Of Pigs' Ears and Puppy Growls

 |  Oct 5th 2010  |   0 Contributions


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Puppyhood is a time for pet owners to focus on the prevention of behavior problems in the adult dog. As those of you know, I've been hard at work with Cuba teaching him manners and how to live comfortably and safely in human society. When he matures, he will be an adult dog that weighs more than me and is far stronger. Behaviors that may be "cute" in a puppy are often not acceptable in a fully grown, mature animal.

We've done a lot of exercises specifically on resource guarding prevention. Resource guarding is a natural dog behavior and is virtually guaranteed if preventive measures are not taken during puppyhood. I know this is natural dog behavior, so as long as displays between dogs are controlled and ritualized, I rarely intervene. I have no problem with Mokie growling at Cuba if he gets in her face and tries to take a pig's ear out of her mouth. Hey, if I was hungry and some stranger (or even a trusted friend, I suppose) came up to my table in a restaurant and shoved his face in my meal like the kid from Christmas Story, I would probably snark too.

However, and this is a big caveat, I don't believe resource guarding toward humans should ever be tolerated.

This is why I've done so many trade up exercises with Cuba. We practice with toys, marrow bones, bully sticks, and yes, twelve pound hunks of raw meat. While he eats his portion of a pork roast for a daily meal, I may trade him 20 or 40 times over the course of his meal, always giving him a yummy treat and immediately giving him his meal back when he finishes his treat. He learns that mom often takes things away, but when she does she gives you really great stuff and the VAST majority of the time, you get that other yummy thing (dinner) back immediately. Now he wags his tail happily when I approach to take his dinner away. I was so proud of us!

Until...

Cuba and Mokie have never had pig's ears before. Mokie's had a few raw ones in her day as a novelty, but never the dehydrated kind you get at the pet store. I picked a few up for a special treat to give the dogs something wonderful and novel to chew on during the Kathy Sdao seminar we hosted recently at our facility.

To try out my special yummy ammunition, I gave Cuba and Mokie pig's ears a few nights before the seminar. They were both absolutely thrilled! I approached Cuba to scratch him and he growled at me. Uh oh! I knew we had some work to do. We did a few short sessions, and now he wags his tail when I approach as he chews a pig's ear, spits it out to see if I'll give him anything, and then goes back to chewing happily.

How did we get there? In four 3 - 5 minute training sessions.

Step One: Hold the Treat

This one may be too much for some dogs at first. I gave Cuba the pig's ear, but did not let go. He chewed it, but it was in my hand the entire time until it was very small and slimy and gross, at which point I let him finish the treat by himself.

Step Two: Click, Treat, Retreat

This exercise is exactly what it sounds like. I got some great treats (roast beef) and my clicker. I approached Cuba while he was chewing the pig's ear until the point where he noticed me but did not growl. I would then click, deliver a treat, and retreat, backing away a few feet. Cuba got three rewards here for being approached - the click, the treat, and the creation of space or distance.

Once I could approach Cuba until I was standing right next to him, I would bend over him, click, treat, and retreat. When he was ok with that, I would reach my hand down, click, treat, retreat. Finally, I progressed to touching and petting him using the same protocol.

Step Three: Touch the Treat

This is basically the click, treat, retreat process again only this time instead of touching Cuba I'm touching the treat. If at any point during any of these steps Cuba growled, I would back up to the last point at which he was successful and proceed more slowly. This exercise is about building trust, and is not a race.

Step Four: Trade You!

I started out with two pig's ears. I would give Cuba one to chew on, and as he munched happily, coated the other with a bit of peanut butter. When he looked at me, I dropped the peanut butter pig's ear. As he went for that one and began to lick the peanut butter off, I'd hold the other pig's ear, covering it with peanut butter. Repeat, repeat, repeat. Peanut butter pig's ears are apparently much more exciting than a regular pig's ear.

Once he was spitting the cleaned off pig's ear readily, we traded "naked" (non peanut butter laden) pig's ears. When he was ok with that, we ended for the day.

At our next session, I just had one pig's ear and some roast beef. At this point, I took the pig's ear, gave him a big wad of roast beef while telling him what an amazing puppy he is, and promptly returned the pig's ear. After a few reps at this level, he would eagerly spit out his pig's ear when I reached towards it. Perfect time to add the cue "Mine!", which was then reinforced with the roast beef and return of the pig's ear.

Mischief managed!

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