I’m no stranger to dog fights.
I started my first pack while living remotely in the mountains—extraordinary, experienced varmint hunters who didn’t just squabble when the time came for the changing of the guard. No, they inflicted significant damage. As we were three hours from the vet we couldn’t afford, it behooved me not only to know how to break these fights up, but how to prevent them.
With a former feral dog as the pack’s foundation, I’d always managed them on a fairly primal level—as part of the pack, on their terms. Boss bitch. But while this allowed me to break the fights up without taking damage, it didn’t prevent them. And as they escalated, I decided that they needed more than policing—that in fact, the policing sometimes made things worse. They needed, individually, to know they were secure and loved.
So I did that. I won’t say it resolved things completely, but with added management at critical times, we did okay. It was an important lesson.
Fast forward to the current little pack. All Beagles, which helps—they’re bred to get along. But Dart’s never been the average anything, right?
(See the previous blog—the brilliant, the emotional, the knots, the trouble.)
We’ve had some turmoil in the pack lately. My health issues have affected them. And adding a new dog to the crew…that’s big. Not that Dart dislikes Tristan Puppy—in fact, he’s pretty darn fond of him. But Dart is a resource guarder, and he’s concerned about all his Owned Things (including me).
For an instant understanding of resource guarding, just think Gollum and the Ring. Except to Dart, almost everything is Presciousssss.
So he started a fight that ended very badly for older brother Connery, and he over-reacted to Tristan’s innocent bumbling, and then he snapped at the puppy while the puppy was in my lap, which was essentially snapping at me.
Boss Bitch created some consequences and everything settled…for a couple weeks. But eventually it happened again—Dart went for the puppy in a moment of absurd resource guarding, and this time he ignored all the submissive screaming, posturing, and peeing, and he left blood dripping everywhere. I had to haul him off and stuff him in a crate.
Well, Beagle ears bleed like the dickens. But Tristan’s pierced ear is healing fine and the scabs are off his head.
The thing is, even a good pup can be ruined by something like this. A pup can learn that he’s not safe, regardless of his own appeasing messages and appropriate behavior, and that leads to timidity—or striking first. So…it was not to be borne.
At this point it’s obvious that Dart knows the rules, and he knows when he’s breaking them and for the most part he tries hard not to, but sometimes THERE HE WAS having done it, and OMG that made him a BAD DOG and OMG that made him more EMOTIONAL and OMG that made it harder not to resource guard in the first place…
You get the picture. Emotional knots!
So I called his wonderful breeder, who is wonderful just exactly because she’s everything a breeder should be. This means I can say, “I have a problem, and I need help solving it,” and we’ll work on that together. After all, she bred this dog. As emotionally atypical as he is, she still knows his mother, his father, his cousins, his siblings…and she had him for the first ten months of his life. Who else would have better insight?
Together, we decided that it was time for Operation Hug Dart. Special mommy time, special training time. Lots of hugs and pets.
Dart quite understandably liked this very much, but in the end it wasn’t enough. Along came a little bit of stress (okay, maybe more than a little, but that’s another blog) and he was at it again, stalking around with threat hackles when Connery dared to approach me.
Connery was getting tired of it, I have to say. There was a lot of stinkeye going on.
So, step sideways a bit.
There’s a thing about dogs and food: the very act of eating puts a dog’s brain in a particular positive place.
Also, one way to handle a dog’s emo state is to add value to the problem elements of his stress. For instance, free cookies in the presence of the stressor.
Dart’s resource guarding is triggered by the presence of the other dogs during environmental transition, especially in my presence. So, time to go out? We all gathered for free cookies. Released from crates after mealtime? Free cookies. Couch time? COOKIES! Each dog politely in turn, even little Tristan. But no free cookies just for Dart on his own.
Almost instantly, the Dart Defcon level decreased. On the right track!
By now, someone’s thinking that it makes no sense to essentially reward a dog for what amounts to completely unacceptable behavior. Just wait, because here comes the truly counterintuitive thing: inevitably, Tristan gleefully flung himself up into my lap at the same time Dart did.
There was a growl. There was a pre-emptive scruff grab.
Dart: OMG I’M A BAD DOG A BAD BAD DOG I DID THE BAD THING I CAN’T THINK!! GROWL GROWL THREAT!!
On my lap with the puppy beside us, which one might say wasn’t optimal…
Surely cookies at this point would equal rewarding the dog for his bad (bad, BAD) behavior, right? Under some circumstances, that’s no doubt absolutely true. But dogs aren’t any more black and white than people are, and adding the wrong kind of energy into a confrontation at the wrong time just pushes things toward detonation.
Yes, Dart got cookies. Tiny little pieces given slowly, so he had time to think. Gently, so no one moved too fast.
It took only four little pieces, during which Tristan was curled up at my side and after which Dart relaxed and softened…and fell asleep in my lap. Afterward, Dart hopped off the couch, shook off, and cheerfully ran out to be with his brothers.
We haven’t had a problem since.
Not that I’m cocky. Dart is Dart. We won’t take him for granted. But we have a working management strategy.
Operation Hug and FEED Dart.
Because when problematic behavior occurs, we have to think about more than reacting to it, we have to look what lies beneath it. Setting boundaries is important…but relying on confrontational management is so often simply adding fuel to that fire without addressing foundation issues.
Something to think about, for those times that dog and human reach a hard impasse…especially when the stakes are high.
Really, you said it all: “Look at that face.” <3
Interestingly, for Lani, when she barks aggressively at people she does not know that have come for horse lessons, we give them cookies to give to her. Not to reward her aggressiveness, but so she can see them as friendly. She is a sucker for dog treats. I don’t feel it is exactly fair to yell at her for doing her job as a guard dog–her breeding leads her there. But cookies, well, she likes that!
You are so wise. Pryor, in one of her books, talks about the way an unearned reward can change behavior (happened to her when she was young. She’d been bratty for awhile, getting more and more crosswise with parents–and was unexpectedly given a book of fickets at the riding stable.) I know with our autistic kid, when he was on the verge of meltdown, finding *some* way to help him feel better about himself (safe, loved, a “good boy”) could abort the meltdown. Not rewarding bad behavior, but intervening when he was at a point where he couldn’t think or control it, with something that would reset the self-definition.
Yes! A reset-intervention!
I hadn’t read about unearned reward. But I’m reading Denise Fenzi, where a recent blog discusses her experiments with rewarding failure of a known performance in order to build zest and confidence.
Interesting idea…. I think I need to steal it. I have the same problem with Bullet who resource guards me and I’ve tried just about everything to deal with it. (luckily no blood yet with the incidents). I’ll have to see if I can “reset” Bullet!
I hope that works!
Dart is incredibly lucky to have both a breeder and a Mom who care so much about him. The stakes are higher than most people would believe. How many “Darts” end up in shelters because their owners had no concept of how to handle them, and, more importantly, had no source of information to develop a plan to cope? But that’s maybe something for a discussion at another time. I’m glad for ALL the Beagle Boys’ sakes that Dart is feeling less stressed.
I’m really beginning to see some excellent results from this strategy. Dart was tense last night, and a couple of cookies fixed it right up. Now this morning, the dogs all ran out together–and instead of eyeing them up as he usually does, Dart came back to the door with a clear expectation…and got a cookie. In other words, the strategy has moved to a phase where it’s starting to help *prevent* ugliness instead of just a way to ease us out of tension gracefully…
May it continue!
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