Category Archives: Upsetting Behavior

NYC Dogs Are Not Traveling Petting Zoos

NYC Dogs Are Not Traveling Petting Zoos

My pup Grayson is pretty cute, if I do say so myself. Even though he’s four, many people still think he’s a puppy and many people want to touch him. Some people ask permission, but most do not. The first time I took him to a public dog park, within 5 seconds a total stranger picked him up. I am often the person saying “Please stop touching my dog!”. This happened most recently at Deux Amis, where my husband, my dog, and I go for dinner most Friday nights in the summer. Grayson settles on the mat I bring for him, and he earns his bread and butter (and filet mignon) by staying relaxed on it — see video below. I don’t want him to learn that leaving his mat gets him attention and free food from other patrons. I’m glad we’re surrounded by fellow dog lovers who think he’s cute, but he’s not a traveling petting zoo. These table neighbors are ruining our training and his future behavior, making it harder for me to take him into public. Touching an animal that doesn’t belong to you is inappropriate.

 

 

I fully believe in training our dogs to behave appropriately in public and to help them feel safe and comfortable in all of the human centric environments they will encounter. Strangers approaching without asking makes it much harder for me to accomplish this task.

Even if I’m with a dog who behaves politely in public, dogs don’t speak English so he can’t advocate for himself. We expect our dogs to not only tolerate but to love every interaction that is forced up on them. Yes – forced – they are on the end of a leash and can’t get away. Many dogs tolerate interactions but give off stress signals that are unread and ignored. I don’t think this is reasonable or fair. There are plenty of reasons our dogs shouldn’t have to endure certain situations. It’s up to us to speak up for them.

Here’s why you shouldn’t touch a dog you don’t know without asking permission:
  1. He could be training (learning to settle, learning to ignore people or dogs, learning to sit for pets, learning how to walk, insert behavior here: X)
  2. He could not be in training but need to be in training (just because he’s in public doesn’t mean his owners are responsible)
  3. It might be a puppy going through proactive socialization
  4. He could be stressed out, fearful, or aggressive (see #1 and #2)
    • He could not like strangers, the bag you’re carrying, the skateboard you rode in on, the suitcase you’re dragging, the smell of your cat on your clothing, the fact that you’re loud and wobbling around tipsy, etc. etc. etc.
    • He could not like being touched
    • You have a dog with you he might not like, might be scared of, or might behave inappropriately with (barking/lunging/over aroused greetings, etc.)
  5. He could be sick, in pain, or recovering from surgery
  6. You’re modeling dangerous behavior for your kids (who are more likely to get a bite to the face if they run up to and grab/pet a dog without asking)
  7. Your toddler is running around and/or screaming and it’s freaking the dog out (just because your kid is in public doesn’t mean they’re behaving appropriately)
  8. He’s about to go potty and his owner doesn’t want you to interrupt him
  9. His owner doesn’t feel like interacting with strangers right now
  10. He could have limited sight or hearing
  11. He’s not your dog

 

Before I was a dog trainer, I was that obnoxious stranger on the street stopping to pet your dog and hold you hostage while I went at it with your furry friend on the leash, so… I GET IT. Dogs are CUTE and interacting with them makes everything better.  At the time, I was a professional dancer whose constant anxiety about life and making a decent living in my chosen profession was ruining my mental health. I didn’t have a dog, and I really really needed one. When I quit dancing, it was my then-boyfriend/now-husband who suggested I walk dogs while I figured out my next moves. Since then, I built and ran a dog walking company while simultaneously getting an education in training and behavior and have taken on progressively more challenging cases as my education and experience allows. Here in NYC I have worked with puppies, with dogs who are reactive to other dogs, and dogs who bite strangers. “Don’t Touch” vests, “In Training” vets, DINOS (dogs in need of space) gear, yellow dog project ribbons – all of these visual cues meant to instruct strangers to leave these dogs alone are often ignored. Telling people to please stop approaching or stop petting earns eye rolls and shouted profanities. I have had to walk a mile out of my way to avoid other dog owners who insist their illegally off leash dogs need to greet my legally on leash ones to keep the dog I’m working under threshold.

I have had to learn the most effective ways to get strangers to leave me and my dogs alone. Here they are:
  1. Telling a stranger “he’s sick and contagious” usually works even for the rudest of rude people, because it gives them a reason to stay away that they care about. Strangers don’t care if they ruin your training but they do care about getting sick.
  2. If the dog I’m working has a solid leave it behavior, I will tell the dog to “leave it” – the stranger is the “it” they leave while we walk on by. If they don’t have a leave it and we are outside, they likely have a hand target or eye contact behavior. I will ask the dog to hand target, to look at me, to go find a treat I’ve tossed in the opposite direction, or to do anything incompatible to interacting with the stranger.
  3. If I am in the middle of a training exercise and clearly and obviously actively training a dog, sometimes I have no choice but to pretend like the person does not exist. So often I am working a client dog outside when a stranger approaches and starts talking to me or the dog. The rate at which this happens while I am obviously training (treat bag out, clicking and treating rapidly, dog doing behaviors) is actually quite astounding. In this situation, I drop my criteria for the behavior and increase my rate of reinforcement since the stranger is now a huge distraction. My focus is on my dog, the criteria we’re working at, my timing, and my treat delivery. It’s not on the stranger.
  4. If I am working with a dog for whom getting close to a stranger is not an option (due to fear, aggression, or for whom getting close to a stranger will elicit or reinforce pulling or jumping up) I simply turn around and walk the other way without comment. I might feed the dog while doing so – not as a training strategy but as a distraction or to prevent unwanted behavior in a pinch.
  5. I am not going to abandon a dog mid-session to meet a stranger’s needs. My responsibility is to the dog I am with. I have worked with dogs who are triggered by their handler talking to a stranger. In this situation, I literally can’t stop and talk to the stranger while I am with the dog. If I do, the dog will bark and lunge, and that causes a huge training setback for us. It’s not worth it. I have gotten on an elevator at floor 25 and rode all the way down to floor 1, facing the wall and pretending like the stranger does not exist for the entire ride.
  6. If I am in the middle of a training session and the dog has the skill, I sometimes put the dog in a down or sit stay so that I can turn to the stranger and point out to them that we are in the middle of training and it’s not a good time.
  7. Body blocking can help prevent strangers from physically touching the dog I’m with. If the stranger is very pushy, this doesn’t always work so I prefer to just get away from the person. I have had strangers reach around my body to touch a dog I have in a sit stay behind me in the corner of the elevator after I have asked them not to approach. (Elevators are so hard!)
  8. Putting out your hand in a “STOP” sign and stating firmly “please do not approach” or “please call your dog” while body blocking or just before turning to walk away sometimes gets the message across. If I can, I will sometimes hold a hand out while I am training to try to silently convey this message.

It shouldn’t need to be said, but I’ll say it. Aggressive dogs shouldn’t be going out to restaurants with their owners. Any dog with a bite history should be muzzled if they are in public. Owners should be responsible. But sometimes they’re not, and sometimes they’re not in the mood to talk to you, and sometimes they’re proactively training or retroactively working on a behavior modification protocol. Please, read the situation and if you’re asked to leave the dog alone – do so without an attitude. You expect dogs to behave politely and appropriately in public, and you should too.

Puzzle Toys

Starter Work To Eat Toys -For a new puppy or dog who has never had to “work” before!
Kong - your pups first work to eat toy!

Kong – your pups first work to eat toy!

Kong

Kong Wobbler

Busy Buddy Twist & Treat

Tricky Treat Ball

Squirrel Dude

Work To Eat Toys – They get the concept, now put them to work!

Bionic Stuffer, Bionic Bone

Bob A Lot – Like the Kong Wobbler, but with adjustable treat holes for adjustable difficulty

Nina Ottosson Treat Maze

Monster Ball, Monster Mouth, Monster Girl

IQ Ball

Nina Ottosson Magic

Nina Ottosson Twister

Nina Ottosson Dog Casino

Challenging Work To Eat Toys
Dog works the Nina Ottosson casino.

Dog works the Nina Ottosson casino.

Dino Egg

Kong Genius LeoKong Genius Mike – Increase difficulty by linking these together

Buster Activity Mat

Nina Ottoson MixMax

 

Warning: Predatory Drift Happens at Dog Parks. Do you know what it is?

Play, Aggression, And Predation

Many dog owners are nervous when their dogs are playing. It can be difficult to determine what is and isn’t play without a trained eye. Play behaviors imitate hunting behaviors: stare, stalk, chase, grab, shake, kill, and dissect. We have selected and bred these traits to work for us (point, track, herd, retrieve) and see modified versions of these behaviors in both dog/dog and dog/human play (fetch, tug, tear up your toy, wrestle, chase). A certain level of predation is not only normal, it’s expected… we bred for it. There is a lot of overlap in the topography of play behaviors, aggressive behaviors, and predatory behaviors.

 

Two dogs playing at a dog park.

Dogs Playing by Eric Sonstroem

 

Predation is often confused with aggression. Aggressive behavior is often an escalation of communication meant to resolve conflict, provide defense, or protect resources. You may see some aggressive behavior if playmates have poor social skills and do not take pauses to check in with one another, switch rolls frequently (dog on top becomes dog on bottom, chaser becomes the chased), or listen to their play partner when the partner says “hey, that was too much”. Aggressive responses usually require only as much energy as is absolutely essential to get the job done. While aggressive behavior in play is NOT okay, it is a predictable response when too many dogs are playing together or dogs are behaving rudely towards other dogs. Predatory behavior in play is also NOT okay, and it’s (thankfully) a very rare occurrence.

Unlike aggression, which serves to resolve conflict, predatory behavior (stare, stalk, chase, grab, shake, kill, dissect) serves to provide food for an animal. While play behavior, predatory behavior, and aggressive behavior may look similar, it’s important to keep in mind that these behaviors serve different functions. Context and purpose are critical to understanding and potentially modifying or preventing the behavior. The purpose of aggressive behavior is not related to the acquisition of food. Predations very specific purpose of food acquisition more often ends with injury or death. Food has to be caught and killed.

Predatory Drift

“Predatory Drift” is a term that was coined either by Ian Dunbar (who mentioned the phenomenon in passing during a lecture)  or Jean Donaldson (who first published the term) to describe a dangerous occurrence when seemingly without warning a large dog who is playing with a small dog will switch from appropriate play behavior to predatory behavior. This may result in severe injury or death to the victim dog and is the reason safer dog parks and daycares have separate areas for small and large dogs. The term was likely influenced by the term Instinctive Drift which has since been debunked.*

While “predatory drift” is not a scientific term and is not well studied**, it is a term used among many behavior professionals to describe this terrifying phenomenon when play quickly turns deadly. In the classic “predatory drift” scenario, the attacker is a large dog and the victim a small dog. While there is often no perceivable trigger***, in a classic case of “predatory drift” the small dog will trigger predatory behavior in the large dog by doing things that prey often does: squealing, giving submissive body language signals or by running away from the other dog. To further complicate matters, the little dog may even resemble a small critter to an under socialized dog. After all, a Great Dane and a Chihuahua are the same species but they don’t look much alike!

 

A big dog and little dog at the dog park.

“Big and Little Dog” by Ellen Levy Finch

 

It’s clear that the motivation for play, aggression, and predation is drastically different, as are the consequences. The confusion lies here: The motor patterns (the topography of the behavior) are so similar that it can be hard to tell the difference at first glance. The differences are especially subtle to an untrained eye. I often hear clients say “everything was fine and then OUT OF THE BLUE the dog attacked or OUT OF THE BLUE my big dog picked up the little dog and was shaking it.” But here’s the rub: Behavior always happens for a reason, and while some behavior professionals feel that classic predatory drift is a weird “tick” that we don’t yet have the tools or knowledge to explain or a phenomenon where the brain switches from the play neurological circuits over to the predatory neurological circuits in an instant (which we do not have proof of), others feel that this is not a mysterious phenomenon, but a predictable one. Play preceding the attack, if viewed by a trained eye, may not be as appropriate as an owner thought. Canine communication can be both subtle and quick, and even professionals may need to play a video in slow motion to truly analyze what went on in any one interaction. To complicate matters, a lack of socialization or insufficient socialization means many dogs don’t understand that certain vocalizations or body language postures mean “that’s enough!” “let’s take a break” “please stop that” or “I don’t want to play”. Instead of taking an appropriate breather, their play partner takes play to the next level. They remain aroused, continue to overwhelm the other dog, and may even do harm. To add stress to an already scary occurrence, anecdotal evidence shows that once a dog has exhibited this behavior it tends to escalate. If your large dog picked up and shook a small dog at the park but didn’t do any harm, chances are next time that little dog will have puncture marks or end up dead. There is an operant explanation for this: the behavior is fun. Dopamine is released during each phase of the predatory sequence****. It’s addicting.

It is my understanding that most ethologists, neurobiologists, and applied behavior analysts agree that Predatory Drift is not an unexplained, mysterious phenomenon. I believe it is a predictable behavior elicited by a combination of poor canine social skills, high arousal, and a trigger that is predictable but hard for humans to perceive. The dangerous behavior that follows is heavily reinforced (fun! dopamine!) and likely to reoccur. Whether I am right and there is predictable stimuli and variables that elicit an attack or there is a “switch” we haven’t yet found that clicks the brain over from “play” to “predation” doesn’t matter much. There is only one solution:

Prevention. Prevention. Prevention.

If you are the owner of a large dog who, mid play, has attacked a small dog “out of the blue” your dog can no longer enter mixed sized dog parks or day cares. No large dog/small dog interactions are allowed. Your pup needs to play exclusively with buddies of his or her own size.

However, when looking at the “whys” and the “how can I prevent this?” there are a few additional things to consider.

Medication Induced

If your dog just started a new medication, a paradoxical effect to the medication or disinhibition due to the medication may cause an unwanted change in behavior. Let your veterinarian know immediately.

Health Issue

Any sudden change in behavior warrants a trip to the vet for diagnostic testing. Dogs who are feeling unwell or are in pain can display aggression “out of the blue” with no perceivable triggering stimuli. Schedule a check up ASAP.

Lack of Play Skills and Adequate Socialization

Your dog may not play appropriately, even with dogs of a similar size. Learn more about dog body language and play. Is your dog playing appropriately with dogs of all sizes? Perhaps your pup is not comfortable or happy around other dogs. Perhaps your dog is pushy and doesn’t read other dog’s body language signals accurately. If your pup is stressed in canine social situations, you may have a dog that shouldn’t go to the park or to daycare. Many dogs are much happier playing with their people, and don’t need to interact with dogs to have a happy life. In fact, these canines are much happier not interacting with other canines! Maybe you have a humans-only canine! If you need help, there are many professionals who are happy to review video footage of your pup playing, or meet you at the park to assess your pup playing (with pups of similar sizes). Keep in Mind: A good behavior professional will NEVER put your dog in a dangerous situation (or ask you to) hoping that your dog will repeat an aggressive or predatory response. Professionals will only ever set you up for success with safety always in mind.

Training and Behavior Modification

Training: Perhaps there is a clear trigger (antecedent) to this behavior for your dog. Maybe you know what it is – maybe you don’t. It doesn’t matter. You can’t train your dog out of this. Don’t allow your large dog to play with small dogs. It only takes one slip up… stand your ground. Advocate for the safety of your dog and for others dogs. Don’t let someone else convince you that your large dog will play with their small dog just fine because “my small dog prefers playing with big dogs”. Nope. Never. Make sure that everyone who is responsible for your dogs care is clear about this as well. Repeat yourself ad nauseam. As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and this is compounded by the truth that there is no cure for these dogs. The risk of training is not worth it. Imagine if your dog injures or kills another dog during training. There is no room for error. PREVENTION. PREVENTION. PREVENTION.


 

*We now know that poor training choices – like choosing a “reinforcer” that the animal does not find reinforcing – explain why this would happen. Instinctive Drift is not a real phenomenon. However, Breland and Bailey’s paper The Misbehavior of Organisms is still a great read.

**I’m not sure how this would be safely studied. It’s a rare event and is caught on camera even less frequently. After the fact descriptions are often incomplete, as this happens very quickly and often in the presence of owners who may not have a full understanding of canine body language.

***If further study were possible, this information may change. The term predatory drift specifically refers to this phenomenon when there is no circumstance or stimuli that triggers one dog to move instantaneously from play to predatory behavior. Predatory drift does NOT refer to cases where there is a predictable, stimuli inducing aggressive response.

****Ken McCort Seminar on Arousal, 2016


 

Thanks to Ken McCort, Ruth Crisler, Greta Kaplan, Brian Burton, and Sarah Fraser for sharing their thoughts with me on the topic of Predatory Drift! I hope you’ll share your thoughts in the comments.