Friday, April 15, 2011

Lexi & Melissa in Frank Sinatra Park

This post is an extension of my latest for

Lexi & Melissa in Hoboken

In Unified Dog Theory XIV: The Importance of Understanding Attraction and Resistance, which was posted earlier today at, I discuss the properties of attraction and resistance, and their importance in understanding how and why dogs do the things they do. If you've read that article, feel free to skip the paragraphs in blue. If you haven't, you'll need to read them now to be up to speed on what happened with Lexi and Melissa in Frank Sinatra Park.

For those who haven't read some of my previous articles in this series, I've defined the 4 Quadrants of Drive Training as Attraction & Resistance, and Tension & Release. I've already discussed the last two in some detail. Here I'll be discussing attraction and resistance.
First of all, everything in the universe is geared toward seeking out connections with some other facet of existence. From sub-atomic particles on up to the need some of us feel to log on to Facebook each morning, the entire universe is about making connections. The underlying theme of how these connections get made - whether it's the way sodium and chlorine atoms hook up to produce salt, how a bloodhound sniffs a criminal's trail, or how two people find each other across a crowded room - it's about physical, chemical, magnetic, or emotional attraction.

Things can't form connections without experiencing some form of attraction.

In canine behavior, it's pretty easy to see a dog's feeling of attraction manifest itself when he pulls on the leash to get to another dog, or when he chases a squirrel, or jumps up on a person he likes.

The flip side of attraction - which could be either magnetic repulsion or emotional resistance - isn't as clear cut, but can be seen vividly in the difference between the way a dog pulls toward an object of attraction along a straight line as opposed to taking a more circular approach. In my view, the curvature indicates that the dog's feeling of attraction has met some form of resistance, either internal or external. In fact if the resistance is strong enough, the dog won't dog even look at it or acknowledge the so-called object of attraction.

Biologists talk about approach and avoidance, which are behaviors. Attraction and resistance are emotional states. A dog can sometimes be seen approaching someone while having very strong feelings of resistance toward that person, i.e., approaching very slowly, with the head and tail hung low. A dog can also have a strong attraction for something and hold perfectly still, not approaching it at all (this is usually called stalking).

One of the rules I follow in training is that when using games like fetch or tug to elicit an obedience behavior, you should always quit before the dog starts to get tired or bored. This is very important because what starts out as a pleasurable learning experience can quickly become the opposite, which will result in slower response time, and may even devolve into a general lack of interest in listening or obeying at all.
How can you tell when the dog is starting to get tired or bored?

I recommend studying Turid Rugaas's "calming signals" - a dog's behavioral postures and micro-expressions - which I've discussed previously, and which Rugaas sees as being produced with the conscious intent to communicate to another dog or person.

Since dogs produce these behaviors when people and other dogs can't see them, I tend to think of them as "tells," the kind of postures and micro-expressions poker players read when in their oppononents when trying to determine whether they're bluffing. In my experience, canine tells can be successfully used to determine whether a dog is feeling more resistance than attraction in any given situation.

So one way to determine when a dog is getting tired or bored with a game goes back to the difference between a straight line and a curve. If Fido chases the ball ten times, and brings it directly back each time, in a straight line, it means he's still emotionally invested. If, on the eleventh throw, he begins to come back in a more curved fashion - no matter how subtle the difference - his interest has started to wane, his heart is no longer in the game, and it's time to take a break.

Of course, we could interpret this behavior in any number of ways. The dog is simply tired. The dog's sense of smell is starting to override his joy in playing, etc. But I think it's extremely helpful to be able to interpret canine behavior through the lens of attraction and resistance.

I was working with a student of mine named Melissa last week. She’s learning how to produce a good, rock-solid stay with various dogs. We were in Frank Sinatra park in Hoboken, NJ, with a dog named Lexi (shiba inu mix, about 35 lbs.), and I immediately saw a problem: when Melissa began doing the first stay exercise (the "step-away" stay), Lexi held his position very well, but couldn't look at her. This is one of Lexi’s tells. He was physically obeying the command, but at the same time, his heart wasn’t in it. He was feeling resistance.

So I suggested we stop working on the stay, and instead we did an exercise designed to build Lexi’s feelings of attraction toward Melissa. In briefest terms, I held Lexi’s leash and had Melissa walk away, about fifty feet or so, and hide behind a tree.

Lexi was now very interested in Melissa. After a while, he became riveted on her, and started whining, and pulling on his leash. When these feelings were at their peak, I released him, Melissa called him, using a high, happy voice, and ran away, encouraging Lexi to chase her.

He raced toward her with all his might, in a straight line. But then, for some reason, the old resistance showed up again, and his path curved toward a tree, which he immediately peed on. Interestingly, Lexi’s biggest behavioral problem at home is urinating inside the house, which he only does when he’s left alone. When I saw him do that I realized why he'd been peeing on the carpet when left home alone. All the love he felt for his owners, all the feelings that had been trapped inside him, had to flow out, and the only he felt he was able to connect to them when they were gone, was to pee on the carpet.

Melissa re-interpreted it this way (which I think is pretty brilliant):

"Lexi feels an immense void inside. And in order to connect this energy, he pees. And he pees in the part of the house that has an emotional charge to it, the living room where the family hangs out, where the family plays and laughs. It's also possible he likes the carpet, how it makes him feel, because he likes to rub his body on it. But I think it also has his owner's scent and their vibration, a family vibration."

Another way of putting it is, when Lexi's owners leave him alone, he feels their absence deeply. This produces high levels of anxiety, perhaps even panic, which carries with it a physical feeling of pressure, and perhaps even trembling. He has learned that the way to get rid of these uncomfortable physical feelings is to release the tension they produce through emptying his bladder. (Some dogs with separation anxiety release tension through their throats, by barking, others release it by chewing on the carpet or furniture, and still others may find release by digging at the carpet, or scratching frantically at the front door.)

At any rate, once I’d seen that Lexi had trouble relating to Melissa with total abandon (no resistance), even in mid-chase, I suggested we bring him back to where we’d started, come down to Lexi’s level and just lie on the grass, and start doing some very gentle teasing and pushing games, the kind puppies do to initiate play with a littermate. We even nuzzled his body with our faces

We did this for a while, and then Melissa, sensing Lexi's desire to play, asked if she should take Lexi's favorite toy, Mr. Foxy, out of her bag, to see if he'd play tug outdoors, which he'd never done before.

I said sure, then took the toy and teased Lexi with it, dancing it around his face, then pulling it away to pique his interest, i.e., build up his attraction for it. And after about 30 seconds of this – for the first time ever – Lexi began to play tug outdoors, first with me, then with Melissa.

Will learning to play tug-of-war outdoors with his owners, cure Lexi’s separation anxiety? It couldn't hurt. There's a lot of stuff that Lexi feels, under the surface. So it's going to take some time to make him feel safe enough to let go of those feelings. But playing tug with Mr. Foxy in Frank Sinatra park that chilly Sunday was a pretty good start.

Natural Dog Training in New York City

PS: I saw Lexi again last Sunday. I was sitting on a bench at the entrance to the park. As soon as he saw me he got very happy. Melissa released his leash, knowing he would come directly toward me. He did, but halfway to me he started feeling the old resistance. 

So I got "small," hunched my shoulders together, ducked my head, made myself as small as possible, considering how big I must seem to the little guy. Then I spoke to him in a high, silly voice, and his trajectory toward me returned to its previous happy straight line.

I'm telling you, understanding how dogs feel and express attraction and resistance is very important. In fact it may be one of the most important aspects of dog training.