CASE STUDY: The ‘Pushy’
By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.
Rocco is an 11-month-old intact male Papillon.
Rocco’s owner sought treatment for his
‘aggressive’ behavior towards other dogs. When he
sees other dogs he will lunge towards them and vocalize. He also
does not like to be picked up and will snarl, snap, and attempt
Rocco was obtained from a reputable breeder
at 10 weeks old. He was sold as a ‘show quality’ dog.
His breeder described his personality as ‘outgoing’.
He was enrolled in puppy classes (clicker training)
at 16 weeks old and completed 2 sessions that were each 10 weeks
long. He seemed fine with other puppies in those classes. He is
currently enrolled in a conformation class, a puppy agility class,
and takes private obedience lessons.
His owner describes Rocco as “intelligent
Rocco’s owner reports that he first snarled
at her in the car on the way home from picking him up. She was
holding him in her lap and he was sleeping. When she stroked his
ear, he snarled. She was surprised, but chalked it up to having
startled him out of sleep.
When he was about 4 months old and in to see
the vet he growled at her as she attempted to examine him. The
vet told the owner that the pup was displaying dominant behavior
and that she needed to respond to it with an ‘alpha roll’.
The owner reports that she did this 5 or 6 times, but felt very
uncomfortable with this technique and did not see any positive
change in Rocco’s behavior.
*NOTE: An alpha roll is a traditional corrective
technique that involves forcing the dog into a down, usually on
his back. Those who suggest this method state that it puts the
dog into a submissive position and teaches him that the owner
is the pack leader and must be obeyed. This technique was popularized
in the 1970s by The Monks of New Skete. Most educated dog trainers
are aware that this technique has the potential to damage, rather
than strengthen, the dog/owner relationship. It could also lead
to increased aggression in certain dogs.
Rocco’s reactions to other dogs increased
in intensity when he was around 9 months old. He became tense,
anxious, and overexcited in class settings with other dogs.
Rocco spends time in his owner’s office
in a wire crate while she does chiropractic treatments on other
dogs. He has started to react aggressively (growling and snarling)
towards the other dogs while he is crated.
At first, Rocco’s owner dismissed his
behavior problems and minimized them. This is, of course, understandable.
If we can ignore problems, then we don’t have to deal with
them. Unfortunately, behavior problems rarely, if ever, get better
on their own. Instead, they usually escalate in intensity over
As stated above, she used an ‘alpha roll’
on a handful of occasions, but was not comfortable with that technique
and did not find it to be useful.
In his conformation class the instructor suggested
using time-outs for inappropriate behavior. Rocco is given a brief
period of isolation in a crate when he overreacts to other dogs.
The effectiveness of this technique is not yet known as it has
only been tried a few times so far.
In class settings his owner reports that, when
he becomes reactive to other dogs, she tries to regain his attention
by talking to him and luring him with treats, and that she sometimes
picks him up.
I have had the opportunity to observe Rocco’s
behavior first-hand and to use some behavior modification techniques
with him on several occasions. I first met him at an agility trial
when his owner approached me about working with him. She described
his aggressive behavior when being picked up. As I picked him
up he snarled, growled, and snapped. He certainly would have bitten
if he had the opportunity. Once in my arms he turned sweet and
charming, wagging his tail and being quite friendly. At that time
I suggested that the owner practice picking him up, quickly popping
a treat in his mouth, and putting him back down. The treat is
given WHILE he is being picked up. Being picked up and being given
a treat must happen at the same time. Rocco seemed very willing
to take the treat rather than attempt to bite.
During our first session I took an extended
behavioral history, observed Rocco’s behavior, and instructed
his owner on some basic behavior modification and handling techniques
(details in the Recommendations section). Rocco did indeed show
himself to be both intelligent and sweet (as his owner described).
He was already familiar with clicker training, very food motivated,
and very willing to work with us. In fact, he still seemed energetic
and eager to work at the end of our two hour session!
During this session I first worked with Rocco
and his owner in a private lesson, then observed Rocco in his
conformation class and his agility class. On that particular evening
the conformation class was very small (another Papillon and a
Great Dane were the only other students) and Rocco did not exhibit
any inappropriate behavior. The puppy agility class was much more
lively and active. The other students included a German Shepherd,
2 Papillons, a Cocker Spaniel, and 2 Shelties. The puppies were
working on individual obstacle skills and there was lots of noise
and movement. This environment did elicit Rocco’s unwanted
behavior. He spent much of his time watching the other dogs and
attempting to interact with them. He would lunge and bark, and
strain at the end of his leash.
Rocco’s inappropriate behaviors around
other dogs are probably the result of several factors. His undesirable
behavior increased in intensity as he approached physical maturity.
Since he is intact, the effect of male hormones has probably exacerbated
the problem. His hormones are telling him to be ‘macho’.
Another factor contributing to his inappropriate behavior around
other dogs is likely to be his small size. Small dogs often seem
to be aware of their vulnerability. Certain personality types
seem to try to ‘cover’ this vulnerability with an
aggressive persona. The aggressive behavior is simply a way to
hide fearfulness and a lack of confidence around other dogs.
However, in my observations of Rocco, I did
not see any behavior that I would categorize as aggressive. Instead,
he seemed to be desperately trying to interact with other dogs.
He seemed very interested in them and curious about them, but
did not show any true signs of aggression while I was watching
him. It may be that his owner has misinterpreted his excited behavior,
or it may be that I simply did not have the opportunity to see
the worst of his behavior. Because of this, I will base my recommendations
on my observations, but also make some suggestions regarding the
possible aggressive displays as well.
His aggressive behavior when being picked up
(snapping, snarling) could have several possible causes. First,
of course, physical reasons must be considered. Once these are
ruled out another strong possibility might be that he feels helpless
and out of control when being lifted off the ground. This is not
uncommon in small dogs.
1. Neutering. If Rocco
were a pet dog, I would strongly suggest that he be neutered as
soon as possible. While neutering will not solve the problem,
it will make retraining easier. Without the push of his male hormones,
Rocco is likely to be a bit more tractable and less distracted.
However, his owner and breeder are interested in showing him in
conformation. Also, his behavior seems as if it will be controllable
even without neutering at this time.
2. Crating. When Rocco
is confined in an open wire crate when other dogs are around,
he probably feels trapped and vulnerable. I suggested to Rocco’s
owner that she change the way she confines him. Rather than keeping
him in her office when she works on other dogs, she now confines
him in another room with chew toys. This seems to make him much
more comfortable. She also now crates him at the training center
in a covered crate away from the activity. She reports that he
is doing much better while crated.
3. Situational management.
Rocco’s excitable responses occur most often in situations
that are busy and noisy , and where there are lots of dogs (such
as agility class or walking through crowds). Now that his owner
is aware of this, she can take steps to better manage the environment.
She needs to become aware of times when the situation is overwhelming,
and be proactive in her approach to changing the situation. For
example, instead of trying to regain Rocco’s attention in
agility class when he is lunging and barking, she needs to move
him away from the center of action to a place where he can calm
himself enough to pay attention to her again. Trying to break
through Rocco’s frenzy of excitement is doomed to failure.
In that state, he is highly unlikely to respond appropriately
to his owner. Instead, Rocco needs to be moved to a setting in
which he is more likely to regain his composure and be successful.
The example I used with his owner is this: Imagine
that you are in a noisy, crowded nightclub. Now imagine that your
math teacher is there and is trying to teach you calculus. How
likely is it that you could ignore the distractions and concentrate?
Even if your teacher were to tug on your sleeve and wave chocolate
in your face, you would probably still find it difficult to pay
attention. However, if you and your teacher were sitting in a
quiet coffeehouse, you would probably find it much easier to concentrate
and to learn.
4. Leash handling.
Rocco and his owner have fallen into an interaction pattern that
maintains his inappropriate behavior. Rocco spends much of his
time in class settings ‘out in the world’ instead
of tuned in to his owner. He is very focused on the environment,
as are many dogs. He gets to the end of his leash, strains against
it (often standing on his hind legs), and makes every effort to
attract the attention of other dogs. Once this behavior occurs,
his owner is left trying to find some way to entice Rocco back
into interacting with her. Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem
nearly as interesting to him as other things in the environment.
As another trainer once said “it’s hard to be more
interesting than another dog’s rear end!”
The good news is that Rocco’s owner can
change this pattern. The first thing she can change is the way
she handles the leash. Both Rocco and his owner are used to having
a tight leash between them. When the leash is tight, each knows
exactly where the other is without looking. I spent quite a bit
of time working with Rocco’s owner on leash handling. Keeping
a short, but loose, leash is vital for success. Rocco needs to
stay within about a 4-5 foot radius of his handler on a loose
leash. We started by clicking and treating Rocco whenever the
leash was loose. By using the leash as a gauge, his owner has
a clear target behavior to observe and reinforce. If the leash
is loose, Rocco must be within his ‘safety zone’,
so he gets reinforced. At first, we would continue to reinforce
about every 5-10 seconds if the leash stayed loose. This duration
would increase as we were successful. When Rocco would lunge and
strain against the leash the owner was instructed to move backwards
or to the side. She was to keep moving until Rocco moved towards
her and made the leash loose again, then she could reinforce him.
The owner was also instructed on how to use a mild tug and release
(NOT a leash pop) to help Rocco become aware of her position and
move towards her. The purpose of the tug and release is to eliminate
leash tension and remind the dog to move into the handler. The
tug should not physically move the dog. I think of the difference
between a tug and release and a leash pop as the difference between
tapping someone on the shoulder rather than shoving him. The tug
and release should be accompanied by slight movement away from
the dog by the handler. It’s important to remember to reinforce
once a loose leash is again established. It takes conscious awareness
and vigilance on the owner’s part to maintain a loose leash.
It’s very easy to fall back on old habits. Keeping a tight
leash is a behavior that the owner seems to be unaware of. She
found herself unconsciously holding the leash tightly over and
over again. Changing that behavior will take practice, time, and
5. Self-control down.
The self-control down is very different from an obedience down.
It is not cued by a word or signal. It is a behavior that is offered
by the dog. Once offered, it is reinforced and strengthened by
the handler. The self-control down works to give the dog a positive
and conscious behavior to perform. Reinforcing this behavior makes
it more likely, and inappropriate behaviors less likely. To begin,
show the dog a very desirable treat, stand upright, and wait.
Most dogs will try a variety of behaviors in order to get the
treat. Your target behavior is a down. Your job is to wait for
the dog to offer you a down, no luring or prompting is allowed.
When the dog offers the down start moving the treat towards his
mouth. If he jumps up, stand upright and move the treat out of
his reach. You might put it behind your back. Don’t say
anything. Simply stand up and wait again. Most dogs try a wide
variety of behaviors to earn the treat, including jumping, barking,
and pawing. Ignore these behaviors as much as you possibly can.
The only behavior that moves the treat towards the dog is lying
down. Most dogs are smart enough to figure this out in a single
training session. Don’t worry if your dog takes longer.
Be patient; the usefulness of this exercise makes it worthwhile.
Whenever your dog offers a down start moving the treat towards
his mouth. Don’t cheat, though, he needs to stay down in
order to actually get the treat. As your dog starts to understand
this exercise, move the treat towards him more and more slowly.
The dog must maintain the down, no matter how long it takes to
get the treat. Don’t use a clicker for this exercise as
the click is also a release. You don’t want the dog to jump
up once he hears the click, you want him to hold the down position
even with a treat hovering just over his head. Once you give the
dog the treat you can give him a verbal release cue and move so
he gets up.
Once the dog is offering downs regularly and
is holding them well, you can use this exercise, and some variations
on it, in more distracting settings. Instead of trying to lure
the dog’s attention, show him a great treat (and it needs
to be a really good one at first) and simply wait. If the dog
is motivated to get the treat, he will offer the down. Move the
treat towards the dog in a smooth, deliberate manner. Don’t
wave it around or tease him with it. When your dog offers a down
he sets the ‘treat delivery’ in motion. If he gets
up, or even raises his elbows, the treat ‘goes away’.
If you find that your dog is too distracted to even notice the
treat then you need to move your dog to a less stimulating situation.
This may mean simply moving further away, or moving behind a visual
The same exercise can be practiced using a favorite
toy. The toy is delivered to the dog in a very slow and deliberate
fashion. If the dog moves, the toy is moved out of his reach or
hidden behind your back. Once the toy reaches his nose you can
give the dog a release cue and either play tug with him or throw
the toy for him to fetch.
Another good opportunity to practice the self-control
down is at meal times. Hold your dog’s filled food bowl
and wait for him to lie down. Slowly move the bowl towards the
floor. If he moves, the bowl moves away. When he lays back down,
the bowl starts its descent again. Be sure you give a verbal release
cue before you allow him to approach the bowl and eat.
Once your dog begins to understand the self-control
down you can make the requirements more difficult. First, you
can use it in more and more distracting surroundings. Your dog
will come to learn that the presence of a desired object is a
signal for the ‘down game’ to begin. He will start
offering the down when there is something that he wants to gain.
Use this exercise before you allow him access to anything he wants
in the environment, including getting to greet favorite people
and going outside. You will find that your dog will start to ‘throw’
downs at you when he wants something. When this happens you will
have made yourself, in your dog’s eyes, the key to gaining
anything he wants. This is your ultimate goal.
Another way to make the requirements for this
exercise more difficult is to make the delivery of the reinforcer
slower and more tempting. Your dog will learn to be patient and
to wait for his release cue before he attempts to get his reinforcer.
At this stage you might try slowly and carefully putting the reinforcer
on the floor. Be ready to snatch it back up if your dog moves.
If he holds his position, give him a release cue and let him get
6. Interaction with other dogs.
As I stated earlier, Rocco seems desperate in his desire to interact
with other dogs. During our training sessions we worked him with
my Golden Retriever, Sully. (Note that Sully is very experienced
in dealing with Papillons and I have 100% confidence in his behavior
around them.) Rocco was clearly fascinated by Sully and took
any opportunity to approach him. The first few times he approached
Sully from behind and sniffed. When allowed to interact freely,
he invited Sully to play by performing the ‘zoomies’.
His body language in these interactions was friendly and inviting.
Sully would respond by loping after him for a bit, and Rocco clearly
enjoyed this attention.
I learned from his owner that Rocco rarely has
the opportunity to interact freely with other dogs. Due to his
small size, and the owner’s concerns about his behavior,
she has kept him isolated from other dogs. In my observations,
it seems clear that Rocco can behave appropriately when around
dogs who are non-threatening and safe. I would strongly recommend
that Rocco’s owner work hard to find a variety of safe dogs
for him to interact with. A large part of Rocco’s intense
interest in other dogs is probably simply due to curiosity. While
he’s still young it would be good for him to have a variety
of positive interactions with other dogs, as long as those experiences
are carefully chosen, monitored, and controlled. I prefer, whenever
possible and safe, to allow dogs who seem compatible to play off-lead.
This requires a secure environment and a good recall. If you don’t
have both of these things and must keep dogs on-lead for interactions,
be sure to keep the leashes as loose as possible. The more opportunity
Rocco has to make canine friends, the less intriguing strange
dogs will become. He will be more relaxed and less anxious in
larger groups of dogs.
7. Tug game. During
his puppy agility class I discovered that Rocco enjoys playing
tug and can concentrate on the game, even in a class setting.
I would strongly recommend that the owner encourage this behavior.
Playing tug can serve as both a distraction from environmental
elements as well as a reinforcer.
Rocco’s owner had some typical concerns
about this practice. She had heard that playing tug can lead to
problems with dominance and that, if you do play this game, the
dog should never be allowed to win. She was also concerned about
playing such a physical game with such a small dog. Luckily, I
had just returned from Clean Run Camp and had the opportunity
to attend a fantastic presentation by Rachel Sanders on “Play
for Control and Motivation”. She really clarified the issues
that this owner raised. In particular, she discussed the fact
that it would really make the game demotivating if the dog always
lost. All but the most persistent of dogs would soon give up.
She also discussed and demonstrated the importance of the handler
moving away from the dog during play so that the dog moved into
the handler to initiate more interaction. A by-product of this
is more attention and focus on the owner. One more point she made
was that the handler should not tug harder than the dog. This
is an important point for those of us with smaller breeds. All
of these factors were relevant to this case and helped me convince
the owner that tuggy would be an appropriate and beneficial activity.
Rocco’s owner has been training him continuously
ever since she started puppy classes. He is a very quick learner
and seems to really enjoy training. However, this case highlights
an important distinction. *There is a definite difference between
obedience training and behavior modification. The purpose of obedience
training is to teach the dog specific responses to distinct cues.
Obedience behaviors are controlled by the handler. While obedience
training is a necessity for a well-behaved dog, it is not the
complete answer when dealing with behavior problems. In behavior
modification we are helping the dog discover and use more appropriate
responses in specific situations. These responses need to be internalized
and freely offered by the dog when necessary and appropriate.
They do not rely on the owner to cue and control them. They need
to become automatic and habitual responses.
*Karen Overall, DWM, Ph.D. has discussed this
distinction and written an excellent article on the topic in a
recent Association of Pet Dog Trainer’s newsletter.
There are several other very interesting elements
in this case. First, it deals with inappropriate behavior in a
toy dog. As a Papillon owner myself, I have had first-hand experience
with similar behavior. Many people find inappropriate and even
aggressive behaviors in small dogs to be rather amusing. While
small dogs don’t have the potential to do as much physical
damage as large dogs, they can certainly startle or frighten people
and dogs. They can also still inflict painful bites and scratches.
Inappropriate behaviors in small dogs need to be taken just as
seriously as those same behaviors in large dogs.
Second, the issue of dominance became
a factor in this case. The traditional explanation that a dog
is showing his dominance when he displays inappropriate behavior
is not necessarily useful, and may even cause, rather than solve,
problems. Again, this is a case of making an internal assumption
about the cause of behavior. Approaching the situation with the
assumption that the dog is dominant and trying to gain control
leads many owners to take physical action against the dog in order
to attempt to regain a feeling of control and power. Interacting
with the dog on a physical level may bring about momentary control,
but it will not lead to lasting behavior changes. The way to lead
the dog to lasting changes is through the use of behavior modification
and training techniques that are grounded in learning theories.
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