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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Introduction of different surfaces:

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

2. Introduction to different sounds:

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

3. People:

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

4. Dogs:

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

5. Other animals:

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

6. Objects:

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

Further remarks:

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

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

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


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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

Mark Doty – Dog Years1

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

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

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

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

~ ~ ~

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

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

~ ~ ~

Sources

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

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

The Puzzle Week, Part 26: Resource Guarding

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

Resource guarding incident #1: toys


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do behaviors like resource guarding develop?

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

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

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

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

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

Fast learning

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

Resource guarding incident #2: Chrissi

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

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

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

Trust

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

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

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

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

To work or not to work on resource guarding

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

Resource guarding in free-roaming dogs

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

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


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

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

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

Mexican puppies learn to ignore dogs on roofs and behind fences

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

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

Cultural differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social skills: successful communication

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

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

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

Two lessons for humans

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

The Puzzle Week, Part 23: Dog/Human Socialization

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

Crowded spaces

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

Plaza Baratillo

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

La Universidad de Guanajuato

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

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

Inside places

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

Open urban spaces

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

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

Cerro del cuarto

La Alhóndiga

Meeting a free-roamer at the Alhóndiga.

Watching the world go by at the Alhóndiga.

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

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

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

Travel thoughts E1: dog/dog sociability

I had fun with The Brindle Girl series, and decided to do more video-style posts. I’m hoping this will tie me over until I go back to speaking in front of groups of people. I was going to record these while driving across Guatemala and Mexico – but it turned out that the AC blasting and the car were too much background noise. So I’m only recording these post road trip. They are still travel thoughts, so I’m keeping the name!

The first video post below is my musings about dog/dog sociability. After recording this, I remembered that I recently learned something that contradicts my anecdotal experience: dog breeds, it turns out, are much less predictive of an individual’s behavior and personality traits than we conventionally think they are.

How do we know that? As of today (May 27, 2021), the Darwin’s Ark project has analyzed 3,056,323 answers provided by the owners of 29,233 dogs. At the 2021 Lemonade Conference, Elinor Karlsson explained their approach in a captivating talk that was amazingly understandable even for someone like me, with zero training in data analysis or statistics. If you get a chance to catch one of her presentations – make sure you don’t miss it!

Based on what Elinor Karlsson and colleagues have found, you should take my video musings with a grain of salt! So before you watch my video – here’s the scientific caveat:

In relation to predicting sociability, we’ve learned two things from Darwin’s Ark:

  1. An individual dog’s behavior and personality traits can not accurately be predicted if all we know is their breed.
  2. Dog breeds have some subtle differences in behavior and personality when compared to all (pet) dogs.
    However, these differences are not clear for all factors examined in the Darwin’s Ark project. For example, there are no statistically significant breed differences when it comes to factors like agonistic threshold, and dog sociability – two factors relevant to my musings below.

Puppies: the importance of free play

One of the assignments in Grisha Stewart’s Empowered Puppy Raising class is to discuss Jon Hamilton’s article Scientists Say Child’s Play Helps Build A Better Brain. As a Bronze student, I couldn’t submit my thoughts, but I thought I’d write them down anyways. A colleague and I are planning to offer a puppy group class this spring, and we’re always on the outlook for input!

The article suggests that free play (“No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.”) leads to new neural connections in the pre-frontal cortex, and argues that play may not primarily serve the purpose of practicing fighting or hunting, but “to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways” (Jaak Panksepp). Furthermore, in human children, these social skills seem to be related to academic performance later in life.

Assuming that the canine brain reacts similarly to free play, we clearly want to give our puppies plenty of opportunities to practice free play! This also confirms that socialization is a lot more important than obedience training early in life. A dog can learn every trick in the book later in life, but there is only one puppyhood – and in it, we are building the foundations of how he will relate to other dogs later in life. Thinking of the children’s academic performance, we may even build the foundations of the ease with which he takes to dog sports later in life.

For our puppies, the parallel to human free play might be to give them a chance to interact with other puppies and adult dogs of all kinds of sizes, ages, male and female, neutered and intact, and with different play styles. We also want to keep our puppies safe, so we should set them up for success by means of finding appropriate playmates, and always keeping an eye on them. If a puppy gets overwhelmed or does not respect the others’ distance-increasing signals, it’s time to step in. That is to say: we should give them the opportunity to negotiate social situations for themselves, but never abandon them with more than they can handle. We never force them to interact with other dogs – if our puppy is shy, we’ll let her watch the others play from a distance until she herself decides she wants to participate. We don’t lure her closer; we let her progress at her own speed. She is in control of who she engages with. If after some time of play, our puppy seeks sanctuary near our legs, we will respect that wish and make sure to not let the others get too close. I like Roya Hollensteiner metaphor for this safe zone: she describes it as an imaginary box we build with the help of our arms. Our puppy may seek shelter in our “box” anytime, and may leave it anytime if she wants to resume playing. However, the other dogs or puppies may not enter our puppy’s box, i.e. the space in front of her human’s legs.

Ideally, the puppies would get to play in different environments, so they could have chase games outside as well as calmer bitey face games inside. A third part, which I consider equally important, is exploring the environment together with others or hunting for treats together, for example on a walk with a dog friend. We want our puppies to share both exciting experiences and calm experiences with other dogs.

As long as they play well together, we don’t interrupt – this is not the time for human rules and obedience, this is the time for learning to be a dog.