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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Great benefits if used judiciously
There are so many ways in which crates can make life better for people and for dogs. They keep dogs safer in cars, offer many dogs a quiet refuge, are a great help during house training, and play a role in preventing bad habits such as destructive chewing and counter surfing. Dogs who are comfortable in crates are more easily able to handle travel in hotels and staying overnight at the vet. The policy statement by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) about crates makes these points and also asserts that it is imperative to use crates thoughtfully and to introduce them to dogs correctly. I agree.
I love crates and use them, though I do have a few concerns about them. They must not be overused. I prefer that dogs not be confined in them for more than a few hours at a time on a regular basis over the long term. Many dogs choose to go into their crates and to stay there, especially at night, and I have no problem with that, even though the dog is in the crate for more than a few hours.
Dogs who find them upsetting should not be in them. A dog should enter the crate willingly, even happily. Dogs who panic in and around them should not be crated, and no dog should ever be forced into a crate. Many dogs can be taught to enjoy a crate even if they are currently hesitant around them. However, attempts to teach dogs to like them if they have a really strong negative reaction to crates is not always successful.
There are ways to introduce a dog of any age to a crate that make success more likely. Introductions should be gradual and involve a lot of good stuff such as treats and toys that the dog can associate with the crate. The APDT Guide to Crate Training is a useful reference about many aspects of crates and crate training.
What do you think about crates?
What to do about an uncontrolled dog
This morning as I was walking with the dogs at Pt Isabel—one of the most popular off leash areas in the Bay Area—I was “approached” by a very large dog in a very threatening manner. This was a first for me, and I must say that it was frightening. The dogs and I were on the path walking back to the car, when I saw this Mastiff mix on the grassy area adjacent to the pathway—I noticed him because I know most of the early morning “shift” dogs, but he was unfamiliar so I wondered who he might be. He was a handsome dog, probably over a 100 lbs., very tall, with a brindle coat, but he was coming at us fast. His owner, a woman probably in her 30s, was calling to him by saying “heel” even though he was far from her. He didn’t pay any attention to her at all, he kept coming fast. I stopped walking, mostly concerned for Charlie who was close by my side (the other dogs were nearby but not that close), I thought the dog might be headed “for” him. I was trying to think of what I should do to protect Charlie. There was something extremely menacing about the way that dog held his body as he charged us. The woman did not change her pace at all, and simply yelled “heel” again. By the time he reached us I learned it was me, not Charlie, who had “piqued” his attention. I calmly and assertively, as I could muster, told him “No,” and at the same time, called out to his owner, “Get your dog… Put him on a leash”, and then, when I saw that her pace had not quickened, “Run fast, get him.” By that time he had lunged up on to my shoulders, and was growling in my face. She finally reached us, grabbed him off, and said something inane like, “I don’t know why he did that!”
I was extremely upset and told her that his behavior was totally unacceptable and he must be kept on a leash (she still hadn’t leashed him) she seemed mollified and contrite and mentioned that she was working with a trainer etc. I wish I had had my wits about me to point out that she committed two big mistakes, the first is that she never called him off, never said No or Off, Leave It or anything like that, “heel” doesn’t mean anything in such a situation, and she should have seen that. And, even more importantly, she should have run to us as soon as he did not respond to her, and certainly by the time he was “on” me.
Unfortunately, I have seen this time and time again, perhaps not in quite such a dramatic fashion as what happened this morning. But I don’t understand why if a dog is doing something wrong, is showing any aggression to a person or a dog, that some people seem loathe to rush over to leash up their dogs or say No to them. I’m sure you have seen this too, it is one thing to hold your ground when you are training your dog in recall, but in “real” life situations, what matters most is that you have control over your dog and if a dog isn’t responding to your verbal cues, then you must do everything within your power to divert him, to leash him, to remove him from the altercation.
I am curious to hear your thoughts. What would you have done/said to her? What do you think she should have done? Has something like that happened to you? I must admit that I am still rattled by this.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Watch and learn
I recently saw this video of a training session focusing on transferring a cue and I was awed by it. It’s easy to read about training in a textbook, but it’s actually rare to see textbook training. This video shows trainer Laura Monaco Torelli training her Rhodesian Ridgeback Santino. She is transferring his visual cue, which tells him to spin in a circle to the right, to the verbal cue “twist.” I thought the training was so beautiful that I want to share it. I must admit in all honesty that Laura is a friend of mine, but it is her training skills and not our friendship that has prompted me to write this post.
The video is not edited, which I like. When videos are edited, often for good reason, it’s hard to know if you are getting the full story of the training session. Watch this video to see excellent training, and see below for more on what I like so much about it.
Laura sets up some good training basics and sticks to them. She is very clear about her goals of transferring the cue and of ending on a good note. She works without a leash, which is always best for training (if it’s safe) since the leash won’t get in the way and because the dog has the freedom to choose where to be. She works in short sessions of one minute. Training takes a lot of mental energy for both dogs and trainers, so short sessions are best. In the breaks between sessions, she gives Santino lots of happy attention and makes it fun for him. She mixes other cues into her training session, which makes it more interesting for her dog and also assures that he is really responding to each cue rather than always doing the same behavior. She uses a high rate of reinforcement for Santino, which is so important when learning something new.
Laura uses a clear visual signal without extraneous movement. This is typical of people who train marine mammals, which is where Laura got her start with training.
Laura begins with high rates of reinforcement for Santino’s attention and his choice to wait for a cue rather than simply offering behavior and hoping that he hits on the right one. It is so critical in training for an animal to be attending to the trainer and to cues rather than just performing random behaviors, but this has to be taught and reinforced just as other actions do. I love that she reinforces him a lot for attending to her, which is the basis of all training.
She links the verbal cue with the visual cue clearly, saying the new cue “twist” before giving the visual cue of her hand motion. They must be paired in this order and linked tightly in time for the transfer to be successful.
Laura’s timing is impeccable. She clicks as Santino starts the behavior she’s looking for, whether it’s for a right spin or any of the other behaviors she cues him for during the session.
Her delivery of the treats is clean, and by that I mean that it is clearly separated in time from the clicks she gives him. It’s important not to pollute the marker (also called a bridge or a secondary reinforcer) with the food by having them overlap in time.
Great training requires great choices, and Laura makes a lot of them. Her decisions about what to reinforce are spot on. It’s easy to see that in the video, but it’s hard to make those choices in real time, many per minute, in a situation where microseconds matter. She also chooses wisely to start by warming Santino up with the original visual cue in the first one-minute session.
Early on in the second session, Laura gets to the cue to spin rather than reinforcing him a lot of times for attention. I like that progression from the previous minute because he is already deeply into training mode.
The steps she takes to fade out the hand signal are methodical and gradual. She moves from following the verbal cue “twist” with a full hand signal to a smaller and smaller one until her last cue is faded to the point of just being a slight movement with her shoulder that doesn’t even involve her hand at all.
She wisely ends at this point when the dog has either responded to the verbal cue or to just that tiniest hint of the original visual cue. Ending on a good note is a goal of all training sessions, but recognizing that moment is an art.
Laura is always thoughtful of her dog, aware of distractions such as his thirst, activity behind her that he can see through the window, and “treat dust” on the ground.
Notable in this video is that Laura obviously enjoys the training and likes being with her dog. I love that she lights up around him, and adores him. She refers to him as “handsome” multiple times. (I prefer to describe him as a “bronzed god”, but her term works, too.)
Seeing training done well, as in this video, is instructive for anyone seeking to improve training skills. Are you like me? By that I mean, does it make you want to have a training session with your dog RIGHT NOW?
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