Good Dog: Studies & Research
Puppy mill dogs have more behavioral problems
“We found that across all behaviour categories, including trainability, dogs from less responsible breeders had significantly less favourable behaviour and temperament scores than puppies from responsible breeders.”
The above statement by researcher Catherine Douglas sums up the study “Do puppies from ‘puppy farms’ [puppy mills] show more temperament and behavioural problems than if acquired from other sources?” More extensive results were presented at the annual conference of the British Society of Animal Science.
It was the first study in the UK on the behavior and temperament of adult dogs who came from puppy farms, which we call puppy mills on this side of the Atlantic. Dogs were divided into two categories. One set came from puppy farms or other commercial breeding facilities that did not follow the good practice standards of the RSPCA or the Animal Welfare Foundation’s Puppy Contract (less responsible breeders). The other group in the study was made up of dogs who came from responsible breeders who put a priority on the welfare of the breeding dogs as well as of the puppies (responsible breeders).
Dog guardians filled out surveys about the conditions of the facility the dog came from to determine whether the dog came from a puppy farm (or similar) or from a responsible breeder. They were asked such questions as “Were the puppies raised in a home environment? Did you see the mother? At what age did you get your puppy?” They also filled out a standard survey (the CBARQ, or Canine Behavioral Assessment & Research Questionnaire) to evaluate their dog’s behavior. The breeds studied were the Pug, the Jack Russell Terrier and the Chihuahua.
Though there have been many studies about the physical health of dogs from puppy farms, there is far less research about the adult behavior of these dogs. The results of this study overwhelmingly support the common advice NOT to buy a dog from such a place. In every category, the dogs from less responsible breeders were found to have less desirable behavior than dogs from responsible breeders. Specifically, they were more likely to be aggressive to members of the household, more likely to be aggressive to strangers, more likely to be aggressive to dogs, more likely to be fearful of new objects, more likely to have noise phobias, more likely to suffer from separation anxiety, and less likely to be rated high in trainability.
It’s not clear what factors contribute to these extensive differences in temperament and behavior, but there are many possibilities. Stress during pregnancy can contribute to anxiety in puppies and affect their ability to learn in training. Being separated from the mother while very young can also have detrimental effects on adult behavior. There could also be genetic factors that account for some of the differences between the two groups of dogs.
Though the results of this study are not surprising, they do confirm that where we get our dogs matters. Acquiring dogs from puppy farms supports an industry that lacks proper safeguards for animal welfare and also makes it less likely that your best friend will be the ideal companion and family member that we all want.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
“Calming signals” is a term coined by Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas to group a large number of behavior patterns that she says dogs use to avoid conflict, to prevent aggression, to calm other dogs down and to communicate information to other dogs and to people. Since the publication of Rugaas’ 2006 book On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, it has been a popular idea that actions such as lip-licking, sniffing the ground, yawning, scratching, looking away, play bowing, sitting down, lying down, softening the eyes, blinking and even sneezing (along with many others) are social signals that help calm down those around them.
Rugaas’ observations are compelling, and many dog trainers and behaviorists, including me, have learned a lot from her work. However, the term “calming signals” entered the lexicon without much analysis, which is problematic. Using a term that ascribes functionality to behavior patterns prior to scientifically testing whether or not that’s true creates challenges, and is a big no-no in ethology. One problem is that claiming that certain behaviors are “calming signals” creates a bias such that people tend to accept that this is, in fact, what they do. The idea that these signals are functioning in this way is an intriguing hypothesis. However, in the years since Rugaas shared her ideas with the dog community, there have yet to be adequate tests of their function, or substantial efforts to determine if the various behaviors have different functions. Rather, the idea that they were calming signals was broadly accepted without being subject to rigorous scientific study.
There is, however, a recent pilot study investigating the function of the behavior patterns that have all been placed into the category of calming signals. The purpose of the study “Analysis of the intraspecific visual communication in the domestic dog (Canis familiaris): A pilot study on the case of calming signals” was to assess if the behaviors that have been called calming signals are used to communicate, and if they de-escalate potentially aggressive situations between dogs. In the study, 24 dogs were observed interacting two at a time. Dogs interacted with familiar and unfamiliar dogs of both sexes.
Throughout the course of the study, 2130 calming signals were observed, with the most common being head turning, nose licking, freezing and turning away. Dogs were more likely to display calming signals when they were interacting with the other dog compared with when they were not interacting, which does suggest a communicative role. It does not prove it, though, as it is possible that these behaviors indicate stress and that they are performed during social interactions more often than they are performed outside of that context because such interactions are stressful. In fact, most of the signals that Rugaas has called “calming signals” are also considered indicators of stress.
More calming signals were displayed when dogs were interacting closely (within 1.5 body lengths of the dog displaying) than when interacting at a greater distance. Overall, more calming signals were exhibited during interactions with unfamiliar dogs than with familiar dogs, but licking the other dog’s mouth was more frequently observed when the other dog was familiar.
During the interactions in the study, there were 109 instances of aggressive behavior. A calming signal never came right before the aggressive behavior, but 67% of the time, at least one calming signal followed the aggressive behavior. In over 79% of the instances in which a calming signal followed the start of the aggression, there was a de-escalation in the aggressive behavior. These data are consistent with the idea that these behaviors function to calm other dogs down and lessen their aggression, but the work is too preliminary to conclude this for certain. More research is needed to explore other possibilities, such as the role of stress in these behaviors and their effects, and the potentially different functions of each of the dozens of behaviors that have been lumped under the term “calming signals”.
This is a pilot (or preliminary) study, and though the results are intriguing, they are in no way a definitive test of the function of “calming signals” in dogs, which the authors correctly point out in their paper. Though this research makes an attempt to test the often-accepted hypothesis that many behavior patterns function as calming signals that de-escalate aggression, its biggest flaw is that it lacks a very important control. De-escalation of aggression is quite common, and in this study, the authors report the frequency of de-escalation after a calming signal, but do not report on the rate of de-escalation in the absence of a calming signal. Part of the problem is that with so many possible calming signals, it is quite likely that one will be exhibited as a response to aggression. (Dogs are unlikely to have no reaction to such behavior.)
To evaluate the function of the behaviors, it is necessary to know the frequency with which the aggression de-escalates in the absence of any calming signals. We know that there was often de-escalation in the absence of calming signals because the authors report that in quite a few cases, the dog on the receiving end of the aggression walked or ran away, increasing the distance between the two dogs, which was often associated with a de-escalation in aggression. Fleeing is not considered a calming signal, and yet when the distance increased between the two dogs, there was also usually a de-escalation of the aggression. Future research should explore the differences in behavior in cases in which there was de-escalation and in which there was not.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
People are able to interpret these vocalizations
Research in recent years has shown that our brains can process the emotional content of vocalizations based on acoustic structure, and that various mammalian species share the same brain structures used for such interpretation. That means that we ought to be able to interpret the emotional nature of vocalizations from other species much like we understand those of other people.
Multiple studies of communication across species have found that animals can understand the emotional nature of vocalizations made by members of other species. In a number of studies, experience with the other species enhanced the ability to understand calls from that species.
Cross-species communication is particularly interesting between humans and dogs because of the long history we have of associating with one another, leading to the possibility that we have influenced each other’s vocalizations. In order to investigate people’s ability to understand canine growls, researchers conducted a study in which people listened to recordings of dogs growling and were then asked questions about the emotional state of the dogs.
In the study, “Dog growls express various contextual and affective content for human listeners”, 40 people heard recordings of growling dogs. All of the growls were recording in one of three contexts: guarding food from another dog, playing tug with a person and being approached by a stranger. In the first part of the experiment, the people were asked to rate each growl on a sliding scale for each of the following emotions: fear, aggression, despair, happiness and playfulness.
The emotional profiles based on the 40 ratings of all three contexts were different. Food guarding had the highest aggression rating, followed by the stranger context, and the growls from play had the lowest aggression scores. For the other emotional states, the food guarding and stranger context did not differ from each other, but were rated higher in despair and fear than the playful growls and lower in playfulness and happiness than the growls recorded in play.
In the second test, people were asked in which of those three situations the growl was recorded. Overall, people correctly identified the context of 63% of the growls, which is significantly better than the 33% rate that chance predicts. The play growls were most readily identified, with 81% of them being correctly chosen. The food guarding growls were correctly identified 60% of the time, compared with 50% of the growls directed at strangers. Most of the errors in identifying these two (potentially aggressive) contexts involved confusion between the two of them, rather than with the playful context.
The authors conclude from this study that people can distinguish different types of dog growls, including being able to tell apart growls that are both in potentially aggressive contexts. Previous studies have found that people’s ability to understand canine growls is influenced by the time between growls and the duration of the growls. Based on analysis of the acoustic structure of the growls in this study, the key characters of the growls that make them seem different to people are the rhythm of the series of growls and the length of the individual growls within that sequence. Longer gaps between growls is associated with higher aggression scores. Shorter growls are generally perceived as more positive on emotional scales. In growls recorded in the context of a stranger approaching, the higher the pitch of the growl, the higher the fearfulness score.
Individual people varied in their ability to identify the context of the growls. Overall, women were better at it then men. Also dog guardians outperformed people who do not have dogs. Whether or not a person had ever been bitten by a dog had no effect on whether people were able to determine the context of a growl. This study shows that although people in general can interpret the emotion in canine growls, experience plays a role in how well they are able to do so.
Can tell what your dog’s growls mean?
News: Guest Posts
The importance of evaluating the responses
Kids are taught to ask permission before petting a dog with some variation of “May I please meet your dog?” This simple question has the potential to avoid unpleasant interactions, but only if kids are taught how to interpret the possible answers, especially those that are nuanced. The answer might be a simple, “Yes.” It could also be a straightforward “No” for any number of reasons: it’s not safe to pet the dog, the dog will feel uncomfortable if the child attempts to interact, or even that someone is on a tight schedule and doesn’t have time for a meet-and-greet. The person may also seem hesitant but not actually say no, or give an answer that conveys serious concern.
The clear “Yes” answers are easy to figure out. It’s common for people to reply to a request to meet a dog with some variant of “Sure, she loves people!” “He would love that!” or “Absolutely, thanks for asking!” In that case, there is a good chance that the person expects a positive interaction between a child and a dog. They might be wrong, but there’s no sense of worry or concern being expressed, which is encouraging, and it makes sense for kids to approach the dog.
Similarly, a definite “No” from the person is also clear. If a person declines the request, kids should respect that and not approach the dog. Common ways that people prevent an interaction are by saying, “I’m sorry, but she doesn’t like kids,” “She’s too shy, it will upset her,” or “I think not because everything scares her.” They might even say, “No, because she’ll try to bite you.” People who answer in this general way know that the dog can’t handle it and that it would be a mistake to let a child meet the dog.
Unfortunately, there are two general categories of answers that can be ambiguous, and too few children have been taught to understand them. The first set of such answers is generally positive with mild reservations. These usually indicate that the people are not concerned about their dog being aggressive, but they feel embarrassed about some aspect of their dog. These replies are along the lines of, “Okay, but she’s very excitable,” or “Yes, but she may jump on you.” Sometimes people just offer a warning that is not behavioral, such as “If you don’t mind getting a lot of fur on you!” In most cases, these responses are not deal breakers for a meeting, but it does depend on the size of the child as well as the size and enthusiasm level of the dog. If the person expresses that their dog is unruly or shedding, it’s okay to answer, “I don’t mind dog hair,” or “I don’t think jumping up will put a dark blot on her character!” as long as the dog is not so powerful or out of control that someone could get knocked over. This requires a judgment call, and the most conservative approach is for kids not to meet dogs after such replies. At the very least, kids should proceed with caution.
Another set of answers can be more worrisome, and kids need to learn that they should not pet a dog if the people say things along the lines of, “That would probably be okay,” or “Well, she’s shy, but we can see how she does,” or “If she’ll let you. I’m not sure because sometimes she can’t handle it.” All of these replies show that a person is in the hope-and-fear zone. (“I hope it will be okay, but I fear that it will not be.”) There is a great risk that the interaction could be troubling for the child or the dog. Kids should be taught that the correct action upon hearing such remarks is not to approach the dog. A simple, “Oh, that’s okay. I wouldn’t want to upset her, but thanks anyway,” is a good phrase to teach kids for such situations.
There are endless possible answers when a child asks, “May I please meet your dog?” The “Yes” and the “No” replies are easy to understand. The former tells you it’s likely to be a positive interaction and the latter lets you know that the person knows the dog can’t handle it and has clearly said so. It’s those intermediate answers that require more careful interpretation. I’m always in favor of avoiding risks and erring on the side of caution when it comes to meeting dogs whose people seem hesitant about having anyone—especially a child—approach. If the answer gives any hint that it might not go well or might distress the dog, it’s best to decline.
Of course, all of this general advice assumes that people have the right read on their dog, and that is not always the case. They may think the dog loves all people, even when the dog’s body language reveals that the dog is terrified and wants a child to go away. That’s why it’s still important for kids to learn how to tell that a dog is behaving in a fearful and/or threatening way. The people’s responses to a request to meet a dog are only one stream of information we can use to decide whether to approach a dog. Still, there’s often a lot of truth in what they say, which is why children should be taught to evaluate those responses and act accordingly.
We discuss Patricia McConnell's new book, The Education of Will.
In her new book, The Education of Will, animal behavior pro Patricia McConnell goes somewhat off script, or at least, off the script that her readers have been enthusiastically following over the course of more than a dozen books and booklets she’s authored/ coauthored over the years. In it, she explores the ways early trauma can affect a dog’s behavior, and most certainly affected her own.
Bark: Do you think you would have recognized your need for therapy if Willie hadn’t been such a troubled dog?
Patricia McConnell: There is no question that my reaction to Willie’s behavior forced me to recognize that, although I had worked hard in therapy years before, I still had a long way to go to resolve the baggage from my past. I am eternally grateful to him for that. Willie’s fears and reactivity brought out many of my own, and at one point, I realized that I either had to find him another home or dig deeper to resolve the fear and shame I had buried for decades. As a form of therapy and self-awareness, one of the things I did to recover was to write about things that had happened to me. It was only after reading the works of others—including After Silence by Nancy Venable Raine, Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman, and Daring Greatly by Brené Brown —that I began to think about turning my writing into a memoir. I felt that if my story could help one person as much as those books helped me, it would be worth the five years it took me to complete it.
Bk: You write about the “chilling” anger that Willie expressed, but there are some who would dispute that a dog can feel true anger. What makes you certain that’s what Willie was displaying?
PM: Anger is an extremely primitive emotion, and is regulated in the brain and body of all mammals by the same anatomy and physiology found in humans. As I say in For the Love of a Dog, neurobiologist Dr. John Ratey calls anger “the second universal emotion.” Scientists who work with a vast range of mammalian species, from primates to mice, rarely hesitate to describe individual mammals as being angry. In addition, facial expressions of fear and anger are similar in people and dogs. Fearful faces have widened eyes, often with dilated pupils, and the corners of the mouth are retracted. Angry faces have narrowed, “cold” eyes, and the corners of the mouth are pushed inward. That’s the face that Willie displayed on occasion, looking exactly like the human faces of anger studied by psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman.
Of course, we can’t know that dogs experience the emotions of fear and anger as we do. We have a more connections between the pre-frontal cortex and our amygdala and hippocampus, which no doubt allow us to mediate emotion with reason. But in people and dogs, the feeling of being afraid or angry is probably more similar than different, because it has the same inherent function—to protect us from danger.
But, it is indeed possible for a dog to be angry, even though I would argue that centuries of domestication have made that a relatively rare event. What’s important is to not confound what people call “aggression” with anger. Aggression is an action, not an emotion, and most behavior that is labeled as aggressive is indeed based on fear. My dog Willie was both a bundle of fear and one of those uncommon dogs who appeared to be overcome with rage in certain situations. That was part of why it took so long and so much work to turn him around.
Bk: You note that excessive sniffing might indicate future aggressive tendencies. Have any studies been done on this?
PM: I know of no study that has investigated a relationship between vigorous sniffing behavior and intraspecific aggression, but that would be a fantastic topic for a dissertation. I’ve seen correlations between obsessive sniffing and dog-dog aggression cases in my office for more than 15 years, and have also heard other trainers and behaviorists refer to it. Maybe this will inspire someone to do the research.
Bk: You also mention the enteric nervous system, what some have called the “brain in the gut.” Could there have been a connection between Willie’s digestion troubles and his behavioral problems?
PM: Absolutely! This is another issue that begs for more research. Many trainers and behaviorists have seen correlations between behavioral problems related to fear or reactivity and an unsettled gut.
Bk: Do you think we burden dogs with our own expectations?
PM: I do worry about our current expectations of dogs. Not just as individuals who we want to fill so many varied social roles, but also as individuals whose behavior is supposed to be, well, almost perfect. I remember the day when a parent’s response to child being bitten was, “What did you do to that dog? Didn’t I tell you not to bother her when she’s eating?” I’m not saying we should go back to the “good old days,” because they weren’t always so good—not for us or for dogs. And I love so much of the current focus on both science and soul in training, exemplified by what we read in Bark magazine. But I do worry that we are imposing expectations on dogs that are as much a burden as an opportunity.
Bk: As part of our 20th anniversary celebration, we will be asking dog-world luminaries to comment on what they consider to be the biggest advancements/changes they’ve witnessed in dogdom during the past two decades. What’s your take?
PM: First, let me say what a joy and an honor it’s been to contribute to The Bark magazine throughout the years! I think the success of the magazine is the perfect reflection of how our relationship with dogs has become richer and more nuanced than it was in the past. It’s also a symbol of what I think is perhaps the most important difference in dogdom: the acknowledgment that canine behavior and our relationship with dogs are important and legitimate research topics.
When I defended my dissertation in 1988, one of my committee members said, “Well done. I didn’t know anyone could actually do any decent science that involved dogs.” And look at where we are now! Our relationship with dogs is one of the world’s most miraculous and also one of the most interesting, and we can learn from it for decades and decades to come. Thank you, Bark, for helping make dogs, and dog behavior, the focus of both art and science.
Well done indeed!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A “Dog-torate” in Occupational Therapy
Niko may very well be more popular than any Big Man on Campus has ever been. He’s not that big, and he’s actually not a man, but this Labrador Retriever spends far more time in college classrooms than most students, and he is adored. Niko is trained as a service dog, and is a key member of the Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa. The goal of this program is to help students in the occupational therapy program, healthcare professionals and members of the community learn about service dogs.
The world of service dogs is filled with information that is not common knowledge. Because people are not aware of all the ways that service dogs can, well, be of service, many people are missing out on additional ways to live independently and in fully satisfying ways. More education is part of the solution.
Not very many people know all the ways that service dogs can help people with disabilities, or the proper etiquette to observe around a service dog. Fewer still are familiar with what protections the law offers to service dogs and their people. This lack of knowledge usually means that people may behave in ways that are annoying or unhelpful in the presence of a service dog. For occupational therapists, such gaps in their knowledge could mean doing their jobs less effectively. Service dogs are often underutilized in plans to help a person achieve independence and improve their higher quality of life. The Professor Paws Project at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa aims to change that. With Niko’s help, professors at OU-Tulsa are able to educate students about service dogs with practical, interactive hands-on experience and demonstrations.
By teaching students and other members of the community about service dogs, Niko helps reduce the barriers faced by people who need and work with service dogs every day, and that means that people’s lives are enhanced by the program. Over 500 people receive education each year through the Professor Paws Project, which was developed by Assistant Professor Mary Isaacson. To honor this contribution to the community, the City of Tulsa has just designated May 9, 2017 as “Professor Paws Day”. On that day, Niko will officially walk in the graduation ceremonies. (Think of it as Niko receiving his “Dog-torate”.)
Niko is not the first service dog to be involved with the education of occupational therapy students at OU-Tulsa. Before Isaacson trained Niko, she trained a service dog named Samson, and began incorporating him into her classroom instruction. Samson regularly attended classes, which allowed her to demonstrate the specific ways that a service dog can have an impact on a person’s daily life. Whether it is opening the fridge, retrieving dropped items, helping remove someone’s socks, or turning lights on and off, students were able to see what a difference such assistance can make to a person with a disability.
After training, Samson was placed with a high school student with cerebral palsy. That was 6 years ago, and now Samson lives on a college campus and continues to assist the same person. Having Samson participate in classes during his training and before his placement was so beneficial to students that people recognized the value of having a dog present on campus permanently.
As a result, the goal all along for Niko has been different than for Samson. Rather than being placed with someone as a service dog or working directly with patients, Niko will remain at OU-Tulsa in order to continue educating people about service dogs. As far as staff at the university know, the Professor Paws Project is the only program of its kind. However, its success suggests that this might not be true for long.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
They have different styles
Daisy and Cooper are both ice cream-loving dogs. When their guardian takes them through the drive thru of a fast food restaurant, they share an ice cream cone. Just for laughs, watch the way each dog eats. They definitely have different styles!
The first time I watched this, I felt sympathy for Cooper as he watched Daisy lick the ice cream while he had to wait. Waiting helps dogs practice dealing with frustration and developing self-control is good for them, so I wasn’t opposed to requiring him to be patient. I just felt for Cooper watching another dog eat what he so clearly wanted. After watching it, I was impressed with everyone in the car. The guardian controlled the situation so that each dog was able to enjoy a treat. Daisy was remarkably calm considering that she must have known that she was right next to a dog who could swallow the entire cone in less than a second. Cooper admirably waited his turn despite his eagerness to eat the ice cream.
Could your dogs share a single cone, and if so, how would you make sure they each got some?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Little dogs pee more often on walks
Scent marking is a common form of communication across a wide range of mammals. Although dogs can scent mark in various ways, they most often use urine, which is obvious to anyone who has watched dogs pee here, there and everywhere out on walks or during play time.
Urination, and other forms of scent marking, allow animals to convey a large amount of information in an indirect manner. That means that they can communicate without direct interactions. That has the advantage of avoiding the costs of social interactions, which can include stress, the energetic costs of interacting and potential injury. In many species, body size is closely correlated with competitive ability, which is why scent marking may be especially important to smaller individuals, who may be unlikely to fare well in direct encounters.
Dogs have an enormous size range for a single species, but only recently has the effect of size on frequency of scent marking been investigated. Researchers wondered whether smaller dogs take advantage of the indirect nature of scent marking through urine to be more competitive with larger dogs.
In the recent study, “Scent marking in shelter dogs: Effects of body size”, researchers walked 281 shelter dogs (mostly mixed breeds) that they categorized by size. Small dogs measured 33 cm or less at the withers, large dogs measured 50 cm or more, and medium dogs were above 33 cm but less than 50 cm. They recorded urinations during the first 20 minutes of each walk, noting whether they were directed at a target or not. (Targeted urinations were those that occurred after sniffing a spot on the ground or on some other surface, and those that involved urinating somewhere other than the ground even without sniffing it first.) The study found that smaller dogs marked more often than medium or large dogs and that they were more likely to direct their urine at targets compared to large dogs. Though smaller bladder capacities of smaller dogs could explain increased frequency of urination, that cannot account for the increased frequency of urinating on targets.
As expected, males also marked more frequently and directed their urine at targets more often than female dogs did. The length of time that dogs had spent in the shelter was positively associated with frequency of directed urinations, but not with total number of urinations. Size had no effect on the frequency of defecations on walks, but dogs who had been at the shelter longer were a little bit more likely to defecate on walks.
The authors concluded that smaller dogs use scent marking in the form of urination more frequently that medium or large dogs. It is possible that they are using scent marks in order to avoid direct interactions.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
This action has many meanings
The eyes may be the mirror to the soul, and careful observations of both the mouth and the tail can yield all sorts of information about a dog’s intentions and emotional state, but the ears are a different matter altogether. The ears are more challenging to read and understand, and they usually have to be viewed in conjunction with other visual signals to make a useful interpretation. That is especially true when the ears are pulled back or held close to the head.
Ears that are tucked close to the head often indicate negative emotions. One possibility is sadness, which often results in ears that are tucked down close to the sides of the head. Dogs may show this when a favorite person departs. I once saw a dog pull his ears back like this when he saw some of his dog buddies playing but he couldn’t join them because he was on a stay.
Ears that are pulled back often indicate fearfulness, especially if combined with other facial signals associated with this emotion, such as a fear grimace in which the corners of the dog’s mouth are pulled back or dilated pupils. Sometimes dogs put their ears back when they are nervous, and that will often be combined with tongue flicks, panting, tension in the body, or other signs of anxiety. This is a common behavior in dogs who must be in the car but dislike road trips, or dogs who are overwhelmed by too many children at once.
When a dog’s ears are in their natural resting position, it typically indicates that a dog is comfortable in the situation. When dogs greet each other, it is common to see one dog maintain his natural ear posture, suggesting that he is at ease, while another dog puts them back, indicating the opposite. Putting the ears back in this context may be an appeasement behavior.
There are at least two more possible meanings associated with ears that are pulled back. Dogs who are about to bite often pin their ears tightly to the head. It has been suggested that this may simply protect them from injury by keeping them out of the way of any teeth in the vicinity that mean business. Finally, males will pull their ears back when they are courting a female, and this action is one of many that means he is interested in her.
The motion of pulling the ears back is quite obvious, but the meaning is not always so apparent.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
During their first appointment, my clients told me that their dog had “severe territorial aggression,” and that they had been advised to euthanize him. I looked at the wide-eyed and quaking Hound mix hiding under a chair and had a strong suspicion that the label given to this dog was far from accurate.
As it turned out, the dog was actually terrified of strangers. Not only was his problematic behavior based in fear and totally unrelated to any concept of territory, he had never hurt anyone. He whined, barked and showed his teeth to anyone he didn’t know who got too close to him, giving them an awful scare, but even when people tried to pet him (unwise, but it happened!), he didn’t bite.
Over the years, situations like this have made me increasingly disillusioned about the labels that are so often applied to dogs’ behavior problems. I find that labeling often does more harm than good, especially when the label is wrong.
It’s not surprising that we want to label dogs’ behavior issues: it matches the system we use for people. In the realm of human health care, labels are necessary because billing codes are required for insurance coverage of both treatment and medications.
Having a label for a dog’s behavior problem may also make it easier for us to access information and resources. Learning that it is a known syndrome or problem often makes us feel better even before there’s any discussion about what to do to improve the behavior. It’s a natural human tendency—just naming a problem can give us a sense of control over it. But sadly, mislabeling interferes with arriving at an appropriate response to the problem, whatever the problem turns out to be.
Perhaps the biggest advantage to labeling behavior problems is that it provides a verbal shorthand that speeds up communication. There’s an appealing simplicity to using a short phrase or two to identify a dog’s issue rather than going into great detail about each incident, especially when many people are involved. (It’s not unusual for an evaluation team to include a behaviorist, a veterinarian and a trainer, as well as other experts.)
On the other hand, describing the behavior in detail lends an accuracy to the situation that labels sometime obscure.
For example, every year, multiple clients seek my help with separation anxiety because they have been told (erroneously) that their dog suffers from it. The dog may be showing behaviors often associated with separation anxiety —including excessive barking, eliminating indoors or destructive chewing—but the real problem can often be revealed with a thorough description of the dog’s behavior before, during and after the guardian’s departure.
When the real issue is boredom, incomplete house training or a simple (which is not to say easy!) case of adolescence, changing the undesirable behavior by approaching it as a case of separation anxiety is unlikely to be successful. Rather than medication and complex protocols to desensitize the dog to departures and the cues that precede them, the real solution could be to add activities and enrichment opportunities, return to Housetraining 101 or provide a long exercise session before putting the dog in a crate with appropriate, long lasting chewables.
It is also common for people to consult with me because their dog is “protective” of them. Lila brought in Banjo because every time anyone got near Lila, Banjo barked, growled and lunged. Lila was concerned that he would hurt someone, but delighted by his bold confidence. Trouble was, after taking a case history and observing Banjo in a variety of contexts, I could tell that he was not protecting her so much as he was possessing her. He guarded toys, food, sleeping spaces and anything he considered of value, including Lila. He was not her brave protector, but an insecure dog who considered her to be the best bone in the world, and he was not going to let someone else have her. Mislabeling Banjo’s behavior as “protectiveness” rather than of “possessiveness” hindered attempts to change this behavior, and interfered with Lila’s understanding of who Banjo was.
Another negative of labeling behavior problems is that it oversimplifies the situation. If a dog is called a “fear biter” or even labeled with the more professional sounding “fear-based aggression,” it implies a simplicity that is just not there. Even among the many dogs whose fear drives aggressive behavior, differences are enormous. Dealing with a dog who is afraid of red-headed children (and therefore reacts badly when in the presence of one) because he was once traumatized by an attack from such a child requires a very targeted approach to overcoming that fear. Modifying such a specific behavior is different than working with dogs who are afraid of everything; dogs who missed out on socialization early on but are great with familiar people; or even dogs who panic and bite as a reaction to loud noises such as gun shots, fireworks or the crash of pot hitting a tile floor.
A related drawback of labeling behavior problems is that the label implies a solution, again, much like the human medical model, in which a diagnosis necessarily points to a specific treatment. Boxed-in thinking about how to change undesirable behavior can short circuit continued investigation. Using the label “arousal-based aggression” gives the impression that the situation is thoroughly understood and that all that is needed is an appropriate behavior modification program, one that emphasizes predictability and includes exercises to help the dog learn to practice self-control. However, that label may mask the dog’s anxiety and the need for intervention to address it.
Then, there’s the issue of shame; giving a dog’s problem a label makes it seem more serious and alarming to many guardians and may also make them feel unnecessarily ashamed of their dog’s behavior. That’s especially true of any label that includes the word “aggressive,” which carries such a stigma. It’s too bad that a stigma exists, but since it does, it makes sense to be mindful of it when discussing dogs’ behavior with their guardians. People are often devastated to be told that their dog is aggressive, especially if the dog is sweet and loving within the family. It can be even harder for a family whose dog is behaving out of character due to an injury or other physical ailment to accept a label of “aggression.” If the dog is in such pain that the problem behavior is just the dog’s attempt to keep people from touching him because he has learned it will hurt, I would rather say that— even if it is long and a little unwieldy—than call the dog aggressive. Even if it is modified by the term “pain-induced,” the word makes people feel bad, and that’s not helpful.
It’s common for people who are told that their dog is “fear aggressive” to be more daunted and overwhelmed than if they are told that their dog is fearful, and is acting the way he does because he can’t say, “Please, oh please, don’t come any closer—you’re scaring me! And for heaven’s sake, don’t pet me because I can’t handle that except from my closest friends.” If people understand that dogs are barking, growling or biting because they are desperate to increase the distance between themselves and whatever scares them—other dogs, people, trash cans, bicycles—and will only stop if we can help them overcome their fears, there’s less judgment and more hope. Focusing on the behavior itself— what the dog does—and discussing the motivation behind it avoids problems that can arise with simply labeling the behavior.
I recently consulted with a family whose dog was a victim of a labeling error that had hindered their ability to help him. This family’s sweet, three-year-old Newfoundland was urinating inside the home and because their veterinarian could find no medical reason for it, she had referred them to me to handle the “housetraining” problem. One complication with this particular label is that there is no agreement across disciplines about what it means. To many people, house soiling without a medical cause is always related to housetraining, but behaviorists recognize that many issues involving urination indoors can be signs of appeasement behavior or a need to mark territory, among other possibilities.
It was a challenge to get contextual information from the family about the problem because they just kept saying, “He pees everywhere, and it’s such a mess!” and then detailing the clean-up, which was no doubt considerable given that the dog weighed 125 pounds. With persistent inquiry, however, I was finally able to get a fuller picture; it turned out not to be a housetraining problem after all. The dog’s housetraining was solid, but he peed during greetings. As a puppy, he urinated whenever he greeted anyone, but now he only did it when greeting the husband or the occasional male visitor, especially if the visitor reached for the dog.
Recognizing that the inappropriate urination was a specific type of social issue (often called “submissive urination” and somewhat unusual in dogs older than 12 to 18 months of age) rather than one of bladder control— or not knowing or caring where it was appropriate to eliminate— made it easier to address the real issue: the husband’s approach to his sensitive dog. Though he thought he was doing right by his dog by being firm and applying stern, consistent discipline, he was open to a new approach. I was able to help the family by teaching the husband kinder, gentler and more effective ways to interact with his dog and influence the dog’s behavior. As a result, the dog stopped urinating in the house. No program designed to solve a housetraining problem would have achieved this result, which had the added benefit of improving the overall family dynamic as well.
The temptation to put a name on a problem is strong, and many of us are quick to embrace it. However, while labeling seems like an intuitively obvious approach, the downsides are too important and too numerous for me to be on board with it. Labels can get in the way of seeing the dog, focusing our attention on a pathology and turning the dog into an example of a specific behavior problem rather than what he or she actually is: a complex individual and a unique case.
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