Applauding Bee's Resilience, and a Note on Rude Puppies and Behaviour Chains

Applauding Bee’s Resilience…

When I first started walking Bee, she couldn’t pass another walker’s group on a path in the park.  A dog within 5ft-10ft of her caused her to flee, and if cornered she’d snap.  Her original owner purchased her as a pup from PJ’s (read: puppy mill) only to leave her in a crate for long hours for the majority of her first year – definitely not a situation the promoted a well-socialized dog! Luckily, this person eventually thought better of keeping Bee in this situation, and re-homed her to a lovely couple who could better meet her needs. A dog’s early life (genetic, prenatal, neonatal, and puppyhood) has a profound effect on later life, and Bee is a good example of this. When I started walking Bee, her owners left her harness and leash on her so I would have no need to touch her to get her in and out of the house.  She stayed on leash in the park, and we hid off to the side of the trail to let other dogs pass. Luckily, she would stay under threshold so long as there was no risk of a dog getting in her space.

My promise to her: any stressful situation would always be predictive of something great to come, and that I would not put her ‘in over her head’ and expect her to fend for herself.  Other dogs in the vicinity always = delicious treats, and once she trusted me I was able to pick her up if we met a dog in the park who would not leave her alone.  As a side note here… Contrary to popular opinion, I take no issue with picking up small dogs in specific circumstances.  The biggest risk I see is that an owner may not heed their dog’s threshold, therefore putting the dog in a situation with which they cannot cope, and consequently picking them up.  Reinforcement is a function of operant conditioning – regarding behaviours, not emotion – so it is technically impossible to ‘reinforce’ fear.  While the conversation around this topic is a bit more complex than that, the end result is that picking up a dog can reasonably be used as a form of management to prevent an emotional/behavioural reaction or to quickly put an end to a poorly managed situation. (At which point the handler should re-evaluate their management protocol.)

As the months passed, Bee became increasingly comfortable around both the dogs she is regularly walked with and eventually dogs that she comes in contact with in the park.  She now regularly plays with the dogs in the group (preferring to be the chaser, though once or twice has had fun being the chasee!), and has also played with ‘stranger dogs’.

This spring, Bee’s walking world was shaken… I took a 14wk Portugese Water Dog pup into the group.  As puppies are prone to do, Maggie has a tendency of getting in other dogs’ faces, and it takes a lot of management to keep her from doing so.  Now that Maggie is off-leash and almost 6mo, she has developed a particular fondness for one little black shih tzu. And Maggie demonstrates this fondness by coming at dogs like this:

Throughout the years in my group, Bee has developed such an impressive resilience to dogs invading her space.  While I am in charge of keeping Maggie otherwise busy, she will occasionally rush at Bee in a terrifyingly puppyish way.  Bee’s response, without fail, is to duck the puppy’s cannon-ball approach and immediately run to me with bright eyes and wagging tail, ready to collect her treat.   Bee’s recovery is just about instantaneous. This is classical counter conditioning at work!

…and a Note on Rude Puppies and Behaviour Chains

This all begs the question… what to do about rude puppies? (i.e. all puppies?)  A common response is to say, “leave the dogs be, they can handle themselves and the adult dog will show the pup her limits by snarking at her.”  I agree in part: a puppy can’t run hog-wild over every dog in the area.  But I also don’t think that it should be the other dogs’ responsibility to ‘discipline’ a puppy when they have no say in whether they are in the same vicinity as her.  Nor do I think it is a good idea to trust that any particular dog will respond appropriately to a pup in their face, this considering the intensity of their response as well as the level of their acquired bite inhibition.  In my situation, Bee has a long history of being very uncomfortable with dogs in her space and it’s taken a lot of time and effort to get her to the point she is at today. I am not keen on encouraging a new, aggressive response to these dogs by letting a puppy (twice her size!) pursue her as she tries to put distance between her and the pup.

I am taking a three pronged approach to keeping all dogs in the group happy and comfortable, but I will use Bee as an example of Maggie’s dog-of-interest:

1. Basic management

If I’m preoccupied or otherwise unable to keep an eye specifically on Maggie and Bee (Maggie moves quick!), I will pick up the leash I leave dragging from Maggie’s harness and simply prevent her access to Bee.  This is not training her not to dive-bomb, but it is preventing her from doing it when I am not in a position to train her otherwise.  Effective management is the first step in effective training.

2. Recall training

I’ve been working on Maggie’s recall training since she came into the group, starting on leash working up to holding the end of a long line, and now as she is off-leash with a leash or long line dragging from her harness.  So far, there has not been a situation that Maggie will not recall from.  She will come from smelling, from playing, or from chewing a tree…

3. “Time out for interference”

Maggie will recall mid-dive bomb or as she is crouched and wiggling like a cat ready to pounce.  However, I don’t want to rely primarily on a recall to stop her from torturing Bee.  The danger of this lies in behaviour chains. When training a dog with positive reinforcement, the cue not only acts as a ‘green light’ for a behaviour (“do this now”) it can also act as a reinforcer (tertiary reinforcer, to be precise).  This means that if I recall Maggie as she is hurtling towards Bee, I am actually reinforcing that behaviour.  Her name (my recall cue) is associated with coming to me, hearing the marker word, and receiving a treat.  If Maggie is recalled every time she runs at Bee, she will quickly see the trend “Running at Bee causes the person to call me”.  I am not keen on destroying Maggie’s recall by modifying what a recall means (ie. pair it with something aversive, or even a lack of positive reinforcement), and I am certainly not keen on teaching Maggie to tackle Bee because she knows that I will recall her when she does it!

From here, there’s two parts to this training.  First is to mark/reinforce any non-tackling interactions with Bee.  That may be looking at her, looking at her and turning away, running past her without heeding her, etc.  Basically anything she does close to Bee without bugging her.  The second part is to utilize negative punishment – that is, removing something Maggie enjoys as a consequence that will reduce the frequency/intensity of a behaviour.  That ‘something’ is Maggie’s off-leash freedom.  Every time she heads in for a tackle, I use a marker word to indicate her infringement, and pick up her leash for little bit.  Dive-bombing Bee = Maggie goes on-leash.  The marker word may be up for debate, depending who you speak with: I choose to use it because I want to mark the precise behaviour that results in being put on-leash, since I may take a couple seconds to actually pick up the leash. The down side is that some dogs may be evasive when they hear the word because it indicates that they are going to be put on-leash.  Because of this, and ease of implementing the consequence, I leave the leash or long line dragging so I am able to step on it if she does try to avoid me after I use the marker word.  To date, though, this hasn’t been an issue, though I am prepared to modify my approach if it becomes a problem. It’s a trade-off that I’m comfortable with.

Puppies can be trying for a group of mostly mature dogs, so luckily I have a sidekick who helps to keep Maggie busy. Or, come to think of it, maybe Maggie is Chaya’s sidekick and they’re both out to keep ME busy…