Good morning play: increasingly patient Malinois make excellent chew toys!
The next day – Chai’s 8th day with me – was the first time I took both dogs out together. This still isn’t what I’ll usually do – puppies and adult dogs in my house each get their own walks unless I don’t have time to take them separately. Today, I didn’t have time, so they both went out together in the morning. Walking together means the puppy loses out on one of the most important skills I want them to practice: seeing me leave the house with another dog and being fine. No problem for everyone to go out together every once in a while, but until the puppy is about a year old, I want it to be the exception rather than the rule: FOMO is a thing, and the time to avoid creating it is now.
Left: waiting for quesadillas con flor y queso. Middle: hanging out at the park while I eat. Right: adventures are tiring!
We headed to our usual spot: Parque Las Américas. Chai imitated Game – every time Game peed outside, so would Chai. An excellent idol to teach her that the place to do your business is outdoors!
Together with Game, Chai’s confidence was also bigger. She wanted to go everywhere Game went and trusted that what Game did was safe. Due to Game’s presence, we also got some leash pressure work in: if Game (off leash) went further than Chai’s 5 meter leash allowed, she would reach the end. I’d stop and wait for her to reorient, click and treat.
This is not how I teach loose leash walking (this is the fastest way of creating the behavior chain of pull-in-order-to-get-a-treat!), but it’s a great way to teach a puppy to give in to leash pressure rather than show opposition reflex. We’ll need this skill once we’re introducing distractions for Chai’s formal recall cue, “Schnee” (German for “Snow”).
Parque Las Américas in Narvarte
Today, the only treats Chai got out and about were for reorienting after reaching the end of the leash and, on the way back … from a new friend! We met Hugo, a street vendor who told us they loved Border Collies and had one as well as a Beagle at home. In fact, they had been dreaming of getting a second Border Collie … We spent quite a while talking to Hugo in the street, and Hugo fed, lured and scratched Chai under her chin. We exchanged numbers and made plans to meet up sometime with Hugo and their BC to see how the two got along and for Hugo to get to know Chai better.
Chai has decided the funnest way to play with Game is to use her razor sharp puppy teeth:
Today Chai went to Parque las Américas and saw lots of people and dogs, heard new sounds, walked on different park surfaces and smelled new smells. Before we got there, we had this little encounter:
We then walked all the way to the park on our own four paws and saw and met, among others:
A person who followed my instructions about how to invite Chai to approach: not from above, but from below, being still and letting the dog take the first steps. I decided, after seeing Chai shy away from hands reaching for her a little more than I’d like to in the last two days, that I will make a point of having her meet people “the right way” every day. There is, of course, no one right way – you’ll have to look at the dog in front of you to find out what works for them. In Chai’s case, I opted for asking people to stand still and hold out their flat hand, palm facing up. If and only if Chai approaches, sniffs the hand and looks comfortable, I will then give the person a few pieces of kibble to hold in their other hand and feed them, one after the other, from their flat hand without touching Chai and holding the hand low enough so all four paws stay on the floor.
I would NOT start with food without having Chai opt in and approach voluntarily first, and if she was shyer than she is, I would not use food here at all. Food can backfire extremely easily if used as a lure to get an uncomfortable dog closer to a stimulus they are unsure about: they’ll take the treat and then realize they are WAY TOO CLOSE! With Chai’s level of people curiosity, it is really just the head reaching she has feelings about. And because she is cute, people will reach for her head. I am countering these experiences by means of providing positive ones in the way I described above. My instructions are simple and easy to follow, and they work well for Chai. In the case of my very first helper (random stranger from Costa Rica I met in the street), we chatted long enough that they actually ended up making friends with Chai and being able to scratch her chin:
We also saw a bakery bike!
… and several dogs …
We met another person who also ended up touching Chai on the side of her head – not something I encouraged, but she was okay.
We walked past an outdoors assembly of some kind and saw a person on a skateboard with a dog, a kid in a stroller and more dogs:
And the Chai and I rested in a (comparatively) quiet corner of the park and she posed serenely for a bit before we made our way back home.
How much is too much?
… you may be wondering. Didn’t Chrissi just get this puppy, who had been confined to her house and yard and a crate from 8 weeks to 3.5 months of age, literally three days ago?
Indeed, I did. And indeed, this would be too much for MANY Border Collie puppies with this (lack of) experience. It would have been too much for Hadley right after T got him and it would have been too much for Mick (and would still be too much for Mick today. Mick is a farm dog who wants exactly three things in life: sheep, a person to work sheep with, and zero other people). Hadley today, as an adult, would likely be okay in this environment – he’d just pull all over the place trying to sniff things, I suspect.
Is it too much for Chai? Am I flooding the poor puppy? No – at least I wouldn’t say that I am. But in order for this term to have any meaning at all, I need to first define it. “Flooding” is one of these buzzwords everyone uses slightly differently.
I just looked at the glossary of my 4 go-to behavior books, and it isn’t in any of them. That surprises me – but maybe it shouldn’t. Maybe flooding is a term trainers borrowed from human psychology, or maybe it is simply a layperson’s word. Next stop: Google.
Bingo! I got lucky at the APA Dictionary of Psychology, which sounds like a decent source. Plus it matches my own definition of the term and the way I’ve been using it, which is reinforcing.
So – no, I have in fact not flooded Chai. She is not an anxious dog – just a curious one who lacks experience. I have not exposed her to a maximum-anxiety-producing situation or stimulus. (I would have on day 2 when I was just trying to get a feel for where we were in terms of exploratory behavior, fearfulness and resilience. Based on what I saw on day 2, I made choices for day 3, and based on what I saw on days 2 and 3, I made choices for day 4.
Because Chai is not an anxious puppy and her sensitive socialization window is rapidly closing, I want a lot of exposure to what is going to be normal in her world if she becomes a Mexico City dog. If she doesn’t become a Mexico City dog but finds a home somewhere else, all the experiences she is currently having won’t hurt either. For example if she goes on to be a sports dog, these experiences might help her learn how to focus on what matters (“gate”) in busy trial environments.
I wrote this post on Chai’s third day with me – April 9, 2023. I will keep updating it as I go. It is currently day 20 (April 26)and a lot has changed already! However, I’m publishing this post now because I only just got around to cleaning it up. More to come soon!
My approach to training with food with a dog who likes to eat
I try to train the puppy in front of me. That means I’ve done things a bit differently for every puppy I’ve raised for myself or for someone else. In Chai’s case, most food is for training (because training is fun and I want videos) or big scatters (the ritual I use to end sessions). Chai doesn’t get food outside unless necessary because I want her to really engage with the world and not be distracted from it.
I will use most food for training. Except from her single outing every day – usually the same park because we can walk there – we stay at our AirBnB. I’ve so far trained up all of her daily rations in marker cue discrimination and shaping stuff. She devours kibble, so that’s all she has seen so far in terms of treats (except for the hot dog I used to get her to eat her Bravecto).
Two food training projects for the puppy in front of me: Chai
For Chai, there are currently food training projects (there will be more as we get to know each other better and shift to different behaviors):
+ Stuff I want for my marker cue (and other skills) game that I’m planning to turn into some sort of class or workshop.
+ Shaping because I love teaching puppies about shaping and could do it all day long.
So far, I’ve used up all her food in that way every day. And here’s food for thought: in my experience, just not going above kibble value (if the puppy takes kibble to begin with) has a high chance of maintaining kibble as a treat the dog will take everywhere (that is everywhere they are able to eat – it’s an excellent gauge). In my case, this means … not exactly a closed economy (plenty in life is free), but it means everything is kibble, and everything is at least marker-cued. There are no table scraps, for example (they would make an open economy and devalue the kibble I want to use for training).
I will take a different approach with puppies who flat out refuse kibble. But Chai does not, so this is the route we are going.
My approach to making Chai permanent-home-able
All in all, these are the training projects I am focusing on to make Chai a dog who will be pleasant to live with for her future folks:
+ Being comfortable out and about in Mexico City.
+ Being comfortable with people coming into her space and visiting people in new spaces – I’m aiming for at least 2 visits a week (as soon as I test negative for Covid again) and at least one good out-and-about interaction a day on non-visit days. I’ll get strangers to play for the out and about interactions. Visits will be friends and strangers who follow my instructions about letting Chai take the lead and take the first step rather than reaching for her.
+ Maintaining her ability to stay home alone without whining (she stays home alone at least twice every day when I head out with Game. If I have a puppy, whenever possible, the puppy will get a separate walk. An exception would be if the puppy was extremely shy and needed an emotional support dog – this is not the case for Chai. Game gets her own walks too because she deserves them. I don’t want Chai to become dependent on Game – neither for staying home nor for going out.)
+ Maintaining her crate skills (the crate is in the car right now; I’ll be popping her in there for a bit every day.)
+ Car sickness: we’ll strart driving super short distances on an empty stomach and gradually extend the length of the drive, aiming for once a day.
Behaviors I am likely to get “for free” with this particular dog along the way
Things that will just happen along the way will be recall, leash walking and grooming. She’s not body sensitive, so I’ll likely get brushing and clipping toe nails for free by “just doing them.” Same with her harness/collar: put it on; no problem for her and no need for a slow introduction. While slow introductions and cooperative care are always worthwhile, I want to focus on other stuff with Chai and will safe her daily calories for these other training projects. Harness, leash, brush and toe nails will be announced rather than shaped. For example before I put on her harness, I will let her know what is about to happen by saying, “Harness!” Puppies pick up on this fast, which gives me an excellent way of gauging if she stays comfortable: if I say, “Harness” and she moves away, I know she’s having feelings. So far, this has not happened.
Outside of what I outlined above, we will just chill at home (if I can help it – training is fun!) I don’t want to turn her into an athlete (if someone wants to in the future, that option will always exist – she’s a Border Collie). I want to help her become a dog who is able to live in Mexico City, and with an “average” active family. This includes staying home alone and being ignored when I work or write rather than constant attention. A very easy solution to keep her from trying to get on the table is to reach for her head anytime she does: like most dogs, she finds this aversive. It’s what I consider a benign aversive. For example if I’m eating and she does this, I reach for her head about three times and she’ll lie down at my feet and stop trying to get food from the table, and it’s only day 3 as I’m writing this. She gets praise for this, but no food. Rather than consciously building a desired behavior here, I am making the undesired behavior disappear (yes, this is a euphemism for: I am punishing it with the consequence of reaching for her head and preventing intermittent reinforcement i.e. counter surfing). Intermittent reinforcement is relatively easy for me to avoid in this case because the kitchen in this AirBnB is a separate room and I shut the door when I go there, and I am the only person living here – so I control all the food on counters or tables and don’t leave it out. This is much, much harder to do if you have an open floor plan, cook more than I do or live with other people. But in Chai’s case, it should work out well. After two months of zero success at getting at food, she’ll be set off on the right trajectory and whoever adopts her can keep this approach or teach her a desired alternative behavior like hanging out on her bed when people eat.
That’s it for today! You”ll soon get real video and photo updates of what has happened between days 4 and 20 with Chai – I just have to find time to video edit. “Just.” I know, I know!
The dog training world is very campy. That’s bullshit, but it is the way it currently looks to me. This image is what I’m picturing when I say “left of center” or “right of center” in the podcast. It also shows you where I’d put myself, training-wise … and who I’d consider “my people”: anyone who’s not a campy extremist, really.
However, in an ideal world, there wouldn’t be a continuum at all. Instead, we’d have a menu of sorts, like a menu at a restaurant. On that menu, you’d find everything from BAT to Nepopo. We’d order the menu alphabetically in order to not play favorites.
Every training technique and system ever invented would be on the menu. And we dog trainers would choose one or two or three of them to study and become experts in by means of learning from the ones who came before us (standing on the shoulders of giants, as we always do).
We’d pick in terms of what we want to learn and teach; in terms of what feels good to US as individuals. Our picking would not be judgmental. It would be like picking the flavors of ice cream to go in your cone – not like picking a political party.
By picking your flavors of ice cream, you are not saying the other flavors are evil – you are just saying, these are my favorite flavors (these are the ones I want to learn more about and become an expert in). You can still be best friends with someone who chooses different flavors of ice cream. You can even talk about ice cream or taste their ice cream out of curiosity, and let them have a taste of yours. It would be encouraged rather than criticized: tasting each other’s ice cream is what friends do, after all.
That’s very different from choosing a political party: if you choose a political party, you are making an idiological (rather than subjective) decision, and you feel strongly about it being the “right” or “better” one – at least that’s how I feel when it comes to politics. I only have voting rights in Austria. Austria is a democracy with a large menu of political options. I oscillate between two of them, and have never voted for any other one: the Green party and the Communist party. I like both of them, and which one I will end up voting for is often a close call, and depends on the issues at hand and how they are handling it. I can’t see myself voting for any of the other parties, and some of the other parties (the ÖVP and the FPÖ, for example), I consider downright harmful to the planet, humanity, society and community.
In an ideal world, dog training would be like eating ice cream, not like voting. Thank you for coming to my TED talk!
Here’s a link to the podcast episode this post is riffing off of:
I wanted to add a little extra information to this week’s podcast – it has a funny background story.
Many years ago, as I was just starting out as a professional dog trainer, I took a year-long course for future trainers. I had selected it based on what I had read about it and the fact that I really wanted something in person (rather than KPA online).
The course turned out to be a disaster:it wasn’t at all what the description had me believe it would be. I knew this after 15 minutes of class, but wasn’t allowed to sell my spot to someone who actually wanted it (instead, that someone else had to purchase their own spot, which put us over the promised max number of students).
The teacher used learning theory terms incorrectly and was just really … insensitive and mean to folks. They were one of those people who love dogs and dislike humans. They were PETA-level-type animal advocates who basically thought dogs should live in large enclosures (like zoo animals), receive enrichment, and not be tortured by hikes, sports or clickers. This was not the trainer I wanted to be, and the course frustrated me over and over again.
The person I was back then was definitely edgier than the person I am today. I was self-righteous, radically queer and angry at the world.
From this class, I have taken no dog training knowledge – but it led me to cross paths with two people I wouldn’t want to miss in my life today. It was over a decade ago, and yet, these two connections persist.
One of them is Kenne who I interview on this podcast. They did not even take the course themselves – their wife did; Kenne and I just connected over random parking lot conversations.
The other one is Chris (who happens to live in Graz as well) and who is to this day one of my closest and most trusted friends. We connected right away over a shared love of Standard Poodles (I had Phoebe, who could be Chris’ vicarious Poodle) and shared queerness, a fondness of biology and intriguing discussions of relationship dynamics. Chris, in case you happen to be reading this – know that love you and that meeting you made up for all the suckiness of this course. I can’t even remember or imagine not having you in my life.
Kenne sometimes showed up during class breaks to visit their wife Sarina, who was taking the course. But there was this one time that, I believe, is what caused me to (quoting Rachel) want to keep an eye on this person and what they were doing in their life. Low-effort to maintain, and yet feeling like it is a meaningful connection with someone I so appreciate having met. The person I am today still appreciates Kenne, even though I have probably chaged a lot (and so have they, I imagine. Change, and be ready to change again!) Even though we don’t talk all the time, I feel like if I needed a place to stay in Graz, I could just ask Kenne and they’d say, “Of course!” And vice versa, of course, wherever I am in the world. Some people are just warm and engaging and wonderful to connect with, and Kenne is certainly one of them.
Anyways, back in the day, Kenne happened to be sitting in on the class I was giving my end-of-class presentation in. The edgy, feisty Jack-Russel-Terrier Chrissi of days gone by used this presentation to drive home two points: one, I wanted to show that teacher how to teach an engaging class. How it was done! How engagingly, interactively and fun one could teach! I made people laugh, moved while I was talking and threw high-value chocolates to (at) everyone asking or answering a question. I believe I had even brought a pineapple (thanks for that one, Kathy Sdao!) to add some extra flavor to my presentation. I used big words I had heard used incorrectly over the course of that class, speaking fast-paced and keeping people on their toes. Nobody was going to fall asleep this time!
It felt satisfying. And yet, afterwards, on the parking lot, I realized that the message I had tried to get across had probably gone over most people’s heads. After all, no one teaching or taking this class was a native English speaker, but since the person teaching it didn’t speak German either, it was conducted in English. It did not go over Kenne’s head though. They approached me in the parking lot and told me I was a sexist genius. To the Chrissi from back in the day (flaming red hair and all), this was a big compliment and I loved it. It let me know that Kenne had both read the organizers and teachers as snake oil salespeople, and had been amused by my retort. And as long as one person got it, I was happy. I felt like I had reached my goal.
To me, that was the beginning of our friendship. From my point of view, had Kenne not made this comment that day, we might have drifted apart.
Before recording this podcast, I asked them why they thought we had stayed in touch. Apart from their wife and me, they aren’t in touch with anyone from back then either. And what Kenne said made me smile. It’s something that still resonates with the Chrissi I am today: Kenne said I was an authentic person and they played with my Poodle, so of course we stayed in touch. (Or that’s what I heard or wanted to hear anyways.) So you, Kenne, are also worth having gone through that ridiculous course for. I feel SO grateful to have met you and get to have conversations like this one! Thank you!
I just got to have Marc Bekoff on my podcast! We talked about Jessica Pierce’s and Marc’s latest book: A Dog’s World – Imagining the Lives of Dogs in a World Without Humans.
I translated this book to German, and it recently got released by Kynos Publishing. Since I usually stay in touch with “my” authors in the translation process, I grabbed the opportunity to invite Marc on a Zoom chat.
In this episode, I acknowledge the relevance of A Dog’s World to pet dog owners today, and I challenge Marc on the conclusion drawn in the book: that the species dog would survive (or turn into a new species) if all humans disappeared. It’s the latter part that I want to talk about some more after further thinking about the book and our conversation.
Survival in a posthuman world
What I’m still grappling with is the idea that dogs would survive without us. My openion (and yes, this is VERY MUCH an opinion because we can’t test this scenario in a meaningful way) is that dogs would go extinct in a world without humans.
Jessica and Marc believe that many dogs would not only survive, but thrive in a world without us.
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos
Where we come from
Only in the course of this conversation did I realize how different the points of origin of our respective arguments are, and how our respective conclusions followed, perhaps quite naturally, from exactly these anchor points we already had long before this conversation.
Marc’s longest field research project, I believe, was on the lives and behavior of coyotes in Yellowstone National Park. As an ethologist, Marc observes behavior and writes ethograms (a list of observable behaviors and their contexts) about different species in their natural environment. In Marc’s case, these species were primarily wild canids.
Marc is a dog lover who has also spent many days at dog parks, observing the interactions of Boulder’s dog park dogs through an ethological lens. Marc has researched, by reading everything that is available in terms of observational studies, the lives of free-roaming domestic dogs around the world, and observed feral dogs arund Boulder. On the podcast, Marc points out that the ethograms of domestic dogs and wild canids is nearly indistinguishable.
Marc has also lived with dogs: companion dogs who were off leash when Marc was out with them around Boulder, CO. Marc observed the behaviors these dogs would engage in in their off-leash lives. (They were only out and about off leash when Marc was with them – so probably living degrees of freedom similar to my own dog, who is not a free-roamer.)
Taking the similarity of the ethograms, the independence of Marc’s own dogs and a group of feral dogs who would make occasional trips to the dumpster but also hunt outside of Boulder, Marc and Jessica Pierce conclude that there would absolutely be individual dogs – enough to form new wild populations – surviving the demise of the human species.
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos
The anchor point of myship train of thought is different. I am a dog trainer. The dogs in my life are usually sports or working dogs, or very active companion dogs of high-maintenance breeds, or not so active dogs living with highly sophisticated dog folks who are most definitely not average pet dog homes. I have never had a pure pet dog myself, and neither do most of the folks I work and interact with today. My personal interest and the areas into which I am trying to stretch are behavior analysis, psychology, neurology, and behavioral medicine. I have no degree in any of these fields, but I try and learn as much as I can about them. I also live in a part of the world where many (most?) dogs are homed free-roamers. I love observing them; I consider their life quality high, and I have dedicated a Youtube Channel to them.
When I think “domestic dog,” what comes to mind is not the general pet dog population: I think of dogs who live with geeky trainers on the one hand, and free-ranging dogs on the other hand. I sometimes forget that there are also pet dogs.
When Jessica and Marc think “of “domestic dogs,” I suspect they think of pet dogs on leashes and in dog parks on the one hand and wild canids on the other hand.
What I agree on with Jessica and Marc
I fully agree with Jessica’s and Marc’s conclusions about how the lives of pet and companion dogs could be improved, and how we can draw these conclusions by looking at the behavior of free-ranging dogs today.
The sociability and ability to form groups and packs is something I see a lot in free-roamers, so we’re on the same page there as well. I don’t doubt that dogs will be (variable degrees of) sociable and able to form packs. Free-roaming dogs already do.
Alloparenting also occurs in domestic dogs that are kept in groups when breeding as well as in free-roaming dogs. Again – I have no doubt posthuman dogs could alloparent (and some would do so if they survived).
I don’t doubt that they will hunt solitarily either – I know plenty of dogs who will do so when given the opportunity (these are not free-roamers, but sports and working dogs). What I wanted to be convinced of, however, was the cooperative hunting part – something I’ve never seen and find hard to imagine.
The food resource thing …
I have never – NEVER – seen free-roaming dogs who did not depend on anthropogenic food resources. Even the feral dogs around Boulder that Marc mentions visit the dumpster. That makes me suspicious of whether they could survive if they had to rely on hunting. When Marc’s student saw them hunt cooperatively – did these dogs actually take down prey, or were they just chasing, like many dogs would, without actually killing/consuming? I am not clear about this. Even if they killed, but did not consume – I don’t think we could call that cooperative hunting. For hunting to be hunting, doesn’t it need to end in eating the prey? (I don’t know; I’m sure there is a definition though.)
What even is a feral dog?
A feral dog is a domestic dog who isn’t tame. A dog like this will have a bigger flight distance than other free-roamers. I have seen very few feral dogs in my life, and they usually look as if they were starving because they are too scared to visit the dumpster on a regular basis.
How do feral dogs happen? I suspect a truly feral dog has missed out on any and all human contact during the sensitive socialization period, as a very young puppy. This can happen if a free-roaming dog has puppies away from their home – say in a forest where humans rarely go -, and the dog’s humans don’t look for or don’t find the puppies.
Why are there so few of them? Because most of them will die! Your chances of survival are much higher if you are not feral and can access human handouts and the waste we generate.
Wouldn’t there already be feral dogs everywhere today if it was easy to be one?
I also suspect that if dogs without humans were a realistical scenario, we’d already see successful secondarily wild dogs who have no contact with humans whatsoever, and who hunt cooperatively. As far as I know (and I may be totally wrong – please comment with resources if I am!) these dogs do not exist today. (It has been argued that Dingoes are not feral dogs, but true wild canids. That said, I have read that there are secondarily wild dogs on the Galapagos Islands. I haven’t had time to look into them yet. If these dogs were truly feral and descended from the domestic dog, and were not dependent on any anthropogenic food resources – this would be a convincing argument for me that under specific and rarely occurring circumstances, the species dog might be able to survive in certain locations in a post-human world.)
The posthuman dog future I imagine, based on my anchor point
From my current point of view, given the dogs I see, I think most pet dogs, if left loose in a world WITH humans, would make decent free-roamers and enjoy the trash we leave behind as well as our handouts. They’d have social relationships etc. Working dogs like mine would also enjoy killing all the livestock around town (which would result in them getting poisoned or shot).
If I imagine the fate of dogs in a world without humans, these same dogs would eat all the trash we left behind, and then feast on the livestock (easy prey) as well as urban rats and pigeons (also easy prey). And then, they’d die, mostly in the transition dog generation (the generation of dogs who still had human contact).
I have a hard time imagining dogs learning to hunt cooperatively in the little time they have after all the livestock and trash are gone. Most of them will die, and the few that survive … Will they be neutered? In that case, they’re in a genetic dead-end street. Will enough of them be both intact and able to hunt cooperatively? I really doubt it because the free-roaming dogs today – remember that’s about 80% of the world’s dog population! – have been selected (naturally, if you will, by humans killing dogs who kill livestock) to NOT hunt. I’m not sure if “average pet dogs” will be able to hunt. Working dogs certainly would (solitarily at least), but there are so few, and they are so far apart, that they may never meet each other. And if you’re a working dog (other than a terrier), you may be too big to sustain yourself on the kind of prey you may be able to catch by yourself once the livestock is gone. And the livestock will be gone because it will either die without us or be killed by transition dogs.
A thought experiment
I just googled, and according to a dubious source (but that’ll do for my thought experiment), a 100g jack rabbit contains 173 calories. Now let’s see how many calories an adult dog needs. Say Game’s RER is 650, and if she had to stustain herself by means of hunting, her caloric needs would be 650 x 2-5, which, if I’m calculating this correctly (and I may not), makes 1295 caloiries. That’s a lot more than a single rabbit. If Game had to sustain herself on jack rabbits she’d have to catch 1295 divided by 173 makes 7.5 jackrabbits every day. That is A LOT of rabbits. I cannot imagine a world in which my dog would successfully catch this many rabbits on a daily basis.
We’d also have to look at the energy spent on hunting a rabbit. Since this calculation is based on the caloric needs of an active working dog, let’s say if all of Game’s hunts were successful, she would meet her caloric needs every day with 7.5 rabbits. But she is unlikely to succeed every time. So how many calories would she loose with each rabbit that got away? How many calories does it cost to hunt one rabbit? (I do not know.)
In any case, if two rabbits, after a high-energy chase, got to safety, Game would be losing rather than gaining calories. Consequently, that very same day, 7.5 jack rabbits would not be enough anymore – she’d have to successfully hunt, kill and consume, say, 9 to make up for the energy spent on the ones who got away. This is even less likely because every hunt is tiring, and hunts #8 and #9 have a smaller chance of success because of it.
Dogs don’t need to eat every day. So Game could go a while without eating 7.5 rabbits a day and still do okay. She’d gain experience hunting with every attempt – but she’d also spend energy on every attempt, successful and unsuccessful. After several days of not eating, there may be peak performance due to peak motivation, but then that performance will go down unless Game was highly successful at peak motivation. So by the sheer amount of rabbit hunting required, I don’t think it is realistic for a dog of Game’s size to survive as a solitary hunter. Most solitary hunting canids are smaller than she is. (There are solitary coyotes or foxes, for example, and they get by hunting bunnies and rodents (and, given the contents of the scat I’ve seen around Guanajuato, lots of cactus fruit). Game is heavier than they are.)
So Game would likely have to go after larger prey, and large prey can often only be overwhelmed by means of cooperative hunting. Will dogs really figure that out in time? I have my doubts. The largest prey animal I know fairly well are (Austrian) deer, and they are fast and flighty. It’s certainly possible to hunt them cooperatively, but I imagine it would require a lot of practice. And transition dogs may not have that time. Especially because, being dogs, they would not gather to brainstorm for a future of hunting while there still were anthropogenic food resources. Instead, they would – evolutionarily myopically, if you will – focus only on these easily accessible resources until they ran out of them. (Just like we humans and our fossil fuels, really. We’ll only implement meaningful changes once we’re past that climate change tipping point, and at that point, our changes will make little or no difference for many folks around the world, because the places they live today will have become uninhabitable for our species. This is an opinion, not a fact, and I would love for it to be wrong.)
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl, Morelos
There may be dogs (smaller than Game) who can sustain themselves on bunnies and the like. But will they happen to be close enough to another transition dog to breed? Maybe in rare cases. Will their puppies survive? Few will, I assume, because the survival rate of wild canids and free-ranging dogs is very low.
The anthropogenic world as the dog’s niche
After thinking about all of this some more, my opinion still is that dogs won’t survive without us – even though during the conversation itself, I was trying to be open to the possibility that they would.
I would not say that the ecological niche of the domestic dog is the human household (80% of the world’s dog population is free-roaming), but I would say that their niche is the anthropogenic world. And this niche will disappear with us. I’m not optimistic they’d adapt to a new niche fast enough … even if they all happened to be free and outdoors when we humans disappeared from the planet. I think of their niche as the anthropogenic world in the same sense I think of this being the niche of urban rats and pidgeons. In my opinion, all three of the above would die after eating all the resources we left behind when disappearing. I suspect this will be the fate of everyone who is considered a Kulturfolger animal in German.
I also realize that this very much is an opinion based on my background, my work and my interests. I can absolutely see how a different background, like Marc and Jessica have it, will lead to completely different conclusions!
Why does everything have to be so annoyingly relative?
Coming at a topic from different angles can lead to misunderstandings or talking past each other – I think this, too, happened to us. And it just goes to show how difficult it is for folks from different fields, who have different jargons they take for granted, to understand each other! For example in my conversation with Marc, this happened when Marc used the word “engram.” This term also appears in A Dog’s World (once). I had never come across it before, and researched a little when translating the book. Conveniently, the German equivalent is “Engramm.” It’s basically the same word with the same Greek root. In the book, Marc writes:
“We’ve provided a range of ideas about what the evolutionary trajectories of posthuman dogs might look like. A recurring theme has been trying to understand and appreciate the ancient impulses and memory traces that still lurk in dogs’ brains—the indelible engrams that still influence what they do and how they feel and which will shape how they do without us.”
(Page 157 in my copy of the publisher’s PDF)
I looked up the meaning of the term when I was translating, but I can’t say I feel like I understood it. The way Marc uses the term, it seems to refer to a kind of collective memory of generations long past. Something that isn’t “active” – basically something that isn’t “online,” but could theoretically be brought online again by life circumstances. From digging into the topic a bit, it seems to still be controversal whether engrams actually exist.
On the podcast, Marc used the term engram again, and I asked whether this would work like a modal action pattern. (“Model action pattern” is in my active vocabulary; I know its definition: it is a behavior chain that is released by a certain stimulus and usually displayed through to the end (it is difficult to interrupt). It hardly varies from one occasion to the next or between individuals. Modal action patterns are more like a highly complex reflex you don’t consciously control than advanced and varied social communication. Modal action patterns are NOT offline, but very much online, and they are innate. An example is the hunting sequence of the wolf: search – eye-stalk – chase – grab-bite – kill-bite – consume. Another example is the herding behavior of the Border Collie, which is a modified hunting sequence: it goes from search to eye-stalk to chase, and ends there.
Anyways, so I asked Marc whether an engram was like a modal action pattern, only that it would be brought online by necessity rather than already being online and simply being displayed when a certain stimulus was present.
Marc ended up basically giving me the definition of a modal action pattern. But whatever an engram is, it can’t really be a modal action pattern – unless there is a field (psychology? ethology?) that uses “engram” in the way behavior analysts use “model action pattern,” and the terms actually mean the same.
But cooperative hunting – not hunting, but the cooperative part – can, by its very nature, not be a modal action pattern. Modal action patterns are rigid and hard to change, and cooperation is flexible and adaptive. So Marc didn’t answer my question, and I don’t think that was on purpose, but either because Marc isn’t familiar with the way “modal action pattern” is used by dog trainers or because I didn’t manage to formulate my question clearly! Argh! Or maybe I’m using an outdated definition of modal action pattern!
Cooperative hunting is by its very nature varied because different individuals have different roles. In a word: I still don’t understand what exactly an engram is. In both a German article and the English Wikipedia article, it seems to be about memories of something that happens in your lifetime, and (maybe) the physical location where these memories are stored in the brain. But this is not the way Marc uses the term, as far as I can tell: cooperative hunting can’t be an experience being remembered by an individual dog who has never had the experience of hunting cooperatively.
I don’t think it has been shown that it is possible to “remember” the social behavior of our very distant ancestors. Sure, we are influenced – both through social learning and genetics and in-utero/in-petri-dish experiences by biological relatives and the folks around us. But these are not distant ancestors! So I am still confused about the engram explanation of cooperative hunting, and this is frustrating to me. We were discussing a topic we were both passionate about (dogs), and we didn’t speak the same jargon. I’m used to talking to behavior folks and dog trainers, and we have a shared vocabulary! Marc is probably used to talking to ethologists or pet folks. With the former, there is a shared jargon (which I do not speak), and the latter probably don’t ask the kinds of questions I ask. Anyways, if someone reading this can explain the meaning of “engram” to me, please leave me a comment!
Communication is fucking hard!
In the end, this is probaly the take-away from the conversation I find most fascinating: it is difficult to understand each other if you don’t have a shared vocabulary! And it is really the anchor point of our experience our our field that informs our opinion! When you start with wild canids and compare their ethograms with domestic dogs, you’ll conclude that because they are very similar, they will also be able to hunt cooperatively. (At least if you are Jessica Pierce or Marc Bekoff.)
When you start with working dogs (and know little about wild canids) and observe free-roaming dogs who depend on anthropogenic food resources, you don’t think they will master cooperative hunting. (At least if you are me.)
Suspension bridge on a trail in Amatlán de Quetzalcóatl – and Game’s tail!
And really, this is a metaphor for so many things in life! Depending on where we’re coming from, we’ll find strong arguments to support our respective opinions. (Yay, confirmation bias! Yay, anchoring effect!) We may be fully convinced of them. And yet: some of them are opinions, not facts. It’s both hard and worth striving for to hold both these truths at the same time: on the one hand, our convictions themselves on the basis of which we are who we are in this world. And on the other hand, the fact that some of these convictions will always be opinions we can’t currently fact-check. And that’s fine. Complicated – but fine. Doesn’t make them less valid. But sure makes everything a whole lot more complex.
There are facts, of course. I am not a relativist. I see facts, and will fight for them, especially if they are facts I care about on a deep and personal level. But whether or not dogs would survive in a world without us? That’s not something we will ever be able to know.
My friend Peter and I started – drumroll – a podcast! Here is my very first (short and sweet) episode. Like, share, review and subscribe, as they like to say! Supposedly, this is particularly useful on Apple Podcasts because it does voodoo with the rankings. In any case, we’ll take any R+ on any platform, so keep it coming!
New episodes will be released every second Tuesday. If I’ve got time, I’ll write a blog post about them – if not, you’ll find them under the new “Podcast” page in the menu, or in the podcast player of your choice! I’m aiming for bi-monthly episodes … Maybe one day, there will be more, but at the moment (and since editing takes up A LOT of my spare time), that’s what you get!
I’m really grateful to Peter for joining me on this new adventure (you are awesome, Peter!), and really excited about this project. As the benevolent dictator, I get to rant about anything I want on the episodes I do by myself (evil laugh), and this, my friends, makes me happy. May our listener enjoy (or suffer through it, but bear with me)!
I’m also proud of myself: it’s going to be an exercise in anti-perfectionism since I’m planning to not perfectly polish or heavily script any of it. You’ll get the real me (and the real Peter, and our real dogs) – sometimes thoughtful, sometimes funny (the European kind), sometimes melancholic, sometimes dark. Flawed, beautiful, awkward, brave and vulnerable, and occasionally brilliant (aren’t we all?).
For now, I’m leaving you with the Mary Oliver poem that inspired the title.
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean— the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down— who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? —Mary Oliver
Indeed, I know how to pay attention, how to fall down, get back up, and be wild (oh, so very wild) and soft as well. And if it were up to me, I’d be strolling through fields all day. With dogs, and barefoot. (Preferably on a fall day. Summers are too hot.)
I know a beautiful black Standard Poodle named Gidget. She’s 2.5 years old, and lives with a wonderful human who’s ready to do pretty much anything for her: Brandy.
Gidget is an anxious dog. Not when she’s home with fellow Poodle Kona, or practicing cooperative care behaviors with Brandy in her house. Not even when she’s in her familiar car crate. These are safe spaces for her. She gets to be herself. At least, she doesn’t seem anxious in these contexts – we can’t ask her because she doesn’t speak human.
She does, however, get anxious in new places. And even in certain familiar ones. Gidget is a perfectly normal Poodle in that she has certain things she really enjoys, such as going on hikes and making dog friends on the trails. What’s hardest for her is not the hike itself. Nor is it being in her safe space in the car. It’s the transition between the two: making the seemingly HUGE effort to get out of the car, and get to the trail head.
We all know that control over your own outcomes is a primary reinforcer1, don’t we? Choices are great? So Brandy and I decided to give Gidget more control over her choice of exiting the car crate in the first place. We started with a treat test: can you take treats in the car? If so, great! If not – no pressure. You can stay in the car. If Gidget could eat, Brandy would release her from the car. Next, we’d use the 123 walking game in combination with a start button behavior. This way – we thought – we could let Gidget choose whether or not she wanted to walk from the car to the trail head or venture into other new environments, or whether she’d rather get back in the car.
In my experience as a dog trainer, dogs tend to opt in more and enjoy themselves more the more agency they are given. I hoped that Gidget would feel this way, too!
A detour: what is the 123 game?
The 123 game is one of Leslie McDevitt’s CU (Control Unleashed) pattern games. It’s based on the assumption that familiar patterns help us navigate familiar and unfamiliar environments. The basic version of the 123 game is very simple: the point is not for the pattern to be complex, but for it to help both human and dog to implement it quickly and even in distracting environments. Here’s how it goes:
Count your steps as you are walking forward: one – two – three. Feed a treat from your hand at three. Count out loud again as you keep walking: one – two – three. Feed a treat at three, and so on. In the basic version of the game, the treat always happens at 3, and the dog doesn’t have to do anything – you count as you walk, and they eat every three steps. It’s predictable, and it can be incredibly helpful to get a dog from one end of a training building to the other, from your car to the agility field, or simply across the street. Both the predictability and the eating help the dog and give them something other than the environment to focus on. You, as the human, also have clear and easy instructions about what to do (as opposed to what not to do: “Don’t pull on the leash, don’t tell your dog to heel,” etc.).
Another detour: what is a start button?
A start button behavior is any behavior the dog has learned to use as a cue for the human to do something, or for the human to ask the dog to do something. We use start buttons a lot in cooperative care and voluntary sharing – but really, there is no end to their application. Common start buttons include visual targets (looking at something or someone; making eye contact) and tactile targets (for example a chin rest on a hand or object, or stepping and staying on a platform).
Rather than feeding each treat from her hand, Brandy put the treat on the ground, next to her shoe, anytime she got to 3. Like in the basic version of the game, you will be walking and counting your steps, and your dog will eat at 3. However, the difference is that now, you’ll stop at 3, then put down the treat and wait for your dog to eat. And you will only start moving/counting again if the dog offers a start button behavior: if they look up at you. This turns the 123 game into requested approach training (RAT).
The video below shows Gidget learning the start button version of the 123 game in her yard. Notice how Brandy waits for Gidget to make eye contact before she starts counting again! The taking and eating of the treat interrupts the behavior of paying attention to Brandy, giving Gidget an opportunity to offer eye contact again once she’s ready – or not if she’s done.
What is requested approach training?
Requested approach training (RAT) is Leslie’s term for CU games that empower the dog to direct how close they will get to something, or how close something will get to them.
In the RAT version of the 123 game, you’ll stay put as long as your dog sniffs the ground or looks around rather than up at you. This is what we did with Gidget once she had learned the game at home, and we took it out into the world: it was up to her if she wanted to go further from the car. If she did, she’d look up at Brandy after eating, which was Brandy’s cue to walk and count three more steps. If Gidget didn’t look up within 5 seconds, Brandy would turn around, and they would return to the car: Gidget got to go back into her safe space. No need to venture out into the big and scary world unless you want to!
Windows of opportunity
Windows of opportunity to offer a certain behavior – such as 5 seconds for Gidget to make eye contact after eating – serve an important purpose in this kind of training: if you just waited your dog out indefinitely, sooner or later, they would look up at you. So even though you wouldn’t be actively “making them” move ahead, it would not be a real choice. It is only a real choice when the dog can opt out easily. A clearly defined window of opportunity is one way for the dog to opt out. (Another one is not taking the treat on the ground.)
How we imagined the training would go
Once Gidget knew the game, we took it to a quiet, low distraction parking lot. I imagined that after a little practice, Gidget would happily cue Brandy to take her all the way to the trailhead on the other side. After all, we already knew that Gidget loved the car, and loved the hike – it was just the space in between that wasn’t her favorite place in the world.
How it actually went
I (because of the kind of human I am, the fact that I knew Brandy would do a great job, and my own love of patterns) like to imagine things working out beautifully – but that’s not what happened for Gidget.
The video below shows Gidget’s first 123 session in the real world. You may want to watch the second attempt (where I didn’t add freeze frames) more than once to notice both lip licks! You can also use the gear wheel in the bottom right corner of the Youtube video to slow the clip down to half its original speed – it’ll help you notice subtle body language details.
It took approximately 10 sessions to get Gidget comfortable with three to four 123 reps before she asked to return to the car. The video below shows a BIG difference from that first attempt! But you can see that it is still hard for her: rather than looking right up at Brandy after eating, as she did in her yard, it takes her 4-5 seconds (the entire window of opportunity) to offer the respective next start button. At this stage, we plateaued for a while.
Plateauing means we need to change something. So we did!
Treat scatters in 123
We integrated a treat scatter into the 123 RAT game to help Gidget calm down on the way out into The Big World: when Gidget scanned (insecurity) or sniffed (if there isn’t anything worth sniffing, this is often a displacement behavior) for more than 5 seconds without offering eye contact, we integrated a treat scatter (as suggested by my wonderful colleagues Leslie McDevitt and Jennie Murphy) anytime Gidget wasn’t able to offer her start button behavior (eye contact) after eating the previous “3” treat. She could usually eat the scatter, and it relaxed her nicely. A lot of the time, she’d be immediately able to offer her start button behavior after finishing her scatter. Post scatter, we gave her a second 5-second window to offer eye contact. If she didn’t, Brandy and Gidget would return to the car.
Below is Gidget’s very first rep with scatters – and she nails it! She makes it up to SEVEN 123s with the help of scatters (Brandy’s scatter cue is, “Find it!”).
The very next time they went out to do scatter 123s in Gidget’s first training environment (if I remember correctly), she met the goal Brandy had set for her: ten 123s without asking to go back to the car! Success in environment #1! Gidget only needed ONE scatter during these ten 123 reps, even though it was a windy (noisy!) day!
When we went to a second environment, the same initial challenges presented themselves, and Gidget’s body language and her trouble taking treats showed us that she wasn’t ready to choose to walk away from the car. The second place Brandy tried was also relatively calm – but there was more traffic.
When opting out and then released to go back to the car and hop back in her crate, Gidget’s body language would change: she’d shed the tension; her tail went up. She looked relieved.
The video below is from the first 123 field trip to environment #2. Notice that Gidget can’t eat the treat Brandy puts down at 00:05. This is her opting out. Brandy reads her well, and takes her back to the car right away.
Hikes – yay or nay?
We knew that Gidget really enjoyed her hikes. She had a great time exploring nature trails with Brandy and her Poodle sister Kona, sniffing all the things, looking for critters … Gidget genuinely likes hiking, and her body language shows it! The video below shows clips of Brandy playing hide and seek with Gidget, taking turns praising and rewarding auto check-ins, and a recall – it’s a video Brandy took for my Out and About class at FDSA and allowed me to share here. Look at her tail carriage, the happy face, how she runs with a bounce in her step, and how proudly she carries her tail! This is a Poodle who’s having a blast on her hike, and lots of fun with Brandy – not a Poodle who’d rather be sitting in a crate in a car!
Leadership versus Choice
After seeing just how much Gidget struggled in environment #2 (more than I would have liked to see after our work in environment #1), I asked myself: what happens when Brandy takes the lead and doesn’t ask Gidget whether she would like to go further towards the trail (and away from the car)? I had been operating under a “choice is best” paradigm, and this was a good reminder that dog training is a study of one. Just because choice is best for some or even most dogs doesn’t automatically make it the right approach for Gidget. Only Gidget can tell us what is the right approach for Gidget! I asked Brandy to show me what walking away from the car in environment #2 looked like if she clearly took the lead:
Not being given a choice – like Brandy used to do pre-123 – ended up working better for Gidget than being asked to voluntarily opt in. She just couldn’t easily opt into leaving a safe space voluntarily, even if on the other side of leaving this space, something great – such as a hike – awaited. Notice the lack of scanning the environment, and Gidget’s higher (more confident) tail carriage in the video above! It’s hard to believe that this is the same place as in the first 123 video in environment #2!
This brings up a number of interesting questions and observations:
Some dogs, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some dogs have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
Transitions are hard. For some dogs, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a dog like Gidget … just live her life at home, in her house and yard, and skip all hikes unless she voluntarily opts in?
Should we medicate dogs like Gidget? (Gidget already is on medication for generalized anxiety. How should we define that “the meds are working” though? Are they working if the dog is able to follow your lead and have a good time? Or are they working only once the dog is able to opt in voluntarily?)
These questions don’t have clear-cut answers. In the end, we are making dogs live in a world designed by and for humans. And it is going to be the human who ends up making all of the above choices for their dog. Different humans will make different choices, and that’s okay: we all love our dogs, and do our best to give them a good life. It’s just that our definitions of a good life, and how we weigh factors such as getting exercise outdoors, freedom to choose etc. is different for every one of us. One dog owner may think that hiking matters more than freedom of choice, and vice versa, and neither one would be wrong: there simply is no objective answer, no matter how much we wish there was.
Let’s think about humans!
I know humans like Gidget. If you’re a human like Gidget, you might struggle to take the first step in a conversation or the planning of an event, even if that first step would eventually lead to an enjoyable activity. Or maybe you struggle to leave your safe space, and can’t quite put your finger on the reason why. Maybe you beat yourself up about it (which doesn’t help anyone, but is an easy go-to that distracts from the actual issue at hand).
The thing is: Gidget isn’t wrong – she’s very much right about the world. It is indeed scary and unpredictable. It’s just that most animals – including most humans and most dogs – are really good at pretending it isn’t. Objectively speaking though, just because nothing bad happened yesterday doesn’t mean nothing bad will happen today. That’s a fact – it’s not just paranoia. And just like Gidget, there are humans who know that the world is a scary and unpredictable, overwhelming place to inhabit. The majority of us pretending that everything is fine isn’t helping if you happen to be someone who can’t pretend. If anything, it makes things worse.
However, it is certainly easier to exist in the world if we can make ourselves feel safe. It’s an ability I treasure. Anxiety sucks, and given a choice, I’ll trade it for the illusion of safety every time. No questions asked. (But then again, that’s just me. And we’re all different.)
Let’s ask the questions that have come up for me in the course of following Gidget and Brandy’s journey – but let’s ask them about humans (like Gidget) this time. Maybe they will be easier to answer for our own species than for dogs. Maybe we can tap into a shared human experience, and find some answers.
Some humans, in some circumstances, do better with clear leadership than with choice. Some humans have a really hard time choosing to do something – even if that something is fun.
If we take “performing the task satisfactorily” as a measuring stick, some humans will perform better with clear leadership than with choice. They have a hard time doing something fun if the bridge between the status quo and the potentially fun goal involves a decision to step out of a safe space. Yes – this is certainly true, even if not universally so. I’d venture it is true for most children in some situations, and for some adults in most situations.
An example from my childhood
As a child, I used to be scared of making phone calls. Even phone calls to set up a playdate with my best friend. I loved playdates with my best friend, but I knew her parents would answer the phone, which meant I would have to remember the script one is supposed to follow when talking to someone’s parents on the phone. The whole situation was stressful. When I’m stressed, I’m bad at remembering scripts. I kept asking my parents to make these phone calls for me instead. But the rules were clear, no matter how much I pleaded: I had to call myself, or there would be no play date.
I remember the feeling vividly, even today. Especially my mom: if I explore my feelings around this topic, even now, there is a part of me that feels hurt and let down because she didn’t offer to make the call for me. Which is interesting given how many years have passed! Back in the day, I would usually try to bargain and beg, but end up making the call myself. It would always be highly stressful. It wasn’t something that got easier over time – it just kept being hard. Day after day, week after week, year after year. I don’t know why it was equally hard every time. After all, I kept practicing the script of talking to someone’s parents, and I kept successfully setting up playdates. The motivation of seeing my friend outweighed my fear of the call: I’d make the call (the behavior was stable because it kept getting reinforced), but I’d always feel bad about it (it didn’t get counterconditioned).
Today, I’m not afraid of making phone calls. The adult I am is not a human like Gidget – quite the opposite. I’m an adult who seeks out places and experiences others might consider dangerous. I like climbing abandoned buildings, and I sometimes dream of being a war journalist. I’m also an adult whose favorite dogs are dogs like Gidget. I like working with them, thinking about them, learning from them, and earning their trust.
But unless I’m expecting a client to call, I don’t answer my phone. Even if I know the number – unless I’ve scheduled a phone date with you. I prefer making calls to answering them. And I very much prefer written or in-person communication to phone calls overall. If you are someone I talk to on the phone every once in a while, know that you’re an exception, and very important to me.
If I had a child, I probably wouldn’t force them to make that call – I’d give them the option, maybe try and encourage them to give it a try sometime. But if they really wanted the playdate, and really didn’t want to talk on the phone, I’d do it for them. Why? Two reasons. One, I don’t want them to hold a grudge against me 30 years after the fact. And two, I don’t think the reason I’m not afraid of making phone calls anymore is the fact that I had to practice making them as a child. I can’t be sure because human minds work in mysterious ways – but I believe the reason is simply that I grew up to be a confident adult, and would have either way. I don’t think having to make phone calls as a child had any benefits for me.
Here, listening to my opt-out (making the phone call for me) would have been a better approach. I suspect the actual playdate was always too far away in time in order for me to get counterconditioned (change my feelings about phone calls) about setting it up in the first place. We keep pretending that humans are able to learn from reinforcers that are far removed in time – but truly, are we? I’m not so sure.
Another childhood example
When I was a kid, my mom would often visit her relatives on weekends. My dad would prefer to stay home. Both wanted me to be with them and share their weekend. And the choice was mine: did I want to go see the big family, or do fun things with dad? I remember it felt torturous. I’m sure my parents weren’t aware of it. They were doing the best they could, and probably trying to increase my agency (like Brandy and I tried with Gidget and the 123 game). But boy, weekends were hard!
One, I enjoyed both doing things with my dad, and visiting my mom’s family. I don’t think any of the two was intrinsically preferable to me. Two, for Chrissi, the child, it wasn’t a choice between two activities – it was a choice between who to make happy. Choosing to stay with my dad would make my mom unhappy, and choosing to go with her would make my dad unhappy. My job, my raison d’être, was to make both of them happy, which was both impossible and felt like a failure on my part.
Sometimes I picked my mom, but asked her to stop the car a few hundred meters from the house, got out, and walked back home to stay with my dad after all. Other times I picked her on the condition that we would leave by a certain time so I’d still have time with my dad in the afternoon – maybe I could make both of them happy! I’d enjoy the day, but always keep an eye on the clock, and then I’d remind her of our agreement … and she would generally ignore it. For whatever reason, I ended up trusting her word again the next time. And the next time after. I remember this whole part of my childhood, even though it consisted of weekend experiences I genuinely liked (time with dad; time with mom’s family), first and foremost as stressful.
In this second case, what would have been the best way to handle things? I probably benefited from both kinds of experiences – family time and dad time. If my parents had agreed on a schedule and just stuck to it, not fought about it, and shared that schedule with me rather than letting me pick one, life would have been a lot easier.
Let’s go back to dogs for a minute!
How does this compare to Gidget, the Poodle, and dog training in general? I’ve seen dogs who try so hard to please their person, independent of what they actually want themselves (hint: a lot of the time, these dogs are Border Collies). This is one reason windows of time are important.
I don’t think Gidget felt this kind of pressure: she isn’t the kind of dog who’s extremely prone to feeling this way, and Brandy did a great job making sure Gidget never felt “wrong” when she chose to go back to the car.
Still, in a way, both childhood examples apply to Gidget: IF Gidget is going to go on hikes, she’ll benefit from clear leadership as opposed to choice: today, we’re going on a hike. Tomorrow, you’ll stay home (a safe and fun place, too). Brandy will make it for her, and take the lead (Brandy will make the phone call for Gidget, so to speak).
Transitions are hard. For some humans, transitioning out of a designated safe space is the hardest thing they are expected to do on a regular basis.
I know kids as well as adults this is true for. Some (all?) kids benefit from a heads up: “In 5-10 minutes, we’re going to head home! Just letting you know so you can wrap up the game you are playing.” (My friend, the one I mentioned earlier and who, maybe thanks to all the phone calls I made back in the day, is still my friend 3 decades later, does this for her kids today, and I LOVE it!)
It’s also true for some adults. It’s not the case for me, so I’ll have to do some guessing here. I know people who are often late because they struggle with leaving place A in order to get to place B in time. Maybe as long as it is early, the anxiety about the outside world outweighs the social obligation of leaving now in order to get to place B in time. Once you look at the clock and see that the time of the meeting in place B has already arrived, the social obligation outweighs the anxiety, and you do leave place A. Which will make you late. If the person who has been waiting for you at place B was on time, they may be grumpy by the time you get there – which makes it even less likely that you’ll leave earlier the next time. Being greeted by grumpiness or judgyness is a punisher. It’s a vicious circle.
I’m not sure what would lessen this kind of struggle for adult humans. In kids, maybe we should minimize their decision time (1 minute of stress a day is better than 15 minutes of stress a day?), and give them a heads-up for transitions that will be made for them (“we’ll leave in 10 minutes”)? Maybe adults benefit from establishing routines that make it easier to do A, B, C? Tag points? Therapy? Turning outings into rituals on a regular schedule rather than spontaneous events? I don’t know. I know what I would try myself: therapy, meds, and gamification. But that’s just me, and things that have helped me with other, totally different struggles. If I were a human like Gidget, neither one of these might appeal or make sense to me.
Should we still go with a choice-based approach, and never take the lead? Should a human like Gidget …live their life at home, in their house and yard, and skip all hikes/outings/cocktail parties/agility group classes if they never opt in?
Let’s take another look at dogs first.
I’d venture it varies from dog to dog. Dogs who get a lot of enrichment at home and have a big yard, their human is home all day and plays nosework games and trains and plays at home – maybe that’s where they are happiest. Get a vet who’ll do home visits, and you’re covered on that basis, too. Life is free(er) of stress, but still enriching.
If your yard is not quite as big, and/or your dog truly enjoys activities that are only available outside of it (such as hiking for Gidget) – maybe a choice-based approach simply isn’t the one to go with. Do what works for your dog, not what works for most dogs, or what is currently in vogue in the dog training communities you are a part of.
And what about humans? Very difficult to say! As for adults who enjoy meeting friends, but can’t leave their house … again, it depends. If they live with a big happy family or with friends or partners, maybe they don’t need to leave, or can live perfectly happily while only rarely leaving. I have my doubts – but maybe they are unfounded.
For adults who live alone, this looks like a major life quality issue to me. If you crave social interactions (or mountain biking, or agility classes), but are finding it impossible to leave your house, this is a problem. Maybe one option would be to have friends come pick you up at previously agreed times/days. Again, I think it depends on the individual if this reduces or increases stress though: what if the agreed-upon day happens to be a bad day, but you can’t get yourself to cancel because that, too, would require interacting with people, which feels impossible sometimes? You need people you trust, but what if your anxiety doesn’t allow you to trust anyone?
Should we medicate people like Gidget?
I have opinions – but that’s all they are: opinions, not facts. I say, yes, if whatever you are experiencing on a medium to long term basis is seriously affecting your quality of life – go get therapy, and get meds on board! There is a whole menu of medications that decrease social anxiety, depression, and generalized anxiety, which are probably some of the root causes of transition struggles and decision paralysis. For humans, I’d say that if you feel like Gidget in the first 123 video in environment #2 more days than not, it may be time to get help. There is an endless supply of shitty things happening in the world around us. It’s easy to externalize the way we feel that way. But if you feel this way on a consistent basis (however rational it may be to be affected by the shitty things going on! Yes, it’s rational, but that is not the point!), the cause is something inside of you – not something outside of you. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. As in, something outside of you is always going to be bad: if it’s not the Coronavirus, it’s Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. If it’s not that, it’s the rapid decline of US democracy into orderly fascism. If it’s not that, it’s climate change. You can’t wait out the bad things, because they never stop. Something outside of you is always going to be bad. Here’s the good news though:
I really don’t think medication and therapy should be last resorts – for dogs4 or humans. I’m on medication, and it has significantly improved my life quality. I’ve also been in therapy, which has improved my understanding of myself and the people around me. I’ve also seen therapists who, I felt, had no idea what they were doing – you need to find the right person for you, just like the right medication. If the first person or medication you try doesn’t help – there are others out there that might do the trick! The menu is large. You just have to take the first step.
Knowing that the first step is the hardest, if you know me and struggle with this – by all means, reach out! I’d be happy to hear from you and happy to talk through it on an entirely non-medical, personal-experience-based basis (maybe even on the phone). I can also just listen. Or hold up your end of the conversation too, if that’s what you prefer. It’s okay to need people. It’s okay for life to be hard. It’s okay if you’re not fine, you all. And if you are not a human like Gidget? Look out for your friends who are! Give yourself and them the same grace and compassion you have for dogs like Gidget.
(3) A meme from Pinterest that has been showing up on all kinds of social media platforms.
(4) Check out this post by my FDSA colleage Jennifer Summerfield for a veterinary take on the topic: “Behavior Medication: First-Line Therapy or Last Resort?” Dr. Jenn’s blog, November 14, 2016.
PS: Thank you, Brandy and Gidget, for exploring the 123 game with me, for hanging in there throughout windy, cold and rainy days, and for allowing me to share your videos! You are wonderful, and I feel lucky and grateful to have met you both!
I’ve been writing this post for about three months. WordPress tells me I’ve revised it 59 times. I’m still trying to figure out what losing Puzzle means. It feels like a metaphor for … something. But as my life continues, that meaning constantly changes. So for now, I will just write about Puzzle. Not about Puzzle, the metaphor of loss – about Puzzle, the puppy I loved.
~ ~ ~
In reality, the Puzzle Week lasted longer than just a week. Puzzle stayed 8 or 9 days with me. And after that, I kept going back almost every day. I’d walk past her, her mom and her littermates’ house, call “Pupupupupup!”, which would bring them all out into the alley. Puzzle would walk with Game and I while the others stayed back. Sometimes, I’d pick her up and let her hang out at my house for a few hours, and then drop her off again. She’d sleep on my lap while I worked, or chew up flip flops on the living room floor.
All in all, our relationship lasted about five weeks, and we saw each other, I suspect, every day except for about 3 or 4 of these days.
When I entered the part-time-puppy-relationship – that is, when I asked her people to let her stay with me for a week – I already knew our time together had an expiration date. It wasn’t the right time for me to add another dog. Her family might place her with someone else at any point.
I knew that I could share 24-7 hours of quality time and then return a puppy because I’ve fostered dogs in the past, and I’ve rehomed my own dogs when it was the right choice for us. I usually do so calmly and pragmatically, and with little or no tears. I trust my gut. Sometimes, you need to let someone go.
~ ~ ~
It took me two or three days to love her. I don’t use that word lightly in general. I do not love all dogs who stay with me. I haven’t even loved all of the dogs I have owned, or shared a house with. Yes, I’ve been fond of all my dogs. I’ve even “loved” all my dogs in that throwaway comment sense of “Love you, see you later” as you walk out the door, your mind somewhere else. But I have not loved all of them in the way I’m using the word here. In the words of Mark Dotey: “this way to the mountain”:
Maybe I loved Puzzle because of the way she curled up with her back pressed against my neck every night, ever since the moment she convinced me she was not going to sleep on the balcony. She slept through the night, always making contact. Her body was warm, and I could feel her breathing. It was easy for me to fall asleep next to her. (Usually, with a new animal – human or otherwise – in my bed, it takes a while until I sleep peacefully next to them. The smell of someone other than myself – their coat, their soap, their sweat, their skin – these details keep me up at night until they become familiar. It takes a conscious decision to let them become so, and several nights to adjust.
When I let Puzzle sleep in my lap while working on my laptop, she did the same thing: she’d curl up, and I’d feel her rise and fall slowly, breathing, sleeping, snoothing, trusting. Sometimes, she snored a little. Ever so gently. The warmth of her little body. The not-entirely-but-still-quite softness of her short brindle fur. The nose, always a little drier than Game’s. The floppy ears between my fingers. And just like that, I loved her. It was easy. It was this way to the mountain. And I let myself love her. Just like that.
~ ~ ~
Love’s always also cerebral. All emotions are, to a certain point. My prefrontal cortex is pretty good at monitoring what’s going on. As long as it’s in charge, love isn’t scary either. It only gets scary when other parts of the brain take the driver’s seat. Early on, I can still take an exit if I want to. Eventually, there are no more exits – but until that moment – and I see that moment coming for a long time; it’s like a warning sign I’m approaching: “Last gas station.” Until then, I can take an exit pretty much anytime. Knowing that gives me confidence and it makes me brave, and able to open up to people.
I did not care about exits with Puzzle. For the time she was here, I was all in, and that was clear from the moment she first curled up with her back against my neck.
~ ~ ~
Loving a dog is paradoxical. When you choose to not take any of the exits, you already know it will end in sadness. It’s part of the reality of loving a being with a lower life expectancy than your own. The moment you allow that puppy to tumble into your arms, you are saying, “I accept that I will lose you. I know I am going to grieve you, and I will love you anyways.”
I’m finding this pretty remarkable, mostly because I have never allowed myself to feel this way about any animal (human or otherwise) this quickly. I’ve definitely got that foreboding joy thing going on that stops me in my tracks when I approach the last gas station sign: this far, but no further. You’re allowed to “love,” but not to love. You get some of the joy, but not all of the joy, because all of the joy isn’t worth the sadness. You’ll grieve more deeply if you love more deeply, Chrissi, and if you don’t want to grieve deeply, it’s better not to love deeply. You know deep grief. You know it’s an abyss that is f*cking hard to not jump into once you’re at its edge, so you better stay away from the edge altogether. It’s the smart thing to do. It’s how you survive.
I’m not saying I haven’t let myself love people in that way – I have. But never this quickly. It usually takes months for me to get to that sign, and by that point, I’ll know if it will be worth it. (At least by now, at 36 years of age, I hope that I know, at least some of the time.)
I’m almost always aware of the landscape I am traveling through (and how far I’ve gotten on that road; the abundance or lack of exits and gas stations) on a meta level as I let new people or other animals into my life. It’s a trade-off: do you want the safety of not fully loving and never fully grieving, or do you want the joy of fully loving and the devastation of fully grieving? I simply didn’t care when it came to Puzzle. I didn’t analyze, get scared, run away, or keep her at arm’s length. I just loved her without giving it a second thought, and it was easy, and it was good.
I’m not even sure there ever was a time I loved a dog in that way and this fast – but if there was, it was when I was 8 or 10, and that dog’s name was Waldi. Maybe the moment something in my brain decided to protect myself from loving dogs that way again – maybe, actually, from loving anyone in that way – was when I eavesdropped on my grandmother telling my mother that Waldi had died. They were not going to tell me, and that was the biggest betrayal I had experienced in my young life. Maybe I never loved Waldi in that way to begin with. Maybe at that age, you’re not capable of loving in that way yet. Maybe I just used him as something to project my feelings onto (I wrote him letters every day). I don’t know – I don’t trust childhood memories, including my own.
The first time I loved a person like that was MANY years (and two relationships) later. It was E, and the reason I loved her like that was that I didn’t see it coming. I missed the last gas station sign because I didn’t realize I was on that kind of road. E was a woman, and I didn’t yet know I could fall in love with women as well. E came with an abyss, and I didn’t let her go gracefully or remember her fondly.
~ ~ ~
I gave Puzzle back, as promised. More than a week had passed. I had taken all the videos I was planning to take for my CU instructor certification and for my puppy leash skills blog post. It was time. I thanked her people, and got permission to visit from the friendly Señor with the mustache who looked like he was someone’s favorite uncle.
I knew I would miss her, but it was okay. She’d be nearby. I’d visit. Indeed, I ended up visiting her every day. It’s the thing (I thought, smiling to myself on my way up her callejón) that I do. It’s the wanting-to-see-the-animal-or-human-you-love every day. It’s who I am. Loyalty. Stability. Trust. I’ll be there. Always. I’ll be your person, and I want you to be mine. That’s what love means to me. I had thought our relationship would pretty much end when I returned Puzzle (that was before I loved her). It didn’t. And the reason it didn’t was because I loved her this way to the mountain.
Days passed. I kept visiting. I was talking with someone about a home for her – one that she’d be a great fit for. Nothing was sure yet, but life was good. Puzzle wasn’t living with me, but she was in my life, and she was bringing me joy every day. I was her person.
~ ~ ~
One day, she was gone. I came back the next day, and the day after. She never did. I talked to her people – they hadn’t seen her, and they hadn’t placed her. I kept going back for more than two weeks, hoping, against all reason, she’d come tumbling down the stairs.
I’ll never know what happened to her. If I took an educated guess, she is most likely dead. I’m familiar with the mortality rate of free-roaming puppies: it’s 81% before they reach reproductive age.1 There were 5 puppies to begin with, which means that 4.05 of them would die before they were, say, about 6 months old. They’re a couple months old now, and there’s one left.
I’m familiar with the causes of the disappearance of puppies, too. 63% are being directly or indirectly influenced by humans. I know the numbers because I researched them for my presentation at the 2022 Lemonade Conference.
Every single person I’ve shared Puzzle’s disappearance with has told me to imagine someone stole her and gave her a great life. That’s probably the first comforting thought that comes to mind, and my friends want to comfort me. Maybe that’s what happend. Maybe it isn’t. In the former scenario, she’s still alive (which is great). But I’m not liking this scenario. It says something about people that I don’t want to be true. (You don’t just steal someone’s puppy, for fuck’s sake! You go up to the house, and ask if they are selling or giving the puppy away. We’re in Mexico, so the answer will probably be yes. If you were the kind of person who would actually end up giving the puppy a great life, I hope you’d ask first.) So I can’t even say I prefer this scenario to any of the others because it says something terrible about people, and I do not find it comforting.
~ ~ ~
Would I do it again? Sure, with Puzzle. She was special for me because I let her, and that made all the difference. I can live with the fact that I’ll never know what happened to her, and it doesn’t diminish the good times we had. (Which is surprising.) I remember Puzzle fondly, not sadly. I remember her in the way a good thing you needed to let go makes you equal parts sad and happy. It was sad, but okay to let her go. And it was great while it lasted.
The luckiest people in the world are the ones who have something the loss of which will break their heart. The bravest people are the ones who know that joy and loss are two sides of the same coin, and who are willing to dive in anyways. Maybe I’m becoming that person. I’d like to think so.
I generally have a few toys out – if I haven’t, Game will turn my shoes into toys.
Resource guarding incident #1: toys
On day #1 or #2 of the Puzzle week, I observed a resource guarding moment in Puzzle: she was guarding a toy from Game. In such a young puppy (supposedly 8 weeks; maybe a little bit younger), this is a red flag behavior for me. I happened to catch it on video. Let’s look:
… and analyze! Btw, I’m pretty sure what’s running in the background is a recording of Jennifer Summerfield‘s excellent webinar on behavioral medication for dogs.
01:02 Puzzle, who hasn’t played with toys before, shows interest in the Hucker as soon as Game leaves it alone to go for the red ball on a rope. Okay – nothing wrong with this. (Stimulus enhancement causes her interest.)
01:17 Now Puzzle has the Hucker, but Game and I are interacting with the other toy, which makes that one more enticing.
01:37 Game has dropped the ball, and Puzzle comes over to take a closer look at it. (Stimulus enhancement!)
01:44 “Okay,” says Game, “Let’s see what you’re up to, little puppy!”
01:48 Game likes tugging with other dogs, so when Puzzle takes the rope, she picks up the ball …
01:49/50 It’s not entirely clear what is happening from this angle. Puzzle certainly stiffens and stares at Game, and Game lets go of the ball. (Is it because of Puzzle’s stiffening/stare, or was she going to do it anyways? We can’t know for sure.)
01:51 Game decides to get the Hucker instead – it’s currently not being used by Puzzle, so why not pick it up (and maybe bring it over to me)?
01:51/52 The moment Puzzle realizes Game is going for the Hucker, she lunges at her.
01:55/56 Game is unsure of how to handle the situation – she’s a puppy, after all. In her world, puppies have more leeway than adult dogs. You can see her do a lip lick (my interpretation: dilemma/self-consciousness/self-soothing).
02:01 Game stays calm and relaxed and gives Puzzle time to calm down as well.
02:03/04 Another lip lick. Puzzle is still feeling a bit guardy.
02:20 Game yawns … she’s not entirely sure how to handle the situation. Yawns can be like looking at your cellphone in order to let someone else in an elevator know that you’re neither creepy nor particularly interested in standing close to them.
Game is not afraid of Puzzle. If Puzzle were an adult, she would not put up with resource guarding – but she’s a puppy, and in Game’s world, that is different.
Because I know Game and can read her well, I keep filming rather than intervening. I knew nothing bad would happen despite their size difference. (This post is NOT a recommendation of how to handle resource guarding among the dogs in your own household!)
02:24 Enough time has passed, and Puzzle is now on the other side of the crate door. Game picks up the Hucker again to go about her day. (Good girl, Game! You’re awesome.)
Let’s pull out one detail I find particularly interesting in this video: Puzzle’s mixed feelings about the situation she’s getting herself into. Puzzle is experimenting with the resource guarding behavior rather than doing it out of habit. Let’s watch a stretch in slow motion:
Watch the slow-motion video a second time, and then go back to the first (real time) video. Can you make out all the body language details from the slow-mo video in real time?
How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?
We know that most behaviors have heritable components – heritability being the differences of a trait within the individuals of a population that depends on genetics. So we have both a genetic component and an environmental component that will determine the final behavioral phenotype (the individual’s observable behavior).
Let’s assume (for argument’s sake, not because this is necessarily the case) that Puzzle has never tried resource guarding before. But she’s got a combination of genes that inspire her to give it a try – even though she doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. There’s an environmental trigger (Game wanting the Hucker Puzzle had before) that pushes Puzzle into the behavior.
Several things can happen at this point, depending on the other dog’s reaction:
If the other dog gives up the toy, the guarding behavior will be reinforced (that’s the operant, environmental part of the equation: behaviors that are being reinforced will happen more frequently in the future).
If the behavior doesn’t work (it has no meaningful consequences), it may be tried again in the future – maybe slightly differently, maybe in somewhat different circumstances.
Or it may not be tried again in the future; maybe it was just a haphazard one-time attempt: the behavior extinguishes.
If the behavior is punished by the other dog (if Game reprimanded Puzzle), it should decrease or disappear in the future.
Puzzle is very young, so at the point that I took this video, I’d have predicted that she’d need several extinction or punishment experiences before the synapses necessary to keep the behavior in her repertoire would be pruned.
You can see how fast learning happens in real time in this very video: the first hard stare Puzzle gives Game at 01:49 (first, original speed video)/00:09 (second, slow-motion video) works: Puzzle’s hard stare is being negatively reinforced by means of Game moving away. Puzzle quickly tries the hard stare again at 01:59 (first video at original speed)/03:02 (second, slow-motion video)! When it doesn’t work, she escalates to snapping. (If this had been reinforced more than just once before before, we’d call it an extinction burst.)
Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi
Apart from this moment with the toy, there was only one other resource guarding incident Puzzle displayed (which surprised me; after this one reaction, I expected her to be quite guardy in general). The second incident happened also on the first or second day Puzzle stayed with us. She was curled up on my lap while I was working on my laptop. Game came over to see what was up, and Puzzle snapped at her. Again, Game stayed perfectly calm. (“Eyeroll. Puppies.” Also, Game rocks!)
For me as a dog trainer who has seen owners struggle with resource guarding, both these behaviors are red flags when they show up in young puppies. I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m not going to keep Puzzle.” But – and here’s the really interesting thing! – after these two incidents, NO more resource guarding happened the entire time Puzzle stayed with us, or afterwards, when I had returned her to her family, but picked her up to let her spend a few hours at my place several times a week. I conclude that my initial assessment (resource guarding in young puppies is usually a bad sign for multi-dog households) was not the case for Puzzle.
If I were to anthropomorphize (okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves; this is me full-on anthropomorphizing): as soon as Puzzle learned that she could trust Game, she had no reason to guard resources from her – neither me nor toys nor food.
What a can of worms! How can we even operationalize “trust”?
Let’s start by operationalizing a behavior that is not trust-based (because that’s easier to define): Resource guarding is a behavior resulting from the belief that if you share something, you will lose something. (In the case of dogs, the thing they are unwilling to share is the same things they are expecting to lose. In humans, the thing they are unwilling to share could be a secret, and the thing they are afraid of losing could be a connection (a friendship, a marriage, a fight).
Trust, then, is the belief that sharing something will not result in its loss. Trusting behavior results from the belief that sharing something (a toy, food, a secret) will not result in a loss (of toys, food, or connections).
A dog who lets no one near their food is resource guarding. So is the human who leaves out the fact that they have kids or are divorced on their Tinder profile. Only once trust has been built (either systematically or organically) can the food or facts be shared.
To work or not to work on resource guarding
If I had planned to keep Puzzle, I would have prioritized resource guarding and systematically worked on it. Since I was not going to keep her, I didn’t worry about it, and worked on other behaviors I wanted to video instead. The fascinating thing: the resource guarding completely disappeared all by itself. Except for the two instances on days #1 or #2, there was no more guarding – ever. Puzzle’s confidence around and trust in Game grew (anthropomorphizing again, I know). In the video below – which is from the last full day she stayed with us – Game steals her tennis ball, and it’s all good anyways. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on resource guarding with your own puppy. You absolutely should! I’m just sharing the Puzzle Week story.) After a week with Game and I, Puzzle had become a relaxed house dog who was able to roll around the floor, mostly peed outside, slept through the night, and shared toys with Game.
Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs
Maybe a slight tendency to guard is a selective advantage for free-roaming dogs such as Puzzle and her parents. I’m saying this because I’ve seen it in several free-roamers-turned-pets-as-adults I’ve worked with as a trainer in Guatemala, and because I’ve seen it in free-roamers I’ve observed in the streets. Not in all of them – but definitely in a larger percentage than I’d expect to see in the pet dog population.
Here’s an example of an adolescent Husky mix displaying resource guarding behavior over food:
Wheee, that was a novel! Two more Puzzle posts to come (unless I think of more). Until then: happy training, y’all!
For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!