Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What to do when a dog is part alligator
Question: My dog takes treats so hard that she’s hurt my hands on occasion. I’ve had the same thing happen to me to varying degrees at the dog park or in classes when I give a treat to another dog. I dread training sessions with my own dog, and I’ve become hesitant to give treats to other dogs. Is there a solution to this problem?
Answer: I sympathize! Your experiences with dogs who chomp enthusiastically are universal among those who spend time with dogs. Many dogs regularly grab treats without taking the care required when dealing with delicate human skin. (On the other hand, some dogs are only “chompy” when revved up, so this can be a good assessment tool; in these cases, the intensity of the alligator-like behavior can indicate a dog’s arousal level.)
Some dogs are naturally gentle with their mouths, but most need lessons to achieve this skill. Dogs should be taught the cue “Gentle,” which simply means to take the treat nicely. Having a dog who takes treats gently can relieve much of the conflict-induced frustration that occurs when you want to reinforce your dog’s good behavior but also want your fingers to remain intact and connected to your body.
Avoid confusion by teaching the cue “Gentle” as its own behavior rather than during a training session for some other behavior. Commit to the idea that your dog needs to take the treats gently or she doesn’t get them at all. In other words, don’t allow the snapping behavior to work for her. Until now, she has been getting the treat no matter what she does, but we want her to only get it when she takes it gently.
To teach your dog what “Gentle” means, hold a treat in your hand, close your fist around it and offer it to your dog. If your dog bites at your hand, keep it closed; this means either toughing it out or wearing gloves, depending on your dog’s behavior and your tolerance. When she stops biting and licks your hand (or even nibbles gently and painlessly), say “Gentle” and open your hand completely to give her the treat.
Keep saying “Gentle” each time you offer her a treat to help her associate the word with the behavior. If she has a relapse and returns to her former finger-gnawing ways, pull your hand away and then offer the treat again, using the cue “Gentle” to remind her of what you want. This will keep you from dropping the treat in response to her snapping.
Until your dog knows how to take treats gently, there are a couple of ways to protect your fingers when giving treats outside of training sessions. At home, put cream cheese or peanut butter on a wooden spoon and offer your dog a chance to lick this food a few times. This is a way to reinforce your dog without putting your hands near her mouth.
In a dog park or class setting, offer the treat on your flat palm. Many dogs who will snap at treats held in the fingertips are able to take them properly when they are presented on an open hand. A final option is to drop the treats on the ground rather than giving them directly to the dog. It takes a lot of repetition for most dogs to learn to take treats gently, and the occasional effort to teach someone else’s dog by, for example, holding them in your closed hand is unlikely to be effective. Unless a dog’s guardian is teaching this at home, save your fingers by either flat-palming the treats or tossing them on the ground. These techniques won’t teach your dog or her dog park friends to take the treats politely, but they do keep your fingers safe!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cold weather can be daunting
When I opened the back door to let Marley out in the morning, he didn’t move. Normally, he races out gleefully once I give him the okay, but not on that day. In fact, he looked at me reproachfully. He seemed disgusted that I had even suggested he leave the warmth of the house to relieve himself in the minus nine degrees (Fahrenheit!) temperature outdoors.
I changed tactics, and after putting on so many layers of clothes I was practically spherical, I went outside myself and invited him to join me. He complied, did what he needed to do, and bolted back inside to the best spot in the house—in front of the wood stove. Once I had peeled off my winter gear, I joined him there.
Marley, like most dogs, loves snow and usually doesn’t object to the cold. He happily goes out when it’s 20 degrees or above. From five to 20 degrees, he hesitates, but will go out on his own, and below that, he needs serious encouragement and perhaps company to brave the weather.
I can hardly blame Marley for his behavior on the morning he refused to go out at first. It was, after all, more than 40 degrees below the freezing point. I like to call it “not-kidding-around cold” and Marley was not in a laughing mood about it.
How cold is too cold for your dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What interests your dog—revealed!
How many times have we said, “What I wouldn’t give to know what my dog is smelling that is so captivating?” I think it each time I walk a dog. On every outing, dogs suddenly become wildly enthusiastic about a shrub or patch of ground that looks pretty much like every other shrub or patch of ground. What’s so special about this spot? And there are lots of other areas that they sniff, but don’t get excited about, quickly moving on. What makes some spots thrilling and others merely interesting?
This weekend when I was walking Marley, some of the mystery was revealed to me thanks to the conditions. We had snow three days ago and it has not been above 25˚F since then. That makes the snow hard and crunchy, which preserves tracks or other disturbances to it. In other words, there were visual clues in the snow that told me more than usual about what Marley found interesting. Here’s what caused him to put his nose to the ground to investigate:
1. Urine. Okay, that’s no surprise, but it was still cool to see evidence of what he was sniffing. Every time we saw yellow snow, Marley was interested, and quite likely to mark the spot. Not once did he pass a spot where another dog had obviously peed without taking at least a moment to sniff the area.
2. Signs of squirrels. In areas under pine trees where tufts of needles had been chewed off by squirrels and stuck in the snow, or where squirrel tracks were visible, Marley became extremely excitable. He sniffed in a rapid pattern, turning around, zigzagging, and becoming quite agitated.
3. Bird tracks. Whether it was ravens, doves, juncos, or sparrows, Marley sniffed areas with bird tracks. He was calm while he did so as opposed to exhibiting the borderline frantic behavior associated with the presence of squirrels.
4. Poop. I wish that all of my neighbors were fastidious about cleaning up after their dogs, but at least a couple of families are not diligent about it. I see quite a few piles of poop on almost every walk, and they were even more obvious in the snow. Marley sniffed at each one, though in a calm way, and rather briefly.
5. Trash. Every place with the indentation of a trash can that had been left for pick-up the previous day was a source of interest. Marley smelled at each such spot methodically, but without great excitement.
There were things that I thought Marley might want to sniff, but that he didn’t seem to care about. I saw cat tracks in a few places, but Marley paid them no attention at all. He didn’t sniff at tracks made by people, either. Similarly, he showed no interest in any marks from tires, whether from cars, bicycles, snow blowers, or snow plows. He did not investigate birdseed, gravel, salt, or kitty litter, all of which are commonly used to make sidewalks less slick.
What have you learned about your dog’s sniffing behavior from walks in the snow?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Come out, come out, wherever you are!
In September 2001, Sandi Pearce hid a small box in a park near her home in Dublin, Calif. Since then, more than 38 people, many with dogs, have searched for—and found—the box. It was just one of the 15 similar boxes that Pearce has hidden since she and her Border Collie, Katie, took up geocaching, a relatively new adventure game.
Geocaching is a high-tech treasure hunt in which players follow global positioning satellite (GPS) coordinates listed on the geocaching Web site, and search for a cache, a term used to denote something hidden away for later. In geocaching, the “something hidden away” usually consists of a weather-resistant container holding a logbook and a mishmash of plastic toys, coins, key chains and other small items for trade. Pearce, who began caching in 2001 after reading about the activity in the newspaper, filled hers with dog-related items and hid it in an area where she and Katie like to hike.
“It immediately appealed to me,” said Pearce. “It involves being outside, geeky tech toys and a cool Web site. And I can take Katie with me.”
Taking their dogs along while caching is a practice enjoyed by many of the game’s participants. Sharon Lum, who caches with her mixed-breed pound rescue, Zoe, says she enjoys having a hobby she can participate in with her dog. “Before I discovered caching, I biked more,” she said. “Now some of that time is spent hiking for caches with Zoe, and I think she likes that.”
Geocaching uses navigation technology originally developed by the military. A GPS receiver collects signals from multiple satellites above the Earth. Based on the signals, a person’s position on the planet can be triangulated (within a range of 6 to twenty feet) and reported in latitude and longitude coordinates. In 2000, when the Clinton administration made the signals available to civilians, geocaching popped onto the outdoor-activity scene. Now, according to the geocaching website, there are about 122,615 active caches in more than 210 countries.
Caches are hidden both in urban and rural areas. Several require moderate hikes and a few even require climbing, swimming or boating. Each cache is rated for difficulty, based on how hard the cache is to find and on the terrain in which it’s secreted. There is no official dog-friendly rating in the cache descriptions, but many cachers will put notes about dog-appropriateness in the online log. (See sidebar for a glossary of caching terms.)
Lum sometimes uses snowshoes or cross-country skis to go caching. “Zoe loves the snow,” she said. But, she warns, “one thing to remember when cross-country skiing with dogs is not to use metal-edge skis, as dogs, being dogs, can suddenly run or stop in front of you, and you can injure your dog.”
Lum, who has logged more than 1,000 finds, credits Zoe with discovering one cache of her own, near Lake Tahoe. “There was snow around, but only about a foot or so deep in some areas, and none in others. We searched for about a half an hour at the coordinates, [then] decided to go back to the cachemobile, which was about a quarter of a mile away. As we were walking back, Zoe walked right up to the cache, which was nested next to a rock, pointed to it with her nose and then looked at me to say, ‘Okay, Mom, here it is. Can we go home now?’”
Carleen Pruss, of Lincoln, Neb., also caches year-round. She says her black Lab mix, Molly, likes the snow, but snow requires extra preparation. She reminds us that dogs can’t yell “Hey, I’m getting frostbite!” and suggests taking your dog on some short winter excursions to check his cold tolerance before setting out on a full-fledged caching session.
• Know your dog. A dog who pulls on-leash or is easily distracted in urban areas likely won’t cache well in urban parks. For rural hiking, know your dog’s physical fitness level. Know if your dog is willing to cross a stream; if not, can you carry him over it? How will your dog behave if he encounters people or other animals (or cow patties)? It is better to ask these types of questions first and then plan accordingly.
• Know the local laws. Is a leash required? The law likely requires poop-scooping in urban areas, and even if it doesn’t, scooping is the polite thing to do. Bring those supplies with you!
• Bring water for both yourself and your dog.
• Make sure your dog is current on all vaccinations, and use tick and mosquito protection for both of you. Consider a Lyme disease vaccination in areas where Lyme is prevalent. Check for ticks after caching in rural areas, and carry a tick puller.
• If you hide a cache, consider mentioning in the log if it is dog-friendly, and list local leash laws.
• Have fun, and remember to take your camera—you’ll want good pictures of your caching dog!
For more information on geocaching and GPS receivers, visit Geocaching—The Official Global GPS Cache Hunt Site.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Question: My 1 1/2-year-old neutered male English Shepherd developed a fascination with light and shadows about nine months ago. He chases any reflections he sees, and on cloudy days even does the chasing behavior in places where shadows usually appear. He will stand outside under a tree and watch shadows of leaves blowing for 20 minutes at a stretch. He is an inside/outside dog and gets at least an hour walk each day. The behavior is not destructive, but I worry about the total attention he gives to it and I certainly don’t want it to become worse. What should I do?
Answer: Fascination with lights and shadows is most common in high-energy, high-drive dogs, and most of the cases I’ve seen have been in herding or hunting breeds who have come from working lines. As in your dog’s case, it often shows up in adolescence. It is wise to be concerned, because this problem seems to escalate if left to its own devices, and I worry that it may already be affecting your dog’s quality of life. Many dogs who start with a little chasing of shadows can degenerate into cases of full-blown obsessive-compulsive disorder. If that happens, additional compulsive behaviors may develop. Because of the potentially serious nature of this problem, it is worth having your dog evaluated by a veterinary behaviorist in your area who understands anxiety disorders. Also, a change in diet sometimes helps dramatically and is worth a try.
Prevention is a critical part of helping to extinguish the behavior, so whenever possible, keep your dog out of situations that elicit it. Obviously, you cannot eliminate lights and shadows from your dog’s life, but even simple steps such as hanging dark curtains, spending time with your dog in the rooms with the fewest lights and shadows and temporarily storing particularly reflective items can help.
Your response when he begins to chase or fixate on shadows and light will have a big impact on his behavior. Let your motto be “Interrupt and redirect, but never punish.” Interrupt the behavior and try to redirect him to some other sort of behavior. Try to distract him with a favorite toy or use a new squeaky toy to get his attention. Consider rattling his leash and heading out for a walk if that works to distracts him. (Don’t do this last one too often or he may learn to chase shadows in order to get you to take him out.) The interruption should distract your dog, but should never scare him. Good options for redirection include tug, fetch, the ever-popular Kong®, a chew toy, outdoor exercise or a training session. It can be tempting to respond in a negative way to this behavior, but any punishment carries the risk of making the behavior worse.
An hour walk each day is enough for many dogs, but additional exercise for a young, active dog so interested in light and shadows is really important. Off-leash running for an hour or more a day (or better yet, twice a day) can really make a big difference, as can tiring activities such as fetch and swimming. I realize that finding safe places to do this is often the biggest challenge. Physical exercise can greatly help this problem, but so can additional mental exercise. Giving your dog’s mind more to do may help as much as the physical exercise. Give him toys that tax his brain, teach him tricks daily, or attend classes.
If you feel that his obsession is worsening or is more noticeably affecting the quality of his life (or yours!), consider talking to a qualified veterinarian about medicine for obsessive-compulsive behavior and working with adjunctive medical therapy such as Chinese medicine or homeopathy.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Is the pairing obvious or unexpected?
Sometimes a dog finds another dog who is the best play buddy ever, and no other dog will ever measure up. When it’s love at first sight—when the two dogs meet and hit it off immediately—it’s sometimes a challenge to understand what makes them the best of friends so quickly. I’ve seen it happen with dogs who seem like a good match and with dogs who nobody in a million years would ever think to pair up.
In the category of an obvious match, I remember two dogs of the same rare breed who met at dog camp and became inseparable. Both sets of guardians were really excited. (“You have a Pharoah Hound? I have a Pharoah Hound!”) Watching the two dogs play was really fascinating because they played so differently than most other dogs with a lot of intense running and chasing. They did some tug, but their play was predominantly high speed running and chasing. They were so fast they were blurry, and none of the other dogs at camp had even the slightest chance of keeping up. Neither of the Pharoah Hounds had previously experienced chase games with another dog who could keep up, which of course is part of what makes it so fun. It was amazing to see these dogs together because they were just so perfect for each other. It was beautiful to watch them play and to see the happiness of having such a well-matched play partner.
Another pair of dogs I know who became inseparable play buddies was definitely an odd couple. One was some kind of very large shepherd mix and the other was probably mostly Beagle and barely bigger than the other dog’s head. They were both playful dogs with large social circles, but if they were together, they paid no attention to any other dogs. Most of their play involved holding onto opposite ends of the same toy or stick and trotting around with it. They also followed each other, leaping around and sometimes sniffing at the same spots while they wagged their tails furiously, and then trotting off to a new place to sniff some more. They remained great friends throughout their lives, and our whole neighborhood was amused by what appeared to be an unlikely friendship.
Watching play buddies who adore each other, whether it’s dogs who are similar or those who are compatible for some other reason, is an incredible joy. If you’ve had a dog who found the perfect playmate, were they an obvious match or was their compatibility unexpected?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips for healthy social development
For dogs, like many other species, early experiences are critical for normal social development, and it is pretty well known that puppies have the best chance for normal social development if they are allowed to be with their littermates for 7-8weeks at least.
It is really the exception for puppies not to have littermates or not to get to be with them for at least these few weeks. However, singleton puppies do happen, and they do tend to have issues. If you ever meet a dog named Solo, Uno, or Only, the first question to ask is whether the dog was the only puppy in its litter, because if so, there is a suite of problems that may exist. Of course, you can be wrong about these names. I once wrote about a dog named Solo who had some serious behavior issues, and I thought at first he must have been a singleton. However, in researching the story, I learned that the dog came from a litter of several puppies and was named after the Solo River in Indonesia where fossils of Homo erectus were first found.
In a typical litter of three to twelve puppies, there is constant physical contact. The puppies crawl all over each other, and they are used to the warmth, the contact, the interruptions, and the movement that result from being in a pile of dogs.
The problems that singleton puppies are prone to having are the result of not being raised in this standard puppy environment. Typical problems in singletons are lack of bite inhibition, being unable to get out of trouble calmly and graciously, an inability to diffuse social tension, inability to handle frustration, lack of social skills, lack of impulse control, and touch sensitivity.
If you find out about a singleton puppy early—anytime before the puppy heads to its new home particularly, there are things that can be done. Be sure to work on teaching bite inhibition early and often, and handle the puppy a lot to avoid issues with touch sensitivity. Any gentle, regular handling is likely to help. Push the puppy off the nipple once or twice a feeding to get the puppy used to interruptions and handling the resulting frustration. Have the puppy spend time with puppies of the same age a lot and as early as possible. If at all possible, consider raising the puppy with another litter.
Getting to spend a lot of time with another litter lets a singleton puppy have a more typical or normal experience as a young puppy. The play time that puppies spend with each other goes a long way towards teaching puppies many of their social skills, including bite inhibition, frustration tolerance, impulse control, self control, and the ability to be flexible in all sorts of social interactions. The adorable play between puppies, which is so enjoyable to watch, is anything but light-hearted frivolous behavior—it provides puppies the foundation for normal, healthy social behavior as adults in many contexts and is a critical part of a puppy’s development and education.
I knew a singleton Irish Water Spaniel that I met at age two. He was full of himself, had no frustration tolerance, little self control and almost no impulse control. He did, by the way, show beautifully in the ring! His issues with frustration and control led to leash aggression with other dogs. His amazing owner, who had actually bred him, was able to turn him around, but it was a huge project. The next litter from the same female was also a solo puppy who turned out fine and totally normal, except for being a bit large for the breed, which is not unusual for singleton puppies. The owner did everything right with her second solo puppy. She raised this puppy with a Lab litter that was only a few days different in age than her puppy, and did everything else I advised. She did end up spaying the breeding female, figuring that once could be a fluke, but that since it happened a second time, there was too high a risk of it happening again. This second singleton puppy, benefiting from all the owner did to help her, was in no way behaviorally like most singletons. She turned out completely normal from a behavioral perspective, despite an unusual beginning and this is an amazing accomplishment.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A powerful tool to handle aggression
A Corgi who barks, spins, leaps and sometimes bites when anyone in her house stands up or moves around. A German Shepherd-Husky cross who barks, lunges and charges at dogs walking by her house. A Poodle who growls at other dogs when on leash. A mixed breed who is terrified of visitors and barks at them nonstop. A Papillon puppy who bites his elderly Labrador Retriever housemate when the older dog doesn’t want to play with him. What do these aggressive dogs have in common? All of them had their behavior improved through the use of play.
About a decade ago, I began to regularly incorporate play into programs for aggressive dogs. Play is a powerful tool when working with such dogs, including those who are behaving badly because of frustration, arousal, lack of impulse control, boredom or fear. It has a positive effect on emotions, which is why play-motivated fearful dogs often respond better to play than to treats, even if they are also highly treat-motivated — fear decreases faster and more thoroughly in response to the former than to the latter. There are many different ways that play can help aggressive dogs to behave better.
Theoretically, you can stop a behavior by teaching an action incompatible with that behavior — for example, counteracting a dog’s habit of jumping on people by teaching him to sit in their presence. But when a dog struggles with high arousal (which many aggressive dogs do), you’re more likely to have success by teaching the dog to perform an active behavior. Trying to teach a dog to lie down, stay or another static, controlled behavior is more challenging and generally less effective.
In the case of the Corgi who was aggressive when people moved around, the more aroused she was, the more reactive and out of control she became. My goal was to transfer that energy; for her, I chose fetch, her favorite game. Now, when people are active, she brings a ball to her guardians, who then play fetch with her. By itself, the act of getting a toy can have an inhibitory effect, but it’s even better to teach the dog to get a toy in order to initiate a game. The anticipation gave the Corgi a happy feeling: “Oh boy! Somebody moved! That means playtime.”
The German Shepherd-Husky cross who reacted to dogs passing by was easily aroused and struggled with impulse control. Her guardians, who had already tried calling her away and using treats to capture her attention, were convinced that she would never be able to focus on anything with another dog in sight. Compounding the problem, she was not just beyond her guardians’ control, but actually beyond her own control.
However, she loved to play tug, and no matter how high her arousal was or what distractions were present, she was captivated by her tug rope. Therefore, this game was the perfect way to redirect her attention. Once she learned that when a dog came into view, she would be given an opportunity to play tug, she stopped going crazy at the sight of a dog and instead, turned immediately and joyfully to her guardians. Tug helped her control herself.
Tug has many advantages when working with an aggressive dog, as long as tug does not incite the aggression. It not only keeps the dog near you and her mouth occupied, it also allows you to direct the dog’s line of sight, which can be especially useful if the dog is visually stimulated. Dogs who tug usually love to play the game, which makes it a compelling option.
The Poodle who was reactive to other dogs when on leash is one of the most playful dogs I have ever known, and also one of the smartest. His training was excellent, and he could perform many behaviors on cue, even in the presence of another dog. But if he saw the dog first, he would bark, lunge and pull so hard on the leash that he had more than once caused his guardian to fall.
All of that changed when I started reinforcing him with play. If he controlled himself when he saw another dog — performing any behavior other than reacting — he was allowed to play. He was willing to work for play, but the play had to be the “right” kind: running after his guardian. Once this reinforcement system was established, when he saw another dog, he would look at her as if to say, “Well, don’t you have some running to do?” and then happily give chase.
The mixed breed who was terrified of visitors loved fetch, and she warmed up fast to anyone who would play it with her. To take advantage of this, I used classical counterconditioning to change her emotional response to visitors. Specifically, I taught her to associate them with fetch; I wanted her to feel the same joy when someone unfamiliar to her arrived as she felt when playing fetch. Thus, everyone who entered her home threw a ball for her. Eventually, the appearance of a visitor became the cue that a game of fetch was about to happen. Instead of responding with fear because a stranger had entered, she now responds with enthusiasm.
Frustration and boredom were the root causes in the case of the Papillon puppy who was aggressive to the Labrador Retriever. The older dog was interested in playing with the puppy for no more than two to three minutes at a time, but the puppy wanted to frolic morning, noon and night. When the Lab called a halt, the puppy would growl, leap on the Lab and bite him, sometimes causing injuries.
It was essential to find other ways to engage the Papillon in play, ways that would provide him with enough fun, mental and physical exercise, and other stimulation to keep him happy. The first step was to determine which toys, games and activities appealed to him. Never has my job been easier, because this dog loved everything. I imagined him thinking, Plush toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Tug toys? I love them, they’re my favorite! Balls? I love them, they’re my favorite!
Every single thing I tried was a success — puzzle toys, squeaky toys, bouncy toys, rope toys, balls, disks, Kongs. He liked them all. Discovering a variety of new games and either learning or inventing ways to play with different toys satisfied his intense need for play. He played fetch, tug, chase and hide-and-seek with people. When people weren’t available, he learned to enjoy throwing objects in the air and catching them, puzzles of all sorts, dribbling a ball around like a soccer star, and rolling balls down ramps and then chasing after them. Between the variety of toys and the multiple “play stations” we set up around his house, he learned to entertain himself for long stretches at a time.
Once I showed his guardians new ways to play with their puppy, they interacted with him much more, which took a lot of pressure off the older dog. Now, the Papillon plays appropriately and brief ly with the Lab a few times a day, and when the Lab is done, the puppy chooses a different way to play. Providing additional options was essential in helping this puppy behave in an acceptable manner around the other dog in his family.
There are many ways to change aggressive behavior, and an important part of my work is deciding which one will work best for a particular dog. While play is not part of the solution for every dog, it can help many of them, and increasingly, I find that I can help people and their dogs succeed by incorporating play into their programs. Yes, play is fun, but when working with aggressive dogs, it can be so much more.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A Full House
My multi-dog household includes three unrelated, rescued mutts with golden fur and bushy tails, each weighing around 50 pounds: one female (Bahati, 13), and two males (Tex, 7, and Bentley, 2). On a typical morning, Bentley and Tex play in the living room, biting at one another’s hind legs. Tex flops onto the rug, Bentley bites at Tex’s neck and Tex flails his legs in defense. Their play rouses Bahati, who has been napping. She trots into the living room and plunges between them.
Bahati stands tall, holding her ears as wolves do when courting: the inside of the earflaps face out to the side and the backs nearly touch over the top of her head. Ever eager to flirt, Bentley positions his ears the same way and cautiously places his chin over her neck. She leaps away, then starts to scamper with him; it almost looks like they’re dancing. When Tex moves toward them, Bahati rears up to wrap her front paws around his neck in a bear hug. Watching them with a silly grin, I can’t imagine a better way to start the day.
In addition to my delight in the dogs’ antics, I like having a multi-dog household (three or more dogs) for other reasons. I have three playmates instead of one, and three dogs to comfort me when I’m down. With three, I’m more likely to have a snuggly companion on the couch or bed, and I love being welcomed home by three madly wagging tails. With three dogs, I have more friends, more silliness, more beauty, more life.
Living in a multi-dog household is also better for my dogs. For one thing, I’m not solely responsible for their entertainment. They wear each other out when they play in a way that’s impossible for me to replicate. They’re never alone, and I feel less guilty about the parts of my life that don’t include them. Although they still adopt the “I’ll die if you don’t take me with you” look when I leave the house, their so-called suffering is belied by the toys I see scattered around when I return.
Despite the many benefits of multidog homes, however, there are also costs, and they’re not all financial. Wiping 12 muddy paws or trimming 54 toenails is exponentially more tiresome than dealing with four paws or 18 nails. Walking three leashed dogs can be complicated, especially when our leashes get tangled with those attached to several dogs from another household. If we don’t want to unclip the dogs, the only way out is to perform what my friends call “the leash dance,” in which each person holds his or her leashes high overhead while twirling until the two sets disentangle — a most interesting way to meet one’s neighbors! And, of course, training three or more dogs is harder than training one or even two, especially when it involves behaviors they tend to do in unison, like barking at the UPS man or rushing to the door when the bell rings. For many people, such training requires more time and patience than they have.
Although a lot of “aggression” between familiar dogs is ritualized and harmless (see “Fighting without Biting,” May 2011), it sometimes escalates, especially when a new dog is involved. While researchers have not systematically observed multiple pet dogs living together, a few studies have examined data from canine behaviorists who had been consulted for help with intrahousehold aggression. Unfortunately, these studies do not involve a comparison group of households whose dogs do get along, which makes many of their findings hard to interpret. Nevertheless, they tend to agree on a few patterns: aggression is often instigated by a newly matured dog or by a new household member against an older dog, and is more frequent within same-sex pairs, particularly when both dogs are female (more on this in a future article).
Aside from avoiding the most common triggers — the presence of food or toys; proximity to the owner; high-arousal situations, such as greetings or preparations to leave; and being together in a confined space, such as a narrow hallway — other treatment recommendations include medications such as fluoxetine (Prozac) and following a “nothing in life is free” program.
Canine behaviorists also sometimes encourage people to consistently favor one dog over the others (e.g., the older or higher-ranking dog) by giving him or her resources and attention first. In her DVD, Dog-Dog Aggression, Patricia McConnell argues against this because, in her experience, it doesn’t work. She suggests other methods of decreasing intra-household aggression, including training dogs to be in close proximity to one another while waiting in turn for a resource. The DVD includes a wonderful example involving McConnell’s own dogs. She asks three Border Collies and a Great Pyrenees to line up, then kneels in front of them holding a pan in which meat has been roasted. By name, she calls one dog forward to lick the pan, then asks that dog to stop licking and back up when it is the next dog’s turn. Her dogs’ body language indicates how much self-control they must exert to succeed in this situation, but succeed they do. The lesson? When dogs learn that they get what they want by politely waiting their turn, they are less likely to bully each other (or you!) as a way to gain resources.
In any event, when intra-household aggression is a serious problem, consult a certified canine behaviorist with a background in this type of situation. In addition, it can be very helpful to learn as much as possible about canine communication to better understand dogs’ interactions. For example, being tuned in to postures and facial expressions that often precede aggression — such as a dog standing very still with his muzzle tightly closed — can allow us to intervene before an attack is launched. (For more on dog-dog communication, see resources at below.)
Pleasures of the Pack
More often than not, multiple dogs do get along. In addition to the benefits mentioned previously, having several dogs is just plain more fun. One of my favorite activities involves walking my dogs off-leash in wild areas far from roads. Each dog understands that when I say, for example, “Bahati, lead!” I will follow the dog who has been singled out, so long as he or she doesn’t move toward anything dangerous. All my dogs love being the leader, yet will relinquish that role when it’s the next dog’s turn — or mine. It’s fascinating to see where each dog chooses to go; their noses lead us to places I might never find. Also, I can relax because I’m not making all the decisions; it’s fun to be a follower for a change. Finally, letting the dogs be in charge helps balance power in the human-dog relationship. None of my dogs has mutinied, which I think effectively demonstrates that we don’t always have to be “the decider” to have well-behaved dogs.
Based on what scientists know about people, dogs and their mutual histories, these outings in some ways mimic the original relationship between human hunter-gatherers and canines. Hunters traveled with multiple dogs, some of whom tracked and chased game while others protected women and children when they were out foraging. Since dogs can smell and hear better than we can, as well as see better in the dark, it made sense for our ancestors to sometimes defer to canine judgments about where to go (or not go). Most of the time, neither we nor our dogs can live this way, but we get a taste of the wild by going on long outings and allowing our dogs to lead.
Hanging out with multiple dogs after everyone has exercised and eaten is my favorite way to spend the evening. During these times, I notice subtle behaviors that warm my heart. For instance, when Bahati approaches Tex while he is lying down, Tex sometimes extends a paw to pet her on the head or neck instead of performing the usual nose-to nose greeting. I also love it when, after resting for a while, they simultaneously feel compelled to zip around the house and up and down the stairs as fast as they can go. Just as suddenly, they return to their senses, stop running and go back to lazing around, smiling and panting. Who can remain in a bad mood after watching such an explosion of joy?
Another plus to living with multiple dogs is the opportunity to observe relationship dynamics. Groups of dogs are systems, which means that if any part changes, everything else changes as well. Through such observations, I’ve learned that dogs take their relationships with one another seriously. Bahati and Tex are old friends whose interest in playing together gradually decreased over the years. But after young Bentley arrived, they not only played with him, but also spent more time playing with one another. Bentley’s youthful, evercheerful disposition improved everyone’s life, including mine.
Several years ago, I lived with three female dogs; at one point, they were joined by Osa, a middle-aged male who needed a temporary home. Safi, the undisputed lead dog in my group, had known Osa well five years earlier, and they began playing almost immediately.
However, Safi was by then older and weaker than Osa, and she objected to some of his rough play moves. After clearly communicating this several times, she lost patience and moved to discipline him. Instead of submitting, Osa grabbed Safi’s neck and briefly forced her to the ground. Less than a minute later, Safi approached Osa to reconcile (more about this behavior follows), but he ignored her. From that moment on, Safi gave Osa the cold shoulder, refusing to interact with him in any way. The other two females, who had merely witnessed the event, also ceased engaging with Osa, even though both had played with him before. To my amazement, all three females ostracized Osa during the rest of his stay, a full seven weeks. I was reminded of situations in human families in which people refuse to speak to one another for years.
I urge people who live with several dogs to pay attention to their interactions. One thing to look for is reconciliation behavior. Research shows that shortly after a two-way conflict within their group, dogs and wolves tend to approach the former opponent to do something nice, like touch muzzles or invite play. Dogs and wolves are especially likely to reconcile when they place a high value on a relationship, and “making up” can be a window into their feelings. For example, Tex sometimes gets grumpy when playing with Bahati or Bentley, but within a few seconds, he nearly always offers a muzzle lick. The same study documenting reconciliation in dogs also showed that if the combative parties fail to reconcile shortly afterward, a third dog, uninvolved in the event, is likely to approach the “victim” of the squabble in a friendly manner, perhaps to offer comfort.
Notice, also, the way dogs who live in the same household behave when they meet another dog. Many times, I have seen them close ranks when an unfamiliar dog exhibits the slightest unfriendly move toward one of their own. If that behavior escalates to a real threat or fight, a dog may intervene directly to defend a housemate. Such defense is particularly striking when a dog supports someone she doesn’t especially like when they’re at home.
Moments like this remind me that my motley crew of mutts really are packmates at heart. Because we’re humans, we focus on our dogs’ relationships with us. But the most amazing thing about dogs is their capacity to become integrated into both human and canine society. In the past, dogs usually lived in multi-dog, multi-human groups. Multi-dog households are, in a sense, their birthright. No matter how much we love our dogs, to be fulfilled, we need other people, and no matter how much dogs love us, they need other dogs to experience and express all of who they are.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs’ behavior may change
Sniffing your belly. Backing away from you when you walk. Being more responsive to your cues. Being less responsive to your cues. Staying right near you all the time. Growling at you. All of these are possible reactions by dogs to a pregnant guardian.
I’m often asked if dogs are able to sense when a woman is pregnant. I spoke to Rachel Rounds, a journalist in the UK who was expecting, and she incorporated my answers to her questions into her article “Clingy, need and moody. It’s Rachel who’s expecting – but it’s her dog who’s gone all hormonal.”
I’m not aware of any research that directly addresses the question of whether dogs know that their guardian is expecting, but it would be very surprising if dogs didn’t at least pick up on some of the accompanying changes and react to them. Dogs can obtain an amazing amount of information about other dogs just from smelling each other or even each other’s urine (e.g. Male or female? Intact or spayed/neutered? In heat? Young or old? Familiar or a stranger?) Given what we know they are able to perceive with their nose, it’s a bit hard to imagine that they can’t detect at least some of the many hormonal changes that accompany pregnancy in a person living in their house.
At the risk of giving too much information, I can detect pregnant urine. I knew of a few friends’ pregnancies before they announced them just because I happened to use a bathroom at a social gathering immediately after them. Since I, a mere human, have a nose for it, it’s more than likely that dogs do, too. Of course, it’s hard to say whether dog know what the change in odor means, but it seems unimaginable that they don’t detect it.
Once a pregnancy is far along, women change their movements a bit, partly because of the normal loosening of the joints, and partly because carrying another person in your abdomen is cumbersome, to say the least. Dogs are very sensitive to movement and posture of the most subtle form in other individuals. That pregnant kangaroo stance and that waddling gait are far from subtle, and cannot be hidden from people or from dogs.
Pregnancy is often accompanied by behavioral changes, and these can extend beyond the woman expecting to other members of the household. Those changes may have to do with the schedule—more sleep, fewer walks and runs, more time spent redecorating—or may be emotional with shorter tempers, conflict, stress, or other issues in dealing with one another.
Most dogs are going to pick up on at least some of the changes associated with pregnancy, and these can certainly have an influence on their behavior. Did you notice any changes in your dog’s behavior when you or someone else in your family was pregnant?
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