Pet Parent Support Network: Creating a Successful Alternative to Surrender Through a Least Intrusive, Minimally Aversive Approach
Summary: During the coronavirus lockdowns of 2020, many shelters were able to successfully find fosters and adopters for the dogs in their care as more people wanted to share their homes with a pet. There was also an increase in requests for medical and behavioral support that shelters would need to meet to prevent surrender. The Toronto Humane Society developed a support network to help new and existing dog guardians access resources to keep their dogs in their homes.
When the pandemic hit the Toronto Humane Society last year, a priority project for our large shelter was to come up with a strategy to help pet guardians access care when faced with guardianship challenges during unprecedented times. While the shelter had always provided post-adoption support to adopters as well as to the general public when needed through both paid and subsidized programs, with the pandemic came an anticipated increase in surrender requests or requests for medical or behavioral support. With that in mind, we created the Pet Parent Support Network (PPSN), with a primary purpose of taking a structured approach to ensure that each pet and guardian gets the support, advice, and service that they need.
A second and important function of the service was to help pet guardians find alternatives to surrender. The Toronto Humane Society strives to operate a first-class animal shelter with the highest quality programs, services, and facilities supported by expert staff. However, any shelter, no matter how good, is still a shelter, and a shelter is simply not a home. We wanted to ensure that pet guardians had access to the resources they needed before considering animal surrender.
Our management team and medical and behavior staff rallied together, and we quickly created a database of resources to send to pet guardians reaching out for support that included general advice, what resources we could provide, and resources available through other providers in the community. At the same time, we created a structured process to ensure that guardians were provided with ways to access the support they needed through referral to our medical and behavioural services.
The following case history tracks a successful outcome for a “pandemic puppy” with concerning behavioral responses following unsuccessful training attempts by well-meaning guardians. The PPSN report read as follows:
The above (names redacted) hotline report was flagged by our PPSN program manager, who immediately contacted the guardians by phone to provide practical safety guidelines on managing dogs who show aggression in the home. When the guardians confessed that they had invested over $2,000 in training that they couldn’t afford from a local uncertified trainer who employed harsh, punitive measures, our PPSN manager offered a subsidized behavior consultation with a certified staff behavior consultant, who would then take on the case and work with the clients to first manage the situation, then systematically work with them on a LIMA-focused training plan. Although the dog had bitten the guardians, all bites reported had clear, identifiable, and avoidable triggers so we wanted to be sure that the guardians were given a LIMA-based strategy to manage and modify the behavior, and to address the welfare of all concerned.
Animal: Arlo*, male neutered 10m.o. Siberian Husky mix
Guardians: Married couple living in a 500 square ft. suburban condo apartment
Acquired: Purchased via online ad from a private home at 10 weeks old. Original purchasers of the animal took possession from an unidentified breeder at 6 weeks old
Behavior concern: Aggression with bite history towards guardians around food, aggression with bite history “for no reason” while cuddling with client on sofa, barking and lunging on leash during walks, bite towards visiting family member who tried to engage with him.
Training format: Consultation and subsequent training sessions conducted virtually via video meeting
*owner and dog names withheld or changed for confidentiality
Arlo was acquired at approximately 10 weeks old via an online marketplace ad looking to rehome a puppy. The original guardians reportedly obtained Arlo from a breeder when he was approximately 6 weeks old. Currently guardians describe Arlo as mostly loving, outgoing, and cheerful.
When out on neighborhood walks, clients describe Arlo as nervous when he is on a leash, with a history of often freezing and refusing to move forward. At 10 months old he is now described as always on the lookout, unable to walk on leash without pulling and forging and lunging or barking when he sees other dogs. Arlo has visited leash-free dog parks, but clients describe him as showing aggression towards other dogs when they approach his portable water dish. There are no dog-dog bite incidents involving dog park interactions.
The guardians’ main concern is that Arlo displays aggression towards both of them around food. They report this behavior started when he was about 3 or 4 months of age, and the aggression is operationalized as growling or biting when guardians approach food bowl during mealtime. An early incident involved Arlo grabbing on to one owner’s hand and holding on while she attempted to pull her hand away.
After this incident, the guardians engaged a dog trainer who advised them to avoid using food in training, and to limit the amount of physical contact and praise. They were instructed to only allow Arlo access to food during mealtimes from food offered from a bowl that they were to hold on to and to remove periodically while he ate while saying the word “Mine.”
For leashed outings they were instructed to use a limited slip lead to control pulling or lagging. When Arlo continued to pull through the slip lead, they subsequently escalated to first a prong collar for control, then added an e-collar. Because Arlo continued to show aggression around food in the home surrounding prescribed food bowl exercises, they were instructed to keep him on a lead always attached to his prong collar in the home and to use the e-collar as well for management. Despite their adherence to the training intervention, Arlo continued to bite them during feeding time. The bites were escalating in severity, so they bought a pair of Kevlar gloves to protect their hands while training.
Around the same time, Arlo also began to show aggressive behavior such as growling and stiffening when they approached his crate, water bowl, and some toys. He also bit one of his guardians during what she perceived as a relaxing cuddling session on the sofa — she reached to pet him while he was asleep, and he startled awake and bit her hand, leaving a small puncture (Dunbar Level 3).
He also started to show aggressive behavior towards the family cat despite what the guardians describe as a previously harmonious relationship, and this escalated to a bite to the cat’s head during play after Arlo stiffened and growled during the play session. This bite resulted in veterinary care for the cat, although guardians were unable to provide information about the depth of the bite to allow bite scale assessment.
In the evenings after mealtime, Arlo’s energy escalates and is described by the guardians as seeming to be on high alert for potential threats to valuable resources.
Arlo’s guardians contacted us with a request for advice to avoid surrender when his behavior escalated to an incident where one of the guardians was bitten during a food bowl exercise while wearing the Kevlar gloves. When she offered food in a bowl, let him eat, then removed it saying “Mine,” Arlo bit her hand, closed his jaws and shook his head back and forth multiple times, resulting in the dislocation of two fingers (Dunbar Level 4).
Finally, the guardians report that Arlo bit a visiting family member in their home, breaking skin and puncturing in one spot (Dunbar Level 3). They were unable to provide information as to the events leading up to the bite and reported that it seemed to occur out of nowhere.
Compassionate and non-judgemental overview of options
Our first and most important consideration was the welfare of the animals in the home, and safety of the guardians. To have any measure of success with behavior modification, first we had to ensure that thorough and humane management strategies were in place to ensure no more bites happened and that the physical and emotional welfare of all parties were significantly improved. Owner commitment and compliance would be essential to obtain any measure of success.
It was also important to us that we approached this case with sensitivity, compassion, and recognition that interventions that we would prescribe would take a much different approach than had been initially prescribed by a trainer they had hired, and that the guardians were understandably distrustful of animal trainers after their lack of success attempting to modify Arlo’s behavior. We advised the guardians that we could not provide a timeline for the behavior to stop, but we would focus on managing the environment to minimize the potential for biting, and on teaching him what to do instead of biting. This might present a difficult buy-in for guardians who truly believed that correcting bad behavior was the accepted approach to behavior modification.
We also recognized that our management approach would represent a fair amount of inconvenience to the guardians given the very small living space. This was further complicated by the guardians’ disclosure that they were planning to have a child within the next year.
We explained briefly what our training intervention would require and outlined potential outcome choices for the guardians to consider: management and behavior modification, rehoming, surrender, or humane euthanasia.
After some consideration, the guardians chose to pursue LIMA-based training interventions with us with a commitment to adhere to our management and training advice, as they felt a strong bond with their dog.
Finances were an issue, so we proposed a series of weekly training sessions with one of our certified trainers and offered a subsidized price point for these.
- Strong human animal bond, committed guardians open to education
- Predictability of triggers for aggression
- Minor leash reactivity that we hypothesized was likely a training and frustration issue that might potentially be resolved through eliminating aversive techniques and equipment and replaced by foundations training with a focus on differential reinforcement
- A small space makes adequate management more challenging, especially of the cat and dog
- Strong history of negative reinforcement — Arlo had learned that biting works
- Escalation up the aggression ladder from stiffening and growling to Level 3 and Level 4 bites
- Guardians attempting to conceive — bringing a newborn into an already volatile environment would be risky
Consultation and session one
Goal: No incidents of aggressive behavior until next session. This session was focused on outlining essential management strategies, which are included below. We also demonstrated a hand touch exercise.
- Clients should keep the cat and dog separated at all times with a gate or barrier unless actively supervising
- Set up an enclosed feeding area with a barrier
- Ensure no toys or other objects Arlo is likely to guard are left out
- Under no circumstances attempt to forcibly remove food or a resource from Arlo’s mouth; if he picks up something on a walk, clients were instructed to simply ignore Arlo and let him have it
- Switch to front-clip harness and flat or martingale collar
- Explain that walks should take place in low key, non-distracting environments and avoid high-traffic times and maintain distance from other dogs to reduce dog-dog reactivity.
Feeding time management
- Clients were instructed to feed meals in the enclosed feeding area as outlined above, and never to be in the feeding area at the same time as Arlo. We gave them the following protocol:
- Before feeding, get Arlo’s attention by holding up a treat and saying “What’s this?” in a happy voice. Toss the treat away from the feeding area so he moves away to go eat the treat.
- Step into the feeding area, close the gate, and put down the food bowl.
- Step out of the feeding area.
- Once food bowl is place and the clients are out of the feeding area, they should hold up another treat, say “What’s this?” in a happy voice, and lure Arlo into the feeding area by tossing the treat into the area. Then immediately close the gate and walk away, ignoring him until he is finished eating.
- When he is finished eating, clients were instructed to reverse the process. Lure Arlo outside of the confinement area with a treat toss away from the feeding area, enter, then close the gate. The food bowl is to be picked up and placed somewhere out of his sight and reach.
Body language and consent
Prior to implementing counterconditioning exercises around food and resources, our trainer wanted to ensure that the guardians were able to interpret simple body language postures of arousal or stress. She reviewed common indicators of discomfort and framed the discussion with the guardians in such a way that they would recognize a clear set of indicators to let them know that their dog was giving them a “soft no.” This was a very slight stiffening when he had a resource. This strategy ensured that guardians would keep Arlo under threshold around resources, and also while outdoors on walks.
- The clients were shown how to use a hand touch cue to get Arlo to move off the couch.
- This 3-second rule for petting was recommended to avoid over-arousal:
- If Arlo solicits attention, moving calmly, pet him at the shoulder avoiding reaching over his head for a count of 3.
- Calmly remove your hand. If Arlo leans in calmly, pet him again for 3 seconds. If he begins to mouth you or gets aroused, calmly get up and move away. Wait until he is calm and cue a simple hand touch.
- If he is successful, say “yes” and reward with a treat. If he remains calm, you may continue to interact.
- If he remains over aroused and mouthy, give him a food enrichment toy or other toys in his enclosed space, being sure to use the same process for safety as used during feeding time as outlined above.
- We gave the clients these recommendations for managing Arlo in his crate:
- It’s important that Arlo has a safe space to rest in. When he is in his crate, everyone should leave him alone
- If he is in his crate and you have to walk by, drop a treat in. He will begin to associate you coming by the crate with good things. When letting him out of the crate, ensure there are no food or other items he might guard. If there items in the crate that he may guard, have a high-value treat in your hand when you open the door, step back, say “What’s this?” in a happy voice, then toss the treat away from the crate for him to find. Then close the crate door and step away. Ensure the cat is not in the area that you toss the treat to.
- Our goal is to provide non-stressful and enriching walks for Arlo. To that end, clients were taught the beginnings of loose-leash walking, using the hand-target cue to redirect him whenever he pulled ahead.
- Clients were also encouraged to allow Arlo plenty of opportunities to sniff on his walk. We suggested they jumpstart the sniffing by tossing treats in the snow for him to find.
- We suggested that the clients bring a tug toy on walks, as Arlo had never shown aggression in this context. The toy could be used to redirect from chasing or reactivity, and to practice dropping a high-value resource.
- We shared a detailed protocol for engaging and disengaging games of tug, as well as a caution to monitor Arlo’s body language for the first signs of aggression — in this case stiffening, staring, and growling.
Session two: Week one goal met
Our trainer met with Arlo and guardians one week after the first session. We were incredibly encouraged during this session. The guardians were diligent with management and reported no incidents of aggression that week, which was our simple first week goal. Because they were struggling a bit with space limitations to keep Arlo and the cat separate during feeding time, they had decided to have family members look after the cat while they focused on Arlo’s training and to ensure that their cat continued to enjoy good welfare without potential stress or aggression. The guardians were greatly encouraged with what they considered huge changes in the way their dog acted both outside and around the house and were excited to continue training.
After reviewing progress from the last week, our trainer then implemented more foundations training for walks, and implemented a simple desensitization and counterconditioning plan for aggression relating to food.
Along with continued and diligent food management and resource strategies outlined in session one, our trainer added the following:
Food bowl exercise
This week, we increased criteria so that when Arlo was eating his meals, guardians would each walk by at a predetermined distance once, and toss a piece of high-value boiled chicken into this bowl. Distance was determined by doing a setup during the training session to establish the distance where Arlo showed no arousal as they walked by. It was already remarkably short — he had relaxed around food significantly already through strict implementation of food guarding management routines.
For week two, our trainer implemented some structured foundations training exercises, starting with shaping eye contact and incorporating loose-leash walking exercises with a plan to implement more foundations skills such as sit, down, stay, and recall over the next few training sessions. The plan was to teach the guardians how to use simple lure and fade or shaping techniques to teach Arlo desired behaviors with a strong focus on a high rate of reinforcement for his doing what you want him to do instead ofcorrecting him for what you don’t want him to do. Guardians were also coached to continue to focus on Arlo’s body language to grow their awareness of his arousal thresholds. Since suppression and punitive, corrections-based training had been eliminated from leash walks, he was no longer demonstrating atypical frustration or fearful behavior on walks but now what appeared to be rather typical untrained teenage dog behaviors, and he was able to focus without escalating to reactivity while out on enrichment walks or during outdoor training sessions. Guardians were coached to conduct short mini training sessions during walks and to allow Arlo to enjoy sniffing and exploring between those mini training sessions.
Leave it and drop it
Our trainer implemented differential reinforcement exercises to teach impulse control and a trained alternative behavior around objects Arlo might be tempted to pick up and guard. The goal was to teach Arlo to make eye contact with the owner instead of lunging to pick up an object that might be attractive. The plan was to start with low value items, and click when Arlo looked at the item from a distance, working towards decreasing distance from the item then increasing the item value using Alice Tong’s Engage/Disengage protocol. At the same time, our trainer introduced the concept of “trading up” by teaching the guardians to always offer a treat to Arlo to get him to release a toy during play outdoors on walks, again starting with a low-value object with a plan to increase value based on his ability.
With Arlo’s aggressive behavior around food well managed, no further owner-directed bites, and a significant decrease in frustration in the home and on walks, the next four sessions were practical foundations training sessions and continued desensitization and counterconditioning around the food bowl. The ultimate goal was relaxation when the guardians were in Arlo’s vicinity while he was eating, continued drop it and leave it exercises, and impeccable foundations skills.
After six weeks, with no incidents of aggression and a much-repaired human animal relationship, the guardians are comfortable and confident moving forward. Management around feeding times remains in place as a safeguard due to the severity of Arlo’s bite history surrounding the food bowl prior to consulting with us, but the guardians are content to continue to manage his feeding routine. He no longer shows escalation around toys or objects and has not escalated to aggression during petting sessions or around strangers.
When the guardians are ready to re integrate the cat into the household, they will continue with management strategies and active supervision when both animals are free in the home together. We will be available to help with creating positive associations through supervised interactions when the cat returns.
- Dunbar, I. (2012) Dr. Ian Dunbar’s Bite Scale: An assessment of the severity of biting problems based on an objective evaluation of wound pathology. Association of Professional Dog Trainers, accessed 08/31/2021.
- Friedman, S.G. (2008) What’s Wrong With This Picture? Effectiveness Is Not Enough. Good Bird Magazine Vol 4-4; Winter 2008. Reprinted at Behaviorworks.org
- Tong, A. (2014) The Practice of Self-Interruption: The Engage-Disengage Game. Cpdogtraining.com, accessed 08/31/2021.