Behavior Modification for Shelter Dogs

As a Canine Behavior Consultant, I encounter a lot of obstacles in developing and implementing behavior modification plans for dogs that are housed in shelters and rescues.  When I’m working with an individual in a home environment, I can develop a detailed plan with a schedule, incremental steps, instructions for consistently tracking the problem behavior(s), etc., all of which contribute to tracking the dog’s (and the owners’) progress.  However, a shelter is a completely different environment with a combination of busy staff and volunteers:  The dogs are under constant noise and stress, the staff generally works in shifts, the volunteers are dedicated, but are on sight inconsistently and have varying levels of expertise.  All of these factors combine to make it extremely difficult to implement a consistent plan or track results.

In the past, I’ve posted articles about the shelter dogs that I’ve worked with on an individual basis[i], and how I have involved shelter personnel in these treatments[ii], but these single cases are far outnumbered by the dogs with mild-to-moderate behavioral problems that we routinely encounter.  I’ve been looking for a way to have more people involved in helping dogs by reducing their anxiety or reduce the issues that are getting in the way of adoption.

A few months ago, I found an article in the IAABC Journal describing a program that the Singapore SPCA had implemented to help volunteers train and rehabilitate shelter dogs.[iii]    This program is very impressive; it provides volunteers with training and forms them into teams to work with individual dogs by targeting specific behaviors with low level training and games.  Although my shelter lacks the resources to put together a program as comprehensive as the one described in the article (like every other shelter, we are emerging from the pandemic with a reduced volunteer cadre and are working hard to rebuild this vital component of shelter operations) it seemed to me that we could implement something on a smaller scale for our “problem” dogs.

Recognizing that there was no way I could implement a formal behavior modification program, I began experimenting with ways to draft plans that:

  • Identify dogs with specific behavior problems that interfere with successful adoption.
  • List specific games or training steps intended to address those behaviors.
  • Provide detailed instructions on how to implement those games or training elements.
  • Provide some form of feedback on the effectiveness of these steps.

Teaching a correct “heal” as a means to encourage the dog to stop pulling when on leash

My goal is to include relatively inexperienced people with a set of consistent steps towards resolving our dogs’ behavior issues, that can be easily implemented.  In the case of our shelter, this is aided by having a formal training program for volunteers and having the volunteers organized in grades according to their level of experience and training.  The dogs are also placed in corresponding groups, according to their assessed difficulty of handling (volunteers are not allowed to handle dogs with bite histories or indications of aggression).  This assessment is based on their behavior during quarantine and upon the histories that are provided during intake into the shelter.  The challenge is to identify helpful activities that an inexperienced person can implement during a walk or play session. 

 The program we’ve established follows these steps:

  • An individual dog’s behavior issues are identified, along with the events that trigger the behavior(s) (antecedents) and the events that typically follow it (cons
  • equences).  This is typically anecdotal reporting from shelter staff and volunteers.
  • The shelter behavior team performs an assessment of the dog’s behavior, verifying and baselining those reports. Once the behavior is baselined for severity and its triggering events are identified, the behavior team confers and develops a set of games or training activities for the staff and volunteers to use when handling the dog.
  • The behavior staff also drafts clear instructions on implementing these treatments, the use of reinforcers, etc., for staff and volunteers to follow during walks, play time or other opportunities to implement the treatment plans.
  • These activities and instructions are published in an online chat forum used by shelter personnel. Paper copies are posted in the cubby holes used to store the individual dogs’ leash and harness.
  • Staff and volunteers provide feedback via the chat forum.
  • The behavior team performs reassessments on a regular basis.

Formal metrics are not being kept at this time, due to the varied personnel who are implementing the behavior management activities and our current inability to regularly schedule treatment sessions.  Hopefully, as more volunteers go through the shelter’s onboarding and training process, we will be able to migrate to a more formal behavior modification program for dogs with serious issues.

I’d appreciate feedback from any other shelters that have implemented low-level behavior modification programs using volunteers.  It would be great to compare notes.

 

[i] Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties | The Animal Nerd

[ii] Toby | The Animal Nerd

[iii] One Dog at a Time: Enriching the Emotional Lives of Shelter Dogs | The IAABC JOURNAL

Important Skills to Teach Your Dog – Stay

In an earlier post,Dog training – the most important things to teach them. | The Animal Nerd, I discussed the need for owners to teach their dogs certain critical skills needed for them to live safely in our homes.  One of these is to “stay”; meaning to remain in one spot when told to do so. This is a skill that can keep your dog form darting into traffic or other dangerous places, chasing animals or misbehaving around strangers.  It is one of the most important things you can teach your dog, if only as a safety measure.  “Stay” is also one of the easiest skills to teach.  Most of the dogs I work with get the concept in the first few minutes of training, after which it becomes a matter of practice and reinforcement.

First off, I always start training a new skill with a hand sign as opposed to a spoken command or prompt – once the dog understands the visual prompt, I then add the verbal one.  Dogs communicate non-verbally, and I have always found that they learn body or sign language much faster than verbal commands.  And I try to pick a hand signal that I would use more or less automatically.  In the case of “stay”, I use a raised hand, palm outward towards the stop (the universal command for “Halt”).[i]  Secondly, I find that a clicker is very useful in training this particular skill.  It not only signals that the dog has successfully done the behavior, it also signals when the he can stop “staying” in one place.

The best way to start is to pick a time when your dog is laying down or simply staying in one place, and show him the hand prompt.  Then, after a couple of seconds, click, praise a

Start with a hand signal, adding a verbal prompt once the dog learns the skill

nd give him a tasty treat.  Repeat this a few times.  This will start him associating the hand sign with remaining in one spot.

In the next session, stand in front of him and show him the hand sign.  If he remains in place, click, praise and treat.  If he moves, then break contact with him for a minute and try again.  Repeat a few times and reward his successes.

Next, give him the hand sign and, while he’s remaining in place, move one of your feet a half-step to the side then bring it back.  If he doesn’t move, click, praise and treat.  Once he masters staying in place while you move a little, you can begin increasing the distance that you move around.  Over time, you should be able to move several steps in any direction, and walk around him, while he’s holding a stay.  It doesn’t matter if he sits, lays down or stands up while you are doing this, as long as he remains in the same place.  If he moves from that place, don’t correct him.  Simply start over with a shorter time and less movement on your part.

At this point, you can add the verbal “stay” command when you give the hand prompt.  Say it only once each time that you give the hand sign.  You can also begin to give a verbal release command – I use “Okay” – along with the click. (After all, you won’t be carrying a clicker when you’re out walking with him).

When you begin to take steps away from him after giving him the “stay” prompt, you should always return to your starting point before giving the release prompt.  This encourages him to remain in one spot until you return to him.

Key points:

Start with a hand signal and add the verbal prompt once he knows the skill.

Use a clicker and high-value treats.

Start by prompting him to stay while he is already sitting or lying down.

Add a release prompt to the clicker signal.

Gradually increase the time that he is staying, and the amount of moving around that you are doing while he is staying in place.

Always use positive reinforcement.  If he doesn’t hold a stay, then just fall back to the distance and time in which he was successful, and start over.

[i] puppyintraining.com/dog-training-hand-signals/

Guest Post: 8 Essential Steps to Bringing a New Dog into the Home

Bringing a new puppy home can be both exciting and scary, not only for you but also for your new fur baby. Whether you’re adopting a pet for the first time or you’re a veteran pet parent,  it is essential to establish a healthy bond with your new pup.  So, what should you do when you bring a puppy home from the breeder? Usually, breeders allow pet parents to take the new puppies home once they’re 8-weeks old.  An 8-week old puppy is an itty bitty animal that needs to be handled with extreme care and love. Here we will discuss the 8 essential steps you should take when you bring a new puppy into your home.

1.      Clean Your Pup

First things first, you should give your puppy a bath. Although reliable breeders do groom their puppies, it’s best to clean your puppy yourself after bringing it home.   The AKC expert advice blog has some steps that you might want to reference.

Be warned! bathing a puppy is no small feat, if you are a first time owner follow this guide by the AKC. If you are still squeamish or unsure of your puppy-bathing abilities, take your puppy to professional  groomers. You can also ask a friend or family member who is well-versed in bathing puppies and dogs to help you out.   Once you have learned to bathe your pup, maintain a consistent bathing schedule. Although it may vary from puppy to puppy, giving your puppy a bath once a month is ideal. Although your puppy may act up a little initially, it will get used to bath time and may even enjoy it if you stick to a regular schedule. Here are a few ways to help your dog enjoy bath time:

  • Create positive associations with bathtime; if they are afraid of the bath, have short sessions with the dog in the dry bath tub. Just with the dog in the bathtub and give it treats, cuddle, or play a game they like. Once they are not afraid of the tub any more, they won’t mind a bath!
  • Use treats to bribe your dog during bath time; smear peanut butter on a suction cup and put it on the side of the bath. Your dog will be busy licking the peanut butter while you give it a bath

When your dog is at least three months old, it is time to start applying shampoo and conditioner to keep the coat free of oil and grime. You have probably experienced matting if you have a furry buddy with a long or naturally curly coat. These irritating tiny lumps or masses of fur look quite unpleasant, so use dog shampoo for matted hair  to avoid matted hair.

2.     Ensure That The Dog Has Been Vaccinated

You must check that a dog is up to date on immunizations before bringing it home. Reliable breeders (and rescues) will provide you a vaccination certificate and the dog’s medical examination record. Make sure to ask for these documents while adopting your new pet.  AKC has provided a list of first-year puppy shots, it is a very handy resource for a new pet parent. We also recommend that you take your puppy for a head-to-tail wellness examination immediately after you bring them home.  When you purchase a puppy from a reliable breeder, they often provide health guarantees and warranties. If your puppy is unhealthy, i.e., they have a congenital disease as diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian, the breeder will replace the puppy or give you a refund.

Apart from that, get a wellness check from your own veterinarian as soon as possible to make sure your new puppy is safe and healthy.

3.     Introduce Your Family

You will not be present at home at all times, so it is critical to introduce the new pet to your family members. Therefore, once you know that your pup is healthy and up-to-date on its vaccination, it’s time to introduce it to your family.  But how should you introduce your family to your puppy?

  1. Introduce each family member one by one: It’s important that you don’t overwhelm the new pup
  2. Call each family member by name: While introducing your dog to your family members, make sure to call their names and encourage them to pet the dog
  3. Let the puppy approach the individual: it’s best to not force the puppy into someone’s lap. Let the puppy sniff out the person and approach them in its own time
  4. Avoid using food to get the puppy to do a desired action
  5. Keep calm and don’t rush the process
  6. If the dog looks stressed, then stop the meet & greet and pick it up another time

If you already have a pet at home, it’s best to avoid putting them in the same room initially. Keep your existing pet’s possessions and accessories in a space far away from the new pup, as they may consider it a breach of their territory.  The best way to introduce them to each other is to put a screen wall between them. You can put both pets on either side of the screen wall, so they cannot hurt each other but can still become familiar with each other’s scent.  Taking them on leashed walks together will also help to socialize them with each other.

You can also take help from experts. Reliable dog blogs such as Victoria Stilwell’a Positively and Pat Miller’s Whole Dog Journal explain many tried and tested methods to introduce new dogs and puppies to existing house pets.  Let’s look into some of the methods they suggest:

  • Manage the environment: As mentioned earlier, use crates, screens, gates, and whatever else you can to create a barrier between the new and resident pets.
  • Don’t be angry at the resident pet: Is your resident pet growling at the new one? Don’t be angry at them, it’s only natural! Let the pet get used to the new addition in their own time. It will only hinder their relationship if you keep being angry at the older pet.
  • Treat them together: One way to foster friendship between new and old pets is to give them treats together. You will make them enjoy something that they both like together, creating a sense of camaraderie.
  • Exercise the dogs before the interaction: You know who is less likely to fight? two exhausted pets! Take your pets for a walk before you introduce them, and they are less likely to hurt each other.

There are many methods to introduce new pets to older ones, but you should choose the one that suits your pets and needs.

4.     Make a Dog Bed

A comfortable dog bed is essential for a dog to understand that this is the area where it will sleep. Otherwise, your pup might appear out of nowhere to sleep on your bed. Sure, it is cute once in a while, but if it happens regularly, it will cause you problems.  So purchase a comfy dog bed and begin training your dog to sleep in it right away. Just as you would with a new baby, gradually placing it on its bed, giving it its favorite blanket, and that is all.

Most breeders provide crate training to their puppies and so you can utilize that training to limit the puppy to its crate or dog bed. Place your puppy’s favorite toy and a blanket with their mother’s or littermates’ scent in the dog bed or crate to make them feel safe and comfortable.  Moreover, you can also use baby gates and playpens to keep your puppy from jumping in the bed with you.

5.     Make a Schedule

Create a routine for your dog once everything is in place. Make a feeding, playing, exercising, bathing, and walking schedule. You can talk to your vet about feeding and sleeping to make sure it is right for your dog. Getting time to play with your dog is essential.  According to statistics, 78 percent of dog owners believe their pets should be walked twice daily. Only 30-70 percent of dog owners, however, walk their pets. It is compulsory to keep a balance between training, rest, and play to avoid developing health concerns for both you and your dog. Over-rested dogs are prone to obesity and have a short lifespan. The best training depends on the dog’s breed and age but a stroll is a terrific place to start.

6.     Casual walks

Puppies have boundless energy. If you don’t exercise your puppy, it may start developing destructive behavior. One of the greatest ways is to take your puppy for a walk every day, during which the puppy will be exposed to new stimuli, learn new commands, correct behavior, and meet new people and canines.

You most likely know that a dog’s most favorite game is playing fetch. Another very important thing to remember is that you must spend time with your dog. You may take them to swim or to the park and let them mingle with other pets in a safe environment.  Exercise and socialization is good for physical and mental health. Exercising your puppy is a lengthy discussion; there are myriad of ways to keep your puppy physically active, such as long leash walking  suggested by The Happy Puppy Site or the enrichment activities recommended by The Bark.

You must start small and gradually add more complex and stimulating physical activities to build your dog’s stamina, foster your bond with your pet, and keep them healthy.

 

7.     Reward for Positive Behavior

In the early days, the puppy may appear to be more mischievous than obedient. Even yet, it is critical to commend him whenever he does something nice. This will assist the dog in comprehending what is expected of it and will hasten the learning process. Also, avoid attracting your dog with inappropriate behavior.  The most straightforward approach to training your dog is to use positive reinforcement. This strategy involves rewarding the dog for a task properly done or just to be well maintained. Realizing which prize your dog prefers can make reward-based training more enjoyable for both of you.

8.   Stay Calm

You must stay calm if you want to form a good and long-lasting bond with your dog. Dogs are extremely sensitive to the energies that people around them emit. Keep in mind that you are the one who must remain calm and peaceful in a new connection with a dog. The dog may be terrified and agitated; now is the moment for you to step in and assist the dog in remaining calm.  Your tone can worsen your dog’s uneasiness if it sounds eager or harsh. This might lead to undesired behaviors in your new pet on its first day. Remember that you don’t know everything about a new dog’s likes and dislikes when you bring it home. Eventually, it would be beneficial if you took the time to learn more about it and form a proper connection with your dog and teach it to be well-behaved.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that your new pet requires attention, care, stability, and a routine. Create a mundane that can be followed on a regular schedule in addition to the above suggestions. This will help the puppy to become accustomed to your household’s environment and adjust correctly.

Author:  Arslan Hassan (arslanhassan174@gmail.com)

 

EM® Flea and Tick Collars

I was recently asked for an opinion on the effectiveness of EM® flea and tick collars.  I couldn’t be of any help, because I had never heard of them.  However, I was interested in the discussion and decided to do some research into what they are and the theory behind them.  I’d like to share what I found out after going down that particular rabbit hole.

Initially, I assumed that EM stood for “electro-magnetic”, and that the collars were battery-powered and emitted some sort of low magnetic field that would supposedly discourage insects (fleas) and arachnids (ticks).  This assumption turned out to be incorrect.  These collars turned out to be a whole new type of pseudoscience.

What is EM®?

EM® stands for Effective Microorganisms.  This is a product that was developed in 1982 by Professor Teruo Higa, and consists of various organisms, including yeasts, lactic acid bacteria and phototropic bacteria[i].  It is used as an additive in soil and composting, and aids in fermenting and breaking down organic material, thereby enriching the soil for farming and gardening.   This produce is also used in aquaculture and water purification, but the manufacturer has never claimed that it is effective at repelling fleas, ticks or any other insects or arachnids.[ii]

What are EM® flea and tick collars, and how do they work?

According to the internet sites that sell these collars, the collars consist of strings of tube-shaped beads, including ceramic beads in which Effective microorganisms are embedded.  In these beads, an EM® product is mixed with the clay or silicon material, formed into tubes, and baked at high temperatures, resulting in a ceramic product.  These are marketed as safe, effective and “natural”, with one vendor claiming that the Effective Microorganisms are “the only active ingredient in these collars”[iii].   At this point, I should point out that these beads are baked at high temperatures, up to 1200C[iv], and that yeasts and bacteria are killed at 60C.  They cannot possibly be “active ingredients, as any live cultures that survived being mixed with the ceramic materials would be killed during the baking process.

Marketing claims include statements that the beads emit a “bio resonance” at a frequency that is unpleasant to ticks and insects[v].  The majority of marketers also claim that these beads emit Far Infra-Red waves that are said to repel harmful insects.

What is Far Infrared (FIR)?

Infrared (IR) radiation is essentially radiated heat, nothing more.  FIR is a subset of the electromagnetic spectrum waveband at the lower end of the IR waveband.  Putting it simply, FIR is radiated heat that you can feel on your skin.  It is used therapeutically as a heat treatment for certain medical conditions.[vi]

There are certain ceramics that function as FIR emitters, by absorb the heat radiated by animals and other heat sources, and re-radiating it.  Nanoparticles of these ceramic have been embedded in fabrics and used as wraps and clothing to generate heat and provide thermal treatment for injuries or other heath benefits.  The efficiency of the ceramic material in emitting FIR depends on its chemical composition.

Does FIR repel ticks and fleas?

In a word:  No.  In fact, research has shown that both fleas and ticks are attracted to light and heat [vii] [viii].  They are drawn to the heat radiated by animals, as their food sources.   If FIR repelled ticks and fleas, then your pets would naturally repel them simply by being warm blooded and having body heat.

Summing it all up:

These things are a gimmick that cannot possibly protect your pet from fleas and ticks.  Not only is there absolutely no research or evidence to back up marketers’ claims of effectiveness, their claims are basically self-contradictory.  These are nothing more than necklaces made of inert ceramic beads.    They won’t harm your pet, but they will provide no protection.  In that regard, they are no better than homeopathic “remedies” Alternative Veterinary Medicine – Homeopathy | The Animal Nerd.

From my own experience, I can tell you that tick-borne illnesses such as Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever  are extremely dangerous to your pets, and I strongly recommend that your dogs and outdoor cats be protected against ticks, fleas and mosquito-borne illnesses.  The best way you can do that is to have your vet prescribe oral or topical treatments appropriate for your pets’ size and breed, obtain them from reputable sources and administer them as directed.

[i] What is EM (no date). EMRO.  Retrieved from WHAT is EM? | EMRO (emrojapan.com)

[ii] How EM Works (no date).  Retrieved from How EM works | EMRO (emrojapan.com)

[iii] About EM® Technology (no date). Retrieved from All About EM Collars (homeopawthic.com)

[iv] How do EM Collars Work?  (no date). Retrieved from How do EM Collars Work? – THE LAKELAND DOG WEAR CO

[v] The EM® Ceramic Anti Tick Collar – How it works and why we love them! (2021).  Retrieved from The EM®Ceramic Anti Tick Collar – How it works and why we love them! – The Woof Club

[vi] Vatansever, F. and Hamblin, M. R. (2013). Far Infrared Radiation (FIR):  Its Biological Effects and Medical Applications.  Photonics Laser Med 4 (1). 255-266

[vii] Mitchell, R. D. III, Zhu, J., Carr, A. L.., Dhammi, A., Cave, G., Sonenshine, D. E. & Roe, R. M., Infrared Light Detection by the Haller’s Organ of Adult American Dog Ticks, Dermacentor variabilis. (2017).  Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases 8 (5), 763-771

[viii] What Attracts Fleas? (no date). Retrieved from What attracts fleas? | FleaScience

Mouthy Shelter Dog

I’ve been working with a pit mix named Sonny who likes to use his mouth too much.  He’s a large young mail dog, who was intact when he was transported in from another shelter.  He’s a handsome boy, with a cinnamon-colored coat and a big head, with a few scars on it – apparently bite marks from other dogs.  When he arrived, the shelter staff and volunteers noted that he had a habit of putting his mouth around peoples’ hands and arms and gently holding them without applying pressure.  A lot of people considered this to be endearing and a sign of affection.

However, in recent weeks, this behavior has escalated.  Now, when people enter Sonny’s run, he actively grabs at their hands and clothes.  No one has been bitten yet, but he is progressively applying more bite pressure and, the fact is, he has a mouth like a hippo.  I am a big guy, and he can wrap his mouth completely around my forearm.   In recent visits with him, I found that he becomes very excited and mouthy when I take him out of his run, to the point that it is very difficult to harness him and attach the leash – he grabs any hand that comes near him.  Naturally, this is an impediment to getting him adopted – and he is an otherwise friendly and gentle boy.

I theorized that there are two factors contributing to this behavior:  First off, the shelter personnel are bribing him with treats whenever he gets grabby, just to do their essential care-taking jobs of cleaning, feeding and socializing him.  This has the effect of reinforcing his mouthiness.  Secondly, he becomes very excited when being handled, and responds to that with him mouth.  I also noticed that he ramps up his excitement level very quickly in response to minimum stimulus.  His grabbing behavior can be triggered simply by a human handler reaching out towards him.  So, he has a pre-existing tendency to use his mouth when interacting with humans which has been reinforced by shelter personnel rewarding that behavior.  This problem behavior becomes more pronounced when he is in a state of excitement.

Although we try to make the shelter as positive and pleasant as possible for our animals, it is still a very stressful place to be a dog.  They are bombarded by unfamiliar sounds, scents, excited dogs, strange humans who stand and stare at them, and a constant stream of other stimuli that keep them on edge.  Sonny is no exception.  He seems to be in a constant state of tension and arousal, which puts him over his behavioral threshold whenever he is being visited or handled by shelter staff – and which seems to be eroding his bite inhibition.

In an earlier post, I discussed Aggie, another pit-mix with a mouthiness problem.  We addressed her issue by providing her with safe objects to grab and mouth, with no human interaction – thereby removing the reinforcement of that behavior.  After just a few days, the problem behavior lessened dramatically Excited Biting / Arousal Biting | The Animal Nerd.  In Sonny’s case, this treatment wasn’t an option.  He wasn’t seeking an outlet for stress, he was seeking human contact by an inappropriate means – his mouth.  Sonny was attempting to reach out and touch people, but his over-excited state was getting in the way.  He had no inclination to grab anything but people.

I tried a two-fold approach with Sonny:  First, I instituted a tug-o-war game to his exercise.  I got him a stiff, knotted rope toy, and enticed him to grab and hold it, while I tugged on the other end.  He caught on quickly and began playing.  I began offering him the tug toy and playing with him when first entering his run and harnessing him up.

He was content to calmly watch other dogs and people.

I also added a gentle voice correction and a negative reinforcement when he tried to grab my hands.  I responded to his attempts with a sharp “Eh!”, stopped interacting with him and put my hands behind my back.  If he persisted, I would stand, cross my arms and turn my back for a few moments.  This, coupled with offering him an alternative (the tug toy) allowed me to put on his harness and leash.  (Note:  In general, I do not encourage people to correct shelter dogs’ problem behaviors.  Not only can this have the wrong effect on fearful dogs, it can also add to the overall stress they feel just by being in a shelter.   However, after getting to know Sonny, I felt that he was not fearful of people and would accept a correction, if it was followed with positive reinforcement of the appropriate behavior – in this case, redirecting to a tug toy.)

Secondly, I drastically reduced the excitement level of our time together.  Instead of taking him to a play area full of toys, I took him on a walk and let him set the pace and destinations.  I let him sniff anything that he wanted to, examine anything that was safe, and let him decide what was interesting to him.  Then I found a quiet, shady spot and sat down with a paperback book, keeping a good hold on his leash but otherwise ignoring him.

After a few minutes, I felt him lay down on my feet.  He was relaxed, soft-eyed, and simply taking in the sights, sounds and smells around us.  After a few minutes, I reached down and touched him on the side of his face, and his only reaction was to lean in for a pet.  After a while, other people and other dogs came into view, and his only reaction was to be interested in watching them.  When I brought him back to his run after an hour, he was calm and relaxed.  He became somewhat aroused and mouthy when I was removing his harness, however I attribute that to the treats that his handlers had been bribing him with during this process.   In the picture, there are several people and dogs out of frame, but he was maintaining a calm and interested demeanor, well within his ability to control his reactions.

All in all, I’m pretty sure that Sonny doesn’t need any formal desensitization to reduce his biting behavior.  Instead, he needs to have his overall stress level reduced and have calmer interactions with people.   Coupled with differential reinforcement – in this case, encouraging him to interact with people by playing tug with an approved toy, we should be able to reduce his problematic mouthiness.  I recommended that his handlers reduce the number of treats offered while handling him, reduce his playtime for a while, and concentrate on quiet walks and quiet sessions outdoors.    We need to help him find his “off switch” so that he can calmly interact with potential adopters and cope with the stressors he encounters.

Toby

Now that I’ve finished working with Jack Final Update on Jack | The Animal Nerd, I’ve begun handling a new dog at the shelter.  Toby is a large, handsome, one-eyed (his injured eye was recently removed) mixed breed with a number of behavioral issues that need to be addressed.

Prior to my meeting him, all I knew about him was that he had shown a distinct tendency to grab and bite his leash, and that he was inclined to treat handlers’ clothing as a tug toy.  So when I started working with him, I took him outside for quiet walks (no excitement or play) with an appropriate tug toy for him to grab and carry.  I limited the time that I held onto the tug, or that I engaged in play with it, to control his excitement level.  He began each session acting like a tornado, almost impossible to harness, pulling on the leash and grabbing at me, but the treatment worked and he calmed down after a while.

When he calmed down and we sat for a while, I noted that he was actually very insecure.   When we found a bench in a quiet area, he sat with his back to me and pressed up against my leg for security, while watching everything that went on around him.  He was showing signs of being a little apprehensive, but had it under control.

He began sitting with his back to me, pressed against my leg for security.

 

It became clear that his problem behaviors were not “learned” but was a reaction to the stressors of being in the shelter, being handled by strangers and (probably) the changes in his vision.  It also became plain that he likes people and readily affiliates with new handlers.   This made his treatment very easy.  In our next session, upon entering his run I spent ten minutes just being quiet, friendly and positive with him, kneeling down close to his eye line; when he began to ramp up, I added calm pets and body rubs, then quietly worked on straightening out his twisted Freedom Harness.  By the time I was done, he was sitting quietly, ready to go.  His walk went much more smoothly with no leash biting or grabbing, and he interacted with me in a normal way.

Volunteers and handlers have reported that he is doing much better with this approach and is becoming more relaxed in general.  I think this is a positive outcome and that he’s ready for adoption.

 

Final Update on Jack

After seven weeks of treatment, Jack ( My New Project Dog, update. | The Animal Nerd ) is continuing to do very nicely.  He is interacting very well with the kennel staff and the two volunteers who have been working with him.  His leash manners are very good, he is relaxed while being harnessed and he is continuing to relax and enjoy trips outside – responding to verbal prompts and interacting with his hander.  His reactivity to strangers is much reduced, and he has progressed to the point that he is interested in potential adopters who visit the shelter – approaching the front of his run and getting their scent.

Jack’s anxiety is greatly reduced and he is enjoying contact and petting from his human friends.

Jack is now inviting pets and scratches from the people he knows, although he is still cautious around strangers.  He is also easily startled by sudden movements and retreats when people bend over him for any reason.  However, he is gaining confidence on a daily basis.  I’ve recommended that we increase the number of volunteers that are allowed to interact with him and walk him, with the provision that all human interactions be completely positive (no verbal corrections and plenty of positive reinforcement).

He is now available for adoption and the shelter is carefully screening applicants so that he is placed in the right home.   I don’t expect that I will be making any more posts about him, although I’ll be spending time with him until he’s adopted.

My New Project Dog, update.

In as recent post, I described my initial contact with a new shelter dog that had been displaying significant anxiety with people. My New Project Dog | The Animal Nerd After a few days, I’ve made some progress with Jack and, as he began reacting more “normally”, I’ve noted some behavioral characteristics that had not been apparent before:

First, he is very reactive to other dogs.  Our runs are glass-fronted, and whenever another dog is walked past his “space”, he charges up to the glass and barks very excitedly.  (He has a wide range of vocalizations, but his rapid “Stay Away” barks are particularly shrill.  Mariah Carey wishes that she could his high notes like this little guy can.)  However, he does not completely lose control when reacting to dogs and does not redirect his excitement to people or objects.  I suspect that a good part of his reactivity may be due to barrier frustration and that we may be able to socialize him with at least some other dogs.

Second, he is definitely more comfortable with women than with men.  He readily approaches women and invites contact with them.  However, once contact is made, he exhibits appeasing signals, such as rolling over, having a low posture, and submissive grinning.  He is making headway with meeting new humans but has a long way to go before he feels confident with us.

I’ve noticed that he tends to urinate in the center of his fabric bed, which leads me to think that he had previously been housetrained using pee pads.  This is just something to note for his eventual owners, as they may need to restart housetraining from scratch, depending on their desires.

He has accepted additional handling and is visibly more relaxed.

As I mentioned, I have made progress with the little guy.  In a recent session, I was able to increase the level of physical contact that he’d allow.  This included increasing the area that he’d permit scratching and petting, as well as calming rubs and massages.  He became more inclined to lean into pets and ear-scratches and allow me to touch him with two hands.  He still maintained a “personal space” with me, however it became much smaller than previously.

Most recently, I was able to put an Easy-walk harness on him and take him outside for a walk.  He accepted the harness and leash easily and, once he got past his initial excitement, walked well.  This was an important development, as he began to “check in” with me while walking – looking at me for social referencing and direction.  He was also visibly relaxed and became more responsive to verbal cues from me.  I had to be careful with my posture and actions – for example, he became apprehensive when I bent over him to untangle the leash from his front legs – but he was overall much more confident.   I think this is something of a breakthrough that needs to be repeated and reinforced.

My treatment plan is developing to increase the level of contact with him and to have more men involved with his daily activities, to include feeding and handling, and gradually increasing their contact with him.  He has become available for adoption, and I will recommend in-home support post-adoption.

Tribute to a Dog.

In 1855, Attorney George Vest represented a man who was suing a neighbor over the death of his dog.  His trial summation has been preserved in part, and has come to be regarded as one of the greatest representations of our relationship with “man’s best friend”.

Gentlemen of the Jury: The best friend a man has in the world may turn against him and become his enemy. His son or daughter that he has reared with loving care may prove ungrateful. Those who are nearest and dearest to us, those whom we trust with our happiness and our good name may become traitors to their faith. The money that a man has, he may lose. It flies away from him, perhaps when he needs it most. A man’s reputation may be sacrificed in a moment of ill-considered action. The people who are prone to fall on their knees to do us honor when success is with us, may be the first to throw the stone of malice when failure settles its cloud upon our heads.

The one absolutely unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous is his dog. A man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and in poverty, in health and in sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow and the snow drives fiercely, if only he may be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer. He will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounters with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings, and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.

If fortune drives the master forth, an outcast in the world, friendless and homeless, the faithful dog asks no higher privilege than that of accompanying him, to guard him against danger, to fight against his enemies. And when the last scene of all comes, and death takes his master in its embrace and his body is laid away in the cold ground, no matter if all other friends pursue their way, there by the graveside will the noble dog be found, his head between his paws, his eyes sad, but open in alert watchfulness, faithful and true even in death.  

Vest went on to serve as a US Senator from the state of Missouri for 24 years until just before his death in 1904.

www.sos.mo.gov/archives/education/olddrum/StoryofBurdenvHornsby

 

 

Keeping your dog out of trouble when meeting people

“He just came at me, with no warning!”, “All of a sudden, he just lunged at the other dog!”, “One minute, he was fine; and the next minute he was attacking!”   Whenever I hear statements like this, my response is usually “No, probably not.  He was probably giving off plenty of signs that he was scared or stressed, and he wanted to get away from whatever was bothering him.  You either didn’t see those them or didn’t understand them.”

In an earlier post, I addressed the topic of dogs being overly reactive to each other Dog-to-Dog Reactivity | The Animal Nerd.  But what about dogs reacting to people?

Most so-called dog aggression problems are completely avoidable.   They want to avoid conflict with people or other dogs, and they want to avoid frightening situations.  But we often do not give them the ability to do so, or we inadvertently prevent them from getting away from the thing that’s bothering them.  The entirely predictable result is that the dog gets even more stressed and is pushed over his behavioral threshold, resulting in him being labeled “aggressive”.

There is a simple, common-sense way to prevent any injury, drama or fallout from your dog becoming overly stressed and acting out:  Be aware of what signals your dog is broadcasting, and remove him from the situation that is stressing him out.

The fact is that dogs are communicating all the time.  They are a pretty darned intelligent species with sophisticated non-verbal communications abilities.  Not being handicapped by a spoken language, they are constantly communicating with us, with other dogs and with the world in general.  They fill every waking moment with indications of two things:  How they are feeling and what they plan to do in the next few minutes.   And make no mistake, they understand and react to the non-verbal messages that we are constantly broadcasting.  They’ve been living with us for over 20,000 years and they read our facial expressions, posture, gait and our other unspoken signals like a book.

Your relationship with your dog is unlike the ones you have with your human friends and family.  You control where he goes, what he encounters and limit his options for what to do in the situations in which you place him.   Since you control everywhere he goes, it becomes your responsibility to learn canine body language, particularly your own dog’s non-verbals, so you can avoid putting him in danger or in highly stressful situations from which he cannot escape.

When your dog meets a new person, it is up to you to control the situation.  This means that you are responsible for watching your pup and making sure that he is not anxious or overly excited:

Is his tail held at a neutral height, relaxed and wagging?  Or is it lowered or tucked, indicating anxiety?  Is your dog holding it stiffly with a slight wag?  That can mean stress or a warning to other dogs to stay away.  What are his ears doing?  Are they relaxed and held closely to his head? Are they held tightly back, indicated fear?  Are they held alertly in a forward position?  What about his back?  Is it held stiffly or even slightly rounded?  Or is it relaxed?  Is he turn his head away from that person, indicating that he wants to avoid contact?   Several illustrated examples of stressed or relaxed behavior can be found here:  Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu).

And what is the other person doing?  Is he or she approaching you dog head on, locking eyes with him?  Is he or she bending over your dog in a threatening posture?  It is up to you to watch your dogs’ responses to that person’s actions and determine if your dog is becoming alarmed or anxious.  Remember, whether the other person knows it or not, he and your dog are having a body language conversation and your dog is responding to everything he does.  For example, I recently worked with a shelter dog who was extremely wary of new people.  It took me a little while to accept me and to be relaxed and comfortable with me on or off leash, and we became friends easily.  The next day, I saw her react to the presence of a particular volunteer (a large, bearded man), during which she engaged in distancing behaviors, growling and barking.  I had him change his approach to her:  Instead of approaching her head-on and looking directly at her, I had him walk towards her at an angle without making eye contact then stand facing 90 degrees away from her.  She immediately relaxed, slowly approached him and accepted treats from him.  Following that meeting, he was able to leash her up and take her for walks without any drama.

The bottom line is that it is up to you to know how your dog displays stress, anxiety or happiness before you put him in situations were he can potentially get in trouble.   You need to understand that he is constantly telling you what his emotional state is and take that into account when you are taking him places or putting him in contact with other people.  You need to understand when he’s telling you that he wants to approach or avoid something or someone.  When you with your dog and other people are involved, look at him from time to time and ask yourself “If it were up to him, what would he do right now?  Stay?  Leave?”  Because that is exactly what he is saying to you.

There are several very good sources that can help you get a better understanding of your dog’s body language:

Rugaas, T. (2005).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals 2nd Ed .  Direct Book Service.

Abrantes, R. (1997).  Dog Language.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

Aloff, B. (2005).  Canine Body Language:  A Photographic Guide.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise.

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