Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Conversation with a trainer - case study

This is a discussion between me and another trainer who came with Deena and myself to a client's house yesterday to obseve my methods. Names have been changed where necessary to protect the client and the trainer's identities.

Rocco is a young male Weimeraner and Buddy is an older male Vizla. Buddy has been with Sally for a few years and Rocco is a recent addition to the pack. There are two other Weimeraners in this household - both female (Chole and Katie). The two males got along for about a month after Sally adopted Rocco, but then something changed and Rocco started attacking Buddy when Sally was not home or not in the house (taking out the trash for instance). None of the damage was severe, although I'm sure Buddy thinks so as does Sally, but the bites were on legs and back and very minor.
Yesterday we all went to do a session with the four dogs and at one point a fight broke out between Rocco and Buddy. Or rather, I should say, Rocco again attacked Buddy but this time in full view of all of us. It was about a toy that they both wanted. Buddy was pushing Rocco out of the way of getting the toy at every opportunity but wouldn't actually go after the toy himself. It was almost as if Buddy was taunting Rocco and teasing him about not being quick enough to get past him to the toy.
The fight was a lot of noise and furious air bites, and at one point Rocco grabbed the same leg he'd injured in the last fight which caused the old scabs to come off. Other than that, there wasn't even any slobber after a full minute of fight. I couldn't get to them to break it up because the owner was dancing around screaming and not letting anyone help because she kept jumping in the way. Eventually Rocco just stopped and that was it.
Follows is a written conversation between the trainer and I about that situation and other things that came up because of it.
Question: Thank you for letting me join you and Deena yesterday! :-)
I still think it's an Alpha rank situation occurring with male Weim and male Vizla. What is your opinion?
Answer: Dominance is a term that is overused and is an over generalized descriptive for why a dog is behaving aggressively.. It is important to understand all forms of aggression, but more importantly to understand why and how the aggression has developed in each specific situation in order to determine the possibility for safe and effective improvement and to design an appropriate behavior change plan.
Saying that a dog is trying to dominate another is too broad, it doesn't lend itself toward a real solution. Rocco is a very insecure, scared dog. He has been through the foster system and Sally has only had him a few months. At first he got along with Buddy, but Buddy is Sally's baby boy and it shows in her attitude when Rocco does anything she doesn't like. Buddy is allowed to get away with murder. Is Rocco trying to dominate Buddy? Yes, but dominance is only the intent to control, it's not a personality trait or a behavior that can be fixed. What can be fixed is Rocco's insecurity. He knows that Sally favors Buddy, so does Buddy and Buddy will tease Rocco because he doesn't have to worry about correction from Sally. This is something I learned from the behavior history that I had Sally fill out.
What happened yesterday was that Rocco's insecurity got the better of him. It was a high energy situation with only one reward. Rocco wanted it and was willing to make sure he got it. Buddy kept pushing in front of Rocco and eventually Rocco couldn't handle the rude, space stealing behavior from Buddy. Space is one of the biggest triggers in aggression. Dogs are pretty fanatical about maintaining their own space. The social system that keeps a pack balanced is a system that deals with space and resources. So long as each dog knows and respects the space requirements of the other dogs and each one is willing to defer over resources to the one who wants it most - no fights happen.
Question: I guess I should have explained more when I said Alpha rank situation. It is more than a dominance issue. If what Deena saw from Buddy before the fight happened was related to a alpha behavior that wolves tend to do in their pack then I think Rocco was rejecting Buddy's interaction in this way. He was not willing to be put in this position with Buddy. To me it's an older dog (Buddy) testing a new dog to be accepting of Buddy being Alpha but Rocco is rejecting this and when Sally favors Buddy more this only makes Rocco even more aggressive. This is what I saw yesterday. By having Buddy in her bedroom this also makes it much worse again. So, there is also jealousy at play here too! The more Sally favors Buddy the more Rocco will see that Buddy really is the alpha male in the house. The more Rocco gets jealous about this the more he will fight with Buddy.
Answer: I agree with your analysis of Buddy and Rocco, but it's the favoritism, not the alpha position that is the issue. Buddy is doing a mild form of resource guarding of Sally and pushes Rocco into reacting. But yesterday it was only about who wanted the "rabbit" more and Rocco has learned that he only gets things if he attacks. It's a learned response, not a personality trait, a pack drive, or who is alpha and who isn't.
Question: Yes, it could only be a jealousy issue with Rocco and Buddy. So, how do you handle this situation? I'm afraid I wasn't looking when the fight started. So, I didn't know it was because they were both going for the "rabbit". So, why hasn't he attacked either of the females if it's just jealousy? This is why I think it's also alpha rank related.
Answer: Just like aggression or any other abnormal behavior, jealousy is situation and trigger specific. That's why he doesn't go after the others. And if you actually watch that pack, which I've done, Buddy is not the alpha dog, Chole is. She's the one that steps in to try and break up any tension, she's the one that herds the dogs around the yard and she's the one that will bat at one of the others if they get too pushy. Buddy and Rocco are middle ranking dogs. Buddy is a tease because he has Sally's favor. Rocco is insecure and feels he needs Sally more then Buddy. So the tension is constantly there.
Resolving that issue is really just one of building Rocco's confidence so he doesn't feel like he has to compete with or be jealous of what Buddy has with Sally. Get Sally to stop playing favorites the way she's doing it (it can be done without creating the jealousy). Get Sally to actually assert herself when necessary and learn that even Weims can be calm, and get Buddy to stop being obnoxious with Rocco.
Question: Why do you prefer to be called a behaviorist and not a dog trainer?
Answer: I'm not a dog trainer. I know that there are trainer's out there who claim to be able to change or modify behavior, but they are for the most part, one trick ponies. For instance, one trainer I know has only one method of changing behavior - no matter what that behavior is - is to teach obedience, with a shock collar if necessary. Another trainer is similar and will use a shock collar also, but this trainers main tools are leash jerks, prong collars and tons of exercise.
I'd rather not get lumped in with people who do not study behavior, ethology, communication, etc but rely on only what they learned from a 6 week course with a long laundry list of skills they supposedly mastered in that time frame.
Question: You say so much to not talk to dogs, that I'm confused when to talk to dogs during training? When I am teaching a dog I tend to be very vocal "Good Girl, Good Girl, Good Girl" and if the dog does something incorrect I, "No, No, No!" and show them what I want. I vocalize to them to help them know what is good and bad. Rather than just acting on what they do. Most dogs understand Good and No. So, this I feel is just as good as using treats. I also like to praise lavishly unless the dog gets very excited.
Answer: When I say stop talking so much to your dog, I'm refering to people who EXPECT their dog to understand what they are saying. I talk to my dogs, but I don't expect them to understand. I expect them to only pay attention. The real communication is the type of communication they understand natively - body language, energy and touch.
No, dogs do not understand "no" and "good". They only understand after several repititions of what those sounds mean in each context until they can generalize it. I use "yes" and "all done". I use those mostly because they don't have any prior meaning to 99% of dogs. Owners tend to use "no" and rarely follow through so that the dog knows what it means. And, like the terms dominance and submission, no is too generalized. If your dog is chewing up the kids homework and you say no - the dog understands that no means stop chewing up the paper that is currently in his mouth. Then if he's chewing on a corner of the rug and you say no, he's going to get confused because he doesn't have paper in his mouth. So you have to show him that no means stop whatever it is that you are doing. Most owners don't do that much, if any, follow through. So I stay away from commonly used words.
Praise is good, sometimes it is better then treats, sometimes it isn't. It depends on if the dog cares what humans think. I've helped dogs that were not food motivated, couldn't care less about humans, with negative reinforcement and negative punishment and the Premack principle. The dog wants to meet that other dog? Fine, sit first then you can meet it. They do learn that and the reinforcer, the motivation, is meeting the other dog. Treats are fast because most dogs are vacuums and until I build a raport with a dog where he cares about my praise, treats work best.
For example yesterday with Rocco. Getting him to walk loose leash I did not use treats. When he walked loosely I let him move closer to Sally, when he lunged, we moved away. He learned fast. But keeping him calm around Buddy needed something that was more reinforcing then biting Buddy. That was a powerful motivator for him because Buddy was next to Sally and Rocco wasn't.
Question: Well, I think a good dog trainer is a behaviorist too. But, my experience with behaviorists alone aren't really familiar with hands on dog situations. Or, a vet/behaviorist mainly gives meds or natural products to solve an issue.
Answer: You are correct about most behaviorists as well, but I personally have less problems with them not thinking things through then I do with trainers. I also don't want to give any potential client the idea that I will teach their dog sit, stay, down, heel and come. My clients are generally the ones that already took their dog to a trainer and got nowhere.
I do use natural products to assist with issues. Managment is part of the package. If the dog is going ballistic, then I will use Calm Eze or Rescue Remedy to get the dog into a state where it can learn a different response to stimuli.
Would I get more business if I said I am a trainer? Probably, but I'd be answering too many phone calls from people who only want fluffy to learn how to sit pretty. Been there, done that, never again..
Question: Do you teach how a dog should greet a another dog on leash? Or, do you just not do this at all?

Answer: Leash greetings. Yes, I will teach a dog how to greet another on leash - but it's mostly the humans that have to learn this. In class I don't allow it because there is too big a chance that a dog with known reactivity issues is going to react. Humans are strange and think the weirdest things sometimes and don't pay attention anymore then their dogs do. I have had incidents in class. Every one of them was either the humans not paying attention or a stupid human who didn't stop to think that the dog they want their precious baby to meet has a history of disembowling other dogs.
Question: Ok, you are right that untrained dogs probably don't know "Good" or "No". But, I'm talking about the dogs that have already had some training. Many dogs that I have helped already had "No" and "Good" used. Whether it was used correctly with proper showing the dog what to do, can only be found out once you work with the dog or ask the dog owner(s).
I have spent a lot of time watching programs about wolves and their behavior. I have also spent a lot of time learning about dog behavior through books and the experiences I have seen or heard about from other sources.
Answer: I too watch wolf shows, read a ton of books, watch many many videos, do seminars and teleseminars at least once a week. And I have a college education in animal behavior and ethology, I just never got a degree.
In some degrees this discussion is just an exercise in semantics. The proof of the pudding is - what will cure the problem. Does calling it a fight over who is going to be top dog lend itself to a solution? Does calling it jealousy, insecurity, fear and favoritism lend itself to a solution? That really is the test. Labeling things only helps to a certain degree, then you have to just fix the problem.

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