ASSESSORS: SILVIA JAY, DOG BEHAVIOR EXPERT, AND ASSISTANT AMY SLAUNWHITE, DOG
LOCATION: HRM METRO SHELTER
DATE AND TIME: DECEMBER 12/08 - 11.00 AM
I arrived at the Metro Animal Shelter on Friday, December 12 2008 at about 11.00 am. I was accompanied by an assistant. Staff and the Animal Services representative were accommodating and cooperative.
Before I began the assessment I requested to start in Brindi's run, and to walk her from her run to the back, fenced-in and outside space that was provided for us. My request was granted without any problems. The space provided in the back was excellent for our purpose to evaluate Brindi around other dogs.
The equipment used was a Easy-Walk harness and 6" leash. The Easy Walk harness is a body harness that has a leash ring at the front, the dog's chest area. I chose that type of harness because it allows for incredible physical control and at the same time does not at all restrict or irritate the dog. I didn't use a muzzle.
Brindi's run was clean; she has a cot-type bed, clean blankets, food and water and a stuffed Kong. Nothing was ripped or chewed, food and water was inside the bowl. That indicates that Brindi is in a good emotional condition - not stressed or shutdown.
Brindi was calm when I entered the run (with my assistant outside the run holding the door closed). Brindi was inquisitive and attentive, did not charge the door, no jumping up or mouthing. I ran my hand over her body to determine how she accepts handling, including ears, tail and back paws. She accepted all of it and remained relaxed and loose-bodied. I then offered her freeze dried liver treats, to determine if she is motivated/interested in food treats, but also to determine her level of mouth control - if she would take the treat hard or soft; if I would feel teeth or not.
Brindi accepted the liver treats eagerly. On a scale from 1-10, with 1 only feelings lips and tongue on my fingers holding the treat, and 10 feeling teeth to a point where it is uncomfortable, Brindi was about a 4. The fourth piece of liver offered I withheld from her (had a piece of liver between my thumb and index finger and had both fingers in her mouth but did not release), to determine what she does if she gets frustrated, wanting the treat and me not giving it to her. She first used her teeth a little harder, minimally increased to a 5 on the scale. After approximately five seconds, she sat, then offered me a paw, then backed away from me and sat, then decreased level of bite pressure to a 1 on the scale and used only tongue and lips to get me to release the treat, which I did. I repeated that two more times, to determine if she has memory and would lick/lip right away, which she did not, but initial teeth pressure decreased each time and she was faster to just lick and lip my fingers.
Conclusion: Brindi is food motivated. Brindi has a good level of self-control even if frustrated. Brindi learns quickly what the expected behavior is and then applies it willingly to get the reward.
After that I fitted the Easy-Walk harness. This was new and unusual for her and she reacted by folding her ears back and lowering her body. She also walked a few steps toward the run door. Her body posturing indicated that she was nervous with what I did, but she tolerated it without any form of aggression - no growl, no mouthing or snap. I had to adjust the harness and there was no change of behavior when I fitted her the second time.
Conclusion: Brindi was very accepting when I leaned over her fitting the harness on, even though she was nervous which she signaled through her body language. When I continued with what I was doing she did not intensify her behavior in order to stop me, but continued to tolerate it.
I proceeded to take Brindi outside. The indoor space where the dogs are is a, maybe 20 meter long corridor (maybe longer), with runs on both sides. There were dogs in the other runs we had to pass in order to go outside. Brindi walked ahead of me, but there was only minimal pulling. I kept the leash as loose as possible, not restraining her at all and not pulling her back, to determine how she maneuvers the space around the other dogs if not controlled by a person. Brindi ignored all dogs; walked without tension, did not bark, growl, snap or even look at the dogs. She also did not pull me in a "lets get out of here" way.
None of the other dogs reacted to her, which is important because it indicates that neither does she have a problem with the other dogs, nor do they feel stressed/intimidated/nervous by her presence.
Once in the fenced-in, outside area, I unclipped her leash and offered her a Guz Toy (bouncy rubber ball type toys that squeak). Although she did charge after it, she did not retrieve or was motivated to continue the game, or interact with me. At one point, she tried to bury it, but lost interest after a few seconds. Brindi was not overly interested in interacting once off the leash, but investigated, sniffed, urinated and had a bowel movement. I threw the Guz toy four times for her, with Brindi responding the same way. I called her name a few times when she was about 10 meters away, sniffing, but she stayed disengaged, not offering eye contact. She did pay attention to me when I walked up to her; did not run, or move away from me. At one point I tried to engage her in some roughhousing. She refused to engage with me that way, moved away from me and close to my assistant, who was about 10 meters away, looked at me and flicked her tongue. (This is a canine appeasing signal and sign that it made her nervous when I initiated roughhousing.)
At the very beginning of the off-leash evaluation outside I offered her a liver treat. Her level of teeth pressure was what I would characterize as a "7", so quite higher than inside the run. I want to clarify that I am NOT talking about biting. Even a level 10 pressure when taking treats will not leave a puncture mark or bruise. A hard mouth taking treats means that teeth are felt, the dog might be grabby, and it might be uncomfortable, but it is not a bite. I frequently offered her liver treats throughout the off leash session and her level stayed the same. A hard mouth is indicative of increased arousal, excitement or stress (in fact helpful in gauging what frame of mind the dog is in if there are no overt, easy to read signals). The fact that Brindi's mouth was considerably harder outside, than inside her run, indicates that just by virtue of being outside she becomes more aroused/stressed. That is not uncommon for dogs left outside/or lived outside without human direction and care, which was, I believe the case with Brindi, a rescue dog.
Being hyper-alert to detail changes in the environment and reacting towards them becomes a classical conditioned behavior with these dogs. Since running away isn't an option with a dog who is chained, they lunge out and learn to become offensive. That offensive, reactive behavior will intensify if it is self-rewarding; the behavior is reinforced, for example, if the other dog runs away.
The next step was to evaluate Brindi's behavior when she encounters dogs. I put Brindi back on leash, handed her to my assistant and left the enclosure to get my own dogs, Davie and Will. Davie is a 10-year-old female Australian Shepherd, Will a 7-year-old mutt. Davie's disposition is very confident, grounded and calm; Will is insecure around other dogs, but calm and responsive. Both my dogs are dog savvy and frequently assist me. Both my dogs were leashed, but the leash was kept loose, allowing them to walk freely. Brindi was leashed, the leash kept loose also.
She was about 10 meters away from the fence when we walked up. She was on alert right away when she saw us, moved a few steps toward us, then halted and hesitated for a brief second. She did not vocalize. Her body posturing was forward. I, at that point instructed Amy to keep a loose leash and follow Brindi. We did not cue/prompt her, and I did not prompt my dogs. I did this to determine what would happen without human control. Brindi approached my dogs, somewhat tense but no charging up. My dogs did not retreat (and they could have - there was always a loose leash). Once Brindi was close to my dogs - only the chain link fence between them, she looked at my assistant (unprompted eye contact).
This was really quite remarkable, because it showed Brindi to connect to a handler she never interacted with before, which is the canine version of asking for guidance. When my assistant responded and moved a step back, Brindi heeded the cue and followed, loosing attention to my dogs. The willingness to focus on the handler and follow directions was repeated several times throughout the session. That willingness is to connect to a person is crucial in retraining. It means that the dog will be open and receptive to training and is motivated to respond to such contact.
While Brindi and my dogs were stationary, with the chain link fence between them, a few interactions took place between Brindi and my dog. Davie and Brindi were indifferent to one another. There was some nose-to-nose sniffing; Brindi at one point tried to initiate a game (attempted to bounce into her to start a chase game); and some appropriate crotch sniffing. No growls, not teeth, no snapping of any kind. I also handed out liver treats to all three dogs, and Brindi was patiently waiting her turn, but took the treats a bit harder yet, indicative that she showed a lot of self control but was stressed by the presence of my dogs.
She did not look at my dogs, nor did she attempt to intimidate them out of the way, which indicates that Brindi was not resource guarding. This means that Brindi does not appear to aggress because she protects a possession. To put it in perspective, reflex aggression rooted in fear is easier to modify than dominant aggression, where the dog protects possession, which can include property.
I then began to walk parallel to the fence. Brindi reacted to that instantly and vocalized - barking interspersed with some growling, and charging. We continued to walk, and Brindi calmed a little, but remained charged up. At that point I decided to bring my dogs back to the car. I seen enough of her interaction with other dogs.
As we left, Brindi was not barking and charging us. According to my assistant, Brindi relaxed as soon as my dogs were out of sight and offered eye contact and engaged with her. My assistant played with the Guz toy, which Brindi was not possessive over, accepting my assistant's hands around the toy and her mouth without becoming tense. Once I returned, I made a fast hand movement and grabbed the toy. Brindi reacted to that with nudging my hand with a closed mouth.
Nudging means that Brindi was interested in interacting with me; accepted my invitation. A closed mouth means that Brindi chose to not use her teeth; no aggression at all. Brindi greeted me with a friendly, relaxed wagging tail when I returned. I offered her a couple more liver treats, which she took quite hard, level 9. I did not release the treat right away, testing if she could calm and eventually lick/lip the treat as she did in the dog run, but she couldn't. That, and the fact that Brindi had another bowel movement, is indicative that she found the session with my dogs taxing on her and stressful.
We brought her back to her run, and again there was no reaction towards any of the other dogs; they did not react to her, she didn't pull, went willingly into her run and did not charge the door trying to escape when I left. She was not tense or concerned when I leaned over her to remove the Easy-Walk harness. The fact that Brindi was a little nervous when I fitted it on her, and relaxed when I took it off, indicates that once she is familiar with a novel situation and feels safe, she is non-reactive. That is another sign that she is both insecure, and very trainable. I offered one more treat in her run, which she took with a softer, much more controlled mouth.
In my opinion Brindi's reactivity with other dogs is based on insecurity. She feels safe inside her run and around the dogs she knows by now, and remains non-reactive. She is hyper-alert once outside, sensitive to detail changes and her environment, particularly dogs in motion. Likely in her past charging into them offensively got her the response she was seeking and it became a learned behavior. Once a dog runs, predation instinct might add to her, already high arousal level. The fact the she chose another insecure dog, Will, to engage with and not solid, confident Davie, is another indication that Brindi is insecure. Insecure dogs are unpredictable to other dogs, which increases insecurity in the other dog. So she tried to find out more about her by sniffing her in turn, or to see what happens if she bounces into her.
Throughout this assessment, Brindi gave neither me nor my assistant any trouble, she never threatened either of us and was very appropriate. This does not mean that she does not exhibit inappropriate behaviors for which she needs to be retrained. Both my assistant and I agreed, however, that Brindi is highly trainable and her reactivity can be largely modified. Indeed, Brindi’s behavior is not worse and in fact is better than that of many dogs I meet and work with. “Aggression” is often misunderstood as dominance–protective–intentional behavior which is not, in my opinion, the cause of behavior complained of in respect of Brindi.
Conclusion: In my opinion, Brindi could be successfully "rehabilitated" under an appropriate protocol. She is handler/owner attentive, food motivated and willing to respond to directions. Once a dog/situation is predictable (in her mind) she doesn't react. These are optimal and highly suitable conditions to return her to the community.
December 22, 2008.
I note again: Brindi is now over five and a half years old. At two she was found tied up and abandoned out in the rain with a litter of her puppies, on a first nations' reserve. At four I adopted her, and she passed an obedience class three months later. At five, due to a few minor infractions, only incurring injury, also minor, she has been locked up in a temporary care facility, making her confinement a total of half her life. Given all that, I would say she's a darned good dog.
Her condition and behavior now don't even come close to the way they were before they took her away. Her condition now isn't even remotely similar to how it was when they took her, let alone when I first got her. The SPCA pound is a temporary care facility. It is not designed for long-term stays. I requested twice that she be placed elsewhere, and was turned down. She has not been bathed in a long time, months and months - I never saw her that filthy, actually. She is extremely overweight and her normally gleaming coat is dull. Clearly she has not been given enough exercise. How can an organization bound by provincial law keep her in such a state, in such a place, and refuse me visits?
Give her back. Let's put an end to this story. A happy ending.