Extinction, adult/puppy interaction, and the transition from community puppy to owned free-roamer

This is the full description to go with this week’s free-ranging dog video! If you’ve already read the first part on my Youtube video description, continue reading at the heading “Barkiness, extinction and correction.”

If you are only just starting to read here, start from the beginning, below the video!

Lots and lots of things to observe in this week’s video!

A little escape artist

In the beginning of the clip, right before I started filming, the white puppy squeezed through the iron rods of the fence/gate I’m pointing out at 00:22. It’s a little hard to see, but the square openings between the iron rods of this gate are JUST big enough for this puppy to squeeze out with a bit of effort. They won’t be able to keep doing this for long – soon, their head and shoulders will be too big to fit through, and they’ll stay confined unless the gate is open.

I know this puppy because I used to see them in the center of town, and they used to participate in Veronica’s community dog feedings. (See https://youtu.be/WNF5DDNnkBE ). I’ve seen this puppy in the center less lately, and I’ve never seen them behind the gate on the outskirts that they just came out of. This leads me to suspect that the community puppy has become an owned village dog – the people who live behind that gate likely took this puppy out of the community dog population. However, since the puppy is familiar with the center, they are escaping when something tempting happens outside the fence – such as Game and I walking past!

The escaping will likely stop as soon as the puppy doesn’t fit through the gate anymore (unless this house tends to have its gate open; if so, the puppy may be roaming the center even though they get fed at their new home – or they may not, depending on how big of a homerange they end up choosing. They will get fed at home, so home range size will not be determined by food availability, but by their genetic propensity to roam). Some owned dogs are not confined by fences and won’t even leave their patio – they just don’t have the need for a larger home range. Others will wander quite far … just because they can, and they like to.

Behavioral changes likely caused by becoming an owned dog

The white puppy here is already displaying behaviors they didn’t use to display: they are being quite brave and behaving like a homed puppy: barking at Game (who they have met and ignored in the past), trying play-biting at me (for example at 03:11/12, when they grab a belt that’s dangling down from my treat bag). This puppy is behaving like a confident and playful Western household puppy when they meet a new person, not like a community puppy. Community puppies know to stay in their lane. Western household puppies know they can get away with a lot more towards the people in their lives! This puppy has (I suspect) been homed for a week or so, and had lots of interactions with people – interactions like the one they are trying on me right now. In the time they were still a community dog, they wouldn’t have had these interactions with people and therefore not displayed the behavior of jumping and grabbing at human clothes because these behaviors would have been punished. In a homed puppy, they are often reinforced: there may be toy play, or at the very least laughter and attention when the puppy tries something like this. Both of these are reinforcing.

Barkiness, extinction and correction

The barkiness is also new. The puppy barks to get Game’s attention – they want to play and interact. Game is not in the mood, and she is handling this really well: she basically pretends the puppy doesn’t exist. She doesn’t correct the puppy (she would correct an adult dog much sooner for barking her ear off).

There are two potential consequences:

  1. If barking is a learned attention-getting behavior for this puppy (it may be; I’ve never seen this puppy bark when they were still a community dog), the absence of reinforcement (attention by Game) will lead to extinction: the barking at Game will disappear, either in the course of the current interaction, or in the course of the next one. It is entirely possible that the puppy has learned that barking gets attention from other dogs and/or humans in the week that they have been homed, simply by their barking being followed by attention.
  2. If barking is intrinsically reinforcing to this puppy (that is to say barking itself releases feel-good hormones or neurotransmitters in the puppy’s brain, independent of external consequences), ignoring the barking will not make the barking go away because the barking is not maintained by external attention, but by internal states of feeling positive emotions. Shelties tend to be in this categorie: they’ll often LOVE to bark, and you can ignore them all you want – this is not going to change anything!

Only at the very end of the clip, at 10:22, does Game correct the puppy for barking at her. She’s patient with puppies, but her patience has limits. This is a very appropriate and soft correction – just right for this puppy who immediately understands her and backs off. Dogs who spent their sensitive socialization period as community dogs or owned free-roaming puppies tend to have excellent dog/dog social skills, and this is exactly what you see here: the puppy reads Game well. No need to escalate the reprimand.

Barrier frustration and the fascinating fence effect

Two interesting things happen (or, rather, one interesting thing happens, and another one interestingly doesn’t happen) earlier in the video. Between about 02:00 and 00:05:50, we are walking through a corridor of confined dogs: first two Mals, two Boxers and two Great Danes (only one of them seems to be outside today) on the left and a German Shepherd on the right, and then a small barky dog behind the hedge fence on the left.

All these dogs are barking and fence-running, but neither Game nor the puppy are giving them attention. Game doesn’t because I’ve taught her not to. The puppy doesn’t because they’ve grown up being a community dog, and community dogs generally learn fast to ignore the dogs who are yelling at them from behind fences: they learn that actual interaction is impossible, and they do not share the frustration of the respective dog behind the fence because they are free to do what they want.

The dogs behind the fences are not free to interact or do what they want. Fences (leashes can also have this effect) have a high potential of causing barrier frustration because they make it impossible for the dogs to interact like dogs normally would. Fence barking usually goes out of hand quickly because the dogs behind the fences are being reinforced for barking.

This is negative reinforcement: the dogs (or people) walking past outside the fence will eventually go away. The superstition a chronic fence-barker is likely to develop is that it is their barking that made them go away. If the initial barking was frustration-driven, the disappearance of the frustrating stimulus on the outside of the fence will be experienced as a relief. So they will continue barking. Even if the initial barking was attention seeking, attention seeking is highly likely to turn into frustration because they can’t go up to the other dog. If the initial barking is fear-driven (it is not in any of the dogs in the video), it will also be reinforced by having the fear-inducing stimulus on the outside of the fence eventually go away (simply because the stimulus outside the fence will move on with their life, and keep walking).

The puppy already knows that no real interaction is possible with fence barkers. So they don’t respond to the barky dogs, but keep pestering Game instead. Game is outside the fence. Interaction with Game is possible! Smart puppy!

Pet dogs (I am using “pet dog” to refer to a dog who is not free, and who is likely to be walked on leash) do not usually know this, and would join the fence-barking/fence-running if given an opportunity.

Game has learned that fence barkers are a cue for her to pay attention to me, because I will often pay for attention in these circumstances. You’ll hear me praise her (when I speak German, this is always praise for Game), and you’ll see me give her a treat at one point (02:49). Game also knows the meaning of fences. If a dog is yelling at her from behind a fence, she will ignore them. If these adult dogs were barking and coming at her without there being a fence, she would not ignore them. I’ve built this behavior by both preventing her from fence running with other dogs, being barked at from behind a fence being followed up with treat scatters, and marking and reinforcing attention when in the proximity of a fence barker/fence runner. At this point, Game would be able to walk past these dogs in a relaxed fashion even if I didn’t reinforce her. I still do though when I have treats on me (i.e. intermittently). Her off-leash relaxation in the face of fence-runners/barkers is important to me.

The adult black dog

At 08:46, an adult black dog comes into view on the little wall to the left of the sidewalk. You’ll see that this dog’s body is stiff – for example when you pause the video at 09:34. This dog and Game have run into each other several times, and the black one is always stiff. This wall is within the black dog’s home range and within Game’s core area. Game doesn’t care about the black dog, and the black dog … well, the black dog never really seems to trust or approve of Game. Maybe this will change if we stay for a few more months, or maybe the black one will always disapprove of Game. Some personalities simply don’t match, just like with people. As long as no one escalates a personality mismatch, there’s no issue: live and let live.

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