Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It often happens naturally, but can be taught
Many dogs know the names of the humans sharing their home. It’s only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people. Many dogs will react to the names of their guardians with great enthusiasm when they are not present, perhaps anticipating their return. In the natural course of things, we humans use each other’s names a lot, saying hello, getting each other’s attention, and calling out into the void to see if they are around. We also use it to announce someone’s arrival, as in, “Rich is home!”
Training dogs to know people’s names on purpose is also possible. One of the easiest ways to teach a dog the names of everyone in the family is with a game called Family Circle. One person says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog to come. If he comes to me, he gets a treat or other reinforcement, but if he goes to someone else by mistake, he will be ignored. Then, it’s my turn to cue the dog about where to go, and I might say, “Where’s Rich?” at which point Rich will call him, and going to Rich is the right thing to do to get reinforced. This game works best with at least three people. With only two people, the dog may learn that the correct response is to go to the person who did NOT just say ‘Where’s . . .?” without necessarily learning names.
In the early stages of training a dog to play Family Circle, the dog should always be told the name of the person he must go find and hear that person call him to come. The person should also be within sight of the dog. Later on as the dog becomes competent at the task, the cue “Come” can be dropped, and later still, the game can be played when the person he must find is out of sight, so the dog must go search for that person.
I love this game because of its practical applications in the event of a lost person, or even one who has just gone out of sight or earshot briefly. Not only does it solidify their understanding of names with a game can be very useful, it also teaches dogs to find the person in response to the cue and gives them great practice with their recall. Among the other benefits are that the dog can get physical exercise without the people having to move, and it can help keep a dog occupied mentally when we are too busy to engage in more active play.
I’ve been thinking lately that dogs who live with only one person don’t have the same opportunities to learn guardian names. If there are no other people in your household, how often is your name spoken aloud in the presence of your dog? I wonder two things about dogs who live with one person: 1) Does the dog know the person’s name? 2) If not, does it matter?
If you live in a family in which you are the only human member, do you think your dog knows your name? What about those of you with multiple people in the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A study with insights into welfare
If you think that having dogs who bounce off the walls is problematic for them and for you, you are not alone. “Wall bouncing” is one of the repetitive behaviors that have long been considered indicative of poor welfare and chronic stress in the animals performing them. Other repetitive behaviors that are commonly seen in dogs are pacing, circling and spinning, all of which are generally regarded as stereotypical behavior.
Stereotypical behaviors are those that are not just repetitive, but also pointless and occur because of deficits in animals’ housing situation that cause frustration. That is, when animals are performing stereotypies, they are exhibiting behavior that has no function, and doing it over and over because their living environment is inadequate to meet their needs. A recent study in the journal Physiology and Behavior called Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? explored whether all the repetitive behaviors observed in kennelled dogs are actually stereotypies. The reason this question matters is that if their repetitive behaviors are stereotypies, it suggests that animals’ welfare may be compromised, but if they are performing repetitive behaviors for other reasons, then that conclusion may be suspect.
The researchers studied 30 male German Shepherds who are fully trained Police Dogs in the UK and live in a kennel that can hold as many as 40 dogs. They studied their behavior as well as their cortisol profiles (which indicate stress) before and after veterinary exams. They found that all but two of the dogs performed repetitive behaviors, but that very few of them displayed stereotypies. Repetitive behaviors were most commonly induced by a dog and handler walking past the kennel and by witnessing food preparation, which supports the idea that repetitive behaviors are simply a response to situations of high arousal rather than to stress.
The dogs could be divided into four groups based on the pattern of their repetitive behavior and the eliciting stimuli. Twelve of the dogs only exhibited repetitive behavior in response to husbandry events (including veterinary care) or not at all and showed them in less than half of the observation period. Five additional dogs also only displayed repetitive behavior in those same contexts, but they showed it more than half of the time that they were observed. Eight dogs performed repetitive behaviors in response to husbandry and when a person walked by or stood outside their kennel. The last five dogs displayed repetitive behavior in the absence of these and other specific stimuli.
Though all the groups had similar baseline cortisol profiles, this last group had a cortisol profile following the exam that differed from the other groups. These dogs showed a decrease in cortisol immediately after the exam rather than the increase in cortisol seem in the other groups. This suggests one of two possibilities. One is that these dogs are under chronic stress and lack the physiological ability to respond typically to the additional stress of an exam. The other possibility is that these dogs are so attached to people, including their caregivers and the veterinarian, that being with them after a separation is such a positive experience that it balances out the stress of being removed from the kennel and examined.
The relationship between repetitive behaviors in dogs and their welfare status remains unclear, but this study suggests that there is not just one motivating factor behind the expression of repetitive behaviors. Many questions remain about repetitive behavior in dogs who are kenneled. Is it an indication of poor welfare? Could the repetitive behaviors be a result of reinforcement (food or attention) of these behaviors from people caring for the dogs? Why are the cortisol profiles different in dogs who exhibit repetitive behaviors without specific eliciting stimuli?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Avoiding aggression can look silly
At first glance, these dogs seem comical as they bark and display at each other through the fence. It’s obvious that they could move over just a few inches and actually reach their opponent. Yet both of them determinedly stay where there’s a fence between them and display rather than move over and fight in the open.
Their behavior shows a lot of self-control and a disinclination to fight. Dogs often choose not to be aggressive when they have another option. It reminds me of the importance of avoiding situations in which dogs have no way out. The fence gives these dogs an out—a way to avoid being aggressive.
Neither of these dogs wants to fight. They are both showing a common sign of fearfulness—the fear grimace, which is when they pull back the corners of their mouths. The fear grimace is a facial expression that allows us to see many of the dogs’ teeth, which is why it looks so menacing to us, but it is a behavior that indicates fear. In addition, the dog on the left approaches with its weight back and continues to lean back rather than charge forward. That is also a sign of a dog who is afraid rather than confident in the situation.
I have seen this type of fence fighting behavior before, and have had many people share stories with me of similar situations. Once, I even saw two dogs run along opposite sides of a fence barking, and then, when they unexpectedly come to a break in the fence, head back to the fence and continue fence fighting, all in a charmingly synchronized way.
It looks funny, but I think they both deserve gold stars rather than laughter for their behavior. Good for them for avoiding violence and handling the situation with some visual and vocal displays instead. I wish people chose this route more often. Dogs who choose fence fighting over actual fighting deserve our admiration, not our disdain, though I must admit I always have to fight the urge to laugh anyway.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Understanding and helping fearful dogs
For the first month after he was adopted, Sunny spent his time in the corner of one room, in which he ate, slept, eliminated and watched the world go by. Murphy whimpered, barked, and chewed the carpet and the door whenever she was left alone. Tucker growled and lunged at every man he encountered. Maggie was inconsolable during thunderstorms— pacing, whining, circling, jumping in and out of the bathtub. Zoe was so shut down that she was unwilling even to face the door of her crate. Molly yelped and trembled when a chair was moved to a new spot; the vacuum, dishwasher or washing machine was turned on; or the door was opened.
All of these dogs have one thing in common: their behavior problems are a result of fear. But because fear-based behavior can vary so widely—from cowering under the table when a truck roars by to lunging at and even biting visitors—people don’t always recognize that the dogs exhibiting it are fearful.
According to Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, canine behavior specialist and author of Help for Your Fearful Dog, “There are lots of fearful dogs, but people call because of the symptoms. They rarely say, ‘I need help because my dog is fearful.’ They call because their dog is barking at visitors or shredding things.”
These fear-based behaviors don’t improve until the underlying issues have been dealt with. Further, as the fear worsens, so does the problem behavior. Dan Estep, PhD, CAAB, notes that, unfortunately, early and perhaps subtle signs of fear—ears pulled back, tail tucked, avoidance—are often discounted as things that all dogs do. If these signs are ignored, the signals may become more obvious and include panting and dilated pupils. Even then, it may be possible to distract the dog from the fear source. But, over time, fearful dogs act more intensely, become harder to distract, and then become destructive or reactive. Only then, when the problem is much more serious and harder to resolve, do people seek help. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of fearfulness in dogs and intervene before the behavior becomes more difficult to deal with.
According to Estep, “fears have behavioral, physiological and subjective components.” Some dogs flee in an attempt to avoid the stimuli that elicit fear; these dogs may hide under the bed or behind their guardian, or simply turn away from whatever it is that frightens them. The appearance of some dogs’ eyes change when they are afraid—the pupils may dilate, or more of the sclera (whites of the eyes) may be visible in an expression known as “whale eye,” which may be the result of a dog watching what frightens him by moving his eyes so he can see it without looking at it directly. Or, a dog may scan an area repeatedly in a highly vigilant manner.
Fearful dogs may also adopt telltale body postures: crouching in a lowered body position or lying down and freezing. Many dogs whine, bark or make other distress vocalizations. A fearful dog who is forced to confront or contend with what’s scaring him or her may become defensively aggressive while still exhibiting signs of fear.
Dogs who are fearful exhibit many physiological changes: the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, which means an increase in heart rate and respiration and possibly shaking, trembling or panting. As Estep observes, “No one of these signs by themselves is a reliable indicator of fear or any other emotional state. It’s the pattern of these things together that indicates fear.” Both Estep and Wilde note that most common canine fears are related to loud or sudden noises, separation anxiety, and unfamiliar people. A fearful dog can be afraid of just about anything new, whether it’s a man in a hat, an umbrella, a garden statue, a double stroller, a unicycle or a motorized toy.
Just as the behavior exhibited by fearful dogs can vary, so can the reasons for the fearfulness. This may be because fear is such a common emotion. As Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, writes in For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, “Surely fear must be the universal of emotions, given its importance to survival. Without it, even civilized urban dwellers wouldn’t live to pass on their genes, because they’d stroll in front of buses and forget to lock their doors at night.”
McConnell’s example is apt: fear has an important function. Without fear, it would be difficult to recognize dangers to which the appropriate reaction is critical for survival. So, fear is not itself a bad thing. It becomes a problem when individuals of any species, including dogs, are scared of so many things, or the fear is so intense, that it interferes with their enjoyment of daily life.
Why Is My Dog So Fearful?
Experiments done with Pointers in the 1960s demonstrated that you can breed for fear of people in dogs.* Additionally, many dogs who are fearful have littermates or other relatives with this problem, which suggests a genetic predisposition. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of early experiences and genetics. For example, an entire litter of puppies could also be fearful of people because they were raised with no opportunity to meet them; proper socialization could have resulted in puppies without such fears.
Socialization is indeed important. It’s critical to expose puppies to new people, places, animals, sounds, objects and anything else they are likely to encounter throughout their lives. As Estep succinctly says, “Positive early experiences are critical for preventing fearfulness.” From ages three to 12 weeks, puppies are especially receptive to learning that the unfamiliar is not to be feared.
Not all fears develop in puppyhood, however. At age eight, a Miniature Schnauzer named Maxine suddenly developed a fear of other dogs, reacting with barks, lunges and growls whenever a dog approached. She even reacted to her companion dog—a four-yearold Miniature Schnauzer who had been her playmate since being adopted as a puppy. I met Maxine when I was working at a dog camp, and wondered if she were in pain, since sudden reactivity at an older age is consistent with the presence of pain. When the camp veterinarian examined Maxine, she discovered inflammation along the dog’s spine and noted that she yelped when that spot was touched. A canine chiropractor treated Maxine, and once her health improved, so did her behavior. A dog who knows that it is going to hurt when dogs leap on her or roughhouse with her could become one who reacts with behavior that’s intended to make them go away.
Not surprisingly, negative experiences may also lead to fear. For example, a dog who is hit by a car may become afraid of cars. Similarly, a dog who accidentally knocks over a bunch of two-by-fours in the garage may develop a fear of any long object such as wood, brooms or shovels, or become afraid of the garage.
Can Dogs Get Over Their Fears?
There are so many misconceptions about treating fearfulness in dogs that before discussing what to do, it’s important to know what not to do. Ascribing to any of the following myths is detrimental to progress when working with a fearful dog.
Dogs will grow out of it. Expecting a dog to “just get over it” is wishful thinking.
He must have been abused. The behavior that most commonly elicits concerns of abuse in a dog’s past is that the dog is only scared of men. While it’s possible that a man has harmed the dog, fearful dogs are often more reactive to men than to woman or to children, and this is particularly true of dogs whose socialization experiences were inadequate. It’s likely that men— with their larger size, deeper voices, broader shoulders and stronger jaws— appear more imposing to dogs.
He must have had a traumatic experience. It’s natural to assume that a dog who is scared of children has been teased by them, or that the only reason a dog would react badly to a broom is because of a terrifying experience with one. Yes, bad experiences sometimes lead to fear, but often, dogs are afraid of things that are new or unpredictable. So, the dog may fear children because they scream and move around in crazy ways, or he may fear brooms because he’s not used to them.
He should be punished. Punishment will make the dog more fearful, and must not be used as a way to change any fear-based behavior. When bad things happen to a dog in the presence of what scares him, it makes the fear and the problem behavior worse, not better.
A drug can fix this. In some cases, and always under the supervision of a veterinarian, pharmacological intervention may be appropriate, in conjunction with behavior modification and other techniques for helping fearful dogs. However, there is no magic pill that instantly cures fearfulness in dogs.
He’s just being stubborn. When a dog refuses to get in a car or crate, resists allowing the vet to examine him, or won’t go down the steps to the basement, many people perceive his behavior as obstinate. But with fearful dogs, stubbornness is not the problem, any more than a kid standing on the high dive and refusing to jump is being mulish.
He’s trying to dominate. Status is a fact of life for many social species, but when dogs are afraid, their social standing is not the issue. Trying to fit all behavior problems under the heading of dominance does far more harm than good. Happily, more and more people recognize this perspective as outdated and counterproductive.
Petting or consoling him will reinforce the fear. Pia Silvani’s comment on this common misconception is simple and to the point: “With all due respect, this does not make a bit of sense.” It is okay to reassure your dog that everything is fine in a calm and confident manner. To ignore him when he is clearly distressed is about as logical as refusing to hug your child when she wakes up from a nightmare. They are not going to become more fearful when they are reassured, but failing to do anything risks teaching them that you are not available when they need you most. Wilde tells her clients, “Be affectionate with your dog, but if you are overly worried, your dog will be, too. It’s fine to reassure your dog casually with an upbeat tone, but don’t coddle them with nervous energy.” McConnell devoted an entire Bark column to explaining why it’s not only okay, but actually helpful to soothe dogs who are afraid. (“I’m Okay, You’re Okay,”).
You just have to live with it, or get rid of the dog. Thankfully, this is not true, but resolving a dog’s fear-based problem does take effort. As Jacobs puts it, “It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated.” Many dogs recover completely, and still others improve greatly, though they may always remain on the cautious side; some situations may always be overwhelming and should be avoided.
So, How Can I Help My Dog?
Visit your veterinarian. The first step should be a thorough medical evaluation to determine if health problems are playing a role. Dogs who are in pain may develop fear of anything that exacerbates the pain, such as being touched, being approached by a playful dog, a leash or collar, or a sport class like agility. Older dogs may develop fears and phobias following physical changes, including cognitive deterioration or loss of sight or hearing. A myriad of other physical problems can be in play as well, and any underlying medical issue should be resolved.
Do all you can to protect your dog from frightening situations. This may involve being an advocate for your dog, such as stopping strangers from petting him or refusing to let a family member use power tools until you get the dog out of the house. Management of the environment is a lot of work, but it’s work that pays big dividends. Protecting a dog from exposure to situations that scare him is a great way to start, because every time a fearful dog becomes afraid, the problem is compounded. And as Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, says, “One of the most horrible experiences of life is to be stricken by sudden terror. Another is to be continually consumed by the persistent feelings of anxiety that gnaw away at you, destroying your sense of security in the world.” For dogs who are reactive to the point of snapping or biting, preventing situations in which the dog feels the need to do this is essential for the safety of others as well as for the well being of the dog.
Never force your dog to approach something that scares him. It’s not going to help, and it may make the situation worse, adding yet another scary experience that confirms his belief that something is worth being afraid of. Wilde advises that we allow the dog to make the decision about approaching or avoiding a potentially scary situation.
Help your dog develop confidence. Developing your dog’s confidence can help him overcome his fearfulness because these two states of being are not compatible. Anything that allows a dog to experience success is good for his selfesteem and adds to his self-assurance. Training dogs to perform behaviors on cue—standard obedience exercises, targeting, responding to their names or performing tricks—can build confidence. So can getting their nourishment from food-reward puzzles or foodstuffed toys, because accessing the food is an accomplishment. Play is also a way to help dogs feel confident. Once a fearful dog is comfortable enough to happily engage in play, a positive feedback loop develops. The more they play, the more confident they are, and the more confident they are, the more they play.
Practice desensitization and classical counterconditioning. These techniques are often the core treatment for fearful dogs. Systematic desensitization is a structured way of repeatedly exposing your dog to something that he fears, but starting at a low level so that fear is not induced. Then, gradually, during many sessions over a period of weeks, months or even years, the intensity of what frightens him is increased so that he can get used to it at each level before moving on to the next. Scary things are made less scary by being smaller, slower, quieter, farther away or otherwise less intense. Exposing your dog to what frightens him at an intensity level that is too low to induce his fear is completely different than forcing him to confront what he fears by overdoing it and actually scaring him. (For details on these techniques, Patricia B. McConnell’s booklet, The Cautious Canine, is a great resource.)
Classical counterconditioning consists of pairing up what frightens the dog with something the dog loves more than anything else; eventually, the dog realizes that the scary thing predicts the wonderful thing. If your dog fears people, then every time he sees someone, he should immediately receive a fantastic treat or highly prized toy or other item. Eventually, the dog will have a positive emotional reaction to seeing a person, because he knows that something good is about to happen. Exposing your dog to the trigger that scares him, starting at very low levels of intensity and gradually working up to more intense exposures, is most effective. In practice, desensitization and classical counterconditioning are often done together.
Some dogs progress rapidly, but others make progress that can only be detected when viewed long-term, over years or perhaps over the dog’s entire life. No matter which pattern describes your dog, it’s important to work gradually, and as Wilde says, “go at the dog’s pace.” You must only move to more intense triggers when the dog is clearly comfortable at the previous level of exposure. Fearful dogs must be handled carefully and with endless patience.
Build a good foundation. Most behaviorists and trainers agree that in addition to specific behavior modification, a good foundation for helping dogs overcome their fears is built from many aspects of their daily life. Good nutrition, regular exercise and predictable routines are all helpful. Other potentially therapeutic techniques or alternative and complementary therapies include massage, Tellington TTouch, anxiety wraps, Bach f lower essences, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
What Determines How Well a Dog Will Do? Almost all fearful dogs can improve, but the degree to which a dog overcomes his fear depends on many factors. Estep and Wilde agree that the human partner is a huge factor in the eventual outcome. Motivation is critical for success, as is an understanding of the situation and the amount of time the person is willing to commit to it. The use of gentle, positive methods is also linked with improvement. Mild fears or those of recent development have a higher likelihood of successful resolution. The dog’s genetics play a role as well; the stronger the genetic component of the dog’s fears, the harder it may be to overcome them.
Wilde sums up the basic approach to helping fearful dogs: “It takes time and patience … Always be gentle, positive and kind … Never, ever use physical force or corrections.” Jacobs echoes this advice: “Your dog’s trust in you is the most important building block in the foundation for building her confidence. Never use any type of punishment or correction which scares or intimidates your dog.”
Though it can be gut-wrenching to watch a dog live in fear, there are also positive aspects, and that may be part of the reason why some people are drawn to fearful dogs. Wilde has a long-standing history of relating to them: “I always had an empathy for the fearful ones. I was drawn to the shaking dog in the corner.” She points out that having a fearful dog “teaches you a lot about subtleties of canine body language. You become tuned into your dog. You learn to manage things. You gain increased empathy for your dog. You expand your knowledge and patience.”
Helping a dog who lives in fear is a common undertaking—many people, knowingly or not, end up living with a dog who is afraid. To succeed in treating a fearful dog so that he can conquer his fears requires knowledge, consistent effort and extraordinary patience. It’s not easy, but it’s gratifying to see the difference in a dog who has been the beneficiary of this hard work. While it is an experience that is likely to have lows that are lower and highs that are higher than expected, many guardians report that it is immensely rewarding to work with their dogs and help them overcome their fears. As though we needed further convincing that dogs of all types, including the fearful ones, enrich our lives!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s not clear what’s going on
Gertie has an unusual eating behavior. She can spend hours polishing off a couple of cups of dry dog food. She takes a few pieces of kibble from her bowl, carries it a few feet away, drops it on the floor, and then eats it piece by piece with painstaking slowness. It reminds me of the way chickadees eat from birdfeeders, taking one item from the feeder and flying to a nearby tree to eat it before returning to the feeder again. Here is a short video of Gertie eating, which starts with her walking away from her bowl with some food in her mouth and then dropping it on the floor.
Honestly, I don’t have an explanation for this behavior, though a few other guardians have mentioned that their dogs feed in a similar way. My brother-in-law, who takes care of Gertie when her guardians are out of town, thinks this behavior relates to experiences with fire ants in her earlier life before being adopted into a loving home. She was tied up, and where she lives in Florida, fire ants can find food extremely quickly. Since the sting of these ants is very painful, perhaps Gertie is using her food-moving behavior to take the food away from fire ants in her bowl. It’s certainly an interesting speculation, but I have no idea if it’s true.
Here’s what I do know: At her own home, Gertie consistently eats in this way, day after day, meal after meal. When she is visiting my brother-in-law and his family, she alternates her usual feeding behavior with eating right out of the bowl at a slow but steady speed. That’s what this video shows—some carrying of food and some eating it right from the bowl. The change may be a result of visiting a home with another dog—Tucker, a Miniature Pinscher mix who will try to eat her food if he is not kept away by a barrier. If Tucker is around, she will usually eat more quickly and do it directly from the bowl.
Have you ever known a dog who eats like Gertie does? Do you have a possible explanation for the behavior?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Are some individuals incapable of self-control?
I specialize in working with dogs with aggression issues, so I think about biting behavior a lot. Mostly, I’m pondering ways to help dogs stop doing it and ways to help people who want to help their dogs stop doing it. Many thoughts center on protecting dogs from situations in which they are prone to biting, and protecting people and dogs from being bitten. Other topics include the motivation behind biting, the triggers that elicit it and the effects of a bite on everyone involved.
My biting obsession is always centered on dogs. I had given very little thought to biting by people until this week’s incident at the World Cup in the game between Uruguay and Italy. In that match, Luis Suárez of Uruguay bit (actually bit!) the shoulder of Italian player Giorgio Chiellini, who showed the tooth marks to the referee. The commentators seemed dismayed with remarks such as, “Oh dear, dear, dear,” and perhaps more alarmingly, “Surely not again.”
Yes, that’s right, this is not the first, but rather the third time that Suárez has bitten an opposing player. In the past, he has been suspended for a number of matches because of his behavior. It seems crazy to jeopardize his career and his reputation, embarrass himself and hurt the chances of his country succeeding at the World Cup by biting again. Television cameras are everywhere, and millions of people throughout the world are watching. There wasn’t a chance that another bite would go unnoticed or unpunished, and he has in fact been given the longest suspension in World Cup history and fined over $100,000. That’s why I think that Suárez is literally unable to stop this behavior because he lacks emotional control. (I’m not suggesting that he is not responsible for his behavior or that he should be treated leniently because he can’t control himself. I’m just saying that he seems unable to exercise normal inhibition of his own impulses.)
Biting is far more common in the canine world than in the human world, but it’s still rare to meet dogs who bite in such an uncontrollable way. I’ve known very few dogs like this, and though the behavior is unacceptable, I do find myself feeling pity for individuals—both dogs and people—who are unable to control themselves. It’s a shame to lack normal social skills and become dangerous to others or unwelcome in various situations as a result.
Emotions such as anger and frustration combined with high arousal are typically involved with dogs who bite in an out of control way. (Suárez has said that he was angry with Chiellini for hitting him in the eye during the game, and there’s no doubt that the intensity of a high stakes international soccer match lends itself to high arousal in the players.) Such bites happen when dogs have the canine equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum because they don’t get what they want. Dogs who bite in these contexts are literally unable to control themselves. It is much harder to substantially improve their behavior compared with other dogs, most of whom are biting as a result of fear.
Many humans go through a biting stage at around age 2, but they outgrow it. They learn self-control as well as developing an understanding of what is socially acceptable. Similarly, dogs use their mouths both playfully and not so playfully as puppies, but then the vast majority of them develop normal bite inhibition and an understanding of what they are and are not allowed to do with their mouths. Biting is a more normal part of canine behavior than of human behavior since people are more inclined to hit when behaving aggressively than to bite, so the analogy is not perfect, but there are similarities.
It’s important when working with an aggressive dog to understand as much as possible about why the dog is biting. There’s hope for the overwhelming majority of dogs with a bite history, as many are able to improve their behavior with a combination of behavior modification and a sensible management plan for prevention. However, there is the rare dog whose likelihood of improvement is small because of a lack of any kind of self-control and the tendency to bite when frustrated, angry and aroused.
Did anyone else see this incident and have their minds immediately go to thoughts of dog bites?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
He likes the familiarity
When my sons and I entered Tucker’s home and met him for the first time, he responded in his usual way—with general hesitation and some barking. He’s in no way aggressive, but he doesn’t warm up to strangers quickly. He looked at us, backed away, and didn’t seem too pleased to see us. Over the next couple of hours, he accepted our presence, and was much more relaxed. Still, he was definitely not acting the same towards us as he does with the humans in his family.
Hours later when my husband Rich came over, Tucker acted completely differently with him than he had with the rest of us. His demeanor was significantly friendlier. He rushed up to greet him in a relaxed way, and he didn’t bark. He also looked completely confused and alternated between rushing up to my husband and running away from him.
It’s easy to understand Tucker’s confusion. Tucker lives with Steve, who is my husband’s identical twin brother, but he had never met Rich. The dog didn’t greet him as enthusiastically as he greets Steve, but their remarkable similarity was enough for Tucker to consider my husband “familiar” and to react to him without fear.
When Steve came home a little while later, Tucker went bananas in a happy way, leaping onto Steve, and exuding light-hearted glee from toe to tail. It was clear to us that Tucker knew the first twin to arrive that day was not Steve, but he didn’t treat him like he treats everyone else he is meeting for the first time.
When both my husband and Steve were present, Tucker loved to sit by both of them, but he would look at Rich in confusion, allow some petting, and them scoot closer to Steve and relax totally to the full body massage he received. He would look up, sniff the imposter, and go back to Steve.
The most relaxed Tucker ever was with my husband was on the day he borrowed Steve’s clothes. He was even more relaxed with Rich that day than usual, behaving almost the same way as he did with Steve. However, he sometimes seemed very confused, sniffing him excessively and periodically racing away, only to approach again for further investigation. I’m guessing that the familiar odor of Steve’s clothes was making it a little harder for Tucker to tell the two of them apart, but a little easier for him to feel comfortable around Rich.
Does anyone else have a story of a fearful (or any) dog meeting the identical twin of someone he or she already knows well? What about brothers, sisters, or parents and children who strongly resemble one another?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Can stories about dogs with aggression issues have happy endings?
By the time people have come to me for help with a dog’s aggression problems, the situation is often pretty serious and it’s not unusual for people to be at the end of their rapidly fraying ropes. Though not every situation has a fairy-tale ending, I approach each new case with optimism, partly because that’s my basic nature, but also because it reflects my experience that once in a while, a dog improves more than I imagined possible. Every unexpected happy ending is an occasion to celebrate, both because success is wonderful for the people and dogs involved, and because I always learn something new.
The fierce look on my client’s face when she said she had been advised by a vet, two trainers and a groomer to euthanize her mixed-breed dog Bear was matched by her words: “We’re just not going to do that, so please don’t waste my time and money by suggesting it.” She adopted him after her husband died, and he had helped the kids with the loss of their father; they loved the dog and couldn’t say good-bye to him. He was an angel with the woman and her two children and aggressive with everybody else.
Bear’s aggression was clearly fear-related and extremely serious. On multiple occasions, he had bitten men, women and children, sometimes bruising skin, other times breaking it. Even more discouraging than the large number of bites was the fact that in the two years since Bear had joined the woman and her children, he had never become comfortable with a single person outside the family.
My deep concern about the likelihood of this dog overcoming his fear continued during the early stages of working with him. It took weeks of hard effort using counterconditioning for him to even marginally improve. It was nearly a month before we could be certain that he was making progress because it came at a glacial pace.
Then one day, everything changed. We were working with a person whom Bear had been exposed to at low intensities multiple times. She was sitting calmly about 40 feet away. Treats were tossed and the dog took them, though, as usual, despite being relaxed, he didn’t seem too happy.
Then, I swear, we could almost see the light bulb go on over his head. He suddenly seemed to make the connection between the person and the treats. Oh, I get it! I love treats, and people make them appear. I guess people aren’t so bad after all. This is a great world and it’s filled with great treats and great people who throw them for me. It’s all so wonderful! Bear looked at the woman, began to salivate, had more treats tossed for him and tried to pull closer. He was actually trying to approach a person outside the family for the first time, and he was happy about it.
After that, progress was rapid and easily generalized to new people. Within a few weeks, Bear stopped behaving aggressively because he was no longer fearful. He was glad to see new people even outside of organized sessions, and eagerly approached strangers in a way that was previously unimaginable.
Bear taught me that while most fearful dogs learn gradually and tend to progress at a slow and steady rate, some have flashes of insight. They experience what I can only compare to a “Helen Keller-at-the-well” a-ha! moment, followed by rapid progress.
In some cases, the big picture involves so much more than the dog’s behavior, extending well into family dynamics and human interactions. A couple came in with their Chesapeake Bay Retriever, Rusty. The wife was afraid of the dog and didn’t want to keep him, but the husband had no problems and wouldn’t agree to rehome Rusty. He had given up a dog as a child and never got over it.
The husband wanted me to tell his wife that she needed to stop letting the dog push her around. The wife wanted me to tell her husband that the dog would bite her again, she couldn’t stop it and it wasn’t safe to keep him. I knew that success would require compromise and cooperation, but the couple’s relationship and the woman’s relationship with the dog both seemed almost beyond repair. The humans were very angry with each other, and it was hard to imagine that changing. With all this conflict, nobody was happy, including the dog.
Rusty’s behavioral issues involved threatening and biting the woman in a number of situations: around food, when he was resting, when she attempted to sit on the couch next to him or approached him while he had a toy or a chew. The dog did not react negatively to the husband in the same situations. The first thing I did was let them know that I regularly saw dogs who acted this way with couples—fine with the one with whom they have a close relationship and aggressive with the other. Rusty’s behavior didn’t mean that the woman was doing anything wrong. It just meant that he reacted differently to each of them, and that his behavior was a reflection of the different relationship they each had with Rusty.
It took considerable effort to help them see the situation from the other’s perspective, but it was an essential step toward resolving the issue. Acknowledging the validity of both of their viewpoints helped. The husband began to understand that his wife was afraid, and legitimately so, but that he could play a role in changing the situation. Once the wife was no longer blamed for the problem, she was able to empathize with her husband, who was emotionally tortured by the thought of not keeping the dog. She accepted that the dog’s behavior could be improved. At that point, they were ready to work on the issue together.
The first steps in Rusty’s program involved setting rules that both the man and the woman followed. The basic lesson I wanted Rusty to learn was that he would get what he wanted in life (food, treats, attention, play time, walks, toys and so forth) by being patient and polite rather than by being pushy and aggressive.
He had to respond to cues from both of them throughout the day—sit, down, stay, back up, get off (the couch). A dog who behaves aggressively to a specific family member needs a high level of training to stay out of trouble and get out of sticky situations. Rusty enjoyed training and was willing to work, but for the sake of consistency, needed to be cued to perform the same behaviors in the same way every time.
I also needed to help the woman and the dog develop their relationship through fun and playful interactions. Since Rusty was better outside the house, where there were no resources to guard, we set up daily play, hiking and running sessions. He was still required to respond to her requests, but the two of them had fun together.
Once the woman had just a little success with the dog—when he listened to her cues and responded to them—their relationship grew very quickly. Their improved relationship meant that our efforts to change Rusty’s aggressive behavior in the problem situations inside the house were more effective. As she began to feel more confident around the dog, her optimism and her commitment to him grew. Her husband saw that she was working hard and really cared, and that magnified his desire to make sure she felt safe and comfortable with Rusty.
Reducing conflict within the human family benefits everyone, including the dog. My job is to do my best to minimize conflict, get everybody on board with the program and acknowledge each person’s perspective. This case taught me that it is impossible to predict which couples will be able to resolve serious issues between them, and to hold out hope that each couple I am working with will be one of the happy-ending cases.
While I was interning with Patricia McConnell, I sat in on many of her cases, including that of a 10-year-old Beagle mix who had suddenly become aggressive. Odin had been friendly and sweet all his life, but was now avoiding the family. The family described the situation as a total personality change. He snarled if approached and bit if touched. As I sat silently in the consultation, hope was not at the forefront of my feelings. I felt very upset by the severity of the problem.
What Trisha already knew and what she taught me that day is that pain is a common cause of aggression that comes on quickly and seems completely out of character, especially in adult dogs. This dog was immediately referred to their veterinarian, who discovered a severely infected tooth. When that medical issue was resolved (the tooth was pulled), the dog returned to his usual pleasant self. He no longer experienced pain when he was touched, so he no longer had to resort to threats and bites to keep people, even those he loved, away from him.
I learned that pain can cause abrupt onset and personality-changing aggression, and it’s a lesson that has been useful many times since. It can be most obvious in old dogs, because it always surprises people when an elderly, or even middle-aged, dog changes his behavior so dramatically. It’s important to consider that possibility in dogs of all ages—young, middle-aged and elderly— if the change is sudden and seems out of character; if it relates to being touched, especially on a specific spot; if the dog seems worse after exercise or late in the day; or if the dog seems to have good days and bad days.
A woman came to me for help with Stanley, her Standard Poodle, who was aggressive to other dogs when on a leash. We taught Stanley to watch his guardian’s face and to turn around and walk the other way, and to perform these behaviors in the presence of another dog rather than bark, lunge and growl.
Naturally, our goal was to prevent situations that were too much for Stanley to handle, but I always like to have a plan for the unexpected. That way, my clients have something more productive and less damaging to do in a bad situation than struggle with an out-of-control dog and say to themselves, “This is exactly the sort of situation Karen says should be avoided because it could cause a setback in our training program. This should definitely not be happening.” With that real-world perspective, I advised the woman and her dog to run past the other dog if she found herself in a position that made retreat impossible and to run away from the dog if it was so close that Stanley would not be able to focus on her and respond appropriately. Running is the fastest way to increase the distance between your dog and trouble. This works best when the other dog is on a leash because sometimes an off-leash dog will chase after another dog who is running, and that is obviously the last thing you want when your dog is aggressive to other dogs.
After about a month of steady progress, we were twice caught off guard during the same training session by dogs suddenly appearing at a distance that was too close for Stanley to handle. At first, I thought it was the worst kind of bad luck, until I realized that after twice seeing an unfamiliar dog and twice running to escape, Stanley was happier than usual. When we saw the next dog at a distance that he could handle, we were prepared to ask him to watch in order to earn a treat, but he turned and ran. He wasn’t running to escape. He ran with joy and great glee. He had learned to be happy about seeing dogs because to him, it meant he was going to get to run, which most dogs adore doing and think is the best kind of play. He wasn’t nearly as happy about seeing dogs when they presented an opportunity to respond to a cue and receive treats.
Stanley’s response exceeded my expectations. He would see another dog and look up expectantly, hoping that he would be encouraged to run. In his case, play was far more powerful in affecting his emotions than treats, even though he was highly treat-motivated. He definitely liked treats, but running made him deliriously joyful. That positive emotion helped him overcome his undesirable aggressive behavior around other dogs.
From Stanley, I learned that sometimes, what you’re doing has a different effect than you intended, which can (on occasion) be a good thing. Running, which I first considered an escape strategy, was a form of play to Stanley, and positively affected his emotions and, therefore, his behavior.
After years of seeing clients with aggressive dogs, one big lesson I’ve learned is that it’s important to be as optimistic as possible. It’s my job to give realistic assessments of situations, and to help clients safely manage them. It’s also my job to move heaven and earth to help them improve both the situation and their dog’s behavior. If they are committed to making the effort, I am never without hope. Each case has the potential to surprise me with a better outcome than I might have predicted, and surprise happy endings are my favorite kind of success story.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
His exuberance was excessive
“Can I meet your dog?” I said to my neighbor, as I say many times each week at the park, while running errands, on hikes and anywhere else I see a dog. This was a dog who I did not yet know, and I was eager to say hello. He came over to me with the same calmness he’d had on his walk, and looked up at me. I expected a calm, possibly even a tentative greeting.
Then, his face changed, and he launched up at me, leaving scratch marks on my chest and knocking me over so that I had to use my hand on the ground to catch myself from a complete fall. The change in his face that gave me enough time to expect a change in behavior but not enough time to react sufficiently to evade contact had no signs of aggression. He did not look scared, frustrated or angry. The look on his face was one of glee. He was excited to greet me, and is truly a friendly dog. He was lacking in manners and a bit out of control, but not the slightest bit aggressive.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t hurt someone, and the first thing I did after my interaction with this dog had ended was to tell my kids that this dog was off limits. They are not allowed to pet or approach him, and if they see him coming towards them, they know they are supposed to cross the street or turn around and go the other way. My kids saw what happened when this dog bounded up at me, so they needed no convincing to give this dog ample space.
I believe it’s because the dog was friendly that the guardian was completely unconcerned with his behavior. She offered no apology and expressed no chagrin, remorse or embarrassment that her dog leapt at me and did so hard enough that I lost my balance. What she said was, “He’s such a lover.”
To be fair, as I backed away, she held on tight to his leash, which is why when he jumped up towards me again, he met resistance and came back down to the ground even closer to his guardian and further from me than when he started. Regrettably, he landed hard. He seemed totally unaffected by slamming into the ground, which reflects a combination of his focus on me and the powerful muscling of his body.
He may be friendly, if that’s what she meant by “a lover” but he could also injure someone. Since I work with dogs with a variety of serious issues, I’m accustomed to imperfect behavior, but it’s very rare for me to be knocked over. It was a little embarrassing, to be honest. I certainly hope he doesn’t ever jump on the frail elderly woman across the street, the pregnant neighbor around the corner, a child, or any other person. What is most concerning about this dog is that he does not present as out of control or prone to high aroused. He walks through the neighborhood every day on a loose leash very peacefully. Since he jumped on me, I have seen him do it to one other person, with similar results, but otherwise, he just plods along on his walks showing no signs of enthusiasm over dogs, squirrels or any of the things that excite the average dog.
As a behaviorist, the rapid switch of this dog from calm emotions and behavior to high arousal is very interesting. (As a neighbor and a mom, it’s not so enthralling.) Most dogs either have a less dramatic amount of change or take a little longer to go from one state to the other. Many dogs get excited when meeting people, but few dogs are wild around people while showing no signs of exuberance in response to any other stimuli.
Have you ever known a dog who seemed so calm that their truly explosive greeting behavior was unexpected?
The Bark had a chance to speak with Ken Ramirez about his experience with clicker training and what the future holds for him in his new role as Executive Vice President and Chief Training Officer for KPCT.
The Bark: Why is it important that people successfully train their companion dogs?
Ken Ramirez: There are so many reasons that training is important. It is a critical part of good animal care, just like veterinary care, nutrition and a safe environment. You cannot give animals all they need unless it includes a training program. Good training helps teach animals how to live successfully in our world, and helps to build a strong lasting relationship between people and their pets.
Bark: Tell us about your professional experience with operant conditioning or clicker training.
Ramirez: I began my training career working with guide dogs in a very traditional training environment. However, right out of college I had the opportunity to work with a variety of marine mammals, birds, and big cats in several zoological facilities. That is where I was introduced to the world of positive reinforcement and marker-based training. That experience changed my life as I experienced how powerful this type of training is. Not only is it force-free and fun for the animals, but it assists in developing strong relationships with each animal partner. I went back and re-read all my animal behavior text books, made contact with my professors, and began trying to understand why this type of training was not more wide-spread, except perhaps in the world of marine mammal training. My quest for knowledge exposed me to Karen Pryor and some of her early works. I read every positive reinforcement training article I could find, sought out conferences and training organizations that could forward my knowledge and understanding of effective positive reinforcement training. I had the good fortune to travel to many corners of the world and work with a wide variety of species of animals, and discovered just how universal this technology really is. In 1989 I was hired by the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to oversee the development of their animal training program. Since joining Shedd, I have had the good fortune to oversee the care and training of more than 32,000 animals representing over 1500 species. I continued to consult with many zoo and aquarium programs worldwide. Then, in 1997, Western Illinois University asked me to develop a graduate course on animal training, which I still teach today. In 1998, I returned to dog training as a consultant to several search and rescue dog teams, which led to my involvement in many other working dog programs including service dogs, law enforcement, and a return to guide dog work. When Karen Pryor decided to start ClickerExpo, she chose Chicago as her inaugural location. She invited me to that Expo as a guest speaker, which led to an invitation to join the faculty the following year, and I have been on the faculty ever since.
Bark: What has been the biggest revelation about this method of training animals?
Ramirez: The biggest revelation for me every time I train an animal is how much they enjoy the process and how it assists in relationship building. Additionally, as someone who began my career more than 35 years ago using more traditional training methods, I always marvel at how well positive reinforcement works and how much stronger and precise behavior is trained in a fun force-free environment.
Bark: Is it your experience that most animals enjoy learning and training exercises?
Ramirez: Absolutely. That’s what makes positive reinforcement so effective—the animal is a willing partner in the process and it is so much fun for them.
Bark: What has you most excited about working with Karen Pryor's clicker training programs?
Ramirez: I am excited about everything that Karen Pryor Clicker Training represents. Karen was an inspiration to me personally as I was seeking good information about the use of positive reinforcement training during the early stages of my career. I am passionate about educating people about the power of positive reinforcement and the beneficial impacts it has on the welfare of the animals in our lives. Each program, whether it be the ClickerExpos, the Karen Pryor Academy, or the production of positive reinforcement books and training tools furthers the education of the public about marker-based positive reinforcement training. I am excited about helping to continue and further the amazing body of work that Karen has produced over the years.
Bark: Do you currently have a dog, cat or other pet?
Ramirez: I have had dogs my entire life. Sadly, my 12-year-old Spaniel that I adopted from a shelter after my first Clicker Expo 11 years ago, recently passed away. I will probably look for my next dog at one of the local Chicago shelters sometime later in the year. However, I established a dog training program with dogs adopted from local shelters at the Shedd Aquarium several years ago, and I consider the four dogs in that program close companions and training partners. These four dogs include a Pit Bull, an Airedale, a Shepherd, and a Lab.
Ken Ramirez is a regular consultant for zoos, oceanariums, and parks around the world. He has held top leadership positions in most of the profession’s associations, including as past president of IMATA (International Marine Animal Trainer’s Association). As part of his leadership, Ken has been involved in the creation of a certification process for animal trainers in zoological settings. He has been featured on television and in the media numerous times, including as host of a popular Australian television series Talk to the Animals. Ken has been on the faculty of KPCT’s ClickerExpo conference since 2005; he also teaches graduate-level courses at Western Illinois University.
Ken began his training career working with guide dogs for the visually impaired and has maintained a close connection to dog training ever since. At the Shedd Aquarium, Ken spearheaded the development of a program to rescue dogs from animal shelters and to train and care for them in order to show the public the transformative power of marker-based positive-reinforcement training. Outside of Shedd, Ken’s canine work includes training for search and rescue, guide and service work, scent detection, animal husbandry, and more.
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