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 21: Social Learning

I used to call dogs learning about social interactions from other dogs “social facilitation” – but I just learned in Kristina Spaulding’s excellent Fundamentals of Ethology course1 that this not technically the correct term! Turns out that social facilitation does not meet the criteria of social learning: it just means that a certain behavior increases in animal A when animal B is present. When B is not present, animal A does not show the same increase in behavior. No learning has taken place!

So … what is social learning?

What, then, is social learning, exactly? And what’s the correct term for the interaction I used to call social facilitation? Let’s see. Social learning is learning by means of observing others. Kristina (again, in her fantastic Ethology course, which you should definitely take the next time it runs) refers us to a definition by Wynne and Udell2. They have three criteria for social learning:

  1. The behavior is not innate – it must be learned.
  2. It must be learned in a specific way: by means of social transmission.
  3. As a result of the learning process, the behavior also occurs in the absence of the demonstrator.

There are four kinds of social learning: imitation, emulation, stimulus enhancement, and local enhancement. Note that social facilitation is not on this list: while there is social transmission, a socially facilitated behavior does not occur without the demonstrator being present.

What is social facilitation?

Dancing might be an example of sopcial facilitation: I’m not into it. But if a friend convinces me to go out, I’ll dance if they do (preferably after having a beer or two). However, I won’t dance in the absence of said friend. Having gone dancing with my friend will not cause me to go back to the music venue, and dance on my own, or with other people. Once my friend has gone home, so will I, and I’ll be glad to go back to not dancing. I’d venture my dancing meets the definition of social facilitation, but not the definition of social learning because it does not occur in the absence of my friend, the demonstrator.

Back to social learning!

What are the 4 types of social learning?

Imitation

Imitation is a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. The learned behavior replicates either the motor pattern or the form of the behavior.

Say an alien just landed on earth and sees a human drop a coin into a coke machine, and then drink a refreshing beverage. The alien, who has never encountered a coke machine, then also drops a coin in the machine and enjoys a soda. Going forwards, the alien is able to get a coke whenever they want (as long as they have access to coins and coke machines): through imitation, they have learned to work coke machines the same way humans do. If they used their hands to drop coins into the slot, we’d call it true imitation (they imitated the motor pattern). If they used their trunk to drop cpins into the slot, we’d call it functional imitation (they imitated the form of the behavior, but not the exact motor pattern).

Emulation

Emulation is also a goal-directed behavior resulting from the observation of another animal. However, unlike imitation, the form or motor pattern of the behavior isn’t directly imitated. Instead, the observer just recognizes that a solution to a problem is available. Let’s look at a different alien. They watch a human drop a coin into the coke machine, and out comes a refreshing beverage. Yummy! Looks like it’s possible to get cold drinks from that big box with the Coca Cola logo on it! The alien now smashes the coke machine with its trunk, pieces of broken glass and plastic everywhere, and in the midst of it all, there are bottles of cold beverages, which the alien now enjoys. Assuming that I understand things correctly (no guarantee there), this is emulation. When the alien encounters another coke machine in the future, even if there’s no human present to demonstrate the coin-inserting action, the alien will know that there are likely cold beverages in it, and, if thirsty, will smash it with its trunk to gain access to it.

Stimulus or local enhancement

Animal A’s behavior causes animal B to notice an environmental stimulus, or a particularly interesting spot in the environment. Dog A sees a cat and stares at it – dog B sees dog A staring at something, and follows their gaze – now dog B also sees the cat, and stares as well.

Ta-da! Stimulus enhancement! Dog A sniffs a certain spot. Dog B notices dog A’s interest in said spot, and heads over to sniff it as well. Ta-da! Local enhancement! Look how easy I’m making this sound!

Let’s clear up my former misuse of the term social facilitation!

So what do we call a situation where animal A observes animal B’s interaction with animal C, and doesn’t only copy their behavior right then and there (imitation), but learns something for the future? What if dog A is shy towards other dogs, but, after observing dog B’s confident interactions, becomes less shy themselves, even in B’s absence? Well, we’ll just call it social learning. Plain and simple.

If A copied a specific play move of B’s, we’d call it imitation (especially if it wasn’t an innate play move, I suppose). If A learned that it was possible to get strange dogs to play (there is a solution), but came up with their own way of initiating play (different from B’s play style), we’d call it emulation.

Once A is confident around other dogs, they might notice a potential playmate after B does, and then initiate or join the fun: stimulus enhancement! In case of doubt, just call it social learning.

And what the heck is social contagion?

Social contagion is a subtype of social facilitation. It is not social learning. In social contagion, observing a behavior causes the observer to engage in the same behavior – without knowing why they are showing the behavior.

Maybe this is social contagion? In any case, it’s hilarious:

Maybe this is social contagion, too! Game is chasing something to fetch it. Puzzle doesn’t know why she is running – she just does what Game does:

What about social support? Yours truly has been throwing that term around, too!

Indeed, I probably have. It’s such a lovely term, isn’t it? Social support. I want to give and receive it from my friends! I want to bathe in it! I want to be socially supportive of my dogs! That said, I don’t think social support is an ethological term. Assuming there is no agreed-upon ethological definition, it won’t serve us in the analysis of dog/dog interactions. It’s a nice buzzword though, so I might keep it around to spice up my paragraphs when its meaning is clear from the context. In any case, since you asked, I looked up its definition in the APA dictionary of Psychology. According to them, social support is

the provision of assistance or comfort to others, typically to help them cope with biological, psychological, and social stressors [my emphasis]. Support may arise from any interpersonal relationship in an individual’s social network, involving family members, friends, neighbors, religious institutions, colleagues, caregivers, or support groups. It may take the form of practical help (e.g., doing chores, offering advice), tangible support that involves giving money or other direct material assistance, and emotional support that allows the individual to feel valued, accepted, and understood. […]”3

The first sentence is useful for observers of canine behavior. The rest is anthropocentric, and irrelevant for our purposes.

Where are all the puppy videos?

I know, I know, you’re here to watch puppy videos, not to get hung up on terminology. But I want to get better at using the correct biological terms for the situations and encounters I’m describing. Explaining them to other people and making up examples is my favorite way of remembering stuff. So here you go! All mistakes and all misleading explanations and examples are my own, and not Kristina Spaulding’s. She actually knows what she’s talking about, while I’m only just learning. As Brené Brown would say, “I’m here to get it right, not to be right.” Feel free to point mistakes out to me (kindly and constructively, because that’s how we do things around here!). And if you are hungry for more geeky ethology, check out Kristina’s classes on her website and at the IAABC foundation.

Alright – back to the cute puppy videos! My next post is going to have lots and lots of dog/dog socialization videos. I promise! To keep this fun, we’ll be playing a game! After reading this post, I want you to tell me what you see in the upcoming videos: social learning? What kind of social learning? Social facilitation? All or none of the above? Hang tight – my next post is coming soon, and it will be gameshowesque.

Sources

(1) Spaulding, Kristina. Fundamentals of Ethology. IAABC Foundation, January 2022. (Will be running again in May – don’t miss it!)

(2) Wynne, Clive D.L and Udell, Monique A.R. Animal Cognition: Evolution, Behavior & Cognition. London, Red Globe Press: 2020. (Note that I have not read this book, but I believe this is the resource Kristina Spaulding is referring to.)

(3) “Social support,” in APA Dictionary of Psychology. Accessed March 9, 2022.

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 19: Socialization Science, and a practical Approach

I’ve written about socialization before, but it’s been a while: I haven’t raised a puppy since Game was little. And she’s turning 5 this year! It’s hard to believe how time flies.

I’m not going back to see what I wrote when I raised Phoebe, Hadley, Grit, and Game. I’m sure my opinion about socialization has changed since then – it’s constantly evolving as I/we dog trainers learn new things.

The sensitive socialization period

I’ll define socialization as introducing a puppy to the stimuli they will encounter in their adult life. Ideally, this introduction will happen during their sensitive socialization period. It is currently believed that the sensitive period lasts from 4 weeks (the age when puppies first leave their nests; Scott & Fuller1) to approximately 3 months. The most important part of the socialization period, says Jessica Hekman2, happens before the age of 8 weeks. During the socialization period, the puppy’s brain learns what stimuli are stressors, how much stress hormones should be released in response to these stimuli, and how long the stress response should last.

While dogs can still learn to tolerate or even like new things later in life, one of the reasons the socialization period is so important is that puppies are much better at generalizing at this age: meet one or two friendly small dogs? Deduct that all small dogs are friendly! Meet one dark-faced, pointy-eared dog – assume that all pointy-eared, dark-faced dogs are friendly. If they met the same kinds of dogs for the first time later in life, they might, in contrast, learn that this particular dark-faced, pointy-eared dog is friendly, but all other dark-faced, pointy-eared dogs are potentially still evil spawns.

I love Jessica Hekman’s image for the socialization period being the time when the on-switch (what turns the stress response on?), volume setting (how intense is the stress response going to be – i.e. what amount of stress hormones will be released?) and off-switch (when should the stress response end/how quickly should the dog recover from the experience) are being set.1

Interestingly, at a very early age – the so-called stress hyper-responsive period – , animals don’t show a stress response at all. Their brains do not yet make stress hormones in response to scary stimuli! That’s another reason early socialization is crucial: puppies show no fear response to scary stimuli before 5-7 weeks of age. Therefore, a puppy that just left the nest around 4 weeks of age is MUCH more likely to form positive rather than negative associations to the people, dogs, and objects they encounter.1 Once the puppy is 7 weeks old, making positive associations to new stimuli becomes significantly harder: suddenly, cortisol is part of the picture!

Genetics

When the fear response first appears varies between breeds. For example, German Shepherds start experiencing fear around 5 weeks of age. Cavalier King Charles Spaniels only start experiencing fear around 7 weeks of age.3 Cavaliers, then, have 2 weeks more time to learn that the things, people, and animals in their environment are perfectly safe – which may be part of the reason Cavaliers tend to grow up to be open and curious towards new people, dogs, and objects, whereas German Shepherds are, generally speaking, more reserved. A lot can be learned in 2 additional weeks of fearlessness! This shows us that genetics are part of the equation, too. The puppy you get at 8 weeks is not a blank slate – it never was a blank slate to begin with, not even in utero.

My approach

Let’s veer away from the science for now, and look at socialization in practice. The trainer I am today approaches socialization pretty relaxedly. In contrast, the trainer I used to be recommended clients with new puppies go through a list based on Ian Dunbar’s recommendations:4 X number of new people feeding their puppy treats every week, X number of weekly new dog encounters, etc. I even had a handout my clients could check boxes off on, based on Ian Dunbar’ socialization list5. Dunbar recommends puppies meet 100 new people in 4 weeks. I lowered the number because I didn’t want to overwhelm my clients before they even got started, but it must still have been stressful for them to see all the experiences they were supposed to provide for their puppies.

High-confidence puppies

Now, I just play it by ear. An open, outgoing puppy (like Game was) – I’ll just hang out around stimulating situations with them, at a distance they are able to contain their excitement. I’ll let them watch. I’ll play a little if they are ready. I’ll let them watch some more. With a socially confident puppy, I’ll focus on relaxation and engagement with me in the presence of distractions rather than actively having them meet stimuli they are already eager to approach.

Fearful puppies

With a fearful puppy, on the other hand, I want to do more than just generate neutral experiences. I want them to have distinctly positive experiences with the people, dogs or objects they are unsure of. To the best of my abilities, I’ll curate these encounters to build a library of positive experiences in the puppy’s brain.

Shy and “dominant” puppies (don’t lynch me for using the D-word, folks)

With an overly (for lack of a better word) dog-dominant puppy, like Grit was, I’ll try and arrange playdates with dogs who will – gently, but firmly – put them in their place if they cross certain boundaries. Lukas Pratschker’s Malinois was a great help with this when Grit was a puppy. My Greyhound Fanta knew just when to intervene, too.

With a dog-shy puppy, I’ll do the exact opposite, and introduce them to the calmest, friendliest dogs available to me. Again, Fanta was the perfect fit. For play dates, I might stick to puppies who are smaller and younger than my own puppy in order to give them a bit of an advantage and up their relative confidence.

With a people-shy puppy, I’ll work on growing their circle of human friends, and at the same time never force an interaction (this is something I learned over the last few years: by the time Grit was a small puppy, I still used to force things). Today, I firmly believe that whether to interact or not should be the shy puppy’s choice. My role as their handler is to make it as likely as possible that they will choose to approach voluntarily. At the same time, whether working with people or dogs, I’ll make sure the puppy has a safe place to retreat to (such as a crate, my body to hide behind, or my arms – they can always ask to be picked up).

So far, so good – that’s my art and science of puppy socialization in a nutshell. In the next post, we’ll look at what I did with one individual – puppy Puzzle – in practice!

Sources:

(1) Jessica Hekman – The Biology of Socalization (Webinar at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, January 27, 2022)

(2) Scott, John Paul and John L. Fuller. Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

(3) Morrow et. al. “Breed-Dependent Differences in the Onset of Fear-Related Avoidance Behavior in Puppies.” Journal of Veterinary Behavior Clinical Applications and Research 10(4), March 2015. DOI: 10.1016/j.jveb.2015.03.002. (Thank you for poointing out this study, Jessica!)

(4) Dunbar, Ian. AFTER You Get Your Puppy. Berkeley: James & Kenneth Publishers, 2001.

(5) Dunbar, Ian. Socialization Log. (PDF)

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!

The Puzzle Week – Part 17: Puppy Leash Skills (ancillary skills for your puppy)

In the first puppy leash skills post, you saw two unedited clips of what the automatic leash pressure method looks like in practice. This post is all about drilling deeper.

One of the laws of automatic leash pressure is that you never get to pull on the leash, or reel your puppy in. However, sometimes, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you need a puppy straining at the end of their leash to get out of the way. Maybe there’s a kid with an ice cream cone about to stumble over your puppy, or maybe they got off the sidewalk and are trying to cross a busy road. This brings us to our ancillary skills. These skills have a single purpose:

They will allow you to move your puppy without jeopardizing the golden rule of never pulling on the leash, and never reeling puppies in.

Ancillary skill #1: follow a treat magnet

Teach your puppy – independent of leash training – to follow a treat you hold in front of their nose for at least a few steps. Take the treat between thumb and index finger, present it in front of the puppies nose, and steer them in whichever direction you want them to go by having them follow the treat. Here’s an example of applications in real-world LLW contexts.

In the video below, Puzzle wants to eat something on the ground that I don’t want her to eat (looks like eggs someone broke). I simply use a treat magnet to get her to keep going – and the leash stays loose.

Here, I don’t have a video helper, so I just walk up and down with the camera set up at a distance. Puzzle thinks it’s weird that we are turning around to walk back to the camera. She sits down. I wait a few seconds, but she doesn’t look like she’s planning on getting up anytime soon. Treat magnet (in combination with a little treat toss) for the win! I reactivate her with food, and we keep going. (Sorry about the blurry video!)

Ancillary slill #2: be comfortable being picked up!

If things are scary and your puppy wants to take off running rather than continuing their loose leash stroll, or you realize you are late for a Zoom meeting and have to get back home ASAP, there’s a simple solution: pick them up, and carry them to safety. Puppies who learn that they are always safe when you carry them will even learn to seek you out (rather than bolt) when they get scared. Practice picking up your puppy at home, in low-stress environments, to build positive associations!

Not exactly a LLW context, but I’m using the puppy pick-up skill here at an Oxxo (small supermarket; left picture) and at a pharmacy (right picture): I want to take Puzzle places to get her used to the world, but I don’t want her to walk inside these businesses since she isn’t yet housebroken: Picking her up is the best of both worlds!

As a rule of thumb, I tend to use ancillary skills 1 and 3 if the puppy is merely distracted, and ancillary skill 2 if they are scared or if I am in a hurry. That’s because walking voluntarily gives a dog more agency than being carried – and agency is generally a good thing!

The best way to carry your puppy is either in a comfy bag, or supporting their butt and back legs with your arm/hand.

Ancillary skill #3: just call them over!

Sometimes, you don’t have treats, feel like the distraction is too low to warrant the use of treats, or your Saint Bernard puppy is getting too heavy to be picked up. Being able to call or othewise entice them to come to you is perfect for these moments: again, it will allow you to move your puppy without thightening the leash or reeling them in. Just like picking up your puppy, this is something youll want to practice in a low-distraction environment, outside of the context of leash walking. For me, it tends to just happen naturally as I interact with a puppy throughout the day: I end up building both an informall recall (In my case, “Pupupup!” as well as a kissy noise), and teach them that me squatting down or doing playful piano fingers on the ground is a cue for them to approach me. When I need it in the real world of LLW, the behavior will be ready!

Here’s a brief example of using a kissy noise, squatting down and the beginning of piano fingers to get Puzzle out of the way of the woman and her kid:

I won’t necessarily treat in anxillary skill #3. Just get the puppy where you need them to be, and then keep going!

Now that you’ve got a good idea of ancillary skills, there’s one more crucial element missing: you need a way to measure the pressure your puppy is putting on the leash in order to guarantee consistency. How much pressure will cue you to stop? It should always be the same amount, independent of your state of mind, where you are walking, or how lazy or high-energy yur puppy is feeling. We’ll look at how to develop a simple measuring system in my next post!

The Puzzle Week – Part 16: Puppy Leash Skills (overview)

Apart from some fun CU work, I was excited about getting Puzzle’s assistance in videoing the steps for one other skill: loose leash walking!

Those of you who have taken my Out & About class know that I’m an opportunistic LLW teacher: depending on the dog, owner, goals and circumstances, I’ll apply one of several different LLW approaches. The method I’m going to share with you today is one I don’t generally talk about in my classes. Let’s call it the automatic leash pressure method.

I’ve only used this approach in some of my own puppies (and never in an adult dog). I just don’t have enough data to feel like it is something I want to teach to people who are paying me. If you give this a try with your puppy after reading my post, be sure to let me know how it’s working for you!

The force of habit

Our strongest behaviors are habitual ones: they are the ones we do unthinkingly, without involving the decision-making prefrontal cortex at all. Our body is so used to doing them that they are on autopilot. For example, when I’m driving and there’s a red light, my foot will automatically step on the break and slow down. I don’t have to consider my options and think about whether or not I want to stop. I don’t have to turn off the podcast I’m listening to in order to not be too distracted to make said decision.The behavior is on autopilot, no matter whether it’s rushour or I’m the only car on the road, and no matter whether I’m singing along with the radio, talking to the person in the passenger seat, or keeping an eye on my GPS. I’ll even step on the break if I’m driving in Thailand (i.e. on the left side of the road) rather than in one of the right-side-of-the-road countries I’m used to. Habits are habits because we’ve engaged in them lots of times in all kinds of contexts, and we have never not engaged in the habit: running red lights is not on an intermittent reinforcement schedule. I’ve stopped at red lights ever since I learned to drive, every single time.

A classical conditioning approach

This kind of habit is what I want to build in the automatic leash pressure approach. Unlike any of my other LLW methods, which rely on operant conditioning, this one is mainly about classical conditioning.

What do I mean by this? Well, in this context, stimulus A is always and without exception followed by stimulus B, independent of the puppy’s behavior. Stimulus A is the leash tightening. Stimulus B is stopping.

A ——-> B
Leash tightenes ——-> Movement stops

When A happens, then B happens. No exceptions. Ever. Like gravity. You may not be able to rely on many things in this Covid-ridden, white supermacist world of looming climate catastrophy, but there is one thing that always holds true: when leahes tighten, all movement stops.

A puppy who grows up in a world tight leashes stopping movement doesn’t question this fact of life: it hs always been that way, and always will. So the puppy adjusts to living in this world.

The theory

My theory is that if you consistently stop any time the leash tightens even just a little bit, from the first time the puppy wears a leash onwards, you will end up with a puppy that automatically gives in to leash pressure anytime it feels pressure on its collar for the rest of its life.

Ancillary skills

There are a few ancillary skills that are helpful for you, the human, to train (treat magnet; getting the puppy comfortable being picked up; calling the puppy over).

There’s also a specific way of measuring how much pressure is too much pressure (i.e. when you need to stop) that will help you be consistent.

I’ll share this in a subsequent post!

The videos below are just to give you a brief overveiw: yes, I stop a lot – but I it doesn’t slow me down significantly; it’s not an annoying way of walking a puppy. Also note that this is a really busy and difficult environment: if Puzzle didn’t constantly forget about leash pressure among all these people, there would be something wrong with her.

You’ll see me stop if she needs time to sniff behind me, move the leash to the other side if she wants to walk there, and use a treat magnet once to redirect her from eating something I don’t want her to eat. In the second video, I squat down and call her over to get her out of the way off some passers-by. This is really important: I will never pull on the leash to get her to move! It is Puzzle who needs to loosen the leash. I’ll help her if she needs help – but never by means of reeling her in.

Also pay attention to the different strategies Puzzle can use to loosen a tight leash. I don’t care what strategy she picks – weight shift back, turning towards me, sitting down … The moment the leash loosens, we’ll start walking again.

Btw, and the place she wants to go into in the second video? It’s a buthcer’s shop. Lots of good smells!