Dog training – the most important things to teach them.

Working with shelter dogs, my primary concern is to help make them adoptable.  This means addressing three areas of concern:  First, to reduce the stress and anxiety they feel just by being in the shelter environment.   Second, to address any behavioral issues they have that are obstacles to a successful adoption.  And, third, to teach them the skills they need to live in our urban or suburban world.  This post is about that third aspect.

Although it is vitally important for dogs to know, and respond to, their individual names; In my limited view there is no point in teaching shelter dogs their names.  We have the dog for limited periods of time and many adoptive owners decide to give their dogs a different name than the one they were assigned in the shelter.  When working with the pups, I concentrate on using positive interactions and responses, to reinforce positive interactions with shelter staff and volunteers.  This is a two-way street:  The more the dog enjoys being with shelter personnel, the more they’ll enjoy being with him, and more readily he will accept potential adopters.

When getting a dog ready for adoption, I concentrate on four life skills that dogs will need:  Come when called, Stay, Drop it and Leave it.  These are the things that can save the dog’s life.

Come when called:  This is the basic tool that owners need to get their dogs out of dangerous situations.  If a dog is investigating an animal that is in the backyard, getting too close to a lawnmower are power tools, getting too close to a pot on a hot stovetop or simply annoying the neighbors, a solid “come” command will get him out of that situation and back to the owner’s side.  It doesn’t need to be pretty or polished like we see in an obedience contest, but the owner must reliably be able to make the dog return to his personal control.

Stay:  This tool will help the owner to keep the dog from chasing animals or darting into a busy street.  Dogs need to know when to put on the brakes and freeze, and to remain in that same spot until they’re told to move.

Drop it:  Owners need to be able to tell their dogs to drop dangerous objects, and let go of inappropriate toys and other animals.  This will keep them from harming themselves, poisoning themselves, or harming other creatures.

Leave it:  Dog owners need to be able to tell their dogs to not grab, eat or pick up any particular item.  This will prevent them from injuring themselves or other animals they encounter.

In following posts, I’ll discuss techniques for teaching these skills.

Ruby

As many of you may have heard, Ruby, the police search-and-rescue dog whose story was told in the movie Rescued by Ruby (www.netflix.com/title/81107362) recently died after being stricken by a sudden, untreatable illness.  https://www.providencejournal.com/story/news/local/2022/05/15/rhode-island-police-dog-k-9-ruby-euthanized/9785721002/  

She was an exceptional dog who had an inspiring life.  She had been adopted from, and returned to, the Rhode Island SPCA five times; and was considered unadoptable before being given a last chance with the Rhode Island State Police.  She flourished there and had a long and illustrious career, in which she was elected American Humane Hero Dog Search and Rescue Dog of the Year in 2018 . I was lucky enough to meet her and her partner, Corporal Dan O’Neil a couple of times at charitable events for area animal shelters, where they often gave of their time and energy to help other shelter animals.

Ruby was very much of a celebrity here in Rhode Island, and she will be greatly missed.

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.

Shelter dogs with extreme anxieties

In recent months, I’ve been seeing a lot of dogs come into the shelter with extreme anxiety and symptoms of neophobia.  These dogs have been fearful of new people, new places and new experiences to the point that they will not willingly leave their runs to go for walks with volunteers.  The dogs have each been completely shut down and either actively or passively avoiding contact with every human that cares for them or walks by.  I’ve had cases of dogs that were extremely reluctant to leave their kennels, avoiding contact with new people, or refusing to go for any distance on walks and constantly trying to return to their “safe space” inside the shelter.

There is no consistent background for these dogs.  Some of these dogs were surrendered and some were transported from other shelters, and their histories are often incomplete.  That said, I must wonder whether this is related to the pandemic:  they had limited experiences, socialization and contact with people because their owners were pretty much housebound.  In any case, they’re here now and we have to help them get past their stress and anxiety.  And it is incumbent on us to do accomplish in a way that reduces their overall stress and increases their interactions with potential adopters.

There are a couple of techniques that I’ve developed that help dogs overcome these behavioral issues.  The basic thought behind them is to give the dogs time to work through their anxieties and become accustomed to their surroundings and to strange humans.  Give them a chance to solve their own problems without forcing them to perform any specific tasks.

First off:  When a dog is nervous about meeting new people, don’t force the issue or insist on leashing/harnessing him up in your first meeting.  When I am working with a dog for the first time, I don’t enter his run right away.  Instead, I spend a little time outside his run, turned sideways to him and not engaging.  Having some reading material helps.  When I enter the run, I stay turned sideways to him and kneel to reduce my apparent size.  If he doesn’t approach, I don’t force the issue; I just scatter some treats and ignore him for five or ten minutes, then leave.  I then wait an hour or so before returning and then repeat the process I outlined above.  Eventually, he’ll become more confident and start approaching for pets and more treats.  When he accepts contact, pet him briefly on his chest and the side of his neck and then pause with your hand nearby to see if he initiates more contact (consent signal).  Let him get as close as he wants.

The dogs in the above pictures (Jack and Yoda) are showing signs of being anxious upon our first meeting.   Note that they retreated to the rear of their respective kennels, and laid down with stiff postures, ready to run away from me.  Please also note the tightness of their mouths and around their eyes.  In both cases I scattered high value treats in the space between them and me, and did not attempt to force contact.  The picture on the above right was taken on a second visit with Jack, when he was a little more comfortable with my presence and was taking treats from my hand and accepted petting.  After I paused petting, he nosed my hand, seeking more contact.

When he is comfortable with you petting him with both hands at the same time, you can try putting on a leash and harness.  Take it slowly, as this involves a lot of contact and handling.  You may find that, at first, simply putting the harness over his head without fastening is all that he can tolerate.  Watch his eyes and facial expression to gauge his level of stress and discomfort (ref); stop and remove the harness when you think he’s had enough.   Eventually, he’ll allow you to snap the harness in place.   Note:  For dogs with a high degree of anxiety, I always clip the leash to the front ring of the harness as well as to the Martingale collar.  The harness and collar are only as strong as their plastic clips, which can break, and you don’t want to risk him panicking and bolting.  By using the leash and harness, you can retain control of the dog even if one of them breaks.

 

You might find that the anxious dog is unwilling to leave his run after being leashed.  In my experience this is pretty common:  The corridor is full of unfamiliar smells, noises, other dogs, strange people, etc., and once the dog learns that his kennel is a safe space, he may be very reluctant to leave it.  I never force the dog to leave the run.  Instead, I prop the door open and sit just inside it, facing in any direction except towards the dog.  I scatter some treats around and outside the door and wait for him to muster enough courage to leave the run in order to reach the furthest treats.  Be patient, this can take multiple attempts.  They key is to not put any pressure on the dog and let him decide when he’s ready.

Once you’re outside with the dog, you might find that he is very fearful and wants to go back inside.  When this happens do not force him to go in any particular direction but don’t go back inside right away.  Just sit with him for a while and relax.  After a few minutes he’ll start to notice new sounds and smells and will probably start sniffing around and taking in his surroundings.  This provides some enrichment and helps him to get familiar with the area outside.  Keep an eye on his posture and expression and watch to see if he begins to relax.  When he begins to investigate his surroundings, look at his eyes, ears, posture and tail position to see how he enjoys it.  When he starts to relax, move a little further away from the entrance door and give him the option of joining you.  In my experience, he will eventually want to relieve himself and leave scent marks, which will allow you to take him further away from the building.  By degrees, you can increase his distance and time outdoors.  Again, let him get comfortable with being outdoors before moving further along.  In an earlier post, I gave a pretty good example of desensitizing a dog that was fearful of being outdoors (Penny, a story of counterconditioning | The Animal Nerd).  In the picture to the right, you’ll see Yoda is anxious and stressed by being outdoors, but is slowly becoming engaged in his surroundings.

If he’s willing to walk with you for some distance away from the building, you might find that he suddenly stops and refuses to move in any direction except back the way you came.  If you think that you can go further without causing him serious distress, there is an easy way to get him to continue the walk.  Holding the leash In your right hand, approach his right side while taking up the slack in the leash with your left hand (just shorten the leash without pulling it tight).  When your left leg is alongside his right shoulder, make a turn to your left across the front of his body, so that you are guiding him in a tight turn.  Once he’s started turning, walk in any direction that you choose.  You may have to repeat this a few times.   Never try to force him to go in any direction, just make it easy for him to accompany you.

The point of all this is to help the dog to become habituated to new people and new surroundings without increasing his stress and anxiety.  You want to make meeting people and going on walks as routine as possible for him.   Once he’s relaxed in your company and you have established a trust relationship with him, you can introduce positive training and some playing.

 

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.

 

My New Project Dog

My latest “project” dog is a small mixed, breed named Jack – I’m guessing that he’s a chihuahua/border collie cross.  I’ve had one session with him so far, consisting of two thirty-minute visits with a one-hour break in between.  Jack is neutered and it about 18 months old.  He came to us from another shelter with very little information.

After a little while, he was able to lie down in the furthest corner, but was tense and ready to bolt if I approached any nearer.

When I entered his run, Jack fled to the back corner and gave me a warning growl along with some other distancing signals[i].  He was extremely stressed and alternated between pacing and being frozen in place.  I responded by turning 90 degrees to him and sitting down, making myself as small as possible.  I didn’t initially engage with him or speak to him, but simply relaxed and gave a few calming signals (yawns, deep sighs)[ii].  After about five minutes, he relaxed enough to lie down in the far corner.

He eventually accepted light petting on his chin, neck and chest, and began giving small consent signs for further contact.

At this point, I tossed some high value treats in his direction.  He sniffed, sampled and left them on the floor.  I got a little closer, within arm’s reach, while staying in a seated posture facing away from him.  He allowed me to touch his chin, throat and chest, and accepted petting.  After a few times, he gave small consent signs when I paused, eliciting more contact.  However, he still startled and retreated every time I moved.  At that point I considered that I had made enough contact and ended the session.

When I returned an hour later, I found that he had eaten the high value treats that I had left scattered in the run.  I entered and sat down as I had before, whereupon he approached and started sniffing my clothes and shoes.  He began taking treats from my hand and ate them immediately.  He was less inclined to accept petting and would retreat when touched, but immediately returned for more treats.  At this point, I began interacting with him by speaking in a light, positive fashion and looking directly at him.  I showed him a leash and Easy-walk harness, which I placed over his head without attempting to fasten it.  He responded by freezing in place, at which time I removed the harness and put it out of sight.  By the time I ended the session, he was approaching within a few inches of me and accepting treats from my open hand but would still startle and retreat when I moved.

At this point, Jack is less afraid of me but is not comfortable with my presence.  He’s begun to associate me with high-value treats but hasn’t progressed much further in socializing with me or with men in general.  I can touch him, but I am nowhere near being able to put a harness on him without overstressing him.

My treatment plan is to continue to treat-bomb him and gradually increase my interaction with him to the point that I can touch him with two hands at the same time (a necessary step to harnessing).  Then I’ll reintroduce the harness while giving him treats.  At that point, I’ll introduce more postures, such as standing, before taking him for walks and seeing how he interacts with outside stimuli.

[i] pethelpful.com/dogs/-Distance-Increasing-and-Distance-Decreasing-Signals-in-Dogs

[ii] Rugaas, T. (2006).  On Talking Terms With Dogs:  Calming Signals.  Wenatchee, WA.  Dogwise

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/

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

In my earlier post ( Volunteering at a Shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part Two | The Animal Nerd) I went through my recommended process for leashing a dog and taking him out of his run with the minimum excitement and drama.  Today, I’d like to talk about working with him outdoors.

First, before taking the dog out of his run, you should find out whether the shelter staff has drafted and implemented a training or behavior modification plan for that dog, and what it entails.  It may not be a formal document and behavior log, and you might find it to be as simple as asking whether they have any particular instructions for that dog.  As always, if you don’t feel comfortable working with that plan, find another dog to work with on that day.

Before taking the dog outside, ask the shelter staff what his day has already been like.  Did he have a vet visit?  Has he already had some play time?  Has he been seen by potential adopters?  If he’s already had a big day, it might be best to just take him outside and let him sit quietly in a nice quiet spot and relax.

Once he’s leashed and you have good control over him, take him directly outside.  The dog has been cooped up and will need to relieve himself – that’s a little bit of stress that you can help him with immediately.  Hint – always have a few poop bags in your pocket when you’re at the shelter.  Don’t try to do any training for the first few minutes, until he’s had a chance to work off his initial excitement.  If your shelter has an outdoor off-leash pen, you might take him to it so he can work off any “zoomies” that he might have from being cooped up, or you can provide him some enrichment by playing with him – that’s one reason that I favor cargo pants, you can always have a tennis ball handy.

However, if the dog is new to the shelter or if you haven’t worked with him before, I wouldn’t include any off-leash time or play in the first couple of times that you take him out.  When I’m working with an unfamiliar dog, my practice is to take him for a long walk on the shelter grounds and let him have a good sniff around.  I don’t include any training or play, and I try to not correct anything he does – beyond removing him from any situation that raises his stress level or causes an over-reaction.  Remember, he’s new to you and doesn’t know you.  You want him to associate you with a pleasant, relaxing experience.  I also try to incorporate quiet time, in which I find a pleasant spot for him and me to just sit and relax.  Let him get used to the sights and smells of being outside and learn how to get comfortable.  This is an opportunity for you to observe him and learn his behavior cues and characteristics – What does he focus on?  At what distance does he react to other dogs?  What are the signs that he’s feeling tense?  How does he self-soothe and shed stress?  This knowledge is invaluable in socializing him.  And simply experiencing being outdoors provides a great deal of enrichment to him, engages his brain and helps his emotional state.

Once you’ve had him out a few times, and he knows you, then you should be able to incorporate some light training or play time – in a closed, controlled area.  Although, except for leash walking,  I recommend against trying to do any training while you’re outdoors – there are simply too many distractions.   When playing with the dog, especially for the first few times, carefully watch his excitement level.  A lot of shelter dogs have a tendency to become overexcited when they’re playing and can become difficult to handle.  I’ve had pitbulls suddenly become overexcited during play and decide that my sweatshirt would be an excellent tug toy.  For this reason, I strongly recommend that you leave their harness on during the play session, and leave the leash attached for the first couple of them.  If the dog becomes jumpy or mouthy, you can step on the leash and reduce his movement until he regains some self-control.

When you’re walking the dog, remember that he is not your dog and that you are not his buddy.  He really doesn’t know you.  He may decide to head in a particular direction that you don’t want to go.  In this case, simply plant yourself and wait him out.  After he stops pulling, you can simply say something like “Let’s go” and head in the direction that you want.  Or, he might stop and freeze, or pancake himself and refuse to move.  If either of these happen, do not get into a contest of wills or a tug-o-war with him.  You can kneel or crouch down and wait him out – give him the choice of either doing nothing or approaching you.  Or you can change direction and head off at an oblique angle to your original plan. This usually gets him to go along with you.  Don’t get frustrated or let your attitude show anything except that you’re having a relaxing good time.

At the end of the walk, he might not want to go back inside the shelter.  If this happens, try taking him back inside through a different door than his usual one.  This is also the time to use some very high-value treats to help him go back inside.  And always give him a few treats when he goes back inside his run – not only does this help him associate the end of the walk or play session with a positive reinforcer, but by scattering a few treats in his run you buy yourself a minute to take off his leash and/or harness, and get out the door while he’s distracted.  This reduces the drama associated with leaving him inside, and prevents him from door-dashing while you’re exiting.

That’s it for today.

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.

Volunteering at a shelter – Handling and Socializing Dogs, Part One.

If you’ve taken the first steps towards becoming a volunteer at an animal shelter, then congratulations!  You’re about to have a fun and rewarding experience.   As I discussed in a previous post,  Volunteering at a shelter (animalnerd.com, there are a lot of ways to contribute to the operation of a shelter and to the welfare of the animals housed there.  My own area of expertise is in handling and socializing shelter dogs, and that’s what I’d like to discuss here.

The first thing to do is to go through your shelter’s orientation program, paying particular attention to animal handling and safety measures.  I can’t stress that enough.  Second, become familiar with the equipment that you will be using, including how it should fit properly.  For example, martingale collars should be fitted so that you can fit two fingers under them when they’re drawn tight.  And every dog harness fits differently – you should practice putting them on dummies or large stuffed animals before trying to put them on a live dog.  In (  ), I discussed my preferred way to hold a dog’s leash to keep him from pulling it out of your hand, or pulling you off-balance.  You might find it helpful – but if you find a method that works better for you, please post it.  Third, have some appetizing dog treats.  They don’t have to be expensive, a hot dog that’s been chopped into tiny pieces works just as well as designer dog morsels.  The smaller and stinkier they are, the better.

Now you’re ready to deal with a shelter dog.  There are a few of things to keep in mind when you approach one of these dogs for the first time:  First, be constantly aware that this dog is highly stressed and overstimulated.  No matter how much a shelter tries to make itself a quiet and easy place for a dog to be housed, it is still a highly stressful experience for them.  These dogs have been separated from whatever life they’ve known and are in a new place where they’re being constantly bombarded with new noises, new smells and new people who handle them, wash them and perform medical exams and procedures on them.   These pups are completely on edge.   Second, keep in your mind that this dog doesn’t know you.  As far as he’s concerned, you’re just another human.  This may change over time as you handle this dog in days to come, but for the first few times that you handle him, you’re just someone with a treat bag who’s holding the leash.  Third, remember that you are not there to do the specific job of walking the dog:  You are there to help the dog get adopted, and that may mean helping him to cope with the stress.  You are not there to add to his stress level.

Watch the dog as you approach his run and observe his body language and facial expressions.  Do not immediately open the door, just stay relaxed and calm and see what he does as you approach.  Also, do not stand squarely in from of the entrance and lock eyes with him or stare at him, this can be perceived as threatening.  Instead, turn yourself about 45 degrees away from him, and see what you can detect from his general posture and expressions.   Is he watching you or turning away?  Does he approach you as you stand outside?  Is he fearful and guarding the entrance?  I’ve included some good links (Below) for interpreting canine body language and facial expressions, which may help you in decoding the messages that the dog is sending you at first meeting.

Don’t rush your first meeting.  If the dog is so stressed that he is growling or showing teeth, then you might decide not to even go inside his run.  In my experience, this sort of reaction isn’t uncommon when a dog is newly arrived in a shelter.  Just keep yourself turned somewhat away from his run and sit or kneel down outside it where he can see you.  Be as non-threatening a presence as possible.  If possible to put some treats into his run without opening the door or putting any part of your hand inside, go ahead and do so.   And just stay there for a while, so he can get used to the idea that you aren’t scary.  After a while he may settle down and you might be able to enter the run safely.  If not, or if you are uncomfortable going inside, then just maintain a calm presence until he begins to relax, and then let him be while you go handle another dog.  By doing that alone, you are helping him to adjust to the shelter and making it easier for the next person.

Which brings me to my next point:  Work within your comfort level.  If you feel that a dog is too worked up or too strong for you to handle, if you feel that the dog is dangerous or if you are just uncomfortable with a particular dog for any reason, end the interaction on a positive note and leave him in his run.  There’s no problem or stigma associated with that.  In fact, the shelter staff would appreciate that as feedback about the dog.  You can’t help a dog if you are stressed out while working with him.  And part of the reason that you’re there in the first place is to enjoy yourself.

Once you’re inside the run with the dog, continue to relax and take it slow.  You might not be able to leash him up during the first meeting – which is perfectly OK.  The dog can react to you in a number of ways.  You may get an excited, even overly excited greeting, with the dog jumping on you or even mouthing.  If this happens, it is an excellent time to start working on socialization and behavior management.  Just turn your back on him and stop all interaction until he’s stopped with all four paws on the floor, then give him a calm bit of praise.   If he starts over-reacting again, repeat this lack of feedback as many times as necessary.  If he doesn’t stop after five minutes (which will seem like an eternity while you’re in there), then leave and come back later.

On the other hand, the dog may retreat and huddle as far away from you as possible.  If this happens, my preferred response is to sit or crouch down, facing away at a right angle, and let him calm down.   Watch his face and posture for hints as to his level of stress (below).  The key thing is to let him set the pace of the meeting.  Since we have limited time to work with these dogs, I sometimes get the dog to approach by scattering a few treats in the space between him and me.  The important thing is to not increase his anxiety.  If he doesn’t approach you at the first meeting, that’s perfectly OK.  You can leave, let him scarf up the treats that you’ve put out, and come back a little later to try again.  It may take a few visits to get him to relax and approach you.

In any case, there are a few things that you should definitely NOT do.  First, never approach the dog (or any unfamiliar dog) head-on and bend over them.  This is a threatening posture, and he may react either fearfully.  Always turn at an angle and make yourself a little smaller.   Also, do not loom over the dog when you’re attaching a leash or putting on his harness.  Put yourself alongside him, facing in the same direction as him, and spend as little time as possible reaching over him.

That’s enough to cover in this post.  In the next article, I’ll discuss leashing up the dog and handling him on a walk.  As always, please feel free to comment or add your experiences.

References:

Dog Body Language.pdf (lmu.edu)

Guide to Reading Your Dog’s Body Language | PetMD

7 Tips on Canine Body Language | ASPCApro