Thursday, February 27, 2014

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding, Part Three: Rubi's Case Study

Shortly after we got him, Cannon kicked Rubi's ass. He was patiently waiting to be allowed back into his crate to retrieve a chew toy, and Rubi sauntered over. B saw the chewie, and I saw her body stiffen and heard her growl softly. Before I could intervene, Cannon whirled on her in Hulk-Smash! mode. Horrified, Rubi fled, and Cannon chased her all the way into her crate before I could tackle the little monster and save my pit bull. Poor Rubi!

When I got her, Rubi would literally try to take the face off any dog that dared to so much as walk by her when she had a prized chewie or toy. Resource guarding is a normal, natural canine behavior. After all, if you give away all your food to whoever is pushy enough to take it, pretty soon you'll starve to death. Even with the best behavior program, it's highly unlikely that all resource guarding behavior will be eliminated. On the other hand, trying to murder other dogs for walking by when you have a nylabone is not acceptable behavior in my house full of pit bulls and small dogs.

"Personal space? What's that?"

The first step in Rubi's resource guarding plan was management (Are you sensing a theme yet? management is all the important.). All the tasty nylabones and chewies and toys were put away when Rubi was around. Often, just management of valuable resources is enough, but in Rubi's case, hiding all the chew toys would have made life extremely difficult. Most of my dogs are heavy chewers, and without an appropriate outlet, they turn to chewing on, well, everything ever. So management was only a temporary solution to keep Rubi from practicing her extreme resource guarding behaviors.

With our management program in place, Rubi and I started working on our nonverbal "leave it." We started this as soon as I brought her into the house, during her Two Week Staycation. Nonverbal "leave its" are a foundation behavior for living at my house, and all the fosters that come through my house are able to do it. Not only is this activity beneficial for life with other dogs, but it's also a great impulse control activity. Over the first months that I had her, Rubi eventually progressed to the point where I could throw handfuls of treats at her chest, and she wouldn't even look at them because she was staring so hard at me. But we started with cookie-in-the-fist, just like everyone else.

We practiced this game a lot.

Once we had a solid non verbal "leave it," we started doing group training session. Rubi was pretty good with me when working - as long as there wasn't a pile of cookies up for grabs to whoever could eat it fastest, she wasn't likely to resource guard from the other dogs, so counter conditioning her to other dogs getting food when pretty smoothly. In addition to structured group training session, we practiced "mom suddenly and randomly drops a treat, and the dog who looks at her the hardest gets the treat handed to them." We especially practiced this in the kitchen, since that's where most random, accidental food drops occur. In case you were wondering, dropping a treat and having four dogs suddenly lock on you face with lazer-like focus instead of bum-rushing each other to go grab the cookie is a bit of an ego boost. Lastly, we worked group relaxation protocol sessions to help her relax around dogs when food was present.

I was looking for a new "group RP" picture.
I couldn't find one, so you get "dogs on a bench" instead. Sorry.

My eventual goal for Rubi, though, was to be able to bring out my low value chew bones for everyone to enjoy. Before we started working on this aspect of Rubi's resource guarding, I wanted to know two things. First, I wanted to be certain that she wouldn't resource guard from me. If I'm putting myself in a tense situation where there may be a dog fight, I want to know that I won't make things worse. If Rubi did have issues resource guarding from people, I would have worked on those before tackling resource guarding toward other dogs. Luckily for me, Rubi doesn't care if I approach her or take away any resource of hers. Second, I wanted to know was what Rubi's were cues that she was uncomfortable. Typical resource guarding "go away" cues include whale eye, pinned ears, growling, showing teeth, getting stiff, and moving the resource away from the other dog - but many dogs do not display all of these behaviors. I suspect Rubi had been punished in the past for exhibiting resource guarding behaviors, because her cues were severely muted; she seemed to go from ignoring the other dog to attacking them in the space of about half a second. However, I was able to detect a very subtle body stiffening, ear tightening, and lip lift about two seconds before she would fly off the handle. I needed to know these cues before we started to work with another dog so that I could keep everyone safe.

Now that I knew Rubi's cues, I had a place to start. I gave Rubi her least valuable resource (a nylabone, I'm pretty sure), and once she had settled in for a good chew, I brought Piper into the room. At this point, I had a pretty good idea of how close Rubi would let another dog get before losing her cool. If I had any doubt, I would have worked with a barrier between the girls, or had Rubi tethered. (The care and comfort of my personal decoy dogs is always my highest priority - after all, they didn't sign on for this). Piper would wander over to Rubi to see what she had, and when I saw that tell-tale tenseness from Rubi, I would call Piper back to me. We kept the sessions short - only two or three approaches per session - to keep Rubi from getting to stressed about the situation.

Pushing Rubi's threshold like this had two benefits. First, it helped Rubi understand that if she told another dog not to come any closer, the other dog would back off without Rubi needing to start a fight. Second, it helped Piper see what Rubi's cues were when Rubi wanted to be left alone with her nylabone. Neither dog wanted to get into a fight. And as Rubi learned that she could cue Piper to leave whenever she wanted, she became more comfortable with Piper coming closer. This is the same theory that underlies BAT training - when the dog provides appropriate cues indicating discomfort, the situation is changed so that it becomes more comfortable for the dog. As the dog learns that they have control over the situation, they become more comfortable in general, and their thresholds increase. When Rubi learned that she was in control of the situation, she discovered that she did not need to bite when a simple growl would do. My goal was not to eliminate her resource guarding because resource guarding is a natural behavior. Instead, I wanted to teach Rubi how to resource guard appropriately.

Piper is still the dog I trust most with Rubi.

Once I was happy with the signals Rubi was giving Piper, we practiced this set up with the other dogs in the house. Training with each additional dog went faster than the last, and it wasn't long before I was able to bring all the nylabones out for everyone to enjoy once again. Rubi has never been prone to stealing other dog's resources, so I didn't need to worry about her trying to take a bone from one of the other dogs and starting a fight. If she had, we would have reverse our pseudo-BAT protocol and rewarded Rubi for moving away from the other dogs when they cued her that they were uncomfortable.

Today, Rubi is able to live with six other dogs and ten to fifteen low value bones in reasonable harmony. She has a long, protracted growl she uses when she wants the other dogs to go away, but it's pretty rare that we hear it. She'll let other dog walk past and even touch her while she's chewing, as long as they don't try to take her bone (except for Jai - she lets Jai get away with murder. I have no idea how this happened). In spite of Rubi's much increased bite threshold, we still do a great deal of management, though. High value resources like filled kongs or rawhides cannot be left lying around, and Rubi knows to "go to your place" when I'm doling out medications at the end of the day. But we've found a happy balance between training and management. Most of what I've written over the past few weeks has come from personal experience, and Rubi has been - once again -  one of my greatest teachers.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding, Part Two: Structure and Training

I know I said it in Part One, but I feel like it bears repeating: you must, MUST have a good management plan in place before attempting to train your resource guarding dog. A good management plan will minimize the number of times your resource guarding dog goes over threshold. It's extremely important to keep your dog from practicing resource guarding not only because dogs get better at what they practice, but also to keep your other dog(s) safe. Resource guarding can ruin a relationship, and relationships are hard to fix once they've been broken.

Many dogs resource guard because they are insecure about resources. They doesn't understand what food belongs to them and what doesn't, so they're going to try and make sure they gets ALL the noms! Just like with any other anxious or reactive dog, structure is HUGE. It helps them to understand exactly how a situation will play out and how they can influence what is going on. So starting now, your dog no longer needs to worry about missing out - you will tell them exactly when there are cookies for them. To help your resource guarder learn structure:

Teach a nonverbal "leave it." Teach it HARD. Your dog doesn't understand what food belongs to them and what food doesn't. How does your dog know if the potato chip in your hand is going to them, or to you, or to your other dog? You're going to teach your dog that if there is food, the default is that it won't be going to them. To teach a non-verbal leave it, put a cookie in your fist, and show your fist to your dog. Let them paw/lick/maul your hand. When they get exasperated and move back to glare at your unrelenting fist, open your hand. When they move back in, close you hand again. Keep doing this until they stay backed away when you open your hand. When this happens, take a treat out of your palm and hand it to them with your opposite hand. If they move toward your hand at any point, close your fist again. We're teaching them that if they move toward the food, they won't get it, but if they control their impulses and stay away, the food will magically appear in their mouths. Pretty neat, huh?

Bonus of resource guarding training: you end up with a lot of pictures of dogs sitting still
and staring at you.
The nonverbal "leave it" is your foundation behavior, so proof the heck out of this before you even think about bringing another dog into the room. Your dog should be able to leave food if you drop it, if you're sitting on the couch or bed, if you hold up food in your hand, if you get up and leave the room - and they should do it without any real cues from you. Teach a nonverbal leave it to your other dog(s), too, while you're at it. If your resource guarder is trying to leave something, it'll be a bajillion times harder for them to keep their cool if they're being good and another dog tries to steal the resource.

Institute a "no more free food" policy. I'm not saying you can't share your food with you're dog if that's something you enjoy doing. I'm saying that your dog needs a cue to know that this piece of food is going to be for them. It can be as simple as "sit," although I prefer to ask for a behavior that is incompatible with resource guarding. My favorite is a "go to mat" while I eat. The dog can't be on the mat AND chasing another dog away from food. This also gives the advantage of increased distance. Remember, when you're working with resource guarding, you have two triggers: the resource and the other dog. Distance can help to reduce the intensity of the triggers. Personally, I've noticed that my dogs won't resource guard something if they're not the closest dog to the resource. For example, if I'm eating on the couch with Rubi next to me, and another dog approaches, Rubi may grumble. If I'm eating on the couch and Rubi is on her mat and another dog approaches me, she won't be bothered. She knows that her food will come to her on the mat.

Teach a "none of this is yours" cue. This is probably the least important of these three structure items, but it can still be beneficial. I teach it by giving my dogs the "go away" cue when I sit down to eat, and then ignoring them for the entire meal. This can be really frustrating if your dogis used to getting food when you eat, so be sure to teach it away from your other dog(s) so your resource guarder doesn't take their frustrations out on others. If you choose to teach this, it's important that when you cue it with more than one dog present, none of the dogs get food. There have been studies showing that dogs do have some rudimentary understanding of fairness, and I think that it's particularly important to be fair when working with resource guarding. It certainly can't hurt.
In addition to providing structure, you can also actively train resource guarding dogs to love it when other dogs get food! To do this, I already have a reliable nonverbal leave it - when I hold my hand out with food in it, I want my dogs to understand that the food in that hand is not for them unless I drop it directly into their mouth. The reason for this is that I don't want two dogs moving toward the food at the same time. Then we practice: non-resource guarding dog gets food, resource guarding dog gets food. It's your basic counter conditioning; the other dog eating becomes a predictor of your resource guarder getting a cookie. I call this the "give a cookie/get a cookie" game. Management of distance it particularly important for this game, though. If I'm not certain my resource guarder can tolerate seeing another dog get food, I'll tether my resource guarder on the other side of the room or put a baby gate between them. This should be a fun activity for both dogs - not a stressful, tense event.

Once the dogs are able to consistently enjoy cookies in fairly close proximity without becoming uncomfortable, start generalizing. For example, sit on the couch, and give the non-resource guarder a cookie. If your resource guarder doesn't try to steal it, then give them a cookie. Basically, start transitioning your training sessions into real life situations. Play the give a cookie/get a cookie game in all the places you want your resource guarder to behave, and then practice it with a bunch of different dogs (one at a time - if you have more than two dogs, make sure your resource guarder is comfortable with each of the other dogs individually before asking them to be okay with more than one dog at once). If there are other humans in your house, have the people play this game with coaching from you. The more you generalize give a cookie/get a cookie, the more your resource guarder will understand the concept, and the better they will feel about other dogs getting food. You can even counter condition your resource guarder to other dogs "stealing" food: give your other dog a meal or plate of food, and give your resource guarder super awesome cookies for watching them eat.

Group relaxation protocol. Remember when I only had four dogs?
Yeah, me neither.
 When working with household aggression cases where the dogs have already gotten into fights and I'm worried their relationship has been damaged, I'll often recommend doing parallel relaxation protocol with the dogs. To do this, I start by working through the first few days of the relaxation protocol with each dog individually so that they understand how it works. Then, I set up each dog on their mat far enough apart that the resource guarding dog isn't likely to go over threshold (using a barrier or tether if I'm not 100% sure my resource guarder will be okay). Once I have everyone set up, we work through the tasks in relaxation protocol, starting at an earlier "day" than each dog has been working on individually so that both dogs will find the work easy.

You can even counter-condition with the relaxation protocol: do the task, give your non-resource guarder a cookie, and then give your resource guarder a cookie. Soon, your resource guarder will learn that your other dog getting a cookie predicts that they will get a cookie. I like using the relaxation protocol because it provides more structure than the give a cookie/get a cookie game. You're also teaching the dogs to be calm and relaxed with each other around food.

Now that I've gone over some of the tools I use for dog/dog resource guarding cases, next I'll show you how I put it all together. When I got her, Rubi had no trouble at all sending other dogs to the emergency room over chew toys. Now, she cheerfully co-exists with six other dogs. Come watch how I made that happen in Part Three!


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Dog/Dog Resource Guarding, Part One: Management and When the Shit Hits the Fan

Resource guarding is one of the few behaviors that actually is dominance related. Dominance, in it's purest form, is the two dogs/one bone conundrum: if there are two dogs and they both want one bone, who gets it? In an established dominance hierarchy, there's no argument: the more "dominant" dog gets the bone. Trouble enters the picture when who the "more dominant" dog is comes into question. If both dogs are well fed, if the bone isn't that interesting, if one dog "knows" to always defer to the other dog, then there's no problem. But what if the dog who usually defers is really hungry that day? Or the dog who usually gets the resource is feeling unwell, and the other dog gets a little too close? Or if both dogs really want the resource? To me, there are too many variables involved in resource guarding to let the two dogs just work it out. I also don't want my dogs to get in the habit of solving problems with their teeth. Instead, I teach them that respecting each other's body language is rewarding for everyone.

The first step in any behavior change protocol is good management. Progress will be much slower if dogs get the opportunity to practice bad behaviors. So put away all the tasty rawhides and bones and food toys; if there's a chance the dogs could fight over it, it goes away unless you're actively working on the resource guarding issue, or the animals are completely separated. Often, management is enough to restore harmony. When I brought Marnie home, I found that she would start fights over a certain antler chew toy. I put the antler away, and we haven't had any trouble since.

Most dogs will guard food.
Other resources can include favorite chewies or toys, comfy spots to lay, and people.

In addition to putting away high value resources, be sure to feed your resource guarder away from your other animals. Often, a resource guarding dog will guard things from other animals in the house - cats, for example. Try to prevent them from resource guarding from other animals. It makes everything much harder for you if you're working on resource guarding from dogs and your dog is practicing their resource guarding skills on the cats. Remember: practice makes permanent, and the more your resource guarder practices their bad behavior, the harder it will be to change. Personally, I crate all my dogs during meal times. Not only does this prevent the dogs from trying to steal each others' food, but it also gives each dog a space to relax and enjoy their meals. It's hard to relax when you're constantly worried that someone is going to come along and steal your stuff. Your resource guarder doesn't want to have to protect their stuff; they just want everyone to leave them in peace. Resource guarding is stressful for everyone, including the dog with the behavior issue.

When actively working with your dog on her resource guarding issues (and I'll get to training in Part Two), always error on the side of caution. It's SUPER important to protect your "normal" dog. Many times, serious resource guarders give little to no warning when they attack, so to the other dog, they are being attacked "out of the blue." And it doesn't take long for resentment to build up and destroy a relationship. A ruined relationship is so, SO hard to fix. SO HARD. Down right impossible sometimes. Use barriers, tethers, crates - whatever you need to be sure your dogs are kept safe from each other.

Of course, we live in the Real World where Sometimes Shit Happens. We can't all be perfect all the time - not even me. The best piece of advice I ever received about living with multiple dogs was that, "If you have more than one dog, always expect that there will be fights." Disagreements are a normal part of social living, whether that group is human or canine or feline or psittacine. So don't beat yourself up too much when a fight happens; however, there are activities we can do to lessen the severity and impact of disagreements when they invariably happen.

I want to start by saying that there is no 100% safe and effective way to break up a fight. Making a loud noise, throwing a blanket over the dogs, or dumping water on them doesn't always work. And there's a good chance that if you wade into a fight to break it up, you will get bitten. They dogs almost certainly won't mean to do it on purpose, and it doesn't mean that they don't still love you. But when the hair and fur and skin is flying, it's hard to keep track of where your teeth are going. All fights stop eventually. (For more information on breaking up dog fights, check out Sara's blog post over here.)

Once you have the dogs separated, check everyone over for injuries, and address any wounds. If everyone is physically okay, don't rush to reintroduce them. Stress does all kinds of nasty things to a body, and I want to give everyone flush out those nasty hormones before I try to bring them together. In my house, after an actual fight (not just a noisy disagreement that stops on it's own after a second or so), dogs are separated for a minimum of one hour. I increase time apart based on how bad the fight was and the individual dogs involved. If it was a bad fight where blood was drawn, or the most recent of several scuffles over a few days, I will keep them apart for longer. Similarly, if the dogs involved are known for having a hard time recovering from stress, or one of the dogs is new to the household, I'll also keep them apart for longer - sometimes even several days. In particularly bad cases, I'll go all the way back to a full Two Week Staycation. I always want to error on the side of a slow reintroduction. You risk a lifetime of hatred by rushing things; you risk nothing by going slowly.

Of course, stress doesn't just affect your dogs. Most of the time when my dogs fight, I get really frustrated and angry, too; I don't even want to look at those little monsters! That's okay - go pour yourself a stiff drink, buy yourself something nice on Etsy, or do some other friendly self-care activity to celebrate that you are at least motivated enough to do something about this situation. Sometimes, the fact that we are all still standing at the end of the day is reason enough to celebrate.

Sometimes, you just need some booze.

After you've given yourself some time and distance from the fight, try to think uncritically about how the fight could have been prevented. Don't beat yourself up about the fight. It happened, it's over, and some fights are unavoidable. But try to think about what happen to cause the fight so that you can stack the deck in your favor in the future. How did triggers line up so that a fight broke out? What triggers can you change? What triggers can you manage?

Good management can go along way toward creating a peaceful home for everyone, but if you're interested in improving your dog's resource guarding, there are a lot of activities you can do! Stay tunes for Part Two, where I'll pass along some harmony-promoting exercises, and Part Three, where I'll walk you through Rubi's resource guarding issues and how we improved them.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Run, Rubi! Run!

Welcome to the Polar Vortex! With temperatures dipping well below zero over the past several weeks, the horde and I are more than ready to start complaining about how hot it is. We've all caught a near-terminal case of cabin fever, and we're working hard to keep from crossing the line into total homicidal psychosis. One of the ways I've helped the dogs take the edge off their spazziness is to teach them to run on a treadmill.

We were lucky enough to pick up a free human treadmill from a friend. It's a little banged up, but it gets the job done, and we couldn't beat the price! When picking up a human treadmill to use for dogs, be sure to chose one that is long enough to accommodate your dog's stride. Most treadmills should be okay, unless you have a ginormous mastiff or other giant breed. Another consideration is to avoid treadmills with a bar across the back of the tread belt. If the dog drifts to far back on the belt, their toes could get stuck until the bar, and that would be no fun for anyone. When I was researching this topic, several sites recommended not putting the front of the treadmill against a wall so that dogs wouldn't feel like they're walking into a solid object. My dogs didn't seem to care at all about "walking into a wall," so I suspect this comes down to the preference of the individual dog. And of course, make sure your dog is physically sound enough for treadmill work before starting an exercise routine.

Yes, yes, my house is dirty - this is what I'm doing instead of cleaning it.
To start training my dogs to actually walk on the treadmill, I first trained them to jump up on it into the correct position when it was off. The dogs and I have done a lot of target/mat training, so getting up on the treadmill wasn't an issue for any of them. The tricky part for us was convincing them not to lay down on it, but to stand on the center of the belt facing the right way. I mostly fixed this by rewarding them at the front of the machine and high enough up that they had to stand to get the cookie.

Once they were happily standing on the treadmill in the correct position, I took them off the treadmill, and I deconditioned them to the sounds of the treadmill starting. My treadmill makes a truly horrifying moaning sound three to five seconds before the belt starts moving, and if I were standing on something and it started to make that noise, I would want to get off it as fast a humanly possible. So I pulled the each dog to the side, started the machine, gave them cookies when the noise started, and then shut the machine off. Lather, rinse, repeat until the dogs thought the treadmill sound was awesome because it made cookies happen.

Damn cats.

Once the dogs were thoroughly happy with the fact that treadmills are a thing, we were ready to start walking on them. This next part seemed to rely heavily on the individual dog's preference. While most of the dogs were happy to jump on the treadmill once it had started, Marnie and Maus both would rather be standing on the treadmill and then have it start. There doesn't seem to be an advantage or disadvantage for having the dogs jump on the treadmill once it had already started versus starting the treadmill once the dogs are already on it - aside that the dogs were each more comfortable with one instead of the other.

We started out slow, and we're adding speed at the pace each dog feels comfortable. This means that my shier dogs like Maus and Jai are still walking slowly and getting lots of cookies while confident dogs like Allister and Rubi are booking it. I'm not letting anyone go any faster than brisk trot for safety reasons; if they stumble, a faster pace can really send them flying. I've also added a leash to remind the dogs to keep moving when they occasionally grab a treat and stop walking to eat it. The leash isn't there to force them to stay on the treadmill, and I never, ever tie it to the treadmill - if they stumbled while tied to the treadmill, they could get seriously hurt. It's just there are as subtle reminder to keep moving.

Treadmill work has been great for helping the dogs take the edge off their cabin psychosis. To help tire out our brains, I've also increased how often I hand out puzzle toys, and signed up for a few online and out'n'about training classes. Between the mental and physical work, I'm starting to believe we might just survive this winter after all.