Photos and text copyright Romping and Rolling in the Rockies 2009-2017.

All photographs and text within this blog are copyrighted.

You may not copy or repost any photos or text without specific permission from the author of this blog. When in doubt, please ask.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Summer beauty and counterintuitive dog behavior

This morning, K and I rolled through lush green aspen groves with delicate columbines poking their blossoms into the air. At this time of year, I have trouble deciding where to focus - on the tiny beauties or the mountains?The Western Wallflowers glowed with blazing beauty. When I focused on them, I saw that an ant drank their nectar.
But, I didn't want to miss the stunning panorama behind them.
Nor did I want to miss the abundant animals who have been throwing themselves into my path in recent weeks. This view of a snowy mountain towering over a meadow included elk grazing in the meadow until recently. Alas, nearly all of the 100-strong herd have migrated to higher meadows. A few males still linger here and might stay the whole summer. Their fresh tracks pock the mud the woods, and I saw a small group lying in a lush meadow. The photo from today shows our summer residents, grass-fed cattle. In fact, every fall, we purchase one of these grazers from our neighbors and feed the beef to our dogs over the following year.
After our relaxed and easy mountain bike ride together this morning, K basked in the sun, hopefully feeling pleasantly tired.
Although K looks like a classic relaxed dog in this photo, she is not an easy dog to understand. At first glance, she appears assured and outgoing. It takes some counterintuitive thinking to understand her behavior in unfamiliar situations.

For example, as a young dog, K excitedly whined and pulled toward unfamiliar people, especially if they looked at her. I thought that her behavior meant that she wanted to meet the new person. To teach K to greet people more politely, my trainer and I used a standard positive training technique. If K lunged or jumped, the person turned his back and ignored K until she calmed down. This approach had *no* impact on K's greeting behavior. At age 4, she still lunged at new people. I was very confused because I'd seen the same techniques work wonders with other dogs.

Then, I read a book by Brenda Aloff (Get connected with your dog). This book explains that some dogs lunge and jump with the unconscious intent of making an unfamiliar person back away and not pay attention to them. In these dogs, the standard positive training technique for calm greetings actually encourages them to lunge and jump - because the "turn-away" response of the person rewards them.

After reading the book, my trainer and I tried some experiments where we had people walk extremely slowly into K, without any slowing or veering, as K lunged at them. K reacted with a look of utter disbelief - her raucous bad behavior hadn't made the people go away. Then, she immediately backed off or plopped into a sit. For me, her response was the clincher. K's excited whining and lunging at new people rewards her by making people go away. If it doesn't work, and the people keep moving toward her, then K sees no point in doing it.

The problem is that this 'walking into the dog' has to be executed just right. If the person moves too emphatically, K gets scared which ultimately exacerbates the overall problem of fear of strangers. Aloff lays out a program for dogs with K's brand of fearful behavior, most of which I've done with K. It's helped but hasn't completely solved the issue.

In dog-training class this week, K was in a "sit-stay" and looked at a nearby person but didn't break her stay. That's good progress.But, here, K did an exaggerated 'look-away' from the person as she became overwhelmed by the proximity of multiple people whom she didn't know. A lookaway is better than breaking her stay and charging toward them, which she would have done a year ago. But, it shows she still harbors some fear of unfamiliar people.After training class this week, I was chatting with Roxanne from Champion of my Heart when K fixated on a group of young men getting out of their car and starting in our direction. K whined and pulled toward them. My brain was distracted by conversation so I made the easy leap of logic that K wanted to meet them. Roxanne wasn't as distracted as I was. She moved so that she blocked the path between K and the group, and K relaxed. Yet again, K's counterintuitive behavior of pulling toward people whom she feared faked me out.

Understanding a dog, even one whom I share my life with, can be fraught with difficulty for me. I impose my expectations for human behavior in my interpretations of dog behavior. For example, if *I* am scared of a person, I move away from them. I still can't automatically understand that K's reaction is exactly the opposite of mine.


  1. Well, sometimes people I know behave in ways that surprise me, too, and we supposedly speak the same language. It sounds like a variation of the old "the best defense is a good offense" strategy.

  2. I think this makes a good point that all dogs are different and not one single training approach will work for all dogs. Too often owners (and trainers) are so focused on a particular training method they fail to appreciate the needs and psyche of the individual dog.

    Wow! Beef all year. What lucky dogs. I don't believe either of our dogs has tasted real beef. We feed them only age/activity appropriate dog food with olive oil three times a week for fatty acid supplement. I'll bet they would love a burger. I sometimes feel guilty, but our girls are so amazingly healthy. Our breeder recommended the diet and our veterinarians have all said it is sound. Still, I know that dogs are omnivores and would love a taste of meat now and again.

  3. Excellent story about K and does remind us of the complexity of dogs. I read many training books because the one thing I know is that no one thing works 100% of the time. But I miss the right thing so often.

  4. As a fearful dog owner, this is a very interesting read. Thanks for sharing your training experience with K.

  5. Hey, you can see me and Lilly in the distance of that first class photo. :o)

    That is a dramatic look-away K used there.

    It's so interesting to read how turning away from K doesn't have the same effect it does on other dogs. I did not know that about her. I'll pay attention when I approach her from now on.

    It made me wonder: Have you ever seen her respond to people like that who were NOT trying to greet her?

  6. Roxanne,

    Actually, it's rare that she responds fearfully to people who aren't focused on her. But, when it happens, it's with an imposing group, like the one that we saw after class.

    I didn't realize that I hadn't told you about walking very slowly and predictably into her. It'll be interesting to see you do that.

  7. I agree with all of you - too often, we assume that one training technique will work for all dogs, and it's just not true. The hard part can be figuring out your dog's motivation and matching the technique to it.

    NCMountainWoman: We started making 'homemade' food for K using beef, carbs, and veggies when she was an eternally sick puppy. She had food allergies, and nothing on the market would work for her - so my vet taught me how to make her my own balanced food. I suspect that some of the new 'few ingredient' and no grain foods would work for her. But, I really like knowing exactly what my dogs are eating - and it's become super easy to do as I've become experienced at it.

  8. Like I told Roxanne, I love these classes you have available. It seems like you are able to work on individual problems in individual ways that suit your dog. Most classes are taught in a one size fits all manner, which can be frustrating when it's not working with your dog.


If you are a Blogger registered user, you can skip the step asking you to verify that you are not a spammer. For posts older than 5 days, I have comment moderation turned on.

Thanks for your comments!!!!!