Our Responsibility To Dogs: Fear, Self-Knowledge, and Puffs of Air

Our Responsibility To Dogs: Fear, Self-Knowledge, and Puffs of Air

Have you ever had that test at the eye doctor, the one where they puff air against your eye? If not, just imagine it. Air in a puff right into your eye. “Don’t blink”, the doctor may tell you. Because typically, if a puff of air hits you in the eye, you blink. It’s a reflex, so you do it automatically. (Bear with me if you will, as we go down this path just a bit. We’ll get to dogs soon enough and it’s worth the journey.)

Imagine you feel a bit of a breeze in your home one day. Just a tiny movement of the air. You pinpoint the crack in the plaster where it’s coming from and crouch down, only to get a puff of air in your eye.

And you blink.

“Well hold right on, that’s not right” you say. You’ve lived in this windy city for years; your eyes are hardened against gale force winds. You’ve competed professionally in staring contests. You’ve worn contact lenses far past the time they feel like sandpaper dipped in jalapeño juice. Ain’t no way a puff of air is going to make you blink. Other people, sure, they’d blink at anything. But not you.

So what’s going on with the blink, then? Something must be really wrong, you decide. Maybe it’s a chemical leak. You take an axe to your wall and start to dismantle it. It’s obviously unsafe for anyone to live in this house, this house with a blink-worthy air leak through a crack in the wall. Something’s there, puffing away, just waiting to kill you and your family. Or worse.

This probably sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? You are likely whispering “why don’t I just admit that blinking is a reflex? Why the tortuous logic and wall dismantling?” And you’re right to whisper that. You really are.

We all, to a one, blink when a puff of air hits our eyes.

Blinking protects our eyes from damage. Our eyes are important to our survival, as you can well imagine. So evolution has bestowed upon us this gift, this automatic behaviour. Blink! In fact, evolution has gifted us with a lot of reflexes and behaviours, gained somewhat painfully through our long primate history as delicious-looking and (until tool-making proliferated, at least) poorly-armed mammals sprinting across the savannah. One of these gifts is the ability—the wondrous ability—to quickly identify threats and get the heck away from them. Sitting in an office with a dog snoozing beside me on the couch, it’s hard to imagine the frequency and severity of threats that my great-great-great-to-the-power-of-twelve-grandmother would have faced. I worry about the diseases of old age as my eventual demise, the majority of my primate ancestors worried about something a bit more immediate: being eaten. Pass the floss; this one’s a bit stringy.

Since being eaten was our relatives’ numero uno cause of death for the vast majority of our evolutionary history, we evolved some special ways to avoid it, just like all our meals-on-legs mammalian compatriots. I mean we have those wonderful blinking eyes, of course. But even more fundamental, even more foundational, we have fear. We naturally find certain things scary, or we’re born ready to quickly acquire fears. Fear, as all dog trainers know, causes flight. Or fight. And the things we find scary are the things that killed us in great numbers, of course. Those random great-great-great-grand-siblings of ours that didn’t find giant predatory birds or giant predatory hyenas or giant predatory crocodilians to be scary didn’t live long enough to reproduce, if you know what I mean. Hand over the floss; that one was a bit stringy. You see? Fear matters. Fear kept us safe.

We are all, to a one, scared of dogs.

As a dog training professional, you might be saying “hold on a second here. I’m not scared of dogs. I love dogs. I’ve dedicated my life to dogs!” And yes, all of that is true, too. One doesn’t replace the other. Or more, you may be saying “um, actually, I’m so un-scared of dogs that I have worrisome level of fearlessness.” But that’s not true, either. That’s not true unless you come from another planet or have some very peculiar brain damage. Humans find certain things scary, and that’s perfectly fine. We’re all human, after all. And take heart: admitting our fear of dogs, as dog professionals, doesn’t make us worse at our jobs. Quite the opposite, in fact. Admitting that dogs are, on some occasions, close enough to our Pleistocene predators to evoke some deep-level fears is actually ethical, helpful, and freeing. Pretending we’re not scared is when issues crop up.

Imagine this scenario. You have a client with two 80lb mastiff crosses. The dogs have been arguing over bones. They have argued at least 20 times in the last few years and never done any real harm to each other. The owner decides that she’d like to train the dogs to stop arguing because her new condo association finds the noise to be too much. Usually with a client with infrequent and non-injurious dog-dog resource guarding, you don’t recommend training—it’s just normal dog stuff, after all. However, you have a great plan to work on it anyways, so you head on over to start working with Chomper and Bruiser. All is well in the consult until the moment that Chomper decides that the time is neigh to chomp, and Bruiser returns the favour with a bit of bruising. They start to brawl. 160 pounds of brawl. A tiny ear nick produces a spray of blood in the way ear nicks do.

And you blink.

Your heart rate spikes as your sympathetic nervous system ramps up, although you and the owner manage to separate the dogs without fuss. As per usual with these two dogs, no injuries resulted from the fight other than the tiny nick.

But wait. Something’s different than the time you worked with the squabbling Labradoodles or the arguing Pugs. This time, you’re upset.

“Well hold right on, that’s not right” you say. You’ve trained scrapping dogs for years; your heart is hardened against the fury of fights. You’ve competed in agility and flyball with working-line border collies, for goodness’ sake. Ain’t no way a dog fight is going to make you upset. You’re fearless.

So what’s going on with the pounding heart, then? Something must be really wrong, you decide. Maybe it’s a chemical imbalance. You take an axe to your beautifully laid out plans and start to dismantle them. It’s obviously unsafe for these dogs to live together in this house, these dogs with their violent brawling that made your heart beat like a castanet. Something’s wrong with these dogs. They’re just waiting to kill each other or harm your client. Or worse.

Remember what you thought after reading about the blink? Well, this should sound just as ridiculous. You should be whispering “why don’t I just admit that being scared of large dogs fighting is a normal human emotion? Why the tortuous logic and plan dismantling?” And you’d be right to whisper that. Recommending crate-and-rotate, re-homing, or euthanasia for non-injurious dog fights is as silly as chopping down a wall to prevent a blink response. And this is the rub.

If we tell ourselves we’re fearless, then when we do actually feel scared, the only conclusion we can come to is that the dog in question must actually be scary. There is no other way out of the cognitive box we’ve jumped into.

But that’s just not a box that dog trainers can afford to get comfy in. The welfare of our dogs, and our clients’ dogs, is at stake. If we use our own heartrate as a barometer of a dog’s threat, rather than established methods focussing on real risk and acquired bite inhibition, then we’re simply doing all dogs a disservice. This fear usually shows up with certain breeds (this is personal, but there are trends which you can guess), certain sizes of dogs (the bigger the better, unsurprisingly), or certain behaviours (aggression of all sorts, no matter how ritualized, but in combination with breed and size even unruliness can work). Preventing a playful, social dog from having the joy of dog play after non-injurious scrapping is the typical outcome here, although other, sadder outcomes are also possible.

So the next time you feel your heartrate start to skip, be thankful. It’s the gift that kept your ancestors alive, so that xx years later, you could catch a lift on this mortal coil. And it’s kind of interesting, to feel your pupils blow and your nostrils flare and the sound of your heart in your ears…but don’t be fooled by it. You’re scared because you’re human. In most cases it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog in front of you.

We are all, to a one, scared of dogs. We’re scared because we’re human. In most cases it has absolutely nothing to do with the dog in front of us.

 

 

Cover photo credit: Utopia_88 by iStock.

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Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

Academy Vet Talk: Resource Guarding in Dogs

As a veterinarian and dog trainer, I often get asked, “How can I stop my dog from snarling at me when he's eating? It is so disrespectful. No matter how much I yell at him or take his food away when he does it, he still seems to forget that I'm the one who feeds him.” Luckily, disrespect isn't part of the equation, even though it really looks and feels like it is. I can usually make a quick diagnosis: Resource Guarding. Thankfully, it's a problem that is usually straightforward to address.

What is it?

Resource guarding is when dogs exhibit behaviors designed to prevent other animals (dogs, humans, cats, etc.) from obtaining something that is in their possession. They've got a thing they want to keep (the resource), so they do stuff (guarding) to make sure the other animals in the area don't try to take it. Dogs most commonly will guard food, treats, toys, and locations. Sometimes they will also guard certain humans. Guarding is usually directed at other dogs (dog-dog), or humans (dog-human).

What does it look like?

Some guarding is quite obvious: growling, snarling, snapping, biting, lunging/chasing, or even taking an item away to hide. Some is more subtle: tense muscles/freezing, “hard eye” (staring), or eating food or treats faster than normal.

Why do dogs do it?

Because they evolved to want stuff!

It's very important to understand that resource guarding can be a very normal behavior for dogs. The warnings that dogs give—growls, snarls, stares, freezing—are the dog trying to communicate politely, in dog language, that they would like you to back off. If you or the other dog listen to his request and back off, this is likely where the situation will end. It's perfectly reasonable for a dog to say, “I'd rather keep this delicious snack to myself, thank you.”

 

If I had a $1000 bill in my hand, you would not fault me one bit for pulling it away from you as you reached towards it. I might even say, “Sorry, you can't have that!” as I put it back in my pocket. Of course I want to keep my money. I need to pay my mortgage and feed my kids! A dog freezing, staring, growling, eating faster, or even snarling, is doing the same thing. He's saying, “Hey, that's mine! Please don't take it!”

 

What should we do about it?

As with many behavior problems, there are three main ways to go on this one: acceptance, management, and training. In this case, the training would consist of desensitization and counter-conditioning.

            Acceptance—or doing nothing—is appropriate when the guarding is mild, does not inconvenience or scare anyone, and NEVER involves injuries. For example, dog-dog guarding in which the dogs are “talking” but never injuring each other can usually be left alone. It's like Animal Planet in your living room—just sit back and enjoy watching two animals talk in the language of their species!

            Management alone is appropriate when there is minimal risk to humans or animals, and when the type of guarding allows for changing the environment to accommodate the guarder. For example, a dog who growls and practically inhales his food when other dogs are nearby can easily just be fed in another room with the door closed. He will most likely appreciate being able to eat in peace! A dog who growls at the owner when he approaches while the dog is working on a dental chewy can be put in his crate at chewy time and left alone until he is done. Management may also be used in more serious cases either while training is taking place, or if training is not feasible. 

            Training is appropriate when the guarding is more severe, results in injuries, or if it is inconvenient enough to the owner to make the time investment worthwhile. Training can also be done preventatively if the owner wishes (this is highly recommended for puppies!). Rather than focusing directly on changing the behavior (growling, biting, etc.), this training focuses on changing the dog's emotional reaction to having his “stuff” taken from him. Instead of, “Oh crap! Here they come to take my food!” we want, “Oh boy! Here they come to take my food! Yayayayayay!!”

What should we NOT do?

Unfortunately it's all too easy to make resource guarding worse. Punishing the warnings dogs give us, taking items away repeatedly with no reward, smacking or “alpha-rolling” dogs for guarding all actually make the guarding more serious. Dogs that are punished for guarding may stop giving the warning signs, but they still don't want you to take their stuff. And if pushed too far, they are more likely to bite.

 

You see that I have $1000, and you ask me for it. I say ,“No way, that's mine!” You grab it out of my hand and leave. Next payday, you ask for my money again. I yell at you, “NO! IT'S MINE AND YOU CAN'T HAVE IT!” You get right up in my face and yell, “DON'T YOU DARE YELL AT ME!” and then take my money and leave. Two weeks later, you walk up to me when I have my paycheck in my pocket. I don't even wait for you to say anything, I just deliver a knock-out punch right to your nose. Whoops.

 The second scenario is even worse. You take my money, then smack me or yell at me for protesting politely. I tend to be a pretty timid person, so the next 5 times you take my money, I'm silent. You think, “oh good, she learned to respect me,” but inside I'm getting more and more upset. The final time you take my money, I blow up, break your nose, and give you a concussion. Dogs can easily do the same thing when punished for objecting to their things being taken. They learn that they aren't allowed to TELL you they are upset, but it doesn't change the fact that they ARE upset, and they may eventually be pushed too far and end up biting you or someone else with no warning. 

 

How does this desensitization and counter-conditioning stuff work?

Desensitization and counter-conditioning is all about starting where the dog is comfortable (a toy or object he really couldn't care less about), and gradually teaching him to LOVE having his stuff taken by giving him even better stuff than whatever it was we took away. As he learns to love having his stuff taken, we very slowly increase the difficulty towards the stuff he really doesn't want to give up.


Remember my $1000? What if, instead of you taking my whole $1000, you started out just taking a dollar, and then handing me $2 in return. The next time you see me, you take $5, and immediately hand me $10. You gradually take more and more, but each time you give me back twice as much. As I figure out the pattern, I start getting pretty happy when I see you approach. I might even try to get you to take my money.

That's what we want with dogs. We want them to want us to take their stuff. And we get there by paying them handsomely for giving their stuff to us. It may take a while, especially if there's a history of you taking my money with no reward. But if we work on it carefully and slowly enough, we can get there.

 

Hire a qualified trainer!

When working on sensitive issues like resource guarding, the devil is in the details. I highly recommend working with a qualified trainer for this problem. You'll make progress much faster, and you'll be less likely to get stuck or start going in the wrong direction. When hiring a trainer, be sure to ask about their methods and training education. You want someone who will train without pain, fear, or force, and ideally someone with a lot of high-quality education and experience. There is an excellent blog on finding a good trainer here, and you can search for an Academy for Dog Trainers graduate in your area here.

 

Cover photo credit: Jeannie Hutchins Photography

Second photo: iStock Credit Tepepa79

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Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

Bringing Play Back to Sequestered Dogs

One of the most glorious times in a dog trainer’s life is that moment when we gently (if metaphorically) grasp our client’s hands and escort them and their dog into a play session. This is especially the case if the client is a bit wary or unsure—they believe in us, sure, but also trust their gut: my dog is a scary beast, isn't he? So their flat-out joy at seeing their dog play gleefully warms the cockles of our hearts.

Often this scenario comes up if our client’s dogs have had a scuffle with another dog at some point in the past. A cautious dog owner might, from that alarming moment on, sequester their dogs: leash walks only, no more play dates, or in multi-dog homes, they might even start a program of crate-and-rotate or otherwise keep dogs separated at all times. In some cases, owners find leash reactivity alone to be worrisome enough to decide that they can’t chance dog play—a sad scenario indeed, as many leash reactive dogs are frantically pro-social with other dogs and would in fact be improved by the chance to decrease their social motivation through dog play. 

To trainers familiar with normal and healthy dog play (which occasionally includes a minor squabble or some intense moments), it can feel a bit like we are spinning our wheels when we allow the minutes to tick by in a consult, normalizing what is really just normal dog behaviour. However, it is simply not time wasted: we must be thorough and caring to really help owners move past their feelings of alarm and fear, no matter what else is on the training to-do list. A non-injurious scuffle or one resulting in a few minor facial dings is not a walk in the park for a dog trainer but certainly doesn’t make us throw in the towel on all future dog interactions. For dog owners, though—who do not understand ritualization and acquired bite inhibition—this stuff is really scary. A few comforting words and a “get over it” attitude will do no one any favours.

In fact, spending time with our clients normalizing non-injurious interactions can pay real dividends. First, we are getting more dogs to play. Play with conspecifics is a great way to provide exercise and enrichment and a tremendous welfare boost for members of a social species like dogs. Second, our clients get access to an easy and enjoyable way to tire out their dogs. Play time is a quick energy burner for dogs and an enjoyable social occasion for humans, if orchestrated well. Clients with active dogs especially appreciate the big payoffs and small investment from having play available to them as an exercise option. And third, our businesses will grow with the ever-elusive word of mouth. Many people find watching dog play to be exquisitely enjoyable, and if we open the gate to dog play, it keeps them talking about our services.

If you have clients with dogs who are good candidates for dog play and who are pushing back due to wariness from an alarming (to them) but safe and normal encounter, consider the time you spend normalizing and myth-busting to be time well spent. On one hand, dog play may form a key component to a behaviour modification program. For certain diagnoses like leash reactivity in a friendly but barrier frustrated dog, dog-dog play can be used within your behaviour modification protocol for saturation (getting the dog bored of dogs), motivation (using play as a reinforcing consequence) and distraction (for training very solid alternate behaviours). On the other hand, even in cases where play won't be of direct use for your training plan, dog play is of value for the exercise and enrichment it provides. For example, owners who have experienced a minor scuffle might easily misinterpret the seriousness of it and end up preventing their young, active, and bored dog from playing. "He would have killed the other dog if I hadn't intervened" is a common theme, despite the strong likelihood that their dog has a species-normal and safe way of settling minor disagreements. It makes good sense to take the time to discuss acquired bite inhibition, which is the ability of dogs to bite with attenuated, non-maiming force in social interactions. Talk about how the dogs, if they had intended on hurting each other, could have done so immediately. And recognize that these owners are quite legitimately scared, so need a gentle approach. You may have to repeat the message often, and in many different ways, for the owner to get some clarity about their dog's behaviour and needs.

Getting previously-sequestered dogs set up with playmates is good for your client, good for your business, and good for the dog. And all that hand-holding has a delightful bit of reinforcement for you, too: a video card full of play between dogs who (without your intervention), simply wouldn't have the chance.

Joya, sequestered after a minor squabble, was able to shine as a dog-friendly dog after some work by Academy graduate Sabrina Mignacca of Ivy League Dogs. Anna, also sequestered after a squabble, took it upon herself to reintroduce play in her life after two years away from it. Anna's newfound sociability was fostered by Academy graduate Lisa Skavienski of Dog, Educated.

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Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

Throw Open the Jailhouse Doors: When and why to choose training over management

As dog trainers, we love management—that is, arranging the dog’s environment to prevent mess-ups.  It’s a godsend for a bunch of pesky behaviour issues. We use baby gates, dog-proof rooms, curtains, and crates to provide relief to our clients (and often, their dogs). Management can also protect shy or fearful dogs from experiences that they are not ready for, either as a permanent solution or temporarily during training.
 
But long-term management, no matter how alluring or easy it seems, nor how ‘humane’ it feels, is not always the answer.
 
In cases where a management-only solution impacts a dog’s quality of life, and where well-vetted, humane, and aversives-free behaviour modification options exist, we have a double duty as dog trainers. First, we must disclose to our clients that a training option exists, and that the training option will protect or even increase their dog’s quality of life. Second, if our clients then wish to train, we must be proficient at the techniques needed and offer them, or refer on to practitioners who are. Enrichment—an increasingly hot topic in both dog training circles and animal welfare more broadly—matters to us, our clients, and their dogs.
 

Example: Play issues

Dogs are, in general, social creatures who enjoy the company of other dogs. Play (or simple companionship) with the conspecifics of their own choosing is profoundly enriching and important. Trainers dealt a steady diet of dogs who are fearful and aggressive towards other dogs sometimes forget how deep the pool is of socially normal dogs. But salience, of course, does not mean prevalence.
 
Many dogs who enjoy play also, and separately, have play-related behaviour issues. They might target and bully some dogs, or their play might frequently tip over into squabbles. Dog trainers skilled at using a well-planned combination of positive reinforcement on the one hand, and reducing problem behaviours through removal from play on the other, can generally resolve these cases over a number of weeks. In other words, the dogs stop bullying and scrapping, but get to keep playing. Although using a differential reinforcement protocol (for example, recalls out of play) may work for some of these cases, for many dogs the problem behaviour itself seems to be exceptionally self-reinforcing, and simply re-directing the dog fails to produce the desired outcomes.
 
Removal from play is a time-out—in other words, “negative punishment”. This label sounds distasteful but simply means making a good thing disappear. We have to leave the play session at some point anyways, so having “play ends” contingent on problem behaviour simply harnesses this pain-free, fear-free learning opportunity for the benefit of the dog. The dog learns that bullying results in loss of play opportunities, and they modify their behaviour accordingly. And like all aversives-free training, using removal from play as a consequence can even be considered enriching. We can compare this protocol to the puzzle toys that we are so quick to recommend to our clients. A dog might try pawing, but finds that doesn’t work to open a compartment. They might then try chewing, but that doesn’t work either. Finally, they try moving a lever with their nose, and out comes the food. The dog learns to get more of what they like from doing one behaviour (just as the dog learns that acceptable play gets them more play), and to avoid doing another behaviour because it clearly terminates what they want (similarly, bullying means play will end).
 
The management-only solution for play issues (“no more dog park” or even “no more play”) radically decreases these dogs’ quality of life. These dogs enjoy play, and benefit tremendously from the opportunity to interact with other dogs. The very fact that these dogs will change their behaviour to avoid the consequence of removal from play is proof positive that they like play, and that they aren’t secretly trying to communicate a negative state like “over-stressed”. If they were over-stressed we could expect that bullying would increase with a time-out protocol, because the dog would be in a hurry to get away from the dog park and would learn that bullying brings relief. (And luckily for dogs, savvy trainers can usually pick up when a dog is stressed through their body language.)
 
A management-only solution may also cause new behaviour problems like barrier frustration (“reactivity”) on leash, due to deprivation. So if the play issue is left unaddressed, a social, enriched dog with a fixable problem can easily become a bored, destructive dog without playmates and without leash walks. We have all seen these dogs and felt for both the dogs and their owners too, who are very much at the end of their ropes. This is not an academic or theoretical outcome.
 
And it leads us to another, more serious, point. Dog owners may also find a management-only solution simply doesn’t meet their needs. They may themselves recognize the value of joyful dog play. If we do not offer them humane alternatives, they may (quite reasonably in their eyes) knock on the door of the local force trainer, who will certainly modify the dog’s behaviour. This trainer may do so with painful corrections and ‘negative reinforcement’, though, and will likely not disclose the well-documented side effects of training this way. Negative reinforcement may sound similar to negative punishment, but it is a whole world apart. It refers to making use of the relief an animal feels when something painful or scary ends. In dog training this typically means something truly awful like a long-duration electric shock.
 
There is a suite of behaviour problems that can seemingly be solved through management, but at great cost to the dog’s quality of life: play issues, aggressive guarding of chew items, and jumpy and mouthy dogs, to name a few. These solutions, which needlessly deny dogs things they enjoy due solely to practitioner preference, must eventually be taken off the table as an acceptable practice for dog trainers. We simply care too much about dogs’ quality of life to continue to prescribe needless emotional warehousing.
 

If you are ready to take your training to the next level and offer your clients a full complement of services, please consider applying to the Academy for Dog Trainers.

 

Cover photo iStock.com/mimadeo

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Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Ouch! Acquired Bite Inhibition and Puppies

Dogs have extremely strong jaws and powerful bites. Even the smallest of dogs can deliver an injurious bite as an adult, and big dogs can inflict even greater damage. Despite this physical ability, most dog bites do not result in terrible injury. In fact, many leave only a small scratch or a few bruises.

Like wolves, with whom dogs share a recent ancestor, dogs use their jaws to both hunt for prey and settle social disputes. Because their jaws are dual-purpose, it is vitally important that dogs and wolves do not use the full (prey-killing) force of their bite during social interactions such as play and fighting. Instead, they use what ethologists call “ritualized aggression”. Ritualized aggression includes threats, body postures and inhibited bites.

Large predators... which live permanently in a society as wolves or lions do, must possess reliable and permanently effective inhibition mechanisms. These must be sufficiently self-reliant to be independent of the changing moods of the individual.

Lorenz, Konrad. On aggression. Psychology Press, 2002 (1966), p125.

Acquired bite inhibition (ABI) refers to the ability of a dog to bite with inhibited force. Dog trainers care deeply about a dog’s ABI because it has important prognostic implications. A dog who bites a neighborhood kid with an inhibited bite is the subject of a very different conversation than a dog who bites the neighborhood kid with maiming force. In the first case, the dog will likely undergo a standard behavior modification program. In the much rarer second case, the dog may well end up euthanized, depending on the severity of the bite and other factors. Luckily, most dogs have good—or at least good enough—ABI. However, dog trainers and veterinarians do occasionally get a call about a dog with poor ABI, and it is always heartbreaking.

Unfortunately, research on acquired bite inhibition is scant. Like all behavior, it seems reasonable to assume it has genetic and environmental determinants and influences. Many experts and practitioners believe that dogs learn, or refine, their ABI through play biting as puppies.

Puppies play by tumbling around and biting one another. Suddenly one of them gets a grip on another's ear. It bites hard and the poor brother or sister howls in pain. The other puppy succeeds in getting its teeth in the tender skin of its sibling's belly. Much whining and yelling follow. They stand still for a short while, then let go.

Next time they act slightly differently. One will grasp the other's ear only until the puppy begins making noise. It will react to the sibling's vocal distress, which works as a mechanism to inhibit or control aggressive behaviour. Previous experiences showed the puppy it is better to let go at the first signs of vocal distress, or its belly will hurt. This is learning by trial and error.

Abrantes, Roger. Dog Language. Dogwise Publishing, 1997, p23.

Many dog trainers offer puppy classes where puppies are allowed to play freely...with caveats. The most important caveat is that all canine parties consent. Playing puppies are regularly separated to allow them to re-enter play, or not, at their will. Puppies exhibiting inappropriate play are punished by their play-mates if their infractions are minor. If they are more serious, thoughtful practitioners will institute time-outs. Much of the time, trainers see inappropriate, scrappy puppies trend to become socially normal. This allows these reformed scrappers to continue to play as puppies, which in turn allows them to refine their ABI. (And this is completely aside from the potentially enormous benefits of the puppy being able to engage in dog play with the playmates of their own choosing, an activity that is so pleasurable, enriching, and basic to a social species that it is sometimes used as a shorthand welfare indicator.)

Many dog trainers also coach their puppy class students to allow their puppies to mouth them. At first, all mouthing is allowed, except for the very hardest of bites. As the puppy ages, progressively softer bites earn the puppy a time-out. This protocol allows puppies to gradually lessen the force of their bite through information feedback—and indeed, a gradual reduction of bite pressure is what puppy class instructors see, in thousands upon thousands of puppies. This protocol and its heavy helping of information feedback to the puppy is believed to have superior ABI-refining benefits over other protocols: those where every bite is punished from the get-go; those where every bite is redirected without consequence; or those where non-biting behavior is instead constantly reinforced. It does appear that once puppies are past the socialization window, ABI is not modifiable, based on the lack of any known successful attempt to modify ABI in adult dogs.

Although there is not a body of research about how ABI is gained or refined, several case studies of socialization-age puppies with known poor ABI being turned around with a time-out protocol are both compelling and typical.

The first case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Kristy Francis. Francis teaches Early Puppy Socialization classes at VCA Animal Wellness Center of Maple Grove in Minnesota.

“Maui was an 8 week-old female mixed breed (possibly Labrador retriever cross), who was found as a stray and brought to a shelter. Her poor ABI was discovered during her intake at the rescue organization. She bit 3 littermates and 3 volunteers, resulting in a puncture wound to a littermate and bloody scratches on the other 2 puppies and the volunteers. In the first few days of fostering her, she bit the palm of my hand hard enough to leave a 1 inch cut that was as deep as half of her tooth.

I used three training protocols on Maui. Everyone who had contact with her was instructed to follow these protocols. Firstly, I yelped and briefly moved away from her to end play when she delivered a hard play bite. In this case, the yelping and ending of play did not result in softer bites. On day two, I decided to increase the magnitude of the time-outs. The revised protocol was to place Maui in an automatic timeout for any hard bites. When she bit hard, a cue was issued and she was placed in timeout for 30 seconds to 1 minute. This did help improve the hard biting. It reduced the number of incidents and some gentle play biting began. I allowed, and even encouraged, the gentle biting. When she was 10 weeks old, she was still occasionally play biting too hard, and I changed the protocol once again. The magnitude of her timeouts increased, and she was placed in timeout for 30 minutes for any hard bites.

At the age of eight weeks, she was introduced to playful adult dogs that are known to be gentle with puppies. These dogs informed her when the biting was too hard in a gentle, non-scary manner. She was not introduced to other puppies until she was 4 months old, and even then, only to older puppies between the ages of 4 months and 6 months.

When she was 5 months old, she had a normal scuffle with a 6-month-old playmate. The play had become too rough and a fight broke out. I broke up the fight and examined the other dog and found zero injuries—in other words, she had a real-life test of her refined ABI, and it had changed from injurious to non-injurious.

Maui was adopted when she was 13 weeks old and was no longer play biting hard. She is currently one year old. She has since been introduced to puppies as young as 8 weeks. She has a very gentle play bite and has never made a puppy yelp due to her biting.”

 

The second case study is presented by Academy for Dog Trainers graduate Lisa Skavienski. Skavienski co-owns Dog Educated in Rochester, New York.

“A local farmer surrendered a litter of nine 6-week-old mixed breed puppies to a rescue after their mother died. These were timid little pups, exposed to very little prior to surrender, so they went to a seasoned puppy foster. She reached out to me shortly after their arrival, concerned about how hard they were mouthing. All were issuing painful bites, with three of them, in particular, drawing blood in every instance.

Recognizing that the socialization window would be starting to close in the next few weeks, I decided to address both the fearfulness and poor ABI immediately using our trained volunteers. A plea went out to the volunteers that evening, and an interactive schedule was made to ensure a steady flow of visitors on continuous rotation through the foster’s home. That’s the great thing about a rescue full of volunteers—strangers are a precious resource in cases like this, and this is the fun part for volunteers. People arrived in shifts, were greeted at the door with a container of freshly boiled chicken, and the puppies were treated to an abundant helping of gentle body handling paired with generous portions of chicken and ‘happy talk’ for the next four days.

All volunteers were given the ABI protocol ahead of time, and the foster coached them to use time-outs for all hard bites to humans (puppy bites hard—“too bad!”—placed in pen for 1 minute—let out of pen to try again). This protocol successfully modified all the puppies’ ABI, although it did take a few days and a large number of volunteers. We had roughly a dozen new people a day pitching in. By the third day, all puppies were mouthing softly and all were decidedly pro-social to strangers, wiggling and snuggling up to every new person who entered. Their ABI progress allowed us to bring in kids of different ages to extend their socialization even more. Once we had reached this point, we scaled it back a bit to a couple of people once a day with bigger socials on weekends; however, that intensive effort over those first few days was considered imperative.

The puppies progressed normally, and all were adopted into wonderful homes, some of them multi-dog homes. All exhibit normal, non-injurious play with their new siblings. One is a therapy dog who visits patients at a nursing home every week.”

Adult dogs who bite with maiming force are a danger to the public, their owners, and themselves, as society has very low tolerance of such dogs. For this reason, the Academy for Dog Trainers endorses puppy programs which include exercises to carefully train puppies to have good ABI when they are adult dogs even in the absence of good research. There are two reasons for this.

  1. Can’t hurt.

It may be that our ABI protocols are simply for naught. However, the two types of exercises in use to refine ABI—allowing a social species to have normal, appropriate play access to conspecifics as young animals, and using well-established, aversives-free, and humane protocols to gradually, rather than suddenly, decrease mouthing—are not problematic, so the drawbacks are minor: time wasted, and arms mouthed.

  1. Might help.

Some trainers recommend avoiding attempts to refine ABI or even avoiding structured puppy interactions altogether. However, it is a fallacy to claim that there are no risks to these approaches. Anything we can do to improve ABI may, without exaggeration, save life and limb. The likely case is that these exercises do function as we intend, as is suggested by the case studies above and many others. Practitioners who choose to prevent puppies from having an opportunity to improve ABI are proselytizing from a dangerous soapbox indeed.

 

Photos: Cover photo iStock.com/blanscape. Top three credit K. Francis. Lower two credit L. Skavienski.

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