Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Rescue Chi in Defensive Mode

Aggression is a major reason why dogs are surrendered to rescue organizations and humane societies, who then must decide what to do with the pooch.
A Chihuahua named Loco is one of those dogs. His rescue people decided to work with him, to make him safe and adoptable, and asked for my advice. I thought it perfect blog post fodder.
Watch this video Loco's foster parent made:
Loco is described as guarding his crate, and although he reportedly also guards food and toys, I’d say that he is defending the safety the crate represents, rather than possessively guarding the object. He doesn’t want people near him because he doesn’t trust them.
How trainers work with a dog like Loco depends on their philosophy and skill level. Any of the things below are done to dogs – it all depends in whose hands they are lucky, or unlucky, enough to fall in.

1. Euthanasia. Nowadays, thanks to the popular No-Kill movement, fewer aggressive dogs are killed and more get a second chance.

2. Hands-on force.
Toys are easy to overpower, so why not put on heavy leather gloves and forcefully take Loco's resource away until he understands that all things belong to people and stops objecting?
Couldn’t we just pin him until he submits?
Although we don’t know for sure, chances are that it is exactly that kind of treatment that caused Loco’s aggression in the first place. A dog forced and overpowered doesn’t get used to being manhandled and losing his valuables, but becomes increasingly more suspicious and defensive. If he only succeeded once with the aggressive displays and the person he felt threatened by backed off, aggression was powerfully reinforced and became his default mechanism for keeping people away.

3. One could use a shock collar and zap the expressions out of him.
Shock collars, banned in some countries, are commonly used in North America. There are, in fact, shock collar franchises. Why are they popular? Because they can be effective. A shock impresses the dog and often suppresses the undesired expressions pretty much right away. That impresses the owners: they don’t see how their dog feels anymore and are happy. It's a lucrative business. But make no mistake: the underlying emotion does not magically vanish. How anybody believes that a shock makes a dog feel better about people, dogs, or whatever the triggers are, is delusional.
If you can stomach watching shock-trained dog video clips, you see robotic, mechanical obedience and behavior: dogs that won’t do anything but what they’re told, and are eerily non-responsive regardless what situation they're put in. No behaviors offered; dog’s spirit left the building.

4. Rewarding the dog for appropriate, friendlier behavior.
That is a more humane approach, popular with force-free trainers, and the one the foster home chose with Loco. The reward is distance, so moving away, as soon as the dog stops his aggressive displays. You see that clearly in the clip. The concept behind it is that if you functionally reinforce the desired behavior, the dog will do more of it, and in time become friendlier and more trusting because people don’t steal and hurt anymore. It sounds logical, but is not how I work with aggressive dogs and here is why: What is happening here, in operant conditioning terms, is negative reinforcement: something unpleasant is applied, and when the dog shows the behavior we are after the pressure is released. The problem is that the person is still “something unpleasant”, which means we might be changing the dog’s expressions by reinforcing the more preferable ones, but we are not changing how the dog feels about people any time soon, and as long as people put pressure on the dog. Humans, from Loco’s point of view, are still bad news, and the only thing he learns is to do certain things to make them go away. I'll elaborate in my next post why I don't like manipulation of communication and body signals.
In addition Loco was clearly overwhelmed with that exercise and "practiced" aggression for a period of time before he finally walked away. It is not a conscious process, but brain pathways are strengthened every time neurons fire. Behaviors that are well established, that are done over and over again, have very strong neural pathways. When we work with dogs, we want to do everything possible not to strengthen the aggressive pathways further.
There are some real physiological things happening when a dog is anxious, afraid or angry. Adrenalin level rises, and when that happens a lot a dog can become chronically hormone imbalanced, and we want to avoid that too.

5. My goal, when I work with a defensive dog, is to change his emotional response to the trigger: from it being perceived as potential trouble to it announcing something wonderful. If done successfully, the nasty expressions will simply, authentically, disappear.
This is what I wrote Loco's foster person: Think away from operant conditioning - what, or what not, you are reinforcing. Don’t see the aggressive expressions as negative behavior that needs to be quelled, but the emotional state the dog is in. We might not like it, but he can’t help it.
To instill trust in people, walk toward the crate, toss Loco the best treat, and walk away. Treat and retreat, without any strings attached. He gets it just because a person is approaching. No pressure: You don’t hang around the crate, you don't look at him, and there is no demand for him to do a certain thing.
Most dogs quickly begin to anticipate the appearance of the trigger, in Loco’s case the human, excitedly because they associate it with something good.
Once Loco begins to trust, the person gradually gets closer and stays close for longer, and looks at him for longer. The next step is expanding, using the same approach, to all problem zones, and then incorporating different people.
You want to orchestrate many opportunities for Loco to experience that humans are, with 100% predictability, non-threatening. Emotional safety cancels the need to act defensively, but safety has to be felt: it can neither be taught with reason, nor forced with compulsion.

The wonderful people who are working with Loco are giving this try and promised to keep me in loop. I will update you.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Dog Parks and Dog Play

Morning glory is to slurp a whipped cream topped latte while heading to my favorite dog park. Although I like wearing the halo of an amazing dog owner because I allow mine to express her dogness unrestricted by a leash, the truth is that my reasons for visiting such places are self-serving: I love watching dogs, mine and others.
Proof that I am not the only person who does is the popularity of off-leash parks. Owners galore point to the many benefits, the exercise and real quality time spent with other dogs and people, when they push their municipal leaders to designate a space for dogs to run free.
True, dog parks are good for the human and canine mind and body, but bliss turns into nightmare when a dog is injured or killed by another. That happened recently in Calgary – a city and its off-leash parks very familiar to me. Here are the details: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/charges-could-come-against-both-dog-owners-in-calgary-pit-bull-attack/article6878160/
I don’t want to get deep into the pit bull debate, because I want to discuss dog parks and dog play, but let me say that I am against banning certain breeds. What I am also against, though, is that anybody can sell or buy any dog they wish, without required to know even the basics in dog behavior, communication and management, or care about their welfare. I’d like to see legislation that addresses that so that powerful dogs don’t continue to end up with people ill equipped to keep them and society safe.
Based on my experience, many pits are owned by the wrong people. I am not talking about just gangstas, but young males who get a tremendous ego boost when they adorn themselves with a macho-reputation dog and the looks that go with it; and even young and middle-age females who argue that “bullies” are but victims of media hype and deny that they, like any other breed, come with specific characteristics.
Pits were traditionally bred to have a heightened awareness of dogs, confront them, and follow through with an attack. Not all pit bulls attack dogs, but when they do they are serious about it, like the ones in that article who ripped a Pomeranian apart, and severely injured a powerful livestock guardian breed dog, a great Pyrenees.
The pit owner claims that his dog was provoked: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/dogs-fighting-in-off-leash-park-in-calgary-results-in-death-tears-accusations/article6837962/
I don’t care if he was or wasn’t. A dog who does such damage shouldn’t live.
The owner says that his dog would never hurt anybody. Evidently, that is not the case.
Such attacks result in trauma for all involved: The humans who witness their dog being harmed, the dogs that are injured, but also the attacker who is seized and forced to deal with a totally unfamiliar environment, and might lose his life.

Fortunately, attacks like that are rare, and they can happen anywhere, not just in off-leash parks. I never witnessed a dog seriously injured or killed, but I often do encounter socially inept dogs who shouldn’t mix freely with others: dogs timid and overwhelmed, or out of control wound up. In almost all cases the owners are oblivious bystanders.
A dog park, contrary to popular belief, is the worst place to establish social skills. Dogs who don’t have them get worse, and dogs who have to deal with dogs who don’t have them become irritated or fearful.
Social skills and obedience must be in place before off leash in the big distraction dog park is introduced. That means that the pooch is acclimated to a variety of park users, including children, feels fairly comfortable around them, and acts appropriately, including with small dogs. Multi-use trail parks don't have a small dog area sectioned off, but even in parks that do I see large and tiny ones mingle. So, there is no other way around it: Before a dog is allowed free reign, he must be all-around socially appropriate and owner responsive. Neither segregation nor a muzzle can replace that. Last summer I witnessed a muzzled greyhound relentlessly hunting down a toy-size dog. He couldn’t physically harm, but the little one was terrorized nevertheless. None of the other dogs at the park acted that way, so eeny meeny miny moe – which is the dog who should go? Hint, not the toy.
A dog who might do serious damage should not be in an off-leash park, leashed or not, muzzled or not. Sometimes an owner has no pre-existing knowledge of that level of aggression, but sometimes they do and expose their dog to others anyway.
An off-leash park is also the wrong setting for the scared dog. He will be overwhelmed when his need for personal space and time to observe and process what is going on aren't heeded, and chances are that he’ll become increasingly more sensitized, nervous and reactive, instead of more “socialized”.
A dog who is not dangerous but inappropriate and frightens most other dogs should be on the leash.
New owners of a rescue dog should not visit an off-leash park until they know more about the dog’s social skills, and until a certain amount of attachment has taken place.
Key to a successful park outing is that the dog switches his attention between person and the environment, because then it is more likely than not that he will respond to a command, including come when called. I admit, I didn’t always observe that rule. Our Newf Baywolf was so friendly with everyone that a reliable recall seemed unnecessary, but that was 15 years ago and since I learned a thing or two: even the friendliest dog can irritate another who wants to be left alone.
Now I call my dogs back when I see:
Another dog on the leash
A number of small dogs chasing each other
Rowdy dogs interacting
A dog who gives fear signals toward mine
A dog who irritates mine
Any unusual encounter, for example a child making snow angels, or a grossly overweight and snorting pug wiggling along.
In addition, my dogs have an emergency sit, which means that I can place them into a stationary position and walk away to deal with oncoming trouble myself if need be.
Oh, and don’t rely on the other person’s account of their dog’s emotion, intention and behavior. Recently, when trailing one of my favorite parks with a friend and her dogs, we encountered a dog on the leash who stiffly stared – the hard locked and loaded look – at my friend’s juvenile. When the owner sensed my hesitation, she assured us that her dog “just wants to play”. I told my friend to recall and leash her dogs.

Off-leash means that dogs can enjoy physical freedom.
Off-leash does not mean that every dog enjoys interacting with all other dogs. Many, especially mature adults, are quite content to mind their own business, play with a familiar canine buddy, sniff around, or have fun with their person.
When dogs do interact with one another, owners should keep an astute eye on their dog to ensure that play does not escalate in something more serious. Boisterous, competitive play can quickly change into aggression if one dog gets the upper hand. We see that in sports: As soon as one team is winning, the other initiates aggression or cheats to turn things around.
When one dog aggresses, the other might lose interest and stop the interaction to avoid an injury, but by that time the aggressor can be too pumped to break it off. You can see that scenario played out typically between almost equal or similar, often same gender, dogs. Here is a clip that illustrates that nicely.
Pay attention how the owner dealt with the situation: he was there; he was plugged in and understood his dogs; he split when he needed to in a calm and directive way, without force and corrections, and without taking sides. When the dogs were relaxed again, he praised them. Take note folks – this is how it’s done.

In play, everyone is a willing participant, and authentic play is beautiful to watch.
Canine buddies, so dogs that are familiar with each other, often joyfully play, and unfamiliar dogs can become instant friends when they are young or share the same play style.
Two is company and three a crowd seems to be true for dogs as well: often the best play sessions happen between two dogs attentive to each other, and things can get a little weird if a third one wants to join in.
In normal play, there are little pauses that prevent that the interaction becomes too heated, and then the dogs pick it up again, each one seeking to continue.
A trademark of true play is a loose and fluid body. Tension and hard-eyed staring can be part of a chase invitation between friends, with the staring dog characteristically the one who runs to be chased. Play tension is brief and combined with a “play face” – pulled back lips and an open mouth, contrary to prolonged tension with a clamped up, puckered mouth when a dog feels conflicted.
Tension when dogs first see each other is a sign of nervousness or aggression, not play.
During play, all signals and expressions that are part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire can be used, including bites in the neck/throat area. But again the body is loose, the mouth wide open, tongue visible and teeth covered. The bites are inhibited, and both dogs voluntarily stay in the game.
Here are two puppies playing – ignore the humans babbling in the background.
Normal play is reciprocal: dogs switch between chaser and chasee, and positions - sometimes one dog is on top, then the other.
Sometimes a more powerful dog will even level the field for his buddy, for example lie down or roll on his back.
When dogs truly play, they are still peripherally aware of stimuli around them. They can be interrupted by distractions, including the owner calling, and won't startle and overreact when a dog or person moves into their space. If your dog has you so tuned out that he doesn’t respond to his name anymore, he is too wound and fixated. Interfere.

The responsibility for a conflict free park lies solely with the humans. If we are responsible as a group, we will keep off-leash privileges, and if not, well – I’d certainly hate to lose the opportunity to watch my dog enjoy unrestricted fun. Self-regulation, in combination with legislation and education, might be the measures that prevent that, and prevent breed bans along the way.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

About Monkeys, Peace and Aggression

World-renowned primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal talks in his book “Our Inner Ape” about an experiment in which physically bigger, but peaceful type of monkeys were housed together with  smaller, but cantankerous and more aggressive monkeys – all of them juveniles. When the aggressive ones started a fight, the peaceful ones simply ignored them. Completely! They didn’t even look in their direction. Obviously, the physically stronger, peaceful monkeys had no need to attest their strength exactly because they were more powerful; their own safety was not in jeopardy.
The monkeys stayed together for five months, and there was rarely a physical confrontation: all, especially toward the end of the experiment, lived harmoniously with each other. Not only that, but when they were separated, the inherently aggressive monkeys continued to be more peaceful. Peacefulness, it seems, can be learned.
Genetically programed means that there is a higher or lower propensity for a behavior, but for it to occur it needs the corresponding environment. With these cranky monkeys, when aggression was not reinforced, and when they observed peacefulness in cohabitating animals that could clean their clocks if they wanted to, the aggressive propensity did not find the corresponding environment, and thus their behavior – lastingly - changed.
In our relationship with dogs, we are the more powerful species, like the bigger and stronger monkeys were. That makes us the ones in charge, the only ones who can set the stage, the corresponding environment, that allows dogs to acquire the social skills we are wanting.
I don’t believe in aggressive breeds, but also not that every dog, or breed, is a genetically clean slate. Selective breeding happens for a reason or it wouldn’t happen: humans aim and breed for certain traits, and although using the mouth is natural for all dogs, some are more active, determined and ready to aggress when pressured. A dog hardwired to overtly act more than retreat will live out those tendencies in an environment that is charged up and aggressive - that is where his nature finds fertile ground to be expressed; the predisposition to become a behavior.
Especially with these dogs it is crucial that we counter that by providing a peaceful environment, by addressing their aggression issues in non-aggressive ways, and also, while not ignoring that a problem exists, by not giving the aggressive expressions that much attention.

Here is another interesting monkey story that has to do with peace and aggression.
Stanford University Professor Robert Sapolsky studied baboons over several decades. Baboons, unlike dogs, are very hierarchical and there is a lot of pressure and bullying happening from the top down. Consequently, there is a lot of stress in the underlings, measured in the glucocorticoid levels in their urine output.
At one time, a particular colony Sapolsky observed lost about half their members when they consumed contaminated meat. None of the ruling alphas survived, and my guess is because as alphas they had priority resource access and were brutish food hoggers at the expense of low-ranking baboons who lost out on the feast.
In any case, suddenly the colony was without leaders, and interestingly the troop didn’t fall apart, but rather the aggression level dropped, and the affiliate social level rose. The whole colony thrived, and again it was lasting: After 20 years without alphas the baboons in that colony were still friendly and non-aggressive with one another, with each individual having some control, each one flourishing, contributing and cooperating with everyone else.

In 2013, I will continue to take lessons learned from dogs and people, and perhaps monkeys, to heart.
In 2013, I will continue to share with you what I know, and hopefully help more humans and their canine companions to a flourishing and harmonious coexistence.
I am wishing you, and your dogs, a healthy, happy and prosperous 2013 – and that you experience only peaceful hairless apes this year.