Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression
Good Dog: Studies & Research
We talk about dominance, but do we really understand it?
October 9 2012
If a dog has behavior issues such as a tendency to mount other dogs, any form of aggression, an overly pushy play style or poor response to training, some people are sure to claim that “dominance” is the culprit. But are they right?
The ongoing dialogue about dominance in the dog world is more problematic than an unattended puppy in a shoe store but it’s unlikely to go away anytime soon. While some hate the concept so much that they refer to it as the “D-word,” others swear by it, considering it an indispensable guiding principle for all interactions with dogs. Having a civil discussion on the subject, much less reaching a consensus, is a challenge, as debates often become quite heated.
Scientific inquiry offers an opportunity for greater understanding of this topic, though writings on the subject with titles such as “Social dominance: Useful construct or quagmire?,” “Social dominance is not a myth: Wolves, dogs, and other animals” and “Deconstructing the concept of dominance: Should we revive the concept of dominance in dogs?” reflect continued controversy. While dominance, or social dominance as it is often called, has been studied extensively in a number of species, relatively little work has been done in this area on the domestic dog, and more research is badly needed.
Adding to the frustration and confusion, when it comes to domestic dogs the term is commonly applied to two different types of relationships. The first relates to interactions between dogs. In this usage, dominance is defined as the power to control access to desirable resources and refers to the relative status of two dogs. In the absence of another dog, an individual dog cannot be said to be “dominant” as a personality attribute because dominance refers to the relationship between dogs.
The second, and more controversial, type of dominance relationship relates to interactions between humans and dogs. In this paradigm, humans dominating dogs is considered the path to well-trained dogs. Those who follow this school of thought claim that you have to control your dogs by being dominant over them in order to make them behave and may make suggestions such as not allowing your dog to sleep on your bed or walk through the door ahead of you, or even to spitting in your dog’s food and making a resting dog move rather than walking around him. Today, fewer trainers subscribe to these ideas than in the past.
Dominance Between Dogs
Becky Trisko, PhD, ethologist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., focused her 2011 doctoral dissertation on social interactions within a group of 24 dogs who regularly engaged with one another at daycare. The behaviors she analyzed included aggressive threat and conflict, muzzle lick, crouch, passive submission, retreat, high posture, muzzle bite, mount and chin-over.
Trisko found a dominance hierarchy among the dogs, although only about 30 percent of the pairs had clear dominance relationships. Dominance rank correlated with age (older dogs tended to rank more highly) but not with size. And contrary to popular belief, neither mounting nor performing chinovers were related to status. As a point of interest, not once in 224 hours of observation during this yearlong study did she observe an “alpha roll.”
Muzzle licking was consistently done by subordinate dogs to individuals of higher rank and was highly predictive of relationships between individuals. The clearest signals were those associated with voluntary submission, or deference. Trisko observed that dominance relationships were not about coercion, force or fighting, but rather, about an understanding by both individuals of their relative social status.
In another study exploring dominance relationships between dogs, Simona Cafazzo and three colleagues observed a group of feral dogs in the suburbs of Rome. Their primary finding was that the dogs formed a linear dominance hierarchy, meaning that the individuals in the group could be ranked in order from highest to lowest in status. (Other possible social structures include having one individual who dominates all others who are equally low-ranking or societies in which the relationships are not transitive— e.g. A dominates B, B dominates C, C dominates A). A linear dominance hierarchy indicates that the dogs in this study were capable of forming stable social groups, although many have claimed that feral dogs cannot do so. Additionally, they found that submissive behavior was most predictive of dominance relationships, rank correlated with age, and males within an age class outranked females. Rank order in the linear dominance hierarchy predicted access to food resources, with those of higher rank having priority access.
Dominance has been studied in puppies as well as in adult dogs. John Bradshaw and Helen Nott reported that interactions between littermates were inconsistent over time, and that observations of such interactions did not predict which puppy would come out on top in any competitive situation; “winners” varied from one day to the next. Despite much discussion of choosing (or avoiding) the dominant puppy in a litter, interactions between littermates do not reveal dominance relationships, much less any kind of linear hierarchy.
The Dangers of Misunderstanding Dominance
While no studies have thoroughly investigated whether dominance relationships exist between people and dogs, there is evidence that such training styles can create problems. Herron et al. investigated such techniques, often called “dominance reduction training,” and found them to be counterproductive. The confrontational methods associated with training styles that insist that we “get dominance over our dogs” caused aggressive responses in 25 percent of the dogs in their study. Techniques such as grabbing a dog by the jowls and shaking; hitting or kicking; staring; performing alpha rolls (also called “dominance downs”) and physically forcing a dog to release an item were more likely to result in aggressive behavior than were gentler, positive methods. Using such forceful methods can actually create problem behavior as well as increase a dog’s fear and anxiety. Based on what we know about dominance relationships between dogs, this is not surprising. As Trisko notes, “If dominance relationships between dogs and humans are at all similar to dominance relationships between dogs, then dominance does not apply to all relationships and when it does apply, it does not require the use of intimidation or physical force.”
A basic ethological premise is that we must understand the animals we study. In fact, this principle is considered so absolute that it is most often phrased as a commandment: Know thy animal! Understanding how social dominance does and does not apply to dogs is part of knowing who dogs are. Trisko makes this point: “If we really want to understand our dogs’ behavior, especially their relationships with other dogs, ignoring dominance will hinder us.” Bekoff agrees. “That’s who they are, that’s how they behave. They form status relationships, and we have to understand that.”
When it comes to the issue of dominance, common ground is not easy to find. Few would dispute the need for further research, though even the most carefully designed studies may not be enough to bring agreement on this particular subject. As Bekoff has noted, “People get on this kick with dominance. They don’t pay attention to the data.”
Arguments about dominance and its relevance to dogs, their relationships with each other, and our relationships with them are sure to continue. Though I prefer resolution to conflict, I can’t help but see the wisdom in moralist and essayist Joseph Joubert’s remark: “It is better to debate a question without settling it than to settle a question without debating it."
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do you value your dog’s insights?
October 9 2012
Years ago, my dog unexpectedly stiffened when I stopped on the street to talk to my neighbor for the first time. Though this man approached my dog gently and appropriately, my dog backed way and refused to interact at all. It was embarrassing because the man seemed friendly enough, and my dog was usually comfortable meeting people in that context. I had just moved to a small town and was eager to meet other people. My dog’s behavior was off-putting and felt like a bit of a setback socially. My new neighbor was nice enough about it, but he did seem a little offended.
Later, when I mentioned this to the family who owned the house I was renting, they were horrified, but not with my dog. They were appalled that I had spoken to the man my dog had rejected, telling me that he everyone in town knows he is mean. They warned me to be careful, telling me about his history of violence, specifically towards his ex-wife and children, and also towards other people in town. They advised me to have no contact with him at all. I later learned, as one does in a small town, more about the injuries he had caused classmates years ago in school, about the restraining order his family had against him, and various other unsavory details about him.
“If your dog doesn't like someone you probably shouldn't either” is a popular expression, reflecting the general view that our dogs are good judges of character. My dog seems to have had the proper reaction to my neighbor immediately, though I did not. Has your dog ever reacted people who didn’t alarm you, though perhaps they should have?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Trivia game fuels donations
October 4 2012
On the site freekibble.com, there’s a daily multiple-choice trivia question, and if you answer it, 10 pieces of kibble will be donated to an animal shelter. It doesn’t matter whether you are right or wrong. As long as you click on an answer each day, food will be donated.
Questions are highly variable. Some concern public figures. Recently there were questions concerning Richard Nixon and his dog Checkers as well as The Duchess of Cornwall and her new dog Bluebell. Other questions relate to breeds with questions being as variable as the breed that was developed by the Russian army to handle very cold temperatures (Russian Black Terriers) and which type of mix is most common in this country (German Shepherd). There are also questions about college mascots, the origin of expressions such as “Beware of Dog” which has its roots in ancient Rome, and random questions including the fact that a Pit Bull named Wallace who was rescued from a shelter became a World Champion Disc dog.
It’s fun to check out the daily question, and doubly so because doing so helps feed dogs in shelters. As the founder of the site, Mimi Ausland says, “Every dog and cat deserves a decent dinner.” (There is also a related site called freekibblekat.com.) Ausland was 11 years old in 2008, which is when she launched the site, which has provided 8 million meals to homeless animals.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Legal issues involve drug-sniffing dogs
October 2 2012
Later this month, the United States Supreme Court will hear two cases that involve working dogs. Both cases concern drug-sniffing dogs.
The issue in Joelis Jardines versus Florida concerns whether police violated the defendant’s fourth amendment rights, which protect him from illegal search and seizure, by having a dog sniff his door without a warrant. In other words, does the sniffing by a trained dog constitute a search? If that’s the case, the police must have probable cause prior to directing a dog to sniff even the outside of a residence. Jardines was convicted of marijuana trafficking based on evidence found in the search of his house, which was conducted with a warrant that was obtained because of the dog’s alert.
In Florida versus Harris, the court will decide whether a dog alerting to narcotics constitutes the necessary probable cause required to allow police officers to conduct a search without a warrant. The defense has claimed that the fact that a dog has been trained to detect drugs does not provide sufficient proof that the dog is any good at doing so. They claim that the prosecution bears the burden of proof that the dog’s skills in this regard are reliable. In this case, Harris was charged with possession of materials with the intent to make methamphetamine. The materials used to manufacture this drug were found in Harris’ car after a police dog alerted to drugs on his car door during a traffic stop.
The decisions in both of these cases could have considerable impact on the use of dogs in law enforcement.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Handling sudden needs
September 27 2012
Most of us have regular routines regarding who cares for our dogs when we are out of town, whether it’s a kennel, neighbors, friends, or relatives who step in to keep our pups happy and safe. Most of us have also been caught in a bind when plans fell through and we needed to make back-up plans, usually in an awful hurry. For example, I received this e-mail from a friend of mine whose dog care plans had fallen through the day before he was headed out of town. If you’ve ever been in a similar situation then you will be able to hear the desperation behind this simple request between friends.
>“How much do you love us? No, really? How much? ;-) We're out a dog sitter this weekend. Our neighbor can commit to watching Brick, our good girl, but is elderly and she can't commit to watching Pearl. Is there ANY chance you could watch little Pearlie girl? Clearly, she's all puppy, but she has a good heart and I still have some shekels in my pocket. Could we bring her out to your place tomorrow afternoon through Sunday? Let me know. . . And, if you say no, that's ok. I know you love us.”
I have previously written about this family’s adorable dog Pearl, describing how she ran into a neighbor’s house and unrolled most of a roll of toilet paper and ran about the neighborhood being chased and having a grand old time. She is a love of a dog, but a bit mischievous.
Normally, we would have said yes to hosting Pearl for a few days, but in this case, we had to say no to the opportunity. We were in the middle of having the floors redone in two rooms of our house—a situation that was incompatible with dog sitting any dog, and especially such a young and energetic one. Luckily, Pearl’s family did find a responsible friend to take care of her, but it was stressful for them until they figured out a back-up plan.
Do you have a back up for when your usual dog watching system doesn’t work for whatever reason?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
New product reacts to your mood
September 25 2012
Tail envy may not be the talk of many psychiatric conversations, but there’s a new product to deal with it, anyway. The company Neurowear has created a tail that responds to a person’s emotional state. This clip on tail is called “Shippo” and moves as your mood dictates. If you are happy or excited, it will wag, but if you are calm and contemplative, the tail simply hangs down.
Shippo uses the same technology that medical equipment utilizes in the measurement of brain activity, including the patterns that indicate seizures. With a sensor on the forehead to measure electricity, a clip on the ear to detect the pulse, a motor in the tail itself, and communication between the sensors and the tail via Bluetooth, it’s a pretty complex toy.
They may not make important medical devices that save lives, but Neurowear’s creative use of technology can do a lot for our quality of life. Who among the dog-loving population has not wished to have a tail, at least every once in a while? If I had the choice, I would love to have a Great Dane’s type of tail. I have such fond memories of childhood when the otherwise gentle Danes I loved would clear a coffee table of everything with one casual wag. It always made me laugh.
What kind of tail would you choose?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog hard to tire out?
September 21 2012
I picked my kids up from the climbing gym a few weeks ago after they had spent an hour and a half there. It’s great exercise—physically demanding both aerobically and from a strength perspective—and many parents claim that their kids sleep really well afterwards. Not mine. They just don’t seem to tire out easily at all, and the fitter they become, the harder it is to wear them out. The instructor actually said to me on this occasion, “They’re pretty energetic still. I don’t know what to tell you. We tried to tire them out, but they could probably climb for several more hours.” To be clear, they were not misbehaving, but neither were they worn out.
Many dogs are like my kids in that they are not easily exhausted. In fact, for many dogs, the exercise that we typically give them—a long leash walk—doesn’t tire them out at all. It invigorates them. It’s discouraging to consider that when we take our dogs out for a walk, we may not be tiring some of them out, but rather, pepping them up. That’s certainly what a brisk walk does for me. A run, especially a hard run or a really long one does exhaust me, but a walk does not. My kids are even harder to tire out. Like many dogs, the only way to truly tire them out is to spend a lot of time in the ocean or a lake. The sun and swimming can accomplish what more typical forms of exercise can’t.
It’s a great feeling to be tired, worn out, and ready for a relaxing evening followed by a good night’s sleep. It’s a great kindness to provide our dogs with that same experience. However, it’s not as easy with some individuals as with others. Some dogs are suitably tired out by long leash walks, but others require hours of off-leash running at high speeds or long play sessions romping with other dogs to have their exercise needs satisfied.
Do you have a dog who seems to perk up from 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and really needs a lot more activity? What does it take for your dog to be happily tired?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
From the Philippines to California for surgery
September 17 2012
A dog in need of surgery is about to travel from her home in the Philippines to the United States for the medical care that’s not available where she is. Kabang has had a life filled with more adventures than most dogs. Her name means “spotty” in her family’s native language, and though that probably refers to her appearance, it certainly applies to her luck as well.
She was found as an abandoned puppy two years ago by Rudy Bunggal. Since his family struggles to acquire enough food, there was a very real possibility that she would find her way to their dinner table. Instead, though the Bunggals continue to face food shortages, Kabang remains a cherished pet who is closely bonded to Rudy’s daughter Dina and his niece Princess, and protective of them as well.
Her protective tendencies made this dog a national hero when she charged in front of a motorcycle that nearly hit Dina and Princess. The girls and the motorcyclist were merely bruised in the incident, but Kabang was not so lucky. Her face was caught in the spokes of the motorcycle, causing her to sustain terrible injuries. The accident, which saved the lives of two members of her family, resulted in the loss of a large part of her face.
After the accident, Kabang disappeared and she was feared dead until she showed up weeks later at home. It was at this time that her story made national and international headlines. Local veterinarians offered to euthanize her, but the Bunggals refused to allow it. Although she is not believed to be in pain currently, her injuries leave her susceptible to infection, and surgery is necessary to keep her healthy.
Surgery is expensive, though, especially when the care she needs is not available locally. Having heard about Kabang, a woman in New York set up the site careforkabang.com in order to raise money, and also convinced Philippine Airlines to donate the ticket to fly the dog and his guardian to the United States. The goal to raise $20,000 was recently reached, and Kabang will soon be headed to UC Davis for surgery. The reconstruction is an attempt to regain enough function in Kabang’s face that she can continue to be a happy, healthy family pet. She will still look very different than she did before the accident, no matter how successful the surgery is.
The world joined in to help this dog. To Kabang and her family, the help of many strangers will make a world of difference.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Combined skills allow food raid
September 14 2012
Though many cats and dogs are very dear friends, others simply coexist or even fight to varying degrees. It’s fair to say that they are not always on the same team. That’s why I find it so endearing when dogs and cats cooperate to work towards a common goal, even if it’s to get into trouble together.
The most common example I hear from friends and clients is about these two species combining their skills to acquire food. Cats are easily able to jump up onto counters that the dogs in their households can’t reach, but once they are up there, may be unable to break into any containers of food they find. Pushing bags of food onto the floor where the dogs can tear into them is one strategy, and it’s not that rare.
Has your household experienced such division of labor—the cat tipping a bag of food off the counter and the dog opening it so both can feast on it? Do you have other stories featuring dogs and cats who are in cahoots together?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does size affect behavior?
September 13 2012
He chose the dog, but I chose the name,” the woman explained. Their dog was an especially petite Boston Terrier, but his name — Titan — was one more typically bestowed on a larger dog. I’d seen this type of incongruity before, and though it’s sometimes just for the sake of being ironic, often it’s about conflict. Couples who disagree about whether to add a large dog or a small dog to their family compromise by choosing a dog of one size and a name that’s usually given to a dog of another size. I’ve also met Pixie the Newfoundland, Tank the Bichon Frise, Bitsy the Bouvier and Goliath the Pug.
People often have strong opinions about what size dog best suits them. Some prefer small dogs because they’re more likely to be welcome everywhere, especially when traveling, while others gravitate to large dogs because they associate them with fun and friendliness, as well as kids and families. Sizebased biases are also common, and sad to say, I’ve heard a number of derogatory terms for both small and large dogs. And anyone with big dogs knows that people sometimes fear them even when their behavior is exemplary and a small dog is present whose behavior is not. One Bark reader implored me, “Don’t forget to cover that big dog stigma!”
Many people have asked the question, “How is the experience of having a large dog different than that of having a small dog?” Part of the answer may come from evaluating whether big and small dogs really are different in ways that extend beyond size, particularly in their behavior. Another piece of the puzzle involves determining if people’s behavior toward and expectations of dogs varies based on the dog’s size.
A Sizeable Spectrum
People with little dogs who don’t want them to help themselves to food simply avoid picnicking on the floor and are careful not to leave chairs where they can be used as stepping stones to the table or counter. People with large dogs often find that no place lower than the top of the refrigerator is safe or truly off-limits. With a large dog, the accidental consumption of dangerous foods, such as chocolate, is far less likely to lead to serious consequences than for a smaller dog because it takes much more for the dose to be toxic to a larger dog. Similarly, the few extra treats that lead to weight gain in smaller dogs may be no big deal for a large dog. Finally, helping a large dog with mobility issues can be physically demanding for the caregiver.
Some worry about big dogs around children, but I must confess that I worry when we dog-sit a friend’s sixpound Pomeranian. My kids are gentle with him and do a good job of being kind and respectful, but I’m still worried that they’ll collide with him and cause an injury completely by accident, no matter how actively I’m supervising. With bigger dogs, that isn’t as much of a concern.
Many people point out the advantages of small dogs in urban environments: it’s easier to rent an apartment (weight limits favor them); tight living spaces may be easier to share; and getting small dogs into and out of an apartment building, especially while you’re housetraining them, is far less of a challenge. Yet traits that can be troublesome for urban living — high exercise needs, sound sensitivity, a tendency to bark excessively — have nothing to do with size. Some dogs are beautifully suited to life in the city, and others are not.
So, are behavioral differences sizebased? For the most part, the answer is a resounding “No!” Dogs of all sizes love to play chase, fetch, go on walks, run off leash, meet new people, romp with their best dog buddies, participate in training sessions and eat tasty treats. By the same token, dogs of all sizes are vulnerable to sound sensitivity, exhibit separation anxiety and aggression, jump on people inappropriately, bark to excess, chew on shoes, dig in the garden, or have accidents on the floor. They all wag their tails (if they have them!) in joy.
And yet, there are clearly differences between individual dogs, based perhaps on age, gender or the environment in which the dog lives and was raised. While the similarities in dogs of different sizes are far greater than the differences, can we deny those differences?
Science Steps In
The study’s most important overall finding? There are significant differences in behavior between large and small dogs and between guardians of large and small dogs. The researchers reported that a range of interactions between people and their dogs are related to the size of the dog.
Small dogs were reported to be less obedient, slightly more often aggressive or excitable, and more anxious and fearful. People with small dogs also reported a lower level of consistency in their interactions and enforcement of rules than did those with larger pups.
Much has been made of the practice of treating small dogs like babies, though it’s hardly surprising that it occurs. Babyish features affect human caretaking behavior; we’re evolutionarily hardwired to find big eyes, small size and proportionally large heads endearing. Psychologists call this the “Aww phenomenon.” If babies weren’t so cute, parents could be less likely to respond to their needs, and the offspring would be less likely to survive.
Dogs seem to elicit this same “aww” response in humans, especially small dogs, and even more so, breeds with pronounced juvenile features such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Japanese Chins, Pugs and Boston Terriers. Since babies affect our hormones, raising the levels of oxytocin — nicknamed “the love hormone”— it stands to reason that adorable dogs do, too.
Socialization, Training and Other Interactions
Many say that their small dogs are “people” dogs and don’t like other dogs; lots of people with big dogs say the same thing. Size notwithstanding, positive experiences with other dogs during puppyhood are the best way for a dog to develop good manners. Absent enough of those experiences, dogs of all sizes face social challenges.
Well-trained dogs are always a joy, but training is another way in which interactions between people and dogs differ based on size. Two research studies found that small dogs do not receive as much formal training as large dogs (Kobelt, et al.; Masters and McGreevy). Also, people play fetch more often and do more tugging and nose work with big dogs than with small ones, and are more likely to take them running or biking (Arhant, et al.). Arhant’s study concludes that differences in people’s behavior may account for the higher rates of disobedience in small dogs.
Codes of Conduct
For example, small dogs are more likely to be allowed in our beds and on our laps (Westgarth, et al.). Practical considerations are at work here. Having a 25-pound dog jump or sit on you is one thing, but having a 100-pound dog do it is another. Others encourage little dogs to jump up on people and get on the furniture, but rarely invite big dogs to do so. Jumping up isn’t the only thing that’s treated differently. The behavior that is considered a nuisance in a small dog may be deemed antisocial in a large dog. Even aggression and other serious behavioral issues are more likely to be tolerated in small dogs.
As evidence that some people with small dogs don’t take undesirable behavior seriously, consider this story: an eight-pound Chihuahua escaped from his home, bit someone and was declared a dangerous dog. When a representative from animal control came, the dog’s people apparently thought it was a joke. One of them was reported to have said, “I broke out laughing. I said, ‘Look at the dog, do you see the dog going after you?’ The guy kind of got upset when I started laughing at him.”
For years, I have specialized in cases involving aggressive dogs, and to be honest, the size of the dog sometimes makes a difference in how I feel about the threat they represent. I once had a very aggressive Dachshund in my office, followed by a Chesapeake Bay Retriever with similar issues. During both appointments, I employed all the cautions necessary in this line of work. Still, throughout the appointment with the Chessie, I was aware of being afraid, while with the Doxie — though I knew I was at risk of being bitten if I made a mistake — I just didn’t feel the same anxiety. Both dogs were equally aggressive, but the size factor affected my fear response.
I’m not alone in reacting differently to aggressive dogs based on their size. Large dogs are more likely to be euthanized for aggression (Reisner, et al.), though another study (Guy, et al.) found that the average “biter” tended to be a smaller dog. It’s possible that greater tolerance for this behavior in small dogs allows genetic tendencies toward it to persist.
In some ways, there are correlations between size and breed characteristics. Many small dogs are terriers and earthdogs, types that have been deliberately developed to be tenacious and curious as well as to dig and explore. If dogs are bred for those characteristics, such behavior will have far more to do with genetic inf luences on behavior than with size.
Also related to breeding, Arhant, et al. found that small dogs were more likely than large dogs to come from pet stores, which generally acquire their “stock” from puppy mills. When you consider that puppy mills are notorious for environmental deprivation and risky breeding practices, it is perhaps no surprise that small dogs are burdened with more problematic behavior..
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What dogs do — their behavior! — is what makes them good company, great friends and essential members of our family, and very little of that has anything to do with size. When dog people swap stories, they are not about the size of the dog, but about the experiences we have in common — the joy, the angst, the training, the vet emergencies, the photos, the occasional chewed shoe, the games, the walks, the friendship, the fun and the love. It’s always a big love, no matter what size the dog.
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