Adventures in Herding #3: Round Pens!

There’s So! Much! to keep track of: I don’t want my dog to hurt my sheep, I don’t want my sheep to run me over in a panicked stampede, I need to keep Come By! and Away! straight, and the dog should do a nice flank when moving from me to where the sheep are. That’s too much for a beginner like me to keep track of. Round pens to the rescue!

With the sheep in the round pen and Mick and I outside, I don’t need to worry about Mick hurting them, about them running me over, and about the shape of Mick’s flanks. I can concentrate on three things: naming the Come By! and the Away! direction of travel (clockwise and counterclockwise, respectively), and praising Mick for finding the balance point (his 12 o’clock to my 6 o’clock). That’s what I did today. Low stress for me, and I got to observe how Mick gravitated to the balance point! This is so cool to see!

Before letting him start, I asked for a down (not on video), which was reinforced by getting to work. To end the session, I picked up the leash, and told him “All done!” rather than calling him away from the sheep. For now, I never want to call him when I’m about to end the fun.

Grit insisted she wanted to work sheep, too. Since I already had them in the round pen and they didn’t seem particularly stressed by a dog on the outside, she got to have a go as well. This is what it looked like at first:

… but then she calmed down – and she, too, found the balance point!

The Death of a Chicken

I need to learn how to pluck a chicken.

Grit killed today. On our morning walk, she silently dove into the undergrowth – she often will; there are smells to be smelled and sticks to be found. I whistled, and she reappeared, carrying a chicken. The head, on a surprisingly long neck, swung back and forth with each of her joyful leaps; there was nothing to be done for the bird.

The chicken must have strayed too far from my neighbor’s house, and ended up in the forest. There had been no screams, no sounds of a scuffle. Death came fast and on silent paws. Grit carried the chicken like a pointer carries a pheasant; holding a full grip on its chest and back without breaking the skin.

We continued our walk, leaving the chicken behind a tree to pick it up later. I looked at my phone. 9AM. Good; I’d have time to drop off the dogs in my yard, head to my neighbor’s to apologize, pay for the chicken, and be back in time for my training appointment. I’d tell Juan Antonio, my neighbor, Grit had killed one of his chickens, and then I’d ask him how much he wanted for it. I was going to give him a chance to overcharge me if he was so inclined.

We had a good walk, the dogs and I. The morning sun filtered through the canopy of leaves. The forest vibrated with the sounds of insects and birds; I heard the one that sounds like a bicycle bell.

The death of the chicken didn’t upset me. I’d pluck it, and I’d feed it to the dogs. Maybe I’d have some of it myself. I have no fridge – a logistical challenge; we’d have to eat it soon. Juan Antonio raises chickens to sell the meat. The chicken was always going to die and be eaten.

Would I, under the same circumstances, have seen more than just a chicken in the past? I’m not sure. Today, in any case, it is just that: a chicken. The Trump administration is now targeting immigrants who are legally entitled to welfare programs, Pam Fessler told me on my weekday morning news podcast. What’s the death of a single chicken (always meant to be eaten) at the teeth of a dog in the light of the death of Jimmy Aldaoud (and so many others like him) at the hands of democracy? The US keep moving the mark of what large-scale cruelties are politically acceptable, and Europe is following suit.

chicken politics

I’m not scared of telling Juan Antonio that my dog killed his chicken. We’re just two people living on a mountain, doing the best we can. There was a time I’d have been scared of the conversation, scared of Juan Antonio, scared of what he might think of me, and my dog. Scared of potential consequences and implications. I might have obsessed about it for hours, days even. I might have self-righteously framed it to be his fault: why didn’t he take better care of his chickens? Out of fear, I might not have said a thing, and I’d have wondered if he knew it was me for days and weeks to come. I’d have avoided him in the street. We might not have eaten the chicken, either (how pointless a death it would be!): every second I’d have had to look at that chicken would have been one shameful second too many, reminding me of my failure (as you know, the lack of chickens killed at the teeth of your dog defines your worth as a person, your professional expertise as a dog trainer, and how deserving you are of love). The story I’d tell myself would be different, and the story I’d tell you wouldn’t exist since it would be a story too shameful to share.

The person I am today isn’t scared of individuals, or of conversations, or of dogs killing chickens. The things that move me deeply today are not fear. They are love and sadness, anxiety sometimes (about trivial things, but not chickens). The world is getting scarier – I appreciate that on a cognitive level – and I have become less fearful in spite of it, or because of it, or maybe just less fearful, period.

In a world that makes little sense, I want to be the kind of person who’ll tell you my dog killed your chicken, even if you’d never find out for lack of witnesses. The fact that my dog killed a chicken says little about me. The fact that I’m going to own it does. That may not be much, but it’s something: it also means I’m seeing the mark that gets moved, and I know that I’m part of the problem – as are you, and you, and you too – unless … we find a way to pay for that chicken. I don’t know how to do that, but maybe tomorrow, I will. For now, I’ll keep training dogs and telling you stories like this one, because those are two things I know how to do.

The Dog Who’d Take Praise Over Food

Mick, Mr. Border Collie, is having me think about language, and comfort levels, and biddability. He came to me at age 2, after having lived with a traditional herding trainer. His native language of relating to people is different from the way I usually relate to my dogs. He’s been studying my language and is getting better and better at it – much like someone who’s learning a new language as an adult.

At the same time, I’ve been learning Mick’s language, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things: when Mick first got here, he didn’t know it was okay to take food from a person’s hand – not only was it permitted, it was encouraged to do so! However, he had a very strong concept of verbal strokes. A stroke is a unit of social recognition: if I smile at you when passing you in the street, that’s a stroke. If you respond by saying “Good morning!”, that’s another stroke. Back to Mick, who greatly appreciates verbal strokes. When I talk to him in a soft voice – and that has been true from the day I first met him – he’ll respond by wagging gently. If he’s tense, I’ll see his body relax. The tucked tail will come out, the closed, hard mouth will open slightly, the tension in his ears will fade; piercing looks will turn into soft eyes.

While Mick didn’t know what to do with the treat I was holding out, he knew very well what praise meant. His body language showed that he greatly appreciated receiving it. Even out on a walk, when I’d call him, he’d soon come, and not take the treat – but he’d start wagging upon hearing my voice. And his recall got better – my praise was indeed reinforcing.

Is the effectiveness of praise as a reinforcer purely due to what we call “will to please” and consider an inherent trait? How much of it is environmental rather than hereditary? Could it be that the Border Collie’s upbringing has given him an appreciation of verbal strokes that is more widely generalized than what we typically see in R+ raised dogs?

 

border collie malinois personality

Mick & Grit

Let’s take a look at Grit. She has been with me since puppyhood. Grit has a strong will to please, too. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define will to please or biddability as the willingness to work for the acknowledgement of one’s efforts alone – for praise, pets, or other non-tangible paychecks. Grit will do things I ask her to even when she’s exhausted; she’ll do the same thing 20 times in a row, and she’ll try as hard the 20st time as the first one. She’ll come when I call her even when she’s too hot to eat or isn’t interested in my treats. She does things because I ask her to – even if I don’t pay well – and doesn’t question my wishes.

Grit’s biddability is tied to me as a person. She wouldn’t work for just anyone 20 times in a row. In fact, she wouldn’t work for anyone else at all, unless that person first built a relationship with her. Grit is short-fused (like most dogs in her lines), she’s hot-headed and intense. But never has she growled at me or said NO to something she knew how to do. Grit makes me feel special because it is clear that her will to please is tied to me as a person.

Mick is like Grit – but then again, he also isn’t. Mick, even though we are only just building our relationship, will come when I call him in difficult situations, and be all wiggly and happy if I praise him. Mick is a soft dog: he appreciates verbal strokes, and shrinks away from loud voices, raised arms, and objects being carried. At the same time, he is – for lack of a better word – opinionated. He has growled at me more than once when asked to go into or come out of a crate or through a gate before he was ready to do so. He’s not only interested in pleasing me, but also in standing his ground. He cares what I think, yet speaks his mind.

Mick’s appreciation for verbal strokes is not tied to me as a person. In contexts he’s comfortable (herding), he will work for the praise of others, and he’ll do so confidently. He has worked for two herding trainers here in Guatemala on the first day he met them. He responded to their voice and body language beautifully. He instantaneously recognized that they spoke his jargon – the jargon of working sheep – and he engaged in a conversation with them without hesitation. He didn’t appreciate their physical pressure – but he could read it; he spoke it as fluently as he understands praise. Mick’s appreciation of strokes is a well-generalized trait. Grit’s biddability isn’t. Why is that?

Interestingly, neither Mick nor Grit are confident around strangers. Grit does well as long as I provide clear leadership around new people. Mick does well as long as he can talk sheep with new people. He’s fluent in the language of herding – no matter whether he has talked to the person sharing his jargon hundreds of times or never before. It’s fascinating to see how suspicious he’ll be of a new person visiting my house, yet how effortlessly he’ll work for a new person as soon as sheep are in the picture. The parallel to human nature is hard to miss. If you’re an introvert and a dog person, you may not know what to do if thrown into a random social gathering. You’ll be like Mick, slinking around the edges of the room, picking at the label of your beer bottle, wishing you were somewhere else. But put you into a room full of geeky dog people, and you’ll make friends in a heartbeat.

Maybe Grit simply doesn’t have her version of sheep – she doesn’t have that jargon that ties into a genetically hardwired passion of hers, and can easily be shared with others who share that passion as well. Maybe the lesson of Grit and Mick is that every dog needs her sheep. (Who would you be if you didn’t have dog geekery?)

Nature and nurture can’t be pulled apart – the two are always working hand in hand. In the end, the reason that Grit is who she is, just like the reason that Mick is who he is – and the reason I am who I am – are related to both genetics and experiences. Genetics define the frame of what is possible. Experiences decide what parts of that framework get colored in.

Would Mick’s biddability be as well generalized if he had been raised in a different kind of home? Would Grit be as selectively biddable if she had been raised in a more traditional training environment? Maybe less so? Maybe more so? Would she, like Mick, be able to talk to strangers if she had been doing instinct sports all her life? Would Mick be more dependent on a single person if he’d never met a sheep? Does biddability generalize if verbal strokes are a limited resource rather than unconditionally given? Is the very reason Grit is the incredibly biddable dog she is due to the fact that verbal strokes, and positive regard, aren’t something she has had to earn? Oh, we cannot know! But it’s fascinating to think about anyways …

Is your dog biddable? How does their biddability express itself, and what do you attribute it to? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!

 

Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her Calling All Dogs class class (FDSA) starts today. Gold spots are sold out, but you can still join at the Silver or Bronze level!

From Passive Counter-Conditioning to Active Replacement Behaviors

No matter when a relationship starts going south, people are most likely to get divorced in spring, the season of sunshine, birds, and break-ups. One possible explanation is that being outside more and soaking up sunlight energizes us. It wakes us from hibernating, and lifts our spirits just enough for us to finally turn our unhappy emotions into concrete actions.

The spring divorce peak seems like a good analogy for a behavioral trend in young dogs: traumatic experiences may only show their full effect when the dog is an adult – once the teenage hormones have subsided and she has grown up. Being a teenage dog is our metaphorical winter – the body is busy dealing with changing hormonal statuses, new impressions and experiences; the brain chemistry changes every day. The dog may be feeling yucky feelings – but she doesn’t yet act on them, just like the unhappy partners spending their last winter together. Once spring is around the corner and the dog stops being a teenager, we see who she really is: an adult shaped by genetics and experiences, ready to translate her emotions into actions.

Grit had a traumatic experience when she was about 6 months old. She had been a confident puppy up until then. This experience made her suspicious of a number of things – among others, strangers passing us on walks. Her body language mirrored her discomfort, but there was no strong outward reaction. I focused on classical counterconditioning: when someone passed us, I’d stop by the side of the road, wait until Grit noticed the person, and then feed one cookie after the other until the stranger had passed us. If she was on a leash, I’d often just stand there with her and feed; if she was off-leash, I’d ask her to sit and then feed, feed, feed. This is a basic counterconditioning protocol dog trainers use a lot: the approach of something scary or uncanny is being paired with good stuff in the hope that the scary thing will come to predict the good stuff and eventually take on the positive emotional connotations of the good stuff. In Grit’s case, this worked well enough as a management tool. Her emotions towards strangers passing us on a walk didn’t seem to change a lot though, even though I applied the counterconditioning strategy almost every time we met someone.

When Grit grew into an adult Malinois, her passivity around strangers began to change. Coming of age was giving her the confidence to say her opinion – and her opinion was: “Get lost, stranger!” I could tell Grit would translate her insecurity into fight rather than flight if I just ignored this and kept doing what I had been doing: every time a dog barks and lunges at a passerby, the barking and lunging gets reinforced. The dog is saying “Get lost!”, and passersby tend to keep walking. To the dog, it looks like her behavior has caused the person to go away (rather than pull out a murder weapon and butcher herself and you, as was obviously the intention of this stranger walking down the street suspiciously, wearing suspicious shoes and a suspicious t-shirt and smelling all suspiciously and talking into a suspicious cellphone!) Naturally, the dog assumes he has just saved both your lives (you are welcome!) and averted a tragedy, and is determined to apply the same barking-and-lunging strategy next time.
Clearly, I needed a new approach to passing strangers on the road – feeding cookies wasn’t cutting it. I wanted Grit to learn a way that would get her what she wanted (distance from the stranger) without stressing her out (by being forced to remain motionless while things were going on around her). I wanted to give her an alternative proactive behavior rather than asking her to passively wait and sit and eat food while a stranger passed us.

Grit reminded me of an important lesson fearful dogs have taught me: for many dogs, waiting patiently while a trigger passes isn’t an appropriate replacement behavior to lunging and barking – no matter how many cookies we feed. Passivity (waiting and “doing nothing” is pretty passive) isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for active, motion-based unwanted behaviors.

An ideal replacement behavior would be as physiologically similar to the original (unwanted) behavior as possible. In Grit’s case, the original behavior entailed movement. Think of your dog as a pressure cooker filled with emotions. Barking/lunging releases pressure and makes the dog feel better. If I ask her to sit politely and wait while eating food, she may still feel pressure cooker feelings – only that sitting still doesn’t release the pressure! As Grit got older and the pressure inside her got stronger, she’d bark as soon as I released her after the person had passed us. She needed to put this pent-up anxiety somewhere!

In order to work towards a more active alternative behavior, I resolved to keep walking instead of waiting by the side of the road and feeding as many cookies as I possibly could. Whenever possible, I curved around the scary trigger and avoided standing still – often, in fact, without feeding Grit at all. It turned out that keeping a distance to the trigger and staying in motion was more important than eating. First on a long line, later off leash, but wearing a muzzle, and under voice control (calling her to me to curve with me), we worked on encounters. When there was no way out, I played LAT instead of just sitting and feeding: now Grit had something to do rather than just remain passive and silent. She could look back and forth between the passerby and me, and stay in a thinking state of mind.

I’m really happy with the result: without me cuing her or intervening at all, Grit will now, whenever she gets a chance, choose to curve around or move away to make space for the stranger we are passing. And when that isn’t an option, she just keeps moving to get past them, like any other dog who never had a traumatic experience would. If she feels yucky feelings, she’ll speed up to get past the strangers faster. She herself is making these excellent behavioral choices – and her good choices are automatically reinforced by the fact that the passerby keeps walking and the distance increases. Also, I don’t need to manage her all the time, which is always one of my goals on my walks. Check it out. All the clips below are from the same walk. There’s no trigger stacking – we can hike busy routes off leash! (*)

Grit uses a path up the hill to put some distance between herself and the people passing us:

Grit runs into the field when people approach (the dog who keeps walking towards the people is Game):

Grit takes a path up the hill to let the guy pass (this time, Game follows her):

Sometimes, there is no way to give the stranger space to pass. Grit is now dealing with this by just keeping going:

In this video, you can see her speed up – her way to get past the encounter as fast as possible. She translates insecurity into movement, and this releases the pressure she may be feeling:

This encounter is nice and relaxed. Grit trusts the stranger isn’t going to approach or even look at her – she can just keep going.

(*) There is no leash-law here. The dirt road in this video is frequented by off-leash dogs that either walk with farmers or just walk themselves, so having my dogs pass people off leash is not an issue here. Off leash dogs are the cultural norm in rural Guatemala, and people don’t mind. Here’s another video from the same walk, showing two random dogs who decided to join us for part of our walk, and another scene of Grit – and everyone else! – running past people.

The Lack-of-Choice Routine

We just flew from Thailand to Austria. In order to be allowed to do so, I needed an export license and a health certificate for my dogs. Getting these documents required a trip to the animal quarantine office at the cargo area of an international airport in Bangkok, where the dogs were examined by the airport vet. I knew it wasn’t going to be the kind of experience and the kind of environment dogs like Grit handle well, so I stuck to a routine I have for situations that might overwhelm her. It’s a simple and helpful routine that can be applied to all kinds of unavoidable experiences, so I thought I’d walk you through it. Maybe some of you will find it helpful for your own dogs.

Let’s get a few things out of the way:

Freedom and Agency

I’m about to talk about taking away my dog’s choices and putting her in a situation she’d rather not be in. If you know me and my dogs, you know that they usually have a great deal of freedom. In no way am I suggesting that the lack of agency I’m about to describe should be applied in everyday life! It is meant for exceptional situations – ones that you couldn’t or haven’t prepared your dog for, but have to get through.

The lack-of-choice routine is a management tool, not a training replacement.

I believe that medical and husbandry training are invaluable, as is building a positive relationship between your dog and your regular vet, and learning how to do routine procedures yourself (some vets – at least in Austria – will let you do things like read your dog’s microchip or take her temperature yourself). However, I also believe that we can’t prepare for everything, and that sometimes, a sensitive, fearful or anxious dog will be put in a situation you haven’t or couldn’t prepare them for. It’s part of life, and we have to find a way to get through it. The lack-of-choice routine helps in these situations. It’s not a replacement for training, but a management tool.

In my experience, adult dogs – even sensitive and insecure ones – are generally able to handle short periods of discomfort without being traumatized by them, and without developing new behavioral problems because of them – as long as you, the human on the other end of the leash, handle these potentially scary experiences wisely. Once a dog’s personality is fully developed, it is pretty resilient. That is to say: it is hard to change it. It takes longer to increase an adult dog’s confidence than to increase a puppy’s confidence, for example. The upside of this is that it also takes longer to decrease an adult dog’s confidence than, say, an adolescent dog’s confidence.

Have a plan that helps you feel in charge! Know what to expect! Have helpers if you need them!

I made sure I knew in advance what the airport environment would be like, and what would happen there: it would be in a busy cargo area; there would likely be other people with dogs and cats, crammed together in a small waiting room; and I would probably have to wait for a long time. The vet would read the microchip, take the temperature, and check the skin and fur for ticks and fleas. Knowing these things in advance helped me prepare for them.

I had a helper come so he could stay at the car with the dogs while I was gone, and leave the engine and AC running. I would leave the dogs in the car, bring their EU pet passports and paperwork into the office and let the vet know that I would get my dogs – one after the other – when it was our turn. That way, we didn’t have to sit in a crowded waiting room amongst cats and dogs for an hour or two. I informed the vet that I would bring in the first dog, then take her back to the car and bring the second dog, then take her back to the car as well, and return to pick up the export licence and pay.

Lay your plan out to whoever you are talking to before you get your dog. If you sound like you know what you’re doing, people tend to agree with it, even if your approach is unusual or uncommon. For example, don’t ask if you can leave your dog in the car until it’s your turn – just be friendly, and state that you are going to get your dog from the car when it is her turn. That’s just the way it is going to be, not something up for discussion. Having all the paperwork ready helps, too: you don’t want to take up any more of the staff’s time than necessary. They are probably busy and stressed out, and looking forward to the end of their work day! Don’t make it harder than it already is.

Do something for your dog that relaxes both of you!

Before leaving for the airport, Grit and Game got a good off-leash walk and swim. They got to run and play and sniff to their hearts’ content, followed by breakfast. I added Zylkene to Grit’s breakfast. I don’t know if it makes a difference for her, but it does for me: it makes me feel like I’m helping her get through the day and taking good care of her, which in turn helps me feel relaxed and confident about our plans for the day.

If necessary, do something for yourself!

If you tend to get nervous in situations that are stressful for your dog, take something that helps you relax yourself! Nervosity is contagious. If you are freaking out, a sensitive dog will likely get nervous too – even if she would have been fine otherwise. By ensuring you yourself will be okay, you are also helping your dog.

Don’t give your dog the chance to make bad choices!

That’s a big one – maybe THE biggest factor.

In training, I set up scenarios in which I can give Grit the freedom to make the right choice herself. When we work on her confidence around strangers, I make sure to not set her up to fail. I try to have sessions where Grit’s reaction looks completely normal to an observer. A good session of working on confidence is one a bystander wouldn’t recognize as such, like this example of walking in a residential street.

I want Grit to learn to choose to walk away when she is uncomfortable. I have seen way too many fear-aggressive Malinois, and I try to be proactive about teaching Grit the opposite reaction. I suspect that genetically, Malinois are a breed that is more likely to choose “fight” over “flight” or “freeze” when they feel threatened. If they are worked over threshold, fear aggression is a common result. This leads to a vicious cycle where the “dangerous dog” is severely punished in order to get rid of the “fight” response and get a “freeze” response instead. A dog who “freezes” when scared is probably safer than a dog who “fights” (bites) when feeling threatened, but I don’t think that dog is a happy dog. Personally, I want neither fight nor freeze. I would like my dog to not be in situations where she feels like she needs to do any of these things at all, but if she does get into these situations – and sometimes, life happens and she will! – I want Grit to be able to walk away in order to increase the distance to a scary stimulus rather than attack it. My strategy is practicing in situations where she is able to make the right choice, and avoiding opportunities for her to make the wrong choice. I want walking away from instead of towards a scary stimulus to become a habit she doesn’t have to think about.

Sometimes – like when I needed the export license from the animal quarantine office – I need to put Grit in a situation where she, given a choice, would probably choose badly. I don’t doubt that if scared and cornered, she’d resort to biting the person she felt threatened by. And why not? It’s a natural reaction, and in her breed, probably one that has been – on purpose or as a by-product of other breeding goals – selected for.

I make sure that Grit will not be able to choose in situations where I don’t trust her choice-making, and I use contextual cues that let her know from the moment we get out of the car that this is a situation where I am in charge, and I am not asking her opinion. This happens rarely – my dogs have a lot of freedom in their lives, and their opinion matters almost always to me. But there are situations where I take away the choice, and I’m very clear about it.

If Grit felt threatened and bit, it would be a reflexive, emotional reaction – one that just happened rather than a conscious choice on her part. A classical reaction. However, operant learning can still occur. If the person being bitten or growled at withdrew their hand, or jumped back – and most people will, of course! – biting or growling would be negatively reinforced. We cannot reinforce an emotion, but an action based on an emotion can be reinforced by its consequence. Fear is an emotion. Biting is an action often based in fear. Withdrawing the hand is a direct consequence of the dog’s bite/growl – and it’s a consequence a dog who would like the scary thing to go away will get relief from. Negative reinforcement is likely to happen.

When Grit has choice and agency (which is most of the time), she wears a collar, a harness, or nothing at all. When she doesn’t have choice, she wears a head halter. It is very easy to guide a dog in a head halter wherever you want them to go. It lets you turn their head where you want to turn it, so you even control what they look at and see. I use a lead with a snap on both ends for situations like this, because I’ve seen dogs get out of head halters. One end will be on the head halter, and one end will be attached to a harness or collar. Grit will wear a Baskerville Ultra muzzle over her head halter. I like this muzzle best because it’s sturdy, I can feed through it, and it fits most dogs (unless they have long noses like collies or sighthounds) well. Grit knows that when she is wearing both a halter and a muzzle, I am not asking her opinion.

I hold the leash close to Grit’s head. She can’t really walk or sniff where she wants, and it’s clear that I expect her to walk next to me, which she does.

When we got into the waiting room, the vet was just finishing up with another client. I sat down, and Grit climbed in my lap. She does this when she feels insecure, and I encourage it. I believe it’s a good thing when our dogs turn to us for safety.

When it was our turn, I led Grit to where the vet wanted her, told the vet I was going to hold Grit for her, and then secured her. There’s no science behind the way I hold her – this is just what I’ve found to work well for holding dogs still. I kneel down, and wrap my left arm around the dog’s breast and neck, and use it to hold her head against my body. My right arm goes over her back and under her belly, holding her body against my body. Now the vet could check out her skin and fur, take her temperature, and if she had wanted, she could also have taken a closer look at Grit’s eyes or ears. Grit knows being held this way. She doesn’t struggle – she knows there is only one option: hold still. We were done quickly, I thanked the vet, told her I would return Grit to the car and then come back, and then we left. She shook off the stress, and happily jumped back into her car crate to continue with her day.

Why it works

The lack-of-choice routine has been working well for Grit in situations like this. She is able to go right back to everyday business – sleeping, hiking, working, playing, eating … as soon as the stressful situation is over. I assume this is because (1), we have a relationship based on trust, and (2), Grit knows to follow my lead any time she is wearing a halter and muzzle and being led on a short leash. Her job in this situation isn’t to figure out how to get out of it or solve it, obsess about it or panic over it, and she accepts this fact. Would she rather be somewhere else? For sure. Does it stress her out completely and ruin her day (or her week, month, or life)? No. It enables her to get through an uncomfortable experience with my help, and then move on with her life – a life filled with freedom, agency, and choice.

Your management tools are most helpful if they themselves don’t increase your dog’s stress level even more! Practice in relaxed, everyday situations!

If I only ever used the head halter, muzzle and my way of securing Grit in scary situations, she’d start feeling stressed as soon as she saw me get these tools or touched her this was. I make sure to use them in everyday life as well. For example, we’ll occasionally go for a nice off-leash walk with the muzzle on, and I’ll briefly hold my dogs like I do at the vet office during personal play or cuddle sessions. Grit has also learned to be comfortable in a head halter away from scary situations, and long before I ever used these tools in scary places. I’ll sometimes use it to get from A to B in everyday life.

Here’s a demo video. In the first clip, you’ll see it’s no big deal for Grit to wear the muzzle and happily run off leash. She feels about the muzzle like I feel about my glasses: I forget that I even wear them. She is also used to being led on a head halter and short leash (clip 2), and to wear a muzzle as well as a halter (note that I’d put the muzzle and halter on a little more tightly in real-life situations). I do not ask her to put her nose in the muzzle or into the halter – this would be like asking her consent to be handled in potentially uncomfortable ways. In the situations I want to use these tools, I’d be lying to her if I pretended that she had a choice about it.

The final clip shows me holding Grit in the way described above. She isn’t a hundred percent comfortable here – her tail is a little too low, and her wag, front leg lift and facial expression a little too appeasing for my taste. I’ve used this way of holding her twice in the last week – once the day before we flew from Thailand to Austria, and once the other day in Austria, when I got her health certificate for the next leg of our trip. He reaction here tells me that we need to do more practice sessions in fun and relaxing contexts in order for her to feel better about it again! In any case, you can see how I can move her head this way, and lift her up in case the vet needed to examine her belly.

What is your favorite way of getting your dog through an uncomfortable situation you haven’t been able to prepare her for?

Trainability, Street Smarts, and Social Intelligence

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

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

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

Trainability

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

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

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

Practical Intelligence

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

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

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

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

Social Intelligence

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

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

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

Building Courage Around Town

Grit is not a fan of the urban world. People, cars, concrete, motorcycles, and the hustle bustle … Not exactly her favorite thing. We used to live in a teeny tiny town, at the end of a dirt road. I could open my gate and would pretty much be in the middle of the woods right away. It was perfect for her.

Now, we live in a townhouse in a dead-end street. It took Grit a while to feel at ease downstairs, with the large glass front looking out into the street, and it took her even longer to feel safe in the fenced-off carport in front of the house. But we got there, just by means of living life rather than consciously working on it. We can now play and train here, and it has become part of her comfort zone. This brings us to yesterday! I’ve started taking Grit on “city” walks in my street. Up until now, I hadn’t asked her to go out into the street – she told me very clearly she wanted to go from the house into the car, and from the car right back into the house. If I asked her to get out of the car before opening the door to the house, she’d wait at the door with her tail tucked between her legs. So instead of expecting her to spend time in our street, we just took the car and went to the beach, or to the park, or to the plantations where we could go for a nice, real walk. I’m all for giving dogs time, plus I totally agree that walking around palm trees and orchid plantations is way more fun than walking in streets anyways.

Now that Grit considers the carport a safe space, it’s time to expand her comfort zone further: I put her on a 5 meter lead and a back attachment harness, and she gets to explore our little street. Not because I tell her to, but because she would now choose to. We go in the middle of the day, when most people are at work. We start by walking in and out, in and out of the carport. I want her to know the gate is open and she can head back home anytime. Should someone show up unexpectedly, we will retreat. I have hotdogs in my pocket – just in case I need to distract Grit or lure her away from something that might overwhelm her. My goal is not to train, just to let her explore on her own terms. I’ll talk to her when she looks at me, I might comment on her sniffing spots – but I’m not asking anything of her as long as she makes good decisions. We’ll add food to the experience a little later – you’ll see. For now, I want Grit to take the lead.

This is a clip from today’s city walk; the second one overall. We just meandered around the street for a few minutes. And not only did Grit sniff, she also peed! For her, this is a big sign of confidence. She’ll only pee in places she feels safe. Does this look like a normal dog taking a normal walk? That’s exactly what it should look like. My favorite way of building confidence is to stay right at the edge of the dog’s comfort zone – at a place that allows her to look out of her comfort zone, but doesn’t require her to step out of it. Looking will push the boundaries further back, and make her comfort zone grow. (I know the neighbors are all gone because their carports are empty. So it is safe to let Grit explore on a long line without her unexpectedly running into a stranger behind a gate.)

Scent Discrimination Part 3: Introducing It’s Your Choice

Yesterday (Thursday), Grit had her two daily sessions again. In session 5, I introduced the It’s Your Choice Game: in one hand, I have food, and in the other one the coaster. In order to get the food, Grit has to put her nose on the coaster. She’ll then receive the food out of the food hand, and I’ll have her eat it off the coaster. I love how if you pay attention to Grit’s eyes and facial expression in this session, you can see the wheels turning! Duration isn’t a criterion for now – I want to click the moment she makes the right choice. Teaching the dog to choose the target over the food is not a game I invented – there are lots of variations on the It’s Your Choice theme. I’ve learned this particular version in the Nosework classes at FDSA, where Phoebe learned to put her nose on top of a hot container in order to get the food from the other hand.

Session 5

In session 6, I got rid of the food hand and focused on duration again. I want to make sure Grit doesn’t loose her duration when I introduce other criteria! You can see her duration has already deteriorated, so it’s a good idea to build it back up. I’ll work on duration some more in the next session before I go back to It’s Your Choice.

Session 6

Scent Discrimination Part 2

Grit had her 3rd and 4th session on Wednesday. In session 3, I asked her to target the coaster (rather than my hand) right away. Since I didn’t warm up with the chin target on my hand, I lowered the duration criterion. I fed her on top of the coaster to raise value for the target and pair my own scent with the smell of food, and I built a little duration back up.

Session 3:

In session 4, I was going to continue what I had started in session 3. However, Grit felt a little intense this session – if you’ve got a Malinois, you’re probably familiar with this: sometimes, she’s so fast trying to get things right that she forgets what exactly we are working on. This is what happened in session 4. Grit targets things – but not necessarily the coaster. At 00:02, it’s my knees. At 00:03, she offers a down, followed by a spin at 00:07. At 00:34 and 00:46, she targets my wrist. At 00:48, it’s my forearm (I want her nose a little further down, on the coaster). At 00:53, she tries to run around the camera and tips it over. At 01:04, she targets my knees again, followed by my forearm and offering a spin, and my forearm again. (Yes, she’s an operant dog!) I lower the duration criterion, and immediately click her for choosing the coaster. I keep the duration low, and she recovers by the end of the session.

You can recognize she’s in one of her intense states of mind due to the way she looks at me and her response speed. She already showed signs of this in session 3 a few minutes earlier. That’s neither good nor bad – it’s just part of who Grit is. Once she knows this relatively new behavior really well, she’ll be just as fast, but get it right even when she doesn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the behavior.

Session 4:

Does your dog have moments of increased intensity? I’d love to hear about them in the comments!

Scent Discrimination Part 1

I decided to journal Grit’s scent discrimination training in order to keep myself accountable and follow through. I started a month or two ago, but somehow stopped working on it soon after. This time, we’ll keep at it – we want to get our TEAM 1 title soon, after all, and this is the last behavior we’re missing.

I’ve never taught scent discrimination before, so this is new to me. I’m going to use a mix of the method Denise Fenzi showed me when she was visiting in September (using flat articles the dog can’t pick up, and starting with handler scent rather than a food lure from the beginning), and the way Phoebe learned nosework in Melissa Chandler’s Introduction to Nosework class at FDSA.

I’m not using anything resembling an actual article for FCI obedience. If I screw up, it’ll be on a random object rather than a competition object – so I have nothing to worry about and can experiment. For now, my goal is just an indication of the article that smells like me. Until Grit can do this perfectly, I don’t worry about the retrieve required in FCI obedience. In fact, I use flat objects precisely because they cannot be picked up. The indication I’m going for is a sustained nose/muzzle target, as if it were a nosework hide. Once Grit can reliably find and indicate the object with my scent, I can then transfer the indication to actual FCI articles and add the retrieve.

Step 1: teach a chin/muzzle target with 5 seconds of duration (we’ve already got that).

Session 1: warming up the chin/muzzle target (only asking for very little duration).

Step 2: transfer the chin/muzzle target to a coaster held in my hand.

Step 3: get 5 seconds duration on the coaster target.

… to be continued tomorrow!