Canine Behavior/zones out while destroying certain toys
Hello. I have a dog that gets into a frenzied state and zones out when playing with certain toys. He is an approximately 4 years old American Pit Bull Terrier. He was an emaciated stray that I took home in 2010 when he was about 1 year old. Even in his emaciated state, he was not food aggressive. He does not guard treats such as bully sticks and raw beef bones.
He was not well socialized in many aspects. He was afraid of a garbage can laying on its side and other large objects new to him. He would try to 'fight' parked motorcycles and scooters. However, with small objects, he would bat them around and bite them to pieces. During this time, he did a lot of head shaking with the object in his mouth or he held them down while shredding it.
It took a lot of research to find him the correct toys. Even then, I never leave him alone with the toys since he is such a powerful chewer. He must have been hit with a broom because he pancaked when he saw one. Similar objects did not invoke this response. With positive training, I was able to recondition this response. He was very mouthy and jumpy. With training, he no longer gets that way.
He is never off leash and is never left alone in the yard. Because there are other animals in the area, I fenced in a section of my yard so that we have enough space to run around and play ball and disc. Yet, the size of his play pen is small enough that I can get to him quickly if an animal strays into the yard. Children are allowed to play with him only under supervision. If they are related to me, I allow direct interaction with my dog on leash. If they are not, the children can throw balls for him to fetch when the children are on the other side of the fence. He does not have experience with toddlers since we do not have any in the family. With his prey drive, I would not allow direct interaction. I have been able to decrease his prey drive somewhat with positive training. I can call him away from a squirrel, cats, and most dogs IF I catch him early enough.
Before I ask my question, here are other facts about him. He is neutered. He does not seek attention from strangers but has never shown human aggression. He does not chase bicyclists or motorcyclists. We still have to work on skateboarders. Also, he is no longer afraid of new objects and motorcycles. I can ask him to 'touch' and he will approach new items and sniff them. I do some amateur scent work with him and he is incredible at it. He can find me or my husband in the woods and objects I hide.
Here's the question. What can you tell me about my dog 'zoning out' when playing with a toy? He goes into his own frenzied state of mind and will not respond to commands. It takes a lot of distraction to get him even to look up from the toy. For example, yesterday, we were playing disc and he started to chew one of the rubbery disc. He had it on the ground and started to try to shred it. This is the first time I could not get him to drop it or disengage him from it. We play disc at least once a month for about two years now. Finally, I got him to looked up for one second. I saw that his eyes were red and glassy. The thought that came to mind was 'Sam is not in there'. He went right back to destroying the disc. I have seen him like this before with large balls. This is the reason why I do not let him play with basketballs, soccer balls, and footballs. The quick fix would be not to let him play disc anymore. But, what can you advise? Thank you very much for reading.
Thank you for your question. And big kudos to you for taking in a stray with some very obvious baggage and using positive methods to help him overcome some of his fears. That's a big project and many people would not have been up for it.
While I don't know your dog personally and have not observed him, based on your description, I would not be terribly concerned about his behavior with children, though you are absolutely right to err on the side of caution and heavily supervise at all times, and make sure that it's always positive experiences for both the dog and the kids.
All of his destructive behavior (that you described) is directed at inanimate objects, which is great! I'm not sure I'd call it "prey drive" specifically, though chasing objects and destroying them is certainly a similar overt behavior to the hunt/kill of other animals. The thing to keep in mind is that the behavior - whether we label it 'prey drive' or something else, is a perfectly NORMAL dog behavior. The best way to deal with it is to direct it and guide it to safe outlets. Allowing him to destroy a soccer ball or destuff a plush toy under supervision allows him to express his hardwired doggie need to do this, while protecting the squirrels and cats of your neighborhood.
Here is a video of my dogs playing a game I call Tug/Settle. Turn your volume up and take note of the small white dog. He's a rat terrier mix - hardwired for hunt and kill of small animals. The only actual animal he's ever given chase to is crickets, which I wholeheartedly condone in the summer evenings. And this year he barely gave them a second glance (while last year - as a puppy - he was out nightly and caught 2 or 3 before I brought him back inside). When he plays tug, he does the head shake, which for him is a full body shake. He growls like a motor boat, etc. the entire time he's tugging. But the moment I say "drop", he lets go, and sits silently, waiting for the go-ahead to continue the game. Now, this took some practice. First he had to learn the component parts: Sit, Drop, Focus, Wait, Get it, Bring it. Then I had to ask for each part during the game and give him time to calm down enough to do them. But now he's a pro, and the only two skills I have to verbally request during the game is Drop (to interrupt the game) and Wait as I toss the toy. Of course, I have to release him with Get It, but he brings it back and shoves it right into my hand to continue the game. I no longer ask for Sit or Focus or Bring it.
I share the video to point out that the head shake and even vocalizing is a normal part of play. Play, in fact, is the practice of survival skills and tug (and other similar games) are essentially practicing hunting/killing skills. It doesn't mean the dog will ever use those skills for actual survival - especially since you provide food for him. But dogs, being perpetual youths as far as behavior goes, enjoy the play behavior. The key is helping him learn to regain his composure.
Oh, also the black dog in the video would prefer to de-stuff the animal and eat the fabric. I have to supervise him closely and put plush toys away when not actively playing with him. I also end the game as soon as he decides he's done playing Tug and would like to lay down and eat the toy...
The red, glassy eyes I don't think is a sign of being "lost" or seizure activity. It's actually a sign of increased blood pressure, which tells us that your dog is highly aroused during that activity.
If this were my dog, I'd be looking for items that he can chew - marrow bones, black Kongs possibly (though I have one client whose dog did break off and swallow a chunk of a black Kong, requiring surgical intervention), or other such things that he can engage with outside of active play time. I'd work on relaxation during play time as in the video above. Start with low key games - even if it's toss/fetch, but not tug, or using a less favorite toy. Interrupt the game to ask for basic skills such as Sit or Down. Practice 10-second Stays and build up to 60-second Stays before continuing the game. Build the time slowly and vary back and forth between shorter and longer intervals (10 seconds, 15, 18, 10, 3, 15, 20, 15, 8, 15, 4, 25, 20, 25, 20, 30, 4, etc) so that it's not ever-longer pauses. The key to starting the game again is that your dog's body is calm. This means he's not vibrating with anticipation and he's not fidgeting and antsy to get going again. This is why you start with a low-key energy and/or a game he likes, but isn't over the moon about, or use a toy that he likes but doesn't LOVE.
Tug is a GREAT game for this education because you're holding the toy, which keeps him motivated to interact with you. The key rules for Tug are simple:
1. if you feel teeth, the game ends. Drop the toy and walk away. You can return after 30 seconds and start again, but be ready to end the game again if you feel teeth. This is non-negotiable. He must learn to control not only his bite pressure, but his aim.
2. Let him win at least 50% of the time. If you drop the toy while playing tug, and he's enjoying the Tug game, he'll be inclined to bring the toy back to you so he can keep the game going. This may mean using a toy he's slightly less fond of to avoid destroying it (which is very gratifying) the moment he gets a chance. I've played Tug using a ball (you have to trust the dog to not bite down on your hand), or a Kong toy where I've used the hole as a gripping spot for my hand.
Don't chase him down if you drop it and he doesn't bring it back. Act disinterested, turn away from him or walk away. Or get another toy he likes better and play with that, to encourage him to want to come back over to you. Don't let him engage with the new toy unless he brings the original toy all the way back to you. This may mean playing in a rather confined space at first so he can't get across the yard.
3. When you have the toy, it's YOURS. Don't allow him to be snappy or grabby about it. Keep the toy behind your back or close to your body, up out of reach. Ask for a polite behavior (e.g. Sit or Down) and wait for that behavior before you reward him by starting the game again.
4. Have a specific Tug toy that is only out for Tug time. If he tries to play Tug with you by offering other toys, you can accommodate him by getting the tug toy and starting to play, or you can tell him "not now" and go about your business. I don't use this rule for all dogs; but for pushy, highly aroused dogs, it's useful to help them learn that only certain things are for Tug and not any object near him (e.g. tax papers, your underwear, etc). It also helps him to learn some impulse control so that he's not constantly trying to start a high energy game with you.
5. Have a cue such as "kill it" or "get it" that you use when playing Tug and at no other time. Allowing him to have the whole body experience of tugging, head shaking, etc. is actually good for him, so long as we also teach him to regain his composure in between "killings."
You may want to try a Flirt Pole. This is essentially a horse whip with a toy tied to the end of it. You control the movement of the toy - you can keep it running along the ground, or the toy can jump up into the air (though the latter may be too exciting for your dog). Allow him to catch the toy and "kill it" for anywhere from 10 seconds to 2 minutes (you're holding the pole the entire time). Then ask for a Drop - use a high value food lure if necessary at first to encourage him to drop the toy (remove the toy from his reach once he lets go, before you give the food as reward).
By allowing him to tend to the hardwired needs he has for Tug/kill it with toys, will make it even easier to get him to disengage from squirrels, cats, birds, etc because he's not stuck with all this pent up energy waiting to explode. He has a proper, acceptable, supervised outlet for it.
I hope this proves helpful. Please feel free to followup if I can be of further assistance.
Jody, CPDT-KA, APDT
Los Angeles Behaviorist