Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Deciding when to euthanize
Not everybody is at ease with the idea of euthanasia under any circumstances, and I understand that. Many people have moral conflicts with deciding to end the life of a pet, no matter what the reason. My perspective is that this is a highly individual decision but that I personally am comfortable with euthanizing my pets once their quality of life is so compromised or they are in such pain that keeping them alive feels like it’s more for my sake than for theirs. It’s my view that a peaceful death by euthanasia frees them from pain and misery, and is the final gift of love I am able to provide. I know many disagree, and I’m not suggesting that one way or another is right—I’m just describing my own personal take on this issue.
That doesn’t mean that I haven’t cried buckets and been inconsolable when I’ve euthanized a dog. It’s horrible beyond imagination, and I’ve never really recovered from it in any case. I always hope for any dog (or any person for that matter) to surrender peacefully to death while sleeping. When that doesn’t happen in time, facing the tough decision of when to euthanize is a challenge. Sometimes it’s obvious when it’s time because the dog has reached a point of literally being unable to move, being in constant and unmanageable pain, showing no joy at all or no recognition of anything or anyone.
In other cases, it’s not so clear, which is why a new tool that helps guardians and veterinarians decide when that moment has arrived may be useful. Researchers at Michigan State University developed a survey for probing into the specifics of a dog’s quality of life when undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. The idea is to develop an objective way to assess quality of life, which is such an important consideration when deciding whether to continue life-prolonging measures or to face the possibility that it is time to say good-bye.
Questions address a range of behavioral issues and observations before treatment, a retrospective on the dog’s behavior six months prior, and continued observations throughout their treatment at regular intervals. The questions address aspects of dog behavior including play, measures of happiness, and signs of disease. Both guardians and veterinarians have questions to answer based on their own observations. A small pilot study of 29 dogs found high levels of agreement from clinicians and guardians. Researchers plan to expand their original work to a study with hundreds of dogs and to other illnesses and medical issues as well.
Do you think an objective tool such as this might help you decide when to euthanize a dog, or do you feel comfortable with just “knowing” when that sad day has come?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How well does your dog handle them?
If you love the Fourth of July, it may be one of the few times that you find yourself thinking about the differences between you and your dog instead of the similarities. (It will probably also happen if you ever decide compare your respective views on cow pies.) Having the day off to barbecue, watch a parade, and see the fireworks may be heavenly to most people, but not for most dogs.
Okay, perhaps they’ll enjoy the barbecue if enough of the yummy stuff makes it to the ground, but even then, they may find their insides upset later on. And the parade may appeal to the most social of dogs and those without any kind of personal space issues, but the crowds can be overwhelming and scary to dogs not accustomed to such large groups of people. For small dogs especially, there is a very real danger of being stepped on or otherwise squashed in such a setting.
Of course, the big misery for dogs on Independence Day is the fireworks. Dogs who fear loud sounds, especially those with a phobia of thunderstorms, suffer the most. But even dogs who go through much of the year with nothing more than a normal startle response to a dropped pot or a car backfiring can freak out when dealing with the prolonged nature of these annual celebratory explosions. That’s why I urge people to keep their dogs home and away from fireworks even if they are sure their dog can handle it. I’ve seen many stable dogs who had no reaction one year but fell apart the next. It’s not worth the risk!
It pains me personally that this is one of the most dreaded days for the canine set because it’s my birthday, and I’ve always considered myself lucky to celebrate with the whole country. I love the fireworks, and as a little girl, I believed my Dad’s jokes that they were just for me. I still enjoy his nickname for me—his little firecracker—even though I now understand that even though he sometimes meant it in a good way, sometimes he didn’t. I love to share my favorite activities with dogs, but unluckily for me, my birthday is the one day of the year that it is the most difficult.
Some celebrations on this holiday may be pleasant for quite a few dogs—a small gathering of people for a simple meal, walking around town together away from the biggest crowds, and certainly spending time with you if you have the day off. On the other hand, the fireworks and the parades bother the majority of dogs.
How do you handle the Fourth of July with your dog and what parts of it do you share?
News: Guest Posts
How to make your dog happy
I have good news for all of us who don't look like Ryan Gosling or Gisele Bundchen: your dog doesn't care. Dogs are much more interested in our smells than our looks. Just watch a dog with his head out a car window-nose forging ahead. Wind brings innumerable scent molecules directly to the dog's face, which in the dog's world, makes for a pretty good day. * You might look like a one-eyed pig, but to your dog, it's your bouquet that makes you beautiful.
A Beautiful Sight to Sniff
Unlike us humans who preoccupy ourselves with visual landscapes, dogs smell their vistas. Maybe you've had the experience of walking a dog when all of a sudden the dog gets hooked on something. Even though that something is completely out of range and invisible to you, the dog's behavior indicates, “What I'm checking out is really interesting. We are not going anywhere, buster.”
To get inside your dog's world, you need to pick his brain-and his nose. Dogs have much more nose than us humans. Their extensive olfactory epithelium allows them to trap and assess odor molecules at concentrations of up to parts per trillion, while we are more in the range of parts per million. Yep. I said trillion. Their noses are about a million times more sensitive than our noses. Often, our brains can't register what they whiff.
On top of that, dogs' noses come equipped with a vomeronasal organ (unfortunately, it's not a musical instrument). The vomeronasal organ has tons of receptor cells that take sniffing to the next level. It is thought to be important in detecting species-specific information such as pheromones. While our understanding of dog olfaction still has a long way to go, we do know that yes, your dog is getting quality information from that other dog's behind, face and urine.
If you're starting to look at your dog as one big nose, you're in good company. Many of the folks working with dogs or researching dog behavior and cognition remind dog owners that smelly (or smelling) experiences are integral to a dog's “good life.” In the spirit of picking your dog's nose, here are four ways to give your dog the gift of smell:
1. Take your dog on smell walks
In Inside of A Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz recommends accompanying dogs on smell walks. She explains:
“[Dog]-walks are often not done with the dog's sake in mind, but strangely playing out a very human definition of a walk. We want to make good time; to keep a brisk pace; to get to the post office and back.”
Dogs don't care about “making time.” While walking with the dog's nose in mind might alter total distance traveled, you and Bucky can bond over quality olfactory experiences. In a smell walk, Bucky might sniff as he likes, choose the direction of the walk or linger to get to the bottom of a particular smell. What else might you provide on a smell walk?
2. Consider smelling sports
Taking a cue from drug sniffing dogs, K9 Nose Work has recently become a formalized fun activity and a favorite of many companion dogs and owners alike.
You don't have to turn your dog into a narc to get into smelling sports. It's about “getting your dog excited about using his nose to seek out a favorite toy or treat reward hidden in one of several boxes.” (K9 Nose Work)
The game can then be expanded to include entire rooms, exterior areas and even vehicles. Of course, scent work can be conducted in less formalized ways. Don't be afraid to get creative with smelling sports. One man's narc is another man's truffle pig.
3. Make up your own smell(y) games
Have you ever put your dog's olfaction to the test? After being out of the country for a year, my friend and I wanted to see whether her dog would remember me. Our sneaky setup was unscientific and simple: Millie and her owner would walk down the street, and I would walk past them, coming up from behind and not interacting in any way, to see whether Millie paid me any mind. As I walked past, Millie turned toward what could have just been another stranger in NYC, and gave one of those glorious welcomes that says, in not so many words, “YOU ARE HERE! YOU ARE HERE! IT'S YOU!! YAYAYAYAYAY!!”
It's possible this is more of a game for my friend and me than Millie. Still, it's a reminder to us humans—who often need reminders—that the nose is a great way to connect with a dog.
4. Make your reunion smelly
Try making “smell” a priority when greeting dogs. While most people don't overtly sniff and greet, we need to keep in mind that Scruffy's schnozzle is her window to the world. You want to keep that window wide open, not close it.
It goes back to our different biologies. When we people walk into a party, most of us look around, see who's there and then make the next move (either toward a friend or toward the bar). For dogs, “looking around the room” is easier done with the help of olfactory investigation because visual cues could be misleading. Who hasn't been confused when meeting a friend with a new haircut/glasses/facial hair/gorilla suit?
With dogs and their wonderful snouts, they don't have to worry about mistaken identities. Sight can be confusing, but a smell check can set things straight! That's the way you'd do it too, if your nose were a million times more powerful than it is.
Take a look at a reunion between a dog and a member of U.S. military returning from deployment:
The owner then provides the dog a hand for sniffing, and after olfactory investigation, the dog shows a proper display of, “IT'S YOU!! IT'S YOU!! YAYAYAYA!”
Does this video surprise you? And just as important, do you give your dog opportunities for olfactory exploration during greetings?
There are things out there in the world that you might not notice and can't understand but that your dog is very in tune with and would like a closer look (oh please!). And these things have nothing to do with whether you are Ryan Gosling (but if you are Ryan Gosling, feel free to give me a call).
Photo: Dog smelling sunflowers by Dylan, used under Creative Commons license
References Horowitz. 2009. Inside of a Dog What Dogs See, Smell, and Know. Scribner Wells & Hepper. 2003. Directional tracking in the domestic dog, Canis familiaris. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 84, 297-305.
* Wind can play a part in scent detection. A recent paper exploring directional tracking in dogs notes that the researchers laid trails at a “ninety degree angle to the direction of the oncoming wind to reduce the possibility of the dogs using airborne scent to determine directionality.” It's easier to attend to a scent if airborne scent molecules are flying directly into your face, like a car ride.
About the Author
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Science supports what we’ve long believed
Our dogs are our kids. It’s not rocket science—we love them, they love us. They look to us for comfort and care. We call them our fur kids or our four-legged children. So, even though it’s not news to us, it’s validating to see science confirm what we already thought was true: Our dogs are like children to us.
Children have been shown to explore the world most confidently if they have a strong attachment to their caregiver (usually a parent.) They use the parent as a secure base from which to explore their environment if they have learned that the parent is dependable and reliable, and this phenomenon is called the secure base effect.
In the recent study, The Importance of the Secure Base Effect for Domestic Dogs—Evidence from a Manipulative Problem-Solving Task, researchers conclude that dogs are bonded to their guardians in the same way that infants are bonded to their parents. They found that dogs use their guardians as a secure base, just as children do.
In the study, dogs were tested in each of two experiments and their behavior was quantified. In the first experiment, dogs were given the opportunity to obtain food from interactive dog toys, and the amount of time the dogs spent attempting to extract the food was recorded. The dogs were tested in three different experimental situations: 1) with their guardian absent, 2) with their guardian present and encouraging them, and 3) with their guardian present but silent and unresponsive. Researchers also recorded how much time the dogs spent in close proximity to their guardians as well as to the experimenter, who was present in all conditions.
The results of this experiment showed that the different situations had an impact on how long the dog manipulated the interactive toy in an attempt to extract the food. The dog manipulated it longer when the guardian was present than absent, but there was no difference in response to whether the guardian was encouraging the dog or remaining silent. The dogs spent an equal amount of time close to their guardian regardless of whether they were receiving encouragement or not. They spent more time close to the experimenter when their guardians were absent than when they were present, suggesting that the experimenter offered some security, social support or comfort in the experimental context.
The second experiment was designed to determine if the effects seen in the first experiment could be explained simply by the fact that in the situations in which the guardians were present, there were two people in the room, whereas in the guardian-absent condition, there was only one person. In other words, what if dogs are not affected by having their guardian as a secure base, but simply react to the presence of more than one person in the room? So, in experiment two, the first experiment was modified to include a fourth condition in which an unfamiliar person (rather than the guardian) was present along with the experimenter.
The results of the second experiment were that dogs manipulated the interactive toy longer in the presence than in the absence of their guardians, regardless of whether an additional unfamiliar person was in the room. The dogs spent more time near their silent, unresponsive guardians than to the unfamiliar person, who also refrained from interacting with the dog. The addition of the unfamiliar person condition allowed the researchers to determine that the guardian had a specific effect on the dog’s performance that cannot be explained by the presence of just any person.
Prior to participating in this experiment, all dogs were tested for their willingness to eat food in the absence of their guardians. They were also scored for their tendency to exhibit separation distress when kept away from their guardians. Interestingly, there was no relationship between the time spent manipulating the toys in the absence of their guardians and the amount of separation distress they showed, which means that the results of the experiments cannot be explained by a tendency of the dogs to manipulate the toy less because of the distress of separation.
This is the first study to demonstrate that the relationship between dogs and guardians is similar to the relationship between children and their parents in that both involve the secure base effect. This raises concerns about experiments into cognitive abilities that involve problem solving that is far more complex than in this study because the absence of guardians could significantly lower performance by the dogs.
It also confirms the view that most of us have about the canine members of our family—they are like kids to us!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Squirrels, bicycles, deer, runners
You are enjoying a pleasant walk with your dog when you are suddenly faced with a distraction. The severity of the situation depends on your dog’s natural excitability and level of training along with the specific distraction that has appeared. The situation might be no big deal, a chance to proof your dog’s training, a bit of a hassle or a serious problem verging on a catastrophe.
The iconic distraction is the squirrel. It’s no coincidence that when people are pointing out that their dog is distracted by something, they just say, “Squirrel!” in an excited way. It’s true that squirrels cause incredible challenges for many dogs and their guardians. Many dogs will alert, tense up and chase a squirrel if given the opportunity. Others will bark, whine or spin in circles. There are dogs who will lie down silently before bolting towards the squirrel, as though they have been stalking it. And yet, there are plenty of dogs who aren’t overly interested in squirrels and don’t react at all. Perhaps those dogs are just not easily distracted, but some of them just find other things distracting instead.
Among the animals that can be distraction nightmares for guardians are sheep, chickens or other birds, cats, other dogs, horses, deer, and elk. Any sort of person can be problematic as a distraction, but top honors usually go to shrieking children, bicyclists, skateboards, roller bladders, and runners. Distractions can even be inanimate objects such as plastic bags blowing by, trash cans, trucks, cars, motorcycles, and balloons.
What’s your dog’s biggest distraction—the one thing you really hope you never see on a walk?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Studies now suggest that personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans.
All dogs are the same. really. Look at an evolutionary tree and you’ll find all domestic dogs, clustered together in one spot. But that can’t be the entire story. When asked, Rachel Licker of Lawrenceville, N.J., describes Piper, her “Basset Hound on stilts,” as incredibly goofy, communicative, playful and quick to overwhelm. According to Mary de Vachon of Nice, France, Ria, her Sheltie, is gentle and loving, content and confident, extremely shy, and above all else, a mademoiselle.
While all dogs might fit in the same spot on the tree of life, each has his or her own unique personality. Just as one person might greet you with a cautious wave or a coy smile, another will come barreling into your life doling out hugs and kisses. Dogs are the same, in that each is different.
WHAT IS PERSONALITY?
Additionally, the word describes an individual’s usual pattern of behavior, characteristics that are relatively stable over time and across situations. Say a snowman with stick arms that wave in the wind appears on the front lawn after a snowstorm. Some dogs would walk by as though Frosty had always been there. Others might play-bow and dance joyfully in front of their new friend, while a few are sure to freeze, tuck and retreat.
If those same dogs then confront other novel situations—balloons in a tree, a parade, clowns jumping out of a car, you name it—those who perceived Frosty as no bother would probably continue to be indifferent, while those who equated Frosty with Satan would also be likely to associate other odd events with the underworld. Although it does not imply that an individual will respond the same exact way every time (dogs are not robots, after all), the term “personality” denotes an individual’s usual perceptions or interactions.
Thinking about personality gets tricky very quickly because there is no universal definition. Some fields distinguish between personality and temperament, while others use the terms interchangeably. As Samuel Gosling, PhD, a personality and social psychologist at the University of Texas, Austin, explains, “Temperament is the basic, biologically inherited tendencies of an individual, and personality is the result of the interaction between temperament and the environment.” That distinction is common in human psychology but is not always made in animal fields. But, as Gosling adds, “since adult animals are a combination of biologically inherited tendencies as well as individual experiences, it seems to me misleading to call that temperament. In humans, we would call that personality, so why not in other animals?”
Making a distinction between temperament and personality could enable researchers to explore whether certain traits are more stable over time than others. For example, a recent analysis surveying a number of studies found that in puppies, aggression and submissiveness were most consistent, while responsiveness to training, sociability and fearfulness were least consistent.
Understanding the relationship between early-life temperaments and later-in-life personalities could be paramount for real-world issues, such as selecting dogs for work or companionship. For working dogs, Gosling and his team advise the U.S. Department of Homeland Security on how to measure personality-trait consistency in order to improve the selection and training of working detector dogs.
Back home, you might think you have a handle on who your puppy Wizzer is, but what you’re seeing might or might not relate to Wizzer’s adult personality. (So even if Wizzer starts out apprehensive about the vacuum cleaner, there’s hope for improvement, and you can help him.)
At the same time, many shy away from using the term when it comes to non-human animals, sometimes because they’re uneasy about the “A” word: anthropomorphism. To avoid linking dogs and personhood so explicitly, scientists use alternative descriptors such as “behavioral types,” “behavioral syndromes” and “coping styles.” Regardless of the word employed, when the definitions are compared, they tend to describe the same basic phenomenon: consistent, individual differences in behavioral tendencies over time and across situations.
Much of the initial pushback against the term “personality” has dissipated because studies now suggest that personality in non-human animals can be measured and evaluated, just as in humans. (Relatively speaking, this field is in its infancy, and techniques and methodologies continue to evolve, so stay tuned.)
HOW IS PERSONALITY EVALUATED?
Questionnaires, however, are not bulletproof. Gosling notes that questionnaires “don’t rule out the possibility that ratings are based on some stereotype, say a physical stereotype, like ‘bigger animals are more aggressive.’ You could still get those biases.” Dogs’ physical appearances are emotion points for humans and make them susceptible to attributions and judgments that might have no bearing on the personality of individuals. For example, the Papillon breed standard specifies that these small dogs are to be “happy, alert and friendly,” and their physical appearance easily promotes this perception of an overall perkiness. But on an individual basis, just like other dogs, Papillons can be shy (or downright neurotic).
Even taking into account the risk of stereotyping, questionnaires provide meaningful information about canine personality. When comparing questionnaire ratings with separate behaviorobservation assessments, a strong link has been found. So if a dog is judged on a questionnaire to be highly timid, independent observers will generally also describe the dog’s behavior in terms consistent with shyness.
Since people are rarely shy about discussing their dogs, collecting data via questionnaires can be incredibly fruitful. The Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), developed by James Serpell, PhD, and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, is a widely used assessment of dog behavioral characteristics (available for public use). The 101 questions gather insights into dogs by asking owners to use a five-point scale to describe how their dog would likely react in a variety of different situations, such as anxiety or fear in heavy traffic or when examined by a veterinarian; excited when the doorbell rings or when visitors arrive; and of course, likely to chase cats if given the opportunity.
A recent study of former breeding dogs from commercial breeding operations— commonly referred to as “puppy mills”—relied on the C-BARQ to evaluate the dispositions of these dogs once they’re out in the world. Overall, they were found to be more fearful and nervous than typical pet dogs, particularly regarding strangers and stairs, and many were sensitive about being touched. Despite having lived for years in their adoptive households, many of these dogs still displayed persistent fear and anxiety, which is exactly the type of long-term rather than short-term tendencies that investigations of personality aim to reveal.
But do we really need questionnaires when a dog’s actual behavior is right in front of us? Of course, it’s easy to watch a dog and write down how he or she reacts to various stimuli, but that’s not necessarily enough. While it is plausible to observe dog behavior in myriad situations by simply waiting for different scenarios—such as flashing lights and loud sirens—to present themselves, test batteries, which are designed to investigate whether various stimuli and situations elicit particular responses, are more common. For example, the Dog Mentality Assessment (DMA) is a behavior test originating in Sweden that requires dogs to respond to, among other things, novel people, furry objects, loud noises, the potential for play and people dressed up like ghosts (yep, ghosts).
The researchers boiled down dogs’ behavioral responses into five personality dimensions: sociability, playfulness, chase-proneness, aggressiveness, and curiosity/fearfulness. Comparing the results from the DMA test battery with the C-BARQ assessment showed broad agreement between the two.
You can think of these personality dimensions as the canine equivalent of the classic human “Big Five” personality models: extroversion (sociable and outgoing), agreeableness (trustworthy and straightforward), neuroticism (anxious, irritable and shy), openness (curious, imaginative and excitable) and conscientiousness (efficient, thorough and not lazy). Research groups continue to flesh out the various personality dimensions found in dogs; recently, the Anthrozoology Research Group in Australia generated a slightly different list of attributes, one that included extroversion, neuroticism, motivation, training focus and amicability.
As you might imagine, it’s not easy to summarize and sort all of a dog’s behaviors into a small number of buckets, so there is much left to learn in this area. One hot topic that warrants more research is the possible relationships between different traits. For example, are individuals who are more bold also more sociable and playful with strangers? Or is it more challenging to find links between traits? While boldness and aggression correlate in some species, researchers have not found that to be true for dogs. Dogs who were bolder were not necessarily more aggressive. The possibilities for this area of research are virtually endless.
WHO WILL MY DOG BE?
The short answer to “Who will my dog be?” is “Wait and see.” Current research finds that puppy tests have low predictive value for later-in-life behavior. On the other hand, personalities examined in older dogs do display more stability over time. Krista Macpherson, a PhD candidate at the University of Western Ontario who studies cognitive abilities in domestic dogs, reminds us that at the time of testing, puppies have had minimal interaction with the outside world, apart from their conspecifics. “At eight weeks, they are not that developed cognitively, and there are a lot of experiences yet to be had,” she observes. Researchers at the Clever Dog Lab (part of Austria’s University of Vienna) are currently investigating whether early temperament tests are predictive of behavioral tendencies in an older dog. By testing dogs at a range of ages, they will be able to explore the predictive value of early-life temperament tests.
At the end of the day, Jules Winnfield, the gangster from Pulp Fiction, gets it right: “A dog’s got personality, and personality goes a long way.” Rachel Licker, who lives with Piper, reminds us exactly why personality is so important. “I hope people really enjoy their dogs being more than just amicable, and give their dogs more leeway to be multi-dimensional beings. I think they might enjoy their dogs more, and I think it would create more space for the dog and owner to be happy together.”
Culture: Stories & Lit
Look at Me
I have a border collie. which means i have a dog especially alert to motion of any kind. My Border Collie, Ainsley, is one of those who sometimes—well, okay, frequently—has rather explosive reactions to the motion of trucks, dogs, bikers and squirrels, to mention just a few. Which means I also need to be Border Collie–alert to motion so I can coach her on more, shall we say, appropriate responses.
Fortunately, I have a lovely path just outside my front door that wends between a river and canal, and curves in such a way that I can see almost anything coming or going for about half a mile in either direction. Even better, it’s traveled just enough to give us opportunities to practice self-control, but not so much that we can’t relax and enjoy our walk. It is not unusual to see fishermen along this path. While they don’t move much, they do wave their poles back and forth, an activity that can easily set off my dog. One day, as we walked, I saw a man on the bank of the canal about a quarter-mile ahead. I let Ainsley continue sniffing and scampering at the end of her 30-foot lead, worked on controlling my own breathing and, as we got closer, called her cheerfully to my side. Taking up the slack in the leash, I got a treat in hand, and together, we walked calmly by the man with the freaky stick.
This activity may seem absurdly straightforward to most dog owners, but it is actually hard-won for me and Ainsley. She is a rescue with a mostly unknown past, found wandering the woods, living under the porch of an abandoned hunting camp, gimpy from a broken leg that was never set and healed crooked, pregnant, full of bird shot, and blind in one eye. She is, true to her breed and in spite of her rough start, sweet, smart and trainable. She was, unlike her breed, very low-energy and cautious. Or so I thought. It turns out she was mostly just deeply inhibited. After a couple of years, as she became healthier, happier and more confident, she also became much more reactive. With a lot of help, advice, reading, consistent counterconditioning work and her ability to forgive my many mistakes, we found ways to manage this behavior. We never leave the house without a pocketful of treats. I taught her tricks to use as playful distractions. We work diligently at recalls. She is no longer an off-leash dog.
But one of the most fundamental building blocks of training remained elusive. As anyone who has dogs knows, you can’t teach them much until you teach them to pay attention to you. As anyone who has tried to manage reactivity knows, teaching a dog to make direct eye contact is the first step to effective counterconditioning. Ainsley is indeed very focused on me. However, she somehow learned shake, spin, down, come, leave it, enough, high-five, wait and so much more while simultaneously avoiding direct eye contact. She’d look at my face, but not into my eyes. If I insisted, she’d turn her muzzle askance and squint at me, blinking uncomfortably. I know that direct eye contact, while intimate among humans, is confrontational among dogs, so I accepted her oblique gaze. For a long time, Ainsley also did not know how to play— with me, with a toy, with a rawhide or with another dog— so it was clear that she had missed some pretty fundamental experiences. But slowly, over the course of several years, she has become engaged and responsive. Less hypervigilant. Goofy even. And from time to time, instead of looking at my eyebrows or cheekbones or chin, she will look steadily into my eyes. For a few moments, at least.
So having her trot at my side, glancing up at me, relaxed and unconcerned about the strange man with the weird appendage, was a not insignificant victory. In fact, I was so relieved and proud that I immediately let the leash unloop in my hand and told her to “go play,” which she happily did, sniffing along both sides of the trail as it took a sharp turn around an outcropping of rock. I rounded the bend behind her and saw a big blue bucket, net and tool bag lying in the grass just ahead. Ainsley was already there, nose to the ground. I quickly called “leave it” and began to take up the slack in the leash. But I was too late. By the time I’d crossed the distance from my end of the leash to hers, she’d found a pole hidden in the grass. Both her lip and tongue were pierced with two separate, four-barbed hooks. The look on her face was confusion more than pain. The look on mine must have been much worse. I held her jaw and spoke every comforting word I could think of as I tried to figure out how to keep her from getting more entangled. Fortunately, the barb in her lip came free. But the one in her tongue was completely set. I took hold of the hook, attached to 45 pounds of dog through a millimeter of skin, and tried to shove the miniature torture device back through the small hole it had made in the edge of her tongue. She squirmed and danced. Now her four and my two legs were also getting entangled in 30 feet of bright pink leash and several feet of invisible fishing line.
I said “easy, easy, easy,” my usual cue for getting her to slow her gait, and “wait, wait, wait,” my cue for getting her to stop moving, and blinked away the hot tears of fear. I tried fighting the hook without fighting my dog, but her tongue slipped in and out of my trembling fingers and the barbs pricked me instead of her. I tugged and pushed and twisted; the hook would not budge. I yelled for help. The fisherman was too far away and out of view. Blood, hers and mine, dripped off my fingertips.
I couldn’t back out the lure, so I had to snip it. With my free hand, I fumbled in the tool bag, looking for wire cutters— didn’t fishermen always have a pair for just this sort of eventuality? No luck. The only tool I could find was a knife. She’d recovered from so many much worse injuries in her life, I told myself she’d easily recover from a tiny slice in her tongue. I unsheathed the knife, set it against the hook, and pushed hard and fast into that sliver of flesh that held her. Suddenly, she was free.
She trotted off, shaking her head and spraying drops of blood into the landscape. I reordered the fisherman’s gear and tried to regulate my shallow breathing and pounding heart. Slowly, my panic was replaced with gratitude for Ainsley’s calmness during our little ordeal. She is, fortunately, a naturally sensible dog. But what struck me was that she had struggled against the hook, but not against me. She had listened. She had let me help her. I watched her return immediately to sniffing for feral cats and rabbit poop, and I was reminded, again, why it is so profoundly important that we train our dogs. Yes, we train because tricks are fun to show off to family members. Because a dog who doesn’t void in the house or jump on guests is easier to live with. But even more important, we train them to wait at an open door and walk on a leash to keep them safe. Dogs are, in many ways, human creations. We have domesticated them to live with us. And in doing so, we have brought them into immediate contact with things they might more naturally avoid: roads, cars, toddlers, garbage cans, toxic substances and so much more. We’ve bred them to be our best friends; training is the most essential thing we can do to be their best friends.
This small yet very stressful incident with the fishing hooks could have been much worse. Part of the reason it wasn’t is because of all the painstaking, frequently embarrassing and often frustrating but ultimately rewarding work I put into my relationship with Ainsley. I showed her what to do with a stuffed toy that squeaks when she bites on it, a dried-up piece of cowhide, a regal cat who refuses to be herded, a big white truck barreling towards us.
In the process, I suddenly realized, I was also showing her what to do with me. She learned I was good not only for putting kibble in a bowl and a leash around her neck, but also for introducing her to agility obstacles, playing “get it” games, removing snowballs from her paws and helping her sort through what to do about the strange things that pop up out of the landscape on our walks. This day, on this walk, she let me help her sort through a fishy, thorny problem with her tongue. More than teaching Ainsley to look at me, I realized I had finally, and much more importantly, taught her to look to me.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How to handle trouble at dog parks.
The dog gave her a bad feeling even before he charged at her. Later she would say that she felt the fear in her body before it reached her mind. That can happen when a dog stiffens, stares intensely or runs right at you, and this dog did all three. Once he picked up speed, a low growl in his throat, her “bad feeling” became definable as fear. She was worried for her own safety and even more scared for her dog. The out-of-control dog’s guardian was either not paying attention or was utterly unconcerned with the terror her dog was causing. She did not react at all when she was politely implored to call her dog (“Will you please call your dog?”), and continued to do nothing when the terrified woman finally screamed, “Stop your dog and put him on a leash, PLEASE!” As the dog got closer, and with no idea what to do to prevent an attack, the frightened woman’s only thought was, I have to keep my dog safe!
Whether you consider the dog park to be an indispensable part of your daily routine or no better than a gladiator pit, chances are that if you’ve spent much time in one, you’ve had an encounter in which a dog scared or injured you or your dog. So what do you do when you find yourself in one of those potentially dangerous situations?
Answering that is a little bit like giving advice on how to respond to a mugging. Should you stand your ground? Should you fight? Should you run? Should you just hand over your wallet and jewelry? Similarly, in the case of threatening dogs, there’s no right answer for every situation, but there are guidelines that can potentially minimize the chances of physical harm.
In the case of charging dogs, understand that you may have to be the one to take action if the dog’s guardian doesn’t. Some people don’t consider their dog’s behavior to be a problem (no matter how egregious it may appear to everyone else). Others know they can’t call their dogs away from trouble and they can’t catch them, so they simply do nothing. I wish it weren’t so, but counting on the misbehaving dog’s guardian to be part of the solution will often get you nowhere. However, saying, “Will you please call your dog?” is unlikely to make the situation any worse.
Not making the situation worse is an important factor when considering what to do. When choosing among the possible ways to respond to a charging dog, it’s critical to consider both the likelihood of being effective and the risk of escalating the tension and increasing the dog’s potential for behaving aggressively.
One key strategy is to try to change the dog’s emotions from a negative state to a positive one. The easiest and fastest option is to talk to the dog in an enthusiastic, happy voice: “Oh, who’s so good, what a good boy, aren’t you a love, are you a sweet boy, what a good dog, good dog, good dog.” I know it can feel irksome to say such things to a dog who is scaring the daylights out of you, but this is not about honesty or even sincerity—it’s about trying to prevent serious trouble.
Besides gushing praise, you can say other things that may shift the dog into a better mood. This usually seems ridiculous to people unless they’ve seen it work, but dogs’ emotional states often change in response to phrases such as “Time for dinner!” “Do you want a treat?” and “Where’s your ball?” Many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, which means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation.
Similarly, most dogs have been conditioned to feel happy when they see a leash, since a leash means a walk. So, holding up a leash and saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” may change a dog who is charging in a menacing way into a dog who is just enthusiastically approaching you. None of these “happy talk” strategies carry a significant risk of making the situation any more dangerous for you or your dog. (Holding up a leash does, of course, encourage the dog to continue heading toward you, which could add some risk.)
Saying “sit” sometimes works because it’s the one cue that the vast majority of dogs know well enough to respond to in just about any context. I’ve never heard of a dog becoming more aggressive when asked to sit in this situation. Cues such as “off” or “down” are less likely to work because so few dogs are reliably responsive to them, especially when they’re highly aroused.
Toys make many dogs happy, so if you can, toss a ball or other toy in the dog’s direction, or squeak a toy if you have one. If a dog can be switched to a playful mood with a toy, the charge will naturally cease. If not, the dog will likely just ignore the toy, and you are no worse off than before you tried to engage the dog playfully.
Despite its simplicity, tossing treats is also an effective strategy. Dogs who are acting aggressively out of fear are most likely to be positively affected by the appearance of treats, but dogs who are highly aroused, frustrated or just behaving like bullies may be distracted by treats and change their behavior. Again, if they ignore the treats, there is likely no harm done. You can throw the treats behind dogs to get them to turn around, or right at them to make sure the treats are noticed. Handfuls are more likely to be effective than single treats. (Caveat: There is some risk of trouble if the worrisome dog, or any dog in the vicinity, is food-aggressive.)
Getting something in the mouth of the charging dog has protective value. Throw any object you happen to have that is not a safety hazard. Balls or other toys are best because they’re most likely to be of interest, but your hat, a scarf or a water bottle that can keep the dog’s mouth occupied may work, too. Throwing something away from you carries a low risk of trouble; if the dog is right by you and you try to place the item directly in the dog’s mouth, the risk is obviously greater.
The goal of any action should be to de-escalate the tension, not to increase it. These suggestions all aim to make the situation better, and carry very little danger of causing harm. Other strategies can also be effective, but carry more risk of intensifying the trouble.
Saying “Hey!” or “No!” abruptly in a deep voice may sometimes be effective, but it can also make some dogs more intense in their charge. Speaking in a firm way may frighten a fearful dog or be taken as confrontational by dogs who are on the offensive. Though I often hear people recommend pepper spray, I don’t. While it may stop a dog from attacking you, it also makes some dogs more aggressive. And, depending on wind direction, it can backfire and affect you or your dog.
Though I’m also not a huge fan of using citronella spray to stop a charging dog, it’s a better option than pepper spray. It will deter some dogs, but it’s far more likely to be ignored by the dogs it doesn’t stop rather than cause them to become more aggressive. Challenging the dog in any way is very risky.
Challenges include staring, yelling, making an angry face, hitting, kicking and picking up a big stick or rock and threatening the dog with it. Though they may work occasionally, all of these confrontational techniques are far too likely to make a dog more tense and more aggressive.
All the woman could think of doing to protect her dog was to get out of the park immediately. She began moving away from the threatening dog toward the nearby gate, encouraging her own dog to move with her by telling him what a good boy he was, saying, “Let’s go for a walk!” and squeaking the toy in her hand. Not only did this affect the emotions of her own dog, it had the same impact on the charging dog, whose body relaxed the tiniest bit as he slowed down. The intense look on his face changed to a slightly calmer one. She and her dog continued to back up toward the exit. When the charging dog was almost to her, she threw the toy just past him and away from her own dog. The dog who had just scared the bejeebers out of her ran after it. As he did so, she and her dog quickly slipped through the gate and went to their car; once there, suffering the aftereffects of the panic she felt, the woman almost threw up. Her dog—who was shaking and whining—was clearly upset by the experience as well. Though the woman’s quick actions prevented physical injury, the emotional impact of their big scare was damage enough.
News: Guest Posts
June 28 to 30—streaming live
SPARCS is a unique venture organized by Prescott Breeden and Patti Howard of The Pawsitive Packleader, Seattle Dog Training. From June 28-30, 2013, anyone in the world can see some of the leading canine science researchers in action—either in a conference hall in Redmond, WA, or streaming live to your living room.
SPARCS is short for the Society for the Promotion of Applied Research in Canine Science, which aptly summarizes the goals of the conference: (1) to promote research and education in canine science, and (2) to provide a platform for leading minds in canine science to present, discuss and debate modern behavior science.
Canine Science? Explain
If the phrase “Canine Science” gives you pause, I assure you it does not imply that dogs are meeting in the park to discuss the current issues of the day, such as:
- Owner Responses to Half Eaten Sandwiches: A Review
- Why Does the Cat Run Around at Night?: A Roundtable Discussion
- Where Are They Taking Our Poo?
Canine Science, generally speaking, is research devoted to the biology, ecology, behavior and cognition of dogs, wolves and related canids. It is a catch-all phrase that highlights the surge of research into canine minds and experiences. My article in The Bark, Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind, describes this field in more detail. SPARCS brings together the following leading researchers to discuss their inquiry into the dog for a general audience:
Marc Bekoff is a long-time researcher and writer of more than 500 scientific and popular essays. In a book store? Check out one of his twenty-two books, including Minding Animals and the children’s book Animals at Play: Rules of the Game. He regularly updates a Psychology Today Blog, Animal Emotions: Do animals think and feel?
- Bekoff on dogs and their urine: Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.
- Bekoff on play: Social play and play-soliciting by infant canids.
Ray Coppinger has published over fifty papers on dog research. His favorite publication, however, is the book Fishing Dogs, a humorous and iconoclastic look at dogs, fishermen and professors. His book, Dogs: A Startling New Understanding of Canine Origin, Behavior & Evolution, is a classic text in the field.
- Coppinger on different behavioral sequences between dogs: Degree of behavioral neoteny differentiates canid polymorphs.
- Coppinger on improving assistance dog training programs: Observations on assistance dog training and use.
Michael W. Fox wears many hats. He is a veterinarian with a Ph.D. in medicine, and he also holds a degree in animal behavior (ethology). His career encompasses extensive research into dog behavior and development as well as holistic and integrative veterinary medicine. He encourages veterinary institutions to incorporate animal behavior and welfare science into their curricula.
- I covered Fox’s 1963 paper, Developmental Abnormalities of the Canine Skull in the Dog Spies post, Where Should Dogs Put Their Tongues?
- Fox on dog development during the first month of life: The postnatal development of neocortical neurons in the dog.
Alexandra Horowitz’s current research at the Dog Cognition Lab at Barnard College investigates animal communication and attention, dog olfaction, inter-species play behavior, theory of mind and anthropomorphisms.* She writes regularly for The New York Times, and her best-selling book, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, is essential.
- Horowitz on attention during dog-dog play: Attention to attention in domestic dog (Canis familiaris) dyadic play.
- Horowitz on the “guilty look” in dogs: Disambiguating the “guilty look”: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.
Kathryn Lord received her PhD in organismic and evolutionary biology, which of course means she studies wolf pups. Her research focuses on the evolution and development of dog and wolf behavior.
- Lord on sensory development of wolves and dogs: A Comparison of the Sensory Development of Wolves (Canis lupus lupus) and Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris).
- Lord on the meaning of dog barks: Barking and mobbing.
Adam Miklósi leads the Family Dog Project at the Department of Ethology at Eötvös
Loránd University in Budapest, where I had the pleasure of conducting my Masters research (covered on SciAm by Jason Goldman of The Thoughtful Animal). In the last 15 years, the Family Dog Project research group has published over 100 scientific papers and organized the inaugural Canine Science Forum in 2008. His book, Dog Behavior, Evolution and Cognition is required reading in canine ethology.
- Miklósi on the building blocks of meaningful social interactions: On the utilization of social animals as a model for social robotics.
- Miklósi on other species’ use of human communicative gestures: A comparative analysis of animals’ understanding of the human pointing gesture.
Monique Udell has worked with a variety of species such as wild cats, megachiropteran bats, coyotes, foxes, mice, non-human primates and a range of companion animals including dogs, cats, and ferrets. She has a special interest in how the cognition and behavior of domestic dogs and wolves can be altered by lifetime experience.
- Udell on dog sensitivity to human behaviors: What did domestication do to dogs? A new account of dogs’ sensitivity to human actions.
Before Clive Wynne found a way to combine a childhood fascination with dogs with his day job as a psychology professor, he studied the behavior of animals ranging from pigeons to dunnarts (a mouse-sized marsupial) at universities in Britain, Germany, the USA, and Australia. Now head of the Canine Cognition and Behavior Laboratory, he is full of tales of everything from the tame foxes of Siberia to the dogs of the Moscow subway.
- Wynne on anthropomorphism: What are animals? Why anthropomorphism is still not a scientific approach to behavior.
- Wynne on the relationship between companion dogs and children: The other side of the bond: Domestic dogs’ human-like behaviors.
So, What’s This Conference About?
The SPARCS conference investigates dogs from three angles: “Origins in the Wild,” “Social Behavior and Emotions” and finally “Cognition and Development.”
Origins in the wild
“It is widely accepted that dogs are descended from wolves, but that is about the only uncontroversial fact about the origins of dogs…. I have come to a new proposal for the origin of dogs.” Clive Wynne
“In my presentation I shall talk about the emotional lives of nonhuman animals (animals) – beastly passions – and how they very much care about how we treat them.” Marc Bekoff
“The modern wolf and the modern dog diverged into their present forms, sometime, somewhere, and somehow. We should discuss those when, where, and how questions.” Ray Coppinger
Social Behavior and Emotions
“I shall also talk about why play has evolved – what it is “good for” and why it is very important that we come to terms with the details of what animals do when they play.” Marc Bekoff
“So the basic question is: What makes a dog skillful for living in the anthropogenic [human] environment, and whether we can claim that there is a parallel between some of the behavioral skills of dogs and those of humans?” Ádám Miklósi
“Dogs are socially and emotionally promiscuous and, given the right conditions, can form attachments to members of many other species.” Clive Wynne
Cognition and Development
“How the dog’s brain and behavior develop is integral to our understanding of critical and sensitive periods in helping facilitate a strong social bond and in enhance learning/trainability, emotional stability and stress & disease resistance.” Michael W. Fox
“[W]e must be careful not to forget the true diversity of the domestic dog population, or assume that the sum is more representative than its parts. Indeed, it is at the fringes of the species where we often discover examples of amazing cognitive feats, or hidden canine capacities unveiled by unique environmental or experiential contexts.” Monique Udell
“First, I aim to highlight and examine the attributions we unthinkingly make to dogs. Second, I use findings about the biology and cognition of dogs to create a better picture of the dog’s experience: the umwelt, or point of view.” Alexandra Horowitz
What About My Living Room?
Because SPARCS aims to make continuing education accessible, the conference will be broadcast live and free of charge: “As long as you have a computer, a tablet, or a smartphone, everyone will be able to watch our broadcast from anywhere in the world.”**
SPARCS plans to be a yearly conference, so keep it on your radar!
Ticket, Live Stream and Schedule
on Social Media
SPARCS on Facebook
SPARCS on Twitter
All photos courtesy of SPARCS
** SPARCS adds, “Donations are absolutely optional however graciously appreciated. If you watched our event online and enjoyed it, consider donating to SPARCS.”
Dog Smart: Exploring the Canine Mind at The Bark
Talking dogs: Welcome to the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies
Inside the 3rd Canine Science Forum at Dog Spies
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.
News: Guest Posts
Erica Feuerbacher smiles when she talks, and why shouldn’t she? As a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida with the Canine Cognition and Behavior Lab, she spends a lot of time with dogs (or at least dogs in the form of data). Through her research, she meets many, many, many dogs, some of whom live in animal shelters. This is the story of her latest research and a special subject named Raleigh.
What do you want from me?
Feuerbacher’s research investigates dog preference for different types of human social interactions, or simply put: What do dogs want from us, and under what conditions do they want it? For example, your dog might happily hang out with someone doling out hotdogs, but is your dog also likely to spend time with someone offering petting only and no hotdogs?
In Feuerbacher’s latest study, shelter dogs and owned dogs were put to the test to see whether they chose petting or food. Because dogs, being dogs, often prefer food when readily available, the researchers ran an experiment with multiple sessions where food became more and more scarce.
Feuerbacher wondered, “If food’s not available, will dogs shift their preference to the person who’s offering petting, hang out with nobody at all or continue to hang out with the person who had been giving out food but has stopped?”
During a 1-minute pre-exposure period, dogs learned that one experimenter gave out food while another gave out petting. Then, dogs had 5 minutes to spend time with whomever they chose, and they could move back and forth freely.
Petting or Food?
Many shelter dogs and all owned dogs had an initial preference for the person giving out food. But in sessions where food was not available, many shelter dogs spent time with the person offering petting. When food again became available, dogs almost always went back to the person with food.
Some of the shelter dogs initially showed a preference for the person doing the petting, not the person giving out food (although, eventually, they all opted for food). As you might imagine, dogs in animal shelters are frequently deprived of human interaction, so it isn’t all that surprising that shelter dogs would opt to spend time with people when given the chance. Alternatively, owned dogs initially went for the food person and stayed with the food person, even when food became more scarce. Owned dogs have ready access to petting from their loving owners (raise your hand if you are petting a dog right now), but food is not always available.
Raleigh, a mutt who had been picked up as a stray, was game for any interaction with humans. As the graph shows, when food was available (triangle), Raleigh was all over it, but when food stopped, Raleigh was all about the petting (circle) — he was quick to say, “bye bye food person,” and “hello petting person!” And when food came back into circulation, he was more than happy to accept.
“He’s a food type of guy, but he’s also a petting type of guy” Feuerbacher explains. In the session where dogs were exposed to continuous petting but food was doled out at 15-second intervals, Raleigh approached the food person. He waited about 8 seconds, and when he didn’t receive any food, he then went to the petting person, where he remained for the rest of the session. His social behavior was much more extensive than a lot of dogs.”
When the study ended, Feuerbacher kept an eye on Raleigh at the animal shelter. When he still hadn’t been adopted after 2 months, Raleigh joined the ranks as a foster dog in Feuerbacher’s home, where he now spends his time with three other dogs doing doggie things like waiting for food, snuggling on the couch and frolicking with his foster siblings. But he is also waiting for a home.
Raleigh is available for adoption through Phoenix Animal Rescue in Gainesville, Florida.
Raleigh, of course, has a Facebook page.
You can meet Raleigh this Saturday, May 18, 2013 at PetsMart in Gainesville, Florida.
Feuerbacher has good reason to smile when she talks about Raleigh: “I liked that he liked food because that helps with training. But I also liked that when food wasn’t available, he was really social. Everything he did was gentle. I just thought he was a really neat dog.”
Feuerbacher, E. N. & Wynne, C. D. L. Dogs’ preference for different types of human social interaction in a concurrent choice test. (In prep)
Images copyright E. Feuerbacher
This story was originally published by Scientific American. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Julie Hecht is a canine behavioral researcher and science writer in New York City. She wriites a behavior column for The Bark. She would really like to meet your dog. Follow on Twitter @DogSpies.
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