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.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A consequence of adoring dogs
I’m pretty sure that as a child, I offended some friends when I went to their houses to play and paid more attention to the dog than to anyone else. Though I’ve always been social with people, this is a gaffe I made repeatedly. I never meant to be rude. It’s just that the dogs were so captivating that I couldn’t help myself.
It wasn’t only in childhood that I attended to dogs first and foremost. While in grad school, my friends and I played cards regularly. One night, three of us drove together to the house of a couple with a new baby for a game. We made ourselves right at home, all heading to what interested us most. That meant Ethan headed to the refrigerator, Amy rushed to hold the baby, and I went over to their Lab cross for my doggy fix. That was typical, and we were all teased for our predictable behavior.
Now in my 40s, I’m far better at minding my manners, which is why I’m so embarrassed by a setback I had earlier this week. I noticed the dog first and then came to realize that there was a person with the dog, and what’s more, it was a person I knew. I should have greeted her right away and chatted a little bit before turning my attention to the dog. (In my defense, this dog was a Great Dane, which is my childhood breed, and I had no idea that my friend was fostering one. It’s a weak defense, but it’s all I’ve got!) It’s as if my heart said, “Ooh, what a marvelous dog!” and then there was a huge lag before my brain piped in, “Hey, there’s a person at the other end of that leash.”
Please tell me I am not alone! Have you ever been guilty of these sorts of social gaffes because of your adoration for dogs?
We’re easing our way into another summer season, tuning up for vacation flings, scoping out dog-friendly resorts and venues, and hoping to find time to settle back and simply enjoy a few peaceful moments with our dogs.
As our cover proclaims, at long last, I went to New York for a much-anticipated visit with the “Daily Show” dogs. We had put out a few feelers earlier this year, and some of you might have been wondering what came of them. In late February, I made a trip to New York and spent the day at “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” offices—and yes, I met the man himself. Since then, we’ve been reviewing the more than 700 photographs that our pal, ace photographer KC Bailey, took during my visit to come up with the one on the cover. You’ll be meeting Parker and Kweil, our cover dogs, and some of their colleagues (and seeing more great photos) in my story. Preview these exclusive sights and sounds from our visit!
Talk about a good time being had by all … not only does this have to be one of the most imaginative, intriguing and invigorating spots in which to work, its über-dog-friendly environment catapults “The Daily Show” into the stratosphere of the country’s most appealing workplaces. To honor that, we’re bestowing our first-ever The Bark’s Best Place to Work Award on “The Daily Show.”
Elsewhere in this issue, we share practical advice from our cadre of experts. Karen London gives us the scoop on the alleged differences between big and small dogs from a behavioral perspective; Pat Miller tells us how to tame door-darters; and attorney Rebecca Wallick provides a primer on pet insurance: Is it the best option? What should you look for when choosing a provider? What are the alternatives?
Then we take on one of dogs’ most profoundly embarrassing behaviors. Who’s missed out on seeing (or living with) a dog who tries to mount another dog, or his bed or toys or Uncle Louie’s leg? Julie Hecht helps us figure out what’s behind all those “good vibrations.” We go from R-rated to squeaky clean in a Q&A with a grooming pro, who gives us tips on the best way to brush and bathe our co-pilots, as well as the best tools (you can toss the one brush you’re likely to have but probably never use), methods and general advice on keeping our dogs looking spiffy.
In accordance with the season, the big focus of this issue is “Outside.” We introduce you to stand-up paddleboarding, a water activity that’s likely to have your dogs hopping aboard for the ride. We learn the ins and outs of backpacking with dogs and hear about a fisherdog. Carrying on in this vein, Lee Harrington describes her “back to nature” experience with Chloe.
In the last issue, we asked for your insights on two important subjects. One involved living in a multiple-dog household, and your responses convinced us that we need to examine this further. We’ve asked University of Michigan animal behavior researcher Barbara Smuts, PhD, to tackle it, and her findings will appear in a future issue. (We’re running highlights from your responses in this issue’s letters section, as well as online.) Keep them coming—we want to hear more about your life with a pack!
Our second request had to do with challenges you may have had while trying to adopt a dog from a rescue group or shelter. Again, the outpouring of letters showed us that this is also a topic that merits closer investigation. Contributing editor Julia Kamysz Lane, who’s been active in many rescue groups (both as an adopter and an adoption coordinator), will be taking the lead on this one. We hope to hear more from you. Did you encounter unexpected roadblocks during the adoption process? If so, what actions did you take? We also want to hear from rescue groups and shelters about their experiences: How were adoption criteria and processes developed? What kinds of challenges are involved? To get your feedback, we’ll be opening up this topic on both our blog and FB; any suggestions that may help increase adoption rates are definitely welcome.
That’s it for now. Let’s hope that the summery months give you time to chill, to kick back and relax with your pup at your side.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Even a bad example can have a good influence.
He was short, only 5' 4" or so, but his broad shoulders and thick arms gave an impression of size and strength. He had close-cropped, steely gray hair, and none of us in his dog-training class had any reason to doubt that he was the Marine he claimed to be.
You’ve never heard of him, but he had as much impact on my life and career as anyone I’ve ever met.
I encountered him (I’ll call him Mark) in 1969, when he stood in the middle of a circle of people and dogs that included me and my adolescent Saint Bernard. This was back when comedian Bill Cosby was young and edgy and the ultimate in cool. And cool my husband and I wanted to be. So cool that, instead of buying silver tableware, we turned my aunt’s wedding-present money into a St. Bernard puppy and named him Cosby, oblivious to her thoughts on the matter.
Cosby arrived as a 15-pound, sevenweek- old pup, and proceeded to barrel through our lives and hearts like a miniature Mack truck. At 10 weeks, he crawled up onto a table and ate our chocolate wedding cake while I was getting married in a bright gold dress to the strains of “Wear Your Love Like Heaven” and my father’s conservative banker friends were rolling their eyes and downing their drinks in shock.
Cosby grew fast, and in short order, we had 100 pounds of furry adolescence on our hands. Determined to be responsible—at least, my 19-year-old version of it—I insisted that we enroll our new dog in a training class. (It is unclear how responsible it was for two impoverished people to get a Saint Bernard in southern California, but that was then—my only excuse.) At the time, training classes were all called “obedience” classes, and were far less common than they are now. It took some digging, but I found an advertisement that looked good, checked out the references at my vet clinic and signed up my by-then seven-month-old Saint Bernard.
Class was held in a parking lot, and Mark told all the participants to stand in a circle and listen up. He talked to us briefly about the importance of being “alpha,” of insisting that our dogs respect us and do what we say, just because we say it. I remember nodding my head in agreement. Surely he was right, this authoritative man who wowed us all with a demonstration of his precisely obedient German Shepherd.
He showed us how to put on a “choke collar” (his words), and how to pop the leash quickly and firmly right after saying “Sit.” He cautioned us to use a strong, authoritative voice, lest our dogs think us weaklings who shouldn’t be respected. A Golden Retriever was brought from the circle for illustration. “Sit!” shouted Mark, as he jerked up on the leash. She sat, her face befuddled but friendly.
We were then charged as a group to try it ourselves. I had already taught Cosby to sit when asked, but I piped out the word with vigor. It was a much less commanding version than the trainer’s, but it was my best attempt at saying “Sit!” with authority. Cosby sat, although slowly. His response was good enough for me, but I threw worried glances toward Mark, afraid he’d see my dog’s reaction as some sort of canine passive resistance and insist that I pop the leash.
Cosby and I were spared, but not the Basenji and his 20-something owner. It seemed the Basenji hadn’t gotten the memo and was ignoring both verbal and physical commands. Congo, I’ll call him, was too busy checking out a dainty Miniature Poodle across the circle. Mark watched with concern, and then brought Congo into the center of the ring to show us how it was done.
“Sit!” he bellowed, and snapped the leash so hard that Congo’s front feet left the ground. Instead of sitting, Congo planted his feet more firmly and looked directly into Mark’s eyes. If I’d known then what I know now, I would’ve seen the hard, cold look in Congo’s eyes and not been so surprised when he lunged at Mark right after he was leash-popped again. To a person, everyone in the circle gasped.
Mark raised his arm, lifting all four of Congo’s feet off the ground. The dog had on a “training” collar, the kind that tightens without stopping until it simply can’t tighten anymore. What happened next was a bit of a blur. I remember Mark yelling, and I remember Congo yowling and screaming and somehow climbing up the leash, almost managing to sink his teeth into the trainer’s arm.
And then, in an image imprinted on my brain like a lithograph, Cosby let out a whimper and turned 180 degrees away from the drama in the center of the ring. He lay down, placing his huge, soppy head flat on the dirty asphalt. Meanwhile, I remained motionless, frozen by the scene unfolding in front of me. The Basenji was still hanging in midair. He was running out of oxygen, turning blue in the lips, but still screaming and frothing at the mouth. By now Mark looked equally desperate, angry and out of control—eyes wild and spittle flying from his mouth as he continued to yell.
I took one look at Cosby, saw the wisdom in his choice, and walked away, shaking; I shook until I got home. I called Mark the next day and asked for my money back. I never got it, but here’s what I did get: an invaluable lesson in how never to train a dog. That day was a perfect illustration of everything that is wrong with compulsion training. It only works some of the time, and when it doesn’t, people and animals can get hurt. It forces animals to be defensive, and it creates defensive aggression in many of them. It never tells the animal what we want him to do, but rather, waits to punish him for not doing it. It teaches an animal not to think for himself, but to avoid doing anything until told, and to be afraid of trying out something new. Most importantly, it destroys the relationship we should be striving for with our best friends. Friends don’t try to strangle each other, and they don’t punch each other in the face when they don’t cooperate.
After leaving the class, I did my best to train Cosby on my own. He wasn’t the best of dogs, but he wasn’t the worst either. Years after Cosby died, I saw Ian Dunbar talk about “Lure/Reward” training and champion the effectiveness and benevolence of positive reinforcement. I didn’t have a dog of my own then; I was studying communication between handlers and working animals for my graduate research, and had attended his seminar to add to my data. I expected to get information that I could use for my research, but I didn’t expect the weekend to solidify and expand my understanding of what a relationship between a person and a dog could be. As I watched Dunbar teaching happy and exuberant puppies to sit and lie down, I replayed the scene of Mark and the Basenji over and over again in my mind.
I began to watch the handlers I was working with (over a hundred of them, from race-horse jockeys to drug-dog trainers) and noticed how cheerful and encouraging some were, and how others were loud and forceful. I observed how quickly the animals learned when they were trained with positive methods, and how consistently they responded. I saw how many dogs and horses looked nervous and afraid around their trainers, and how the anger in the trainer’s voices overwhelmed everything else.
Although I never would have predicted it, those lessons led to a life dedicated to improving relationships between people and animals. It’s a life that owes a tremendous debt to all the special people who have taught me so much about animal behavior, from Ian Dunbar and my major professor, Jeffrey Baylis, to many of the people highlighted in this issue. But most of all, this is a column for Mark, whoever and wherever he is, because it was he who burned into my soul the dark side of our relationship with dogs and, irony of ironies, made the bright side so much sweeter.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
She helps me find weeds
Yesterday I was searching for dandelions to yank from my lawn and garden with Schultize, a dog who is staying with us for a couple of weeks. After about 10 minutes of pulling these weeds, Schultize was consistently in my way. Several times, I found myself having to wait for her to move so I could use my weeding tool without risk of hurting her. She just kept sitting right near a dandelion. At first I thought this was a bit of an annoyance, and it reminded me of the futility of trying to read the newspaper on the floor when a cat is present.
Then I started to think that Schultize was finding the dandelions before me. As I searched the lawn methodically and found one, she was already sitting by it. Is this possible? Had she figured out what I was searching for and begun to lend her services? I pulled the one right near her and then waited. Sure enough, she went and sat by a nearby dandelion and looked at me. How cool is this? The worst part of weeding is finding the unwanted plants. Pulling them up just takes a moment.
Schultzie has not been trained to find dandelions. She just seemed to notice that I was looking for them, and did her part to show them to me. Today, when I went into the yard with my weeding tool and began to look down at the ground, Schultzie immediately sat by a dandelion in the grass, and when I pulled it up, she trotted over to another one. Today, there were only a handful of weeds (progress!), but after Schultzie showed them to me, I only found one additional one on my own, which suggests that she wasn’t just randomly sitting by a plant that is common.
In my past experiences, the only part of gardening that dogs in my home have joined in on is the digging. Has your dog ever figured out what you were doing in the garden and actually helped?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Our extraordinary love affair with dogs.
In 1992, I fell in love with a dog named Luke. I brought him home from a herding dog trial one chilly October evening, not sure whether I’d keep him, not sure I wanted another dog. A gangly adolescent, Luke had been a disappointment to his ﬁrst owner, who reported that he wouldn’t come when called and had failed his ﬁrst herding lessons. I’d had my eye on him ever since he was a pup, and had told the owner to let me know if she ever decided to sell him. When she did (I had more dogs than I needed, but every time I saw Luke something clicked inside, as if I’d ﬁnally found the combination to an old padlock I carried around, unopened), I took one last look at his bright, expectant face, wrote out a check, and drove him home through the red and orange hills of a Midwestern autumn.
By sundown of the next day, Luke and I had fallen in love. I don’t know any other way to
Although the love we have for our dogs is often trivialized, there’s nothing trivial about it. A few weeks after my father died, one of my mother’s dogs was killed by a car. A visitor had come to help sort out my father’s affairs, and unbeknownst to anyone, Jenny the exuberant Irish Setter had dashed out the door, running free and wild and no doubt, full of innocent and cheerful abandon. She was killed half a mile down the road, in front of the church where my father’s service was held. My mother, stalwart and noble after my father’s death, sobbed so hard and for so long about her dog’s death that it seemed as if her grief would physically rip her apart. I thought at the time, as did many, that Jenny’s death allowed my mom to truly grieve the death of her husband. I don’t think so now. My mother loved my father, but their relationship was burdened with disappointments and perceived betrayals. But Jenny? Jenny sparkled with nothing but joy and devotion. She asked for little and gave everything she had in return. These were no hard words late at night, no angry glances or saturated silences. No baggage. She loved Mom; Mom loved her: simple as that.
We’re not always comfortable with the depth of emotion we can have for our dogs, but profound love isn’t uncommon. I recently read an article about a teenager who risked his life to save his dog from a burning building. A tough-minded rancher once told me he’d rather die than abandon his cattle dog in a snowstorm. The evidence is overwhelming that during the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, hundreds if not thousands of people chose to risk death rather than leave their animals behind. The state of Florida learned this lesson well during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, when thousands of people refused to evacuate because the shelters wouldn’t take pets. These decisions compromised the safety of so many people that the state now provides shelters for pets as well as for people.
The lengths that normal people will go to in order to protect their dogs testiﬁes to the love and devotion many of us have for them. I remember a Wisconsin woman who was interviewed after a tornado destroyed her home and all of her belongings. “We’re okay,” she kept saying, clutching her dog to her chest, “we’re okay, that’s what matters.” “We’re okay” meant her husband, her children, and her dog; she wasn’t sorting them out by species. After the tragedy of Katrina, I heard discussions all over the country about what each of us would do if we were told to evacuate without our pets. What would you do if you had to choose between the safety of evacuation and risking your life to stay with your dog? Everyone at my ofﬁce said we couldn’t imagine living with the knowledge that we’d left our dogs behind, although we’d do it if we were forced to evacuate to save our children. Merely the thought of making such a choice was so upsetting we could barely talk about it. Our response wasn’t unique to people whose lives and careers are devoted to dogs. My farm’s pragmatic chain-sawing, brush-clearing handyman said that someone would have to shoot him before he’d leave his Rat Terrier behind to die.
What in heaven’s name is going on here? Risking your life for a member of another species? Loving your dog as much as you love a human? That’s ﬂat-out amazing if you think about it. And yet, even if some people think it’s crazy, those of us who love dogs love them like family, or perhaps more accurately, like the family we always wanted.
Surely love, “an intense feeling of tender affection and compassion,” is the foundation of our relationship with dogs. I remember when I got my ﬁrst Border Collie, Drift. Like an infatuated teenager, I was obsessed with his every move. I thought about him constantly, watched with a sense of wonder as he licked his paws, purred with comfort and completion when we cuddled together on the couch. There are millions of people who feel the same way, whose dogs bring them a unique happiness not found in other relationships.
Our love for dogs is intense, pervasive, and sometimes heroic. If you think about it, it’s as remarkable as the physics of electrons and the wonder of outer space. It deserves our attention, and a good place to start is with the biology of love itself.
The Biology of Love
Oxytocin also plays a signiﬁcant role in other kinds of love—familial, romantic, and even sexual. Oxytocin levels rise when friends hug, when mothers cuddle their babies, and when lovers have sex. It’s a “one size ﬁts all” hormone, mediating love and attachment in all social relationships that involve feelings of care and connection. Women have higher levels of it than do men, which is not surprising, given oxytocin’s role in childbirth and lactation. Social animals have higher levels of it than solitary ones, a fact exempliﬁed in two species of small mouselike animals called voles. The females of one species, which is highly social, have high levels of oxytocin, while, in the other, downright unsocial species, the females have exceptionally low levels. In people, higher levels of oxytocin correlate with higher levels of attachment and connection. Researchers have even found that spraying oxytocin into the nasal passages of human subjects doubled their tendency to trust others in a “game” that involved giving over custody of their money. In the not-too-distant future it will be wise to steer clear of blind dates with nasal spray bottles.
The central role of oxytocin helps explain why some people, and some dogs for that matter, seem to be more loving and nurturing than others. Individuals vary in how much of the hormone they produce and how effectively they can utilize it when it’s circulating. Individual experience can have a profound effect on people’s ability to feel warm and loving toward others, too; one study found that children adopted from neglectful orphanages had lower levels of oxytocin after cuddling with their mothers than normal children did. However, remember that the impact of experience is constrained by the brain and the body it acts upon. Just as a painter can only work with the canvas and colors she has in front of her, so the effect of experience is inﬂuenced by the brain that absorbs it. I often wonder about oxytocin levels when I meet a dog whose aloof behavior breaks her owner’s heart—does the dog have low levels of oxytocin, owing either to genetics or to early development? At present, I know of no one who is using oxytocin therapeutically (except for medical conditions relating to birth and lactation), but perhaps someday we’ll be able to spray stand-ofﬁsh dogs with oxytocin and turn them into social butterﬂies.
Love’s Perfect Storm
The traditional answer to the question of why we so love dogs is that they give us “unconditional love” or “nonjudgmental positive regard.” To a large extent, this rings true. The cheerful, loving nature of most dogs brings us a purity of emotion hard to ﬁnd anywhere else, no matter how much we want it. But I think we need to address this question in more depth. Perhaps our love for dogs, and their love for us, is too complex to be explained by any one factor. It seems most likely that, at its best, the special bond we have with dogs is the result of a number of things, combining together into a “perfect storm” of love and devotion.
First, as we’ve already seen, the faces of dogs are remarkably expressive, and many of their expressions are similar to ours. More than any other animal except our own children (and possibly chimpanzees), dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves. The faces of dogs are like living, breathing, fur-covered emotions, with none of the masking and censoring made possible by the rational cortex of mature adult humans. The expressiveness of dogs gives them a direct line to the primitive and powerful emotional centers of our brains, and connects us in ways that nothing else ever could. When we look at dogs, we’re looking into a mirror. That they express happiness so well, and that happiness is contagious, is just icing on the cake.
Second, the sociability of dogs is similar in many ways to that of humans. Dogs evolved from one of the world’s most social species and naturally seek companionship. That’s why sheep-guarding dogs stay with the ﬂock, that’s why some dogs form friendships with horses that last a lifetime, and that’s why your dog is waiting at the window when you drive home from work. Dogs will live alone if they have to, but as long as there are enough resources to go around, dogs will always choose the company of others. This is as true of adult dogs as of puppies. In many other species, the young can form strong attachments to others, but once they’ve matured, their interest in forming new bonds decreases. Not so dogs—you can become best friends with an older dog in just days or weeks, so strong is their desire for companionship.
Although dogs cling to any kind of social relationship, they don’t treat humans as any port in a storm. They seem to be as attracted to us as we are to them. Even dogs who’ve been socialized for only minutes as puppies are able to form strong attachments to people. (Usually, however, only to a small group of highly familiar people; they remain uncomfortable around strangers all their lives.) By contrast, wolves must be taken away from their mothers at three weeks and raised by humans to be comfortable around us as adults. And dogs want more than just to hang out with us; they seem to want to understand us, and to want us to understand them. They watch our faces all the time for information, just as humans do when they’re unsure of what another person is trying to communicate. You can see people do the very same thing, in a game that dog trainers play to sharpen their skills. One person uses a clicker to train another to perform some action, in a kind of “warmer/colder” game. No words or visual cues are allowed; there’s just the sound of the click to tell the trainee that she’s on the right track. Yet even though trainees are told they’ll get no other information, they turn to look at the face of the trainer when they become confused. Dogs do exactly that when they’re confused about what we want: herding dogs will break their focused stare to turn and look at their handler’s face with the visual equivalent of “What?!” Dogs might even be better at decoding certain types of human signals than our closest relatives, chimpanzees. In some studies, chimpanzees, even ones familiar with people, weren’t able to locate hidden food if the experimenter pointed to it. Subsequent studies on dogs suggested that they were more adept than our closest relatives at the task.
A dog’s desire to communicate with people fits within the bounds of a dog’s evolutionary baggage, in which pack members hunted together, raised their young together, and fought to the death to keep the group together. You can’t coordinate your efforts as a group without some kind of communication, so it’s no wonder that dogs are as obsessed with social communication as we are. But dogs’ desire and ability to communicate, and their formation of attachments, transcend species boundaries. Research found that in novel environments, kenneled dogs were calmer in the presence of a human caretaker than with a dog they’d been kenneled with for over two months. It’s remarkable that an animal would choose an individual of an entirely different species for comfort and companionship. Imagine being lost and alone in the jungle and stumbling upon a person and a bird—and bonding with the bird and ignoring the person. In one study, dogs living in shelters formed attachments to people after only minimal contact. It took only three ten-minute sessions of petting for dogs to become attached, and for the dogs to stand at the door, waiting, if the person left the room.
Some explanations of dogs’ attachment to humans are not particularly romantic. Psychologist John Archer argues that dogs are simply social parasites, who have learned to manipulate our emotions so as to obtain free food, safety, and, in some cases, appointments with certiﬁed canine massage therapists and animal communicators. Lord knows dogs are an evolutionary success story: just compare the numbers of dogs in any given country with the number of wolves. However, the biological success of dogs doesn’t negate the profound feelings of love and devotion that go along with it; we don’t dismiss the love of parent for child simply because it’s to the parent’s advantage to pass on his or her genes. I think it’s shortsighted—sad, really—to dismiss the love that dogs have for us in such mechanistic terms.
Still, there is an important truth to be found in an objective view of our relationship with dogs. Painful though it might be, we need to re-examine the belief that dogs give us unconditional love. There’s no question but that most of our dogs love us, and there’s little doubt that, sometimes, their love is often almost epic in its intensity. However, the chance that our dogs are never irritated with us is slim at best. How convenient, then, that they can never say so.
We might yearn to tell our dogs why they can’t go on a walk while their injured foot heals, or to explain that we’re only leaving town for a couple of days, but I doubt that we’d have the pure, uncluttered connections we now enjoy if the relationship were burdened by language. In The New Work of Dogs, Jon Katz tells a story about a man who loved his dog because the dog was the only individual he didn’t have to talk to. Katz suspects that men often love dogs because dogs never ask them to talk about their feelings. Women love dogs so much, he suggests, because they see them as being so supportive. A study reported in The New York Times found that half of the female veterinary students surveyed said they got more emotional support from their dogs than they did from their husbands. Surely our perception that dogs are supportive is bolstered by the fact that they can’t tell us to shut up when we’re talking too much. The fact is, some dogs probably do give us unconditional love, but not all dogs do, and most dogs don’t every minute of every day. It just feels that way, given their expressiveness, their childlike cheerfulness, and bless it, their inability to communicate in words. Overall, it seems that what we can’t say to dogs is a small price to pay for what we gain from our wordless style of communication.
As if emotionality, expressiveness, a high degree of sociability, and the inability to tell us to shut up weren’t enough, there’s another important factor that inﬂuences our devotion to dogs. We humans have evolved to be protective and nurturing to big-eyed, dependent young mammals, and dogs elicit this state of mind from us with a force stronger than any hurricane. Like young children who stimulate our feelings of nurturance, dogs are nonverbal and have limited abilities. They can’t go to the store and buy food; they can’t open the door and let themselves out. If we left for work one day and never came home, they’d die, trapped and alone and unable to take care of themselves. In these ways they are the exact equivalent of young humans—nonverbal and dependent, wrapped in a ﬂuffy, fuzzy package that says “I’m cute and cuddly and I need you.”
Our feelings of parental love and nurturance are not to be sneezed at; they’ve kept primates like us going for millions of years. The parents of many animals walk away without a care once the eggs are laid or the sperm is transferred, but we shower our young with attention and care over a prolonged period. Lions may raise their young with affectionate licks and cuddles, but they’ll walk away and let their babies starve to death to save their own lives. Not so humans, dogs, or wolves: we’re obsessed with raising, nurturing, and protecting our young, and we’ll sacriﬁce our own lives to save theirs. Just the sight of young, helpless mammals can change our internal hormonal balance and increase the amount of oxytocin in our bloodstream. Although our complicated brains enable us to be rational and creative, underneath that complexity are ancient structures that generate primal reactions to big-eyed, ﬂuffy mammals. As the writer and behaviorist Karen London so aptly said, “Dogs, the source of so much pure joy and warm comfort, are a reminder that perhaps the passion in our lives is too great to be contained within the bounds of humanity.” There’s great truth to that, and it’s based not on some neurotic need to replace our feelings toward people with feelings toward dogs, but on a deep-seated biological drive to nurture small, dependent things.
So there you have it, a perfect package of love, an animal whose looks and behavior leave many of us weak in the knees. Dogs elicit the love and the desire to nurture that we’re designed to feel toward young dependent mammals, and their expressiveness just ups the ante. The mere sight of them bathes us with the hormones associated with love and devotion. At the same time, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, we feel from them the kind of love we want from our parents, that no-holds-barred, “unconditional” love that psychologists tell us we’ve all been seeking since infancy. It’s a double whammy of epic proportions—we love them like children, and at the same time feel loved by them with the kind of pure, primal love that we needed when we were babies ourselves. Wow. Dogs get us coming and going. In truth, we’re the ones who are helpless.
From For the Love of a Dog by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Okay to play tug?
Strong opinions exist about the “Do nots” of playing with dogs. I agree with only some of these prohibitions.
I do stand by the ban on rough-and-tumble wrestle play and the teasing that often accompanies it. Though this form of play can be fun, the high emotional arousal that results often leads to a lack of inhibition, and that’s when trouble can happen, even to nice dogs and to nice people. Many actions of play are also used in serious fights and predation. These can create real danger when you (or your nephew or the little girl who lives next door) are down on the ground with your face next to an excited predator with dangerous weapons in her mouth. Serious bites could happen someday, even if she’s never bitten. All too often, I’ve seen shocked and devastated families crying in my office, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.
I’m also opposed to people chasing dogs, preferring to let dogs chase people instead. If you play by chasing your dog, you risk teaching her that moving toward her means the game is afoot, making her more likely to run away even when you approach her for another reason. This can ruin your dog’s recall. It can also lead to injury if your dog charges away from you into the street or other unsafe area. There’s no denying that letting a person chase a dog can be a great reinforcement for the dog, but I only approve this game for dogs who are so well-trained that the person can stop the game at any time and successfully call the dog to come.
I disagree with the following play advice:
Don’t mix training and play. Yes, do! It’s actually great to incorporate play into training sessions. The best training occurs when the dog views an activity as a game rather than a lesson. Using chase games to teach recalls, playing follow to build a base for heeling, using tug to practice “take it” and “drop it,” and practicing stays with “find it” games or hideand- seek are all great ways to blend training and play. Additionally, play is reinforcing, so playing with your dog may be better than the best treat.
Only young dogs need to play. No, not true! A small percentage of animal species play at all, and even fewer play beyond childhood. Dogs and people remain playful into adulthood, which may partially explain why we’ve been best friends for thousands of years. Many older dogs stop playing only because they no longer have buddies to play with. Keep playing with your dog well into old age. It’s part of what makes them dogs and us human!
Don’t play tug. Most importantly, I disagree with this prohibition (at least for most dogs). Many people advise against tug, which is a shame because so many dogs adore it. Tug is a great game, and dogs can learn a lot from playing it. Many trainers share this view and actually teach tug in puppy classes. The earlier dogs learn the lessons that tug has to offer such as impulse control, mouth control and cooperation as well as skills like “take it” and “drop it,” the safer and more fun the game becomes.
For a long time, many experts advised against playing tug for fear that it would create or increase aggressiveness in dogs. Later, tug was considered fine for most dogs as long as they were not allowed to “win” by keeping the toy at the end. The concern was that it would have bad consequences for her to feel she had just triumphed over the person.
A scientific study by Rooney and Bradshaw addressed this issue. They found that “winning” the toy in a game of tug had no impact on the relationship of the human-dog pair. Based on their research, though, we should still be thoughtful about letting certain dogs keep the toy after a tug game. The most playful dogs in the study exhibited significantly higher amounts of playful attention-seeking behavior when they were allowed to “win.” Therefore, it may be better not to allow those dogs who become relentlessly pushy about seeking more play time to “win” at tug.
Of course, for a few dogs, tug is a bad idea. Dogs who are prone to aggression induced by high arousal are not good candidates for it. The same warning applies to dogs with poor bite inhibition or poor self-control as well as those who tend to creep up the toy with their mouths during tug. Additionally, it may exacerbate object-guarding behavior in dogs who already exhibit it.
For most dogs, tug has many benefits. It is interactive and requires cooperation between humans and dogs. It can give dogs exercise and help them stretch their bodies prior to other activities such as running or agility. Tug can effectively rev up an agility dog for maximum success on the course. It helps many dogs learn better mouth control in general.
With so many “Do nots” out there in the world of play, the most important may be this: “Do not spend so much time worrying about playing with your dog that you don’t have time to actually play with her.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Your dog may be saying “Ouch!”
For the first couple of weeks, our dog Bugsy enjoyed playing with our foster puppy. Then he changed, tiring of her quickly and often avoiding her, even growling if she approached him while he was on his bed. He stopped playing in the snow with her, and would go to his bed rather than lie next to her on the rug. We figured that when she left, he would stop being sulky and return to his usual upbeat, playful self.
When Bugsy remained grumpy after her departure, we suspected that something was wrong. And it was. The veterinarian determined that he had a partial tear in his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL (a knee ligament), and was probably in considerable pain. The way Bugsy was acting should have told me that he was hurting, because although most dogs are not obvious about it, there are many behavioral signs of pain.
1. Changes in behavior. Any change can mean something is wrong. If your dog is less energetic or less cheerful than usual, doesn’t engage in the activities he usually enjoys, acts restless, becomes unusually clingy, or stops socializing as much or as happily as he used to, he may be experiencing discomfort.
2. Nighttime grouchiness. Even minor injuries or maladies can be exacerbated by the day’s activities, resulting in a cranky pup in the evening, when things slow down.
3. Good days and bad days. If your dog acts like his normal self some days but is grumpy, aggressive or otherwise different on other days, pain may be the cause.
4. Unusual behavior after strenuous activity. Dogs who exhibit unexpected behavior after they have had more exercise than usual may be in pain. An injury or any kind of soreness may become worse with additional exercise, so if your dog is predictably out of sorts on such days, pain may be the culprit.
5. Suddenly behaving aggressively. If a fully mature dog suddenly exhibits aggressive behavior, it may be because he’s in pain. I’m especially alert to the sudden onset of aggression in a dog over the age of four, because dogs that age (or older) with no history of aggression rarely behave this way unless something is wrong. There are exceptions, of course, but out-of-the-blue aggression in an older dog can often be linked to pain, in my experience.
6. Unwilling to play. If a dog who usually takes any opportunity to play with reckless abandon ceases to be interested in playtime, it could be a sign that something hurts.
7. Avoiding other dogs. Sometimes when dogs are in pain, they don’t want other dogs near them, especially if those dogs are young, bouncy or exuberant. If it is inconsistent with a dog’s personality to shy away from other dogs, doing so might mean he’s protecting an alreadytender area.
8. Loss of appetite. A dog’s refusal to eat, which can have many causes, will almost always result in a trip to the veterinarian. Though sometimes the diagnosis is serious—liver failure or cancer, for example—not eating can also be a sign of pain from other less-alarming conditions.
9. Reacting badly to being touched. If your dog reacts negatively to a touch that he would normally like (or ignore), that reaction may be due to pain. Typical negative reactions include yelping, leaping, whining, licking your hand, pulling away or even growling. A painbased reaction will usually only be displayed when a specific spot is touched.
If you have any reason to suspect that your dog may be in pain, make an appointment to see your vet right away, as we did with Bugsy. It was a relief to know exactly what was going on with him, and to be able to ease his misery. Only a veterinarian can diagnose a medical condition, but with astute observations of the behavioral warning signs, you can help save your dog from unnecessary suffering by seeking speedy medical help.
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