What’s a behaviorally healthy dog?

What makes a behaviorally healthy companion dog? I’d say the ability to get along well in a world designed for and by humans. And yet most of my dog-geeky friends and colleagues have – just like I do – a dog with a minor behavioral issue or two: insecurity or separation anxiety, overarousal in public, a tendency to bark and lunge at dogs on leash, …

These issues are so common that they seem normal to us. So normal, in fact, that we go out of our way to nip them in the bud: from the day we get a new puppy, we socialize her to dogs and people, and we carefully introduce her to the visual, auditory and tactile stimuli she will encounter in our world. We don’t just expect her to grow up and be behaviorally okay; we actively make an effort to minimize the chance of future behavioral problems. We recognize that we need to invest a lot of time and energy into setting our dogs up for lifelong behavioral success. And that seems pretty normal to us, too. So normal that we don’t consider minor behavioral issues a reason not to breed a particular dog, for example. If his hip scores are perfect and his ring performance is great – who cares that he doesn’t like strange dogs! We avoid potential problems by means of things like leash laws that, as long as people abide by them, keep the leash-aggressive dogs we have bred from biting each other.

San Pedro El Alto Dog

Over the course of the last year, I’ve been immersed in cultures that have different norms of dog ownership. I’ve observed something that fascinates me. The dogs I’ve seen on the sidewalks and ranging free in the streets – and there are a lot of them! – are the most behaviorally healthy population of dogs I’m familiar with. They get along with each other, and they get along with people and farm animals. They are attracted to people, but not to an obnoxious degree. They are moderately active, happily walking with the farm workers into the fields every day, but not pushy and demanding if they miss a day of exercise or attention. They are independent enough to not annoy their owners, but have a degree of handler focus that makes them stick to their people quite naturally when out and about, and curl up next to them when they work in the field rather than taking off – and all that without mat work or tethers, radius or recall training. They are the epitome of what people are looking for in a companion dog – even though their owners certainly haven’t invested a lot of time and energy into consciously socializing them as puppies.

Where do all these dogs come from, and why do they seem so much less aggressive, stressed, hyperactive, insecure, and barky than the average Western companion dog? Who – or what – makes them this way? And what are we doing wrong in Western Europe and North America since our dogs seem to have many more issues?

Maybe the free-roaming dogs I’ve seen here are close to the proto-dogs – to the first dogs who domesticated themselves a long time ago, when people started settling down. I like the theory of domestication put forth by Ray and Lorna Coppinger: dogs developed into dogs because of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The wolves with the shortest flight distance lived to reproduce, because they could eat the most food at the village dump: they got there first when someone threw out food and ate the best bits, and they didn’t waste energy on running away whenever a human looked their way. Tameness was THE selection criterion as far as behavior was concerned – and that’s how the wolf turned into the dog. Not because he was consciously bred by humans, but because he was well adapted to the ecological niche of the village dump. Tame animals got fed (i.e. they fed themselves), hence they survived.

The dogs in my neighborhood today are still very much the result of natural (rather than artificial) selection. The most well adapted ones survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to the next generation. The people in my neighborhood absolutely factor into this, but much more indirectly than a breeder would. They don’t select breeding pairs – they simply feed the dogs they like, don’t feed the ones they don’t like, and cull the ones that cause problems.

I can see at least four behavioral criteria that determine whether a dog will live to reproduce and spread her genes in my neighborhood:

1. Attraction to people.
People live closely together around here; farmers often work in groups; children play in the street … Dogs need to get along with people. Threaten or bite someone or their child, and sooner or later, you’ll get culled.
People like dogs who are friendly and tame – those are the ones who get dinner scraps, and those are the ones who’ll pass their genes down to the next generation. However, be too much of an attention seeker and annoy your people, chew up their shoes and disrupt their workday, and you won’t get fed, and might get culled if you take it too far. The result: most dogs in my neighborhood are neutral if ignored, and friendly and curious when invited to interact.

2. Dog-Dog Sociability.
The free roaming dogs here tend to get along well with each other. I haven’t seen a fight – neither here in Guatemala nor in Thailand. Conflicts are resolved through body language alone. They are social: I’ve seen them play with each other, and I’ve seen them roam in small groups of friends.

3. Being a scavenger rather than a hunter.
People around here have farm animals, especially chickens and horses, and the dogs are indifferent to them. It’s unlikely the people in my neighborhood have the time or energy to train a dog who kills chickens or chases horses. This is not a rich population with a lot of spare time to train dogs – it’s easier to get rid of a dog who doesn’t fit into the community. Benevolent indifference towards farm animals is positively selected for.

4. Moderate activity and moderate loyalty.
Everyone here walks. And everyone who walks walks with their dogs. Men, women, children – usually, their dogs aren’t far. People will occasionally call out to their dogs, but mostly just let them roam around them. Dogs who aren’t interested in joining their people on errands will likely not get thrown a tortilla for lunch.

In a nutshell: the typical free-roaming dog here knows his people and sticks with them – but is independent enough to not be annoying. He enjoys exercise enough to walk a few miles every day, but doesn’t require more than that. He doesn’t chase critters and farm animals, and he is good with people and good with other dogs.

I’d say this describes the ideal companion dog – the kind of dog most people would love to have by their side! And maybe this is exactly the kind of animal we started out with when we began to artificially select and develop different breeds of dogs. But somewhere down the line, we lost elements of sociability and mental balance. Maybe part of the reason is that looks got more important, and behavior less important. Maybe sociability just didn’t seem as important anymore when dogs started to be kept inside the house and walked on leashes: as long as we control and micromanage our dogs, it doesn’t matter much if they like other dogs or people! Maybe developing breeds for particular purposes made us zoom in on one or two particular traits and neglect others, equally important ones. Maybe some desired qualities got lost through inbreeding. I don’t know – but I’m deeply fascinated by the dogs I’ve met around here, and I’d love to hear from you if you have observed a similar (or very different!) population of free-roaming dogs in a different part of the world!

Please note: these are my subjective thoughts and observations. Are things really the way they seem to me? I don’t know. Maybe they are. Maybe they’re not. I’m not trying to say that breeding dogs according to breed club standards is wrong, either – not at all. I like purebred dogs. But these dogs, the free-roaming ones in my neighborhood? I’m very fond of them, too.

From Passive Counter-Conditioning to Active Replacement Behaviors

No matter when a relationship starts going south, people are most likely to get divorced in spring, the season of sunshine, birds, and break-ups. One possible explanation is that being outside more and soaking up sunlight energizes us. It wakes us from hibernating, and lifts our spirits just enough for us to finally turn our unhappy emotions into concrete actions.

The spring divorce peak seems like a good analogy for a behavioral trend in young dogs: traumatic experiences may only show their full effect when the dog is an adult – once the teenage hormones have subsided and she has grown up. Being a teenage dog is our metaphorical winter – the body is busy dealing with changing hormonal statuses, new impressions and experiences; the brain chemistry changes every day. The dog may be feeling yucky feelings – but she doesn’t yet act on them, just like the unhappy partners spending their last winter together. Once spring is around the corner and the dog stops being a teenager, we see who she really is: an adult shaped by genetics and experiences, ready to translate her emotions into actions.

Grit had a traumatic experience when she was about 6 months old. She had been a confident puppy up until then. This experience made her suspicious of a number of things – among others, strangers passing us on walks. Her body language mirrored her discomfort, but there was no strong outward reaction. I focused on classical counterconditioning: when someone passed us, I’d stop by the side of the road, wait until Grit noticed the person, and then feed one cookie after the other until the stranger had passed us. If she was on a leash, I’d often just stand there with her and feed; if she was off-leash, I’d ask her to sit and then feed, feed, feed. This is a basic counterconditioning protocol dog trainers use a lot: the approach of something scary or uncanny is being paired with good stuff in the hope that the scary thing will come to predict the good stuff and eventually take on the positive emotional connotations of the good stuff. In Grit’s case, this worked well enough as a management tool. Her emotions towards strangers passing us on a walk didn’t seem to change a lot though, even though I applied the counterconditioning strategy almost every time we met someone.

When Grit grew into an adult Malinois, her passivity around strangers began to change. Coming of age was giving her the confidence to say her opinion – and her opinion was: “Get lost, stranger!” I could tell Grit would translate her insecurity into fight rather than flight if I just ignored this and kept doing what I had been doing: every time a dog barks and lunges at a passerby, the barking and lunging gets reinforced. The dog is saying “Get lost!”, and passersby tend to keep walking. To the dog, it looks like her behavior has caused the person to go away (rather than pull out a murder weapon and butcher herself and you, as was obviously the intention of this stranger walking down the street suspiciously, wearing suspicious shoes and a suspicious t-shirt and smelling all suspiciously and talking into a suspicious cellphone!) Naturally, the dog assumes he has just saved both your lives (you are welcome!) and averted a tragedy, and is determined to apply the same barking-and-lunging strategy next time.
Clearly, I needed a new approach to passing strangers on the road – feeding cookies wasn’t cutting it. I wanted Grit to learn a way that would get her what she wanted (distance from the stranger) without stressing her out (by being forced to remain motionless while things were going on around her). I wanted to give her an alternative proactive behavior rather than asking her to passively wait and sit and eat food while a stranger passed us.

Grit reminded me of an important lesson fearful dogs have taught me: for many dogs, waiting patiently while a trigger passes isn’t an appropriate replacement behavior to lunging and barking – no matter how many cookies we feed. Passivity (waiting and “doing nothing” is pretty passive) isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for active, motion-based unwanted behaviors.

An ideal replacement behavior would be as physiologically similar to the original (unwanted) behavior as possible. In Grit’s case, the original behavior entailed movement. Think of your dog as a pressure cooker filled with emotions. Barking/lunging releases pressure and makes the dog feel better. If I ask her to sit politely and wait while eating food, she may still feel pressure cooker feelings – only that sitting still doesn’t release the pressure! As Grit got older and the pressure inside her got stronger, she’d bark as soon as I released her after the person had passed us. She needed to put this pent-up anxiety somewhere!

In order to work towards a more active alternative behavior, I resolved to keep walking instead of waiting by the side of the road and feeding as many cookies as I possibly could. Whenever possible, I curved around the scary trigger and avoided standing still – often, in fact, without feeding Grit at all. It turned out that keeping a distance to the trigger and staying in motion was more important than eating. First on a long line, later off leash, but wearing a muzzle, and under voice control (calling her to me to curve with me), we worked on encounters. When there was no way out, I played LAT instead of just sitting and feeding: now Grit had something to do rather than just remain passive and silent. She could look back and forth between the passerby and me, and stay in a thinking state of mind.

I’m really happy with the result: without me cuing her or intervening at all, Grit will now, whenever she gets a chance, choose to curve around or move away to make space for the stranger we are passing. And when that isn’t an option, she just keeps moving to get past them, like any other dog who never had a traumatic experience would. If she feels yucky feelings, she’ll speed up to get past the strangers faster. She herself is making these excellent behavioral choices – and her good choices are automatically reinforced by the fact that the passerby keeps walking and the distance increases. Also, I don’t need to manage her all the time, which is always one of my goals on my walks. Check it out. All the clips below are from the same walk. There’s no trigger stacking – we can hike busy routes off leash! (*)

Grit uses a path up the hill to put some distance between herself and the people passing us:

Grit runs into the field when people approach (the dog who keeps walking towards the people is Game):

Grit takes a path up the hill to let the guy pass (this time, Game follows her):

Sometimes, there is no way to give the stranger space to pass. Grit is now dealing with this by just keeping going:

In this video, you can see her speed up – her way to get past the encounter as fast as possible. She translates insecurity into movement, and this releases the pressure she may be feeling:

This encounter is nice and relaxed. Grit trusts the stranger isn’t going to approach or even look at her – she can just keep going.

(*) There is no leash-law here. The dirt road in this video is frequented by off-leash dogs that either walk with farmers or just walk themselves, so having my dogs pass people off leash is not an issue here. Off leash dogs are the cultural norm in rural Guatemala, and people don’t mind. Here’s another video from the same walk, showing two random dogs who decided to join us for part of our walk, and another scene of Grit – and everyone else! – running past people.

Long Line Handling & Hiking

Do you want to take your dog hiking on a long line, but can’t stand long lines? This post is for you! It’s no fun getting tangled in 50 feet of rope, and dragged all over the place! There’s a number of techniques you can use to make the long line experience more enjoyable for yourself.

Choosing the right equipment

I use a back-attachment harness with long lines. This ensures your dog won’t hurt her neck in case she ever hits the end of it at full speed. My personal favorite is Hurtta’s padded Y harness.

As for choosing the line itself, I recommend biothane. It gives you a much better grip than webbing, there is less probability of rope burn, it doesn’t soak up water when you’re hiking in the rain, it’s easy to clean, and quite indestructible. Because it’s slippery, it’s less likely to end up with tight knots that are hard to undo or get caught on obstacles.

If you use a webbing line, or if your dog is strong and tends to unexpectedly pull, wear riding gloves for additional grip and rope burn prevention. The fabric kind with little rubber dots are both cheap and effective.

Choose a long line without a handle – if you drop it and let it drag, the handle will just make your and your dog’s life miserable by constantly getting caught on obstacles. If you already have one with a handle, just cut it off.

The broader the line, the easier it is to hold on to it and keep yourself and your dog safe if she tries to take off. However, broader also means heavier – the smaller and lighter your dog, the thinner your line should be. I recommend a 40 to 60 feet, ⅝ inch long line for a medium sized dog. If you’re new to long lines or have a dog who tend to be all over the place, broader is always better. Don’t get more than 50 feet if you’re trying long line hiking for the first time. The longer your line, the more difficult the handling, and the less fun your experience. You can always upgrade to a longer one later!

Choose a color that’s easily visible against the ground you tend to hike on. The easier the line is visible, the easier it will be to notice and step out of any loops around your feet. That, again, helps prevent you from falling!

Safe Handling

Be a splitter, not a lumper – not just when it comes to training your dog, but also when it comes to training yourself. Practice handling your long line at home, when it isn’t attached to a dog. Once you’re fluent as far as looping it up is concerned, add the dog.

Option 1: Looping

With your dominant hand (right hand in this picture), take turns making loops to the left and right side of your non-dominant hand. The non-dominant hand creates an eye the leash runs through.

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There should NEVER be a string running over the back of your fingers: if your dog pulls, this loop will close rapidly and can break your hand!

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The pictures above are by my friend and talented photographer Isabell Grubert.

This looping technique is also ideal for storing long lines.

Option 2: Dragging

Again, you’ll create an eye for the long line with your non-dominant hand. However, rather than looping up the line, you’ll just let whatever part your dog isn’t using drag behind you. Use your dominant hand in front of the non-dominant one in order to stop your dog or slide loose parts of the long line back behind you.

Don’t get trapped in a loop!

Whenever you find yourself at the center of a C, U or O made by the leash on the ground, step or jump out of it right away. You want the line to always be an S or an I next to you, never looping around your feet. Standing inside a loop is an accident waiting to happen! Be mindful of this the first few times, and soon, stepping out will be something your body just does without requiring conscious effort.

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Step out of the loop!

Giving in to leash pressure

Just like you should have a skill or two in place before you head out on an enjoyable long line hike, so should your dog.

Teach your dog that feeling pressure on her harness is a cue to turn back towards you. This prevents pulling on the long line: every time she reaches the end, she will automatically be cued to stop and reorient rather than pull.

To teach this, gently pull on your dog’s harness, then feed near your body so she has to walk a step or two towards you in order to get her cookie. Once she offers taking a step towards you as soon as she feels the pressure on her harness, add a click: gently pull on the harness – mark as she is turning towards you – feed near your body. Gradually extend the distance between you and your dog, and repeat the exercise. Then, generalize it to the real world, and you’re ready to use it on a hike!

Here’s a short video from my recall class that shows the second step (adding the click) to the giving in to leash pressure exercise:

Feel comfortable handling your long line? Hit the trails and have fun!

Lifelong Management for Aussie Blitz

Meet the dog

When Leo and Monika contacted me, their Australian Shepherd, Blitz, had just bitten for the third time. Clearly, something needed to change.

Blitz was three years old when I met him. He had lived the first half of his life in the Tyrolean mountains, unconfined and unrestrained. Leo used to take him mountain biking, cross-country skiing, and hiking. When Blitz was two, Leo had an accident that damaged his knee, and moved to Vienna soon afterwards. Blitz lost both the freedom of living on an unfenced property in a mountain town, and his daily exercise. He seemed to adapt to a slower pace of life well though.

… until the incidents. The first one happened two months before Leo and Monika asked me for help. They had friends over. Blitz spent most of the evening relaxing next to one of the visitors’ chairs and asking for cuddles every once in a while. When the friend got up to leave, Blitz jumped up and bit his leg. The friend yelled; Blitz let go; and Monika scolded him and put him in the bathroom. It had been a full bite; the teeth had left little red dots on the skin.

A few weeks later, Leo’s dad visited. Blitz waited for food to be dropped while he was making a lunch sandwich. Leo’s dad turned around, a plate with the sandwich in one hand, and reached out to pet Blitz with the other hand. Blitz bit his hand. Leo’s dad pulled back, and the dog let go immediately, turned around, and trotted out of the kitchen.

The third incident happened when a good friend was over. She sat on the floor, and Blitz dropped a toy in her lap. They played fetch for a few minutes; then she stopped playing to scratch his butt. Blitz seemed to enjoy it for thirty seconds, then whirled around and nipped her cheek, leaving a scratch.

The next morning, I got the call. I met them at their apartment, and was greeted by a wiggly, happy, very friendly red Australian Shepherd. He seemed confident and social; happy to meet me, yet polite, keeping his paws on the floor.

While Monika and Leo filled me in, Blitz rested next to my chair, looking content. Based on the owners’ account alone, there was no clear trigger to the three incidents: once, there was food involved, once a toy, and once no resource at all. The bites had happened at different times of day, and in different rooms. Blitz had bitten two men and one woman. The dog I observed during our conversation seemed friendly, social, and reasonably well mannered.

I gave Monika and Leo a management protocol, and sent them to my vet for a health check. She gave Blitz a clean bill of health, which was my cue to suggest a number of lifestyle changes in addition the management protocol.

Blitz’ Management Plan and Lifestyle Changes

Instead of getting kibble from a bowl, Blitz would get canned dog food from frozen Kongs in the future. He used to be fed in the kitchen, but would now receive all his meals either in his crate or in the bedroom. This ensured that both his crate and the bedroom became places he enjoyed hanging out.

Blitz would have no more direct interactions with visitors. Before opening the door to a visitor, Monika or Leo would take Blitz into the bedroom or send him in his crate. Once the visitors had come in, he received a frozen Kong. The order of visitor first, food second was so that the arrival of guests predicted delicious meals rather than the other way around.

Every time Blitz went out in public and might have interactions with people, he was going to wear a muzzle. We worked with cream cheese and peanut butter to make the muzzle a delicious rather than annoying experience.

Blitz’ everyday life had changed dramatically after Leo’s accident and the move to the city. Was this part of the reason he ended up biting three people? The truth is that we can’t know. Maybe it was – or maybe it wasn’t. Pointing out this possibility, however, motivated Monika to step up: she used to go running five times a week. From now on, Blitz would join her, which was a huge upgrade from his three daily walks around the block. Leo had given up outdoor sports – his main bonding activity with Blitz. He wasn’t into dog training classes or teaching tricks. After a little brainstorming, he decided to promise Blitz to work with him for 3 to 5 minutes at least twice a week. He’d set a timer, and work on one or two skills from a list of simple, useful behaviors we came up with together: sitting, lying down, staying while Leo moved around and eventually out of the room, going in his crate, leash manners, touching his nose to Leo’s hand, jumping on and off the couch on cue. I showed Leo how to set Blitz up for success, and how and when to reward him with a cookie. I hoped the short training sessions would not only increase Blitz’ quality of life, but also become a new way for Leo and Blitz to bond.

I worked with Blitz about two years ago, and have checked in a few times since. There have been no further bite incidents. Blitz ist still not allowed to interact with visitors, and he still wears a muzzle in public. I am proud of Monika and Leo for keeping up their management plan, which ensures that everyone is kept safe. After all, we don’t know whether physical and mental exercise or careful management are the reason Blitz has not bitten since.

It’s always a little unsatisfying to not know the precise trigger for or reason behind a behavior – for both dog trainers and owners! Sometimes we can only speculate, and lifelong management is the best solution. In Blitz’ case, however, I’m positive that his overall life quality increased after my intervention – which almost makes up for the fact that we still don’t know why he bit when he did.

A Year of Being a Choice Architect

Susan Friedman has a wonderful metaphor for shaping desired behavior in an animal: she says the trainer’s job is to be a choice architect – someone who makes the desired behavior easy and attractive, and the undesired behavior hard or impossible. Imagine putting a marble on a slope: it’ll choose to roll down – you don’t need to “make it.” As trainers, our job is to make sure the environment is slopy.

This way of looking at training has two elements I love: it emphasizes giving the dog choice (rather than “making them” do something), and it focuses on manipulating the environmental paths to reinforcement rather than the learner.

Soon after Game joined the family, I realized she would be a great dog to take places – if only I could shape her high sociability and environmental curiosity into laid-back confidence, and build her patience so she would choose to settle rather than pester people, whine or bark when she wanted to interact! Today, I want to tell you how choice architecture and patience helped Game grow from a dog who wanted to meet all the people and all the dogs all the time into a dog who is fun to take places.

Example: tracking group

When Game was an adolescent, I took her to a tracking class. I got permission to use the class as a distraction while doing my own thing. (I can’t say how much I appreciate my colleagues who let me do this kind of thing!)

I asked Game to wait her turn at a big distance from the group – a distance that made lunging and whining unlikely. Here, she had the choice to sit, stand, or lie down in the grass, or to wander and sniff within her leash radius. If she chose to sit or lie down, she got hot dogs and attention; if she stood up, nothing happened. The fact that after a while, she sat down and held her sit while watching the other dog/handler teams work showed me that I had chosen a good distance. Yes, I was the only one working at half a soccer field’s distance while everyone else was standing in a circle. But that was okay. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to my goal, and I wasn’t primarily there for the tracking.

Meeting friends

When we met friends – humans or dogs – I waited for Game to offer eye contact or a sit before releasing her to say hi. If she pulled on the leash, I just remained standing. If she whined or barked, I let her (and made a mental note to choose a bigger pre-release distance next time). If she briefly looked back at me, I marked and released her to say hi or go play. Once she started understanding the principle, she chose to look at me faster and faster.

Example: walking in public

The Siam Crown training fields came with lots of opportunities to take strolls on leash at a distance from other dogs who were pottied on leash, and learn to not run up to them, but just walk and explore. We could also walk off leash (Siam Crown is a gigantic park with a wall around it) while other dogs were training in the distance. I kept a distance where I trusted that Game was able to stay in her radius around me rather than being magnetized to the action on a nearby training field. With time, we got closer and closer to dogs working on their obedience or protection skills.

Eating out

I would find a spot at Siam Crown where I could read or cut up hotdogs with Game on a leash next to me. There were various dog training things going on in the distance. When Game lay down and stayed down, I reinforced her with attention and food.

We also visited Thai street food places – places where you usually don’t spend more than 15 minutes – and did the same things there. These were exciting! I had to up my treat value. I set the clock on my phone and rewarded every 15 seconds at first, then every 30 seconds, every 45 seconds … After a while, I was only dropping a treat between her paws every two minutes. This took work – but I was able to lower the rate of reinforcement surprisingly quickly! I set myself the goal to take Game to one of these places once every seven days. Once a week, I invested about 15 intense training minutes in this project. I didn’t find it to be a huge time investment, and loved seeing Game’s progress.

And … We did it!

Game just turned a year old in July, and I’m proud to say that we have met our training goal. Through making good choices easy and reinforcing, and preventing bad choices or making them difficult, Game has become a dog who can go places with me. She is laid-back and relaxed around people and dogs, and unphazed by commotion. (Not exactly a typical Malinois trait!) She makes good choices without me having to micromanage her.

Comfortable and relaxed in public:

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An enjoyable loose-leash sniff walk in a busy place:

Now that making good choices has become a habit, I am starting to increase Game’s level of freedom. In the past, I would have used distance and/or a leash to make walking up to people (a reinforcer for her) unlikely or impossible. Now, if I am with someone Game knows and likes, I don’t mind if she chooses to walk over and say hi. She won’t be over the top, and it’s not her default thing to do. Having been a choice architect in her first year of life is allowing me to increase the amount of freedom she has today.

Of course, I’ll keep reinforcing good choices rather than take them for granted: it’s fun to catch a dog being good!

Have you been a choice architect in your dog’s life? Tell me about it in the comments!

PS: Check out this blog post by Amanda Nelson. She is a choice architect for her dog in an agility context!

What We Choose to See

For the past few days, I’ve walked past a litter of street puppies in between Antigua’s bus terminal and market. It’s very busy there, loud; there’s lots of traffic.

The first time I saw the puppies, I noticed that someone had given the mom blankets, and made a makeshift cover of a plastic tarp to give her shade.

The puppies are still tiny; their eyes aren’t open yet. Today, I walked past them again, just as an elderly man was finishing making a slightly more stable and larger shelter for them. He used an old metal cart for a roof and wooden boxes as pillars, draped with the plastic tarp and additional blankets for walls. A water bowl was chained to one of the boxes.

The man had grey hair, and lots of little wrinkles in his sun-burned face. A big smile revealed an almost toothless mouth when I greeted him. “Are they yours?”, I asked, and he proudly agreed. These dogs – the mom, who was sleeping soundly, trustfully, while he built a shelter around her, and the white dog standing next to him, looking into the distance – he considers them HIS dogs. They have no collars; they probably don’t live with him, and he probably hasn’t bought or otherwise chosen them. Their paths must have intersected – he, selling things at the market; they, looking for scraps of food. The dogs, or the man, or all three of them decided to claim each other. They are his dogs now. And he is their human. The big white dog shoved his nose under the old man’s hand while we were talking.

The man pulled back one of the blankets a bit so I could peek at the puppies. “They are sleeping,” he explained. “They can’t see yet. A few more days …!”

He probably doesn’t have much, and he probably doesn’t need much. Neither do his dogs. Life at the market is loud, and colorful, and rough sometimes, and there is love in it. Days go by like this. Weeks. Months. Years. Not a lot changes.

This image – a big, white dog shoving his nose into an old man’s hand in the middle of a bustling market – is the kind of image I choose to keep in my heart forever. I’ll remember the details: the white shirt the man is wearing, with thin blue stripes, tucked into a pair of washed-out blue jeans held up by a worn leather belt. The valleys and trenches dug into his face by the years and the sun, and his open smile – the shared happiness of two strangers as he lifts the blanket to let me peek at the three puppies and the sleeping mom. He lifts it just a bit, so he can give me the gift of a look without disturbing her. The old bottle crate cart, the roof of the makeshift shelter, must have been blue once. The paint is flaking off, and the metal bars are rusty. The grey plastic tarp that makes the roof. The red fleece blanket the mom is resting on. The sounds of a bustling market. Honking. The rumbling of tuk-tuks going over cobblestone streets under a bright blue sky. People advertising fruit, and tortillas. Motorcycle engines firing. The sun. The dust. One of my favorite places in the world.

People like our greedy Austrian ex-landlord? Sure, I’ll keep him in my memories (he makes a most excellent story, and I get better at telling it every time!), but not in my heart. The room in my heart is reserved for people like the old man and his dogs, and the smile the size of his heart.

I think that’s why I meet warm, nice, generous people wherever I go, and why I genuinely like humans. We choose what to keep in our hearts, and it defines us. It makes us either more cynical and bitter the older we get, or softer and gentler.

We choose what to see when we look at a scene, too. The scene today? If you wanted to, you could see irresponsible dog ownership, I’m sure. You could see sadness, and poverty, and dirt. The fact that you could see these other things is what makes me hesitate to share my story. I don’t want you to take this good story and make it into something bad. But you know what? I do want you to see it through my eyes. So here it is; my gift to you.

The old man put his hand on his white dog’s back. “He’s the dad,” he said.

The Lack-of-Choice Routine

We just flew from Thailand to Austria. In order to be allowed to do so, I needed an export license and a health certificate for my dogs. Getting these documents required a trip to the animal quarantine office at the cargo area of an international airport in Bangkok, where the dogs were examined by the airport vet. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of experience and the kind of environment dogs like Grit handle well, so I stuck to a routine I have for situations that might overwhelm her. It’s a simple and helpful routine that can be applied to all kinds of unavoidable experiences, so I thought I’d walk you through it. Maybe some of you will find it helpful for your own dogs.

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

Freedom and Agency

I’m about to talk about taking away my dog’s choices and putting her in a situation she’d rather not be in. If you know me and my dogs, you know that they usually have a great deal of freedom. In no way am I suggesting that the lack of agency I’m about to describe should be applied in everyday life! It is meant for exceptional situations – ones that you couldn’t or haven’t prepared your dog for, but have to get through.

The lack-of-choice routine is a management tool, not a training replacement.

I believe that medical and husbandry training are invaluable, as is building a positive relationship between your dog and your regular vet, and learning how to do routine procedures yourself (some vets – at least in Austria – will let you do things like read your dog’s microchip or take her temperature yourself). However, I also believe that we can’t prepare for everything, and that sometimes, a sensitive, fearful or anxious dog will be put in a situation you haven’t or couldn’t prepare them for. It’s part of life, and we have to find a way to get through it. The lack-of-choice routine helps in these situations. It’s not a replacement for training, but a management tool.

In my experience, adult dogs – even sensitive and insecure ones – are generally able to handle short periods of discomfort without being traumatized by them, and without developing new behavioral problems because of them – as long as you, the human on the other end of the leash, handle these potentially scary experiences wisely. Once a dog’s personality is fully developed, it is pretty resilient. That is to say: it is hard to change it. It takes longer to increase an adult dog’s confidence than to increase a puppy’s confidence, for example. The upside of this is that it also takes longer to decrease an adult dog’s confidence than, say, an adolescent dog’s confidence.

Have a plan that helps you feel in charge! Know what to expect! Have helpers if you need them!

I made sure I knew in advance what the airport environment would be like, and what would happen there: it would be in a busy cargo area; there would likely be other people with dogs and cats, crammed together in a small waiting room; and I would probably have to wait for a long time. The vet would read the microchip, take the temperature, and check the skin and fur for ticks and fleas. Knowing these things in advance helped me prepare for them.

I had a helper come so he could stay at the car with the dogs while I was gone, and leave the engine and AC running. I would leave the dogs in the car, bring their EU pet passports and paperwork into the office and let the vet know that I would get my dogs – one after the other – when it was our turn. That way, we didn’t have to sit in a crowded waiting room amongst cats and dogs for an hour or two. I informed the vet that I would bring in the first dog, then take her back to the car and bring the second dog, then take her back to the car as well, and return to pick up the export licence and pay.

Lay your plan out to whoever you are talking to before you get your dog. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people tend to agree with it, even if your approach is unusual or uncommon. For example, don’t ask if you can leave your dog in the car until it’s your turn – just be friendly, and state that you are going to get your dog from the car when it is her turn. That’s just the way it is going to be, not something up for discussion. Having all the paperwork ready helps, too: you don’t want to take up any more of the staff’s time than necessary. They are probably busy and stressed out, and looking forward to the end of their work day! Don’t make it harder than it already is.

Do something for your dog that relaxes both of you!

Before leaving for the airport, Grit and Game got a good off-leash walk and swim. They got to run and play and sniff to their hearts’ content, followed by breakfast. I added Zylkene to Grit’s breakfast. I don’t know if it makes a difference for her, but it does for me: it makes me feel like I’m helping her get through the day and taking good care of her, which in turn helps me feel relaxed and confident about our plans for the day.

If necessary, do something for yourself!

If you tend to get nervous in situations that are stressful for your dog, take something that helps you relax yourself! Nervosity is contagious. If you are freaking out, a sensitive dog will likely get nervous too – even if she would have been fine otherwise. By ensuring you yourself will be okay, you are also helping your dog.

Don’t give your dog the chance to make bad choices!

That’s a big one – maybe THE biggest factor.

In training, I set up scenarios in which I can give Grit the freedom to make the right choice herself. When we work on her confidence around strangers, I make sure to not set her up to fail. I try to have sessions where Grit’s reaction looks completely normal to an observer. A good session of working on confidence is one a bystander wouldn’t recognize as such, like this example of walking in a residential street.

I want Grit to learn to choose to walk away when she is uncomfortable. I have seen way too many fear-aggressive Malinois, and I try to be proactive about teaching Grit the opposite reaction. I suspect that genetically, Malinois are a breed that is more likely to choose “fight” over “flight” or “freeze” when they feel threatened. If they are worked over threshold, fear aggression is a common result. This leads to a vicious cycle where the “dangerous dog” is severely punished in order to get rid of the “fight” response and get a “freeze” response instead. A dog who “freezes” when scared is probably safer than a dog who “fights” (bites) when feeling threatened, but I don’t think that dog is a happy dog. Personally, I want neither fight nor freeze. I would like my dog to not be in situations where she feels like she needs to do any of these things at all, but if she does get into these situations – and sometimes, life happens and she will! – I want Grit to be able to walk away in order to increase the distance to a scary stimulus rather than attack it. My strategy is practicing in situations where she is able to make the right choice, and avoiding opportunities for her to make the wrong choice. I want walking away from instead of towards a scary stimulus to become a habit she doesn’t have to think about.

Sometimes – like when I needed the export license from the animal quarantine office – I need to put Grit in a situation where she, given a choice, would probably choose badly. I don’t doubt that if scared and cornered, she’d resort to biting the person she felt threatened by. And why not? It’s a natural reaction, and in her breed, probably one that has been – on purpose or as a by-product of other breeding goals – selected for.

I make sure that Grit will not be able to choose in situations where I don’t trust her choice-making, and I use contextual cues that let her know from the moment we get out of the car that this is a situation where I am in charge, and I am not asking her opinion. This happens rarely – my dogs have a lot of freedom in their lives, and their opinion matters almost always to me. But there are situations where I take away the choice, and I’m very clear about it.

If Grit felt threatened and bit, it would be a reflexive, emotional reaction – one that just happened rather than a conscious choice on her part. A classical reaction. However, operant learning can still occur. If the person being bitten or growled at withdrew their hand, or jumped back – and most people will, of course! – biting or growling would be negatively reinforced. We cannot reinforce an emotion, but an action based on an emotion can be reinforced by its consequence. Fear is an emotion. Biting is an action often based in fear. Withdrawing the hand is a direct consequence of the dog’s bite/growl – and it’s a consequence a dog who would like the scary thing to go away will get relief from. Negative reinforcement is likely to happen.

When Grit has choice and agency (which is most of the time), she wears a collar, a harness, or nothing at all. When she doesn’t have choice, she wears a head halter. It is very easy to guide a dog in a head halter wherever you want them to go. It lets you turn their head where you want to turn it, so you even control what they look at and see. I use a lead with a snap on both ends for situations like this, because I’ve seen dogs get out of head halters. One end will be on the head halter, and one end will be attached to a harness or collar. Grit will wear a Baskerville Ultra muzzle over her head halter. I like this muzzle best because it’s sturdy, I can feed through it, and it fits most dogs (unless they have long noses like collies or sighthounds) well. Grit knows that when she is wearing both a halter and a muzzle, I am not asking her opinion.

I hold the leash close to Grit’s head. She can’t really walk or sniff where she wants, and it’s clear that I expect her to walk next to me, which she does.

When we got into the waiting room, the vet was just finishing up with another client. I sat down, and Grit climbed in my lap. She does this when she feels insecure, and I encourage it. I believe it’s a good thing when our dogs turn to us for safety.

When it was our turn, I led Grit to where the vet wanted her, told the vet I was going to hold Grit for her, and then secured her. There’s no science behind the way I hold her – this is just what I’ve found to work well for holding dogs still. I kneel down, and wrap my left arm around the dog’s breast and neck, and use it to hold her head against my body. My right arm goes over her back and under her belly, holding her body against my body. Now the vet could check out her skin and fur, take her temperature, and if she had wanted, she could also have taken a closer look at Grit’s eyes or ears. Grit knows being held this way. She doesn’t struggle – she knows there is only one option: hold still. We were done quickly, I thanked the vet, told her I would return Grit to the car and then come back, and then we left. She shook off the stress, and happily jumped back into her car crate to continue with her day.

Why it works

The lack-of-choice routine has been working well for Grit in situations like this. She is able to go right back to everyday business – sleeping, hiking, working, playing, eating … as soon as the stressful situation is over. I assume this is because (1), we have a relationship based on trust, and (2), Grit knows to follow my lead any time she is wearing a halter and muzzle and being led on a short leash. Her job in this situation isn’t to figure out how to get out of it or solve it, obsess about it or panic over it, and she accepts this fact. Would she rather be somewhere else? For sure. Does it stress her out completely and ruin her day (or her week, month, or life)? No. It enables her to get through an uncomfortable experience with my help, and then move on with her life – a life filled with freedom, agency, and choice.

Your management tools are most helpful if they themselves don’t increase your dog’s stress level even more! Practice in relaxed, everyday situations!

If I only ever used the head halter, muzzle and my way of securing Grit in scary situations, she’d start feeling stressed as soon as she saw me get these tools or touched her this was. I make sure to use them in everyday life as well. For example, we’ll occasionally go for a nice off-leash walk with the muzzle on, and I’ll briefly hold my dogs like I do at the vet office during personal play or cuddle sessions. Grit has also learned to be comfortable in a head halter away from scary situations, and long before I ever used these tools in scary places. I’ll sometimes use it to get from A to B in everyday life.

Here’s a demo video. In the first clip, you’ll see it’s no big deal for Grit to wear the muzzle and happily run off leash. She feels about the muzzle like I feel about my glasses: I forget that I even wear them. She is also used to being led on a head halter and short leash (clip 2), and to wear a muzzle as well as a halter (note that I’d put the muzzle and halter on a little more tightly in real-life situations). I do not ask her to put her nose in the muzzle or into the halter – this would be like asking her consent to be handled in potentially uncomfortable ways. In the situations I want to use these tools, I’d be lying to her if I pretended that she had a choice about it.

The final clip shows me holding Grit in the way described above. She isn’t a hundred percent comfortable here – her tail is a little too low, and her wag, front leg lift and facial expression a little too appeasing for my taste. I’ve used this way of holding her twice in the last week – once the day before we flew from Thailand to Austria, and once the other day in Austria, when I got her health certificate for the next leg of our trip. He reaction here tells me that we need to do more practice sessions in fun and relaxing contexts in order for her to feel better about it again! In any case, you can see how I can move her head this way, and lift her up in case the vet needed to examine her belly.

What is your favorite way of getting your dog through an uncomfortable situation you haven’t been able to prepare her for?

Case Study: Toni gets paid for looking at dogs

Last week, I told you about Toni’s relaxation blanket that helped him stay calm around visitors. Today, I’m going to share how we tackled the second behavior his owner wanted to change: lunging and barking at dogs he saw in the street.

During our first consult, I asked Sabrina to take me on one of her usual walks, and do everything the way she normally would, so I could see the problem. Given the part of Vienna that Sabrina lives in, it was likely that we would meet a dog or two, even if we just walked around the block.

Toni walked on his leash relatively nicely. He took his time sniffing doorways and lamp posts, and peeing on trees. The people walking by and the traffic noise didn’t seem to bother him. He’d trot along happily, sniffing here and there, and pee on lots of trees. Except for his dog reactivity, he was a pleasure to walk in a busy town. He ignored strangers on the street beautifully, and Sabrina was doing a great job giving him opportunities to take his time sniffing rather than pulling him along.

When a man with two Labs suddenly appeared in a doorway further down the street, Toni reacted as soon as they entered his peripheral field of vision. He barked, hackles raised, and pulled towards them. Sabrina held on to the leash (which wasn’t easy, given Toni’s size!), and waited while the guy with the Labs crossed the street and disappeared around a corner. Toni shook when the dogs had disappeared, and went right back to sniffing the spot he had been investigating.

Sabrina explained that this was a typical Toni reaction: he’d become aware of a dog – sometimes, that dog had to come quite close until Toni noticed; sometimes, he was still further away. Toni would pull and bark until the dog had disappeared. Since Toni was a big black dog, the other owner would usually get out of the way, and Sabrina tended to just stay where she was, tightly holding on to the leash, until the trigger was gone.

Toni didn’t have dog friends or regular contact with other dogs except the ones he saw in the street. He didn’t have a concept of how to deal with them, or what to do with them, but seeing them was clearly arousing. That arousal manifested itself in barking, pulling, and lunging.

We were going to teach him an alternative way to react to dogs in the street, and a way to get rid of the startle response that probably contributed to his arousal when a strange dog showed up unexpectedly. I love Leslie McDevitt’s “Look At That” (LAT) protocol for cases like this because it gives the dog something specific to do (look at the trigger), and it creates positive associations with the trigger (food!).

A quick break down of the “Look at That!” game for those of you who aren’t familiar with it:

The dog gets specific job around his triggers: showing them to his human by means of looking at them. Looking at the trigger gets clicked or otherwise marked. Upon hearing the marker sound, the dog turns back to his human to collect his treat. The owner can even click her dog several times in a row for looking at a trigger and then back at her – until the trigger is out of sight.

Later, a cue is attached to the behavior. I usually suggest “Schau!” – German for “Look!” – to my Austrian clients. We introduce the cue by saying it when the dog is about to turn his head and look at the trigger anyways. Through repetition, the dog connects the cue with the behavior. The goal is that eventually, the human can cue “Schau!” when she sees a trigger the dog hasn’t yet seen. The dog will then scan the environment until he finds the trigger in order to collect his click and treat.

I didn’t video Toni’s training sessions, but here is a short clip of another client working on the first steps of LAT with her adolescent Border Collie. I am coaching the owner and videoing, and a helper is walking my Greyhound up and down in the distance. Toni’s first sessions looked very similar to this.

Training steps

We started working on LAT once Toni had learned to work for his food and knew the meaning of the click (turn to your handler and collect a treat). This was achieved as a side effect of the first training steps with his relaxation blanket.

Toni’s first LAT dog session took place on a wide, open field outside the city. I instructed my helper to walk Fanta, my Greyhound, up and down at about half a soccer field’s distance from Toni, Sabrina and me. Toni saw the decoy dog in the distance. He tensed up and watched intensely. He didn’t lunge or bark though. The distance was much bigger than what he was used to from the city. I asked Sabrina to click right away, then feed from her hand as Toni turned towards her. He swallowed his cookie, then looked again. Click and treat. He looked back – click and treat. After about four clicks, Toni visibly relaxed. He had collected information and realized this dog in the distance, who wasn’t coming closer, was not a threat. What’s more, looking at him was getting paid in clicks and cookies! Once Fanta had walked up and down four times, Toni seemed happy and interested in this new game, and Sabrina’s timing and mechanics looked nice, I asked her to start walking and move parallel to Fanta. Now, Toni got clicked for looking at our helper while walking. Since this went just as well, Sabrina could reduce the distance to Fanta by 4 feet. She kept walking parallel and clicking Toni for looking there and back.

In the course of this first meeting, we did several short sessions, interrupted by sniffing breaks for Toni, and worked our way closer and closer to Fanta, until there were only about 15 feet between the two dogs, and they could still walk parallel to each other without Toni getting the least bit upset. Towards the end of this session, Sabrina started introducing the “Schau!” (German for look) cue. She inserted it right before Toni was about to look at Fanta.

In our next session together, we practiced in a different place, with a new helper dog, and went through the same protocol again. Toni did well, enjoyed the new game, and never got over threshold.

In session number three – my last LAT lesson with Sabrina before I sent her out to practice on her own – we were ready to play in a more urban environment. We worked in a parking garage I often use for this kind of training: it is usually not frequented by dogs (so there are no unexpected triggers), and it’s easy to do set ups with having a dog suddenly appear behind a car. It’s not a busy garage, so there are some, but not too man distractions. You can see this location in the video of Border Collie Rose above. We worked a bit with both my dogs (Fanta and Phoebe) as the decoys. This time, I handled the helper dogs myself while Sabrina and Toni worked alone. Sabrina learned to watch out for my dogs appearing behind a car, clicking as soon as Toni saw them, and then walking off in whatever direction was safe and increased the distance between us. I gradually made things more difficult for them, trying to hide behind parked cars to sneak closer and surprise them both! Neither Sabrina nor Toni were getting nervous at this point – it had really turned into a game they both were having fun with.

In the second half of our urban LAT session, we took Toni for a walk through the neighborhood. Now Sabrina was working in real life rather than with set-ups. She was going to apply the protocol we had been practicing to the random dogs she met in the street. I led them past the back of a small, fenced dog park: instead of avoiding triggers, we were now looking for them so Sabrina could click and treat Toni!

Sabrina was doing a great job looking out for dogs, cuing “Look!”, and being proactive. Rather than passively remaining in place and waiting for the trigger to pass, she now actively helped Toni cope by means of clicking, treating, and, whenever necessary, retreating.

After successfully testing what we had practiced in the real world together, Sabrina was ready to play the LAT game anytime she met a dog on her regular neighborhood walks. She was going to avoid really close encounters with other dogs for now, until the new, alternative behavior of looking instead of lunging and barking had become an ingrained habit.

When Sabrina wrote to tell me about their progress about half a year later, Toni had learned passing strange dogs on the same side of the street, on a narrow sidewalk, without getting upset! Sabrina isn’t bringing her clicker on walks anymore, but she still makes sure to always have treats on her, and feed a particularly tasty one after passing a dog up close. She says she believes Toni wouldn’t need to get a cookie every time anymore, but she likes paying and praising him because it reminds her how proud she is of him.

Why we chose this training approach

Sabrina’s goal was for Toni and her to be able to walk through her neighborhood without him getting upset about other dogs. She didn’t need him to interact with other dogs up close, but she wanted their city walks to be enjoyable and less stressful. Sabrina just needed a strategy and a plan about how to get through dog encounters. Having the LAT game in place, she stopped being passive, and was able to successfully lead Toni through the situation.

Book Recommendation

Check out Leslie McDecitt’s books Control Unleashed and Control Unleashed: The Puppy Program to learn more about the “Look at That” protocol as well as other training games! I really like Leslie’s training approach. Her books are targeted at sports dogs, but many of their games and concepts are very useful for working with pet dogs as well.

Case Study: Toni learns to relax around visitors

Meet the dog

Toni is a very big, black-and-tan, floppy-eared, 3ish years old male mixed breed who was adopted by Sabrina when he was about 5 months old. With the exceptions of the two issues described below, Toni is a laid-back and mostly low energy dog.

Sabrina has four housemates, and they all have active social lives – a lot of the time, there isn’t just five people at their house, but rather ten. It’s never boring, and it’s never quiet. Toni does well in this environment – he’s a good fit for a social owner. Soon after Sabine got him, he started greeting each and every one of their visitors like old friends, even when they were new ones.

The behaviors we wanted to change

1) Toni used to get very excited when Sabrina had visitors, would try and jump on their lap as they sat on the couch, solicit attention, scratch their legs, and whine. It wasn’t easy to have a conversation with Toni in the room. Sabrina wanted to change his behavior around visitors. Taking him places wasn’t easy, either, because he insisted on being the center of attention when Sabrina was out with friends.

2) Out in the street, Toni would bark and lunge at other dogs. Sabrina wanted him to learn to pass them calmly.

Training steps: Learning to relax around human friends

Toni’s life included a lot of different people coming and going. He had the right kind of personality for it – he liked people. However, he liked them so much that he wanted to interact with them, and he had learned that the best way to do so was to pester them until they gave him attention! Sabrina had a lot of dog-loving friends, so this had been working well for him.

We decided to teach Toni to station on a blanket. This particular blanket would only come out when Sabrina wanted him to stay on it, and the blanket itself would become the cue to lie down.

Our first challenge was that Toni wasn’t interested in food rewards. He was free fed. Sabrina had a 15-kilo bag of high-value kibble in a corner of her bedroom. The bag was always open, and Toni just walked over and ate when he was hungry. He had been free fed ever since Sabrina got him. He was a little chubby, but he didn’t over-eat. He was very relaxed around food in general. Food wasn’t a limited resource. This was convenient in everyday life, but presented a training challenge!

In order to increase Toni’s interest in earning his food, Sabrina stopped free-feeding him. The first thing Toni needed to learn was that food could be the consequence of something he did – a concept he wasn’t familiar with. However, he knew how to sit. This was our starting point. Sabrina asked him to sit, clicked, and fed a cookie. She threw the next cookie to make him get up again, asked for another sit, clicked, and threw a cookie. After looking slightly perplexed in the first few sessions, Toni decided that this strange new game was fun. Now that food wasn’t available for free anymore, Toni’s interest in it had increased considerably. He liked interacting with people anyways, and these cookies weren’t all that bad, either! You could see him perk up as he realized that he had the power to make clicks happen and food appear.

With the help of a cookie pressed against Sabrina’s hand with her thumb, he soon learned to do a hand-touch as well, which earned him a click and released the cookie. Sabrina could fade the lure within a few reps. Toni learned to figure out how to get his cookie: sitting, hand touches, or “shake”: he needed to paw at a closed fist in order to get his treat!

Next, I showed Sabrina how to add an element of shaping to her training sessions. Toni was going to learn to go to the blanket we were later going to use to change his behavior around visitors. I asked Sabrina to get a new blanket Toni had never seen before. She made a big fuss about it, then put it on the floor. Toni came over to investigate – click! Sabrina threw the cookie away from the blanket. Toni chased down his treat, and since he hadn’t been done investigating the blanket just yet, he returned to give it another sniff – click! In the course of several short sessions, Toni learned to step on the blanket with all four paws. Now, Sabrina clicked him for standing on the blanket, and then lured him into a down with the reward cookie. She waited a second or two, clicked again, and threw a cookie off the blanket. After a few reps, Toni offered his first voluntary down on the blanket and got a jackpot. After every brief session, Sabrina removed the blanket. It was only out when she was working with it.

Once Toni had learned to lie down on the blanket as soon as it was presented, we put the blanket where Sabrina eventually wanted it to be when she had visitors: in one of the corners of her big couch. It was important to her that Toni could be a part of her social life. She didn’t want him to have to wait in a different room, in a crate, or in a corner. During training sessions on the couch, she could sit next to him, feed him cookies and read or work on her laptop at the same time. She could also scratch his ears while he relaxed next to her, which he loved.

Once Toni recognized the appearance of the blanket on the couch as his cue to lie down, we started adding duration. From this point onwards, we made sure that Toni wouldn’t have Sabrina’s undivided attention. She’d read a sentence – feed a cookie. Read two sentences – feed a cookie. Read three sentences – feed a cookie, and so on. As long as he continued hanging out on his blanket next to her, cookies would materialize. At the same time, we made sure her full attention and eye contact weren’t part of the picture we were creating. After all, we wanted Toni to eventually relax rather than “work,” and Sabrina wanted to be able to focus on her visitors, and not just on her dog.

Toni was good about relaxing for the occasional cookie, and daily sessions got Sabrina to a point where she could soon read several pages of a book between the individual cookies, and occasionally replace a cookie with ear scratches. We systematically introduced Sabrina getting up, walking around the room, and sitting down again while Toni remained in his spot. He also learned to stay when Sabrina got up, left her room, and then came right back in. We practiced this until Sabrina could get up, go to the kitchen, get a glass of water, and return without Toni getting up or getting fidgety.

The next step was practicing with various visitors. The first one was me: Toni learned that the blanket game could still be played when someone else was in the room. We first increased the rate of reinforcement again, and since Toni’s desire in this situation was to interact with the visitor, we decided that I – the visitor – would give him the occasional cookie and attention when he was on the mat. My attention made the reward even more reinforcing.

It turned out that Toni was actually able to be quite patient and well mannered now that he knew hanging out on his blanket would get him cookies and attention. His excitement hadn’t been due to high arousal and overflowing energy – he had simply learned that he had to pester people in order to get attention. Once provided with an alternative behavior, he turned out to be an easygoing big boy.

After some experimenting, we decided that the mat would come out right before a visitor came into Sabrina’s room. If he stayed on his mat, the visitor would come over and great him with a cookie right away. If he got up, the visitor would turn around and close the door behind them. Sabrina would pick up the blanket, wait a second, and then put it down again. This usually reminded Toni to lie down. Now the visitor could come in and approach again.

Sabrina then began to ask other helpers to visit her in order to train her dog. First, we worked with two of her dog-savvy housemates. Then, she would ask friends to help her. If Tony stayed on his blanket, Sabrina would instruct her friends to deliver a cookie to him and calmly talk to him.

While building this new behavior, Sabrina had people over specifically for this exercise, not in order to socialize or talk about other things. She was consistent in her training, and it showed in Toni’s progress. He learned to stay on his mat while visitors came in the room, and his overall level of excitement around human friends decreased.

Sabrina then switched from cookies to long-lasting chews and stuffed Kongs that Toni could use to entertain himself on the blanket when she had people over. At that point, she was able to actually focus on her visitors, too, and not just on training Toni. By the time Toni had gotten used to eating part of his dinner from a Kong when Sabrina had people over, she was able to start giving him more freedom again. At first, she had made sure people would leave before Toni finished his Kong. Then we tested what would happen if Toni got to finish his Kong before the visitor left: it turned out he soon dozed off while Sabirna and me were still sitting together. We then tried what would happen if Sabrina released Toni and took away the blanket after he had finished his Kong – and he would just trot over to his bed and continue dozing off there. The Kong seemed to have a calming effect, and Toni’s need to be the center of attention had disappeared now that his relaxation on the blanket got reinforced on a regular basis. As Sabrina gradually increased his post-chew freedom, he would sometimes go right to his bed, and other times, he’d jump off the couch, wag and wait for ear scratches from Sabrina or the visitor before heading over to his bed. The attention-seeking behavior and vocalization had disappeared completely.

Training steps: Learning to relax in public

Sabrina wanted to be able to take Toni more places. In order for him to relax around friends away from home, Toni needed to generalize his blanket skills. Most cafés and restaurants in Austria allow dogs, and it is pretty normal that people bring their dogs when they go out for lunch or dinner. In order to practice for this, Sabrina and I went to McDonalds. Fast food restaurants are perfect for this: you can just get up and leave anytime, and it’s perfectly fine to only spend a few minutes inside. We picked a table in a quiet corner. Sabrina would head over to the table, put down the mat, and calmly reinforce Toni for lying down on it, and for staying down. I would get our drinks from the counter and join them. Once Toni had settled, he got a frozen Kong or long-lasting chew. We would finish our drinks, keep an eye on Toni, and discuss the next training steps. Then, Sabrina would trade the Kong or the remains of the chew for a cookie, release Toni, pick up the blanket, and we would leave.

After going through these steps together, Sabrina was ready to practice at places like McDonald’s, Burger King, or Starbucks on her own, or in the company of dog savvy friends. If she went on her own, she made sure to set him up for success by having him wait in the car while she ordered her coke or coffee and put it on the table, and set up the blanket. Then, she got Toni from the car, lead him directly to her table, and rewarded him for recognizing his blanket and lying down on it.

Gradually, Sabrina increased the time Toni could spend at a fast food restaurant, and decreased the attention he got from her until she was able to take him to other restaurants as well and actually have conversations with her friends while he relaxed on his blanket under the table.

Why we chose this training approach

Toni wasn’t a high energy dog to begin with. That made the blanket a good choice. He wasn’t torn between finding an outlet for his energy, and staying on the mat. He just needed an acceptable way to solicit attention when people were around. Hanging out on a blanket was congruent with his base personality: a big, friendly, laid-back dog.

Toni’s excitement around people wasn’t based on anxiety or insecurity. He genuinely liked people, and wanted to meet them. Not knowing how to get their attention was frustrating to him. Interacting with them was reinforcing, not stressful. This made it possible to integrate visitors into his reinforcement protocol.

It was important to Sabrina that our training plan would allow Toni to keep being part of her social life. She wanted her friends to be his friends, too. Using a blanket on the couch achieved just that.

Check back next week for how we worked on Toni’s second issue: barking and lunging at strange dogs in the street.

Case Study: Dao’s Resource Guarding

I’m trying something new today, and if you like it, I might do it more often: I’m going to tell you about a dog I have worked with.

I made a video about Dao’s training a while ago and shared it with friends, but I haven’t shared it publicly before. I’ll add some background in this blog post.

Meet the dog:

Dao is a 5-year old female Czechoslovakian Wolfdog. She was bred and lives at Siam Crown Kennel, where she used to be part of an amateur study on working with Czechoslovakian Wolfdogs. She’s a kennel dog, not a house dog.

The behavior I want to change:

Dao will guard food. That is to say, when she has something edible, she will let you know that you cannot touch it. She does this eloquently by flattening her ears, protecting the food item with her head/body while looking up at you so the white of her eyes is visible, showing her teeth, and growling. It is a clear warning, delivered in beautiful body language and in just the right intensity to be unmistakable: “Don’t touch this.”

A friend and colleague challenged me to teach Dao to let me touch her food items. She doubted it could be done without intimidation. I, on the other hand, was sure it could be done without intimidation, and I videoed most steps so I could show her my training process.

Training steps:

I’m narrating the training steps and Dao’s reaction in this video. In short, I used classical counter-conditioning, and I built a relationship based on mutual trust. Or, in other words: I taught Dao it was safe to trust me around her food. There was no reason for her to worry about me stealing it. What I found most interesting is not that it worked, but how extremely well Dao responded to it, and just how much trust and affection she’d soon show me. None of our sessions lasted longer than a few minutes.