+ We worked on giving in to collar pressure for the first time (I haven’t put a collar on Chai at all so far, but will be working through the “invisible line” method for loose leash walking along with my Out and About students this term.) We had two sessions, and by the second one, she responded every time before I brought out a treat lure. That’s our cue to take things to a new environment! (Videos in the LLW leash pressure foundations post.)
Someone’s tired from all her leash pressure work! (Watch out, Chai! Is that a shark behind you?)
+ We social-played and practiced recalls at the park.
+ Chai spent some more time getting to know and snuggle-play with Zane.
+ Game realized she can stand on the window sill! I am going to have to tether her when I leave – I don’t want her to jump out one day. I trust her sense of balance but not her sense of self preservation. We’re on the 2nd floor and it’s JUST high enough that she might think she can make it and break a bunch of bones.
Nothing to see here! Just a Mal on a window sill!
+ Both dogs did a lovely job waiting for me outside the Santa Clara store while I got ice cream to go for dessert (or dinner. I can’t remember, but I think I shared with my friend rather than finishing it all myself! In any case, let’s pretend that’s what happened!)
Game is practicing her sit/stay; Chai is tethered.
In everybody pees news
When I was home and had the bathroom door open, Chai peed once in the shower and once in the living room. The bathroom-or-outdoors habit isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be yet … but we haven’t been here very long either.
Day 57, 2023 – June 2, 2023: Chai’s first mall adventure!
+ Chai went on a morning and evening walk together with Game and didn’t even need her big sister as a role-model to pee outside at night (all other pees happened in the shower today).
We went to a dog-friendly indoors mall where my adventure dogs walked among people and rode the glass elevator three times (Chai confidently rode the elevator with Game – her bad elevator feelings from the Coyoacán elevator have not generalized!) and joined me at the bank. Cha has not been to a mall before and was being a superstar! She is on the retractable leash (a long line would work just as well) to give her as much of a “freely exploring” experience as possible without getting kicked out by taking off the leash.
While leash walking is important, feeling confident and being able to show exploratory behavior in new kinds of spaces (large, busy, indoors) is even more important to me. It also gives me a better idea of who Chai is than a shorter leash would because it allows for more agency: does she need me as a crutch and can’t take her eyes off of me in order to not have to look at all the stimuli around us? Does she forget about my existance altogether and just try and go off on her own?
Left: beauty in strange places. Right: stopping for a snack on the way to the mall.
To sort out some bureaucracy things at the old apartment, we went back to Plaza Copilco one more time.
I got there before the building administrator. Game stayed in the car crate and I practiced walking past the Pits and getting video of Chai doing so to kill the time. (The whining you can hear in the video below is the Pitbull, not Chai.)
Once the admin arrived, I tethered Chai to the car and she did a great job just hanging out and waiting (in a familiar, yet public) environment while I was in the office doing paperwork stuff for 15 minutes or so.
Game, Chai and I then went to Las Islas. It was at least the third time we went there thinking it would be the last time in a while – but hey, here we are yet again!
The dogs got to check out a student market at a part of the UNAM campus we hadn’t previously been to!
At Las Islas, Chai had SO much fun in the mud today!
It’s becoming a theme for us that when Chai moves into a new place, one of the first things that need to happen are a shower for the Border Collie!
SO much fun in the mud!I’m the kind of person who’ll have a good laugh and cheer them on, or get out their camera and take pictures rather than spoiling the good time the dogs are having. What type of person are you?
Back home, Chai and I took a shower (sorry, Border Collie).
Then both dogs went to the supermarket with me and did a great job waiting outside. With this being more of a fresa (posh) neighborhood, Chai saw her first Afghan Hound (and was weirded out, but bravely walked past them twice!) and her first two Basset Hounds (again, they seemed weird to her but she quickly got to a point of greeting them on leash).
On the way back to the apartment, we passed through a park and met a tricolor BC puppy Chai’s age: Juana. Juana’s human agreed to let her off leash and the two played themselves tired chasing each other through the park. Chai was faster – I suspect that’s becaise Juana (don’t tell them I said that!) is a little overweight which likely slows her down.
So much going on today and even more adventures await! Tired dogs are good dogs.
I like how neatly the dogs put their sea creatures on the blueish (ocean) cover of my bed. It’s like they purposefully wanted them to swim together, the hammer shark a little ahead of the dolphin.
Chai went on an evening walk by herself and then stayed home alone for Game’s evening walk. She is being a home-alone rockstar. I am glad I started getting her used to this right away!
Her ability to stay home alone and relax is partly me because I have and continue to put a lot of thought and practice into this, but there also is a genetic part. Some dogs have a STRONG genetic disposition to develop separation anxiety. Part of the reason we know there are hereditary factors is that it is substantially more prevalent in certain breeds (for example Weimaraners) than others. We also know that parents (of any breed) with separation anxiety are more likely to produce offspring with separation anxiety than parents without separation anxiety. Unsolicited advice: add this to your list of things to ask your breeder (if you are getting a puppy from a breeder or any other puppy with known parents!)
A new human friend for little Chais
Tonight, my friend Zane who’ll stay with me for a month made it from the airport to the apartment. Game was VERY excited to see him again and Chai, following Game’s lead, immediately wanted to be his friend as well.
Today’s pee tally
+ Shower: 1 + All other pees happened outdoors because we were hardly home at all.
I also managed to get TWO poops outdoors – that’s new record! Both happened after I did the belly massage my Dad had recommended to stimulate the digestive system. I’ll have to repeat this a few more times to see if making an indoor/outdoor poop difference really is THAT simple, but for now: thank you so much, Papa!
Chai went to bed a puppy last night – and today, she woke up a juvenile dog! It’s like she made this big developmental leap overnight. She still looks the same, but she has 3 times the need to move her body, is pulling more than she has over the last weeks and her independence out and about (her radius around me) has grown – literally from one day to the next! Good morning, adolescence! Let’s see what you’ve got in store for us!
Counting from her fictional birthday, Chai is 5 months and 9 days old today – adolescence is right on time!
Morning walk and a first: waiting outside of stores!
Chai and Game both came on a little morning walk. For the first time, I had them both wait in front of a small supermarket. (Game is used to doing this but it was Chai’s first time.) I picked a quietish place I could watch her through the window and consciously decided that Game would be waiting with her to ease her into the concept of waiting outside stores with me out of sight. I also made sure the wait was very brief – maybe 3 minutes. Chai did great!
Sidenote: waiting outside stores – why do C’s dogs do this?
In the afternoon, Chai, Game and I went to Las Islas. It’ll be one of the last times Las Islas are our regular stomping grounds since we’re about to mo-ove! There was a lot going on today since it was a Sunday. A group of people practiced a dance. I encouraged Chai to come up and see their dresses swinging (see video below). Chai also found a mango (which she loved) and Game taught her to chase her first squirrels.
I love how well Chai is able to switch her attention between different stimuli (as shown in the video above). I know a fair number of Border Collies who have a really hard time doing this. Shepherds/sports trainers will often call this “stickiness.” The term alludes to the dog getting “stuck” in one part of the herding motor sequence – usually eye-stalk. This can happen in dogs working sheep (they crouch or lie down and stare – eye-stalk – intensely but the shepherd can’t get them to move) as well as in other contexts: dogs who get stuck BC-style stalking rather than fetching a ball or dogs who can’t stop herding other dogs (often other household dogs).
Stickiness tends to show itself in puppyhood or adolescence, and it doesn’t usually just go away. It is not a “behavior problem” – the dog who, for example, herds other household dogs may not be able to hear you call them out of the behavior. It’s not that the dog doesn’t “want” to follow your cues, but they literally cannot hear you. The only sensory input that gets through to them is the movement of the dog being herded. (This is my layperson’s understanding of it anyways.) As long as the dog is able to move rather than getting stuck in a down/crouch, they may make excellent independent herding dogs (working off the sheep rather than the handler), but not necessarily ideal sports dogs.
Similarly common is the opposite challenge in Border Collies: they cannot filter out one stimulus to focus on. They get overwhelmed easily because they are being blasted with all the sensory input all at once and all of the time. It is heartbreaking to see this in my student dogs who live in urban spaces: busy cities are not a good fit for dogs who cannot stop taking everything in all at once. The same dogs may, however, make excellent herding dogs in rural areas (while stationarily sticky dogs are not what working dog breeders select for).
Chai does not seem to struggle with either of the above challenges, which is great! That said, she is still growing up – things may change. In any case, right now, we’re good.
After lots of dog encunters, we run into a puppy Chai’s age: Nenet. The two started playing and had A LOT of fun! I was happy Chai had the opportunity to get out all that need to move and run, wrestle and roughhouse!
I’m showing you the video below because it’s cute and has (as necessitated by dog play) great background music! Yes, I just said there would be few or no videos in the daily reports unless they were very general (like the video above) … but since I haven’t published the “play” category yet, here is today’s video. Enjoy! And let me know if you’ve lost, found or are still looking for your inner puppy – that’s what the comments are for!
A cohete win
On the way home, we heard a firecracker! And for the very first time, rather than looking insecure, Chai immediately turned to me with her “Where’s my treat?” face! The last two days of following each firecracker up with food are paying off and I love it!
(1) I believe sensory gating is the correct term but I am not an expert and may well be wrong. If it isn’t the right term, please let me know and be kind as you do so! As by Wikipedia, accessed on September 7, 2023, “Sensory gating describes neural processes of filtering out redundant or irrelevant stimuli from all possible environmental stimuli reaching the brain. Also referred to as gating or filtering, sensory gating prevents an overload of information in the higher cortical centers of the brain.”
+ Both Chai and Game got to go to UNAM and run around the campus.
+ We had a single positions-practice session.
+ Husbandry: I clipped Chai’s nails on both front paws and she got brushed, and I cut a little around her front paw fur (another thing I’d like her to get used to in case she turns out to be a furry-paw Border Collie!)
+ Both dogs stayed home alone for a few hours.
Day 501 – May 26, 2023: Huayamilpas, kids, cohetes … a full day!
Today was a BIG day!
We started the morning with some more position work. I pulled out the fold-back down and we did two rounds of down with “good” (room service: stay in position; the treat is coming to you) versus “get it” (chase the treat marker) – one round for breakfast and one for lunch. In the video below, you’ll see me work with a hand signal to get the fold-back down some of the time and with a lure some other times.
The reason I help relatively quickly rather than waiting Chai out is that she would otherwise default to a sit (and then try a down from the sit if the sit didn’t work).
I specifically want a fold-back down rather than a down from a sit, and the way to teach this is from a stand.
The video below is an uninterrupted 10-minute session with a 5-months old puppy. As I said in an earlier post, this is not what I’d recommend most clients do (unless they have really worky puppies). I happen to have a worky puppy who loves training and so do I – so I get to do this on days I need something to obsess over or something that I can focus on without thinking about anything else in the world! Dog training is that thing for me, so here we go – both having fun!
Note that often, I will have heavy-training days followed by little or no other adventures or very low-key days like yesterday. I don’t want Chai to turn into a super-athlete who needs to either train or run nonstop. So heavy training days tend to be low-physical activity days (just not today) and heavy physical activity days tend to be little-to-no-training days.
+ We did some cutting of Chai’s front paw fur and I brushed her.
+ We went to ride the elevator.
+ We toured the busy Walmart corridor (people, shopping carts) and a bank with Chai in her backpack. (Thank you so much, Scarlett, for lending me the puppy backpack! It is GREAT!)
Tarps blowing in the wind
It’s a windy day today, and on our adventure loop we saw a tarp blowing in the wind and Chai got a little spooked. After watching it for a while, she was able to cautiously walk past it. This is the second time I have seen this reaction – that’s my cue that tarp feelings aren’t a one-off thing and we need to work on things blowing in the wind! When I got home, I set up the fan and pointed it at the curtains:
It never hurts to learn about the safety of objects and situations in set-ups you can control before encountering them in the real world (again)!
In the late afternoon, we spontaneously returned to Parque Ecológico Huayamilpas briefly before 6pm: when we were there a few days ago Chai barked at suddenly appearing strangers (and they all started to appear around 6 after we had had the place to ourselves all afternoon). I wanted to make sure to counter the experience by orchestrating positive interactions with suddenly appearing people at the same spot (I haven’t seen her bark at people before and I would love for it to stay that way).
Unfortunately, things didn’t start out as well as I had hoped they would: soon after we got there, someone elsewhere in the park, but clearly not far, set off a bunch of REALLY loud firecrackers (you can hear them in the video but they are muffled by the microphone – this doesn’t compare to the real-life volume). I don’t think Chai has heard firecrackers before – and definitely not at this volume. She got worried – not panicky, but worried enough to tuck her tail and seek my consolation.
Right after, the first person suddenly appeared. Not the best antecedent arrangement to set her up for success! Luckily, the person had a dog and Chai trusts dogs. After watching the two approach suspiciously, she greeted the dog and a little later, I had the person do a version of our food protocol (they had already reached for her so I just gave them treats to feed). All was well with Chai and she even jumped up on them for more. We hung out for a bit and talked dogs, and Chai and the other dog – Kipper – socialized and she did drive-byes with both of us humans.
We then followed the next pair of passers-by for a little – an adult and a kid. As we turned around to look back, a family with several kids had come to the concrete snake in the center of the park and we turned around to see them up close. Since Chai could see the family from a distance, this wasn’t a sudden environmental change (which I specifically wanted to work on). Still, she had positive interactions with people at the snake!
Because it went so well, I waited longer and Chai got to briefly greet an adult and a kid walking with two dogs. Then, we called it a day and made our way towards the exit.
Sadly, right as we were walking away from the snake, the nearby firecrackers started up again. Chai was – again – concerned. All I had was kibble, but she was able to eat and I fed one after each boom. Still, the insecurity lingered after the firecrackers stopped. Unease is not the emotion I want her to associate with the snake, the park or firecrackers. So I will probably be going back for another round of sudden environmental change – hopefully without the firecrackers.
The saving grace today was a Lab mix we met at the parking lot: Chai and the dog played for a minute or so, and then Chai, tail proud and high, eyes shining and body language loose left the park on a good note.
By the time we got back home, it was dark out. On the walk from the car to the apartment, Chai got spooked by people unloading stuff from a truck. We watched for a bit, curved around and then I encouraged her to watch some more, but she was ready to leave. Note to self: take more night walks around weird stuff and people carrying strange objects!
Growing up and changing
Today was quite the day! Our outings were not very long, but jam-packed with things going on. Puppies and adolescents change every day – and these days, Chai is highly sensitive in all directions: picking up behaviors from older dogs and having an easier startle response than she usually does. However, the good news is that her recovery is still amazing (playing with that Lab mix a minute after hearing firecrackers? Go Chai!) and that even in a state of firecracker insecurity, she was able to eat kibble.
It is also interesting to see a dog who learns really fast overall have sensitive days: they are impactful in a different way than in the last two puppies I raised (Puzzle and Game). It is like watching Chai have an experience and then assimilate it into this 10 000-piece puzzle that is the map of the world in her head. Nothing exists in isolation. Every experience Chai has gives her a puzzle piece, and she is quick to find the exact spot it belongs in the map of the world she is creating for herself. If we think back to the elevator experience: her baseline assumption about the world is an optimistic one, but she is fast to learn what to exempt from optimism (such as this particular elevator – I don’t know about others because this is the only one I have currently access to and the first one she’s ever been on).2
A slice of Mexico City’s subway web. Maps are necessarily an imperfect representation of the world. Subway stops are one of my favorite way to conceptualize big cities. Once I have a subway map in my head, I’ll generally find my way around. Subway stops are my favorite landmark.
As far as I can tell, Chai’s initial hesitancy around people was based on a lack of exposure and my two protocols (the one for strangers and the one for expanding her circle of friends) have helped her become a socially optimistic dog. She’s a Border Collie, not a Lab, so she is never going to have problems with hyper-sociability towards strangers. But she is now significantly more confident around them and open to making new friends.
In everybody poops news …
(Feel free to skip this paragraph if you’d rather not read about my puppy’s bowel movements!)
Chai peed AND pooped at the park without another dog to imitate! Our house training project is coming along! In fact, she has only had a single accident inside what I define as the living space of our Coyoacán apartment in the last month, since we’ve been here! (She will go to pee/poop on the outdoors patio. If I leave her by herself, I do so in the bathroom, and she will pee/poop in the shower when she has to go rather than waiting – as far away from where my bed as is possible to set up in this small space. All of this is great news for a dog who had no idea about defined toilet spaces when I got her. If I had a yard, she might be doing all her business there already (apart from the occasional accident even adolescents still have).
Sidenote: fear periods
People like talking about the elusive “puppy fear period” or “adolescent fear period.” Some trainers even define at what age exactly fear periods (sometimes called sensitive periods) are supposed to happen and how many of them there are.
To my knowledge (readers: please correct me and send me peer-reviewed sources if I’m wrong!), there is no scientific evidence that fear periods exist or that every dog has them. (Most of the puppies I have raised have not had anything I would label “a fear period.”) In the absence of scientific evidence for “fear periods,” I don’t generally use the term.
Instead, I just think of any young developing brain: there are changes and shifts in hormone levels and neurotransmitters and neural connections and all kinds of other things I do not know about because I have no medical degree. Young brains are brains under construction. When constructing, say, a house, there will be days electrical wires are exposed (and you hope it won’t rain). Similarly, there will be days that a growing brain (the wires) is more sensitive to external stimuli (the rain) than others. Other than with the wiring of your house, you don’t know when this will be because you are probably not cutting open your puppy’s brain. So you just hope that if and when your puppy is having a sensitive day, they happen to not encounter the kind of stuff that would trigger an electrical fire. But if it happens? Well, it happens. Nothing you can do about it. No one’s fault – sometimes life is a shitshow.
Observe your puppy and if you see the experience have a permanent impact (it won’t necessarily have a permanent impact at all, no worries!) or you just want to be on the safe side, give it a few days (to be sure the exposed wiring of your house has been covered) and then repeat the situation under different conditions, setting your puppy up for success. This is what would have happened today with the snake head had there not been firecrackers.
Apart from the fact that young brains are under construction, dogs of all ages – just like other animals of all ages – sometimes have a less-than-ideal day. Sometimes, you wake up with a headache and it just shaves a little bit off of your patience with your coworkers or your friend or your partner. Sometimes, your dog is in pain – it may be invisible pain – and this too can cause a slight shift in their response to otherwise uninteresting stimuli.
How sensitive a dog’s behavior is to pain differs greatly from one individual to the next, just like it does in people. Personally, I’ve observed myself having a shorter fuse under (very specific) pain conditions.
On the other hand, my grandfather has been livingwith a crumbling hip bone for a decade, refuses to take pain killers or go in for surgery and is still the kindest and most patient person you can imagine, just like he has always been. People are different. Dogs are different. And your puppy is a different person every day because they are still in the process of becoming themselves! (We could argue that we all are always either in the process of becoming ourselves or we are dead – but that’s a blog post for another day.)
(1) Day 50 (the 50th day Chai has been with me) – half way to 100! – is a good day to change my diary approach. Going forwards, I will mostly share general Chaiary videos and videos that don’t fit into one of my categories (play, foundations, obedience, socializing, the art of doing nothing, recalls, leash walking, tricks, being brave) in my daily reports. The categories themselves will each get their own posts that specifically talk about THAT category and feature our progress from start to finish (if/when there is such a thing as “finish”). I will link to these more specific posts in future Chaiaries instead of directly inserting the videos every day. You’ll re-encounter some sessions you have already seen under these specific headings.
(2)Update from the future: Chai did not generalize her elevator fears to other elevators! It was just the one. Fundamental optimism for the win!
Today, we visited a friend at the café he works at! Emi will be one of Chai’s friends-friends – not just a person she meets once and then never again, but someone she’ll keep seeing. This is what I meant when I said I’d expand her circle of friends: I want her to both have friends-friends (not just me) as well as not mind strangers.
Visiting Emi’s café, we got two things: first, Chai made a new friend who kept interacting with her on and off throughout the hour or two we spent there. Second, she got to watch the world go by!
I asked Emi to greet Chai the way that has been working really well for her: offer her an open flat and. If she investigates and touches the hand, feed a few treats, also offering them from an open flat hand. This way, it is always Chai’s choice whether or not she wants to engage to the degree of coming up close to a new person: initially, they don’t have treats on them and there will be no food smells on their hand. After feeding a few treats in this way, it is again up to Chai whether she wants to further interact or take a break. We always want to avoid luring a dog up to something or someone they might find potentially scary.
Since this was Emi and Chai’s first encounter, this is how we started. They hit it off right away – and not only that: in the course of our time there, Chai had the same brief interactions with Mizu, a daily regular at the café, and the person who runs the store right next door. Here are a few snapshots:
Walking to the café (just a 5-minute walk from where we are staying).
Left to right: offered empty hand (no food, no food smells); Chai choosing to engage; Chai receives treats from Emi.
Left: watching the world go by at the café. Middle and right: it is entirely Chai’s choice if she wants to engage with Emi again/more.
Chai did great watching the world go by from the café. In the video below, she sees her first wheelchair, watches with interest … and then goes back to relaxing!
PS: Here’s this week’s podcast episode I recorded further into Chai’s socialization adventures!
Tuesdays are market days at Diagonal San Antonio! We used this opportunity to walk through as the vendors were just setting up shop in the morning.
We also did – as we do most days – a little (or a lot of) shaping, drove a slightly longer (about 2 minutes while yesterday was about 1 minute) loop on an empty stomach (success! No throwing up or pooping!), spent some time in the car crate, and hung out at home with Game.
Today Chai went to Parque las Américas and saw lots of people and dogs, heard new sounds, walked on different park surfaces and smelled new smells. Before we got there, we had this little encounter:
We then walked all the way to the park on our own four paws and saw and met, among others:
A person who followed my instructions about how to invite Chai to approach: not from above, but from below, being still and letting the dog take the first steps. I decided, after seeing Chai shy away from hands reaching for her a little more than I’d like to in the last two days, that I will make a point of having her meet people “the right way” every day. There is, of course, no one right way – you’ll have to look at the dog in front of you to find out what works for them. In Chai’s case, I opted for asking people to stand still and hold out their flat hand, palm facing up. If and only if Chai approaches, sniffs the hand and looks comfortable, I will then give the person a few pieces of kibble to hold in their other hand and feed them, one after the other, from their flat hand without touching Chai and holding the hand low enough so all four paws stay on the floor.
I would NOT start with food without having Chai opt in and approach voluntarily first, and if she was shyer than she is, I would not use food here at all. Food can backfire extremely easily if used as a lure to get an uncomfortable dog closer to a stimulus they are unsure about: they’ll take the treat and then realize they are WAY TOO CLOSE! With Chai’s level of people curiosity, it is really just the head reaching she has feelings about. And because she is cute, people will reach for her head. I am countering these experiences by means of providing positive ones in the way I described above. My instructions are simple and easy to follow, and they work well for Chai. In the case of my very first helper (random stranger from Costa Rica I met in the street), we chatted long enough that they actually ended up making friends with Chai and being able to scratch her chin:
We also saw a bakery bike!
… and several dogs …
We met another person who also ended up touching Chai on the side of her head – not something I encouraged, but she was okay.
We walked past an outdoors assembly of some kind and saw a person on a skateboard with a dog, a kid in a stroller and more dogs:
And the Chai and I rested in a (comparatively) quiet corner of the park and she posed serenely for a bit before we made our way back home.
How much is too much?
… you may be wondering. Didn’t Chrissi just get this puppy, who had been confined to her house and yard and a crate from 8 weeks to 3.5 months of age, literally three days ago?
Indeed, I did. And indeed, this would be too much for MANY Border Collie puppies with this (lack of) experience. It would have been too much for Hadley right after T got him and it would have been too much for Mick (and would still be too much for Mick today. Mick is a farm dog who wants exactly three things in life: sheep, a person to work sheep with, and zero other people). Hadley today, as an adult, would likely be okay in this environment – he’d just pull all over the place trying to sniff things, I suspect.
Is it too much for Chai? Am I flooding the poor puppy? No – at least I wouldn’t say that I am. But in order for this term to have any meaning at all, I need to first define it. “Flooding” is one of these buzzwords everyone uses slightly differently.
I just looked at the glossary of my 4 go-to behavior books, and it isn’t in any of them. That surprises me – but maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe flooding is a term trainers borrowed from human psychology, or maybe it is simply a layperson’s word. Next stop: Google.
Bingo! I got lucky at the APA Dictionary of Psychology, which sounds like a decent source. Plus it matches my own definition of the term and the way I’ve been using it, which is reinforcing.
So – no, I have in fact not flooded Chai. She is not an anxious dog – just a curious one who lacks experience. I have not exposed her to a maximum-anxiety-producing situation or stimulus. (I would have on day 2 when I was just trying to get a feel for where we were in terms of exploratory behavior, fearfulness and resilience. Based on what I saw on day 2, I made choices for day 3, and based on what I saw on days 2 and 3, I made choices for day 4.
Because Chai is not an anxious puppy and her sensitive socialization window is rapidly closing, I want a lot of exposure to what is going to be normal in her world if she becomes a Mexico City dog. If she doesn’t become a Mexico City dog but finds a home somewhere else, all the experiences she is currently having won’t hurt either. For example if she goes on to be a sports dog, these experiences might help her learn how to focus on what matters (“gate”) in busy trial environments.
I wrote this post on Chai’s third day with me – April 9, 2023. I will keep updating it as I go. It is currently day 20 (April 26)and a lot has changed already! However, I’m publishing this post now because I only just got around to cleaning it up. More to come soon!
My approach to training with food with a dog who likes to eat
I try to train the puppy in front of me. That means I’ve done things a bit differently for every puppy I’ve raised for myself or for someone else. In Chai’s case, most food is for training (because training is fun and I want videos) or big scatters (the ritual I use to end sessions). Chai doesn’t get food outside unless necessary because I want her to really engage with the world and not be distracted from it.
I will use most food for training. Except from her single outing every day – usually the same park because we can walk there – we stay at our AirBnB. I’ve so far trained up all of her daily rations in marker cue discrimination and shaping stuff. She devours kibble, so that’s all she has seen so far in terms of treats (except for the hot dog I used to get her to eat her Bravecto).
Two food training projects for the puppy in front of me: Chai
For Chai, there are currently food training projects (there will be more as we get to know each other better and shift to different behaviors):
+ Stuff I want for my marker cue (and other skills) game that I’m planning to turn into some sort of class or workshop.
+ Shaping because I love teaching puppies about shaping and could do it all day long.
So far, I’ve used up all her food in that way every day. And here’s food for thought: in my experience, just not going above kibble value (if the puppy takes kibble to begin with) has a high chance of maintaining kibble as a treat the dog will take everywhere (that is everywhere they are able to eat – it’s an excellent gauge). In my case, this means … not exactly a closed economy (plenty in life is free), but it means everything is kibble, and everything is at least marker-cued. There are no table scraps, for example (they would make an open economy and devalue the kibble I want to use for training).
I will take a different approach with puppies who flat out refuse kibble. But Chai does not, so this is the route we are going.
My approach to making Chai permanent-home-able
All in all, these are the training projects I am focusing on to make Chai a dog who will be pleasant to live with for her future folks:
+ Being comfortable out and about in Mexico City.
+ Being comfortable with people coming into her space and visiting people in new spaces – I’m aiming for at least 2 visits a week (as soon as I test negative for Covid again) and at least one good out-and-about interaction a day on non-visit days. I’ll get strangers to play for the out and about interactions. Visits will be friends and strangers who follow my instructions about letting Chai take the lead and take the first step rather than reaching for her.
+ Maintaining her ability to stay home alone without whining (she stays home alone at least twice every day when I head out with Game. If I have a puppy, whenever possible, the puppy will get a separate walk. An exception would be if the puppy was extremely shy and needed an emotional support dog – this is not the case for Chai. Game gets her own walks too because she deserves them. I don’t want Chai to become dependent on Game – neither for staying home nor for going out.)
+ Maintaining her crate skills (the crate is in the car right now; I’ll be popping her in there for a bit every day.)
+ Car sickness: we’ll strart driving super short distances on an empty stomach and gradually extend the length of the drive, aiming for once a day.
Behaviors I am likely to get “for free” with this particular dog along the way
Things that will just happen along the way will be recall, leash walking and grooming. She’s not body sensitive, so I’ll likely get brushing and clipping toe nails for free by “just doing them.” Same with her harness/collar: put it on; no problem for her and no need for a slow introduction. While slow introductions and cooperative care are always worthwhile, I want to focus on other stuff with Chai and will safe her daily calories for these other training projects. Harness, leash, brush and toe nails will be announced rather than shaped. For example before I put on her harness, I will let her know what is about to happen by saying, “Harness!” Puppies pick up on this fast, which gives me an excellent way of gauging if she stays comfortable: if I say, “Harness” and she moves away, I know she’s having feelings. So far, this has not happened.
Outside of what I outlined above, we will just chill at home (if I can help it – training is fun!) I don’t want to turn her into an athlete (if someone wants to in the future, that option will always exist – she’s a Border Collie). I want to help her become a dog who is able to live in Mexico City, and with an “average” active family. This includes staying home alone and being ignored when I work or write rather than constant attention. A very easy solution to keep her from trying to get on the table is to reach for her head anytime she does: like most dogs, she finds this aversive. It’s what I consider a benign aversive. For example if I’m eating and she does this, I reach for her head about three times and she’ll lie down at my feet and stop trying to get food from the table, and it’s only day 3 as I’m writing this. She gets praise for this, but no food. Rather than consciously building a desired behavior here, I am making the undesired behavior disappear (yes, this is a euphemism for: I am punishing it with the consequence of reaching for her head and preventing intermittent reinforcement i.e. counter surfing). Intermittent reinforcement is relatively easy for me to avoid in this case because the kitchen in this AirBnB is a separate room and I shut the door when I go there, and I am the only person living here – so I control all the food on counters or tables and don’t leave it out. This is much, much harder to do if you have an open floor plan, cook more than I do or live with other people. But in Chai’s case, it should work out well. After two months of zero success at getting at food, she’ll be set off on the right trajectory and whoever adopts her can keep this approach or teach her a desired alternative behavior like hanging out on her bed when people eat.
That’s it for today! You”ll soon get real video and photo updates of what has happened between days 4 and 20 with Chai – I just have to find time to video edit. “Just.” I know, I know!
I know a beautiful black Standard Poodle named Gidget. She’s 2.5 years old, and lives with a wonderful human who’s ready to do pretty much anything for her: Brandy.
Gidget is an anxious dog. Not when she’s home with fellow Poodle Kona, or practicing cooperative care behaviors with Brandy in her house. Not even when she’s in her familiar car crate. These are safe spaces for her. She gets to be herself. At least, she doesn’t seem anxious in these contexts – we can’t ask her because she doesn’t speak human.
She does, however, get anxious in new places. And even in certain familiar ones. Gidget is a perfectly normal Poodle in that she has certain things she really enjoys, such as going on hikes and making dog friends on the trails. What’s hardest for her is not the hike itself. Nor is it being in her safe space in the car. It’s the transition between the two: making the seemingly HUGE effort to get out of the car, and get to the trail head.
We all know that control over your own outcomes is a primary reinforcer1, don’t we? Choices are great? So Brandy and I decided to give Gidget more control over her choice of exiting the car crate in the first place. We started with a treat test: can you take treats in the car? If so, great! If not – no pressure. You can stay in the car. If Gidget could eat, Brandy would release her from the car. Next, we’d use the 123 walking game in combination with a start button behavior. This way – we thought – we could let Gidget choose whether or not she wanted to walk from the car to the trail head or venture into other new environments, or whether she’d rather get back in the car.
In my experience as a dog trainer, dogs tend to opt in more and enjoy themselves more the more agency they are given. I hoped that Gidget would feel this way, too!
A detour: what is the 123 game?
The 123 game is one of Leslie McDevitt’s CU (Control Unleashed) pattern games. It’s based on the assumption that familiar patterns help us navigate familiar and unfamiliar environments. The basic version of the 123 game is very simple: the point is not for the pattern to be complex, but for it to help both human and dog to implement it quickly and even in distracting environments. Here’s how it goes:
Count your steps as you are walking forward: one – two – three. Feed a treat from your hand at three. Count out loud again as you keep walking: one – two – three. Feed a treat at three, and so on. In the basic version of the game, the treat always happens at 3, and the dog doesn’t have to do anything – you count as you walk, and they eat every three steps. It’s predictable, and it can be incredibly helpful to get a dog from one end of a training building to the other, from your car to the agility field, or simply across the street. Both the predictability and the eating help the dog and give them something other than the environment to focus on. You, as the human, also have clear and easy instructions about what to do (as opposed to what not to do: “Don’t pull on the leash, don’t tell your dog to heel,” etc.).
Another detour: what is a start button?
A start button behavior is any behavior the dog has learned to use as a cue for the human to do something, or for the human to ask the dog to do something. We use start buttons a lot in cooperative care and voluntary sharing – but really, there is no end to their application. Common start buttons include visual targets (looking at something or someone; making eye contact) and tactile targets (for example a chin rest on a hand or object, or stepping and staying on a platform).
Rather than feeding each treat from her hand, Brandy put the treat on the ground, next to her shoe, anytime she got to 3. Like in the basic version of the game, you will be walking and counting your steps, and your dog will eat at 3. However, the difference is that now, you’ll stop at 3, then put down the treat and wait for your dog to eat. And you will only start moving/counting again if the dog offers a start button behavior: if they look up at you. This turns the 123 game into requested approach training (RAT).
The video below shows Gidget learning the start button version of the 123 game in her yard. Notice how Brandy waits for Gidget to make eye contact before she starts counting again! The taking and eating of the treat interrupts the behavior of paying attention to Brandy, giving Gidget an opportunity to offer eye contact again once she’s ready – or not if she’s done.
What is requested approach training?
Requested approach training (RAT) is Leslie’s term for CU games that empower the dog to direct how close they will get to something, or how close something will get to them.
In the RAT version of the 123 game, you’ll stay put as long as your dog sniffs the ground or looks around rather than up at you. This is what we did with Gidget once she had learned the game at home, and we took it out into the world: it was up to her if she wanted to go further from the car. If she did, she’d look up at Brandy after eating, which was Brandy’s cue to walk and count three more steps. If Gidget didn’t look up within 5 seconds, Brandy would turn around, and they would return to the car: Gidget got to go back into her safe space. No need to venture out into the big and scary world unless you want to!
Windows of opportunity
Windows of opportunity to offer a certain behavior – such as 5 seconds for Gidget to make eye contact after eating – serve an important purpose in this kind of training: if you just waited your dog out indefinitely, sooner or later, they would look up at you. So even though you wouldn’t be actively “making them” move ahead, it would not be a real choice. It is only a real choice when the dog can opt out easily. A clearly defined window of opportunity is one way for the dog to opt out. (Another one is not taking the treat on the ground.)
How we imagined the training would go
Once Gidget knew the game, we took it to a quiet, low distraction parking lot. I imagined that after a little practice, Gidget would happily cue Brandy to take her all the way to the trailhead on the other side. After all, we already knew that Gidget loved the car, and loved the hike – it was just the space in between that wasn’t her favorite place in the world.
How it actually went
I (because of the kind of human I am, the fact that I knew Brandy would do a great job, and my own love of patterns) like to imagine things working out beautifully – but that’s not what happened for Gidget.
The video below shows Gidget’s first 123 session in the real world. You may want to watch the second attempt (where I didn’t add freeze frames) more than once to notice both lip licks! You can also use the gear wheel in the bottom right corner of the Youtube video to slow the clip down to half its original speed – it’ll help you notice subtle body language details.
It took approximately 10 sessions to get Gidget comfortable with three to four 123 reps before she asked to return to the car. The video below shows a BIG difference from that first attempt! But you can see that it is still hard for her: rather than looking right up at Brandy after eating, as she did in her yard, it takes her 4-5 seconds (the entire window of opportunity) to offer the respective next start button. At this stage, we plateaued for a while.
Plateauing means we need to change something. So we did!
Treat scatters in 123
We integrated a treat scatter into the 123 RAT game to help Gidget calm down on the way out into The Big World: when Gidget scanned (insecurity) or sniffed (if there isn’t anything worth sniffing, this is often a displacement behavior) for more than 5 seconds without offering eye contact, we integrated a treat scatter (as suggested by my wonderful colleagues Leslie McDevitt and Jennie Murphy) anytime Gidget wasn’t able to offer her start button behavior (eye contact) after eating the previous “3” treat. She could usually eat the scatter, and it relaxed her nicely. A lot of the time, she’d be immediately able to offer her start button behavior after finishing her scatter. Post scatter, we gave her a second 5-second window to offer eye contact. If she didn’t, Brandy and Gidget would return to the car.
Below is Gidget’s very first rep with scatters – and she nails it! She makes it up to SEVEN 123s with the help of scatters (Brandy’s scatter cue is, “Find it!”).
The very next time they went out to do scatter 123s in Gidget’s first training environment (if I remember correctly), she met the goal Brandy had set for her: ten 123s without asking to go back to the car! Success in environment #1! Gidget only needed ONE scatter during these ten 123 reps, even though it was a windy (noisy!) day!
When we went to a second environment, the same initial challenges presented themselves, and Gidget’s body language and her trouble taking treats showed us that she wasn’t ready to choose to walk away from the car. The second place Brandy tried was also relatively calm – but there was more traffic.
When opting out and then released to go back to the car and hop back in her crate, Gidget’s body language would change: she’d shed the tension; her tail went up. She looked relieved.
The video below is from the first 123 field trip to environment #2. Notice that Gidget can’t eat the treat Brandy puts down at 00:05. This is her opting out. Brandy reads her well, and takes her back to the car right away.
Hikes – yay or nay?
We knew that Gidget really enjoyed her hikes. She had a great time exploring nature trails with Brandy and her Poodle sister Kona, sniffing all the things, looking for critters … Gidget genuinely likes hiking, and her body language shows it! The video below shows clips of Brandy playing hide and seek with Gidget, taking turns praising and rewarding auto check-ins, and a recall – it’s a video Brandy took for my Out and About class at FDSA and allowed me to share here. Look at her tail carriage, the happy face, how she runs with a bounce in her step, and how proudly she carries her tail! This is a Poodle who’s having a blast on her hike, and lots of fun with Brandy – not a Poodle who’d rather be sitting in a crate in a car!
Leadership versus Choice
After seeing just how much Gidget struggled in environment #2 (more than I would have liked to see after our work in environment #1), I asked myself: what happens when Brandy takes the lead and doesn’t ask Gidget whether she would like to go further towards the trail (and away from the car)? I had been operating under a “choice is best” paradigm, and this was a good reminder that dog training is a study of one. Just because choice is best for some or even most dogs doesn’t automatically make it the right approach for Gidget. Only Gidget can tell us what is the right approach for Gidget! I asked Brandy to show me what walking away from the car in environment #2 looked like if she clearly took the lead:
Not being given a choice – like Brandy used to do pre-123 – ended up working better for Gidget than being asked to voluntarily opt in. She just couldn’t easily opt into leaving a safe space voluntarily, even if on the other side of leaving this space, something great – such as a hike – awaited. Notice the lack of scanning the environment, and Gidget’s higher (more confident) tail carriage in the video above! It’s hard to believe that this is the same place as in the first 123 video in environment #2!
This brings up a number of interesting questions and observations:
Some dogs, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some dogs have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
Transitions are hard. For some dogs, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a dog like Gidget … just live her life at home, in her house and yard, and skip all hikes unless she voluntarily opts in?
Should we medicate dogs like Gidget? (Gidget already is on medication for generalized anxiety. How should we define that “the meds are working” though? Are they working if the dog is able to follow your lead and have a good time? Or are they working only once the dog is able to opt in voluntarily?)
These questions don’t have clear-cut answers. In the end, we are making dogs live in a world designed by and for humans. And it is going to be the human who ends up making all of the above choices for their dog. Different humans will make different choices, and that’s okay: we all love our dogs, and do our best to give them a good life. It’s just that our definitions of a good life, and how we weigh factors such as getting exercise outdoors, freedom to choose etc. is different for every one of us. One dog owner may think that hiking matters more than freedom of choice, and vice versa, and neither one would be wrong: there simply is no objective answer, no matter how much we wish there was.
Let’s think about humans!
I know humans like Gidget. If you’re a human like Gidget, you might struggle to take the first step in a conversation or the planning of an event, even if that first step would eventually lead to an enjoyable activity. Or maybe you struggle to leave your safe space, and can’t quite put your finger on the reason why. Maybe you beat yourself up about it (which doesn’t help anyone, but is an easy go-to that distracts from the actual issue at hand).
The thing is: Gidget isn’t wrong – she’s very much right about the world. It is indeed scary and unpredictable. It’s just that most animals – including most humans and most dogs – are really good at pretending it isn’t. Objectively speaking though, just because nothing bad happened yesterday doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen today. That’s a fact – it’s not just paranoia. And just like Gidget, there are humans who know that the world is a scary and unpredictable, overwhelming place to inhabit. The majority of us pretending that everything is fine isn’t helping if you happen to be someone who can’t pretend. If anything, it makes things worse.
However, it is certainly easier to exist in the world if we can make ourselves feel safe. It’s an ability I treasure. Anxiety sucks, and given a choice, I’ll trade it for the illusion of safety every time. No questions asked. (But then again, that’s just me. And we’re all different.)
Let’s ask the questions that have come up for me in the course of following Gidget and Brandy’s journey – but let’s ask them about humans (like Gidget) this time. Maybe they will be easier to answer for our own species than for dogs. Maybe we can tap into a shared human experience, and find some answers.
Some humans, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some humans have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
If we take “performing the task satisfactorily” as a measuring stick, some humans will perform better with clear leadership than with choice. They have a hard time doing something fun if the bridge between the status quo and the potentially fun goal involves a decision to step out of a safe space. Yes – this is certainly true, even if not universally so. I’d venture it is true for most children in some situations, and for some adults in most situations.
An example from my childhood
As a child, I used to be scared of making phone calls. Even phone calls to set up a playdate with my best friend. I loved playdates with my best friend, but I knew her parents would answer the phone, which meant I would have to remember the script one is supposed to follow when talking to someone’s parents on the phone. The whole situation was stressful. When I’m stressed, I’m bad at remembering scripts. I kept asking my parents to make these phone calls for me instead. But the rules were clear, no matter how much I pleaded: I had to call myself, or there would be no play date.
I remember the feeling vividly, even today. Especially my mom: if I explore my feelings around this topic, even now, there is a part of me that feels hurt and let down because she didn’t offer to make the call for me. Which is interesting given how many years have passed! Back in the day, I would usually try to bargain and beg, but end up making the call myself. It would always be highly stressful. It wasn’t something that got easier over time – it just kept being hard. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t know why it was equally hard every time. After all, I kept practicing the script of talking to someone’s parents, and I kept successfully setting up playdates. The motivation of seeing my friend outweighed my fear of the call: I’d make the call (the behavior was stable because it kept getting reinforced), but I’d always feel bad about it (it didn’t get counterconditioned).
Today, I’m not afraid of making phone calls. The adult I am is not a human like Gidget – quite the opposite. I’m an adult who seeks out places and experiences others might consider dangerous. I like climbing abandoned buildings, and I sometimes dream of being a war journalist. I’m also an adult whose favorite dogs are dogs like Gidget. I like working with them, thinking about them, learning from them, and earning their trust.
But unless I’m expecting a client to call, I don’t answer my phone. Even if I know the number – unless I’ve scheduled a phone date with you. I prefer making calls to answering them. And I very much prefer written or in-person communication to phone calls overall. If you are someone I talk to on the phone every once in a while, know that you’re an exception, and very important to me.
If I had a child, I probably wouldn’t force them to make that call – I’d give them the option, maybe try and encourage them to give it a try sometime. But if they really wanted the playdate, and really didn’t want to talk on the phone, I’d do it for them. Why? Two reasons. One, I don’t want them to hold a grudge against me 30 years after the fact. And two, I don’t think the reason I’m not afraid of making phone calls anymore is the fact that I had to practice making them as a child. I can’t be sure because human minds work in mysterious ways – but I believe the reason is simply that I grew up to be a confident adult, and would have either way. I don’t think having to make phone calls as a child had any benefits for me.
Here, listening to my opt-out (making the phone call for me) would have been a better approach. I suspect the actual playdate was always too far away in time in order for me to get counterconditioned (change my feelings about phone calls) about setting it up in the first place. We keep pretending that humans are able to learn from reinforcers that are far removed in time – but truly, are we? I’m not so sure.
Another childhood example
When I was a kid, my mom would often visit her relatives on weekends. My dad would prefer to stay home. Both wanted me to be with them and share their weekend. And the choice was mine: did I want to go see the big family, or do fun things with dad? I remember it felt torturous. I’m sure my parents weren’t aware of it. They were doing the best they could, and probably trying to increase my agency (like Brandy and I tried with Gidget and the 123 game). But boy, weekends were hard!
One, I enjoyed both doing things with my dad, and visiting my mom’s family. I don’t think any of the two was intrinsically preferable to me. Two, for Chrissi, the child, it wasn’t a choice between two activities – it was a choice between who to make happy. Choosing to stay with my dad would make my mom unhappy, and choosing to go with her would make my dad unhappy. My job, my raison d’être, was to make both of them happy, which was both impossible and felt like a failure on my part.
Sometimes I picked my mom, but asked her to stop the car a few hundred meters from the house, got out, and walked back home to stay with my dad after all. Other times I picked her on the condition that we would leave by a certain time so I’d still have time with my dad in the afternoon – maybe I could make both of them happy! I’d enjoy the day, but always keep an eye on the clock, and then I’d remind her of our agreement … and she would generally ignore it. For whatever reason, I ended up trusting her word again the next time. And the next time after. I remember this whole part of my childhood, even though it consisted of weekend experiences I genuinely liked (time with dad; time with mom’s family), first and foremost as stressful.
In this second case, what would have been the best way to handle things? I probably benefited from both kinds of experiences – family time and dad time. If my parents had agreed on a schedule and just stuck to it, not fought about it, and shared that schedule with me rather than letting me pick one, life would have been a lot easier.
Let’s go back to dogs for a minute!
How does this compare to Gidget, the Poodle, and dog training in general? I’ve seen dogs who try so hard to please their person, independent of what they actually want themselves (hint: a lot of the time, these dogs are Border Collies). This is one reason windows of time are important.
I don’t think Gidget felt this kind of pressure: she isn’t the kind of dog who’s extremely prone to feeling this way, and Brandy did a great job making sure Gidget never felt “wrong” when she chose to go back to the car.
Still, in a way, both childhood examples apply to Gidget: IF Gidget is going to go on hikes, she’ll benefit from clear leadership as opposed to choice: today, we’re going on a hike. Tomorrow, you’ll stay home (a safe and fun place, too). Brandy will make it for her, and take the lead (Brandy will make the phone call for Gidget, so to speak).
Transitions are hard. For some humans, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
I know kids as well as adults this is true for. Some (all?) kids benefit from a heads up: “In 5-10 minutes, we’re going to head home! Just letting you know so you can wrap up the game you are playing.” (My friend, the one I mentioned earlier and who, maybe thanks to all the phone calls I made back in the day, is still my friend 3 decades later, does this for her kids today, and I LOVE it!)
It’s also true for some adults. It’s not the case for me, so I’ll have to do some guessing here. I know people who are often late because they struggle with leaving place A in order to get to place B in time. Maybe as long as it is early, the anxiety about the outside world outweighs the social obligation of leaving now in order to get to place B in time. Once you look at the clock and see that the time of the meeting in place B has already arrived, the social obligation outweighs the anxiety, and you do leave place A. Which will make you late. If the person who has been waiting for you at place B was on time, they may be grumpy by the time you get there – which makes it even less likely that you’ll leave earlier the next time. Being greeted by grumpiness or judgyness is a punisher. It’s a vicious circle.
I’m not sure what would lessen this kind of struggle for adult humans. In kids, maybe we should minimize their decision time (1 minute of stress a day is better than 15 minutes of stress a day?), and give them a heads-up for transitions that will be made for them (“we’ll leave in 10 minutes”)? Maybe adults benefit from establishing routines that make it easier to do A, B, C? Tag points? Therapy? Turning outings into rituals on a regular schedule rather than spontaneous events? I don’t know. I know what I would try myself: therapy, meds, and gamification. But that’s just me, and things that have helped me with other, totally different struggles. If I were a human like Gidget, neither one of these might appeal or make sense to me.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a human like Gidget …live their life at home, in their house and yard, and skip all hikes/outings/cocktail parties/agility group classes if they never opt in?
Let’s take another look at dogs first.
I’d venture it varies from dog to dog. Dogs who get a lot of enrichment at home and have a big yard, their human is home all day and plays nosework games and trains and plays at home – maybe that’s where they are happiest. Get a vet who’ll do home visits, and you’re covered on that basis, too. Life is free(er) of stress, but still enriching.
If your yard is not quite as big, and/or your dog truly enjoys activities that are only available outside of it (such as hiking for Gidget) – maybe a choice-based approach simply isn’t the one to go with. Do what works for your dog, not what works for most dogs, or what is currently in vogue in the dog training communities you are a part of.
And what about humans? Very difficult to say! As for adults who enjoy meeting friends, but can’t leave their house … again, it depends. If they live with a big happy family or with friends or partners, maybe they don’t need to leave, or can live perfectly happily while only rarely leaving. I have my doubts – but maybe they are unfounded.
For adults who live alone, this looks like a major life quality issue to me. If you crave social interactions (or mountain biking, or agility classes), but are finding it impossible to leave your house, this is a problem. Maybe one option would be to have friends come pick you up at previously agreed times/days. Again, I think it depends on the individual if this reduces or increases stress though: what if the agreed-upon day happens to be a bad day, but you can’t get yourself to cancel because that, too, would require interacting with people, which feels impossible sometimes? You need people you trust, but what if your anxiety doesn’t allow you to trust anyone?
Should we medicate people like Gidget?
I have opinions – but that’s all they are: opinions, not facts. I say, yes, if whatever you are experiencing on a medium to long term basis is seriously affecting your quality of life – go get therapy, and get meds on board! There is a whole menu of medications that decrease social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety, which are probably some of the root causes of transition struggles and decision paralysis. For humans, I’d say that if you feel like Gidget in the first 123 video in environment #2 more days than not, it may be time to get help. There is an endless supply of shitty things happening in the world around us. It’s easy to externalize the way we feel that way. But if you feel this way on a consistent basis (however rational it may be to be affected by the shitty things going on! Yes, it’s rational, but that is not the point!), the cause is something inside of you – not something outside of you. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. As in, something outside of you is always going to be bad: if it’s not the Coronavirus, it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If it’s not that, it’s the rapid decline of US democracy into orderly fascism. If it’s not that, it’s climate change. You can’t wait out the bad things, because they never stop. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. Here’s the good news though:
I really don’t think medication and therapy should be last resorts – for dogs4 or humans. I’m on medication, and it has significantly improved my life quality. I’ve also been in therapy, which has improved my understanding of myself and the people around me. I’ve also seen therapists who, I felt, had no idea what they were doing – you need to find the right person for you, just like the right medication. If the first person or medication you try doesn’t help – there are others out there that might do the trick! The menu is large. You just have to take the first step.
Knowing that the first step is the hardest, if you know me and struggle with this – by all means, reach out! I’d be happy to hear from you and happy to talk through it on an entirely non-medical, personal-experience-based basis (maybe even on the phone). I can also just listen. Or hold up your end of the conversation too, if that’s what you prefer. It’s okay to need people. It’s okay for life to be hard. It’s okay if you’re not fine, you all. And if you are not a human like Gidget? Look out for your friends who are! Give yourself and them the same grace and compassion you have for dogs like Gidget.
(3) A meme from Pinterest that has been showing up on all kinds of social media platforms.
(4) Check out this post by my FDSA colleage Jennifer Summerfield for a veterinary take on the topic: “Behavior Medication: First-Line Therapy or Last Resort?” Dr. Jenn’s blog, November 14, 2016.
PS: Thank you, Brandy and Gidget, for exploring the 123 game with me, for hanging in there throughout windy, cold and rainy days, and for allowing me to share your videos! You are wonderful, and I feel lucky and grateful to have met you both!
I generally have a few toys out – if I haven’t, Game will turn my shoes into toys.
Resource guarding incident #1: toys
On day #1 or #2 of the Puzzle week, I observed a resource guarding moment in Puzzle: she was guarding a toy from Game. In such a young puppy (supposedly 8 weeks; maybe a little bit younger), this is a red flag behavior for me. I happened to catch it on video. Let’s look:
… and analyze! Btw, I’m pretty sure what’s running in the background is a recording of Jennifer Summerfield‘s excellent webinar on behavioral medication for dogs.
01:02 Puzzle, who hasn’t played with toys before, shows interest in the Hucker as soon as Game leaves it alone to go for the red ball on a rope. Okay – nothing wrong with this. (Stimulus enhancement causes her interest.)
01:17 Now Puzzle has the Hucker, but Game and I are interacting with the other toy, which makes that one more enticing.
01:37 Game has dropped the ball, and Puzzle comes over to take a closer look at it. (Stimulus enhancement!)
01:44 “Okay,” says Game, “Let’s see what you’re up to, little puppy!”
01:48 Game likes tugging with other dogs, so when Puzzle takes the rope, she picks up the ball …
01:49/50 It’s not entirely clear what is happening from this angle. Puzzle certainly stiffens and stares at Game, and Game lets go of the ball. (Is it because of Puzzle’s stiffening/stare, or was she going to do it anyways? We can’t know for sure.)
01:51 Game decides to get the Hucker instead – it’s currently not being used by Puzzle, so why not pick it up (and maybe bring it over to me)?
01:51/52 The moment Puzzle realizes Game is going for the Hucker, she lunges at her.
01:55/56 Game is unsure of how to handle the situation – she’s a puppy, after all. In her world, puppies have more leeway than adult dogs. You can see her do a lip lick (my interpretation: dilemma/self-consciousness/self-soothing).
02:01 Game stays calm and relaxed and gives Puzzle time to calm down as well.
02:03/04 Another lip lick. Puzzle is still feeling a bit guardy.
02:20 Game yawns … she’s not entirely sure how to handle the situation. Yawns can be like looking at your cellphone in order to let someone else in an elevator know that you’re neither creepy nor particularly interested in standing close to them.
Game is not afraid of Puzzle. If Puzzle were an adult, she would not put up with resource guarding – but she’s a puppy, and in Game’s world, that is different.
Because I know Game and can read her well, I keep filming rather than intervening. I knew nothing bad would happen despite their size difference. (This post is NOT a recommendation of how to handle resource guarding among the dogs in your own household!)
02:24 Enough time has passed, and Puzzle is now on the other side of the crate door. Game picks up the Hucker again to go about her day. (Good girl, Game! You’re awesome.)
Let’s pull out one detail I find particularly interesting in this video: Puzzle’s mixed feelings about the situation she’s getting herself into. Puzzle is experimenting with the resource guarding behavior rather than doing it out of habit. Let’s watch a stretch in slow motion:
Watch the slow-motion video a second time, and then go back to the first (real time) video. Can you make out all the body language details from the slow-mo video in real time?
How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?
We know that most behaviors have heritable components – heritability being the differences of a trait within the individuals of a population that depends on genetics. So we have both a genetic component and an environmental component that will determine the final behavioral phenotype (the individual’s observable behavior).
Let’s assume (for argument’s sake, not because this is necessarily the case) that Puzzle has never tried resource guarding before. But she’s got a combination of genes that inspire her to give it a try – even though she doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. There’s an environmental trigger (Game wanting the Hucker Puzzle had before) that pushes Puzzle into the behavior.
Several things can happen at this point, depending on the other dog’s reaction:
If the other dog gives up the toy, the guarding behavior will be reinforced (that’s the operant, environmental part of the equation: behaviors that are being reinforced will happen more frequently in the future).
If the behavior doesn’t work (it has no meaningful consequences), it may be tried again in the future – maybe slightly differently, maybe in somewhat different circumstances.
Or it may not be tried again in the future; maybe it was just a haphazard one-time attempt: the behavior extinguishes.
If the behavior is punished by the other dog (if Game reprimanded Puzzle), it should decrease or disappear in the future.
Puzzle is very young, so at the point that I took this video, I’d have predicted that she’d need several extinction or punishment experiences before the synapses necessary to keep the behavior in her repertoire would be pruned.
You can see how fast learning happens in real time in this very video: the first hard stare Puzzle gives Game at 01:49 (first, original speed video)/00:09 (second, slow-motion video) works: Puzzle’s hard stare is being negatively reinforced by means of Game moving away. Puzzle quickly tries the hard stare again at 01:59 (first video at original speed)/03:02 (second, slow-motion video)! When it doesn’t work, she escalates to snapping. (If this had been reinforced more than just once before before, we’d call it an extinction burst.)
Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi
Apart from this moment with the toy, there was only one other resource guarding incident Puzzle displayed (which surprised me; after this one reaction, I expected her to be quite guardy in general). The second incident happened also on the first or second day Puzzle stayed with us. She was curled up on my lap while I was working on my laptop. Game came over to see what was up, and Puzzle snapped at her. Again, Game stayed perfectly calm. (“Eyeroll. Puppies.” Also, Game rocks!)
For me as a dog trainer who has seen owners struggle with resource guarding, both these behaviors are red flags when they show up in young puppies. I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m not going to keep Puzzle.” But – and here’s the really interesting thing! – after these two incidents, NO more resource guarding happened the entire time Puzzle stayed with us, or afterwards, when I had returned her to her family, but picked her up to let her spend a few hours at my place several times a week. I conclude that my initial assessment (resource guarding in young puppies is usually a bad sign for multi-dog households) was not the case for Puzzle.
If I were to anthropomorphize (okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves; this is me full-on anthropomorphizing): as soon as Puzzle learned that she could trust Game, she had no reason to guard resources from her – neither me nor toys nor food.
What a can of worms! How can we even operationalize “trust”?
Let’s start by operationalizing a behavior that is not trust-based (because that’s easier to define): Resource guarding is a behavior resulting from the belief that if you share something, you will lose something. (In the case of dogs, the thing they are unwilling to share is the same things they are expecting to lose. In humans, the thing they are unwilling to share could be a secret, and the thing they are afraid of losing could be a connection (a friendship, a marriage, a fight).
Trust, then, is the belief that sharing something will not result in its loss. Trusting behavior results from the belief that sharing something (a toy, food, a secret) will not result in a loss (of toys, food, or connections).
A dog who lets no one near their food is resource guarding. So is the human who leaves out the fact that they have kids or are divorced on their Tinder profile. Only once trust has been built (either systematically or organically) can the food or facts be shared.
To work or not to work on resource guarding
If I had planned to keep Puzzle, I would have prioritized resource guarding and systematically worked on it. Since I was not going to keep her, I didn’t worry about it, and worked on other behaviors I wanted to video instead. The fascinating thing: the resource guarding completely disappeared all by itself. Except for the two instances on days #1 or #2, there was no more guarding – ever. Puzzle’s confidence around and trust in Game grew (anthropomorphizing again, I know). In the video below – which is from the last full day she stayed with us – Game steals her tennis ball, and it’s all good anyways. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on resource guarding with your own puppy. You absolutely should! I’m just sharing the Puzzle Week story.) After a week with Game and I, Puzzle had become a relaxed house dog who was able to roll around the floor, mostly peed outside, slept through the night, and shared toys with Game.
Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs
Maybe a slight tendency to guard is a selective advantage for free-roaming dogs such as Puzzle and her parents. I’m saying this because I’ve seen it in several free-roamers-turned-pets-as-adults I’ve worked with as a trainer in Guatemala, and because I’ve seen it in free-roamers I’ve observed in the streets. Not in all of them – but definitely in a larger percentage than I’d expect to see in the pet dog population.
Here’s an example of an adolescent Husky mix displaying resource guarding behavior over food:
Wheee, that was a novel! Two more Puzzle posts to come (unless I think of more). Until then: happy training, y’all!
For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!