Sunday, August 15, 2010

Patricia McConnell Seminar on Reactivity to Unfamiliar Dogs and the Importance of Play

OMIGAWD it was great to be with over 200 people all on the same page and eager to learn more. After a series of technical difficulties (which Trish handled with her typical aplomb) we were off to a great start.
It is impossible to post an adequate synopsis of this jamb-packed day.

One of the points she drove home was that "Reactive" is not always "Aggressive" but it can still be problematic. She linked the arousal level with the many behaviours associated with it like barking/lunging, biting and so on...

She brought up 2 different examples of "Reactive" dogs and we watched as she guided them through positive conditioning to more appropriate behaviour.  It was fascinating to watch how she treated each dog differently. One was encouraged to look at her in the other dog's presence and one was encouraged to look at the other dog depending on the specific behaviours we observed.  So this is no "cookie cutter" methodology but is rather based on the subtle and not so subtle messages the dog was exhibiting when in the presence of an unfamiliar dog.

One of the things I found the most interesting is that one of the reactive dogs was extremely well trained. It was obvious. And yet, all this training did not stop him from looking to 'pick a fight' with anything in his vicinity.  In this case, she rewarded the dog for NOT looking at the other dog. Whereas, the other dog, although 'trained' as well, was clearly frightened of new dogs and so was rewarded for looking in the new dog's direction.  She was not looking for a "media moment" and so stopped the exercise BEFORE either dog actually exhibited reactive behaviour.  In other words, she stopped with success however small!

Practically speaking, for me, this is all but impossible to do given the high density of dogs in my neighbourhood and the likelihood that they will be confronted with a situation beyond their comfort zone.

However, watching her gave me a brand new set of tools and direction for better managing my dogs' reactive behaviour. I am a more observant 'watcher' and guide. Let's hope it sticks when the moment requires! (I, too, have to watch MY reactivity and not make matters worse.)

I was disappointed because the one book I really wanted to get was sold out by the time I got there, "Feisty Fido",  but I did manage to get "Feeling Outnumbered?" which I don't actually ever feel but it is about dealing with multiple dogs which I do ever day both in my personal and professional life and I just KNOW there will be helpful tips on how to better manage my packs.

I also got "How to be the Leader of the Pack... and Have Your Dog Love You For It".  I am sure I will love both of them because I love everything she writes. It is so in tune with how I intuitively feel and ultimately want to relate to my canine friends.

The second part of the day was called "PLAY, PLAY, PLAY".

During this time we watched many clips of dogs at play and saw what is appropriate and positive play and when it can go wrong; how to spot the signs of 'play going wrong' and how to tell when, what appears to us as 'too rough play',  really isn't and just let them get on with it.

One of the most important things I brought away from this portion of the seminar is that play needn't be 50/50% exchange of dominance and often isn't.  But we did identify behaviours exhibited by dogs who, clearly, were not having fun and wanted out but the other dog wasn't letting them and they were about to be bullied.

But this concept that play CAN consist of one dog dominating the action without it being called bullying fascinated me.  She did lay down criteria for what is identifiable "play" activity:

- Actions out of context -mounting, chasing, grabbing, biting etc.- their 'context' being sex and hunting behaviours (i.e. predation) which the dogs were clearly not actually engaged in.

-Elicited by different stimuli

-Exaggerated actions (including locomoter-rotational play) - jumping up in the air, grabbing, pulling, mouthing, spinning and repetition, etc ...

-Lack of purpose -nobody knows WHY dogs play exactly as they aren't actually intending to achieve the results the behaviour is normally associated with i.e. procreation or a 'kill'

- Self-handicapping common: in other words, the stronger of the two will tone down their strength and skill in order to level the playing field for their playmate. This most often happens when there is an advantage in either age or size between the two players.

-Emotional Arousal is contained in healthy play - neither dog goes 'over the top' to the point of 'losing it'.

-Most common in young animals, rare in adults (People and dogs are the exception which is probably why we get along so well!)

- Most common in predatory mammals and social birds species

- Sex differences in play styles are common (especially in primates, Rough and Tumble Wrestle Play is common in males, not females.) As time goes by, she postulates, females prefer to play with females and males with males.

Let me say here that my dogs DON'T PLAY with other dogs. They are both rescues and, for different reasons, were not able to learn this important skill. That is so sad. Still, they do enjoy many games we play together such as ball throwing, 'fun' learning games, and so on.  They just don't know how to play with other dogs. They get either frustrated, annoyed or bored and these states of mind lead them to engage in inappropriate behaviours. I usually need to remove them while other dogs are hard at play because they just don't get it!

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