Teaching Social Skills to a Pushy Puppy

May 10 2010

Pushy Puppies is the term I use to refer to dogs or puppies who, for whatever reason, approach dogs in a very vigorous and socially inappropriate  way.  These dogs have never injured another dog, but people and other dogs often read the pushy puppies’ actions as threatening and aggressive.  Pushy puppies appear to be unable to read other dog’s social cues and therefore, often end up injured themselves by dogs who have no other option but to go to the most extreme action in order to get the pushy puppy to listen!

Penny, a new Pushy Puppy client, came in barking, whining and lunging at every dog she saw while on leash.  When I evaluated her, she approached my tester dog straight on, jumping up and linking her paws around his neck, then followed him in a very pushy, forceful way.  My tester dog, Bailey T., gave her a lot of signals to calm down and back off, but she didn’t see them.  He tried turning his head to the side, shaking his body and moving away from her, but she just followed forcefully behind.  Bailey T.’s movements were soft and loose while Penny’s entire posture was rigid.  Penny’s stiff body and forceful actions were in direct contrast to her tail’s wide wag evenly parallel with her body.  She gave Bailey T. mixed messages.  Luckily, Bailey T. knows this well as he too used to be a pushy puppy!!!

On her first day of the Pushy Puppy program, Penny displayed extreme hyper arousal.  She acted like a Champagne bottle that busts off it’s cork after being shaken!  Chasing her tail repeatedly and running full force without regard to anyone or anything in her way – the zoomies!

Some dogs chase their tail for fun and others do it out of nervous energy or as an obsessive behavior. She did not do it enough to be considered obsessive, but more as an outlet for her anxiety.

In my Pushy Puppy program, I use very well-adjusted, tolerant dogs as my teaching assistants to encourage the pushy puppy to listen and respond in a socially acceptable way.  I see my role as part facilitator / part instructor.   While I set up the environment so that I am in complete control at all times, I do allow the dogs a lot of freedom to communicate as they see fit providing positive feedback for appropriate responses.  Ultimately, my goal is to create a dog who, from a distance, knows how to assess another dog’s interest and can perform socially acceptable greeting behaviors based on that early assessment.  Just like people, each dog has their own boundaries and comfort levels.  Socially skilled dogs are capable of reading these signals and responding very clearly.  When Penny was able to settle a little, I introduced my first teaching assistant, Bear.  Her calm and very tolerant personality helped Penny recognize that her over-the-top spin, jump behaviors were unnecessary and would not engage her.

Next, Gracie was introduced.  While Bear’s approach is of calm passivity, Gracie’s style is more forceful.  She acts aggressive without harm, which is very helpful to teach socially inept pups to listen clearly and do avoidance maneuvers, showing respect.  Gracie is very clear with her “I like that” and “I don’t like that!” responses!    Pushy puppies learn a lot from Gracie in a very short amount of time.  When Penny accidentally bumps Gracie when she starts to do her frenzied spin/jump, Gracie grumbles at her and moves away!  Notice that I tell Gracie she’s okay.  In the daycare, we discourage grumbling, growling, snarling, or aggressive posturing, because there is really no reason for it.  All the dogs that play at our daycare have been evaluated to determine their compatibility, tolerance and ability to choose evasive maneuvers.   All the dogs understand and trust that we wont allow another dog to annoy or pester them, so they are comfortable choosing to just walk away.

Gracie shows Penny to move in an arc and to sniff and then move away calmly.

Penny learns to move away after sniffing to release pressure and show respect. Gracie is so proud that Penny learned from her earlier lesson! What a good teacher you are Gracie!

Next up is Hombrito.  He is a big dog in a little body!  He helps pushy large dogs know that little dogs need more space and more calm movements when being approached.  Again, I am always aware of the teaching assistants comfort level when asking them to help me.  Hombrito actually enjoys assisting me as do all the dogs I use as TA’s.  And their teaching involvement is done in  short segments with large breaks in between.  I want all my daycare dogs to enjoy their time here, whether they are romping with their buddies or performing important teaching roles!!

Notice how Penny is clearly making conscious decisions about her body movements based on input from Hombrito.  Good listening, Penny!!

Lastly, it’s Rally’s turn.  Rally is also a reformed pushy puppy!  She is still young and reverts back to inappropriate behavior on occasion, but her ability to understand Penny is fun to watch!!  Rally decided Penny needed to learn how to play laying down.  What a smart girl!!  Calm play or playing while laying down is a fundamental skill taught at our daycare to ensure safe yet rewarding play!  Notice how Rally holds still when Penny is bouncing around and then instantly begins to engage her (rewarding her for the correct response!!) when she starts to play laying down!  Absolutely beautiful!!  Dogs use positive reinforcement with one another too!!

Lastly, Penny observes everyone resting quietly.  Yes Penny, you don’t have to be in a frenzy all the time, you can lay down and relax!

Good job Penny!

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To Play or Not to Play…

Feb 23 2010

When is play too rough? How can you tell the difference between bullying and play? Dogs play mildly imitates dogs fighting. Dogs give very clear indicators to each other when their intentions are aggressive, but we misinterpret or completely miss these signals very often. Some of the most common misread signals are piloerection (raising of the hackles along the back), neck biting and growling. People often think these are instant signals of aggression. Unfortunately, they can be both play or aggression. The best way to discern the intent of a dog is to observe the overall tension of the dog. Is the dog stiff, rigid, leaning forward with locked knees standing as tall as possible? If so, walk away! However, if the dog is loose, wiggly, bouncing around erratically, their motivation is to play!

I took a couple videos from daycare to illustrate these points.  This first video shows Miley, the Havanese, and Luke, the Chihuahua
Terrier mix, engaging in a fair and balanced play where each dog
initiates play after a quick pause. Luke displays a behavior that is
very informative about his state of mind. He places his head and chin over Miley’s shoulders.
This is a sign of assertiveness. If the display is quick, as in the
video, there is no need for concern.  However if the display is more
forceful and prolonged, intervention is necessary!

In this second video Mitch, the beagle, has his hackles raised and Ziggy, the miniature schnauzer, tackles Mitch to the ground and chews vigorously on his neck while growling.  This can appear to be aggressive, but look at their body tension. Mitch freezes for a second and then makes a large, exaggerated movement into a play bow. This is a solicitation to play. Mitch’s hackle raising is simply a sign of excitement, the neck biting, a very gentle, benign play style and the growling, a soft communication of play. Because their play is very vigorous, it is important to require that the pups disengage for short breaks often so that levels do not escalate into frustration, similar to children when they get too aroused!

As you can see,  it can be difficult to interpret the dogs signals unless you look at the overall context.  Each element in and of themselves can have multiple meanings.  The combination of signals is what provides the full story of what the dogs are communicating.

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