eileenanddogs

Tag: socialization

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:

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

* 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.

Meeting the World (Puppy Lesson Five)

Meeting the World (Puppy Lesson Five)

Zip, please meet the world. World, watch out, here comes Zip!

Zip on the table at the vet's. He spent the whole time working on some sticky treats that were placed on the table. He wanted to get up there again!
Zip on the table at the vet’s. He spent the whole time working on some sticky treats that the vet smashed onto the table. What a great idea! He wanted to get up there again!

In a way, this should be Lesson Zero, since Marge has been socializing Zip from the very start. Also, socialization is in a class by itself. The impressions puppies get when very young, particularly in their first three months of life, will create their world view and affect their temperament and attitudes. This world view is infinitely harder to change later. Dogs can learn training and games for their whole lives. But if their early impressions of the world are negative, or they are not exposed to our human world during the socialization window, they will be playing catch-up for the rest of their lives. (I have direct experience with this, having a dog who grew up in the woods.)

Marge is socializing Zip with skill and care, with consideration of both his physical and emotional safety.

Don’t Keep Them Home

Many people still follow outdated advice to keep their puppies sequestered during the early months of their lives because of the danger of infectious diseases.  While it’s true that precautions should be taken to protect pups while their immune systems are still developing, the sad truth is the following:

Behavioral issues, not infectious diseases, are the number one cause of death for dogs under three years of age. –AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization

Let that be our call to action to get puppies out and about in a safe and positive way. Puppy classes, handling, and other socialization activities correlate positively with good behavior and retention in the home.

The following position statement (the source of the above quote) has appropriate information about balancing puppy socialization with protection from contagious diseases. I’ll cover some practical suggestions about that as well.

American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior Position Statement on Puppy Socialization

What Does Socialization Mean?

There is a good summary in the position statement:

Veterinarians specializing in behavior recommend that owners take advantage of every safe opportunity to expose young puppies to the great variety of stimuli that they will experience in their lives. –AVSAB Position Statement on Puppy Socialization 

Let me emphasize the word “safe.” This refers not only to hygiene and protecting puppies’ immune systems. It also covers the type of exposures that are appropriate for puppies.

You will see in the movie that Zip is observing the world and experiencing new environments, with direct, deliberate associations by Marge with pleasurable experiences like great food and play. Remember how Marge taught Zip that she was fun and that learning was fun? In today’s clips, which represent a tiny percentage of her daily work with Zip, she is teaching him that the world can be fun.

Zip watching some student athletes. Note the rug--and the spray cheese!
Zip watching some student athletes. Note the rug–and the spray cheese!

We see him at a retirement home, at the sports fields, the bookstore, a strip mall, a parking lot, the lobby at the vet office, and the hardware store. And Marge says, don’t forget to build good associations to the car, too!

She is also doing preemptive work. With puppies, we don’t generally have the luxury of going out and doing strict classical conditioning separately on every possible thing they will encounter.  We don’t have a tractor day, a bicycle day, or a mailman day, when all other stimuli retreat. But when you have a blank slate, you can take action that will either head off possible negative associations to sudden events (management) or, if you are lucky, work towards creating a positive association. For instance, you will see Marge give Zip a slurp from the food tube* when a car goes by or when another dog fusses in the vet office. She does this as soon as he perceives these things and does not wait to see if he reacts. In formal classical conditioning one would probably wait a couple of beats before causing the food to appear, and have more controlled exposures. We don’t always have that luxury in real life, but often with puppies we don’t need it.

When we are consistent about the general pairing of sudden events with goodies, the dog can get both the classical association (a motorcycle–great, that predicts salmon!) and the operant behavior (I think I’ll reorient to my human to help that salmon along!). 

A Note on Hygiene

Common sense will take you a long way here. One way pups can get exposed to infectious diseases is through the bacteria present in dog feces. If you take your pup to a class, make sure that the hosts of the class use disinfectant cleaners before the class, as suggested in the position statement above. When doing socialization on the road,  people can minimize a pup’s exposure to pathogens by setting it down on a rug when in public. When the pup is very small, it can be carried, then placed on a mat or rug for minimal exposure (see the sidewalk picture above). Later on when you let the pup walk about, steer him away from unknown animals (obviously!), trash, and feces. And avoid dog parks, where all three of these are generally present.

What Is Marge Not Doing?

There are also some things that people assume fall under socialization which have hidden force in them (flooding), and can really backfire. This happens a lot with puppies and fearful adult dogs with perfectly well-meaning humans.

So what don’t we see? We don’t see a bunch of strangers petting Zip. We don’t see him being lured up to children to get treats from them. We don’t see a “pass the puppy” exercise (where puppy owners sit in a circle and hand the puppies around to each other).  All of these scenarios can create or exacerbate fear, as the puppy is put into strange situations with insufficient control over the scenario and insufficient support from his owner.

Let me repeat: leading puppies or shy or fearful dogs up to strangers to have the stranger give them a treat is a really bad idea that unfortunately has made its way into the cultural mythology about “how to introduce dogs to people.” Here’s why not to do that. 

Zip has indeed met plenty of people and kids (not covered in this video). This was done in a controlled way, one at a time, and performed with lots of breaks. Marge herself handled the food and/or toys until Zip was entirely comfortable with the person. 

What’s The Goal?

People naturally have different goals with their dogs. Since almost every dog will be handled by a vet and will meet strangers in its lifetime, exposure to different people and careful handling are both beneficial in the formative weeks, the so-called socialization window. But dogs don’t have to be social butterflies. As dogs grow older and their temperament becomes apparent, many will not want to interact with and like every human (or every dog) they meet, and they don’t need to.

I write frequently about my formerly feral dog Clara, and will soon be publishing an update on her own–extended–socialization process. I missed her socialization window, so for several years have been doing a slow-motion version of what Marge and many others do with their puppies. Interestingly, Clara is showing herself to be a curious and extroverted dog. I think she would have been extremely people-friendly had she not been raised feral. I take that into account when considering my goals with her. Given the chance, she probably would have been a social butterfly. So, belatedly, I’m giving her that chance. Our activities would be a bit different if she weren’t turning out to be so gregarious. 

Likewise, the video is not a tutorial on how to socialize YOUR puppy.  Each puppy is an individual and has different needs.  This video provides a sampling of how Marge is expanding Zip’s world beyond the confines of her house.

Link to the video for email subscribers.

Got any good socialization tips? People can always use good ideas about this.

Related Posts

Life Lessons for My Puppy (all)

Other Good Stuff

Eileenanddogs on YouTube

Marge’s Channel on YouTube: Subscribe and see Zip’s next lesson!

Marge’s FaceBook business page: Rewarded Behavior Continues

* Marge and I both use food tubes for high value treat delivery. We use Coghlan’s tubes, which can be bought at REI and other places online.  I’ll do a whole blog  on food tubes and what to put in them one of these days. You have to get the right consistency. Most high end pâté style canned dog foods (not chunky) work well. 

Theme: Overlay by Kaira Extra Text
Cape Town, South Africa