When I filmed Summer barking using the slow motion function of my video camera, I was mostly curious in an analytical sort of way. What could I see when I slowed everything down?
I didn’t realize that I would find the footage so touching.
Slow motion filming is helpful because dog body language is so very fast. A dozen things can happen while we are just trying to process one. Much of it is so fleeting that we never see it at all.
Summer has a very expressive face, and she’s a worrywart. When you see her two little barks in slow motion, the extent of her anxiety is clear.
In day-to-day life with dogs, this is the kind of behavior that can be annoying. You are trying to read, watch TV, or go to bed, and the dog starts fussing because, for instance, the neighbor dropped a board on his back porch. You almost feel like the dog is doing it to annoy you.
But seeing something like this makes things very clear. No, she’s not a princess. No, she isn’t attention mongering. She’s just worried.
I’m glad I have been able to start working with Summer again. I’m afraid her anxiety took a back seat during Clara’s first couple of years in the household, since Summer could function in the world and had people and dog friends, and Clara had only me. Now that Clara is doing so well, the pendulum can swing back. I have been working on some of Summer’s triggers at home and already seeing progress. I’ll be writing about that some more soon.
In the meantime, you can check out how expressive two little barks can be.
I have written before about Summer’s tendency to be the “fun police” and aggress when my other two dogs are playing rowdily. I taught her to come to me instead and get reinforced for sitting quietly.
This has become a strong behavior, and I don’t have to cue it. The cue is the other dogs’ playing. She responds consistently by coming to me. So I shouldn’t have been surprised by what happened recently, but I was.
This week my neighbors have a visiting dog who spends a lot of time on their back porch. Harley is a large, apparently good-natured golden doodle with a very deep bark. He doesn’t like being in the back yard by himself and barks to be let in and also alarm barks when he hears things in the neighborhood.
This is very exciting for my dogs: a big, noisy dog next door. Luckily for us, Harley is not too interested in coming over by our fence, so there are few actual fence fights. But even so, my dogs can get over aroused and are quite interested in running up and down the back porch steps to alternately get a glimpse or a sniff of him, sniffing along the fence, and generally marching around with their hackles up.
That’s right. Summer, my reactive dog, has decided she would rather come and sit in front of me and get treats.
Brava, Summer! But what made you think of it?
What’s the Cue?
I’ve written quite a bit about how dogs tend to discriminate rather than generalize. They notice things that are out of the ordinary and don’t generalize the same way humans do. So, for example, even a dog who is very friendly to women and most men might bark at the first man she sees with a beard or a hat.
So I was curious: What was the prompt for Summer’s nice response when Harley came around? What was this situation similar to?
Here are some possibilities. I have done the following things with Summer over the years:
Treated her in many situations for orientation to me in challenging situations: eye contact, checking in, and the like (positive reinforcement);
Treated her for “sudden environmental changes” like scary noises, including strange dogs barking (classical conditioning);
Treated her for coming to me when the other two dogs were being rowdy (positive reinforcement with an initial element of classical conditioning: dogs playing means food rains down); and
Treated her in the house for coming to me when one of the other two dogs was barking (positive reinforcement). This is a new one. She started coming to me on her own for that, so it was probably a generalization of one of the others.
Wow, after looking at that list I’ve decided it’s not all the surprising that she decided to come to me when the neighbor dog was out there riling everybody else up. But I’ll continue with my speculation.
The most obvious candidate is the noisy, aroused behavior of the other dogs. When Harley was there, they ran around and barked, which was moderately similar to what they do when the play. But any of the other things on the list could have helped, too. (That’s one of the magical things about doing lots of behavioral interventions with your dog. Synergy.)
So I did what any curious person would do. I took Summer outside by herself when Harley was out in the next-door yard to see what would happen without the other dogs there.
In case you are unable to watch the movie for any reason, I have put a description in a footnote below. 1)In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.) After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!) Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.
What’s the Bottom Line?
I think the “main” cue for Summer’s coming to me was my other dogs running around excitedly. Summer did need a little help when she was outside by herself. She got a little “stuck” down in the yard when on her own. However, she instantly responded when I encouraged her to come back up. That part shows the effect of all the practice she has had in interrupting herself from potentially sticky situations. That practice played a big part in her ability to “shake it off.”
This is Not Counterconditioning
Just a word here about desensitization/counterconditioning. Regular readers will probably know that DS/CC is my go-to method for situations that are scary for my dogs. But what you see in that movie is neither DS/CC nor the results of it. Instead I am reinforcing Summer for performing behaviors other than reactive or aggressive ones. It is an operant protocol. It is not aimed at changing her emotional response to a difficult situation, although over time that may happen as a side effect.
The reason I am not doing DS/CC is that Harley is a visitor and not often around, so this situation is pretty rare. And when he is here, I have no control over his activities and thus no control over Summer’s exposure to him. It would be difficult to impossible to do the true graduated exposures of desensitization. If he were around a lot I would probably do some straight-up counterconditioning without desensitization, starting out by passing out treats whenever he barked like I did for Clara with Summer’s barking.
Summer looking worried about something behind her
One clue that this is not DS/CC is Summer’s demeanor, which is anxious at times. This is still much better than running around in a panic, and is not uncommon to see in an operant protocol. But to have a dog looking like this in a DS/CC session for more than a fleeting moment would indicate a failure, as she is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness.
Other Good Behavior
I hope it goes without saying that I keep this excited, over aroused behavior of my dogs to a minimum. It can’t be completely avoided, since they do have to go into the yard to potty, but I can generally go with them and encourage the right things. My presence alone puts a damper on the over-the-top behavior, and I reinforce things like coming away from the fence, doing anything other than reacting to the other dog, and of course eliminating.
The cumulative result is that all three of my dogs will come away from the presence of Harley with just a casual word from me. Under normal conditions, when I am ready to go into the house, I call them in conversationally. I say something like, “Let’s go in, girls.” (I don’t use their individual recall cues for this.) I reinforce my “suggestion” with kibble when they come, and they almost always come running instantly. It was great to learn that they would come even with Harley around.
Their reinforcement history also has the effect of lowering their arousal and engagement in general. They are easily interrupted, and they frequently interrupt themselves to check in with me. They just don’t get as stuck in arousal mode as they would without this intervention. This is a wonderful trait in general, and it all came about because I first generously reinforced attention to me in exciting situations with high value treats, then maintained the habit by carrying kibble in my pocket in the back yard, and passing it around generously for behaviors I liked.
I would love to hear other stories of good behavior generalizing. Got any?
In the movie, I show Summer’s trained response of coming to me to sit when the other dogs play. Then I show her doing the same thing when the neighbor dog is there and my other two dogs are running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.) After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!) Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.
Spaghetti Bolognese as a training treat? Is that even possible? See below!
OK, I’m going to break the ultimate taboo here and talk about giving so-called “people food” to dogs. 1)Nutritionist Linda Case points out aptly in the comments that even the term “people food” is inaccurate and comprises a completely false dichotomy. I won’t use it anymore, even to make a point.
Most of us who do positive reinforcement training and counterconditioning are already accustomed to giving our dogs some pretty special, high value stuff at times. Tuna, ham, Gorgonzola cheese; most anything fragrant and full of calories has been tried at one time or another.
But these types of foods have something in common, and that is that most consist of one basic flavor.
A friend who doesn’t actually train her dogs, but gives them small amounts of interesting food out of love and as enrichment, caused me to notice how much dogs appear to enjoy complex odors and flavors.
My friend read a quote similar to this one about dogs’ olfactory powers: “We smell ‘vegetable soup,’ but a dog smells each individual ingredient.” 2)In the training community, this quote may have originated in a tracking book in 2010. It was picked up and used by the Canine Nosework folks as well. Author and scientist Alexandra Horowitz writes:
Dogs have more genes committed to coding olfactory cells, more cells, and more kinds of cells, able to detect more kinds of smells….their sense of smell may be millions of times more sensitive than ours.–Alexandra Horowitz, “Inside of a Dog,” 2010
My friend subsequently started making sure that her dogs regularly got–along with the smells–some tastes of safe, home cooked foods that were complex and seasoned. Just because she figured they would like it. She was right. They love it. She calls it “flavors” and all her dogs line up for their special tastes of interesting food, and look forward to a bite in their dinner bowls. And note: her dogs can all proficiently suck up spaghetti à la “Lady and the Tramp.”
Smell vs. Taste
Even though they have those amazing noses, dogs have a lot fewer taste buds than we do. They probably can’t discriminate tastes nearly as well. But that’s no reason to limit their food to “simple” tastes like we often do, even when looking for high value treats. The smell of complex foods is likely rewarding in itself, and I find it hard to believe, after seeing what complex foods dogs often seem to like, that the smell doesn’t enrich the eating experience.
I remember one day at an agility practice when one of the people brought spice cookies for the humans. The dogs, with my Summer leading the way, went nuts over the odor of those cookies and when offered some bites gobbled them down like ambrosia. Summer has had cookies (intended for humans) before. Mostly simple things like vanilla wafers and shortbread. The smells and tastes of butter, sugar, and vanilla are not unknown to her. But add in the clove and nutmeg and cinnamon in spice cookies and it was clearly a whole different experience.
Also, be careful about foods with high fat content because of the risk of pancreatitis, plus of course all those calories. Highly processed foods full of sugar or white flour (see the fast food entries below) are probably best kept to small quantities as well. They can’t be any better for dogs than they are for us…. And on the other hand beware of artificially sweetened foods, which may have Xylitol, extremely toxic to dogs (thanks to reader Jane for this reminder).
Finally, with regard to using these kinds of treats for counterconditioning: I generally avoid making suggestions about things that “work for some dogs.” It is tempting when working with fearful dogs to try every trendy thing that comes along, without buckling down to do the actual conditioning and training which has been shown to help. So I don’t usually say, “It can’t hurt to try.” It can hurt to spend time on things that aren’t likely to work. But I don’t believe widening the search for foods that our dogs love falls into that bucket. It’s part of the basics of training and conditioning to find something the dog goes crazy for.
So OK, that plate of spaghetti looks great, and it’s not too onion-y, but how could one use something like that as a training treat?
Remember food tubes? If spaghetti with meat sauce turned my dog on like nothing else, I would be putting it in a blender and dishing it out with a food tube. But there are quite a few “people foods” that lend themselves more easily to training.
Plain tortellini are popular with dogs and fairly practical
Things You Can Cut Into Pieces
Cheese or meat tortellini or ravioli, boiled plain
Commercial or homemade meatballs
Grilled cheese sandwich
Whole wheat waffle with cranberries (NOT raisins)
Fast food hamburger or cheeseburger with bun (hold the onion, mustard, and pickle). The buns are very soft–just rip off small bites with both meat and bread
Fast food breakfast sandwich
Pumpkin or spice bread (no chocolate chips)
Things to Blend and Put in a Food Tube
Some of these may take some finesse with the food processor, especially those with potatoes. They can get gluey. Most of these require the addition of some liquid.
Spaghetti with meat sauce
Hash brown casserole
Many soups, stews, and casseroles
A Little More Common Sense
OK, before the healthy food posse comes after me, please note that I am not recommending that anyone change their dog’s diet to include these foods in quantity. Just a bite now and then for enrichment, for a very special training treat, or for counterconditioning. And I wanted to give the people who do lots of counterconditioning some ideas for things they may not have used yet.
Also, there are plenty of non-junky home cooked foods. The sky is the limit!
My Summer will do anything for any sort of bread or baked goods. What interesting things does your dog like?
Summer weaving for plain white bread (with the headless agility handler)
Don’t wait until New Year’s Eve. You can make a plan and take action now to help your dog be a bit less afraid of the unpredictable scary sounds of fireworks, firecrackers, whistles, and even guns.
Here are some things you can do today.
Get some great treats and start carrying them around. Whenever there is any kind of sudden or startling noise, including stray bangs and booms as people start to test their noisemakers, rain treats down on your dog. Use those special treats only for noises; don’t pass them out for nice behavior (use something else for that!), and don’t ask for any particular behavior from your dog when the noise occurs. Just give the special treats. 1)You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app or CD with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky. The chances of getting successful conditioning in the three days between this blog post and New Year’s Eve are slim, and there will be a huge tendency to rush. People who haven’t done DS/CC before are far more likely to scare their dogs further than to help them. This is why I am recommending only Step 1 above, which consists of counterconditioning without systematic desensitization, using environmental noises that were going to happen anyway.
Make (or adapt) a safe place for your dog. Keep in mind that the flashes of light that come with big fireworks displays can be scary too, so consider a method to temporarily darken any windows nearby.
Experiment with sound masking or music to find out what is the most helpful for your situation. There are two contrasting methods here. Some people find that slow, quiet classical or easy listening music is soothing to their dogs. If you have already found that to be so, use it, but don’t try it out for the first time when the fireworks are going on. It does not work for all dogs, and you might even get “reverse conditioning” and make the music scary to your dogs if it predicts fireworks. The other method is to use some kind of recorded white noise, natural noise, or music to mask the pops and booms. (Even a noisy food toy can be helpful.) This “mechanical” approach is more to my liking. And here’s a tip: the lower the frequencies included in the masking or music, the better it can hide those low-pitched booms. So if your dogs are already habituated to pounding rock music or some other music with a lot of bass or percussion, play it! It can mask some of the scary noises from outside your house more effectively. I have a taiko drumming CD that is great for this. But if you try that, be absolutely certain that the music on the CD itself doesn’t scare your dogs first. If they are already sensitive to booms, it probably will. You’ll need to find the line of best fit for your dogs.
Make a plan for taking your dog out to potty. Do you know when the noise is usually at its worst and can you work around that? Are your fences and/or leash and harness secure? Otherwise sedate dogs have been known to panic and run off on noisy holidays. Don’t let that happen. Keep your gates locked, your dogs’ ID tags on, and put some redundancy into your safety system.
LOSE that idea that there’s something wrong with comforting your dog. You can’t reinforce fear, and helping a dog through a tough time is not “coddling.” Assess what is most helpful to your dog: a cuddle, some lap time, sweet talk, being in their crate with a food toy, or hiding by themselves in a secluded place. Then help them do it.
You may wonder why I am not recommending buying an app or CD with fireworks sounds to “practice” with. Performing desensitization/counterconditioning with sounds is tricky. The chances of getting successful conditioning in the three days between this blog post and New Year’s Eve are slim, and there will be a huge tendency to rush. People who haven’t done DS/CC before are far more likely to scare their dogs further than to help them. This is why I am recommending only Step 1 above, which consists of counterconditioning without systematic desensitization, using environmental noises that were going to happen anyway.
If you have a fearful dog, you probably read all sorts of conflicting advice about what to do about that. Everybody’s got an opinion, and unfortunately some of them include very poor methods.
Even if we rule out the methods that are obviously based on aversive practices, like prong collars or shock systems, we are not out of the woods. A lot of the suggestions made regarding fearful dogs, while well-meaning, are not helpful in the long run and can easily cause our attempts to help the dog backfire.
My favorite way to assess methods is using the three principles that Debbie Jacobs of Fearfuldogs.com has distilled from the best information available about fear, behavior change, and how dogs learn. They are:
Help the dog be safe and feel safe.
Use desensitization and counterconditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to triggers.
Use positive reinforcement to teach the dog behaviors.
The Hardest Step
Even though #2 and #3 on this list above require mechanical skills and familiarity with concepts that are new to most people, I believe that #1 is the hardest. There is this powerful mythology out there about how to deal with fearful dogs. Sadly, many of the more kindly seeming methods can still end up keeping the dog in a state of fear.
Even the gentlest sounding practice, for instance, feeding the dog all her meals out of your hand, can comprise flooding if the dog is afraid of you. For many dogs without fear of humans, hand-feeding can promote your bond and teach them that great stuff comes from you. But those beneficial effects are not likely with a fearful dog, who gets put into a terrible conflict if she is afraid of you but must come to you to eat.
But the cool thing is that you can use Step #1 to assess almost any suggestion that someone throws at you. Recently I read where someone had asked, “But what does ‘Keeping the dog feeling safe’ look like? What does one actually do?” I thought that was a great question. It’s one thing to believe in it, but it’s another to try to implement it.
So here is my take on what generally fits into “Keeping the dog feel safe”and what does not.
What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Can Consist Of
Zoey claimed her own safe place
It might be any of the following things.
Creating a hiding place for the dog if they are scared of you or any member of your family
Looking away from the dog if eye contact scares her
Setting up indoor gates and “airlocks” to prevent the dog from accidental contact with family members, visitors, or other animals
Setting up an indoor potty area if the dog is afraid of the outdoors or leashes or doorways or traffic noises or…..
What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Doesn’t Consist Of
Will “hand feeding” petrified Sunny at this moment build a bond with him?
What it doesn’t look like is any of these myriad things people suggest to try to get dogs to accept proximity to whatever it is they are afraid of, no matter how well-meaning.
Hand feeding the dog her meals
Having strangers give the dog treats
Having strangers pet her
Having anybody pet her if she doesn’t like it
Cuddling or hugging her if she draws away
Gazing at her
Taking the dog for walks when they scare her
Luring the dog with food (except as an emergency measure)
Taking the dog to dog parks
Taking the dog to a “regular” obedience class
Locking her out of her hiding place
Trying to get her to sit with you on the couch
Tethering her to you
“Herding” her with body pressure (except as an emergency measure)
Playing recordings of sounds she’s scared of over and over with the goal of habituating her
Keeping her in a public area of the house since she might as well get exposed to everybody as soon as possible
Forcing her to stay in a crate to “get used to it”
Dragging her up to the thing that scares her
“Showing” her that whatever she’s scared of isn’t really scary
That’s Just Step #1
Don’t be dismayed. Yes, the “do’s” are a lot of work. The “don’t’s” are hard to avoid. But the better you do at helping the dog feel safe, as extreme as some of those measures seem, the faster she may be able to progress.
Step #1 is powerful indeed. But it is a baseline. If you stopped there, you might end up with a dog who lived in your house with fairly low stress, but she might have very little joy in life. The point in taking steps to help the dog feel safe is so she is in a state where she can learn, little by little, using desensitization and counter conditioning, to be comfortable in her skin and happy in her life with humans. Not to mention that you get the satisfaction of knowing how much you really helped her.
I’m not going to write anything about Steps #2 and #3, because they are already beautifully delineated on the CARE for Reactive Dogs website. After we do Step #1, we can use the CARE techniques just as effectively on a dog who is frozen in a corner as we do with one who is hollering at the end of the leash. And by the way, the CARE website does also cover keeping the dog feeling safe, under the Respite and Relaxation section of PrepCARE.
And if you want to learn more about the three principles listed above, you can go straight to the source. Debbie Jacobs gives a great webinar on helping fearful dogs (new dates coming soon). Also check out her in-person seminar schedule on her blog.
Have any additions to the lists above? What does safety look like for your dog?
If you have a small dog with little experience with food toys and who is not prone to chewing hard plastic, the new toy called the Foobler might be the very thing for him.
If you have a larger dog, a determined dog, one who thrives on chewing hard plastic, or most important, a dog who has a lot of experience with food toys, I have some cautions about the product.
That’s right. I’m recommending the Foobler for dogs who are new to food toys, and not for those who are experienced with them. You’ll see why below.
How it Works
Inside the Foobler
The Foobler is a food puzzle toy with six separate compartments inside a hard plastic sphere with a lid. It has a removable battery pack. The batteries power a timer that can be set for several different intervals ranging from 15 to 90 minutes, a motor to change the active compartment, and a mechanical bell. It is weighted to make it wobble, and kibble falls out of a hole when the toy is rolled around. It’s a very easy toy; it need only be rolled, and kibble comes out rapidly until the current chamber is empty. (There are plans to add a method to adjust the difficulty; I’m not sure whether this is present on the models currently shipping or not.)
The idea is that the dog’s fun gets spread throughout the day because only one chamber is open at a time, and the timer determines when the next one becomes available.
The Foobler was invented by three engineers and produced with a Kickstarter campaign. I was delighted to support the campaign and got my Foobler early on. I think it’s really cool that these guys figured out a niche in the market and put their heads together and came up with a nice design.
I like the design, and I like how the food compartment and the battery pack are separate. It’s washable. It is kinesthetically pleasing to open and close; the lids close with a nice snap.
I introduced the Foobler to all three of my dogs, and as a result I have some cautions to share. Besides the danger of being damaged through chewing, the Foobler may be generally frustrating for many toy-savvy dogs.
What’s the Problem?
The problem with the Foobler for experienced dogs is the “unexplained” down time. Every other food toy the dog plays with likely reinforces persistence. As long as the dog can smell and hear food in the toy, she can generally continue to get it out. It may get more difficult as it empties, and the dog may have to vary her behavior more, but she can generally get all the food and know when she is done. For instance, I have seen Summer roll around her Tricky Treat Ball for 10 minutes to get that one last piece of kibble. After she gets it out, she stops. The lack of rattling tells her the toy is empty.
Where’s the food?
However, the Foobler gives out mixed signals. After the dog has emptied the current compartment, and the next compartment won’t become available until the time interval has passed (up to 90 minutes), the dog can still smell food in the toy and it still rattles when the toy is rolled around. For every other kibble toy she’s ever experienced, these are cues that playing with the toy will be reinforced. However, with the Foobler, when the current chamber empties, the behaviors that she has been performing to get the food suddenly do not work without any clue from the toy.1)It may be possible for some dogs to learn to detect the sound or smell difference when no kibble is available in the current compartment. But that would take a while.
Using the terms of behavior analysis, there is a discriminative stimulus to indicate when food is available: the little bell. But there is no stimulus delta, no signal that food will be unavailable for a while when the current compartment is empty. With no straightforward way of communicating that to the dog, we are putting the dog’s behaviors into extinction. This can be quite frustrating for the dog and dangerous to the toy.
It’s important to acknowledge that in almost all cases, the amount of time that food is available is very small compared to the down time. Because the Foobler I have ejects food so easily, and because my dogs eat small amounts of kibble, they were all able to empty each compartment in 2-3 minutes.
Despite the claims by Foobler that theirs is the first puzzle toy to spread the food out over the day, there was at least one previous toy that did that, and it didn’t have the problem that the Foobler has. There used to be a Kong dispenser that would eject up to four stuffed Kongs on a set schedule throughout a dog’s day. It was similar in that food periodically became available, then unavailable throughout the day. But the beginning and end of the food availability were salient to the dog. 1) Kong bounced down from the counter: there was food. 2) Dog cleaned out the Kong: no more food till the next one bounced down.
How the Foobler Could Be Improved
There is a “training mode” for the Foobler, which can be implemented by holding down the power button. It causes the bell to ring and the chamber to switch. I used this to teach my dogs about the bell signaling food availability. But that’s the easy part. The hard part is telling the dog that she needs to stop working at the toy for a while (again, up to 90 minutes!). Adding a sensor that could detect when a chamber was empty and provide a signal for that would certainly be ideal, but unrealistic.
I would suggest instead that the Foobler include a 5-minute interval on its timer. This would create an interim state between the manual training mode and the shortest interval currently available, 15 minutes. This would be especially helpful for small dogs who can empty out their portion quickly, and they are arguably the best candidates to use the toy safely.
Oh, another caution: the Foobler stays on when it is powered up in training mode. So be sure to turn it off when you are done, or it will keep advancing and ringing its bell at the next interval. If it does so and no kibble becomes available, this will work to undo the salience of the bell = food relationship you were carefully building up.
One Pass and Two Failures
Of my three dogs, only Summer is a candidate to enjoy the Foobler. She was fascinated and made no move to chew it. After I teach her about the “down time,” the Foobler may be good for her.
However, there is a very quiet little motor noise when it powers up and shifts to the next compartment. It’s a bit scary to Summer. (You can see her response in the movie.) But I think since it is mild, the fact that it signals food availability will quickly correct the problem.
Clara can pick up the Foobler even though her jaws don’t fit all the way around it
Clara adores chewing hard plastic, and had immediate plans to destroy the Foobler. The present food compartment wasn’t even completely empty before she managed to pick the toy up and carry it to her staging area. No matter how much training, supervision, and management I might do, it would never be safe to leave it with her unattended for any period of time.
The Foobler is not recommended for dogs who can get their jaws around it, a very good caution. But note that even though Clara is not big enough to do that, the toy is still not safe for her. I have absolutely no doubt that she could break into this toy. The photo below shows where she would start.
Here’s where my dogs would start chewing
Little Zani also decided very early on that chewing was called for. She is only 19 pounds but was able to get her jaws around some indentations. She couldn’t lift it, but I’m not willing to wait to find out whether she can break into it. She is a genius at that type of thing.
Even if the Foobler were not vulnerable to being damaged, I would not feel comfortable just setting the timer and leaving it down for a dog to figure out. Some people might think this is overly solicitous on my part. Perhaps it is. But food toys are supposed to be fun. I don’t find it fair to let my dogs go through long periods of frustration and extinction because of the huge reinforcement history for persistence with food toys I have built up. My dogs get plenty of practice with frustration just living with a human; I don’t see a benefit in deliberately allowing repeated periods of pure extinction until they figure out how a toy works.
Again, this toy could work very well with many inexperienced dogs. Dogs who are new to food toys lack the persistence that experienced dogs have. The fact that they are likely to give up more easily actually will work in their favor. And the bell will probably attract them back to the toy again after very few repetitions.
Who else has tried the Foobler? Did you do anything in particular to help your dogs learn about the down time?
Many thanks to jarah’s mom for researching RMSF and answering my questions and generally getting me out of a confused state. Thanks also to Lori S. and Judith B. for their support and info, and to the many other helpful friends and well-wishers.
On November 6, 2014 my dear dog Clara got a blood work result that very strongly indicated that she had Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, a serious, potentially fatal tick-borne disease that affects people, dogs and some other animals in North, Central, and South America. Clara had been showing symptoms for quite some time.
Clara is probably not in danger for her life at this point, and most people wouldn’t even be able to tell that she is sick. Although she is on a strong course of antibiotics, some effects of the infection remain. Time will tell whether she will recover completely. I’m sharing the story of her diagnosis in case it will help others. This disease can be difficult to diagnose, and a timely diagnosis can save a life in some cases.
Clara catching some rays. She looks serious but is wagging her tail.
In September 2014, I started to notice that Clara was getting increasingly stiff and weak in her hind end. This worsened, and by early November when she was finally diagnosed, she had also gotten prone to trembling, not only when she was cold or excited, but sometimes for no apparent reason, even while asleep.
Thinking back, for as long as several months before this, she had run and jumped less when playing with Zani and had less stamina for playing ball. I didn’t mention it in the post, but you can see in the video in “How My Dogs Play” that Clara typically waits in the corner while Zani runs around the yard (previously, she would have run after her every time). Clara also lies down a lot in the play session, which is very polite and self-handicapping of her, but also could have been because she was tired.
She also had a rash on her chest, abdomen and legs in October 2014, which may or may not have been connected.
I made the movie below to chronicle her symptoms, but held back for some time on publishing it. I wanted to be as sure as possible that her diagnosis was correct and that there wasn’t an additional problem or other reason for her symptoms.
The symptoms of tick-borne diseases vary greatly and also can be confused with many other diseases and conditions. (There are quite a few of these diseases, the most well known of which is probably Lyme disease. I included some links in the Resources section at the bottom of this post that list all the types, for humans and dogs.)
So before the blood work to test for tick-borne and parasitic diseases was done, the following tests were performed:
extensive range of motion testing on hips and back legs (excellent!)
hip, pelvis, and back let X-rays (clear!)
complete blood count including to test for muscle enzymes related to soft tissue damage. The muscle enzymes were fine, but the CBC showed a lowered platelet count, which is a typical symptom of tick-borne diseases.
The lack of other diagnoses plus the low platelet count made tick-borne diseases the next most likely candidate for Clara’s symptoms. She was put on antibiotics and more blood was drawn so she could be tested for tick-borne and parasitic diseases.
The subsequent blood work returned a Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever titer of greater than or equal to 1:1024, the highest result possible at that lab. This high reading indicated that Clara had a large number of antibodies to the Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria and had been fighting the Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever infection for a while, probably weeks or months.
The Rickettsia rickettsii bacteria are introduced into the dog or other animal from the bite of a tick that has been attached for 5-20 hours.1)Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44. (This is a very good reason to perform daily tick checks if your dog has been in areas where ticks are present.) The bacteria have been found to be transmitted by at least four tick species, but the most common are the American dog tick (what probably bit Clara) and the Rocky Mountain wood tick.
Tick hemolymph cells infected with Rickettsia rickettsii. Public domain image from the US Centers for Disease Control.
The bacteria are nasty. They immediately spread throughout the body via the blood and lymphatic systems and invade the cells of the endothelium, the cells in the lining of the blood and lymphatic vessels. They multiply there and move into the smooth muscle tissue. 2)Harrus, S., et al. “Rickettsiales.” Pathogenesis of Bacterial Infections in Animals, Third Edition (2004): 425-444. Since this is happening all over the body, the presenting symptoms can vary. Many different organs can be damaged or fail. The dog often bleeds from the nose or other locations. There are the joint and muscle problems. There can be gangrene in the extremities as the tissue dies. Dogs can have inflammation of the eyes, shortness of breath if the lungs are affected, have seizures or other nervous system symptoms, or can die suddenly of a heart attack. The kidneys can fail.
It most often affects dogs under four years old (Clara is 3 1/2). The response can range from no apparent problems at all, where the dog is infected but remains asymptomatic and lives a normal life, to death in a matter of days.
Clara is now on her second three-week round of Doxycycline, which luckily does not appear to upset her stomach. She obviously felt better in a metabolic sense after two days on the antibiotic; she was perkier and had more energy, and has stayed that way. But the stiffness has been much slower to change. I’ve been keeping a video record and I think she is finally improving, though. I have to remind myself that progress won’t necessarily be linear.
I feel a little weird for publishing this movie and blog, like I’m exaggerating the seriousness of Clara’s illness. But I’m not. Although the trembling has lessened, she still has periods of weakness and/or stiffness and is clearly fatigued after she exerts herself. I’m still trying to get my head around it all. I go from thinking she will be tragically affected for the rest of her life, to thinking there isn’t much to it and I’m overreacting. There’s still a flavor of “this can’t be happening…” But I’m also counting our blessings.
I’m almost afraid to ask for others’ experiences, because I’m sure there are some sad ones out there. But I think education about RMSF and the other tick-borne diseases is valuable and important. So please share if you are willing.
Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44.
Harrus, S., et al. “Rickettsiales.” Pathogenesis of Bacterial Infections in Animals, Third Edition (2004): 425-444.
Comer, K. M. “Rocky Mountain spotted fever.” The Veterinary clinics of North America. Small animal practice 21.1 (1991): 27-44.
Keenan, K. P., et al. “Studies on the pathogenesis of Rickettsia rickettsii in the dog: clinical and clinicopathologic changes of experimental infection.” American journal of veterinary research 38.6 (1977): 851-856.
Elchos, Brigid N., and Jerome Goddard. “Implications of presumptive fatal Rocky Mountain spotted fever in two dogs and their owner.” Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association 223.10 (2003): 1450-1452.
Why do some dogs scratch with their paws after they eliminate?
I recently read a discussion on Facebook about the meaning of this dog behavior. Some people’s speculations about the reasons for the behavior included:
Avoiding something or another behavior (displacement)
Calming another dog
Expressing enjoyment of a previous activity
Expressing high arousal
Marking by scent
Note that all but the last three of these have to do with an emotion or internal state.
I was interested in particular in the conjecture that the behavior was linked to some kind of stress. My dog Summer is a “scratcher” and she does it with what I observe to be exuberance and satisfaction. (You’ll see in the movie.) Interestingly, she doesn’t scratch only after eliminating. She will also scratch where there are scents of another dog’s elimination. Summer also lifts her leg to mark with urine. More on that later.
What Does the Literature Say?
Dirt scratching, or scraping, has been studied by ethologists. These are mostly observational studies, where numbers of canids were observed performing various elimination, sniffing, and marking behaviors. The behaviors are counted and the surrounding circumstances recorded. Dr. Marc Bekoff points out that it hasn’t been studied all that much in dogs though, compared to the study of other animals.1)Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75. He and others are gradually filling in the blanks, however.
Here are some of the functions for ground scratching that ethologists have proposed:
Dispersing scent from the dog’s urine or feces2)Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.3)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.4)Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.5)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
Dispersing scent from glands in the dog’s paws6)Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.7)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.8)Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.9)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.10)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
A visual demonstration in real time, in the presence of other dogs11)Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.12)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.13)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
A visual demonstration in the form of leaving marks on the ground14)Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.15)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.16)Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
Note that none of these hypotheses is linked to an internal emotion, although one source did note that ground scratching was seen more often “when the individual was aggressively aroused.”17)Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132. The main discussion revolves around function, and even then, the conclusions are very circumspect. Dirt scratching may be communication to other dogs, but speculations by ethologists about the content of that communication are still very conservative.
This is a valuable reminder to me that as much as we would love to, we can never know exactly what is going on in our dogs’ minds.
What’s the Smelly Feet Thing About?
One of the hypotheses for the function of the behavior is that glands on the dogs’ paws may give off a scent, and that scratching may deposit and disperse it. What are these glands? Most sources mention sweat glands.
“…paw pads in dogs are one of the few locations that contain eccrine sweat glands. In dogs, apocrine glands are the major type of sweat gland, and the distribution of eccrine sweat glands is limited to the footpads and nose.” 18)Miller, William Howard, et al. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.
However, there are other glands that may be involved:
“…It has been suggested that the scratching action itself may leave scent in the environment produced by either interdigital glands, sweat glands on the foot pads, or sebaceous glands in the fur between the toes.” 19)Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
From what I read in the literature, there has not yet been a definitive finding about whether scent from the paws is involved, and if so, from which source.
Male vs. Female Behaviors
Two studies by Marc Bekoff showed that approximately the same percentages of male and female dogs performed ground scratching (about 10%), but also that the males who ground scratched did so much more frequently than the females. 20)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.21)Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139. Another study showed that among females, those who were spayed were more likely to scratch than those who were intact and not in estrous. (Females in estrous were not included in the study.) 22)Wirant, Sharon Cudd, and Betty McGuire. “Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 85.3 (2004): 335-348.
The same study also found that females four or more years old directed the majority of their urinations at objects in the environment (marked) and directed more of their urinations when walked off their home area than when walked within their home area. Both of these are true for Summer.
Raised leg urination such as many male dogs perform has also been theorized to have the function of visual display, since it is sometimes performed without urination.23)Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.24)Cafazzo, Simona, Eugenia Natoli, and Paola Valsecchi. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs.” Ethology 118.10 (2012): 955-966. Male dogs have also been observed to raise their legs more frequently to urinate when in the presence of another dog.25)Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75. Some female dogs raise their legs as well, including Summer.
So What Does Summer Do?
The movie shows Summer enthusiastically scratching the ground in several different situations:
After squatting to pee;
After raising her leg to pee;
Immediately after entering an area with interesting smells and without eliminating at all; and
After smelling another dog’s droppings (also without eliminating).
If Summer’s behavior is functional, and not some kind of twisted evolutionary leftover, it may support the “dispersing odor from the paws” hypothesis. See what you think.
I’m not an ethologist; I’m a pet owner. So while I’m fascinated with the possible function of the behavior of scratching, I’m also interested in my dog’s emotional state when she does it. And I’d simply say she is enjoying performing a natural doggie activity. The prompts for her behavior seem to be scents, nothing more complex than that.
Summer is a primal sort of dog. Her breeding is so mixed that she resembles a village dog in all but her double coat. She has a strong prey drive and scavenger drive. And although our bond is strong and she loves doing things with me, her natural inclinations are very, very dog-y. In many ways she is more “wild” than my feral-born dog, Clara, who appears to have a wealth of “I like to partner with a human” genes. Go figure.
In any case, Summer seems to love scratching the dirt. You could say she gets a real kick out of it.
How about your dogs? Males, females? When do they do it? What is their demeanor when doing so? Do tell!
Here’s an “Almost Wordless Wednesday” for you. Just a short movie showing Clara and Zani playing.
Even wholesome dog playing can be scary to people who aren’t familiar with it. Dogs growl, snarl, and mouth each other so fast and hard that you are sure they are doing damage. But many dogs, sometimes the most unlikely pairs, work out ways to play that are pretty safe and fun for both parties concerned.
In this clip you will see hackles raised (Clara), lots of snarling and screaming (Zani), and lots of so-called displacement behaviors from both dogs (look-aways, lip licks, ground sniffing). Yet what I see in the main is wholesome and fun play. I show some of the things I like about it in the movie: Clara’s self-handicapping, how they take breaks and vary their play, and how they negotiate the end of play and bleed off any built up tension. (Try to see when one of them first decides it’s time to quit. I’ll give my opinion in the comments if anyone wants to discuss.)
Throughout the clip, my third dog, Summer, is sitting quietly in front of me. I have trained her to do that instead of being the Fun Police, and intervening aggressively in the other dogs’ play. She got a treat right after the clip ended.