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  • Writer's pictureFrancesca degli Espinosa

A special dog

There are two stages of development I intensely dislike in humans: infancy and adolescence. I recently discovered I dislike the same life stages in dogs. Fortunately, in dogs they don’t drag on as long as they do in humans…

As summer finally appears I feel I can finally take a breath, having spent the best part of the year dealing with adolescent challenging behaviour, both human and canine. Life is a bit more settled now, the one canine (2) and second son (almost 18) seem to be gradually leaving testosterone turmoil behind. I am left with third son, 16, and new canine addition Lolly (the only other girl in the household), now 11 months, still going through it, but I am better equipped this time.

As I am sitting on a long-haul flight, the first in almost two years, having left the dogs in the care of a meticulously vetted house-sitter, who had to pass more checks than an FBI intern, and to whom I left a 4-page instruction document, I thought I would take the absence of wifi to break the silence on Darwin’s blog.

By July last year (2021) I knew that Darwin and I were struggling. At 1 year of age, Darwin was a bundle of muscle, speed, testosterone and a list of challenging behaviour that as a behaviour analyst I found embarrassing.

a) He was expelled from daycare after becoming confrontational toward other intact males (chasing, pinning down, growling).

b) He would freeze and growl when approached by off-leash entire male dogs; if they growled back, there was a lot of mutual snapping

c) His recall was non-existent. The only time he would recall was if I ran the opposite direction at squirrel speed and his nose happened not be on the ground. Consequently, he was on a permanent long line and I wore permanent gym gloves to avoid my hands being burned each time he tried to go off to meet other dogs or to chase whatever scent the wind brought him.

d) There was no food that would compete with anything when outside; not cheese, not raw steak (this was an ongoing problem even in the house).

e) Engagement in the house playing simple games was still unpredictable.

f) He became weary of strangers holding out their hand to pet him. When outdoors, if on a long line he would simply retreat, but if a stranger came to the house, he would bark and lunge and if given the chance nip in the butt to move them away.

g) He showed several signs of anxiety in multiple situations (cheek puffing, lip licking, yawning, ears back) with no apparent obvious antecedent.

h) His loose lead walking, having been acceptable as a puppy, was pretty awful, too; nose down the whole time, reading his pee-mail and replying to all every 30 seconds.

When parents experience behavioural problems that are beyond their management skills, they seek professional help: I am that professional. Was dealing with Darwin’s challenging behaviour going to be really that different? I am by no means comparing children to dogs, nor viewing my dog through the lens with which I view children, but all behaviour is a product of interactions with the environment and the way to change behaviour is to change the only thing that we can manipulate: the environment. Even those who don’t agree with a behavioural approach, rely on a behavioural approach to change behaviour. Even interventions that aim to change “emotions” can only do so through a process of conditioning, be it operant or classical (and the two are not mutually exclusive). So, why was Darwin behaving the way he did? The explanations I heard, was given or found through various sources were circular and no different from the ones often offered to explain human behaviour

He’s a teenager…

It’s genetic…

He is fear reactive…

He’s fear aggressive…

He is nervous…

He’s an anxious dog…

He is fearful of strangers…

All the explanations pointed to something internal, which was, however, only measurable through behaviour… so the thing that hypothetically caused the behaviour (e.g., fear or anxiety) could not be independently verified other than through the behaviour that it was meant to explain.

With the clients I work, the answer to “why are you engaging in this behaviour?” comes from observation and manipulation of carefully arranged situations to keep risk low and all concerned safe. Under the best conditions we would look at precursor behaviours, rather than waiting for the behaviour to escalate. This process, called functional behavioural assessment, and in its most precise form a functional analysis, aims to understand the relationship between an individual’s behaviour and the environmental variables that contribute to it: the motivations, the specific conditions that evoke it and the specific consequences that maintain it. Throughout this process, I often find that the problem behaviour is not specific to a single situation but extends its impact to all aspects of daily life, affecting the individual and their loved ones in multiple ways.

1) Reduced access to the surrounding social community and reduced freedom of all concerned: Parents often feel they can’t take their child to public places, a restaurant, a supermarket or even the local park. Ultimately, the child’s landscape of potential reinforcers goes from mural to postcard size.

2) Reduced learning and interactions: Over time, parents and teachers learn to avoid placing even the simplest of demands, because these are either ignored or evoke challenging behaviour. At a relatively mild level this might take the form of the child refusing to do simple chores or homework. At a more extreme level, I recently worked with a child who did not wear clothes indoor, so the parents couldn’t have anyone around the house; or another who had lived solely on chocolate cake for 5 years and refused all other foods.

3) Emotionally, it is draining. Parents I work with often feel they are constantly walking on eggshells and some admit not wanting to spend time with their child because it is so hard to interact with them. It’s easier to give them access to technology and not interrupt them. They then feel guilty for feeling this way.

Life with Darwin was following a very similar path.

1) We stopped going to all outdoor places that were populated by dogs and would go out at dawn and sunset to fields where I had clear vision at a 200 metre distance as to avoid all dogs. Although Darwin only took issue with intact males, we had to avoid all dogs as I had no way of telling if a dog was a male or a female at a distance, let alone if it had balls or not… by the time I could tell, the dog would have been too close. There were always two of us, one ahead of the other scouring the field for potential dangers and signalling if ok to move forward or if retreat was required. Our back garden borders with a beautiful city park, and I had enjoyed walking him there as puppy, meeting other dog owners at a time when socialisation for both of us was vital. This was now gone. Not only had Darwin’s freedom and reinforcers (meeting other dogs) reduced, but so did mine. I dreaded the day that Tim (my husband) would have to return to the US for the last six months of his academic career.

2) I stopped asking Darwin to do anything outside. I just held the line and followed him. As long as he didn’t drag me, he was free to sniff to his heart’s content. I stopped carrying food with me, as there was no point. One trainer we saw early in the process asked me to show him how I got his attention when out. I replied “I don’t, I can’t, so I don’t bother.”

3) I began to worry about our future, about his quality of life as a young dog with very little freedom, and mine, not just as his caregiver, but as an individual. Going on a walk was a major mission and I could feel my anxiety rise each time we parked the car at yet another anonymous field at 6 in the morning. Would I ever be able to travel and leave him with a house-sitter? Would I ever be able to have people in the house? Would we ever be able to enjoy going for a walk at a normal time of the day and without feeling like it was major operation? Would he ever be able to be off-lead in a park, at the beach? Even though I became very good at handling the long line, I hated it, not just because if Darwin decided to go, there was no way I could hold on to it without breaking my fingers (he did once break my little finger while trying to chase a female while on a harness and long line), but because of what it symbolised: my dog was different; my dog was difficult; my dog was special. Darwin had special needs. I loved him so desperately, but I often did not like him.

At 2 years of age, Darwin is a different dog, he has been off-lead for a few months and we have semi-returned to the city park at the end of our garden. If we meet an intact male he now just sniffs them and moves on, or if they offer a play bow he will reciprocate. Strangers can come into the house without risk under two conditions: if we take a walk first or if they ignore him and he’s behind a baby gate. The postman, however, is still enemy number 1.

The plane I am on is the return flight from a successful week-long trip away, dog free. We have had a lot of help along the way, from a number of professionals, and in the next few blogs, as I look back at the past year, I will use each challenge as a way of helping me organise and clarify my thinking around larger principles of behaviour and behaviour change approaches, drawing comparisons or pointing out differences and similarities when possible. It’s been a long road and we are by no means at the end of our journey, but while Darwin may not have been the dog I dreamed of, as a very good trainer once told me “Darwin is exactly the dog you needed”.

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