It’s been awhile since I wrote and also been awhile since I stopped clicking and feeding Kai for his gnarly naughty face. Here are some reflections. Things started to feel really uncomfortable for me because I saw some mounting stress in my dog. He was clearly ambivalent, not wanting to show his teeth but also a good little operant border collie. So he kept trying – and he was, indeed, very good at showing his teeth. After the first spontaneous time, he would erupt into rapid fire teeth showing, whining, whale-eyeing everyone and just looking miserable. I don’t know, I started to feel like I was not being fair to him.
So, I thought a lot about why and what exactly I was doing. Kai’s showing his teeth is a communication signal to the other dogs. Yes, it’s a low level display of aggression but it’s one he has spent eight years perfecting the application of. If I look at his relationships with the dogs, he doesn’t ‘feel’ aggressive towards them. Pissy, yes. Annoyed, oh yes! But not aggressive. So, in a way, I was messing with a communication expression and also a coping skill. This is what my dog uses to keep other dogs out of his space. I was really messing with his head.
Part of the problem was also that I did not give him anything else to rely on. Towards the end, I started ALSO clicking and feeding good behavior as well as whenever he offered a behavior incompatible with teeth showing… like turning his head, orienting his body away from the other dogs, leaving the room, etc. This felt better for me.
If Kai could talk I’m pretty sure he would have expressed his confusion about losing the function of an expression and no longer knowing how to communicate in those situations.
So, did I change his feelings about the other dogs? Well, he definitely was more tolerant of them coming into his space when we weren’t doing rapid fire teeth parties. But he also had a few melt-downs like when he raced into the basement sounding like a chupacabra on crack.
There was also a very obvious deficit in any sense of changed behavior. Meaning, Kai did not change his behavior at all (except for choosing to sit on the floor more with the other dogs instead of a chair). He did not show me anything that would imply he felt too differently. Something like an increase in play, grooming one another, sleeping closer… I don’t know…but something! Alas, I saw nothing.
In conclusion, I definitely did not make his behavior worse. I was pretty perfect with marking and feeding any growling or teeth showing and there was not an increase in bad behavior like escalating into snapping or biting. The second I stopped clicking and feeding the face, he stopped doing it to earn treats. He went right back to using it to communicate to the other dogs.
I’d say, really, things are no different. I think the next experiment should be clickin and feeding alternative behaviors to showing teeth. I suspect that would be a roaring success.