Canine Behavior/Two semi feral puppies. How can I get them use to touch and build their confidence?
QUESTION: Dear Jody,
I've written you several times in the past and received such informative and helpful answers. I
enjoy working with animals that are often over looked and are scared in the shelter enviornment.
There are a couple of puppies (from the same litter) that are semi feral I hope you can help me
with. I say semi feral, as they are three and a half months old. They were rescued off the
streets at about 2 months, fostered for about 2 weeks and in the shelter environment for two
weeks (with VERY VERY limited interaction before I came there). No one has taken the time to
socialize them or desensitize them and with a large very scared litter, I have doubts the foster home did their part in doing anything. They are now 3 and a half months old and probably 30 lbs.
This is a bit lengthy and I hope that is ok. I'm not trying to ramble or say "look at what I'm
doing", but give background information.
I have been sitting with them for an hour and a half every day for close to a week, and intend to
continue as I am seeing some improvements every day. They will NOT approach me at all if I am crouching rather than sitting or if I stand. When I started they cowered in the back of
the cage, would not except any treats, and had very fearful body language at all times.(ears back, tails tucked, huddles together)
One was noticeably more curious (I will refer as Zeus) although very scared, so I took the liberty to try
some clicker training. First, I placed some treats near by, and every time he would come to me
(very rarely) I would "click" with my tounge and give him a treat. After awhile I progressed to
"clicking" every time he would touch the palm of my hand. It has seemed to help him to open up a
lot and now tries to touch my palm with his nose. I move my hand in different areas, and
sometimes he is apprehensive, but you can tell he wants the treat so badly, he makes the effort
to touch at about 75% of the time. The problem is Zeus is not letting me touch him, although he
is getting more eager to come and sniff/poke me. I am seeing no signs of aggression if I try, he
has never tried to bite or mouth at me, but he gets nervous and backs up and I do not want to
push him. I've tried to lightly but firmly stroke Zeus on the side while he is eating a treat,
but again he begins to back up. I do not want to rush things, so I do not bother at this point.
He will allow me to lightly touch his front paws, but that is the extent. He has now shown
curiousity, and will come to me nad sniff aroudn and poke me for treats.
Dog two, I'll refer to as Ares would not move from the corner for the first couple of days. He is
skinnier, as Zeus eats more than his half of the food and will push him out of the way if he
wants something. When I hold my hand out beside me (not close to the dog), hoping that he would
follow the success that Zeus had, he would get a little bolder, walk over to my hand and attempt
to nip my hand. (This was a fear reaction or not knowing what to do, as he was not being
aggressive.) I would have to move my hand quickly. I did not want him to think he could start
"nipping" to get me to move my hand, so I quit trying to use this method. After realizing that he
was interested in sniffing my hand if it was in a light fist (Without fingers out) I would click
and give a treat if he came and touched my fist. I've progressed to lightly touching his front
paws as well. He will crawl on his stomach over to me sometimes, and today was a big improvement
as he actually crawled to me and pawed at my leg for a treat. Both dogs began to go to sleep
while I was in the cage for over two hours, which I took as a sign of trust or that they were so
tired they were passing out lol. that they would even do this. I can't explain how unsocialized
they were and still are to other people and to me. Anyway, my main questions with
all of this back ground information is : What can I do to build both of their confidence levels,
(especially Ares)? What exercises can I work on with them to build trust/encourage them to allow
touch? I can not walk them as they have just been cleared to walk outside, but I can barely touch them so I will not be attempting to leash them with a choke chain (the ONLY leash available) at the shelter. Sometimes (not all the time and it is definetly improving) after the clicker training is
over, they will retreat to the back and then I feel a little defeated. The same if I leave the
cage and re-enter. It will take a little while for them to come near me again. Is it possible for
their personalities to become more out going with such late in life socialization? Is there a
timeframe you think it might take before they get use to touch? Honestly, I'm afraid the shelter
will adopt them out to just anyone that wants them, with out seeking out someone that is patient
and will work with them, especially Ares. While I do not want to push the pups, in a way I feel
time is of the essence, as I think Zeus gives Ares the courage to do things he would otherwise
not do. Ares follows Zeus around and mimicks what he is doing (to a degree). Zeus is quite smart
and is already beginning to learn sit and take treats nicely so I believe he will get adopted
long before Ares. Thank you so much for reading and for any tips you can give..
ANSWER: Thank you for contacting me again. I appreciate your efforts with your local shelter dogs and I'm happy to help whenever I can.
It sounds like you're on the right track - sitting quietly, not pushing them, click/treat when they show any interest in coming near you or interacting with you. It can be a very slow process as these two are at the very end of their socialization window and likely missed the socialize to humans window altogether (3-6 weeks of age). So you're making up for lost time and that takes time.
The process of the counter condition is somewhat difficult to walk you through without demonstration. You want to do the hand move toward the dog with one hand, then promptly pay with food from the other hand. You want to move at a high frequency and keep the energy light. You must do the "scary movement/touch" BEFORE you pay with food.
Here is a pretty good video I found that demonstrates quite nicely in real time the process working with a small dog fearful of touch.
When watching the video, notice how brief his movements/touches in the initial phase. He doesn't begin to linger with those touches until the dog is showing a more relaxed demeanor about the whole thing.
The beginning of the video below is kind of dark (lighting) and so sort of difficult to watch. But they take it a step less intense - they teach the dog to touch a target (stuffed animal) instead of the person's hand and then click/treat for that. This can help the dog learn how to learn and build confidence. It also gives you a learned skill to "Touch" when the dog is in a new/scary situation so he can perform an alternate behavior to the fearful response. It gives him a task to focus on that is separate from his fear and can help to break through that fear and allow you to build the relationship.
Hopefully between these two videos - both nicely explained with visual demos - you will be able to continue on your forward path with Zeus and Ares and help them become properly adoptable in fairly short order. Don't rush it. It may take them time to build up to being able to be touched. Ares is likely to take longer based on your description of their behavior thus far. But don't give up on them. Just be patient and gently encouraging.
Good luck. Please keep me posted and followup if necessary.
Los Angeles Behaviorist
---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------
QUESTION: Thank you, I'm about to watch the videos now. I appreciate the time you took to find them and respond. I usually sit in there an hour and a half, but only do the clicker training sporadically. I'll just sit there, but once I'm out of treats they start to approach me and poke my hand. Do I need to ALWAYS have treats while I'm in there to reward every time they come to me? Currently I'm only rewarding if they touch my hand, but should it be every time they come to me?
If I walk out and walk back in or crouch, or stand, they act like they've never seen me before. Is it ok to only sit so far or should I try to get them use to me standing and crouching? and one last thing, should I get them totally comfortable with coming and touching me (may be a week or so more) before I start trying to touch them?
Thank you so much. I apologize for all of the questions.
I like the philosophy of the trainer in the first video. He says, "let the dogs vote with their feet." If the dog is uncomfortable and moves away, then don't push that dog to work with you. If that dog comes near you of his own volition, then work with him. But the protocol at this point - with you - is they get paid for allowing you to touch them. This is because you've already reached this point with these dogs.
As for first entry - standing/crouching - I would pay them for coming toward you. When we're bigger, we're more intimidating. So, when you first enter, crouch down and when they come near you, pay them. Then enter into the game: when the dog allows touch he earns payments. Once the dogs will readily come to you while you're crouching, add in touching them from that position before sitting down. Then, when you've achieved this (at least 2 consecutive visits with the dogs coming to you while you're crouching and allowing you to touch them from a crouch, then you can start again with paying them for coming to you while you're standing, then paying them for coming to you while standing AND allowing themselves to be touched while you bend over to reach them.
Remember - just because they'll let you touch them doesn't mean that they'll be comfortable with others doing the same. Once they are comfortable with you, you'll need to request that other volunteers/shelter workers come over while you're present and do the same touch-then-pay process. And it may require starting back as far as just hand movement-then-pay before the dogs will accept another person touching them. Dogs do NOT generalize the way we do. Dogs need to experience the same positive experience with multiple people (men, women, light, dark, tall, short, fat, thin, young, old) before they begin to accept that ALL people are trustworthy...
At this stage, I'd say that you should ALWAYS have the food handy. If you run out of food, leave and restock and return. It allows you to practice entry/exit with them and allows them to get more comfortable with the arrival/entry into their kennel. Once the dogs have come to LIKE your touch, then you can start weaning off the touch and using the touch/cuddle AS the reward for being near you. But for now, they are only accepting your touch because there's payment involved and so if we want them to continue coming close and allowing contact, then we must continue paying them (just as our boss continues paying us so that we continue coming to work)...
Keep me posted on their progress! (thanks for the private note, I'm thrilled to hear such great success in just a single session. Kudos to you!!!)
Los Angeles Behaviorist