Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Sweet little Summer
Sweet little Summer

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

Clara (the blur on right) is mostly playing. Summer is not.
Clara (the blur on right) is mostly having fun. Summer is not.

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 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.

You know I love to hear from you about your own dogs. Got any examples of DRI or other interventions for obnoxious behaviors?

We get to play unmolested now!
Zani and Clara get to play unmolested now!

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.

Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

19 thoughts on “Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

  1. Thanks for sharing. I love the combination of teaching wanted behavior while also engaging a dog’s mind. Although I don’t believe in punishment what so ever with our dogs; I appreciate how you approach these topics, because I think lack of clear understanding leads to dogs and humans being injured.

  2. This is great especially because I don’t see any signs of stress in Summer. Her face and ears seem relaxed, it doesn’t look like her hackles are raised and she doesn’t keep having to look back at Zani and Clara.

  3. But the important thing Eileen is that you have changed the situation your dogs are in and made their lives better for it. Just fantastic. Sometimes we have to ‘manage’ our dogs and not expect cures…but, you’ve taught us an easier management technique, and that’s fantastic!

  4. I hope this is the right way to reply….

    I’ve done something somewhat similar for my puppy mill sheltie who tends to react frequently and vociferously to many types of noises outside the house or yard. He has a very, very low arousal threshold in many areas of his life. He would go completely OT over any Harley, trash truck, diesel pick, any vehicle pulling a trailer, nearby dogs, pedestrians walking by…. you get the picture. It didn’t matter whether he was inside the house or not.

    In October of 2012 I started playing an auditory version of Leslie McDevitt’s Look at That game from inside the house. Any time I heard any of his triggers or if I saw his physical precursors to a bark fest I would cheerily call, “Augie, come tell me!” Very quickly he learned that the treat Pez Dispenser was turned on and ready to go (thankfully, he is very food driven). It didn’t take long before he would frequently look to me when the noise of a trigger happened outside without bothering to bark! Wow! What a difference! All I needed was some treats in my pocket and some attention to my dog and I now have a reasonably quiet home.

    Our efforts even paid off over the summer too. In the past when when anyone would walk, bike, run or drive by the yard (with a noisy vehicle), he would run the fence and bark and bark. Now I either call “Augie, come tell me!” or just “Augie Come!” and he usually does. Extra benefit….so does his collie sister. Sibling rivalry can pay dividends! And I can even call him away from his arch nemesis, the Westie next door, at least 95% of the time! I actually have them trained to come to the sound of the storm door opening!

    With my first two shelties I did a lot of screaming at them when they would bark and run the fence. I always wondered if my neighbors were more bothered by my dogs barking or my screaming at my dogs 🙁 They never barked in the house like Augie, but they sure could match him in the yard.

    Any way, I really, really enjoy your videos and blogs! You have such practical and humane solutions to so many common problems. Thanks for sharing what you do!


    1. Hi Barb,

      I’m so glad you wrote about this! That is a great idea and such a nice success story.

      Up till now I have never seriously tried to deal with Summer’s problems with delivery trucks. I had figured that since I am not home for a good part of each day, I wouldn’t be able to respond to enough instances of the trucks passing to do much of a successful intervention. However, since I have taught Clara that Summer barking means spray cheese, Summer has very gradually started self-interrupting to come see about the treats. I bet if I made a concerted effort I could catch her earlier in the sequence and start making some inroads on the delivery truck reactions. Now I’m inspired to try.

      Thanks so much for posting about your experience with Augie, and for your kind words.

  5. Thank you very much for sharing and for the video! I currently have a very similar mix of 3 dogs in my home and found your post to be incredibly helpful! I have one resident “fun police” dog whose “cut it out” behavior is, as you described Summer’s, undesirable but not completely scary. The other 2 dogs (1 resident dog and 1 foster dog) are tolerant and playful. I wanted to find a way to allow the latter 2 to play together (which they do beautifully and appropriately), without simply excluding my fun police guy. What you described here is working beautifully for us! My fun police dude is super food motivated, and the other 2 are not, so he zooms over to me for treats while the two get to enjoy romping around together. It has made all of us happier! Thank you for this!!

    1. Oh Christine I’m so pleased! Thank you for telling me. I often wonder whether my little solutions are too unique. This wouldn’t work if the two playing dogs were more interested in food, or if any of them got into serious resource guarding when aroused. But it works for mine and I’m delighted it works for yours!

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