THE TOLERANT DOG

Over the past six weeks, I have worked with a number of families with dogs who have finally put down their paws and said “Enough!  I don’t like that anymore.”  In each case, the families were astounded that their previously kind and calm dog snapped.  I hear things like “he always let the kids do that before” and “he never minded when I did that until now”.  And in every single case, these dogs have been asked to tolerate things that I would not expect the dog to like.

In one case, the dog snarled at a child in the home when the child bounced off the couch, on to a foot stool, and the over the dog, and finally onto the chair beside him.  It turned out that this bouncing game had been going on with the child for an extended period of time and the dog had not protested the first ten or eleven times she did this.  The parents were astounded when the dog finally snarled!  I asked the parents if they wanted their child to behave this way in the house.  “No” they admitted, but they were still upset that the dog had reacted the way that he had.

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This interaction is calm right now; the dog obviously understands that he should not chase the children.  This dog is very tolerant!  As long as dad keeps track of the excitement level and intervenes before things get out of hand, this is likely quite a safe situation.

 

Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_stockbroker’>stockbroker / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

 

I think back to my own childhood and the rules we lived by.  Running and bouncing in the house was not allowed.  Tormenting animals meant that we would get hurt and if we were scratched, bitten or knocked over by the dog, the first question was “what did you do to the dog?”  I am constantly amazed that the attitude has shifted from “what did you do” to “why did the dog respond”.  It seems that in the face of tolerant dogs, people have forgotten that some of the time, the behaviour we see in dogs is the result not of a flaw in the dog, but of what we ask the dog to put up with.

When you live with a tolerant dog, you can come to forget that the dog has very real feelings about what happens to him.  One of the things that I constantly hear is how important having animals in our lives is because it teaches us empathy and to consider the needs of others.  When we live with tolerant dogs, we may actually learn that we can push harder than we should because these dogs will put up with behaviour that we should not expect them to put up with.

I regularly see tolerant dogs being asked to put up with highly aroused children or dogs racing around, with the expectation that the dog in question will remain calm and collected while this is happening.  If I had a nickel for every student who said to me that they arrive in the dog park only to have their dog lose his marbles I would be moderately wealthy.  I often wonder if folks remember being six and arriving at the park and remaining calm and relaxed while watching the other children running around and playing tag!

Although I require my dogs to show self control before letting them off leash to play with other dogs, I don’t expect that they would do so without help from me.  Self control is a learned behaviour, not a naturally existing one.  If you want your dog to exhibit self control you need to keep in mind two things; first-what have you taught him about self control, and second-how much excitement is he being exposed to while being asked to exhibit this self control.

If you take your dog to the dog park, and you are 100 meters away from the dogs who are playing and your dog spies the active exciting play, it is reasonable that most dogs can disengage from the fun they see and attend to you, even if they haven’t had much training.  Stand and wait till you get spontaneous attention, and then take your dog off leash and join the fun!  You will be teaching your dog that self control is the key to getting to participate in the fun.  Take that same dog into the middle of the game and hope for that same level of tolerance, and you are going to find that you have a highly excited monster on your hands.  Just don’t!  You can eventually do that if you practice diligently and increase the difficulty very slowly, but it isn’t something that will just happen

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This dog is obviously interested in what is happening on this side of the fence, but he is not going to get into trouble by being asked to tolerate behaviour towards him that is inappropriate!

Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_irinafuks’>irinafuks / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

This lesson applies to racing children too.  For the most part, I don’t want my dogs to run with kids.  I have large physical dogs who think nothing of hip checking one another, or grabbing each other by the neck while they run and race.  When there are children running around, I put my dogs in their crates, or if I have taught them to, I ask them to lie down and stay.  They are tolerant, but it is not worth the risk to the children to expect that they would not hip check a child with whom they were running.  It would most likely be a completely benign event, but 50kg of running dog can flatten a toddler or even a primary school aged child.  That is not fun for anyone.  And if the child charged my dog, I would not be surprised if my dog grabbed the child; why wouldn’t he?  Charging is a rude and dangerous behaviour, and my dog doesn’t want or need to get hurt; he will quite likely protect himself.  If I have put my dog in a down stay while children run, then I have made an agreement with my dog that I will prevent children from disturbing him and I am very strict about how close I allow play to come to my dogs.

It should be remembered tolerant tiny dogs can easily get in trouble too!  I have seen dogs tripped upon, stepped on and inadvertently kicked when they are walked through crowds.  When they are resting, people often pick them up resulting in dogs who learn never tot relax in the presence of people they don’t know and trust.  Tiny dogs are often not terribly tolerant in part because they never get a chance to be.  You can help these dogs by being aware of what they are doing, and what happens to them.

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This sort of interaction can make it hard for a tiny dog to remain tolerant.  The dog doesn’t have a choice about interacting because he is being held with all four feet off the ground and he is really being good about the fact that he is being dangled.

Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_morganka’>morganka / 123RF Stock Photo</a>

Dog bites are rare, but they do happen.  One of the things we can do to help prevent dog bites is to ensure that the people around our dogs treat our dogs with respect and dignity.  We can set and enforce boundaries with those who interact with our dogs and help our dogs to move through the world in peace.  When a dog is tolerant, he will often put up with things that he should not have to, but we can help.  When I am in public with my dogs I am really clear about the things that I allow to happen to them.  I don’t let strangers just touch them, or scare them or get in their space.  I don’t allow children to play with my dogs like they are inanimate toys.  My dogs are really tolerant of a wide variety of bad behaviour in humans, but I do my very best to help my dogs stay tolerant by not making them put up with bad behaviour towards them.  I would encourage everyone to do the same.

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THE TOLERANT DOG

ONE TRICK PONIES

Originally posted in December 2010

Most of the dogs I work with live with serious anxiety and or aggression issues.  Interestingly, I also live with a serious anxiety disorder.  My anxiety manifests as panic, and I have a list of triggers as long as my arm.  I am afraid of driving as a passenger in a car.  I am afraid of teenaged girls.  I am afraid of high schools.  I am afraid of phoning people I don’t know.  I am afraid of some crowds.  I am afraid of going to Downtown Toronto.  Conversely, I am NOT afraid of public speaking, sharing my vulnerabilities, taking an unpopular stand, standing up for the rights of the weak, intervening in a fist fight, or aggressive dogs.  But when my anxiety is high, I reach for my old familiar strategy of panic.  Like many of the dogs I work with, I have things I am anxious about and things I am not, but also like the dogs I work with, I am a one trick pony when I get triggered.

If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants.  Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo
If a pony has only one trick, then that is the trick the pony will do when the situation warrants. Copyright: ellende / 123RF Stock Photo

One of the things that I have had to learn to do in order to cope with my mental health issues is to find new ways of behaving in the face of my triggers.  One thing I do is to use a service dog to provide me with more space.  Sometimes I hold internal discussions with myself to calm myself, or I can take medication, and sometimes I call a friend to talk me down.  The thing is, when I first started experiencing anxiety, I only had one trick; stand there and go through a panic attack with its dizziness, the increased heart rate and the shortness of breath.

This is similar to the situation for many of the dogs I see.  When faced with their trigger, they only have one trick; it might be barking and lunging, or growling or showing snarl face or something else, but essentially, it is their one trick.  When the trick they have for dealing with an issue is to charge and bite, this can be a very dangerous situation, and the key then is to teach the dog more “tricks”.

Now this sounds simple and it is, but there is a catch.  When your arousal is high, and you are disoriented, you are always going to go back to the default behaviour that has either worked best or worked most frequently.  If what has worked best or most frequently is dangerous, then as trainers we have to teach the dog to find alternate answers.  This is where environmental enrichment and trick  training become essential for working with difficult dogs.  When we do effective environmental enrichment, and we teach a wide variety of behaviours, what we are really doing is teaching  the dog to come up with new answers to old problems.

Environmental enrichment is the practice of increasing the diversity of the environment that an animal lives within.  The goal is to improve the dog’s quality of life, but at the same time, we can also use environmental enrichment to help teach the dog to solve problems in different ways.  Simple strategies such as putting your dog’s dinner in a paper bag and teaching your dog to find different ways to open the bag to get his dinner can help the dog to learn new ways of thinking, and new ways of thinking are what solving behaviour problems are all about.  Once you have moved away from free food in a food bowl to paper bags, changing the picture again is important; we don’t want to teach the dog ONE new strategy-we want to teach the dog to problem solve.

Staying with the mealtime strategies, you can then move to a rolling tricky treat ball- (http://www.omegapaw.com/products/tricky-treat-ball.html) -which requires the dog to figure out how to roll an item to get the treats to fall out.  Once he has mastered this type of toy, there are new alternatives; Kong (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pQDJkW46BBk) makes one that wobbles, but doesn’t roll, requiring the dog to learn to persist in trying new strategies.  Hollow rubber toys that hold biscuits but allow them to roll to the bottom help dogs to learn completely new strategies for getting food, and once your dog has mastered these, you dog is no longer a one trick food pony.

Learning to consider more than one solution to a problem can also be addressed operantly through training.  Dogs who are anxious can be difficult to train, because the training process itself involves elements of failure, and failure contributes to confusion and anxiety.  Confidence develops when the learner is allowed to have as many successful experiences after expressing some form of effort.  Building successes can be a bit of a trick, and part of being successful as a trainer is allowing the dog many, many opportunities to guess right, when the stakes aren’t high and the arousal isn’t high either.  Errorless learning happens when the dog is able to be reinforced for almost everything he does, because the scenario is set up so that he doesn’t make mistakes.  There is a trick to making this work though; you must avoid just randomly reinforcing everything the dog does.  You still only reinforce the thing that you are training.  Errorless training can be as simple as hiding a toy in the same place every day, and then progressively moving the toy step by step away from where it was originally; you set the dog up to learn to go to that place and begin to look for the toy.  For this to be errorless, you need to begin by showing the dog that you are placing the toy, and then place the toy in the same place later when the dog is not engaging in the toy.  Over time you control two variables to teach the dog to look for the toy; if he is watching you place it, and how far from the original place the toy is left.

As the dog becomes more confident about his looking, you can go to reward based training to help him to understand that risks are safe to take.  This is where clicker training really can help a dog; the process of free shaping is invaluable to teach the dog to try new things.  Games like 101 things to do with a box can help dogs to develop the skill of being creative; essentially, you click for any interaction with a specific object, and then you progress to clicking for variations on that original interaction.  If your dog chooses to sniff the box for instance, you could click that.  Then you could click for two sniffs.  Then you can click for three sniffs, and then for a touch, and then two touches and so on.  Each time, you offer the dog the opportunity to decide for himself, what his next behaviour will be.  You don’t name the behaviour because there is really no end for an anxious dog; you want him to keep trying new things.

It is important to understand that free for all reinforcement will make anxiety worse.  Many people have noticed that parental and teacher approval often backfires, and approval in the form of rewarding behaviour can backfire in dogs too.  When support for the looser in a contest in the form of approval is offered, it can create conflict in the child.  The child knows he has lost the game and hears from the teacher or parent that he has done a great job.  Confidence is dependent upon success, but only on actual success.  The power of success can be boosted by recognition, but approval for errors is very damaging.  So if a dog is anxious, cuing and prompting and then rewarding behaviours can create a similar sort of conflict within the dog.  He may be doing the actions you ask for, but his emotional state is still anxious.  This is where classical conditioning can come in handy.

If you know what your dog’s triggers are, you can start to tease apart the criteria that he can and cannot cope with.  If your dog is anxious about other dogs for instance, the first thing to do is to figure out how far away from the other dogs your dog has to be in order to be calm.  Don’t mistake the absence of behaviour found in the shut down dog for calmness.  Being shut down is the result of being overwhelmed, and being overwhelmed is unfair to a stressed animal.  It is what I go through when I have to drive in a car with a reckless driver; I may not look stressed, but I certainly am.  To get an idea of what it is like to be completely shut down think about what it might be like to be in a bank during a robbery.  When a gunman shows up and threatens you, you don’t show your stress; the obvious person will be the target.  When you are overwhelmed, you will behave as normally as you possibly can, and hope not to be noticed.  When a dog is overwhelmed, he may appear normal but in fact be very upset.  You have to look for the subtle signs, the sweaty paws, the rapid eye blink rate, the jerky movements, to tell you that your dog is over his ability to cope well.  A very effective way to determine if your dog is close to or above threshold is to offer him treats. If he takes treats normally, ask if he can do a simple behaviour he knows well; if he can, he is not yet at threshold.   If he takes treats roughly, he is really close to his threshold for tolerance.  If he refuses the treats, he is likely over threshold.  And if you find that he has an upset stomach or diarrhoea, you can be certain that he was far over threshold even if he wasn’t showing you other signs

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You can also figure out other aspects of your dog’s triggers.  If dogs seem to trigger your dog, is it all dogs? Is it only black or white dogs?  Is it only small or large dogs?  And if you can eliminate the dogs from your dog’s life that concern him, you can begin to present the dogs who are a problem at a low enough threshold that he can begin to integrate those dogs into his repertoire.  The mechanics of classical conditioning are very simple-you present the stimulus (in this case a triggering dog) at a low enough intensity (either far enough away, or not moving or otherwise not triggering for your dog) and you pair that with the opportunity to do something he really, really likes.  Most often food is used for classical conditioning because you don’t have to take it away from the dog, you don’t have to worry about it going missing, and you do have to feed your dog anyhow.  If you have two dogs who live in the same house who don’t like one another, you can feed them separated by a barrier where they can see one another, but cannot interact.  If the dogs begin to snarl or growl at each other, you are working too closely, and classical conditioning can only happen when the stimulus is presented at a low enough threshold that the dog isn’t already triggered.

If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off?  Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw?  This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming!  Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo
If you live with a dog who is reactive to other dogs, which of these dogs would set him off? Do you notice that the small dog in front has a lifted paw? This may be a sign that he finds being in that group of dogs stressful and overwhelming! Copyright: eriklam / 123RF Stock Photo

I am often asked if comforting an anxious dog will make them more anxious.  It won’t.  Consider going to a funeral; mostly likely you were upset and possibly crying.  Alleviating a bad emotion comes by decreasing stressors, by having support from loved ones and by being in an environment where you can express your emotions in safety.  You won’t feel any better if the funeral director told you to hold it together, and act happy.  There is no reason to believe that this is any different for dogs.  If you have a dog who is anxious and upset by something, and seeks support and calm by getting into your lap, then let him.  If he finds comfort by leaving, then allow him to go. Do what you can to alleviate anxiety in the short term, and you will teach your dog that you are trustworthy and that you will help him to determine the best and safest thing to do in a crunch.

I often see new trainers create conflict in their dogs by setting the dog up to fail, and then rewarding the dog’s effort.  Some students are so keen to have their dog succeed that they reward EVERY behaviour that the dog offers.  Rewarding every behaviour can be a good first step in a dog who is really shut down, when we want to teach the dog that offering behaviours is acceptable, but when you want to teach the dog a particular behaviour, waffling between reinforcing variety and reinforcing a particular behaviour, you end up confusing the dog, and this means that although you are “rewarding” the dog, you are creating confusion instead of success and that is the sort of thing that makes a one trick pony dog more uncertain and less successful.  Another way that my students set their dogs up to fail is to recognize that the dog is over threshold and take him far into the territory of fear and anxiety.  Or some of the time, they recognize that the dog is in distress and make the dog face his fears anyways.  None of these tactics sets the dog up to learn more than their one trick in the face of danger.  As trainers what we need to learn is to set our dog up to learn new tactics, using what we know about triggers, thresholds, operant and classical conditioning, and remembering what it feels like when we ourselves experience anxiety.

ONE TRICK PONIES