Tag Archives: dog aggression

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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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.

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Doggie Drive

When I adopted Kita, a GSD mix, two cats already shared my home, and I didn’t want a dog that would view them as chew toys and/or lunch.  Kita was listed on Petfinder by a little shelter up near Traverse City.  My application to adopt was accepted, but as that’s a long way to drive, I made sure I called and asked the ONE important question first: “Does she have a strong prey drive?”  The staff member said, “Oh, no!  Not at all!” or something like that.  I even explained that I had cats and didn’t want to put them in a stressful situation when adopting a dog.  The worker reassured me that there would be NO PROBLEM!

She LIED!

Actually, I don’t think it was conscious prevarication.  I think they threw a ball for Kita and she ignored it.  This seems to be the standard test for prey drive.  Well, Kita is bored by balls.  She’s slightly more excited by squeaky toys — especially if they’re fuzzy.  A cloth squeaky toy lasts about 15 seconds:  squeak-squeak, squeak-squeak, and then its head is torn off.  What she really loves is live, furry fauna that she can CHASE, catch and kill!  Because Kita has an extremely STRONG prey-drive!

Of course, by the time I discovered that, I was back home, 2-1/2 hours away from the little shelter and Kita was hunting my cats throughout the house.  And I do mean HUNT — I’m sure she wasn’t playing! One cat spent the next 6 months in the basement, only feeling safe there because Kita couldn’t fit through the cat door.  We eventually worked things out, and Kita no longer tries to eat the household kitties, but anything outside is fair game in every sense of the phrase.

This has made me wonder about testing methods.  When I volunteered at the Humane Society of West Michigan, I sat in on temperament testing.  The only test for prey drive was throwing a toy.   I’ve looked up temperament tests online to use in my business, and ALL of them I found depend on the dog’s reaction to a tossed toy or crumpled paper — essentially equating fetching with prey drive.

Not only Kita, but her companion GSD, Rilka, were utterly indifferent to any form of fetching, and most toys that you’d use in such games like balls or frisbees.  No matter how enthusiastically I would offer a toy and how excited I would get, once that toy was tossed the girls would just stand and look at me like, “You want me to do WHAT?”  Yet, BOTH of my girls enthusiastically hunted rodents from small (mice and moles) to large (woodchucks.)  Rilka also was death to any low-flying bird!  But both of these girls tested as having a low prey drive.

Only one temperament test used a slightly different method.  They recommended pulling a towel on a string past the puppy.  This is a bit better.  However, I would expand on that.  I’ve put one of those new “unstuffed” animals (with squeakies in head and tail) on a string attached to a dowel.  This gives me a fishing pole with a prey item as bait!(One of my favorite TV trainers, Victoria Stillwell of IT’S ME OR THE DOG calls this a “Fox on a Stick!” You can buy them ready-made at the pet store, but making one is cheaper.)

Kita LOVES this she will chase it for as long as I will cast it around.  Her reaction to the fox-on-a-stick is identical with her reaction to the live, furry fauna she hunts outside.  Indeed, I have to work on her “drop-it” cue so she doesn’t tear the head off whenever she catches it!

I wonder how many times dogs are brought back to a shelter because they weren’t fully tested.  Kita is sill with me partially because of my stubborness, but I admit the decision was easier because of the long distance that would be involved in trying to return her.  One thing is for sure, though!  The next time I adopt a dog, I’m bringing a fox-on-a-stick with me to do my own test for prey-drive!

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