“Blocking Boards” as a Tool in Aggression cases
During the seminar I did a few weeks ago in Denver we did a case study with a Corgi named Tucker. Tucker had gotten along well with the dogs of the household until a new female came in and they began to fight. Then he had an aversive encounter with another dog at day care and he became more and more aggressive, both to unfamiliar dogs and the other dogs in the household. Things got so bad that Tucker had to be kept completely separate from other dogs.
We spent much of the afternoon with Tucker and his wonderful owner, Janelle, and talked about a lot of ways to help things along. The good news is that Janelle had already switched from a trainer who used lots of harsh, positive punishment — leash jerks, etc. – to one who had methods that she preferred. (Note that positive punishment was effective in some ways in decreasing the behavior, but created a relationship that Janelle did not want to continue with Tucker). She began working with a trained behaviorist using positive methods and had made lots of good progress by the time we worked together. But she still had a long way to go to be able to let the dogs loose in the house together.
We did lots of brainstorming during the afternoon session about things she could do to improve the situation, and came up with lots of things that we thought might help. Janelle sent me an email not too long ago and said she was very happy with the suggestions and the progress that Tucker was making. One of the keys changes was a relatively easy one: Tucker had been crated in such a way that the other dogs ran right past his crate when they went outside. When this happened Tucker would charge the door of the crate, barking and growling. We suggested that it was critical to avoid that situation, which was basically conditioning Tucker to go on offense every time he saw the other dogs. Recently Janelle sent me an email and reported that he was MUCH better, and that moving his crate had changed his behavior from loud, aggressive barking and growling to a few barks when the other dogs are let out.
She has also changed his diet (no more hot dogs as training treats!), is teaching Tucker “Where’s the Dog?” with a baby gate between them (he apparently loves the game), is working on teaching him to be more patient and polite, has found a ‘natural medicine’ vet to work with in the future and is continuing working with Dr. Norton for training and conditioning. Yeah!
Here’s something I didn’t get time to talk about when we talked as a group about Tucker: The use of a Blocking Board once the dogs are allowed to be in closer proximity. I learned about Blocking Boards from Nancy Williams, a creative animal behaviorist in Maryland who I’ve learned a lot from over the years. Nancy began using “blocking boards” as a way of interrupting eye contact between dogs who aren’t getting along. Although the details of when and exactly how to use them safely depend on a multitude of factors, the basics are simple. You use an opaque board to cut off visual contact between two dogs, or between a dog and a person if the dog is uncomfortable around people. Usually the board is a thin square of plywood or something firm but light, that is large enough to block one dog’s view of another. Nancy, and I too, have usually used it by placing it on the ground between the two individuals. It is especially helpful, in my experience anyway, with dogs who want to greet other dogs, but can only tolerate a brief visual interaction and then need to have the pressure taken off. Of course, there are many ways to do this, and one of my favorite is to teach the dog (either on cue or based on the dog’s own behavior) that barking and lunging doesn’t increase the distance between you and another dog, but calm relaxed behavior does. Blocking boards have the same effect in a way, in that the other dog ‘disappears’ and for some dogs, that ‘s a great relief.
Ironically, the same action can also act as a kind of benevolent punishment, in that if a dog begins to stare or charge toward another dog, the result is that the board comes down and the dog is faced with a blank wall in front of it. It’s an interesting theoretical question of how the dog interprets what happens, but however they perceive it, it often leads to a dog becoming more and more comfortable around others.
Here’s an example of using a “blocking board” between a dog and a person. Floss is a young Border Collie who was adopted from another family by good friends of mine at about a year of age. She was extremely uncomfortable when unfamiliar people came to the house, tending to run right up to them as if she wanted to be friends, and then leaping up and on occasion lightly nipping them. My interpretation was that she was extremely ambivalent — she both wanted to greet visitors but was afraid and anxious about them. She’d find herself all of a sudden too close for comfort, and then she’s panic. As she got more comfortable the relaxed, friendly part came out more and more, but she’d still get highly aroused when you sat on the couch. She’d leap up toward your face and suddenly her pupils would dilate and she’d switch from friendly and relaxed to uncomfortable and agitated.
After working with her for months, her family has made tremendous progress. Because of the way she is being managed and trained, Floss is now 97% happy to see visitors and only 3% uncomfortable, but she still leaps up into your face and can sometimes get too close for her own comfort. The video below shows me using a “blocking board” (also known as a notebook in this case, flexibility is good!), simply to keep Floss from getting too close to my face. I was in no way concerned that she would harm me during the taping, but wanted to illustrate how easy it was to use in this case. Of course, for a dog who was truly aggressive this would be the last thing you’d try, but when Floss was initially adopted it was extremely helpful to let her exuberant, friendly side out without worrying about her getting too close for her own comfort.
The first part of the video shows me (with Katie behind me with the camera) entering the house. We actually taped this at the end of the session, after I’d sat on the couch. I didn’t want to set her back by barging in before Floss had had a good time with us. So we’d already been at the house for 20 minutes or so when we re-entered, and I was thrilled with Floss’s reaction. Sooo much more comfortable than months before… but can you see that she was still a bit uncomfortable?
The next part of the tape is me blocking Floss every time she tried to get too close to my face, allowing her to be all happy and friendly without getting so close that she all of a sudden found herself ‘”too close for comfort.” You can see Katie do the same thing with a book when she begins to leap up at her face while she’s taping. You can also see what a good job the family has done teaching Foss to settle down around visitors. Here’s what made me happiest: the first time I met Floss her leaping up was 90% anxious and controlling, and 10% relaxed and friendly. The third time I met Floss she was much, much more comfortable, but lightly nipped my hand (and I mean lightly) when I reached to rub her belly. This time, look at how well she’s doing! Yeah Floss!
I’d love to hear from you – any of you ever used a Blocking Board? How about a Calming Cap? That was another tool that came up at the seminar that I know that Suzanne Hetts and Dan Estep have used successfully with aggression cases.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: My wasp bites have receded (see my Facebook page!), Willie got a wonderful walk 17 minute (15 is his limit, but hey…..) walk in the cool weather with a dear friend (thank you Beth!) and has an entirely new set of exercises to do. I’m about to get 430 bales of hay delivered, the ragweed is pollinating (achew), the goldenrod is blooming and the light is starting to fade before 8:30 pm instead of 9:15. The lambs are growing by leaps and bounds, the electric fence allowing us to let them graze the front lawn for weeks, and the hummingbirds are already carbo loading for their huge, long trip down south. There’s a bittersweet quality to those last weeks of summer, I love it in some ways, but also hate to see the light lessen and the leaves begin to fade. What’s it like at your place?