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.

Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two

Let’s talk some more about the best practices for handling shelter dogs.  Specifically, taking them out of their runs.

Assuming that you’ve gone through your shelter’s orientation program and received the basic instructions on safety and dog handling, I’d like to offer a few thoughts on the best way to go about your volunteer responsibilities.  Some of the things I’m discussing may not be required at your shelter, but I recommend doing them anyway, as long as they don’t directly contradict any of their procedures or requirements.

First, wear appropriate clothing – clothing that it wouldn’t bother you to get muddied or torn.  Long pants are the best option to protect your legs.  I prefer cargo pants, as the pockets offer places to stow treats, poop bags, cell phone, eyeglasses, etc.  Wear work shoes or boots, or athletic shoes that won’t slip on a wet floor and are easy to clean – keep in mind that from time to time you will step in something unpleasant.

Avoid wearing sunglasses when you’re working with a dog that doesn’t live with you.  Dogs read our facial expressions very well and are constantly checking in with us.  They want to see your eyes and can get nervous when you hide them.  And avoid wearing anything around your neck when you’re dealing with a dog that you don’t know, including lanyards or scarves.  The last thing you want is for a rambunctious or over-excited pup to turn that into a tug toy.

Second, wash or disinfect your hands before entering the shelter, and between visiting any dogs.  There are diseases that can be passed from dog to dog, and you do not want to be the way they’re transmitted.

Third, check in with the shelter staff before handling any dogs to make sure that there are no changes in the dogs’ status, their physical condition or if they have any medical or adopter appointments scheduled.   They should know what dogs you will be working with while you’re on site, and what activities you have planned for them.

In my last post, Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One. | The Animal Nerd, I talked about introducing yourself to a shelter dog.  Now, once you’ve sufficiently gained his trust, how do you get him leashed and out of his run?  First, watch him for a minute and see how he reacts to you being there.  What does his behavior and body language Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu) tell you?  If he approaches you quietly; shows a calm, friendly demeanor or offers you a toy then your job is easy:  Leash him up and have a nice quiet walk with him.  If he does anything other than that, then take it slow.  Remember these dogs are stressed and over stimulated just by being in the shelter.  And, to them, you’re just another stranger who’s coming into their space.

First and above all else, your job is to be a calming presence and to reduce the dogs’ anxiety and stress.  If the dog is showing signs of fear or anxiety then, for the first few times you visit him, you can just sit or kneel down, facing away from him at an oblique angle, and relax with him.  Toss a few tasty treats near him and in the space between you to see if he approaches you and takes them.  Don’t stare at him, just be a friend and talk quietly.  Then leave him alone for a while.  You can try again a half-hour later and try again.  Wait until he approaches you and allows you to touch him before attaching the leash to his collar or attempting to put on his harness.

On the other hand, he may be over stimulated and be racing around you, jumping and mouthing at the prospect of going outside.  He may even treat the leash, harness or your clothing like a tug toy.  Even if he responds to a “sit” command, he’ll be vibrating like a guitar string and will only be able to hold the sit for a few seconds.   In this case, the key for you is to not become excited or overwhelmed, and not escalate his arousal and excitement.  Don’t shout any commands or corrections and don’t get into a wrestling match trying to harness him up.  And don’t give him any reinforcement such as bribes for allowing you to harness him:  Remember, you want to lower his stress level and prepare him for life in a home.  Try waiting him out:  Simply stand with your hands, leash and harness out of his reach and do not react to him at all until he calms down enough for you to get him ready for his walk.  If that doesn’t work, stop and get someone to assist you by distracting him while you get him harnessed.  Once the harness is on and/or the leash is attached, you can reinforce him with treats or praise.  Over time, this will become routine for him, and his level of excitement will drop.

Lastly, if, when you approach the kennel, he shows any sign of defensive, territorial, or aggressive behavior (teeth showing, low growls, lunging, warning barks), then don’t enter.  This should be reported to the shelter staff, and they may want to evaluate his behavior before having him up for adoption.  On the other hand, it may only be a matter of having you introduced to the dog by a person he trusts.  In one case, I had the opportunity to handle a dog with sever anxiety issues.  The first time I walked up to the kennel, he had an extremely territorial reaction – it looked like he was auditioning for CUJO.  But when he saw me reaching for the door lock, his whole demeanor changed, and he accepted me as one of the good guys.   But it’s a matter of having the shelter staff and behaviorists involved.

In all cases, when leashing a shelter dog do not – repeat not – stand in front of them and bend over them.  To a dog, this is an extremely threatening posture and can provoke a fear-based reaction.  My preferred method is to put myself alongside the dog, facing in the same direction that he is and have all contact with him as low on his body as possible without ever reaching over his head.  Kneel down and make yourself as small as you can while still being able to stop and stand up easily if he becomes over-excited and you need to stop contact and give him a time-out.

Next, we’ll talk about behavior on walking and socialization.

Dog Pulling, Part 3 – When to consult a behaviorist

This dog is reacting to something that he and the owner encountered on their walk.

In my previous post on this subject, Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash | The Animal Nerd , I discussed methods of managing and training a dog who pulls on a leash habitually.   I also went into detail on the best way to harness and leash a pulling dog, to remain in control of the walk, and some methods on reducing the pull and training him to walk politely with a human handler.

But these methods aren’t guaranteed.   There is no “one-size-fits-all” solution and pulling isn’t due to one single cause.  The dog may pull because of a prey drive (Squirrel!!!) or be reacting to something that he sees or hears.  He may be pulling towards another dog, out of either excitement or fear.  The pulling may intensify due to his frustration at being restrained.  At some point, it may become necessary to call in a professional.

Most dog owners do not have the training and experience needed to identify the cause of a dog’s behavior or to correctly determine their dog’s emotional state.  I routinely hear accounts of dogs suddenly taking off or acting aggressively with no warning and taking their owners completely by surprise.  And I have no doubt that this is what the owners perceived.  However, the fact is that dogs are constantly communicating their emotions and excitement level; the owners in these cases just didn’t see the behavioral clues that the dogs were sending them.

So, when in doubt, seek help.  If you find that your dog is lunging towards other dogs, people, etc.; or if you are simply having continued trouble with his behavior on leash, its time to get a qualified professional to help.  And by qualified, I mean a canine behaviorist or behavior consultant who has been certified by either the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (IAABC,  International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants (iaabc.org)) or the Certifying Council for Professional Dog Trainers (CCPDT, Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org)).  By seeking professionals who are credentialed by these organizations, you will be getting help from people who are not only experienced but have demonstrated knowledge in canine behavior and – most importantly – abide by a strict standard of professional ethics Certification for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants (ccpdt.org).

When you’re hiring a behavior consultant, here’s what to look for:

  1. Look for someone who offers to carefully observe you and your dog prior to identifying the cause of the pulling behavior, and then tailors the treatment of that behavior to the cause and conditions under which it occurs. If he wants to start in with a leash training session without first observing and documenting or recording you and your dog’s behavior, you probably want someone else.
  2. Does he take the time to ask you what result you want, or what you would like the dog to do instead of pulling your arm off? It isn’t enough to make the dog stop doing something, you must teach him what to do instead.
  3. Does he offer to “board and train” your dog at his facility? If so, find someone else.  Your dog isn’t a car that can be dropped off with a mechanic when it acts up.  The whole point of the training is for you to learn how to interact with your dog.
  4. You want a trainer or behaviorist who will abide by LIMA (Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive) principles, Force-Free and/or Fear-Free behavioral methods. You want someone who can help you reduce your pup’s excitement and anxiety level, so he can enjoy a quiet walk with you.
  5. An ethical trainer will use the minimum equipment necessary to reduce the undesired pulling. The proper use of collars, leashes and harnesses was discussed in a previous post.  Any aversive training tools, such as electrical collars, slip leads or prong collars, should be used only as a last resort.   If the trainer mentions these aversive methods as a standard training tool, find someone else.
  6. Take the time to review the CCPDT standard of ethics (above) prior to interviewing a trainer or behaviorist.

I hope this was helpful.  As always, you can contact me with any questions at headnerd@animalnerd.com or in Facebook @animalnerd.

Dog Pulling – Its all in the leash

As we discussed in the earlier post on this subject Dogs Pulling. How to enjoy a loose-leash walk with your dog. | The Animal Nerd, the first step in resolving the issue of a dog pulling on leash is for both of you to get out the door in a relaxed state of mind, without undue excitement.  At the risk of repeating myself, you can’t whip your dog into an excited frenzy and then expect him to behave politely on a walk.

The real fun begins once you and your buddy start your walk.  If you are looking for help in resolving a pulling issue, I can assume that the problem is already well established.  There are a few things to establish before beginning a treatment for pulling:

First:  First, is he just pulling because that’s what he does?  Is this just his normal response to being on leash, does he pull you towards something in particular?   If he just constantly pulls, or just pulling because he wants to get to the next interesting thing, this is a learned behavior.  He has learned that pulling gets him some reward or reinforcement for doing so.  He may be getting to where he wants to be, he may be getting attention and feedback from you, he may be enjoying taking you for a run.  In any case, he has learned that this is how he should act while on a walk. 

Step one: Hold the leash across the palm of your hand with the loop dangling from the top.

 

Before starting on having him relearn his leash manners, you need to have the right tools.

First of all, use a standard 6-foot leash, a martingale collar and a front-clip harness.  I prefer a leather leash, but canvas or any other strong fabric will work just as well.  The martingale collar has pieces:  a collar that fits over the dog’s head, and a circle of fabric that connects to the lead and gets drawn closed when the dog takes up the slack in the lead.  This is not a choke collar – when the fabric circle is drawn tight, it snugs up the collar to the dogs’ neck to prevent him from backing out of it without affecting his breathing.

With regard to the harness, for dogs with thicker coats, an Easy Walk Harness goes on very easily and works well.  For dogs with very short coats, like bully breeds, a Freedom Harness is a little more complicated to put on but has a closer fit with felt padding.  The key is to fit the harness correctly and snugly, so that you can put two fingers between any of the harness straps and the dog’s skin.  And the most important thing is to clip the lead to the front of the harness, on the dog’s chest.  I make a habit of connecting the lead to both the collar and the front ring of the harness, simply because they are both only as strong as the plastic clips used to fit them and to hold the harness straps in place.  By clipping the lead to both, if one of the clips should break, you still have control over the dog.

The key is to have the lead clipped to the dog’s chest.  This way, if he pulls on the lead, he finds himself pulled around to one side, towards you.  Never attach the lead to the back ring of the harness unless you are training him to pull something like a sled.  Many dogs have an oppositional reflex that leads them to pull forward whenever they feel a weight or pressures pulling them backwards.

How to hold the leash:   If you are holding the leash by its loop, or putting the loop around your risk, you are aiding and abetting his pull.   By holding the leash in that fashion, you are giving him all the leverage and allowing him to pull your arm out to its full length and pull you off balance.  The fact is, unless you have a truly giant dog, you are bigger and stronger and should not be pulled anywhere.

Step two: Bring the loop around the back of your hand and put your thumb through it.

 

 

When I’m teaching  leash manners, my favorite method of holding this leash is this:  Put the leash across the flat of my palm with the loop a couple of inches above the web between my thumb and forefinger and the rest of the leash trailing below the bottom of my hand.  Then bring the loop end around the back of my hand and back up from the bottom of my palm, putting the loop around my thumb.  This locks the leash in place so the dog can’t pull it away from me, and by having the lead trail out from the bottom of my fist I have all the leverage provided by my back and shoulder muscles.  Advantage, human.

Once you’ve established control over the dog’s ability to pull, the next step is to teach him that the real fun lies in staying near you and matching your pace.

The first exercise I use is to simply start with the basics.  Start small, in an area with few distractions, leash him up and calmly walk around, changing direction frequently.  Every time you change direction, prompt him by saying something like “This way!” or “With me!”  (I avoid using “Come!” or any other command that I use for other purposes).  And when he joins you in changing direction, reward him with a treat.  You can improve this exercise by making a small maze, using whatever is at hand:  chairs, folded tables, partitions, etc., and walking him through it, making random turns and prompting him.  The result is to teach him to watch you for signals as to where the two of you are going, and reinforce changing direction with you.

Another exercise is the “Lunging Drill”, which teaches him the radius of the leash, and reinforces staying with his handler.    Find an open area with a flat surface, fill up your treat bag with his favorite stuff, leash up your dog, and stand in the middle of that space.  Show him a treat and gently toss it outside the radius that he can reach while you’re holding the leash.  Stand still and let him try to get to it without correcting him or providing any feedback (be a tree).  When he stops straining at the leash, praise him and walk him towards the treat.  If he starts straining at the leash again, stop and stand still until he allows the leash to go slack again.  Then walk him to the treat.  Repeat the exercise until he stops straining for the treat and has learned that the best way to get to it is to stay with you.

Then simply close your hand around the leash, locking it in place. This provides stronger control over the dog.

These exercises should be done for short periods, only about 15 minutes at a time, two or three times a day.  Once he has the basic principles down pat, you can take the treat bag with you on your walks and incorporate the direction change game and the lunging game into your walk routine.   These simple exercises should increase his interaction and attention to you, and help in having him walk with better manners and without pulling or straining at the leash.

Keep in mind that walks are the high point of his day.  He experiences the world through his nose, let him stop and have some good sniffs without being rushed.  If he wants to stop and smell something interesting, let him have a few moments with it before prompting him to continue.  This will further reduce his excitement level and help him calmly move on to the next fascinating sniff.

In my next post, I’ll address dogs who pulling in reaction to something, which could be a person, another dog, a truck, etc.

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)

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 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.