Dog-to-Dog Reactivity

Many of the dogs that I encounter at the shelter are overly stressed and somewhat frightened.  And they sometimes come to us with, and because of, behavioral issues that their owners were unable to manage or live with.  Reactivity is one of the more serious of these issues that we encounter.

“Reactive” is a poorly defined term that is commonly used in describing dog behavior.  I tend to use Dr. Karen Overall’s definition of a reactive animal as one who responds to a normal stimulus with a higher-than-normal level of intensity.  This can be based in a strong emotional response to that stimulus, such as fear, over-excitement, or simple frustration.  Putting it another way, reactive behavior is a severe, undesirable response to anything that causes the dog to feel fear, anxiety or an abundance of stress.  If the intensity of the response reaches the level that the dog is unable to control his actions, this becomes a problem for most owners.

Reactivity is very common among the dogs that you will encounter in shelters.  Shelter dogs are under a great deal of stress under the best of circumstances and may be prone to having exaggerated reactions to the presence of certain stimuli – most often other dogs.  Their level of stress may be such that the sight of another dog, or any other stimulus that triggers a strong emotional response, is all it takes to put them over a behavioral threshold into a state in which they become aggressive.  This may be due to a number of reasons:

  • They may be experiencing barrier frustration, due to being restrained by either a handler’s leash or by the walls and door of their run.
  • It may be that the dog is fearful of other dogs, based on some prior negative experiences.
  • The dog may be poorly socialized.
  • The dog may never had been trained to exercise self-control.
  • It could also be that the dog has a genetic predisposition that against tolerating other dogs.

This dog is reacting to the barrier frustration of being restrained by a leash.

Note that I have not used the word “aggression”.  Reactivity and aggression are two entirely different things.  A reactive dog is over-reacting to a particular situation – he may simply overly eager to meet and greet another other dog or a person.  However, the amount of frustration that he experiences during this excited state can reach the point at which he behaves aggressively, or even redirects his over excitement and potential aggression to the person that is handling him. (Rakosky, 2020).

Please also note that, although the presence of other dogs is a very common reason, a dog can be reactive to almost anything that causes an emotional response.  Men wearing hats, children, cars, or anything else that induces fear or excitement can cause a dog to become over-excited and react.  The reaction can be based in fear, over-eagerness, or any other strong emotion.  And this behavior can become reinforced over time:  If your dog sees a person or another dog outside your window his territorial instincts may go into overdrive, causing him to go ballistic.  When the trespasser eventually goes on his way, your dog will interpret that as the result of his over-the-top performance and will reinforce and encourage that behavior (Miller, 2003).

Which brings us to a dog that I’ve been working with at the shelter.  She is a one-year old Akita, very pretty and well-socialized with people, who was presented with a history of strong reactivity to other dogs.  In reviewing her history, I found that she had initially been transported in from another state with very little background or information, and then was adopted out to a local home after a relatively short stay in the shelter (this is not surprising, pure-bred dogs do not tend to have lengthy stays in shelters).  Her adopters lived in a townhouse with a small, fenced back yard, and she had been “aggressive” with the neighbor’s dog through that fence.

I began working with her by taking her on walks around the shelter grounds, avoiding interactions and keeping to quiet areas with trees and benches.  She was extremely anxious the first couple of times I had her outside her run:  She was on high alert and was vocalizing with whines and whimpers, with her Akita tail held down and refusing treats.  That said, she never displayed any anxiety about being handled or being fitted with a harness.  It took three outings on consecutive days before she relaxed and began to enjoy being outdoors with me.  She eventually relaxed, interacted with her environment and me in normal, curious manner and carried her tail in the distinctive Akita curl.  Once I had gotten her accustomed to the shelter grounds and a low level of activity, I worked on determining the level of her reactivity.

Given that she was a large and powerful dog, for safety’s sake I tested her reactivity by having her harnessed and on leash while an assistant leash walked a life-like dummy dog near her and we both watched her closely while this stimulus was present.  She became agitated when the target (dummy) dog was being walked (pacing and whining), but she could be easily distracted from it and never lost her leash manners or responses to my instructions.  However, when I had my assistant position the dummy so that it was facing her – apparently standing still and “staring” at her – her response intensified, and she began aggressively barking and lunging.    However, she never became so aroused that she ignored her handler or redirected her “aggression” to any persons or objects.  Throughout this exercise she was relatively easy to distract and move away from the dummy.

I reported to shelter management that I thought her reactivity was at a low level and was manageable.  From what I observed, she was uncomfortable with other dogs and tried to avoid interacting with them.  When confronted with the dummy, she had engaged in distance-increasing behaviors and tried to move away from it; and it was only when we increased the level of engagement with the dummy that she increased her distancing behaviors and put on a threatening display (Farricelli, 2021).  I informed the shelter staff that, although I hadn’t observed her in her adoptive home, I considered it possible that her yard had been too small to give her a chance to escape the neighbor’s dog even though they had been separated by a fence.  I also offered the possibility that she engages in trigger stacking and that the intensity of her reaction to the dummy had been increased by the “background” stress of being in a shelter.

This illustrates the need to closely define the exact stimulus that triggers the over-the-top emotional response in a reactive dog.  It could be a person walking by the house, or just a person walking another dog.  It could be anyone who comes to the door, or just a deliveryman in a uniform.  It could be the presence of one dog, a particular behavior by that dog, or a group of dogs playing.   Before diving into a treatment, you must first diagnose the specific stimulus that is sending the dog over his behavioral threshold.  It’s not enough to say that he’s reacting to other dogs, you must fine-tune that statement as much as possible.  For example, does he react to the sight of all other dogs everywhere he encounters them, or is it only under certain circumstances?  Is it all other dogs, or just dogs of certain sizes?  What are the dogs doing that sends him over the threshold of his self-control?  Are they excited, playing, roughhousing? running?

And it illustrates the need to closely observe the dog in situations where the reactivity occurs.   Ideally, you will observe the dog with its owners in the home environment in which the behavior occurs.   You must identify how the dog behaves from the moment that he first encounters the stimulus that causes his reactive behavior.  Does he try to distance himself from it?  How is he communicating his anxiety?  And at what point does he reach a behavioral threshold?

Its only after going through this process that you can determine how to manage or treat the dog’s reactivity.  There is no one-size-fits-all solution, and it requires the owners to either commit to avoiding or managing situations in which the reactivity can be triggered, or take part in course of systematic desensitization.

I’m happy to report that my akita friend was adopted last week.  The shelter staff took care to place her with experienced adopters who had more space and were committed to engaging a behaviorist/trainer to help socialize and desensitize her.

 

References

Farricelli, A. (2021, April 12). Distance Increasing and Decreasing Signals in Dogs. PetHelpful.  Retrieved from pethelpful.com/dogs/-Distance-Increasing-and-Distance-Decreasing-Signals-in-Dogs

Miller, P. (2003, October 10).  Causes of Reactive Dog Behavior and How to Train Accordingly.  Whole Dog Journal.  Retrieved from www.whole-dog-journal.com/behavior/causes-of-reactive-dog-behavior-and-how-to-train-accordingly/

Overall, K. (1997).  Clinical Behavioral Medicine For Small Animals, 1st Edition, Maryland Heights, MO, Mosby.

Rakosky, E.  (2020, August 19).  What is Aggression?  Dog Reactivity vs. Dog Aggression.  Retrieved from www.akc.org/expert-advice/training/reactivity-vs-aggression/

Excited Biting / Arousal Biting

I’ve recently worked with two shelter dogs who were in danger of being deemed “unadoptable” due to their excessive mouthiness with humans.  Both dogs were medium sized mixed breeds who had developed tendencies to grab arms, hands and clothing when being handled – to the extent that some shelter personnel were unwilling to deal with them.  It became my job to identify the reasons for this behavior and find a way to reduce its intensity and severity.

The first of these dogs, “Aggie”, was the more severe case.  She was a very pretty, goofy and friendly pit mix who was almost impossible to handle due to her biting and grabbing behavior.  She would be walking on leash and suddenly turn on the handler and begin intently biting his shoes, cuffs or socks.  When being harnessed, she would grab and hold the handlers’ hands or forearms.  Her behavior was escalating and becoming a serious problem and impediment to adoption.  So she became one of my “project” dogs.

Excited/arousal biting is an impulse that some dogs have to use their mouths inappropriately when they are in a high state of excitement.  Their need to use their mouths to hold and chew something becomes greater than their bite inhibition, and they tend to grab something that in inappropriate or harmful to others.  Arousal can be defined as “The state of being that occurs when strong emotions are evoked by fear, anger, stress, excitement or joy…During heightened arousal, animals are predominantly reactive, the limbic system in the brain manages their flight or fight reactivity.  During peek arousal, the animal may be unresponsive to attempts to elicit trained behaviors.”  (Handelman, 2008).  This behavior is sometimes found in dogs that are housed in shelters, due to the high levels of stress that they’re under in those environments.   One of the primary roles of shelter staff and volunteers is to reduce the dogs’ overall stress and help them find ways to cope with life in a shelter Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd .

Mouthing during play is a normal puppy behavior. They learn bite inhibition during early socialization with littermates and humans.

Dogs use their mouths to play and to grab, hold and carry things.  It is a completely natural behavior that is part of their normal daily life.  And dogs generally exercise exquisite control over the speed and force with which they use their mouths.  This control, generally termed “bite inhibition” is learned during early socialization, primarily from their dams and littermates; and behaviorists encourage owners to continue this learning when they bring puppies into their homes (Dunbar, 2003).   Not all dogs learn this inhibition during the critical early socialization phases, however it can be trained later in life.  This important subject will be addressed in a later article.  The immediate problem we’re addressing here is how to deal with a dog who is prone to becoming so excited that his arousal level overcomes his training and bite inhibition.  I should point out that this is not aggressive behavior – it is simply a reaction to an overwhelming level of arousal.  But it can easily escalate due to frustration and responses to the handler’s reactions, leading to injuries.

This was the case with Aggie.   During the first few sessions I had with her, I simply observed her behaviors and interactions, and learned a few things:  First, she was very social and affectionate with her handlers.  Second, she was highly stressed (This is normal for shelter dogs.  No matter how much enrichment and positive experiences that a shelter provides, simply being in the shelter is a stressful situation for any dog.) Third, she didn’t have the normal ability to shed stress and didn’t engage in the usual self-soothing behaviors that most dogs have in their repertoire.  Lastly, she “trigger stacks”.  Trigger Stacking is a phenomenon that occurs when reactive dogs are exposed to multiple events that trigger excitement at the same time, or in succession, so that their excitement level ramps up to the point that they reach threshold that causes a behavior to occur.  In her case, when handlers came into her run, she gave them an excited greeting which the handlers responded to and inadvertently encouraged.  They then tried to get control of her in order to harness her for walking by giving her high-value treats.  The presence of the treats and the prospect of going for a walk further added to her excitement level, sending her over her arousal threshold and causing her to lose her inhibition against grabbing and biting.  This level of excitement carried over into her walk outside, to the point that any new stimulus caused aroused biting.

The first treatment that I put in place was to change her handlers’ behavior.  The goal was to make being harnessed, leashed and taken out of her run a normal and routine part of her day.  So, I eliminated the use of all treats in her run and instituted a friendly and low-key attitude for handling her.  At the first sign of arousal biting, handlers were told to leave her run for a timeout and avoid all other forms of correction.  I also adopted a Differential Reinforcement of Incompatible Behavior protocol, giving her a “sit” command during harnessing and leashing.  These served to keep her excitement level below threshold during leashing.  After a couple of days, she was much calmer during handling insider her run and would simply approach handlers for pets and affection rather than jumping and biting, then sit as soon as she saw the leash and harness.  She was visibly excited, but she was making good decisions and controlling herself.  However, as soon as she was taken out of the shelter building for a walk, her excitement level would ramp up to “11” and she would lose all bite inhibitions and would stop responding to any commands or prompts.  Virtually and sight or sound would send her over her behavioral threshold, and she would attack handlers’ shoes, clothing, hands and arms.  This was part of her trigger stacking: although she was handling the excitement of being harnessed and leashed, she was still in a highly stressed and aroused state and was unable to deal with additional stimuli.

I experimented with giving her an alternative outlet for her biting impulse.  As soon as I took her out of the run, before going outside the building, I showed her a huge rope chew (double rope, 30 inches long).  She immediately adopted it as her favorite thing in the world and began treating it as a tug toy as soon as we went outside.  For the next half-hour, she initiated tug-o-war games and carried the rope toy throughout our walk.  Whenever she made a move towards my shoes or pants cuff, I gave her a light audible correction and reintroduced the approved toy.  After two of these interventions, I saw her look at my shoe, then decide to grab the toy instead.  After a while, her excitement level dropped, and she began dropping the toy to sniff interesting things; and I noticed stress-relieving behaviors on her part (yawns, body shakes, etc).  After a while we stopped for a rest on a bench, upon which she jumped up alongside me, put her head in my lap, sighed deeply and relaxed.  Later in the day, I was able to use the toy as part of training the “drop it” prompt.  Other trainers began using novel tug toys with her and reported similar results.  And, in a few days, her biting impulse in general was much reduced.  By having an approved alternative outlet for her excitement, she was able to regain some self-control; and by having an outlet that did not provide any feedback from being bitten, it became a less desirable behavior.

The second dog, “Anna” was a different, and easier, case.   Anna is a medium-sized Labrador mix (AKA, American black dog).  Like Aggie, she was friendly with shelter staff and volunteers but was difficult to handle due to her constant state of stress-related excitement.  When she was in an aroused state, she was very reactive.  She would respond to the slightest touch by whipping her head around to the hand that was touching her, sometimes making contact with her teeth.  Unlike Aggie, she retained better bite inhibition and didn’t attempt to grab and hold her handlers’ arms or hands, but her behavior was escalating.  While observing her I noted that she is a very food-motivated, almost to the point of becoming fixated on any food that is in her vicinity. I also found that the shelter staff and volunteers were using food as a bribe while harnessing and leashing her for an outside walk, which increased her stimulation and excitement level – making her even more reactive.  I also saw that she had a similarly strong fixation on squeaky toys.   She would ignore durable chew toys or tugging ropes, or any other toy that did not provide an audible squeak when she bit down on it.  Her fixation on these toys did not reach the level of resource guarding to the point that she would show any signs of aggression but, once given a toy, she would actively keep anyone from taking it away.   It became we were dealing with a dog that had near-obsessions with food and with particular kinds of toys, and who became excited and reactive when she had them.

The first thing I did was to eliminate the use of any treats while she was in her run.  I wanted her to become accustomed to be leashed and handled without associating people with food treats.  In fact, I withheld all treats except to use as reinforcers when she was being trained on a new skill and kept training sessions very short.  She was so food-motivated that she would learn new skills very quickly, and by keeping the sessions short we could keep her excitement level down to a manageable level.

I then began walking her to quiet areas of the shelter grounds and sat down with her before giving her a a durable squeaky toy.  She immediately grabbed the toy and began mouthing it, while I engaged in touching and petting her.  At first, each time I touched her she would redirect towards my hand before returning her attention to the toy.  But after a while she began to relax and accept touching.  And, without any other exciting stimuli in the area (other toys, dogs, people), she began to self-sooth and seek contact with me.  Over the next several sessions, she became much easier to handle in her run and she continued to shed stress during walks.  She continues to be fixated on food and squeaky toys.  But, by incorporating these traits into her training regimen we’ve been able to modify her obnoxious behaviors and help to reduce her reactivity.

Aggie has since been adopted and her new owners are telling us that they’re thrilled to have her in their home.  Anna is in the process of being adopted and the shelter is encouraging her new family to continue training and socialization.

Additional information on dealing with dogs with excited biting and mouthiness can be found here:
How to Survive Your Dog’s Arousal Biting – Whole Dog Journal (whole-dog-journal.com)
Managing mouthing in dogs | Animal Humane Society

References

Dunbar, I.  (2003).  Doctor Dunbar’s Good Little Dog Book.  Berkeley, CA.  James and Kenneth Publishers.

Handelman, B (2008).  Canine Behavior.  A Photo Illustrated Handbook.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

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)

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.

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.

Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA)

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) approach to training and behavior.  So, what is it?  The latest training fad?  Hardly.

LIMA is an approach that has been adopted by the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC) as a humane and ethical practice of dog training and behavior modification.1  Although this approach was developed for canines, it can be applied to all living creatures.  LIMA incorporates a systematic hierarchy of procedures that should be followed in all cases.

Hierarchy of Procedures for Humane and Effective Practice

Source:  m.iaabc.org/about/lima/hierarchy/

  1. Health, nutritional, and physical factors: Ensure that any indicators for possible medical, nutritional, or health factors are addressed by a licensed veterinarian. The consultant should also address potential factors in the physical environment.
  2. Antecedents: Redesign setting events, change motivations, and add or remove discriminative stimuli (cues) for the problem behavior.
  3. Positive Reinforcement: Employ approaches that contingently deliver a consequence to increase the probability that the desired behavior will occur.
  4. Differential Reinforcement of Alternative Behavior: Reinforce an acceptable replacement behavior and remove the maintaining reinforcer for the problem behavior.
  5. Negative Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, or Extinction (these are not listed in any order of preference):
    1. Negative Punishment – Contingently withdraw a positive reinforcer to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.
    2. Negative Reinforcement – Contingently withdraw an aversive antecedent stimulus to increase the probability that the right behavior will occur.
    3. Extinction – Permanently remove the maintaining reinforcer to suppress the behavior or reduce it to baseline levels.
  6. Positive Punishment: Contingently deliver an aversive consequence to reduce the probability that the problem behavior will occur.2

 

As seen above, a humane and ethical trainer/behaviorist will first determine if a behavior is caused by a medical or physiological issue.  Often, they will have their clients consult a veterinarian to determine whether such an issue if contributing to the behavior.  Once this first step is eliminated, they will then attempt to simply remove or modify any conditions or stimuli that are causing the behavior:

Example:  Fluffy stands at the window and barks at passers-by, even though they are a reasonable distance from the house.  Assuming that no medical conditions are involved, a behaviorist may recommend installing shutters or blinds that can cut off her view of the street during times that barking is an issue – like when the baby is taking a nap.

Only when these two first steps have been considered will the behaviorist try behavior modification techniques, emphasizing the positive reinforcement of desired behaviors.  In all cases, a trainer should ask “What do you want the animal to do?”

By emphasizing reinforcement of desired behaviors, and minimizing any aversive measures, a trainer or behaviorist can humanely teach an animal alternative reaction to a stimulus.  Using the above example, the trainer may prompt Fluffy to sit quietly when people walk past the house, or may help Fluffy’s owners desensitize her so that she only reacts when strangers come closer to the house.  However, a trainer who ascribes to the LIMA approach will only use aversive measures, such as a bark collar, only when all other options have been ruled out.  IAABC and ADPT sites for detailed position statements on the use of punishment during training and the use of “training aids” such as shock collars.

1 apdt.com/about/about-lima/

2 m.iaabc.org/about/lima/hierarchy/

Finding a Canine Behaviorist

So, your puppy is growing up, or your rescued dog has been in your home for a while, and your best buddy is turning into a terrible roommate.  Your dog is incessantly barking, or chewing everything in sight, or aggressively charging other dogs, or doing something else that is making you miserable.  You’ve taken the first step and decided that you need help.  Who do you turn to that can transform your problem pet back into the sweet companion that you brought home?

This is the difference between a dog trainer and a canine behaviorist.  A behaviorist is a professional who addresses a problem behavior – namely something the dog does either too often or not often enoughto the extent that it cannot be ignored.  All you need to do is figure out who’s the right behaviorist to help you.  How can you tell whether a behaviorist is reputable?

Like many pet-related professions, this is an unregulated business.  Literally anyone can put up a website, print some business cards, and call himself a behaviorist.  Let’s discuss how you can find one who’s actually put in the time and effort to learn this profession, abides by professional standards and ethics and knows what he’s doing.

First off, a good behaviorist will not:

  1. Start off by saying that he’s dealt with situations like this and knows exactly what to do.
  2. Immediately tell you what’s causing the dog’s behavior and how he’ll fix it.
  3. Guarantee results.
  4. Say that he’ll take the dog to his facility for treatment, and bring it back completely fixed.
  5. Advocate the use of aversive methods or punishments as a standard approach.
  6. Disparage other professionals or their methods.

On the other hand, a good behaviorist will:

  1. Tell you that he will have to determine exactly what triggers and reinforces the problem behavior by careful observation of the dog before, during and after that behavior occurs.
  2. Involve you in identifying the causes of the behavior and implementing a treatment.
  3. Be credentialled by the ABS, IAABC, CCPDT or other reputable body.
  4. Not guarantee results.
  5. Collect data on the effectiveness of the treatment being applied and change the behavior modification program, as needed, based on that data.
  6. Provide you with feedback and progress reports.
  7. Abide by the ethical practices of this profession.

See the difference?  A knowledgeable and ethical behaviorist will implement a program of Applied Behavioral Analysis, which is a structured methodology for changing a problem behavior by modifying the events or conditions that happen before and after the behavior takes place.    He might ask you make video recordings of your dog, keep a record of the behavioral incidents – in other words, take an active role in the treatment.

By maintaining a professional certification, your behaviorist is demonstrating that he is continuing his education and keeping knowledgeable of developments in this field, and abiding by stringent ethical standards.  Most importantly, he will abide by the Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive (LIMA) protocols for behavior modification.  I’ll get into the details of what this means in my next post, but for our purposes today it means that he will be primarily concerned with your dog’s physical, mental and emotional welfare.

Next:  What is LIMA?

  1. Chance, Paul.  (2006).  First Course in Applied Behavioral Analysis.  Long Grove, IL., Waveland Press