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Negotiating With Camille - Turning a Visit From a Stranger into an Adventure

Camille is about one year old. When she was six months old, a stranger came to visit. The introduction went badly. There was no bad guy, but she ended up feeling threatened enough to push back.

What happened, mostly, was too much spatial pressure from the stranger. The pups repeatedly tried to avoid her by moving away from her; she continued to try to approach them. Might be worth noting that she was wearing sunglasses, and a hat, carrying a very large shoulder bag, and was using a clicker and treats she brought with her. None of that should have been allowed to happen and won’t be again. But when visitors come, it can get crazy, with a lot happening all at once, including trying to find a way to meet the expectations of the visitor.

This woman would never have been allowed to walk among a group of adult Maremmas like this because of the obvious risk that she might be bitten if she didn’t conduct herself with respect for the dogs. In most cases, a nervous Maremma will move away rather than fight if they have that option. Well, these are just puppies, right? At what age do puppies become willing to defend themselves and their territory? In my experience, that age is about five months, and that is just what these pups did.

These pups reflect generation after generation of true working livestock guardian behavior. Ranchers who use LGDs to protect their livestock expect their dogs to do so even at great risk to themselves. These two pups were well aware that, as pups, they were physically vulnerable. That added to their stress in this situation. They also lack the discernment, at this age, that they will learn and use as they mature.

So, they did what they were bred to do; they drove off the predator. I admire these pups! One pup grabbed the visitor's arm, one pup grabbed her from behind, and then they retreated – again. This time it worked; she stayed away. The visitor was not hurt. The pups didn’t overreact; their behavior was self-limiting in that they stopped on their own. Their behavior of biting was reinforced. The pups learned that guarding behavior works. That is valuable to them.

The challenge here, though, was to prevent them from generalizing biting as an appropriate response to meeting all strangers. The pups are introduced to strangers over and over from the time they are very young. This is part of their puppy socialization protocol. They have a history of many successful interactions with strangers weighed against this one bad experience. With careful handling, this “mistake” can become a speed bump in their lives rather than a train wreck.

I have raised a lot of Maremmas. Over the years, I have learned a lot about how to evaluate the character of dogs. I fell in love with what I saw in Camille’s eyes and body. Clearly, she owned everything around her – with apparent ease. She showed her affection for her owner with obvious abandon. And then she would look at me and bark, telling me to stay away.

One of my goals was to work with as many pups as I could while I was there. Camille wasn't on my list, but I was drawn to her, so I asked for permission to try some of my shiny new training tools with her. The two blog posts below have information about that.

Being Trained by Rufio – My Natural Encounters Adventure:

Living and Learning with Animals: The Fundamental Principles and Procedures of Teaching and Learning:

When I was at NEI, Steve Martin shared a video that made a big impression on me. He was hired to do consulting at a zoo. As he walked with the zoo keeper, they passed outside the enclosure of a Snow Leopard. The cat was snarling, racing back and forth, and putting on a very convincing threat display. The keeper let Steve know that they needed to stop and stay where they were until the cat became quiet because they needed her “not to win.”

Knowing Steve as I do, I can picture him just taking a moment in trying to frame his response to the situation. He is a humble, deeply respectful man. He wasn’t hired to consult about this cat. But he is very much an advocate for animals; he took the opportunity to speak for this cat. He asked the keeper if she would be OK with him experimenting with the leopard while he was there. She agreed, and they moved on.

The next time they passed by the cat, snarling as was her way, he tossed a meatball in her enclosure and just kept walking. At first, the cat didn’t seem to notice the meatball as she kept up her threat display. Eventually, she began to anticipate that the arrival of the people meant a meatball would show up too. When she paused to eat the meatball while they were still near the enclosure, Steve tossed another meatball; this was done to reinforce her calm behavior. This gives the cat a tool, a way to decide to make meatballs show up. How empowering!

Steve worked with the zoo for several weeks. The final video of the Snow Leopard shows her leaning into her enclosure fencing toward Steve – and purring at him. Her rumbling can be heard in the video. I sat there in that classroom and cried, as I am now thinking about it again. How powerful a message this is!

Who is “in charge?” The animal is, the animal always is. I say this because this is what animals believe. If I, as a human, interact with an animal from some other perspective, it won’t make sense to the animal, and it won’t go well for them. But, if I can create a situation where their needs are met, as well as what I need from them, we both win.

This is what positive reinforcement training is all about. It used to be common, in zoos and marine mammal settings, to need to dart and sedate, or restrain, animals in order to perform basic husbandry necessities. This put the animals at risk as well as their handlers. Because of what is now understood about how animals learn, most zoos, and marine mammal facilities, are now able to teach their animals to voluntarily participate in these procedures. It is possible to teach an animal to give himself an injection!

So, back to Camille, now in her kennel and purposefully barking at me. Well, sweetie, given what I have seen, you just don’t look all that challenging. Where are my meatballs?!

I didn’t get the sense that Camille was afraid of me because she didn’t move away from me as I passed by. She could have retreated to the back of her kennel or simply gone outside if she truly wanted to avoid me. I think she was guarding, as the capable dog she is, and that she was letting me know where her boundary was. I was willing to accept that, but I also felt I had an opportunity to negotiate her position about strangers because of her confidence.

As I worked with puppies over the next couple of hours, I passed by the barking Camille often. Following Steve’s lead, I rolled a meatball to her, under the lower edge of the kennel. She didn’t immediately see the meatball, but her nose helped her find it.

She quickly made an association between my proximity to her kennel as an opportunity to find meatballs, but in no way did that lessen her commitment to keeping her boundary clear to me. I get it, and I respect it. Our next step was for me to stay near her long enough to roll several meatballs to her; I would approach her, roll a meatball, step back and sit down, and then repeat the process. I know an animal that is stressed will not eat. Camille never backed away from me and always ate the meatballs. She also kept barking. Time for my next question of her.

Holding a chunk of meatball in my fingers, a large chunk because I value my fingers, I showed her the meatball and asked her if she’d like to have it. I wanted her eyes to meet mine, I wanted her to look at the meatball and then look back into my eyes so that I felt sure she understood that she had a choice to take this from me – or not. Giving her that first meatball was me gambling, for sure, that I was reading her correctly. She took the meatball from me promptly. She took it with her teeth, and not her lips, and she was a little fast, but she didn’t hurt me. I walked away.

I came back a few minutes later, and we tried this again. From this point forward, I was able to hand her the meatballs, always asking her for permission first. I suspect I fed her from my fingers twenty times. Near the end of my work with Camille, she was willing to target for me. I could deliver the treat above her head, below her head, or to either side. That counts as a nose-to-hand target, as far as I am concerned, and it shows creative thinking on her part. If you read the post below and then watch the included video, you will see “string training.”

"String Training" - Building a Connection Between the Trainer and the Learner:

I was testing my string with Camille. If this had been too difficult a request for her at that point, our string might have broken, and she might have moved away. If that had happened, with that new information, I would have gone back to making it easier for her. As it turned out, I had more “string” with Camille than I had with the pup in the video. Part of the reason for that is Camille’s maturity.

Camille never stopped barking at me. I was hoping to be able to mark and reinforce her pauses of quiet, but that didn’t happen. But a bark is information; in this case, it was just a piece of information about her and how she felt about me. She may have been noisy, but she never backed away and never refused my offered meatballs. I didn’t win her over that one day, but I did give her something more to consider about the possibilities of interacting with a stranger.

Could a different stranger do this? Maybe. What worked for me is my understanding of reading canine behavior. I was really watching Camille. If she had given me any indication that she was afraid or frustrated, I would have moved back or stopped. I would have stopped if she had become less willing to participate.

Part of what worked for us is that I am not afraid of Camille, working in protected contact as I was. This gave Camille a greater degree of sense of safety too. And because I am not afraid of her, nothing in her interaction reinforced her for trying to scare me. That could happen; she could easily learn to do that if she were working with someone less confident than I am. For the record, I do not believe Camille was trying to scare me, but that is a behavior she could easily learn if handled differently.

When I work with animals, when necessary, I do my best to lie. I counsel myself to breathe slowly and move slowly, while I hope this will help the animal in front of me feel safe. But animals can smell fear and see it. They can smell cortisol; they can see the dilation of a person’s pupils change. Most animals, in most situations, will forgive some of that, but with Camille, I am not so sure. She is wise and sure of herself. I think anyone working with Camille has to actually be unafraid, and able to read body language very well.

Fascinating stuff!

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