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Category: Reactivity

What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

What To Do When People Approach Your Reactive Dog

TL:DR: There is no law that states that you have to interact with them in any way. Leave before they get started if you can.

It is a perennial problem. How can you get people to leave you alone when you are out with your fearful, anxious, or reactive dog? There you are, out with your anxious dog, minding your own business. You went to a secluded spot. On a rainy day. And at a time when nobody else should be out. But here comes that person with the “All dogs love me!” look. Or the “I’m about to give you ridiculous advice about training your dog, whom I’ve never seen before” look. Or the “Can-my-kid-pet-your-dog-here-we-come” look. These folks often have this inexorable zombie walk straight at your dog and just Will. Not. Stop.

Not now, dude!

We all want there to be a perfect solution to this. I have seen it asked dozens of times online. There should be the perfect comment or perfect warning or perfect sign on the dog’s gear so people will leave our dogs and us alone. There must be an answer, right?

I hate to break the news, but there isn’t a perfect verbal solution. Whether you go for a visual signal or choose to try to talk to them, some people are going to ignore the content or try to argue with you. All while not slowing their approach.

Here’s are some of the reasons I think people do that.

 1. Dogs are magnets for a large subset of the human race.
2. There’s so much mythology about dogs that you can’t get people to be sensible.
3. A few people are just overconfident jerks and aren’t going to be cooperative whatever the topic is. 
4. Most of us have a very hard time not engaging socially with humans who approach us.

You can’t control people with words. Not all the people, all the time.

If you ask for a solution to this problem in an online forum, you will instantly get two dozen suggestions about things you can say and products you can buy to ward people off. I’m not going to list them here because not one of them is foolproof. There isn’t a magical solution that works in all situations for all people all the time.

You will get some people who say their method works 100% of the time. Usually, they have been lucky—they just don’t know it. Or they may be using a method that has other severe, even dangerous drawbacks. For example, yelling that their dog has a terrible communicable disease. And even these extreme methods don’t always work.

In my experience, once we start talking to the aggressive or clueless stranger, it’s too late. We’ve made social contact, and once that happens, it is very hard to break it. Even having a sign on the dog’s gear1)In some areas, having a warning sign on your dog’s harness is not advisable from a legal standpoint is a form of communication. There will be people who come in close to read the sign and some of them will want to “discuss” the situation.

What To Do

My modest proposal.

  • Teach your dog a Let’s Go cue or an Emergency U-Turn cue.
  • Leave the scene far earlier than you think you need to, and don’t engage with the human at all.
  • Pick the appropriate body language or combination:
    • There is nothing in the world besides me and my dog
    • We have urgent business elsewhere
  • If you feel you must, you can shout an apology or excuse over your shoulder while you are getting out of Dodge. “Can’t-talk-right-now-bye!” But be sure you are at a safe distance and can continue your escape before you say anything, lest you get sucked in.

Here is a great example. My friend Marge Rogers is working with a client who is learning to turn around and book it in the other direction when someone approaches her dog. You can see that she is also using the universal “Stop” signal with her hand up and facing, palm forward, at the pushy “stranger.” Once she also yells “NO!” Kudos to this great dog guardian! And I’ll mention that while both the hand signal and the “NO!” are forms of communication, they are not ones that invite further response!

I explain to my owners their first responsibility is to their dog. Not some random stranger they will never see again. Let their dog know they have his back.

Marge Rogers

It is perfectly OK not to socially interact with a stranger who is approaching you. Just give yourself permission. (This is also true if your dog is not reactive, or hell, if you don’t have a dog with you at all!) You don’t have to smile, you don’t have to say hello, and you don’t have to make an excuse. You don’t have to stick around for their training suggestions and critique. Do not make eye contact. Eye contact is the beginning of the end. Use your cue and get away when you see that person approaching in that “special” way.

No method is foolproof, even this one. Even if you do the above, sometimes the terrain may prevent a safe escape. Also, there is always that outlier who is going to get pissed at you for not interacting. Angry people can be a danger to you and your dog. All the better reason to escape early if you can. But every situation has to be read independently. Do your best to stay safe.

Tan and black dog Clara taking a rest on a riverbank. I to go secluded areas to avoid people approaching my reactive dog.
Like many people with dogs with special needs, I seek out secluded places

Loose dogs and people with unruly dogs pose an even harder—and more dangerous— problem. That’s a whole other post, one that I don’t feel qualified to write.

These thoughts about escaping intrusive people are mostly not original to me. They are things I’ve learned from a lot of different trainers, so I don’t remember to whom to attribute what parts. But thank you to those sensible people!

Copyright 2020 Eileen Anderson

Photo of the young man from CanStock photo. Photo of the adorable dog copyright Eileen Anderson.

Notes   [ + ]

1. In some areas, having a warning sign on your dog’s harness is not advisable from a legal standpoint
Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier

My back door opens onto an elevated wooden porch. There are ten steps down to the yard. The top of the steps provides a view into the neighbor’s yard, which can be a very interesting place. Clara runs there when anything might be happening, primed to react. In the picture above Continue reading “Preventing Dog Reactivity with a Barrier”

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 fears have definitely diminished. But it is a more indirect route and not my preferred one for an anxious dog. 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?

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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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.
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 running around excitedly. Then I show taking her outside by herself. Although she knows the neighbor dog is there (he’s been barking and the whole world can hear it), she reorients to me as soon as we go out the back door. I give her some treats and release her to go down the stairs, but she comes right back to me. I encourage her to go down into the yard. (This is not an unnecessary thing to do. She does have to pee.)  After she goes down she sniffs along the fence and gets a little excited and whines. I call to her (not her “official” recall cue, just conversationally) and she immediately comes back up with me on the porch. She gets briefly “stuck” looking in Harley’s direction from the top of the steps, but self-interrupts and comes to me again. I show a final clip of all three dogs. Summer again reorients to me and gets treats. She does stand at the top of the stairs, looking in Harley’s direction, starts to get fixated and aroused, but then interrupts herself again. (Yay!)  Zani comes to check in with me as well. So did Clara, but I didn’t include that part.

What’s the Bottom Line?

I think the “main” cue for Summer’s coming to me was my other dogs running around excitedly. Summer did need a little help when she was outside by herself. She got a little “stuck” down in the yard when on her own. However, she instantly responded when I encouraged her to come back up. That part shows the effect of all the practice she has had in interrupting herself from potentially sticky situations. That practice played a big part in her ability to “shake it off.”

This is Not Counterconditioning

Just a word here about desensitization/counterconditioning. Regular readers will probably know that DS/CC is my go-to method for situations that are scary for my dogs.  But what you see in that movie is neither DS/CC nor the results of it. Instead I am reinforcing Summer for performing behaviors other than reactive or aggressive ones. It is an operant protocol. It is not aimed at changing her emotional response to a difficult situation, although over time that may happen as a side effect.

The reason I am not doing DS/CC is that Harley is a visitor and not often around, so this situation is pretty rare. And when he is here, I have no control over his activities and thus no control over Summer’s exposure to him. It would be difficult to impossible to do the true graduated exposures of desensitization.  If he were around a lot I would probably do some straight-up counterconditioning without desensitization, starting out by passing out treats whenever he barked like I did for Clara with Summer’s barking.

Summer 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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© Eileen Anderson 2015                                                                                                                               eileenanddogs.com

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.
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.

  1. Behaviors can be reinforced.
  2. Emotions can’t.
  3. Fear is an emotion.
  4. If you comfort your fearful dog, it doesn’t somehow “reinforce” the fear and make them more scared next time.

But don’t take my word for it.

Take Dr. Patricia McConnell’s: You Can’t Reinforce Fear; Dogs and Thunderstorms

Or Suzanne Clothier’s: Calming the Fearful Dog

A sable colored dog (fur is brown with black on the tips) is sitting under a kitchen table. She looks (and is) frightened.
Summer hiding under the table during a thunderstorm

Everybody’s dog is different. Maybe your dog profits from just hanging out with you. Or maybe you make her more nervous and she’d rather get in a crate. If she isn’t too scared to eat, maybe she would like a food toy. You can judge what helps the most.

At my house, whenever possible during fireworks or thunder, we all troop to the bedroom. Summer gets on the bed with me and cuddles. I give everybody spray cheese every time it booms. Clara and Zani consequently LOVE thunderstorms. And Summer feels better being near me and profits from the routine.

If you want to get really nitpicky, it is possible to reinforce fearful behaviors. But during a noisy holiday is not the time to worry about that!

Other Resources for Getting Through the Fireworks

Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons
Fireworks: Photo Credit Wikimedia Commons

Here are some very practical tips for getting your dog through events with loud noises. Some are short term helps, and some are long term solutions. I hope you find something that will help in your own situation.

Keep your gates locked and your dogs’ identification items on.

Thanks for reading! You can go cuddle your dog, if she likes it!

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

When is it OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara pulls on leash edited

Is there actually a situation in which it’s OK for your dog to pull on leash? Oh, yes. For fearful and reactive dogs there are at least two!

  • One is when you are practicing desensitization/counterconditioning with your dog in public and can’t ask her for an operant behavior.
  • The other is later, when she is approaching something she used to be scared of with joy and enthusiasm.

Those of us who have fearful, reactive, fear-aggressive, or feral dogs and are using desensitization and counterconditioning with them out in the world are working on giving them a positive conditioned emotional response. We do this by building associations between triggers that formerly scared them and wonderful things.

Working on these associations first and foremost affects other decisions we make when we have our dog out and about.

Doing DS/CC Correctly

The guidelines for doing successful DS/CC call for great clarity. It has to be absolutely clear to the dog that the great treat exactly follows the appearance of the trigger and nothing else. Each time and every time.  We work on our timing, and on making the relationship between those two things completely salient, doing nothing to muddy up the works. The CARE for Reactive Dogs website has great instructions for the mechanics of clearly pairing the trigger with the treat under the 2nd section: CAREMethod.

In addition, our dogs’ behavior doesn’t matter. Yes, you read that right. As opposed to operant learning, which is about the consequences of behavior, respondent learning does not depend on the dogs’ actions. The pairing of the stimuli to create a new emotional response is the whole game. Of course we take great pains to keep everybody safe and make sure our dogs are under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, but if we screw up on the latter and they see the stimulus and bark or otherwise react, they still get the goodie.

How can walking on a loose leash fit into this scenario? It can’t. Not at this point. It is a trained behavior that asks a whole lot of the dog. However, it is not at all ruled out as a learned behavior after the dog has become comfortable in the world.  Many fearful dogs go on to be wonderful family pets or even competition dogs. And even those who never get completely comfortable in public situations can enjoy learning all sorts of tricks and other behaviors for enrichment and to help them fit into the human world at home better.

So I’m not saying “don’t train your dog.” Working with your dog at home is wonderfully enriching for both of you. You can include some behaviors that will help you when you are out doing a session of DS/CC. Most people pretrain some behaviors that can help them move their dog around the environment and get out of sticky situations. The important thing is not to try to train your dog during a session of desensitization/counterconditioning.

Loose Leash Walking

Loose leash walking is a great skill. It not only makes life much easier and more pleasant for the human, it is of great benefit to the dog. If your dog has been taught to walk at your side before you ever put the leash on, and proofed and taught in progressively more difficult environments, she may never run to the end of the leash and get stopped in her tracks, or experience the nagging discomfort of pressure on some part of her body when she forges ahead.

But doing leash work in progressively more difficult environments is a problem for the fearful dog. If she is still fearful, as soon as the environment holds any challenges at all, you need to be working on the pairing of stimuli to create a positive conditioned emotional response, not trying to practice a difficult behavior.

Pavlov Wins

Text box: "Holding to strict criteria for walking on a loose leash and maintaining the clarity of pairing in classical conditioning are mutually exclusive

Asking for loose leash walking, a difficult behavior, from a dog whose fears you are trying to rehabilitate, not only won’t work, it will likely set your dog’s progress back. Not only does it throw you into the world of operant learning, leaving the dog’s emotional state by the wayside, you are also diluting the purity of the pairing of two stimuli. You must have a one-to-one relationship: experience trigger, get great food. If you start giving the same food for behaviors as well, you are shooting yourself in the foot. (Some people carry two kinds of food, and use the lesser value food for working on other behaviors during “down time.” Others prefer the clarity of not using food for anything else during this period.)

The good news is that if you are consistently treating your dog at the perception of triggers, they will probably develop the operant behavior of sticking close by you anyway. You may “accidentally” make staying or walking at your side a very strong behavior. But you can’t insist on it. And it may break down when your dog gets so comfortable in the environment that she stops noticing the triggers, or chooses other delights like a good sniff of the bushes instead of the treat. But what a happy day that is!

After DS/CC

Conditioning your dog doesn’t happen all at once. She may be completely happy in several public environments, but you still need to generalize to more. If she was feral and humans are strange to her, there are still new challenges to be had even after she is largely happy among people. For instance, although my formerly feral dog Clara has gradually gotten used to people who are flamboyantly dressed, people in wheelchairs and with baby strollers, children swinging bags, workers doing noisy construction,  and many other variations among the human population, there is still the occasional challenge. Last week she got slightly worried about a woman who had a jingling ankle bracelet, just enough to decide to go the other direction.

During this period of training as well, letting the dog lead the way pays off. Clara is now at a stage where she is comfortable enough that she can explore her environment, even with people all around. She often pulls forward excitedly when we are approaching her friends or a favorite part of the shopping mall or some good pee-mail. Likewise, she can “vote with her feet” in a non-panicked way when occasionally she doesn’t like the looks of something.

Even with all her progress, it is too early to ask her to walk strictly by my side.  I need the information that her movements give me. She generally needs very little intervention from me nowadays except to put the brakes on if she is in danger of being bothersome to a stranger or getting in over her head. (She is a very curious dog.) But I still carry the high value stuff in case a new challenge arises.

I do ask for some operant behaviors, and as she gets even more comfortable, it will be possible to work on walking consistently at my side. But frankly, at this point, she is enjoying the world so much that  it gives me great joy to be led around!

Clara stops to smell the roses
Clara stops to smell the roses

What It Looks Like

This video shows Clara at a large public shopping mall where a lot of her socialization has taken place. This is a place she is comfortable, and you won’t see me doing any classical pairing with treats in the video. She can now walk happily down the sidewalks there among groups of people, even next to doors that might pop open at any time.

In the video I show her both eagerly pulling towards things she is interested in, and meandering around checking the pee-mail with me in tow.

Most of the footage was taken on an extremely hot day. We were only out for 10-15 minutes at a time, but the heat is the reason she is panting.

Even though I have to allow the leash to become taut at times, because of her speed or because I am trying to handle a camera and treats in addition to a leash, it pleases me to see that there is no reactivity caused by frustration with the leash. When she is pulling ahead, she is doing so because of excitement and enthusiasm, and that overrules everything else. She just tugs me along.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Pulling Isn’t Comfortable!

That’s right. Much of the gear we use, from flat collars to front attach harnesses, has the effect of making pulling uncomfortable.

So what do we do when we are breaking all the rules, and the dog is allowed to pull?  I used a front-attach harness in the beginning with Clara. Most people with fearful or reactive dogs in public need the control that affords. Now that Clara can do so much more in public,  I’ve gotten her a padded back-attach harness that does not discourage pulling. All dog owners can investigate different gear and see what is the most safe and comfortable for their dog.

But let me be clear: it can be unpleasant for a dog to be restrained, by whatever method. When Clara is “in the lead,” I do my best to minimize physical discomfort and frustration from gear and the “slow attached human.” See the video in the Resources section below for some great ideas on how to do that.

Stigma

If you have a fear-aggressive dog, or any dog that makes noisy displays in public, you have experience with the stigma of a “misbehaving” dog. There is immense social pressure for you to make your dog shape up. Total strangers are completely comfortable giving unwanted advice, or shaming you in public, or even trying to discipline  your dog themselves. Most want you to get tough with your dog and show your dog who is boss. (And all the time your dog is essentially crying for help.)

It can be extremely embarrassing to have a dog that is acting up. But if you have made it through that phase and your dog’s fearful displays are gone, you can certainly deal with the occasional snotty comment that comes by about your dog pulling you around. You know, like, “Are you walking your dog or is your dog walking you? Heh heh heh!” Perhaps you can come up with a clever comeback.

Clara and her buddy taking a break from shopping
Clara and her buddy in a department store display window taking a break from shopping

For me, it warms my heart to see my formerly feral dog having a great time exploring and checking out the pee-mail and pulling me around, while either ignoring the proximity of humans or actually tailing them curiously. When we started, her comfortable proximity to a single non-moving human was about 60 feet, and she was extremely sensitive to any situation where she might feel like her escape options were limited.

I think some people still have an image of a classically conditioned dog as being robotically controlled and micromanaged. Nothing could be further from the truth. Teaching Clara that the proximity of humans predicts great things has allowed her to get huge enjoyment out of environments that would formerly have been impossible for her to even enter. Also, from the earliest stages of the process, she was free to move around.

Isn’t Sniffing a Stress Behavior?

It can be. But with a little experience, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a stress sniff, and exploratory odor sniffing. I have a followup post about this coming soon.

Resources

Coming Up:

  • The Girl with the Paper Hat Part 2: The Matching Law
  • Sniffing for Joy
  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

 

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

Bark Busters: Promoting Facts or Myths?

When I first published this piece in 2014, I had no idea of the firestorm it would create. I thought (and still think) it was a pretty mild critique. It’s an analysis of what Bark Busters’ own written materials say about their training philosophy. They weren’t pleased, though. But it’s still here, and draws a fair amount of traffic. I’ve edited it for clarity and hope it is helpful. —Eileen Anderson, September 2019

A friend recently shared a flyer from Bark Busters, a franchise dog training business. It is called “Barking: The Facts” and can be seen at this link. 

The flyer made me interested so I set out to investigate the methods of this franchise.

The main pages on the Bark Busters website have wording that appeals to the many people who want to get their dogs to behave without hurting or scaring them. Some of the phrases are: 

  • “Positive relationship”
  • “Lasting emotional bond”
  • “Communicate effectively”
  • “Consistency and natural techniques”
  • “Reinforce and strengthen the bond”
  • “Develop pleasant, obedient nature”
  • “Happy lifelong buddy”

But is this consistent with the training methods they use? If we look harder, there are some red flags:

  • “Pack leader”
  • “Transform a problem dog…often in only a matter of hours”
  • “All without treats or the need for harsh punishment”

Hmm, the analyses on how to judge dog trainers by their own business descriptions show that we actually have quite a bit to worry about here.

  • Pack leader is an indicator that most problems will be addressed by rank reduction, usually by the use of harsh aversives. In this kind of “hammer” mindset, even normal puppy annoyances are often treated like nails.
  • Any bragging about short training times with magical transformations is also a big warning. It generally indicates suppression and punishment as well. Trainers who are educated in behavior science know there are many factors out of their control when working with a dog and her family. They don’t make guarantees of magical transformations. They know that success is affected by the dog’s history and the client’s buy-in. This kind of guarantee is almost always made by trainers who will suppress the dog’s behavior through pressure and startling techniques, if not outright painful punishment. This can have the appearance of immediate success, especially in a first visit when the trainer has novelty on his side. Methods for suppressing behavior are conceptually familiar to most of us since we live in a punishment-based culture. They can show immediate, although temporary, results.
  • Without treats? Oh-oh. Food is the main primary reinforcer we have at our disposal. If there are no food or toys in use, behavior change depends on the use of aversives. Don’t get distracted by the red herring of “praise.” Sure, some dogs like praise. Most won’t work nearly as hard for it as they will for a hot dog, though. The focus on praise masks what methods are actually changing behavior: aversive ones. (See the photo below.)
  • Finally, “no harsh punishment” leaves “moderate punishment” on the table. And of course the company is the one defining what constitutes “harsh” punishment. The dog’s opinion might be different.

So don’t be surprised at the tools this franchise teaches people to use. They aren’t tools that help create a lasting emotional bond with a happy lifelong buddy after all. Airhorns, spray bottles, penny cans, and special bags with chains in them to throw. Bark Busters also teaches a special growly way to yell at one’s dog, using the word “Bah!”. This is another red flag, the idea that a particular word or sound has some intrinsic magical power to communicate. 

Note: the round things are not disc toys

The items in the photo above were all collected by a trainer friend who was called to help families who had previously hired Bark Busters.

The disc-shaped things (throwing bags) and the spray bottle have Bark Busters’ logo on them and appear to be provided by the company. The air horns were purchased by Bark Busters’ clients on the advice of Bark Busters’ trainers, and the penny cans were created by the clients on their advice. 

The preceding was a little overview of what we can glean about their methods. But what I’m most interested in is the mixture of information and mythology about barking in the flyer.  

Bark Busters’ Flyer about Barking

The flyer starts out all right, saying that barking can be a sign the dog is stressed. But then in the first bullet point, it says that dogs who bark at “birds, dogs, people, falling leaves, or clouds” are “nuisance barkers.” How very sad for the dogs who are scared of any of those things and are barking out of fear. Especially given the tools above, whose main functions are to startle and scare.

You can be pretty sure that a company bragging about using no treats does not use desensitization/counter conditioning as a training technique. This is the established and most widely accepted treatment for fear in dogs.

There is an interesting subtext to the flyer. It is the idea that dogs can come to distinguish and alert you to true threats to your family. You just have to get rid of the “nuisance” barking first. The flyer includes the following:

As they reach maturity, most dogs will naturally protect their owners when needed and where necessary…

Why, oh why can’t they join the 21st century and learn about dog behavior?

So when the problem behaviors have been removed, you supposedly have a dog who will guard your family. It doesn’t explain how the dog, if he has been punished for barking, will magically know that in a stranger danger situation (and only then), he should bark.

The idea that all dogs can intuitively recognize a threatening human dies hard. I have no doubt there are some dogs who can perceive a real threat from a human. They are way more perceptive than we are in so many ways. And of course, some breeds have been selectively bred for protection.

But that probably isn’t true for Susie the noisy sheltie or Boomer the baying beagle. And any undersocialized dog (and there are tons of them) is going to see threats everywhere. Undersocialized dogs may be as likely to attack a toddler, a man with a beard and hat, or somebody on crutches as they are someone who is threatening actual violence. It’s scary that Bark Busters is promulgating the idea that we should leave it to dogs to decide when aggression might be acceptable.

This is quite amazing, the idea that your dog can learn to be quiet all the time except when a criminal comes to your home. All by your throwing stuff and yelling when he barks.

Another problem is the inclusion of “demand barking,” in the list of problems. Bark Busters fails to point out that demand barking is maintained by the humans who reinforce it. It’s a problem we usually create, whether we know it or not. Dogs do what works. One of the first things I successfully trained my rat terrier Cricket was to stop barking for her meals. After I learned some basics about behavior science, I stopped reinforcing the barking (which was being reinforced by her whole meal!) and started reinforcing her for being quiet. I, a novice trainer, did this in a few sessions over a week’s time. No more demand barking after four years of it. But the idea that we humans need to change our behavior doesn’t fit into the rank reduction model. The result is especially sad. As long as humans don’t become aware of the ways they reinforce barking, the dog will likely receive reinforcement and punishment alternately for the same behavior.

The Biggest Myth

But the biggest myth is the idea that the training methods Bark Busters focus on are benign ones. They are not benign. Using some basic premises about behavior science, one can state some of the likely effects of this casual use of aversives.

If you startle your dog with a throw chain, an air horn, a penny can, or by yelling, “Bah!” as Bark Busters instructs:

  • Your dog may become scared of you;
  • Or (more) scared of the thing they were barking at in the first place;
  • Or scared of the area in which this happened;
  • Or scared of some other random thing that was present when scary things started to happen.
  • Your dog may shut down in general, as you suppress behaviors without teaching alternatives.
  • Your dog may redirect aggression, i.e. bite you or another vulnerable member of your household: a child, a cat, another dog.
  • Your dog may develop a “punishment callus.” This is common. Since very few people really want to hurt or startle their dogs, people usually start out lightly when they use an aversive method. The result is that the aversive must be escalated over time to get the same result. You will eventually reach a limit, either with what you can physically do, or what you are emotionally willing to do, to scare or hurt your dog. Then what? I do have to wonder how many times those throw bags have been thrown at the dogs instead of near them,  no matter what the instructions are.

References on fallout from aversives. 

Oh, and by the way, it’s not just the dog who can get ill effects. If the actions you take successfully interrupt the barking (note that I didn’t say solve it; just interrupt it momentarily):

  • You will be reinforced for using aversives, becoming more likely to do so again;
  • You will likely increase the severity of the interruption as time passes (see above about the punishment callus). Barking is a natural dog behavior and difficult to suppress successfully.

Our best friends deserve better than this.

Note: This post is based on what Bark Busters say about themselves in their promotional materials. You can view the flyer and website yourself. It’s about the tools they promote, and includes information (based on principles of behavior science) about the general, known effects of such tools. I haven’t directly experienced training from Bark Busters and make no claim that I have. 

Related Posts

Copyright 2014 Eileen Anderson

The Right Words, Revealed

The Right Words, Revealed

Last week I published four “deceptive” photos in  A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words, But Are They the Right Ones? As promised, here are explanations and context for the photos.

#1 Zani doing “Whale Eye”

Zani whale eye
Zani whale eye. Is she stressed or fearful?

Below is the photo in context (it’s #3 of the 4). Zani had been looking at me, turned her head to look at something, and when she turned back to me, her eyes moved first. Sometimes “whale eye” just means the dog turned her head or her eyes alone. Click on a photo for a larger view.

Reader Diana had nailed it in the comments last week, by the way. Here are the “right words”:

Zani’s head, body and tail are all in alignment and tail is out. The whale eye results from looking without turning her whole body. Eyebrows are lifted but eyelids lack tension and pupils are not dilated. Ears lifted at base. Mouth is closed but not tightly.

Also note that in the two photos published here in which Zani is looking back at me (in the direction of the camera), her eyes and the muscles around them are very soft.

Here, for contrast, is a photo of Zani with whale eye when she is afraid. This picture is also featured in my post, “The Look of Fear,” where Zani’s fear response is discussed in detail. You can see whole clusters of fearful body language in the photos in that post, as opposed to the photo above that shows “whale eye” on an otherwise calm dog.

A small black and tan/rust dog is crouched on a green and brown couch. She is leaning away from something (not visible) to her right and looking back in that direction. You can see the whites of her eyes. She looks scared.
Zani scared

#2 Summer looking slightly crazed

Summer stiff still
Summer: Is it a seizure?

This, of course, is not a seizure but a play photo. The uncropped version is below, along with a couple of others from the play session. It is from Zani’s first month in the household, and Summer and Zani played almost constantly in those early times. Summer’s play always has an edge to it, to my eyes, but I supervised very closely, and Zani kept going back for more. Summer and Zani have never had a fight.

Here is the photo uncropped, and two other stills from the video. Click on them for larger versions.

#3 Clara doing “whale eye”

Clara whale eye
Is Clara stressed?

Clara was in her crate in the car. She looked forward to see what I was doing, and couldn’t turn her head far enough. You can see how her neck is pushing on the bars, and her nose is in the very corner of the crate. She would have had to stand up to turn her head farther, and apparently didn’t think it was worth it. She is generally very relaxed in her car crate and sleeps much of the time.

#4 Pride being “naughty”

Pride Naughty
Pride posing #1

This, of course, is a highly trained behavior. Pride didn’t even lift his leg to pee in real life. The reason I include it is how his face looks in the photo. The set of his mouth and his narrowed eye with a tiny bit of white showing make him look, anthropomorphically speaking, rather sneaky or crafty. (Keep in mind that “guilty” looks are generally appeasement signs in dogs, and do not correlate with misdeeds.)  And this isn’t even a guilty look, just a combination of circumstances.

Marge Rogers, who trained the behavior and took the photos, says it was luck and just one of those moments in time. Directly below is another photo from the session from comparison. In that photo you can see that Pride is clearly watching Marge and the camera attentively. I think perhaps both photos demonstrate the awesome eye contact Marge gets from her dogs.

Pride #2
Pride Posing #2

In case you didn’t notice last time, Marge sets up these photos for her wonderful Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue Christmas cards

So that’s “the rest of the story.” Thanks for reading!

Coming up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Oh No, I Broke my Dog!
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…But Are They the Right Ones?

A Picture is Worth 1,000 Words…But Are They the Right Ones?

Here are four photos that are probably not as they seem. I’m telling you that up front. This isn’t a trick.

The shutter speed of a typical digital (or analog) camera is far less than a second. Especially if your dog is in motion, that fraction of a second might look terrible. How many pictures of yourself do you have with your eyes half closed and you look like a zombie? (Oh, is it just me?) But all you were doing was blinking. Camera angle and lighting can do strange things as well.

There is a lesson here, and it is this: We can’t judge definitively from a still photo. We can use them to learn to observe, but because it is only a fraction of a second, our interpretations, even if based on excellent observations, could be completely wrong. We can come to much better conclusions from a video, but even then, if we don’t know context, I think being conservative in our assumptions is a wise move.

With that said, take a look!

Zani whale eye
Zani in the grass

The above photo of Zani is a video still. She looks–at least–concerned. So-called whale eye is often an indicator of fear. In my followup post (next week) I will show the surrounding frames of the video. Feel free to discuss in the comments. What other body language indicators can you see and what might they indicate?

Summer stiff still
Summer on the bed

This photo of Summer on the bed is also a video still and it is cropped. I used to use it as an avatar on social media until a friend told me it looked like Summer was having a seizure. She wasn’t, but you know, it actually does look that way. In my next post, I’ll show the photo uncropped, and some other stills from the video. Care to speculate?

Clara whale eye
Clara in the car

This is a photo I snapped of Clara in her crate in the car. Why might this whale eye not indicate stress?

Pride Naughty
Pride at Christmas

And finally, this incredible shot that my friend Marge took for her “Naughty or nice?” Rhodesian Ridgeback Rescue Christmas card. How did she get this photo and why does Pride look so crafty?  The photo has had some color and lighting adjustment and some cleanup, but Pride’s face and body have not been altered.

Photos remain incredible learning opportunities. And as we are learning body language, they are one of our main tools. For example, I have made available this complete set of labelled photos of poor Clara when she was extremely stressed out. I can vouch for them. She was stressed out of her mind and there are multiple signs of that in the photos. Perhaps in general, the more indicators you see in a photo that there is stress or any particular emotional state, the more likely it may be true. (I’m thinking that one over.) But with a still photo, it can’t be a guarantee.

What do you think?

Coming up:

  • Invisible Cues
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • Oh No, I Broke my Dog!
  • More Training Errors: Cautionary Tales (I seem to have an abundance of these)

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

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