Tag Archives: behavior problems

To Tug or Not to Tug?

Yesterday, two daycare doggies, who’ve been friends since they were in puppy class together, discovered the joys of TUG! They played TUG with the un-stuffed animal toy, then with the indestructible Frisbee, then — best of all — with the soft-squeaky bone. They played standing up and lying down. Once, one lay on her back while the other TUGGED her all over the floor! Obviously enjoying this new game, they’d go to something else like wrestling or chase-me, but kept coming back to TUG! I knew immediately when they returned to TUG, because EVERY time the two would start growling!

That started me thinking. As far as I remember, whenever I’ve played TUG with a dog, or observed other dogs playing there was usually growling involved! Not of the I’m-going-to-eat-you-for-breakfast variety, but really-in-the-moment growling. In a few cases where I didn’t know the participants all that well, the determined rumbling has made me pause for evaluation! But in all cases, it soon became obvious — watching the dog’s body language — that this was just an integral part of the game! The mock-ferocity made it more fun!

Even most people playing TUG with their dogs “growl!” Not “Grrrr!” but we tend to talk while pulling, don’t we? “I’ve got it! I’ve got it! No, you can’t have it!” all said in a rough, throaty voice quite different from conversational tones. And we draw out certain words — “Iiiiiii’ve got it!” so our vocalization mimics the dog’s rumbling even more!

There are a lot of trainers who point to the growling and warn against playing TUG with a dog because it’s an aggressive game and a test of strength and you don’t want the dog knowing it’s stronger than you are. Now, there is some validity to this. I certainly wouldn’t walk up to a strange Rottie and challenge him to a Tug-o-war with his favorite toy! Also, if a client of mine suspected their dog of resource guarding, I wouldn’t recommend the game to them! But I think forbidding TUG altogether is missing the point!

The point is that TUG is a GAME! Dogs understand GAMES! Their play almost exclusively consists of mock-fighting behaviors! But they can tell if another dog wants to have-at-’em or just have some fun! Mostly they tell by body language. Even rough-and-tumble “fighting” is recognized as sport when preceded by a PLAY-BOW. That’s the silly, butt-in-the-air, elbows-on-the-ground, tail-waving pose. Before playing, especially with a new acquaintance, each dog bends down in this posture, usually wearing goofy, tongue-lolling expressions on their faces. It’s an invitation to frolic and have fun!

Old friends don’t always do the full, formal Play-bow. They give a little bob and call it good. But it’s short-hand, like saying “Sup?” instead of “Hello! What’s up with you?” When dogs play TUG, they’ve passed the preliminaries and all war-like postures and sounds are taken in good fun. You can further tell that the dogs know it’s a game BECAUSE THE LITTLE DOG OFTEN “WINS!” Yep! The bigger dog “throws” the match so it’s more fun for his friend!

There have been some studies done showing how play helps prepare the mind for learning. In a study done with dogs, the testers used TUG as the game. After playing TUG for a few minutes, the dogs learned a set lesson quicker than dogs who did not play the game. And here’s the kicker — it didn’t matter whether the dog WON or LOST the game of TUG before their lesson!  Their brain was flooded by good-feelings chemicals that helped them learn no matter what the result.

So, I think we should be aware that TUG isn’t the best game to play with certain dogs in certain circumstances. However, for the most part, if the DOG understands it’s just play, I don’t think we humans should put too much emphasis on winning and losing. The dog certainly won’t!  It’s not whether we win or lose but how we play the game — something else our dogs can teach us!

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It’s Funny Now…

Folks are always sending me videos of dogs and little kids with captions saying how “cute” and/or “hilarious” their interaction is. Most of the time reading that, I cringe, but it’s like passing an accident on the highway — I just have to look! So I hit “play.” Unfortunately, just as I suspected, most of the time I don’t find the interaction a bit funny.

The latest one today showed a toddler sitting on a couch, a plate in his lap with a sandwich on it. He was really a really cute kid! Mom was sitting on one side of him and the FD (family dog) on the other side. From the smothered laughter “voice over” Dad was the one filming.

So, both parents were in the room. It also seemed obvious to me that what would happen would be no surprise to them. From Mom’s look of happy anticipation and Dad’s chortles as they watched the little boy and FD, the parents were hoping to record something “cute” and “hilarious.” They were HOPING to have a certain set of circumstances repeated.

The FD was a large Shepherd/Lab mix or maybe a Rottie mix. I thought he was really cute, too! He was also much taller than the little boy, and probably weighed 4 times as much. The FD was calm and not making physical contact with Junior, but was focused on the sandwich with the intensity of a heat-seeking missile. If he drooled, the slime would’ve landed in the kid’s lap, if not on the sandwich!

At one point the little boy picked up the sandwich and the FD leaned in closer. I thought, “oh, no!” but the child calmly pushed the dog’s head away and put the sandwich back on his plate. The FD allowed his head to be pushed away, but remained fixated on the food, leaning even closer, if possible.  It seemed like the house rule was he couldn’t touch anything on the kid’s plate.

All the while, the child hardly looked at the FD. He kept looking at Mom and Dad wondering why they were staring at him and laughing. After about 45 seconds, Junior picked up the sandwich to take a bite — and “presto-change-o” it was gone! The FD slipped in and inhaled it right out of the kid’s hand and mouth. The child looked at his empty hand while the parents howled and guffawed.

It’s obvious that these parents love both child and FD very much, and wanted to record this “fun” interaction between them to preserve the fond memory. It’s also obvious that the child has no fear of the dog, nor really resented having his lunch stolen, and that the FD is probably pretty gentle around the boy. However, it was equally obvious to me that those parents have no idea what they are teaching the dog, let alone the child.

Sure, it might look cute and funny now, but by allowing a dog to steal food from a child, you are teaching the dog that he is above that child in the pecking order. As a dominant animal, he will feel free to take food (or anything else) any time he wants, expecting the subordinate “pup” will let it go. What happens when Junior decides to take something back? The FD would very probably give Junior a “correction” as any dominant dog has the right to do! And dogs commonly correct their puppies with a nip to the face.

Unfortunately, puppies have thick, loose skin covered with fur to prevent that nip from drawing blood. Children do not have that protection — from either physical or psychological harm. The parents wouldn’t be laughing if the dear old FD decided to chastise that uppity youngster, and Junior had to be taken to the ER for stitches! “What happened? We don’t understand! FD was always so sweet with Junior!” The dog would be blamed and for something that wasn’t really his fault!  For something that was, in fact, the fault of the parents!

I’m sure the parents are not endangering their child deliberately!  They probably haven’t had a lot of training experience or know much about dog psychology.  But they wouldn’t let another child hover over Junior and take his lunch away, would they?  So, why is it alright when the FD does it?  Because it’s “cute?”

On this particular video the typed caption said something like “maybe the kid will eat his lunch faster from now on — the dog was patient for so long!” Is that really what you want a child to learn from the situation? That’s not a solution! The dog should never be allowed to hover over ANYONE — no matter what the person’s age — while they’re eating. A child should be protected from a pushy dog and Junior should learn to move somewhere out of a dog’s reach — like the table or a high counter!

If the dog was taught to respect any two-legger’s personal space, this incident wouldn’t have been filmed. The parents wouldn’t have their “cute” and “hilarious” memory.  But they wouldn’t be in danger of creating memories of a very different kind, either.

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Known by the Nose

It’s common knowledge that a dog’s sense of smell is much better than a human’s. The scent receptors in a dog’s nose would almost fill a sheet of typing paper while ours fit on a postage stamp. I’ve heard estimations that a dog’s scenting ability is anywhere from a few thousands to a million times better than that of  homo sapiens.

It seems like scientists could be a bit more precise than that! After all that’s quite a range of possibilities! I’m sure one of the reasons it’s so big is that not all dogs have the same ability. Shorter-snouted dogs are less gifted in the number of receptors whereas long-nosed dogs like Beagles and German Shepherds have more. The Sultan of Smelling is, of course, the Bloodhound that has been bred for centuries to track and trail.

Just what does does that mean, anyway? — that dogs smell “better” than humans? Surely it’s not all about how many sensors, but how they are used. Scientists have discovered the percentage of a dog’s brain used to interpret scent information is about 40 times bigger than ours. So, while our brains are designed to interpret and store visual data, a dog’s is used mainly to process information from the nose.

A dog’s vision is quite poor, not seeing details, but mostly perceiving shapes. That’s why dogs will bark at familiar people who are wearing a different hat, or big bulky coat or have a backpack slung on their back. The outline is different than the remembered outline, so the dog treats the person as a stranger. It’s only after the dog catches the person’s scent that recognition sets in. Toss a treat to a dog, and if it falls to the ground, the dog obviously stops LOOKING for it and starts SMELLING it out. Walking our dogs is often a start-and-stop experience as we wait for them to read the “pee-mail!” Clearly all dogs depend far more heavily on the information their nose “knows” than people do.

Our memories are full of pictures and anchored by language. Dogs, who do not have language as we do, and for whom vision is a lesser sense, must have memories made up of smells. Think about that for a moment — remembering a place you’ve been by the aromas there. Not a visual map of landmarks, but a grid of odors, a puzzle of perfumes, reeks, tangs, whiffs and fragrances. I can’t begin to conceptualize it. I imagine someone with Synesthesia, who might “see” smells as colors or hear numbers as musical pitches might find it a bit easier to visualize.

See, even our language reflects how the human brain thinks: “visualize” because that is how our brains process information. In our “mind’s eye!” Do dogs think with a sort of mental nose?

I find it fascinating that such a familiar, well-know, well-loved animal that lives in my home with me can be so alien. Not “alien” in a creepy, scary, inferior way, but a mind-blowingly interesting and awe-inspiring way. So different from us, and yet we presume to “know” what a dog is thinking!

How can we think that we really understand what is going on in a dog’s mind? It seems we’re only guessing according to our human-visual bias. We’re really imagining what another human might be thinking in the same circumstances.  Unless we really know what our dog’s nose knows, those guesses won’t be very accurate.

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Dogs Look to Us, Too!

Yesterday I wrote about a scientific study I’d seen on TV where wolves and dogs were tested. The wolves had been socialized with people from babyhood, raised as if they were dogs. The dogs were a variety of domestic breeds. All animals were adults when given the series of tests. The results showed that dogs, unlike their close cousins, are adept at reading human body language; will follow pointing signals and try to mimic a human’s posture and/or activity.

This study was not an assessment of the raw INTELLIGENCE of either dogs or wolves. It was investigating their ability and willingness to read the social cues of a different animal — humans. It turns out that dogs somehow gained an inborn skill to “read” humans during domestication. And it is a skill that other domestic animals don’t share!

Alone of all the creatures on earth, dogs watch us for social cues and correctly interpret much of our body language; not only where we point but where we are LOOKING. In addition, this study shows that domestic dogs actively SEEK our help. Dogs look to us to tell them what to do.

The experiment was simple. A piece of meat was put in a wire cage so the canines couldn’t reach it directly. The meat was attached to one end of a strap, the other end of the strap stuck outside the wire cage. Both wolves and dogs easily figured out that to get the meat, they just had to pull on the strap. So far, wolves 1 v. dogs 1.

Next, the strap with meat attached was fastened so that pulling on the strap didn’t pull the meat within reach — and here’s where the big difference in dogs and wolves surfaced! Wolves would pull on the strap with teeth and dig at it with paws. When it stayed put, the wolf would pace around the cage and try to come at it from different angles. Wolves kept trying to figure out the problem on their own.

In contrast, the dogs also tried what had worked before — pulling/digging at the strap to get the meat. However, when the dogs didn’t get the result they expected and wanted, they only tried a few other solutions and for a very short period of time. Instead of trying to solve the problem on their own, the dogs would LOOK TO THE HUMAN in the room with them.

Was the dog asking for instructions or asking for the human to get the meat for him? The test wasn’t designed to tell us that, but it was OBVIOUS the dog wanted the human to do SOMETHING about that meat! The dog would look at the human and then at the meat and back again!

I’ve seen this a lot in my business. I keep the outside dog toys (frisbee, balls, etc.) in a box on top of a big wire crate in my mudroom. All the boarders and daycare dogs have seen me put the toys away in the box. It is out of reach of even the tallest dog and most dogs don’t want to jump up on top of a wire crate, even if their manners are that bad. Every toy-driven dog that visits will let me know in no uncertain terms that they want me to get the ball or frisbee by looking fixedly at the box, then when I look at them looking, they turn their gaze on me before looking back at the box.

The study clearly showed that wolves have better problem-solving abilities than dogs. However this is again, not really a test of sheer intelligence. The dogs might have the ABILITY to solve problems just as much as their wild ancestors, but have learned not to keep trying if a human is around to help them. The study didn’t mention if these tests were ever given in the ABSENCE of human onlookers or what the results were if they had been. I wonder if the dogs would have continued to try longer if nobody was there to help them?

Dogs are not inclined to spend effort on strategies that don’t pay off quickly. Instead, dogs are experts at following the path that gets them what they want as fast as possible. So, it would not be surprising to me to discover that the dogs would work when alone, but give up sooner if there was a human around to do the hard work for them! Dogs not only watch us, but look to us to make their lives easier!


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The Dog is Watching!

Dogs are the only animals (except other humans, of course) that readily follow a pointing finger to an object. This seems so simple, but it’s fairly mind-blowing! Our closest “cousins,” Chimpanzees (sharing over 98% of our DNA) don’t do it. Dolphins and Elephants, who show a lot of evidence that they are self-aware, don’t do it. Other DOMESTICATED animals like Cats and Horses don’t do it. What is most surprising of all is that WOLVES, so genetically close to our domestic dogs, don’t do it! But even homeless dogs-in-the-street can follow the human finger that points the way to a scrap of food.

There have been a number of scientific studies that have documented the domestic dog’s uniqueness in this area. Recently I saw a TV report on one study investigating the behavior gap between Canis Lupus and Canis Familiaris. The theory was that wolves behave differently from dogs because they are not brought up with humans from infancy and so are unfamiliar with our gestures, etc. So, this study raised a bunch of wolf cubs as if they were dogs so that they would have the same amount of exposure to people as the domestic dogs also used as subjects. Both dogs and wolves used in the study were all adult.

There were a number of tests and games played with all the subjects, but one was the “pointing test.” Two humans and a canine subject were placed in a small room with no windows or other distractions. One human handled the canine subject on a leash-and-collar, keeping it at one end of the room. At the other end, the second human, the Tester, had two identical plastic pails and a piece of meat.

The Tester rubbed the meat around the bottom of each pail, so BOTH would carry the food scent. That way the canine wouldn’t be able to make a choice using their extremely sensitive sense of smell. Then while the Handler covered the canine’s eyes, the Tester placed the piece of meat in one pail at random and placed both pails on the ground next to her, an arm’s length away. The canine’s eyes were uncovered and the Tester POINTED briefly at the pail with the meat in it. Then the canine was released to investigate the pails.

Almost invariably the dog went first to the pail the Tester had pointed out. Almost invariably the wolf chose the other pail. I believe that even after multiple repetitions of the same test with the same subject, the wolves were not any more likely to choose the pail the Tester pointed at than the one she did not. It wasn’t mentioned on the TV program, but I wouldn’t be surprised that the few dogs who at first didn’t follow the point, WERE more likely to follow it after repeated tests.

The study showed that not only will dogs follow our pointing fingers, but they watch us very carefully ALL THE TIME, and take cues from our body language. Dogs even MIMIC humans, learning to do tricks simply by imitating what we do. If the Tester leaned to one side, the dog-subject shifted its weight in that direction. The Tester was able to get the dog-subject to bark by barking at it, to raise a paw by waving a hand, etc.

I have no trouble believing that study. My GSD-mix, Kita, learned how to BOW on cue when I bowed to her! One of my client dogs learned how to “Gimme 10” when I held my hands (I almost said paws) facing out to him at chest height! The word cues meant nothing to them, so they must have been watching me carefully and tried their “best guess!” and approximated my posture. Like any training technique, I imagine the more a particular dog-subject is exposed to this method, the more readily they will be able to mimic!

I’ve seen other studies that show dogs watch us very carefully, indeed, and even pay attention to the direction we’re LOOKING, and IF we’re looking! A Tester sat in a chair with a piece of meat on the floor in front of her. As long as her eyes stayed open, the dog sitting opposite didn’t touch the meat. But mere SECONDS after she closed her eyes, the dog scarfed it up!  In tests similar to the “point” test described above, a dog could follow the direction the Tester’s EYES looked to find the food. One cue I give to dogs when they are learning the DOWN cue is to stand very still and LOOK at the ground in front of them when they are trying to remember what that cue word means. In each instance the dog must be watching very closely to notice such a small thing as the movement of our eyes!

All these studies show that dogs are uniquely sensitive to what we DO and how we behave. Just today, Kita and I were walking in a snowy park. Two cross-country skiers approached us on the trail. Kita has never seen skiers before, and she is inclined to be nervous of new things! I consciously slowed my breathing, calmly told her to heel, moved to the side of the trail, and exchanged friendly greetings with the skiers. I did my best to show her by example that these new strangely-moving folks were not dangerous. It seemed to work. She stayed at my side, and didn’t bark.

There’s an old training maxim that what we feel travels right down the leash, however it doesn’t mean there’s some sort of psychic electricity sparking from us to them! Yes, how tightly we hold the leash makes a difference and tells our dogs much about our state of mind. Still, the saying is just a reminder that our dogs are ALWAYS watching us, looking for clues to and cues about how they should behave.

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Being Too Polite

OK, so yesterday I was talking about being sure our doggies learn manners at home — and today I’m saying there’s such a thing as being TOO polite? So what gives?  Well, I’m not talking about our DOGS being too polite around us, but that sometimes WE’RE the ones who inadvertently go overboard with human-courtesy towards them.

I’ve done this myself — giving a dog the same treat-others-as-I-would-like-to-be-treated respect and found the dog misunderstands. The difficulty arises because human gestures of common courtesy don’t have the same cultural equivalent in dog society. In fact, much of our graciousness towards others, in a dog’s eyes, looks like the way a subordinate defers to a superior.

Here’s a specific example. Kita, my GSD mix, used to sleep on my bed almost every night. It was nice — nothing like a 90 lb. furry “hot water bottle” to snuggle up with, especially in the Wintertime! If I had to use the facilities in the middle of the night, Kita was usually snoring so peacefully that I hated to make her get up too!  So, I’d carefully extract myself from under the blankets without disturbing her, if possible.

This is the same consideration I show towards any human bed-mate (and the cats, too, come to think of it…) I never heard any of them complain if I accidentally bumped them. Imagine my surprise when I was a little less careful than usual one night one night, and Kita turned on me showing teeth and growling!

You see, in being soooo careful not to disturb Kita, I had treated her as if she was the “top dog.” – as if it was her bed and she was letting me share it. So, when I disturbed her, Kita gave me a warning that if I didn’t shape up, the privilege would be revoked; all perfectly natural from a dog’s point of view and in the context of dog society. Kita didn’t know that I was being “polite” and “considerate” because that is not how a dog would behave in that situation.

Obviously, I couldn’t let Kita continue in her mistaken beliefs, even if it was my fault that she held them. I made myself very tall, with a “big” stance, and ordered her off the bed (she already knew the command, “Off!”) and did not let her back on for several nights. Always after that, Kita could “request” bed-room (she would lay her head on the mattress and look at me.) If I wanted to allow her on the bed, I asked her to sit and then gave her the OK to come up. But sometimes I said, “No!” and made it stick.

There’s many ways we can be “too polite” to maintain a good leadership position in our dog’s eyes. When the dog cuts us off in a doorway, and we back off and let him go first. When the dog prances in front of us because he wants attention and we give ‘way and walk around him. When we’re eating some jerky and the dog nudges our hand, and we give him the last bite. When the dog jumps up in our favorite spot on the sofa and we move to another chair or sit on the floor. In Dog-land, it’s the BIG DOG (i.e. the leader) who gets to go through tight spaces first, who walks around other dogs, who gets the first choice of food, the best sleeping place, and the highest spot. If we always give our dogs these things, we can’t wonder that they feel like the King!

Dr. Bruce Fogle has a saying: “A dog doesn’t expect to be treated like a human. A dog expects a human to act like a dog.” Because of that night-time incident with Kita and many others, I’ve really taken his wisdom to heart and it’s become the foundation of my training methods. I find it much more efficient and effective to interpret everything I do from a dog’s perspective, because I know they see me as a kind of socially-inept canine. That way, I’m not working against doggie DNA and instinct, I’m working with it.

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The “Only Dog” Syndrome, part III

In addition to being stinted in the learning-to-be-a dog department, pooches that are the only canine in a home have a few other disadvantages. Especially if their sole house-mates are one or two adults, only-dogs usually have low Frustration Tolerance and little Impulse Control. Just like children with no siblings, they are used to having ALL their parents’ time and attention. They don’t get any practice in SHARING or TAKING TURNS or learn to WAIT for what they want!

Low Frustration Tolerance and an Impulse Control deficit manifest in somewhat the same ways. Even good-natured dogs with these issues are demanding and needy. They can be pushy, nippy, mouthy, and bark a lot. Though not having true separation anxiety (which is a panic attack beyond the dog’s immediate control) they don’t do well being left alone, and often are destructive when they are. They frequently guard resources, especially “their” people! However, though they “look” the same, and have similar causes, low Frustration Tolerance and Impulse Control deficit are two different issues.

Impulse Control is the ability to REFRAIN from doing the first thing prompted by instinct, excitement, wants, or needs. A good example is Dexter’s dinner bowl. Upon seeing his food bowl being lowered to the ground, Dexter’s first instinctive response is to grab at the food as soon as it comes within reach. Controlling these impulses (whether in kids or dogs) is usually called “good manners.”

Frustration Tolerance is being able to handle not getting something immediately, whether it be food, space or attention. Using the same example, if Dexter’s food bowl is raised out of reach every time he lunges, he may become increasingly aggravated until he “acts out” — barking and/or jumping up to get at the food. If he is an extremely driven, dominant dog, Dexter may growl and snarl. In both children and dogs this reaction is usually called a “tantrum.”

Even if they don’t have to Share or Take Turns at home, most children are sent to school and have to practice those skills with the other kids there. Dogs can be sent to doggie daycare and have the same opportunity. Unfortunately if the lessons aren’t reinforced at home, the poor manners and tantrums will continue. This is especially true for dogs because the canine brain isn’t set up to generalize as well as the human brain is. Dogs can’t easily apply lessons learned in one place/situation, with one set of people/dogs to different circumstances and with others.

Because both these problems have similar causes, they can be addressed with the same strategies. Improving Impulse Control of necessity means that a dog learns to tolerate frustration! And the exercises to teach them are pretty simple. The difficulty comes in the application, dealing with the pre-learning tantrums, and being consistent!

Teach Dexter to WAIT; for food, treats, playing, attention, etc. Don’t ask too much of him at first, one second is a good place to start. So, is his food bowl. If Dexter can Wait until the food bowl is on the ground and he’s told it’s OK to eat, that is the first BIG step! I recommend asking a dog to obey a command before he gets ANY good thing. (Note — if you always ask Dexter to SIT, pretty soon he’ll sit without being asked. The point isn’t that he puts his bottom on the ground, but that he OBEYS you. So, when he sits without a cue, ask him to DOWN.)

In addition, Dexter shouldn’t be allowed to dictate when you play with him or pay attention to him. If it isn’t convenient, tell him, “No!” and make it stick by ignoring him. Ignore the tantrum that will usually result at first. If Dexter is a clever pooch and does something naughty to get your attention, give him a time-out in a different room. Don’t yell because if you do, you just major lost points in that round — he made you look and pay attention to him, didn’t he?

When it gets right down to it, Manners are always best learned at home. Obedience classes can help Dexter learn to listen to you and learn some commands that will help you to teach him manners. Hiring a professional to consult in your home with Behavior Issues will teach you specific strategies to deal with tantrums and naughty behavior. But as Puppy-parents, we must insist that Dexter use good manners on a daily basis to have those lessons stick!

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The “Only Dog” Syndrome, part II

When I adopted Kita, I made a lot of training mistakes, but there’s ONE thing I did exactly right.  From our first day together, we walked, morning and evening without fail — mostly in a park down the street.  At each walk, we encountered other human/dog pairs on the same mission.  In the evening, EVERYBODY in the neighborhood seemed to be there with their dog(s)!  So Kita, though she was the “only dog” in our household at the time, got lots of socialization!

Kita met small dogs like Jack Russell Terriers and big dogs like Great Danes.   Kita met friendly dogs who wanted to play and adult dogs who hid (often between MY legs, oddly enough) when she wanted to play.  Kita met dogs that scared her (her first meeting with the Great Danes, Kita backed up snapping her jaws in panic) and dogs that were a bit reactive towards her (terriers especially barked and snarled at the ends of their leashes.) Kita met dogs that bowled her over in play, some who lifted a lip at her and some who didn’t tolerate other dogs, but liked her!

In other words, Kita got a lot of real-life experience with other dogs of all shapes, sizes and temperaments.  Plus, she got the experience while she was still young enough to be treated as a puppy by older dogs.  Adult dogs are programmed to be nice to puppies.  They will tolerate rambunctious behavior.  If the puppy makes mistakes in doggie protocol, an adult dog will usually reprimand the puppy in a much more restrained manner than if an adult dog acted the same way.   These lessons in proper doggie etiquette can’t be learned from humans!  Only dogs can teach other dogs the way to behave!

A puppy that does not have this early interaction with other dogs will have a hard time learning those lessons in later life.  The average “only dog” meets other dogs just once in a while.  So, most of them are insecure around others, and react in inappropriate ways out of anxiety and stress.  Get two under-socialized and insecure dogs meeting and the problems escalate!  Add to the equation owners who are nervous because their dog shows some teeth, barks and/or growls and the stress levels increase exponentially!

A lot of clients tell me their dog “goes ballistic” when seeing other dogs on walks.  Not surprisingly, most of these are “only dogs” and have had no close interaction with other canines since they left their litter-mates at 7-8 weeks old.  Now, they are teens/young adults and since dogs are very social animals, they see one of their own kind and get really, really, really excited.  The adrenaline goes through the roof, they don’t know how to behave, they’re “tied up” (on a leash) — so they go off the deep end.

There’s an old saying — an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.   It’s really true in this case!  Getting your only-dog puppy out of the house and meeting other dogs takes time and effort, but is at least 16 times less trouble in the long run than dealing with an unsocialized dog later in life.

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The “Only Dog” Syndrome

We all know that dogs are pack animals, like their wild cousins.  Canines were probably domesticated so easily because the human hunter-gatherer group dynamic was similar enough to a pack structure to feel comfortable to them.  In our modern world, when a family adopts Toby-dog, he adopts the family right back as his surrogate pack.

The single-family home is probably even closer to a wild wolf pack, in some ways, than the extended human clan of long ago.  There is a single mated pair that reproduces.  Most other members of the group are their offspring of various ages.  In some cases, an older, non-reproducing adult (grandma or grandpa) also lives there.  So, it’s pretty easy for Toby-dog to figure out relationships.

Allowing Toby to observe the family hierarchy and come to his own conclusions can create problems, though.  If Toby is adopted as a puppy, he will probably consider he is on equal footing with the other puppies — the kids. So, he can treat them in the same rough-and-tumble fashion as he did his littermates.  If he’s adopted as an adult dog, he may consider that his status is above the “cubs” and think he is entitled to discipline them when they don’t show him the proper respect.

These are probably NOT the same views held by the humans of the household.  A  dog in a household of humans must to be taught to obey all the two-leggers — even the kids.  Both adults and children can easily teach Toby that they are dominant — and without any confrontation or force!  Just show Toby that the HUMANS control the RESOURCES.  That means to get anything he wants/needs:  food, water, treats, toys, attention, petting, play, going outside, coming inside, getting in a lap/on the furniture… Toby has to follow a simple command (like SIT) before the human gives it to him!  There are other issues to be addressed, of course, but that’s the idea in a nutshell!

It’s especially important for the truly “only dog” who lives as a surrogate child in a household of one or two adults to learn this.  It’s too easy to give Toby the idea that he is the King of the Castle!  In canine society, the dominant dog doesn’t solicit attention — only the lower-ranking animals lick faces and beg to be noticed.  So, if “his” humans lavish him with “loving” — very natural to us — he gets the idea that he’s Mr. Big-and-Most-Important, because all the other “dogs” are fawning over him.  Oops!

I’m not saying we can’t kiss and cuddle our dogs!  I’m just suggesting that we need to balance it with making Toby “work” for our attention.  There’s nothing punitive about asking Toby to SIT (on the floor) before he gets up in your lap!  It’s good manners!  Just like we teach our human kids to say “Please” and “Thank you” we need to do the same with our dogs!

In one way, no matter how many humans are in the household, if Toby is the only dog it’s going to create other socialization issues.  Think of it this way, a baby is taken from his parents in one country and raised by foster parents in another.  When he meets someone from his “native land” as an adult, he will not understand their language or customs and may give offense without meaning to do so.  Humans, no matter what their age, don’t interact the same way as another dog would, so Toby needs to be taught how to speak “adult Doglish” by meeting with other dogs of all ages.

I’ve gone on long enough today, and will return to this topic tomorrow.  I just really want to stress how important getting your newly adopted dog out of your house and into some interactions with “his own kind” is!  It’s every bit as important as socializing him to lots of different humans.  And socialization needs to happen both inside and outside the home.


Filed under General, Graduates, Tips and Tricks

Food overcomes Fear, part two

Yesterday I wrote about my Fridge-fearing canine, Kita. Though she is a rather extreme case, I honestly am surprised that more dogs don’t develop phobias over common household objects and appliances.  There is almost nothing in a dog’s DNA that prepares them for living in our homes with all the noisy machines, confining spaces, and un-natural (to a dog) objects and rules.  Integrating a dog (whether puppy or adult) into your home or introducing him to anything new — things will go smoother with judicious use of treats.

This holds true even for something as simple as a new (or especially the FIRST) collar.  All of a dog’s instincts tell it to avoid traps and confining, choking things, so it’s no surprise that dogs don’t feel yippy-skippy when we buckle a collar on them.  We can make that new, suspicious, even scary thing appear much FRIENDLIER by introducing it with food.

Hold out your hand with the collar looped over your palm and a treat resting on the collar.  Chances are Spot will eye that questionable object hanging there with some mistrust, but will eat the treat.  Repeat a dozen times and Spot will start to ASSOCIATE seeing the collar with getting a treat!    This actually changes Spot’s brain chemistry to create “feel good” hormones instead of “fight or flight” hormones when the collar appears.  Food literally (and chemically) overcomes Fear!  If you go slowly and reward Spot with a treat for letting the collar rest on his back, then on his nose, then when you finally put it on for (at first) a brief moment, he’ll probably look forward to seeing the collar and will learn to wear it with no struggle.

Food can also be used to DESENSITIZE a dog to already-established fears.  If Spot has had bad experiences with a leash, for example, treats can (literally and chemically) change his mind.  First off, get a really yummy treat that Spot maybe hasn’t ever had before — like CHICKEN!  From now on, he won’t get this special treat unless a leash is present.  If he was spooked by one particular leash, get a new one that is made from a different material.

Place the leash on the floor and put CHICKEN on it.  You might have to walk away at first before Spot will approach — he’s no dummy and if he’s scared of a leash he’s really scared wheb it’s in a human’s hands.  After Spot happily eats treats as soon as you place them on the leash — and looks up for more — hang the leash around your neck and sit on the floor (so you’re not bending over Spot with the leash hanging down, swinging and perhaps hitting him.)  Reward Spot with CHICKEN when he comes over to you while you’re “wearing” the leash.   When he’s easily doing that, rest a loop of the leash (still hung around your neck) over your palm and place CHICKEN on it!  At first, keep your hand still and let Spot come to it, but gradually move your hand with the leash — and the CHICKEN — around so Spot gets used to a moving leash bringing the CHICKEN!  Then reward with CHICKEN when you touch the leash to his collar.  You get the idea — at each step, Spot should equate the LEASH with the arrival of CHICKEN!

Of course, this sort of desensitizing takes many sessions over many days.  We must resist the temptation to see how far we can push Spot — one of our besetting weaknesses as humans!  Err on the side of caution and moving TOO slowly, rather than skipping steps.  Spot doesn’t know there’s an agenda, here.  He’s delighted to get all that CHICKEN!  He’s also pretty happy with you, and will learn to be happy with the leash if he’s not scared all over again through well-intentioned impatience.  Food overcomes Fear, but Rushing can Ruin things!

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