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!

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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 Chicken Experiment

San Marcos La Laguna is teeming with free-roaming chickens. They are in the streets, they are in the yards, they are behind fences and outside of fences. Roosters cockadoodledoo all night, and chickens, big and small, enjoy their life (until they don’t).

Where we used to live for the past 2.5 years, there was one trail that led past chickens and turkeys. My dogs initially craved a bite or two, but soon learned to walk past without giving it much thought. They accepted that killing chickens just wasn’t in the cards for them. 

When we got to San Marcos la Laguna – the first stop of our slow travel road trip – Game showed me she had generalized her walking-past-chickens skills. I walked her off leash, and she was great at strolling past chickens without paying attention to them. Until The Day That Changed Everything.

The Day That Changed Everything

Our morning walk to the lake led us past a metal gate with a gap below, just tall enough for a chicklet to squeeze out into the street. One morning, we were walking past the gate as usual, minding our own business, when a little chicklet ducked under the gate, and tried to cross the f*ing road. By the time I noticed the wee bird, it had strolled right under Game’s muzzle. “What’s that?” Smack! Game lowered her Baskerville-muzzled nose, and that chicklet’s road-crossing intentions were cut short. Game was delighted! Who knew that smashing down your muzzle makes the little feather toys stop moving! So much power! So much fun!

(I found the owner, apologized, and paid the equivalent of US$15 dollars for the chicklet. Yes, that’s certainly the price of a whole flock of grown chickens, but I’d have paid twice as much, too. It was my fault; I certainly deserved the financial punishment.)

Game is a smart dog capable of single-event learning. Going forwards, she didn’t look at chickens like she used to (the way she looks at furniture: boring; whatever). She now looked at chickens – big and small, black and white and brown and red and stripey, egg-laying or cockadoodledoing – like this:

A recall challenge

I wanted to continue having Game off leash in this town of free-roaming fowl. I was only going to stay for a few weeks, but I have never met a recall challenge I didn’t like. I could, of course, also have made this a “leave it” challenge – most trainers probably would; “leave it” seems more intuitive in this context. But recalls are my thing, so that’s what I went with.

I remembered an interesting episode from The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat. In this episode, Pat modifies the prey drive of his sister’s newly adopted Greyhound to keep him from eliminating the family cat. Pat doesn’t approach this as a recall issue – but his training intrigued me, and I decided to use my chicken challenge to try something similar.

If you haven’t listened to the Greyhound Versus Cat episode on the Canine Paradigm – do so before reading on! Pat’s story will help you understand what I am doing in the videos below. It’s also a great podcast episode. I wouldn’t do it justice by trying to summarize it – just check it out yourself. And in the unlikely case that you haven’t heard of The Canine Paradigm before, get ready to add a new podcast to your personal favorites!

So many new things to try!

I had never used existential food to convince a dog not to chase a prey animal. While I train with kibble a lot in everyday life, I’d generally use higher value reinforcers for something as difficult as a recall away from a chicken. I have also never fed an entire meal after a single click.

Would a large amount of food make up for its lower value (kibble is low value, but an entire meal is a big reward)? Would Game be able to eat an entire meal without lifting her head, and thinking chicken thoughts, right away? Or would it take a while for her to learn that interrupting the behavior of eating caused the restaurant to close? I couldn’t wait to find out.

The Game plan, part 1

I came up with the following rules:

  1. Game was going to earn both her daily meals – breakfast and dinner – for chicken recalls.
  2. For a single chicken recall, she would receive an entire meal.
  3. If she stopped eating (i.e. lifted her head), I’d take away the food.
  4. The next opportunity to eat would only come around at the following mealtime, which, again, would happen in a chicken context.

Session #1

Criteria: No recall cue. I’ll click for her choice to reorient to me after figuring out she can’t get to the chicken.

Session #3 or #4:


Criteria: I’m adding a recall cue, but will reward her even if the leash tightens before she comes back. (I will require the leash to stay loose a few sessions further down the line.)

An unexpected injury

While we were training our way through the chicken challenge, Game hurt herself (she’s a head-through-the-wall kind of dog – it happens surprisingly often). I put her on limited activity for a week. No running, no playing, no training – except for her two daily short leash walks culminating in a chicken recall at meal time.

Session #5ish

Criteria: same criteria as the previous session.

You can see greater intensity and arousal in the video below: if Game’s exercise needs aren’t being met, she turns into a little maniac. She REALLY wants to go for that rooster, and she can’t finish her meal (I learn that if she’s on limited activity, this protocol is setting her up to fail):

My stubbornness pays off!

I stuck with the protocol though, and got to a place where the line would stay loose between the recall and Game returning to me for an uninterrupted meal. (There’s some sessions that I didn’t record.)

Upping the ante: off leash; chickens kept safe behind a fence

Once Game could reliably recall away from chickens without tightening a leash or long line, I found a place she could be off leash, with the chickens safe on the other side of a fence.

Session 10ish:

The rep below is not perfect – you can see Game hesitate before responding; then she realizes there’s no way to get across the fence and comes back. If there had been no fence, the session below would have resulted in a fatality.

Session 11ish:

This one is better: there is the tiniest hesitation (I know what her whiplash turn-on-a-dime-s look like, and this isn’t quite it – but she’s almost got it):

… and we did it: by the subsequent session, I got that perfect turn on a dime with the chickens behind a fence!

The Game plan, part 2: off leash Game with unprotected chickens!

It was time to get some chickens of my own, and up the ante: I wanted to try this off leash and without a fence, and I wasn’t going to subject someone else’s chickens to this experiment.

I LOVE environmental rewards, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to integrate them into the second part of my training plan (here’s where my plan wildly diverges from what Pat Stuart did with his sister’s Greyhound: no cats were going to be harmed in Pat’s training! The questionable ethics you are about to read about are entirely my own.)

The morality of it all

I have no qualms about eating meat, or feeding my dogs meat, and I also have no issues with (quickly) killing an animal in order to eat it. (I do have issues with livestock or wildlife being killed for reasons other than eating.)

I planned on getting two chickens (that way, I’d be able to have at least two reps, even if the first one didn’t go as planned). I’d use the chickens in my training, and then we would eat them. First, I would recall Game away from a chicken in a crate, and reinforce with her usual meal. Then, I’d recall her away from the same chicken outside of the crate, and reinforce with a release to run back and kill the chicken. (I decided that being quickly killed by a dog is no more inhumane than being killed by me, the human. The chicken was going to die and be eaten either way, so using it as a reinforcer seemed morally acceptable to my pragmatic self.)

I was particularly curious about how this experience would translate to the chickens we met in the street: would Game be more likely to engage with me in order to earn that once-in-a-million jackpot of killing (my theory was that she would), or would she become more likely to try and kill on her own time (my theory was that she wouldn’t)? I was determined to find out!

Time to purchase some chickens

I had to run an errand in Antigua, a city some 150km from San Marcos. It was the perfect place to buy chickens from someone I would never see again. I went to a farming supply store that sells chickens, and doesn’t ask questions. And there they were: a big wire cage with lots of poultry crammed in, clucking and sticking their heads out. They were black-and-white barred chickens. My favorite kind, because from a distance, they look like a mad novelist scribbled all over white birds in black ink. They are pretty. I’m sure they are also tasty – if not to humans, then certainly in a raw meal for my dogs. 

I stood there watching the chickens in the cage, and then, just like that, I didn’t want to buy them anymore. It would be lying if I said I couldn’t buy them anymore – it wasn’t that. I’m not particularly sentimental about death; neither my own nor that of another animal. They were going to die sooner or later, and their current life wasn’t exactly amazing. But I looked at their less than ideal existence, crammed into that cage. I imagined their several hours long, less-than-ideal journey back to San Marcos, in a cardboard box, in my hot car. All just to be killed once we got there. It seemed quite pointless, especially since Game and I were going to leave the town of free-roaming poultry soon anyways.

I told myself to remain standing there for another minute, and remind myself of the facts: this was my one chance of buying two chickens far from the scene of the murder I was plotting, and following through on my training plan.

A minute or two later, I still didn’t want to do it. And so I didn’t, because at some point in the last decade, I’ve learned that it is perfectly okay to walk away from a perfectly good plan.

The anticlimactic ending

Game spent the remaining week and a half in San Marcos on a leash around the chickens roaming the streets. And then, we left for Huehuetenango, a city that doesn’t have free roaming chickens – or at the very least, we didn’t meet a single one. I’d like to say that the chicken store chickens lived happily ever after – but that’s pretty unlikely, so I’ll need to end this story on a different note: the feeling I remember. As I walked away from the chicken store, I felt a moment of humaneness. The kind that makes your heart jump. I thought to myself: “I’m humane sometimes. Sometimes, I am kind.” And for a moment, that thought (however misguided it may seem) made me smile. 

Resources mentioned in this post:

Pat Stuart & Glenn Cooke, The Canine Paradigm: Episode 22 – Greyhound Versus Cat (podcast)

Stress cycles

I love discovering parallels in dog and human behavior.

A few weeks ago, Game cracked a tooth. After an epic Mexican veterinary adventure involving a road trip to Mexico City, a beautiful sunset, a couple dead Moray eels, and two dental surgeries, Game is back home, and on the road to recovery.

Not feeling well – the dog angle

When Game is well, she has the sociability of a Golden Retriever. When she’s not okay, she has the sociability of a Malinois. Post surgery, she was clearly in the latter state. I can tell whether she is or isn’t well by looking at her face. There is a subtle difference in the way the muscles in her forehead are either tense or soft, and in the amount of sleep she needs. Sleep all day? Something isn’t going great, and I need to be careful when I’m out and about with her. Behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and different mental states track certain behavioral clusters. In Game’s case, not feeling well means that large groups of people (something she generally tolerates extremely well) can cause frustration. This manifests itself, among other things, in a heightened likelihood of barking, lunging, and the temptation to nip at fast-moving strangers. Her threshold for responding to stimuli in the environment plunges.

The human parallel

I sympathize: there’s a parallel in my own behavior. When I am stressed, my threshold for social reactivity (read: lashing out) is lower, too. I have the urge to bite my roommates’ heads off for something minor, feel like yelling at a stranger in the street for looking at my dog too long, want to honk at other drivers, or delete Facebook comments I don’t like, simply because I have the power to, and that’ll show ’em. I explode easily, and knowing that I explode easily stresses me more because I am, at the same time, aware that my stress response is out of proportion to the issue at hand. It’s not about whatever is right in front of me – it’s about trigger stacking on top of a heightened baseline pain level. My self-image is that of someone who is mostly easy to get along with, and always fair. In order to preserve this self-image, I’ll use most of my already depleted energy to focus on self-regulation when I’m around other people whose heads I’d like to bite off. The problem: I can’t focus on self-regulation and recover at the same time – so chances are I’ll be in an equally bad mood the next day, and the day after, and so on.

Back to the canine side of things

At the time of writing, it is 8 days post-surgery, and Game is starting to get back to normal. She’s more active, more likely to pull towards abandoned tortillas (rather than just trotting along with me miserably), and joggers and little children with the audacity to move through public spaces have regained their right to coexist with her.

Today, we went to a store to buy a shower curtain, and on the way back home, we ran into a free-roaming dog. Game was interested in greeting them, and since we were on a big open plaza, I let her off leash. For a few minutes, they ran and chased each other with abandon. I could see Game let loose, her body soften, her goofy self coming out, moving in wide circles, enjoying her laymate’s advances. After a few minutes – shorter than in her perfectly-fine Golden Retriever days – she came back; she was done. I clipped the leash back on, and we continued on home. Already, I could see a change in how she carried herself: loose muscles; a bit of a swagger, less stiffness in her walk.

Now, she’s zonked out, sleeping on the cool tiles in the kitchen – not the sleep of resignation, but the sleep of healthy exhaustion; the sleep of having exercised and having had fun, and having made friends. The sleep that comes with little leg twitches as she’s playing chase in her dream.

Stress-ors and Stre-ss

The fact that she got to play today made a difference for her: today, Game completed the stress cycle started by her toothache and temporarily exacerbated by the surgeries. Amelia and Emily Nagoski explain that we need to not only get over a stress-or (in Game’s case, the cracked tooth, the surgery, and the accompanying pain), but also through the stre-ss (our physiological response) in order to truly leave a stressful event behind us.

There are different ways of completing the stress cycle – one of them is exercise. While I don’t remember this being mentioned in Nagoski’s book, I’d venture another one is play. This would make the combination of the two – play and exercise – a powerful way of completing the stress cycle.

Completing the stress cycle isn’t about the stressor itself (the dental surgery; the pain). Rather, it refers to the physiological release of accumulated stress. (I’m assuming that in this context, “stress” means certain hormones and neurotransmitters and other stuff I wish I knew more about.) My mental image is that of a bucket that has been filled with all kinds of stress-related chemicals over the course of days, weeks, or months – and in order to complete the stress cycle, we need to do more than just turn off the dripping faucets feeding the bucket: we need to dump out the bucket!

Dumping out the bucket

Only when we dump out the bucket does our body realize that the danger has passed; we don’t have to watch our back anymore. Today’s play session emptied out the bucket of accumulated stress for Game, and took her all the way to the other side of the stress tunnel. Earlier the same day, she was already out of physical pain, but she was still in a Malinois state of sociability and tension. Without an opportunity to release the stress, she might have been stuck in the stress tunnel for a long time, her inner Golden Retriever a dog of the past.

How Game’s bucket got filled

Stress has been building up for Game for a while: we’ve been on a road trip, sleeping in different places most days, waiting for me outside new stores, spending long hours in a hot car, and taking leash walks through cities rather than off-leash nature romps. Cracking a tooth, and going to the vet not once, but twice … Lots of changes. Lots of little things that wouldn’t faze a dog like Game as long as they were encountered individually, but which, in combination, build up stress that has no outlet.

Now that the stress is gone, I bet I am going to see other changes in her behavior: I’ll see her return to her usual activity levels, want to meet new people, and cruise through crowded spaces with the swagger of a Golden.

Humans complete stress cycles, too

Grit and I playing our favorite game (pic by Isabelle Grubert).

One of my favorite ways of completing my own stress cycles is playful exercise as well: it’s roughhousing with my dogs. Watching 20-something canine kilos barrell towards you, bracing for the impact, and catching them on a bite sleeve is exhilarating. It requires coordination and concentration. It makes me feel strong. I trust, and I am being trusted. Play-fighting within the rules of the game we established is my perfect stress release: I am completely immersed in this activity. I exist in the current moment in a way I rarely do otherwise. I am moving my body and engaging my muscles in a controlled manner. And I am playing with my dog. Give me a 5-10 minutes of this, and life will be better – at least for the next couple hours. The good thing is that I can go right back for another round if needed!

Roughhousing and rolling on the floor with puppy Game (picture by Isabelle Grubert).

The good news, and the bad news

The bad news: life is stressful. Empty out your bucket, and it’s starting to fill again right away: navigating maskless crowds in supermarkets in a COVID world, being late, the Internet is down, and you’re out of coffee … It’s the little things as well as the big ones, and they just keep coming. All of these are stressors. They are conspiring to turn on the faucets that will continue spitting stress-related neurochemicals into our buckets (the stre-ss).

But there’s good news, too: once we know how to, we can empty out our buckets anytime – even when the stress-ors are still ongoing. I can pick up a bite sleeve and play with my dog until I’m out of breath, and have forgotten everything about the things that aren’t going my way. I’ll feel better, and will be able to not worry about it – until the chemicals in my stress bucket reach a certain level again, and it’s time to empty out the bucket again.

Be your dog’s advocate

Unlike us, our dog’s can’t always choose when to empty their buckets. More often than not, the activities they get to engage in are up to us rather than up to them.

Being aware of Game’s stress response is important because it helps me support her: I can set her up for success. For example, the other day, I met a friend in the crowded center, and we were going to walk up a hill. This is the kind of activity I’d usually bring Game on. Not last week: I knew that the stress of being around strangers would outweigh the benefits of moving her body on a leashed walk. I’ve also told a number of people who wanted to be introduced to her “No” over the last couple of days. Game is a dog who generally enjoys meeting new people – but not when she’s already running low on energy. She can’t speak for herself, so it’s up to me to be her advocate.

How about *your* dog?

What clusters of behavior does distress track for your dog? How do you support them when external stressors lower their threshold, and how do you help them complete the stress cycle? Also: how about yourself?

Below: an excerpt of Game’s stress-release fun, and one of our favorite road trip songs: “Lift your / head up …”

PS: Today, as I hit “publish” on this post, it’s more than 5 weeks post surgery. Game is doing great – especially since she’s finally allowed to play tug, and fetch hard balls again!


Resources mentioned in this post

Nagoski, Amelia & Emily – Burnout

A Year of Being a Choice Architect

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

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

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

Example: tracking group

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

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

Meeting friends

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

Example: walking in public

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

Eating out

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

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

And … We did it!

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

Comfortable and relaxed in public:

Screen Shot 2018-08-10 at 13.40.11

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

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

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

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

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

Trainability, Street Smarts, and Social Intelligence

A translation I’m working on made me think about the intelligence of dogs. The book (Marc Bekoff’s Canine Confidential) points out that we shouldn’t rank intelligence the way it is typically done. He insists that all dogs are intelligent, but they are intelligent in different ways.

I agree to some extent. The breed intelligence rankings I’m familiar with measure mostly trainability, and wether trainability is the same as intelligence really depends on how you want to define intelligence. Fanta, my Greyhound, isn’t very trainable – but I consider him to be quite intelligent. On the other hand, we are usually looking for a “trainable” dog when we say we want an intelligent one, and most people, even if they aren’t familiar with the term “trainability,” probably mean this concept when they talk about “intelligence” in relation to dogs.

Let’s look at the two dogs who are making mischief while I’m writing this post: Grit and Game. They are interesting because they are the same breed, and yet they are two VERY different dogs. One of their differences lies in the kind of intelligence they have.

Trainability

Grit is the dog who would be higher up in a traditional intelligence ranking. She is highly trainable, biddable, and generalizes very well. It’s extremely fun to work with her – she tries hard and learns fast. She is on a par with the Border Collies I’ve worked with.

Game learns new things more slowly, and she is less biddable – she doesn’t want to figure something out simply because I am asking her to figure it out. She’s happy to figure it out for a nice reward though. (I believe high biddability inspires dogs to try harder, and might make them score higher on trainability, too.) Game needs significantly more reps than Grit in order to remember something, and she doesn’t generalize well. Same cue, slightly different location – Game will look at me as if she had never heard the cue in her life, while Grit will be able to perform without hesitation.

However, Game has two other kinds of intelligence. Let’s call them practical intelligence and social intelligence. Game would score very high on both of them. Grit would score rather low.

Practical Intelligence

When I say practical intelligence, I mean the ability to recognize and use opportunities to get what you want – find a path from A to B, get food that seems out of reach, etc. It could also be called street smarts. Game has lots of it – she’d thrive as a stray dog, while Grit probably wouldn’t survive long enough to spread her genes. Here’s an example:

This will happen every time I forget something edible on my desk and leave the room. Game doesn’t pay much attention as long as I’m in the room. She knows begging won’t work, and she knows I do not appreciate her taking my resources. We’ve had this conversation, and she respects it. However, when I leave something edible unattended, Game will remember it, wait till she is sure I have really left the room, and then take it. She isn’t “being disobedient” or “a bad dog”. It’s just like with a toy or bone another dog has: Game wouldn’t steal it from another dog, but if the other dog left it and walked away, that toy or bone would be fair game. Finders, keepers! It may also have to do with the fact that Game doesn’t generalize well. I have told her I do not want her to steal my food while I’m in the room, but that doesn’t translate to me not wanting her to steal my food when I’ve left the room – this is another situation entirely. (I could, of course, train it if Game’s stealing bothered me. All it takes is generalizing “Leave it!” to out of sight contexts.)

Grit, on the other hand, doesn’t steal my food when I’m in the room, and she doesn’t steal my food when I’m gone, either. Is she less practically intelligent, or is she just much better at generalizing and assumes that if I don’t want her to steal my food from the table, this is still the case when I leave? It’s hard to say!

Game has also been faster than any of the other dogs when it came to figuring out how to open the sliding door in our old house. She has since found numerous ways to open a number of different doors – even ones I barricaded – in order to reach something she wanted and knew was behind a closed door.

Social Intelligence

Game is a superstar when it comes to social interactions. So far, I have not once seen her not get along with a new dog or person. She is friendly and confident, and she reads others well. If there is a reason to roll on her back or run away to avoid a conflict, that’s what she’ll do. Otherwise, she’ll charm new dogs and new people – even ones who are sceptical at first. It is quite fascinating to observe. She isn’t fazed by people acting weird, wearing helmets or carrying umbrellas. If a street dog barks angrily, she’ll curve around them. If a street dog is scared, she’ll be friendly and charming and not overwhelming. If someone is ready to play, she’ll play rambunctiously.

Grit doesn’t have this level of social intelligence. She is sceptical of new people. The interesting thing is that I can trace her scepticism back to one particular experience with a stranger. Maybe the fact that she generalizes so easily made her more susceptible to becoming a socially cautious dog. As far as strange dogs are concerned, Grit generally does well with them, but she has opinions about dogs and the way they are supposed to behave in social situations. She can also be a bit of a bully.

What kind of intelligence do your dogs excel in, and in what areas don’t they do as well? Do you see a connection between them? What kind of intelligence is most important to you when it comes to choosing a dog to join your household?

Adolescence: Working on Opting In, Engagement, and Pushing Me to Work/Play

As a 9.5 months old adolescent, Game thinks the world is very interesting. So many things to explore, to sniff, to look at or roll in! People to greet, and dogs to play with!

I don’t want to correct my dogs for lack of attention – but I do want them to give me 100% when we’re working: we’re either off duty, or we’re ON. And on means ON in a the-world-around-us-ceases-to-exist kind of way; only me and my dog and whatever it is we are doing together. That’s the kind of attention I give to my dog when we work or play, and that’s the kind of attention I want in return. No halfhearted checking in with me and then going back to sniffing the ground in between reps!

With a puppy, it’s easy to overwhelm the environment with food or toys. As the dog gets older and more independent, this gets more difficult. Eventually, it won’t work anymore unless you have a naturally handler-focused dog (Phoebe is an example of a dog like this). This is the point where people will often add corrections to the picture: work with me – get rewarded. Lose focus – receive a correction. This works well enough, but I don’t want to train this way. It doesn’t seem fair: what I’m asking of my dog isn’t “natural.” Tuck-Sitting, heeling, fold-back-downing, retrieving stuff on cue while ignoring all environmental temptations … It’s not our dogs who want to perform perfect heeling patterns; it’s us – the human on the other end of the leash. Correcting a dog for being interested in something that is inherently more interesting to dogs – like looking at the cat walking past the training field or sniffing – doesn’t seem fair to me.

I still want that perfect state of ONness, focus, and engagement though. So I need a different strategy – one that relies neither on corrections nor on overwhelming the environment with my rewards!

Game finds the environment very interesting. I could already tell she was environmentally focused when I got her at 10 weeks of age. Even when she was a puppy, I made an effort to not overwhelm the environment with my reinforcers, but wait till she asked to work or play. Game is a working-line Malinois. Enjoying work is in her genes, so I didn’t doubt that I would get what I wanted if I was just patient and set her up for success.

At 9.5 months of age, Game’s environmental tendencies have been flaring up again. (As they should – any decent adolescent will challenge their human to be creative and become a better handler.)

Game is highly confident, highly social, nose driven, and interested in everything and everyone. Of course, that makes the world pretty exciting, and working away from home comparatively boring! Here’s what I’ve been doing.

The Set-Up

  •  I imagine a square or circle of 6 to 10 meters in diameter. That’s the area Game will get to explore on leash.
  •  I set my timer to 15 minutes. If after 15 minutes of acclimating, Game hasn’t asked me to work, I’ll end the session, and put her back in the car.
  •  I walk her into my imaginary square or circle, and keep walking her around this area. I want to give her an opportunity to sniff to her heart’s content, to look around, to move her body. If she pulls on the leash, I’ll stop, and if she is about to step out of my imaginary square or circle, I’ll stop her with the help of the leash.
    The reason I’m walking is that I know if I stood still or sat, Game would engage me before she was ready. Sitting used to work very well when she was a puppy, but now that she’s a little older, I’ve found walking her around to be the better strategy. Otherwise, she will ask for work too soon, and likely disengage during work. In order to avoid this, we stay in motion.
  •  There are two ways Game can ask me to work: she can sit and look at me, or she can make eye contact while walking and keep up her eye contact for at least 4 steps. The moment she does one of these two things, the game is ON, and we start our ritual.

The Structure of Our Engagement/Play/Work Sessions Away from Home

Our current ritual is personal play (play without food or toys) – food play/training – toy play/training – food play/training – toy play/training – trade the toy for food (cue: “Let’s trade!”) – end the session. From the moment Game asks to work by sitting or making eye contact for 4 seconds until the moment I end the session, I expect 100% of her attention. I make sure I set her up for success by keeping the length of our sessions realistic. If I were in a cooler climate, I’d probably use whatever remained of the 15 minutes my timer was set to for play and training. That way, the sooner my dog asked to work, the longer the fun part would be. Here, in the hot and humid Thai summer, I end the session after a few minutes. Especially when playing tug, I’ll be all sweaty and tired after just a few minutes! Even if Game could keep having fun, I wouldn’t be able to keep up much longer.

For now, I keep all “Ask to work” sessions separate from walks, hikes, and exploration/just-be-a-dog field trips. I want it to be as clear as possible that during an “Ask for work!” session, there are only two options: walk around in a boring square or circle, or work and play and have fun with me. If I want to take Game on an off-leash walk in the same area I want to work, I’ll just put her back in the car for a few minutes in between the work and the leisure part of our field trip.

This is what it looks like at the agility field. Behind my camera, there’s a guy watching us and a dog in a crate – further distractions!

Can you see the difference between the acclimation part and the “Ask to Work!” part? Both last approximately 4 minutes. Game hardly ever looks at me during acclimation, and she never takes her attention off me while we are working/playing. I gave her the time she needed – and when she was ready, she was all in!

In more exciting places, there will be times at first when we acclimate for 15 minutes and then go back home. That’s okay. With an adolescent, being out in public is not really about what I train or work on. It’s all about shaping the mindset I want! I won’t accept any less than 100% engagement, and it’s up to Game to decide that she’s ready to give me these 100%. I am laying the foundation for a dog who will love to work in public later in life. Right now, it is secondary whether we actually get any “work” done or not.

Here is a session at the parking lot of a big supermarket. Note how quickly Game asks me to work! (Ugh, I’m not wearing the right pants for putting the toys back into my pocket, which is a little annoying and interrupts the flow of our session.) We’ve been at this parking lot three times in the last three weeks or so. The first time, Game acclimated for 15 minutes without looking at me at all, and then we went back home. The second time, she acclimated for about six or seven minutes, and then we had a perfect play session. This time, acclimation only takes 17 seconds before Game starts pushing me to work by means of initiating enthusiastic personal play!

Tesco Parking Lot Sam Phran; Game almost 10 months:

This is huge and really good. However, there are two tiny lapses of attention in this 4-minute play and training session. They are small, but they are there (can you spot them?). I’ll try especially hard to not have any lapses of attention the next time we go there!

Here’s the play-by-play:

00:38 Out of the personal play, I ask for a sit and reward with toy play. The sit leads us into the first toy play section.
00:49 “Switch!” (one of the reinforcement/toy play protocols we’re working on)
01:00 Switch!
01:13: Aus! (Out cue, rewarded with food.) Now we’re entering the first food play/training portion of our session.
01:33 Game struggles with her fold-back downs in this environment and in this arousal state. That’s okay – it’s information that I need to work on this some more.
01:57-02:05 I cue “Platz!” (down), reward with food in position (marker cue “Good!”), and then reward with a game of tug (marker cue “Tug!”). This leads us into the second toy play/training part of today’s session.
Note that it’s always important to me that Game voluntarily brings back the toy, and pushes it into me. I want her to insist on playing – never the other way round!
00:53 Out cue, automatic sit, food as a reinforcer … And we’re in the second food play/training part of our session.
02:47-03:51 Down cue rewarded with food in position (marker cue “Good!”); staying down gets rewarded by a throw of the tug toy (marker cue “Chase!”). We’re back in the last toy play part of the session.
04:27 “Let’s trade!” followed by food sprinkled on the ground. This is our end ritual.

Training notes to self – pay special attention to the following things next time:

  • Wear pants or jacket where it’s quick and easy to hide the toys during food play parts of the session.
  • Make sure Game acclimates for at least 30 seconds – this may avoid the tiny lapses of attention during work.
  • Make sure there’s no obstacle behind her when asking for a down – it might make it harder for her.

The Development of Game’s Interests and Ability to Stay Engaged in a Class Environment

Time flies! Game is already 17 weeks old today. 17 weeks! That’s more than 4 months! It’s crazy.

A favorite colleague of mine invited us to use his puppy class for training and socializing Game. We’ve been going since I’ve had Game. We don’t participate in the exercises, but just hang out in the corner and work on our own things. It’s important to me that my puppies learn to be able to work in the presence of other dogs, and I really appreciate being able to use the puppies and their owners as a distraction for Game. We don’t join their play and socializing time, and we don’t stay for the entire hour, but only as long as it feels right for Game. The very first time, we were only there for a few minutes, and we stayed behind a fence, at a greater distance. The second time, we added a few minutes more, and so on, until we reached our current class time of between 20 and 30 minutes, which is plenty for any dog.

Since I discovered how to draw pie charts in Keynote the other day, I thought this would make a fun way to show you how the allocation of our class time has changed over the course of the last weeks!

The last two charts were drawn right after class. The earlier ones are reconstructed from my memory, so they are probably not 100% accurate. Still, it gives you an idea of how Game’s attention span and interests have developed!

I’d love to show you a video of how we work in the presence of other puppies, but unfortunately, I can’t film at the puppy class. So I’ll add a written explanation instead. Feel free to comment if you have any questions!

11 to 17 Weeks Puppy Class Pie Charts Game

Let’s look at my categories in a little more detail!

How to read the pie charts

The slices of play, work, sniffing, looking, and check-ins you see in the chart represent the percentage of the class time we spent with each of these activities. However, they don’t happen chronologically and one junk at a time, but we circle back and forth between them. For example, in a 20-minute session, we might spend 3 minutes looking at stuff and sniffing, 2 minutes offering check-ins, engagement, and extended focus, 4 minutes playing and working, 1 minute sniffing and looking, 1 minute checking in and engaging, 2 minutes playing, 2 minutes working, another 2 minutes looking around and sniffing etc.

Play (blue)

Personal play and playing with toys (various tug toys, balls, Kong Wubba …). As for personal play, Game gets to climb on me while I lie on the ground, we play opposition reflex games, I turn away from her and she tries to find my face, and I tease her, trying to grab her paws. As for playing with toys, we work on fetch, tug, out, the beginnings of shoving the tug in my hands, switch between different toys, switch between toy reinforcement and food, and going from high-arousal toy play to a food reinforcer for an easy behavior, and back to toys (switching between states of arousal). We also work on distinguishing different marker cues: tug (strike the tug toy) vs. chase (I’ll throw a toy for you to fetch). (1) Our play also includes engagement elements.

Work (green)

The distinction between work and play really is an artificial one. I try to make “work” and play equally fun. When I say “work,” what I mean is we practice the behaviors we’ve already worked on at home: first, I introduce them in a distraction-free environment, and then, we take them on the road. So far, the skills I have worked on in puppy class include:
+ come when called (verbal cue “Ygame!”)
+ distinguish between different marker signals (good = keep doing what you’re doing; I’ll deliver the treat right into your mouth; click/tongue click = I’ll give you the treat, and the behavior is over; ok, get it = I’ll throw a treat for you to chase; treats = I’ll scatter a few treats for you to search for in the grass). Our work includes various elements of food play in the different reward sequences.
+ hand touch (and verbal cue “touch”)
+ tuck sit (verbal cue “sit”)
+ stand (lured or hand signal)
+ fold-back down (lured or hand signal)
+ front feet on disc
+ touch a vertical target
+ chin target
+ mouth a retrieve object (a piece of garden hose)
+ walk over the A frame
+ climb/jump on a low table (food lure or hand touch)

Auto check-ins/Auto check-ins and extended focus (yellow)

This is me clicking whenever Game offers eye contact/looks in my direction. The first two sessions (11 and 12 weeks), there’s only auto check-ins, but no extended focus: Game would occasionally glance at me, but look away right away. That’s okay – I knew the duration would come.

From her third time at the puppy class onwards, Game has been able to give me extended focus: she didn’t need to look away after the fraction of a second, but could keep her focus on me longer and longer, up until a few seconds. When I saw her ability to do so grow, I started marking not only for looking at me, but for keeping up the eye contact, and I started rewarding several times in a row. This is also when I started going from offered focus to extended focus to a little play. Game stayed engaged when I played with her, starting from her third time at the puppy class. I didn’t have to work hard to keep her attention – she had told me she was ready, and I responded with short play sequences. I always make sure I end the play while Game would still like to continue.

Look at Stuff (orange)

Look at stuff is just that: looking at the world. In the puppy class situation, the world includes the other puppies (an aussie, a lagotto, a dachshund, and two staffordshire bullterriers) and their people (men, women, and a 6 year old girl). It’s an outdoors class, so there’s also the occasional bird to be looked at, and various passers-by outside the training field: people on bikes, hikers with dogs, nordic walkers, cars). It’s not a heavily trafficked area, but there are a few people passing by every time. Plus, of course, there is training equipment in the training field.

You can see in the charts that the first three times, Game had to do a lot of looking. Everything was new – of course she had to look! I didn’t worry about it. We came into the training field (or the adjacent field, in case of the very first class), and I’d just let her look for as long as she wanted. I stayed at a distance where she’d be okay looking and didn’t need to fight the lesh, trying to get to the people or dogs. With Game, I never, not even once, asked for engagement. She’s environmental, and I’m not sure I could win. So rather than trying to compete with the environment, I gave her all the time she needed. Eventually, she’d look back every time, and I could click and reinforce that. The first part of every class we were just hanging out and looking at stuff. Then, there were a few clicks for auto check-ins. The time Game needed to look at stuff before she was ready to check in grew shorter and shorter every time. By the third session, she began offering extended focus after a few auto check-ins. And again, with each new session, the extended focus happened sooner and sooner.

So the biggest junk of looking happens at the very beginning of a new class. Then we’ll go to check-ins, extended focus, and eventually play, and then work. After a circle like this, I circle back to looking at stuff and/or sniffing. Game is a puppy – I don’t expect her to pay attention for several minutes at a time! There’s maybe three minutes of doing stuff, and then I encourage her to sniff or look at the world again. She’ll do that, and once she’s done, she’ll let me know with check-ins. When she gives me extended focus again, she’s letting me know she’s ready for another round of play and work. The time we keep playing and working grows longer the older she gets.

I don’t want to overwhelm the environment, and I don’t want Game to forget her surroundings. That’s why I keep going back to looking and sniffing after each little round of work and/or play.

I stay connected to Game when she is watching the world by her leash. Sometimes, I’ll also sit down with her, calmly stroking her back while we both observe the class together.

Sniff (red)

Game loves to sniff. In fact, I don’t think I’ve had such a nose-driven dog since Snoopy, my Dachshund. Game can spend a long time sniffing a leaf, or a twig, or an interesting spot on the ground. She can even spend a long time sniffing my pants or shoes when I come home, savoring every scent molecule of information.

Like with looking at stuff, I doubt that I can compete with sniffing, and I don’t worry about it too much. Game is a dog, and dogs like to sniff! So when we get to a new place – such as the training field that lots of different dogs and people have walked through since we were there the last time -, Game gets time to sniff and look around until she lets me know she is ready to work. Every time we go, she has needed a little less time to sniff and look. This reinforces me for my approach and let’s me know I’m on the right track.

In between play and work sessions, I’ll also give Game opportunities to go back to sniffing. Sometimes I’ll cue “Treats!” and scatter a few treats for her to find in the grass. Sniffing isn’t a bad thing; in fact, it’s relaxing and helps to ground the dog because it requires her to breathe consciously, like we do when we do a breathing exercise.

In the first 4 sessions you can see in the pie charts, I stayed in the same general area of the training field for the entire time. There were more than enough new impressions there! The last two times, I’ve walked a few meters around the periphery between our play and work sessions, giving Game time to look and sniff as we strolled forward on a loose leash. She gets to sniff the ground, the equipment, the water bowl … until she lets me know she’s ready for another round of play and work.

(1) If you want to learn more about how to improve your training by means of using different marker cues, check out Shade Whitesel’s toy classes at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.

Grit and Game: Similar, but Different …

I just LOVE seeing Game develop and thinking back to Grit at the same age. They are the same breed, after all – but from two very different lines, and two very different personalities. It’s fascinating how much variation there can be within one and the same breed!

Let’s look at them through the categories Denise Fenzi developed in Train The Dog In Front of You:

Grit (Igrit vom Heustadlwasser)
Austrian IPO line

Grit as a puppy

Grit as a puppy.001

Grit today

Grit today.001

In many respects, Grit is exactly what I’m looking for in a dog. I’ve never had a dog I found as much fun to train and live with, and I honestly can’t imagine I’ll ever love a dog as much as her. She has four qualities the person and trainer I am today loves in a dog: she’s a serious dog (as opposed to a goofy one), she is a one-person dog (as opposed to a very social one), she’s got a perfect balance between handler focus and environmental focus, is biddable and has lots of working drive, but medium energy (the perfect combination), and she is able to think when under stress (which can be eustress or distress – she can problem-solve even if her arousal is high because of a toy, and she is able to listen to me even if she’s in a situation she is overwhelmed by). She is extremely smart and learns well by shaping. Puppy Grit really was perfect. The one thing I’m not so happy with in Grit today is the fact that she developed a fear of people. She had one bad experience at a highly impressionable time in her life (when she was 6 months old), and having the wrong experience at the wrong time triggered a general weariness of people. We’re working on it, and it’s slowly getting better – but at this point, it’s hard to imagine her being happy in a trial environment (and I wouldn’t want to take her there if she felt bad). But we’ll see what the future brings. Step by step, I’m trying to help her re-discover her confidence.

Game (Ygame van’t Merlebosch)
Dutch KNPV line

Game as a puppy

Game as a puppy.001

Grit was a self-confident puppy – Game is even more self-confident. She is fearless when it comes to new people and dogs. Unlike Grit, who would challenge new dogs even as a puppy, Game is open and friendly to new dogs and people. Game is also my first environmentally focused dog since Snoopy: Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley, Grit – none of them are environmental. Game is interested in everything around her, particularly all these interesting sights and smells! Currently, the world is more fascinating than me – but we’re working on it, and I can see that she is able to engage better and better. I also haven’t had a nose-driven dog since Snoopy! Game loves to follow her nose and explore the scents of the world. I’ve promised her she’ll get to do nosework! She has more trouble learning through shaping, and learning in general, then Grit had at this age. But we’re getting there and improving a little bit most days. Game is higher power than Grit. That is to say, she is determined to get what she wants – and she’ll complain or fight back if she doesn’t get it. I also suspect that Game is what people call a hard dog (which is not unusual in KNPV dogs). She has a high pain threshold, and she works for the reinforcers rather than in order to please me. She’s still a puppy, so these qualities aren’t written in stone. I believe that biddability is at least partly built by means of the relationship we develop with our dogs. Since I’m plannin gon building a great relationship, I’m positive that her biddability will increase, and her hardness will not. She has already started caring more about my opinion than when we first met. For example, she will now let me redirect when she’s puppy-biting my sleeves or tugging on my pants: unless she’s overly tired and overexcited, she’ll be like, “Oh, I see, you don’t want me to tug on that or bite that? What can I bite or tug on instead?” And I respond by offering an alternative. Her attention span and her rate of auto check-ins has already increased, and I am starting to see her happiness to play and work with me awaken.

Training Challenges

I see two training challenges in Game’s future: her environmental focus, and her lower biddability, which – unless I change it – will make it hard to work when I don’t have access to classic reinforcers. Again, she’s a puppy, so this may well change completely in the course of the relationship we develop! Most of these categories aren’t really suited to be applied to puppies anyways. But it’s fun to do all the same: I’m taking a snapshot of the puppy in front of me right now.

I’m excited about this new training challenge, particularly the environmental part. When I had Snoopy, I really struggled with his environmental focus. I’m excited about tackling the same challenge with the knowledge and greater experience that I have today. I’ll keep blogging about how I work with it, since I think the approach I’m taking is non-traditional (and, like so many things, inspired by FDSA).

It’ll be interesting to see if and how both dogs change in the course of time. Personality traits are a result of both genetics and environment. There is a STRONG genetic component – it sets the frame of what is possible for a given dog. That frame is always a lot smaller than the entire scale – but it’s still a frame, not just a point. What point within this frame the dog falls on can change depending on her environment and her experiences. Think of human traits like introversion and extroversion. You’re usually born an introvert or extrovert and stay that way all your life. However, it’s entirely possible to start out as a strong introvert, and get more and more social in the course of your life. You’ll still be an introvert, but you’ll have moved away from extreme introversion and more toward the middle of the scale. You’ll surround yourself with people more often and need a little less time to recharge.

In Grit’s case, you can see that two values have already changed between her puppyhood and now: both her confidence and her handler hardness decreased. I’ve lots to say about these two factors and how and why they changed – but that’s a post for another time.