Lifelong Management for Aussie Blitz

Meet the dog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blitz’ Management Plan and Lifestyle Changes

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

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

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

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

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

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

Case Study: Toni gets paid for looking at dogs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why we chose this training approach

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

Book Recommendation

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

Case Study: Toni learns to relax around visitors

Meet the dog

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

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

The behaviors we wanted to change

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

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

Training steps: Learning to relax around human friends

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Training steps: Learning to relax in public

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

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

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

Why we chose this training approach

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

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

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

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

Case Study: Dao’s Resource Guarding

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

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

Meet the dog:

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

The behavior I want to change:

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

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

Training steps:

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