I have mentioned before that my dog Summer is reactive. Reactive has come to refer to a dog who reacts strongly (and inappropriately in the human’s view), usually with an aggressive display, to some specific triggers. Some of Summer’s triggers are strange dogs (in some settings), strange men (in even more settings) delivery trucks, certain noises other dogs make, and rowdy play on the part of her housemates. The latter earns her the moniker of a “Fun Police” dog. She tries to stop the other dogs when they do things that bother her, and she is not very nice about it.
She does not have the finesse of a dog who merely “splits” the other dogs away from each other, or tries to herd someone away. She is not any kind of peacemaker. What she does is dash into the middle of the play, growling , snapping, and even biting. Since the other dogs are typically already aroused, this is dangerous.
How About an Incompatible Behavior?
I have discussed the process of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior (DRI) before. This means you teach the dog, via positive reinforcement, to do something that is incompatible with the original behavior whenever the triggering situation (antecedent) arises. I have examples of DRI in my post of examples of the steps of Humane Hierarchy, and in the post and video about teaching Clara an alternative to jumping up and mugging my face.
In the “Fun Police” example I have chosen to make it worth Summer’s while to come to me in the yard instead of trying to boss the other dogs around with her teeth. She can’t do those two things at the same time. I reinforce her for coming to me, offering eye contact, offering a sit or down. Basically she hangs out with me having a mini training session instead of starting a fight.
Modifying a Problem Behavior
Deciding how to intervene with a potentially dangerous behavior can be tricky. I did have some other choices. I could have used management and decided to keep the dogs separate. I have done that in the past with combinations of dogs who were incompatible and too volatile. This included keeping Summer and Clara apart when Clara was small, because I wasn’t sure Summer would grant her a puppy license. I could have worked on to desensitizing and counter conditioning Summer to the other dogs’ play, although it would be challenging because I can’t turn their play on and off and control the intensity or distance well. It would have had to be in the context of a whole program of work on her reactivity. Which–hey, I am doing anyway, with relaxation and confidence work with her, and sound desensitization–but in the meantime my dogs need to go outside.
If her aggression were more serious, I would have chosen the above options. But because her reactions were undesirable but not completely scary, and because I am always with the dogs when they are outside, instead I tried DRI. I became a treat dispenser for her if she would come over to me when they started to play. I called her to me the first few times, but it didn’t take long for her to realize the connection between “Clara and Zani playing” = “Easy training session for Summer.”
As I’ve mentioned before, Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior involves extinction, not punishment, of the original unwanted behavior. Ideally that behavior gets no more reinforcement. I want to point out that in this example, I have not eliminated the potential for Summer to get reinforced by rushing in and snarling at the other dogs. That is one reason that this method would not be appropriate for lots of dogs. It worked fine for us though, because Summer appeared very glad to be taught something different to do, and because my other dogs are pretty tolerant (in case we had slipped up). Summer latched onto her new “job” very quickly, and it has been more than a year since she has shown even an inclination to intervene in the other dogs’ play. I believe she is glad not to have to be a cop anymore.
By the way, this also wouldn’t have worked if my passing out treats had interrupted the other dogs’ play. I like it that they play, and I don’t want to interrupt things when they are playing appropriately. But as it turns out, they know full well I am giving Summer treats, but continue to play because they enjoy it so much.
The Dominance/Punishment Model
When discussing possible methods above, I “forgot” to mention punishment. Oops. So let’s discuss the option just for a moment. Leaving ethical considerations for later, first let’s see how practical it would be.
Zani and Clara play about once a week. That’s once out of the fifty or so times per week that I go outside with my dogs. So I would either need to put a prong or a shock collar on Summer, keep a leash on her so I could give her a jerk, or–I know!! Get some of those bags or chains that certain franchises sell you to throw at your dog. I would have to stay ready to do something to Summer if the other dogs started to play and she launched into them. For that one time out of fifty. My timing would have to be superb. If I threw something, I’d need to avoid scaring the other dogs. Not sounding too practical, is it? Maybe an air horn? Yelling wouldn’t do it. That would affect my other dogs at least as much as her, but it also wouldn’t function as much more than an interrupter. It would not be likely to decrease the behavior in the future, so it wouldn’t be punishment. Compare these gyrations to having treats in my pocket (which I generally do anyway), and calling her over to me to do a few behaviors when they start to play. Easy peasy.
And the ethics. Need I even say that I can’t stand the thought of hurting Summer when she is already such an anxious dog? Her behavior is not some gleeful flouting of my authority. She’s trying to stop something that makes her nervous. We don’t need to be hurting or scaring dogs for any reason, and certainly not one who is reacting out of stress and anxiety!
Not a Recommendation
Finally, as successful as it was for me, please note that I am not suggesting this method to others with problems in multi-dog households. I can’t make any recommendations on other people’s situations. This method was a good choice for me because I work with an excellent professional trainer who knows Summer well and has taught me some methods of reading her and dealing with her behavior. This solution would not be appropriate for every dog, and trying it could even be dangerous in some situations, for instance if a person’s carrying treats triggered resource-related aggression when the dogs were already aroused. My dogs are used to my carrying treats, and none is a serious food guarder.
The best advice you can get on the Internet if you have a dog who aggresses at your other dogs is to keep them separate, get off the Internet, and consult a professional trainer. Get some help.
The Pet Professional Guild has a page where you can search for a local force free trainer. Also, here is a list of Board Certified Veterinary Behaviorists in the U.S. and a few worldwide.
You know I love to hear from you about your own dogs. Got any examples of DRI or other interventions for obnoxious behaviors?
- Threshold: It May Not Be What You Think
- How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
- OMG Could She Really be Talking about the Continuum AGAIN?
P.S. A reader speculated about something that brought up a great point (thanks Ann M.!), and that was whether Summer’s new calmness carried over to when the other dogs played when I wasn’t there. Great question, and an important one. The answer is that my dogs are completely physically separated when I am not there, so no play occurs. Between Summer’s reactivity, Clara’s sometimes overbearing behavior, and Zani being so much smaller, they are separated when I am not home, always within my earshot when we are in the house together, and completely supervised in the yard. I have not changed Summer’s emotional response enough to count on it carrying over.