Tag Archives: dog aggression

Puppies Want to Please

sad puppyI have a PUPPY MANNERS class starting tonight — and I’m thrilled!  It’s always exciting and makes me very happy when folks don’t put off formal training with a young puppy. They grow up so fast and you never get back those first impressionable months.

A puppy is “pre-programmed” to eagerly accept new experiences between about 7 and 16 weeks.  That’s the age where, in the wild, the pups would first emerge from the den to meet and bond with their social unit — the pack.  After that age, a more cautious phase sets in to discourage the growing pups from wandering too far afield and bonding with members of other packs, or prey animals.  Domestic dogs have the same built-in learning periods as those in the wild.  So, our best time to teach Toby to accept people, dogs, other animals, and new places and situations is while he is still in that early formative period – less than 4 months old!

Too many times, we bring a puppy home and either because of busy schedules or fear of infection for that pup just starting vaccinations, Toby scarcely leaves home again until months have gone by.  He’s never exposed to new people, dogs or even other places – except the Vet!   And a trip to the Vet is scary!  So, it’s really no wonder that, at 6 or 8 months, Toby starts showing fear and/or aggression towards a lot of people and places his adopters really want him to like and accept.  Poor Toby was never introduced to them when it would make the best impression, so now teaching him will be much more difficult!

This is similar to language acquisition in humans.  A child’s developing brain swiftly makes new connections and assimilates words, grammar and syntax without even trying.  An adult’s brain can’t do that, and we learn language much more slowly and with a lot more effort!  There’s no going back to that more plastic brain just because we’d like to.  We’re dealing with hard-wiring.  Can’t just load up the newest software!  And neither can a “teenaged” puppy.  Toby has learned  that his home and those few people in it are his pack and territory and everyone else and all places outside that are “other” and not to be trusted.

You see, if you’re not FORMALLY training the puppy — Toby’s learning anyway!  We can’t put Toby on hold until we’ve got enough time to teach him.  Babies pick up whatever their environment presents, because their little brains are BIG sponges.  It’s not a matter of teaching Toby or not, just if we want to be in conscious control of what he’s learning or are content to leave it all to chance.

Another reason to get puppies into formal training ASAP is that a young dog is so eager to please!  Baby Toby probably drives his new family crazy following them and constantly getting underfoot –because he’s trying so hard to be noticed and loved.  This attention-seeking drive of a puppy is beyond price!  At that young age they will do ANYTHING to get our attention and approval!  And he’s probably doing a lot of very annoying things trying to get it, too!  So substitute lessons, make him EARN that attention, and the limits of Toby’s learning is the limits of our time to teach and ability to explain what we want!

Recall?  Ha!  Try getting far enough away to call Toby to you!  Praise that pup every time he wanders your way, called or not.  Never call him over for “bad” things like clipping nails or getting a bath, or punishment, and Toby will zip to your side every time you say his name!  Play recall games consistently before the pup is 4 months old and you’re forming a HABIT of returning to you.  Early habits are very hard to erase, and Toby won’t even try!

Walking on leash?  Puppies are FOLLOWERS!  Introduce Toby slowly and gently with lots of treats and praise to his collar and leash.  Instead of dragging him around when he hesitates, pretend to RUN AWAY calling his name and let Toby chase you!  Then PRAISE him when he catches up!  That’s all good leash-manners are – following the leader!

Don’t wait until your dog becomes a teenager to start training!  Just like in humans, doggie teenagers are learning to become independent and are not so intent upon following or gaining our approval.  If we’ve carefully taught Toby good habits while he was a baby, it won’t take much to keep him “in practice” as he’s growing up, or to build on those early lessons.  If we’ve put off the training, all is not lost.  Old dogs (and “teenaged” dogs) most certainly can learn new tricks!  However, Toby will never so readily, so easily, so joyfully pick up any instruction, nor work so hard to learn — just to please us.

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“My Dog Was Abused”

An awful lot of owners who’ve adopted an adult dog or puppy from a shelter say that. At various times, I’ve said it of my girls, both rescues. However, I’m not sure we’re always right. Not that anyone is lying, here, I just think we might be misinterpreting the situation and/or some doggie body-language.

Certainly, there are a lot of dogs in shelters that have come from bad situations. Volunteering at the Humane Society of West Michigan for several years, I’ve seen dogs taken from puppy mills and homes by legal action. Certainly any animal picked up as a stray has had a hard time. Many dogs surrendered by their owners are not in top condition. Certainly, all of these dogs have been abused in some sense of the word. However, most times, they were neglected – ignored and/or given insufficient food or exercise — rather than beaten, berated, or forced to fight.

Some people would say that putting a dog in a shelter, in itself, constitutes abuse, but I think when we say a dog has been “abused” most of us mean the active kind. A hungry dog or one who hasn’t had proper shelter reacts differently than a dog that’s been thrashed or crushed with harsh language. After inquiring into particulars, barring a known case history of physical abuse, most folks are assuming their dog has been mistreated because of two things:   1) the dog ducks away when we try to pet her, and/or 2) she shies away from people.

Rather than abuse, I would diagnose insufficient socialization as the most likely cause of the second problem.   Despite the eager, everybody-is-my-best-friend stereotype we expect of all dogs, a lot of them are naturally shy and not very outgoing – just like a lot of people.  If those dogs are not actively and systematically introduced to all sorts of other dogs, situations and humans in the critical development period (7-16 weeks) they will remain wary at best and grow fearful at worst!  In a sense, the puppy’s original owner did misuse her, but it wasn’t intentionally cruel and not what we really mean when we say “abuse.”

Reaching out a hand to pet a dog and having it duck away from our caress hurts our feelings.  If we think the dog is acting that way because it was harmed, then we don’t feel so bad.  The dog isn’t rejecting US, just reacting to something ANOTHER — bad — person did to it.  If the dog was beaten, we can understand and forgive her for not welcoming us because it’s nothing personal.  And it ISN’T an insult or a rejection – even though most dogs who duck away do not have a history of beatings.

To a dog, height is everything.  Dr. Patricia McConnell says, to us height is a symbol of power but to a dog it’s the real thing itself.  So, any adult dog trying to put his paw or leg on top of another dog is making a very big, loud statement of domination!  (Unless there’s been an exchange of play-bows, and even then another dog might have trouble trusting that sort of “play” from a new acquaintance.)  Starting out, we’re so much taller than dogs that a shy, un-socialized individual is already a bit leery of us.  Then the dog is made even more uncomfortable with the human penchant for patting pups on the head.  They duck away because they don’t know us and we didn’t make any play-bow, so they are reluctant to trust that we mean them no harm.

Yep!  That’s all I’ve come to believe the ducking away from a petting hand means.  I can’t believe that 9 out of 10 dogs have been physically abused, and that’s about the percentage that I see avoid a patting hand – even a well-known hand!  (Kita still ducks away from my hand reaching towards her half the time!) And why do we EXPECT a dog to LIKE that, anyway?  Think about it.  Would you like it if some stranger patted you on the head – or even a friend?  When you were a child and adults did that to you, did you enjoy it?  Didn’t you try to duck away?

When two humans meet, the polite thing to do is face that person directly, make eye contact and extend a hand in greeting.  To a dog, that’s just plain rude if not antagonistic.  Facing head-on and staring is what an attacking dog would do.  Reaching out a paw, without a play-bow, is not usually friendly.  I try to greet dogs by standing in profile to them, glancing at them sideways and holding a hand (palm up) loosely at my side to allow the dog to make the first contact — to come and sniff if they choose.  The first time I pet a dog, I reach to the side of her face and bring my fingers under her chin to stoke the cheek, neck or chest.  It seems like they would be more protective of these vulnerable areas, but most dogs accept this approach and noticeably relax to enjoy the caress.

I am not denying that far too many dogs have been treated badly by humans, and that many have indeed been physically battered and berated.  However, most dogs, even ones who’ve lived their entire lives with loving families are never going to like – or even readily accept — a human hand descending from far above to land on their head.  And, I see no reason to expect them to do so!  They can’t intuitively guess at our benevolent intentions when our body language is telling a different story!

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Held to a Higher Standard, part II

We humans recognize that there are constructive, or at least “legal” and acceptable ways for us to vent our aggression.  Instead of gunning the motor and ramming the car that cuts me off in traffic, I turn the air “blue” inside my car with some choice bad words.  Rather than pulling out a gun and shooting the guy who lets his Mastiff poop on my lawn (and doesn’t clean it up) I can shoot  a picture and with this evidence report him to the appropriate  authorities.  Though I might want to punch out the rude sales clerk, I can be rude in turn, or ask to speak to her manager.  We are social animals, meaning we live with others of our kind, and that means we will inevitably disagree and anger each other, sometimes to the point of violence.  All of the examples above are aggression, but we’ve ritualized physical violence into lawsuits, complaints and swearing.

Dogs have evolved a similar set of ritualized behaviors.  They’re social animals, too  — and they carry dangerous weapons (large teeth and powerful jaws) around with them all the time!   If dogs hadn’t found other ways to express and avoid violence, they’d have killed and injured each other to the point where their species wouldn’t have survived!  Dogs actually start learning this ritualization before they can see or walk.  If the puppies bite too hard on mama-dog’s nipples, she gets up and takes “dinner” with her.  Puppy teeth, those super-sharp little spikes, come in about the time puppies start wrestling with their siblings.  It has been theorized that evolution “selected” those sharp teeth (not really needed for nursing) because dogs need to learn bite inhibition.  Needle-like teeth penetrate their sibling’s fur, so they can feel a bite that is too roughly delivered! And just like mama-dog did, a sibling who feels pain will pull away from her brother and not want to play.  So dogs learn to “pull their punches” long before they develop the jaw strength and grow the adult teeth to do real damage.

There’s a whole set of ritualized warnings before the inhibited bite! We don’t give dogs enough credit! They actually very rarely make contact. They prefer to freeze with a closed mouth, wrinkle a lip, show some teeth, growl, glare sideways, give a warning snap in the general direction of what’s annoying them. People often say, “He tried to bite, but I pulled away in time.” Unlikely!  A dog’s reflexes are so much faster than ours that when they want to bite — they do. A ninja couldn’t react fast enough to avoid a snap if the dog was in earnest!  A snap that doesn’t “land” is a warn-off that even we humans should be able to notice, understand and respect.

Most dogs will bite if pushed far enough.  Fearful dogs are more likely to bite than “dominant” dogs who are sure of themselves.  However, even when a dog actually bites a human, it’s most often a warning bite where the dog inhibits the bite force. Rather than crushing bone, the snap causes a few punctures. If that bite fell on another dog’s neck it probably wouldn’t even reach the skin through the hair.  Unfortunately, we humans don’t have that protection.

I am NOT making light of a dog biting a human.  It is profoundly shocking and upsetting when one does.  Some dear friends own a lovely “all-American” dog that I’ve known from her puppyhood 9 years ago.  She was under a year old when this incident occurred and I was not as well-versed in a dog’s body language then as I am now.  Helping to clean up the kitchen at their house, I noticed Funky licking the dishes already in the dishwasher.  I yelled at her, she continued to lick.  She may have given warning signals – I think I remember a growl — but I was too ignorant of Doglish then to pay attention. Thoughtlessly, I tried to push her jaws away from a resource she regarded as hers, and she bit me.  It brought me to tears!  Upon inspection, she hadn’t even broken the skin, but the action was so unexpected and seemed so violent to me that I cried!

Believe me, if Funky had wanted to do damage, she could and would have!  She clearly inhibited her bite – meaning it as a warning, not punishment!  I consider that this incident was my fault for expecting her, a puppy, to understand what was forbidden in a human household.  I was a visitor in her house and trying to tell her what to do – which we humans rightly consider to be our right, but at times fail to TEACH the dog!  I ignored any warning signals, and she still didn’t want to really harm me.  To my knowledge, Funky has never bitten anyone else.  She is incredibly gentle with small children and babies, noticeably making allowances for their grabbing, poking and pulling behavior.  How sad if my friends had over-reacted and sent Funky to a shelter or had her euthanized for that one snap.  Unfortunately, many people might have — and many lawmakers want to require them to do so!

I believe dog owners should be required to learn more about their body language and how to deal with and not provoke a dog into biting.  I pray that parents teach their children to recognize the warning signals a dog gives and respect those signals instead of punishing the dog for giving them! It is my fervent hope that we do not automatically assume that all dogs, in all circumstances, with all people will be calm, happy and friendly.   My point in this and yesterday’s posting is that HUMANS are the animals with the bigger brain, so shouldn’t we be gracious enough to extend to dogs the same forgiveness according to “circumstances” that we claim for ourselves?  I certainly would place a bit more of the onus for managing and dealing with those differing circumstances on the animal with the bigger brain!

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Held to a Higher Standard

I wonder how many humans have never shouted at someone else in anger, or thrown/slammed an object when frustrated? Is there anyone who’s NEVER used bad language when cut off in traffic, or hasn’t walloped the family dog when she swiped something off the table? Can you honestly say you haven’t (at least once) slapped/punched someone — or spanked a child — because your temper boiled over?

Honestly, I must admit that I’ve done all of the above! I would be VERY surprised if anyone other than Mother Theresa (and she’s dead) is innocent of those or similar expressions of fury. Though physical violence is never a good solution, psychiatrists say expressing our anger and aggravation is healthy and natural. So, I wonder why the family dog is never allowed to express hers…

Reading MINE, a Practical Guide to Resource Guarding in Dogs by Jean Donaldson has reminded me how we hold our Family Dogs to an impossibly high standard.  We demand that they direct no aggressive behavior (even ritualized) toward a human or another dog for their entire lives, regardless of circumstances!

Ms. Donaldson points out that dog-created injuries are a particularly emotional issue — a dog bite is far more likely to be taken to an emergency room than a comparable kitchen accident. She says, “One is far more likely to be struck by lightning several times…Kids are also astronomically more likely to be injured or killed by a parent or guardian” than by the family dog.  Yet, “the standard we have set for them [dogs] is one we would consider absurd for any other species of animal, including ourselves.”

Please do not think I am recommending that we allow our dogs to bite. Any biting behavior should be dealt with immediately and if the dog cannot be re-trained the owners should use a muzzle (or some other fail-safe) and/or consider euthanasia. However, there is a huge gulf between warnings: a snarl (lifted lip), growl, air-snap, corrective bite that intentionally doesn’t break skin, and the serious multiple puncture, grab-hang-on-and-shake-the-head bites of a dog that’s out of control — its own and its owners!

I’m not talking about dogs trained to attack or people who intentionally harbor dangerous animals as “protection.” Those are in another category and are in the nature of weapons, just like a trained martial-artist’s hands and feet. I am talking about the run-of-the-mill family pet that occasionally has a bad day and growls or snaps when pushed too far!  When our society was rural, we all were better acquainted with the animal kingdom.  As Ms. Donaldson says we took dog bites in stride because “Dogs were animals and animals sometimes bit.” Now, we want to sue and demand that lawmakers ban breeds, instead of legislating minimum training requirements for owner and dog.

Seems like this is such an emotional issue because we feel betrayed when the family dog snaps.  Dogs are “man’s best friends,” right?  So when they show anything less than unconditional love and acceptance of everything we shove at them, we are hurt. And not just from the teeth-marks! The pain goes deeper – we trust our dogs to be the one creature that will always “be there” for us.  So, when they aren’t – worse, if the dog hurts someone we love — there is grief, sorrow, even anguish in addition to the physical hurt.

We have to understand that dogs, just like humans, can have a bad day.  A dog that is in pain lashes out.  A dog that is tired, gets cranky. A dog that is stressed, has less self-control.  A dog that is afraid will try to protect herself.  I’m not saying we shouldn’t expect a lot of our dogs, just that we shouldn’t expect more of an animal than WE can deliver!

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And Thereby Hangs a Tail

If we see a dog, a tail should be hanging thereby! However many breeds don’t have much of one! Though there are a few, like the Australian Shepherd, born with little or no tail, almost all “bobbed” breeds get that way through human intervention. I’m not going to discuss the issues concerning pain and trauma to the dog in this post. Even if the process was totally painless — even if it does indeed save a working dog from damaging its tail (as is the excuse for many of these cosmetic changes) — I would still consider docking a dog’s tail to be cruel to the animal.

Dogs depend on their tails to communicate. No wild canine species is tail-less. Most have large, well-furred caudal appendages! A tail adds weight to carry around, and growing thick fur requires lots of good food that could be used by the brain or kidneys!. Natural selection has a way of eliminating structures that are unimportant, that do not contribute to a species survival. If the luxurious tails of wild dogs didn’t help them stay alive, the ones with smaller tails would have won the evolutionary race until dogs were naturally tail-less.

But that isn’t the case. In cold climates, wolves and foxes curl their tail around their noses during sleep to keep warm. A tail can act as a counter-balancing rudder when making quick changes of direction. Even though domestic dogs don’t need a tail to keep warm or hunt, they still need it to COMMUNICATE.

Canines are social animals and all social animals need to share information and keep track of relationships within the group. If they could not, they would not survive long in or as a group. Their language, unlike ours, is primarily one of posture, gesture and body language. The tail is one of the most expressive body parts a dog possesses! Dogs do not wag or make other moves with their tails if they are alone, so a tail is clearly used to communicate with other animals.

My comprehension of “Doglish” is no better than an English-speaking adult trying to master a complex, unrelated language like Mandarin Chinese. Even though I can’t begin to see, let alone interpret even half of what a dog’s tail tells another dog, it tells me a lot!

Clipped beneath the belly, the dog is afraid and afraid to the point of protecting against injury. Hanging limply straight down, the dog is nervous and doubtful, especially if the tail gives a tentative wag. Clamped tight over the anus, the tail tells another dog that it is NOT welcome to sniff butt — the dog may be fearful or be a dominant dog denying an inferior into his personal space. Hanging low, but slightly curling and wagging just a bit, the dog is friendly, but wonders if you are. Held motionless, straight out, level with the spine and stiff means the dog is hunting — it might be a little furry creature or a playmate or the dog next door who has come too far into his domain. Held high over the back, with the fur fluffed out says the dog is trying to establish dominance, even if the tail is wagging it will wag stiffly from the base like a metronome. A loose, easily-moving tail making big swishy swooping wags is relaxed and pretty happy. A tail whipping from side to side, carrying the hips with it means the dog is very happy and excited and seeing someone he likes. A tail that goes around and around like a propeller says the dog has nothing else on his mind except being your friend.

Those are only the meanings I came up with right off the top of my head out of my poor, broken-Doglish patois! A canine probably would detect three or four times that many meanings besides! (Also, please note that the tail only tells part of the “tale” and with each position above, a change in ears, muzzle, body, vocalizations etc. can further shade the translation.) My point is that if I, a mere human with no caudal appendage, can get that much information from a tail, a dog without one must be handicapped much like a deaf human using sign-language would be if he lost a hand.

Take the Rottweiler, for example. They are big, smooth-muscles dogs with a sleek coat — and if not docked — a long, somewhat bushy tail! I’m sure that is why the tail is docked. Having something pretty close to a GSD’s tail looks mis-matched “hung” on the sleekly-furred rump of a Rottie. However, docked down to a couple of vertebrae, the tail cannot give the signals I described above. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Rotties are one of the most difficult dogs to “read.” We’ve taken away their means of communication. I think much of their reputation for aggression stems from humans and other dogs misunderstanding their signals. Signals that a Rottie thinks he’s sending, but doesn’t have the tail to put across.

In most breeds, tail-docking these days is really for cosmetic reasons.  Breeders couldn’t accomplish everything with genetics alone, and resorted to snipping off the bits (usually ears and tails) that didn’t match.  Yes, there were some reasons to trim vulnerable parts when dogs were out in the field all day, getting their tails ripped up by the brush, or to keep them from being chewed up in a dog-fight. To deprive a dog of his means of communicating just seems wrong to me and I wonder at the promotion of the practice by those who are advocates for a particular breed and (one presumes) the welfare of that breed. And thereby hangs another tale!

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Walking the Dog, part four

So tomorrow I’ll pick up another theme — I promise — but I just can’t leave this subject without discussing a “variation” on the basic dog walk that seems to be getting all too popular. I’m talking about folks letting their dogs run free, off-leash.  I mostly see this at the nearby county parks.  I understand how it is awfully tempting to give Rex that extra freedom.  First off, most dogs obviously LOVE to romp around a large space with grass and bushes and scent trails from all sorts of wild-life to explore!  Plus, Rex gets MORE exercise running about off-leash than he possibly could on-leash, right?  (And, of course, un-clipping his lead neatly side-steps any problems with poor leash manners!)

There are OTHER problems with letting Rex roam off-leash, though.  1) First off, it’s against the law!   It violates the leash laws current in most communities. In addition, all the parks around here POST at the entrance “The Rules” and always include dogs are to remain on trails and on leash!  If we ignore that, then why should folks obey the “no firearms” or “no alcohol” rules?  2)  It puts your dog in danger from following a scent or chasing an animal until he’s lost, runs across a road, or encounters an animal that will fight back.  3) It puts your dog and others in potential danger when they meet off leash.

Leash laws have been passed to make sure that handlers have control of their dogs at all times.  Unless Rex has a rock-solid, bomb-proof RECALL he is OUT of your control the second you un-clip the lead from his collar.  Most of our dogs will come when called inside, in their own yard, probably around the neighborhood – all familiar, rather hum-drum spaces.  When Rex goes to the PARK! – it’s a whole new ballgame!  Unless you’ve frequently trained in new spaces– practicing the Recall where Rex will have 20 million scents and sights and sounds that (I’m sorry) are far more interesting than you are — and unless he’s been 100% consistent in coming when called in those new places, then you cannot be sure he will obey at the PARK!

Certain breeds of dogs – mostly the hounds, sight or scent, should NEVER be off-leash except in a fenced-in area.  Their instincts are far too strong to CHASE!  Shelters get loads of Beagles, Harriers, and other Hound-mixes because the dog was off following some little critter and couldn’t find his way home before being picked up by animal control.  Other breeds like Huskies are also poor risks for the same reason – their prey drive just takes over!  And you can’t play down the danger cars pose to dogs running free. Even if you’re on a trail that seems far away from the roads – what about the parking lot?  If a dog scares up a bunny or deer it could take off in a straight line that might encounter a car far more quickly than you’d think.  I’m not willing to take that risk!

But, to me, the main reason to keep Rex on a leash at the park is that there are sure to be lots of other owners and dogs around, and you don’t know them (the person OR dog) or how they will react.   Nor do you know, with certainty, how Rex will react to those other dogs and people!   Most folks I encounter with off-leash dogs shout out, “Oh, my dog’s friendly!” as if this covers all possible contingencies!  Think about it, folks!  Just because YOUR dog is friendly doesn’t mean that all other dogs and people will be friendly towards your dog!

And allow me to take such “friendly” claims with a grain of salt!  To be on the safe side, I’ve taken to responding, “Oh?  Mine isn’t!” when they say that. This is not really true – Kita gets along very well with other dogs if I introduce her slowly — but that response is the only one I’ve found that will make other owners call their dogs back and put them on leash with no discussion.  Unfortunately, this might be giving Kita an underserved reputation.  Still, Kita, being big, black and a GSD is going to be the bad guy no matter what happens, so I’d rather nip possible problems in the bud.

To be frank, I’ve considered carrying mace or pepper spray to keep dogs at a distance just in case they don’t obey their owner – or if they run up with no owner in sight!  That happens a lot!  Not just in the park, but also when I’m walking in the new, fashionable neighborhoods that prohibit fencing!  Walking Kita and a boarding Spaniel and having a Rottie and a Pittie rush out to defend their territory – with only an 11-year-old boy to try and restrain them — is not an experience I’m eager to have repeated.

I’d much rather see folks “bending” the 6-foot limit part of the leash law and put Rex on a long-line.  Of course, you can buy a 30-foot lead at the pet-supply store, but you can make one much cheaper with a package of clothesline and a clip from the hardware store.  This would give Rex a lot more freedom, but allow you a “back-up plan” if he fails the Recall Review at an awkward moment!

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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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