Monthly Archives: July 2007

What next? A giraffe?

This is a dog site, ok? I am a dog behaviourist, ok? Are you sure you’ve got that? I do domestic dog behaviour, that is, the behaviour of Canis Familiaris, or Canis Lupus Familiaris, depending on which side of the Wolf Fence you straddle.  Is that clear?

Why so emphatic? Well, I have to confess that it’s with a certain amount of manic glee that I’ve discovered that my, er, fame is spreading in quarters beyond the usual haunts of doggy people.

It all started with the Clicker Primer on my old site (which is still there to redirect people, but has been superseded by the Dog Zone, with all its lovely content management bells and whistles.)

I set up the Clicker Primer, a collection of training lessons in a logical order, to walk people who had never clicker trained through starting a dog off on the clicker. The material is a bit more theoretical than many beginning clicker sites and books, partly because I know from experience that it’s the operant techniques underlying clicker training that make it so powerful, and partly because I think it’s possible to present fairly complex material like this in such a way that it’s relatively easy to understand. And this, of course, opens the door for many people to learn to apply the theory and modify their own techniques as they go along, which is when this kind of training really comes to life.

Anyway, I digress (I’m getting old so I’m allowed to).

Part of the Clicker Primer was, of course, a page on Intermittent Reinforcement Schedules, and because the most useful of these is in my opinion the Variable Ratio reinforcement schedule, and because this is a bit difficult to explain to people without a background in behaviourism, I decided to do a couple of explanatory  graphics, and I took some trouble over the explanation.

And I didn’t give it another thought until I decided to move to and set up a content management system. 

As part of the exercise, I checked for incoming links, and, much to my surprise, discovered that there were quite a few that I didn’t know about (I’ve had the occasional request to reproduce an article but didn’t expect to find incoming links beyond the obligatory attribution.)

And most of the surprise links were to my intermittent reinforcement schedules page.

The first one that caused a certain amount of mirth was the discovery that had turned up in the bibliography of a presentation given at an international conference on Polar Bear husbandry, cited on the website of a wonderful organisation called Polar Bears International (  This site has a wealth of information about Polar Bears and in particular the impact of global warming on their habitats, and is well worth supporting.

The mirth came from the fact that although I now live in Cape Town again, I had set up and written most of the original articles on it while running a behaviour practice in McGregor, an extremely hot and very quirky little village in the Little Karoo in South Africa. 

Of course I couldn’t resist writing to Polar Bears International to ask whether the link qualified me as an International Polar Bear trainer.  I pointed out that South Africa was a bit hot for polar bears, but that I supposed I could buy a bigger fridge, and received a very amiable reply (I would love to learn to mush and have a sled-driving holiday planned when I can afford it, so will definitely be paying the PBI folks a visit when my holiday eventually materialises.)

Then the myth burgeoned somewhat.  McGregor, where I still have many friends, is a very well-preserved 19th Century village, and still has a system of gravity fed stone irrigation channels known as ‘leiwater’ (literally: led water) fed by a dam at the top of the village.

Bruno, a close friend who lives in McGregor and works as an architect, insisted that he had seen a polar bear in the leiwater dam one morning and speculated that they might be migrating as a result of global warming.

Various unsavoury people insinuated that I had been seen in the show ring trying to pass off a polar bear as a Pyrrhenean Mountain Dog.

But the cherry on the top was provided by my friend Adam, who took over from me as webmaster of

"I don’t know what all the fuss is about," he said loftily.  "Polar bears are easy to train.  It’s the bipolar ones you have to watch out for."


That wasn’t the end of it.  I then discovered that the intermittent reinforcement schedules page was tagged in various blogs, ranging from articles on management consulting (how to get your employees addicted to work) to addiction (substances, email, take your pick) as well as a (few) actual dog sites.

Oh, and it was also at google no 1 for, you guessed it, "intermittent reinforcement schedules".  (I can just see all those slavering teenagers trying to find the latest cool thing on the net and discovering a dog training site…..:) )

However, I went ahead and moved the site, leaving a couple of pages on as redirects.  It works for me to have a suffix because I live in South Africa.  Although I’m an animal lover in general, I specialise in dog behaviour.  And there’s a lot more to behaviour practice than just clicker training, although it’s certainly a very important weapon in the arsenal.  So it made sense to make the change, and I thought that that would be the end of my 15 minutes of fame.

Until the other day, when I got an email from someone who said a professor at Colorado State University had referred him to for advice on how to train his bison.

So I’m eagerly awaiting my first giraffe.

Dealing with Aggression

Aggression is probably the most misunderstood and mishandled behaviour problem amongst dogs.  It is also one of the most prevalent problems reported to behaviourists.  Many otherwise experienced trainers are at a loss when it comes to dealing with aggressive dogs.  So why is it such a problem?

Firstly, it’s a problem because we humans define it as one.  Dogs have a variety of agonistic (aggressive) displays, which include quite severe but not lethal biting, which they use to resolve conflict amongst themselves.  Left to themselves, dogs will rarely injure one another seriously; major fighting problems almost always evolve as a result of well-meant but misguided human intervention.  To us, a dog fight is quite terrifying, and the person who can stand back, watch a fight and assess it coolly before deciding whether or not intervention is warranted, is a pretty rare being.  Show people, with their obsession with keeping their dogs pretty, are particularly bad in this respect!  But in actual fact, almost all dog fights break up spontaneously within three minutes, and it is only if a fight continues for longer than this, or if one dog bites down hard on the other dog, holds on and starts working his way toward the throat that you should consider intervening.  If the fight is all ‘teeth and claws’ (lots of snapping, snarling and foot-waving), the best is to let it peter out by itself.

The level of noise in the fight is also a good indicator of how severe it is – and this might not work quite the way you think it does!  Try this exercise.  Get an apple.  Shout as loudly as you possibly can.  Now bite into the apple, and while still biting, shout as loudly as you possibly can again.

The first time (minus the apple), you’ll probably make quite a respectable amount of noise.  But when trying to shout while biting an apple, the most you’re likely to produce is a rather muffled "mummphh".

The moral of the story, of course, is that the noisier a dog fight is, the less there is to worry about – and this is particularly important to understand when a youngster is being reared by older sibling dogs in a multi-dog household.  When an adolescent pup is flat on his back yelling his head off, with a lot of growling, snarling, barking older dogs apparently ripping him to shreds, you can be pretty sure that he’ll emerge with nothing worse than a mild nip here or there.

Quiet dog fights, on the other hand, are likely to be very serious, and if you hear a drop in volume from the dog who is winning an altercation, it’s time to intervene.  How to break up a serious dog fight without getting seriously bitten yourself will have to be the subject of a separate article (but there is some good information here – give the page time to download as it has lots of pictures, and scroll down to the text.  There is one piece of information on this page with which I disagree strenuously – never, ever, ever alpha-roll a dog.  Otherwise, it’s excellent advice, including the material on treating bite wounds, which should never be stitched and always left to heal by secondary intention).

Aggressive behaviour is thus a normal part of a dog’s behavioural repertoire, and is not necessarily deviant in any way.  When dogs cross the line and start behaving aggressively toward humans, though, aggression becomes a very serious problem because of the huge potential for serious injury.  Even at this stage, though, it is not necessarily abnormal, but nevertheless requires swift and expert intervention, particularly if the dog is a large one.

The issue of aggression is complicated in guarding breeds such as Dobermanns because some aggression in these dogs is desirable, and is selected for as part of the breeding process.  Unfortunately, many Dobermann owners regard their dog’s aggression as acceptable because they see it as part of his ‘protective instinct’, and thus fail to recognize that the aggression is in fact due to excessive anxiety or another maladaptive cause.  Owners of guarding breeds also often wish to see their dogs as courageous, and have difficulty accepting the notion that their dog may be at risk of becoming a fear-biter.

The first step to being able to deal with aggression is understanding it better.  Although there are over twenty identified causes of aggression in dogs, behaviourists generally agree that there are two main categories: predatory and affective.

Predatory, or quiet aggression is the type of aggressive behaviour involved in hunting for food.  It is highly pleasurable to the dog, and is triggered by, for example, swiftly moving animals like cats or squeaking and squealing noises such as those made by small children.  A lot of bicycle and car chasing problems fall into this category.

During predatory aggression episodes, the dog is usually quiet and there will be no signs such as hackles up or snarling; in fact the chances are that the tail will be wagging and the dog will look quite happy!
Affective aggression (or aggression with an emotional content) can be loosely defined as aggression in response to a perceived threat.  It is unpleasant for the dog and will usually be accompanied by signs such as curled lips, hackles up and snarling.

Any animal which finds itself under threat can choose from one of three options: fight, flight or freezing (‘playing dead’).  Dobermanns are bred (theoretically, anyway!) to select fighting as their primary option, and when we say that a dog has ‘courage’, what we mean is simply that he will tend to fight rather than run when confronted by a threat.

Usually a dog wavers between fighting and running, depending on the severity of the threat and the dog’s temperament.  Emotionally, the dog is torn between fear and aggression.  Figure 1 shows the facial expressions of the dog on the two axes of fear and aggression, and is a useful way of determining which emotion is uppermost in a dog who is under threat.  In a guarding breed, we would like aggression to be uppermost.

Fear/aggression continuum
Figure 1 (from On Aggression: Konrad Lorenz)

What this means is that fear and affective aggression are two sides of the same coin.  There is a popular belief that aggression is at one end of the spectrum, and fear at the other.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  At one end of the spectrum is the confident, relaxed, unfazed dog and at the other is the threatened, anxious animal whose choices are to fight or to run.

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I’ve learned this Doggy Zen stuff pretty well now (Mother-person says I’m very clever!) She holds out a treat, I ignore it, she clicks and i get the treat. All I have to do is sit still. But now she’s added a new wrinkle and I don’t understand at all!

Tonight she muttered something about ‘targeting’ and stuck her finger under my nose, so I ignored it. I mean, my job is to sit still, right? And nothing happened! She didn’t click! Sometimes I think the woman is mad.

Then I touched her finger by mistake and she clicked! Huh? Then she got out this orange fetch stick, which looks like quite a nice toy, and she waved it under my nose and rolled it around on the floor. Now under normal circumstances I would have liked to play with it, but my job during lessons is to sit still, so I sat still, and she didn’t click!

Then we got the finger again (it really isn’t polite, you know!), and eventually I started touching that with my nose because it seemed to work, and she clicked and I got some more treats. Then she held out a treat and said ‘Leave it’ and I had to sit still again.

You don’t suppose she wants me to do more than one job, do you? I mean, I get paid to sit still and not snatch treats, and now I have to touch a finger as well. It’s all very confusing, and I think I want overtime!