Dog Play and Cognitive Biases

A good percentage of our training clients at Dog Educated have dogs with barrier frustration, resulting in some pretty dramatic displays on leash. This is often misunderstood as “leash aggression.” An understandable impression, as it’s impossible to tell – even for the experienced trainer – what is driving the behavior simply by viewing it. When you have a frenzied dog barking, growling, screeching, and lunging at the end of a lead, the idea that the dog is simply frustrated by an inability to investigate that other dog is not the first thing that comes to mind. The first question a competent trainer will ask is, “How does your dog play with other dogs off leash?”

The answer to this helps us determine if frustration is spilling over due to restriction by leash or if the dog is afraid and taking the approach of best defense is a good offense – “stay away from me!” – or less likely, the dog really does want to attack the other dog. If we can determine frustration as the motivation, we can utilize off-leash play as a parameter in our training plan, which is extremely helpful. The dog can saturate on play before we leash them up to practice passes, cuing incompatible behaviors. These play sessions are strategically stacked with other plan parameters to aid in training. It’s also very much a quality of life issue for the frustrated dog. Imagine being a social person and seeing, but never getting to interact with, other human beings every day of your life. This can have true welfare implications, so this determination matters.

Of course, the answer to that off-leash play question will vary. Owners may offer something like, “He was always good at daycare, but he stopped going when he had surgery last year” or “She’s only off leash with our friends’ dogs that she grew up with and loves them.” These are pretty good indicators we can use play in training.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that clear. Sometimes the dog hasn’t been off leash with other dogs since puppyhood or the client has just acquired the adult dog and doesn’t have information. To find out, we need to try that dog with another dog off leash, specifically a dog with an extremely well padded history – excellent players that have enjoyed the company of countless dogs. This is, of course, just an option for the client. We can go about addressing the leash displays without the play component, but most owners are curious. For those that are, we are upfront: dogs are animals with sharp, pointed teeth that can sometimes do damage. There are no guarantees, even with a bombproof dog as stimulus. When in doubt, we condition the client dog first to a muzzle, but it can still be a heart-stopping moment for many owners during that first intro. My confession: it tends to be a tense moment for me, too, although you’ll never see me show it. Not only am I a naturally risk-averse person, there’s a multitude of influences at work in my bias toward high intervention.

Cognitive biases in the dog world are both abundant and polarizing. This is obvious to anyone who has spent even a short time in animal welfare or training circles; and it’s no surprise given the knowledge gaps in dog behavior, and that we humans are a species given to tribalism. Whatever “camp” we fall in with will have considerable influence on the formation of bias by way of indoctrination and will ensure the sanctity of those biases when they are at risk of being challenged.

My introduction to animal welfare was through pit bull rescue many years ago, at a time when our local shelter didn’t adopt out pit bulls and had only just agreed to release those that passed rigorous temperament testing to a select group of approved rescues. The shelter made clear this was an experiment that could be terminated abruptly over even the most minor infraction by a rescue or dog. This was also back when national advocacy organizations for pit bulls were warning owners to never bring their dogs to dog parks, as even the dog-friendliest dogs defending themselves against another dog will be seen as the aggressor simply due to breed label. Rather than normalizing normal dog behavior, the goal was always to protect pit bulls from any potential incident that would result in perpetuating their already disadvantaged image in the public eye. While pit bulls are certainly less maligned now than they were back then, that’s still a very real fear for many owners and organizations and contributes heavily to biases in permitting dog play.

The professional training advice the rescue relied upon then was also firmly on the side of high intervention. Loud, scary looking arguments were considered on par with assault, even in the absence of actual injury. This meant that dogs that argued, even once, were placed in a “shutdown,” quarantined away from other dogs to “decompress,” from which they rarely returned to opportunity. This wasn’t to punish dogs, of course – the intention was to protect them and to protect other dogs. These noisy, feisty squabbles earned dogs the immediate labels of “dog aggressive” or “dog selective”; and there was no training support for reintroduction or to address bullying behavior or play skills deficits where needed. A good many surrender requests coming into rescue involved dogs that had badly injured other dogs, and I was on the receiving end of those calls for years as the volunteer manning the helpline. That meant being inundated with worst-case histories of dogs using maiming force on other dogs. In spite of having my own super play-friendly pit bulls, and the fact that most of the dogs I personally knew were lovely playing with other dogs, those other influences were extremely powerful in developing my belief system.

It wasn’t until I began a formal education through The Academy for Dog Trainers that I understood my strongly held belief was simply a bias. In fact, I didn’t even understand fully what a cognitive bias was! I was initially ashamed by this discovery – that I had been advocating for dogs that had done no harm to be given few or no opportunities to play; but shame gave way to accepting I’m human with a human brain that takes cognitive shortcuts automatically. These shortcuts are a normal biological function that typically escapes our notice. This is why recognizing one’s own bias takes concerted effort. Our minds are really good at arriving at notions and convincing us those notions are facts. And really, that’s all it is: a very strong opinion or feeling about something, often in the absence of sound evidence, or even in the face of information to the contrary. In fact, once entrenched, our brains will cherry-pick evidence that aligns with it and deny that which does not. Biases are basically subjective perceptions masquerading as truth. Everyone has them, but we are lousy at identifying them in ourselves simply because they feel so powerfully “right.”

Learning how to think critically about issues like this was a game changer for me. A glance at my work schedule on any given week now reveals multiple appointments involving dog/dog play. Whether as a parameter to a barrier frustration plan, addressing play skills deficits of dog park clients, introducing dogs for potential play matches and adoption, or simply refereeing group play, I’m often up to my eyeballs in dogs interacting with other dogs.

This doesn’t mean I now have a bias that all dogs should play. There are plenty of caveats for me, still. For dogs that have caused serious injury requiring vet care to other dogs, I advise no more opportunities (but we do help that owner or rescue to implement lots of enrichment alternatives for that dog). I’m extremely cautious in mixing big and small dogs, hovering in paranoid fashion and interrupting at the first sign of potential drift into predation or even argument – it takes only seconds for that to end badly, a risk I won’t take. I accept that there are some dogs that just don’t enjoy the company of other dogs, and forcing it on them is pretty inconsiderate. Not unlike people, some like the club and some like the pub. Finally, I will not use aversives, nor participate in programs using aversives, as a means to control play. Because they aren’t necessary for dogs to play, have welfare implications, and can lead to serious behavioral side effects, I am strongly biased against the use of aversives on dogs, period.

Will there sometimes be injuries between dogs during our work? Probably, yes. Dogs are still predators with the ability to do great harm with their mouths and claws. I’m not likely to escape a career without some injury occurring on my watch. But I am now armed with the knowledge and ability to introduce and intervene appropriately to limit that possibility. I’m able to distinguish between arguing and assault and recognize that everyone argues, including dogs. It’s normal dog behavior.

How about those misunderstood dogs that were simply barrier frustrated? In the last couple years, we’ve introduced more dogs off leash in our work than I can count, and we have yet to have a single injury. In most cases, a world of play and enrichment has been opened for dogs that were missing out, much to the joy and relief of their owners; and this has provided all kinds of safe padding for me! I’d never have arrived at this place were it not for Jean Donaldson and the many colleagues gained through her program. For that, and on behalf of the great many dogs benefitting, I am forever grateful. #letthemplay