A glimpse into the life of village puppies: long version, and a detour on different types of selection

There’s a litter of four puppies in a 1000-habitant village in the State of Mexico. The day I made this video, I met two of the four. Only over the last couple of days had they started coming out and exploring: they had reached an age where they dared venture further and further from their birthplace.

It’s interesting to observe how many of the experiences Western breeders and puppy owners recreate happen naturally for a puppy like this – and they happen on the right time scale since it is the puppies themselves who decide when they are ready to explore, and how far they are ready to go on any given day.

You can also see differences within a litter: the two black puppies are bolder than the blonde one who is not with them, but who I saw the day after I took this video1, still in the safe space of the restaurant. The second blonde puppy must have also been a bold one – maybe the boldest one, or just a bold one with bad luck – because the person I am talking to in this video tells me that puppy got hit by a car earlier that same day.

The fact that within this litter, there are both bold and shy individuals shows an interesting tendency in evolution: evolutionarily speaking, both bold and shy individuals get selected for. We see this in humans, too. If a trait gets selected for, it has to have an advantage – and indeed, it does! It may seem counterintuitive, but in fact, both extremes of the spectrum of boldness and shyness can be advantageous. This is, I’d venture, particularly true for species that live in a vast variety of different environments – such as humans, canines and felines! Since the environments vary greatly, what is an advantage in one environment can be a disadvantage in another one. Or what is an advantage in one part of the year can be a disadvanrage in another part of the year. Or depending on what circumstances you happen to be born under – depending on random factors! – it may be advantageous to be either bold or shy.

A thought experiment: the shy puppy in the litter – the blonde one who I haven’t seen out in the street – is the least likely to get run over. From this point of view, being shy is adaptive – it increases the chances of survival, because cars (as illustrated by the death of the fourth puppy) are a HUGE danger to puppies. On the other hand, the two black puppies in this video show a lot of exploratory behavior, and they find food – both in the street and in the entrance of the store they then get shooed out of. From this point of view, being bold (showing a lot of exploratory behavior) is adaptive – it increases the chances of survival because you find more food. Due to studies done on puppy mortality, we know that most of these puppies are not going to survive. If one of them does survive – will it be a bold or a shy puppy? It could be either, because it depends on many factors: are the puppies still getting fed within the safe space of the restaurant? If so, being shy may be more advantageous because there is no lack of food resources. Are they not getting fed anymore now that they are a little bigger? If so, being bold might be an advantage because you need to learn to find enough food to make up for the calories you spend growing and existing! Being bold likely also increases a puppy’s chances of becoming an owned village dog, and owned village dogs get fed. If you are bold while you are still young and cute, you’ve got a killer combination setting you up for success in this respect … unless, of course, you get run over by a car first.

So there is no straightforward answer, but one thing is clear: depending on when, where, to whom and under what circumstances a puppy is born, boldness, shyness, or both may be advantageous. The same goes for humans. If it were not the case – if you were most likely to succeed by being a middle-of-the-road animal – the extremes of the spectrum of boldness and shyness would already have disappeared (for canines as well as humans). We would have what is called stabilizing selection: selection around a stable phenotype around a mean (a certain degree of not-too-bold-and-not-too-shyness). What we actually see is disruptive selection: selection at both ends of the normal curve: on the one hand, we get very bold individuals, and on the other hand, very shy ones. We see it in puppies, even within litters. And we certainly see it in humans, too! Even in very young toddlers, the differences are striking. By the way, a shout out to Marc Bekoff: I’ve learned the terms stabilitzing selection, disruptive selection and directive selection (selection for more or less of a given phenotype, e.g. if over time, puppies would tend to get bolder and bolder) from his book A Dog’s World, which I’ve had the honor of translating into German.

After this little detour into different kinds of selection, let’s get back to the experiences that breeders and puppy owners recreate, but that happen quite naturally for free-roaming puppies:

1. Introduction of different surfaces:

in the space of the restaurant, the puppies would have encountered artificial turf and real grass. Venturing out, they get to move up and down the stairs to the restaurant entrance, and they will walk on concrete and asphalt. In this video, one of the black puppies walks over an iron grid covering a drain – something else a breeder or owner might carefully introduce to their puppies that happens naturally in this environment.

2. Introduction to different sounds:

Currently, the 9 days leading up to a catholic holiday are being celebrated in this village – and like most Mexican celebrations, they are celebrated quite loudly, with lots of cohetes (firecrackers). Similarly, there are cars going by – this is the busiest part of town – and the puppies will get used to the sounds of cars, busses, motorcycles and lots of different human voices: adults talking and yelling, children laughing and playing …

3. People:

I’ve seen kids interact with the puppies (hold them, pet them, pick them up), and the puppies will also see people of all ages once they start venturing out of the restaurant space. People are quite naturally being paired with food, so a positive classical association is made to them when a puppy is born in the town center. They will also interact with people in that they get a basic village dog education: being cute and begging politely is going to get reinforced with food, and being obnoxious or entering forbidden spaces is going to be punished (at 09:18, the owner of the store across the street shoos the puppies back outside).

4. Dogs:

In this video alone, you’ll see three adult dogs: the fluffy dark dog, the pitbull, and the black lab mix. Throughout the day, the puppies will interact with A LOT of village dogs: everyone who roams freely, whether they are community dogs or owned free-roamers, will meet these puppies and interact with them. Some will be big, some small, some male, some female, most intact and some spayed. It is unlikely that a puppy born to a breeder would meet this many dogs at this age.

5. Other animals:

Sometimes, horseback riders come through; sometimes, they’ll see a cat, and once they are bold enough to venture just a little further up the street the store is in, they’ll see sheep and chickens.

6. Objects:

The restaurant is closed, but there are still chairs and tables in there. And once the puppies venture out, they’ll see cars, busses, and everything sold at the little stores around the area: brooms and food and buckets … At some point in this video, you’ll see one of the puppies approach a broom that’s for sale.

Further remarks:

+ I met the third blonde puppy the day after recording this video – so there must have been 4 originally, but 1 got run over, leaving three.

+ At some point in this video, I say that my AirBnB “tenant” also owns the restaurant – I meant to say host. I do not own a building in this town.

+ It’s interesting that I get asked whether I want to take the two puppies (they are community puppies, so unlike the puppies of owned village dogs, they are up for grabs). I assume the reason the person I’m talking to suggests I take them is that I’ve shown an unusual level of interest in the puppies – I’m following them around, filming and talking about them.


(1) One of the puppies is still alive for sure 2 months after I took this video, as I am writing this post – and it’s the blonde puppy (the shy one). I don’t know about the two black ones. They must either have died, or been taken in and have become owned village dogs. Statistically speaking (given the percentage of puppies that survive), they are more likely to not be around anymore – but we don’t know if this is the case for this particular litter. It’s a littler born under relatively advantageous circumstances, and in a good spot. (No highway; plenty of people; close to a food source.)

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

Mark Doty – Dog Years1

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

Sources

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

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

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

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

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

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

Puzzle’s first hike

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

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

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

~~~~~~

Wanna have more off-leash fun with your own dog? Join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!

The Puzzle Week, Part 26: Resource Guarding

I generally have a few toys out – if I haven’t, Game will turn my shoes into toys.

Resource guarding incident #1: toys


On day #1 or #2 of the Puzzle week, I observed a resource guarding moment in Puzzle: she was guarding a toy from Game. In such a young puppy (supposedly 8 weeks; maybe a little bit younger), this is a red flag behavior for me. I happened to catch it on video. Let’s look:

… and analyze! Btw, I’m pretty sure what’s running in the background is a recording of Jennifer Summerfield‘s excellent webinar on behavioral medication for dogs.

01:02 Puzzle, who hasn’t played with toys before, shows interest in the Hucker as soon as Game leaves it alone to go for the red ball on a rope. Okay – nothing wrong with this. (Stimulus enhancement causes her interest.)

01:17 Now Puzzle has the Hucker, but Game and I are interacting with the other toy, which makes that one more enticing.

01:37 Game has dropped the ball, and Puzzle comes over to take a closer look at it. (Stimulus enhancement!)

01:44 “Okay,” says Game, “Let’s see what you’re up to, little puppy!”

01:48 Game likes tugging with other dogs, so when Puzzle takes the rope, she picks up the ball …

01:49/50 It’s not entirely clear what is happening from this angle. Puzzle certainly stiffens and stares at Game, and Game lets go of the ball. (Is it because of Puzzle’s stiffening/stare, or was she going to do it anyways? We can’t know for sure.)

01:51 Game decides to get the Hucker instead – it’s currently not being used by Puzzle, so why not pick it up (and maybe bring it over to me)?

01:51/52 The moment Puzzle realizes Game is going for the Hucker, she lunges at her.

01:55/56 Game is unsure of how to handle the situation – she’s a puppy, after all. In her world, puppies have more leeway than adult dogs. You can see her do a lip lick (my interpretation: dilemma/self-consciousness/self-soothing).

02:01 Game stays calm and relaxed and gives Puzzle time to calm down as well.

02:03/04 Another lip lick. Puzzle is still feeling a bit guardy.

02:20 Game yawns … she’s not entirely sure how to handle the situation. Yawns can be like looking at your cellphone in order to let someone else in an elevator know that you’re neither creepy nor particularly interested in standing close to them.

Game is not afraid of Puzzle. If Puzzle were an adult, she would not put up with resource guarding – but she’s a puppy, and in Game’s world, that is different.

Because I know Game and can read her well, I keep filming rather than intervening. I knew nothing bad would happen despite their size difference. (This post is NOT a recommendation of how to handle resource guarding among the dogs in your own household!)

02:24 Enough time has passed, and Puzzle is now on the other side of the crate door. Game picks up the Hucker again to go about her day. (Good girl, Game! You’re awesome.)

Let’s pull out one detail I find particularly interesting in this video: Puzzle’s mixed feelings about the situation she’s getting herself into. Puzzle is experimenting with the resource guarding behavior rather than doing it out of habit. Let’s watch a stretch in slow motion:

Watch the slow-motion video a second time, and then go back to the first (real time) video. Can you make out all the body language details from the slow-mo video in real time?

How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?

We know that most behaviors have heritable components – heritability being the differences of a trait within the individuals of a population that depends on genetics. So we have both a genetic component and an environmental component that will determine the final behavioral phenotype (the individual’s observable behavior).

Let’s assume (for argument’s sake, not because this is necessarily the case) that Puzzle has never tried resource guarding before. But she’s got a combination of genes that inspire her to give it a try – even though she doesn’t exactly know what she’s doing. There’s an environmental trigger (Game wanting the Hucker Puzzle had before) that pushes Puzzle into the behavior.

Several things can happen at this point, depending on the other dog’s reaction:

  • If the other dog gives up the toy, the guarding behavior will be reinforced (that’s the operant, environmental part of the equation: behaviors that are being reinforced will happen more frequently in the future).
  • If the behavior doesn’t work (it has no meaningful consequences), it may be tried again in the future – maybe slightly differently, maybe in somewhat different circumstances.
  • Or it may not be tried again in the future; maybe it was just a haphazard one-time attempt: the behavior extinguishes.
  • If the behavior is punished by the other dog (if Game reprimanded Puzzle), it should decrease or disappear in the future.

Puzzle is very young, so at the point that I took this video, I’d have predicted that she’d need several extinction or punishment experiences before the synapses necessary to keep the behavior in her repertoire would be pruned.

Fast learning

You can see how fast learning happens in real time in this very video: the first hard stare Puzzle gives Game at 01:49 (first, original speed video)/00:09 (second, slow-motion video) works: Puzzle’s hard stare is being negatively reinforced by means of Game moving away. Puzzle quickly tries the hard stare again at 01:59 (first video at original speed)/03:02 (second, slow-motion video)! When it doesn’t work, she escalates to snapping. (If this had been reinforced more than just once before before, we’d call it an extinction burst.)

Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi

Apart from this moment with the toy, there was only one other resource guarding incident Puzzle displayed (which surprised me; after this one reaction, I expected her to be quite guardy in general). The second incident happened also on the first or second day Puzzle stayed with us. She was curled up on my lap while I was working on my laptop. Game came over to see what was up, and Puzzle snapped at her. Again, Game stayed perfectly calm. (“Eyeroll. Puppies.” Also, Game rocks!)

For me as a dog trainer who has seen owners struggle with resource guarding, both these behaviors are red flags when they show up in young puppies. I thought to myself, “Good thing I’m not going to keep Puzzle.” But – and here’s the really interesting thing! – after these two incidents, NO more resource guarding happened the entire time Puzzle stayed with us, or afterwards, when I had returned her to her family, but picked her up to let her spend a few hours at my place several times a week. I conclude that my initial assessment (resource guarding in young puppies is usually a bad sign for multi-dog households) was not the case for Puzzle.

If I were to anthropomorphize (okay, let’s stop kidding ourselves; this is me full-on anthropomorphizing): as soon as Puzzle learned that she could trust Game, she had no reason to guard resources from her – neither me nor toys nor food.

Trust

What a can of worms! How can we even operationalize “trust”?

Let’s start by operationalizing a behavior that is not trust-based (because that’s easier to define): Resource guarding is a behavior resulting from the belief that if you share something, you will lose something. (In the case of dogs, the thing they are unwilling to share is the same things they are expecting to lose. In humans, the thing they are unwilling to share could be a secret, and the thing they are afraid of losing could be a connection (a friendship, a marriage, a fight).

Trust, then, is the belief that sharing something will not result in its loss. Trusting behavior results from the belief that sharing something (a toy, food, a secret) will not result in a loss (of toys, food, or connections).

A dog who lets no one near their food is resource guarding. So is the human who leaves out the fact that they have kids or are divorced on their Tinder profile. Only once trust has been built (either systematically or organically) can the food or facts be shared.

To work or not to work on resource guarding

If I had planned to keep Puzzle, I would have prioritized resource guarding and systematically worked on it. Since I was not going to keep her, I didn’t worry about it, and worked on other behaviors I wanted to video instead. The fascinating thing: the resource guarding completely disappeared all by itself. Except for the two instances on days #1 or #2, there was no more guarding – ever. Puzzle’s confidence around and trust in Game grew (anthropomorphizing again, I know). In the video below – which is from the last full day she stayed with us – Game steals her tennis ball, and it’s all good anyways. (I’m not saying you shouldn’t work on resource guarding with your own puppy. You absolutely should! I’m just sharing the Puzzle Week story.) After a week with Game and I, Puzzle had become a relaxed house dog who was able to roll around the floor, mostly peed outside, slept through the night, and shared toys with Game.

Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs

Maybe a slight tendency to guard is a selective advantage for free-roaming dogs such as Puzzle and her parents. I’m saying this because I’ve seen it in several free-roamers-turned-pets-as-adults I’ve worked with as a trainer in Guatemala, and because I’ve seen it in free-roamers I’ve observed in the streets. Not in all of them – but definitely in a larger percentage than I’d expect to see in the pet dog population.

Here’s an example of an adolescent Husky mix displaying resource guarding behavior over food:


Wheee, that was a novel! Two more Puzzle posts to come (unless I think of more). Until then: happy training, y’all!

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For more dog training tips and videos, join Chrissi’s April class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy: Out and About. Registration is open now, and class starts on April 1st. We’re sold out at the Gold level, but there are still Silver and Bronze spots available! Come join us – it’s going to be fun!

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

Mexican puppies learn to ignore dogs on roofs and behind fences

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

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

Cultural differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social skills: successful communication

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

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

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

Two lessons for humans

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

The Puzzle Week, Part 23: Dog/Human Socialization

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

Crowded spaces

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

Plaza Baratillo

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

La Universidad de Guanajuato

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

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

Inside places

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

Open urban spaces

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

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

Cerro del cuarto

La Alhóndiga

Meeting a free-roamer at the Alhóndiga.

Watching the world go by at the Alhóndiga.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video 1:

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

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

Video 2:

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

Video 3:

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

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

Video 4:

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

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

The handler as a safe space

Video 5:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risks, rewards, and ways of life

Video 6:

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

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

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

Video 7:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The parents’ temperament and stress levels

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

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

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

Two sets of experiences for Puzzle

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

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

Sources

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

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

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

The Puzzle Week – Part 18: Puppy Leash Skills (Crystal Clear Leash Laws)

You’ve already learned that for the automatic leash pressure method to work, you and your puppy will only walk forward on a loose leash. You’re still missing something crucial though: a way of measuring leash pressure. In order to be successful with the automatic leash pressure method:

  1. You need a way of measuring the amount of pressure your puppy is putting on the leash.
  2. You need to define the amount of pressure that will trigger a stop.
  3. And you need to consistently apply this metric anytime you are walking your puppy on their LLW equipment (e.g. collar).

Can’t you just play it by ear? No, sorry – you can’t. People are notoriously inconsistent when doing this kind of training based on their gut feeling. This is confusing to puppies. They may learn to keep their leash loose anyway … Or they may not. In any case, it will likely take longer. So instead of fumbling our way through, let’s keep our criteria crystal clear from the start!

Measuring leash pressure

Here’s the elements will be looking at:

1. How to hold the leash in order to effectively measure pressure.

2. How to do the actual measuring, and define a point of tightness that will trigger stopping.

3. How to define that the leash has loosened again, triggering movement.

How to hold the leash to effectively measure pressure

Find your default finger loop

Make a loop with the thumb and index finger of your dominant hand (left image below). Look at your hand. Feel your hand. What does it feel like for your thumb and index finger to touch?

Now get up from your chair, and let your arms hang down by your side, standing relaxedly (right image above). Do your fingers still touch each other, or is there a gap between them? How large or small is the gap? Do this exercise in front of a mirror if you can! Remember that I want you to consciously relax your arm and your hand. If there is a gap between your thumb and index finger, think about the kind of object that would snuggly fit between them. For me (right image above), this is a piece of kibble: I could put a single piece of kibble between thumb and index finger of my relaxed hand, and it wouldn’t drop to the ground. For you, there may be no gap at all, or there may be a slightly wider gap. Maybe your object is a walnut or a bottle cap! If you’re not sure, experiment with the objects you find around your kitchen or living room!

Next, I want you to start walking, swinging your arms loosely and naturally by your side. Pay attention to the distance between your thumb and index finger. Is it the same distance you had when standing still, or does it change? In my case, it’s the same: a single piece of kibble would snuggly fit into the gap between my thumb and index finger. Spend 30 seconds consciously describing the feeling and the default size of your gap: what is the relaxed distance between thumb and index finger when you are standing still or walking? How would you describe it to someone on a voice call who can’t see the gap?

The reason I’m having you pay close attention to your finger loop is that we aren’t usually aware of it, and of how it feels. We need to change this in order for the measuring method I’m about to teach you to work.

Now that you have raised your awareness of what it feels like to have your arms swinging loosely by your side, grab a leash. Hook the handle on your index finger while keeping your arm, hands and fingers just as relaxed as before. If your default position is a slightly open loop – no need to close it.

Note that there’s no dog attached to my leash! This part is just about you and the leash.

Now, start walking around the room again. What does the weight of the leash feel like on your index finger? Think about it as if you were describing the sensation to someone over the phone: they can’t see you, and they don’t have a leash to try it themselves! Keep your arms and hands relaxed as you walk around the room, and focus on the sensation of the fabric wrapped around your finger. The weight. The way it affects your finger loop. Let the leash drag on the floor behind you as you walk.

For the next step, add a collar to the leash, and attach the collar to a piece of sturdy furniture about the same height as your puppy’s neck. The handle of your leash goes on your index finger again.

The effect of leash pressure on your finger loop

You’re now going to explore what it feels like when there is pressure on the leash: what will your finger loop do? Start out with your loop in its relaxed default position. Take a few slow steps backwards, watching and sensing what is happening to your index finger. Can you feel how the loop being pulled open when you step back, and the leash goes tight? What does it look like now? The opening will be bigger – maybe instead of a piece of kibble, you could snuggly fit a small tomatoe in the gap when it’s fully opened by the pressure of the leash. What does it feel like when it’s just opening a little because you’ve taken a smaller step back? Say, the size of two kibbles instead of just one? How does this feel different from the default position of the leash on your finger loop? Try this with both hands. Watch your finger ring expand, and pay attention to the changing sensation in the muscles and skin of your fingers. Repeat a few times with the leash on the index finger of both hands!

Going forwards, when you work with your puppy on LLW, this is how you will be holding your leash: the handle is going to be hooked into your finger loop, and your hand and fingers will be relaxed.

How to do the actual measuring, and define a point of tightness that will trigger stopping

You are going to measure the tightness of the leash by means of whether your finger loop is open or closed. Let’s defined “closed” as the relaxed position of your loop. For some people, the thumb and index finger will actually be touching each other when the arm is hanging down by your side in a relaxed way. For others – such as me – there will be a small gap.

Now that you know what “closed” means, let’s look at an open(ing) finger loop: anything more than your relaxed default position means that the leash counts as tight. In the case of someone whose relaxed finger loop means touching thumb to index finger, the moment a piece of kibble fits into that loop already constitutes a tight leash. On the other hand, for me, that same amount of opening (kibble-sized) is relaxed. But the moment the imaginary piece of kibble drops to the floor (due to the dog pulling), my leash will count as tight.

Once you have defined what tightness means to you, the next step is simple: anytime the leash tightens (your finger loop opens past its relaxed position), you will stop. You won’t reel your dog in. You won’t jerk on the leash. You’ll just stop. Every single time, no exceptions.

How to define that the leash has loosened again, triggering movement

As long as you keep the muscles in your arm, hand, and fingers relaxed, your finger loop will go back to its relaxed position as soon as the leash loosens. The moment your finger loop returns to its default shape, the leash counts as loose again. You can measure this both visually, by looking at your hand, and tactilely, by feeling your loop close and, in case your relaxed default is completely closed, by the sensation of the tips of your thumb and index finger touching each other. As soon as this happens, you’ll start walking again. Always, without exceptions.

How operant and classical conditioning work hand in hand

A classical association

Over time, your puppy will learn that there’s a clear stimulus-stimulus relationship:

Leash pressure on neck —> everything stops.

No pressure on neck —> freedom to move.

Operant learning

Once your puppy has realized the classical association, they will learn to manipulate it. Now, we’re firmly in operant territory! Through trial and error, the puppy is going to figure out that they control the pressure on their neck. They will learn what turns the pressure on: charging ahead, or moving a certain distance (depending on the length of the leash you are using) away from you. They will realize that these behaviors are like pushing the “everything stops” button.

Everything stops button

They will also learn how to turn off the pressure on their neck. They will realize that there are several “freedom to move” buttons they can push when they feel pressure on their neck.

Freedom to move buttons

Let’s ask Puzzle to show us the most common ones:

+ Sitting down
+ Weight shift backwards
+ Turning towards you
+ Moving towards you

The videos below center on the finger loop and on the four green-button behaviors Puzzle can use to get me moving again after the leash tightened. Note how her movement affects my finger loop! Also note how brief the stops are. The automatic leash pressure method isn’t annoying to teach – you can go on a normal walk, and actually cover ground, while you practice.

Alright – that was quite a lot of theory and practice sans dogs! Now head outside, and give it a try with your puppy! Have fun!