Dogs Pulling. How to enjoy a loose-leash walk with your dog.

The first step in training a good loose-leash walk:   Getting Out the Door.

You want to have a nice, relaxing walk with your dog.  You want to enjoy the fresh air, chat with people a little, and have some easy and quiet time with your buddy.  And then you find yourself being dragged along by an Iditarod wanna-be, who’s completely obsessed with getting to the next thing he wants to sniff and treats you like a sled.  This is not what you signed up for.  How did this happen and how do you change it?

This isn’t relaxing or pleasant for either you or your dog.

The first thing you have to realize is that going for a walk is a big deal for your dog.  It’s the best part of his day.  He gets to sniff new things, works of pent-up energy and he’s spending time with his favorite person.  He’s excited to get out there and get started.   If he is already over-excited about going outside for a walk, and is jumping or doing doughnuts in the house because he’s so eager to go, then its pretty unreasonable to expect him to immediately settle down and be perfectly polite once you go out the door.  You want him to be in a pretty mellow state of mind when you’re headed out the door, and that begins when you decide that its time for the walk.  So, the first thing to do is to extinguish any over-arousal or inappropriate excitement when you’re getting ready to do.

If he already has an established behavior of over-excitement before the walk even starts, addressing that is the first step in teaching him leash manners.  Before starting this, ask yourself if you are contributing to this excitement.  Face it, how excited for the walk are you?  You probably enjoy it but, as far as you’re concerned, its not a big deal.  That’s the message you want to convey to your pet before you leave.  Don’t make a big deal out of getting ready to go outside.  Don’t ramp him up by asking “Wanna go for a WALK??!!”

If he already has an established behavior of over-excitement before the walk even starts, addressing that is the first step in teaching him leash manners.

Do you have established times of day for going on walks?  Is this part of a set routine?  If so, is he watching you like a hawk as the minutes count down to that time, while his excitement slowly ramps up?  Does he spring into action when you get up and reach for the leash?   If so, then the simplest way to address this is to randomize your walk times.  Go on short walks at varying times through the day, so that he is not ramping up his excitement in anticipation.  There’s no need to stop going for walks at your regular time, just add some random outdoor time to the mix.

Have you, even inadvertently, established a ritual that signals to him that a walk is about to begin and triggers excitement on his part?  Does he start over-reacting every time you pick up the leash?  If so, there are a couple of things you can do:

First off, change whatever you are doing that prompts his excited behavior. (Keeping in mind, you don’t want to decrease his enjoyment of walking.  You just want to change his behavior that expressed that enjoyment.)  If you have a particular sequence of actions (get up, sigh, stretch, say something to your spouse or partner about going for the walk, put on a hat, pick up the leash) that your dog has come to recognize, then modify that ritual.  Mix it up a little.  Don’t send the signals that ramp up his excitement (King, 2019).

Secondly, don’t reward his excitement.  If he is spinning himself into an excited state every time you pick up the leash, then stop reinforcing that behavior.  If you pick up the leash and he responds by excited jumping, mouthing, or any other undesirable behavior; stop, put down the leash and turn your back until he stops.  Don’t give him any feedback at all.  Repeat this every time he has the behavior that you want him to stop.  Be consistent.  Remember, the leash and the walk are the reward he’s been getting for acting like this.  You want to eliminate that reward and stop the reinforcement (Miller, 2008).  It may take a while for it to sink into his head, but if you stick to it, he will learn that the excited behavior gets him the opposite of what he wants.

Note:  In some cases, this lack of reinforcement may result in him increasing this behavior for a short period and seem to be even more excited.  If this should happen, remove yourself from the vicinity and give him a time out.  If it persists, consult a professional canine behaviorist. 

Third, its not enough to make your dog stop doing something.  You want to give him something else to do instead of the behavior you want to extinguish and reinforce the alternative behavior. Have him do something that makes it impossible to act excitedly while being leashed up.  You’ll find this referred to as “Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior” (Chance, 2006).   Presumably, he already has a repertoire of tricks that he’s already been taught; if he knows “sit”, have him do that while you’re leashing him up.  If he doesn’t hold the sit throughout the whole leashing-up exercise, give him a quick “Nope” or “Uh uh” then stop, reset and start over.  Being released from the sit with the leash attached and praise is all he’ll need.  The leash being attached, and the walk starting, is the reward for a “good sit”.

Reducing the dogs’ initial excitement level is the first step in reducing over-excitement and pulling during walks.  In the next post, we’ll look at reducing the pulling behavior while the walk is ongoing.

 

References:

Chance, P. (2006).  First Course in Applied Behavior Analysis.  Long Grove, IL, Waveland Press, Inc.

King, T. (May 2009).  Over Excitement in Dogs.  The Bark.  Retrieved from thebark.com/content/over-excitement-dogs 

Miller, P.  (2008).  The Power of Positive Dog Training, (2nd ed.).  Hoboken, NJ, Wiley.

 

The Use of Aversives in Pet Training

The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior has released a new position statement on the role of aversive training methods in training and behavior modification.

The statement says that aversives are not only ineffective, but are counterproductive.   Positive, rewards-based, training is the most effective method in both animal training and behavior modification.
AVSAB-Humane-Dog-Training-Position-Statement-2021.pdf (ftlbcdn.net)

Penny, an update

I wanted to provide an update on Penny.  Her desensitization to stairs is ongoing, and she is now willingly using outside stairs and handicap ramps.  After reviewing her progress, I’m of the opinion that much of her hesitancy to use stairs or door

Winston, Part Two

Continued from Winston:  A Story of Desensitization Winston, a story of desensitization | The Animal Nerd

Keeping in mind the three objectives that we established, I began spending more time with Winston.

Over the next two sessions, Winston’s attachment to me became stronger, as did his social anxiety.  He was able to relax and play when no other people were around but, as soon as other people appeared, he would seek physical contact with me, often positioning himself so that I was between him and other people and avoided looking at them.  This was particularly the case in indoor settings, such as the shelter lobby.  I also noted that he was still not engaging in any self-soothing behavior and that his level of anxiety would slowly increase while in social settings.  On the plus side, the shelter staff has determined that he is well socialized with other dogs; he behaves appropriately and invites play upon meeting new dogs of varying ages and sizes.

He was able to relax and play, and accept more human handlers.

I began by introducing play during both outdoor and indoor sessions.  He enjoyed retrieving tennis balls in our outdoor pen, so I would start the sessions there and let him play until he was in a relaxed state of mind.  Following that, we would have some quiet time, sitting with him and letting him watch the shelter grounds.  After two of these sessions, I found that he would relax during the quiet time and allow some distance between us.  He was also starting to show stress-shedding behaviors, such as yawning and body shakes.

He was also beginning to open up to some of the shelter staff and was showing attachment to them as well as to me.  So, after consulting with the shelter behavior team, I began recruiting experienced volunteers to handle him during walks and play, with the goal of giving him pleasant experiences with new people.  When introducing him to new human friends, we did this in the least stressful way possible, with me leashing him and taking him from his run then starting a walk with the new handler.  After a few minutes I would hand off the leash and accompany them to the play area.  At this point, I would stop reacting to him and have the new person engage in all play and displays of affection.  It never took more than one session for him to accept the new volunteer as a trusted friend.

In indoor settings, I began using the “find it” game (tossing high-value treats within the radius of his leash) whenever he began showing distress or started clinging to me when other people were around. This was successful in getting him to reduce his anxiety level and interact with his surroundings rather than avoid them.  I also encouraged his growing circle of human friends to engage with him when I had him on leash in the shelter lobby.   I continued to disengage from him when other handlers were present, and he has responded to that by engaging with them.  At present, he is able to lie down and relax on the cool lobby floor when new people are present.

Winston is getting close to being adoptable.  The shelter staff will attempt to place him with adopters who already have a well-socialized dog and are willing to commit to a continued management program in order to identify and address any guarding behaviors that may arise as he adjusts to being in a new environment.  From what I can see, his prognosis is good.

Update (8/21/2021):  Winston has been adopted.

 

Winston, a story of desensitization

Last month I was asked to take on another “project dog”.  That’s how I met Winston.

        Affection or insecurity?

He had been returned to the shelter after his adoptive owner experienced problems with him.  Winston had gradually become emotionally dependent on her to the point that he guarded her as a resource and was being aggressive with any visitors to the house.  He was also displaying high levels of anxiety about noises outside the house and was becoming extremely reactive to them.  The owner eventually decided that she couldn’t handle his issues and brought him back.

When I first met him through the glass door to his run, he was extremely reactive.  He was baring his teeth, giving low growls and short, staccato “warning” barks.  I followed my usual initial practice of sitting down on the floor outside his run, facing away at an angle and reading my messages and Facebook feed, while occasionally putting a treat in the run (There are “treat holes” in the glass fronts to the dog runs.  These encourage the dogs to approach visitors and potential adopters.)  I repeated this three times on the first day.

The second day, he was quieter when I approached his run, but still visibly nervous.  This changed when he saw that I was unlocking the run, at which he visibly relaxed. He had come to associate this motion on my part with food and potty breaks, and he was visibly happier and more relaxed.  I was able to leash him up very easily and took him outside.  That’s when I was able to get a good look at him and his behavior.

The shelter has a large, very pleasant, outdoor area that includes a large field, a large, enclosed play area and the grounds have shaded areas with benches.  I took Winston on a walk around the entire grounds so that he could have a few good sniffs and relieve himself, then just sat with him on a bench that had a view of the building entrance, to see what he did while people came and went.  I saw that he became alert whenever anyone came into view, but that he didn’t engage in any self-soothing behavior during quiet times.  I also saw that his level of tension was ramping up, and that he was beginning to seek physical contact with me.  I took him around the building to a quiet area in the back of the building, near a wooded area, and he was still unable to relax.  He began to increase his contact-seeking behavior, putting his head and paw on my knee and pressing himself against my leg.

All this inside of 30 -45 minutes (which is the maximum time that I spend with a dog during behavior modification treatment).   In two short sessions, he had gone from giving me teeth-baring distancing signs to extreme contact-seeking behavior.  At this point, I had a pretty good idea of his issues:  He was an extremely anxious dog who had trouble shedding stress and sought contact with a human handler as a means of feeling secure.  It’s very understandable how an owner could mistake this contact-seeking behavior for displays of attachment and affection and encourage it.   Its adorable, but its also the exact opposite of a healthy, relaxed behavior.

So, the job was to increase his confidence regarding people, help him to relax and engage in self-soothing, and help him to tolerate strangers in his space.

To be continued.

Bird illness – update

Update (August 22, 2021). Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology and the College of Veterinary Medicine have advised that, although the reason for the bird mortality is still undetermined, cases are declining the infection appears to be waning.  State wildlife officials throughout the Midwest and Atlantic seaboard have rescinded their guidance to take down bird feeders. Mysterious Bird Disease – Take Down Your Feeders | The Animal Nerd

Update – although the mysterious illness that is killing songbirds in the mid-Atlantic and mid-west appears to be declining in those states (Zenkevich, 2021), the Hartford Courant is reporting that cases have now been identified in southern New England (Arnott, 2021).  We are still being asked to refrain from putting up bird feeders and bird baths.

Arnott, C. (August 6, 2021).  Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’.  Hartford Courant.  Retrieved from Bird deaths from mystery illness confirmed in Connecticut; Audubon advises ‘no birdfeeders’ – Hartford Courant

Zenkevich, J. (August 4, 2021).  Reports Of Mysterious Bird Disease Decreasing In Pennsylvania. Retrieved from  www.sciencefriday.com/articles/bird-disease-decreasing/ 

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 3

Our shelter staff found a very experienced foster family to take in Penny and help her acclimate to living in a house.  Two Fridays ago, they picked her up from the shelter and brought her to their home.

The following afternoon, I arrived at the shelter and found Penny back in her run, very happy to see me.  It turns out that Penny had two additional issues that we had not known about:  She was afraid of cars and she refused to use stairs.  The first issue came up as the shelter staff helped her get into the foster family’s car.  The second issue came up when they got to their home, which happens to be a second-floor walkup apartment.  I should note that, for all her anxiety and self-harming tendencies, Penny is a remarkably gentle dog.  When she objects to doing something, she simply freezes in place.

So.  Two steps forward and one step back.  Now we have to add cars and stairs to the list of things that Penny needs to become habituated to using.   I tried the usual methods of getting her to use the shelter staircase, first by luring her with high value treats and later asking her to follow another friendly dog up them.  I was able to get her to go up four steps and she finally put her hind feet on the bottom step, but that was as far as I could get; she would become overly anxious and shut down.  And using this particular staircase became a non-starter when she caught on to the fact that the cats and small animals were housed near the stairs.  There’s no way that treats were going to distract her from those.

Once she began to associate cars with pleasant experiences, she decided that they weren’t so bad.

So I decided to use a different approach to conquering her fear of stairs by getting her to use outdoor stairs in open areas.  Unfortunately, large as our shelter grounds are, there are no stairs outside the building.  We figured that a nearby middle school, which had wide outside steps, would be perfect for this effort; but that would mean getting her in a car.  And we knew that Penny would have to become habituated to using multiple cars and generalize being in them.  So, several of us began an effort to make cars fun and desirable by a combination of high value treats and pleasant experiences in them.  We got her to follow us into cars and then took her on field trips to fun and interesting places, with lots of things to sniff.  Within a few days, she was jumping into cars with minimal encouragement.

Then I started taking her to the middle school and using the stairs.  On the first visit, a couple of days ago, she went up and down a low set of outside steps (four steps) but balked at using a larger one.   We’re continuing to work on that.

We have more work to do with Penny, but she’s come along far enough that the shelter staff believe that she can be adopted out to a family that’s willing to work with her post-adoption.   In the meantime, I’ll keep working with her on her few remaining issues.

Lessons learned: 

First, do not rush.  Get the dog to accept and trust you before attempting to modify her behavior.  If, as far as she is concerned, you’re just a treat bag with an arm, you won’t get results that will transfer to an adoptive family and home.

Second, get the dog familiarized and comfortable in environment in which the behavior modification treatment is taking place.  If she is stressed by being in a new location, you’re not going to get anywhere.  Depending on the dog, this may take several visits.

Third, do not forget the basics.  Penny’s treatment was complicated by the fact that the only skill in her repertoire was “sit”.  This is a great help in leashing her up, but not good for much else.  When you’re trying to get a dog to overcome a fear of performing a certain action, there is no substitute for having a good, solid recall.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning. Part 2

Continued from Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd

So, with progress made on her overly active greetings, which were affecting the number of shelter volunteers who were allowed to, or willing to, work with her; and with her anxiety at being outdoors reduced to the point that it was no longer apparent, it was time to start work on getting her to tolerate indoor spaces.

I continued taking her to explore outdoor areas and relaxing with her in shady shots where she could watch the comings and goings at the shelter.  And I started experimenting with her behavior indoors.  It soon became apparent that she:  A. Refused to go through any doors except those that were in a direct path the outdoors; B.  Refused to go through any interior corridors; and C. Wouldn’t walk on shiny floors.  She didn’t panic when asked to go to any of these places.  She simply froze in place and refused to move.

All of which would seriously get in the way of getting her adopted.  On the plus side, she was very food motivated, and loves people and other dogs.  So, this gave me something to work with.

In order to get her to tolerate shiny surfaces and being inside a building, I first had to get her to accept going through doors.  I picked an entrance to the shelter that was in a fairly quiet spot and didn’t get a lot of foot traffic, but was near a section of occupied kennels (providing a scent-rich environment).  After she had a nice walk and some down time, I walked her up to the entrance whereupon she balked and froze as soon as the door opened.

Fortunately, I was prepared.  I kept her on leash, propped open the door, sat down and broke out my weapons:  small pieces of sliced of hot dogs, string cheese and the stinkiest training treats that I could buy in my local warehouse store.  I tossed an assortment of them on the ground immediately outside the door and, after some hesitation, she vacuumed them up and got praised.  I repeated this several times, each time tossing the treats closer to the door threshold and praising her every time she stepped closer.  Each time she advanced; I took up some of the slack in the leash without pulling her.  This prevented her from retreating to square one, but also allowed her to establish a new comfort zone.  It also precluded any oppositional pulling.

After several iterations during the following week, I was able to toss the treats inside the door while she stretched inside to get them; then, as I put the treats further inside, she began putting her front paws across the threshold.  And she eventually stepped all the way inside.  Once she was far enough in, I gently closed the door and kept praising her while giving her a good scratch.  That was enough for the first day.  She had earned a good cool down in her run.

The shelter lobby became her favorite place to hang out with her human friends

On the next session, she balked at the door again, but overcame her fear more quickly and with fewer treats.  By the third session, it took half as much time and reinforcement to get her inside.  After that, I was able to get her to stay in the interior corridor without asking to leave, while getting scratches, pets and treats.   I then enlisted some volunteers to join us in the corridor, and she relaxed enough to walk up to each of them and ask for pets.  During the next session we moved further down the corridor and, she willingly entered the main lobby on the following day.

This was the big breakthrough.  After getting her used to being in the lobby of the shelter, I was very quickly able to get her to visit all the public areas in the shelter, and she began to enjoy being around her human friends (e.g., everybody she met).   She willingly used all the building entrances and the shelter lobby became her favorite place.  She was getting very popular with the staff and volunteers, and had lots of positive interaction.

She was still occasionally snapping at the stump of her tail occasionally.  Often when food was provided or she became excited.  I began responding to this by giving her scratches on her butt and  hips whenever she did this.  She initially reacted to my doing this, but after a few repetitions, she began to accept this as a pleasant stimulus and relaxed and leaned into me while I was doing it.  I enlisted other handlers and volunteers to do the same thing, and her self-harming reduced over the next several days as she accepted that activity along  her flanks hindquarters was a good thing.

At this point, we had reduced her fear of being outside her run, had reduced her tendency to self-harm, she was greeting her handlers in a calm and friendly manner and her tendency to self-harm was greatly reduced.  Our staff decided to place her in a foster home to continue her treatment and acclimate her to a home environment outside the shelter, and I felt that she was well on the way.

And that’s when the wheels came off the cart.

To be continued.

Penny, a story of counterconditioning

Part One

So, in late May I was at the shelter, and the Behavior Services manager asked me if I would like to have a “project dog”.  That’s how I met Penny.

She is a 3-year-old, 50 lb mixed breed with a short brindle coat, natural ears and a docked tail.  It turns out that her tail had been docked at the shelter because she was habitually attacking it whenever she had certain stimuli – such as every single meal – and had seriously injured it.

Aside from the compulsive self-harming whenever she was eating or overly excited, Penny showed signs of extreme anxiety.  Her kennel was in a quiet area of the shelter that was closed off to visitors.  Whenever she was taken outside, she would immediately head for the door to relieve herself and then continually try to lead her handler back inside to the safety of her kennel.  She refused to use any door other than the one nearest to her kennel and she would refuse to use any part of the shelter interior beyond the minimum distance between her run and that door.  On the plus side, she was friendly to every person on staff and gave exuberant greetings to her human friends – sometimes so exuberant that it was difficult to handle her – leading to her harness being kept on her at all times.  In her current state, she was a sweet and friendly dog who was completely unadoptable.

She had been held by other shelters and fosters prior to arriving at ours.  And the somewhat sketchy history that came along with her indicated that these were long-standing behavior problems – particularly her tendency to attack and injure her tail.  At this point, she had been in the shelter for almost two months, between her initial quarantine, her surgery and recovery, there hadn’t been much work done on addressing her behavior problems.   After getting the initial run-down of her (many) issues, I worked out a set of priorities with our behavior staff.

  • First:  We needed to reduce the anxiety she had being outdoors.
  • Second:  We needed her to be able to use doors and interior spaces outside the “safe space” of her kennel.
  • Third:  We needed to reduce her tendency to attack her own body parts – even with her tail docked, she was still showing a tendency to snap at her own flank and hip when food was present or she was overly stimulated.
  • Fourth:  We needed to help her control her overly-excited greetings, particularly with new people.

So…I got to work.

First things first:  Getting her to at least tolerate being outdoors.

I took her out of her run as quietly and matter-of-factly as possible.  I found that the usual method of quieting a jumping dog (negative reinforcement – removing the response to jumping, turning my back and standing still) worked very well.  I then stayed to one side of her while attaching the leash to her martingale collar and easy-walk harness.

I then took her outside by her usual route.  She was in a hurry to “do her business” and then wanted to return to her indoors kennel.  By changing direction a few times, I was able to get her to walk at oblique angles to her initial route back to her safe place, and get her to spend some time outside.  I noticed that when she was actively sniffing a new scent, she relaxed.  Her ears went back, her tail went up, her back relaxed, and she forgot to be afraid.   I could work with that.  I found a bench in a shady spot and sat with her for a while, not interacting with her unless she solicited any touching or petting, and just let her experience the day.  She never really relaxed on that first day, but she didn’t try to escape or go back inside until I brought her back indoors.

For the next two weeks, I took her outside and made a point of walking her on the shelter grounds in areas that other dogs frequented and along the tree lines where rabbits and other local wildlife were common.  Basically, anywhere that was a scent-rich environment.  This was a positive experience for her; and within those two-weeks she completely lost her anxiety about being outdoors and enjoyed experiencing the entire area that our shelter encompasses, several acres of open land.

I then took her to our outdoor exercise area, which is a large open grassy area inside a six-foot fence.  The first time I unclipped her leash inside it, she immediately ran to the gate and started leaping at it, trying to escape.  I leashed her back up and walked her around the inside perimeter of the exercise pen, letting her stop and sniff whenever she wanted, before taking her back outside for some quiet time.  After that, I made a point of taking her to the exercise area immediately after some other dogs had been there, creating a scent-rich environment.  Over the next week, she became interested in investigating the scents and was able to enjoy being there and relaxing off-leash.

Step One done. After three weeks, she was no longer anxious about being outdoors, and was associating outdoor time with interesting nose work and relaxation.  And we had made progress made on Step Four.   This was going so easily, I was feeling pretty optimistic.

To be continued.