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A Milestone for Clara: Socialization Work Pays Off

A Milestone for Clara: Socialization Work Pays Off

Clara keeps racking up the successes. I don’t mean awards, ribbons, or titles. I mean socialization successes, which are far more meaningful to her. These successes mean that her world gets bigger.

A couple of months ago I posted a short brag about her progress at the vet’s office. The socialization and exposure work we have been doing regularly has been generalizing more and more. Nowadays she is less afraid at the vet than many dogs with more normal puppyhoods.

This success got me thinking. I was able Continue reading “A Milestone for Clara: Socialization Work Pays Off”

It Was Coming Right At Me!

It Was Coming Right At Me!

Silhouette act 2
Backlit silhouettes may look pretty strange to dogs. (Photo credits at the bottom of the page.)

I am so interested in how dogs perceive things, and how they notice differences that we don’t, or that we take for granted. Those differences can matter to them a great deal. An example of that was the focus of my recent post, “Intruder in the Yard!,” about Zani’s response to a landscape timber in my yard that had rolled out of place.

Clara, with her feral puppyhood, appears to discriminate between people to an extreme. She socializes with a few people besides me now, but each person has behaviors Clara is comfortable with, and everybody’s list is different. One person might scuff a foot while standing next to Clara, and Clara won’t even appear to notice. Continue reading “It Was Coming Right At Me!”

Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

Socializing a Formerly Feral Dog

tan puppy on a brick walk. She is leaning back and down, and her tail is tucked and her ears are back
Clara the Wild Puppy

When I started this blog, I assumed that I would write a lot about Clara’s training. Clara burst into my life as a 10 week old feral puppy [see note at bottom about feral dogs], and her socialization window was in the process of closing by the time she came to me.

I slipped in that window before it shut and was fully accepted and trusted. But she growled at all other humans, even at that young age. In general, she related to them as a wild animal would, with huge wariness of any movement on their part and no tolerance for their proximity.

I have been working with a wonderful trainer and friend, Lisa, since those early days, playing catch-up on Clara’s socialization.

Contrary to my assumption about the blog, though, I have actually written very little about what we have done, and I have taken almost no videos of that work.

Tan dog with a black muzzle and tail wearing a pink harness. She is lying down and looking up at her handler with a pleased look and relaxed open mouth. Her tail is wagging, clearly even in the still.
Clara on the sidewalk at the mall

Our sessions took all of my awareness to do the job well. Because Clara’s socialization window had closed, we used the technique of desensitization and counterconditioning to address her fears and change her emotional response to humans to a positive one.

This is a tall order with a a dog with a lot of the habits of a wild animal.  Both my trainer and I had to be very vigilant to always keep Clara in the zone where she was happy and comfortable, but getting graduated exposure to humans and our world. This was new to me and difficult. The careful work demanded that we protect her from sudden environmental changes and overly interested humans. It took an immense amount of concentration, and I was often exhausted afterwards. Wielding a camera would have been out of the question.

Not to mention that even with all that effort going into it, video of the actual socialization would generally have been completely undramatic. When things went as they should,  it just looked like a dog hanging out or strolling around, seeing people from various distances, and getting a lot of food. That is what desensitization and counterconditioning look like when the dog is under the threshold of stimulus aversiveness. The dog can perceive the trigger (the potentially scary thing, in this case, a human) but at a distance or a presentation that in some other way is diluted such that it isn’t scary.

If the dog is over the threshold of stimulus aversiveness, she will likely look and act uptight in various ways. And if she approaches her threshold for reactive behavior, her fear will become obvious. Our goal was generally to keep her below both of these thresholds, in a space where she was happy and comfortable.

I do so wish that I had video documentation of how far we’ve come. What with all the videos I have shown with her looking like a normal dog in her interactions with me, I know that you readers out there have a very incomplete picture of Clara.

So I dug up some photos. I have never, ever deliberately set Clara up to react, but I do have this set of video stills from the one time ever she was badly scared in my home. Sorry they are mostly blurry. She was on the move.

There, she looks a little more “wild” in those photos, doesn’t she? I’m rather proud that I don’t have any more accidental footage of her reacting, because those reactions were hair-trigger and very easy to provoke. But one of our goals was to keep them from happening and we did very well. Credit goes to my teacher for that.

The Steps To Get There

Here are some of the many gradual steps it took to get Clara to her current comfort level, both outdoors at the shopping center, and inside one store with some kind help from friends.

Many people reported that my post that delineated a desensitization/counterconditioning plan of graduated exposure to crawdads was very helpful to them in understanding the exposure process in DS/CC. You can look at the following lists as a typical “dog version” of such a list. Humans were Clara’s crawdads (actually quite a bit worse than crawdads are for me)!

Note: These lists are descriptive, not prescriptive. Every dog and situation is going to call for different actions.

List of Graduated Activities Out and About At the Shopping Center

  • We walked around the parking lot on the periphery of the shopping center. Clara got very high value treats (canned salmon dog food in a tube) at the sight of any human.
  • Clara practiced relaxing on a mat in the parking lot.
  • We ventured into the ends and quiet areas of the (outdoor) mall. Clara’s comfortable distance from humans was about 60 feet at the beginning. Farther if they were in groups or included strollers, wheelchairs, children, or people clothed in an out of the ordinary manner. It was a big deal if she had 5 or 6 sightings in an hour.
  • We sat on a bench in a quiet courtyard playing open bar/closed bar (DS/CC).
  • We worked all of these activities very VERY gradually to closer proximity to humans.
  • Simultaneously we started training some operant behaviors when she was well within her comfort zone. Rather than looking at strangers, looking at me, looking at strangers, looking at me, we taught her to take a look, then give me some more extended eye contact. Not forever, but enough duration to prevent the back and forth thing. Later we added a default down. For about a year, this was her go-to behavior when she saw humans. (It’s hardly necessary anymore.)
  • We started hanging out in busier parts of the shopping center, for instance sitting on a bench outside the enclosed area of an outdoor restaurant watching the people (fenced in people!).
  • We practiced passing people on the sidewalk (still doing classical conditioning).
  • We faded the classical conditioning as she chose other activities she enjoyed, such as sniffing after a person had walked by or exploring.

We also worked on an explicit relax behavior for when there was little going on, for which I reinforced her for putting her head down and relaxing in other ways.

List of Graduated Activities at the Gourmet Dog Treat Store

We also spent time during most sessions working on going into a particular store. This work was going on simultaneously to the outdoor work. Clara and I would first wait about 50 feet away while our trainer went to the store to determine whether the “coast was clear.” We were in a place where we could retreat another 50 feet if I saw that the situation might get too intense. Then we embarked on the following steps.

  • Going to the front door of a dog treat store when there were no people nearby (none!) and getting a cupcake that the owner had placed outside the door for her
  • Standing a little ways back from the front door as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Standing at the front door of the store as the owner put the cupcake out
  • Taking the cupcake from the hand of the store owner as she stuck it out the door (Note: being fed by strangers is not a necessary or recommended step for many dogs, and especially not too early in the process.)
  • Coming into the front of the store for the cupcake, then leaving
  • Coming farther into the store. Getting a cupcake and also exploring.
  • Starting to get cupcakes cut up in pieces (for more iterations and more extended contact), from someone in the store.
  • Spending more time in the store; but retreating to a back room before Clara got uncomfortable if customers came in.
  • Classically conditioning being “approached” by employees (soft body language from the humans, no eye contact).
  • Playing with a toy in the store.
  • Matting in the back of the store (rather than retreating to the back room) when some customers came in. We had to make a snap judgment about people as they came in. Safe or not safe?
  • Playing targeting and petting games with the employees as she got her cupcake.
  • Strolling around the store on her own.

Results

So, those were the steps. What does it look like today?

Earlier in 2014 we hit a milestone in our socialization work. In May 2014,  we were able to start walking freely anywhere in the shopping center. We could walk right by people. They could walk straight at us. Clara  associated their approach with good things, but had gone beyond that. It was more like she started taking them for granted in the ways that socialized dogs might. I stopped giving her food every time we saw one.

I think what made me “get it” that the picture had changed for her was that she actually got less centered on me and started really enjoying the environment. One of her biggest pleasures became checking the pee-mail in the shopping center, with or without a dog buddy. I want to emphasize that this was not stress sniffing. It was sniffing with a purpose; she was happily following scent wherever it took her.

I have put together most of the video footage I have of her socialization process up to this point into a movie. As I mentioned above, there is very very little from the early days; what you will see is practically all I have.

Also,  the camera work is poor. It’s not easy to film a dog while holding a leash and having treats at the ready, particularly in the bright sun where you can’t even see what you have in the frame. I’ve edited out most of the parts where I didn’t even have her in the picture. (I finally realized that this was a situation in which shooting vertically made more sense. I was more likely to be able to get most of the dog and some of her environment!)

Hopefully, the footage gives a tiny window into the results (if not the process) of DS/CC. Once more, credit goes to my teacher. I would not have had the skill on my own to go slowly enough, read the situation well enough, or decide what activities to try next.

If the lack of loose leash walking raises questions in your mind, check out my post When Is It OK for Your Dog to Pull on Leash?

Clara at the Mall: The Movie 

Link to the video for email subscribers. 

Limitations

You can see what a good time she is having in the video. What is not as apparent are the limitations on the situation. In the interest of transparency, here are some of them.

  • Her comfort level is partly specific to that particular shopping mall, although we recently started going to new locations and she has done great. It has been amazing to watch the classical conditioning generalize to other situations and locations.
  • She is more comfortable when our trainer is there.
  • She is more comfortable when a dog friend is there.
  • She is very curious about people, but she still may be bothered by some assertive (rude) behavior from humans: walking straight at her, locking eyes, saying “Oh, how sweet.”
  • We are starting to work on exposure to leashed dogs. She is not particularly inclined to dog reactivity, but she has almost zero experience meeting leashed dogs because we previously had to completely avoid the humans on the other end of the leash.

There are always more challenges, but I now have a dog whom I can take places and have her be very comfortable. More so than many non-feral animals, since she has had so much experience with such a variety of people and situations.

Joy

The last  few months have been among the most exciting in my dog training life. To see Clara walking down a crowded sidewalk, tail wagging, following whatever most interests her, is purely joyful. As it also was recently when we were on a walk in the country and solitary man popped up from over a hill ahead, approached, and stopped to talk to us for a few minutes. Clara stayed relaxed as he approached (his sudden appearance and approach would have have been startling to many dogs), watched him and wagged as he talked to us, and finally lay down on the pavement beside me until we were finished talking. Priceless. I hope you can enjoy this with me.

Related Posts:

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* A reader has suggested that a warning about feral dogs and puppies would be appropriate, and I agree. I have never mentioned this. It is a dangerous undertaking to capture and take in a wild dog. There is a bite risk from adult dogs, and a large risk of transmittable diseases, including rabies, from puppies. The risks are to both humans and other dogs in the household.

I do not recommend that an individual take these risks. I was ignorant, and my dogs and I were very lucky.

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?

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