Category: Management

You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog

You Have to Stop! Interrupting Unwelcome Puppy Play Toward an Older Dog

A tan and black dog lies on the grass holding a ball and a brown and white puppy runs toward her

Or: The Magic Buffalo Tug

In my post about the challenges of living with and training Lewis, I mentioned that the worst problem we faced was his hassling Clara to play. We’ve made some progress.

When he first came, his most frequent behavior toward her was humping. I remember telling Marge Rogers I had removed him or called him away dozens of times in a day. The humping diminished, thankfully. He does it far less frequently and less intensely and will happily dismount when I call him away.

But the next phase was tougher. A more troublesome problem emerged. Instead of humping, Lewis initiated play with Clara dozens of times a day. Sounds nice, right? No. First, she didn’t want to play dozens of times a day, but she is too retiring to tell him off convincingly. Worse, his methods of initiating play included: 1) growl the meanest sounding play growl imaginable and chew on Clara’s face and neck relentlessly; 2) bite her tail and pull; 3) bite one of her hind legs and hang on; and 4) in the yard, body slam her with no warning at top speed. But since every once in a while she did want to play, she put his rude behavior on a variable ratio reinforcement schedule, which increased his natural persistence.

I’ve seen Clara tell Lewis emphatically NO only twice. Once was when his food toy had escaped under the couch and he considered swiping hers. She gave a strong warning bark right in his face and he backed off instantly. She did something similar with a toy she really wanted one day when he made a play for it. But otherwise she has been a pushover. Even when she responds to his chewing on her with growls and unfriendly chomping, he reacts as if she is not serious—and she doesn’t prove him wrong. So I needed to intervene.

Management

Early on, I wasn’t able to get Lewis’ attention to interrupt him out of play or attempted play. He was lost to the world. Both of them were; I couldn’t even get Clara’s attention when she was into it. So once he started, I had to physically remove him if Clara didn’t want to play. That’s why he (still!) wears a harness and often drags a leash: so I can remove him or prevent him from launching at her. I’m not proud of this, but I have to protect my other dog.

I’m well aware of the risks of dogs playing while wearing collars or harnesses. Life with dogs is full of calculated risks and this is where I fall on this particular risk. Clara wears only a breakaway collar and we are working toward one for Lewis. But she is far less likely to chew on him than he is to chew on her.

Back to the problem at hand. I realized that my management method of physical interruptions hadn’t diminished the problem behavior at all. We always hope, right? So I started thinking about what else to do. Crating or otherwise separating him, other than using the tether, was not an option then.

Two Resources

When I considered how else to address the problem, two things came to mind. First, Kiki Yablon posted on Instagram a video of using a structured tug game to teach a lab puppy not to bite at flapping garments and other objects. Second, I remembered something I’ve heard Marge say many times, that when she has a puppy in the house she always has treats in one pocket and a toy in the other.

A toy! I always have treats in a pocket, but I’ve rarely carried a toy. But I liked Kiki’s approach of using toy play as an alternative to play-driven behavior, and had Marge to encourage me. So I bought the tiniest tug toy I could find at Clean Run. I wanted it to be a novel toy, and it needed to be small enough to fit in my pocket. Enter the buffalo tug.

Behavior Chain

From the first, I worried about creating a behavior chain. If the tug play was attractive (and you’ll see how much Lewis delights in tug) and the only way he could access it was by bothering Clara, then guess what was going to increase? Bothering Clara. So I gave it a few tries on the first day but consulted with Marge quickly before I created a problem.

The first time I whipped out the tug toy to lure him away from Clara, it was like a bolt of energy shot through him. He was thrilled out of his mind. He raced to me and we played for a minute or two, then I traded him a couple of pieces of kibble for the tug toy. He has a very good “out” cue already, but I liked the kibble trade for this situation.

Closeup of a brown and white puppy's face as he grips a tug toy
Lewis with the buffalo tug

So I learned I had a powerful tool, something that competed with his favorite reinforcer, poor Clara. Even on that first day, he would advance on Clara, then turn and look at me. “Well? Where’s the tug?” This was both good and bad news. Good because he was stopping before grabbing her. Bad because it could lead to a chain and increase the Clara-bothering. I texted Marge so I wouldn’t create a worse problem.

Punishment

You may wonder why I haven’t mentioned punishment. I do use negative punishment from time to time. But in this case, it would be as a timeout, removing either him or Clara from the situation quickly, contingent on his undesirable behavior. But removing him from the action would be a whopper of a punisher for him. He’s got a giant case of Fear of Missing Out. I never knew how bad that could get. And removing Clara with a clear contingency (“she’s leaving because you were being a jerk”) would be hard-to-impossible. I do separate them to protect her. But I don’t see the management actions I take decreasing the behavior. I would much rather concentrate my efforts on preventing him from doing it in the first place.

Tweaking the Plan

Marge helped me add three tweaks.

  1. I asked for a behavior or two before tugging. I had his full attention, and he was happy to do anything to get the tug. The behaviors he had on cue at the time were sit, down, eye contact, hand target, and go to mat. He defaulted to sit since he already knew to sit to start a game. But I switched it up and asked for different things.
  2. Once he could turn his attention to me instead of jumping Clara, at times I reinforced with food instead of tug. Tugging is what allowed me to get his attention so quickly though, so I still used tug most of the time.
  3. Most important: I produced the tug toy at other times. It was vital that attacking Clara was not the only way for him to get access to such an attractive game. I didn’t want to get clobbered by the matching law. So I also whipped out the tug sometimes when he just came up to me and gave me eye contact or sat. I liked the idea that he could just come and ask me in those ways (rather than grabbing my arm or walloping Clara). I also just popped it out randomly.

Here’s a video from two days after I started using the pocket tug. I was about to interrupt the play because Lewis getting rough and obnoxious. But at that moment he interrupted himself and reoriented to me. Tug game on!

Unexpected and Expected Effects

OK, a professional trainer could have predicted these, but I didn’t.

Tan dog and brown and white dog are chewing on a hairy tug toy together
“Sharing” the buffalo tug
  1. Clara wanted the tug. Of course she did. Why do I always make these plans as if there isn’t another dog in the mix? So of course I had to let her have it, both to play tug with and to chew on. She is the reason there is no long hair left on our tug (see the photo below). And sometimes she and Lewis played with the tug together. This sounds a little like I shot myself in the foot, and perhaps I did, but he was much nicer when they played with an object than if it was just tooth and claw. That’s one way I ramp down their play anyway: get a toy in the mix.
  2. The day I introduced the tug toy and forever after, I could instantly get Lewis’ attention merely by saying his name, no matter how intensely they were playing. Sweet! This added to the safety of the household. I need my dogs to be able to ramp down after they have ramped up. I had already been interrupting their play a lot and encouraging them to do so, but the tug supercharged my ability to get their attention and tone things down.
  3. I became even more of an entertainment center for Lewis. This is a mixed blessing for me, of course, but it’s great to get his focus when I need it.
  4. As hoped, providing him lots more mini-sessions of play during the day seemed to reduce his need to pester Clara. It’s hard to say, because she also started to say no a lot more often and more convincingly. But a combination of approaches switched his play focus more to me (and the neighbor dogs—more on that another time!).
A small, well chewed tug toy made of buffalo hide
The enticing buffalo tug after weeks of heavy use and recreational chewing

Where Things Stand

These systems are working well. Clara and I have figured out several ways to dissuade him. Besides the buffalo tug method, there’s a mat next to my place at the kitchen table she can get on; it’s hard for him to access her there. Sometimes I’ll cue her into a crate or she’ll get in on her own. Clara and I sometimes go off to another room of the house (not contingent on a play attempt, just as a planned activity). This is a big deal because formerly, Lewis’ FOMO would have made him scream. He is learning that he gets a turn.

I wish I could say I’ve solved the problem and Lewis only approaches Clara with respect and finesse. Bwa-ha-ha-ha, if only! These are living creatures, and I’m dealing with a strongly driven behavior on Lewis’ part. But play behavior can be shaped, and I hope he can figure out some ways that work better than ramming folks like a violent cartoon character.

I’ll close with this recent clip of Lewis playing with some balls and **not** slamming Clara, who gets to chew on hers in (comparative) peace.

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

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If you have a fearful dog, you probably read all sorts of conflicting advice about what to do about that. Everybody’s got an opinion, and unfortunately some of them include very poor methods.

Even if we rule out the methods that are obviously based on aversive practices, like prong collars or shock systems, we are not out of the woods. A lot of the suggestions made regarding fearful dogs, while well-meaning, are not helpful in the long run and can easily cause our attempts to help the dog backfire.

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  1. Help the dog be safe and feel safe.
  2. Use desensitization and counterconditioning to change the dog’s emotional response to triggers.
  3. Use positive reinforcement to teach the dog behaviors.

The Hardest Step

Even though #2 and #3 on this list above require mechanical skills and familiarity with concepts that are new to most people, I believe that #1 is the hardest. There is this powerful mythology out there about how to deal with fearful dogs. Sadly, many of the more kindly seeming methods can still end up keeping the dog in a state of fear.

Even the gentlest sounding practice, for instance, feeding the dog all her meals out of your hand, can comprise flooding if the dog is afraid of you. For many dogs without fear of humans, hand-feeding can promote your bond and teach them that great stuff comes from you. But those beneficial effects are not likely with a fearful dog, who gets put into a terrible conflict if she is afraid of you but must come to you to eat.

But the cool thing is that you can use Step #1 to assess almost any suggestion that someone throws at you. Recently I read where someone had asked, “But what does ‘Keeping the dog feeling safe’ look like? What does one actually do?” I thought that was a great question. It’s one thing to believe in it, but it’s another to try to implement it.

So here is my take on what generally fits into “Keeping the dog feel safe”and what does not.

What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Can Consist Of

Zoey claimed her own safe place
Zoey claimed her own safe place

It might be any of the following things.

  • Creating a hiding place for the dog if they are scared of you or any member of your family
  • Looking away from the dog if eye contact scares her
  • Setting up indoor gates and “airlocks” to prevent the dog from accidental contact with family members, visitors, or other animals
  • Setting up an indoor potty area if the dog is afraid of the outdoors or leashes or doorways or traffic noises or…..
  • Blocking windows or using window film
  • Playing white noise or non-dramatic music to mask scary sounds (only if the dog isn’t scared of the music itself)
  • Disabling your doorbell
  • Simply not having people over
  • Ignoring the dog
  • Comforting the dog (assuming you are not scary to her) when she is afraid
  • Protecting your dog from the advances of scary strangers (or even friends)
  • Being directive with veterinary staff about the dog’s needs
  • Exercising the dog in the yard instead of taking her for walks (if she’s not afraid in the yard)
  • Driving her to remote areas for walks (assuming she’s not scared of leashes, you, or riding in the car)

If some of these things seem really hard, well, they are. Having a fearful dog is much more work and takes more emotional stamina than is widely known.

Please check out the other half of this post: a photo gallery of some of the “safe places” that thoughtful owners have created for their fearful or sensitive dogs.

What “Keeping the Dog Feeling Safe” Doesn’t Consist Of

Will "hand feeding" this petrified dog at this moment build a bond with him?
Will “hand feeding” petrified Sunny at this moment build a bond with him?

What it doesn’t look like is any of these myriad things people suggest to try to get dogs to accept proximity to whatever it is they are afraid of, no matter how well-meaning.

  • Hand feeding the dog her meals
  • Having strangers give the dog treats
  • Having strangers pet her
  • Having anybody pet her if she doesn’t like it
  • Cuddling or hugging her if she draws away
  • Gazing at her
  • Taking the dog for walks when they scare her
  • Luring the dog with food (except as an emergency measure)
  • Taking the dog to dog parks
  • Taking the dog to a “regular” obedience class
  • Locking her out of her hiding place
  • Trying to get her to sit with you on the couch
  • Tethering her to you
  • “Herding” her with body pressure (except as an emergency measure)
  • Playing recordings of sounds she’s scared of over and over with the goal of habituating her
  • Keeping her in a public area of the house since she might as well get exposed to everybody as soon as possible
  • Forcing her to stay in a crate to “get used to it”
  • Dragging her up to the thing that scares her
  • “Showing” her that whatever she’s scared of isn’t really scary

 That’s Just Step #1

Don’t be dismayed. Yes, the “do’s” are a lot of work. The “don’t’s” are hard to avoid. But the  better you do at helping the dog feel safe, as extreme as some of those measures seem, the faster she may be able to progress.

Step #1 is powerful indeed. But it is a baseline. If you stopped there, you might end up with a dog who lived in your house with fairly low stress, but she might have very little joy in life. The point in taking steps to help the dog feel safe is so she is in a state where she can learn, little by little, using desensitization and counter conditioning, to be comfortable in her skin and happy in her life with humans. Not to mention that you get the satisfaction of knowing how much you really helped her.

I’m not going to write anything about Steps #2 and #3, because they are already beautifully delineated on the CARE for Reactive Dogs website. After we do Step #1, we can use the CARE techniques just as effectively on a dog who is frozen in a corner as we do with one who is hollering at the end of the leash. And by the way, the CARE website does also cover keeping the dog feeling safe, under the Respite and Relaxation section of PrepCARE.

And if you want to learn more about the three principles listed above, you can go straight to the source. Debbie Jacobs gives a great webinar on helping fearful dogs (new dates coming soon). Also check out her in-person seminar schedule on her blog.

Have any additions to the lists above? What does safety look like for your dog?

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