Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Empathy may cause it
It’s been known for a long time that yawning is contagious in various species of primates, including humans. (It’s actually highly contagious. If it were as easy to catch a cold or malaria, it would be all but impossible to stay healthy.) In recent years, the contagious nature of yawns between dogs and people has been a research subject of considerable interest.
Studies have demonstrated that dogs can “catch” yawns from people, which is fascinating enough given that we are two different species. Now, a new study called “Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation” suggests that human yawns are contagious to dogs by auditory means. (Translation: Dogs will yawn in response to just hearing a human yawn.)
The study was an attempt to demonstrate that contagious yawning in dogs is different than that same phenomenon in primates, but the data say otherwise. In primates, yawn contagion indicates that the observer has empathy for the yawner. It was thought that in dogs, yawns were induced by a hard-wired behavioral pattern that was exhibited in response to a releasing stimulus. However, the observation that dogs yawned more in response the sound of familiar yawns than to the sounds of unfamiliar yawns suggests that empathy may play a role in the contagion.
Reading and writing about this subject has given me a case of the yawns, along with the dog right next to me. Did you yawn while reading this, and if so, did your dog follow suit?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Strategies for safety
Where I live (in Flagstaff, Ariz.) we have the same problems with off-leash dogs that most communities face. There are some people who think, for whatever reason, that leash laws don’t apply to them and their dogs. All runners, including me, have faced dogs charging at us on the trails and on the roads. It’s a risky situation when you are faced with a dog who is, at best, overly enthusiastic, and at worst, aggressive. Sometimes there’s a guardian around, but not always. Even when they are present, the situation can be alarming, either because the person seems frantic to get the dog back. (“Come! Get over here! No bite! NO BITE! NO BITE!!!”) or because there is no concern as a dog leaps at innocent passersby. (“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!”)
Flagstaff is a running mecca where many of the best runners in the world come to train in order to take advantage of the 7000-foot altitude and the endless miles of trails. My worst nightmare is that some Olympian or Olympic hopeful will be bitten and that the injury will ruin someone’s lifetime dream. Even without such dire consequences, derailed workouts and being truly afraid are not cool, whether it happens to an elite athlete or to any of the rest of us regular runners.
I am often asked what to do when a dog charges at someone or chases them on a run. There are so many variables in these situations that it’s difficult to make blanket statements or provide all the possibilities, but there are general guidelines for minimizing the chance that a scary situation turns injurious. Here are a few of my top tips for dealing with off-leash dogs while running.
Here are a few “dos”
Staying calm is a wise idea. Adding any sort of excitement to the situation is counterproductive.
Slow down, walk or stop. Speed is intoxicating to many dogs, who give chase to anything that’s moving such as squirrels, cats, dogs and runners. The fastest runners—the elites—are more likely to be chased, which I think is due in part to their graceful, gazelle-like build and gait. Some dogs try to herd runners, which may account for a lot of the bites to the back of the legs and ankles. It’s annoying to interrupt your run, but it beats being bitten.
If you are wearing sunglasses or a hat, take them off. Many dogs are scared of people wearing such accessories and charge or chase out of fear. If you remove them, some dogs realize you are just a person, not a monster, and ease off.
Swing wide to create more distance between you and the dog. A lot of dogs are chasing or charging to keep you away from their property, so if you act in accordance with these dogs’ wishes, you minimize the chances of trouble.
Say things that may put the dog in a good mood, using a cheerful voice. This seems ridiculous to many people, but I swear that changing the dog’s emotional state can work wonders. The phrases that are most likely to have an effect are “Wanna go for a walk?”, “Dinnertime!”, “Where’s your ball?”, and “Good dog, good dog, good dog.” So many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, and that means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation. Speaking in a happy voice, even though you have to fake it, makes this strategy more effective.
Similarly, a few dogs will respond if you give them a cue, telling them to sit, go home, or stay. Many dogs are too worked up to react, but it does work sometimes. And giving a cue or using a happy phrase is exceedingly unlikely to make things worse, so both are worth a try.
Another option is to turn and head the other way. Yes, it’s frustrating to have to change your route because of a misbehaving off-leash dog, but safety first! Many dogs are trying to get you to go away, and if you do, they will leave you alone. It’s best to head the other way slowly so you don’t incite the dog to chase you.
Here are a few “don’ts”
Don’t yell at the dog. Many dogs are afraid and this will only make their fear, and therefore their undesirable behavior, worse.
Don’t stare at the dog. Though this is often suggested, staring is an overtly threatening behavior and will cause many dogs to react even more aggressively to you. It will rarely cause a dog who is going after you to back off.
Don’t scream. This agitates many dogs, and makes them even more unpredictable.
Don’t throw anything at dog. Doing so can be perceived as threatening, which may make the situation escalate rather than make it better.
Don’t pick up a stick and try to use it as a weapon. This is far too likely to frighten a fearful dog or to be taken as an escalation of any confrontation by dogs who are on the offensive.
No technique is foolproof, but the general rule is to try to get out of the situation calmly and quickly without making the dog any more upset. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong or whether the dog is legally allowed to be off leash where you are running. It’s just about avoiding a serious issue so that you can not only keep running today, but in the future.
There are many ways to make this happen, and this list of dos and don’ts includes some of my top picks. What techniques have you found most helpful to prevent an issue with an off-leash dog while you are running?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Racing against a greyhound
I know I am preaching to the choir when I proclaim that dogs are incredible animals with amazing abilities. So I’m pretty sure I’m in good company when I say that I have a list of dogs’ traits that are so extraordinary that it’s worth finding ways to demonstrate them to the world. I even have a wish list for videos I’d love to have that show dogs off a bit. Sometimes I acquire the videos I desire, but the list just keeps on growing.
Currently at the top of my wish list is a pair of videos illustrating how quickly dogs can run. The first of the two videos would show a race between my husband, who is a sprinter, and me. I’m a runner, too, but not one blessed with any real speed. He would easily dust me in a race of any distance. The second of the two videos would show a race between my husband and a greyhound, which would be such a rout by the dog that it would make that first race with me look close.
What do you think is so amazing about dogs that you have an urge to show everyone?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Why do they do it?
On a beautiful, warm afternoon, I watched a group of dogs frolic in a dog park. Suddenly, I heard a woman’s high-pitched yelp, followed by the pounding of human feet. There was no need to look; it was obviously about humping, which we can also refer to as mounting.
Dogs hump the air, they mount pillows and blankets, and they can be found poised behind the neighbor’s dog or befriending Uncle Joe’s leg but not Uncle Albert’s. Mounting pops up in many contexts and is directed toward any number of objects, both animate and inanimate. Apart from giving mounters silly nicknames like “the humping bean” or “Sir-humps-a-lot,” what are we to make of all this bumping and grinding?
Talking about dog behavior is like talking about politics: everyone has an opinion. According to Cynthia Heyman of Utah, her three-year-old Danish-Swedish Farmdog, Jet, is a play-humper. “Jet is intact, and he likes to hump when he plays. He seems to like the boys better than the girls. Last weekend, he was humping a neutered Aussie who humped him right back as they were playing.”
For Margaret Duclos of Seattle, Wash., mounting is related to excitement and arousal. “One of my dogs sometimes humps the other when we get into the car — usually only when it has been a few days since we’ve gone somewhere and he is especially excited.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some attribute humping to dominance. Brigitte Reed of Salt Lake City, Utah says, “My female dog, Snickers, who is spayed, will hump our male dog, Kitna. The reason being is she is alpha and she is asserting her dominance over him. Putting him in his place, as it were.”
When a dog’s a humper, there’s inevitably an owner nearby with a story, usually one that describes who or what is mounted (the stuffed animal, the cat, other dogs) and the context in which the humping occurs (when guests come over, at the dog run, during obedience trials). Owners postulate that sex, breed, age, reproductive status and even size might provide information about humpers. Most of these stories culminate in questions — “Why in the world does she do this? Aren’t males the humpers?”— or impressions, anything from “It’s just play” or “She’s dominant” to “He’s quite popular!”
As you might expect, animal behavior researchers have a lot to say on the topic. When exploring any behavior, we can turn to the insights of Nobel Prize–winner and famed ethologist Niko Tinbergen for help. Tinbergen’s “four questions” provide a reliable framework within which to understand why animals behave the way they do. One of Tinbergen’s questions is particularly apt: “How does a behavior develop during an individual’s lifetime?” After all, behaviors don’t simply fall from the sky, land on a dog and voilà! Mounting! For nearly as long as ethologists have studied dogs, they have taken note of dogs’ tendency to hump outside of reproductive contexts.
In the early 1970s, University of Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff, PhD, began investigating the development of canid social behavior. Bekoff observed the interactions of young canids, pairs of three- to seven-week-old wolves, coyotes and dogs. Particularly among the dog puppies, mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting appeared early on in play. While males mounted more than females, females also engaged in aspects of the behavior. Dr. Sunil Kumar Pal, assistant teacher at Katwa Bharati Bhaban School in West Bengal, India, got similar results when investigating social behavior of young, free-ranging domestic dogs. By six weeks, both male and female puppies were mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting.
“It’s what dogs do. It’s a completely normal behavior,” explains Carolyn Walsh, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who studies the nuances of dog behavior in dog parks. “Both males and females mount, regardless of whether [they are] sexually intact or not.” Celeste Pongrácz, a Mudi breeder in Hungary, finds that mounting can change with hormonal shifts. “Right now, we live with seven bitches, and when somebody is coming into season or is in season, some dogs want to hump, and others ‘ask’ to be humped. Regardless, it always involves the bitch in season.” Studies find that neutering males can decrease mounting, but certainly does not stop it in its tracks. After all, there is more to it than hormones. (Alas, not a single study noted if Barry White songs were playing in the background at the time the behavior was exhibited.)
From tail wagging to barking, dog behavior is riddled with nuance. A wagging tail might convey “I’m quite scared” or “This is the best day ever!” Like tail wagging, mounting is far more complex than it may appear, and there is not one simple explanation. But there are some likely candidates.
In many cases, mounting is related to a surge of emotion, such as feeling anxious or being aroused (in this context, “arousal” means general stimulation). In a recent investigation of dog park behavior, Walsh and her student, Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier, found that the dogs doing the most mounting were also doing the most playing. Walsh explains, “Dog parks can be quite stimulating, and for those who are highly aroused physiologically, mounting behavior could easily come out. There can be such a buildup of social motivation and the desire to affiliate that some of that energy spills over into the sexual motivation system. You see sexual behavior coming out, but it’s mostly out of context.”
General arousal or anxiety is not restricted to the dog park. Stimulation easily translates to everyday situations: a new person comes over, a new dog is introduced or a dog is cooped up in the house all day. “One of my dogs humps the others when I grab the leashes, or otherwise am doing things that signal going somewhere,” says Duclos.
Dawn Cleary, owner of Blue Cerebus Dog Boutique in Madison, Ind., attributes mounting exhibited by one of her Golden Retrievers to excitement. “When my Frisbee champ catches the Frisbee, my littlest one likes to run out and hump her. It’s the only time she does it … sort of like she wants to share in the glory of the Frisbee being caught.” (Is this the canine equivalent of painting your face and watching the Super Bowl?)
So why mount? Peter Borchelt, PhD, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) in New York City, reminds us, “There are only so many behaviors a dog has access to, and dogs do what is part of their species-typical behavior. It is something they know how to do.” Since their options are somewhat limited, a dog, rather than read the funny pages during downtime, might be inclined to get to know a stuffed animal a little better.
What else could mounting be about? For some owners, mounting equates to dominance and control, words that suggest you might not want your four-legged friend engaging in this behavior.
But what is dominance, and where does mounting fit in? According to Carlos Drews, PhD, dominance is not a characteristic, but rather, relates to describing interactions between two individuals. “Dominance is an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agonistic interactions between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome in favour of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation … Dominance is a relative measure and not an absolute property of individuals.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior defines it as “a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots and mates.”
Is mounting associated with dominance? Not necessarily. Becky Trisko, PhD, behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., studied dog-dog interactions in the dog daycare setting. Mounting was not associated with status-related (“agonistic”) behaviors like aggression and submission, but instead was correlated with play and other affiliative behaviors. For example, a dog who muzzle-licks another dog — a behavior often associated with “Let’s be friends. Like me! Like me!” — might also mount the same dog. If mounting indicated status or a dominance relationship, we would expect mounters to receive submission from other dogs, but that’s not what we’re finding. Likewise, a dog is probably not trying to dominate the dog bed he just mounted.
Mounting occurs in a variety of contexts and can be surrounded by many different behaviors. Humping could be an assertive behavior related to social bonds rather than competition for resources or status. In friendly contexts, mounting could be an attention-getting behavior to instigate an interaction. As Trisko explains, “Among preferred play partners (scientific jargon for friends), it almost seems to be a way to get the other to play. A dog might do a play bow, bark and paw at a dog. If the second dog isn’t really responding, mounting will often get a rise out of the dog, and then they’ll play.”
Trisko also suggests that mounting among friends is associated with bond-testing. “This is the idea that dogs perform potentially annoying behaviors like mounting to test the strength of the recipient’s investment in the relationship. It’s like saying, ‘How much will you put up with?’ ‘How much do you really like me?’” Since mounting seems to appear in affiliative, not aggressive or status-related contexts, this is a provocative possibility.
At the same time, mounting is not always related to friendship. Aimee Moore, CPDT, of Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison, Wisc., says, “I don’t think there is one simple explanation, but with unfamiliar dogs, or often even with owners, it can be pretty rude and related to status.”
As Borchelt, who has treated behavior problems for more than 30 years, observes, “Mounting could be part of a suite of behaviors associated with aggression, such as high posture, resource guarding, direct stares, and threats and standing over. But mounting, by itself, doesn’t indicate a status issue. By itself, mounting might not mean a lot.”
He also feels that it could even be problematic to ascribe the label of “dominance” to a dog who is a mounter. “If you perceive a dog as dominant because he mounts, you might think you have to take steps so that the dog isn’t dominant to you — maybe always make the dog heel, which could cut back on sniffing, exercise and dog-dog interactions, or use intimidation to make the dog follow explicit rules. This could have negative consequences for the relationship.”
But there is more to the story than the mounter. Not all dogs welcome being mounting. Jessie Nelson of New York City notes that her dog Gracie, a mutt who more closely resembles Falkor the Luckdragon from The Never Ending Story than a member of Canis familiaris, changed her relationship with mounting as she aged. As Nelson recalls, “Gracie used to let other dogs hump her, and then they would continue playing. Now she will freak out at dogs who mount her.”
What to Do?
Training and dog-owner communication can help a humper maintain friendly interactions with dogs and humans alike. Moore suggests various training techniques. “I would work on obedience so I could get my dog’s attention when she starts to focus on another dog. I would also work on call-aways — dog greets and sniffs appropriately, then call her back and reinforce for that behavior. This way, you are catching her before she mounts.” Since mounting is often associated with arousal levels, when working on mounting, Moore recommends relaxation protocols, down-stays or teaching an alternative behavior. Angela Limburg of Chicago, Ill., tries redirecting her dog. “My boy humps his bedding … It seems to happen when he is overexcited. We try to redirect him — usually, offering cheese or cookies works.”
But at the end of the day, mounting is still a tricky behavior to figure out. “Mounting is one of those behaviors you would not want to have a single answer for,” explains Borchelt, and Bekoff agrees. “It is complex, and we don’t want to say mounting is always this or always that. What we are learning about animal behavior is that we need to be very careful about generalities. Dogs don’t always greet each other by sniffing the anogenital region, and they don’t always circle before they lie down.”
It is not uncommon for owners to say, “I am deeply embarrassed that she humps.” Some sense disapproval from other owners: “I feel a social imperative to stop his humping.” These feelings are understandable, because for many, dogs don’t simply contribute hair to our favorite black pants; they are our family members and best friends. Which means that some of our best friends are humpers.
“I think the sense of embarrassment is not well placed,” remarks Walsh. Given that mounting is a normal part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire, owners can eliminate some of the stress and anxiety by getting to know mounting as it pertains to their individual dog.
When trying to get behind any behavior (pun intended), Bekoff recommends becoming an at-home ethologist. “Get a paper and pencil, and watch and record what happens before and after the behavior of interest. This can tell you more about the behavior itself.” This technique can help you determine when a behavior needs to be managed and when it’s just fine.
If dogs could talk — and they actually are with their behavior — they’d ask us not to clump mounting into one universal meaning. So what’s your dog’s mounting behavior telling you?
All in all, when we’re trying to figure out a behavior, we’re better served by observation and understanding of its roots than by the stories we tend to tell ourselves and others.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Correct terminology or jargon?
If you have an urge to create discord and angst, here’s one way to do it: Go to a dog behavior conference or seminar and boldly state, “I think we should discuss the meaning of the term ‘prey drive,’ and decide whether or not we should continue to use it.” Then, make a dash for the exit before it gets ugly.
To most people in the dog world, the term “prey drive” refers to a dog’s eagerness or desire to work hard, especially if the work involves anything related to chasing and capturing prey. It’s a trait that makes many dogs successful in the world of canine sports. The term is often used by people whose dogs participate in agility or f ly ball as well as by those whose dogs work in search and rescue or law enforcement.
Additionally, it has become increasingly popular when discussing dogs with various behavioral issues, typically issues related to chasing (cars, squirrels, runners, bikes, children) and the resulting difficulty in teaching them to come or to pay attention in general around any of these distractions.
Sometimes “prey drive” is used in a positive sense, as in, “She’s excited about working because she has a high prey drive. I love her enthusiasm and motivation, and the prey drive gives her such great endurance too.” It can also be used in a negative way, as in, “I can never let her off-leash in areas that aren’t fenced in. She has such high prey drive that she’ll chase anything. I can’t trust her to come back or stay out of trouble.”
So, though prey drive is commonly used in the dog world, many people dislike it. From an ethological perspective, it doesn’t make sense. If you ask an ethologist (someone who studies the behavior of animals in their natural environments) who doesn’t happen to be involved in that world — and the vast majority of them aren’t — what they think of the term, they will look at you quizzically and then criticize it on the grounds that it’s nonsensical.
To ethologists, the word “drive” refers to an unknown and variable internal state that explains why an animal’s response to a stimulus is not identical every time the animal is exposed to it. For example, at times, a dog may charge after a tennis ball with gleaming eyes and an over-the-top bouncy enthusiasm, while at other times, that same dog may lazily lope after the ball or even ignore it, though the stimulus (the thrown ball) is the same. What’s different is the dog’s interest in or motivation to chase it. “Drive” is the term used to explain that difference, which ethologists consider to be a difference in internal states, perhaps based on neurological or physiological variables over time.
Fluctuation in an animal’s drive doesn’t just affect predatory behavior. It also influences how eager a dog is to eat, drink and engage in sexual behavior, or any other type of behavior for that matter. Yet, we don’t talk about food drive, water drive or potential-mating-partner drive. We say that a dog is hungry or food-motivated (or a chowhound); that the dog is thirsty; or, in the case of females, that she is sexually receptive. To be fair, the term “sex drive” is used to describe the state of having an interest in mating — referring typically (but not always) to males — but we don’t say female drive or male drive.
Even in the way that many people use it, prey drive lacks precision. Does it mean a drive to run, to chase, to catch something, to bite it, to kill it or any combination of these? Is it all related to predatory behavior, and if so, why is the term “prey drive” used, rather than “predatory drive”?
Words and phrases that express precise concepts are indispensable for communication, and the more specific we can be, the better. However, the inexactness of language can make it a challenge to convey precise meanings. For example, because English is short on words that describe emotional nuance, people say things such as, “Do you like him or do you like him?”
Some people feel that the word “drive” doesn’t actually explain an animal’s behavior. In one sense, it’s an oversimplification to say that an animal is behaving a certain way because of an internal state or a change in that internal state. We know that an animal’s motivation changes over time and that different members of the same species behave differently in the presence of identical stimuli, but we don’t often know why. So, the term is more descriptive and less explanatory than it purports to be. A label such as “prey drive” is essentially a shorthand way to describe what we don’t understand since we don’t have complete knowledge of dogs’ internal states and their effect on behavior.
Another problem with prey drive is that it is often used in an attempt to explain a dog’s unwanted behavior toward other dogs and even people,neither of which are normally objects of canine predatory focus. We’ve all heard people dismiss a dog’s inappropriate, undesirable and sometimes even aggressive behavior with the comment that the dog has a high prey drive. It sounds so much nicer than saying that the dog has little impulse control, a far-from-ideal temperament or has not been the beneficiary of sufficient training.
Criticisms of the phrase may be a predictable result of the fact that often, when terms are appropriated from other fields, they are used in a slightly different way. The current meaning of terms in our field may not match their original use, which can cause confusion and thus, a tendency to consider that the way the terms are being used is “wrong.”
Overall, the terminology employed to describe canine behavior is messy, perhaps in part because dog behavior encompasses a number of disciplines, among them ethology, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, psychology, learning theory and animal husbandry.
For example, the words “operant conditioning” can mean something different to those involved in the dog world than they do to those who study learning theory. Many dog trainers use the phrase with its original meaning in mind: the modification of behavior through the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Others use it as a synonym for positive reinforcement alone; when these people say they train using operant conditioning, they mean that they use positive reinforcement. However, in the field of learning theory, positive reinforcement is only one part of operant conditioning. Similarly, the concept of drive, which comes from the academic discipline of ethology, has come to mean something different, though related, in the world of dogs.
It’s wise to acknowledge that terms have to be considered in context. Would it be better if no such confusion ever arose and multiple meanings didn’t exist? Sure, there would be advantages, but the reality is that languages change, as do fields of study and their associated terminology.
Cultures vary in the way they accept and integrate shifting meanings in the language used to describe the world around them. On one extreme, the French are well known for their strong national pride in the stability of their language, and the great importance they place on maintaining le bon usage (the correct usage) and resisting change, particularly Anglicisms. At the other extreme is the surfer culture with its enthusiastic proliferation of new words and phrases such as “tubular,” “hang ten,” “in the soup” and “goofy footed.” Americans generally accept new words and phrases easily, accounting for the rapid spread of “going postal,” “cougar,” “to be plutoed” and, most recently, “Tebowing.”
So where does the dog community stand collectively in our tolerance for changes in language, new terminology and the appropriation of terms from other fields into our own lexicon?
Many people love new terms. They enjoy referring to “predatory drift” and “reactivity” (the term “aggression” used to suffice), and they happily accept “prey drive.” Others would greatly prefer to hear that a dog is enthusiastic about agility or fly ball, or that the dog is motivated to run the course, take the jumps or retrieve a ball.
What’s important is that we understand one another. The reality is that when most people talk about prey drive in dogs, they are referring to the enthusiasm and strong motivation that makes dogs sharp on the course, eager to participate and reliably give their all in competition or in play. I suspect that the term “prey drive” is here to stay, and I sure hope that the joy of dogs who possess a lot of it also remains with us forever.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do your homework!
I’ve always been happy to believe that my students need a dog trainer (otherwise, why am I there?), but it came as a surprise to learn that Pat Miller took her newly adopted puppy to class. Miller has decades of training experience; she’s the training editor of Whole Dog Journal, and people pay her to teach them how to train. So why … ?
Because, Miller admits, “I tend to get lazy about training my own dogs beyond the basics.” And because she lives on a farm, and it’s helpful to teach her dogs to be comfortable and mannerly in all kinds of environments. And because it’s good for her to “realize how it feels to be a student again.” One advantage Miller has is that she knows exactly what she’s looking for in a dog trainer, and she knows why. She isn’t reduced to making her choice on the basis of who has the cutest ad in the yellow pages, or an address nearby.
A good trainer is golden, like a good psychotherapist or car mechanic, and finding one can be equally hard—maybe harder. As Barbara Davis, of BADDogsInc. in Corona, Calif., points out, all you need to call yourself a trainer is a pulse and a business card. For example, recently I’ve seen fliers around my Brooklyn neighborhood advertising the services (names and details changed to protect the guilty) of one “Joe Smith,” who says he’s “certified by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” Evidently, one assumes, a government body evaluated Mr. Smith’s skills; one imagines him taking a test of some sort, maybe undergoing a background check. One would be wrong: New York City has no certification program for dog trainers. Neither does any of the 50 states. Let’s improve your chances of avoiding Mr. Smith and his ilk.
Begin at the Beginning
On the other hand, if your dog or puppy is shy or reactive, the presence of other people and dogs may frighten or overstimulate her and make the problem worse. One-on-one coaching could be the answer here, as it can be tailored to address any behavioral issues your canine friend may have. (There are also specialized classes for reactive and aggressive dogs.)
A third option is “board and train” (B&T): Your dog stays with the trainer and is returned to you with manners installed. The trainer should then practice with you so that your handling styles are consistent. B&T is the most expensive route to take; usually, lessons or classes are not only cheaper, but better, because they teach you skills that you can apply throughout the dog’s lifetime (think of that old saw about giving a man a fish). However, B&T may be the right choice if you just plain know that you don’t have time to train, even though you take good care of your dog otherwise. Keep this in mind, however: Your dog is going to be out of your sight and out of your protection. Be sure you know who you’re turning her over to.
As for that guy at the dog park: The very first trainer I hired to work with me and my dog Muggsy was referred by several dog-park pals. His method involved eliciting the problem behavior—in Muggsy’s case, aggression toward strange men—and then punishing the dog by throwing a penny-shaker can at him. But you can’t punish anyone (human or canine) into liking people. A different trainer—also recommended by a dog park friend—showed us how to pair the appearance of strange men with delicious treats. Muggsy learned to like men PDQ, but for the rest of his life, reacted to that first trainer by barking and lunging at him whenever their paths crossed. Be aware that the stakes are high; someone ignorant and harsh can easily damage your dog.
Who Trains the Trainers?
A single program obviously can’t make a seasoned dog trainer. But, assuming a trainer also has lots of experience, should you limit yourself to those who have attended one of these programs? I’d say no. Space in the good programs is limited, and tuition is high. Many people are able to acquire skills through independent study, and there are other routes, such as apprenticeships and volunteer shelter work, to practical experience. Many skilled older trainers entered the field before formal programs existed. And not everyone who graduates from them is necessarily competent and kind.
Still, education is a Very Big Clue, however the trainer goes about getting it. Dog training isn’t a mystical art; it’s a combination of particular mechanical skills; a good, solid knowledge of the processes by which animals learn; and an understanding of canine evolution and behavior.
Whatever method of dog training you feel comfortable with, skip the trainer who talks about dogs being “spiteful” or “defiant” (complicated states of mind more likely to be held by humans), or who isn’t familiar with learning theory, or who talks about your household as though it were a wolf pack (dogs aren’t wolves). The important thing to remember is that dogs are a whole other species, and someone who’s taking your money to help you train yours really ought to have taken the trouble to learn some of the relevant science.
There is only one national independent certification program. It’s administered by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and people who earn this credential get to put “CPDT” after their names (see “Source Code and Resources” sidebar). Elaine Allison, of Canine’s Best Behavior in Los Angeles, who has the CPDT and is endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Trainers, stresses, “It’s important that the bells and whistles after [the trainer’s] name are not the sole factor.… Ultimately, it’s best to see them with dogs, particularly how well they relate to their own dogs.… [People] should be looking for someone who has skill and rapport with their dog.” Anne Martindale rejected a trainer whose “remote-control dogs … had no spontaneity left in them.”
As for experience, the more the better—just keep an eye out for the trainer who’s been working with dogs for 30 years but hasn’t learned anything new in the last 29. Animal training, like every other field with any claim to being scientific, grows and changes over the years. Real professionals work to keep up.
The ideal trainer is not only knowledgeable, she’s cordial and respectful. She doesn’t roll her eyes at the students or make fun of them (well, maybe gently, in the context of a well-established relationship). She looks for what students do right and builds on that, rather than relentlessly pointing out what they do wrong. Her explanations are clear and patient, and she really, truly believes that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Most of the people in the class should look as though they’re enjoying themselves, and so should their dogs.
Watch out if the dogs in class don’t like the trainer. Special classes for reactive or shy dogs are an exception, of course, and a dog with a specific fear (of men with beards, say) may react negatively to someone who hasn’t done her any harm. Some puppies pee whenever a person so much as looks at them. But nothing should be happening in an ordinary good-manners class to make the average dog or human unhappy or afraid.
The same goes for behavior problems; by happenstance or because of their personal interests, people acquire varying degrees of expertise in helping dogs overcome particular kinds of difficulties. The behavior counselor who refers you to someone else for help with separation anxiety may be the go-to person for food-bowl guarding or dog–dog aggression. An ethical trainer is honest about her expertise and its limits.
Have a puppy? There are classes just for them. Also known as puppy kindergarten, these classes often include playtime. (Adult-dog classes usually don’t, but there are exceptions.) Well-run play breaks help puppies learn doggy social rules—sometimes an older “nanny dog” assists with this—and get their ya-yas out, and are also a blast to watch. Puppy play should be carefully supervised and the puppies should be segregated by size, age, outgoingness and play style—badly run play breaks can be canine versions of Lord of the Flies, with shy puppies overrun by larger, older, more exuberant comrades, and incipient bullies getting really good at scaring the daylights out of their peers.
Categories needn’t be rigid; a small, super-confident Terrier type may do just fine with a Lab mix twice his size. But steer clear of a trainer who allows a 15-pound body-slammer to chase a panicked 3-pound Maltese around the room, or who doesn’t take steps to increase the confidence of a shy puppy crouched under his handler’s chair.
Look for puppies eagerly engaging with each other, whether they’re low-key or rowdy; if not actively playing, they should be happily exploring the play space. The trainer should be carefully supervising, interrupting inappropriate play, and perhaps narrating and interpreting the action. If there’s a shy puppy, progress may take place over more than one session, but in any case, the trainer should be keeping an eye on him and his owner. No puppy, however inappropriate his behavior, should be handled roughly or berated.
How About Methods?
My own view is that the best dog training is solidly grounded in science and requires no force to develop desirable habits in place of undesirable ones, and of course, I’d like to steer you to trainers who share that view. Gail Fisher, the owner of All Dogs Gym in Manchester, N.H., has more than 30 years of professional training experience. An expert traditional-style trainer now wholeheartedly committed to clicker training, she says that “over the past 15 years, there has been a sea change in dog training philosophies. Trainers using positively oriented, dog-friendly techniques can be found virtually everywhere … And we are all the better for it.”
In conclusion, if someone who makes her living as a professional dog trainer avails herself of others’ expertise, the rest of us mortals should probably consider it, too. Many people don’t know where to start, or have a hard time translating the words they read into physical movements. Some just need encouragement. As for the dogs, even minimal training greatly increases their chances of staying in their home for life. Good training takes work, but it isn’t drudgery—it’s a joy. And out of joy grows love.
The Name Game
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Strangers with a purpose
My family was recently invited to attend a dog therapy class. The goal was to provide the dogs an opportunity to practice being on their best, most friendly behavior when presented with strangers, even if those strangers were behaving in unusual ways. We were particularly welcome visitors because our family includes two boys, ages 7 and 8. Finding parents willing to bring their young kids around dogs to help them practice handling excitement is not easy. (Go figure.)
I trust the trainer, Liz Tallman, and knew that the dogs in class were going to be trustworthy around kids, though of course I reserved the right to take my kids out of any situation that made me uncomfortable. Our first step was to meet each of the dogs outside as a family. My kids were instructed to call out from a distance, “May we pet your dog?” and then we all approached when given permission. Our job was to greet the dogs exuberantly, but politely. So, we talked at high volume and petted the dogs vigorously, but we did not try to hug them, ride them, stare into their eyes or anything else that the dogs were likely to dislike.
Once the dogs had each met us and hopefully learned that we were nice, we had each of the dogs come to visit the whole family one by one in the training room. I sat in a wheelchair to help the dogs learn to be comfortable around wheelchairs and also to pay attention to the “patient” rather than the other people in the room. My kids were instructed to leap around, yell a bit, run, hop, and generally act like kids who have been cooped up for awhile. (They asked for clarification on this: “You mean you WANT us to misbehave around the dogs, and do all the things we’re usually not supposed to? Is this a trick?”)
We adjusted our behavior with each dog. In some cases, if a dog seemed a little hesitant to approach, I fed the dog treats to help develop happy associations with wheelchairs. For other dogs, my kids were asked to tone it down a bit, or even to go more crazy if the dog was ready to practice being in those situations. In all cases, the goal was to work on teaching the dog to approach the patient first and present its body in a way that made petting easy. One small dog was even lifted onto my lap after I was asked if that was okay. Only after the pretend therapy with me (the pretend patient) was the dog invited to greet the rest of my family.
It was a wonderful experience and I highly recommend accepting such an opportunity if it presents itself to you. (Do make sure that the trainer would know if a dog could not handle such a situation.) We had a great time and look forward to participating in future classes.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Understanding the things dogs “say”
A basic truth about humans and dogs: We live in overlapping but not identical sensory worlds. To a pup, we are sort of like the Brobdingnagians of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, extra-large beings whose ways just don’t all make perfect sense. That’s a hard position to be in, because your dog’s world is controlled by you. Making matters more difficult still, a dog can’t explain to you what you’re failing to understand about him. While we live in a world of language, dogs communicate via a variety of other means.
Thus, it’s important that you learn to understand your puppy, and understand what he’s “saying” to you, as you call the shots. The better you understand how he experiences his world, the less likely you’ll be to become frustrated or angry (and perhaps treat your charge unfairly). And, ultimately, the better and stronger the bond between the two of you will be. Here are 35 actions, with explanations that will help you translate what he’s “saying” to you.
1. Moves away when you pet his head. How are you doing the petting? A lot of people are taught that the way to pet a dog is to keep patting the top of his head. But a dog perceives that action as a signal of dominance, not affection. It also plain just doesn’t feel good. Dogs prefer to be stroked, particularly on the side of the face, under the chin, or on the front of the chest. They also like having their rumps scratched.
2. Circles the mat before going to sleep. This is an ethologic vestige. Dogs in the wild flattened the grass by circling around it a few times before settling down. They were creating a safe and comfortable nest. Today, dogs are acting out a primordial sequence that was genetically encoded many thousands of years ago and passed down from generation to generation.
3. Barks at the mailman no matter how well acquainted the two are. Your pup probably thinks he’s exerting some power by getting the mail carrier to leave. He does leave soon after the dog starts barking, doesn’t he?
4. Grunts. A grunt from a puppy is a communication of pleasure. Sought-after warmth or communion has been attained.
5. Whines. A puppy whines if he is cold, hungry or separated from those he feels he needs near him. Put a warm towel over him, feed him or pay him attention, and the whining will probably stop.
6. Blinks. That’s what a dog does when he is thinking hard. If you say “Down” to get him to lie down and he blinks before doing so, he is thinking, “Do I have to?”
7. Yawns. A dog may yawn if he’s tired, but more generally, it’s an indicator of stress. With yawning, the dog is trying to displace the stress, or inner conflict, with a safe, neutral behavior. Humans do the same thing when they find themselves in a situation of conflict that causes stress—not yawn necessarily, but do something to cope until the unpleasant situation passes. Let’s say you’re in a hurry and you reach a red light. You want to be there, but you have to be here, both because that’s the safe thing to do and because someone else, the police, will enforce the behavior that causes the stress: staying still until the light turns green. So what do you do?
You groom yourself in the rearview mirror, or you look at the driver in the car next to you. Neither of these actions is directly related to what’s pressing on your mind, but engaging in them is better than doing nothing while you’re stuck in the state of conflict between what you want to do and what you must do despite your desires. That’s pretty much akin to a dog’s yawning when he’s not tired.
8. Licks his lips. This is a sign of nervousness, anxiety and submission. People do it, too.
9. Licks you. This is not really a kiss. Rather, it’s a deferent, attention-seeking gesture, similar to what a pup is expressing when he licks his mother’s lips to get her to regurgitate food. (Young puppies will sometimes feed off their mother’s regurgitations.) Why, then, do dogs often lick people in moments of affection? Most likely it’s because they get good feedback for it. For instance, puppy happens to lick baby, baby squeals with delight, mom and dad are overjoyed and pet puppy while racing for the camcorder. The puppy learns, “Ah, when I lick the kid, everyone gets in a good mood and treats me well.” Inadvertent conditioning has taken place.
Note: In some instances, a dog will lick to establish dominance. It has happened in our own offices. One owner brought in a Rottweiler puppy who needed to have his overly dominant and aggressive behavior curbed. The pup immediately put his two front paws on the treating veterinarian’s desk and slobbered him up and down with his big, pink sandpaper-ish tongue. It was clearly not a deferent gesture but, rather, a gesture in which the dog was exercising control and showing he could get away with it. You’ve got to read the situation a little (which is not hard to do).
10. Keeps climbing up onto the couch even when you’ve told him “No.” A puppy who tries to get as high as or higher up than you might be vying for dominance. But puppies also prefer soft to hard surfaces. Sometimes a cushion is just a cushion.
11. Paws and scrapes the ground after eliminating. A lot of people mistakenly think that a dog, like a cat, is scratching and scraping to cover his “deposit,” or at least the scent of his deposit. Nothing could be further from the truth. A dog that scratches the ground after eliminating is actually engaging in a kind of marking behavior to advertise his presence—the opposite of trying to cover up the “evidence.” By pawing the dirt, he is leaving both a visual cue—unearthed soil—and an olfactory one coming from, we surmise, sweat glands on his paws. It’s for emphasis. If the urine doesn’t say clearly enough that “Kilroy was here,” the other scents will.
12. Eats feces. Called coprophagia, this behavior is commonly displayed by puppies. It is species-typical behavior. Bitches keep the whelping area clean after they give birth by eating their youngs’ feces. There is nothing harmful about it to a pup, who will probably outgrow the behavior by the time he’s one year old. But if you find it too objectionable, simply deny access. Always walk the pup on a leash, and pick up after dogs—and other species of animals—who have relieved themselves in your yard. (Some say that adding meat tenderizers or breath fresheners to the dog’s diet helps curb the habit, but it does not work.)
13. Rolls around in disgusting stuff, including muddy messes, feces, and carcasses. Remember, dogs “see” largely through their sense of smell. When they roll around in something and stink to high heaven, they’re not trying to be disgusting. They’re saying, “Look what I found. What a day I had in the cow pasture,” and so on. It could also be a holdover from the times when dogs ran wild. Rolling in the excrement of another animal or rotting material masks the dog’s own odor, thereby making him less easily detectable by potential predators—or prey that he is staking out.
14. Eats grass. Some people believe dogs eat grass to make themselves throw up when they have stomach upset; that is, the dogs are thought to self-medicate. Some believe dogs simply like to eat grass and then throw up when they eat too much of it. Who’s right? Both. Different dogs have different grass-eating patterns. None of them are harmful, so don’t fret if your dog throws up after nibbling on the green stuff.
15. Sniffs around forever before urinating. To a human, urination is urination. To a dog, it’s an elimination process and a way of communicating. So a dog has to take in the various olfactory notices left by other dogs before leaving a message of his own. He may even want to make sure that no other pup has previously urinated in the spot he’s considering. An “all-clear” sign takes some time. Be patient. He’s not trying to drive you crazy.
17. Pants. Unlike humans, dogs don’t have sweat glands on most of their skin. There are only a few on their paws and around the anus. Thus, they don’t have the mechanism we do for cooling their bodies by losing body heat through the evaporation of sweat. Rather, the way they regulate body temperature when it starts to rise is by panting. The faster a dog pants, the more water-saturated air he is breathing out (evaporating) from his lungs, and that has a cooling effect. That said, dogs don’t pant only when they’re hot. Sometimes they pant when they’re anxious. For instance, you might see a dog panting when he’s suffering from separation anxiety or thunderstorm phobia. He’ll pant, pace and generally look nervous.
18. Acts happier around dogs of his own breed. It is believed that dogs do not have a sense of self-image and do not even necessarily recognize themselves in a mirror, so it’s not vanity that is attracting your pet to others of his kind. It may simply be that your pup had good experiences with his siblings, so he seeks out others who look like them. It can work the other way, too. If, say, your pet is a Border Collie who has had unfortunate experiences with Cocker Spaniels, he may spend his whole life acting aggressive or fearful about that breed.
19. Lays his head and front paws splayed out close to the ground while sticking his rump in the air. That’s what’s known as the play bow. It’s a dog’s way of saying that he wants to play—or keep on playing. When a dog does that, he’s in a very good mood. All dogs (and coyotes and wolves) are genetically hard-wired for this position. When another dog sees it, he knows that the lowered head is an invitation to come forward, while the rump in the air is a signal of playful, frisky readiness. Oftentimes the lips of a dog doing the play bow will be retracted in a kind of teeth-showing grin. The oncoming dog will make note of that signal of friendliness, too.
20. Chases his own tail. Is your dog a Bull Terrier or German Shepherd? Those are the breeds most likely to go after their own tails. But it is not normal doggie behavior, for them or any other breed. It is believed that tail-chasing starts in dogs with a high predatory drive with no natural outlets for their predatory instinct. One day, out of boredom, the dog spies his tail from the corner of his eye and tries to pounce on it. The result is that circular tail-chasing motion, which is perfect, in a way, because the tail moves away just as fast as the dog moves to catch it.
Unfortunately, for some dogs, the behavior becomes so ingrained that they do actually get hold of and bite their tails, causing bleeding. Other dogs spin themselves into extreme dizziness for hours on end, barely even taking time to eat or sleep. That means the anxiety arising from the inability to stake out real prey has resulted in a compulsive behavior that can only be corrected with a major lifestyle change (allowing the dog a lot more free rein in the woods, for instance) or anti-obsessional drugs.
21. Nurses on things like blankets or stuffed animals. If a puppy lives with his mother until he is at least six to eight weeks of age, he will probably not suck on various non-living items. That’s because he will have had the opportunity to nurse to his heart’s content as a newborn, and even to suckle from his mother once he moves onto solid food in those instances that he needs comfort after an unnerving event. It’s those puppies whose biological drive to nurse from their mothers has been denied that end up nursing on things they shouldn’t be nursing on. Note that some puppy breeds have a greater propensity to nurse on blankets and such (and even on themselves) than other breeds when denied access to their mothers. These include Doberman Pinschers and Dachshunds. Why is not known. It may be that these breeds have a particularly high nursing drive that is more likely to become displaced when not offered the right outlet.
22. Sticks his head out the car window during drives. It’s fun! Dogs, like many humans, enjoy the feel of the wind on their faces. In addition, with those noses out the window, they can smell various neighborhoods they’re passing through, which is their best way of “seeing” them. Be aware, however, that a pup or older dog can get hurt by flying pebbles thrown up by other cars, particularly if their eyes are hit. For that reason, one company makes doggie goggles, although, admittedly, not all dogs willingly become like Snoopy’s Red Baron.
23. Barks at another dog with his head held high. When one dog barks at another with his head held high, his eyes directed at the other dog, his ears pricked forward (if they’re not floppy), and his body tense with his tail erect, he is signaling confidence and dominance. He is not only calling attention to his presence but announcing his control over the territory.
24. Barks at another dog with his ears pressed to his head, his tail tucked and his eyes darting from side to side. Such a dog is afraid. He might actually be barking more ferociously than a confident one, but it’s all bluff. Watch how he might charge forward a couple of paces and then step backwards. He doesn’t really want to get into a tussle.
25. Digs fast and furiously in the dirt, or even in the bed linens. This action is often derived from aspects of the so-called appetitive phase of predatory behavior. Consider that Terriers, for instance, were bred to chase small varmints. The varmint, after running some, would burrow into the ground, and the dog’s job was to dig in the dirt and pursue it. When there aren’t any true predatory outlets, he might displace these aspects of a hard-wired behavior with seemingly pointless behavior—digging in some leaves in the garden, perhaps, or in some heaped up bed clothes.
Not all dogs dig for predatory reasons. A northern breed, such as a Siberian Husky, might dig to simulate what he does in the harsh terrain of some polar region. Wandering around in ice-cold wind blowing 70 miles an hour, he’ll dig a little depression into the snow to shield himself from the elements. Likewise, on a very hot day, a dog might dig in the ground and lie in the cool soil to shield himself from the sun. In other words, digging could be a vestige of thermoregulatory behavior rather than predatory.
26. Takes food out of his bowl and then goes into another room to eat it. A lot of dogs engage in bizarre behaviors around the food bowl. Some will lift one or more pieces of kibble out of it and position them “strategically” before going back to eat them. Others snatch the food and go to a different area before eating it. It is thought that a dog that sees himself as relatively low in the pack order might be more inclined to move his food around out of fear that some alpha dog might come and take away his meal. Perhaps in the wild, he would have waited his turn in line to grab his share of the kill, then run away to protect his allotment from any potential usurpers. Call it a little paranoia, if you will.
27. Hides treats rather than eat or chew on them. A typical instance of this behavior is a dog burying bones. Going back to nature, if you’re a dog and you’re currently replete but you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, you might stash some food as rations to be consumed at a later time. You’ll always be able to locate it with your keen sense of smell.
28. “Runs” in his sleep. With that slight paddling of limbs some dogs experience while sleeping, it is believed they are dreaming about precisely what you might think they’re dreaming about—chasing a squirrel or some other creature. Your pup could even be revisiting some great memory of the previous day, during which he ran a rodent up a tree.
29. Wags his tail. A lot of people think a wagging tail is a friendly sign, and it can be—but not always. The best way to think of a dog’s tail and its side-to-side motion is as an energy indicator. When a dog’s energy level is up or when he’s excited, his tail will wag fast. When he’s interested but not fully engaged, it might wag slowly. Then, as he becomes progressively more riveted or excited, his tail will wag progressively faster. Think of the tail as you would a car’s tachometer. It indicates how fast the animal is revving internally. Now, that can be happy revving or frightened revving or conflict revving. In other words, fast and furious tail wagging could mean the dog is “locked and loaded” and ready to charge. The wagging has to be interpreted circumstantially.
30. Puts his tail between his legs. This means submission and is an effort at appeasement. The dog is not at all sure of himself in a particular situation.
31. Sets his tail bolt upright. A dog that stiffens his tail into an upright position is showing confidence, even dominance. It’s a very forward, confident position. Some dogs, such as Chows, were bred to always have their tails up in order to always look masterful and in charge.
32. Chews socks or slippers. A dog’s gotta chew what a dog’s gotta chew. If you haven’t supplied him with appropriate chew toys, he will turn something else into his chewing gum. (Don’t run around all agitated, trying to get the item of clothing back. The dog will think the two of you are having a game of “Keep Away.”)
Note: Some dogs don’t just chew. They swallow—dirty socks, wash rags, pantyhose, and other smallish personal effects. That could cause intestinal obstructions, symptoms of which include vomiting, loss of electrolytes, shock, even death. If you see that your dog might be a swallower of such items, eliminate access to them. Otherwise, you’ll end up with expensive surgery bills to remove the swallowed fare. And we mean bills, not bill. Dogs that swallow small articles of clothing do not learn from experience that their actions lead to unpleasant and sometimes dangerous ends.
33. Sniffs people in the groin area. A dog can tell an awful lot about a person from one hit of the odor of pheromones coming from that part of the body. Even if you’ve just bathed, a dog can “read” you, even to the point of being able to detect differences between identical twins. He might even be able to tell whether you’re afraid or whether you’re a super-alpha with a lot of testosterone—a force to be reckoned with.
34. Shakes toys back and forth in his mouth. Like digging, this harks back to the appetitive phase of predatory behavior. A dog will shake the neck of his prey in order to kill it.
35. Keeps the hair on his back standing on end. Called piloerection, this is sort of like goose bumps. It’s not something a dog can control. Consider that a dog’s hairs have little muscles attached to them called the piloerectile muscles. When his sympathetic nervous system, involved in fight or flight reactions, releases epinephrine, those muscles contract, in turn raising the hairs. It is assumed that nature programmed dogs to raise their hackles when faced with danger in order to make them look bigger and fiercer. A dog’s hair will also stand on end when he is very, very cold. Again, the sympathetic nervous system kicks in, this time to help the dog burn fuel faster, but the muscle-contracting action in the hair takes place, too. If the hair stands up, an insulating layer of air gets trapped between hair shafts, so the cold air cannot get so close to the skin. It works like a down jacket.
Excerpted from Puppy’s First Steps: The Whole-Dog Approach to Raising a Happy, Healthy, Well-Behaved Puppy, Edited by Nicholas Dodman with Lawrence Lindner, and the Faculty of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University; Copyright © 2007. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, used with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They’re just resting
It’s common to misinterpret dogs’ signals and think that they mean something that they don’t. Examples of this abound with everything from the common statement by people who are not overly dog savvy that the dog must be friendly because he’s wagging his tail, to the more complex issues related to the meaning of barking and other vocalizations.
Lately, I’ve noticed that many people look at a dog and interpret the dog’s emotional state as “sad” when I don’t think that’s what’s going on. This typically happens when the dog is lying down with his head on his paws. It’s a very endearing look, and while it’s certainly possible that a dog doing this could be sad, that’s not necessarily true.
The dog is often just peacefully resting, and this posture is particularly common when dogs have had the pleasure of a tiring themselves out with plenty of exercise. The captions on some photos I’ve seen of dogs in this posture are along the lines of “A very tired dog” and “Relaxing after a long walk in the snow.”
Typically, a happy, relaxed dog has its mouth open, its eyes looking bright and is a bit bouncy in its movement. That sort of exuberance in both face and body makes it easy to understand that a dog is in an upbeat emotional state. It’s when a dog is calm that it’s harder to tell if the emotional state is sad or content.
A dog who is lying down with its head on its paws will have a closed mouth, which always makes a dog look less happy. The eyebrows often move as the dog looks around, which can make a dog look pensive, and the dog doesn’t look that energetic, which can be confused with sad. However, a dog who is lying down is likely to be pretty comfortable in the situation since dogs rarely lie down if they are scared or otherwise agitated. Most often, dogs who are lying down with their heads resting on their paws are relaxed and quite at ease.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
An engaged mind equals a happy dog
A great many dogs today live lives of leisure, and even dogs who are physically active often lack opportunities for mental exercise. That understimulation can result in the boredom that is the enemy of the happy, well-behaved dog. Dogs evolved to solve problems, and a life of lying on the couch while the rest of the household is at work, and then taking a human-paced walk around the neighborhood, doesn’t present many interesting problems. Which is where enrichment toys come in. Making dogs work to get treats (or even all of their food) by solving the puzzles offered by enrichment toys is a natural fusion.
The Swedish toys from Nina Ottosson’s Zoo Active (see Bark's article) line are some of the highest quality and most original enrichment toys I’ve seen. Each is a puzzle that the dog must figure out using her sense of smell, reasoning abilities and dexterity in order to get the reward. Besides the food itself, the dog benefits from mental stimulation; problem-solving practice; the opportunity to develop dexterity, coordination and balance; and last—but definitely not least—the fun of facing and succeeding at new challenges. The complexity and variety of the toys’ designs heralds a new era in enrichment toys for dogs.
Each toy requires the use of somewhat different skills. For example, the Dog Brick is a flat rectangle with four channels. Each channel has two covers that slide along the channel so that at any one time, two-thirds of the channel is covered. The dog must figure out that the way to access the treats is to use her paws or nose to slide the covers along the channel until the treats are exposed. In contrast, the Dog Smart is a circle with nine wooden cups over cavities that hold treats. In working this puzzle, the dog learns to pick up or shove aside the cups to get to the treats. The Dog Tornado is a series of stacked wooden circles with cutouts in various places. The dog spins the circles to line up the cutouts, thus exposing the food.
Several of the toys require the dog to perform an action that indirectly releases the food, which for dogs is a harder cognitive task than just uncovering it. For example, with the Dog Box, she has to figure out how to insert an item into a hole in the box. If that item adds enough weight, the mechanism inside is tripped and food spills out. Solving the Twister is a two-step process. First, the dog must remove pegs from a circle of wedges; then, with the pegs removed, she can slide the wedges out of the way and get the treats hidden below.
While it’s fun to watch dogs play with the Zoo Active toys, the play has a serious purpose. The value to dogs of thinking as they figure out how to get the food from these puzzles cannot be overstated. When dogs are challenged to figure something out, and are able to do so, they are doubly rewarded: They benefit by exercising their brains and then by experiencing success, both of which are critical for their happiness.
Another interesting aspect of watching dogs play with these toys is observing the different ways they solve the problems the toys present. Though many dogs are paw-oriented, some seem to prefer to use their noses or their mouths. Then there are those with a very paws-on experimental approach, trying a variety of motions and behaviors in rapid succession. Others contemplate the toy and methodically try one technique at a time. During the setup, some dogs watch the toy as the person is putting food into it, and others watch the person’s face. Since every dog has a mental style in addition to a unique personality, these toys provide dogs and their people with an opportunity to get to know each other better in a fun, interactive way. Both stand to benefit if Zoo Active toys become as popular in the U.S. as they are in Europe.
Watch Bark dog Lola (with help from her packmate Lenny) face down the Dog Brick.
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