I am deviating from my usual parrot-related themes for this last blog post of the year. I want to tell you about Dash, a dog from whom I have learned a lot during the past nine months.
Dash was one of a litter of feral puppies found in a field. Initially placed with a foster family, he was adopted shortly thereafter. However, his first family returned him to the shelter less than a year later. They demanded that the group either take him back or they would have him euthanized. At this point, he was underweight, dirty, and had fresh wounds and a large burn on one side.
Carla and Laurel found him online, were attracted by the look of this presumed Kelpie Mix, and drove to meet him at a PetSmart adoption fair. Dash was not handling the experience well, having evacuated his bladder and bowels upon arrival. He was timid and reluctant to be handled, even offering to bite at one point.
However, Carla and Laurel walked with him around the store for some time. By the time they got back to the rescue group, were able to gently pet him. They decided to adopt him and gained the agreement of the shelter staff. They had no idea what to expect once they had him in the car, recognizing that aggression was a very real possibility.
Dash’s early days with them were challenging. He appeared to have no prior training, was very nervous about new situations, and exhibited a prey drive that needed to be handled carefully as he got used to sharing a home with multiple cats. However, with patience and a lot of training on basic behaviors, Carla and Laurel eventually developed a trusting relationship with Dash. Before I ever met them, they had succeeded with him to the point where they could even trim his nails at home.
However, when they took Dash outside the house, he vigilantly watched for strangers and reacted violently if they got too close, barking and lunging savagely with teeth bared. When they tried to access any drive-thru window, he behaved fiercely there as well. His reactivity and aggression were strongest when physically next to either Carla or Laurel. When he nipped at one of their friends, they became very worried about what he might do if given the opportunity.
Realizing a greater need for safety measures, they used positive reinforcement to train Dash to wear a basket muzzle. When out in public, they were careful to maintain a safe distance from people, preventing any opportunity to bite. Dash also wore a bright red leash and collar, both bearing the word “CAUTION” in large black letters – a warning to other dog lovers.
When visitors were due to arrive, they made a comfortable place for him in an upstairs room and escorted Dash up there, providing a stuffed Kong for entertainment. Nevertheless, even away from the stimulus of the strange person, Dash would put his nose to the heating vent and bark non-stop. In his vigilance, he never settled down during these times.
I met Carla and Laurel due to an online posting of my own, offering services for dogs. Having just left my job as a veterinary technician, I was in the middle of deciding in which direction my career would go and was casting about a bit for income.
Their goal was to find a pet sitter. Living in the country with two dogs, four cats, and a flock of noisy ducks and geese, they knew they would need someone with animal experience. They were especially worried about who might be able to care for Dash.
Our first meeting was at the local park, a place Dash associated with pleasant things. After a brief discussion, we decided that they didn’t just need a pet sitter – they needed a behavior specialist to guide their ongoing efforts. While Dash trusted them, he wasn’t comfortable with new people, dogs, or unfamiliar situations. After learning more about him, I really couldn’t see how I might ever enter their home safely to provide animal care without some long-term efforts at behavior modification first. It certainly wasn’t a situation of just “making friends” with Dash.
Carla and Laurel readily agreed. They had recognized this for themselves, of course, and had already worked with one dog trainer without seeing any improvement in Dash’s behavior. I was touched and impressed by their commitment to this “misfit” dog and by how far he had come already as a result of their efforts. Thus, I began my work with Dash on March 24, 2018.
I was under no illusions. I knew working with Dash could be dangerous, but he wore a basket muzzle quite comfortably and I had worked previously with fearful and aggressive dogs. As a veterinary technician conducting behavior appointments, I had trained numerous resistant dogs to accept medical procedures in a fear-free manner.
I began by structuring counter conditioning and desensitization sessions at the local park. While I stood quietly about 20 feet away, the distance at which Dash was below threshold, either Carla or Laurel would slowly walk Dash back and forth in a zigzag pattern parallel to my location, frequently cuing the behaviors he already knew and providing reinforcement. As they did so, they very gradually decreased the distance between Dash and my position. In this way, we paired things he values with my presence.
During these beginning sessions, I watched Dash’s body language closely for any signs of distress and was gratified to see that he appeared to be happily accepting of our work. I attributed this to using very small approximations, giving him lots of time to get used to me. He performed the cued behaviors without hesitation and eagerly accepted reinforcers. His sniffed the ground in what appeared to be a relaxed manner.
On the second session, they were able to walk him up to within 18 inches of me. At that instant, we all learned an important lesson about Dash. Previously, this had gone unnoticed due to the careful distance they had always maintained around other people. Dash stood sniffing the ground, body relaxed, tail wagging slightly in a normal position, readily eating treats as they were offered. He went from this posture into a full-out attack on me within a split second.
We had been prepared for this possibility, of course. They immediately retreated with him, removing the opportunity to earn any more reinforcers in that moment. I had stepped back and was unharmed, although it took a few moments for my heart rate to return to normal.
Dash had apparently learned to mask early signs of aggression, as many animals do. Most dogs will display a linked chain of signals that lead up to biting, providing a clear warning before they resort to full-out aggression. Each dog is unique in his choice of signals, but for example, a dog might first lick his lips, look away, then focus intently on a stimulus, raise his hackles, shift his weight forward and growl, then crouch a bit, and finally lunge. If you punish a dog for these “warning” behaviors, he learns not to offer them. He simply saves his energy and attacks once close enough.
Parrots do the same thing. If you ignore their body language that predicts a bite, they learn not to bother offering it. A lot of people claim that their parrot bit them with no warning. Sometimes this isn’t true – they simply didn’t recognize or register the warning body language. Sometimes it is true – usually due to this type of prior learning on the parrot’s part.
Dash did offer some very subtle signs of course that I gradually learned to recognize. His eyes adopted a more intense look, although he didn’t stare. His weight shifted very slightly to his front legs. He would look away in some instances, although he did not offer this sign consistently. And he exuded a palpable physical tension that I learned to feel intuitively with my body before I saw it with my eyes.
We continued these weekly sessions, working in different outdoor locations to generalize our progress. We saw huge success. After a period of about three months, Dash would readily approach me and take treats from my hand with no signs of hesitation, nervousness or impending aggression. He was visibly happy to see me each week.
In early August, I shifted our strategy. During one session, Dash had taught me another lesson. While he was quite comfortable approaching me and taking treats, my approaching him was not something that he would tolerate. I chose Constructional Aggression Treatment (CAT), after seeing a video of Barbara Heidenreich using this with both aggressive and fearful zoo animals.
Beautifully described in the book Turning Fierce Dogs Friendly by Kellie Snider, this behavior modification strategy uses negative reinforcement to teach the animal to perform behaviors other than aggression as someone approaches. Used effectively, the ultimate result is that the animal completely reforms his original opinion of the scary stimulus. This method can cause stress for the animal, so initially I limited this work to 15 minutes at a stretch, with frequent breaks for short walks and fun behaviors in between. This worked very well.
As an aside, I would not typically choose negative reinforcement as a behavior change strategy because it can create some fall-out with the animal, causing distrust. However, in this case its use was acceptable. With a fearful animal, you often do have to start out using negative reinforcement before you are able to switch to positive reinforcement. And, the CAT approach results in success so quickly that a switch to positive reinforcement does not take long.
We worked first in different neutral outdoor locations. It took only two sessions before Dash welcomed my approach as I walked all the way up to him to offer a food treat. We then worked with Dash in the car. Previously, he had displayed violent reactivity if anyone walked toward the vehicle. In one short session, I was able to approach the car and even put my hand on it with perfect acceptance from Dash.
We then progressed to working on the gravel road right outside his home, the spot in which he had previously been most reactive. Within three sessions, I was able not only to walk up to him on the road, but could approach him on the pathway up to the front door, and then enter the house while he was in the living room. At all times, we kept Dash below threshold, so that he experienced no distress.
We then worked to generalize his acceptance of any human’s approach by using different “helpers,” friends who agreed to approach him using the CAT protocol. (Many thanks to Chris Shank and Pat Anderson.) This work met with equally swift success. Within three sessions, Chris was able to walk into Dash’s home. Within one session, Pat was able to approach him on the front walkway.
This was the first time that anyone had been able to walk into the house with Dash in the same room. Not only could we come inside, he was happy to have us do so. He was even tolerant of two of us at once in the house for up to a few moments.
This was another beginning, however, rather than an end. While I could walk into the home, it was clear that Dash wasn’t comfortable with my presence there for any duration.
Our efforts now shifted to conditioning him to my presence for longer periods within the home and the back yard. These sessions are ongoing and with each week, Dash grows more accepting of me. He rubs his head against my leg affectionately and recently welcomed a bit of scratching on his chest. When I sit, he will come and place his head in my lap. He allows me to hold his leash and walk him short distances away from Carla and Laurel. He happily goes into the back yard with me while they remain in the house. Last week, he and I spent time in the house together without their presence. We have progressed to taking his muzzle off for very short periods while I am in the house.
Outside the home, he has shown comparable progress. He is much less reactive in the car, and Carla and Laurel can now enter a drive-thru without high drama from Dash. He tolerates strangers who appear on the highway nearby or on their gravel road. He settles upstairs when visitors are present in the house, no longer barking insanely. He still wears his special leash and muzzle in public, of course. However, Carla and Laurel can now take him places with a great deal more ease.
Why did I choose to share Dash’s story today? Certainly not to highlight any skills I might have as a dog trainer. Any experienced canine behavior consultant will readily see that I made lots of mistakes. That I have been this successful is as much testimony to Carla’s and Laurel’s commitment and skillful training with Dash as my own.
I chose to talk about Dash today because his is a story of hope. This dog, initially deemed “hopeless” by his first family, now lives more comfortably in his world. His “accepted family” has grown and his quality of life is better. He initially presented as a difficult challenge, but with commitment and consistent effort and compassion, we have achieved what I wasn’t sure would be possible for him. And our work isn’t finished yet.
2018 has been a difficult year for many of us for many reasons. We have a madman at the helm of our country. Differences in belief and philosophy seem to divide us more severely than ever before; examples of hateful behavior assault us each day on social media and the news. Signs of climate change grow more real, while our government negates this and refuses to take action. Those of us who love the natural world are led to despair.
It is easy to feel dejected on a daily basis. However…
Feelings are not facts.
There is always hope.
Hope for Dash and other dogs like him.
Hope for me and hope for you. Hope for our country. Hope for the world.
Happy Holidays, Everyone. I will see you in the New Year.
Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. To access many free resources or subscribe to my newsletter, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!