So finishing up (for now) from NORMAN! Part 3, I’m going to talk today about some of the issues I’ve dealt with (or am still dealing with) in terms of training not only NORMAN but also in working with the two of them. As I mentioned on Tuesday, dealing with a two dog household was pretty much more than a doubling of effort in terms of training because I had to deal not only with them individually but in terms of their various interactions.
Unfortunately, most of what I had learned at the shelter had left me unprepared for this since we don’t do a lot of dog interaction stuff outside of very controlled playgroups (and I’m only now qualified to be involved in those). So basically I was making it up as I went along, asking friends with dog experience, and doing a whole lot of Googling. Many of the higher level BRATTs at the Austin Humane Shelter also have multiple dog households so I picked their brains constantly as well.
I’d note as I go through some of what I did and what happened that you should be able to pick out clear examples of the types of positive reinforcement and negative punishment (along with ignoring behaviors and the occasional use of positive punishment) that I discussed in such irritating detail in Because We Let Them. Put differently, there are going to be some suggestions for dog training throughout this article if you pay attention. Or you can ignore the dense blocks of text and just focus on the dog pictures.
Puppy Loud, So Freaking Loud
In the year I’ve had him ALFIE! has been distinctly non-vocal. I’ve heard maybe 10 barks total (and several of those are recently), he’ll whine when he really has to poo and yelp from time to time. Which is just fine with me; there are plenty of chronically barky dogs in the neighborhood (my neighbors has given me several 4am wake up calls) and I didn’t need one in my life.
In contrast, NORMAN! is very vocal. I had remembered him doing this in the shelter before I brought him home and saw it a lot when I got him here. Especially in his kennel early on. I even identified three different types of noises he’d make. One was just a loud continuous sharp bark which he still does, mainly just to get attention, just a ‘look at me kind of thing’. He’ll also do it out of boredom or if I put him behind a door in another room (rescue dogs often have a bit of separation anxiety and just constantly want to be with you and NORMAN can’t stand it if he can’t get to me).
Another, that he did in his crate a lot early on, was this breathy hyperventilating bark where he’d just keep getting himself wound up more and more and more. It usually happened if he was in his crate (as he had to be for the first few weeks) and could see ALFIE! in the room. He’d want out and just work himself up. That was easily solved by draping a towel over the front of his crate. Out of sight out of mind and he’d usually settle down and go to sleep.
He also had a whining, I need to potty thing he did. Sometimes it’s just him being pathetic and he does it now when he just wants to go outside (and I haven’t found a way to distinguish wanting to go outside to be outside versus having to potty). Usually if he does it once or twice it’s an “I want to go outside to be outside” whine. If it continues or morphs into barking, he’s trying to let me know he really needs to potty.
Now, this is common with new puppies, they bark and bark and bark. Sometimes out of boredom, sometimes because they do actually need something, sometimes just to make noise and get attention. And what most people do is actually the wrong thing to do: they yell at the dog to shut up and the dog just yells back by barking some more. Now it’s game and every time you yell at them you reinforce the barking because you’re talking back to them. They bark, you yell, they bark, you yell. And it gets worse because barking has become a fun game to them.
This is one of those cases, where most of the time it’s best to just ignore the issue, even if it’s driving you insane. Sometimes I literally had to put NORMAN! in another room behind a closed door to muffle the barking until he would give up and go to sleep which usually took about 10 minutes. And I’ll be honest that sometimes I’d reactively shout at him but only once with a stern ‘STOP’. It wasn’t a yelling match because, again, that just makes it worse.
Because it’s one of those places where acknowledging it all ends up reinforcing it. Instead what you can do is wait for the dog to quiet down and then reinforce that. So the dog is barking and barking and barking. And then gets tired or bored with being annoyed and is quiet.
Now give it a high pitched ‘Yes’ (or click) and treat it. It learns that being quiet gets it a treat while barking it’s head off gets it nothing. A clicker works well here too but mine was always in the car until I was smart enough to buy a second one for the house.
Tangentially, a similar thing occurs if you have a dog that is perpetually scared. Most people’s instinct is to go coddle the dog and hug on them and use the exact same voice that they’d use to reinforce a good behavior (we are told to ‘channel our inner 13 year old girl’ since that’s the voice pitch dogs associate with good things). And all you end up doing is teaching the dog that being scared is ok because it’s getting reinforcement for crying all the time.
Instead, use a cheery voice and be happy. They’ll vibe off of your happiness and cheer up because you’re not just reinforcing that being scared is ok. When Norman would be stress or sad barking (the tone is different), I’d just talk at him in a cheery voice like an idiot “It’s ok NORMAN, it’s ok, buddy.” until he’d cheer up. And then give him a high pitched ‘yes’ to reinforce it.
But I dealt with this a lot early on, recall that NORMAN! was technically on rest because of his leg and even if I let him run around a bit more than he probably should have, his existence early on was pretty much crate, potty, play a little bit, back to the crate. Which wasn’t much of a life but it was necessary.
Into the Crate, Beast
.So after whatever we had just done, NORMAN! would go back into his crate and would usually spend the first 10 minutes barking his head off. As I mentioned above, it was worse if he knew I was home but in another room, he was just lonely and didn’t understand why he couldn’t hang out. To be honest ALFIE! used to do this in a more muted fashion if I put him in a room I wasn’t in and I suspect it’s an issue endemic to rescue dogs.
Because of their situation, whatever they went through before the shelter and then being in what amounts to dog jail, they see you are their rescuer in a very real sense. They also seem to have a bit of separation anxiety because of it. This is both part of why they are so awesome (they love you to death for saving them) and also can be a bit irritating at times. At this point, both of my dogs feel the need to be underfoot and I often have no room at my desk because of it. It also makes them more likely to get haired out with one another. Here are some pics.
Now, NORMAN! has been a bit hit or miss with his crate. I think having to spend so much time in it early on, along with a couple of mistakes I’ve made with it (you’re not ever supposed to use the crate for punishment but there have been situations where he was out of control and I had no choice) have made him a bit wary of it although I’m finally retraining both of them to go into their respective crate’s voluntarily.
He is also very odd in his crate, I had put a mattress in it but either he didn’t like it or was just doing a weird burrowing thing I’m told a lot of pitbulls do and, well…this is what I’d come home to. In a related vein, he has this new thing where he crawls under the couch to hang out and he’s started deciding he wants to sleep under the covers.
In any case, the crate was also marginally useful in terms of potty training which was the next headache I’d have to deal with. ALFIE! came potty trained so it was never an issue. But oh what a headache it was with NORMAN! This is another thing that is lacking at the Austin Humane Shelter, the dogs always potty on our schedule (i.e. when the volunteers get to them) and don’t ever get trained to tell us when they need to go. Many do learn to hold it until they get to the runs or the field but it’s not quite the same as them letting you know.
So it was another thing I’d be learning about in a very hands-on (pun intended) fashion and I’d note that this is actually one very good reason to crate train a puppy. Not only do dogs like crates (it’s their own little home away from home and sort of a cave for them), they have an instinct not to potty where they sleep. So the crate sort of ‘forces’ them to hold it until you take them out so they can start associating pottying with outdoors.
When I took the blue class we had a small module on puppies and house training and they gave us a list of when puppies need to potty. Frankly, it’s easier to list when they don’t need to potty because, like human babies, they process so quickly that they have to go all the time. They also haven’t learned how to hold it. Sometimes you get a deluge, sometimes a trickle. Here’s a good rule of thumb: if they aren’t sleeping, assume they have to go.
And this is another place that people run into problems with new dogs: unaware of how to house train a dog they get angry at the dog for doing something that comes very naturally to them. We wouldn’t expect a human baby to know better which is why we put diapers on them (and you can get dog diapers too; proper training is better).
But somehow we expect the dog to just know better and then punish them for a completely normal behavior. You shat and peed all over the place when you were a baby and your dog is no different. It’s worse because a dog going in the house is as much our fault as anything else. We should have taken them out sooner. Yet we hold them responsible for our lack of attention.
Because just like with human house-apes (err, children), you have to teach puppies where to potty. Just like potty training a kid but you can’t explain it to them (or that the toilet isn’t going to eat them). With dogs you have to show them where they are suppose to potty.
Some also try to use positive punishment to show the dog where not to potty: spray bottles or putting the dog’s nose in it. This can work but ONLY if you catch it while it’s happening because otherwise the dog doesn’t associate the punishment with what it did. If you come home to a mess and yell at the dog, it has no idea what it did wrong.
And it’s better in this case, when you catch them about to go scoop them and RUN to the back door and put them outside. Rather than teach them where NOT to go, try teaching them where to go. If they have an accident, you can take the poo to the field so they can sniff it and learn that poop goes outside. Pee is a bit harder.
With puppies, simply assume that they need to go after they do just about anything. When they wake up, eat, drink, play or most anything else, assume they need to go. So take them out just in case. Odds are they will potty something (and make sure and stay out 5-10 minutes, some dogs like to wait until they poop even if they really have to go; they just have to find the exact right spot to pinch one out).
And that’s when you reinforce the absolute hell out of them. Lots of ‘good boys’ and ‘yesses’ maybe treats. Just to let them know that pottying outside was a good thing. Eventually this teaches them that’s where they are supposed to go. Just realize that if they are only pottying 4 times per day, it takes a bit longer to get the number of repeats to really teach them.
I made this mistake a few times and we had a few accidents. NORMAN! would be out of his crate and running around and then I’d look over and he’d be going to the bathroom. Totally my fault and I learned only to leave him uncrated (to play with ALFIE!) if he’d already gone in the last couple of hours. If I broke this rule, I had more dog pee or poop to clean up.
To teach him to hold it better, I also started to keep him crated longer, just to get him used to dealing with the discomfort over time. You can train their bladder just like you train yours but you have to do it gradually or eventually they will give up and just let fly. The rule of thumb we use is that a puppy can hold it’s potty for it’s age in months + 2 hours. So a 4 month old can hold it 6 hours.
Not that you necessarily want to push this if you can avoid it (we ideally get the shelter dogs out every 3 hours but most can make it 5-6 if they have to). You wouldn’t want to hold it when you have to go badly for that long, don’t torture your dog by making them go to the limit.
From the time I brought him home, I’d say it took a solid 8 weeks for him to be totally accident free (though I haven’t pushed his time limits). He’s gotten pretty good about letting me know when he has to go at the back door (by whining, I’m going to teach him something less noisy eventually) and if he’s peeing in the house, I don’t know about it.
But I’d say those were the two major NORMAN! specific issues, now I want to talk about the stuff I had to deal with in a two dog household. Especially with two dogs who are on the edge of being a bit reactive. Most of these revolved around food, toys and playtime. For the past 9 months ALFIE! has been an only dog and it was going to be a bit of an adjustment to having a sibling.
Dogs can be toy protective or food protective (meaning they will attack anybody who tries to take either from them) and clearly that would be an issue with two dogs in the house. NORMAN! also seems to have a bit of sibling rivalry going on, he’ll get aggro if I try to play with ALFIE! and not him and that’s something else I’ll have to fix.
This was actually the easiest of the three situations to deal with as it turned out; ALFIE! is a bit of a piggie and I had a feeling he’d be a bit food defensive. And I dealt with this initially by not dealing with it; I simply fed them separately. In the short-term this was the simple solution, I’d feed NORMAN! in his crate (which also helped him to form positive associations with it) and feed ALFIE! in another room.
At the time I was using a KONG Wobbler to feed ALFIE! It’s a toy that he has to work at to get his food, both intellectually stimulating him along with slowing him down (he wolfs his food down otherwise). Exactly once, on the first day or so, I I made the mistake of giving ALFIE! his wobbler before I had NORMAN! in his room.
NORMAN! made a move towards ALFIE!’s food and almost paid a hefty price for it. ALFIE! snarled and lunged with teeth bared and it would have gotten ugly if I hadn’t gotten NORMAN! out of there. I also knew that ALFIE! was likely to steal NORMAN’s food if he got the chance since I’d be feeding him more.
I did eventually teach them to eat together without trying to steal each other’s food or murder one another. It was really as simple as setting out their separate food bowls in the same room but fairly far apart. Over time I’d move the bowls closer together, but only when they were focused on their own food and not moving towards each other or the other’s bowl. I can feed them side by side now without problems; took a few weeks tops.
Back to Playtime
Many dogs love to play although not all of them. And when dogs play with one another it can take a variety of forms. Dogs in the runs will often chase each other from one end to the other since they can’t get to one another. So they play modified tag with each other. Usually they will let the other know that they want to play with a play bow. This is a move that dogs just know where they drop their head and front torso with their feet wide apart. It’s just sort of a request to play and if the other dog returns it, it’s on.
Often, dog playing takes the form of mock fighting like in the video I showed in NORMAN! Part 2. Most animals do this, young animals hone their fighting skills (lest we forget, dogs are just immature wolves) with each other in a non-lethal manner. That means trying to shove one another over, biting and snarling and things that look to the untrained eye like fighting. Dogs who have just met are also trying to establish dominance in this fashion.
I wanted ALFIE! and NORMAN! to play but, as I said, I had taught ALFIE! some bad habits and I didn’t know what NORMAN! might do. You also don’t want the dogs to necessarily learn that playing by biting and being rough is a good thing (or they will confuse a small child with another dog and bite it).
So I watched very carefully when they would play. Basically, when this is going on you have to watch dog body language. If they are relaxed, tails wagging and ears are up all the growling and teeth and biting is just play. Generally if someone gets too tough, they’ll get a loud yip or yelp (or get checked by the older/bigger dog to let the other one know that they are playing too hard). But if the ears go flat, the tail stops wagging and they get tense, it’s about to get real.
So I’d let them go although, as noted, I’m now breaking them of play fighting inside the house. Outside only from here on out. It’s as simple as stopping it instantly when it starts and putting them on time out. If it’s a playfight over a toy (see below), the toy goes away with a ‘Too bad’ so they realize that their behavior just cost them something that they wanted. Basic negative reinforcement (removing a reward).
But most of the time it would turn into play. They’d wrestle, bump one another, flip one another, hump one another, bite one another. Again, just like the video from last time. And so long as it stayed calm I’d let it go. But when things started escalating I would immediately call ‘TIME OUT’ in a loud voice to get their attention and separate them. More negative punishment: when play gets too rough play time is stopped. You take away what they enjoy to tell them that this behavior is not ok. They also had to know that I was in control ultimately, regardless of who was alpha between them. I control whether or not play time happens and they have to respect that.
But if things escalated, after TIME OUT I’d sit them both down and use a soothing quiet voice while petting both of them gently telling them to relax and mellow and chill out. Just like humans, this is all about stress hormone response and you have to chill them out just like you’d calm a stressed human. Soft voice, slow talking, slow stroking to fire off a big parasympathetic volley and get them to chill.
Then after a minute or two of this, I’d call ‘Time in’ and let them play again. And usually it would resume on a lower level of aggression. And that would get them some ‘yesses’ and ‘good boys’. Not only did they get positive reinforcement from being allowed to play again, but they were getting verbal reinforcement that playing less roughly was good.
However, if they went straight back to being too rough, I’d call ‘TIME OUT!’ a second time and play time was over. They got the one warning and the lesson was: If you can’t play nicely, you can’t play at all. Usually NORMAN! is the issue, once he’s wound up he can be a challenge to calm down and I often have to stand between him and ALFIE! and wait for him to settle. When he sits quietly, he’ll get praise to let him know that that is good.
Sometimes I would kennel them for 10 minutes for time out; you’re not really supposed to use the crate for punishment like this but it’s the only way to keep them apart without their destroying the house (and this was what I referred to above when I said I had done some things to make NORMAN! not like his crate).
But this didn’t solve the toy issue.
Sharing is Caring
As I said above, dogs can be very toy protective. It didn’t help that ALFIE! had been an only child to this point. And honestly I haven’t done much work with him to even get him to give his toys to me. He doesn’t get aggro with me if I take them but he doesn’t give them up easily necessarily. My fault and I’d be paying for it now.
But now we had NORMAN!, a puppy who like a child, has an understanding of possession about on the level of “If I can see it it’s mine.” Not that ALFIE! is much better. I’ll give them each an identical toy and usually they find it far more fun to get the other dog’s toy, or fight over the same one.
And he and ALFIE! almost immediately had an issue with toys. First and foremost, ALFIE! is a bit ADHD, he wants whatever toy he doesn’t currently have and I’ve seen him swap out balls with himself for long periods which is pretty funny. He’ll pick up one, see another one and then drop the one in his mouth and get the other one. I can sometimes play with him by just switching out balls in front of him, he’ll drop one to pick up the next and I’ll just swap and swap. He drops and grabs and I just laugh.
And invariably NORMAN! would want the toy he had and as soon as he took it, ALFIE! would want the toy NORMAN! now had. Even if he had his own toy that he had been perfectly happy with. And it would get ugly if ALFIE! would be under my desk with a ball and NORMAN! would try to take it. ALFIE! would snap and I’d give NORMAN! a different ball to play with. Which ALFIE! would then want. I think you get the idea. It’s like having two two year olds in the house. But with very sharp teeth.
It almost got ugly when NORMAN! decided he wanted ALFIE’s Goliath chew bone. He had it in his crate at one point and ALFIE! sat outside just staring at him. And growled once or twice. Because NORMAN! had HIS bone. And I understood this and made sure to get NORMAN! his own chew bone. Though this invariably led to a game of ‘Now I want the other toy’ as they’d switch off.
And if they just couldn’t work it out, I’d take the toys away from both of them. Negative punishment again: if you both can’t play nicely, nobody gets toys. In contrast, if I could get them laying on the floor quietly playing with their respective toys, that got positive reinforcement.
Talking to some BRATT’s this is apparently just another more or less intractable problem. Dogs are possessive and like the toys that they like. So you just get them their own toys and try to keep them from killing each other for the other’s toy. However, I still wanted them to learn to play with toys together. And here I came up with a solution all of my own that actually worked.
Tugging the Toy
No, not that. During my roughly third trip to Petsmart in the first two days it occurred to me to get a tug toy. I wanted to see if I could get them to play (without roughhousing) with a toy (a rope) without trying to murder one another. Basically to share their toys. Or at least the one toy.
And here’s what I did: I took them to the main room in my house (nice and empty) and gave them the rope. Immediately ALFIE! took it and ran. It was officially ‘his’ now. Which was unacceptable so I took it from him. Negative punishment. And we tried again. I sat them down in front of one another and offered them each one end of the rope hoping they’d get the hint.
And they did. They started playing tug of war even if wasn’t always the most organized thing. Invariably one or the other gets to the middle of the rope or chokes up and they end up on the same end or one lays down with the rope while the other is on his feet and pulling.
But soon they learned that playing tug of war with each other was more fun than just having the toy to themselves. And so long as they’d share I’d give them lots of positive reinforcement. If one took the toy and ran, I got it from them and playtime was over for the time being.
Then we’d try again. Effectively they only got to play with the rope so long as they were playing with it together. Either they both play or nobody plays and they learned that lesson fast. Within about 2 days I could give it to one of them and they’d offer it to the other to see if they wanted to play tug.
Even funnier, shortly after they learned share, I had the two of them in the backyard. NORMAN! likes sticks in a way ALFIE! does not. He loves to play fetch, to pick them up and either carry them around or chew them. In any case, I saw him pick up a fairly small stick in his mouth and go get next to ALFIE! and offer him the end of it. ALFIE! would have taken it had it been longer. But in about 2 days they had learned share or at least that tugging was more fun than having. I’d actually see them both sit chewing on a long stick a couple of days later.
Make no mistake, it often turns into mock fighting, usually they both want the same end of stick or they are fighting over something (I’ve seen them play tug with a single tennis ball, heads turned 90 degrees and each clamping down) and someone gets too close. Then the toy is forgotten and it’s time to roughhouse. Which is ok so long as it doesn’t get out of control. And if it does, I break it up and/or take away the toy.
But by the time they learned to (mostly) share toys, I knew that they’d be fine together. I still have tons of work to do (leash walking is my current focus and would take an entire article to write up) and it’s pretty much a full time job dealing with the two of them. But that’s what I signed up for in adopting both so I’m ok with it even if it can be frustrated.
We’re now 10 weeks weeks into it with NORMAN! officially adopted and part of the family, they are doing fine. I’ve joked about wanting to put together an army of mildly mentally deficient white dogs and I’ve already got my core group started. My hope is that once they are well trained, they can help with new recruits. The army grows….
- People Do It Because We Let Them: Part 2
- People Do It Because We Let Them: Part 3
- People Do It Because We Let Them
- What Can We Learn About Behavior Change from Training Dogs?