Category Archives: Musings

“Reactivity” and how to upset other dogs

Imagine…

You are a very sociable person. You were raised in a large family.  They often had friends round.You love people 🙂

wren whoosh and a bc
Getting to know each other – safely

Then as you were beginning to grow up and maybe even reached your teens, you were given away to a family of camels. Yes, camels. An entirely different species. They don’t hug or kiss or chat. They don’t talk to you in any kind of language you can understand – just a load of noises which make no sense to you. They stink too. Worse, they live in the desert, so from that day you don’t see another human being. But you get along OK. You adapt. It’s not a terrible life. Then one day, meandering about in the desert with your new camel family, you see on the horizon not just ONE human being, but a whole bunch of them! You can’t contain yourself. You charge over to them, laughing excitedly and generally making something of an idiot of yourself as you shout ‘HI! HI! OMG! People! Who are you?’ You hug and kiss a couple before they are really aware you are on top of them. But the third one is ready for you – and pushes you away angrily. After all – you are a complete stranger. You not only ignored all the social niceties of a proper greeting – you HUGGED him?? He gets cross.  At least the others just move away and put up with your nonsense. But that one who just got angry – he’s not prepared to let it go. He’s a bad tempered old bugger with a dodgy hip; he can’t evade you and it hurts. And you nearly had him over! He gets hold of you and shouts at you to ‘stop!’  Suddenly all your enthusiasm evaporates. You are frightened. You had never met anyone as grumpy as that before and you were only trying to be friendly and you hadn’t seen a fellow human being in ages.

Very quickly your camel family gallops up and intervenes and hurries you away. But mortified by your totally inappropriate behaviour, and angry with the grumpy old man who’d so viciously attacked you, it is clear they are upset as well. They make angry-camel noises at you. All very stressful. No chance for apologies. No making up between you and the humans you were so desperate to make friends with.  Everyone is angry and there’s a sour taste of frustration that you hadn’t been able to make friends with any of them and worse, finding out that some people are horrible to you. And you don’t know why. A poor encounter on every level.

So we can easily see how a young dog is being set up to make the kind of mistakes that can end in tears when encounters with other dogs are mismanaged, or allow him to behave in a way that upsets other dogs.  But worse than that, if something bad happens, what we humans do in response often compound those worries and fears. Our friend who lives with the camels wasn’t given the opportunity to learn actually most of that group of humans were OK, but, well, if you approach people in a crazy way, they are very likely to going to react badly, especially if they can’t move fast to get out of your way! 

Both our human friend and the grumpy old man might get labelled “reactive” in today’s world. The friendly youngster as he jumps up and down with excitement, shouting hello as he charges towards the group of people; the grumpy old man as he reacts sharply, and aggressively, to stop from being hurt or knocked over.  Very different motivations; potentially very different outcomes in the long term that might have been avoided had things been managed differently.

Thinking inside the box

I used to have a puzzle box that I used in class room based dog behaviour seminars. I’d put a “reward” in it (usually a lottery ticket), put it on a desk and before I started presenting the seminar I’d say ‘Here’s a box – if you can open it, the reward – a lottery ticket – might be worth millions of pounds – is yours. Help yourself’.

And carried on lecturing.

It was very rare for anyone to get up at that point to get the box, but you’d see some students glancing towards it. Considering if they should get up and go fetch it or not.  It was very rare for anyone to.

So invariably at some point, to encourage them to go against the social norm of sitting still and listening obediently to what I was saying, I’d have to be more explicit. ‘Please…help yourself. Who wants to have a go at opening the box?’

Then I’d start to see what I see in dogs.

The confident ‘can doers’ would be the first to get up and go get it and try to open it. Usually the ones who had been glancing at it – already visualising how they’d tackle the problem or perhaps already considering how they’d spend their jackpot. If they failed, somewhere along the line another person would take over. (Negotiations on how and when that changeover happened varied according the group dynamics. Interesting in itself).

The ‘problem solvers’. They don’t seem to want the reward too much, but it is a goal. The task of working out how to open the box appears to be self- reinforcing. (But only up to a point – I’ll come back to that). They’d be calm and thoughtful. They’d be the ones that stopped listening to me talking and could be seen playing about with it, shutting out potential interruptions.

The ‘deferrers’ – the people who sat back unwilling to risk attempting and failing. Usually accompanied by verbal ‘oh I’m no good at things like that’.

The ‘let me at it’ brigade. The ones who got frustrated very easily, pull and push at it aggressively, and giving up very quickly.

I saw low level ‘resource guarding’ behaviour. If there was more than one ‘let me at it’ individual in a group, you’d see some attempts to grab and possess the box, some protective snatching away of it and only half-teasing verbal aggression.

I don’t recall anyone saying the lottery ticket was the main motivation for any of them to have a go. I wasn’t sure how much I believed that, but It was (after all) just a piece of paper, which was very unlikely to materialize into hard cash. On occasions I used a single sweet. Perhaps the distraction from my lecturing was reinforcement enough. Perhaps the novelty of the task was enough.

I only once encountered someone who sat serenely and confidently ignoring what was going on and not getting involved. Not a ‘deferrer’. But something else. On exploring why she wasn’t interested in trying to open the box it transpired she was a Methodist and was against gambling, so she did not want to win a lottery ticket. The prospect of getting a lottery ticket was not only not reinforcing, the possibility of a negative outcome for her seemed to block other motivations to have a go at the task.

Once a student had been successful in opening the box, lottery ticket duly possessed, there was still plenty of interesting things to consider. Even when the reward was no longer in the box, plenty of students still wanted to work out how to open it.  They might help each other, they might not.  An empty box now, no sweet or lottery ticket to be gained. But the student who had been successful almost invariably lost all interest in it. Some students, often including some of the ‘deferrers’, wanted to work out how to open it, but needed a bit of help and encouragement and once help given, they were happy to persist in completing the task. There would always be a few who didn’t seem to want to be involved at all, who sat on the sidelines. There was no reward on offer sufficient to prompt them to try. It didn’t seem fair to draw comparisons between the ‘deferrer’ and the dogs we might see in dog training classes who had long since lost the will to be involved in the learning process, or have so little confidence in trying, they feel safer sitting things out, or consider the challenges in helping them choose to be more engaged. But it was tempting to all the same,

When we discussed questions like whether the students would continue to persist in opening the box when they a) knew how to and b) they knew there was no reward in it, I don’t recall any students ever saying they’d bother with it again. There was the occasional one who wanted to improve their ‘box opening’ skills, and you’d see those individuals move all the panels swiftly and more deftly on each repetition, but once they had improved to some internal standard of perfection, lost interest.

It was tempting to view the responses as ‘breed’ related and sometimes we might joke about the Border Collies in the group since there was invariably someone who obsessed about the box – intent on opening it and not willing to being interrupted. In the end it was a human Malinois who finally did for the box. Frustration, very limited patience, and apparently few social skills (don’t break the teacher’s box!) led to fatal injuries and sadly I have never found one to replace it.   RIP puzzle box. You helped me ask so many questions I still do not have the answers to.