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Teaching Reactive Dogs A New Habit, Part II: “Look At That!”

CLICK! Look at Mom Treat!

Dogs that react very quickly to certain stimuli are often trained as hearing alert dogs; these dogs don’t miss a thing, and are trained to alert their handlers to important sounds. Other dogs are very visual and super vigilant about visual changes going on around them. Many dogs learn to react to changes in their environment out of stress, anxiety, or fear that develops from these states. If dogs learn to react to new things entering their environment by barking and lunging, they become difficult to train for anything – even going on a nice walk with the family. We want the dog to notice what’s coming into his field of perception, we just want to teach him how to respond in a way that works for everyone.

Previously, I wrote about a training technique that you can use almost “in the moment,” when you’re out with your dog and a trigger stimulus — something that tends to make the dog react – appears in your vicinity. That is the “Open Bar” technique (see Teaching Reactive Dogs a New Habit, Part I: “Open Bar”.) In this article, I’ll explain a technique called “Look at That!” which breaks the process down into even smaller, more controllable pieces so that you can easily set up practice sessions and your dog can learn it very quickly. I like to use both techniques, interchanging them as needed, to prevent a problem from occurring, or to change the behavior once it has reared its ugly head. The most recent and well-known version of “Look at That!” is explained in wonderful detail in a book called Control Unleashed by Leslie McDevitt.

The target behavior is for the dog to do a ‘chained’ behavior of (1) Look at Something, then (2) Look at Owner. It’s helpful to use a clicker to mark the dog looking at something in the beginning stages in order to reinforce both individual parts of the behavior. The best way to practice this is to find a comfortable place to sit or stand outside with the dog on a leash; somewhere familiar with people, dogs, and bikes going by regularly but at a low frequency. Pretend to mind your own business, but focus fully on the dog so as to be able to notice when he looks at something. When he turns his head away to look at something, click. He is likely to immediately turn back to look at you — give him a treat. It’s just that simple. If your dog is unfamiliar with a clicker, he’ll look at you to see what the sound was. When you give him the treat, he’ll begin to understand that when he hears the click, a treat is on the way. If your dog is afraid of the click, try another marker: use the word, “Yes!” pronounced softly but happily; it will mark the behavior just as the click will.

You can use this training game with puppies to prevent the development of reactive behavior. It’s a game, and it’s fun for puppies to discover what behavior makes you click and give him a treat. You can also use it to change reactive behavior once it has developed. Don’t start with the thing that most concerns the dog. If the reactive behavior of barking and lunging is toward other dogs when on leash, start teaching the behavior with cars that pass by, bicycles, or pedestrians. You can start teaching the behavior while the dog is indoors, and the two of you are looking through a window at birds, squirrels, cars, or just about anything. Then move outside, once the dog is doing the behavior of looking and then turning to you. Only after the behavior is pretty reliable should you practice with the real trigger – another dog or whatever it is. Set the exercise up with plenty of distance between your dog and the other dog; invite a friend with a calm, relaxed dog to help you.

Although we call this behavior, “Look at That,” it’s not necessary to tell the dog to do it; he will look at something at some point – you capture that behavior by clicking and giving a treat, and you’ve done one repetition. You can teach the dog to “Look at That” on your verbal cue once he is reliably offering this behavior, usually after several training sessions. Add the cue words just as he’s turning to look at something, click, then treat. Once he’s responding consistently to the words, you’ll be able to tell him to “Look at That!” and he’ll turn to look wherever you’re facing or pointing. Always reinforce this, because you want him to choose to happily “Look,” rather than other behaviors such as barking and lunging. Always practice this, because it has far-reaching effects which include looking to you for guidance, a valuable attitude that can really enhance your relationship with your dog and make training any behavior go a lot better. Putting “Look at That” on the verbal cue is not necessary to get the benefits this behavior offers; it’s just a development you can add. Even when you put the behavior on cue, continue to reinforce the default behavior of looking at something that could be disturbing to your dog and then looking back at you so you don’t miss out on the benefits of your dog choosing to check in with you instead of responding emotionally to something that concerns him.

“Look at That” may be difficult to understand until you’ve tried doing it with your dog. If you resist the urge to complicate it, and view it as simply a head turn toward something followed by a head turn toward yourself, you will reap the benefits of your dog paying attention to you more often and of him choosing to look to you for guidance rather than take matters into his own paws when he is concerned and is likely to go into his previous behavior of barking his head off at something.

With diligent and consistent work on this behavior, and lots and lots of positive reinforcement, you’ll begin to see your dog look purposefully at something and then at you as if to say, “Did you see me look at that? I get a treat for that, right?” At that point, you know you’ve successfully communicated to your dog what you want, and he is responding to an old cue in a new way. Bingo.

This training game, like most others, works through classical conditioning of an emotional response along with operant conditioning of a behavior. Classical conditioning changes the dog’s emotional response from defense toward a threat to anticipation of something good; operant conditioning is reinforcing the action of turning to look at something new in the dog’s environment followed by turning to look at you. This is powerful stuff and you’ll be changing your dog’s perception of something new in his environment from threatening to the source of a game with you. You’ll see the difference in his perception when he starts looking at what was previously a trigger to bark and lunge, then looking at you, and if you miss that first series of what he’s looking at, he’ll repeat the chain again as though to say, “Hey, do you see what I’m doing?! Where’s my treat?”

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The Trading Protocol for Prevention and Treatment of Resource Guarding in Dogs

Resource Guarding is a perfectly natural behavior for dogs, and can serve a valuable purpose if they are feral, living on their own, and having to find and protect food, sleeping areas, their puppies, and themselves from harm. The dogs we live with and the dogs we rescue have no need to guard their resources, but they don’t always know that. A dog can become dangerous when Resource Guarding goes awry or is taken to a higher level. We see this so often with our rescue dogs: sometimes they were raised in sub-standard situations, did not learn the foundation behaviors necessary for dogs to live productively in homes with humans, and sometimes they even lived in a group of dogs with little human supervision and fewer resources than necessary, resulting in their developing Resource Guarding behaviors for good reason that they bring with them into their new lives. Resource Guarding is a common basis for aggressive behavior in dogs. In their view, they’re just trying to hold onto things they like; but when they bite people in order to do so, it can lead to a very bad ending to what could have been a really nice story.

Prevention is Best

It’s best to start every dog off right by working to prevent Resource Guarding behaviors before you even see them occur. I like to begin teaching every dog I meet that I am no threat to them, I will always offer them something in trade for anything they have, and that I will not be so rude as to try to snatch things away from them.

When we’ve just met a dog, we don’t know him any better than he knows us. We don’t know if he’s ever met a person like ourselves: deep-voiced, high-voiced, hat-wearing, high-energy or slow and lumbering; having good or poor dog interaction skills; responsive to the dog’s communications or not; tall or short, fat or thin, dark-skinned or light. Which one are you, and how is the dog responding to your manner?

We don’t even know if a dog has met very many people before at all. We certainly don’t know how anyone he’s met has behaved toward him, or what habits he’s developed in interacting with humans. It’s best to be polite as we get to know him, just as we would toward a human we’ve just met. To a dog, that means allowing him to approach us rather than approaching him first, dropping a slip lead over his head rather than grabbing for his collar, and asking him if he’d like to trade what he has in his mouth for a super-yummy treat.

Why Would a Dog Give Up Something He Likes?

When a dog has something in his mouth, a chewie, a bone, a toy, a stick, a dead bird, or whatever else he deems valuable enough to hold onto, we must offer something even more valuable to him if we want him to choose to drop that item. That may sometimes mean simply a piece of kibble, especially if it’s offered in the right way. (***See Note below about adding value to treats.) Some situations call for an especially good-tasting dog treat. In the case of a dead bird with some dogs, you may need a piece of steak to trade; a dead bird can be quite a treasure if you’re a canine! Remember, guarding what they like and want to keep is a natural behavior; we have to carefully teach dogs what we want them to do instead, and we have to make it worth their while to do what we want instead of what comes naturally to them.

To offer a trade to a dog, simply hold a small piece of food that you’re sure he will like just in front of his nose while he’s holding the item you’d like him to drop. Chances are that he’ll smell the treat and open his mouth to eat it, and guess what? Whatever he had in his mouth will fall out onto the floor!

This is the point at which you should be careful to try to hold onto the treat as he nibbles it, or to have a few treats in your hand and roll them into your fingers one at a time, feeding him the whole time you reach for and pick up the dropped item. The goal is to keep the dog relaxed and comfortable, eating the entire time, never feeling threatened or thinking that he needs to defend himself or his precious treasure from you. If you were reading a magazine, you wouldn’t want anyone to snatch it out of your hands, would you? If someone put his hands on something you had, you’d be likely to pull it back from them. We don’t want to put a dog in that position, especially a dog we barely know.

With a new dog, watch him closely as you feed him and reach for the dropped item; this is a time when he might surprise you by snapping as you grab the item. Lure his face over to one side, away from the dropped treasure, while you keep feeding him and pick up the item. We’re distracting him, but we’re also keeping him happily eating rather than worried about what he might be losing. We’re conditioning him – setting him up for the next time he has something in his mouth that we want. Preventing a bad experience for the dog and yourself is much better than allowing it to happen and then trying to fix it.

We certainly want to practice this behavior many times with a new dog, in order to help him develop a habit of happily releasing anything we ask for. We don’t want to do it over and over and over on his first day in our home, though. Do it once or twice that first day, giving the new dog a chance to enjoy a bone or chewie for a while, safely in his crate. Practice this exercise each day. You can increase the number of times you do it each day, and the number of times you do it during each practice session, as time goes on. You will begin to see your dog release items more readily, you’ll see him begin bringing his treasures closer to you, and ultimately he’ll begin bringing things to you, perhaps dropping them at your feet, looking to you for a treat.

As this behavior develops, you can begin adding a cue like “Drop it” or “Give” or one I like, “Thank you,” saying the words just as the dog is dropping the item. Begin holding your hand under his mouth to catch the item and later, ask him to get the item a second time if it drops on the floor instead of in your hand. Once he’s reliably dropping things in your hand, begin moving your hand upward a bit at a time and you’ll have him delivering things to your hand up in your lap in no time! Be sure to give him his treat every time; just ask the tiniest bit more of him with each repetition of the behavior. This is just how you train a solid retrieve for a service dog, hunting dog, or competition dog; and it’s just that easy. But the most important thing is that he’s learning how great it is to give you things he has. This means you can easily get your shoe back after you’ve carelessly left it out and the dog has decided it’s a wonderful toy!

Angus was devoted to retrieving newspapers. That behavior was created through positive reinforcement.

One of my favorite things to do with the “Trading Protocol” is to catch a moment when my dog has a toy, ask him to give it to me, give him a treat, and pretend to examine the item to see if it’s good enough for him to play with. I’ll even say things about it like, “Only the best for Angus! Let me check it out – is this a good toy?” as I look it over. Then I give it back, saying, “I think it’s good enough. Here you go!” It’s light-hearted and fun, it teaches a good lesson, and my dog gets a double reinforcement — a treat plus he gets his toy back! This is great preparation for those moments when you need to get something from your dog and you really can’t give it back — those dead bird moments. You probably won’t give back a dead bird, but he doesn’t know that. How about two treats for a dead bird? Seems fair.

The most important reason to trade dogs treats for other items is to prevent them from developing that behavior we’ve seen all too often: taking an item, lying down with it and threatening anyone who comes near, whether or not the person was planning to take the item away. Always respect a dog’s threat, because he’s not kidding. A growl means, “I feel threatened. I don’t really want to bite you, but I will if I need to. Please change this situation.” A growl is your cue to take the pressure off, to defuse the situation. Take the dog, yourself, someone else, or another dog out of that picture so the threatened dog feels better. It’s also something to take note of: put the “Trading Protocol” into action with this dog. But give him a chance to cool down before doing so. You want to start with the dog relaxed and comfortable, secure and not feeling threatened. And don’t start with that same item he was willing to guard so fiercely. Start with something far less valuable. Make sure the dog is in that relaxed frame of mind throughout your training session. We want him to learn to enjoy that relaxed feeling that comes over him while eating those yummy treats and learning not to feel threatened.

Remember that some of the adult dogs we meet already have a strong habit of feeling threatened in these situations. Don’t feel inadequate if you can’t change that right away. Revel in the joy of seeing dogs improve quickly when they do and know for sure that even when you don’t see immediate improvement, the dog is learning and the behavior is improving, even if at a level you can barely see; follow the protocol and you can improve it. Be sure do your part to prevent Resource Guarding behavior from getting worse.

Puppies

Practice this with puppies when you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, in order to prevent Resource Guarding from ever developing. (Note that you may see resource guarding behavior even in some puppies; remember it’s a natural behavior. Puppies start learning as soon as they’re born, so they are never really a “blank slate.”

There are certainly other things that dogs consider resources worth guarding, like couches, beds, rooms, doorways, dog beds, food or water bowls, their own bodies/personal space, and even people. I think teaching dogs the “Trading Protocol” helps in these areas too, because it begins teaching them that there’s abundance in their lives; there’s plenty of stuff for them, plenty of food, and plenty of room, so there’s no need to guard anything. You can practice “trading” in these situations too. It’s simple conditioning. The lesson is, “I know you like that thing you have, and I might let you keep it sometimes. But if I can’t let you keep that item, I’ll make sure you get something just as good or better.”

***Note: As we continue with a dog’s training, by offering treats in the same way each time, he will begin to understand that your hand in just that position as a cue that he’ll be getting a treat; so holding your hand in that way becomes a bit of a reinforcement or reward on its own. Then when the dog gets the treat, it’s already more valuable than it would have been based on just its taste and food value. Holding your hand in that particular position is a “marker” for the dog; because it leads to a yummy treat, it becomes a conditioned reinforcer – one that if it’s always followed by the treat, reinforces the dog’s behavior in and of itself. Combined with this now conditioned hand position, even a piece of kibble can become a pretty good reinforcer for dropping an item. Think of how a clicker extends the reinforcement process, letting the dog know he’s about to get a treat – your hand in a certain position can be the same type of stimulus. The reinforcement begins when your hand appears, and continues through the time the dog is chewing and swallowing the treat. I generally offer treats to my own dogs between the tips of my thumb and forefinger. I’ll sometimes present them to a new dog on my flat palm. Just one more hint of the power of behavior science when applied to the details of training.