Saturday, April 30, 2016

Resource guarding: teach your dog to enjoy sharing instead

Resource guarding is a normal canine behaviour.
In order to effectively deal with resource guarding, we must acknowledge that it is a normal canine behaviour, essentially a built-in loss prevention technique. Our dogs exist in part because their ancestors were careful to maintain possession of hard-earned resources. So let's get this straight: from the canine perspective, there is nothing inherently wrong with asking someone to leave your stuff alone.

But my dog shouldn't be aggressive toward me.

Forget that we're talking about dogs for a moment. Who is the aggressor when one person quietly approaches another and takes his wallet despite verbal protest? Verbal protestation, or growling in the case of the dog, is a distance-increasing behaviour whereas true aggression is more accurately characterised by distance-decreasing behaviours.

Now imagine parents with a long-standing history of taking their teenager's wallet, adding funds, and giving it right back. How do you think the teen will feel if his dad occasionally borrows money from his wallet? By doing this with young puppies, we can proactively prevent resource guarding, and by doing this more slowly with dogs who already guard, we can effectively change their entire view on loss prevention.

Start small

If you have an established conflict over resources, then don't start by giving your dog a bone and taking it away with the intention of smearing peanut butter on it. Start small:
  1. Close the economy on food, toys, and other resources so that all encounters are well controlled.
  2. At mealtimes, approach your dog's empty bowl, drop in a small portion of his meal, and walk away. Once he has finished, approach with another portion, and repeat.
  3. Once your dog is clearly relaxed and happy every time you approach his bowl, bend down a bit to drop in the portions. Progress slowly until you are touching his empty bowl, then picking it up to fill it.
  4. Your dog will start to look up in eager anticipation every time you walk toward his bowl, even while he is eating. It is now time to put boring kibble into his bowl and approach with a high-value treat, such as steak, while he is eating. You are ready for this stage when he happily looks up from his bowl, even momentarily, without showing any sign of stress or body tension. Toss the steak into his bowl and walk away.
  5. Proceed in increments as small as the above until your dog loves it when you take away his food bowl and come back with something better several minutes later.
  6. Once your dog is practically begging you to take his food away, you are ready to slowly work up to more and more enticing resources until you are able to safely dive into his jaws and pry out a dangerously small bone while he's thinking "sweet, she's probably about to smear peanut butter on it!".

Put it on cue

You can also teach your dog to willingly hand over objects on cue. If you are struggling with the concepts, then instead of using a command like "drop", "out", or "give", use "bonus!" or "upgrade!" to signal that your dog is about to get something better than what he has, in addition to usually keeping his existing prize.

Disclaimer: the information in this post is not intended to substitute for consultation with a certified professional dog trainer (CPDT), canine behaviour consultant, or veterinary or applied animal behaviourist. At no point should you ever provoke your dog to exhibit resource guarding behaviours, and if you are unable to do these exercises completely conflict-free, then please consult with a professional instead.
Friday, April 29, 2016

Ask to Pet

"May I pet your dog?"

It's so simple, courteous, and commonsense that you'd think everyone would be doing it, but most people compulsively approach and pet dogs without asking.

This isn't another post about reactive dogs. It's about a common human behaviour that's downright rude and potentially dangerous.

Aipa takes a break from demo dog duties.
Those of us who have trained and handled pet visitation therapy animals know that asking even the friendliest of dogs to be unconditionally affectionate with hoards of strangers for even an hour or two can be both rewarding and stressful. Both the dog and handler need breaks! Imagine a well-trained but non-therapy dog accompanying her owner to a full eight-hour work day and receiving that kind of attention from the public. It simply isn't reasonable to expect both dog and handler to serve double duty as a pet visitation team. Aipa's role while I'm instructing classes at Petco is to serve as a model for Canine Good Citizenship. While she is capable of immense self-control, it is incredibly taxing for any dog, let alone an aloof one with stringent behaviour standards. Almost daily, she is asked to heel for long periods or stay while I chat with the owner of a dog who is thrashing about wildly to get at her. Many times each day, she is expected to ignore people cooing, beckoning, and petting because I require loose-leash manners and composure from both a demo dog and an off-duty working dog. Think of a dog's tolerance level as being fluid. Training can help build a higher tolerance level while unwanted social interaction or simply too much social interaction erodes it. When a kid runs up to Aipa and lifts her tail, I expect no reaction from her, but I also expect it to erode her tolerance level, making it necessary for me to spend hours of my personal time arranging tolerance-building exercises with children all over again. When an adult approaches and pets her without asking, it erodes my tolerance level!

There are so many other reasons why a handler may or may not want his dog to be petted at a particular time: perhaps the dog or handler is ill or in pain; perhaps the dog is experiencing vision or hearing loss; perhaps the dog has been recently adopted; perhaps the handler has specific behaviour standards he wants to instill or maintain in his working or pet dog; perhaps the dog or handler simply doesn't want social interaction in the same way that you might not welcome a hug from every single stranger you encounter. Thankfully, there's a super simple rule that will never fail you: ask to pet, and don't probe indignantly if the handler smiles, "no, thank you for asking".

Lucy's owner insists upon non-consensual greetings
The concept of asking for permission extends to dog greetings as well. When we visit Falls Lake, we regularly encounter a loose dog whose owner responds to requests for space with "she's friendly". During our first encounter with Lucy, Aipa was on a short lead, and I did not feel comfortable being charged by an unknown dog with an unknown vaccination and behaviour status. Moreover, it was a negative experience for Aipa either way because had I allowed her to play, she might have hit the end of her leash in gleeful zoomies after a play bow, so I instead made her exercise great self-control by heeling beside me with a strange dog's nose glued to her rear until we got off of the main road and onto a trailhead where I could let her off leash to frolic through the woods and into the water. Lucy may be friendly to most people and dogs, but she has disrupted search and rescue training exercises, caused drivers to slam on their brakes, and frightened many a pet owner with her rapid approach and cheerful rumble. I hate to think what might happen if a vision-impaired hiker crosses that section of the MST with his guide dog!

Please just ask to pet, to interact, or to let your own dogs interact with someone else's. Many - not all - dogs have plenty of love to go around, but that doesn't make you entitled to it. No one should need Do Not Pet patches, yellow ribbons, or Give Me Space shirts. No one should need to back up and beg for a stranger to stop running toward him and grabbing his dog. There is a way to solve this, and it isn't about the dogs or their owners: please just ask to pet!
Saturday, April 16, 2016

What goes UpDog must come DownDog: how high-intensity training can help your crazy dog find his inner calm

Photo credit: Lindsay Thompson
Last weekend marked the beginning of my first dog sport competition. I'd always wanted to dabble in dog sports but had never mustered up the initiative to muddle through the process of finding, entering, and showing in an event. This past weekend fell into my lap in an unlikely series of events that began with a shelter dog and a rule: no toy play with volunteers.

Mild-tempered Stuart arrived at Paws4ever Animal Sanctuary in October 2015. Cuddly, calm, and extraverted, he seemed like the perfect potato to grace a television fanatic's couch. But there was one exception: toys. Once a toy appeared, Stuart's mind disappeared. His teeth would chatter in anticipation, his eyes would go wide, and his mouth would grab desperately for the toy without any regard for people or objects in the way. With zero impulse control around toys, our affable powerhouse was quickly deemed unfit for toy play with volunteers. Meanwhile, staff began slowly working with him to teach him from the ground up how to engage in appropriate play.

I started with a boring metal dumbbell and his mealtime kibble. I used free shaping and back chaining to teach a formal retrieve-to-hand. Instead of a clicker, I used the word "drop" to cue the delivery of a reward. Once Stuart was performing perfect retrieves with an enthusiastic "drop", we moved to a wooden dumbbell, then a metal dish, and then - big step - a durable ball. Each time he dropped the ball for me, I reinforced with high-value treats, affection, and play with an identical ball. In other words, we conditioned "drop" to mean that he was getting something better in addition to not losing whatever he already had. Once he was on the ball with this game, we moved to discs rolling on the ground, then flying in the air. Eventually, we incorporated tugging on cue into his repertoire of behaviours that he could perform while thinking and communicating. Stuart still got excited over appropriate toys, but it was a controlled frenzy. And then came the arrival of UpDog - a new disc dog venue - not only to North Carolina, but to Paws4ever itself! Needless to say, we entered.

Stuart relaxes while another team competes.
As Stuart was now able to engage in structured play with a handful of people, I was able to focus on calmer behaviours, such as teaching him to not only go to place but to settle there and truly relax. We were conditioning him to separate intense work and play from just chilling, which he was already fairly good at to start with. We also worked extensively on incorporating low-arousal toy play into his basic obedience, especially heelwork, while also rewarding with food. This is an important bit: arousal refers to activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which depresses the digestive system, so an over-aroused dog will not eat. Conditioning Stuart to switch seamlessly between toys and food was an integral part of that essential on/off switch. We again started with balls and high-value treats until he was able to happily accept food while in the presence of balls, then rope tug toys, then more enticing tug toys, and finally (pictured right) while another dog is catching flying discs behind him. Stuart still cannot accept food during an actual play session with discs, and this is something that we are working on, but I am already quite happy with our current results: he can relax and accept food while a disc rolls or flies past him, or when he's playing with literally any other toy. In other words, his toy craziness hasn't been diminished, but it has been channeled into a very specific type of toy, only when it's his turn, and only in a very structured, safe game that doesn't just happen by accident: Stuart has achieved a balance and well-defined separation between controlled crazy and calm companionship.

What goes UpDog must come DownDog.
What goes UpDog must come DownDog. Well, sort of. We could have just turned Stuart into an adrenaline junkie. Many working dogs cannot settle down. They're always up, and they never come down, spinning in their indestructible crates while other dogs work. But channeling your dog's Up gives him the outlet he needs in order to be taught to chill Down. Both sides of training are equally important, and both sides of life are beneficial to both your dog's well-being and your sanity. You can't take a crazy dog and teach him to be chill all the time, and you can't expect him to naturally chill at home just because you exercise him regularly. But train the Up and train the Down, and you'll find that your crazy dog might just have a calm side that can be cultivated into the perfectly versatile canine companion.

If you have any questions about fostering or adopting Stuart, please contact Paws4ever directly at 919-241-8438 or
Thursday, April 7, 2016

If you add it and it works, it hurts.

Lately, I've seen an incredible number of "gentle" tools and methods designed to stop dogs (and even cats) from doing X, Y, and Z. Product manufacturers can be incredibly sneaky with wording so that owners may not even realise how the tools are working or what potential risks might be involved. So here's a super simple way to determine whether something designed to stop behaviours is aversive or not: if you add it and it works, it hurts.

It just gets their attention without hurting them.

A common claim about various tools and methods is that they gently get a dog's attention, thus interrupting an unwanted behaviour and preventing future occurrences. I have to admit, I actually do use various attention-getting tactics: "whoop-whoop-dee-doo!", "up-pup-pup-pup-pup", smoochy sounds, barks, howls, meows, the rapidly repeated notes from Der Hölle Rache, and whatever else leaps out of my mouth before coherent thought. The big difference is that my attention-getting tactics aren't intended to change future occurrences because they truly just get attention. Consequences change future behaviour, not "gentle taps", smoochy noises, and other supposedly neutral stimuli. In order for an attention-getting tactic to be useful in learning, a separate consequence must be applied. When I use these types of prompts, such as in The Name Game, to manufacture a desired behaviour, I follow up with food, praise, and play, the reinforcers that actually help to sway the dog's future decisions.

The dog decides what's gentle or not.

Let's back up to Die Zauberflöte for a look at how a learner's future actions determine whether a stimulus was appetitive (desirable), aversive (undesirable), or neutral. Let's say I weasel my way into the middle of a large university crowd and begin singing Der Hölle Rache at the top of my lungs. It's going to get the attention and head-swivel of anyone who can physically hear it. But unless someone takes off running with his hands over his ears, that doesn't tell me much about who liked it, who hated it, and who doesn't care either way. Over the course of the semester, however, some pedestrians will make alterations to their routes in order to either avoid or seek out my daily concert. Others will simply tune me out. My dog is not one of these. I inadvertently trained her to avoid my washroom at all costs while simultaneously training another family dog to recall to the sound of a shower head while the third family dog showed neither inclination nor disinclination for any kind of music. These alterations in future behaviour are what determine the nature of a particular intervention, not my operatic ego or the fancy label on a pet correction product.

About the Harenbergs

Audrey, Aipa, and Steve Harenberg on the Blue Ridge Mountains

We build strong working relationships between dogs and handlers through the use of modern learning theory and the development of technological aids.

Audrey has been involved with numerous non-profit organisations, as foster mom, therapy dog handler, and obedience instructor. In addition to teaching private lessons, group classes, and in-home training, she's busy creating free blog articles and books to help make progressive dog training accessible to all.

Steve is finishing his PhD in computer science and will be taking over technological development once he is freed from academia.