Tag Archives: manners

A new chapter for Spencer

Not too long ago, we took a decision to change trainers. The reasons are largely pragmatic. We are still connected to Irène and would recommend her to anyone, but seeing her meant driving to the edges of Paris, which always involved traffic and parking headaches. Plus we wondered if being in such an urban environment complicated training sessions for Spencer by surrounding him with too much ambient stress. Finally, we are interested in diversifying the kennels where we can leave him, and our new trainer Anaïs is associated with one of those kennels.

We like the idea that he can stay in a kennel where we know they use positive methods, but when we visited he didn’t do so well. The first time, he settled when we left him in a pen near other dogs, but when he was left in an isolated pen the second time, he wasn’t able to settle after 30 minutes. They won’t take him until they are sure he’ll be happy there.

That’s when we hatched the idea of doing his training at the new kennel. It allows him to get used to the place while we’re there and to let him form positive associations with the people and the place.

At our first session, Anaïs explained how his training is going to change now, but careful not to criticize what we had done before. On the contrary, she congratulated us on the progress Spencer had made since she had last seen him about nine months earlier. The changes being made now are because Spencer is capable of things now that he wasn’t before. Notably, he can manage stress much better, which allows us to challenge his limits gradually. Nonetheless, she said it is important to continue to monitor his emotional state and to know when to revert to giving a wide berth to scary things or even walking away.

Since Spencer has more emotional maturity now, we are finally able to start working on giving him less headway and teaching him that we’re in charge. This isn’t about outdated notions of dominance. It’s the same mentality as how parents lay down limits for kids and gradually transmit the rules for living in society.

The first lesson was simply walking around with Spencer and countering him whenever he tried to pull or lunge in one direction, directing him in the opposite direction from where he wanted to go. He sniped at Anaïs several times, but she said, “It’s no big deal. He’s just upset about not getting his own way. He’s throwing a tantrum.” And gradually he stopped.

At the second lesson, he was much calmer in her presence and more focused on where we were telling him to go. So we left the main compound, walked along the road to the other side of a field and entered a fenced in area under the trees that also belongs to the kennel. Anaïs suggested letting Spencer off leash and seeing how he did. He didn’t charge her once. We walked forward and backwards, calling him to come to use when we changed direction. He did great.

The third lesson involved Anaïs’ dog. The point was to see how Spencer did with another dog. We consistently blocked him when he tried to run up to the other dog in an uncontrolled fashion. He did pretty well, but just as he got really close, his excitement boiled over, he ran forward and mounted the other dog, which is very rude in canine behavior. The dog was very tolerant, but Anaïs was not happy since her dog is elderly. SHe suggested our seeing another trainer who has “coach” dogs, who will help Spencer learn how to be more polite.

In the meantime, the fourth lesson went great. Anaïs suggested we meet in the neighboring village to see how Spencer does in a more urban environment. We were there early, waiting for her at the parking lot. When she pulled in, I told Spencer, “Look! Anaïs is here!” As she got out of her car, Spencer went forward, tail wagging. and gave her a cuddle. She was as happy and surprised as we were that he recognized her “out of context” and was so happy to see her. We did a walk with Anaïs coaching us, and everyone thought it was a very good lesson. And that’s as far as we’ve gotten with Anaïs so far.


Indignation…and new friends

The other day, we had a glaring example of how people see what they are convinced they are going to see.

Spencer and I were at a park that we haven’t been to very frequently, but I’ve started taking him there more recently. So we’re just starting to meet people and dogs.

At one point, we saw a group of 4-5 dogs and roughly the same number of owners. Spencer was watching them with stiff body language, but whining, so I wasn’t really sure if he wanted to meet them or was anxious. Given the ambiguity of his body language, I decided to be cautious.  After a few minutes of him watching them, I persuaded him to follow me in the other direction.

A few minutes later, we were isolated in the middle of a big space, with Spencer on his long lead, when I noticed the group moving in the same direction as us.

Suddenly, one of the dogs detached from the group and came running towards us. The dog, who was roughly half of Spencer’s size and maybe a bit smaller, ran straight up to him and engaged him in a wrestling hold. First, this is a very impolite way to greet an unknown dog, and second, Spencer doesn’t have any social graces, so this is pretty much how he greets other dogs, especially males. So Spencer responded in kind. Even though Spencer wasn’t doing anything that could hurt her (I don’t know for sure it was a female, but that will make the descriptors easier to keep separate), the other dog started to scream bloody murder. She detached and ran back towards he mistress who was panicking by now and yelling frantically to call her dog back.

The dog stopped about halfway to her mistress and stared at Spencer again. It was clear to everyone that she was planning another run. The mistress started running toward her dog yelling more and more frantically to try to get the dog back. To no avail.

The dog came tearing towards us. Spencer stepped behind me as the dog neared, a clear sign for me that he was afraid. Just as I was about to step forward and try to scare the other dog, whose mistress was finally catching up, Spencer took a step or two forward and woofed at the other dog. It wasn’t overly aggressive, just a forceful “go away”. The other dog was still wavering on whether to come in for direct engagement, but by this time, I saw the other woman coming in close to catch her dog, and. worried that Spencer would consider her a threat, I was trying more assertively to move him away so the woman could catch her dog without incident.

She attached the leash to her dog as I tried to sooth Spencer in a calm voice that I would protect him need be. Then I heard the woman say to her dog as they moved away, “Come on. He’s a mean dog.” My jaw literally dropped. I spent much of the next ten minutes venting my indignation to Spencer, who, frankly, wasn’t really paying attention.

Happily, for the rest of the walk, things went much better. Spencer got to meet several other dogs and more considerate owners, especially the skittish Beagle mix Elka who teased him a bit because she wanted to play but was also a bit afraid of him. I was ever so grateful to her male owner who not only kept his distance, but squatted down, so Spencer wouldn’t see him as a threat.

A bit later, we met a group of about four dogs, and I was impressed that the one that felt most confident to walk right up to Spencer and start smelling him was the smallest — a Jack Russell Terrier. I wasn’t sure how that encounter would go since Spencer’s experiences with JRTs are not all good, but they managed to negotiate the encounter without any major stress.

Overall, Spencer seems to like this park and the possibility of meeting other dogs, but we’ll have to be cautious who we say hi to.


Pleased to meet me, or is that just a bone in your pocket?

For human beings, few dog behaviors are as embarrassing as their dog inappropriately humping. Spencer does this often when he meets other males, which I’ve always understood it to be a dominance ritual. Most people tend to think it’s sexual (and we know at least one presumably homophobic dog owner who doesn’t seem to appreciate that his dog doesn’t “stand up for himself” when Spencer jumps on his back). However, an article that I’ve just stumbled on (thanks to Scientific America’s “28 Santa-Approved Dog Science Articles”) suggests some other reasons for this behavior that make more sense in the wider of context of who Spencer seems to be:

  1. As bizarre as it might seem to us, humping might be one way a dog says “Like me, like me”. Kind of like that drunk guy at the cocktail party who is just trying waaaaay too hard. This seems likely in some cases with Spencer, like when he jumps on poor Gus, a much smaller Bassett Hound who seems to adore Spencer since he has known him most of his life.
  2. Overexcitement. Spencer doesn’t really do this, although sometimes when he’s really happy, he gets a fleeting puppy “boner”. (Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.)
  3. Humping is apparently a displacement behavior for conflicted feelings and anxiety. This sounds spot on for Spencer, whose reaction to a new dog can usually be summarized as freezing in fear until the dog passes and then running into the dog’s wake to soak up its odor (often accompanied by whining). He seems to want to be social, but to be terrified by the possible contact.
  4. Self-soothing. Self-explanatory. Not Spencer’s thing.
  5. Dominance. It may be a dominance ritual. but maybe we had that one wrong, like so many things we believed about canine dominance for decades.

Read the full article “Lessons from the Schoolyard: Why Do Dogs Hump?” on the Buzz, Hoot, Roar blog.


A few days ago, Spencer and I took our first solo walk in the woods — without Soca or Sherlock — in a long time. There weren’t many people around, and Spencer was supremely relaxed, so I had him on the long lead for most of the walk. At one point in time, we neared a major crossing, so I asked him to sit and wait for me while I caught up with him and put him on the short leash to have greater control over the situation while we crossed potentially near others.

Just as I reached him, I heard a man bellow, “Get back here!” I glanced up and saw a Jack Russell Terriers had just turned down the path towards us. Some of you may know or remember that Spencer doesn’t have a great history with JRTs. His social ineptitude and their high-strung nature is generally a bad mix.

I quickly clipped the short leash onto the harness and looked up to see that the JRT had already reached us, as the owner said, “Oh great. And it’s a big one.” I feared my nightmare scenario, where an angry owner comes charging up to us to fetch his dog and sets off Spencer’s defensive reactivity.

The dogs said a very polite and quick hello: a nose touch or two, circling the bodies and then the JRT went trotting off to catch up with his people, who, thankfully, had not come for him. It was a perfect encounter for Spencer — just enough contact to satisfy his curiosity without it being long enough for him to be socially awkward and jump on the other dog.

As the JRT reached his master, I heard him say to the dog, “You’re lucky he was nice.” I couldn’t help chuckling to myself and reflecting how we label people and animals as “being” one thing or another. Had he provoked a reaction from Spencer, I’m sure he would have a totally different opinion about how Spencer “is”!

Full of surprises

Like children, dogs engage in social referencing before deciding how to react to a situation, especially an unfamiliar context. The signals sent by the person at the other end of the leach can make all the difference, especially with a reactive dog. This means that when Spencer has a bad day, it’s sometimes really that I’m having a bad day and giving him the wrong signals.

This morning was a perfect example. I was trying to navigate through a slightly complicated intersection. A woman was coming down the sidewalk in front of us, so we crossed to the right. We couldn’t continue up the street on that side because there was a guy in front of us who made Spencer a bit nervous. I was going to continue down the side street when I saw a woman and her toddler coming towards us. So I decided to turn around and cross back to the other sidewalk, but suddenly there was a guy on our right walking straight towards us. Surprised, I jumped, and Spencer started barking at him. But then the strangest thing happened.

I consciously loosened the leash and said in a really calm voice, “No, no. Sorry, my fault.” The guy veered away from us (but still very close) and I glanced down at Spencer…to find him him SITTING and looking up at me to know what we were going to do next.

Let me repeat that: Spencer just spontaneously sat down calmly with a strange man less than two metres away from him.

This has been a strange yo-yo week. In France, when your dog bites someone you are legally obliged to undergo an evaluation from what is called a “behavioral veterinarian” (a sort of doggie psychologist, if you will). We saw ours on Wednesday, and Spencer was brilliant. He got a really good grade. He floored us.

Then yesterday morning, I took him out for a walk and he barked at practically everyone.

Last night he pulled like the dickens during our walk, but seemed to be on a mission to cover as much territory as he could, insisting on going down all kinds of streets we never or rarely take. He had a very clear plan where he wanted to go. I have no idea what the basis was for the plan, but he made it clear on several occasions that my idea and his were not the same. he didn’t seem stressed, just intent and over excited (it was windy and that often seems to rile him up).

And then this morning, after the incident with the man, he did some other surprising things:

  • He pulled me down a dead-end street to go say hello to dogs who were barking at him. Bless his optimism: as these dogs were barking, “Hey! Stay away from my fence!” Spencer walked up, started sniffing their noses and even play-bowed to one of them! Totally socially inept, but at the same time, very confident and courageous.
  • A little further down the road, a neighbor we don’t really know was out in her yard and said hello. She has a Jack Russell who most decidedly does not like Spencer (he’ll bark maniacally if Spencer is within 100m). But the dog was inside, which was the very first remark she made. Spencer stopped and looked at her through the fence. She started to walk towards us. I warned her that Spencer might react if she got too close. She got pretty close. We chatted. I kept Spencer moving, but still pretty static, and he didn’t say a word. We kept the encounter brief, but still, I was gobsmacked.

The training techniques in our arsenal

A lot of Spencer’s training over the past 18 months (since we started working with Irène) has concentrated on counter-conditioning, classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Counter-conditioning basically consists in changing the dog’s emotional associations with various stimuli. For example, we’ll often pop the vet’s office just to go in and eat treats in the waiting room. This helps him associate other feelings besides stress with the location. Since reactivity is triggered by stress, counter-conditioning helps to reduce the number of triggers in a dog’s world. Counter-conditioning does not depend on the dog’s behavior.

Classical conditioning is closely related to counter-conditioning, but adds the notion of sequencing. We used classical conditioning to teach Spencer to stay calm in the car when a Scary Person walked by. 1) Scary Person appears. 2) Treat appears. 3) Scary Person starts predicting treat. 4) Scary Person is much less of a source of concern.

Operant conditioning teaches the dog that he can influence his world. It often starts by explicitly requesting the dog to do a behavior and then reinforcing the behavior through a reward. However, it can also start by “capturing” a behavior that the dog does naturally. We wanted to teach Spencer to do his play bow on request, but we weren’t success at making him understand what we wanted, and we couldn’t predict when he would use one to ask us to play. Then we noticed that he used play bows to stretch in the morning and right before going outside on leash. So we made sure we had a clicker in our hand at those times and clicked as soon as he spontaneously bowed. Then we joyfully danced off to the treat jar together. Once he had made the connection between the behavior and the click, we added the command, trying to precede the bow with the word, so that now when we used that word, he offers a play bow on command.

We’re now moving into a new phase of Spencer’s learning that builds on this foundation. Called Behavior Adjustment Training (BAT), it incorporates elements of the previous three techniques, but frames them in a new way. Basically, you put the dog in a situation where it is challenged by a trigger without being overwhelmed and facilitate a decision-making process where the dog gradually learns he has other options for dealing with the stress besides charging.

There a different ways to design the set-ups, but you can imagine it this way in order to understand how the principle works:

  • A trigger (a person or a dog, depending on what sets the student dog off) remains stationary.
  • The handler guides the student dog close enough that he pays attention to the trigger, but in a fairly relaxed way (i.e. don’t bring the dog close enough that it tenses or, worse, barks or lunges). As long as the dog stays relaxed, he can engage with the trigger through looking, sniffing, etc. as long as he wants.
  • When the dog disengages from the trigger (looking away, ignoring the trigger and sniffing the ground or a number of other predefined behaviors), the dog is congratulated and invited to move away from the trigger in a happy, playful way.
  • It’s optional whether the dog receives a bonus reward (food, a toy or a game) once it has moved away.
  • Gradually, the dog is able to move closer and closer to the trigger during the exercises until it learns that the trigger is “safe”.
  • Additional rounds then include making it harder by having the trigger move, using a new trigger, etc. The dog’s decision-making and coping skills gradually improve and its likelihood of a panicked reaction decreases.