The story of Chai and his transformation from lunging, growling, snapping along with muzzle punching novel humans to the dog that can offer me calm attentive behaviors in the presence of humans….
Let us start at the beginning…Chai was adopted at 7 months old from Phoenix Rising Border Collie Rescue in the south east US. He was identified as a fearful and reactive pup. I will try to operationalize most of the labels that I may use in this blog but for the sake of brevity, the rescue had identified he had some issues that limited his adoption options. In Chai’s case the people that relinquished him did share their concerns about his behavior and Chai was fostered in a nurturing calm foster home.
Let’s get to the bubble part…
I am not being literal here…Chai’s bubble refers to the 2 years that I kept him in only contexts where he had a history of being relaxed in, by this I mean could play ball or disc and he was willing take treats from me. This was about 6 outdoor locations and one indoor location. This meant micromanaging his world. If work was being done at my new house, there was a plan. Where would Chai be? How many people would be in the home? Could we modify plans so that Chai could be in my office and have breaks when contractors where nowhere on the property? Were there times he needed to be in the car away from the house? It meant enjoying the outdoor places on cold rainy days to ensure we would encounter no other humans. It meant life changed in the summer as more humans come outside in the PNW. Luckily, I love rainy days!
My plan was to give Chai a complete break from the stimuli that evoked the problem behaviors: staring, lunging, muzzle punching, snapping, grabbing clothes. I feared the escalation I was witnessing until the day he would bite and puncture a human.
I am often asked how is Chai with dogs? I don’t have a good answer as most all dogs come with a human. I never stopped to consider or watch…is Chai going to attack the dog or bite the human? There were times we were approached by an off-leash dog there was no display. He did not toss out play behaviors, but he also did not go to fight mode. His behavior toward humans concerned me more than the worry that he had no dog friends, gotta pick your battles. Do I have regrets here? Nope. Dog friends are nice, but I feel sure that Chai is living a fabulous life with his small circle of humans and horses, along with kitties. I had another dog named O’Riley when I adopted Chai and I did a gradual introduction and they lived together for 4 years in peace and harmony. O’Riley was dog reactive and not into people or low sociability. He would confront dogs but avoid humans.
What was our focus while in the bubble or as I also like to say…taking a vacation from the stimuli that evoke the class of behaviors we will call aggression.
We built Chai’s behavior repertoire! We worked on many behaviors with positive reinforcement using a clicker and treats. Positive reinforcement training can help create a more resilient dog and empower him to realize his behavior can make great things happen…treats, toys, tug, running, chasing squirrel and birds (no birds were harmed, Chai likes to run around while birds fly over. Like a social distancing herding game) His behavioral rep includes: sit, down, spin, twirl, back up, behind, peek, around, through legs, close it, pick it up, put it away, bow, sleeping, cover your face, left paw up, right paw up, run away from me, a mind blowing recall, hand targeting, relax on a mat, wait……..to name a few. We also do K9 Nose Work, and that activity is amazing for his confidence and a balance to all the behavior training. In his Nose work games he leads the way to solve scent problems so that I will toss the toy and then we can play TUG! During this time, we worked on having a variety of reinforcers. Early on Chai was about ball and only ball! He loved tug also and catching Frisbees. I put down a bowl of chicken and his toy and he played and engaged me in a game of tug and never ate the chicken. I wanted to use food, so we worked on that, increasing the value of food by pairing it with play. Offer a behavior and eat a treat and then play, the Premack principle in action. The low probability behavior of eating a food treat predicted the high probability behavior of play. Once we were ready to burst the bubble, I wanted to use food and play and tug in various contexts.
During this time a veterinarian was heavily involved. We used TCVM to get Chai in balance, this was done through acupressure, diet and herbs. This area will be explored in more depth later and in a dog-ibox webinar.
In the words of Susan Friedman, PhD, we were building our trust account, not to say we didn’t make a few early withdrawals. Chai had an issue with his dew claw and required vet care. We had not begun to work on vet care to build his resilience. Laura Monaco Torelli used the words Resilience Rounds and that describes the process perfectly. We had just moved across the country and had no veterinarian relationships, yet. We went to an ER vet and it was decided they would knock him out to look and most likely remove the dew claw, as visits to address injuries were not in our repertoire yet…I muzzled Chai picked him and squished him between me and the wall, told the vet to come in inject sedative and leave the room. They did the surgery and I remained with him and when he began to stir enough, I took him to the car once the lobby was cleared. I sent pics as follow up and removed the sutures on my own. We had our work to do here….
We quickly found 2 veterinarians that were willing to help Chai and me. I use their wellness center on the days they are closed to see behavior clients and could bring Chai to the center when it was closed and begin to create it as one his happy spaces. So important for Chai to first be comfortable in a context before any additional stimuli are presented. We worked on his placing his muzzle into a custom Bumas® muzzle, voluntarily. Food was not working to reinforce the muzzle up behavior. I tried cheese as it can be slid into a basket muzzle. In follow up sessions he was less likely to move toward the muzzle, yikes, reinforcement was not in play here. I had to consider the value of my reinforcer, to ensure the behavior would increase, of him placing his muzzle in a basket muzzle. Next up wear a muzzle for brief durations then off and play time. Premack at work, the low probability behavior (Chai face into a muzzle held by me) predicts the chance to engage in the high probability behavior (tug play with me). In the video link below, you will see we added wear a muzzle and peek between my legs with a duration nose touch with eventual chin raise along with sustained nose touch this in preparation for a jugular blood draw.
So, when did I burst the bubble? After about 2 + years and at the point Chai had about 10 fluent behaviors meaning cues he could perform in a variety of known and safe contexts. When arriving at new places in the bubble phase it could be getting out of the car and then back in. That was a training session. Before we lost my sweet O’Riley, I could get O’Riley out at new locations and then Chai was more willing to leave the car and walk for a short time with O’Riley and I.
Now it was like a parallel universe…instead of avoiding all humans and situations where there was activity, traffic, noises, humans, other dogs…we were seeking it out in a very measured way. Intentionally heading out armed with his fave ball on a rope and top tier food treats, cheese or meat. It might be a trip to a busy area, such as a wonderful coffee shop in Tacoma about 45 minutes from home. I would enjoy my latte and sit in the back of the Outback with Chai and open his crate door. We could sit and take in the scene. He would take treats from me. I need to mention that his bubble burst during the pandemic, so places were either very quiet or some parks were busier than my research indicated on random weekdays. It was and still is his choice, the crate door opens, and I ask if he wants to get out. I like to park at a distance so we can warm up a bit. We begin with some treats and asking for fluent behaviors. We incorporated much of Leslie McDevitt’s brilliant work in her Control Unleashed Books. Look at that games, default behaviors, and re-orienting games. Here is the reason I wanted multiple reinforcers…when we would move off a trial or cross the street as other humans passed, I would use food treats to reinforce incompatible behaviors with staring and lunging sequence. I hesitated to use a toy as his arousal level would rise and I feared the ball rolling or a bad toss leading the toy to be closer to the strangers. So, I reinforced peak or behind behavior or just any calm attentive behavior with food and then when the humans were still in sight but more of a distance, I pulled out his ball or ball on a rope and tossed to him. We would play toss or tug for 15 seconds or more. Many times Chai would grumble and furiously shake his toy, a behavior we named punk thumping.
Recent trip to a park in a city! Previous trip was early am. The first trip was to help Chai feel comfortable in the context, we played and cued fluent behaviors. This trip was at 11:00 am on a sunny weekday, sunny days in the PNW means people come out to parks at all random times. The group that just passed included children and a leashed dog.
What Chai taught me…physical closeness to me is reinforcing for him. In the bubble phase when life would happen, and a person appeared at a distance he would not take a treat, but if I crouched down, he would lean into me with his side and take the treat. A treat scatter is not helpful, for Chai. He would ignore all food in that scenario. Even a scatter at home, is not interesting to Chai, and that is fine and useful information. We are best when connected, meaning I remain engaged with him in mutual dialog. Chai showed me how to step out of my comfort zone and ask for others input. I used to ask myself, what would I tell a client, so I decided I wanted to be a client and get direction from people I respected and trusted. Professionals who could be objective…massive thanks to Sue Sternberg, Kathy Sdao, Molly Timko, Dr Chris Zink, Dr’s Dorothy Kielkopf and Bart Iaia, along with Susan Friedman, PhD for their guidance and input. Thank you Kiki Yablon, Lara Monaco Torelli and Leslie McDevitt for their inspiration via video’s, blogs and books.