Category: Reactivity

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)

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Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police

Sweet little Summer
Sweet little Summer

I have mentioned before that my dog Summer is reactive. Reactive has come to refer to a dog who reacts strongly (and inappropriately in the human’s view), usually with an aggressive display, to some specific triggers. Some of Summer’s triggers are strange dogs (in some settings), strange men (in even more settings), delivery trucks, certain noises other dogs make, and rowdy play on the part of her housemates. The latter earns her the moniker of a “Fun Police” dog. She tries to stop the other dogs when they do things that bother her, and she is not very nice about it.

Continue reading “Summer Learns An Alternative to Being the Fun Police”
Don’t Look Now! The Benefits of Window Film for the Household with Reactive Dogs

Don’t Look Now! The Benefits of Window Film for the Household with Reactive Dogs

Light can come in but they can't see out!
Light can come in, but they can’t see out!

Do you have a reactive dog, or one who simply barks too much at things he sees out the window? And do you also care about how your house looks and value natural light ?

There is something you can do about it. Here’s my story, complete with a video of before and after behavior from the dogs.

The Barking Platform

I have a raised area on one end of my den that creates a nook by the window. I have had a day bed there as long as I’ve lived in the house. The day bed has always been a favorite dog hangout, with the added bonus that it lets them look them out the window.

Summer and Cricket barking at a pedestrian
Summer and Cricket barking at a pedestrian

Here is a picture from 2008, actually a still from a video of Cricket and Summer barking frantically at a pedestrian on my street. You can see the clip in the movie below.

The frantic barking (and pounding on the window panes by Summer) was a problem, although I didn’t realize it at the time. I felt like their ability to see out was valuable and a form of enrichment for when I wasn’t there. At least they could watch the world go by, I thought.

What I didn’t know was this:

  1. A lot of their barking was from fear, especially on Summer’s part. She didn’t like seeing dogs, cats, mail carriers, pedestrians, or bicycles. They made her nervous. She was barking to get them to go away.
  2. In Summer’s mind, it worked. Every creature, person, or machine that has ever been in front of my house has eventually left. A great percentage of those times, she was barking. Ergo, the barking got reinforced. That is clear because the barking has increased in frequency and intensity. Summer has since expanded her horizons to also bark at delivery trucks, the mail truck, and even pickups.
  3. Practice makes perfect. If my dog’s default response to seeing another dog through the window is frenzied barking, snarling, lunging, and banging on the window (as you can see in the movie), those habits could very well express when she sees dogs in person. Aggressive behaviors are being reinforced.
  4. I was unknowingly putting my smaller dog, Cricket, in danger. You can also see from the video that both dogs are quite frenzied. Although she never did in that situation, Summer could easily have redirected aggression onto Cricket. We were just lucky it didn’t happen.

I didn’t know any of this then. But as I learned more about dog training and dog behavior, I realized that providing the dogs a barking platform was not ideal. As I became more aware of the detrimental affects, I managed the situation, not leaving them in that area unattended.

Then in 2011 came Clara, bringing the household up to four dogs. By that time, I was keeping Summer and Cricket permanently separated. I also kept Summer and Clara separated during Clara’s young puppyhood. And I kept Clara and Cricket generally separated as Clara got older. With this complex a situation, I had to use my entire house, and I couldn’t supervise all dogs at all times. And I knew one thing: I didn’t want Clara learning the “barking on the platform” routine. (She learned it later on a different platform, but I blocked that one, too!) I worked proactively with classical conditioning to prevent her from picking up Summer’s barking habits in general. See: “The Barking Recall” and “Classical Conditioning: Creating a Positive Response to Barking.” I also knew I needed to do something about the window.

(Interestingly, Zani has remained uninterested in that activity and has not developed reactive habits. Yay, Zani!)

The terrible era of the bed against the wall
The terrible era of the bed against the wall

But I knew Clara would soak it right up. And the stakes are so high with her being feral. I didn’t want to do anything to feed reactive or aggressive behaviors, especially since I am working constantly to instill the opposite with her. So when she started getting old enough to be interested, I stripped the bed and propped part of it against the wall and part in front of the window. I don’t have many photos since it was unsightly and depressing, but here is one.

The Fix

Then Marge Rogers told me about window film. She had used a company called Decorative Films when she needed absolute privacy for a shower window. When she found out how completely effective it was in preventing visibility (even at night with shower light on), she thought of the possible applications for dogs. I took a look at the company’s website and was really impressed, but didn’t do anything for a while. Then a FaceBook friend (Hi Kim C!) posted about how easy it was, so I took the plunge. But instead of buying online, I decided to just get some window film at Home Depot.

That didn’t work out well for me, although it does for plenty of other people. I’m moderately handy, but I couldn’t get the stuff to stick right and it was a real mess. I asked Marge to grill her husband about the kind they got and some details about installation, and I decided to order some online. Cool thing: Decorative Films will send you up to five free samples! There are a lot of really beautiful ones, but I wanted to go for the most blocking possible, plus it’s a front window, so I got a really plain one. The name of the film I got is Clear Sand Blast.

Detail of window film
Detail of window film showing my little flaws

Another cool thing about the company is that you can buy the film in different widths. I got a skinny roll—12 inches wide—since I had multiple small panes to do. That was enormously helpful. I think the whole project took 4-5 hours (I cut 24 panes, even though I ended up installing only 18 of them). That included washing the window panes and cleaning the frames.

And although it would have been easier with two people, I could apply the film by myself. The instructions and the toolkit you can buy for $2.99 are great. You can see from the closeup that I didn’t do a perfect job–there are some wee gaps between the film and the frame, and a few bubbles in the corners, but it looks good enough for me and gets the job done.

I left off the top row of panes because the dogs couldn’t see anything up that high, but I could see the trees and sky that way. I have the pre-cut pieces if I ever change my mind. I can also remove the existing film easily. It is well secured, but it comes off easily and doesn’t leave anything gummy.

By the way, I am not affiliated with Decorative Films. Just a very, very happy customer.

Other Options and Resources

Emma Judson recommends Purlfrost for the UK folks.

And here are two other online companies I found in a casual search. They both feature film that stays in place by static cling, with no adhesive. But I have no experience with that. (And I suspect it might not have worked in Marge’s shower!)

Window Film World

Wallpaper for Windows

Also keep in mind that you can get similar products at Home Depot and Lowe’s in the U.S.

Finally, Tena Parker of Success Just Clicks, who provided one of the photos below, has two nice posts on window film and other ideas for helping reactive dogs in the home. Here they are.

Living with Reactive Dogs–Home Improvements

Resolving Window Reactivity–Part 2

The Proof

My poor, deprived dogs can’t see anything out the window anymore. (That’s a still from the “before” part that you see in the video embed!)

Here are more pics by some friends who also are very happy with window films. Click on any image for a bigger version.


Putting up window film doesn’t “cure” reactivity or aggression. It is management. But it prevents the dogs from practicing behaviors you don’t want, and getting themselves all worked up many times a day. Not to mention relieving the humans from a lot of barking! Even if you have a training plan regarding barking and reactivity, you will need to include management such as this to prevent practice of the behaviors.

Anybody have more tips for creating a lower stress environment for an anxious or reactive dog?

Coming up:

Cppyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

Welcome to the Funhouse

Welcome to the Funhouse

Dog Trial venue
The distracting, sometimes scary environment of a dog trial

Over the weekend, Summer and I competed in AKC Rally. She is such an incredibly good sport.

Sable mixed breed dog walks briskly in heel position next to small woman wearing jeans and red sweatshirt
Summer and I chugging along

After the match I was describing to a friend the ways in which performance events and venues are difficult for Summer. A dog show is never going to be the favorite environment of a dog who is indifferent to most people, bothered by certain types of dogs, and fairly easily startled. Every time you turn a corner, or even when you are in your own little area minding your own business, somebody new is popping into your field of vision or right in your space.

My friend said, “like a funhouse!” For those outside the U.S., or perhaps a bit younger than my generation, a funhouse is an interactive carnival attraction that people walk through. From the Wikipedia definition:

…funhouses are participatory attractions, where visitors enter and move around under their own power. Incorporating aspects of a playful obstacle course, funhouses seek to distort conventional perceptions and startle people with unstable and unpredictable physical circumstances…

Public domain image of a what some people probably look like to Summer

I think obedience events for Summer can be a bit like going to the funhouse, or even a haunted house (a walk-through Halloween attraction for children that can be even scarier, with monsters popping out around every corner, things dropping from the ceiling, corpses moving in coffins, etc.).

The big difference, of course, is that humans generally enter such attractions voluntarily and consensually. For some reason, some of us actually seek out being startled or even scared. I don’t think dogs do. Summer goes (rarely) to obedience events because I take her. I do my very best to make it easy and pleasurable for her, but I know it’s hard.

As I have written in this blog, I got Summer at about 10 months old from a local shelter. She was clearly under socialized, and was fearful of children and most men. In addition to being indifferent or even fearful of some people, and actively disliking many small dogs, she has also become somewhat sound sensitive over the years. In addition to these traits, she is naturally a “doggie dog,” by which I mean she doesn’t have a huge drive to do stuff with people. Though an extremely mixed breed, her temperament is close to that of a northern breed. She generally wants to do her doggie things like chase varmints and likes her comfort. Finally, she is hypothyroid, on medication, and tires easily.

Perfect performance dog, right?

But on the good side, Summer and I are very very close. We’ve been working together for six years and she reads me better than any of the other dogs. She loves to go places and have me to herself. I have reinforced the heck out of performing rally and obedience behaviors, and she has really come to enjoy them. And best of all, all around the event building there are wonderful smells where other dogs have been (but aren’t there now).

Sable dog sitting in heel position gazing upward at woman (mostly out of picture)
Summer in the ring maintaining nice contact

Accordingly, I do the following to try to maximize the good for her:

  1. We minimize the time we are at the event (about 2 1/2 hours this time, but we were outside for plenty of that).
  2. I leave her by herself as little as possible since it worries her.
  3. I let her visit with the couple of people who are usually there whom she adores.
  4. I take her outside as much as possible. I try to keep in mind that that is probably the most fun part for her.
  5. If there is an opportunity to work in the ring beforehand, we do so, and I concentrate on letting her get comfortable in the space while still staying connected with me.
  6. I set up our crate in a less trafficked area if possible.
  7. I am hypervigilant (since she is). I try to see every possible startling thing before she does, to protect her or give her a heads up. (Also to protect other dogs from a possible snark.)
  8. I take the best treats ever.
  9. I try to be responsive to her energy level and generally don’t take her more than two days in a row.

I’m certainly not the only person who makes these efforts. Our name is legion, if the Control Unleashed and other such Yahoo groups give any indication. Many bloggers, notably Reactive Champion, blog about competing, and sometimes choosing not to compete, with dogs who have difficulties in public situations.

Why do we do it? I have several motivations, myself. One is that competing gives me specific goals and helps me keep focused in my training. It gives me and Summer something to do together with just the two of us. Another is that I like to get out and let people see what a dog trained with positive reinforcement looks like in the ring. Even with Summer’s challenges, she looks much happier than 90% of the dogs out there. Also I want people to see a mixed breed dog competing and doing well. (We are not alone anymore! The first place dogs in both Advanced A and Advanced B were both mixed breeds as well.) And hey, I admit, I’m competitive.

The responsibility I have as a balance to these motivations is that I must temper my ego and preferences so I don’t push my dog too hard.

Sable dog trotting toward camera with her mouth open and tail up (looking happy)
Summer heading for the gate

In Rally Advanced (the second level in AKC) there are 12 – 17 signs in the ring, each representing a defined behavior to perform offleash with your dog. We had to redo one sign during the course, and it was because of a problem I had never anticipated. It was a spiral, where you take the dog in a certain pattern around some pylons. But the pylons were set up parallel to the ring boundary and very close to it. We were actually not able to walk comfortably in the space between the boundary fencing (called the ring gates) and the pylons. I don’t know how the people with bigger dogs did it. Summer is trained to walk in a certain proximity to me and to respond to my changes in direction, and she repeatedly tried to move over, and it sent her to the wrong side of the pylons. She was doing what I had trained her to do.

I kept getting her back but she finally made a move that would have made us fail the sign completely. So we took the option of a do over, which lost us only 3 points instead of the 10 we would have lost if we had failed to perform the sign correctly. I walked a little more slowly the second time and clung to the boundary, and kept cuing her to stay extra close to me. Even with the do over, we got a 96 (out of 100) and second place.

There were some other rocky moments where she was visually or auditorially distracted, and I don’t blame her. There was cheering going on in the other rings, and a bunch of dogs and people gathered around ours. I am massively proud that she stuck with me in this most difficult environment.

I have never posted a video of a rally run before, because we are decent but not all that great. We are true amateurs, competing in obedience less than once a year on average. But I have to say I was pleased when I saw the film. (Thank you, Susan M., for recording for me!) The only times she looks unhappy was a couple of times she had to stay (but not every time!). When we are moving, her tail is up and she is giving me all the attention she possibly can. I even like the parts where she gets distracted and is looking out of the ring, because she responds when I ask her to.

I edited out the first try at the spiral, for brevity’s sake. I’m not embarrassed by the mistake. I would have left it in if you could actually see what was going on, but we were at the back of the ring and it’s pretty hard hard to tell. If you want to see the unedited version, there’s a link at the bottom of the post.

Summer’s official name is now: UCD Summer RA NA NAJ TBAD TG2. Not bad for a varmint dog from the sticks.

Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for:

Unedited version of rally run.

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