The Gidget Metaphor: of dogs, humans, and the tohubohu of doing fine

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!

Environment #2

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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?
  4. 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.

This is fine by KC Green2

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.

  1. 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.

You’ve probably seen a version of this image before …

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).

  1. 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.

  1. 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?

  1. 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 know, I know, this is a simplification. Your Wellbutrin and your Prozac aren’t neurotransmitters. But you get the point.3

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.

Sources

(1) Friedman, Susan. “He said, she said, science says.” (Good Bird Magazine, Spring 2005)

(2) This is fine – full comic and deconstruction of the meme (The Verge, 2016).

(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!

The Puzzle Week – Part 28: The End of the Puzzle Story (of love and loss)

I’ve been writing this post for about three months. WordPress tells me I’ve revised it 59 times. I’m still trying to figure out what losing Puzzle means. It feels like a metaphor for … something. But as my life continues, that meaning constantly changes. So for now, I will just write about Puzzle. Not about Puzzle, the metaphor of loss – about Puzzle, the puppy I loved.

~ ~ ~

In reality, the Puzzle Week lasted longer than just a week. Puzzle stayed 8 or 9 days with me. And after that, I kept going back almost every day. I’d walk past her, her mom and her littermates’ house, call “Pupupupupup!”, which would bring them all out into the alley. Puzzle would walk with Game and I while the others stayed back. Sometimes, I’d pick her up and let her hang out at my house for a few hours, and then drop her off again. She’d sleep on my lap while I worked, or chew up flip flops on the living room floor.

All in all, our relationship lasted about five weeks, and we saw each other, I suspect, every day except for about 3 or 4 of these days.

When I entered the part-time-puppy-relationship – that is, when I asked her people to let her stay with me for a week – I already knew our time together had an expiration date. It wasn’t the right time for me to add another dog. Her family might place her with someone else at any point.

I knew that I could share 24-7 hours of quality time and then return a puppy because I’ve fostered dogs in the past, and I’ve rehomed my own dogs when it was the right choice for us. I usually do so calmly and pragmatically, and with little or no tears. I trust my gut. Sometimes, you need to let someone go.

~ ~ ~

It took me two or three days to love her. I don’t use that word lightly in general. I do not love all dogs who stay with me. I haven’t even loved all of the dogs I have owned, or shared a house with. Yes, I’ve been fond of all my dogs. I’ve even “loved” all my dogs in that throwaway comment sense of “Love you, see you later” as you walk out the door, your mind somewhere else. But I have not loved all of them in the way I’m using the word here. In the words of Mark Dotey: “this way to the mountain”:

“Love is common, too, absolutely so – and yet our words for it only point to it; they do not describe it. They are indicators of something immense: the word love
is merely a sign that means something like: This way to the mountain.”

Mark Doty – Dog Years1

Maybe I loved Puzzle because of the way she curled up with her back pressed against my neck every night, ever since the moment she convinced me she was not going to sleep on the balcony. She slept through the night, always making contact. Her body was warm, and I could feel her breathing. It was easy for me to fall asleep next to her. (Usually, with a new animal – human or otherwise – in my bed, it takes a while until I sleep peacefully next to them. The smell of someone other than myself – their coat, their soap, their sweat, their skin – these details keep me up at night until they become familiar. It takes a conscious decision to let them become so, and several nights to adjust.

When I let Puzzle sleep in my lap while working on my laptop, she did the same thing: she’d curl up, and I’d feel her rise and fall slowly, breathing, sleeping, snoothing, trusting. Sometimes, she snored a little. Ever so gently. The warmth of her little body. The not-entirely-but-still-quite softness of her short brindle fur. The nose, always a little drier than Game’s. The floppy ears between my fingers. And just like that, I loved her. It was easy. It was this way to the mountain. And I let myself love her. Just like that.

~ ~ ~

Love’s always also cerebral. All emotions are, to a certain point. My prefrontal cortex is pretty good at monitoring what’s going on. As long as it’s in charge, love isn’t scary either. It only gets scary when other parts of the brain take the driver’s seat. Early on, I can still take an exit if I want to. Eventually, there are no more exits – but until that moment – and I see that moment coming for a long time; it’s like a warning sign I’m approaching: “Last gas station.” Until then, I can take an exit pretty much anytime. Knowing that gives me confidence and it makes me brave, and able to open up to people.

I did not care about exits with Puzzle. For the time she was here, I was all in, and that was clear from the moment she first curled up with her back against my neck.

~ ~ ~

Loving a dog is paradoxical. When you choose to not take any of the exits, you already know it will end in sadness. It’s part of the reality of loving a being with a lower life expectancy than your own. The moment you allow that puppy to tumble into your arms, you are saying, “I accept that I will lose you. I know I am going to grieve you, and I will love you anyways.”

I’m finding this pretty remarkable, mostly because I have never allowed myself to feel this way about any animal (human or otherwise) this quickly. I’ve definitely got that foreboding joy thing going on that stops me in my tracks when I approach the last gas station sign: this far, but no further. You’re allowed to “love,” but not to love. You get some of the joy, but not all of the joy, because all of the joy isn’t worth the sadness. You’ll grieve more deeply if you love more deeply, Chrissi, and if you don’t want to grieve deeply, it’s better not to love deeply. You know deep grief. You know it’s an abyss that is f*cking hard to not jump into once you’re at its edge, so you better stay away from the edge altogether. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s how you survive.

I’m not saying I haven’t let myself love people in that way – I have. But never this quickly. It usually takes months for me to get to that sign, and by that point, I’ll know if it will be worth it. (At least by now, at 36 years of age, I hope that I know, at least some of the time.)

I’m almost always aware of the landscape I am traveling through (and how far I’ve gotten on that road; the abundance or lack of exits and gas stations) on a meta level as I let new people or other animals into my life. It’s a trade-off: do you want the safety of not fully loving and never fully grieving, or do you want the joy of fully loving and the devastation of fully grieving? I simply didn’t care when it came to Puzzle. I didn’t analyze, get scared, run away, or keep her at arm’s length. I just loved her without giving it a second thought, and it was easy, and it was good.

I’m not even sure there ever was a time I loved a dog in that way and this fast – but if there was, it was when I was 8 or 10, and that dog’s name was Waldi. Maybe the moment something in my brain decided to protect myself from loving dogs that way again – maybe, actually, from loving anyone in that way – was when I eavesdropped on my grandmother telling my mother that Waldi had died. They were not going to tell me, and that was the biggest betrayal I had experienced in my young life. Maybe I never loved Waldi in that way to begin with. Maybe at that age, you’re not capable of loving in that way yet. Maybe I just used him as something to project my feelings onto (I wrote him letters every day). I don’t know – I don’t trust childhood memories, including my own.

The first time I loved a person like that was MANY years (and two relationships) later. It was E, and the reason I loved her like that was that I didn’t see it coming. I missed the last gas station sign because I didn’t realize I was on that kind of road. E was a woman, and I didn’t yet know I could fall in love with women as well. E came with an abyss, and I didn’t let her go gracefully or remember her fondly.

~ ~ ~

I gave Puzzle back, as promised. More than a week had passed. I had taken all the videos I was planning to take for my CU instructor certification and for my puppy leash skills blog post. It was time. I thanked her people, and got permission to visit from the friendly Señor with the mustache who looked like he was someone’s favorite uncle.

I knew I would miss her, but it was okay. She’d be nearby. I’d visit. Indeed, I ended up visiting her every day. It’s the thing (I thought, smiling to myself on my way up her callejón) that I do. It’s the wanting-to-see-the-animal-or-human-you-love every day. It’s who I am. Loyalty. Stability. Trust. I’ll be there. Always. I’ll be your person, and I want you to be mine. That’s what love means to me. I had thought our relationship would pretty much end when I returned Puzzle (that was before I loved her). It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was because I loved her this way to the mountain.

Days passed. I kept visiting. I was talking with someone about a home for her – one that she’d be a great fit for. Nothing was sure yet, but life was good. Puzzle wasn’t living with me, but she was in my life, and she was bringing me joy every day. I was her person.

~ ~ ~

One day, she was gone. I came back the next day, and the day after. She never did. I talked to her people – they hadn’t seen her, and they hadn’t placed her. I kept going back for more than two weeks, hoping, against all reason, she’d come tumbling down the stairs.

I’ll never know what happened to her. If I took an educated guess, she is most likely dead. I’m familiar with the mortality rate of free-roaming puppies: it’s 81% before they reach reproductive age.1 There were 5 puppies to begin with, which means that 4.05 of them would die before they were, say, about 6 months old. They’re a couple months old now, and there’s one left.

I’m familiar with the causes of the disappearance of puppies, too. 63% are being directly or indirectly influenced by humans. I know the numbers because I researched them for my presentation at the 2022 Lemonade Conference.

Graphs from the Manabi et. al. paper. “Death by human” means killed on purpose. “Taken by human” means spontaneously stolen (because puppies are cute), and often put back out on the street in a different neighborhood a few days later.

Every single person I’ve shared Puzzle’s disappearance with has told me to imagine someone stole her and gave her a great life. That’s probably the first comforting thought that comes to mind, and my friends want to comfort me. Maybe that’s what happend. Maybe it isn’t. In the former scenario, she’s still alive (which is great). But I’m not liking this scenario. It says something about people that I don’t want to be true. (You don’t just steal someone’s puppy, for fuck’s sake! You go up to the house, and ask if they are selling or giving the puppy away. We’re in Mexico, so the answer will probably be yes. If you were the kind of person who would actually end up giving the puppy a great life, I hope you’d ask first.) So I can’t even say I prefer this scenario to any of the others because it says something terrible about people, and I do not find it comforting.

~ ~ ~

Would I do it again? Sure, with Puzzle. She was special for me because I let her, and that made all the difference. I can live with the fact that I’ll never know what happened to her, and it doesn’t diminish the good times we had. (Which is surprising.) I remember Puzzle fondly, not sadly. I remember her in the way a good thing you needed to let go makes you equal parts sad and happy. It was sad, but okay to let her go. And it was great while it lasted.

The luckiest people in the world are the ones who have something the loss of which will break their heart. The bravest people are the ones who know that joy and loss are two sides of the same coin, and who are willing to dive in anyways. Maybe I’m becoming that person. I’d like to think so.

~ ~ ~

Sources

(1) Doty, Mark. Dog Years. A Memoir. New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

(2) Paul, M., Sen Majumder, S., Sau, S. et al. High early life mortality in free-ranging dogs is largely influenced by humans. Sci Rep 6, 19641 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1038/srep19641

The Puzzle Week, Part 27: Out and About, and Self-Directed Exploration

After a little more than a week, I knew it was time to take Puzzle back home. I had agreed with her family to “borrow” her for a week. I took one last video – the one where Puzzle is rolling around on the floor with Game and the tennis ball – and then took her home. My neighbor was happy to see me, and smiled, seeing how much joy he had given me by lending me one of the puppies for a bit. He gave me permission to visit or spend time with Puzzle anytime.

Since Puzzle and her family live just around the corner, Game and I would walk past her and see her a lot, even after she didn’t live with us anymore. So much happy (on the puppies’ part anyways!)

We quickly got into the habit of taking her on the shorter one of our loops – just up Cerro del Cuarto and back home. Whenever I wanted to go on a longer hike, I avoided the callejon with the puppies so Puzzle wouldn’t be tempted to follow us.

Puzzle’s first hike

However, one day, she did anyways – and I decided to just bring her along. I had gotten into the habit of bringing her leash and collar, just in case, so she’d be fine walking along the car street with us, too: for the first time, Game and I were going to take her to the trails! It was a great little hike, and our little friend, who had never experienced the trails before, had a blast. Here’s a few impressions from her first field trip to the creek, with some narration about my thoughts about introducing puppies to new kinds of environments/surfaces:

Puzzle’s first field trip to the trails and the creek:

Is there anything better than watching a puppy explore a new space?

~~~~~~

Wanna have more off-leash fun with your own dog? 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!

The Puzzle Week, Part 26: Resource Guarding

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.

Fast learning

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.

Trust

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!

The Puzzle Week, Part 25: Roof dogs, fence dogs, and the tranquility of free-roamers

Mexican puppies learn to ignore dogs on roofs and behind fences

Puzzle calmly walks past the two fence-barking Akitas and Skye, the white mix. Free-roamers and dogs who grow up here tend to learn that the dogs barking behind fences and on roofs can’t get to them – and they learn to ignore them.

Initially, Puzzle asked to be carried past these dogs. Even when Game and I passed calmly, she couldn’t do it. Soon, she learned to follow Game’s lead and walk past them confidently. I’d venture this is an example of social learning: Puzzle observed Game, and then learned to walk past barky fence dogs even when Game wasn’t around.

Cultural differences

I find this to be really interesting as I compare it to the typical behavior of Western-style pet dogs passing fence-barkers in their neighborhood. I get the impression that in Western countries, everyone – the human, the pet dog, and the dog behind the fence – has a tendency to get upset. In our part of the world, on the other hand, it is the rule (rather than the exception) to not care about dogs who are yelling at you across a barrier as long as you’re on the outside.

Watch the video, and put on your ethologist’s hat!

Why do YOU think dogs like Puzzle, Game, and free-roaming dogs don’t care about fence- or roof-barkers? And why do you think dogs on roofs and behind fences tend to go berserk when other dogs walk past? Share your thoughts in the comments!

~~~~~~

For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration starts on March 22!

The Puzzle Week, Part 24: Setting and respecting boundaries (two lessons for humans)

I’ve decided to split my remaining Puzzle material into a few more posts – they are just getting too long otherwise. Today’s post only has one video, but it is one I truly love, and could watch over and over again. It makes me laugh because it’s cute and goofy – but if I change my point of view, I can also see it as a metaphor.

Social skills: successful communication

An adult free-ranging dog tries to charm Puzzle, and get her to play. Puzzle isn’t afraid – she could walk away or hide behind me. She doesn’t feel the need to hide or flee, but she clearly says, “No!” by turning her head away and NOT engaging. The other dog works hard, but isn’t intruding in her space. He is being gentle, and self-handicapping by making himself small and rolling on his back. He doesn’t get frustrated or impatient – he just works very hard, and keeps respecting Puzzle’s boundaries.

The reason we know this is good communication – even though it doesn’t go anywhere – is the fact that Puzzle is able to stay put. She was sitting on this step before the other dog got here, and she stays in the place she picked for herself throughout the conversation. She doesn’t feel threatened. Yet she clearly knows that he is communicating with her, and she responds politely and clearly: “No.”

These are great communication skills on both parts. Watch this – maybe more than just once. The next time you need to either set a boundary for yourself (see Puzzle) or respect someone else’s boundaries (see the adult dog), remember this video!

Two lessons for humans

  • Set your own boundaries kindly. You don’t need to yell, and you don’t need to hide from or stonewall the other person.
  • Accept the boundaries of others gracefully. No need to get frustrated or annoyed. Just do your best. Dogs don’t generally take things personally – for example, this adult dog won’t be unable to sleep tonight because he’ll obsess over what he should have done differently. He will get up (after the video ends), wag, and move on with his life. Don’t take things personally. Be more like this dog.

The Puzzle Week, Part 23: Dog/Human Socialization

Due to their home and the possibility to go out into the alleyway leading past their house and interact with the passers-by, Puzzle and her siblings already got a good deal of default human socialization. Our neighborhood has lots of kids who tend to play soccer and ride their bikes or simply run around in the alleyway (there are no cars, which makes it a safe place to play and hang out). Kids, of course, love puppies, so the puppies got lots of kid time from the time they were old/brave enough to follow their mom out into the alley. In addition, the family that had the litter has a kid themselves – around 7 years old – so the puppies had contact with a child even before they left the nest.

Crowded spaces

The socialization experiences I added on top of this were more urban: I took Puzzle to the most touristy places of Guanajuato, to the busiest open-air taco stands, and walked her around cars and other traffic and city noises – a level of business and noise that is absent in our neighborhood. You’ve already seen Puzzle around people in this leash walking post. Here’s another example from a different plaza I used to take Puzzle to:

Plaza Baratillo

A car-free plaza I used to take Puzzle for off-leash exploration and people-watching.

La Universidad de Guanajuato

People-and-traffic-watching from the stairs of Guanajuato’s university.

These are just some examples of the crowded-place excursions Puzzle and I took.

Inside places

We also entered little supermarkets, bakeries and pharmacies together to help Puzzle adjust to different inside spaces. You can see two example pictures in this post.

Open urban spaces

Apart from crowded outdoors areas and small businesses, we also went to large, open urban spaces: another type of environment that is missing in our pedestrian, narrow-allied neighborhood, but may be part of her future life, no matter whether she ends up with a free-roaming life or a pet life.

This first video is outside of the litter’s home range, but a fairly quiet place. While there isn’t a lot going on, this place is wide and open, which makes it very different from Puzzle’s alley and most environments of our town. To get there, we have to walk along a traffickey street, which also adds a new experience. Seeing and getting used to people in different contexts and environments is important!

Cerro del cuarto

La Alhóndiga

Meeting a free-roamer at the Alhóndiga.

Watching the world go by at the Alhóndiga.

The video below shows some loose leash walking practice at a busier part of the same plaza the pictures above were taken. You’ll see me handling the leash on my middle finger in this video. This, too, works – experiment, and find out which finger loop works best for you and your puppy!

The video below shows more leash walking around the Alhóndiga, around running kids. Included here for your amusement is me yelling at a guy who wants to touch Game. Game, you see, has been instructed to stay with my cellphone on its tripod and make sure no one steals it while I am videoing and focusing on Puzzle. Yes, I’m not being friendly to that guy. In my defense, I doubt he wants to find out what happens if a (generally very friendly and social) Malinois in working mode believes you are about to take my tripod. He heeded my advice, and Game held her stay. Good girl!

My next post is going to be a bit of a mixture of stuff – cute, funny, or useful clips/pictures that didn’t quite fit under any of the headings of the Puzzle series. Stay tuned! 2 more Puzzle posts to come … unless I think of something else! I feel like Sheherazade. I keep writing and writing, putting off the last post in the Puzzle series, and defying George Harrison.

The Puzzle Week – Part 22: Dog/dog socialization in practice: the good, the cute, and the messy.

Yes, FINALLY, this is the one with the cute puppy videos!

I promised you a gameshowesque extravaganza. Well, here you go. If I had all the time in the world (and more patience with technology), I would do this Hannah Whitton style. Alas, I am neither particularly patient with technology nor do I have the time. So for now, I give you amateur-style fun with a – drumroll! – puppy video analysis game!

Puzzle’s confidence around dogs has been growing steadily. The videos you’re about to see are not chronological though because I downloaded and edited them at different times, and don’t remember what happened when. I tried going from least confident to most confident in this post.

Video 1:

We don’t see this dude a ton, but we do see him now and then. He and Game know each other; Puzzle has never seen him.

What do you see? Social facilitation? Social learning? All, none, or some of the above? Go, and share your answers in the comments of the blog post!

Video 2:

Meeting Toby (He carries his tail strangely because he can’t raise it. Maybe he broke it at some point.) Toby lives in this street, and Game and I see him a lot. How do you code the interaction(s) of Toby, Game and Puzzle? Go!

Video 3:

Game greets a disinterested and somewhat stiff bully-breed mix. He’s only a rare visitor around here – it’s more Game’s home turf than it is his. Puzzle watches from a safe distance.

Watch the video, and decide: is this social learning? Is it social facilitation? Is it imitation? Is it none of the above, all of the above, or something else entirely? Let’s see your analysis, and your reasons for it, in the comments!

Video 4:

The Mal mix is a friend of mine and Game’s. He’s a resident of the area, and Game and I meet him a lot. How do you code the interactions in this video?

The cute and the messy! Because life. And because the trainer and human I strive to be is authentic rather than giving you a polished version of our sessions.

The handler as a safe space

Video 5:

The video below shows Game and Puzzle; an adolescent Husky (Game knows him), and a little female mix (another one of Game’s acquaintances). This is approximately the third time that Puzzle has seen the two dogs. You’ll see me using proximity to my body as a safe space for Puzzle, and how this helps her handle the situation. Due to the video angle, you can’t see this, but I’m making sure the two dogs can’t touch or sniff Puzzle. She feels safe sitting and observing next to me (around 00:30).

Free-roamers tend not to be pushy around people, which makes it easy to keep the Husky and the little female out of Puzzle’s personal space. A little over a minute in, the two dogs have lost interest, and I’m getting up to give Puzzle more agency again.

Also, yes, the flowy red scarf you see me wearing is poop bags. I’ve always had a knack for fashion. Thank you for noticing!

About two minutes in: how cute can a puppy possibly be? doG, isn’t she the funniest, bounciest, silliest little thing?

02:10 Here, Game notices the zooming puppy and wants to chase her. This is too much for Puzzle: while she trusts Game, there’s still a big difference in size, speed, and general Malinoisness. Game can be overwhelming. When this happens, I interrupt, and keep Game out of Puzzle’s personal space. Puzzle knows this – at 02:15, you’ll see her ask for my support. I’ll calm them both down, and send Game on her way to find someone her own size to malinois with.

Puzzle is no worse for wear: as soon as Game takes off running at 02:30, she chases after her! Chasing is fun! Being chased … not yet. Gotta grow up a little more first! If Puzzle stayed with me, this should cease to be a problem in a few weeks, once Puzzle was a little older, faster, and bigger.

Around 02:55, I can’t resist Puzzle’s playfulness, and just have to join the fun! Puppies are easy to play with. Just watch what they do naturally, and follow their lead! In this case, we’re running around together. (Social play would be the technical term for playing without food or toys; in FDSA land, the term we use is personal play.)

03:01 Game, of course, wants to join the fun! She LOVES social play. Around 3:28, I start bringing down Game’s energy a little. I like roughhousing with her, but this is not the right context. Look at how Puzzle is trying to join the fun by jumping up on Game!

04:02 Game’s arousal is still higher than I’d like it to be in this situation (as evidenced by her barking). Letting her come into middle position and massaging her ears helps turn things down a notch. As for Puzzle? Well, let her bounce and jump all over us. Game doesn’t have to be jealous – right now, all my attention is on her. So we both let Puzzle be her happy, bouncy, silly self. She’s the least bitey puppy I’ve ever had, by the way. She has never hurt me when trying to play. Which is fascinating. I guess that’s the puppy raising experience of non-working-dog folks? Something about it feels almost wrong.

Alright – take a stab at analyzing the video below! What do you see in terms of social learning, imitation, facilitation etc? Go!

Risks, rewards, and ways of life

Video 6:

Below is a long video filled with interesting interactions: bouncy play with another puppy (starts out with Puzzle being a bit too forward!), interaction with an adult male (the other pup’s dad?), and Puzzle feeling overwhelmed when Game would like to chase her. Long, but worth watching – there’s a lot going on in this clip! The second puppy is a little younger than Puzzle, which is why they are less well coordinated. I don’t interrupt because the other pup’s dad (he might also be the mom’s alloparenting housemate rather than the sire) is handling the situation much better than I, a human, ever could.

I’m not advising you to try this with your own puppy. If I was sure Puzzle was going to a pet home in a different part of the world, I might avoid these kinds of interactions altogether. Since pets won’t have these interactions as adults, there is no reason to store them in the “safe and satisfying” folder in their growing puppy brain right now. Depending on how risk-averse or -tolerant you, the human, are, the risks (however small) might outweigh the rewards.

As a free-roamer, Puzzle will absolutely have these kinds of interactions, and she will need to be able to manage them well. If she were to grow up to be my own dog (a take-everywhere dog), living in this part of the world, she’d need these skills as well. She has a dog and a human looking out for her here. For her, the rewards of these experiences outweigh the risks by far. This is the puppy I am raising: one that can deal with dogs of all sizes and dispositions in a free-roaming world. At the same time, I’m making sure the synapses she’d benefit from as a pet dog won’t get pruned, either: being confined, walking on a leash, being inside buildings, housebreaking, traffic, city life. We’ll take a look at some of those in my next post.

Video 7:

Below is another long clip, interesting to watch in terms of body language. Puzzle tries to play with the little adult female. She just got woken up by Puzzle, and says, “No!” Puzzle keeps trying to engage her.

I do not intervene here, but would if this were going on longer. It’s not okay to let your puppy harass another dog who doesn’t defend themselves, but is uncomfortable. However, it doesn’t come to that: the little female’s pandilla comes to help her: the Mal mix and the adolescent Husky (both male) either live with her or are her neighbors. The three of them always stick together. They happen to be interested in playing, but Puzzle is intimidated by their size. You’ll see me take a hands-off approach again. (Let me repeat: I do not recommend this unless you are well-versed in canine body language.) Puzzle is clearly not comfortable when the two big ones start chasing her. There’s a few reasons that I let them work it out themselves: I know the two bigger dogs. They try and play nicely; I know that when they realize they are scaring Puzzle, they will slow down. Indeed, at 01:11, the Mal mix lies down (self-handicapping), and at 01:17, the Husky shows a play bow without pushing into Puzzle’s personal space. I also know that Puzzle has learned that I’m a safe space for her. If she comes to hide behind my body or stand/sit between my legs, I will keep all other dogs away. She chooses this option at 01:28. From that moment onwards, I will not allow the other dogs to have direct contact with her. When they continue trying to engage her in play, I’ll pick her up. She has learned this is safe, and will immediately relax in my arms.

Another reason I am pretty relaxed around Puzzle’s interactions with other dogs is that she may grow up to be a free-roamer herself. This means she’ll have to be able to resolve these situations on her own, and she’ll have to learn to respect bigger dogs: in most of her future dog encounters, there will be no human to help her. The rules of engagement (who gets the pop culture reference?) are different for free-roamers than they are for Western-style pets. I want Puzzle to have both sets of rules in her playbook: freely interacting with other dogs, and disinterestedly passing dogs on a leash.

Coming up next: human socialization and urban spaces for Puzzle! I’ve got material for two more content/video-heavy Puzzle posts before I will get philosophical, and share the end of the Puzzle Week series with you. Tiem flies, my friends. Time flies.

The Puzzle Week – Part 21: Social Learning

I used to call dogs learning about social interactions from other dogs “social facilitation” – but I just learned in Kristina Spaulding’s excellent Fundamentals of Ethology course1 that this not technically the correct term! Turns out that social facilitation does not meet the criteria of social learning: it just means that a certain behavior increases in animal A when animal B is present. When B is not present, animal A does not show the same increase in behavior. No learning has taken place!

So … what is social learning?

What, then, is social learning, exactly? And what’s the correct term for the interaction I used to call social facilitation? Let’s see. Social learning is learning by means of observing others. Kristina (again, in her fantastic Ethology course, which you should definitely take the next time it runs) refers us to a definition by Wynne and Udell2. They have three criteria for social learning:

  1. The behavior is not innate – it must be learned.
  2. It must be learned in a specific way: by means of social transmission.
  3. As a result of the learning process, the behavior also occurs in the absence of the demonstrator.

There are four kinds of social learning: imitation, emulation, stimulus enhancement, and local enhancement. Note that social facilitation is not on this list: while there is social transmission, a socially facilitated behavior does not occur without the demonstrator being present.

What is social facilitation?

Dancing might be an example of sopcial facilitation: I’m not into it. But if a friend convinces me to go out, I’ll dance if they do (preferably after having a beer or two). However, I won’t dance in the absence of said friend. Having gone dancing with my friend will not cause me to go back to the music venue, and dance on my own, or with other people. Once my friend has gone home, so will I, and I’ll be glad to go back to not dancing. I’d venture my dancing meets the definition of social facilitation, but not the definition of social learning because it does not occur in the absence of my friend, the demonstrator.

Back to social learning!

What are the 4 types of social learning?

Imitation

Imitation is a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. The learned behavior replicates either the motor pattern or the form of the behavior.

Say an alien just landed on earth and sees a human drop a coin into a coke machine, and then drink a refreshing beverage. The alien, who has never encountered a coke machine, then also drops a coin in the machine and enjoys a soda. Going forwards, the alien is able to get a coke whenever they want (as long as they have access to coins and coke machines): through imitation, they have learned to work coke machines the same way humans do. If they used their hands to drop coins into the slot, we’d call it true imitation (they imitated the motor pattern). If they used their trunk to drop cpins into the slot, we’d call it functional imitation (they imitated the form of the behavior, but not the exact motor pattern).

Emulation

Emulation is also a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. However, unlike imitation, the form or motor pattern of the behavior isn’t directly imitated. Instead, the observer just recognizes that a solution to a problem is available. Let’s look at a different alien. They watch a human drop a coin into the coke machine, and out comes a refreshing beverage. Yummy! Looks like it’s possible to get cold drinks from that big box with the Coca Cola logo on it! The alien now smashes the coke machine with its trunk, pieces of broken glass and plastic everywhere, and in the midst of it all, there are bottles of cold beverages, which the alien now enjoys. Assuming that I understand things correctly (no guarantee there), this is emulation. When the alien encounters another coke machine in the future, even if there’s no human present to demonstrate the coin-inserting action, the alien will know that there are likely cold beverages in it, and, if thirsty, will smash it with its trunk to gain access to it.

Stimulus or local enhancement

Animal A’s behavior causes animal B to notice an environmental stimulus, or a particularly interesting spot in the environment. Dog A sees a cat and stares at it – dog B sees dog A staring at something, and follows their gaze – now dog B also sees the cat, and stares as well.

Ta-da! Stimulus enhancement! Dog A sniffs a certain spot. Dog B notices dog A’s interest in said spot, and heads over to sniff it as well. Ta-da! Local enhancement! Look how easy I’m making this sound!

Let’s clear up my former misuse of the term social facilitation!

So what do we call a situation where animal A observes animal B’s interaction with animal C, and doesn’t only copy their behavior right then and there (imitation), but learns something for the future? What if dog A is shy towards other dogs, but, after observing dog B’s confident interactions, becomes less shy themselves, even in B’s absence? Well, we’ll just call it social learning. Plain and simple.

If A copied a specific play move of B’s, we’d call it imitation (especially if it wasn’t an innate play move, I suppose). If A learned that it was possible to get strange dogs to play (there is a solution), but came up with their own way of initiating play (different from B’s play style), we’d call it emulation.

Once A is confident around other dogs, they might notice a potential playmate after B does, and then initiate or join the fun: stimulus enhancement! In case of doubt, just call it social learning.

And what the heck is social contagion?

Social contagion is a subtype of social facilitation. It is not social learning. In social contagion, observing a behavior causes the observer to engage in the same behavior – without knowing why they are showing the behavior.

Maybe this is social contagion? In any case, it’s hilarious:

Maybe this is social contagion, too! Game is chasing something to fetch it. Puzzle doesn’t know why she is running – she just does what Game does:

What about social support? Yours truly has been throwing that term around, too!

Indeed, I probably have. It’s such a lovely term, isn’t it? Social support. I want to give and receive it from my friends! I want to bathe in it! I want to be socially supportive of my dogs! That said, I don’t think social support is an ethological term. Assuming there is no agreed-upon ethological definition, it won’t serve us in the analysis of dog/dog interactions. It’s a nice buzzword though, so I might keep it around to spice up my paragraphs when its meaning is clear from the context. In any case, since you asked, I looked up its definition in the APA dictionary of Psychology. According to them, social support is

the provision of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors [my emphasis]. Support may arise from any interpersonal relationship in an individual’s social network, involving family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, colleagues, caregivers, or support groups. It may take the form of practical help (e.g., doing chores, offering advice), tangible support that involves giving money or other direct material assistance, and emotional support that allows the individual to feel valued, accepted, and understood. […]”3

The first sentence is useful for observers of canine behavior. The rest is anthropocentric, and irrelevant for our purposes.

Where are all the puppy videos?

I know, I know, you’re here to watch puppy videos, not to get hung up on terminology. But I want to get better at using the correct biological terms for the situations and encounters I’m describing. Explaining them to other people and making up examples is my favorite way of remembering stuff. So here you go! All mistakes and all misleading explanations and examples are my own, and not Kristina Spaulding’s. She actually knows what she’s talking about, while I’m only just learning. As Brené Brown would say, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Feel free to point mistakes out to me (kindly and constructively, because that’s how we do things around here!). And if you are hungry for more geeky ethology, check out Kristina’s classes on her website and at the IAABC foundation.

Alright – back to the cute puppy videos! My next post is going to have lots and lots of dog/dog socialization videos. I promise! To keep this fun, we’ll be playing a game! After reading this post, I want you to tell me what you see in the upcoming videos: social learning? What kind of social learning? Social facilitation? All or none of the above? Hang tight – my next post is coming soon, and it will be gameshowesque.

Sources

(1) Spaulding, Kristina. Fundamentals of Ethology. IAABC Foundation, January 2022. (Will be running again in May – don’t miss it!)

(2) Wynne, Clive D.L and Udell, Monique A.R. Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior & Cognition. London, Red Globe Press: 2020. (Note that I have not read this book, but I believe this is the resource Kristina Spaulding is referring to.)

(3) “Social support,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed March 9, 2022.

The Puzzle Week – Part 20: The not-so-blank slate, and Puzzle’s Socialization Plan

The (not so) blank slate: what the puppy brings to the table

The laws of learning apply to all puppies equally. Also, every puppy is different. Both of these things are true: sadly, things are rarely as black and white as we control-loving dog trainers would like them to be.

I was pretty certain my neighbors hadn’t done strategic socialization before the puppies left their nest. However, they likely grew up in a family environment, around young children, cats, ducks, and their dogs (apart from the dam, they have a small male that looks like a Miniature Schnauzer/Chihuahua mix). That’s a good foundation!

As soon as they were ready to explore, on their own time, they started venturing out into the alley with their mother, a little bit braver and further every day. This is one aspect of growing up free-roaming I love: it’s up to the puppies when they are ready to leave the nest, and how far they are willing to go. Their humans just let them be.

Out in the alley, they would meet passers-by and the occasional dog or neighborhood cat. They were also always able to retreat behind the safety of their gate, and had a mom who’d defend them fiercely against passing strange dogs (but not against known neighborhood dogs) until they were between 6 and 7 weeks old, when she intervened to a lesser and lesser degree.

There were five puppies, and this is how I see their baseline temperaments on a scale. Note that my scale only goes from the shiest to the most curious puppy in that litter. It is not a scale of all puppies, or of puppies in general.

Puzzle is a 3 on her litter scale that goes from 1 (most fearful puppy in the litter) to 4 (most confident puppy in the litter). The scale only reflects this particular litter of five puppies.

The parents’ temperament and stress levels

We also know a little bit about the parents’ temperaments: the mother is neutral/friendly towards all people outside the home. She’ll bark briefly when someone enters her yard. She is neutral/friendly towards known dogs, and slightly suspicious of unknown ones. The father (assuming he is who I believe he is) is confident and mellow around all dogs and all people.

Genetically, this is a nice combination for a free-roamer or a pet dog: mellow and neutral, leaning towards confidence from the father’s side; no exuberance or red flag behaviors in the parents.

I don’t think either one of the parents has a particularly stressful life. They have lots of freedom, plenty of food, and a routine that rarely changes. This should result in a good in-utero experience for the litter. (Mothers who are stressed during the gestation period are more likely to produce pups who are prone to depression, anxiety, and social deficits. This is known to be true for rodents1,2,3 and assumed to also be relevant for other mammalian species such as humans and dogs.)

Two sets of experiences for Puzzle

I wanted Puzzle to have two sets of experiences: one set would prepare her for a potential pet dog life, and the other one would allow her to thrive as a free-roamer and scavenger. The second set was taken care of by the environment she lived in and the freedom she had. I focused on the first set. I wanted her to experience living inside a house, being left alone, being crated, mat work, walking on a leash, being in busy places with lots of people, being in stores, being handled and carried, being dog-neutral and dog-confident as well as people-neutral and people-confident, starting housetraining, getting used to traffic noises and other city sounds, being inside moving vehicles.

Not all of these experiences fall under the category of socialization – some of them are more general pet puppy skills. I also did not get through all of them while I had access to Puzzle. However, I think we did pretty well, given the fact that we only had a few weeks together. The aspects I’m going to focus on in my next two posts are socialization to dogs, and socialization to busy urban spaces/feeling neutral and confident around strange people.

Sources

(1) Weinstock, Marta (2016). Prenatal stressors in rodents: Effects on behavior. Neurobiology of Stress, S2352289516300133–. doi:10.1016/j.ynstr.2016.08.004

(2) Cabrera, R.J.; Rodríguez-Echandía, E.L.; Jatuff, A.S.G.; Fóscolo, M. (1999). Effects of prenatal exposure to a mild chronic variable stress on body weight, preweaning mortality and rat behavior. Brazilian Journal of Medical and Biological Research, 32(10), 1229–1237. doi:10.1590/s0100-879×1999001000009

(3) Soares-Cunha, Carina; Coimbra, Bárbara; Borges, Sónia; Domingues, Ana Verónica; Silva, Deolinda; Sousa, Nuno; Rodrigues, Ana João (2018). Mild Prenatal Stress Causes Emotional and Brain Structural Modifications in Rats of Both Sexes. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12, 129–. doi:10.3389/fnbeh.2018.00129