the way through the first time. Anything less is categorized as a failure.
We’re even less likely to think of our own actions as the summation of many tiny behaviors. Take Maddie, the dog who wouldn’t sit and stay. In the office, I suggested the guardians give it a try so I could see what was going on. The mom of the family stood up, turned to face Maddie, and said “sit” and “stay.” As she said “stay,” she backed up about a half a step. In response, Maddie sat politely, but then leapt up as soon as she heard the stay signal. “See what I mean!” her guardian said, with no small amount of exasperation in her voice. Next, I asked her to call Maddie to come.
You guessed it. She turned to face her dog; said, “Maddie, come!”; and then backed up exactly as she had when she said “stay.” Maddie was paying attention to one small component of the “stay” signal—the backward movement, which she had learned meant “come”—and bless her heart, she kept giving it her best shot, in spite of the confusing response of her humans. It’s a miracle they don’t bite us more often, truly.
My favorite exercise at seminars is to have a trainer ask her dog to sit, and then ask the audience how many different movements made up that “simple” signal. Usually we come up with at least six or eight movements and one spoken word, any of which could act as the relevant cue to the dog. The last time I played that game, we observed that each time the trainer asked for a sit, she nodded her head ever so slightly. Until her dog saw her nod her head, he would not sit. Once she did, he’d sit instantly. The dog was focusing on the nod, and the human was focusing on the word she was saying. I would bet money if you could’ve asked the dog to describe the signal for “sit,” the dog would’ve said, “Why, the head nod, of course!”
Bruno, the dog who finally mastered the “roll over” command, reminds us that even one continuous motion—like rolling over—is also the sum of its parts. The general principle of dividing an action up into steps is old news for many trainers, but we can profit from revisiting its importance. Even those of us who are long familiar with what’s called “shaping,” or the process of reinforcing incremental improvements in behavior, can benefit by remembering that it relates to everything that we and our dogs do.
Understanding that any behavior can be divided up into smaller parts is the guiding principle taught to all students of animal behavior. It was the first thing that I learned from my ethology professors at the university, and it’s the first thing good, psychologically based behavior analysts learn. The fields of ethology and psychology may have very different perspectives, but they agree completely on the importance of understanding behavior as a series of incremental actions. Step-by-step, brick by brick, the foundation of any behavior is built upon little things that add up to bigger ones. The better you are at deconstructing it, the better a trainer you’ll be.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
You have questions, she has answers
You’ve no doubt seen Victoria Stilwell in action on It’s Me or the Dog, where, using positive reinforcement, she shows wayward pups and their sometimes equally wayward guardians how to get along. Now, Victoria joins our roster of training experts in offering sound and practical advice on a variety of, shall we say, behavior faux pas. Please join us in welcoming Victoria to The Bark.
Q: My dog’s barking is driving me (and my neighbors) crazy. He’s a healthy, two-year-old Sheltie mix, and I’ve been told that it’s impossible to train him not to bark—that I should have him surgically debarked, something I find completely appalling. Please tell me there’s a way to teach my dog to control his noisy self.
A: Dogs who bark excessively can cause big problems for owners, but even though it may seem completely out of control, this behavior can be modified to a bearable level. Sometimes barking dogs can cause such distress that people resort to having the dog’s vocal chords surgically removed, but I’m glad that you find that idea appalling, because most trainers and veterinarians would advise against taking such a drastic measure. Debarking can cause immense anxiety, as it takes away an important part of the dog’s ability to communicate. I do recommend, however, that you take your dog to the veterinarian for a thorough medical check up, since any extreme behavior can be exacerbated by a medical condition.
Shelties are working dogs and are known to be vocal. These days, most dogs who were once bred to do a certain job find domestic life boring, and barking relieves that boredom. If this is the case, increased exercise and mental stimulation will refocus your dog’s mind onto something more positive and help tire him out.
Dogs bark for many reasons—to get attention, as a warning, in response to other barking dogs, out of anxiety or when excited—and it is important to identify the triggers before training.
If your Sheltie barks to get attention, don’t reward his demands. Telling your dog off is inadvertently rewarding him for barking even if the communication is negative. In this case, it is best to ignore the barking, wait for five seconds of quiet and then reward him with attention. This way, the dog learns that he gets nothing from you when he barks but gets everything when he’s quiet.
A dog who barks when excited (i.e., before going for a walk or being fed) is harder to work with because an owner’s pre-departure or pre-food cues are usually highly ritualized. Again, do not reward your dog with the things he wants until he is calm. For example, if the barking happens as soon as you go for the leash, drop the leash and sit down. Keep repeating this until your dog is quiet. If you successfully attach the leash but he barks as soon as he gets outside, immediately go back inside. This technique requires patience, but if you are diligent, your dog will quickly learn that quiet equals a walk.& Dogs who suffer anxiety when left alone will often bark a lot during the first 30 minutes after departure, while others continue until their person comes home. If this is the case, you must get a trainer in to help, as separation anxiety can be a very difficult behavior to modify.
Shelties tend to be particularly sound-sensitive, responding to noises that the human ear cannot hear. Also, because they were bred for herding, some Shelties have a high chase and/or prey drive and are easily stimulated by fast-moving objects such as squirrels or birds. If your dog barks excitedly in the back yard, for example, immediately take him back into the house and only allow him out again when he is quiet. Keep repeating if necessary and never leave him in the back yard unattended. If your Sheltie reacts and barks at other dogs or people in or outside of the home, it might be because he hasn’t received adequate socialization and feels uncomfortable. In this case, he needs to go on a desensitization program so he can gain the confidence he needs to cope in a social situation.
As you can see, there are many reasons why dogs bark, but please don’t listen to those who say that extreme barking can’t be modified, because there are lots of ways to reduce what is a very normal but sometimes annoying behavior.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What to do when a dog is part alligator
Question: My dog takes treats so hard that she’s hurt my hands on occasion. I’ve had the same thing happen to me to varying degrees at the dog park or in classes when I give a treat to another dog. I dread training sessions with my own dog, and I’ve become hesitant to give treats to other dogs. Is there a solution to this problem?
Answer: I sympathize! Your experiences with dogs who chomp enthusiastically are universal among those who spend time with dogs. Many dogs regularly grab treats without taking the care required when dealing with delicate human skin. (On the other hand, some dogs are only “chompy” when revved up, so this can be a good assessment tool; in these cases, the intensity of the alligator-like behavior can indicate a dog’s arousal level.)
Some dogs are naturally gentle with their mouths, but most need lessons to achieve this skill. Dogs should be taught the cue “Gentle,” which simply means to take the treat nicely. Having a dog who takes treats gently can relieve much of the conflict-induced frustration that occurs when you want to reinforce your dog’s good behavior but also want your fingers to remain intact and connected to your body.
Avoid confusion by teaching the cue “Gentle” as its own behavior rather than during a training session for some other behavior. Commit to the idea that your dog needs to take the treats gently or she doesn’t get them at all. In other words, don’t allow the snapping behavior to work for her. Until now, she has been getting the treat no matter what she does, but we want her to only get it when she takes it gently.
To teach your dog what “Gentle” means, hold a treat in your hand, close your fist around it and offer it to your dog. If your dog bites at your hand, keep it closed; this means either toughing it out or wearing gloves, depending on your dog’s behavior and your tolerance. When she stops biting and licks your hand (or even nibbles gently and painlessly), say “Gentle” and open your hand completely to give her the treat.
Keep saying “Gentle” each time you offer her a treat to help her associate the word with the behavior. If she has a relapse and returns to her former finger-gnawing ways, pull your hand away and then offer the treat again, using the cue “Gentle” to remind her of what you want. This will keep you from dropping the treat in response to her snapping.
Until your dog knows how to take treats gently, there are a couple of ways to protect your fingers when giving treats outside of training sessions. At home, put cream cheese or peanut butter on a wooden spoon and offer your dog a chance to lick this food a few times. This is a way to reinforce your dog without putting your hands near her mouth.
In a dog park or class setting, offer the treat on your flat palm. Many dogs who will snap at treats held in the fingertips are able to take them properly when they are presented on an open hand. A final option is to drop the treats on the ground rather than giving them directly to the dog. It takes a lot of repetition for most dogs to learn to take treats gently, and the occasional effort to teach someone else’s dog by, for example, holding them in your closed hand is unlikely to be effective. Unless a dog’s guardian is teaching this at home, save your fingers by either flat-palming the treats or tossing them on the ground. These techniques won’t teach your dog or her dog park friends to take the treats politely, but they do keep your fingers safe!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Question: My 1 1/2-year-old neutered male English Shepherd developed a fascination with light and shadows about nine months ago. He chases any reflections he sees, and on cloudy days even does the chasing behavior in places where shadows usually appear. He will stand outside under a tree and watch shadows of leaves blowing for 20 minutes at a stretch. He is an inside/outside dog and gets at least an hour walk each day. The behavior is not destructive, but I worry about the total attention he gives to it and I certainly don’t want it to become worse. What should I do?
Answer: Fascination with lights and shadows is most common in high-energy, high-drive dogs, and most of the cases I’ve seen have been in herding or hunting breeds who have come from working lines. As in your dog’s case, it often shows up in adolescence. It is wise to be concerned, because this problem seems to escalate if left to its own devices, and I worry that it may already be affecting your dog’s quality of life. Many dogs who start with a little chasing of shadows can degenerate into cases of full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. If that happens, additional compulsive behaviors may develop. Because of the potentially serious nature of this problem, it is worth having your dog evaluated by a veterinary behaviorist in your area who understands anxiety disorders. Also, a change in diet sometimes helps dramatically and is worth a try.
Prevention is a critical part of helping to extinguish the behavior, so whenever possible, keep your dog out of situations that elicit it. Obviously, you cannot eliminate lights and shadows from your dog’s life, but even simple steps such as hanging dark curtains, spending time with your dog in the rooms with the fewest lights and shadows and temporarily storing particularly reflective items can help.
Your response when he begins to chase or fixate on shadows and light will have a big impact on his behavior. Let your motto be “Interrupt and redirect, but never punish.” Interrupt the behavior and try to redirect him to some other sort of behavior. Try to distract him with a favorite toy or use a new squeaky toy to get his attention. Consider rattling his leash and heading out for a walk if that works to distracts him. (Don’t do this last one too often or he may learn to chase shadows in order to get you to take him out.) The interruption should distract your dog, but should never scare him. Good options for redirection include tug, fetch, the ever-popular Kong®, a chew toy, outdoor exercise or a training session. It can be tempting to respond in a negative way to this behavior, but any punishment carries the risk of making the behavior worse.
An hour walk each day is enough for many dogs, but additional exercise for a young, active dog so interested in light and shadows is really important. Off-leash running for an hour or more a day (or better yet, twice a day) can really make a big difference, as can tiring activities such as fetch and swimming. I realize that finding safe places to do this is often the biggest challenge. Physical exercise can greatly help this problem, but so can additional mental exercise. Giving your dog’s mind more to do may help as much as the physical exercise. Give him toys that tax his brain, teach him tricks daily, or attend classes.
If you feel that his obsession is worsening or is more noticeably affecting the quality of his life (or yours!), consider talking to a qualified veterinarian about medicine for obsessive-compulsive behavior and working with adjunctive medical therapy such as Chinese medicine or homeopathy.
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Pep up the pup during dark winter days
So, the weather is really bad again, the days are short, but you still want to pep up yourself and your dog? Turn your living room into a temporary adventure playground! Don’t worry—you don’t have to rearrange your house. Just use things that you already have to set up a course.
Exercises for dexterity and mobility are not only fun but, as little tests of courage, they train your dog’s body awareness and build up his self confidence. They also help you become good at guiding him into all kinds of positions and in showing him the way yourself. Here are a few starter activities.
The Collapsed Tunnel Adventure
Very important: Make sure the blanket is attached to the chair so that it cannot slip off while your dog is walking through it. Such an accident could totally spoil your dog’s fun.
This is how it works:
•Go to the other end of the tunnel, pick up the end of the blanket and catch your dog’s eye. Call him, and reward him when he comes to you.
•Do this a few more times; each time, lower the blanket gradually so that your dog gets used to the feeling of pushing himself through to the exit.
•Keep the degree of difficulty low in the beginning, with the tunnel overhang rather short so that your dog isn’t in the dark too long.
Challenges on the Ground
•Doormats made of different fibers.
Let your dog investigate the unknown surfaces step-by-step on his own. Every little test of courage passed—even if it is only placing one paw on the different surfaces in the beginning—is worth a reward and gives your dog a little bit of self-confidence that carries into his everyday life.
Living Room Obstacles
This is how your dog learns to jump:
•Encourage your dog to jump over the hurdle with the aid of some treats. You can jump with him in the beginning. Or you step over the hurdle first, and then lure your dog over to the other side.
•When your dog understands the game and has tried different obstacles, insert a verbal cue (for instance, the word “jump”) and send your dog over the hurdle with it.
Adapted from Playtime for Your Dog, published by Cadmos Books and distributed by Trafalgar Square Publishing from Independent Publishers Group. Copyright 2008 by Cadmos Equestrian.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A powerful tool to handle aggression
A Corgi who barks, spins, leaps and sometimes bites when anyone in her house stands up or moves around. A German Shepherd-Husky cross who barks, lunges and charges at dogs walking by her house. A Poodle who growls at other dogs when on leash. A mixed breed who is terrified of visitors and barks at them nonstop. A Papillon puppy who bites his elderly Labrador Retriever housemate when the older dog doesn’t want to play with him. What do these aggressive dogs have in common? All of them had their behavior improved through the use of play.
About a decade ago, I began to regularly incorporate play into programs for aggressive dogs. Play is a powerful tool when working with such dogs, including those who are behaving badly because of frustration, arousal, lack of impulse control, boredom or fear. It has a positive effect on emotions, which is why play-motivated fearful dogs often respond better to play than to treats, even if they are also highly treat-motivated — fear decreases faster and more thoroughly in response to the former than to the latter. There are many different ways that play can help aggressive dogs to behave better.
Theoretically, you can stop a behavior by teaching an action incompatible with that behavior — for example, counteracting a dog’s habit of jumping on people by teaching him to sit in their presence. But when a dog struggles with high arousal (which many aggressive dogs do), you’re more likely to have success by teaching the dog to perform an active behavior. Trying to teach a dog to lie down, stay or another static, controlled behavior is more challenging and generally less effective.
In the case of the Corgi who was aggressive when people moved around, the more aroused she was, the more reactive and out of control she became. My goal was to transfer that energy; for her, I chose fetch, her favorite game. Now, when people are active, she brings a ball to her guardians, who then play fetch with her. By itself, the act of getting a toy can have an inhibitory effect, but it’s even better to teach the dog to get a toy in order to initiate a game. The anticipation gave the Corgi a happy feeling: “Oh boy! Somebody moved! That means playtime.”
The German Shepherd-Husky cross who reacted to dogs passing by was easily aroused and struggled with impulse control. Her guardians, who had already tried calling her away and using treats to capture her attention, were convinced that she would never be able to focus on anything with another dog in sight. Compounding the problem, she was not just beyond her guardians’ control, but actually beyond her own control.
However, she loved to play tug, and no matter how high her arousal was or what distractions were present, she was captivated by her tug rope. Therefore, this game was the perfect way to redirect her attention. Once she learned that when a dog came into view, she would be given an opportunity to play tug, she stopped going crazy at the sight of a dog and instead, turned immediately and joyfully to her guardians. Tug helped her control herself.
Tug has many advantages when working with an aggressive dog, as long as tug does not incite the aggression. It not only keeps the dog near you and her mouth occupied, it also allows you to direct the dog’s line of sight, which can be especially useful if the dog is visually stimulated. Dogs who tug usually love to play the game, which makes it a compelling option.
The Poodle who was reactive to other dogs when on leash is one of the most playful dogs I have ever known, and also one of the smartest. His training was excellent, and he could perform many behaviors on cue, even in the presence of another dog. But if he saw the dog first, he would bark, lunge and pull so hard on the leash that he had more than once caused his guardian to fall.
All of that changed when I started reinforcing him with play. If he controlled himself when he saw another dog — performing any behavior other than reacting — he was allowed to play. He was willing to work for play, but the play had to be the “right” kind: running after his guardian. Once this reinforcement system was established, when he saw another dog, he would look at her as if to say, “Well, don’t you have some running to do?” and then happily give chase.
The mixed breed who was terrified of visitors loved fetch, and she warmed up fast to anyone who would play it with her. To take advantage of this, I used classical counterconditioning to change her emotional response to visitors. Specifically, I taught her to associate them with fetch; I wanted her to feel the same joy when someone unfamiliar to her arrived as she felt when playing fetch. Thus, everyone who entered her home threw a ball for her. Eventually, the appearance of a visitor became the cue that a game of fetch was about to happen. Instead of responding with fear because a stranger had entered, she now responds with enthusiasm.
Frustration and boredom were the root causes in the case of the Papillon puppy who was aggressive to the Labrador Retriever. The older dog was interested in playing with the puppy for no more than two to three minutes at a time, but the puppy wanted to frolic morning, noon and night. When the Lab called a halt, the puppy would growl, leap on the Lab and bite him, sometimes causing injuries.
It was essential to find other ways to engage the Papillon in play, ways that would provide him with enough fun, mental and physical exercise, and other stimulation to keep him happy. The first step was to determine which toys, games and activities appealed to him. Never has my job been easier, because this dog loved everything. I imagined him thinking, Plush toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Tug toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Balls? I love them, they’re my favorite!
Every single thing I tried was a success — puzzle toys, squeaky toys, bouncy toys, rope toys, balls, disks, Kongs. He liked them all. Discovering a variety of new games and either learning or inventing ways to play with different toys satisfied his intense need for play. He played fetch, tug, chase and hide-and-seek with people. When people weren’t available, he learned to enjoy throwing objects in the air and catching them, puzzles of all sorts, dribbling a ball around like a soccer star, and rolling balls down ramps and then chasing after them. Between the variety of toys and the multiple “play stations” we set up around his house, he learned to entertain himself for long stretches at a time.
Once I showed his guardians new ways to play with their puppy, they interacted with him much more, which took a lot of pressure off the older dog. Now, the Papillon plays appropriately and brief ly with the Lab a few times a day, and when the Lab is done, the puppy chooses a different way to play. Providing additional options was essential in helping this puppy behave in an acceptable manner around the other dog in his family.
There are many ways to change aggressive behavior, and an important part of my work is deciding which one will work best for a particular dog. While play is not part of the solution for every dog, it can help many of them, and increasingly, I find that I can help people and their dogs succeed by incorporating play into their programs. Yes, play is fun, but when working with aggressive dogs, it can be so much more.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A Full House
My multi-dog household includes three unrelated, rescued mutts with golden fur and bushy tails, each weighing around 50 pounds: one female (Bahati, 13), and two males (Tex, 7, and Bentley, 2). On a typical morning, Bentley and Tex play in the living room, biting at one another’s hind legs. Tex flops onto the rug, Bentley bites at Tex’s neck and Tex flails his legs in defense. Their play rouses Bahati, who has been napping. She trots into the living room and plunges between them.
Bahati stands tall, holding her ears as wolves do when courting: the inside of the earflaps face out to the side and the backs nearly touch over the top of her head. Ever eager to flirt, Bentley positions his ears the same way and cautiously places his chin over her neck. She leaps away, then starts to scamper with him; it almost looks like they’re dancing. When Tex moves toward them, Bahati rears up to wrap her front paws around his neck in a bear hug. Watching them with a silly grin, I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.
In addition to my delight in the dogs’ antics, I like having a multi-dog household (three or more dogs) for other reasons. I have three playmates instead of one, and three dogs to comfort me when I’m down. With three, I’m more likely to have a snuggly companion on the couch or bed, and I love being welcomed home by three madly wagging tails. With three dogs, I have more friends, more silliness, more beauty, more life.
Living in a multi-dog household is also better for my dogs. For one thing, I’m not solely responsible for their entertainment. They wear each other out when they play in a way that’s impossible for me to replicate. They’re never alone, and I feel less guilty about the parts of my life that don’t include them. Although they still adopt the “I’ll die if you don’t take me with you” look when I leave the house, their so-called suffering is belied by the toys I see scattered around when I return.
Despite the many benefits of multidog homes, however, there are also costs, and they’re not all financial. Wiping 12 muddy paws or trimming 54 toenails is exponentially more tiresome than dealing with four paws or 18 nails. Walking three leashed dogs can be complicated, especially when our leashes get tangled with those attached to several dogs from another household. If we don’t want to unclip the dogs, the only way out is to perform what my friends call “the leash dance,” in which each person holds his or her leashes high overhead while twirling until the two sets disentangle — a most interesting way to meet one’s neighbors! And, of course, training three or more dogs is harder than training one or even two, especially when it involves behaviors they tend to do in unison, like barking at the UPS man or rushing to the door when the bell rings. For many people, such training requires more time and patience than they have.
Although a lot of “aggression” between familiar dogs is ritualized and harmless (see “Fighting without Biting,” May 2011), it sometimes escalates, especially when a new dog is involved. While researchers have not systematically observed multiple pet dogs living together, a few studies have examined data from canine behaviorists who had been consulted for help with intrahousehold aggression. Unfortunately, these studies do not involve a comparison group of households whose dogs do get along, which makes many of their findings hard to interpret. Nevertheless, they tend to agree on a few patterns: aggression is often instigated by a newly matured dog or by a new household member against an older dog, and is more frequent within same-sex pairs, particularly when both dogs are female (more on this in a future article).
Aside from avoiding the most common triggers — the presence of food or toys; proximity to the owner; high-arousal situations, such as greetings or preparations to leave; and being together in a confined space, such as a narrow hallway — other treatment recommendations include medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and following a “nothing in life is free” program.
Canine behaviorists also sometimes encourage people to consistently favor one dog over the others (e.g., the older or higher-ranking dog) by giving him or her resources and attention first. In her DVD, Dog-Dog Aggression, Patricia McConnell argues against this because, in her experience, it doesn’t work. She suggests other methods of decreasing intra-household aggression, including training dogs to be in close proximity to one another while waiting in turn for a resource. The DVD includes a wonderful example involving McConnell’s own dogs. She asks three Border Collies and a Great Pyrenees to line up, then kneels in front of them holding a pan in which meat has been roasted. By name, she calls one dog forward to lick the pan, then asks that dog to stop licking and back up when it is the next dog’s turn. Her dogs’ body language indicates how much self-control they must exert to succeed in this situation, but succeed they do. The lesson? When dogs learn that they get what they want by politely waiting their turn, they are less likely to bully each other (or you!) as a way to gain resources.
In any event, when intra-household aggression is a serious problem, consult a certified canine behaviorist with a background in this type of situation. In addition, it can be very helpful to learn as much as possible about canine communication to better understand dogs’ interactions. For example, being tuned in to postures and facial expressions that often precede aggression — such as a dog standing very still with his muzzle tightly closed — can allow us to intervene before an attack is launched. (For more on dog-dog communication, see resources at below.)
Pleasures of the Pack
More often than not, multiple dogs do get along. In addition to the benefits mentioned previously, having several dogs is just plain more fun. One of my favorite activities involves walking my dogs off-leash in wild areas far from roads. Each dog understands that when I say, for example, “Bahati, lead!” I will follow the dog who has been singled out, so long as he or she doesn’t move toward anything dangerous. All my dogs love being the leader, yet will relinquish that role when it’s the next dog’s turn — or mine. It’s fascinating to see where each dog chooses to go; their noses lead us to places I might never find. Also, I can relax because I’m not making all the decisions; it’s fun to be a follower for a change. Finally, letting the dogs be in charge helps balance power in the human-dog relationship. None of my dogs has mutinied, which I think effectively demonstrates that we don’t always have to be “the decider” to have well-behaved dogs.
Based on what scientists know about people, dogs and their mutual histories, these outings in some ways mimic the original relationship between human hunter-gatherers and canines. Hunters traveled with multiple dogs, some of whom tracked and chased game while others protected women and children when they were out foraging. Since dogs can smell and hear better than we can, as well as see better in the dark, it made sense for our ancestors to sometimes defer to canine judgments about where to go (or not go). Most of the time, neither we nor our dogs can live this way, but we get a taste of the wild by going on long outings and allowing our dogs to lead.
Hanging out with multiple dogs after everyone has exercised and eaten is my favorite way to spend the evening. During these times, I notice subtle behaviors that warm my heart. For instance, when Bahati approaches Tex while he is lying down, Tex sometimes extends a paw to pet her on the head or neck instead of performing the usual nose-to nose greeting. I also love it when, after resting for a while, they simultaneously feel compelled to zip around the house and up and down the stairs as fast as they can go. Just as suddenly, they return to their senses, stop running and go back to lazing around, smiling and panting. Who can remain in a bad mood after watching such an explosion of joy?
Another plus to living with multiple dogs is the opportunity to observe relationship dynamics. Groups of dogs are systems, which means that if any part changes, everything else changes as well. Through such observations, I’ve learned that dogs take their relationships with one another seriously. Bahati and Tex are old friends whose interest in playing together gradually decreased over the years. But after young Bentley arrived, they not only played with him, but also spent more time playing with one another. Bentley’s youthful, evercheerful disposition improved everyone’s life, including mine.
Several years ago, I lived with three female dogs; at one point, they were joined by Osa, a middle-aged male who needed a temporary home. Safi, the undisputed lead dog in my group, had known Osa well five years earlier, and they began playing almost immediately.
However, Safi was by then older and weaker than Osa, and she objected to some of his rough play moves. After clearly communicating this several times, she lost patience and moved to discipline him. Instead of submitting, Osa grabbed Safi’s neck and briefly forced her to the ground. Less than a minute later, Safi approached Osa to reconcile (more about this behavior follows), but he ignored her. From that moment on, Safi gave Osa the cold shoulder, refusing to interact with him in any way. The other two females, who had merely witnessed the event, also ceased engaging with Osa, even though both had played with him before. To my amazement, all three females ostracized Osa during the rest of his stay, a full seven weeks. I was reminded of situations in human families in which people refuse to speak to one another for years.
I urge people who live with several dogs to pay attention to their interactions. One thing to look for is reconciliation behavior. Research shows that shortly after a two-way conflict within their group, dogs and wolves tend to approach the former opponent to do something nice, like touch muzzles or invite play. Dogs and wolves are especially likely to reconcile when they place a high value on a relationship, and “making up” can be a window into their feelings. For example, Tex sometimes gets grumpy when playing with Bahati or Bentley, but within a few seconds, he nearly always offers a muzzle lick. The same study documenting reconciliation in dogs also showed that if the combative parties fail to reconcile shortly afterward, a third dog, uninvolved in the event, is likely to approach the “victim” of the squabble in a friendly manner, perhaps to offer comfort.
Notice, also, the way dogs who live in the same household behave when they meet another dog. Many times, I have seen them close ranks when an unfamiliar dog exhibits the slightest unfriendly move toward one of their own. If that behavior escalates to a real threat or fight, a dog may intervene directly to defend a housemate. Such defense is particularly striking when a dog supports someone she doesn’t especially like when they’re at home.
Moments like this remind me that my motley crew of mutts really are packmates at heart. Because we’re humans, we focus on our dogs’ relationships with us. But the most amazing thing about dogs is their capacity to become integrated into both human and canine society. In the past, dogs usually lived in multi-dog, multi-human groups. Multi-dog households are, in a sense, their birthright. No matter how much we love our dogs, to be fulfilled, we need other people, and no matter how much dogs love us, they need other dogs to experience and express all of who they are.
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