Mr. H. has been a very good dog, so he’s been allowed lots of off-leash fun on our walks. I think it’s really important to work on good off-leash manners and a solid recall before adolescence kicks in and the once-brilliant puppy brain stops working for several months or even years. My hope is, of course, that if we practice these skills now, the little rascal will be able to keep some, if not most of his privileges in those difficult times yet to come.
For me to be happy with my off-leash dogs, I want them to do two things: 1. come when called, and 2. check in voluntarily on a regular basis. That is to say: I want them to know it’s their responsibility rather than mine to make sure we don’t lose each other.
This is how I work on the voluntary checking-in with me:
Step 1 – continuous reinforcement.
On every walk, I try to set aside at least a few minutes where I concentrate on reinforcing every single time Hadley chooses to look at or come towards me without being asked to. We know: behavior that gets positively reinforced will happen more often in the future. For Hadley, I mainly use food treats. I usually have a puppy trail mix in my treat bag: there’s some special kibble, cheese, and hot dog slices all mixed together. Hadley never knows what he’ll get, but he loves all of them.
Step 2 – intermittent reinforcement.
Once Hadley has his checking-in down, I’ll switch to an intermittent schedule: I’ll reinforce most of his check-ins with praise and attention, but only some of them with a tangible reinforcer like food or a toy. This creates a slot-machine effect, i.e. a dog who will check in with me a lot!
Phoebe’s checking-in is on an intermittent reinforcement schedule, and if you know her, you’ll know how often she does a drive-by on walks. For her, the reinforcer I mainly use these days is the happy voice and then telling her to run ahead, play or go do doggy things.
Recall away from dogs & people
We also did a little bit of intermediary recall training today: I walked towards a group of people and off-leash dogs in the distance, then called Hadley back after noticing them without changing direction. The smart little bugger did very well! For the recall, I use the highest value reward of Hadley’s choice: liver paté.
… and morning zoomies!
Of course, there’s also plenty, plenty opportunity to play and have fun on every walk. Here’s today’s morning zoomies with some random happy recall practice.
In Hadley’s book, quite a number of things are alarming. One of them: new objects in familiar spaces, like the neighbor’s trash bag that hasn’t been sitting out the day before, or a penguin wearing a hat, standing provocatively at a doorway where no one used to stand. (I totally get that. Penguins are not supposed to wear hats; now that’s just weird!)
My favorite way to deal with scary stuff is to make it part of a game. I’ve done this with Phoebe back in the day when she had a random-objects-are-scary phase in her adolescence, and now I’m using the same strategy for Hadley. By means of shaping, I want to give Hadley the experience that he controls the situation, and can turn scary stuff into cookie vending machines by means of choosing to engage with it.
Engaging with scary objects in return for a cookie is entirely his choice, not mine. I’m not luring him closer, and I’m not forcing him to engage with the scary object in any other way. Hadley decided whether he goes all the way up to an object, touches it, or just plays a little LAT from a distance. If he chooses to disengage after a little while, that’s okay, too.
Now that I’ve finally decluttered my camera phone, I got to film today’s encounter with a penguin wearing a hat. We met that weird bird on our way home from a walk in the neighborhood. We frequently walk past this house, and never before has there been a penguin standing in front of it. Obviously, Hadley was concerned. It looked quite devious in its green hat, pretending to be all innocent, just standing there provocatively. It might just have been planning to murder us all, and Hadley was right to point this out to me.
This is what our penguin session looked like:
Note that rather than using strategic points of reinforcement, I’m feeding away from the penguin, so the increase of distance acts as an additional reinforcer (R-). The whole thing took about 5 minutes, including a few breaks whenever either Hadley chose to disengage and do sth. else for a little bit, or when I went to reinforce Phoebe who I had put in a sit-stay. When Hadley offered looking at the penguin or approaching it again after a break, we were back in the game. At 0.30 in the video, you can see from Hadley’s body language that he’s getting too close. I should have clicked sooner, i.e. after fewer steps towards the penguin. He trusts me enough to keep playing, so for the next click, I lower criteria to just a few steps, something he can easily do. Then I gradually increase criteria again. At the end, you see his first bold touch. He’s not worried anymore and recognizes the penguin as the latest cookie-vending machine that has been placed here for his convenience! Engage with it, get a cookie from mum. Sweet!
Well, what should a puppy learn in his first year? You’ll probably get as many answers as you ask trainers and handlers, and there is no single right answer to this question. With every new puppy I meet, my own philosophy gets further refined, and as science discovers new truths about the development of animals, my ideas change, sometimes subtly, and sometimes radically. Let me share the puppy and young dog training answer I’d give you today.
I believe that every dog is an individual, and the amount of exercise and action needed on the one, and relaxation needed on the other hand varies from dog to dog. I also believe there are general things that are true for most puppies of a certain breed, and there are other things that are true for most puppies of any breed whatsoever – and there are also things that differ from dog to dog, from one individual to the next. The things I’m going to focus on today are the ones that I consider important for every puppy and young dog, no matter whether big or small, working or toy group.
The first level – a foundation for behavioral health.
A dog should learn to be comfortable just “being in the world”.
1A. Being confident and curious around people (adults, children, quiet ones, running ones, people on bikes, skateboards etc.), and not startled by their touch.
1B. Being confident and curious around other dogs (off-leash and on-leash, big ones and small ones, calm ones and active ones etc.)
1C. Being able to relax at home even when not tired and exhausted.
1D. Being able to relax out in the world even when not tired and exhausted.
A dog should learn to be comfortable in his own skin.
These are the two single most important skills – everything else, in my opinion, is secondary. Everything else (from basic pet dog manners to dog sports skills) can be taught to adult dogs as well as to puppies. However, being comfortable and confident “just living” is something that should be taught during puppyhood – the longer you wait to socialize your dog, for example, the harder it will get.
The second level – greater life quality for the human & greater freedom for the dog.
The next important level increases the life quality for the human part of the team by means of making her dog easier to handle and an eager partner in crime, and the amount of freedom her four-legged partner can be allowed in a safe way: the more reliable your dog, the greater his freedom.
A dog should learn how to learn, and that learning is fun.
A dog should learn basic everyday skills:
4A. Peeing outside.
4B. Staying home alone.
4C. Walking on a loose leash.
4D. Coming when called.
4E. An appropriate way to greet people.
4F. An appropriate way to ask for attention.
4G. Riding the subway/wearing a muzzle/settling under a restaurant table/relaxing in a box if you’re planning to travel etc.
A dog should learn things related to the kind of husbandry he will have to experience on a regular basis. (Brushing, clipping, trimming, cutting nails, getting a bath etc.)
The third level – foundations for sports and work.
Then there is nothing for a really long time, and then we come to the specific skills you expect of your dog. These can, but don’t have to be started in the first year. If you start them later – no worries. Even adult dogs can learn to excel at them. If you have a scared or anxious puppy, don’t worry about these skills at all, but spend 90% of your training time on points 1 and 2, and 10% on points 3 to 5. However, if you have a confident, happy-go-lucky puppy, now is a good time to lay the foundations for the future:
If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll want to build numerous reinforcers (food, toys, personal play etc.)
If you want to do any kind of performance work, you’ll work on building value for attention and motivation to work with you in distracting environments.
If you want to do agility, you may want to work on general body awareness and rear-end awareness in particular.
If you want to do pet therapy work, you might place an extra strong focus on enriched environments and introducing your dog to small kids, people on crutches, wheelchairs etc.
If you want to do obedience, you’ll make sure to not only teach a rockback pet dog sit, but a separate clean tuck sit, not only a relaxed hip-bent down, but also a sphinx down with a separate cue etc. from the very start.
Things handlers should learn in the first year with their dog.
General canine needs – how much sleep, how much exercise, how much mental stimulation do dogs in general and your breed in particular tend to need?
Get to know your dog as an individual: what does he like? What doesn’t he like? What games does he enjoy, what’s his favorite food, what’s his favorite sleeping spot, his favorite spot to be petted?
Read your dog well in specific situations to predict and avoid stressful situations before they escalate. What does it mean if his body stiffens? If he wags slowly/fast? If he pricks his ears? What kinds of noises does he make, and what do they mean? etc.
How to train animals in a scientifically and ethically sound, force-free way.
… This is it for the handler, in my mind – and believe me, this is a lot for first-time dog owners – and even for experienced ones!
I’m looking forward to reading about your experiences in the comments – what has worked for you in your puppy’s first year, and what hasn’t worked? I also hope to find some time to post videos about Hadley’s first months and the skills he acquired in those days in the next days/weeks. I’ve taken what feels like a gadzillion videos, but haven’t found the time to edit, upload and share them yet!
A few days ago, we met Tini and Nayeli for a walk. Hadley recognized Nayeli after briefly alarm-barking at her from the car, and immediately started playing chase with Phoebe and her! Wow – this is the first time he has played as intensely with a dog who isn’t a family member. Nayeli is simply a great role model, and a wonderful auntie to have as a puppy. I’m sure Hadley will have fun with Tini and her when he vacations with them in January.
We encountered two strange off-leash dogs on our walk. The first one was a tiny, shy puppy. Phoebe, Fanta and Nayeli didn’t care about the tiny dog, but Hadley approached him with a friendly wagging tail! WOW! Best. strange. dog. encounter. ever! I was soooo happy; proud of my puppy and of my training success, and happy that my dogs get to have dogs like Nayeli in their lives.
The three musketeers are having fun near Lusthaus.
Today, we had another very successful outing: we went for a walk today – just Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley and I. Off leash, on the fields.
After a few minutes, two women with a dog slightly bigger than Hadley, also off-leash, crossed our way. We saw them coming from a distance. Phoebe and Fanta walked over to say hallo, and Hadley … looked, wagged, and went back to playing chase with Phoebe! He had only hesitated a moment, than decided that the strange dog wasn’t a threat. He didn’t keep close to me, and didn’t mind walking or running close to the strange dog. The women and I walked together for about fifteen minutes.
Phoebe, Hadley and the first dog we encountered on today’s walk.
A little later, the next challenge: a with an on-leash Spitz about Phoebe’s size came straight at us. I took my dogs on leash, and made way for the Spitz to pass, started feeding treats when Hadley noticed the strange dog and went on feeding until he had passed us. Hadley watched the dog attentively and calmly ate his treats, then quickly switched to offering sits – the strange dog wasn’t important enough to pay attention to! Hah! I am SO happy with how he is developing!
Phoebe, Fanta, Hadley and the two women’s small dog were let off leash again. Another few minutes went by, and we met the next dog: an old, off-leash Maltese who was standing quietly near his even older owner. The Maltese told our group in body language that he was neither a threat not interested in interacting with any of them, and they all curved around him. Hadley followed suit! While curving, he had his tail slightly between his legs and glanced sideways at the Maltese, but followed the other three without hesitation. Woohooo! Witnessed how to deal with dogs like this, and did it himself! Wonderful puppy, and I’m happy my training has helped him become more confident around strange dogs!
Fanta, Hadley and, in the distance, the dog who walked with us for a while. Everyone’s happy doing their own thing. There’s plenty of space for everyone, and no need to feel threatened.
We parted ways with the two ladies and their dog. I played with my camera while Phoebe and Hadley played near the water and Fanta had one of his rare it’s-my-favorite-season runs.
On our way back, we met an off-leash Border Collie; an adult black-and-white female. Phoebe mistook her for Xandro and was quite startled when she realized that Xandro isn’t the only beautiful Border around. I didn’t interfere with Hadley’s behavior because it had been going very well so far. Hadley looked and I could see that this dog was more concerning to him than the others had been. She was more active, and held her busy tail up high. And then she even looked at him directly! Hadley made one tiny bark. I kept walking and called him, he came. She came over, he let her sniff him submissively, and then happily greeted her human. We exchanged a few words while Hadley watched Phoebe and the Border discuss who was going to keep the stick they had found.
We walked on, and passed the old man with the Maltese again. They were still standing at the same spot, chatting with an acquaintance. This time, Hadley curved around the Maltese without hesitation and without putting his tail between his legs. Yeah!
Almost back at the car, we met a woman with a big, on-leash dog resembling an Akita, but slightly smaller. They were walking straight at us. I put my dogs on their leashes, and noticed that the woman deliberately lead her dog on the side of her body that wasn’t facing us and was feeding treats while approaching us. It always makes me smile to see other dog people working with their dogs in similar ways as I do! Also, I’m always happy to encounter polite dog owners who are as keen to avoid on-leash encounters as I am.
We walked a little to the side and let the two of them pass. Hadley requested that I play LAT with him! He looked at the Akita, then back at me. At the Akita again, then back at me! Hah! This is awesome! Thank you, Leslie McDevitt, for coming up with this simple, yet brilliant game. Of course, since he asked me to, I played with Hadley, and he got to earn a few treats for looking, and then for the sits he offered. And on we went, off leash again, back to the car.
I have to say, I am relieved and really, really glad Hadley’s attitude towards strange dogs is slowly relaxing. I am also glad that the strategy I chose for dealing with his issues is turning out to be the right one for him!
Wow – time really does fly. So much has happened since the last time I found a moment to sit down and write a blog post. Where do I begin?
The little rascal has been a pretty easy puppy to take care of. He’s been spending lots of time with me when Tom is at work, and I couldn’t help comparing him to Phoebe. In most regards, Hadley has been less of a challenge than Phoebe when she was his age. Phoebe was an extremely high-energy puppy, and she was very mouthy. Hadley has mostly been relaxed and friendly.
There is, however, one thing that concerns me: Hadley is a rather wary puppy, particularly when it comes to strange dogs. From day 1 onwards, he has been alarmed by strange dogs, even the ones that were 1.5 blocks away. I am worried about this because Hadley spent his puppyhood among all kinds of different dogs – his breeder has more than 10 Border Collies, Norwegian Lundehunds, and a Beauceron. To my knowledge, Hadley has only had good experiences with her dogs. In theory, these positive early socialization experiences should have turned him into a dog who approaches new dogs with curiosity and confidence. However, this is not the kind of puppy he turned out to be: initially, he would avoid other dogs whenever possible, froze/stared and eventually barked when avoidance was not possible, and tried to hide/flee if they came too close. He also took a comparatively long time (read: several meetings over the course of several days) to warm up to new dogs. However, once he considered a dog a friend, he’d play with her like any other happy puppy.
After consulting with friends and colleagues and debating how best to handle a dog-sensitive Border puppy, I came up with the following plan, which I’ve been working on since Hadley has moved in:
Part A – socialization
introduce Hadley to my friends’ friendly adult dogs in various short sessions. Always put up a portable crate and/or familiar blanket for him to retreat to, and make sure the other dogs respect his safety zone. Let him watch and decide for himself whether and when he is ready to initiate interaction. Never force contact. Never overwhelm or flood him.
My idea was that I would provide Hadley with a number of distinctly positive experiences that lead to dog-dog friendships, rather than create lots of neutral dog-dog experiences. I hoped that the more dogs he got to know and make friends with, the easier it would be for him to be around new dogs in the future, and that eventually, he would start considering strange dogs to be interesting rather than scary.
Part B – management and alternative behavior
I would also work on Leslie McDevitt’s Look at That game (LAT). That is to say, I would teach Hadley to earn clicks and treats by means of looking at strange dogs from a distance: I wanted him to start seeing strange dogs as cookie-vending machines rather than potential threats. “Dad, mum, there’s a dog, did you see it? Look, it’s over there! Where’s my cookie?”
LAT makes use of both classical and operant conditioning. One the one hand, a potentially scary stimulus is repeatedly paired with a strong reinforcer (tasty treats), which changes the emotional response to the stimulus. On the other hand, the dog is being empowered as he learns that he can use dogs he spots on the street to make a treat happen. All he has to do is point them out to his humans with a movement of his head.
If strange dogs were too close, I would retreat by means of putting a barrier between ourselves and the trigger, changing sides or doing a U turn.
Part A has been going well. Apart from my own two dogs, I’ve strategically introduced Hadley to 12 dogs by now; some male, some female, some neutered, some intact, some small, some large:
1 Border Collie
4 Miniature Pinschers
1 Irish Setter
1 Golden Retriever
1 American Staffordshire Terrier X
1 Akita mix
1 Sheltie X GSD
1 small Terrier X
He has met all of them several times in safe, short sessions, and made friends with all of them. The first few outings, he would just sit in his safe space and observe from a distance until we went home again. I did not try to convince him to come out, but focused on making sure he felt safe. Apart from that, I did not distract him with food, but let him choose what to do – stay in his safe spot and observe, walk away and do his own thing, or initiate contact with the new dogs. Helene, a friend who shares her life with 7 wonderful dogs, has been a huge help with this. (Thank you, Helene, Xandro, Wasti, Arkani, Schoko, Hexi and Guinness!)
Helene lives just around the corner. So we would meet up at a meadow close by. I would get there first and set up Hadley’s safety zone: a pop-up crate and a blanket in front of it. He could choose to hide in the crate, sit on the familiar blanket, or come all the way out on the meadow. I took one of my own dogs with me so Hadley could see that they were not afraid of the new dog we introduced him to. If he wanted, Hadley could take the crate’s side exit and go explore the forest and shrubbery rather than engaging with the other dogs, who did their own thing out in the field.
The first two times, Helene brought Border Collie Xandro and Miniature Pinscher Wasti, and I brought Fanta and Hadley. Helene and I spent twenty minutes sitting on the blanket and chatting. Hadley stayed in the crate or on the blanket with us, but did not approach either of her dogs. This was okay. It was his choice. After twenty minutes, we left and Hadley went back to sleep at home to sleep off his adventures and maybe do some latent learning.
The third time, Hadley approached Wasti with a cautious wag … and started following him around at a distance. Whenever Wasti turned around, Hadley would hurry back to his safety zone, but soon after, his curiosity took over and he followed Wasti again. He did, however, still keep his distance from Xandro.
The fourth time, Hadley was happy to see Wasti and followed him around more, even if it meant moving further away from his safety zone. His overall confidence had clearly grown, and he even sniffed Xandro’s tail a few times – of course, when Xandro turned to face him, he would retreat like he used to do with Wasti. But from behind, the Border Collie had stopped looking all that scary.
We did numerous sessions like that. Once Hadley had grown comfortable with one dog, we’d introduce another one. The last time Helene and I met, we didn’t need a blanket or crate anymore, and were able to take all 9 dogs for a walk together. Hadley had fun from beginning to end. He mostly played with Phoebe, but did not mind running ahead with her, getting close to Helene’s dogs, and quickly bounced back the two times he didn’t respect Schoko’s personal space and got a reprimand by his new auntie. I’d call this a BIG success – thank you very much for your help, Helene, and a big thank you to your patient, friendly dogs who have already been a big help in raising Hadley!
Hadley is having a good time during a 9-dog outing with Phoebe, Fanta, Xandro, Guinness, Wasti, Arkani, Hexi and Schoko.
Another dog who has been immensely helpful is Olivia, the dog who’s mum runs our local pharmacy. Olivia is a friendly and very patient Dalmatian. We’ve been visiting her several times in the course of the last weeks. At first, we kept Olivia in a back room behind a baby gate, while Hadley could look at her from the far end of the adjoining room. He could choose to walk closer or leave, to just observe Olivia who slowly wagged her tail and looked sideways, or to engage with the pharmacy personnel who were happy to greet him and let him lick their faces. (Meeting people is something that has always made Hadley happy.) The second time we went, Hadley chose to approach the gate and cautiously greet Olivia and lick her lips. The third time, he was able to meet her without a gate, and was happy to dance around her and explore her space. Olivia, the patient girl, gave him all the freedom in the world and happily took my thank-you treats.
Hadley and Olivia – first time without being separated by a baby gate.
Phoebe’s best girlfriend, the Golden Nayeli, has had a very easy time when it came to making friends with Hadley. She and her mum visited us at home and spent an afternoon with us. In his own home, where he feels most confident, and able to watch Phoebe and Nayeli play, Hadley quickly decided that he wanted to join in the fun – and that’s what he did. Thank you, Tini, for helping Hadley make a new friend! Nayeli has already been a great aunt for Phoebe when she was little, and now she’s doing the same thing for Hadley. It takes a village, doesn’t it?
Various other helpers later, Hadley has made great progress! By now, he will cautiously approach new dogs with a wag after only 1 or 2 minutes of observing from a save distance.
However, his initial response is still fear, and unless I carefully set up these situations and manage the initial distance, he will default to freeze/stare or hide/flee.
It was interesting to visit his breeder two weeks ago. His mom, dad and brother were there. Tom let Hadley out of the car. Hadley saw his father and immediately hid under the car. His father lowered his head to look at Hadley, and there was a lightbulb moment of recognition – as soon as he recognized the Border Collie in front of him, Hadley was ready to approach and happily greet his dad. Or at least, that’s what it looked like to me. It’s not that Hadley is afraid of his father – but until he recognized him, he wanted to hide.
Hadley, his parents and his brother Horace got to have a little family reunion when we visited the breeder.
What does this mean? Does he have a genetic predisposition to being on the fearful side? His breeder remarked a while ago, when I commented on Hadley being cautious, that he had always been “the most sensitive of the litter”. Is sensitive a euphemism for something else? I don’t know. And in the end, it does not matter. No matter where a certain behavior stems from, the laws of behavior always apply. And these laws are the foundation of all training. Also, no matter who Hadley was yesterday, is today, or will be tomorrow, the one thing that will always be true is that he’s the world’s most wonderful puppy, and the most perfect dog Tom could have adopted 🙂
But back to Hadley’s dog issues:
Part B has also been going well. I’m always armed with clicker and treats anyway, so I’ve been playing LAT with all the random dogs we met on walks. I like how having an objective (teach Hadley that the LAT game is fun!) changes my attitude towards dog encounters: it makes me happy whenever I see a dog in the distance rather than annoyed that I have to change sides or do a U turn. This always happens when I play LAT with a new dog – Pirate and I also had a lot of fun whenever we went out trigger hunting and LAT adventuring. It became one of our favorite bonding games.
As for Hadley, he is becoming an LAT expert. I’ve started naming the behavior, and the distance we can play at has shrunk. We can now play with (calm) dogs on the other side of the street rather than 1.5 blocks away, and after only a few Look-s, Hadley will now switch to offering a different behavior (usually prolonged eye contact or sit). Definitely a success worth celebrating!
Tom and Hadley also participated in my recall workshop the other day. Hadley had to keep a bit of a distance at first, but soon was able to comfortably work near the other dogs, and was happy to play with them after class. He’s a very brave little puppy!
Tom and Hadley testing the quality of treats. Even though the other participating dogs are nearby, Hadley can relax and concentrate on his task.
The nice thing about writing these things down is that it makes me see the progress. When I don’t keep notes, it’s easy to miss out on the tiny little steps of progress I’ve been making every day or every session. It’s like watching a kid (or a puppy) grow up: you see them every day, and you don’t notice how they get bigger – unless every once in a while, you ask them to stand with their back to a door frame and draw a line where their head is. Taking training notes is like drawing lines on a door frame. It helps me see change.
I’ve made another observation that makes it clearer what often happens to clients who have reactive dogs: when I’m out with Hadley in our neighborhood, we hardly ever have an incident. I’m always ready to change sides, make a U-turn, play LAT … Tom and Hadley, on the other hand, still have those encounters where Hadley starts barking or freezes for a moment or two. That means Hadley still practices reactivity.
I’ve been thinking about why this happens to Hadley and Tom rather than Hadley and me, and come up with the following list of reasons. I think being aware of these might help me better coach clients with reactive dogs:
– Until we’ve trained our eyes and brain to selectively focus on dogs in our environment, we tend to see them too late (aka after our dog has already seen them).
– Until we’ve fine-tuned our observation skills to read the fine print in a dog’s body language, we tend to notice fear only when it is obvious – i.e. when our dog is about to react or has already started reacting.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that a puppy’s dog reactivity is a reason to worry in the first place. We tend to assume it’s just a phase he’ll grow out of, or that it will go away with random exposure to dogs, or that a dog is still capable of learning when in fight-or-flight mode.
– Unless we have experienced fear ourselves, or really taken an interest in how it works, it is not obvious to us that aversives are not a constructive solution for reactivity.
– We tend to forget that dogs learn all the time, not only in the training sessions we specify: we’re likely to forget clicker and treats when we take our dogs out to potty rather than setting up for a training session.
– Putting our dog’s safety and comfort level first, even if it means ignoring/stopping/avoiding/standing up to friendly strangers (and their dogs) is an attitude we have to consciously adopt, and to practice.
I wonder how I can make these pieces of the puzzle more accessible to my clients to get them to this point sooner rather than later. I want to minimize their frustration and maximize the quality of their and their dog’s walk. The more “mistakes” happen, the longer it will take for a reactive dog to get over his fears. The longer it takes for our reactive dog, the longer we will have to actively work on his issues, and the longer it will be until being out and about with our canine companion will be the walk in the park will be the uncomplicated, fun activity we’ve been looking forward to.
Of course, this is not to say that Hadley and I don’t run into problems on our walks, too. Walking a reactive dog is hard. It requires both background knowledge, concentration, the desire to be our dog’s advocates, and a number of skills we need to practice: observation skills, timing of the click, and speed (as little time as possible should pass between click and reward). We need to prepare before we go out (clicker, treats, mindset), and keep in mind that like children, our dogs learn every minute – not just when we want to train. Walking a reactive dog is not a walk in the park, it requires your full attention. At least for me, it still requires my full attention. When I don’t pay attention, I often run in a situation I become aware of too late. While walking around my neighborhood has been categorized by playing LAT and hardly any reactive incidents for me, going new places is harder because I don’t know when and where to expect the next strange dog. The other day, Hadley and I were hanging out at a park. He was on leash, and since it was a sunny Sunday and a number of people were out walking their dogs, I ceased the opportunity to play LAT from a safe distance near my car, always ready to retreat behind it, should it be necessary to get another barrier between us and a strange dog. After a while, a woman with her French Bulldog on a flexi lead passed us. Hadley was off the road at a little distance, and on a short leash. It should have been pretty obvious that I was interacting with/training my dog rather than seeking social encounters. The Bulldog came closer, and the woman let it run on the flexi … I politely asked her to stop her dog from coming closer, since my dog was afraid. But what did she do? Let the Bulldog keep running towards us rather than stopping her flexi, telling me, “Well, he has to get used to other dogs at some point, doesn’t he?”
Hadley barked before I had a chance to retreat behind the car. Encounters like this really annoy me. It’s NOT up to you, stranger, to decide when, how and what dogs my dogs are meeting up close. And it is never okay to let your dog run up to a dog on leash without asking. Dogs are on leash for a reason: maybe my dog is scared, or maybe he’s on a leash in order to keep your dog safe from his teeth, or maybe he has flees that I don’t want him to pass on to yours! ALWAYS ask before letting your dog great a strange dog on leash.
Anyways – time to post this update, which is, in fact, already a few weeks old – I just haven’t found the time to finish it yet.
I noticed that Hadley seems a little wary of kids. I think he has been well socialized to dogs and people at his breeder’s place, but probably hasn’t come across many (if any) children. It’s important to me that he get along well with children, since I know how hard it can be to live with a dog who used to be reactive to them. I constantly have to read Phoebe’s body language when we’re around kids in order to either reinforce calm behavior, play LAT or curve around them. I thought it would be nice to start Hadley out on a path to a friendly relationship with tiny humans.
My motto for a potentially hyper-vigilant and easily over-stimulated breed like a Border Collie is: quality before quantity. I want him to have several distinctively positive experiences with kids rather than lots of neutral ones.
So when I took him out the other day, I looked around and saw three kids playing with a kite in the fields. Hah! I carried the little rascal over there, put him down at a distance of about 60 meters, let him look, and counterconditioned with liver pâté. Alican, the youngest boy, turned out to be a big dog fan. He came over and asked if he could meet my puppy, and I instructed him on how to greet Hadley in a safe way. Soon, he could feed Hadley treats, and Hadley would climb on his lap, wag his tail for Alican and lick his face. Alican’s brother also came over to meet Hadley and got to feed him treats as well. After a few minutes, we left and I took Hadley back into his crate, where he slept the well-deserved sleep of adventurous puppies.
The next time I took Hadley out to potty, Alican was hanging out in our street – he had been waiting all afternoon for Hadley to come back. Hadley was also happy to see him and let his young friend give him belly rubs. Hadley was a little tired at that point, and Alican gave him a gentle puppy massage – belly, side, ears, legs, paws. Hadley was completely relaxed. I’m very proud of this puppy, who learned to to trust and relax around his first young friend in only a few minutes of socialization time!
There are two things that worry me a bit though. Hadley, at 10 weeks old, tends to growl at strange dogs and hide behind his humans when we encounter them on the street – Tom told me about several encounters he had with strange dogs. Tom and Hadley also encountered kids playing land hockey, and Hadley was run-away-level scared. I haven’t had this particular problem, because I never leave the house without treats, and usually retreat in time and stuff him with treats when I see his body get stiff because of something he sees – countercondition, countercondition, countercondition!
Phoebe was similar when she was little. I did lots of desensitizing, counterconditioning, and played training games like LAT, but it either wasn’t enough, or her genetic predisposition to nervousness was too strong – she’s still a wary adult dog.
The sensitive period for puppy socialization is between 3 weeks and about 3 months of age. (1) The people, animals, things, sounds and surfaces puppies have a sufficient number of positive experiences with in that time will be considered safe by the puppy once it grows up. Neutral experiences are not enough, and negative ones (and fear response is a negative response!) are detrimental. For example, if a puppy does not learn how to appropriately behave around adult dogs, they might have poor social skills for the rest of their lives – or need a lot of training time later in life. If they don’t get to have positive interactions with children, men with hoodies, or skateboarders, they might develop aggression towards them later on. A puppy who is scared of a particular kind of person, animal or situation at this age is likely to become more scared as his senses get sharper and his fear response grows further – unless he gets to make positive experiences with these particular people, things, sounds or situations that outnumber the scary ones.
Knowing that puppies generally don’t “just outgrow” their wariness, I’m going to tackle this problem systematically before the molehill grows into a mountain:
It’s time to get a hockey sticks and a pucks, so I can countercondition and desensitize Hadley to that particular stimulus. I’ll also get the skateboard out (maybe teach Hadley to ride it himself?) and enlist Alican’s help with the scooter. And as far as leash encounters with strange dogs are concerned, my dog friends will have to step in to practice safe and happy encounters!
When I took Hadley out at noon today, we met Alican again. He was on his scooter, so I asked him to show it to Hadley. He dropped it in the grass at a distance. Hadley went over to explore. Then I lifted it up. Hadley checked it out again. Next, I moved it back and forth in the grass, where it was less noisy than on the pavement. Hadley looked relaxed. Next, I asked our young friend to slowly ride the scooter up and down at a little distance. Hadley looked interested, but not scared, and I fed him liver pâté and other delicacies. I then rode the scooter myself, and Hadley followed without worrying and without trying to attack it. Yeah!
This had only taken a few minutes, and since our young friend was there, I asked his help for a different task – for a restrained recall. I’ve been working on the beginnings of a whistle recall. This time, I got Alican to hold Hadley, walked away for about 5 meters, whistled, clicked and reinforced with yummy treats when he got to me. Oh, what a happy puppy, running as fast as his little puppy legs would carry him and throwing himself into my outstretched arms!
I got to watch Hadley yesterday, while Tom was at work. I used this opportunity to work on a few things I consider important. One of them is crate training. This is how I started the process:
I let Hadley explore his crate first, clicked and treated for stepping inside and settling inside, then closed the door and gave him a dried cow’s nose to chew. He chewed himself tired. Then I treated for relaxation (first for sits, then for downs, then for lying relaxed in his crate – gradually increasing the time between the individual treats, as he got more tired and relaxed.) When he did get up and made a fuss, I ignored him until he was quiet (which usually went hand in hand with sitting down). Then I slowly counted until 3 (1 quiet puppy, 2 quiet puppy, 3 quiet puppy), then treated for being quiet again, then chuted-and-laddered my way up to longer and longer periods of relaxation. Now, for example, he’s sound asleep in his crate. When he wakes up, I’ll take him out to pee before he starts making a fuss in his crate. We’ll have a little adventure outside (either having a few minutes of positive experience with the neighbors’ kids or playing beginning recall games for a few minutes), then he’ll come back in and go back in his crate, and hopefully be ready to relax even faster. Rinse and repeat.
Indeed, in the course of a day, I had a puppy who happily walked into the crate whenever there was nothing else to do and sat down, waiting for a treat to happen. He also retreated into the crate after Phoebe startled him, and at night, he went into the open crate and fell asleep. Success!
In the morning of day two of crate training, he settled quickly after I put him in. Inspired by Emily Larlham, I marked with his marker word for quiet behaviors (“Top!”) whenever he was not thinking about the treat for the first few minutes. Using a special marker word for quiet behaviors is something I learned from Simone Fasel.
In the late morning, Hadley got to join Phoebe and Fanta for a few minutes of off-leash fun on the field across the street. Afterwards, he found it more difficult to settle – especially since I was stuffing Kongs with smelly tripe and potatoes, and he was stuck in his crate and couldn’t come check it out! However, Phoebe, Fanta and the little Rascal got to lick tripe goop off my fingers whenever they showed signs of relaxation, and soon, everyone was happy. Hadley also got a little lesson in frustration tolerance whenever I waited him out for the next calm 1 calm puppy, 2 calm puppy, 3 calm puppy moment. I learned from the Phoebe experiment that
a little bit of extinction is not only acceptable, but even beneficial – as long as it is part of a DRA or DRI protocol.
I took this video on Hadley’s second day of crate training. Once he had learned to comfortably settle, I combined the crate training with leaving him alone for short periods of time. One of the big advantages of using a crate is that your puppy can’t get into trouble while in his crate – he cannot destroy your furniture, and cannot hurt himself, and won’t have accidents in the house when you’re not looking. Since Hadley moved in as dog number 3, I want to make sure that he is okay even if Phoebe, Fanta, Tom and I are gone. About half the clients who contact me with puppy problems have puppies who cannot stay home alone – and I want to make sure Hadley doesn’t become one of them! Once you’ve got a full-blown case of separation anxiety or isolation distress, lots of patience and training is required. Better to start early, so separation anxiety and isolation distress don’t even have a chance to develop!
On day 2, Hadley relaxes in his crate while Phoebe, Fanta and I leave for 3:15 Minutes. We’ve gradually worked our way up to this amount of time, starting with no more than a few seconds, and starting with only me leaving, then only me and one dog, then only me and the other dog … As you can see, systematic training pays off! Hadley hasn’t even had a moment of fear of being left alone, and I’d like to keep it that way, working our way up to a few hours.
… is a great movie about Ian Curtis, which you should definitely watch. While I hate to disappoint you, this blog post isn’t about Joy Division, but about dog training and closeted alpha theorists.
I went location scouting for a BAT set up today. So I was driving and thinking about training dogs, and ended up pondering closeted alpha theorists. A closeted alpha theorist is someone who believes in clicking and treating, but also in “setting boundaries” and “leading the dog” and “taking the responsibility of controlling the situation/the chance to control the situation away from the dog,” in “letting the dog know that the human is controlling the environment, and he doesn’t have to.”
To my ears, this sounds like a euphemism for the alpha theory. A straightforward, non-euphemistic alpha theorist would say something like, “All dogs want to control all humans! Therefore, we (qua humans) need to control all dogs. We need to let them know we’re in charge, and they aren’t.”
The closeted alpha theorist, on the other hand, uses a euphemistic, more subtle approach to convey the same message: Maybe not all dogs want to control all humans, but this particular dog sure is a bit obsessed with control. Maybe we don’t need to show all dogs who is in control, but we certainly need to show this dog.”
The openly alpha-theorizing trainer argues that “this dog wants to be higher-ranked than we are – he wants to control everything.”
The closeted alpha trainer, on the other hand, says, “that dog is insecure, and therefore, he thinks he needs to control everything. He doesn’t know that you will take care of the situation.”
While the underlying factions are slightly different (“dogs are power-driven hierarchy-climbers” vs. “dogs need a confident leader in order to be happy”), the implications are the same: “You (the person) need to control the dog.” The only difference is that the openly alpha-theorizing trainer wants to control the dog for her own, i.e. the trainer’s, sake, and the closeted alpha-trainer wants to control the dog for the dog’s sake. The open alpha trainer assumes an egocentric stance, while the closeted alpha trainer sees herself as altruistic. Still, whether they are aware of it or not, both follow an alpha approach to training.
Both myths make me cringe, but actually, the altruistic alpha myth makes me cringe even more because it’s harder to counter. It’s a sneaky myth, a wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing myth; the kind of myth that invades people’s minds easily. The closeted alpha approach is like a center right party. It’s a “respectable” conviction in society at large, the ÖVP of dog training. People who will indignantly distance themselves from the extreme right (or the open alpha theory) may still say that some ideas of that right-wing extremist do make sense. They themselves are no alpha-theorists, for sure. But they can certainly understand the people who are. And really, the alternative – the far left, the cotton ball throwers -, that kind of training certainly has its perks for soft dogs, but it wouldn’t work for their dog. Their dog, after all, likes to control his world.
The problem I see with both open and closeted alpha approaches is that they want to resolve problematic behaviors by means of taking control away from the dog. By means of “clear rules” (closeted alphas) or “strong leadership” (open alphas).
Unfortunately, this solution may actually look like it “works.” One example is what Rütter said in his cabaret at Stadthalle the other day. He suggested that dogs who are afraid of the vacuum be trained a really strong down/stay, first without the vacuum, then with the vacuum present.
A dog who is afraid of the vacuum, but has an incredibly strong down/stay, may actually hold his down/stay while the vacuum snuffles and grunts and wreaks havoc around him. He may stay on his spot, panting ferociously, but stay. As a result, he will get flooded. Flooding is one method of habituation. The other one is desensitization. The problem with flooding is that while it works for some dogs, it doesn’t work for others: “Stimuli that elicit really strong emotional reactions, such as fear, often don’t habituate. Instead they continue to affect the general arousal of the animal and make the response even stronger.” (Reid 36) If your dog is truly very afraid of the vacuum, he may get even more scared of it in the future if you force him to hold his down/stay. And not only that: he may even sensitize to additional sounds as well, such as the sound of the blender or the sound of the blowdryer. Very light fears are more likely to habituate, while full-blown fears are likely to sensitize even further – and while habituation is specific (e.g. habituation to only the sound of this specific vacuum), sensitization tends to generalize (i.e. sensitization to all kinds of noises).
In the down/stay situation with the vacuum, you controlled the dog. Both open and closeted alpha theorists may applaud you.
I (just like everyone else who truly opposes the alpha myth) would take a different approach to that problem. Instead of controlling the dog, we would control the vacuum. Start with counterconditioning in combination with desensitization. Have the dog move freely, and present the stimulus at an intensity he is comfortable with. It may take a while until you reach a point where he doesn’t care about the vacuum any more – but it’s worth the effort: no matter who uses the vacuum in the future, he’ll stay relaxed, and there is no need to “control” him in order to keep him from killing that expensive Dyson.
Phoebe isn’t in a down stay – she has learned that there’s no reason to get up. All she has to do when the vacuum goes on is continue whatever she was doing before, and every once in a while, treats will materialize in front of her nose.
The same holds true for dogs who are scared or over-excited by visitors. If you want to help the dog feel better rather than just suppress his reaction, careful counterconditioning and desensitization are the way to go, not flooding in combination with controlling the dog’s position. This is something I practiced with my last foster dog, and I was impressed by how fast he improved: when I couldn’t train, I managed him (had him hang out in a different room, behind a baby gate or in his box with a frozen Kong, for example). When I could concentrate on training, I had visitors come and go, come and go, come and go … in and out of my door. They would not approach him, but as soon as the door opened, I would feed him yummy treats at the other end of the room distance. When they disappeared, the treats stopped again. It took lots of repetitions, but with every new visitor I played this game with, he was able to stay more relaxed. He started learning that he could choose to not approach rather than having to be kept from approaching by force. He learned to control himself rather than being subject to his human’s control.
Let’s look at another example. Some dogs seem fine once they have gotten used to the fact that you, a stranger, are in their house: you are sitting down with their person, not looking at them, and you haven’t moved for half an hour. Slowly, their excitement level goes down. They start to relax. You don’t seem quite as scary after all.
A client has a dog like that. She gets excited and alarmed by visitors, but starts calming down after a while and approaches the new people.
However, as I kept observing her interactions, it turned out that her approach didn’t mean that she was okay at all. She was still past her magnet point, so approaching was not a choice for her – it was something she had to do. The trigger kept drawing her closer like a magnet. The living room was very small, so she would usually approach soon and even try to climb on visitors’ laps. When the visitors moved, she would stiffen and growl. I’ve observed a similar reaction in my last foster dog as well. What happened in these situations?
As the alpha fraction has it, “She was being dominant!” (Wrong answer.)
The closeted alpha might say, “She’s a dog who wants to control everything – she doesn’t allow you to move.” (Tricky answer!)
Let’s look at the closeted alpha answer in detail: control is indeed a primary reinforcer, making it something that animals (human and non-human) covet. It is not just any old reinforcer either, but a really potent one, since it is connected to safety (thank you, Christian Holeček, for this observation). Being able to control your own outcomes ensures your personal safety. This shows us that control has nothing to do with “dominance,” but with using your own behavior effectively. Control means that your behavior is having an effect on your environment. That makes it the opposite of helplessness (not being able to use your behavior effectively, and eventually giving up). So, indeed, the closeted alpha’s response contains a grain of truth. The dog tries to practice behavior in order to have an effect on his environment. Why? Because he wants to get some safety distance between himself and the scary monster (aka visitor)!
Why does the dog growl at visitors he had been fine with first? Because changing body positions are scary! Suddenly, the scary monster looks at him or touches him or moves. That’s way more scary than when the monster held completely still. The dog who growls at the moving visitor exercises the only behavior he knows will keep him safe. If he growled in the past and didn’t get eaten by the scary monster as a direct result, he will growl again in the future. Growling keeps scary monsters from eating dogs, and dogs do what works.
Imagine you are moderately scared of spiders. You wouldn’t choose to approach one, but when you happen to visit your friend’s place and realize he has a pet tarantula in a terrarium, you might be fascinated by the creature. It’s sitting completely still, and there’s glass between you, so you might be so intrigued that you go closer, maybe even tap the glass. You are thrilled, you heart rate fastens, but you feel fine – after all, the spider doesn’t move. After watching the motionless thing for a while, you’ll sit down for a coffee with your friend and almost forget it is there … until you see it moving from the corner of your eyes. All of a sudden, it jumps. It moved, you didn’t expect it, and you are likely to jump yourself. The same happens to the dog when the visitor makes an unexpected movement.
Why, then, did the dog approach the visitor in the first place? Because the visitor was too close for him to not approach, just like the spider in the terrarium drew you closer and made you run through your script for commenting on friends’ pets (“Big, beautiful, hairy!”) even though you don’t trust spiders.
Let’s get back to the training question. How is my approach different from a closeted or open alpha? Both closeted and open alpha theorists will try to solve the problem by means of minimizing the level of control a dog has over the situation.
They might punish the dog when he growls, thus contacting a strong reinforcer themselves: control. Controlling your dog is very reinforcing if you are the one doing the controlling. Even if we don’t punish the dog but “only” force him to stay next to the visitors and be quiet, for example in a down stay like Rütter suggested for the vacuum, again, this might look as if it worked: your dog has stopped growling; he might even have stopped behaving altogether (helplessness). If this is all that happens – lucky you.
However, it may get worse. Remember what we said about sensitization versus habituation? If the dog is forced to stay near the scary monsters (aka visitors) and is kept from behaving effectively, he is being flooded. Of course, there is a chance that he will habituate to the visitors and be fine in the future. However, the bigger his fear was initially, the bigger the chance that he might sensitize instead. In the future, he might not only growl at, say, male visitors or visitors in wheelchairs, but at all visitors. If you combined your “control” of the dog with punishment upon his initial growling, you might end up with an even bigger problem: you might end up with a dog who doesn’t growl, but bites right away.
Open as well as closeted alpha theorists will try to minimize the dog’s level of control in one way or another. If you truly distance yourself from the alpha myth, on the other hand, you will take an opposite approach and try to maximize the dog’s level of control. You will set up a safe environment for the dog to learn how to behave effectively in a way that doesn’t put him or yourself or your visitors in danger. The good thing is that this approach works, and there is no fallout. If it doesn’t work, it is not because the method is faulty but because you overwhelmed the dog with the situation and asked for more than he could handle. In order to set him up for success, you want to present the problematic stimulus at an intensity he is comfortable with: people at a far-enough distance for the dog to stay calm and relaxed, yet notice the trigger and gather information. A distance that allows the dog, as Grisha Stewart would have it, to stay in the green and blue zone:
I did a BAT set up with a client the other day, and I loved how obvious it was that the distance to the trigger needed to be really, really big at first – way bigger than it would ever be on a walk through a busy neighborhood. This way, the pet parents could actually observe their dog making wonderful choices: gathering a little information about the trigger, than continuing to sniff and explore the area. Wandering to the left, to the right, behind a car … This is very different to the behavior the dog shows on their busy home street: she will try and approach everyone and tend to be hypervigilant. She may not bark at the first dog she encounters, but certainly at the third one. Giving her enough space in the set up gave her human mum and dad the chance to be proud of their dog’s good choices and to realize that, in fact, direct contact with the trigger was not the dog’s first choice, as they had thought it was. Most importantly, it showed them that they didn’t have to “control” her every movement all the time, either.
On a walk through a busy neighborhood, you are automatically in survival mode with your reactive dog. It’s hard for him to learn because his arousal is always high. Depending on the dog and the strength of his reactivity, he may be able to learn even in a highly stressful environment to cope better – or, like my client’s dog, he may not be able to do so; he may experience constant trigger stacking and not be able to “think clearly enough” to develop a set of alternative behaviors for difficult situations. As in the examples above, without helping him develop an alternative set of behaviors, he may sensitize rather than habituate.
The first dog (the one who is able to learn even though he is in a stressful environment) will do well even with a closeted alpha trainer. The second dog won’t: you can’t build confidence by means of minimizing your dog’s control over her outcomes. She may give up responding (which is probably your best case scenario), but won’t learn to relax in the vicinity of her triggers. In order to do that, she must have a chance to learn that her behavior is effective, and that curving around or walking away from a the trigger is a behavioral choice she can make. As you continue practicing, that distance will shrink, and eventually, the dog will be able to even make “good decisions” in a highly stressful environment. What’s more, he may even start to enjoy the company of his triggers. The path there is long, but it’s there, just waiting for you and your dog to walk it. It is paved with patience and understanding, not with control.
For some wicked scientific background info on why it’s all about setting your dog up for success and letting him experience the effectiveness of his behavior, check out:
Reid, Pamela J. Excel-Erated Learning. James & Kenneth, 1996.
Stewart, Grisha. BAT 2.0 Series. (DVD) Tawzer, 2014.
Yin, Sophia. Solving Fear and Aggression. (DVD) Tawzer, 2013.
Reinforce random acts of calm, and make staying calm your dog’s favorite pastime! On an average day, I’ve been treating my excitable Poodle Phoebe about 50 times for random relaxed positions – and it shows: