Possessiveness

Sometimes people ask me, “Are your dogs perfect?” And my honest answer is: no. In large part, this is because there are things I just don’t care enough about to put in the training time. But another large part is that nothing stays the same, including dogs.

For instance: I think Lily’s losing her hearing. For a long while I thought she was just being stubborn when I called her to come, but now I’m not so sure. I’m not tuning up her recall because, well, what if she can’t hear me? So her recall is failing and until I know one way or the other, I’m just not going to worry about it.

Another for instance, and the point of this particular post: Doc got possessive. I’ve had him for a year and a half now, which means any issues he’s still dealing with probably don’t have to do with him being a rescue, they have to do with him and me. (Note: this is a rough rule of thumb, with a lot of exceptions.)

He’s never shown signs of possessiveness before, but about six months ago he started getting possessive of bones with Lily. He tried some growls and snaps, and he got in big trouble for it (poked by me and chased off, his bone given to Lily), then rewarded for tolerating her (praise and pets when he had his bone and he wasn’t being a bully to her while she was wandering around/sniffing it, etc.). The praise worked better than the poking with him, so I used that a lot more once I noticed, and he got over his issue in a couple of weeks.

Skip to six weeks (or so) ago, and he’s trying to be possessive of ME, with Cash. Mostly when we were snuggling or I was petting him, and Cash would come up to say, “Me too!” Doc would growl and try to nose Cash away, and went as far as snapping at him a time or two. Because I was standing right there, I’d push Doc away (to the other end of the couch, or chase him off a few feet if I were standing), then pay attention to Cash, THEN call Doc back over and love on him, too. Again, when Cash came up and I could see Doc wasn’t happy about it – turning his face away, ears pinching along his head, whites of the eyes showing – I would praise Doc for tolerating it. After a week or two, that went away as well.

Skip to two weeks ago, and it’s popped up again: this time being possessive first over Patience (my sometimes-helper and the dog trainer in the East Bay I refer people to), then Margo (my assistant) and finally Quin (my honey). In each and every case we did the same thing: push Doc away, love on Cash, bring Doc in and love on him. We also added a couple of things:

For Patience, since she’s also a dog trainer, I asked her to start making Doc calm down and think. One thing I’ve noticed about Doc is the more wound up he gets, the less he thinks overall. Now, it’s normal for a dog’s brain to turn off when they’re super wound up (with either excitement or aggression or anything else), but his brain turns off even when he’s not wound up, if he’s spent a lot of time wound up. Things that wind him up: not exercising enough, some of my playful boarders, fetch, the wild peacocks, squirrels. It’s a full time job keeping him centered! Getting a wound up dog to pause so they can think again (and guiding them gently but firmly through what to do until they CAN think) is key. So I asked Patience to get him thinking around her, adding in little brain-working things like sitting and calming down at doors before he goes out to play, sitting to get petted, things like that. That calmed him so his possessiveness also dropped.

I asked Margo (who does some minor training for me, but firmly insists she’s not a dog trainer!) to use a squirt bottle if he got possessive of her. It’s a good consequence: not emotionally very powerful, certainly not painful, just distracting and annoying.

With Quin, we put Doc in time out when he got possessive, in an x-pen in the house. After twenty minutes (which I judged to be enough time for his brain to wander off his possessiveness), he re-joined us. He was put in time out a couple of times before he got the point!

In all instances, when he became tolerant of Cash or wasn’t possessive, he got rewarded with lots of love and pets. Ex: I petted Cash, Doc watched but didn’t come over to push Cash away, so after a minute – before he lost his patience – I turned and loved on Doc. Repeat ad nauseum! For every time he got busted for naughtiness, I want at least five rewards. If I’m busting him too much, that’s my signal that I’m asking too much of him. I need to reward BEFORE he puts himself in trouble, so he knows what it is I’m looking for, not just what I don’t like.

It took a couple of weeks for him to cycle through everyone and figure out no one was going to let him get away with it. I’m still praising and loving on him when other dogs butt into “our” space to get pets, just to reinforce his good behavior.

During his possessive phase, I used different techniques for different people, depending on how he reacts to the people in question and what they were more comfortable with/capable of, and what worked best for him.

No dog is ever perfect. Even when a dog trainer owns them, even if I spent all my time making them perfect to everyone’s standards, living animals are always changing! I wouldn’t have it any other way. 😉

Jenna

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Coping with Failures and Setbacks

Everyone has those times when things go wrong, and your training is set way, way back. If you can think through those moments, you can often mitigate some of the trouble. The rest of it, we just work through. This is my set back story, so you can see where I messed up, what choices I made and why (for good or ill; in most cases only time will tell!), and how I mitigated it as much as possible.

I have a new foster. He’s a year and a half old pittie that I boarded this past spring for five days to try and fix some major behavioral problems. Those problems improved greatly, but in the end his owner realized that a small apartment and a 12-hour-a-day job wasn’t right for a young dog, and it would be better for Champ to be re-homed. (His owner had inherited Champ after a death in the family.)

It had become apparent during the initial boarding phase that Champ had some congenital aggression issues. (Congenital aggression means the dog was born with it; there’s some funny hardwiring in the brain or body, much like people with personality and mood disorders. Much like people with disorders, what the dog goes through in life will partially determine in what way and how severely the disorder develops.) We’d implemented behavioral changes that helped quite a bit, but since I started fostering him (just two weeks ago) I thought blood work and medication might be a helpful route, as well.

Today, we needed to do blood work. As it happens Champ’s vet is the vet I use, and they already know many of his issues. (The vet, owner and I were all working together. I love having good working relationships with the vet!) I didn’t have to prep anyone, which was really nice. Champ and I were let into a room for a tech visit to draw blood, and I spent a few minutes practicing his handling skills; holding his head still, giving a treat. Holding his legs, giving a treat. I did as many of these types of things as I could think of.

When the tech, Amy, came in she had a muzzle with her. Champ is  muzzle trained due to vet issues in the past, and I was able to put it on him with not much fuss. Amy suggested we use a hind leg instead of a front leg, as it might be easier. I agreed.

Here’s where things went haywire. I held Champ in a big bear hug, head restrained and body snuggled up against mine. We needed two vials of blood, and the first one went pretty well. It was mostly full when he decided he was done, and kicked out.

In kicking out, the needle blew his vein. This isn’t anyone’s fault; this is animal medicine. When Amy tried to switch to his other back leg, things fell apart.

In most dogs with learned aggression, there are a few body-hold tricks you can usually do to make them submit and give up. I don’t like using these, although I will in a dire situation. This was a dire situation: it would take six months of training to MAYBE get Champ to let a stranger take blood from his back leg. We don’t have that kind of time; if we can figure out what’s wrong and treat it through supplements or pills, his whole life will get better and training will go much smoother immediately.

Back to Champ and our vet visit. He started thrashing, but wasn’t growling. I did a few restraining maneuvers while Amy tried to get blood, but each time he felt the needle Champ would thrash madly. He began growling. Knowing it might not work at all (but hoping), I decided one of those submissive-give-up holds might be kinder in the moment. If I could get him to give up, then we could get blood and be done. I could build back up trust later.

I tried a couple of different holds; Champ kept growling and fighting. One of the most common symptoms of congenital aggression is that dogs don’t give up. “Normal” dogs realize when they’re trapped and will not win, and go lax. They give up. Alternately, they realize when they’re out matched in a fight, and flee (or stop the behavior you’re trying to eliminate). This is where the idea of an “alpha roll” or pinning a dog down comes in. (For the record: I prefer to use many other methods.)

So, what did I say? Oh yeah. Common symptom: they never back down. Champ doesn’t have many of the common symptoms (and has many uncommon ones) of congenital aggression, so I was hoping a pin to make him give up would work. You can pin a dog in various ways, both to the floor and not. For a moment, I had him on the floor and I thought it was working. He took a breath, settled, and relaxed, belly-up. I cooed and rubbed with my fingers for a minute — and then he lost it again. When I couldn’t hold onto him, I knew that wasn’t going to work.

Eventually, I got his head restrained in such a way that he couldn’t toss us around anymore (me sitting on the floor, his shoulders against my chest, my arm wrapped around his head in a head lock — thank goodness pitty heads are so big!), but I didn’t have enough hands to keep his back leg still. Amy got another tech, and we finally got the blood.

The whole process took about 20 minutes. (Props to The Whole Pet Vet and their awesome techs, especially Amy, who didn’t give up on us and didn’t panic about the snarling, thrashing, 60-lbs pit bull in my arms!) Afterward, Amy and the tech (whose name I didn’t catch) left, giving me permission to use the room for as long as I needed.

To give you an idea of how much thrashing there was, my abdomen is scratched and was bleeding slightly through my shirt, I have bruises mottling one thigh despite jeans, more bruises across my arm, and I believe I either pulled or bruised my bicep and deltoid muscles. Because I was taking the battering rather than letting Champ hurt himself, he came out of it better than I did!

From a training perspective, what just happened? Well, I’m not ashamed to say it was a clusterfuck. While I know that getting blood to get him on meds was important for the long term, I also know that this is a major set back in the short term. For a dog who is already wary of strangers, he just had a horrible experience. Thanks to the staff, I was able to mitigate it as much as possible.

Still sitting on the floor, I held onto Champ until he was no longer rigid. I didn’t want to let go of him until he was willing to be with me, relaxed. While we have a relationship, I had broken his trust, pinning him still while strangers did scary, painful things to him. I needed to make sure that he and I separated with him remembering that I also provided love and cuddles.

When I felt that he’d relaxed, I let him go. He retreated, and I reached out to take the muzzle off, but didn’t otherwise try to pet him. I pulled out my phone and played Candy Crush, giving him the time he needed.

A “normal” dog is going to snap back to love pretty quickly, but Champ isn’t that. If I press love onto a normal dog while they’re stressed and anxious, they will probably respond with relief and love. If I press an abnormal dog in the same situation, they’re not going to be able to think clearly, and may even react aggressively. So my next step was give him time to relax and calm down, so that his maladapted brain could function a bit better.

I let Champ set the pace. He laid in various spots in the room, sniffed the edges, munched some fallen treats, did a lot of panting. I kept an eye on him, and when he started relaxing still more, started calling his name. If he didn’t come, I went back to my game and gave him more time. But eventually, he started coming over to take a treat. At first he would immediately leave. The temptation is to catch a dog at this point and force pets on them, but I’d already broken his trust. I wanted him to come to me of his own free will.

Bit by bit, he started coming to me and staying long enough to get petted. By the time he was lying on the floor within the reach of my arm, about fifteen minutes had passed.

My next goal was to make sure I could touch his back legs without him freaking out. I wanted to do this now, before the idea that people touching his back legs was horrible became set in his mind. I worked carefully, with lots of treats and quiet persistence, until he was all right with it. (Initially, he chewed lightly but with frustration on my hand. I would blow on his ear to catch his attention, give him a treat when he looked up, and let go. My goal here was to reward him for being calm while his leg was being held. Note: I knew that he wasn’t aggravated enough to bite me more than a pinch, maybe a bruise if it got out of hand.) If I wasn’t holding onto him and he walked away, I let him go. This wasn’t the time to bring him back by his leash; I want him learning that he can always walk away, that walking away is more effective than aggression.

Finally, when we could manage all that, we left the room and sat in the waiting area. We did more foot-games. When someone went into the room we’d been in to clean up, we walked to the door and watched her. I gave her some treats to TOSS to Champ — between his general wariness of strangers, his new extra wariness of techs in scrubs, and his general agitation, I didn’t want him jumping at her if she tried to hand it to him and, in his unstable state, he thought she was attacking.

We went BACK to the main waiting area. We did more foot-games, and calmed down even more. I wanted his surety of the vet as The Place of Evil to be shaken, though I knew that I wouldn’t be able to undo it in one session. I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t set in stone.

Goals: get him to be calm in the vet’s office, calm seeing the techs, and allow me to handle his feet again. Done.

As we were leaving, I messed up and had to adapt one more time. The vet’s office was actually closed and they were putting things away for the night, and they’d locked the doors and had to let me out. As we stood there, I asked the receptionist (in scrubs much like the tech’s) to give him a treat open palmed, without touching Champ. She said no problem! He took the treat, but then jumped at her, catching the edge of her sleeve in the process. She froze (appropriate) and I made him let go of the cloth.

I had thought he was calm enough to take a treat, but that’s the thing about congenital aggression: they don’t always signal when they’re in distress (he hadn’t), and it takes them hours to come out of distress, instead of the minutes it takes other dogs.

I baited him past her with a treat, then asked her to toss him some treats. Again, I wanted him to know that aggression wasn’t working (he had to go in and do it again, instead of leaving like he wanted, and he STILL had to walk past the receptionist again), but that vet people were awesome treat dispensers. I can always work on his trust with me, so I don’t mind being the “bad guy.” I want strangers to always be the awesome treat dispensers.

Let me tell you: that is a lot of set backs for one day. It’s a lot of set backs that are going to take time to overcome. I’m lucky: I have a fabulous vet and staff who are willing to work with me, and Champ is incredibly intelligent. We’ll get through these.

Some time in the next six months, he’s going to become an amazing dog. He’s already loyal and protective, happy to cuddle, pretty good at walking, great with other dogs, and allows all sorts of indignities such as being laid on and having his ears and tail tugged. (I did check!) The rest of this, it’s trauma and biology. That can be overcome.

As for me, I’m covered in bruises. But hey, given the responses from the vet staff (some of whom I hadn’t met yet) I think my reputation as a badass is firmly lodged. *laughs!*

Jenna

 

Case file: Lexie, fear aggression

A few months back I had a dog with fairly severe fear aggression stay with me. I started out just taking videos for her mom, but decided they’d be good for the blog, too! Some of the narration starts out very quiet, as I was trying not to distract the dogs. Most of the time, I get louder. Sorry about that!

Lexie is a four-year-old yellow lab who was attacked by a jack Russel at about a year of age. Her fear aggression started after that, and got worse over time until her owner reached the point of crossing the street to avoid other dogs. Lexie would approach another dog submissively, and then when she got close, attack with panicked intent. While Lexie and her mom still have a lot of work to do, we’re making progress!

Lexie had stayed with me once before, last year, so she had some memory of Cash and Lily. However, I had Brady there as well, so she stayed in her crate the first night for about three hours. When she came out, I kept Brady on leash (to keep him away from Lexie), or kept Lexie on leash (to keep her near me). The first video picks up the next morning, after more leash and crate time to get used to each other.

If you just want to see a heart-warming change, watch the first and last videos. More dogs were added as the week went on; no dogs were harmed in the making of this film!

 

Credits:

Narrator: Jenna
Lexie: lab, “fearful pup”
Cash: king shepherd, “dad”
Lily: pit bull, “grandma”
Brady: golden retriever, “happy brother”
Frances: Australian shepherd, “timid sister”
Obi: pit bull x boxer, “fearless bff”

Stop, Look, and Listen

I was out working with one of my clients one day and we were talking about handling her dog’s dog aggression when she said, “It’s like stop, look, and listen!” (She works in a school; I’m guessing this sort of thing comes up often with kids!)

It was an epiphany for me. A hilarious epiphany, as I immediately started laughing.

If you have a dog with an issue — any issue, whether or not it’s aggression related — these are excellent steps.

1. Stop. As soon as you realize there’s a trigger around, STOP WALKING. Do not get any closer to it until you’ve assessed the situation! So often I see people, most often with dog aggressive dogs, keep moving forward while they’re trying to check their dog, fix the collar, adjust their grip on the leash, check for treats — it’s too much! Especially if you’re using new techniques to get your dog to behave; now you have new techniques to remember on the move. Stop! Stop your feet so you can assess the problem and situation, figure out what to do, and react accordingly.

2. Look. Look at your dog. Looking at the problem isn’t going to tell you if your dog is going to react or not. In addition, dogs have a shared gaze; whatever you’re looking at, they’ll look at. If you look at a problem and you smell like fear or stress, all the good body language in the world isn’t going to help. Your dog will follow your gaze, smell your stress, and think, “AH! Mom/Dad is worried about that thing! I’LL DEAL WITH IT!” Not good. Look at your dog. See what they’re doing.

Now, I know that dog trainers are always saying, “Shoulders back, chest out, walk with confidence!” and part of “confidence” is typically “look where you’re going.” But sometimes, especially when you’re just learning, it’s more important to look at your dog, to see what they’re saying, and to respond accordingly. (When I’m walking with dogs and I see a problem, I glance at them, react accordingly, and when I’m confident I look PAST whatever issue is up ahead. I still don’t look at it, because I know my dog has a shared gaze.)

3. Listen. “Jenna,” I hear you say, “dogs don’t talk.” Maybe not with words, but boy, do they communicate! Dogs have extremely nuanced communication. Are you listening to what your dog is telling you? If your dog is getting over a phobia and they’re trying to be brave, you need to reinforce that. If they’re dealing with aggression and they’re being naughty, you need to be aware of it NOW and start addressing it before you get any closer. If they’re dealing with excitement and they’re trying SO HARD to hold it together (and you know in another minute they’re going to fail), get their attention at that moment so you can do whatever you need to do. Listen to your dog! You can’t guide your dog through life if you’re not aware of what she’s doing.

So next time you encounter a problem? Stop, look, and listen. It’s not just for schoolhouse emergencies!

Jenna