Dog Body Language Study: Intruder in the Yard!

Zani advancing

What is Zani so wary of?

My little dog Zani has so much personality, but it is rare for me to capture her feisty side on camera. She is almost certainly a hound/terrier mix. She has the softness and sensitivity of some small hounds, and can dole out appeasement signals as well as any beagle. I’ve shown her fearful side. But she is also a tough cookie. She holds her own in a household with two bigger dogs. She chases (and yes, kills) small animals. She tells me off sometimes. So when she was alone in the yard, alarm barking but not advancing on whatever was bothering her, I grabbed the camera. I knew it would be interesting.

The “not advancing” part was what clued me that this was something different. If there had been any sort of animal or human in the yard or close by, she would have run forward without hesitation. This was some other kind of threat.

It would be easy to make light of what it turned out to be. But you know, my little dog is brave. She weighs all of 19 pounds. It’s true that she didn’t start to approach the monster until I offered to go along, but she led the way. I do wish I could have had a view of her from the front. There is a section in the video where her body language gets a bit scary looking. It starts at about 0:46. I would get out of the way of any dog who was advancing towards me in that manner.

The other amazing thing to me is how fast she piloerects–and then how fast the fur goes down again when she determines that all is well. Here’s a nice piece by Karen London on Piloerection–do you think Zani counts as “confident” according to her observations? Thanks to Julie Hecht for a mini-discussion about this too.

I hope you enjoy watching this as much as I did. There’s so much more to observe than what I noted in the video.

How about your dogs? What scary things have they conquered?

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Related Posts and Pages (featuring the adorable Zani)

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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Is My Dog a Drama Queen?

“My dog is such a drama queen!”

“My dog is so manipulative, she overreacts to everything!”

“That dog is not really afraid, she’s just being a diva.”

Have you heard any of these?

A few months back, I posted the following picture on the Observation Skills for Training Dogs group for comments. I felt like it was a good example of showing that photos can be deceptive, as I have previously written.

Zani dirty look pout

I solicited observations, and got some good ones. Zani is the smaller dog on the right. The observations about her included that her mouth was shut tightly, her body and facial muscles looked tense, her ears were slightly back, and she had whale eye. She was also sitting very close to the gate. The consensus was that she looked stressed.

So what was the problem?

I had interrupted her routine.

Zani has the most freedom to come and go in the house of any of my dogs. She gets along with everybody and is safe with objects and furniture. She has little routines she follows where she checks after the other dogs when they have eaten. She is my crumb vacuum, being interested in sniffing out and eating the tiniest pieces of food. She is an extremely persistent little hound dog.

In the picture I had prevented her from making her rounds by closing the gate. She wanted to go in the other room to see if Cricket had left crumbs (she always did, and I would generally give Zani permission to go get them).  She sat there staring at me like that for at least 10 minutes, her eyes boring into me, while I ate my breakfast.

I published the photo with the intent of demonstrating that photos can be deceptive, that the situation Zani was in was no big deal. Zani is a little hard for me to live sometimes with all these “overreactions.” But was it an overreaction? And was it a deceptive photo or not?

Stress

(Taking deep breath): I was wrong. It is not a good example of a deceptive photo.

The body language captured in the photo is that of a (slightly) stressed dog, and she was stressed. Just because I define a stressful situation differently, and am tempted to find her actions overdone and cute, doesn’t mean she wasn’t stressed. To deny that is to be a bit of a jerk.

Here’s another example.

Zani collage

In both of the above photos in the collage, Zani is sitting on the bed. In the one on the left, her eyes are open wide, her ears are forward. Her head is a tiny bit cocked in her “I’m paying attention” pose. Now, how about the one on the right? What is wrong? Her ears are hanging straight down flat and her eyes are squinty. The set of her eyebrows looks tense. Her head is no longer cocked and nose is a little bit down. The set of her mouth may be a little different, but it’s hard to tell because her head position is slightly different. But she definitely looks unhappy.

The problem this time: another dog was in her way on the bed. She couldn’t get under the covers.

What a drama queen, right? Again, no.

Taking Our Dogs Seriously

The term “drama queen”  has implications that just aren’t appropriate for a dog. It’s a critical term for  a  person who overreacts to things (in the view of the person using the term), usually in such a way as to maximize attention, and even to put a guilt trip on someone else.

Even though dogs like attention, Zani’s actions do not have the goal of making me feel bad. Although we learn more about dogs’ cognitive skills all the time, there’s a much simpler explanation for Zani’s behavior. The flat ears and woeful expression are an indicator of her own feelings. She is frustrated.

It is perfectly possible, common even, for a dog to learn that certain actions such as whining or looking pathetic can get desirable behaviors from humans. That’s reinforcement in action. Their behavior can get reinforced by our responses. Dogs learn to bark, whine, or tremble to get us to notice them and take action.

And indeed, there is one behavior common to the above pictures and the ones below that is that kind of learned, reinforced behavior. In all the photos, Zani is looking at me. I heavily reinforce polite eye contact, so it has become a way for my dogs to ask for something. But I’m pretty sure I haven’t reinforced all the little body language nuances that make up Zani’s stress/frustration/appeasement responses. She came to me with those. And I’m pretty careful in general about what behaviors I reinforce in my dogs.

But this wasn’t supposed to be about psychoanalyzing Zani. It’s about changing my own assumptions.

I need to take Zani’s frustrations and stresses seriously, not just brush them away as cute, silly, or annoying. I imagine that my occasional irritation with her is a defense mechanism in part. I can’t always act on what she wants. But I need to change my internal response.

I need to remind myself that this house, with my other dogs and me, and the places Zani gets to go–these things are Zani’s world. She is utterly dependent on me. She has things she likes and dislikes, things she looks forward to or not. They are perfectly real and important to her. I give her as much freedom and as many choices and fun activities as I can. But she has huge limits on her world, like almost all pets, and has real feelings about the things she likes and dislikes in it. She has a right to that.

Many people think, I’m sure, that I am overly solicitous, or even spoil my dogs. To me, it’s important to maintain my empathy for their dependent situation. I intend to remind myself, on seeing Zani’s stress or frustration, that she is not overreacting or trying to manipulate me. I want my response to be, “How can I make her life more fun? More pleasant? Is there a way she and the other dogs can get what they want?” Or when I can’t do anything about it, at least not take it personally when she looks like that!

It’s popular in some quarters to say that we need to add stress to dogs’  lives in order that they learn to cope with it.  This is often used as an excuse for using punishment. Indeed, animals and humans alike need to learn coping skills. But I find that my dogs’ lives have plenty of stress in them, and my time is better spent minimizing it than maximizing it. Not to mention that Zani copes beautifully with most everyday stressors. She’s not freaking out, getting aggressive or depressed, developing stereotypies. She just gets sad in her own way, then sighs and goes off to a comfortable dog bed.

Zani is both sensitive and expressive. She’s a little soft hound dog who wears her heart on her sleeve. I just need to remember that most of the time there is no agenda regarding my thoughts and feelings, although she certainly would like to affect my behavior as it relates to the things she wants.

Here are two final photos of Zani. In the first one, she is worried that I may take another dog for a ride. Her tail is tucked, and thought it’s hard to see, her back is a little arched. She’s looking up appealingly.

Zani tail tucked

In the second one, she is in the car but I have put her in the other dog’s crate. She has no objections to crates in general, but again, I messed up her routine. There are those flat ears again.

 Zani wrong crate

What we are seeing are her sensitivity and her feelings. She’s worried in the first photo and bothered in the second. Actually, when I think about it, I like it that she feels free enough in her life to be that expressive. I’ll do my best to do right by her, and not think of this tender, sweet little dog as a drama queen.

Coming up:

  • My webinar: 2/19/14: Over Threshold: The Changing Definition (still available as a recording!)
  • All-Natural
  • Which Dog is Playing?
  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

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Successful Desensitization and Counterconditioning

Alligator ellipticalI have an elliptical training machine in my back room. I’ve had it for three years. Zani loves that room because that’s where the kibble, some human food, and other interesting things are stored.

But when I get on the elliptical to exercise, she’s outta there. It doesn’t really have alligator jaws attached to it, but I think that’s a good portrayal of  how Zani used to see it.

For those who aren’t familiar with these exercise machines, here is a video of an elliptical in motion. It is similar to mine. You can see where a sensitive dog could be alarmed with the motion.

I have mats in that room for dogs to hang out on, and Summer and Clara stay on their mats and get the occasional treat while I exercise. Cricket did so too in her day. But not Zani, until now.

The other day I realized I could probably help Zani get over her fears. It took all of 5 days, and I did it while I was exercising.

Desensitization and Counterconditioning

The techniques of desensitization and counterconditioning (DS/CC) are often used together to help animals, including humans, recover from fears. They are not bandaid solutions that mask the symptoms. When done correctly, they change the animal’s emotional response.

Systematic desensitization is a procedure in which learned fear of a neutral stimulus is extinguished by exposing the animal to the stimulus so gradually that involuntary fear responses are never triggered. –Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

This is the technique where you start with the thing the animal is scared of (the stimulus) at a distance or intensity where the thing is not scary.  When the animal is OK with that, you gradually bring it closer or intensify it. Dr. Friedman points out that desensitization can only get the animal from scary to neutral. It doesn’t make the animal delighted or happy with the stimulus. But it can get the animal OK with it.

With counterconditioning, the animal’s respondent behavior to a stimulus is replaced with an opposite automatic response.–Standard definition, as worded by Susan Friedman in her professional LLA course

OK, counterconditioning is the frosting on the cake. Counterconditioning is the technique that can actually replace fear or another undesirable response with a positive emotional response. This is done by associating the scary stimulus with something wonderful, while the animal is under threshold, consistently over time.

Here is an article that defines the terms desensitization and counterconditioning and lays out how to design a training protocol.

Zani’s DS/CC Story

…is very short.

Starting point: Typically when I would get on the elliptical, she would leave and go into the bedroom across the hall. She often went out of sight and got on the bed. That was her comfortable distance from the elliptical, so that’s where we started.

Picture 1: Since I was tossing treats to the other dogs anyway, I started tossing some into  that bedroom (bank shot!). She learned to hang out by that doorway and get the treats. She could be out of sight of the elliptical if she chose. Distance: 16 – 19 feet.

Pictures 2a and 2b: Soon she started waiting in the hallway instead of in the doorway to the bedroom, so I started aiming the treats into the hall. I could tell she was comfortable because she didn’t retreat to the bedroom anymore or show any signs of concern, just happily chased down the treats. Distance: 12.5 – 16 feet.

Picture 3: All my dogs are trained to get on mats. The mats have good associations with relaxation and treats. So I threw a mat down in the area where Zani was already comfortable. She immediately got on it and stayed there happily when I got on the elliptical and started tossing treats. This was a big step, because previously she had been on her feet and moving. If she had had any residual fear, she was free to trot away farther. Staying still in the presence of the elliptical was a big step. Hence, I didn’t cue her to get on the mat. I gave her the choice. I would have tossed treats either way. But she immediately plopped down on the mat and stayed there.

Technically this was a switch to the technique of Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior, or DRI, from counterconditioning, since Zani was now also being reinforced for getting on her mat. However, as I mention below, operant and respondent behaviors can be all knotted up at times. Distance 12.5 feet.

Picture 4: Over two more days I moved the mat closer. I could tell that Zani was fine with that because her body language was comfortable, and she always got on the very front of the mat. Final distance: 10.5 feet.

That’s it! She can now participate in the “Eileen exercises and dogs lie on their mats and get treats” event. She is within my treat throwing range and she is completely comfortable. I don’t want any of the dogs closer than the current “front row” while I’m exercising since the moving parts of the elliptical could be dangerous for them. Since Zani generally likes a front row seat, it will be interesting to see if she moves up to try to join or displace another dog. I’m betting she will. I may have to train her to stay back from the elliptical!

Here is a slide show of the steps we took.

I apologize for the poor photos. I wanted to show my view from the elliptical, and the actual distances involved. The light (and the clutter in the room) was not conducive to that. Pictures 1, 2a, 2b, and 3 are reconstructions by the way. I didn’t take photos during the process.

Slow Techniques?

To review: the desensitization part was moving Zani gradually closer to the doorway of the back room while the elliptical was in motion. The counterconditioning part was the yummy treats that accompanied the process. DRI came into play when Zani started settling on the mat. It worked because I didn’t rush. I watched Zani to be sure she wasn’t scared and just venturing forth to get the treats, then retreating to safety again. She had to feel safe with every step.

Desensitization and counterconditioning are often said to be slow. They certainly can be. Depending on the history and intensity of the adverse reaction, the attractiveness of the counterconditioning item (usually really good food or fun play), correct timing, and the skill of the trainer, these techniques can take a while.

But guess what? Not always. I was frankly amazed at how fast Zani got over her mistrust of the elliptical, and felt badly that I hadn’t tried to help her in any systematic way before.

Even when these techniques take time, they are always my choice, along with operant learning using positive reinforcement**,  for helping an animal overcome its fears. They are completely humane, and the science has supported for decades that they create a true emotional response in an animal. I am privileged to watch my formerly feral dog Clara, under the care of a skilled trainer, blossoming into a comfortable, sociable dog, using these methods.

By the way, the treats I use for the elliptical mat game are pieces of Prairie kibble (which is small) and the undersized leftover pieces from when I cut up Natural Balance rolls. My dogs don’t typically need much encouragement to hang out on mats, and since I am throwing the treats while in motion, I don’t want to cause a scuffle if I were to toss something high value right between two dogs. But if I had planned better I would have used something higher value during Zani’s rehabilitation. The animal’s ultimate conditioned response can only be as positive as its response to that particular item, so one usually uses something really spectacular.  Luckily it turned out I didn’t need to. But perhaps to cap things off I’ll surprise them all with a piece of liverwurst (hand-delivered) now and then.

Do you have any great DS/CC success stories?

Coming up:

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** Operant learning played a role in this protocol as well. Dr. Friedman talks about the “Gordian Knot,” of operant and respondent learning frequently. They become almost instantly intertwined in most training protocols. Once the good feelings associated with the unconditioned stimulus start spreading to the previously feared items, the animal will often on its own develop behaviors to hasten its access to the goodies. In this instance, Zani performed the operant behaviors of chasing treats and lying on her mat. Both of these are familiar, comfortable, and pleasant for her. Sometimes just having a job to do is a great help. On the other hand, the mat itself has already been classically conditioned as a very nice place to be.

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Another Look at a Fearful Dog

A small black and tan dog sits in a woman's lap. The dog's ears are back, her mouth is tight, her brow is very tight. She looks, and is, extremely afraid.

Zani is petrified

Little Zani is not sound sensitive in general. She thinks thunderstorms and fireworks are great, since they predict spray cheese at our house. Things like vacuums and generators she is good with. And she hears various beeps, dings, and various other sounds from my computer and phone all day without any apparent adverse response.

So why she is petrified of the quiet chirp of a low battery from the smoke alarm I do not know. I do know that when she does get scared of something, it can take her quite a while to bounce back, as I described and showed  in The Look of Fear.

I am finally learning to change all the smoke alarm batteries on a schedule (Summer doesn’t much like that noise either, but doesn’t get in quite such a panic), but every once in a while one goes low anyway. Since I rarely know which alarm it is, I remove all the alarms in that part of the house and get them outside quickly. I usually take them to my office on the next work day and test and replace the batteries well away from home.

The footage of the video was taken about 20 minutes after the little “chirp.” Zani was still in full panic. This is one of the few times she wants to be in my lap, and she is insistent about it. Of course that is fine with me. I had already been sitting in front of my computer, so I turned on the webcam to get a minute of footage. This didn’t make her situation more difficult for her in any way; we just continued to sit there.

A small black and tan dog sits in a woman's lap. The dog's ears are back, the corners of her mouth are pulled back, her brow is very tight, and her mouth is open and her tongue is hanging out a bit. She is extremely afraid, but since her mouth is open from panting, some people might think she is "smiling."

This is not a “smiling” dog

 

It is hard to see, but she was trembling violently. You can see the panting, which is purely from stress. It was not warm in the house, and she only pants in the hottest of weather, and then only briefly. She doesn’t particularly enjoy petting at the best of times, so I just let her sit in my lap and lean on me, and spoke to her now and then.

The most clear sign of stress for me is the extreme rictus of the corners of her mouth (commissures). Even though we tend to associate the open mouth of a panting dog with a “smile,” the stretched commissures (and ears pulled back) tell otherwise.

Link to video for email subscribers.

I labeled some of the basic signs of stress, but there are many others. What all do you see?

After about half an hour I decided to see if I could distract Zani. She went outside with the other dogs, but quickly wanted back in again. She was able to respond to a cue to get on her mat, and a few bites of one of her favorite foods (commercial turkey meatballs) brought her back to herself and ended the panting and trembling, although she still wanted in my lap. I let her sit with me some more, and you can see some of the fatigue leftover from the fear response.

A small black and tan dog is lying in a woman's lap, with her head hanging over the woman's arm. The dog's eyes are closed or she is gazing downward.  She is exhausted.

The aftermath: Zani worn out from stress

We had one more hurdle, and that was going to bed that evening, since she had been in the bedroom when she heard the smoke alarm. But she came in of her own accord, staying close to me, then planted herself on my lap in the bed. By morning she was acting normally.

I plan to perform desensitization and counter conditioning to help her over this fear, but it will be very tricky. Since that noise is quiet anyway, it will be a real challenge to find a way to start with it quiet and/or far away enough that it doesn’t trigger the fear. I may vary the pitch and start with a lower frequency beep that doesn’t fall into the “scary chirp” classification. I know I can’t completely prevent these chirps from happening, and sound sensitivity generally gets worse over time. So I am very motivated to help little Zani with this.

Coming up:

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Calm Submissive

According to the well known TV personality (I won’t call him a trainer) Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” is a very desirable state for your dog to be in.

A small dog is lying on her right side in the dirt. Her legs, belly, and face are tan. She is black elsewhere. Her legs are stretched out in front of her and her head is on the ground. At first glance she looks relaxed, but her front legs are actually stiff and one is being held off the ground.

Is Zani calm? Check out her right front leg before you decide.**

OK, I don’t even want to begin to address the word submissive. So far I’m just thinking about “calm.”

Here is a dictionary definition:

Free from excitement or passion; tranquil.

A black dog with tan on her face and front legs is seen to be sitting. She is looking down.

Zani shut down

My friend Diana and I were discussing seeing the difference between a shut-down dog and a calm dog. I have some video footage, soon to be published, of Zani in a shut-down state. (It was long ago and she had been rude to little Cricket, who snarked at her. For whatever reason, that time it upset Zani greatly. She shut down and tuned the world out for about half an hour afterwards.) Diana said it would be great to contrast the shut down state with photos or video of Zani when she is calm, so as to help demonstrate the difference.

So I started thinking how I would film Zani being “calm.”

First of all, I realized calm is not a behavior. It is an emotional state, but it can sometimes be observed by physiological signs. I would say they include:

  • slow to moderate heart rate
  • slow to moderate breathing
  • relaxed muscles or muscles being used smoothly
  • lack of signs of arousal or excitement

I tried to list positive signs first, but it is easiest to see calm as a lack, yes? Like the definition: free from excitement. In a dog we might notice:

  • lack of barking
  • lack of panting
  • lack of excitement
  • lack of trembling
  • lack of running around
  • lack of jumping on people or chewing the furniture
  • …ad infinitum.

Calm as Contrast

I’ve also realized that in English, “calm” is frequently used as a contrast word. What picture does the following sentence bring to mind?

Henry calmly got out his wallet and removed his driver’s license.

What did you visualize? I bet 9 out of 10 people visualized Henry being stopped by a police officer. The word “calm” in such a sentence would be emphasizing that Henry is cool under pressure, and/or innocent of any law breaking.

Did anybody visualize Henry lying on a couch, watching TV and drinking beer, reaching idly into his wallet to take a look at his license or show it to his girlfriend?  <<crickets chirping>>

Yet even if Henry were a really coolheaded guy, he would probably be much more calm in that situation than when being confronted by a police officer.

The more I think about it, the more examples I can think of where “calm” is used to in a situation where there is something exciting or stressful going on. “Julie was calm in the face of danger.” “David is calm under pressure.” We even say that dogs give “calming signals.” They are generally stress indicators.  Calm is usually noted as a (desirable) reaction to something stressful. Whereas the word relaxed, though related, describes a physical/mental state only and doesn’t necessarily imply as much about the surrounding environment. So it’s kind of hard to photograph “calm.” It’s comparative.

a sable colored dog and a smaller, black and tan dog are on the top step of a porch. They are both looking to the left. The sable dog's commissure is pushed a little forward. The smaller dog is just looking.

Zani and Summer look at a cat

Here’s a “calm by contrast” photo. Summer and Zani are looking at a cat. Summer is starting an agonistic pucker of her mouth and is standing up. Zani, by contrast, is sitting. She is watching attentively but not braced as readily for action. She is more calm than Summer. But is she “calm”? Maybe about as “calm” as Henry was when taking his driver’s license out for the cop.

Calmness in Dogs

At first I couldn’t decide whether to say Zani is calm most of the time or never. In a dog as well adjusted as she is, one tends to take a certain amount of calmness for granted.

But actually, living with Zani around the house, I would rarely call her demeanor “calm.” She’s either asleep, or she is active. When she’s interacting with the other dogs or me she is alert, in the game,  responsive, high energy, even wired. And it was pretty telling that I couldn’t find many pictures or videos in which she looks “calm.”

We Glupling Trainers tend to work on calmness with dogs for whom overstimulated emotional states are a problem. In other words, it’s for their benefit at least as much as it is for ours. My dog Summer is reactive. My dog Clara is feral and also easily overaroused. These dogs need help being calm. So we practice things like Dr. Karen Overall’s Relaxation Protocol and straight relaxation, as in this video I made with Clara.

I’ve always been sure Zani, like any dog, would benefit from those exercises, but frankly, it hasn’t been high on my list. That is, until I recorded a bunch of footage of the dogs doing crate and mat exercises this morning. From watching the recordings, I saw that I have probably underestimated the stress in Zani’s life. Up till now, I haven’t worked on calm with her because she is a trouble-free dog for me. I’m feeling a bit like a self-centered jerk after watching that footage. Some dogs are amazing for putting up with us at all. She is very sensitive. But that’s a topic for my next installment.

Here are the “calmest” pics I could find of Zani, but in the ones where she is cocking her head, she is working me for a treat. She tends to snap to attention when I get the camera out.

Cesar is Confused

Isn’t that a nice way to put it?

Cesar often calls dogs “relaxed” or “calm submissive” when they are motionless but frightened out of their wits, as indicated by trembling, stiffness, rolling eyes, or the release of urine. You can see him do that in this video analysis of “Showdown with Holly,” if you can stomach it. At 3:19, he says, “See the relaxation.” I think he says that basically because Holly is lying down. It’s clear when the camera turns her way that Holly is far from relaxed. But Cesar is not famous for his ability to read dog body language.

For Cesar Millan, “calm submissive” means, “I can do stuff to this dog and it won’t react.” It is equivalent to what we would call “shut down.”

In contrast, the most important state for my dogs to be in, at any time, is “happy.” After that, I value alert, responsive, cooperative. Excited some of the time, calm when appropriate.

As I write this, Zani is sprawled at my feet in the position I call “flounder,” as in the very first photo at the top. She’s lying flat on her side with her head down. Is she calm? No. She is completely alert, offering that funny behavior, trying to get me to give her a treat. And that’s perfectly OK with me. For now. But I need to observe and analyze just how much of the time she is “working.” Maybe I, too, have been  guilty of assuming that a dog that doesn’t bother me is “calm” a lot more often than she really is.

I really thank Diana for her part in helping me to see this.

How about you? Can you define “calm”? How would you take a picture of it? Have you observed or filmed your dogs being calm?

Thanks for viewing! Coming up:

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** A note about the first picture. This is not an appeasement display. But neither is Zani relaxed. She is offering that behavior because she thought it up and I have reinforced it. You can see that she is holding her right front leg stiffly out from her body. Her eyes are staring straight ahead and not soft. She is working for a treat.

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