Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Territorial Barking

I had a client call me yesterday to complain about her dog barking at her back fence, driving one of her neighbors nuts.  She said the neighbor had been pretty nice the first time he came over to talk about the dog barking at their shared fence, but the neighbor's most recent visit was a good deal less "neighborly." I definitely understood her frustration. I have male collies, so I know firsthand just how annoying territorial barking can be!

Dogs bark at the fence for a couple of different reasons.  First and foremost, they are guardians of your yard and home, so they bark to let you know when there are any changes in the area.  Some reserve their barks for actual "intruders," such as gardeners, pool cleaners, etc., but many bark any time someone walks by the fence.  Or walks by on the other side of the street.  Or when a bird lands on the fence. Or the squirrels run by. Or the wind blows and makes the fence moan.  You get the picture. Territorial barking varies in frequency and intensity depending on the dog and depending on your response to the barking.

First off, don't just yell at them to knock it off.  They are doing their job, so you yelling just makes it worse because they don't think you understand the importance of the situation.  Go find out why your dog is barking.  Even if you aren't sure, meaning there isn't an obvious reason to you for their barking, go find out and acknowledge them.  Once you've done that, then tell them to be quiet and redirect their attention elsewhere.  Don't call them using the word "come," however, because calling them away from barking isn't something they will perceive as a positive experience. You want to use the "come" command only for those situations where your dog will perceive coming to you as a plus.  Trust me, they'd rather bark at the fence!  Try whistling or clapping your hands to get their attention and then offer an alternative activity. If you want them to come inside, squeak a toy and toss it in the house for them to chase.  Or, better yet, whistle to get their attention, ask them for something fun like touch or shake, and then toss a treat inside for them to chase after.  This makes coming away from the fence and discontinuing barking a lot more interesting for your dog.

If your dog is barking at your neighbors when they are in their own yard, keep in mind that they do this because that fence is shared; your neighbor thinks they own the fence, but your dog KNOWS the fence is actually his!  Make running that shared fence line less desirable by putting up a pointy, picket fence a foot in front of it, or prickly plants, or wobbly stones to discourage rushing the fence. You can even use motion activated sprinklers to spray your dog with water to discourage running that shared fence line.  And remember that while you may be able to control your dog's barking when you are home, all bets are off when you aren't there to respond to their barking with a consequence. Thus, hyper vigilant dogs should be confined to their crates, kept indoors, or put in their dog run away from those shared fences so they are less likely to disrupt the neighborhood.

And if you are lucky, your neighbors will appreciate the work your dogs do to keep the neighborhood safe. One of my neighbors believes that the reason her house didn't get broken into like the one two doors up from her this past summer is because anyone breaking in would have to try to sneak in along the side of her house and that's a fence line that Ozzie guards meticulously.  He's got a big bark and she tells him how good he is when he barks there at her gardener and her pool guy.  She told me she feels safer knowing he's keeping an eye on things.  The neighbors on the other side aren't nearly as appreciative of his hard work, so I call him off of their fence to make sure we are being neighborly. It's a constant job monitoring a barking dog, but barking is something dogs do well (and often) and one of the reasons we domesticated them in the first place.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

Ozzie on fence patrol. He makes the rounds in the yard several times a day.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

New Things Can Be Scary!

I had the pleasure recently of hearing Temple Grandin speak regarding her lifelong research on livestock behavior. If you aren't familiar with Dr. Grandin, she is a professor of animal science and a spokesperson for people on the autism spectrum. It is fascinating to hear her discuss learning differences in humans as well as other animals.

During her recent presentation, she discussed how sudden novel or new experiences are frightening to animals as well as to some people with autism. However, if you allow people and animals to approach those new things at their own pace and by their own choosing, they are more readily accepted than when those novel things are just suddenly introduced without allowing  for choice.  While this may not seem groundbreaking, it is, nonetheless, incredibly important.  Here's an example from the world of dogs.

I have a new client who was sent my way by her veterinarian.  She and her 10 month old puppy had been working with a dog trainer who had been "pushing" the dog to interact with children, despite the fact that the puppy has always been hesitant around kids and mostly avoidant. Her vet was afraid that the dog would not only not get over his fear of kids, but that it might spill over into aggression if the dog felt cornered or threatened. If we think about what Dr. Grandin said above, forcing this puppy to meet and interact with kids is just causing more fear and resistance.  If, instead, we allow the puppy to make choices when in the presence of kids, he should be more likely, over time, to accept them as he has other humans. To test this, I went with the client and her puppy to the park.  We walked around the park, letting her puppy choose what he wanted to do.  He sniffed (A LOT), chased a few squirrels, let a few adults pet him, etc.  When we sat down on a bench near the soccer field where kids were playing, her puppy at first resisted, trying to escape.  When he realized we weren't going to make him go out on the field, he started to relax, and then relaxed completely and could take treats while cautiously watching the kids run around.  For our next meeting, we met outside a school where we could watch the kids on the playground, but where the kids wouldn't approach us given that it was during the school day.  The puppy was, again, nervous at first, but after about 30 minutes, he settled down to watch the kids and chew on a bone.  I had the owner do these same activities with her puppy every day for 2 weeks; they just watched kids from a safe distance.  After two weeks, her puppy was no longer focused on kids, or nervous in their presence.  At this point, we were ready to start bringing kids around him that he could choose to interact with or not.  After 3 months of this, allowing the puppy to make the choices, we discovered that not only did her puppy finally seek out some kids, he was better in general with all kids. He definitely has preferences with regard to kids (he prefers the older, quieter kids who ignore him at first), but he is better around all kids overall.

I just want to leave you with one more fun tidbit from Dr. Grandin's presentation.  She reviewed some research which found that fear is a strong stressor for young dogs, and those dogs who are fearful of loud noises or unfamiliar people, actually turn prematurely gray on their muzzles! Glad we got this puppy on the right track before his sweet little brown face went gray!

If you would like to read more about Dr. Grandin and her research, pick up a copy of one of her books, "Animals in Translation" or "Animals Make Us Human."

Ozzie has never been a fan of the wading pool.  If you were to try to force him to go in it, he would actively resist. If, however, you put a small amount of water and a ton of ice cubes in it, and walk away, he will eventually approach the pool on his own and carefully select ice cubes for himself to eat. Thus, while he loves ice, he doesn't love the pool.  He has to be given the opportunity to choose on his own, and at his own pace, to find this activity rewarding on a hot summer day.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Fear Memories

When Ozzie was 12 weeks old, he was out on a walk when he became completely overwhelmed by the approach of several kids on skateboards and scooters.  They came right at him on the sidewalk, popped the curb, and zoomed away.  From that day forward, he has been afraid of skateboards and scooters.  No amount of desensitization has convinced him otherwise.  Seeing his family on skates, skateboards, and scooters still creates anxiety.  That's what is meant by the term "fear memory."

Fear memories are usually visual or auditory (or both in Ozzie's case) and are an example of situational learning. Dogs respond to fear memories by wanting to freeze, fight, or in Ozzie's case, flee.  He is now 5 years old and while he doesn't bolt when he sees or hears skateboards or scooters anymore, he is still hyper-vigilant.  Some days go better than others, meaning on some days I can get him to sit next to me as we watch the evil wheeled objects go by.  I remind him that I've got his back and that I won't let them come near him.  I don't try to minimize his fear because to him, it's a very real issue.  I don't reinforce his fear by trying to give him treats (he wouldn't take them anyway!).  What I do is stand with him and we face it together.  And then there are other days when all he wants to do is race speedy quick and get past the wheeled demons as fast as possible.  I can't predict which way it will go as the fear memory is Ozzie's, not mine.  I think it depends on how he is feeling in general that day.

Ozzie isn't alone with his fear memories. I meet dogs every day who are afraid of men in hats, people of color, kids, crying babies, loud trucks, etc.  Sometimes, we can't figure out the specific, first trigger, but that doesn't make the fear any less real or important for the dog. Avoiding those things that trigger the fear memory is possible in some cases, but not always.  You need to walk your dog and you have no way of knowing if someone else will be out walking with a hat on, for example. So, instead of getting frustrated and trying to avoid those situations, move through them with your dog.  Don't panic. Don't cue them to the issue (believe me, if there is a fear memory at play here, they don't need you to cue them!).  Don't force them to lay down in the presence of their nemesis.  Do position yourself in a supportive/protective way.  You can place a hand on your dog if that reinforces your support of them. Acknowledge whatever it is and remind them that they can survive this.  See if you can get them to sniff the ground, look for birds or squirrels, etc., anything that competes with their fear memory for attention in their brain.  Hopefully, over time, your dog will come to see that while they still must remain vigilant, their vigilance won't keep them (or you) from enjoying those walks.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

The beach is one of Ozzie's favorite places to walk. 
No scooters or skateboards and plenty of birds to chase!

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Cooperative Care

I've seen several articles about "cooperative care," that is, allowing animals to take part in the process of delivering their medical or grooming needs. Whether you are training an animal to remain calm for vaccines or xrays, or having them hold still for a nail trim, giving them the opportunity to be part of the process, make choices, and see the consequences, isn't really all that novel of an idea.  For years when I worked in the zoo environment, we taught animals to participate voluntarily in their own care and husbandry. Training bears to offer an arm for a vaccine or training a dolphin to offer a fin for a blood draw is something that zoo animal caretakers routinely work on.  When it comes to our companion animals, however, it seems that this notion of cooperative care has fallen by the wayside. Giving animals choices and the opportunity to escape if they become overwhelmed is one way to avoid undue stress and escalating aggression.  Here's an example.

Let's say you have a Labrador who suffers from repeated ear infections.  Ear infections hurt and many dogs resist the ear exams and cleanings as well as the medication that must be put in twice daily until the infection is resolved. Owners end up wrestling with their dogs to clean the ears and medicate them, often resulting in more medication on themselves the floor and the walls than in the dog's ears!  If, instead, owners train their dogs to rest their heads on a pillow in order to receive head petting and treats, and then move on to ear exams, cleanings, and medicating with their head on the pillow, then the animal is learning that it has a choice.  They consent to put their head on the pillow and remain there in order to receive the final reward.  If they are taught to do this, they also learn that they can lift their head off of the pillow and move away at any time without consequence, but doing so also means that there will be no treats or petting. So, is the dog really making a choice or giving consent?  Perhaps not since we are in essence asking them to put up with an aversive stimuli. However, by pairing that aversive stimuli with a high value reinforcer (food and attention), we are giving them a choice; all behavior is choice. In fact, you can give dogs choices with regard to tasks and base the reinforcers that you give them on the difficulty level of the tasks.  Thus, putting the chin on the pillow for pats and a simple ear exam could be assigned a smaller or less desirable reinforcer (say, a smaller or less valuable treat), than the reinforcer given for submitting to an ear cleaning and medication. They still need the ability to say "Stop!" and we must provide an escape in order for this to be cooperative medical care.

So, what about just smearing peanut butter on the wall of the shower and letting your dog lick that off while you clean and medicate their ears?  The peanut butter is high value, but you are doing nothing more than distracting your dog from the task.  You may get the job done faster this way, but you may also get to the point where this no longer works and you can't get your dog into the shower stall no matter how much peanut butter you spread on the wall! The moral of this story? Dogs like to predict what is happening to them, not be surprised.

Here's the bottom line:  If you want to be able to trim your dog's nails without a lot of drama, you need to train them to do so willingly.  Train them to offer a paw first.  Build up to holding and squeezing the paw without them pulling away.  If they pull away, the treats and attention stop.  I know it can be slow going and maybe you only clip one or two nails (or maybe even just one paw!) each day, but over time, you end up with a dog who is less agitated and aroused by nail trims and more likely to cooperate in them because he has a choice.

As always, if you have questions about your pet's behavior, you know where to find me.

I have trained Ozzie to offer his paw for me to dremmel his nails. This took time and patience to do as he was initially terrified of the sound of the dremmel. You can see a small treat on the floor next to the dremmel. Ozzie looks down at that treat while I dremmel his nails.  He knows he can have that treat and more for completing the nail dremmeling process.  He also knows that if it becomes too much, he can walk away, but there won't be any treats for him in that case.