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Patricia McConnell

Patricia McConnell, PhD, is an animal behaviorist and ethologist and an adjunct associate professor in zoology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, as well as the author of numerous books on behavior and training.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Fear in Dogs
Where does it begin?
Holly

Imagine this: a purse falls off a chair in the vicinity of two seven-month-old puppies. Terrified, one of the puppies refuses to go anywhere near it. Her sister takes a look, gives it a quick sniff and then leaps over it and goes on her merry way. Scenarios like this happen every day to Holly and Kit, the Border Collie/Beagle mixed-breed pups adopted by the editor of The Bark a few months ago.

Rescued from a shelter in Kentucky early this year, littermates Holly and Kit have been in their new home in northern California for several months now. As far as is known, the pups’ first five months of life were less than ideal; they seem to have lived outside on their own and had little contact with people. Not surprisingly, they arrived at their new home timid and shy. Since then, Kit has come out of her shell, romping happily around local off-leash parks with her “big sister,” Lola. Holly is a different story; she is sweet and loving at home, but extremely skittish in other contexts. But even at home, small changes in the environment—like a purse falling from a chair—overwhelm her.

That sisters would behave differently isn’t shocking to any of us with siblings or children, or anyone who has watched one puppy battle through life while a littermate calmly accepts whatever comes her way. We all know that sisters and brothers, whether human or canine, are not clones. No matter how similar the upbringing, minor differences in siblings’ genetic make-up account for major differences in behavior. But beyond that, what do we know about what influences a dog’s approach to life? What’s new in our understanding of the ontogeny of fear? In particular, what can make a fearful dog like Holly so different from her more outgoing sister?

Genetic Blueprints. The answer begins, of course, in the genetic make-up of each dog, which is unique to that individual. After all, the point of sexual reproduction—an inefficient and messy process (genetically speaking)—is variation. Each parent contributes one strand of DNA to the double helix that makes up each chromosome, and the strands link up in unique ways each time a new life is created. Thus, every individual is the result of a unique combination of genes. In an environment with a range of conditions—perhaps a drought one year and floods the next—genetic variation ups the odds that some individuals will survive even if others perish, thus ensuring continuation of at least some individuals of their particular species.

This variation isn’t news to dog lovers—we are all well acquainted with canine physical variation, from flat-nosed Pugs to skinny-muzzled Salukis. This genetically mediated variation is equally true of behavioral predispositions. According to research done over the last 30 years on personality, one of the most heritable behavioral characteristics relates to the behavior of Holly and Kit. What is now called the “shy-bold continuum” has been found to be a relatively stable aspect of personality in rhesus macaques, cattle, people and dogs (to name a few). It appears as though different points on the “shy-bold” spectrum are advantageous at different times. For example, primatologist Steve Suomi has found that in some conditions, shy male rhesus macaques have higher reproductive success than bold ones. The shy males wait longer to leave their natal troops, and thus arrive at a new troop larger and better able to hold their own when challenged by established males. (But sometimes it helps to be brave and bold; what if there are only a few troops in the area and the bold monkeys become established in them before the shy ones venture forth?)

One can easily imagine how, in some contexts, the progenitors of domestic dogs were best served by boldness (being the first to venture near a human settlement) or by caution and timidity (letting a littermate be the one to go play with that big, fuzzy animal that humans call lions). What is not clear yet is how much of a dog’s physical appearance is linked to behavioral tendencies. Holly looks more like a Border Collie than does her sister Kit and, in general, we know that shyness is relatively common in many of the herding breeds. Could there be a link between looks and personality?
There has been shockingly little research on the links between physical appearance and behavioral tendencies, but Swedish ethologist Kenth Svartberg did some interesting work on personality in dogs while at Stockholm University. One of his studies found “large behavioral differences between breeds in the traits [of] playfulness, curiosity/fearlessness [similar to the “shy/bold” continuum mentioned earlier], sociability and aggressiveness.” Clearly, there appear to be strong genetic links between looks and behavior. Does that mean that more of Holly’s genes relate to the Border Collie in her? Could be. Of course, we’ll never know, but it is certainly possible and biologically logical to predict links between a dog’s appearance and her personality, even within a litter.

Starter Houses. Beyond an understanding of the role of genetics, research is increasingly focused on the effect of in-utero experiences on the development and, ultimately, the health and behavior of an individual. Until recently, our developmental considerations have focused on the influence of genetics and the environment during “early development”—the old nature/nurture argument, as it were. The period we defined as “early development” began at birth and followed an animal through infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. However, new information has alerted us to the important influence of in-utero experiences, an environment we’ve never before considered as having an affect on an adult animal. Much of the research I’ll mention here was done on humans, but there is no biological reason to not generalize it to canids.

In general, the influence of a mother’s experience on her fetus is profound: her sleep pattern teaches the developing child about the cycle of day and night. Her food preferences influence her baby’s after birth. If the mother is seriously deprived of food, her infant will be predisposed to diabetes and high cholesterol as an adult. Most relevant to a fearful puppy, a mother suffering from extreme anxiety puts her offspring at high risk of being anxious and fearful, even as an adult. Apparently, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol produced by the mother result in fewer cortisol receptor cells in the pup (or child or monkey, etc.). This low number of receptor cells means that the pup’s brain is unable to perceive and respond to high levels of cortisol in his own body until the system is overloaded with it. Then the brain goes on red alert, sending the emotions into full panic mode, even in situations that would be only mildly stressful for an average individual.

In addition to the significant influence of a mother’s influence on her young, we also know now that the experience of each individual within the uterus is different. Minor differences in nutrients, for example, have long been known to be a factor in major differences in the size and health of animals within a litter. Even genetic clones—identical twins for example—aren’t behaviorally identical. Though they may look alike, they usually have remarkably different personalities. Since they developed with the same set of genes, only in-utero experiences can account for their behavioral differences. Developmental psychologists are learning that for twins, development in the womb is a kind of dance between the two that, by the time they are born, has shaped their personalities.

Another example of the influence of in-utero development is what’s called “androgenization.” In this phenomenon, females in a litter are permanently affected by the androgen produced by male puppies surrounding them within the uterine horns. Androgen is the precursor to testosterone, and females who are “bathed” in it, perhaps because of their placement between a large number of males, tend to behave differently than other females once they develop into adults. Androgenized females behave more like males, sometimes have enlarged gentalia and are often more aggressive to same-sex individuals.

And so, even prior to birth, profoundly different experiences could have shaped Holly and Kit. The combination of different genetic blueprints and different experiences inside the womb resulted in two dogs with very different personalities and tolerances. Even though they have grown up together, those beginnings mean that a similar environment will affect them in different ways as they continue to develop. Holly will probably always be more cautious than Kit, because much of who she is was established before she was born. This is not to say that shy little Holly can’t become more comfortable at the dog park—or with runaway purses—but it does remind us how and why every dog is a unique creation and special in her own way. And special they are, every one of them.

Good luck, Holly … we’re rooting for you!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How Much Human Speech do Dogs Understand?
Both Ends of the Leash: Walking the Talk

Alex, the world’s most famous African Grey parrot, died September 6, 2007, and the world is a sadder place for it.

You may be wondering why a column about dog behavior would begin with a memorial to a parrot, but there is an important connection between Alex’s behavior and that of your dog. It was Alex, and his human, Irene Pepperberg, who stretched our understanding of what goes on in the minds of nonhuman animals, including the furry best friend lying at your feet.

When, in 1977, Pepperberg began teaching Alex to use words to communicate, the consensus was that animals could be taught to associate sounds with objects (“Go get your ball,”) but not concepts. Concepts are abstractions that live only inside your brain. For example, try picking up a “bigger,” or giving someone a “different” as a birthday present.

The argument used to be that nonhuman animals could only respond to something directly in front of them, and weren’t capable of the kind of cognitive gymnastics that abstractions require. However, Pepperberg’s research taught us that not only could Alex use words to label an object’s shape, form and color (“Alex, pick up the blue triangle out of all the other objects on the tray.”), he had little trouble grasping concepts like “different” and “bigger” (“Alex, what color is the object that is shaped differently from all the rest?”).

Alex’s thought processes, and the way he communicated them, went far beyond answering questions put to him during his training sessions. One day, while looking in the mirror, Alex said, “What color?” Mind you, Alex had been trained to answer questions, not ask them. When the surprised trainers answered, “grey,” Alex was then able to identify other grey objects.

That wasn’t the only time Alex surprised his handlers. I am still amused by a video I saw of Alex working with an impatient trainer. After several interactions, clearly frustrating for person and parrot alike, Alex belted out, in a startlingly clear Bronx accent, “Go away!” But the bird’s most compelling vocalization took place when Pepperberg had to leave him alone, for the first time, at a veterinary clinic. As she walked away, Alex said in a soft and quiet voice, “I’m sorry. I love you. I’m sorry.” (This knowledge has made leaving my dogs at a vet clinic a hundred times harder for me, and I pass it along to you with my own soft and quiet, “I’m sorry.” Ignorance indeed can be bliss.)

When Pepperberg first began working with Alex, there were suggestions that certain other animals could understand simple concepts, but it’s only been during the last 20 years that this issue has gotten the attention it deserves. We’ve found that many animals—including rats, pigeons and a surprising star in cognitive research, the octopus (honest)—can functionally use concepts like “different” and “bigger.”

But what about our dogs? If an octopus can understand the concept “different,” surely our dogs can too. Or can they? Until very recently, research on our best friends has lagged behind that on primates and laboratory rats; apparently, “familiarity breeds contempt” in science as well as in the rest of life. But dogs are finally becoming hot topics in cognitive research—check out, for example, recent issues of the Journal of Comparative Psychology.

Here’s a little about what we’ve learned so far. Research confirms that dogs can also functionally use concepts like “larger” and “different.”* What’s more, in certain contexts, they can also be taught a more complicated procedure called “delayed non-matching to sample.” Here’s how the experiment works: The dog is presented with an object that has a piece of food underneath. He’s allowed to move the object and get the food. Then, after a delay of a varying amount of time, say, 10 seconds, the dog is presented with two objects. One item is the same as before, the other is different. The “right” choice is the different object.

When researchers first conducted the study, the dogs failed miserably. After hundreds of trials, the dogs were still unable to  identify the different object. In comparison, rhesus monkeys figured it out pretty quickly. But when the researchers changed the procedure and asked the dogs to choose an object in a different location, our best friends turned into academic stars, getting the answer right 90 percent of the time—even after waiting 20 seconds between presentations.

So, here’s where musings about cognition leave the land of the research lab and settle into your living room. Of the words you use (whether they reference actions, objects or concepts), how many do you think your dog understands? The answer may be more complicated than we think. Let me illustrate with a story:

Last night, as we have for many nights, my young Border Collie, Will, and I worked on his ability to label objects with names. He is the fastest canine learner I’ve ever had— and that’s saying something, since I’ve had many other dogs, seven of them Border Collies. This dog learned to lie down on his side for acupuncture in less than five minutes. He learned to stretch out his foreleg on cue in less time than I can write about it. I can ask him to “Go get your toy,” five minutes after he has dropped it 200 yards away and he will retrieve it. In short, he’s one of those “oh-wow” dogs who make training look easy.

But when I ask him to pick out his “ring,” or his “ball,” he looks like a dunce. For three weeks, I’ve reinforced him for touching a toy after I’ve said its name. I started with one object at a time, saying the name “ring” or “ball” and reinforcing a correct response with treats or play. I’ve done that hundreds of times, and if the only toy visible is the one I ask for, he’s—not surprisingly!—always right. Recently, I’ve been placing two objects on the floor and asking for just one of them. At first, I make the right choice easy by placing it close to him, while the “wrong” object is farther away. But as soon as Will has a real choice, his accuracy plummets and his responses become random. He enthusiastically chooses one, and then deflates when I slowly shake my head no. Over and over, he desperately tries to figure out what I want him to do. For a while, he was choosing the last location reinforced. When he realized that wasn’t it, he lay with his head down on his paws.

I didn’t think teaching him “ball” and “ring” would be that hard. After all, when I say, “Get your toy,” he picks up an object without hesitation. As I mentioned earlier, we’ve known for years that dogs can use sounds to label objects (you might well have a dog who knows his ball from his tug toy). Rico, the famous European Border Collie, not only knows the names of more than 200 objects, he could to match an unfamiliar name with an unfamiliar object in a carefully controlled experiment. How could my brilliant little dog be such a slow learner?

I think Will’s struggle relates to concepts. Until I began to ask him to choose one toy over the other, the sounds I made to Will had always been associated with actions: Lie down. Walk up (on sheep). Wait. Bow. Get your toy (go pick up something). It looked as though he understood that “toy” referred to his play objects—except when I experimented and said, “Go get your —” and he immediately picked up the closest object. When I asked him to “Go get your wallaby,” he hesitated a moment, and then picked up the closest toy.
Will has also heard me repeatedly say in a happy, animated voice, “Where’s Jim?” I’ve enthusiastically asked that question every time our mutually favorite guy arrives at the farm. Recently, I asked “Where’s Jim?” while Jim was sitting on the couch beside us. You guessed it: Will ran to the window and danced around with excitement. So what initially appeared to be an understanding of the names of things is really more about associating the sounds I make with actions he should take.

Naming seems like such a simple concept, yet many of us can remember the scene in the movie Helen Keller, when, after infinite periods of frustration, Helen finally realizes that the sign she is being taught stands for the cold water running over her hand. Another riveting story is told in the book A Man Without Words, by Susan Schaller. She describes a deaf man who had never been taught even the most basic communication skills bursting into tears when he first realizes that objects could be labeled, and signs could be used to converse with others about those objects.

I’m sure Will’s “Helen Keller” moment will come sometime in the future, but in the interim, his struggles are a constant reminder of the ongoing challenge to understand what’s going on in our dog’s brain. It’s important to understand which concepts dogs understand and which they don’t. Keep that in mind, and think of the following questions as wonderful ways to entertain yourself and your dog through the last cold days of winter: How much of what you say does your dog understand? What could you do to try to find out? What type of everyday concepts does your dog understand? Does your dog understand that the words you use can represent both actions and objects? Can you teach your dog to distinguish “larger” from “smaller”? You may get some definitive answers, or you may generate more questions, but whatever happens, you’ll keep your dog’s mind (and yours) entertained and engaged until spring arrives!

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Take Dog Training One Step at a Time
In dog training, taking things one step at a time can make a world of difference

Maddie was a lovely little dog, with creamy white fur and an open, smiley face. She seemed willing and smart and ready to learn, but her guardian had brought her to me because the dog was driving her crazy. Every time the family asked Maddie to sit and stay, she jumped up and licked their faces. No matter what they did, they couldn’t seem to get her to stay still, even for an instant. Someone told them it was because she was trying to assert “dominance” over them. Someone else suggested she’d been abused. Maddie had nothing at all to say on the topic, but kept cheerfully bounding up like a jack-in-the-box every time she was asked to sit and stay.

The same week, I had another client whose treatment plan included teaching his dog Bruno a variety of tricks. The first trick had him stumped, because no matter how hard he tried, and how many tasty treats he used, he couldn’t get Bruno to roll over. He tried and tried, and finally came into the office convinced that his dog was deficient.

Getting to the Heart of the Matter
Neither of these explanations had anything to do with the issues at hand. Both dogs appeared to be normal and happy, capable of learning as much as anyone wanted to teach them, and their guardians were dog-loving, intelligent people. The problems, though superficially different, were based on the same important truth: Anything that we think of as a “behavior,” like rolling over or asking a dog to sit and stay, is actually a summation of a great many tiny movements. These incremental movements add up into what we call “rolling over” or “giving a sit signal,” each of which is the sum of many parts.

Understanding this—that all actions are actually made up of many smaller ones—can elevate you from a moderately good dog trainer to a great one. The seemingly dim dog Bruno ended up learning to roll over in one session because all I asked him to do initially was to lie down and turn his head toward his tail. Of course, I helped him at first by luring his nose in the right direction with a piece of food, but in no time at all, Bruno was happy to offer the behavior on his own. “Look at my tail for chicken? I can do that!” Bruno began throwing himself down on the ground and enthusiastically twisting his head toward his tail, tail thumping furiously. Next, I asked him to move his head a bit farther back, this time turning it toward his other side, enough that his top foreleg began to rise off the ground. Bingo! More chicken. Step three included luring his head around even farther, until his body followed and completed the roll over in one smooth motion. The humans clapped and cheered, Bruno wagged and grinned, and the pile of chicken pieces rapidly decreased.

Bruno’s guardian, a relative novice at dog training, had tried to teach Bruno to roll over by luring his head around with tasty snacks, but because he thought of “rolling over” as, well, rolling over, it didn’t occur to him to give Bruno the snack until the dog had executed the entire action from beginning to end. Dog trainers see this problem on a daily basis—people who try to teach a dog to sit up or roll over, and end up throwing in the towel because they can’t get the dog to do what they want. This is one of those times when it would help if people were more anthropomorphic (rather than less so as we’re often advised). We don’t wait to praise our children until they play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony perfectly, do we? Yet, that’s common behavior with our dogs—we often expect them to do it right all the way through the first time. Anything less is categorized as a failure.

We’re even less likely to think of our own actions as the summation of many tiny behaviors. Take Maddie, the dog who wouldn’t sit and stay. In the office, I suggested the guardians give it a try so I could see what was going on. The mom of the family stood up, turned to face Maddie, and said “sit” and “stay.” As she said “stay,” she backed up about a half a step. In response, Maddie sat politely, but then leapt up as soon as she heard the stay signal. “See what I mean!” her guardian said, with no small amount of exasperation in her voice. Next, I asked her to call Maddie to come.

You guessed it. She turned to face her dog; said, “Maddie, come!”; and then backed up exactly as she had when she said “stay.” Maddie was paying attention to one small component of the “stay” signal—the backward movement, which she had learned meant “come”—and bless her heart, she kept giving it her best shot, in spite of the confusing response of her humans. It’s a miracle they don’t bite us more often, truly.

Nothing’s Simple
These stories illustrate two perspectives about behavior that can illuminate our understanding of it. One is that a “simple” behavior like asking your dog to sit usually consists of several different sounds and movements, any one of which could be relevant to your dog. We may think that saying “sit” is a singular event, but to an observant dog (and believe me, they’re all observant!), there’s a lot more going on. You may be concentrating on the word, but as you say it, your hands, head and body are all probably moving in consistent ways, although you’re probably not aware of it.

My favorite exercise at seminars is to have a trainer ask her dog to sit, and then ask the audience how many different movements made up that “simple” signal. Usually we come up with at least six or eight movements and one spoken word, any of which could act as the relevant cue to the dog. The last time I played that game, we observed that each time the trainer asked for a sit, she nodded her head ever so slightly. Until her dog saw her nod her head, he would not sit. Once she did, he’d sit instantly. The dog was focusing on the nod, and the human was focusing on the word she was saying. I would bet money if you could’ve asked the dog to describe the signal for “sit,” the dog would’ve said, “Why, the head nod, of course!”

Bruno, the dog who finally mastered the “roll over” command, reminds us that even one continuous motion—like rolling over—is also the sum of its parts. The general principle of dividing an action up into steps is old news for many trainers, but we can profit from revisiting its importance. Even those of us who are long familiar with what’s called “shaping,” or the process of reinforcing incremental improvements in behavior, can benefit by remembering that it relates to everything that we and our dogs do.

Understanding that any behavior can be divided up into smaller parts is the guiding principle taught to all students of animal behavior. It was the first thing that I learned from my ethology professors at the university, and it’s the first thing good, psychologically based behavior analysts learn. The fields of ethology and psychology may have very different perspectives, but they agree completely on the importance of understanding behavior as a series of incremental actions. Step-by-step, brick by brick, the foundation of any behavior is built upon little things that add up to bigger ones. The better you are at deconstructing it, the better a trainer you’ll be.

Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Dog Assisted Therapy: Is Your Dog a Good Fit?
Lending a Helping Paw
Is your dog a good fit for therapy duty?

“He’d be perfect as a therapy dog — perfect. You just have to help me stop him from biting so much.”

I wish I could say I’m making this up, but yes, I did have a client who said that, and yes, he truly thought his dog could be a great therapy dog. My client had the best of intentions, but it took a while to convince him that his pathologically shy and potentially dangerous dog was no better suited to therapy work than I am to being a ballerina.

However, a multitude of dogs are just what the doctor ordered, and it makes my heart all warm and gooey to think of the great work they do. Currently, an estimated 30,000 teams of what are called therapy dogs and handlers are certified through Delta Pet Partners and Therapy Dogs International, and there is little doubt that they are enriching the lives of thousands of people across the country.

A good dog-and-handler team does a lot more than just make people feel fleetingly happy. True therapy dogs — dogs who participate in structured programs designed by health care professionals (Animal Assisted Therapy, or AAT) — can decrease pain, improve mobility, speed up post-surgery healing and even calm autistic children as well as increasing their social interactions. That’s a pretty impressive body of work, and it is just the short list. A larger number of dogs and handlers participate in what are called Animal Assisted Activities (AAA), in which teams visit hospitalized children and senior-center residents. The petting, tricks and furry companionship can stimulate the release of massive quantities of the world’s greatest drug, the neurohormone oxytocin.

Another benefit: AAT and AAA can be as good for the providers as the recipients. Take it from me — watching a senior citizen glow while petting your dog and talking about the special pup she owned 70 years ago is guaranteed to put you in a good mood that lasts for hours.

However, you need to leave your rose-colored glasses at home if you and your dog are involved in AAT or AAA (I’m just going to call it “therapy” from now on, as long as we all understand that I’m using the term loosely). Just because you love your dog doesn’t mean everyone in a nursing home will want to meet her. Plus, your dog may actually hate the work, even though it wraps you in your own haze of oxytocin. In addition, your beloved dog may come home with an antibiotic-resistant bacteria like MRSA, which is commonly found in health-care facilities.

In other words, there’s a lot to learn about doing this work in a way that is truly helpful to others, safe for everyone involved and, as importantly, enjoyable for your dog. In this article, I’ll be focusing on the dogs, because, well, they pretty much drive the system.

Job Qualifications
Let’s start, then, with a question: Which dogs are appropriate for AAT and AAA? Answer: Not many. Ouch. Sorry, but the fact is that therapy work can be tiring and stressful for many dogs, and some dogs have personalities that take them out of the running even though they would love to be on the team. My Border Collie, Willie, might be a good therapy dog when he’s 10 or so, but right now, he’s simply too much dog to visit vulnerable populations. I describe his greeting behavior as that of an adolescent Golden Retriever in a tuxedo (my apologies to Goldens, but I suspect you all now know exactly how he behaves, right?). Oh, he keeps all four feet on the ground, but in his enthusiasm to meet new people, he still quivers and licks and thrashes his tail around like some crazed dishrag on drugs. He’s a good reminder that no matter how much you love your dog, he or she may not be a candidate for therapy work, at least not now.

Here are some criteria to consider when asking if your dog is suitable for therapy work. The most important job qualification is that the dog loves people, absolutely and completely. That doesn’t mean your dog lights up when you come home, and tolerates visitors. I’ve seen and heard of numerous dogs in AAT who adored their guardians — but strangers? Not so much. I’ve also watched a dog and her guardian spend an entire “therapy” session communing with one another in a nursing home. That’s not therapy, that’s a woman petting her dog while others watch. It might be useful in some circumstances, but most often, the dog needs to voluntarily approach strangers, make eye contact with them and put forth an effort to get close to them.

It’s important to distinguish these dogs from dogs who merely tolerate strangers. Willie’s response to people walking toward the house is: “Oh look! There’s another one! Can you believe it?” I get the impression he thinks that people are as rare as huge, juicy beef bones, and he just can’t believe his luck — they keep turning up randomly when he least expects them. So while he’d fill the “loves everyone” bill, he’d, uh, most likely knock the senior citizen out of her wheelchair with his tail.

Which brings us to the difference between manners and personality. Willie is trained to greet people politely, but I can’t expect him to leave his personality in the crate. Therapy dogs need to be calm — dogs who don’t slap senior citizens with their tails or pull IVs out of patients’ arms. The level of acceptable activity can vary depending on where and when the dog is working, but a calm demeanor goes beyond good training.

People who most benefit from a dose of oxytocin are often frail or otherwise physically compromised, and the dogs they interact with can’t emote all over them, forcing them to protect their face or their shoulder or their new hip. This is one reason so many dogs do well when they are older, even though they may have flunked the certification test when they were younger. If your dog was dismissed as too active to work in the Children’s Hospital when he was three, you might want to try again when he’s eight or 10, after he’s slowed down and is a little calmer about life in general.

Besides being physically calm, dogs need to be emotionally calm. That means they don’t go all pancake-eyed when someone grabs their head, or panic if a metal tray is dropped behind them. Essentially, a good therapy dog needs to behave in ways that most dogs don’t: unfazed when a child hugs them a little too hard before you can intervene, unreactive when the Alzheimer patient tries to grab their ears and screams when you step in. Can some nervous dogs be conditioned to be comfortable when “life happens”? Yes, they can; I know of several dogs who were originally terrified of strangers and ended up as great therapy dogs. But that’s the exception, not the rule. It’s a fool’s errand to try to make a reactive dog into a good therapy dog while he’s in treatment himself, and it’s not safe or respectful to anyone to try to make a “regular” dog into a one-in-a-million one.

This is a problem I’ve seen a bit too often: guardians whose dogs may have good reasons for being cautious or nippy, but who still insist that “it’s not the dog’s fault, and if everyone would just learn to be appropriate around dogs, he’d be perfect.” That’s pretty much the point here: people won’t be perfect, guaranteed. In the normal run of things, they never are, and in the case of therapy, they often will be worse. The children will be crazed to finally see a dog like the one they have at home and won’t understand why they can’t hug Maxi so hard that Maxi can’t breathe. Some seniors will sit quietly stroking Chief, but others will get a death grip on the sides of his head and kiss his lips before you can stop them.

For everyone’s sake, including your own, you don’t want Maxi and Chief to be dogs that just barely tolerate this kind of treatment. Those dogs may be “fine” (i.e., they don’t bite) the first time or two, but they might not be the third or fourth. Even if they don’t object, forcing them to tolerate this sort of behavior could be considered abusive. You need a dog who really, truly doesn’t care if he’s hugged or his tail is pulled. Those dogs are out there, but they are less common than many of us like to think.

Your Role
And that brings us to another critical issue: your responsibility as your dog’s handler. Although I’ve already noted that a therapy dog must be able to tolerate all manner of rudeness, it’s your job to eliminate as much stress as you possibly can. You may not be able to do this 100 percent of the time (thus my cautions about your dog’s training and personality), but as the human half of the team, you play several roles, and one of them is to be your dog’s advocate. This includes knowing your dog well enough to predict in which environment he would do well.

Willie, for example, would be overstimulated in a room full of children, but might eventually be a great dog for a senior facility. Some dogs adore kids, but would be nervous around wheelchairs and walkers. Thus, your first job is to find out which program is a good fit for your dog. If you’re involved with a group like Delta Pet Partners or TDI, the organization will help you identify an appropriate venue after your dog has been certified.

Once you’re at your work site, your task is to present your dog to others and then back off enough to encourage connections. However, you need to stay alert, on watch for potentially inappropriate interactions. Most importantly, you need to be an expert at reading your dog. If I’ve heard “Oh, he’s fine,” about a stiff-bodied, closed-mouthed, wrinkled-brow dog once, I’ve heard it a gazillion times. Not long ago, a woman sent me a video of her and her dog doing AAT in a hospital setting. The children were in heaven, petting and stroking and chattering like starlings over the dog. The guardian was beaming, and raved to me about how much her dog loved the work. Except that’s not what her dog’s body language suggested. He looked patently miserable, with a stiff body, his mouth closed and his head turned away from the children. His human was so overwhelmed with oxytocin herself that she couldn’t see that her dog was extremely uncomfortable.

Job one, then, for guardians, is to become brilliant at interpreting visual signals of discomfort in their dog, and learning to act on them immediately. That’s not always so easy to do; many of us have seen a suspicious look on our dog’s face and dismissed it. “Oh, but he’s always loved coming here.” But maybe that was then, and this is now. Therapy work can be the highlight of a dog’s week, but it can also be stressful, and it’s common for dogs to enjoy it for a few years and then be ready for retirement.

What’s most important is to learn to read your dog objectively, and to do so every minute of every interaction. If you’re participating in AAT with your dog, you are the responsible member of a working team, and need to watch and evaluate the patient, the surroundings and your dog. If you don’t come home a little tired, you’re probably not doing your job.

Argh! This sounds like a lot. It is if you do it right, that’s true. However, many people say it’s the most rewarding thing they’ve ever done with their dog. I don’t want these cautions to discourage anyone from doing AAT or AAA with their dog. This can be important and wonderful work — good for you, good for your dog and good for people desperate for the same glow we get when we cuddle with our own dogs at night. Spreading the wealth is a beautiful thing — but it needs to be done with knowledge and foresight so that it’s a win/win/win for everyone. Let’s hear it for oxytocin all around!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Training Daze
Even a bad example can have a good influence.
Patricia B. McConnell and Lassie

He was short, only 5' 4" or so, but his broad shoulders and thick arms gave an impression of size and strength. He had close-cropped, steely gray hair, and none of us in his dog-training class had any reason to doubt that he was the Marine he claimed to be.

You’ve never heard of him, but he had as much impact on my life and career as anyone I’ve ever met.

I encountered him (I’ll call him Mark) in 1969, when he stood in the middle of a circle of people and dogs that included me and my adolescent Saint Bernard. This was back when comedian Bill Cosby was young and edgy and the ultimate in cool. And cool my husband and I wanted to be. So cool that, instead of buying silver tableware, we turned my aunt’s wedding-present money into a St. Bernard puppy and named him Cosby, oblivious to her thoughts on the matter.

Cosby arrived as a 15-pound, sevenweek- old pup, and proceeded to barrel through our lives and hearts like a miniature Mack truck. At 10 weeks, he crawled up onto a table and ate our chocolate wedding cake while I was getting married in a bright gold dress to the strains of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and my father’s conservative banker friends were rolling their eyes and downing their drinks in shock.

Cosby grew fast, and in short order, we had 100 pounds of furry adolescence on our hands. Determined to be responsible—at least, my 19-year-old version of it—I insisted that we enroll our new dog in a training class. (It is unclear how responsible it was for two impoverished people to get a Saint Bernard in southern California, but that was then—my only excuse.) At the time, training classes were all called “obedience” classes, and were far less common than they are now. It took some digging, but I found an advertisement that looked good, checked out the references at my vet clinic and signed up my by-then seven-month-old Saint Bernard.

Class was held in a parking lot, and Mark told all the participants to stand in a circle and listen up. He talked to us briefly about the importance of being “alpha,” of insisting that our dogs respect us and do what we say, just because we say it. I remember nodding my head in agreement. Surely he was right, this authoritative man who wowed us all with a demonstration of his precisely obedient German Shepherd.

He showed us how to put on a “choke collar” (his words), and how to pop the leash quickly and firmly right after saying “Sit.” He cautioned us to use a strong, authoritative voice, lest our dogs think us weaklings who shouldn’t be respected. A Golden Retriever was brought from the circle for illustration. “Sit!” shouted Mark, as he jerked up on the leash. She sat, her face befuddled but friendly.

We were then charged as a group to try it ourselves. I had already taught Cosby to sit when asked, but I piped out the word with vigor. It was a much less commanding version than the trainer’s, but it was my best attempt at saying “Sit!” with authority. Cosby sat, although slowly. His response was good enough for me, but I threw worried glances toward Mark, afraid he’d see my dog’s reaction as some sort of canine passive resistance and insist that I pop the leash.

Cosby and I were spared, but not the Basenji and his 20-something owner. It seemed the Basenji hadn’t gotten the memo and was ignoring both verbal and physical commands. Congo, I’ll call him, was too busy checking out a dainty Miniature Poodle across the circle. Mark watched with concern, and then brought Congo into the center of the ring to show us how it was done.

“Sit!” he bellowed, and snapped the leash so hard that Congo’s front feet left the ground. Instead of sitting, Congo planted his feet more firmly and looked directly into Mark’s eyes. If I’d known then what I know now, I would’ve seen the hard, cold look in Congo’s eyes and not been so surprised when he lunged at Mark right after he was leash-popped again. To a person, everyone in the circle gasped.

Mark raised his arm, lifting all four of Congo’s feet off the ground. The dog had on a “training” collar, the kind that tightens without stopping until it simply can’t tighten anymore. What happened next was a bit of a blur. I remember Mark yelling, and I remember Congo yowling and screaming and somehow climbing up the leash, almost managing to sink his teeth into the trainer’s arm.

And then, in an image imprinted on my brain like a lithograph, Cosby let out a whimper and turned 180 degrees away from the drama in the center of the ring. He lay down, placing his huge, soppy head flat on the dirty asphalt. Meanwhile, I remained motionless, frozen by the scene unfolding in front of me. The Basenji was still hanging in midair. He was running out of oxygen, turning blue in the lips, but still screaming and frothing at the mouth. By now Mark looked equally desperate, angry and out of control—eyes wild and spittle flying from his mouth as he continued to yell.

I took one look at Cosby, saw the wisdom in his choice, and walked away, shaking; I shook until I got home. I called Mark the next day and asked for my money back. I never got it, but here’s what I did get: an invaluable lesson in how never to train a dog. That day was a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with compulsion training. It only works some of the time, and when it doesn’t, people and animals can get hurt. It forces animals to be defensive, and it creates defensive aggression in many of them. It never tells the animal what we want him to do, but rather, waits to punish him for not doing it. It teaches an animal not to think for himself, but to avoid doing anything until told, and to be afraid of trying out something new. Most importantly, it destroys the relationship we should be striving for with our best friends. Friends don’t try to strangle each other, and they don’t punch each other in the face when they don’t cooperate.

After leaving the class, I did my best to train Cosby on my own. He wasn’t the best of dogs, but he wasn’t the worst either. Years after Cosby died, I saw Ian Dunbar talk about “Lure/Reward” training and champion the effectiveness and benevolence of positive reinforcement. I didn’t have a dog of my own then; I was studying communication between handlers and working animals for my graduate research, and had attended his seminar to add to my data. I expected to get information that I could use for my research, but I didn’t expect the weekend to solidify and expand my understanding of what a relationship between a person and a dog could be. As I watched Dunbar teaching happy and exuberant puppies to sit and lie down, I replayed the scene of Mark and the Basenji over and over again in my mind.

I began to watch the handlers I was working with (over a hundred of them, from race-horse jockeys to drug-dog trainers) and noticed how cheerful and encouraging some were, and how others were loud and forceful. I observed how quickly the animals learned when they were trained with positive methods, and how consistently they responded. I saw how many dogs and horses looked nervous and afraid around their trainers, and how the anger in the trainer’s voices overwhelmed everything else.

Although I never would have predicted it, those lessons led to a life dedicated to improving relationships between people and animals. It’s a life that owes a tremendous debt to all the special people who have taught me so much about animal behavior, from Ian Dunbar and my major professor, Jeffrey Baylis, to many of the people highlighted in this issue. But most of all, this is a column for Mark, whoever and wherever he is, because it was he who burned into my soul the dark side of our relationship with dogs and, irony of ironies, made the bright side so much sweeter.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Love Story
Our extraordinary love affair with dogs.

In 1992, I fell in love with a dog named Luke. I brought him home from a herding dog trial one chilly October evening, not sure whether I’d keep him, not sure I wanted another dog. A gangly adolescent, Luke had been a disappointment to his first owner, who reported that he wouldn’t come when called and had failed his first herding lessons. I’d had my eye on him ever since he was a pup, and had told the owner to let me know if she ever decided to sell him. When she did (I had more dogs than I needed, but every time I saw Luke something clicked inside, as if I’d finally found the combination to an old padlock I carried around, unopened), I took one last look at his bright, expectant face, wrote out a check, and drove him home through the red and orange hills of a Midwestern autumn.

By sundown of the next day, Luke and I had fallen in love. I don’t know any other way to
describe it. I say “fallen in love” with the knowledge that eyes will roll, lips will purse, and heads will shake. “That’s pathetic,” someone said to me once when I described my love for Luke. It seems that people either get it or not; like the yes-no simplicity of digital computers, the world sorts us into those people who’ve been deeply moved by an animal, and those who can take them or leave them. I learned to censor myself, to test the waters by volunteering some platitude like “Yep, he’s a great dog, Luke,” instead of a deeper, more complex attempt to express how much I loved him.

Although the love we have for our dogs is often trivialized, there’s nothing trivial about it. A few weeks after my father died, one of my mother’s dogs was killed by a car. A visitor had come to help sort out my father’s affairs, and unbeknownst to anyone, Jenny the exuberant Irish Setter had dashed out the door, running free and wild and no doubt, full of innocent and cheerful abandon. She was killed half a mile down the road, in front of the church where my father’s service was held. My mother, stalwart and noble after my father’s death, sobbed so hard and for so long about her dog’s death that it seemed as if her grief would physically rip her apart. I thought at the time, as did many, that Jenny’s death allowed my mom to truly grieve the death of her husband. I don’t think so now. My mother loved my father, but their relationship was burdened with disappointments and perceived betrayals. But Jenny? Jenny sparkled with nothing but joy and devotion. She asked for little and gave everything she had in return. These were no hard words late at night, no angry glances or saturated silences. No baggage. She loved Mom; Mom loved her: simple as that.

We’re not always comfortable with the depth of emotion we can have for our dogs, but profound love isn’t uncommon. I recently read an article about a teenager who risked his life to save his dog from a burning building. A tough-minded rancher once told me he’d rather die than abandon his cattle dog in a snowstorm. The evidence is overwhelming that during the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, hundreds if not thousands of people chose to risk death rather than leave their animals behind. The state of Florida learned this lesson well during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, when thousands of people refused to evacuate because the shelters wouldn’t take pets. These decisions compromised the safety of so many people that the state now provides shelters for pets as well as for people.

The lengths that normal people will go to in order to protect their dogs testifies to the love and devotion many of us have for them. I remember a Wisconsin woman who was interviewed after a tornado destroyed her home and all of her belongings. “We’re okay,” she kept saying, clutching her dog to her chest, “we’re okay, that’s what matters.” “We’re okay” meant her husband, her children, and her dog; she wasn’t sorting them out by species. After the tragedy of Katrina, I heard discussions all over the country about what each of us would do if we were told to evacuate without our pets. What would you do if you had to choose between the safety of evacuation and risking your life to stay with your dog? Everyone at my office said we couldn’t imagine living with the knowledge that we’d left our dogs behind, although we’d do it if we were forced to evacuate to save our children. Merely the thought of making such a choice was so upsetting we could barely talk about it. Our response wasn’t unique to people whose lives and careers are devoted to dogs. My farm’s pragmatic chain-sawing, brush-clearing handyman said that someone would have to shoot him before he’d leave his Rat Terrier behind to die.

What in heaven’s name is going on here? Risking your life for a member of another species? Loving your dog as much as you love a human? That’s flat-out amazing if you think about it. And yet, even if some people think it’s crazy, those of us who love dogs love them like family, or perhaps more accurately, like the family we always wanted.

Surely love, “an intense feeling of tender affection and compassion,” is the foundation of our relationship with dogs. I remember when I got my first Border Collie, Drift. Like an infatuated teenager, I was obsessed with his every move. I thought about him constantly, watched with a sense of wonder as he licked his paws, purred with comfort and completion when we cuddled together on the couch. There are millions of people who feel the same way, whose dogs bring them a unique happiness not found in other relationships.
I’m not talking about people who love animals more than they love people. I’m talking about people who love people, who have enriching, healthy relationships with friends and family and co-workers, and yet who love dogs so much they describe them as one of their greatest joys in life. People who skip having drinks with co-workers after work because their dogs have been alone too long; people who take their dogs on vacation, who use limited funds to buy them toys and food, who borrow money to pay the vet bill. I meet people everywhere who just want to talk about their dogs, about the silly little trick their Cairn Terrier learned all by himself, or the endearing way their Greyhound cuddles with them on the couch.

Our love for dogs is intense, pervasive, and sometimes heroic. If you think about it, it’s as remarkable as the physics of electrons and the wonder of outer space. It deserves our attention, and a good place to start is with the biology of love itself.

The Biology of Love
In a 2005 op-ed piece in The New York Times, the biologist Bernd Heinrich said: “Functionally, I suspect love is often [a] temporary chemical imbalance of the brain induced by sensory stimuli that causes us to maintain focus on something that carries an adaptive agenda.” Doesn’t make you all warm and mushy, now does it? However, Heinrich’s point was not to diminish love’s beauty, but to argue that love has a biological basis, and that there’s no reason to believe that we can claim it as uniquely human.

Oxytocin also plays a significant role in other kinds of love—familial, romantic, and even sexual. Oxytocin levels rise when friends hug, when mothers cuddle their babies, and when lovers have sex. It’s a “one size fits all” hormone, mediating love and attachment in all social relationships that involve feelings of care and connection. Women have higher levels of it than do men, which is not surprising, given oxytocin’s role in childbirth and lactation. Social animals have higher levels of it than solitary ones, a fact exemplified in two species of small mouselike animals called voles. The females of one species, which is highly social, have high levels of oxytocin, while, in the other, downright unsocial species, the females have exceptionally low levels. In people, higher levels of oxytocin correlate with higher levels of attachment and connection. Researchers have even found that spraying oxytocin into the nasal passages of human subjects doubled their tendency to trust others in a “game” that involved giving over custody of their money. In the not-too-distant future it will be wise to steer clear of blind dates with nasal spray bottles.

The central role of oxytocin helps explain why some people, and some dogs for that matter, seem to be more loving and nurturing than others. Individuals vary in how much of the hormone they produce and how effectively they can utilize it when it’s circulating. Individual experience can have a profound effect on people’s ability to feel warm and loving toward others, too; one study found that children adopted from neglectful orphanages had lower levels of oxytocin after cuddling with their mothers than normal children did. However, remember that the impact of experience is constrained by the brain and the body it acts upon. Just as a painter can only work with the canvas and colors she has in front of her, so the effect of experience is influenced by the brain that absorbs it. I often wonder about oxytocin levels when I meet a dog whose aloof behavior breaks her owner’s heart—does the dog have low levels of oxytocin, owing either to genetics or to early development? At present, I know of no one who is using oxytocin therapeutically (except for medical conditions relating to birth and lactation), but perhaps someday we’ll be able to spray stand-offish dogs with oxytocin and turn them into social butterflies.

Love’s Perfect Storm
Oxytocin and dopamine may help us understand the biology behind our strong feelings of attachment, but it doesn’t explain why members of one species—ours—should be so ready to lose their hearts to a member of another species. Not only that, but why dogs? Of all the animals on earth, why is it dogs who have settled into our hearts like rain on the desert? Just sitting in a room with a dog can decrease your blood pressure and heart rate. Petting your dog makes oxytocin flood your body and increases the frequency of brainwaves associated with feelings of peace and contentment. Dogs can even elicit positive responses from emotionally damaged people when the best efforts of family and doctors have failed. Every group that takes dogs to nursing homes has its own story about an unresponsive patient who opened up for the first time in years after petting a dog. But why? Why are dogs such masters at working their way into our hearts as no other animal can?

The traditional answer to the question of why we so love dogs is that they give us “unconditional love” or “nonjudgmental positive regard.” To a large extent, this rings true. The cheerful, loving nature of most dogs brings us a purity of emotion hard to find anywhere else, no matter how much we want it. But I think we need to address this question in more depth. Perhaps our love for dogs, and their love for us, is too complex to be explained by any one factor. It seems most likely that, at its best, the special bond we have with dogs is the result of a number of things, combining together into a “perfect storm” of love and devotion.

First, as we’ve already seen, the faces of dogs are remarkably expressive, and many of their expressions are similar to ours. More than any other animal except our own children (and possibly chimpanzees), dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves. The faces of dogs are like living, breathing, fur-covered emotions, with none of the masking and censoring made possible by the rational cortex of mature adult humans. The expressiveness of dogs gives them a direct line to the primitive and powerful emotional centers of our brains, and connects us in ways that nothing else ever could. When we look at dogs, we’re looking into a mirror. That they express happiness so well, and that happiness is contagious, is just icing on the cake.

Second, the sociability of dogs is similar in many ways to that of humans. Dogs evolved from one of the world’s most social species and naturally seek companionship. That’s why sheep-guarding dogs stay with the flock, that’s why some dogs form friendships with horses that last a lifetime, and that’s why your dog is waiting at the window when you drive home from work. Dogs will live alone if they have to, but as long as there are enough resources to go around, dogs will always choose the company of others. This is as true of adult dogs as of puppies. In many other species, the young can form strong attachments to others, but once they’ve matured, their interest in forming new bonds decreases. Not so dogs—you can become best friends with an older dog in just days or weeks, so strong is their desire for companionship.

Although dogs cling to any kind of social relationship, they don’t treat humans as any port in a storm. They seem to be as attracted to us as we are to them. Even dogs who’ve been socialized for only minutes as puppies are able to form strong attachments to people. (Usually, however, only to a small group of highly familiar people; they remain uncomfortable around strangers all their lives.) By contrast, wolves must be taken away from their mothers at three weeks and raised by humans to be comfortable around us as adults. And dogs want more than just to hang out with us; they seem to want to understand us, and to want us to understand them. They watch our faces all the time for information, just as humans do when they’re unsure of what another person is trying to communicate. You can see people do the very same thing, in a game that dog trainers play to sharpen their skills. One person uses a clicker to train another to perform some action, in a kind of “warmer/colder” game. No words or visual cues are allowed; there’s just the sound of the click to tell the trainee that she’s on the right track. Yet even though trainees are told they’ll get no other information, they turn to look at the face of the trainer when they become confused. Dogs do exactly that when they’re confused about what we want: herding dogs will break their focused stare to turn and look at their handler’s face with the visual equivalent of “What?!” Dogs might even be better at decoding certain types of human signals than our closest relatives, chimpanzees. In some studies, chimpanzees, even ones familiar with people, weren’t able to locate hidden food if the experimenter pointed to it. Subsequent studies on dogs suggested that they were more adept than our closest relatives at the task.

A dog’s desire to communicate with people fits within the bounds of a dog’s evolutionary baggage, in which pack members hunted together, raised their young together, and fought to the death to keep the group together. You can’t coordinate your efforts as a group without some kind of communication, so it’s no wonder that dogs are as obsessed with social communication as we are. But dogs’ desire and ability to communicate, and their formation of attachments, transcend species boundaries. Research found that in novel environments, kenneled dogs were calmer in the presence of a human caretaker than with a dog they’d been kenneled with for over two months. It’s remarkable that an animal would choose an individual of an entirely different species for comfort and companionship. Imagine being lost and alone in the jungle and stumbling upon a person and a bird—and bonding with the bird and ignoring the person. In one study, dogs living in shelters formed attachments to people after only minimal contact. It took only three ten-minute sessions of petting for dogs to become attached, and for the dogs to stand at the door, waiting, if the person left the room.

Some explanations of dogs’ attachment to humans are not particularly romantic. Psychologist John Archer argues that dogs are simply social parasites, who have learned to manipulate our emotions so as to obtain free food, safety, and, in some cases, appointments with certified canine massage therapists and animal communicators. Lord knows dogs are an evolutionary success story: just compare the numbers of dogs in any given country with the number of wolves. However, the biological success of dogs doesn’t negate the profound feelings of love and devotion that go along with it; we don’t dismiss the love of parent for child simply because it’s to the parent’s advantage to pass on his or her genes. I think it’s shortsighted—sad, really—to dismiss the love that dogs have for us in such mechanistic terms.

Still, there is an important truth to be found in an objective view of our relationship with dogs. Painful though it might be, we need to re-examine the belief that dogs give us unconditional love. There’s no question but that most of our dogs love us, and there’s little doubt that, sometimes, their love is often almost epic in its intensity. However, the chance that our dogs are never irritated with us is slim at best. How convenient, then, that they can never say so.
You may wish with all your heart that you could talk to your dog, but as we’re often reminded, we’d better watch out for what we wish for, because we just might get it. The power of speech is a wonderful thing, but it comes with a price. It’s not true that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” We all know that bruises and cuts often heal faster than the damage done by a cruel com¬ment. Personally, I’m glad my dogs can’t nail me with the kind of hurt¬ful remark that can come out of the mouths of even the kindest of friends. I’m quite sure that sometimes I’d rather not know what my dogs had to say. I’m reminded of the “words” of Washoe, a chimpanzee raised by Beatrice and Robert Gardner, who ordered trainers she didn’t like out of the room with the American Sign Language for “You green pile of poop.”

We might yearn to tell our dogs why they can’t go on a walk while their injured foot heals, or to explain that we’re only leaving town for a couple of days, but I doubt that we’d have the pure, uncluttered connections we now enjoy if the relationship were burdened by language. In The New Work of Dogs, Jon Katz tells a story about a man who loved his dog because the dog was the only individual he didn’t have to talk to. Katz suspects that men often love dogs because dogs never ask them to talk about their feelings. Women love dogs so much, he suggests, because they see them as being so supportive. A study reported in The New York Times found that half of the female veterinary students surveyed said they got more emotional support from their dogs than they did from their husbands. Surely our perception that dogs are supportive is bolstered by the fact that they can’t tell us to shut up when we’re talking too much. The fact is, some dogs probably do give us unconditional love, but not all dogs do, and most dogs don’t every minute of every day. It just feels that way, given their expressiveness, their childlike cheerfulness, and bless it, their inability to communicate in words. Overall, it seems that what we can’t say to dogs is a small price to pay for what we gain from our wordless style of communication.

As if emotionality, expressiveness, a high degree of sociability, and the inability to tell us to shut up weren’t enough, there’s another important factor that influences our devotion to dogs. We humans have evolved to be protective and nurturing to big-eyed, dependent young mammals, and dogs elicit this state of mind from us with a force stronger than any hurricane. Like young children who stimulate our feelings of nurturance, dogs are nonverbal and have limited abilities. They can’t go to the store and buy food; they can’t open the door and let themselves out. If we left for work one day and never came home, they’d die, trapped and alone and unable to take care of themselves. In these ways they are the exact equivalent of young humans—nonverbal and dependent, wrapped in a fluffy, fuzzy package that says “I’m cute and cuddly and I need you.”

Our feelings of parental love and nurturance are not to be sneezed at; they’ve kept primates like us going for millions of years. The parents of many animals walk away without a care once the eggs are laid or the sperm is transferred, but we shower our young with attention and care over a prolonged period. Lions may raise their young with affectionate licks and cuddles, but they’ll walk away and let their babies starve to death to save their own lives. Not so humans, dogs, or wolves: we’re obsessed with raising, nurturing, and protecting our young, and we’ll sacrifice our own lives to save theirs. Just the sight of young, helpless mammals can change our internal hormonal balance and increase the amount of oxytocin in our bloodstream. Although our complicated brains enable us to be rational and creative, underneath that complexity are ancient structures that generate primal reactions to big-eyed, fluffy mammals. As the writer and behaviorist Karen London so aptly said, “Dogs, the source of so much pure joy and warm comfort, are a reminder that perhaps the passion in our lives is too great to be contained within the bounds of humanity.” There’s great truth to that, and it’s based not on some neurotic need to replace our feelings toward people with feelings toward dogs, but on a deep-seated biological drive to nurture small, dependent things.

So there you have it, a perfect package of love, an animal whose looks and behavior leave many of us weak in the knees. Dogs elicit the love and the desire to nurture that we’re designed to feel toward young dependent mammals, and their expressiveness just ups the ante. The mere sight of them bathes us with the hormones associated with love and devotion. At the same time, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, we feel from them the kind of love we want from our parents, that no-holds-barred, “unconditional” love that psychologists tell us we’ve all been seeking since infancy. It’s a double whammy of epic proportions—we love them like children, and at the same time feel loved by them with the kind of pure, primal love that we needed when we were babies ourselves. Wow. Dogs get us coming and going. In truth, we’re the ones who are helpless.

From For the Love of a Dog by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Reducing Fear in Your Dog
A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it

It was one in the morning, and I was wide awake. Thunderstorms had been rolling like waves over the farm all night, and this one was so loud I thought the windows might break. Lassie, my 14-year-old Border Collie, lay panting beside me. She’s almost deaf, but the combination of a falling barometer, lightning flashes and the crashes of thunder were enough to send her into a panic. As we lay there together, I stroked her soft old head, thinking about the advice to avoid petting a dog who reacts to thunder. “You’ll just teach them to be more fearful,” according to the traditional wisdom. Only one thing: It’s not true.

We’ve been taught for ages that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical, in a cut-and-dried, stimulus-and-response kind of way. Your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what happens, and here’s why. First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.

Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse—you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating chocolate mocha fudge the first time it happened.

There’s another reason petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make him worse, and it couldn’t hurt to take a deep breath before you read it. Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* If it doesn’t decrease stress, how could it act as reinforcement? Before you write describing how your loving touch calms your own dog, please note that (1) I didn’t do the research; (2) my own dogs stop pacing and whining when I pet them during storms; and (3) I don’t care what the research says, it makes me feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything, so I do it anyway.

Studying Stress
Humor aside, it’s important to be specific about what the study actually found. The authors measured the production of cortisol, a hormone related to stress. They found that cortisol levels did not decrease when the dogs were being petted by their guardians during storms. (The most important factor in decreasing cortisol was the presence of other dogs.) Interestingly, another piece of research on social bonding found that although cortisol levels decrease in people when they are interacting with dogs, cortisol does not decrease in dogs in the same context.** However, in both species, other hormones and neurotransmitters increased, including oxytocin, prolactin and beta-endorphin—all substances that are associated with good feelings and social bonding. So, while petting your dog during a storm may not decrease cortisol levels associated with stress, it is still possible that something good could be happening.

On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make her more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting her are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.

A Classical Approach
The greatest damage that’s done with outdated “don’t pet the dog” advice doesn’t relate to storms, but to the pitfalls of trying to explain classical counter-conditioning (CCC). CCC can be a profoundly effective way to change behavior, because it changes the emotions that drive the behavior in the first place. A typical example in applied animal behavior is having visitors throw treats to a dog who is afraid of strangers.

Understandably, many a client has asked, “But isn’t giving him treats when he’s barking and growling just going to make him worse? Won’t he get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no, not if his behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.

Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do. But that’s exactly what I did to cure another Border Collie, my Pippy Tay, when she developed a fear of storms many years ago.

CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or, in Pippy Tay’s case, combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your dog.

Thunder Treats
Pippy and I would run outside and play ball every time a storm loomed. Pip loved ball play, and I wanted her to associate the feelings she had when fetching with a drop in barometric pressure. Once the storm rolled in, we’d go inside and I’d feed her a piece of meat every time we heard thunder, no matter how Pip was behaving. I wasn’t worried about her behavior; I was focused on the emotions inside that caused the behavior.

I even put thunder on cue. “Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!” I’d say each time we heard the thunder growl. Mind you, these words would come through clenched teeth at three in the morning, but for two summers, I chirped about thunder treats, pulled out the drawer beside the bed and fed Pip after each thunderclap. By the end of the summer, Pip stopped lacerating my face with panicked attempts to crawl inside my mouth to hide from the storm. She began to sleep through moderately loud storms, not even waking up to beg for treats when the thunder rolled. She came over to me when things got really loud, but with little of the panic she’d shown before.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should share that as Pip improved, I became conditioned in the other direction. I began to dislike storms, because even the quietest of them required that I stay awake long enough to hand Pip a treat after each thunderclap. And now that Pip is gone, it seems I’ll have to start again with Lassie. Sigh. Maybe I should give myself a piece of chocolate every time I hand a treat to Lassie!

Fear Is Contagious
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the one way you can make a fearful dog worse, and that’s by becoming scared yourself. The emotion of fear is so compelling that it is easy to spread around. “Emotional contagion” is the ethological term used to describe the viral spread of fear within a group, and it’s a common occurrence among social species. If you want your dog to be afraid of thunder, strangers or other dogs, just get scared yourself. If you’re afraid of storms, it is entirely possible that your dog will pick up on it and become more nervous.

However, if you are scared (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body—slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.

I kept that in mind last night as I cooed, “Oh boy! Thunder treats!” and fed Lassie tasty snacks from the bedside table. I had a lot more reasons to be scared than she did—she didn’t know that the basement was flooding, the white water crashing down the hill was threatening to take out the barn, and the roads were washing away all around us. All she knew was that every thunder roll predicted a piece of chicken, and that I seemed to think it was a great game. She settled down relatively soon, but I lay awake for hours. I guess it really is time to put some chocolate in the drawer beside the bed. If, the next time they see me, friends notice that I’ve gained a lot of weight, they’ll know it’s been a stormy summer.

*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005. “Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95:153–168.
**J.S.J. Odendaal & R.A. Meintjes. 2003. “Neurophysiological correlates of affiliative behaviour between humans and dogs.” The Veterinary Journal 165:296-301.

 

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Lessons from Sheepdogs
The source of a lifetime of learning

As I write this, I have just come back from a day at the 2011 World Herding Dog Trials in northern England. I was in the UK once many years ago, watching the International Sheepdog Trials. I was just getting started with sheepdogs and had not yet begun to work as a behaviorist. Over the years, I’ve learned a lot, and I hope to learn a lot more in the future. But the lessons I’ve been taught by herding dogs are as timeless as they are valuable, and are a fitting subject for my last regular column for The Bark.

Rewind the video to 1981, and imagine a dog and a sheep, nose to nose. Kate, a tiny, all-black Border Collie, and Number 437, a fluffy, white Cheviot sheep, are having a discussion about where the ewe should go next. This is where it all started for me: watching a Border Collie face-off with a sheep who had no intention of backing up.

Still in school, searching for a topic for a senior honors thesis at the University of Madison, I tumbled into the world of sheepherding much like Alice fell down the rabbit hole. Dr. Jeffrey Baylis, the professor who later became my dissertation advisor, suggested that I investigate a “natural form” of communication between humans and other animals rather than communication with dolphins as I had initially suggested.

Days later, I stood in a field a few miles north of Madison and watched Kate streak away from trainer/handler Jack Knox toward a flock of sheep on a far hill. As is so often true for each of us, I didn’t know that this one brief moment would change my life. All I was aware of at the time was the way my heart swelled as I watched the little dog run in a wide, sweeping circle up an emerald-green hill, stopping behind a cloud of wooly white sheep. I thought I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life. Thirty years later, I haven’t changed my mind.

It was sheepdogs who got me started in dog training and behavior, and sheepdogs who continue to inspire and instruct me. Herding may be a relatively rare activity — it’s hard to raise a flock of sheep in downtown Chicago — but its lessons are relevant to anyone who loves dogs. I offer them here in the hope that, in some way, they will mean as much to you as they have to me.

First, and perhaps too obvious to mention, dogs need clarity. Since we don’t share a common language, that’s not always easy. Heaven knows, it’s hard enough for two humans to communicate clearly, much less individuals of different species. Here’s an example from the world of sheepdogs of the challenges we face. Years ago, I had nothing but trouble when I was learning to work with a dog to split off (or “shed”) some sheep from the main group. It’s hard enough to develop the finesse required to separate a couple of sheep from the flock, but you also have to let your dog know which group he is required to move away. Time after time, I’d “tell” Luke to drive away one group and like clockwork, he would focus on the other. I’d be left standing open-mouthed, thinking, No, no! Not THAT one, the other one! How could he get it wrong? I’d use a crystal-clear sweeping arm movement, look directly at the group I wanted him to move and say “That one.” And Luke would make a 180-degree turn and drive away the other group.

It took someone who knew dogs far better than I to sort it out. “Where are your feet pointing?” he asked, after watching me unsuccessfully attempt to shed off some sheep at a clinic. “My feet? Do I have feet? I’m too busy with my eyes, my head and my arm to think about my feet.” Agility handlers around the world are smiling here, having learned, as I finally did, that dogs will most reliably go in the direction your feet are pointing, not where your arm or face directs. Sure enough, although I’d been pointing and looking toward the chosen group, my feet had been pointing the other way. To Luke, it was obvious which group I wanted; I can only imagine his frustration when he followed my instructions and then learned that, somehow, he hadn’t done what I wanted in spite of my “clear communication.”

Examples of inadvertent miscommunication between a person and a dog are endless. I have a litany of my own, which prevents any smugness I might be tempted to feel as I watch clients confuse their dogs. This issue of clarity of communication is surely the most basic and critical aspect of a good and respectful relationship. It is not a simple one, involving as it does many aspects of behavior — from understanding canine ethology, being able to “read” dogs, knowing how to use operant and classical conditioning and teaching dogs how to behave in an alien society.

The second lesson is best illustrated by yet another mistake I made, albeit a more amusing one. At least, it’s amusing now — not so much then. Picture a blue-sky autumn day and a festival of all things Scottish outside of Milwaukee. My friend, Nancy Rafetto, and I had been asked to do a herding/ retrieving demonstration for the Milwaukee Highland Games. It was great fun for everyone: people enjoyed watching the dogs and Nancy and I got to teach under-the-radar science by illustrating the genetic predispositions of different breeds. Her Golden Retriever returned any objects that she threw but play-bowed to the sheep, while my Border Collie, ignoring the balls, collected the sheep and returned them to me. First, we’d work each dog separately; then we’d throw a ball into the middle of the flock, send out both dogs simultaneously, and watch the retriever barrel through the sheep to retrieve the object and the herding dog gather the flock together again. At least, that was the plan. We’d done it before in a variety of environments and it was always a crowd-pleaser.

However, this time, I violated a basic rule of working with animals: be prepared. I had forgotten my whistle, which allows us to communicate with dogs when they are a good distance away and is far better than using vocal commands in a noisy environment. I remembered my whistle on our way to the festival, but thought, Oh, it’ll be fine. Famous last words in behavior and training, hey? It probably would have been fine, since Luke was well trained to verbal signals, but just before I sent him to gather the flock, a marching band struck up right behind us. I couldn’t hear myself think, much less communicate with Luke. The sheep were about 100 yards away, and I paused; they were enclosed by a tall, dense hedge, and I thought they would stay on the field until the band took a breath and Luke could hear my signals.

To my abject horror and the obvious amusement of the crowd, the sheep melted into and through the hedge like cartoon animals moving through a solid wall into another dimension. Nancy was left to entertain the crowd while I ran across the field, pushed through the hedge with Luke and looked desperately for my sheep in what was now a suburban neighborhood complete with sidewalks; multicolored, one-story houses; and two-car garages. We finally found the sheep on the porch of a blue ranch-style house. We pursued them into and out of the garage (I swear I heard someone say “Marge, I think there are sheep in our driveway”) and eventually drove them back through the hedge. The crowd had given up by then, and Nancy and I tucked our tails and drove home. We were not asked back the next year.

Not everyone has been as foolish as I, but it is universally true that one of the most important differences between professionals and the general public is the level of preparation. People experienced in the world of dogs think ahead: They think about where the new dog will sleep at night and are ready with X-pens or crates. They have treats by the door for dogs who are fearful of strangers. If they have a puppy, they have a toy in their pocket so they are always ready to divert the pup’s attention from the slippers to something more appropriate. They close the door to the guest room to prevent accidents, and are ready to neutralize urine smells if they find a puddle. It becomes second nature to always have something available to reinforce good behavior and, if possible, to prevent problems from happening in the first place.

The third lesson from sheepdogs comes from a friend, who was on the U.S. National Team for the 2011 World Sheepdog Trials. Peg Anderson had taken her two dogs, Silk and Spot, to England early enough to be able to practice for several days on the hills with local sheep. Although she lives on what I consider to be the perfect farm, with a large, open field ideal for competition practice, she and her dogs needed time to adjust to the new conditions of an unfamiliar country. For the first time in their lives, Peg’s dogs were doing exactly what they had been bred for. Not just herding sheep any which way, but gathering a large flock of sheep scattered like polka dots on a green hill that rose up so high it hurt your neck to look at the top. The dog streams up and up and up like water in reverse, coalescing the sheep into a unified group at the top. Then the entire flock flows down the hill like a wooly white ribbon.

There’s something about the scope of it all that takes your breath away, and apparently it had a profound effect on one of her dogs as well. Peg reported that Spot gained confidence and enthusiasm every day he was there. Like my Willie, Spot didn’t like the pressure that Midwestern sheep and tight spaces often put on a dog, but the f lighty sheep on the big, open hills of northern England brought out the best in him. He came home with more confidence than ever, and has retained it ever since.

The lesson here is not that we should feel guilty if we can’t go to England to work our Border Collies, or arrange for our Chesapeake Bay Retrievers to break ice to retrieve ducks. It is, however, a cautionary note with two parts: One, dog breeds were created not for looks but for behavior, and we need to do a better job of matching a dog’s needs with the environment in which he or she will ultimately live. Two, all dogs, no matter how pure or eclectic their breeding, are individuals. Spot blossomed on the big hills of northern England, but Peg’s other dog, Silk, changed little. She may have enjoyed her time across the pond, but it didn’t affect her like it did Spot. Two Border Collies, two individuals.

Understanding both aspects of canine behavior — breed-related predispositions and unique individual natures — should perhaps be common sense, but in my experience, common sense isn’t actually very, well, common. “No,” I’d say to far too many clients, “please don’t get a German Shorthaired Pointer for your elderly parents who live in downtown San Francisco,” and “Yes, I know that Labradors are generally friendly, social dogs, but your Labrador is a bit shy and sound-sensitive and will not enjoy flyball, no matter how hard you try.”

The final lesson is perhaps the most important of all.

Sometimes a sheep will face off with a dog: head to head, eye to eye, just inches between them. She will put her head down so far that her nose is almost touching the dog’s muzzle, and then feint forward. Insecure dogs panic and charge, causing the sheep to scatter like deer or, worse, to fight the dog in a nasty contest between sharp teeth and an anvil-like skull. In sheepherding circles, we call that a “wreck,” because rarely does any good come of it. But the best dogs, the great dogs, stand motionless, never flicking an ear or withdrawing an inch. It may take one second or it may take 20, but eventually, the ewe will sense the dog’s commitment, and turn her nose, twitch her ears and back away.

These dogs are models for those of us enmeshed in the controversies surrounding how best to raise and train our four-legged best friends. Those who believe that dogs deserve to be treated with respect and understanding need to stand firm, quiet and confident in our commitment. If I were queen and could change one thing right now in the dog world, it would be to give people the confidence they need to be openminded and not over-reactive to challenges, while standing strong for what they believe is right.

Like great sheepdogs, those of us who believe in knowledge and respect need to be calm but confident, patient but resolute. One by one, day by day, the naysayers of the training world will turn their heads and find their way into the fold.

With gratitude and thanks to the editors and readers of Bark magazine, I say, “That’ll do, friends, that’ll do.”

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Down with Dominance
Both Ends of the Leash

Here are some “rules” for you dog lovers out there (that is, if you’re given to following just anyone’s advice, whether or not they’re qualified to give it):

• Don’t pet your dog unless he works for it first.
• Don’t let your dog move his head so that it is higher than your own.
• Don’t feed your dog until after you’ve eaten.
• Don’t step around your dog if she’s in your path; make her get up and move, even if she’s sound asleep.
• Don’t let your dog sleep with you or cuddle with you on the couch.
• Don’t clean up after your dog while she’s watching you.

But, never fear. Here’s what you can do:
• Spit in your dog’s food.
• Wipe your baby’s dirty diapers on the wall.

Why, you might ask? Because each action is said to either cause your dog to think he’s dominant over you, or — in the case of the spitting and the wiping — tells your dog that you (and your baby) are dominant over her. Seriously. There are people out there telling us that these tips are critical to our own happiness as well as that of our dogs.

Oh my. Are we really still having this conversation? Are we really still talking about whether or not we need to “get dominance” over our dogs? Ten years ago, I wrote a column for Bark titled “Alpha Schmalpha,” in which I explained that dominance is one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language, at least in relation to dog training. As I and many other trainers and behaviorists repeat endlessly in books, blogs and seminars, dominance is simply a description of a relationship between two individuals who want the same thing.

One animal is said to be “dominant” over the other if he or she always has primary access to the pork chop that falls on the floor, or the favorite toy, or the cozy lap of a dozing guardian. Thus, it’s about the resolution of situations in which there might be competition for a resource. It is not about coming when called, or sitting when told to sit, or accepting unfamiliar dogs into the yard.

We’re not even sure how the concept relates to interactions between dogs, much less to interactions between two entirely different species like people and dogs. At present, thoughtful ethologists and behaviorists are re-evaluating the concepts of “dominance” and “social status” as they relate to the domestic dog. Although there are questions and quibbles about some of the finer points, experts almost universally agree that the concept of “getting dominance” over our dogs is, at best, not useful, and more often is harmful to our relationships with our best friends.

Yet, the idea that we must “dominate” our dogs lives on, zombie-like, in spite of years of research and experience that demonstrates “being dominant” over our dogs does not improve obedience. In fact, we know that using positive reinforcement results in the best behavior, the fewest behavioral problems and the richest relationships. Given that, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: why is the concept of achieving dominance over our dogs so seductive? Why is it so hard for people to give up?

This is most likely not a question with one answer. Given that humans are complex animals, I suspect there are many answers. And, of course, all we can do is speculate. Perhaps thinking about what might motivate us to hang onto this age-old concept can help us finally give it a respectful burial.

Surely one reason that so many people are enamored of the concept is that social status is highly relevant to our species. No matter how egalitarian we are, the fact is that in restaurants, some people get better tables than others, and most of us can’t walk into the governor’s office just to have a chat. We address physicians as “Dr. Johnson” but we call nurses “Anita” or “James”; we ask the judge for “permission to approach the bench”; and if we are lucky enough to be given an audience at Buckingham Palace, we still, still, bow or curtsy to the queen.

However, we don’t seem to make the mistake within our own species that we make with our dogs, confounding social status or control with teaching or conveying information. We may take away our children’s cell phones to make them spend more time studying algebra, but we don’t think that our ability to do so actually teaches them algebra. And yet, we tend to do that with our dogs all the time. Dogs are supposed to come when called, refrain from jumping up on company and walk at perfect heel just because we tell them to. Each of those actions requires learning; they are not natural to dogs and have to be taught, much the same as we had to be taught how to solve an equation like 2x – 3 = 5.

Perhaps another reason we are so susceptible to the fallacy of “getting dominance” over our dogs is that it makes dog training seem simple. One-step shopping — just get your dog to accept you as “alpha,” and voilà! Your dog will stop jumping up on visitors and will quietly walk through the neighborhood at your side, ignoring all the interesting stuff, like squirrels and information left by other dogs as they passed by.

No training required, either for your dog or, as importantly, for you. No need to learn timing and reinforcement schedules and how to know when your dog can learn and when she is too tired or distracted to understand what you are trying to teach her. In a world of instant rice and instant messaging and instant information on demand, no wonder a simple, black-and-white concept is attractive.

No matter that dominance has no relation to these issues, or that the way it is presented often equates more to bullying than to social status. Sure, it’s appealing to think that one overriding concept will take care of a host of behavioral issues. And hey, how hard could it be to talk your dog into believing that you are the alpha? You’re the one who can open the door, you’re the one who brings home the dog food and you’re the one with the opposable thumbs and the big brain. Of course, opening doors has nothing to do with sitting when the doorbell rings, but surely being “dominant” will mean that when you say “Sit!” she does. What else would she do?

Well, actually, there are many reasonable responses that a dog can make to a noise coming out of a person’s mouth, such as: have no idea what sit means because she hasn’t been taught to understand what she was supposed to do when she heard the word; or be unable, without training and practice, to control her emotions and sit down when she is overwhelmed with excitement.

Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, the concept of dominance feeds into our desire for control. Let’s face it: we all want control, at least over some things. Influencing the behavior of others is crucial to members of a social species, and is most likely one of the driving forces behind language, facial expressions of emotion and the importance that movie directors pay to the musical score. Heaven knows our desire for control is satisfied rarely enough: world leaders pay no attention to our solutions to one crisis after another — granted, we’ve only been talking to our friends about them, but then that’s my point. We are awash in events that we read about, hear about and post blogs about but have little or no control over. How satisfying then to say “Sit” and have our dogs hear us, do it and look up with a grin.

The idea that all we need is respect (cue Aretha here) and our dog will behave perfectly is understandably seductive. Too bad it’s incorrect. Far worse, it can lead, at best, to a dog who performs because he is intimidated, and at worst, to a dog who is abused. The fact is, dogs will respect us only if we are consistent, clear and fair. They will love and trust us only if we are loving and patient and are able to communicate to them in ways that they understand. That does not mean we need to “spoil” them and allow them to behave like rude and demanding house guests. However, we need to teach them how to behave in the society of another species, rather than expecting them to do what you say just because they “want to please us.” That foolish fantasy is as realistic as a Disney cartoon.

Ah, we all love a good fantasy, don’t we? However, separating fantasy from reality is an important part of being a grown-up. Let’s make it an important part of being a good guardian for our dogs.

I’d write more, but I have to go spit in my dog’s dinner.

Good Dog: Studies & Research
What are the Differences Between Male and Female Dogs?
Do male and female dogs learn differently?

“If you want a good dog, get a male. If you want a great dog, get a female and cross your fingers.” That old saying has been passed down through generations in a variety of fields from retriever training to sheepdog handling. But is it true? Are there significant sex-related differences in the training and performance of the domestic dog? When the editor of Bark asked me that question, I had an answer right away: “I don’t know.” Trying to find a legitimate answer began a fascinating quest, which continues to this day.

The first obvious source for an answer is the annals of research. Ah, but it’s only recently that the dog has migrated from persona-non-grata status in science to an animal of interest. Research on domestic dog behavior is blossoming, but most of it is about cognition and problem solving. That’s great stuff, but it won’t necessarily answer our question. I opened up my file labeled “Very Cool Dog Research” and looked at the studies within to see if any of the researchers had considered the sex of the dog as a factor. Nope.

Then I went back to the classic Genetics and the Social Behavior of the Dog by Scott and Fuller, first published in 1965. They found sex differences in weight gain (males, not surprisingly, growing larger in early adolescence), but concentrated primarily on breed differences, rarely looking at sex as a factor in any of their experiments. They did ask if sex had an influence on what they called “emotional reactivity.” Based on their scoring system, females averaged 5.0 and males 4.9—in other words, no difference at all. (See Scott and Fuller for an explanation of their scoring and statistics.)

At the same time, I put the question out into the universe, querying a group of certified applied animal behaviorists and veterinarians board certified in behavior. I emailed the “Tiger Woods” couple of sheepdog training, Alasdair and Patricia MacRae, and experts in police and military dog training. In my blog,  I asked if trainers thought there were differences in learning and performance between male and female dogs. (I did not ask about intact versus neutered or spayed; more on that later.) The answers were enlightening, interesting and downright amusing.

Here are a few of them:

“Males are softer.”

“Females are softer.”

“Males are more independent.”

“Females are more independent.”

“Males are easier to train than females.”

“Females are easier to train than males.”

I could go on, but you get the idea. Despite these contradictions, I saw some interesting trends. First of all, a great many of the respondents said that, in training and performance, the personality and background of any individual dog were more important factors than sex. Given the disparate opinions summarized above, this is a satisfying and logical statement. Looking back at the dogs in my own life, the two I am most apt to label “stubborn” were a male … and a female. The two who most fit the description “biddable” were a male … and a female. And the two I would call “quickest to learn” were—you guessed it—a male and a female.

Other consistencies in the responses lead to compelling questions in their own right. Many of the answers expressed the belief that males mature more slowly than females, describing young male dogs as “goofy,” “slow to mature” and “less focused than females” in their adolescence. This is an especially interesting observation given that in our own species, girls are known to mature faster than boys. I couldn’t find any veterinarians who knew if this was also true for female dogs, but it doesn’t seem unreasonable.

Another contrast drawn between males and females was that male dogs perform better in certain types of competition. From herding to Schutzhund to retrieving, whether we like it or not, they dominate the winner’s box. Based on their names, 12 of 15 winners of the last 15 years of International Sheepdog Trials were male and two were female (one could have been either). Since 1990, 19 dogs have won the U.S. National Open Retriever Championships. Sixteen were male, two were female, and one is still “unknown” (to me that is; I’m sure someone knows!). This trend is replicable in many of the highly competitive performance sports, especially those that involve large sums of money.

It is challenging to tease out why that might be true. One logical explanation has nothing to do with the ability or competitiveness of either sex. Dog-related sports like herding and retrieving involve a lot of money, and in almost all of them, intact, potentially breeding males and females compete, never neutered or spayed animals. (This raises a complication not addressed in the original question—when we say males, are we talking intact breeding males, or neutered males? Given that there is so little real data on the question of gender, we’ll have to leave this aspect aside for now, but it is important to acknowledge that intact versus neutered could be an important factor.)

If you are running intact animals, as almost all high-powered handlers do in competition, the sex clearly has an effect on which sex you’re going to invest in. You can’t run a female when she’s in heat, and neither is it wise, or ethical for that matter, to run a female when she’s in the latter stages of pregnancy or nursing a litter. Who wants to invest large amounts of time and money in a performer who can do her job only half the time?
In addition, many competitors breed and train their dogs for a living. Say you own more than one top-notch performer. You will surely ask yourself which animal could best support your kennel and buy the dog food—a male who can be bred several times a week for a hefty stud fee, or a female who might produce one (regrettably, sometimes two) litters of puppies a year?

Another explanation is that there is indeed something about a male dog that makes him more competitive under pressure. Testosterone is a powerful drug, and we know it has broad-ranging effects on assertive and aggressive behavior in species as different as rhesus macaque monkeys and mallard ducks (not to mention traders on the stock market, who are more successful if they have longer ring fingers than middle fingers—which is believed to correlate with the production of male hormones in utero. No kidding.)

There’s another possible influence on the behavior of male and female dogs, but this time it relates to our behavior. How much of our demeanor around dogs is based on our expectations of “maleness” and “femaleness”? I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest about it, I find myself strongly influenced by the sex of a dog. I’m not aware that it affects the way I train—I believe that, with good training, individuality trumps sex or breed differences—but I’m sure it influences my perceptions of them in general. Perhaps unconsciously, it has a significant effect on my behavior, and on the behavior of all of us with cultural expectations of how males and females are supposed to behave.

But are these expectations based solely on culture? Or is some of a dog’s personality determined by his or her gender, as with the obvious sex-related behaviors like scent marking, roaming and interspecies conflict? Call me crazy, but I can’t help but believe there is something inherently different about male and female dogs that is not just a misplaced human attribution, and that goes beyond the obvious differences. My soul mate dog Cool Hand Luke seemed so male to me that I simply can’t imagine him as anything but a—well, a guy. My “real” guy Jim felt the same way too, admitting to a tiny bit of jealousy when we first started dating, an emotion he never felt around my other three dogs, all females.

Now I have two dogs, Willie, who is one of Luke’s nephews, and Lassie, Luke’s 15-year-old daughter. I simply can’t imagine thinking of Willie as a female, or Lassie as a male. But why? Is this based on any actual sex-related differences in their behavior, or on my culturally imposed expectations? We know that expectations can have profound effects on behavior in our species. Surely it could be true of dogs as well.

You see how complicated this issue can become. (And I pose only a few of the questions that this issue raises—as in “What do you mean, ‘easier to train’? Quicker to associate a sound and a behavior? More consistent once the behavior is first learned?” and the like.)

Here’s what I do know. This is a topic that calls out for research. Dogs are finally coming out of the woodwork as interesting and important in our search to understand the biology of behavior, and this is a perfect vehicle for study. What’s shocking is that we know so little about canine behavior, and what’s exciting is that there is so much to learn. I remember being a freshman in college, sitting in an introductory biology class and thinking, literally, “Oh gosh, everything has been discovered already.” Less than a year later, I had changed my tune, having learned how much we don’t know, and how much new is discovered every year. That’s as true of canine behavior as anything else, and I am thrilled that dogs are finally getting the attention they deserve. For example, Dr. Anneke Lisberg just completed her PhD from the University of Wisconsin on scent-marking behavior in dogs, a topic we know shockingly little about. Dr. Camille Ward completed her University of Michigan dissertation last year on social development and play behavior in puppies. These are but two examples of the kind of rigorous science-based studies that dogs deserve. But we need more, lots more, and I hope the trend of investing time and resources into the study of canine behavior continues to gather steam.

Meanwhile, make your own observations about your dog’s behavior. Do you see differences between males and females related to training and performance? Do you relate to your dogs differently based on whether they are male or female? We’d love to hear what you think; give us your opinion. Meanwhile, back at the farm, I’ll ask Ms. Lassie and Mr. Will their opinion. (Yeah, okay, I really do call them that. Oh my.)

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