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:
Wellness: Health Care
The most common dog-park related incidents revealed
The warmer summer weather correlates to an uptick in ER visits, many of which are related to dog park dilemmas. Interestingly, there has been a 34 percent increase in dog park utilization over the past five years, and these designated areas are the fastest growing segment of all city parks in the U.S.
With this increase in use comes the proportional increase in dog injuries. Veterinary Pet Insurance (VPI) recently sorted its database of more than 420,000 dogs to determine common dog park-related medical conditions in 2011. Topping off the list are sprains and soft tissue injuries, with lacerations and bite wounds following in second place. My own ER experience supports these statistics, and it wouldn’t be summer in the ER without treating at least a couple of these over the course of a weekend. The remainder of the top list 10 is rounded out as follows: kennel cough, insect bites, head trauma, heat stroke, parasites, and parvovirus.
Each of these conditions can make a fun day at the park a costly one. The most common conditions on the list, sprains and soft tissue injury, carry the price tag of an average of $213 per pet. Insect bites, turn out to be the least expensive, and run an average of $141 per pet. The most expensive medical condition to care for is heat exhaustion or heat stroke, and the reported average cost is $584 per pet. However, if the heat stoke is severe, cost of treatment can easily exceed thousands of dollars.
The majority of medical conditions that occur at the dog park can be avoided by taking necessary precautions, particularly by simply keeping a close eye on your dog at all times. Dog parks have rules just like any other community, and if you follow these tips, it may help prevent an unnecessary trip to your veterinarian or local ER.
Hopefully these tips will make your next visit a walk in the park!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do the dogs think they’re in water?
Much of the country has been gripped by stifling heat. Trying to stay cool is what it’s all about, and dogs benefit just as much from air conditioning as humans do. The thing is, though, dogs and people seem to react differently to having cool air blowing on them. People tend to sit still and enjoy the breeze, but many dogs move a lot in the same conditions.
In these two videos of different dogs being held in front of an air conditioner, it’s impossible to say what’s really going on, but the dogs look as though they are making swimming motions.
Are they really trying to swim in the current of air? What do you think is going on? How does your dog react to air conditioning?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Empathy may cause it
It’s been known for a long time that yawning is contagious in various species of primates, including humans. (It’s actually highly contagious. If it were as easy to catch a cold or malaria, it would be all but impossible to stay healthy.) In recent years, the contagious nature of yawns between dogs and people has been a research subject of considerable interest.
Studies have demonstrated that dogs can “catch” yawns from people, which is fascinating enough given that we are two different species. Now, a new study called “Auditory contagious yawning in domestic dogs (Canis familiaris): first evidence for social modulation” suggests that human yawns are contagious to dogs by auditory means. (Translation: Dogs will yawn in response to just hearing a human yawn.)
The study was an attempt to demonstrate that contagious yawning in dogs is different than that same phenomenon in primates, but the data say otherwise. In primates, yawn contagion indicates that the observer has empathy for the yawner. It was thought that in dogs, yawns were induced by a hard-wired behavioral pattern that was exhibited in response to a releasing stimulus. However, the observation that dogs yawned more in response the sound of familiar yawns than to the sounds of unfamiliar yawns suggests that empathy may play a role in the contagion.
Reading and writing about this subject has given me a case of the yawns, along with the dog right next to me. Did you yawn while reading this, and if so, did your dog follow suit?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Strategies for safety
Where I live (in Flagstaff, Ariz.) we have the same problems with off-leash dogs that most communities face. There are some people who think, for whatever reason, that leash laws don’t apply to them and their dogs. All runners, including me, have faced dogs charging at us on the trails and on the roads. It’s a risky situation when you are faced with a dog who is, at best, overly enthusiastic, and at worst, aggressive. Sometimes there’s a guardian around, but not always. Even when they are present, the situation can be alarming, either because the person seems frantic to get the dog back. (“Come! Get over here! No bite! NO BITE! NO BITE!!!”) or because there is no concern as a dog leaps at innocent passersby. (“Don’t worry, he’s friendly!”)
Flagstaff is a running mecca where many of the best runners in the world come to train in order to take advantage of the 7000-foot altitude and the endless miles of trails. My worst nightmare is that some Olympian or Olympic hopeful will be bitten and that the injury will ruin someone’s lifetime dream. Even without such dire consequences, derailed workouts and being truly afraid are not cool, whether it happens to an elite athlete or to any of the rest of us regular runners.
I am often asked what to do when a dog charges at someone or chases them on a run. There are so many variables in these situations that it’s difficult to make blanket statements or provide all the possibilities, but there are general guidelines for minimizing the chance that a scary situation turns injurious. Here are a few of my top tips for dealing with off-leash dogs while running.
Here are a few “dos”
Staying calm is a wise idea. Adding any sort of excitement to the situation is counterproductive.
Slow down, walk or stop. Speed is intoxicating to many dogs, who give chase to anything that’s moving such as squirrels, cats, dogs and runners. The fastest runners—the elites—are more likely to be chased, which I think is due in part to their graceful, gazelle-like build and gait. Some dogs try to herd runners, which may account for a lot of the bites to the back of the legs and ankles. It’s annoying to interrupt your run, but it beats being bitten.
If you are wearing sunglasses or a hat, take them off. Many dogs are scared of people wearing such accessories and charge or chase out of fear. If you remove them, some dogs realize you are just a person, not a monster, and ease off.
Swing wide to create more distance between you and the dog. A lot of dogs are chasing or charging to keep you away from their property, so if you act in accordance with these dogs’ wishes, you minimize the chances of trouble.
Say things that may put the dog in a good mood, using a cheerful voice. This seems ridiculous to many people, but I swear that changing the dog’s emotional state can work wonders. The phrases that are most likely to have an effect are “Wanna go for a walk?”, “Dinnertime!”, “Where’s your ball?”, and “Good dog, good dog, good dog.” So many dogs are conditioned to react happily to one or more of these phrases, and that means they have the power to diffuse a tense situation. Speaking in a happy voice, even though you have to fake it, makes this strategy more effective.
Similarly, a few dogs will respond if you give them a cue, telling them to sit, go home, or stay. Many dogs are too worked up to react, but it does work sometimes. And giving a cue or using a happy phrase is exceedingly unlikely to make things worse, so both are worth a try.
Another option is to turn and head the other way. Yes, it’s frustrating to have to change your route because of a misbehaving off-leash dog, but safety first! Many dogs are trying to get you to go away, and if you do, they will leave you alone. It’s best to head the other way slowly so you don’t incite the dog to chase you.
Here are a few “don’ts”
Don’t yell at the dog. Many dogs are afraid and this will only make their fear, and therefore their undesirable behavior, worse.
Don’t stare at the dog. Though this is often suggested, staring is an overtly threatening behavior and will cause many dogs to react even more aggressively to you. It will rarely cause a dog who is going after you to back off.
Don’t scream. This agitates many dogs, and makes them even more unpredictable.
Don’t throw anything at dog. Doing so can be perceived as threatening, which may make the situation escalate rather than make it better.
Don’t pick up a stick and try to use it as a weapon. This is far too likely to frighten a fearful dog or to be taken as an escalation of any confrontation by dogs who are on the offensive.
No technique is foolproof, but the general rule is to try to get out of the situation calmly and quickly without making the dog any more upset. It’s not about who is right and who is wrong or whether the dog is legally allowed to be off leash where you are running. It’s just about avoiding a serious issue so that you can not only keep running today, but in the future.
There are many ways to make this happen, and this list of dos and don’ts includes some of my top picks. What techniques have you found most helpful to prevent an issue with an off-leash dog while you are running?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Racing against a greyhound
I know I am preaching to the choir when I proclaim that dogs are incredible animals with amazing abilities. So I’m pretty sure I’m in good company when I say that I have a list of dogs’ traits that are so extraordinary that it’s worth finding ways to demonstrate them to the world. I even have a wish list for videos I’d love to have that show dogs off a bit. Sometimes I acquire the videos I desire, but the list just keeps on growing.
Currently at the top of my wish list is a pair of videos illustrating how quickly dogs can run. The first of the two videos would show a race between my husband, who is a sprinter, and me. I’m a runner, too, but not one blessed with any real speed. He would easily dust me in a race of any distance. The second of the two videos would show a race between my husband and a greyhound, which would be such a rout by the dog that it would make that first race with me look close.
What do you think is so amazing about dogs that you have an urge to show everyone?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Why do they do it?
On a beautiful, warm afternoon, I watched a group of dogs frolic in a dog park. Suddenly, I heard a woman’s high-pitched yelp, followed by the pounding of human feet. There was no need to look; it was obviously about humping, which we can also refer to as mounting.
Dogs hump the air, they mount pillows and blankets, and they can be found poised behind the neighbor’s dog or befriending Uncle Joe’s leg but not Uncle Albert’s. Mounting pops up in many contexts and is directed toward any number of objects, both animate and inanimate. Apart from giving mounters silly nicknames like “the humping bean” or “Sir-humps-a-lot,” what are we to make of all this bumping and grinding?
Talking about dog behavior is like talking about politics: everyone has an opinion. According to Cynthia Heyman of Utah, her three-year-old Danish-Swedish Farmdog, Jet, is a play-humper. “Jet is intact, and he likes to hump when he plays. He seems to like the boys better than the girls. Last weekend, he was humping a neutered Aussie who humped him right back as they were playing.”
For Margaret Duclos of Seattle, Wash., mounting is related to excitement and arousal. “One of my dogs sometimes humps the other when we get into the car — usually only when it has been a few days since we’ve gone somewhere and he is especially excited.”
On the other end of the spectrum, some attribute humping to dominance. Brigitte Reed of Salt Lake City, Utah says, “My female dog, Snickers, who is spayed, will hump our male dog, Kitna. The reason being is she is alpha and she is asserting her dominance over him. Putting him in his place, as it were.”
When a dog’s a humper, there’s inevitably an owner nearby with a story, usually one that describes who or what is mounted (the stuffed animal, the cat, other dogs) and the context in which the humping occurs (when guests come over, at the dog run, during obedience trials). Owners postulate that sex, breed, age, reproductive status and even size might provide information about humpers. Most of these stories culminate in questions — “Why in the world does she do this? Aren’t males the humpers?”— or impressions, anything from “It’s just play” or “She’s dominant” to “He’s quite popular!”
As you might expect, animal behavior researchers have a lot to say on the topic. When exploring any behavior, we can turn to the insights of Nobel Prize–winner and famed ethologist Niko Tinbergen for help. Tinbergen’s “four questions” provide a reliable framework within which to understand why animals behave the way they do. One of Tinbergen’s questions is particularly apt: “How does a behavior develop during an individual’s lifetime?” After all, behaviors don’t simply fall from the sky, land on a dog and voilà! Mounting! For nearly as long as ethologists have studied dogs, they have taken note of dogs’ tendency to hump outside of reproductive contexts.
In the early 1970s, University of Colorado ethologist Marc Bekoff, PhD, began investigating the development of canid social behavior. Bekoff observed the interactions of young canids, pairs of three- to seven-week-old wolves, coyotes and dogs. Particularly among the dog puppies, mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting appeared early on in play. While males mounted more than females, females also engaged in aspects of the behavior. Dr. Sunil Kumar Pal, assistant teacher at Katwa Bharati Bhaban School in West Bengal, India, got similar results when investigating social behavior of young, free-ranging domestic dogs. By six weeks, both male and female puppies were mounting, clasping and pelvic thrusting.
“It’s what dogs do. It’s a completely normal behavior,” explains Carolyn Walsh, PhD, associate professor of psychology at Memorial University of Newfoundland, who studies the nuances of dog behavior in dog parks. “Both males and females mount, regardless of whether [they are] sexually intact or not.” Celeste Pongrácz, a Mudi breeder in Hungary, finds that mounting can change with hormonal shifts. “Right now, we live with seven bitches, and when somebody is coming into season or is in season, some dogs want to hump, and others ‘ask’ to be humped. Regardless, it always involves the bitch in season.” Studies find that neutering males can decrease mounting, but certainly does not stop it in its tracks. After all, there is more to it than hormones. (Alas, not a single study noted if Barry White songs were playing in the background at the time the behavior was exhibited.)
From tail wagging to barking, dog behavior is riddled with nuance. A wagging tail might convey “I’m quite scared” or “This is the best day ever!” Like tail wagging, mounting is far more complex than it may appear, and there is not one simple explanation. But there are some likely candidates.
In many cases, mounting is related to a surge of emotion, such as feeling anxious or being aroused (in this context, “arousal” means general stimulation). In a recent investigation of dog park behavior, Walsh and her student, Lydia Ottenheimer Carrier, found that the dogs doing the most mounting were also doing the most playing. Walsh explains, “Dog parks can be quite stimulating, and for those who are highly aroused physiologically, mounting behavior could easily come out. There can be such a buildup of social motivation and the desire to affiliate that some of that energy spills over into the sexual motivation system. You see sexual behavior coming out, but it’s mostly out of context.”
General arousal or anxiety is not restricted to the dog park. Stimulation easily translates to everyday situations: a new person comes over, a new dog is introduced or a dog is cooped up in the house all day. “One of my dogs humps the others when I grab the leashes, or otherwise am doing things that signal going somewhere,” says Duclos.
Dawn Cleary, owner of Blue Cerebus Dog Boutique in Madison, Ind., attributes mounting exhibited by one of her Golden Retrievers to excitement. “When my Frisbee champ catches the Frisbee, my littlest one likes to run out and hump her. It’s the only time she does it … sort of like she wants to share in the glory of the Frisbee being caught.” (Is this the canine equivalent of painting your face and watching the Super Bowl?)
So why mount? Peter Borchelt, PhD, and Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist (CAAB) in New York City, reminds us, “There are only so many behaviors a dog has access to, and dogs do what is part of their species-typical behavior. It is something they know how to do.” Since their options are somewhat limited, a dog, rather than read the funny pages during downtime, might be inclined to get to know a stuffed animal a little better.
What else could mounting be about? For some owners, mounting equates to dominance and control, words that suggest you might not want your four-legged friend engaging in this behavior.
But what is dominance, and where does mounting fit in? According to Carlos Drews, PhD, dominance is not a characteristic, but rather, relates to describing interactions between two individuals. “Dominance is an attribute of the pattern of repeated, agonistic interactions between two individuals, characterized by a consistent outcome in favour of the same dyad member and a default yielding response of its opponent rather than escalation … Dominance is a relative measure and not an absolute property of individuals.” The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior defines it as “a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots and mates.”
Is mounting associated with dominance? Not necessarily. Becky Trisko, PhD, behaviorist and owner of Unleashed in Evanston, Ill., studied dog-dog interactions in the dog daycare setting. Mounting was not associated with status-related (“agonistic”) behaviors like aggression and submission, but instead was correlated with play and other affiliative behaviors. For example, a dog who muzzle-licks another dog — a behavior often associated with “Let’s be friends. Like me! Like me!” — might also mount the same dog. If mounting indicated status or a dominance relationship, we would expect mounters to receive submission from other dogs, but that’s not what we’re finding. Likewise, a dog is probably not trying to dominate the dog bed he just mounted.
Mounting occurs in a variety of contexts and can be surrounded by many different behaviors. Humping could be an assertive behavior related to social bonds rather than competition for resources or status. In friendly contexts, mounting could be an attention-getting behavior to instigate an interaction. As Trisko explains, “Among preferred play partners (scientific jargon for friends), it almost seems to be a way to get the other to play. A dog might do a play bow, bark and paw at a dog. If the second dog isn’t really responding, mounting will often get a rise out of the dog, and then they’ll play.”
Trisko also suggests that mounting among friends is associated with bond-testing. “This is the idea that dogs perform potentially annoying behaviors like mounting to test the strength of the recipient’s investment in the relationship. It’s like saying, ‘How much will you put up with?’ ‘How much do you really like me?’” Since mounting seems to appear in affiliative, not aggressive or status-related contexts, this is a provocative possibility.
At the same time, mounting is not always related to friendship. Aimee Moore, CPDT, of Dog’s Best Friend Training in Madison, Wisc., says, “I don’t think there is one simple explanation, but with unfamiliar dogs, or often even with owners, it can be pretty rude and related to status.”
As Borchelt, who has treated behavior problems for more than 30 years, observes, “Mounting could be part of a suite of behaviors associated with aggression, such as high posture, resource guarding, direct stares, and threats and standing over. But mounting, by itself, doesn’t indicate a status issue. By itself, mounting might not mean a lot.”
He also feels that it could even be problematic to ascribe the label of “dominance” to a dog who is a mounter. “If you perceive a dog as dominant because he mounts, you might think you have to take steps so that the dog isn’t dominant to you — maybe always make the dog heel, which could cut back on sniffing, exercise and dog-dog interactions, or use intimidation to make the dog follow explicit rules. This could have negative consequences for the relationship.”
But there is more to the story than the mounter. Not all dogs welcome being mounting. Jessie Nelson of New York City notes that her dog Gracie, a mutt who more closely resembles Falkor the Luckdragon from The Never Ending Story than a member of Canis familiaris, changed her relationship with mounting as she aged. As Nelson recalls, “Gracie used to let other dogs hump her, and then they would continue playing. Now she will freak out at dogs who mount her.”
What to Do?
Training and dog-owner communication can help a humper maintain friendly interactions with dogs and humans alike. Moore suggests various training techniques. “I would work on obedience so I could get my dog’s attention when she starts to focus on another dog. I would also work on call-aways — dog greets and sniffs appropriately, then call her back and reinforce for that behavior. This way, you are catching her before she mounts.” Since mounting is often associated with arousal levels, when working on mounting, Moore recommends relaxation protocols, down-stays or teaching an alternative behavior. Angela Limburg of Chicago, Ill., tries redirecting her dog. “My boy humps his bedding … It seems to happen when he is overexcited. We try to redirect him — usually, offering cheese or cookies works.”
But at the end of the day, mounting is still a tricky behavior to figure out. “Mounting is one of those behaviors you would not want to have a single answer for,” explains Borchelt, and Bekoff agrees. “It is complex, and we don’t want to say mounting is always this or always that. What we are learning about animal behavior is that we need to be very careful about generalities. Dogs don’t always greet each other by sniffing the anogenital region, and they don’t always circle before they lie down.”
It is not uncommon for owners to say, “I am deeply embarrassed that she humps.” Some sense disapproval from other owners: “I feel a social imperative to stop his humping.” These feelings are understandable, because for many, dogs don’t simply contribute hair to our favorite black pants; they are our family members and best friends. Which means that some of our best friends are humpers.
“I think the sense of embarrassment is not well placed,” remarks Walsh. Given that mounting is a normal part of a dog’s behavioral repertoire, owners can eliminate some of the stress and anxiety by getting to know mounting as it pertains to their individual dog.
When trying to get behind any behavior (pun intended), Bekoff recommends becoming an at-home ethologist. “Get a paper and pencil, and watch and record what happens before and after the behavior of interest. This can tell you more about the behavior itself.” This technique can help you determine when a behavior needs to be managed and when it’s just fine.
If dogs could talk — and they actually are with their behavior — they’d ask us not to clump mounting into one universal meaning. So what’s your dog’s mounting behavior telling you?
All in all, when we’re trying to figure out a behavior, we’re better served by observation and understanding of its roots than by the stories we tend to tell ourselves and others.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Correct terminology or jargon?
If you have an urge to create discord and angst, here’s one way to do it: Go to a dog behavior conference or seminar and boldly state, “I think we should discuss the meaning of the term ‘prey drive,’ and decide whether or not we should continue to use it.” Then, make a dash for the exit before it gets ugly.
To most people in the dog world, the term “prey drive” refers to a dog’s eagerness or desire to work hard, especially if the work involves anything related to chasing and capturing prey. It’s a trait that makes many dogs successful in the world of canine sports. The term is often used by people whose dogs participate in agility or f ly ball as well as by those whose dogs work in search and rescue or law enforcement.
Additionally, it has become increasingly popular when discussing dogs with various behavioral issues, typically issues related to chasing (cars, squirrels, runners, bikes, children) and the resulting difficulty in teaching them to come or to pay attention in general around any of these distractions.
Sometimes “prey drive” is used in a positive sense, as in, “She’s excited about working because she has a high prey drive. I love her enthusiasm and motivation, and the prey drive gives her such great endurance too.” It can also be used in a negative way, as in, “I can never let her off-leash in areas that aren’t fenced in. She has such high prey drive that she’ll chase anything. I can’t trust her to come back or stay out of trouble.”
So, though prey drive is commonly used in the dog world, many people dislike it. From an ethological perspective, it doesn’t make sense. If you ask an ethologist (someone who studies the behavior of animals in their natural environments) who doesn’t happen to be involved in that world — and the vast majority of them aren’t — what they think of the term, they will look at you quizzically and then criticize it on the grounds that it’s nonsensical.
To ethologists, the word “drive” refers to an unknown and variable internal state that explains why an animal’s response to a stimulus is not identical every time the animal is exposed to it. For example, at times, a dog may charge after a tennis ball with gleaming eyes and an over-the-top bouncy enthusiasm, while at other times, that same dog may lazily lope after the ball or even ignore it, though the stimulus (the thrown ball) is the same. What’s different is the dog’s interest in or motivation to chase it. “Drive” is the term used to explain that difference, which ethologists consider to be a difference in internal states, perhaps based on neurological or physiological variables over time.
Fluctuation in an animal’s drive doesn’t just affect predatory behavior. It also influences how eager a dog is to eat, drink and engage in sexual behavior, or any other type of behavior for that matter. Yet, we don’t talk about food drive, water drive or potential-mating-partner drive. We say that a dog is hungry or food-motivated (or a chowhound); that the dog is thirsty; or, in the case of females, that she is sexually receptive. To be fair, the term “sex drive” is used to describe the state of having an interest in mating — referring typically (but not always) to males — but we don’t say female drive or male drive.
Even in the way that many people use it, prey drive lacks precision. Does it mean a drive to run, to chase, to catch something, to bite it, to kill it or any combination of these? Is it all related to predatory behavior, and if so, why is the term “prey drive” used, rather than “predatory drive”?
Words and phrases that express precise concepts are indispensable for communication, and the more specific we can be, the better. However, the inexactness of language can make it a challenge to convey precise meanings. For example, because English is short on words that describe emotional nuance, people say things such as, “Do you like him or do you like him?”
Some people feel that the word “drive” doesn’t actually explain an animal’s behavior. In one sense, it’s an oversimplification to say that an animal is behaving a certain way because of an internal state or a change in that internal state. We know that an animal’s motivation changes over time and that different members of the same species behave differently in the presence of identical stimuli, but we don’t often know why. So, the term is more descriptive and less explanatory than it purports to be. A label such as “prey drive” is essentially a shorthand way to describe what we don’t understand since we don’t have complete knowledge of dogs’ internal states and their effect on behavior.
Another problem with prey drive is that it is often used in an attempt to explain a dog’s unwanted behavior toward other dogs and even people,neither of which are normally objects of canine predatory focus. We’ve all heard people dismiss a dog’s inappropriate, undesirable and sometimes even aggressive behavior with the comment that the dog has a high prey drive. It sounds so much nicer than saying that the dog has little impulse control, a far-from-ideal temperament or has not been the beneficiary of sufficient training.
Criticisms of the phrase may be a predictable result of the fact that often, when terms are appropriated from other fields, they are used in a slightly different way. The current meaning of terms in our field may not match their original use, which can cause confusion and thus, a tendency to consider that the way the terms are being used is “wrong.”
Overall, the terminology employed to describe canine behavior is messy, perhaps in part because dog behavior encompasses a number of disciplines, among them ethology, evolution, physiology, neurobiology, sociology, psychology, learning theory and animal husbandry.
For example, the words “operant conditioning” can mean something different to those involved in the dog world than they do to those who study learning theory. Many dog trainers use the phrase with its original meaning in mind: the modification of behavior through the use of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment and negative punishment. Others use it as a synonym for positive reinforcement alone; when these people say they train using operant conditioning, they mean that they use positive reinforcement. However, in the field of learning theory, positive reinforcement is only one part of operant conditioning. Similarly, the concept of drive, which comes from the academic discipline of ethology, has come to mean something different, though related, in the world of dogs.
It’s wise to acknowledge that terms have to be considered in context. Would it be better if no such confusion ever arose and multiple meanings didn’t exist? Sure, there would be advantages, but the reality is that languages change, as do fields of study and their associated terminology.
Cultures vary in the way they accept and integrate shifting meanings in the language used to describe the world around them. On one extreme, the French are well known for their strong national pride in the stability of their language, and the great importance they place on maintaining le bon usage (the correct usage) and resisting change, particularly Anglicisms. At the other extreme is the surfer culture with its enthusiastic proliferation of new words and phrases such as “tubular,” “hang ten,” “in the soup” and “goofy footed.” Americans generally accept new words and phrases easily, accounting for the rapid spread of “going postal,” “cougar,” “to be plutoed” and, most recently, “Tebowing.”
So where does the dog community stand collectively in our tolerance for changes in language, new terminology and the appropriation of terms from other fields into our own lexicon?
Many people love new terms. They enjoy referring to “predatory drift” and “reactivity” (the term “aggression” used to suffice), and they happily accept “prey drive.” Others would greatly prefer to hear that a dog is enthusiastic about agility or fly ball, or that the dog is motivated to run the course, take the jumps or retrieve a ball.
What’s important is that we understand one another. The reality is that when most people talk about prey drive in dogs, they are referring to the enthusiasm and strong motivation that makes dogs sharp on the course, eager to participate and reliably give their all in competition or in play. I suspect that the term “prey drive” is here to stay, and I sure hope that the joy of dogs who possess a lot of it also remains with us forever.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Do your homework!
I’ve always been happy to believe that my students need a dog trainer (otherwise, why am I there?), but it came as a surprise to learn that Pat Miller took her newly adopted puppy to class. Miller has decades of training experience; she’s the training editor of Whole Dog Journal, and people pay her to teach them how to train. So why … ?
Because, Miller admits, “I tend to get lazy about training my own dogs beyond the basics.” And because she lives on a farm, and it’s helpful to teach her dogs to be comfortable and mannerly in all kinds of environments. And because it’s good for her to “realize how it feels to be a student again.” One advantage Miller has is that she knows exactly what she’s looking for in a dog trainer, and she knows why. She isn’t reduced to making her choice on the basis of who has the cutest ad in the yellow pages, or an address nearby.
A good trainer is golden, like a good psychotherapist or car mechanic, and finding one can be equally hard—maybe harder. As Barbara Davis, of BADDogsInc. in Corona, Calif., points out, all you need to call yourself a trainer is a pulse and a business card. For example, recently I’ve seen fliers around my Brooklyn neighborhood advertising the services (names and details changed to protect the guilty) of one “Joe Smith,” who says he’s “certified by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.” Evidently, one assumes, a government body evaluated Mr. Smith’s skills; one imagines him taking a test of some sort, maybe undergoing a background check. One would be wrong: New York City has no certification program for dog trainers. Neither does any of the 50 states. Let’s improve your chances of avoiding Mr. Smith and his ilk.
Begin at the Beginning
On the other hand, if your dog or puppy is shy or reactive, the presence of other people and dogs may frighten or overstimulate her and make the problem worse. One-on-one coaching could be the answer here, as it can be tailored to address any behavioral issues your canine friend may have. (There are also specialized classes for reactive and aggressive dogs.)
A third option is “board and train” (B&T): Your dog stays with the trainer and is returned to you with manners installed. The trainer should then practice with you so that your handling styles are consistent. B&T is the most expensive route to take; usually, lessons or classes are not only cheaper, but better, because they teach you skills that you can apply throughout the dog’s lifetime (think of that old saw about giving a man a fish). However, B&T may be the right choice if you just plain know that you don’t have time to train, even though you take good care of your dog otherwise. Keep this in mind, however: Your dog is going to be out of your sight and out of your protection. Be sure you know who you’re turning her over to.
As for that guy at the dog park: The very first trainer I hired to work with me and my dog Muggsy was referred by several dog-park pals. His method involved eliciting the problem behavior—in Muggsy’s case, aggression toward strange men—and then punishing the dog by throwing a penny-shaker can at him. But you can’t punish anyone (human or canine) into liking people. A different trainer—also recommended by a dog park friend—showed us how to pair the appearance of strange men with delicious treats. Muggsy learned to like men PDQ, but for the rest of his life, reacted to that first trainer by barking and lunging at him whenever their paths crossed. Be aware that the stakes are high; someone ignorant and harsh can easily damage your dog.
Who Trains the Trainers?
A single program obviously can’t make a seasoned dog trainer. But, assuming a trainer also has lots of experience, should you limit yourself to those who have attended one of these programs? I’d say no. Space in the good programs is limited, and tuition is high. Many people are able to acquire skills through independent study, and there are other routes, such as apprenticeships and volunteer shelter work, to practical experience. Many skilled older trainers entered the field before formal programs existed. And not everyone who graduates from them is necessarily competent and kind.
Still, education is a Very Big Clue, however the trainer goes about getting it. Dog training isn’t a mystical art; it’s a combination of particular mechanical skills; a good, solid knowledge of the processes by which animals learn; and an understanding of canine evolution and behavior.
Whatever method of dog training you feel comfortable with, skip the trainer who talks about dogs being “spiteful” or “defiant” (complicated states of mind more likely to be held by humans), or who isn’t familiar with learning theory, or who talks about your household as though it were a wolf pack (dogs aren’t wolves). The important thing to remember is that dogs are a whole other species, and someone who’s taking your money to help you train yours really ought to have taken the trouble to learn some of the relevant science.
There is only one national independent certification program. It’s administered by the Certification Council for Pet Dog Trainers, and people who earn this credential get to put “CPDT” after their names (see “Source Code and Resources” sidebar). Elaine Allison, of Canine’s Best Behavior in Los Angeles, who has the CPDT and is endorsed by the National Association of Dog Obedience Trainers, stresses, “It’s important that the bells and whistles after [the trainer’s] name are not the sole factor.… Ultimately, it’s best to see them with dogs, particularly how well they relate to their own dogs.… [People] should be looking for someone who has skill and rapport with their dog.” Anne Martindale rejected a trainer whose “remote-control dogs … had no spontaneity left in them.”
As for experience, the more the better—just keep an eye out for the trainer who’s been working with dogs for 30 years but hasn’t learned anything new in the last 29. Animal training, like every other field with any claim to being scientific, grows and changes over the years. Real professionals work to keep up.
The ideal trainer is not only knowledgeable, she’s cordial and respectful. She doesn’t roll her eyes at the students or make fun of them (well, maybe gently, in the context of a well-established relationship). She looks for what students do right and builds on that, rather than relentlessly pointing out what they do wrong. Her explanations are clear and patient, and she really, truly believes that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. Most of the people in the class should look as though they’re enjoying themselves, and so should their dogs.
Watch out if the dogs in class don’t like the trainer. Special classes for reactive or shy dogs are an exception, of course, and a dog with a specific fear (of men with beards, say) may react negatively to someone who hasn’t done her any harm. Some puppies pee whenever a person so much as looks at them. But nothing should be happening in an ordinary good-manners class to make the average dog or human unhappy or afraid.
The same goes for behavior problems; by happenstance or because of their personal interests, people acquire varying degrees of expertise in helping dogs overcome particular kinds of difficulties. The behavior counselor who refers you to someone else for help with separation anxiety may be the go-to person for food-bowl guarding or dog–dog aggression. An ethical trainer is honest about her expertise and its limits.
Have a puppy? There are classes just for them. Also known as puppy kindergarten, these classes often include playtime. (Adult-dog classes usually don’t, but there are exceptions.) Well-run play breaks help puppies learn doggy social rules—sometimes an older “nanny dog” assists with this—and get their ya-yas out, and are also a blast to watch. Puppy play should be carefully supervised and the puppies should be segregated by size, age, outgoingness and play style—badly run play breaks can be canine versions of Lord of the Flies, with shy puppies overrun by larger, older, more exuberant comrades, and incipient bullies getting really good at scaring the daylights out of their peers.
Categories needn’t be rigid; a small, super-confident Terrier type may do just fine with a Lab mix twice his size. But steer clear of a trainer who allows a 15-pound body-slammer to chase a panicked 3-pound Maltese around the room, or who doesn’t take steps to increase the confidence of a shy puppy crouched under his handler’s chair.
Look for puppies eagerly engaging with each other, whether they’re low-key or rowdy; if not actively playing, they should be happily exploring the play space. The trainer should be carefully supervising, interrupting inappropriate play, and perhaps narrating and interpreting the action. If there’s a shy puppy, progress may take place over more than one session, but in any case, the trainer should be keeping an eye on him and his owner. No puppy, however inappropriate his behavior, should be handled roughly or berated.
How About Methods?
My own view is that the best dog training is solidly grounded in science and requires no force to develop desirable habits in place of undesirable ones, and of course, I’d like to steer you to trainers who share that view. Gail Fisher, the owner of All Dogs Gym in Manchester, N.H., has more than 30 years of professional training experience. An expert traditional-style trainer now wholeheartedly committed to clicker training, she says that “over the past 15 years, there has been a sea change in dog training philosophies. Trainers using positively oriented, dog-friendly techniques can be found virtually everywhere … And we are all the better for it.”
In conclusion, if someone who makes her living as a professional dog trainer avails herself of others’ expertise, the rest of us mortals should probably consider it, too. Many people don’t know where to start, or have a hard time translating the words they read into physical movements. Some just need encouragement. As for the dogs, even minimal training greatly increases their chances of staying in their home for life. Good training takes work, but it isn’t drudgery—it’s a joy. And out of joy grows love.
The Name Game
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