Category: Dog behavior

Fear, Predation, and Resource Guarding

Fear, Predation, and Resource Guarding

IMG_2452

A couple of weeks ago I published a post: “Body Language Study: Fear and What Else?”. It featured the short video clip embedded below. (You can watch the video now if you didn’t already.) In the post I solicited comments about Summer’s behavior. I noted that I saw fear and caution and something else, and asked folks what all they saw.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

I got a great response, with people seeing both the stuff I was angling for, and also a whole other category of behavior that I had not noticed.

Predation

What I saw but didn’t mention, and was trying to find out whether others saw it, was predation. Plenty of other people did.  Deena Lavine, Melinda Schneider, Meghan Smith,  and Susan Hatzen all mentioned prey drive in the comments, and others did on Facebook.

I wasn’t sure how obvious it would be to those who haven’t seen Summer’s behavior over time. She is a serious predator. And she has a special interest in reptiles, including turtles, toads, and snakes.

What was notable to me in the interaction in the video was that she kept re-approaching the area where the reptile was. Fear often results in distance-increasing or escape behavior. This is often flight, although a cornered animal will sometimes freeze or attack a threat in self-preservation. (Dr. Susan Friedman classifies this type of attack as escape behavior as well, because the goal is to remove the threat.) In the clip, Summer was obviously nervous about the lizard that she sensed in the hose reel area, but she was also exhibiting distance-decreasing behavior repeatedly. She had ample opportunity to get away from the reptile. Instead, she returned again and again.

I noted the most basic of analyses: she kept moving her body, carefully, back towards the hose reel and what was hiding inside it. Then she would jump back when she thought the “thing” might be interested in having a go at her.

Slender_Glass_Lizard_(Ophisaurus_attenuatus)
Slender glass lizard

I think she thought the lizard was a snake. It certainly looked like one–glass lizards have no legs. Perhaps it smelled like one too, because before she ever seemed to get a good look at it, she was exhibiting the same behavior she does when she thinks there is a snake present.

I have witnessed it plenty of times before. When she thinks there is a snake in the grass, she will approach with great care, ready to jump backwards at a second’s notice. She obviously learned the hard way that snakes strike, but with snakes as well she still keeps returning. When she used to go to doggie day care, they told me that she had cornered a large snake once. I have never seen her do that at home and would actively intervene if I did.  But I have seen that cautious approach when she thinks there is something hidden in the grass. She does something similar with stinging insects, which she also has a hard time leaving alone. She really wants to kill them, though she has been stung in the attempt before.

Some viewers mentioned that Summer was curious, and I absolutely agree with that. But I’ll go a step further, both from her behavior and what I know of her history. She wanted to investigate and kill the lizard.

If you’d like to see Summer’s reptile obsession, check out the video “Summer and the Turtle,” where she tries to bite and claw her way through a chain length fence to get a terrapin on the other side.  Or this blog post: Summer’s Turtle Diary, which features a video where she digs her way under two fences over the course of several days in order to get to a terrapin on the other side. (Sorry about the terminology mashup. I regularly misuse the word turtle to mean shelled reptiles on land, but technically what I am discussing are terrapins. Turtles are aquatic.)

Resource Guarding

What I missed in my original examination of the video, but agree absolutely was there, now that others have mentioned it, was resource guarding. When Summer grabs the Styrofoam container and lifts it out and backs up, she is not trying to get away from the reptile. Nor was she doing what a human might do: moving something and backing up to see the results. Upon consideration, I think she pretty clearly believes she has the reptile in the Styrofoam, and is likely trying to get the whole thing away from Clara, the other dog. (If I leave the snake theory aside for a moment, she may even think the Styrofoam-with-reptile-odor-inside is a new and weird type of turtle!)

Many people mentioned the angle of her body with regard to Clara, and the direction of her glance. She thinks she has the prize and is getting it away. She didn’t know there was a hole in the bottom of the container.

Ellen Barry asked in the comments whether my dogs regularly guard things from each other. Oh yeah! They do, but generally at a very low level. It is what I would classify as normal resource guarding, and they work things out without violence. My movie  “Resource Guarding in Slow Motion” shows many such interactions between my dogs. In most interactions between those Clara and Summer, Clara keeps or wins the access to the resource. But she knows when to back off.  Clara acts like a big lug a lot of the time but her sense of dog social cues is very finely tuned. In the last interaction in the resource guarding movie she wisely allows Summer to keep a toy with only a small but significant glance from Summer, and she generally stays well away when Summer is guarding a reptile or other varmint. I think she knows Summer is willing to go well beyond a dirty look to keep such a thing. Clara, with all her pushy behavior, is actually quite a peaceable dog.

Summer, not so much. Below is an old photo of her giving Cricket a very hard look–while pushing into her space–for coming too close while Summer is after a turtle. This is from the Summer and the Turtle video I mentioned above, at 0:30. See that very dirty look?

A sable dog is curved towards and looking directly at a small, black and white rat terrier. The sable dog is resource guarding a turtle. The look is direct and unfriendly.
Summer says, “My turtle!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clara can read that type of look very well. So when Summer said, “MY critter,” Clara wisely stayed away. Ironic that she was the one who got the closeup of the lizard. (And she startled too, did you see!)  But lucky for the lizard that it was Clara!

Summer in typical predator mode
Summer in typical predator mode

Thank you to everyone who viewed and commented on the video. I’m so glad that others are interested in this stuff. Oh, and to Meghan, who noticed Summer’s low tail set in the video. Yes, I noticed that too and it was definitely atypical. Usually Summer’s tail is curled up over her back like a husky’s when she is aroused and going after something. My best theory is that the fear and caution were keeping it down in the lizard interaction.

More comments are welcome! What do you see? What have we missed?

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Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

Webinar: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Webinar: Canine Cognitive Dysfunction

Has your dog been diagnosed with canine cognitive dysfunction?  Do you want tips about living with and caring for a frail or cognitively declining dog?

Join me in my webinar on canine cognitive dysfunction and dog dementia through the Pet Professional Guild on Monday, December 14, at 1:00 PM U.S. Eastern Standard Time.

Cricket-dementia-under-chair
My rat terrier Cricket standing with her head under a chair

I’ll be covering the definition and prevalence of the disease (much more prevalent than most of us knew!), common symptoms (including on video), the treatments that show promise, and questions to ask your vet. I’ll also discuss the commonalities with human Alzheimer’s, and most important, how to keep a dog with dementia safe and enriched. I’ll include the subjects of euthanasia and quality of life. Euthanasia seems to be an even more difficult decision for owners of dogs with dementia than with a dog with most other infirmities.

Even though the behavioral symptoms that arise with cognitive dysfunction mostly can’t be modified with training, I’ll talk about how trainers can help their clients with dogs afflicted with this condition.

There will be resources galore for further information including product descriptions, information about communities, and assessment and decision-making tools. Plus, the webinar will be recorded, and all participants will receive the URL for access. This is a great option if you can’t come at the scheduled time.

Cricket-and-Eileen-outside-keep
Cricket with advanced cognitive dysfunction late in her life

Hope to see you there!

Canine Cognitive Dysfunction: What Dog Trainers and Owners Need to Know

This webinar covers general information from dog owner and trainer’s point of view. It should not take the place of a vet visit. If your older dog is exhibiting symptoms, please make a vet appointment now.

The Gravity Game

The Gravity Game

Clara holding ball

Clara has always loved playing ball. She enjoys chewing balls up and chasing them in equal measure. When she was a pup and adolescent it was a joy to watch her shape herself into quite an athlete, in her drive to chase down and catch the ball more quickly.

She gives her all to it, hurling herself down the hill through my yard. She has never had a ton of stamina, so often we are done very quickly. I let her have her ball only when we play with it and for a short time afterwards, because of her interest in chewing it up. So she has invented various ways to keep the game going longer without wearing herself out.

One of those ways ended up being the Gravity Game.

Clara under the porch steps
Clara under the porch steps

She has always liked to hang out under my back porch steps, and started taking mini-breaks there during our play. She soon discovered that if she let go of the ball while under there, it would roll out. Then, Silly Human might roll it back to her. That was Gravity Game 1.0. Then one day, Silly Human failed at her job. And Clara discovered that without intervention, the ball would usually roll down the hill. She could then play a mildly entertaining game of fetch all by herself. That was Gravity Game 2.0. You can see Gravity Games 1.0 and 2.0 in the video immediately below.

Gravity Games 1.0 and 2.0

Possessing and Chewing the Ball

Clara doesn’t play Gravity 1.0 or 2.0 that much anymore because we have developed other ways for her to keep her ball longer in the yard in between sessions of my throwing it. I’ll be writing about those new activities in a future blog. But I have always let her carry her ball in the house after we finish playing, and Gravity 3.0 was born inside.

The photo shows why Clara gets possession of her ball only for short time periods.

A red rubber ball with many chew marks and pieces missing
The reason Clara doesn’t get to have her ball all the time…

That ball is several years old, so that damage is from many sittings. But still, the longer she has it, the more rubber will disappear, either onto the floor or down her gullet.[1]That is a GoughNuts ball. They also sell balls made of harder rubber, but Clara doesn’t like to play fetch with those.

Sharing the Ball

There is so much I appreciate about Clara. This new indoor game highlights the fact that Clara, as focused as she is on balls, is not overly “guardy” of them. I have never seen her snarl or even give a hard look at either of the other dogs, should they wander close or play with one of the balls. Granted, they both defer to Clara’s ownership of a ball when she has it, but still, she isn’t ugly about it.

More than that, I love that Clara trusts both Zani and me to return the ball to her in Gravity 3.0. Clara knows that she only gets the ball for a limited time after we come in the house, but the game makes it worthwhile for her to release it periodically. I have a predictable routine for taking the ball away from her (she gets a dab of peanut butter), and I don’t ever do it in the middle of a game.

The New Game: Gravity 3.0

Clara is already accustomed to Zani “helping” retrieve the ball. You can see that in this old movie of Clara and Zani’s Team Retrieve, and also the movie in my blog post “What You Reinforce Is What You Get.” Gravity 3.0 is perhaps a spinoff from the team retrieve as well, but one where Clara gets to hang out in a corner and have gravity, Zani, and me do all the work! It fits perfectly that she would develop this game to take place when she is tired from dashing around the yard.

The more I think about it, the funnier it is. Clara has pulled a role reversal. She has taught me to play fetch! She drops the ball down a step, and Zani and I return it to her. Zani, as usual, has figured out a way to get paid for an activity.

From years of observation, I am fairly certain that one of the main reinforcers when Clara plays ball is the physical sensation of catching the ball in her mouth. So in Gravity 3.0, she gets to chew and mouth the ball, she releases it for a few seconds, and then she gets to catch it again. What’s not to like?

What games has your dog taught you?

Related Posts and Movies

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Notes

Notes
1 That is a GoughNuts ball. They also sell balls made of harder rubber, but Clara doesn’t like to play fetch with those.
Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

Before You Share That “Cute” Dog and Baby Picture…

A baby about a year old, wearing a bright floral onesie, grabs the tongue of a large black and rust dog lying on a dog bed
Source: YouTube Creative Commons

First things first. I didn’t write this with you, dear reader, in mind. Let’s not make this about your dog or your parental decisions.

But there’s a problem with sharing that “cute” dog and baby picture. Maybe it’s somebody else’s photo. Maybe not. The important thing is that the problem is bigger than your individual situation, your family.

The problem is that posting a picture such as the one above sets an example and feeds a dangerous myth. A myth so dangerous that people die because of it. Children, especially, get hurt, and sometimes die because of it.

The myth is that good dogs, family dogs, your dogs—don’t bite. That dogs who bite are in some different classification. The myth says that dogs who live with us, dogs who like our kids, dogs who have always been “tolerant”—will stay that way, no matter what we or the kids do to them. The myth also says that dogs are supposed to take whatever kids dish out.

There’s even a whole genre of YouTube videos of dogs rocking cradles—usually either faked (a human or motor is doing the rocking) or a trained behavior. But what we see are those dogs with their heads right up close to babies again. And some of those dogs are stressed.

In about 80% of dog bites, the dog belongs to the victim’s family or someone they know, like a relative, caregiver, friend, or neighbor (Centers for Disease Control, 2001). We need to let go of our fantasy, our myth that family dogs won’t ever bite. They do.

When you post a picture of anybody’s dog with a very young child draped over him—hugging him; riding him; pulling his tongue, tail, or whiskers; or just plain sitting too close to him—and you Like it or share it or include an approving comment, you feed the myth. The myth that gets some people’s kids terribly hurt or killed, and dogs euthanized.

Dogs are animals. They can move at lightning speed. If you are six feet away, taking the picture, and the dog has his face right up next to your baby, you can’t get there near fast enough. Even if you are sitting right next to your child, the dog can still move faster than you.

A dog doesn’t have to be “vicious” or “mean” to bite. Sometimes all it takes is for him to be startled. Very young children, with their erratic movements, lack of fine motor skills, and exploratory natures, can stress out the most tolerant of dogs. It’s not fair to subject dogs to that. It’s not wise, either. Having a dog’s face, with that mouthful of teeth, up close to an infant’s head is an enormous risk. It’s not something to show off on social media.

Real-Life Examples

Many people out there believed the myth until they learned otherwise. The hard way. The tragic way. Here are some actual quotes from real people—mostly parents—from news stories about dogs seriously biting children. The quotes took about 15 minutes of web searching to find. I promise—they are real.

“Fido” was super cuddly, the nicest dog you would ever imagine, and never once snapped … never growled, nothing. He never, never, never went after a person. I’m just in disbelief. —2015

In an apparently unprovoked attack, a 3-year-old child was bitten by a pet dog on Saturday…. The girl was playing with the 2-year-old dog just before noon when she was bitten on the top and back of the head. —2015

She said the bite was out of the blue. “Mary” has known and played with the dog for years. —2014

I stood in the kitchen with my friend and her dog and my little girl. It was completely out of the blue, he jumped at my girl and tried to headbutt her to put her to the floor. —2015

I don’t really know what happened. It was right behind me. My dog just went for her. They are like best buddies. I don’t know what happened. —2014

He said the dog had no previous biting incidents, which is why he didn’t think anything of turning his back while his daughter went to play with the dog. —2014

The dogs had given no prior indication of behaving in this way, it was an attack out of the blue. —2015

The dogs had been observed many times in their home environment prior to and following the baby’s birth, and that “during these times they were very friendly.” —2022

He’d been absolutely fine for almost a year. Until that point he had been perfect with the kids. He was well trained and we’d never had any issues with him.—2022

What I didn’t include in the above quotes are the clues that were often just a few sentences away in the news story. The bites rarely come without warning, if one only knows how to read the signs. Perhaps the dog just got back from the vet after getting some shots. Maybe there’s a brand new dog in the household. Perhaps it is mentioned in passing that the dog doesn’t really like his tail pulled (but the child did it anyway). Maybe the dog has growled in the past, and the owners punished him for it. (That’s a bad idea, by the way.)

Shooting Down the Myth

Maybe I can’t persuade you that your dog has the potential to do animal things. Perhaps you really do have the single most tolerant dog in the world. Can I persuade you not to share those pictures, anyway? Your own or anybody else’s? Sharing them feeds the myth. If you share, you are implicitly condoning dangerous practices. You are encouraging others to let their kids get too close to their dogs and let them do uncomfortable things to the dogs for the sake of the myth, the romantic noble dog meme, that 15 minutes of Facebook fame.

A young boy has his arms around a large black dog. The boy is smiling; the dog looks uncomfortable.
This dog looks uncomfortable. Could anyone intervene fast enough if he was startled and snapped at the boy? (Source: CanStock photo)

There’s nothing new about what I’ve written here. (For instance, check out the second and third articles listed below.) Trainers and behaviorists cringe whenever they see photos like the two above because probably this very week they have seen several very nice family dogs who bit a child “out of the blue.” The parents were loving and well intentioned, but they grew up with the myth, and they still see social media saturated with it.

Let’s stop it now. Please don’t post or repost that picture. Please don’t take that picture. Please don’t let your child and dog interact that way.

Do learn about dog body language. Do keep your children and dog safe. Do check out the resources below on how to do that. Most of them have multiple, excellent articles on the subject.

Help educate people about safe practices with dogs and children. You can share the materials below instead of sharing that photo. Thank you!

Resources

Addendum: Some people have been concerned about sharing **this** post because of the photo. Great point! I debated whether to include any, but finally did because I felt I needed examples of what I’m talking about. I hope my narrative sheds a different light on these kinds of photos. Please do share the blog post if you are moved to do so.

© Copyright Eileen Anderson 2015

Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

Dog Interrupted: The Value of Reorientation

A sable dog is sitting on the grass outside, gazing up at the photographer with a calm expression
Summer reports in

Recently I published, “Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes.” This post was about my surprise that Summer started reporting to me for a treat when the big neighbor dog was around, instead of getting herself all fired up running up and down the fence.

A lot of things are coming together for Summer right now. Summer is the first dog I ever seriously trained and also my crossover dog. We have been through a lot together. But I had to put some of her training on hold when Clara came into my life. With three dogs and one of me, there is sometimes a kind of triage that goes on.[1]Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me. Clara’s issues were an emergency when she came to me, and remained that way for more than a year. While Summer is anxious and has some behavior problems, she has always been comfortable enough in her skin to get enrichment from being out in the world, and is adoptable in the case of something happening to me. That was not true for Clara. With her feral background Clara had and still has a very short list of people with whom she could be comfortable.

But Clara’s training has been coming along beautifully and I feel that I can finally breathe a little again. In the meantime, Summer has learned to come to me when the other dogs play and also when most other exciting things happen. When she comes she gets a treat, and we will usually hang out and do a little training, or she can just earn some periodic kibble for lying down quietly.

After seeing the movie in the earlier post, a reader wanted to know whether the behavior was robust enough that Summer would seek me out even when I was out of sight. That is what the movie is about, and the answer is yes. Take a look.

**NOTE** In the one of the outdoor clips, there is a moving shadow that looks like I am gesticulating with my hand. In another something comes momentarily on camera, and Summer flinches away as she comes to me. Both of those are actually Clara’s tail wagging. I have taught Clara a very strong Down cue that I use to limit her interference with the other dogs’ business, but I didn’t try to do it while wielding the camera.

Summer’s practice at self-interruption has allowed her to halt in the middle of her own barking and come find me in a different part of the house.

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

How Did We Get There?

I would much have preferred working with classical counterconditioning with Summer from the beginning, especially with her fears of trucks and loud engine noises. That means pairing the appearance of a trigger with great things happening, no matter what Summer is doing. There is no behavioral requirement for the dog. Done correctly, conterconditioning can change the dog’s emotional response to a trigger, rather than just teaching them coping methods.[2]An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s … Continue reading However, the operant work has still helped Summer enormously, and the behaviors she has learned are handy in a multitude of situations, not only having to do with fear.

That’s why I am sharing here a couple of things I have taught Summer that have built her ability to self-interrupt. Even with a non-fearful dog, these things can come in very handy. Every dog, sometime in its life, is going to encounter situations that are so novel or exciting that she has a hard time keeping ahold of herself. The following two behaviors are ones that just about anybody can practice with their dog, except for with the very most fearful dogs.

1) Capture and shape attention. To start off with this, anytime your dog turns or looks in your direction, mark and treat. You can start in the house. Then if you have a yard, you can do this when your dog is calmly going about her doggy business, doing things such as sniffing around, digging, or interacting with another dog. Your dog doesn’t have to completely stop doing what she is doing and gaze at you, not at first. You are capturing mini-behaviors, and over time, shaping her attention to you. She only needs to lift her eyes, turn her head, or take a step in your direction. Anything that is closer to coming to you or looking at you than what she was doing before.

Also, it’s fine if it is “accidental.” For example, let’s say she took a step in your direction while walking around. She wasn’t really coming to you but that doesn’t matter. Capture and reinforce it often enough and it will increase. You can shape it gradually into a recall (if she is not next to you) or eye contact (if she’s right there). Reinforce all these little things and soon you will become a regular focus of her attention.

This is a basic technique of most positive reinforcement trainers and one that can pay off bigime.

2) Alternate periods of arousal with periods of relaxation.  The most common way to do this is to teach your dog to relax on a mat, then intersperse an active game with the mat work. Lots of trainers have versions of this, some with special names for the exercise. But it amounts to about the same thing: helping the dog practice moving from excitement to relaxation and back. For just two examples: Sue Ailsby has this method in the Training Levels, Level 2 Relax. Leslie McDevitt calls it the “off-switch game” in Control Unleashed. Here are a couple of video examples:

Coming Around Full Circle

I am actually doing counterconditioning now with Summer. In a way, we have been working backwards. First I taught her an alternative behavior to getting excited and barking and running around (come check in with me). She is able to do it earlier and earlier and in more and more exciting events. But I’m now going for the whole banana with her, and hope to take the “scare” out of these triggers entirely, starting with trucks.

Since I have seen that her reactivity to mail and delivery trucks has lessened quite a bit through our operant work, I am hopeful that I can take her even farther with counterconditioning. I had always felt that we couldn’t do much about it since I am not always home when the trucks go by,[3]One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great. and I can’t do a controlled exposure through desensitization. The trucks come when they will.  But I am hopeful that by being very consistent when I am home, and perhaps working a bit with recordings,[4]There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts. I can chip away a bit more at her fear.

Has anybody else gone “backwards” like this and taught an alternative behavior through positive reinforcement first, then done counterconditioning? Or does anybody want to share success stories using either method?

Related Posts

 Eileenanddogs on YouTube

© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Notes

Notes
1 Also, to be fair to myself, it was only after working with Clara that some of Summer’s needs became clearer to me.
2 An astute reader pointed out that what I am doing with Summer can be classified as operant counterconditioning. It too can eventually lead to the fears diminishing or disappearing, and Summer’s fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog.
3 One of the guidelines for most effective counterconditioning is that every single appearance of the trigger is paired with something great.
4 There are a number of things that make using recordings tricky, and I’ll be writing about them in future posts.
What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

What is Summer Saying? Observing a Bark

Summer mid bark keepWhen 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.

 

Link to the video for email subscribers.

What do you see when your dog barks? Does it vary?

Related page

Dog body language posts and videos

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

Miracles Can Happen: Summer’s Good Behavior Generalizes

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.

Except Summer.

That’s right. Summer, my reactive dog, has decided she would rather come and sit in front of me and get treats.

Summer on porch

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:

  1. Treated her in many situations for orientation to me in challenging situations: eye contact, checking in, and the like (positive reinforcement);
  2. Treated her for “sudden environmental changes” like scary noises, including strange dogs barking (classical conditioning);
  3. 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
  4. 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.

Link to the movie for email subscribers

Spoilers

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 … Continue reading

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 nervous
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?

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Notes

Notes
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.
Ground Scratching: Why Does My Dog Do It?

Ground Scratching: Why Does My Dog Do It?

A sable dog wearing a blue harness is scratching the ground. Her tail is held very high and she have an excited, almost gleeful look.

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)
  • Expressing anxiety
  • Expressing boredom
  • Relieving stress
  • Expressing frustration
  • Calming oneself
  • Calming another dog
  • Expressing enjoyment of a previous activity
  • Being stressed
  • Expressing high arousal
  • Marking (territorial)
  • Marking by scent
  • Marking visually

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 were 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 feces[2]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 paws[6]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.[11]McClanahan, K., & Rosell, F. (2020). Conspecific recognition of pedal scent in domestic dogs. Scientific Reports10(1), 1-9.
  • A visual demonstration in real time, in the presence of other dogs[12]Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.[13]Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.[14]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 ground[15]Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.[16]Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.[17]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 emotion, although one source did note that ground scratching was seen more often “when the individual was aggressively aroused.”[18]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.”  [19]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.” [20]Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Since I first published this post, there has been a study of “pedal scent,” scent from the paw glands, in dogs. The researchers found that “dogs recognize scent taken from the pedal glands from other dogs, although the extent to which they use this information to determine the sex of the scent depositor remains unclear.”[21]McClanahan, K., & Rosell, F. (2020). Conspecific recognition of pedal scent in domestic dogs. Scientific Reports10(1), 1-9. They found some differences in how male and female dogs sniff—different right and left nostril preference in females. I think I see Summer switching nostrils when sniffing poop in the movie below at about 1:35.

Male vs. Female Behaviors

A sable dog wearing a blue harness is scratching the ground. Her tail is held very high and her mouth is slightly open. She looks very focused.

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. [22]Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848. [23]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.) [24]Wirant, Sharon Cudd, and Betty McGuire. “Urinary behavior of female domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): influence of reproductive status, location, and age.” Applied Animal Behaviour … Continue reading

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.[25]Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.[26]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.[27]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:

  1. After squatting to pee;
  2. After raising her leg to pee;
  3. Immediately after entering an area with interesting smells and without eliminating at all; and
  4. 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.

Link to the movie about ground scratching for email subscribers. 

Function vs. Emotional State

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. My observation is that 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 could fit in well as a “northern” village dog, though). 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.

Clara has never scratched in her life, as far as I’ve seen, but she does lift her leg to mark when she pees. But 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!

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Notes

Notes
1, 27 Bekoff, Marc. “The Significance of Ethological Studies: Playing and Peeing.”Domestic Dog Cognition and Behavior. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 2014. 59-75.
2, 6 Peters, R.P., Mech, D., 1975. “Scent-marking in wolves.” Am. Sci. 63, 628–637.
3, 7, 13, 16, 25 Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.
4, 8 Bekoff, M., Wells, M.C., 1986. “Social ecology and behavior of coyotes.” Adv. Stud. Behav. 16, 251–338.
5, 9, 17 Sprague, Randall H., and Joseph J. Anisko. “Elimination patterns in the laboratory beagle.” Behaviour (1973): 257-267.
10, 14, 18 Petak, Irena. “Patterns of carnivores’ communication and potential significance for domestic dogs.” Periodicum biologorum 112.2 (2010): 127-132.
11, 21 McClanahan, K., & Rosell, F. (2020). Conspecific recognition of pedal scent in domestic dogs. Scientific Reports10(1), 1-9.
12, 15 Kleiman, D., Eisenberg, J.F., 1973. “Comparisons of canid and felid social systems from an evolutionary perspective.” Anim. Behav. 21, 637–659.
19 Miller, William Howard, et al. Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology 7: Muller and Kirk’s Small Animal Dermatology. Elsevier Health Sciences, 2013.
20 Serpell, James, ed. The domestic dog: its evolution, behaviour and interactions with people. Cambridge University Press, 1995.
22 Bekoff, Marc. “Ground scratching by male domestic dogs: a composite signal.”Journal of Mammalogy (1979): 847-848.
23 Bekoff, Marc. “Scent marking by free-ranging domestic dogs: Olfactory and visual components.” Biology of Behavior, 4, 123-139.
24 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.
26 Cafazzo, Simona, Eugenia Natoli, and Paola Valsecchi. “Scent‐Marking Behaviour in a Pack of Free‐Ranging Domestic Dogs.” Ethology 118.10 (2012): 955-966.
Summer’s Turtle Diary

Summer’s Turtle Diary

A three-toed box turtle is walking through some high grass. Its she is yellowish brown with darker markings. Its head is held high
Turtle minding its own business

I was reminded again this week of the awesome olfactory capabilities of dogs.

My dog Summer has a passion for turtles. Passion is maybe not the right word. Fixation, love-hate relationship.

She wants to get them and chew them up. I have no doubt that she would eventually chew through the shell completely and kill them. Second best is getting them and having me remove them from the premises. I’m getting really anthropomorphic here, but she acts like they really, really offend her.

She cannot rest if one is around.

A sable dog is curved towards and looking directly at a small, black and white rat terrier. The sable dog is resource guarding a turtle. The look is direct and unfriendly.
Summer says, “My turtle!”

Here is a video (from when she was much younger) of her trying to get a turtle. You can see that she gives Cricket a very hard look (at 0:30) when she comes a little too close. Summer is resource guarding the turtle, which is unreachable on the other side of the fence. Speaking of the fence, note the chain length fence. That fence is still there, behind my privacy fence. That becomes relevant in the new movie below.

Turtle Migration

These are three-toed box turtles, and this is their migration season. They used to come in my yard from my neighbor’s yard, heading west. Then I put in a privacy fence. This was both bad and good for the turtles. Bad because it made their migration more difficult. (Sorry! I hate that!) Good because they won’t stumble into the clutches of Summer, the dog who hunts turtles.

Amy Martin has a really nice blog post on how to help turtles that are trying to migrate, including directions on how to handle snapping turtles. (Answer: very, very carefully.)

Anyway, a turtle showed up in the neighbor’s yard on June 16th, and Summer stalked it relentlessly for 11 days. Every single time she went outside, even during hard rain, she paced the fence until she got as close as she could to its current location. Then she would dig. I wasn’t particularly concerned because between our two yards are a wooden privacy fence, the original chain length fence right next to it, embedded in the ground, all mingled with a privet hedge that has been there more than 30 years and has an impermeable tangle of roots. Or so I thought.

If this were one of those tacky, click garnering websites, here is where I would say, “and I couldn’t believe what happened next!” And I really couldn’t! But I’ll tell you below in case you don’t want to watch the video (which is adorable, grin).

On June 27th Summer dug a shallow but incredibly accurate hole under the fences and through the roots, and pulled that turtle out of the other yard. I still don’t know exactly how she pulled that turtle through. Did it just stand there on the other side, wait, and tumble into the hole she dug? Was it digging too?

In any case, she grabbed it and brought it up to the house, then very nicely put it at my feet (really!). She watched me quite happily as I took it away into the other neighbor’s yard, in the direction it was going.

She has been patrolling the original fence daily since then, but not with the same intensity. She just gives it a quick check, to make sure there are no new offenders. She pays no attention to the fence in the direction I put the turtle, which tells me it must have torqued on out of there. I don’t blame it!

I have known four other dogs who were very intense about turtles. They were all rat terriers. I also read that there is a guy in South Carolina who uses Boykin Spaniels to help researchers do turtle counts. How about you? Are your dogs interested in turtles?

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • You’re Too Close! The Pressure Sensitive Dog
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!

U.S. folks and Canadians, get ready for the fireworks!

Summer, a sable colored dog, is photographed in profile looking scared and worried
Summer back when she was more afraid of thunder, fireworks, and other loud noises

People in the U.S. and Canada are getting ready for national holidays that often include all sorts of loud pops and booms from fireworks and firecrackers, even cannons and guns.

These kinds of noises scare some dogs very badly, and during these holidays the noises are unpredictable and can go on for a long time period.

A lot of folks worry about comforting their dogs when they are afraid, and are concerned that they will reinforce their dogs’ fears.

That is incorrect.

Continue reading “It’s OK to Comfort Your Dog!”
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