Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Looks aren’t everything, but they do play a role in communication
Dogs excel in their role as our best friends. Spooning with us on a cold night, they seem almost hyper-domesticated. If there were a gold medal for “Achieving Domestication,” dogs would win it.
Some days, however, the story is quite different: chasing squirrels, digging up newly planted flowers, eating — then throwing up — grass, romping in a mud puddle post-bath, rolling in an overripe carcass. At these moments, we’re apt to look at our four-legged companions and say, “Really? You’re domesticated?” And, of course, they are. This mixture is what makes dogs, dogs — one minute, dressed in a Superman costume and the next, shredding and eating said costume.
People often cite life experience and breed when trying to account for the ways dogs behave. Who hasn’t heard, “He’s a rescue and was probably abused — that’s why he’s shy,” or “She’s a Labrador Retriever, so she always has a ball in her mouth”? Dogs of unknown origin are described in a similar fashion, relative to their possible breed identities: “Petunia kind of looks like a Chihuahua, but she definitely has that Border Collie eye.”
According to Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA and owner of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash., when associating a dog with the “look” or “behavior” of a particular breed, it’s important to remember that “the way dogs look and their actual genetics can be very different.” That, at least, is what studies are showing. As Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., explains, “Mixedbreed dogs are a collage of features of their ancestors. So much so that they often don’t look like any of their immediate parents or grandparents. In fact, they may look more like other breeds.” DNA tests often reveal that dogs are not simply a cross between two purebred parents. Instead, tests come back as 25 percent of this, 12.5 percent of that and a pinch of a few others. Since a dog’s looks and his genetic code can be on very different pages — sometimes in different books altogether — attributing a dog’s behavior to its “look” can some- times be a faulty assumption.
What about purebred dogs? Do these dogs from concentrated breeding pools give clues about why dogs act as they do? The AKC and other breedcertifying organizations certainly ascribe global attributes to breeds: The Schipperke is confident and independent; Boston Terriers are friendly and lively; Chows are independent and aloof; Clumber Spaniels are gentle, loyal and affectionate.
Breed standards, however, are simply guidelines. As Denise Herman, CTC, lead trainer and founder of Empire of the Dog in NYC, says, “When you get a puppy of a particular breed, people think it’s a blank slate, but it’s really an unknown slate. Breed gives an indication of where that unknown slate may go, but not all Border Collies herd, not all Huskies pull sleds and some Chows like everyone equally. A puppy of a particular breed is an unknown slate with the possibility of those characteristics.”
No Two Alike
The controversial practice of dog cloning provides a great example of the limits of behavior assessment based on genetics. In Dog, Inc., Pulitzer prize– winning investigative reporter and Bark contributor John Woestendiek explains how, after spending $20 million to clone their beloved dog Missy, Joan Hawthorne and John Sperling found Missy’s successor different from the original. “Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn’t come through my home and knock over every wine glass … They’re not at all alike,” says Hawthorne. Their genetics were the same, but personalities? Not so much. Even clones aren’t clones.
While genetics and life experiences certainly contribute to who dogs are, they’re not the entire story. The other part of the picture is in plain sight.
Breed standards specify required physical attributes pertaining to the tail, the ears and the coat, among other things. Most of these individual attributes, of course, appear across breeds and even in dogs in general. As a result, dog physical appearance — and its implications for how dogs communicate and how they are perceived — can be examined in its own right.
The famous Russian silver fox experiment is a clear reminder that the behaviors animals demonstrate can in some ways be linked to the way they look. In a few generations, foxes bred for docility and friendliness toward humans began to look quite different from those who were fearful of humans. As Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB and science advisor to the ASPCA, summarizes, “As the foxes became more tame, they began to develop a more ‘dog-like’ appearance, with piebald coats and floppy ears.”
The signals a dog has at its disposal may simply be a matter of basic equipment. As Zawistowski observes, “There are some things that are anatomically not possible for a dog to do, simply based on its anatomy. How can you tell if a Basset Hound has his ears up and forward? A Rottweiler can make a great lip pucker, but how on earth can a Bulldog pucker?” To be sure, the lack of overt behavioral signals does not suggest a dog is not feeling a particular emotion, or even that he might not adopt different strategies to convey them. But the implication is clear: The perception that Rottweilers are aggressive and Basset Hounds are laid-back could be a function of their physical features — and thus, the behaviors they can perform — rather than their mental processes.
With this in mind, could dogs’ physical appearance affect how they communicate? Or even, for that matter, how they’re treated by other members of their species? When a Great Dane comes across a French Bulldog, olfactory cues will reveal that the French Bulldog is, in fact, a dog, but does the Great Dane think to himself, “Hello my long-lost, thirty-times-removed cousin!” or “What the heck? You smell like a dog, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Here to translate for the dogs is Jim Ha, PhD, CAAB, research associate professor and staff member of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash.: “The way dogs look — their morphology — can definitely change the quality of their visual signals. Dogs who are more infantile in appearance — paedomorphic dogs like French Bulldogs, Pugs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — are nice examples of how we are handicapping the dog’s ability to signal properly. But we also find that dogs who are not paedomorphic in appearance can have trouble signaling and communicating with one another as well. Signaling difficulty is not only associated with paedomorphic dogs.”
The changes we’ve made to dogs’ physical appearance do not necessarily make it easier for dogs to communicate with one another. Ha suggests that many aggression issues stem from misuse of signals and miscommunication between dogs.
Voith has a similar assessment: “Based on clinical experience, but not tested systematically, dogs that are fuzzy or black are often attacked by other dogs. I think that is because their social signals are not easily detectable — if at all. Subsequent to being attacked, black or fuzzy dogs become defensively aggressive towards other dogs, generally on leash.”
Herman agrees. “For any dog with a lot of fur or hair, you can’t see muscle tension, and it’s harder to read stiffness. Is a Komondor having a piloerection [raised hair along the dog’s back]? I have no idea.”
Or, take tails. Dog tails come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes. Are they important for dog-dog communication? Humans certainly take note of tails; when asked to assess dog behavior, we pay an inordinate amount of attention to the tail (possibly because we do not have one). Does a Labrador look at a Corgi and think, “Umm, excuse me, sir. I’m having a hard time understanding you. I believe you’ve misplaced your rear-end thing.” For another species commonly found lounging around our homes, tails are highly relevant. While a graduate student studying with noted ethologist John Bradshaw, Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont found that cats more readily approached, and approached in a friendly manner, a cardboard cat silhouette whose tail was in the “tail-up” position as opposed to those cat silhouettes with their tails down. Tails play an important role in cat-cat greetings (good luck, Manx).
When the dog researchers explored how dogs respond to other dogs’ tails, they pulled out the big guns: a model robot dog resembling a Labrador Retriever. Apart from its tail, the “dog” was motionless. The researchers found that when the robot dog had a long wagging tail, it was approached more than when it had a long still tail, which as you probably assumed, suggests that the tail conveys emotional state, and that wagging is more inviting than not wagging. When it came to short tails, the story changed. There was no difference between how the robot dog with a short/still and a short/wagging tail was approached. It appears that the longer tails were most effective at conveying emotional information, and since short tails are hard to read, they might not be read at all.
For Herman, the implications are obvious. “When you dock tails, it takes away part of their communication signal. It’s the dog version of Botox. Ear cropping falls in the same category. Dobermans with cropped ears ostensibly look alert to other dogs. They can’t be read [accurately] because they can’t change.” It’s difficult to derive cues and information from cropped ears. If anything, their constantly alert position could mislead other dogs.
E’Lise Christensen, DVM and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees. “I think cosmetic alteration could affect communication with other dogs. It certainly [has an impact on] assessments by owners, because they forget to look at the stump of the tail for movement and tension. Ears that are too cropped mean owners have to look for muscular movement at the skull level rather than the pinna, the outer part of the ear, where we customarily look. Flat faces make it more difficult to read small muscular movements.”
Herman suggests that taking note of a dog’s morphology can give owners a better appreciation for their dog. “It’s hard for other dogs to see that a Chow is really stiff, simply because he is [engulfed] in a ball of hair. It can be helpful for pet dog owners to recognize that what dogs have or do not have at their disposal could add confusion to dog-dog communication. This appreciation could help owners empathize with their dog, instead of blaming their dog or feeling angry for the dog’s behavior.”
Hibbard reminds us that the issue at hand can be twofold. “If you can’t see the ears, that’s one problem. But if you can see the ears but the dog uses them wrong, that’s another problem.”
It’s All About Us
Training, life experience, genetics and psychological disorders are the common suspects for “out-of-sync” behavior, but how a dog looks — or rather, sees — is often overlooked. In 2003, professor Paul McGreevy, DVM and researcher at the University of Sydney, and his colleagues discovered that, contrary to popular belief, all canine eyes are not the same. Shortnosed dogs have what is called an area centralis, which allows them to focus more clearly on the world in front of them, like humans, while long-nosed dogs have a visual streak, which enables better peripheral vision. There’s a physiological reason why a long-nosed dog would take off after something way in the periphery while you and a shortnosed dog continue to sit on a park bench wondering what the long-nosed dog saw.
It stands to reason that these differences would not only affect how dogs see the world around them, but also how they attend to us humans, and that’s exactly what we find. Dogs are quite adept at following our pointing gestures, but brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, with their more forward-facing eyes, follow these gestures better than dolichocephalic (long-nosed) breeds. In turn, this sense of being seen and responded to accordingly (or not) may affect how we perceive and relate to dogs.
Undoubtedly, dogs are a composite of their genes and individual life experiences. But the physical features that they come with, or that we give them via docking and breeding, can contribute to how they interact with others and are perceived by dogs and humans alike. When thinking about why your dog behaves the way he does, it can be helpful to be superficial and look at what’s right in front of you.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Is your dog hard to tire out?
I picked my kids up from the climbing gym a few weeks ago after they had spent an hour and a half there. It’s great exercise—physically demanding both aerobically and from a strength perspective—and many parents claim that their kids sleep really well afterwards. Not mine. They just don’t seem to tire out easily at all, and the fitter they become, the harder it is to wear them out. The instructor actually said to me on this occasion, “They’re pretty energetic still. I don’t know what to tell you. We tried to tire them out, but they could probably climb for several more hours.” To be clear, they were not misbehaving, but neither were they worn out.
Many dogs are like my kids in that they are not easily exhausted. In fact, for many dogs, the exercise that we typically give them—a long leash walk—doesn’t tire them out at all. It invigorates them. It’s discouraging to consider that when we take our dogs out for a walk, we may not be tiring some of them out, but rather, pepping them up. That’s certainly what a brisk walk does for me. A run, especially a hard run or a really long one does exhaust me, but a walk does not. My kids are even harder to tire out. Like many dogs, the only way to truly tire them out is to spend a lot of time in the ocean or a lake. The sun and swimming can accomplish what more typical forms of exercise can’t.
It’s a great feeling to be tired, worn out, and ready for a relaxing evening followed by a good night’s sleep. It’s a great kindness to provide our dogs with that same experience. However, it’s not as easy with some individuals as with others. Some dogs are suitably tired out by long leash walks, but others require hours of off-leash running at high speeds or long play sessions romping with other dogs to have their exercise needs satisfied.
Do you have a dog who seems to perk up from 30 to 60 minutes of exercise and really needs a lot more activity? What does it take for your dog to be happily tired?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Combined skills allow food raid
Though many cats and dogs are very dear friends, others simply coexist or even fight to varying degrees. It’s fair to say that they are not always on the same team. That’s why I find it so endearing when dogs and cats cooperate to work towards a common goal, even if it’s to get into trouble together.
The most common example I hear from friends and clients is about these two species combining their skills to acquire food. Cats are easily able to jump up onto counters that the dogs in their households can’t reach, but once they are up there, may be unable to break into any containers of food they find. Pushing bags of food onto the floor where the dogs can tear into them is one strategy, and it’s not that rare.
Has your household experienced such division of labor—the cat tipping a bag of food off the counter and the dog opening it so both can feast on it? Do you have other stories featuring dogs and cats who are in cahoots together?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does size affect behavior?
He chose the dog, but I chose the name,” the woman explained. Their dog was an especially petite Boston Terrier, but his name — Titan — was one more typically bestowed on a larger dog. I’d seen this type of incongruity before, and though it’s sometimes just for the sake of being ironic, often it’s about conflict. Couples who disagree about whether to add a large dog or a small dog to their family compromise by choosing a dog of one size and a name that’s usually given to a dog of another size. I’ve also met Pixie the Newfoundland, Tank the Bichon Frise, Bitsy the Bouvier and Goliath the Pug.
People often have strong opinions about what size dog best suits them. Some prefer small dogs because they’re more likely to be welcome everywhere, especially when traveling, while others gravitate to large dogs because they associate them with fun and friendliness, as well as kids and families. Sizebased biases are also common, and sad to say, I’ve heard a number of derogatory terms for both small and large dogs. And anyone with big dogs knows that people sometimes fear them even when their behavior is exemplary and a small dog is present whose behavior is not. One Bark reader implored me, “Don’t forget to cover that big dog stigma!”
Many people have asked the question, “How is the experience of having a large dog different than that of having a small dog?” Part of the answer may come from evaluating whether big and small dogs really are different in ways that extend beyond size, particularly in their behavior. Another piece of the puzzle involves determining if people’s behavior toward and expectations of dogs varies based on the dog’s size.
A Sizeable Spectrum
People with little dogs who don’t want them to help themselves to food simply avoid picnicking on the floor and are careful not to leave chairs where they can be used as stepping stones to the table or counter. People with large dogs often find that no place lower than the top of the refrigerator is safe or truly off-limits. With a large dog, the accidental consumption of dangerous foods, such as chocolate, is far less likely to lead to serious consequences than for a smaller dog because it takes much more for the dose to be toxic to a larger dog. Similarly, the few extra treats that lead to weight gain in smaller dogs may be no big deal for a large dog. Finally, helping a large dog with mobility issues can be physically demanding for the caregiver.
Some worry about big dogs around children, but I must confess that I worry when we dog-sit a friend’s sixpound Pomeranian. My kids are gentle with him and do a good job of being kind and respectful, but I’m still worried that they’ll collide with him and cause an injury completely by accident, no matter how actively I’m supervising. With bigger dogs, that isn’t as much of a concern.
Many people point out the advantages of small dogs in urban environments: it’s easier to rent an apartment (weight limits favor them); tight living spaces may be easier to share; and getting small dogs into and out of an apartment building, especially while you’re housetraining them, is far less of a challenge. Yet traits that can be troublesome for urban living — high exercise needs, sound sensitivity, a tendency to bark excessively — have nothing to do with size. Some dogs are beautifully suited to life in the city, and others are not.
So, are behavioral differences sizebased? For the most part, the answer is a resounding “No!” Dogs of all sizes love to play chase, fetch, go on walks, run off leash, meet new people, romp with their best dog buddies, participate in training sessions and eat tasty treats. By the same token, dogs of all sizes are vulnerable to sound sensitivity, exhibit separation anxiety and aggression, jump on people inappropriately, bark to excess, chew on shoes, dig in the garden, or have accidents on the floor. They all wag their tails (if they have them!) in joy.
And yet, there are clearly differences between individual dogs, based perhaps on age, gender or the environment in which the dog lives and was raised. While the similarities in dogs of different sizes are far greater than the differences, can we deny those differences?
Science Steps In
The study’s most important overall finding? There are significant differences in behavior between large and small dogs and between guardians of large and small dogs. The researchers reported that a range of interactions between people and their dogs are related to the size of the dog.
Small dogs were reported to be less obedient, slightly more often aggressive or excitable, and more anxious and fearful. People with small dogs also reported a lower level of consistency in their interactions and enforcement of rules than did those with larger pups.
Much has been made of the practice of treating small dogs like babies, though it’s hardly surprising that it occurs. Babyish features affect human caretaking behavior; we’re evolutionarily hardwired to find big eyes, small size and proportionally large heads endearing. Psychologists call this the “Aww phenomenon.” If babies weren’t so cute, parents could be less likely to respond to their needs, and the offspring would be less likely to survive.
Dogs seem to elicit this same “aww” response in humans, especially small dogs, and even more so, breeds with pronounced juvenile features such as Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Chihuahuas, Japanese Chins, Pugs and Boston Terriers. Since babies affect our hormones, raising the levels of oxytocin — nicknamed “the love hormone”— it stands to reason that adorable dogs do, too.
Socialization, Training and Other Interactions
Many say that their small dogs are “people” dogs and don’t like other dogs; lots of people with big dogs say the same thing. Size notwithstanding, positive experiences with other dogs during puppyhood are the best way for a dog to develop good manners. Absent enough of those experiences, dogs of all sizes face social challenges.
Well-trained dogs are always a joy, but training is another way in which interactions between people and dogs differ based on size. Two research studies found that small dogs do not receive as much formal training as large dogs (Kobelt, et al.; Masters and McGreevy). Also, people play fetch more often and do more tugging and nose work with big dogs than with small ones, and are more likely to take them running or biking (Arhant, et al.). Arhant’s study concludes that differences in people’s behavior may account for the higher rates of disobedience in small dogs.
Codes of Conduct
For example, small dogs are more likely to be allowed in our beds and on our laps (Westgarth, et al.). Practical considerations are at work here. Having a 25-pound dog jump or sit on you is one thing, but having a 100-pound dog do it is another. Others encourage little dogs to jump up on people and get on the furniture, but rarely invite big dogs to do so. Jumping up isn’t the only thing that’s treated differently. The behavior that is considered a nuisance in a small dog may be deemed antisocial in a large dog. Even aggression and other serious behavioral issues are more likely to be tolerated in small dogs.
As evidence that some people with small dogs don’t take undesirable behavior seriously, consider this story: an eight-pound Chihuahua escaped from his home, bit someone and was declared a dangerous dog. When a representative from animal control came, the dog’s people apparently thought it was a joke. One of them was reported to have said, “I broke out laughing. I said, ‘Look at the dog, do you see the dog going after you?’ The guy kind of got upset when I started laughing at him.”
For years, I have specialized in cases involving aggressive dogs, and to be honest, the size of the dog sometimes makes a difference in how I feel about the threat they represent. I once had a very aggressive Dachshund in my office, followed by a Chesapeake Bay Retriever with similar issues. During both appointments, I employed all the cautions necessary in this line of work. Still, throughout the appointment with the Chessie, I was aware of being afraid, while with the Doxie — though I knew I was at risk of being bitten if I made a mistake — I just didn’t feel the same anxiety. Both dogs were equally aggressive, but the size factor affected my fear response.
I’m not alone in reacting differently to aggressive dogs based on their size. Large dogs are more likely to be euthanized for aggression (Reisner, et al.), though another study (Guy, et al.) found that the average “biter” tended to be a smaller dog. It’s possible that greater tolerance for this behavior in small dogs allows genetic tendencies toward it to persist.
In some ways, there are correlations between size and breed characteristics. Many small dogs are terriers and earthdogs, types that have been deliberately developed to be tenacious and curious as well as to dig and explore. If dogs are bred for those characteristics, such behavior will have far more to do with genetic inf luences on behavior than with size.
Also related to breeding, Arhant, et al. found that small dogs were more likely than large dogs to come from pet stores, which generally acquire their “stock” from puppy mills. When you consider that puppy mills are notorious for environmental deprivation and risky breeding practices, it is perhaps no surprise that small dogs are burdened with more problematic behavior..
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
What dogs do — their behavior! — is what makes them good company, great friends and essential members of our family, and very little of that has anything to do with size. When dog people swap stories, they are not about the size of the dog, but about the experiences we have in common — the joy, the angst, the training, the vet emergencies, the photos, the occasional chewed shoe, the games, the walks, the friendship, the fun and the love. It’s always a big love, no matter what size the dog.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Packing no fun for anybody
A friend of mine posed the question, “Am I the only crazy lady who has to pack bags for a trip in secret so the dog doesn’t have a meltdown?” The answer to this is, “No!” Many of us have watched our dogs become nervous as we pack, or even as we pull the suitcase out of the closet.
Even if dogs are comfortable in a kennel or at a friend’s house when their guardians must travel without them, it has to be unsettling for them not to know what’s happening. When the suitcases come out, the dogs don’t know whether it’s a trip they’re going on or not. They don’t know where they will be staying, especially if several home-away-from-homes are options.
I used to travel a lot during the four years that my husband and I lived 1300 miles apart. As the first sign of a trip, my dog began to watch me even more intently than usual. I always imagine a cartoon bubble over his head that read, “Uh-oh, I don’t like the looks of this at all.”
And this was a dog who was adored at the place he stayed when I was away and loved to be there. When I dropped him off, he would trot away with one of the staff, bouncing happily with joy. He was so enthusiastic about the love from the people and playtime with his dog friends, that there was not so much as an ear flick in my direction. It used to make me feel bad, even though I know that I was lucky to have a dog who was well adjusted and able to handle such transitions.
I know some people never travel without their dogs, and those dogs may just be excited when they see the signs that travel is imminent. How does your dog act when you start to pack?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Doubling Up: Are Two Puppies a Good Idea?
Question: We have a five-month-old Lab and a six-month-old Golden Retriever. My husband and I thought it would be great to get two puppies so that each of our kids (ages three and five) could have one to care for and train. It’s a nightmare! The dogs only pay attention to each other, their training is nonexistent, and we are so overwhelmed and exhausted that we wish we had only gotten one. Is there anything we can do to make the situation better?
Answer: It’s a huge temptation to get two puppies—who wouldn’t want double the cuteness and double the fun?—and you succumbed, as have so many others before you. Take heart: The problems you describe are common in households with two puppies, and you can make the situation better.
The most important step is to spend time alone with each puppy daily. Besides helping you build a strong relationship with each of the dogs, this will also accustom them to being separated. Use this one-on-one time to work on training. The pups need to be trained individually before you try to work with them as a pair, because they are going to distract one another when they’re together.
The time you spend alone with each puppy shouldn’t be all work—engage them in other activities as well. Playing, going on walks, or taking a class together are all ways you can spend valuable time with each dog. Another benefit is that you can focus on doing what that dog enjoys most. Perhaps one loves nothing more than to have you practice canine massage on him, while the other dog’s favorite activity is running and jumping in the creek.
It is wise to let them be individuals; living in the same house does not mean that they necessarily have identical personalities or that they have the same needs. On the flip side, the fact that one dog dislikes riding in the car doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun for the other dog. No matter how similar they are, treat them as individuals. The more you do, the more likely it is that they will have a strong bond with you, and the easier it will be for you to get their attention.
Don’t expect your children to lessen the workload of having dogs. Even mature children with the best of intentions need lots of supervision when helping care for or train dogs. The amount of guidance required means that when they pitch in, it may be even more work for you. The adults have to commit to the full responsibility of the time and effort involved in raising two dogs.
Finally, the voice in your heart that keeps repeating the wish that you had only gotten one dog deserves to be respected. I truly believe that when you adopt a dog, it is your responsibility to do what is best for that dog. In an environment where the people are overwhelmed, the dogs are out of control, and everyone is exhausted and unhappy, it is fair to consider a change of environment. If, after trying the suggestions included here, life is still not at all what you had hoped for, consider rehoming one of the dogs.
I recently took care of a client’s puppy for a weekend so she and her family could see how they would feel with only one puppy in their home, a home that also includes two small children. The trial showed them that one puppy was enough and two were too many. They decided to place the dog I cared for in one of the several households who wanted her. Now, two happy homes each have one lovely puppy, instead of one feeling crazed by the stress and chaos of two puppies. Returning a puppy to a breeder, placing her with a rescue group or finding her a new home is not a decision to be made lightly, but in some cases, it can lead to a happy ending all around.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Queen’s dogs cause injuries
Sure, there are differences between the lives of most of our dogs and the lives of the Queen of England’s dogs, but there are probably more similarities than differences. (And if your dogs have recently been filmed with the Queen and Daniel Craig as James Bond for a short piece shown in the opening ceremonies of the Olympics, perhaps your dogs have even more in common with the royal dogs than most canines do.)
Unfortunately, the Queen’s dogs were recently part of an incident that shows all too well how similar the lives of dogs can be. The Queen’s dogs were in a dogfight in which they attacked and injured Max, an 11-year old Norfolk Terrier belonging to Princess Beatrice. Only a small percentage of dogs behave aggressively, but when they do, their behavior often follows predictable patterns.
In the incident with the royal dogs, many of the things that happened are common when dogs fight. One is that it happened in a corridor, in this case one within Balmoral Castle. While the corridors in this palatial dwelling are larger than the hallway in a typical home, they are still more confining than many rooms or the great outdoors, and many dogfights happen when dogs are inside in narrow spaces.
The fight involved many dogs who apparently got very excited. It’s often the case that large groups of dogs become overly aroused and that can lead to aggression. According to reports, the Queen’s dog boy (a title that presumably sounds odd to most Americans, including me) lost control of the dogs. It’s not unusual for a person to be unable to prevent a fight, even if they are very attentive to dogs and skilled with them. It happens so fast that fights are always described in the past tense as in, “And then he bit her!” or “And the next thing I knew, it was a big fight!”
In this fight, Max was quite badly hurt, needing veterinary care for a number of bites, including a badly torn ear that bled a lot. Ears are often damaged to varying degrees in dogfights, and when that happens, there’s almost always a lot of blood. It’s also common for one dog in a large fight to receive the lion’s share of the injuries, which is what apparently happened to Max. (I don’t mean to imply that it’s unusual for multiple dogs to be hurt and even hurt badly, because that happens sometimes, too.)
Finally, this incident was upsetting to the guardians of all the dogs. Naturally, we expect the person whose dog sustained the worst injuries to experience horrible feelings, and Princess Beatrice was clearly distressed by what happened to Max. On the other hand, in my work, I often see the people whose dog was the aggressor, so I know how devastating it is to people when the dog they love hurts someone, and the Queen is said to be devastated by what happened.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Troubled by Temptation
Q. During the holidays, my dog discovered the joys of entertaining—from cookies and hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, she graduated to leaping onto the counter for other delectables while we were busy entertaining our guests in another room. She never did this before! How do I train her out of this newly acquired habit without resorting to kenneling her when we’re home? Other than this, she’s a great hostess.
A. Well, Here’s an example of what not to do. One of my clients, fed up with her dog stealing food when her back was turned, placed “scat mats” (electrified mats) on the kitchen counters. On his first encounter with the mats, her dog received such a jolt that he squealed and ran out of the kitchen. The scat mats seemed to have done the trick, and the lady was pleased with the result. The “success” was short-lived, however. The only entrance to the backyard was through the kitchen, and when it was time for the dog to go outside, he flatly refused to go anywhere near the kitchen area. not surprisingly, he also began to have accidents inside the home. a counter- surfing issue had turned into major anxiety, and it was some time before the dog would walk through the kitchen to go to the backyard.
Put yourself in your dog’s paws. The next time you’re hungry, place your favorite food on the table and see if you can resist taking a bite. even people who have difficulty controlling themselves expect their dogs to resist temptation when food is placed right in front of them.
In order to set up your dog for success while ensuring her safety, it is much more realistic to use a mixture of management and training techniques. Dogs are opportunists and the more successful they are at getting food from kitchen counters or the table, the more they will try. Blocking access by using baby gates or putting your dog in another room if you have company is one way to ensure she doesn’t have an opportunity to surf and thus, reward herself for this activity. If this isn’t an option, try tethering her to you so she is with you at all times.
If you’re working in the kitchen and are unable to use a baby gate, draw an imaginary line along the floor and teach her to stay behind that line. (a reliable sit-stay cue needs to be taught first so that she understands what is expected of her.) If she strays, gently block her with your body until she retreats behind the line again. reward her at intervals while she stays behind the line and she will see the area as a positive place to be.
As counter-surfing happens mostly when no one’s around (dogs are smart!), you can try going hi-tech with a special two-way radio collar that allows your dog to hear your voice right next to her ear even when you’re in another room.* Put some food on the counter and then walk away to a place where you can see the food. Pick up a magazine or pretend to be doing something else so she thinks your attention is off her. Wait for her to go up to the counter, and just before she jumps up, ask her to “leave it.” If she backs away, praise her. Start this exercise using low-value food before making it more difficult with the yummy stuff. This technique might cause a little confusion at first, but your dog will soon learn that the “all-seeing eye” is everywhere, even if you aren’t in the immediate vicinity.
While you are entertaining, you can also provide your dog with something else to focus on by giving her an interactive toy such as a treat ball or a Kong filled with food. This will most likely tire her out while filling her up, quenching any desire to seek out food—leaving your dog satisfied and your food safe!
*The Hear now Two-Way radio Collar is one option; it’s not easy to find, however. an online search will sometimes turn up a source.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Some like it ruff
We have been videotaping dog-dog play for more than 10 years and, together with our colleagues, have analyzed hundreds of hours of data to test hypotheses about play. We present our results at animal behavior conferences and publish in scientific journals. Here, we focus primarily on dog play that some might consider “inappropriate” or “not safe.”
In the field of animal behavior, researchers often refer to social play as “play fighting” because it includes many of the behaviors seen during real fights. For example, during play, one dog might chase and tackle another, or use a neck bite to force a partner to the ground. Dogs will also hip check or slam, mount, rear up, bite, stand over, sit on, bark, snarl, growl, bare their teeth and do chin-overs (i.e., place the underside of their chin over the neck of their partner). However, despite the overlap in behaviors, some clear differences exist between play fighting and real fighting. When playing, dogs inhibit the force of their bites and sometimes voluntarily give their partner a competitive advantage (self-handicap) by, for example, rolling on their backs or letting themselves be caught during a chase — behaviors that would never happen during real fighting.
In addition to inhibited bites and selfhandicapping, dogs clearly demarcate play by employing signals, such as play bows (i.e., putting the front half of the body on the ground while keeping the rear half up in the air) and exaggerated, bouncy movements. Anthropologist Gregory Bateson called play signals meta-communication, meaning communication about communication. Humans employ meta-communication a lot. For example, when teasing a friend, we may smile or use a certain tone of voice to indicate that we’re just kidding. Similarly, dogs play bow to invite play and to convey playful intentions during play. Marc Bekoff, while at the University of Colorado, did a study1 showing that dogs are most likely to play bow just before or immediately after performing an especially assertive behavior, such as a bite accompanied by a head shake. This pattern suggests that playing dogs recognize moments when their behavior can be misinterpreted as serious aggression and compensate by reminding their partner, “I’m still playing.”
By using meta-communication, social beings can step through a looking glass into a world that operates by different rules. Meta-communication allows humans and dogs to pretend — that is, to perform actions that appear to be one thing but actually mean something completely different. To people unfamiliar with the notion that some nonhuman animals have this ability, play that includes archetypal aggressive behaviors, like snarling and growling, can be quite confusing. Close attention to the context, however, can help us differentiate between play aggression and real aggression.
Even though play fighting is very different from real fighting, people often feel the need to intervene. Sometimes it is obvious at the beginning of a bout that two dogs are playing, but once the dogs start growling or their arousal intensifies, observers may no longer be sure that the dogs are still playing. After all, humans instinctively avoid a dog who is snarling or baring his teeth, and it is natural to think that our dogs should do the same. When people interrupt really rowdy play, they assume that they are “playing it safe,” that is, doing no harm. But what if this assumption is mistaken?
Our research shows that for many dogs, play fighting is the primary method used to negotiate new relationships and develop lasting friendships. Although play is fun, it also offers serious opportunities to communicate with another dog. In this sense, play is a kind of language. Thus, when we regularly break up what we consider “inappropriate” play, are we doing our dogs a service, or confusing them by constantly butting into their private conversations? Most importantly, how can we tell the difference?
First, we need to determine whether both dogs are enjoying themselves and want to continue playing. Look at their postures and facial expressions. Their movements may be light, bouncy and exaggerated and they may have relaxed, open mouths (like those on Bark’s Smiling Dog pages). Watch for play signals, which can often be quite subtle — a quick dip or bounce rather than a full-blown play bow. If you’re not certain that a dog really wants to be playing, try briefly holding that dog back. If she presses her body into yours and avoids looking at the other dog, she’s showing relief at the interruption and you should help her avoid the other dog. If she pulls against your grip in an attempt to interact with the other dog, release her. If she runs toward the other dog or directs a play signal in his direction, then she is saying that she wants to keep playing.
An interaction like the one just described is straightforward and easy to read. However, what about instances that may not be so clear-cut? We encourage you to discard any preconceived notions about what dog play should and should not look like — at least for the time being. For example, are traditional “no-no’s” like neck biting, rearing up, body-slamming and repeated pinning by one dog ever okay when two dogs are playing? It all depends on the individual dogs and the kind of relationship they have with one another.
Consider an example of a close canine friendship founded on unorthodox play. When Sage, a one-year-old German Shepherd, first met Sam, a four-monthold Labradoodle, he was very rough with Sam. He would pin Sam with a neck bite every few seconds. No sooner would Sam stand up than Sage would neckbite him and flip him on his back again. At first, we thought that Sage might be too rough for Sam, so we would intervene by holding one or both of them back. However, each time, Sam would try his hardest to get to Sage, despite the inevitable pinning. As Sam grew larger, eventually matching Sage in weight, Sage added body slams and mounting to their play. With the exception of frequent rear-ups (in which they adopted identical roles, facing one another and boxing with their front paws), Sage usually maintained the more assertive role (neck biting, pinning, slamming and so forth). Yet, because Sam was always an enthusiastic partner, we let them continue to play together.
To this day, their play remains asymmetrical; Sage repeatedly brings down Sam with neck bites and continues to bite Sam’s neck once he is down. Sam wriggles on the ground and flails at Sage with his legs while Sage, growling loudly, keeps biting Sam’s neck. More than once, bystanders have thought the dogs were fighting for real, but Sage’s neck bites never harm Sam, and Sam never stops smiling, even when he’s down. Sometimes, when Sage is done playing but Sam is not, he’ll approach Sage and offer his neck, as though saying, “Here’s my neck; go ahead and pin me.” This move always succeeds; it’s an offer Sage cannot resist.
With Sage and Sam, allowing play to continue was the right decision. Their early play interactions burgeoned into a lifelong friendship. Even today, the two middle-aged boys will sometimes play together for five hours at a stretch, stopping only occasionally for brief rests. When they are finally done, they often lie together, completely relaxed, with their bodies touching. Their faces are loose and smiling, and they seem almost drunk in an endorphin-induced haze.
This relationship shows that play does not necessarily have to be fair or balanced in order for two dogs to want to play with one another. Years ago, scientists proposed a 50/50 rule: for two individuals to engage in play, they must take turns being in the more assertive role. Scientists thought that if one individual was too rough or forceful (e.g., pinning her partner much more often than she was being pinned), the other dog would not want to play. Until our research, this proposition was never empirically tested.
Over a 10-year period, we studied pair-wise play between adult dogs, between adult dogs and adolescents, and between puppy littermates. Our findings showed that the 50/50 rule simply did not apply. Dogs do not need to take turns being assertive in order for play to take place. However, this doesn’t mean that dogs never role-reverse during play, because they often do2 (e.g., Sage is in the top-dog position most of the time, but sometimes Sam gets to be top dog too). It just means that role reversals usually aren’t equally balanced.
Surprisingly, in some of the relationships we studied, individuals initiated play and preferred to play with others who were consistently assertive with them. For example, in a litter of mixedbreed puppies, one female, Pink, initiated play with a female littermate, Blue, more than twice as often as she initiated play with any of her other littermates (including another sister), even though Blue adopted the assertive role during play 100 percent of the time. Similarly, in our study of adult dogs, when the female German Shepherd, Safi, was playing, she was virtually always in the top-dog role. Despite this imbalance, other dogs sought Safi’s company and often invited her to play.
Sometimes people interrupt these interactions because they fear that rough play will escalate into an allout dogfight. However, in hundreds of hours of observations of play fighting between two dogs with established relationships, we have never witnessed a single escalation to real fighting. One of the authors hosted six to eight neighborhood dogs in her backyard every day for nine years, including two female German Shepherds, a male Husky, a male Husky mix and three mixed-breeds. Their play included all of the traditional “no-no’s” mentioned previously, but no dog ever received so much as a scratch. Other scientists report similar findings. The Hungarian ethologist Vilmos Csányi writes, “In some Hungarian animal rescue organizations, more than a hundred dogs … coexist peacefully.3”
Some people have the notion that rough play is practice for real fighting (or even killing). If this were the case, the dogs mentioned in this article did a great deal of practicing for fights that never occurred. Scientists originally hypothesized that animals play fight in order to enhance their combat skills, but recent research doesn’t support this assertion. Although we still do not completely understand why animals engage in social play, research suggests that animals play to help form social bonds, enhance cognitive development, exercise and/or practice coping skills for life’s unexpected situations. All of these benefits, if real, are important to our dogs.
Lately, there has been a lot of attention paid to the question: what is “safe” dog play? Although we recommend carefully monitoring play between dogs who are significantly different in size or age, or who do not know each other well, our studies have shown that dogs are very good at figuring out which dogs they want to play with and how to play well with their friends. Presumably, dogs are better than humans at speaking and understanding dog language. Perhaps it is time to humble ourselves and listen to them.
Safi, a female German Shepherd, and Osa, a male Golden Retriever mix, were best friends for many years. When they played, they snarled a lot, lips curled and teeth exposed. The snarls looked fierce, but they often preceded silly behaviors, like flopping on the ground. Also, when something in the environment suddenly interrupted their play, the dogs’ faces would instantly shift into neutral, alert expressions while they focused on whatever had stolen their attention. Then, as though on cue, Safi and Osa would put their scary faces back on, almost as if they were Halloween masks, and turn toward one another. Their expressions were so exaggerated and obviously fake that they always made us laugh. Some dogs can even be trained to show a snarl on command in a context that is otherwise perfectly friendly. These observations show that dogs can exhibit nasty faces voluntarily, just as we do when we are only pretending to be mean.
Growling, like snarling, is a seemingly aggressive behavior that means something different during play than it does in other contexts. We have often videotaped play between another female Shepherd, Zelda, and a male mixed-breed, Bentley. When watching these tapes, we noticed that, following brief pauses in play, Zelda often stared at Bentley and growled fiercely. Whenever she did this, Bentley leaped toward her and the chase was on. Bentley moved toward rather than away from Zelda because he knew her growl was not real.
This phenomenon was also noted by other researchers, who recorded growls from dogs in three different contexts, including play4. Play growls have different acoustical properties than growls given as threats, and when researchers played the growls back, dogs distinguished between play growls and growls given in agonistic (i.e., conflicting) contexts. If dogs can distinguish between types of growls in the absence of contextual cues (such as another playing dog), surely they know when a play partner’s growl is just pretend.
2 E . B. Bauer. 2007. Cooperation and competition during dyadic play in domestic dogs, Canis familiaris. Animal Behaviour 73:489–499; C . Ward, E . B. Bauer, B. B. S muts. 2008. Partner preferences and asymmetries in social play among domestic dog, Canis lupus familiaris, littermates. Animal Behaviour 76:1187–1199.
3 V. Csányi. 2000. If Dogs Could Talk: Exploring the Canine Mind. New York: North Point Press.
4 T . Faragó, P . Pongrácz, F. R ange, Z. Virányi, A. M iklósi. 2010. ‘The bone is mine’: affective and referential aspects of dog growls. Animal Behaviour 79:917–925
News: Guest Posts
We are almost half way through Ranger’s first year or life and training to become a Conservation K9! He really did not seem to grow much the first few weeks but now he is just growing like a weed and turning into a very handsome Golden Retriever!!
Ranger’s training continues to progress. We train each weekend with the Search and Rescue team, as well as attend puppy obedience class. We trained at a couple novel locations this month, which was great to see how he reacted, and not surprisingly he did just fine. One day we had a short training session at my local UPS store here in Brenham, TX where Ranger was allowed to run around off leash, do some short sit, down, sit exercises and then I did a lot of playing with him. At one point I threw his beloved toy onto a pile of discarded cardboard boxes and he, without hesitation, clambered up to retrieve his toy. This is a really great sign at such a young age that he has potential to be a successful detection dog because it shows that he will do quite a bit to get his toy, even if it is a little scary or uncomfortable!
A week later I took Ranger to Lowe’s and he got to run up and down the lumber department, retrieved his toy off a few piles of wood and even jumped onto a very tipsy lumber cart multiple times to get his toy back… I was very pleased!!
Of course wherever we go Ranger gets to meet new people, and I am thrilled with his temperament because he is an absolute love bug with everyone he meets. I have decided that he has a definite backup career as a therapy dog one day!!
As Ranger’s training has progressed, Dogs for Conservation has also made some big strides lately. We have assembled what I like to call a “Dream Team” consisting of several amazing detection dog trainers, and thanks to one of them, Sgt. Renee Utley, we also have several fantastic dogs who are old enough and have what it takes to immediately start training for Conservation Projects. One of these new dogs is a Springer Spaniel named “Bea” who has an keen nose, absolutely loves her ball, and is starting her new career in Conservation next week as she begins training to search for one of Texas’ most endangered species!
Dogs for Conservation has teamed up with the highly esteemed Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI) at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, TX to start training dogs for a couple different research projects that will be very useful to biologists to survey for these endangered species they are studying. The CKWRI instantly recognized the value and potential to use dogs to assist in their various research areas, and I believe we are going to be working with them for a long time. One of these soon-to-be-announced projects is also in collaboration with one of my favorite childhood places, the Houston Zoo!
I am also happy to announce that we have had several new sponsors come on board this month including Micah Jones from Blue Giraffe Art Works who donated a commissioned portrait of a CenTex Search and Rescue dog we work with regularly during training and which proceeds from will help both organizations. We were also generously donated several great products from the Kyjen Company, whose Outward Hound product line is a perfect fit for our working dogs in the wilderness!
Check back with Dogs for Conservation next month to see how Ranger and Bea’s training is coming along! You can also join us on Facebook or on our Website to check for more regular updates!
Training (and fun!) Videos this month:
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