Dog's Life: Lifestyle
People don’t see the dog you love
There are so many drawbacks to living with and loving an aggressive dog. You have to manage or prevent any situations that cause your dog to behave aggressively. That may include feeding time, the arrival of visitors, or seeing other dogs. There’s the constant concern of an incident happening despite your best efforts at prevention. It may be impossible, or at least challenging, to join others for group walks, journeys to the park or to visit family over the holidays. But sometimes the worst part about having an aggressive dog is that other people don’t see the dog you love.
They only see the dog going crazy, barking at the delivery guy or lunging at every dog in the neighborhood. The creature they see is a snarling, growling, snapping dog who exhibits little behavior that makes getting to know him seem remotely appealing. They don’t see the sweet dog who cuddles with you at night and makes you smile when he tosses his toy in the air himself and tries to catch it with amusing, but largely unsuccessful, acrobatic moves. They don’t have the opportunity to see the dog who does a down stay all through dinner, who comes when called perfectly at home and performs any number of charming tricks on cue.
After years of working with them, I can assure you that most dogs with aggression issues are lovely to be around in most situations, however badly they may behave in others. Almost every client whose dog is aggressive makes some comment to me along the lines of “Other than when he’s biting (or lunging, barking, growling) he’s such an angel!” and I believe them. Many aggressive dogs are not at their best when out in public around strangers or other dogs, but are kind and lovable around the family, including small kids and even the cat. When you have a dog like that, it hurts when other people don’t see the good side of your dog, even though that’s what you see most of the time.
If you have an angel who is all too often an angel in disguise, what do you wish other people could see in your dog that you see every day?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Rainy day play by the numbers.
Have wet conditions gotten in the way of your normal walk, run or play time at the park? Are you in search of some ideas for entertaining your dog when the weather outside is “frightful”? There are lots of stimulating activities that will keep you and your dog happily enjoying one another’s company, no matter how gloomy it is outdoors. It’s all about spending time together in interesting ways.
1. Take your dog to visit a friend, relative or neighbor who would be cheered by some dog-petting therapy.
2. Teach your dog a new trick, such as lying down and resting her head sadly on her paws when you say, “It’s raining.”
3. Go outside and play in the snow or splash in the puddles. (If your dog had her way, this would probably be her first choice.)
4. Have a canine spa day at home—give her a bath, clean her ears, cut her nails and brush her coat.
5. Play a few rounds of indoor hide-andseek. Have your dog stay, and then hide. Release her and call her to you. When she finds you, greet her with something that will make her happy, like treats, a game of tug, a chew toy or a belly rub.
6. Buy a new toy for each of you and hang out together while you enjoy them; better yet, buy a toy you can share.
7. Practice the art of canine massage. To learn, start with a great video, Bodywork for Dogs: Connecting through Massage, Acupressure, and Intuitive Touch by Lynn Vaughan and Deborah Jones.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog is clear about what she loves
Fetch is Super Bee’s absolute joy and she never seems to get tired of it. She does, however, eventually get tired, and when that happens she takes the ball with her for her afternoon nap. That’s right, this dog loves balls so much she sleeps with one.
Her favorite cozy situation is to be on the coach on a fluffy towel, sound asleep on her back with the ball nestled by her neck. I like to think of the ball as her security ball, similar to the security blankets that make many children feel confident and comfortable in any situation.
Of course, I’m projecting when I suggest that her desire to have the ball with her has anything to do with security or feelings of well-being. Perhaps she’s just possessive of the ball and wants to make sure nobody takes it while she is asleep. Or maybe she likes to know where it is when she wakes from her nap, so she doesn’t want to leave it lying around where someone may move it.
Does your dog have a toy or other item that is so precious that it is part of naptime or bedtime, and if so, why do you think your dog wants it close while sleeping?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s terrifying, not socializing
“Does he bite?” I asked.
“Yes,” she answered.
“Does he bite children?” was my next question.
“Well,” she said, “We don’t want him to. That’s why we brought him here—to get socialized.”
I had approached this little dog to distract him when I noticed him in a staring contest with two big dogs. He was acting tough but was clearly terrified. My concern was that someone would run between them and be frightened or injured if the tension between the dogs escalated. The owner of the little dog immediately came over to tell me to stay away from the dog, which is when we had our conversation.
The mom in me was furious that she had brought a dog who bites to the park during a children’s soccer tournament and tied him to the back of a goal, putting so many kids at risk. However, the canine behaviorist in me looked at the situation differently. I know from over a dozen years of working with dogs with serious behavior problems (and specializing in aggression) that people often think they are doing the right thing with an aggressive dog even when they’re not.
Most dogs who are behaving aggressively towards people are acting out of fear. The aggressive behavior diminishes only when the fear does.
Taking a fearful dog to a place full of people will not help him conquer his fear. It will actually make the fear, and thus his behavior, even worse because he is having yet another experience of being terrified. This is not intuitive because it’s natural to think that if a dog is misbehaving around people that he should go to classes, to the park, or any other place with lots of people for socialization. Though this seems sensible, it’s not actually true.
Socialization refers specifically to the process that occurs during the sensitive period— between three and twelve weeks of age—when puppies are becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Anything or anyone that a puppy experiences in a positive way during this critical period of development is unlikely to produce fear in the dog later in life. Proper socialization includes providing puppies many good experiences with new people during this brief and specific period of development so that they accept new people throughout their lives without being afraid. Only puppies can be socialized—not adult dogs.
Taking a fearful dog out and about to be with or near people is unlikely to help a fearful dog become less afraid. The exposure elicits fear in the dog, giving him additional experiences that confirm how scary it is to be around people. This usually makes the fear worse, along with any undesirable behavior that is a result of the fear.
Most people dealing with an aggressive dog desperately want to improve their dog’s behavior, and knowing what NOT to do is an essential part of success. Though it may seem like a good idea, it’s counterproductive to take fearful dogs who are behaving aggressively to crowded places.
Many dogs can overcome their fears with desensitization and counter classical conditioning, both of which involve exposing them to low levels of whatever frightens them and preventing them from becoming overwhelmed. Two great resources are Patricia McConnell’s book The Cautious Canine and Debbie Jacobs’ website fearfuldogs.com.
Have you run into people trying to help their dogs in this way?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It makes sense after all
We were playing fetch with Super Bee, a friend’s dog, and her unpredictable behavior was making the game less fun for us. All was smooth when we threw the ball and she went to retrieve it. One hundred percent of the time, she gleefully ran it down, picked it up, and brought it back. The difficulty occurred in the transfer of the ball back to us so that we could throw it again.
Though she reliably dropped the ball and let it fall to the ground, she sometimes darted at the ball and snatched it up again, only to drop it once more. She didn’t do it every time, but she did it enough that it was a problem. Besides interrupting the flow of the game and being a little annoying, this glitch in the game created a risk that she would hurt my sons if either of them reached for the ball at the same time that she went for it.
I adjusted the game so that I was always the one to pick up the ball, and then I handed it to my sons alternately to throw it. I only reached for the ball after a pause of a few seconds, which seemed to be after she had made her choice about whether to go for the ball again or let me pick it up so it could be thrown for her. It didn’t guarantee my safety, but I managed to avoid trouble. I also noticed a pattern.
Whenever the ball stayed in place on the ground or rolled toward her, Super Bee let me pick it up without making an attempt to take it again. However, if it rolled away from her, she charged at it and grabbed it in her mouth. My best guess is that when the ball rolled away from her, she acted as she did when the ball had been thrown—she retrieved it. The ball was moving away from her, which seemed to be the stimulus for that behavior. It was as though she was on autopilot and couldn’t stop herself from retrieving a ball moving away from her.
Super Bee is an enthusiastic and possibly obsessive fetcher who can’t help but chase after a ball when it is thrown. Even when she is hot and tired enough that she might rather rest in a cool spot, if someone throws a ball, she will go after it. When we play with her, we make sure to stop fetch games long before she becomes fatigued or overheated.
Now that we understand her tendency to “retrieve” balls that roll away from her after she drops them, we only reach for balls that don’t do that. If a ball is moving towards her or is not moving, it’s safe to pick it up. (Another option would be to cue her to drop the ball directly into our hands, which would eliminate the possibility of it rolling.) Taking the unpredictability out of the game makes it more fun and safer, too. Because we understand what is happening, my sons and Super Bee can play fetch without my intervention (though I still supervise!) When it seemed like she was grabbing the ball again instead of letting us throw it, her behavior seemed irksome. Knowing that she is simply retrieving a moving ball because she can’t help it, it’s easy to find the behavior interesting and to wait patiently until she drops it again.
Does your dog ever do this?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Starting play the canine way
If you want to extend a special kindness to your dogs, consider communicating in ways that naturally make sense to them. Play signals are one opportunity to do this. When dogs want to play, they let others know with play signals, which they use to get play started and to keep it going. These signals can mean different things, but the message is always aimed at keeping play safe by telling other dogs that intentions are playful. A play signal tells another dog “I want to play."
It also communicates that even if the behavior to follow is borrowed from other contexts such as fighting or predation and involves biting, chasing, shaking, or slamming into one another, it is playful in nature. There is no intent to cause harm. Using play signals to communicate makes it less likely that a dog’s actions will be misinterpreted, which can cause play to escalate into aggression.
By far the most common play signal is the play bow, which consists of a dog getting down on her elbows with her back end higher than her front end. This posture is often assumed abruptly, as though the suddenness of the movement is part of the signal as well.
Though the play bow is a universal invitation to play among dogs, people can do it, too. A human can imitate this action by getting down on all fours, putting both elbows on the ground and leaving the bottom up in the air. Dogs usually perform play bows in a springy, fast motion with a bounciness to it, so if you want your play bow to be as well-received as possible, try to mimic that rather than calmly moving into the posture like you are doing flow yoga.
A modified play bow for people is possible, too, and it’s a little easier because you can remain standing. All you have to do is lean over from the hips, bend both legs, and spread your arms out at a 45-degree angle. To appear most playful to the dog receiving this signal, go into the pose quickly, perhaps even doing a little jump to go into the pose. Then, do something playful, like run away from your dog to start a chase game.
Many dogs love it when people do play bows, modified or not. I’ve seen dogs whose faces light up when their guardians first play bow to them. I’ve often wondered if seeing their humans perform a play bow makes them happy because there is no confusion—they already know what it means. In any relationship, it’s beautiful to understand and to be understood.
Do you play bow to your dog? If so, how does your dog respond?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A familiar scene in many homes
In any household, there is bound to be conflict, whether it is between human brothers and sisters who can’t agree on what game to play, dogs who want the same chew toy, or spouses who can’t find a movie to watch that looks good to both of them. When you add in conflicts across species, there are even more opportunities for discord.
People and pets may not feel the same way about a variety of subjects. Is it a colored pencil for a child’s art class or a stick to be gnawed on by the dog? Should the hamster be quiet all night so the humans can sleep, or is midnight to 6 a.m. the perfect time to run a squeaky wheel?
And as for cats and dogs, the big question might be, “Just whose bed is that anyway?” It seems that cats are notorious for making themselves right at home on the dog’s bed, no matter how big the bed is or how small the cat. In this video, a number of dogs of various breeds, ages and sizes must contend with cats who have taken over their bed.
Do you have dog and cat conflicts over beds in your house? Who usually emerges victorious?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Attentiveness matters for safety and convenience.
Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.
Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.
Inborn or Learned
Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.
While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.
Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.
Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.
If a relationship is damaged or not very strong, the dog may give more attention to someone else. Some of the saddest cases in my practice have been those in which the dog isn’t that interested in the person. For example, a man moved back in with his mother and spent tons of time walking and playing with her dog. The dog adored him, but took virtually no notice of the woman. Multiple times each day, she cued him to hug her, which meant jumping up on her, putting his paws on her shoulders and staying that way while she squeezed him. She wanted affection from the dog, but the dog clearly disliked it.
We improved the relationship between the woman and her dog by having her engage with the dog in ways that were fun and satisfying to him. Once she had developed the habit of taking him out for walks, playing fetch with him daily and massaging him afterward, he was drawn to her, and the amount of attention he gave her increased accordingly. She stopped asking him for hugs, and he spontaneously cuddled up beside her. She no longer had to beg for his attention or affection.
Putting Attention on Cue
The problem many of us have with a dog who is not responsive to cues, especially outside, is not so much a matter of devotion but of training. For most dogs, learning a “pay attention” cue in the face of a whole world of wonder is essentially a difficult, high-level trick and must be taught as such. Yes, some dogs learn this quickly and thoroughly without too much trouble, but that’s unusual. For most dogs, expect topquality responses only after consistent, long-term training efforts.
In the larger scheme of things, a cue to pay attention is essential because it is the basis of all training. You can teach a dog just about anything if you have his attention, but it’s virtually impossible if you don’t. Asking for a dog’s attention is a top priority for professional trainers, which is why it is often the first skill taught in classes or private lessons.
This is especially valuable for dogs who don’t frequently offer their attention spontaneously. For naturally attentive dogs, attention training is largely about putting a behavior that frequently happens on cue. Teaching dogs to give attention when they don’t consistently offer it on their own requires more time and effort because you have to teach the behavior and associate it with a cue.
The two most common cues for attention are “watch” and the dog’s name. “Watch” tells a dog to look at your face, and it’s a great way to keep a dog from paying attention to things that cause him to act in an undesirable way. Saying the dog’s name lets him know that he should pay attention to you and wait for more information. Once you have your dog’s attention, it’s easier for him to respond to other cues, including “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow you in a new direction on a walk. It’s important to reinforce these behaviors so your dog’s glad he did what you asked. If he learns that he’ll receive a treat or have a chance to play for giving you his attention in response to the cue “watch” or to his name, he will be more likely to give you his attention when asked in the future.
Paying attention will be easier for your dog in some contexts than in others. Typically, dogs are more likely to pay attention inside than outside, and when there are no distractions—no squirrels or cooking aromas on the breeze.
Like any other skill, giving attention on cue requires practice and takes time to teach. Gradually working toward giving attention in increasingly challenging environments is a good strategy. Improving the relationship so that the dog is more inclined to pay attention will also improve your dog’s responsiveness to you.
Ideally, dogs keep track of where their person is. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sniff in the grass, romp with a canine buddy and still occasionally check in. Though dogs with certain natural tendencies are more disposed to do this, others can be trained to act the same way.
When I’m teaching dogs to exhibit this behavior, I do it in places that allow them to be safely off-leash, where they can wander and sniff to their hearts’ content. When the dog is in his own world and not attending to me at all, I position myself so that I can see the dog but he can’t see me. When he looks up and seems just a little concerned, I call him to come, reinforcing him for his successful search. (If he becomes stressed, I come out of my hiding spot so he can see me, and still reinforce him for coming to me.)
This is a good way to perfect recalls and teach your dog that it’s wise to keep track of you, but it only works with dogs who are connected enough to care when they think for a moment that their person is lost. It is not helpful with aloof dogs or those who are completely unperturbed by your absence, and it’s just cruel to disappear on a clingy, nervous dog. Reserve this technique for those who are stable enough to handle your absence and connected enough to care—which, fortunately, is the majority of dogs.
Remember, when we talk about our dogs paying attention to us, we are really talking about two things: spontaneous attention and attention given on cue. There are many ways to improve both kinds of attentiveness, but that doesn’t mean you can change a dog’s essential nature. All the training in the world isn’t going to turn an aloof and independent dog or a dog who is wildly distracted by the smells of the great outdoors into one who is compulsive about checking in and never lets you out of sight. It is, however, possible to teach any dog to respond properly to the cue “watch” and to his name, and to come when called.
It’s also possible, and desirable, to strengthen your relationship with your dog to increase his attentiveness to you. The more fun and satisfying your interactions are, the more likely your dog is to give you his attention spontaneously or on cue.
In a recent New York Times, Gregory Berns, a neuroscientist and the author of the excellent new book, How Dogs Love Us, writes an intriguing and engrossing editorial, “Dogs Are People, Too” (which was the top “emailed” article in the NYT the day it came out!). Berns and his team at Emory University have been testing dogs, the first of which was Berns’ own rescue dog, Callie, using functional MRIs to measure their brain activity, hoping to decode the canine brain. Unlike other researchers at other universities, the Emory Dog Project was the first to do this and the only ones who perform their research with not only volunteer dogs, but also by following a humane protocol that included “only positive training methods. No sedation. No restraints. If the dogs didn’t want to be in the M.R.I. scanner, they could leave. Same as any human volunteer.” Other researchers also use “purpose-bred” Beagles, an abhorrent practice.
What they discovered was rather amazing. As I noted in the book review in Bark’s Winter issue, “Initial findings showed evidence that dogs empathize with humans and have a theory of mind, and by extension, that the idea that you must be a dog’s pack leader is a mistake.”
In his commentary Berns notes, “Although we are just beginning to answer basic questions about the canine brain, we cannot ignore the striking similarity between dogs and humans in both the structure and function of a key brain region: the caudate nucleus.”
In making his case for the “personhood” of dogs Berns explains that, “The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs.” And that we can’t hide from the evidence shown in the MRIs, dogs, and other animals (like primates) do have emotional lives, just like us. In his book he describes that the defining traits of dogs is their interspecies social intelligence, “an ability to intuit what humans and other animal are thinking,” and furthermore that, “ Dogs’ great social intelligence means that they probably also have a high capacity for empathy. More than intuiting what we think, dogs may also feel what we feel.”
It is then perfectly understandable that he makes the case for granting dogs personhood, as he wrote in the Times piece, “ If we … granted dogs rights of personhood, they would be afforded additional protection against exploitation. Puppy mills, laboratory dogs and dog racing would be banned for violating the basic right of self-determination of a person.”
Read the whole article here, and watch this video and we would love to know your thoughts too. Gregory Berns’ post on Psychology Today, is also of interest.
For your listening pleasure—tune into Alexandra Horowitz, author of the bestselling, “must read” book, Inside of a Dog, being interviewed on the “Person Place Thing” radio program by Randy Cohen. You can listen at any time.
As their site notes about Alexandra:
A professor of psychology at Barnard, Alexandra Horowitz is the director of that school’s Dog Cognition Lab. What we particularly admire about her: she is one of a very few scientists who can write about current ideas in her field in a way that a lay audience finds not only comprehensible – dayanu – but intriguing, which she did to great effect in her book “Inside of a Dog: What dogs see, smell and know,” and more recently in “On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.”
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