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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!


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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Alpha Rolls are for Omegas

It took more than 6 years before Kita would do a ROLL OVER for me.  Now, Kita is a very smart dog and very willing to work.  Show her a treat and offer her the chance to earn it and she’s ready to go — and she doesn’t get bored easily!  Even though I hadn’t learned some of the more efficient training methods I use now, I was still a pretty decent trainer.  Kita learned how to SIT in about 5 minutes and DOWN in just a couple of sessions.  She had no trouble with lots of other tricks, including DEAD DOG. So, why so much trouble with ROLL OVER?

When I adopted Kita, nearly 9 years ago, the shelter said her Black-Lab mama-dog had been turned into the shelter with her puppies.  But looking at Kita and her two brothers, everyone said “German Shepherd!” so daddy-dog must have been of that persuasion!  Kita’s double-coat, black-and-tan markings, size (50 pounds at 4 months), much of her conformation and almost all of her temperament said “German Shepherd,” so I decided to treat and train her as one.

A friend gave me a book about training GSDs, written by the monks of New Skete who raise and train them.  I was delighted!  This was before I started studying for my “doggie” career, and I wanted advice from the experts!  For the first time, I read about forcing a mis-behaving dog into what is commonly called an “Alpha roll.”  For anybody who is unfamiliar with this technique it involves rolling a dog over onto it’s back and holding it there until it “submits” to your authority.  The experts had spoken, so I forged full speed ahead.

The monks advocated judicious use of the Alpha Roll — not for mistakes or avoidance, but for deliberate disobedience.  Kita was rarely disobedient, except for chasing the cat.  So, whenever Kita ran after the kitty, I’d run after her, chase her down, and after much struggle, sweat and (sometimes) a little swearing, succeed in heaving her belly-up. Kita would stop struggling — after she was on her back — and her eyes would kind of glaze over. Since the book didn’t specify how to tell the dog had “submitted” I took that as good and let her up. Each time, it took more and more work to get her on her back and since it never seemed to have any effect on her cat-chasing, I eventually gave up on the technique.

Even back then, something about it just didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t like the look of “shutting down” that would come over Kita’s face. I didn’t like what seemed like frantic fear as she tried to avoid being rolled over in such a vulnerable position. Looking back, I’m not surprised that Kita refused to learn to roll over on cue. I am convinced that she knew what I wanted, but wouldn’t do it BECAUSE I HAD DESTROYED HER TRUST by wrestling her into an Alpha Roll.   She probably never connected her action of chasing the cat with my response. She probably had no idea why I would suddenly turn ballistic and chase her and throw her on the floor.  it was a mystery and frightening and I’m very lucky that it didn’t make her distrust me in other areas and/or turn aggressive.

I’ve since learned that those and similar techniques were developed through study of wolf packs. The theory was that the leaders, the Alpha wolves, throw the subordinate wolves on their backs to keep them in line. There’s two problems with that: 1) dogs aren’t wolves, and 2) even in wolf packs it’s the SUBORDINATE wolf that VOLUNTARILY puts itself in a submissive posture on its back.

It’s kind of a hold-over from puppy-hood where a puppy flips over on its back and probably wees a bit as a signal that its just a baby. I’ve seen lots of dogs give that signal to each other. I’ve had dogs voluntarily offer me their bellies. Some dogs do that a lot with people. Mostly folks think the dog is asking for a belly-rub (and most dogs will take a good belly-rub) but it’s really the dog’s way of saying, “You da boss!” occasionally, I’ve body-blocked a dog away from a resource-guarding situation and they’ve flipped over to tell me they give up. Sometimes, they don’t go all the way over, but just lean to the side with one front paw in the air.  Either way, it means, “You da boss!”

This is all good because it’s the DOG communicating compliance. The dog is using body language to tell another dog or a human that they consider themselves subordinate. In human-to-human interactions we call one person who forces physical compliance on another a BULLY, if not worse. And I felt like a bully as I was using the Alpha Roll on Kita. I will never use that technique again. As far as I’m concerned it doesn’t make the trainer a leader, but a loser. Not an Alpha, but an Omega.

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Poop Power

If dogs ruled the world, there would be a lot more poop around.  It is distasteful to us, but to a dog , fascination with pee and poop isn’t being vulgar or disgusting!  Dogs live by their noses and to a dog there are no “bad” smells — only smells that give more or less information.  And I suspect the “smellier” the smell, the more info there is to smell!

So that’s why a polite greeting in dogdom is butt sniffing.  I saw a cartoon many years ago that summed it up.  An adult dog was speaking to a puppy with two other adult dogs in the background.  The adult dog said something like, “Junior, I raised you to be polite!  You go right on over to the Fidos and smell their butts!”

That’s why dogs want to sniff our crotches.  It’s a polite, non-threatening greeting and tells them a lot about us!  Dogs get a lot of info about another being from their backside; residual pee, poop, farts, anal glands, the whole works.  Apparently, dog’s noses are so good that they can tell health, reproductive status, dominance level and a bunch of other things just from sniffing you-know-what.

That’s also why dogs like to stop and sniff and mark objects on a walk.  They are reading “pee mail” and sending their own messages.  Dogs poop on walks to lay claim to territory.  When they scratch backwards near the pile, they aren’t trying to cover it up (like a cat would do) but creating “markers” pointing the way to their “deposit!”  Some dogs, mine included, seem to scratch not just to mark the spot, but to throw the poop over a greater distance.  I wonder if this is deliberate, or just a by-product of over-enthusiastic scraping?

When I have a lot of dogs boarding or here for daycare, I make sure I pick up the poop several times a day.  I think it relieves some stress because the yard smells less like multiple dogs are claiming it.  I also find that when I’m using the ole poope-scooper, the other dogs seem to mirror me and sniff around, not paying a great deal of attention to each other.  According to many dog experts, mirroring behavior is a sign of acceptance and pacification to other dogs.  And dogs tend to mirror what the leader is doing.  So maybe I’ve accidentally accessed poop power without leaving my own deposits!

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Dogs v. Cats

I remember as a young child thinking that dogs were the boys and cats were the girls and they were the same animals otherwise.  I think most kids go through that stage.  What is interesting to me, is that though we learn differently as we get older and realize there are girl dogs and boy cats, we somehow keep the expectation that dogs and cats are the same animals in many ways.

Maybe it’s because they’re both four-legged, furry and (most of the time) have big ears and tails.  We do regard them as having very different temperaments:  dogs are extroverts and cats are introverts.  Or put anther way:  dogs are friendly and cats aren’t, but that’s not the whole story! It took bringing a puppy into my established two-adult-cat household to teach me how very differently cats and dogs communicate with the world.

It’s not just their temperaments.  I’ve had very outgoing cats that loved people and would even fetch.  And I’ve had aloof, independent dogs that would rather be alone most of the time and looked at a thrown ball as some sort of insult.  All my dogs and cats have followed me from room to room and wanted to sleep with me. 

No, it’s in their body language which is quite opposite that the differences between feline and canine are most apparent.  Take the tail.  A dog wags her tail when she’s eager, excited and if it’s really swishy and wagging hard, she’s happy.  A cat wags (though it’s more like a twitch) when she’s upset and angry, and the more, faster and further a tail twitches, the angrier she is.   When a dog’s tail is high — straight up or over her back, she’s feeling confident, perhaps belligerent. When a cat approaches another with tail held high, she’s feeling friendly and showing she trusts the other animal.

 The greeting styles are totally different in all ways.  A dog regards a frontal approach with eye contact and wide-open eyes as a challenge.  Cats greet friends with wide-open eyes, running straight in to touch noses.  Dogs don’t commonly go straight to touching noses unless they know the other dog VERY well, and they don’t stare into the other dog’s eyes when they do!

Even play is expressed differently.  A dog paws at another animal with a clawed foot when she’s soliciting play.  A cat pawing at another animal with claws out is saying “get out of my face!”  Dogs rolling over on their back and exposing their tummies is a sign of trust and invitation to approach.  A cat rolling on it’s back is freeing up all four clawed feet for use and you approach at your own risk! 

A dog that runs from another dog is often asking to be chased.  A cat running from a dog (or another cat) is almost always trying to get away from a dangerous menace!  The terrible thing is, that by running — and running scared, cats look like prey to a dog and they will be chased.  Even a friendly dog might forget it’s friendly feelings when it get caught up in the chase.

I’ve seen very smart cats use these differences to buffalo dogs.  My tabby, Pasht, would sit and stare at a new dog.  Once she had the dog feeling uncomfortable, she’d stand up, tail high and still staring, approach.  Most often the poor dog backed away, reading in the cat’s body language that she was challenging and ready for a fight.  Pasht wasn’t fighting, she was just smart enough to know that she could make dogs back down if she acted like that — and I swear she was smiling when she did it!

I’ve also seen a lot of cats and dogs learn each other’s body language and become great friends.  That same kitty, Pasht, would take herself to one of my big German Shepherds for some lovin’ if I wasn’t paying enough attention to her.  Several of my cats have played — and played rough — with my big dogs.  But usually, one or other of the pair was introduced to the other species as a puppy or kitten.  Just like humans, cats and dogs learn new languages easier and faster when they’re young.


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Food Guarding

Nobody wants their puppy to grow up to be a food (or any type of resource) guarder. It’s quite a shock to have your baby growl at you over a bowl of food or a toy. However, too many times, in trying to prevent resource guarding — we can cause it!

So many clients have proudly told me that they take their puppy’s (or newly adopted adult dog’s) food bowl away from them to teach them to NOT guard their food. I always cringe when I hear this. First of all, in the dog’s world, this just ISN’T DONE! Usually, once a dog has something, she OWNS it and the other dogs respect that. So, when we give a dog a bowl of food, say, then pull it away, then give it back and pull it away again, the poor dog is very confused. Depending on her basic temperament that can make the dog hand-shy or aggressive.

Either way, it’s all about trust! To use a human example: If you put a big yummy brownie (or steak) in front of me, then just when I pick up the fork, you take it away — I would not be happy! If you do it over and over, I certainly wouldn’t trust that you’ll leave it there the next time! I’d start to expect that you’d try to take it away and I’d might eat very fast before you do, and hunch over the plate. If this happened a lot I would probably “growl” (i.e. complain!) — and I’d be tempted to bite! All the same things a food-guarding dog does!

I NEVER take away my dog’s food bowl. In the dog world, only very dominant dogs would ever try something like that; and they’d be ready to fight in necessary. I do want my dog to know that I’m the Leader, and it’s “My” food, and I’m letting her have some. However, taking it back isn’t the best way to accomplish that. Instead, I fill the dog’s food bowl, and while holding it up as if I’m eating from it, consume a cracker or something crunchy. (Most dogs look very surprised, and startled when you do this.) When I first get a dog, I do that at every meal for a week, and once in a while for months afterwards. Then I always ask for a SIT before the dog gets the bowl. After the dog has her food, I back off and let her eat.

To accustom a dog to tolerating hands near her food bowl, I want to teach her that HANDS bring MORE ane BETTER food! After putting the food bowl down, I drop something really yummy in it — like chicken or the dog’s favorite treat. At first, I drop it from a long ways up to be on the safe side. Gradually, my “treat” hand gets closer and closer until it is right in the bowl. This way, the puppy sees a hand and expects something GOOD is coming — a cause for rejoicing! — not that the food might disappear — a cause for guarding.

WARNING — if your dog has shown ANY signs of Food Aggression, DO NOT try the “dropping a treat” exercise. (You can do the “pretending to eat from the dog’s bowl” exercise.) Please consult a professional dog trainer/behaviorist so they can evaluate the situation and safely coach you through retraining your dog.

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