My intake form is pretty basic. I use it primarily for triage. Is the dog being an unruly adolescent in an adult-only home, or do we have a just-turned-adult snapping at toddlers? This intake rose to the top, not because there was imminent danger, but because there was a level of detail that made me feel that Maryann, the owner, was in and really trying. She seemed involved, engaged, and committed to saving her family, Riggins and Wallace.
Riggins – Pit Bull Type / Male / Neutered / Age 6 years / 63 lbs.
The original resident dog, Riggins was adopted in 2014 from a local shelter and lived with Maryann a full year before she adopted Wallace. Riggins was relinquished for fighting with resident dog.
Wallace – Pit Bull Type / Male / Neutered / Age 2 years / 53 lbs.
He was the second dog in residence arriving in 2015, one year after Riggins. Wallace was privately rehomed at 4 months old to Maryann because the previous owner “didn’t have enough time.”
Riggins was surrendered for fighting with another dog in his original home. In Maryann’s home, he had growled at Wallace over high value chewing items like antlers and horns, and over his food bowl. No resource guarding directed at humans was reported. There were no incidents of engagement or physical fights until January of 2017. Riggins would wrestle with Wallace in the backyard but Maryann could not recall the “play/tolerate” ratio or if the dogs were playing mutually.
There were two cats in the home. Riggins appeared to be very comfortable around the cats. He appeared relaxed when sharing a room with them. He never barked at them or chased them. The cats also responded to Riggins with calm and playful behavior directed at him.
Riggins had attended a basic manners class at a local positive reinforcement training school. He had no bite history with humans and Maryann did not think there was any damage done to his former housemate despite the fighting.
Wallace had no significant history when Maryann adopted him. He was given to Maryann at 4 months old because the owner could no longer care for him. There were no details about Wallace’s behavior when he was a puppy or specificity around why they were rehoming Wallace. It is possible that his physical and mental needs were more than they could manage. No aggression was reported. Early in his history with Maryann, he played successfully with at least two dogs. He did not have regular on or off-leash exposure to other dogs. He was described as a bit leash reactive, barking at dogs on walks. Throughout his adolescence, Wallace had some struggles with greeting people, novel and known, that included jumping, head butts and muzzle punches.
Wallace also attended a basic manners class at the same local positive reinforcement training school. Maryann was still having difficulty managing him with people entering the home and coming downstairs. Wallace would become excited and repeatedly jump up. She tried some positive techniques and redirection but could not get consistent participation from her roommate who would inevitably wind Wallace up.
Wallace is appropriate and calm around the older cat but chases the kitten. The cats are now living separately from Wallace in one of the bedrooms. They do not have any contact at the present time.
Both dogs had moved into a new house Maryann purchased approximately 90 days before the first incident of aggression toward each other.
When Wallace arrived home with Maryann, he was approximately 4 months old and was a playful and active pup. Riggins was already an adult, estimated to be about 4 years old. The dogs lived together for about a year and a half without any observable discord. However, once we got deeper into the history, the owner described the interactions as intermittent play with mostly tolerance on Riggins’s part. Things truly began to escalate as Wallace approached his second birthday, the threshold for social maturity. It was clear that Riggins had an issue with resource guarding but his general restraint and tolerance for Wallace seemed to deteriorate while his sensitivity to Wallace’s proximity increased.
Incidents of aggression
Between January 4 – 6, 2017, there were 4 fights in total. Maryann was present to interrupt all interactions. The most severe interaction left Riggins with one shallow puncture behind his ear and broken skin on his ear flap. Maryann recalls food being in the area of these scuffles. Then on January 14, the dogs were being rotated from house to yard – Maryann became uncomfortable with unsupervised interactions so the dogs now were taking turns in the yard – and as they were passing one another, Riggins bit Wallace on the ear. Maryann reported that there was no food in the area.
Once Maryann and I decided that we were going to work together, I gave her some pre-evaluation guidelines regarding management to prevent any more incidents that would surely lead to more, and possibly more intense, aggression between the boys. We also discussed rehoming one of the dogs. She felt Wallace would be the easiest placement. In retrospect this was important because her bond with Wallace and the thought of rehoming him was motivational to the work. Intra-household aggression can be one of the most difficult scenarios to resolve and an owner committed to the process in a big tick on the plus column of the prognosis chart.
The dogs were going to occupy the first and second floor and be rotated so each could spend time with Maryann. When I arrived for the evaluation, Wallace was on main floor, so I met him first. Because there was no history of any issues with humans, other than jumping, I asked Maryann to allow Wallace to greet as he normally would. I also asked Maryann to handle him as she normally would. She asked me to walk in and ignore him until he calmed down. His jumping was actually more like a 5-year-old on a trampoline mixed with a bit of, “Hey! I think I am going to hump you.” His wrists and paws grabbed my thigh like a little vice and I smirked, knowing what was about to happen.
He had a harness on so I peeled him off my leg. As we made eye contact, I noticed the area around his eyes was becoming red . His tongue was oversized and sticking out of his stretched-tight lips. It was moving fast as he panted. He gave me a second of four-on-the-floor and I immediately dropped a treat. I continued dropping one treat for each second he stood on the floor. After ten seconds of treating for standing, I paused to see what he would do next. He made eye contact again and I dropped one treat for that. I paused again and he looked at my treat bag and sat. Yes, success!
He did pop up one more time and delivered a muzzle punch to my lip, sending blood into my mouth and left me seeing stars. (Wish I had that video!) We leashed him up and began to chat about Wallace. We covered his exercise, or actually lack of exercise routine, his behavior greeting people, and his unmet needs. Wallace was showing me how frustrated, under-stimulated, and out of control he was. This behavior, outside of the conflict with Riggins, was also causing conflict with his owner’s roommate. We had an honest conversation about all of the things feeding his behavior and how a change in activity level could help. Not only would it help him control his unbridled behavior, but it would be a significant factor in successfully executing a behavior plan.
Maryann also described an additional problematic behavior triggered by people sitting on the couch. Wallace would launch himself onto the couch and jump all over the person sitting there. In order to get a clear picture of what he was doing, I sat. The best way to describe this accurately is an absolute assault on any inch of space that would allow you to identify where I ended and Wallace began. A whirl of wiggle and a wrecking ball of a head was being thrown around with complete abandon. Since Wallace had one round of training, we had some very basic skills to work with. I said, “OK, let’s try that again.” I walked Wallace away from the couch and waited for him to sit. He sat in less than 5 seconds. I asked for a down, which he did, after the obligatory sit – not surprising. It’s the one-two punch that most owners really don’t mind so we let that be.
I am working on a protocol called Choice/Response Communication Training™ and this was going to be another awesome opportunity to test drive it. Basically, it is built on teaching some simple alternate behaviors and then allowing the dog to choose any of those behaviors for differential reinforcement. For behavior acquisition, I worked Wallace up to a 5-second down/stay using a fixed duration schedule with multiple repetitions at each stage, beginning with 2 seconds and raising the criteria one to two seconds at a time. We now had “four-on-the-floor,” sit, and down with the ability to hold the position, available for differential reinforcement. We also had a new consequence for jumping up on the couch or putting his feet on me, which was me taking my “ball” – the opportunity to earn – and going away. I moved toward the couch and turned as if I was going to sit, and I waited. He sat. I tossed the high value reinforcer. I began to sit. Next, he would be rewarded for any behavior he chose: hold the sit, stand and wait, lie down. He chose to hold the sit, I tossed after 2 seconds and I stood back up. I waited and the pause yielded a down. I raised my rate of reinforcement so that he was holding the down throughout the entire process of me lowering myself to the couch. I continued to toss after I was seated and worked on the down/stay using a variable duration with an average of 3 seconds. The variability helped Wallace stay focused and prevented him from being able to identify patterns and predict the delivery of the reinforcer.
We took a short break to talk about the process and I had the owner repeat the sequence. This is an extraordinary owner who understands the concepts at play, is focused on her dogs, and has really good timing! We discussed the need to raise the reliability of Wallace’s mat work so he could have a visual target and a comfy place as a cozy couch substitute. The other part of the conversation was the long term plan for Wallace and the couch. I know a lot of us – trainers and consultants – feel very justified with eliminating couch access. I am completely on board with that. I have also learned that sometimes owners want different experiences with their pets. The cherry on our sundae would be helping Wallace to earn access to the couch and teach him to target a cushion and settle.
At the end of 45 minutes, Wallace was completely relaxed and acting in a way that could be observed as calm – lying down, eliciting attention with reduced amount of panting, relaxed lips, eyes relaxed, and areas around eyes and mouth were his normal color.
It was time to meet Riggins. We rotated the dogs using a process that would work for Maryann when she had to do it by herself. Wallace had a quick stint in the first floor bathroom while Riggins came down. We escorted Riggins to the back yard and then proceeded to walk Wallace upstairs to his room and gave him a stuffed Kong. This owner was (and is) hyper vigilant about her management. This can be a very difficult element to get the hang of and it is critical when bringing two dogs back together after incidents of aggression.
Though his greeting was polite and harmless, Riggins was extremely anxious. He had not been walked in a while and was still getting used to the new rotation. It was visibly hard on him. Maryann talked to me about Riggins’ generally anxious behavior, inability to settle, and reactivity in the yard. He is also hyper vigilant on walks, constantly pulling and scanning. He had a difficult time focusing on the training, me, or the food. I could describe it as more of a “hit and run” series of interactions. He was able to perform simple skills, but they were quick, with Riggins taking his treat and walking away each time.
The final thing I wanted to do was observe body language with the two dogs in the same room. We cleared the living room removing all treats, toys, beds, etc. I discussed the trial with Maryann to be sure she felt comfortable with the process. For this one trial, we did not use muzzles because the dogs had not gone through the process of desensitization and conditioning a positive emotional response. We did have them on their harnesses, with safety attachments to compensate for any potential failures. Riggins was with Maryann at the far end of the living room. I brought Wallace downstairs, Riggins looked and immediately turned his head and body away from Wallace. He did a quick look back and turned away again. He was giving clear body language that he did not want to see Wallace. Wallace was pulling like a draft horse to try and engage his housemate. Riggins walked farther away as Wallace approached, reaching 6’ away. We held our position, at which point Wallace tried to pull forward and Riggins turned around growled and snapped. We ended the observation.
Riggins had reached the proverbial end of his rope with Wallace. In addition to the propensity for guarding, it seemed that as Wallace approached adulthood, Riggins was revoking his “puppy pass.” The tolerance for Wallace’s proximity and behavior had been replaced with a firm and solid choice to keep him away at all costs. This seemed to be a clear attempt by Riggins to gain and protect a safe distance from Wallace. Unfortunately, Wallace had the opposite goal in mind. He had an approach that looked very puppyish. He was moving side to side, trying to approach at an angle, tail hitting the sides of his body on an even plane with his back, and at one point slapped the ground with his feet.
After assessing the list of risk factors, the prognosis was positive overall. The dogs had a safe environment that was well managed by a single owner. No children were present. The aggression did not have a long embedded history. If management failed, the dogs would be at the mercy of one another and while both dogs had the opportunity to do as much damage as they chose, both limited their bites to superficial wounds that did not require vet assistance. (These would be assessed at level 2 to 3 on the Dunbar Bite Scale.) Neither dog transferred or redirected his aggression onto Maryann when attempting to interrupt the fight. Both dogs had a good early warning system. They were mentally and physically able to work and learn skills. The only glaring negative was with Maryann’s resources. Money and time were definitely spread thin for a single, homeowner with a full-time job and minimal external support.
Summary of the plan
This plan took some time to put together as there were a lot of moving parts. For the purpose of this article, I am going to focus on the primary goal of getting these boys back to learning not only how to co-exist but hopefully like each other. There are some other priorities that will be highlighted, like Wallace’s greetings. Due to the laundry list of issues going on, we opted for a complete management solution to Riggins’ dog-directed resource guarding.
The idea was to implement a cooperative training strategy. I had attended an advanced training seminar with Ken Ramirez where he showcased a rehabilitation project that focused on dog directed aggression. He said, “Now, I know you are all going to want to run right out and try this but…” I did laugh at the irony a bit as those words echoed in my mind. They were followed closely by, “Well, yes. Yes, I do. And I seriously think I should.” His words inspired me not to assume I had it down, but challenged me to proceed with caution, continue to read and research, move at a realistic pace, and be sure that we focused on safety.
Safety measures and management
Gates were installed at the bottom of the stairs and between the kitchen and the living room. We started desensitizing and conditioning a positive emotional response to muzzles so we would be ready for close up work and “drive-by sniffing,” with the ultimate goal being co-occupation of the backyard. As we know, muzzle work can take some time so while we were doing that, both dogs were working on mat targeting and settling without distractions. The dogs were rotated using the “bathroom / backyard tango,” as previously described. We had to make some adjustments as we figured out quickly that the sleeping arrangements needed to be rotated as well. The two dogs were not to be in eye line of one another until we started the initial cooperative exercises. There would be no access to one another if they were not engaged in training.
Energy and relaxation
Maryann committed to getting them out to walk and I connected her with additional walking resources. The dogs were to be desensitized and conditioned to Newtrix head halters. Until that process was completed, she would be walking one dog at a time using the Freedom No-Pull body harness. On the nights she had help, they were going for buddy walks on opposite sides of the street. The walk would begin when Wallace appeared, creating another step in the +CER (positive conditioned emotional response) for Riggins when seeing Wallace. Walking the dogs was going to be a huge challenge, so daily walks were not required. Instead, we supplemented their exercise routine with backyard play, puzzle toys, and training. The expenditure of mental energy would compensate for the reduction of walks.
Riggins was sent for a complete medical exam, including blood work and a consult to determine if medication would be an appropriate addition to the plan. The findings were within normal limits and he continues to be in remission from a mast cell tumor removal in August of 2015. He was prescribed 40 mg of Prozac, beginning with 20 mg given daily and increasing to the target dose after two weeks. Wallace was healthy and not experiencing the same stress or anxiousness other than lack of enrichment. He was up to date on vet visits so was not given the same recommendation.
Cooperative training plan
The goal was to repair any damage done to the dogs’ relationship by the fights and have them be confident and happy in the presence of each other. The training took place with both dogs present. We moved at a pace dictated by the dogs, paying close attention to body language when working. The focus was on teaching the operant behaviors that they needed to behave appropriately around one another and of course harnessing the amazing power of desensitization and counterconditioning.
Each time the dogs were together it was for something positive. Wallace appearing would start all of the fun stuff. We performed the following exercises with a gate between them, distance away from the gate, and on leash and Freedom Harnesses.
- Exposures were short and controlled, beginning with each dog seeing each other from a maximum distance across the house and stationing on their mats.
- All food, toys and treats were cleared out of the areas and put away in cabinets or closets.
- Riggins was in the kitchen, Wallace appeared and the training began with mat targeting and settling in the presence of the other.
- We worked for five minutes and then walked Wallace out. When Wallace left, Riggins hung out, the mat came up, and things got a little boring.
- Wallace was brought back in and we worked for another five minutes.
Because we had opposite issues with the dogs – one wanted desperately to avoid and one wanted to exuberantly engage – we implemented the following reward strategy for the mat work:
- For settling work, each dog got one treat at the correct interval. We used a clicker for training the initial mat targeting cue and discontinued it for the settling exercises.
- We reintroduced the clicker for the following behaviors:
- If Riggins looked toward Wallace and acknowledged his presence, handler clicked and delivered three treats.
- Since Wallace was focused on Riggins, we reversed the tactic. If Wallace looked away or at the handler, handler clicked and delivered three treats.
The dogs did really well, displaying minimal stress, appropriate excitement, and good focus with the additional behaviors of acknowledging and ignoring respectively. Please note, this video was taken in July and it was warm in the house so there is a lot of panting. There is also a lot of lovely tail movement.
The owner practiced these exercises, along with other behaviors like hand targeting, name recognition and eye contact. We gently closed the distance between the dogs, keeping the gate in place. We had more gate training exercises to implement but I wanted them to also work in a different environment while adding movement. The next session was slated for some movement work in the backyard.
While all of this was going on, we were also working on Wallace and his exuberant greetings.
It is a continued honor to see this family embrace the training, rearranging their entire world to make it all possible. I am incredibly fortunate to have a front row seat to view the progress. We are continuing to work at a pace dictated by resources and all the monkey wrenches that life throws. We are seeing more progress as each week passes and we are looking forward to sharing the next episode of “A Tale of Two Pitties.”
Erika Lessa, CDBC, CPDT-KA, has been working with companion and shelter dogs for the past 10 years. She has a private practice that focuses on dogs living in homes and provides services ranging from simple life skills to anxiety, fear, and aggression. She also founded a nonprofit that provides shelters and rescues with behavior support in order to increase the adoptability of their more challenging adoptees