Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Our extraordinary love affair with dogs.
In 1992, I fell in love with a dog named Luke. I brought him home from a herding dog trial one chilly October evening, not sure whether I’d keep him, not sure I wanted another dog. A gangly adolescent, Luke had been a disappointment to his ﬁrst owner, who reported that he wouldn’t come when called and had failed his ﬁrst herding lessons. I’d had my eye on him ever since he was a pup, and had told the owner to let me know if she ever decided to sell him. When she did (I had more dogs than I needed, but every time I saw Luke something clicked inside, as if I’d ﬁnally found the combination to an old padlock I carried around, unopened), I took one last look at his bright, expectant face, wrote out a check, and drove him home through the red and orange hills of a Midwestern autumn.
By sundown of the next day, Luke and I had fallen in love. I don’t know any other way to
Although the love we have for our dogs is often trivialized, there’s nothing trivial about it. A few weeks after my father died, one of my mother’s dogs was killed by a car. A visitor had come to help sort out my father’s affairs, and unbeknownst to anyone, Jenny the exuberant Irish Setter had dashed out the door, running free and wild and no doubt, full of innocent and cheerful abandon. She was killed half a mile down the road, in front of the church where my father’s service was held. My mother, stalwart and noble after my father’s death, sobbed so hard and for so long about her dog’s death that it seemed as if her grief would physically rip her apart. I thought at the time, as did many, that Jenny’s death allowed my mom to truly grieve the death of her husband. I don’t think so now. My mother loved my father, but their relationship was burdened with disappointments and perceived betrayals. But Jenny? Jenny sparkled with nothing but joy and devotion. She asked for little and gave everything she had in return. These were no hard words late at night, no angry glances or saturated silences. No baggage. She loved Mom; Mom loved her: simple as that.
We’re not always comfortable with the depth of emotion we can have for our dogs, but profound love isn’t uncommon. I recently read an article about a teenager who risked his life to save his dog from a burning building. A tough-minded rancher once told me he’d rather die than abandon his cattle dog in a snowstorm. The evidence is overwhelming that during the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina, hundreds if not thousands of people chose to risk death rather than leave their animals behind. The state of Florida learned this lesson well during 1992’s Hurricane Andrew, when thousands of people refused to evacuate because the shelters wouldn’t take pets. These decisions compromised the safety of so many people that the state now provides shelters for pets as well as for people.
The lengths that normal people will go to in order to protect their dogs testiﬁes to the love and devotion many of us have for them. I remember a Wisconsin woman who was interviewed after a tornado destroyed her home and all of her belongings. “We’re okay,” she kept saying, clutching her dog to her chest, “we’re okay, that’s what matters.” “We’re okay” meant her husband, her children, and her dog; she wasn’t sorting them out by species. After the tragedy of Katrina, I heard discussions all over the country about what each of us would do if we were told to evacuate without our pets. What would you do if you had to choose between the safety of evacuation and risking your life to stay with your dog? Everyone at my ofﬁce said we couldn’t imagine living with the knowledge that we’d left our dogs behind, although we’d do it if we were forced to evacuate to save our children. Merely the thought of making such a choice was so upsetting we could barely talk about it. Our response wasn’t unique to people whose lives and careers are devoted to dogs. My farm’s pragmatic chain-sawing, brush-clearing handyman said that someone would have to shoot him before he’d leave his Rat Terrier behind to die.
What in heaven’s name is going on here? Risking your life for a member of another species? Loving your dog as much as you love a human? That’s ﬂat-out amazing if you think about it. And yet, even if some people think it’s crazy, those of us who love dogs love them like family, or perhaps more accurately, like the family we always wanted.
Surely love, “an intense feeling of tender affection and compassion,” is the foundation of our relationship with dogs. I remember when I got my ﬁrst Border Collie, Drift. Like an infatuated teenager, I was obsessed with his every move. I thought about him constantly, watched with a sense of wonder as he licked his paws, purred with comfort and completion when we cuddled together on the couch. There are millions of people who feel the same way, whose dogs bring them a unique happiness not found in other relationships.
Our love for dogs is intense, pervasive, and sometimes heroic. If you think about it, it’s as remarkable as the physics of electrons and the wonder of outer space. It deserves our attention, and a good place to start is with the biology of love itself.
The Biology of Love
Oxytocin also plays a signiﬁcant role in other kinds of love—familial, romantic, and even sexual. Oxytocin levels rise when friends hug, when mothers cuddle their babies, and when lovers have sex. It’s a “one size ﬁts all” hormone, mediating love and attachment in all social relationships that involve feelings of care and connection. Women have higher levels of it than do men, which is not surprising, given oxytocin’s role in childbirth and lactation. Social animals have higher levels of it than solitary ones, a fact exempliﬁed in two species of small mouselike animals called voles. The females of one species, which is highly social, have high levels of oxytocin, while, in the other, downright unsocial species, the females have exceptionally low levels. In people, higher levels of oxytocin correlate with higher levels of attachment and connection. Researchers have even found that spraying oxytocin into the nasal passages of human subjects doubled their tendency to trust others in a “game” that involved giving over custody of their money. In the not-too-distant future it will be wise to steer clear of blind dates with nasal spray bottles.
The central role of oxytocin helps explain why some people, and some dogs for that matter, seem to be more loving and nurturing than others. Individuals vary in how much of the hormone they produce and how effectively they can utilize it when it’s circulating. Individual experience can have a profound effect on people’s ability to feel warm and loving toward others, too; one study found that children adopted from neglectful orphanages had lower levels of oxytocin after cuddling with their mothers than normal children did. However, remember that the impact of experience is constrained by the brain and the body it acts upon. Just as a painter can only work with the canvas and colors she has in front of her, so the effect of experience is inﬂuenced by the brain that absorbs it. I often wonder about oxytocin levels when I meet a dog whose aloof behavior breaks her owner’s heart—does the dog have low levels of oxytocin, owing either to genetics or to early development? At present, I know of no one who is using oxytocin therapeutically (except for medical conditions relating to birth and lactation), but perhaps someday we’ll be able to spray stand-ofﬁsh dogs with oxytocin and turn them into social butterﬂies.
Love’s Perfect Storm
The traditional answer to the question of why we so love dogs is that they give us “unconditional love” or “nonjudgmental positive regard.” To a large extent, this rings true. The cheerful, loving nature of most dogs brings us a purity of emotion hard to ﬁnd anywhere else, no matter how much we want it. But I think we need to address this question in more depth. Perhaps our love for dogs, and their love for us, is too complex to be explained by any one factor. It seems most likely that, at its best, the special bond we have with dogs is the result of a number of things, combining together into a “perfect storm” of love and devotion.
First, as we’ve already seen, the faces of dogs are remarkably expressive, and many of their expressions are similar to ours. More than any other animal except our own children (and possibly chimpanzees), dogs wear their hearts on their sleeves. The faces of dogs are like living, breathing, fur-covered emotions, with none of the masking and censoring made possible by the rational cortex of mature adult humans. The expressiveness of dogs gives them a direct line to the primitive and powerful emotional centers of our brains, and connects us in ways that nothing else ever could. When we look at dogs, we’re looking into a mirror. That they express happiness so well, and that happiness is contagious, is just icing on the cake.
Second, the sociability of dogs is similar in many ways to that of humans. Dogs evolved from one of the world’s most social species and naturally seek companionship. That’s why sheep-guarding dogs stay with the ﬂock, that’s why some dogs form friendships with horses that last a lifetime, and that’s why your dog is waiting at the window when you drive home from work. Dogs will live alone if they have to, but as long as there are enough resources to go around, dogs will always choose the company of others. This is as true of adult dogs as of puppies. In many other species, the young can form strong attachments to others, but once they’ve matured, their interest in forming new bonds decreases. Not so dogs—you can become best friends with an older dog in just days or weeks, so strong is their desire for companionship.
Although dogs cling to any kind of social relationship, they don’t treat humans as any port in a storm. They seem to be as attracted to us as we are to them. Even dogs who’ve been socialized for only minutes as puppies are able to form strong attachments to people. (Usually, however, only to a small group of highly familiar people; they remain uncomfortable around strangers all their lives.) By contrast, wolves must be taken away from their mothers at three weeks and raised by humans to be comfortable around us as adults. And dogs want more than just to hang out with us; they seem to want to understand us, and to want us to understand them. They watch our faces all the time for information, just as humans do when they’re unsure of what another person is trying to communicate. You can see people do the very same thing, in a game that dog trainers play to sharpen their skills. One person uses a clicker to train another to perform some action, in a kind of “warmer/colder” game. No words or visual cues are allowed; there’s just the sound of the click to tell the trainee that she’s on the right track. Yet even though trainees are told they’ll get no other information, they turn to look at the face of the trainer when they become confused. Dogs do exactly that when they’re confused about what we want: herding dogs will break their focused stare to turn and look at their handler’s face with the visual equivalent of “What?!” Dogs might even be better at decoding certain types of human signals than our closest relatives, chimpanzees. In some studies, chimpanzees, even ones familiar with people, weren’t able to locate hidden food if the experimenter pointed to it. Subsequent studies on dogs suggested that they were more adept than our closest relatives at the task.
A dog’s desire to communicate with people fits within the bounds of a dog’s evolutionary baggage, in which pack members hunted together, raised their young together, and fought to the death to keep the group together. You can’t coordinate your efforts as a group without some kind of communication, so it’s no wonder that dogs are as obsessed with social communication as we are. But dogs’ desire and ability to communicate, and their formation of attachments, transcend species boundaries. Research found that in novel environments, kenneled dogs were calmer in the presence of a human caretaker than with a dog they’d been kenneled with for over two months. It’s remarkable that an animal would choose an individual of an entirely different species for comfort and companionship. Imagine being lost and alone in the jungle and stumbling upon a person and a bird—and bonding with the bird and ignoring the person. In one study, dogs living in shelters formed attachments to people after only minimal contact. It took only three ten-minute sessions of petting for dogs to become attached, and for the dogs to stand at the door, waiting, if the person left the room.
Some explanations of dogs’ attachment to humans are not particularly romantic. Psychologist John Archer argues that dogs are simply social parasites, who have learned to manipulate our emotions so as to obtain free food, safety, and, in some cases, appointments with certiﬁed canine massage therapists and animal communicators. Lord knows dogs are an evolutionary success story: just compare the numbers of dogs in any given country with the number of wolves. However, the biological success of dogs doesn’t negate the profound feelings of love and devotion that go along with it; we don’t dismiss the love of parent for child simply because it’s to the parent’s advantage to pass on his or her genes. I think it’s shortsighted—sad, really—to dismiss the love that dogs have for us in such mechanistic terms.
Still, there is an important truth to be found in an objective view of our relationship with dogs. Painful though it might be, we need to re-examine the belief that dogs give us unconditional love. There’s no question but that most of our dogs love us, and there’s little doubt that, sometimes, their love is often almost epic in its intensity. However, the chance that our dogs are never irritated with us is slim at best. How convenient, then, that they can never say so.
We might yearn to tell our dogs why they can’t go on a walk while their injured foot heals, or to explain that we’re only leaving town for a couple of days, but I doubt that we’d have the pure, uncluttered connections we now enjoy if the relationship were burdened by language. In The New Work of Dogs, Jon Katz tells a story about a man who loved his dog because the dog was the only individual he didn’t have to talk to. Katz suspects that men often love dogs because dogs never ask them to talk about their feelings. Women love dogs so much, he suggests, because they see them as being so supportive. A study reported in The New York Times found that half of the female veterinary students surveyed said they got more emotional support from their dogs than they did from their husbands. Surely our perception that dogs are supportive is bolstered by the fact that they can’t tell us to shut up when we’re talking too much. The fact is, some dogs probably do give us unconditional love, but not all dogs do, and most dogs don’t every minute of every day. It just feels that way, given their expressiveness, their childlike cheerfulness, and bless it, their inability to communicate in words. Overall, it seems that what we can’t say to dogs is a small price to pay for what we gain from our wordless style of communication.
As if emotionality, expressiveness, a high degree of sociability, and the inability to tell us to shut up weren’t enough, there’s another important factor that inﬂuences our devotion to dogs. We humans have evolved to be protective and nurturing to big-eyed, dependent young mammals, and dogs elicit this state of mind from us with a force stronger than any hurricane. Like young children who stimulate our feelings of nurturance, dogs are nonverbal and have limited abilities. They can’t go to the store and buy food; they can’t open the door and let themselves out. If we left for work one day and never came home, they’d die, trapped and alone and unable to take care of themselves. In these ways they are the exact equivalent of young humans—nonverbal and dependent, wrapped in a ﬂuffy, fuzzy package that says “I’m cute and cuddly and I need you.”
Our feelings of parental love and nurturance are not to be sneezed at; they’ve kept primates like us going for millions of years. The parents of many animals walk away without a care once the eggs are laid or the sperm is transferred, but we shower our young with attention and care over a prolonged period. Lions may raise their young with affectionate licks and cuddles, but they’ll walk away and let their babies starve to death to save their own lives. Not so humans, dogs, or wolves: we’re obsessed with raising, nurturing, and protecting our young, and we’ll sacriﬁce our own lives to save theirs. Just the sight of young, helpless mammals can change our internal hormonal balance and increase the amount of oxytocin in our bloodstream. Although our complicated brains enable us to be rational and creative, underneath that complexity are ancient structures that generate primal reactions to big-eyed, ﬂuffy mammals. As the writer and behaviorist Karen London so aptly said, “Dogs, the source of so much pure joy and warm comfort, are a reminder that perhaps the passion in our lives is too great to be contained within the bounds of humanity.” There’s great truth to that, and it’s based not on some neurotic need to replace our feelings toward people with feelings toward dogs, but on a deep-seated biological drive to nurture small, dependent things.
So there you have it, a perfect package of love, an animal whose looks and behavior leave many of us weak in the knees. Dogs elicit the love and the desire to nurture that we’re designed to feel toward young dependent mammals, and their expressiveness just ups the ante. The mere sight of them bathes us with the hormones associated with love and devotion. At the same time, sometimes accurately, sometimes not, we feel from them the kind of love we want from our parents, that no-holds-barred, “unconditional” love that psychologists tell us we’ve all been seeking since infancy. It’s a double whammy of epic proportions—we love them like children, and at the same time feel loved by them with the kind of pure, primal love that we needed when we were babies ourselves. Wow. Dogs get us coming and going. In truth, we’re the ones who are helpless.
From For the Love of a Dog by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Copyright © 2006 by Patricia B. McConnell, PhD. Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Okay to play tug?
Strong opinions exist about the “Do nots” of playing with dogs. I agree with only some of these prohibitions.
I do stand by the ban on rough-and-tumble wrestle play and the teasing that often accompanies it. Though this form of play can be fun, the high emotional arousal that results often leads to a lack of inhibition, and that’s when trouble can happen, even to nice dogs and to nice people. Many actions of play are also used in serious fights and predation. These can create real danger when you (or your nephew or the little girl who lives next door) are down on the ground with your face next to an excited predator with dangerous weapons in her mouth. Serious bites could happen someday, even if she’s never bitten. All too often, I’ve seen shocked and devastated families crying in my office, and I don’t want it to happen to anyone else.
I’m also opposed to people chasing dogs, preferring to let dogs chase people instead. If you play by chasing your dog, you risk teaching her that moving toward her means the game is afoot, making her more likely to run away even when you approach her for another reason. This can ruin your dog’s recall. It can also lead to injury if your dog charges away from you into the street or other unsafe area. There’s no denying that letting a person chase a dog can be a great reinforcement for the dog, but I only approve this game for dogs who are so well-trained that the person can stop the game at any time and successfully call the dog to come.
I disagree with the following play advice:
Don’t mix training and play. Yes, do! It’s actually great to incorporate play into training sessions. The best training occurs when the dog views an activity as a game rather than a lesson. Using chase games to teach recalls, playing follow to build a base for heeling, using tug to practice “take it” and “drop it,” and practicing stays with “find it” games or hideand- seek are all great ways to blend training and play. Additionally, play is reinforcing, so playing with your dog may be better than the best treat.
Only young dogs need to play. No, not true! A small percentage of animal species play at all, and even fewer play beyond childhood. Dogs and people remain playful into adulthood, which may partially explain why we’ve been best friends for thousands of years. Many older dogs stop playing only because they no longer have buddies to play with. Keep playing with your dog well into old age. It’s part of what makes them dogs and us human!
Don’t play tug. Most importantly, I disagree with this prohibition (at least for most dogs). Many people advise against tug, which is a shame because so many dogs adore it. Tug is a great game, and dogs can learn a lot from playing it. Many trainers share this view and actually teach tug in puppy classes. The earlier dogs learn the lessons that tug has to offer such as impulse control, mouth control and cooperation as well as skills like “take it” and “drop it,” the safer and more fun the game becomes.
For a long time, many experts advised against playing tug for fear that it would create or increase aggressiveness in dogs. Later, tug was considered fine for most dogs as long as they were not allowed to “win” by keeping the toy at the end. The concern was that it would have bad consequences for her to feel she had just triumphed over the person.
A scientific study by Rooney and Bradshaw addressed this issue. They found that “winning” the toy in a game of tug had no impact on the relationship of the human-dog pair. Based on their research, though, we should still be thoughtful about letting certain dogs keep the toy after a tug game. The most playful dogs in the study exhibited significantly higher amounts of playful attention-seeking behavior when they were allowed to “win.” Therefore, it may be better not to allow those dogs who become relentlessly pushy about seeking more play time to “win” at tug.
Of course, for a few dogs, tug is a bad idea. Dogs who are prone to aggression induced by high arousal are not good candidates for it. The same warning applies to dogs with poor bite inhibition or poor self-control as well as those who tend to creep up the toy with their mouths during tug. Additionally, it may exacerbate object-guarding behavior in dogs who already exhibit it.
For most dogs, tug has many benefits. It is interactive and requires cooperation between humans and dogs. It can give dogs exercise and help them stretch their bodies prior to other activities such as running or agility. Tug can effectively rev up an agility dog for maximum success on the course. It helps many dogs learn better mouth control in general.
With so many “Do nots” out there in the world of play, the most important may be this: “Do not spend so much time worrying about playing with your dog that you don’t have time to actually play with her.”
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Your dog may be saying “Ouch!”
For the first couple of weeks, our dog Bugsy enjoyed playing with our foster puppy. Then he changed, tiring of her quickly and often avoiding her, even growling if she approached him while he was on his bed. He stopped playing in the snow with her, and would go to his bed rather than lie next to her on the rug. We figured that when she left, he would stop being sulky and return to his usual upbeat, playful self.
When Bugsy remained grumpy after her departure, we suspected that something was wrong. And it was. The veterinarian determined that he had a partial tear in his anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL (a knee ligament), and was probably in considerable pain. The way Bugsy was acting should have told me that he was hurting, because although most dogs are not obvious about it, there are many behavioral signs of pain.
1. Changes in behavior. Any change can mean something is wrong. If your dog is less energetic or less cheerful than usual, doesn’t engage in the activities he usually enjoys, acts restless, becomes unusually clingy, or stops socializing as much or as happily as he used to, he may be experiencing discomfort.
2. Nighttime grouchiness. Even minor injuries or maladies can be exacerbated by the day’s activities, resulting in a cranky pup in the evening, when things slow down.
3. Good days and bad days. If your dog acts like his normal self some days but is grumpy, aggressive or otherwise different on other days, pain may be the cause.
4. Unusual behavior after strenuous activity. Dogs who exhibit unexpected behavior after they have had more exercise than usual may be in pain. An injury or any kind of soreness may become worse with additional exercise, so if your dog is predictably out of sorts on such days, pain may be the culprit.
5. Suddenly behaving aggressively. If a fully mature dog suddenly exhibits aggressive behavior, it may be because he’s in pain. I’m especially alert to the sudden onset of aggression in a dog over the age of four, because dogs that age (or older) with no history of aggression rarely behave this way unless something is wrong. There are exceptions, of course, but out-of-the-blue aggression in an older dog can often be linked to pain, in my experience.
6. Unwilling to play. If a dog who usually takes any opportunity to play with reckless abandon ceases to be interested in playtime, it could be a sign that something hurts.
7. Avoiding other dogs. Sometimes when dogs are in pain, they don’t want other dogs near them, especially if those dogs are young, bouncy or exuberant. If it is inconsistent with a dog’s personality to shy away from other dogs, doing so might mean he’s protecting an alreadytender area.
8. Loss of appetite. A dog’s refusal to eat, which can have many causes, will almost always result in a trip to the veterinarian. Though sometimes the diagnosis is serious—liver failure or cancer, for example—not eating can also be a sign of pain from other less-alarming conditions.
9. Reacting badly to being touched. If your dog reacts negatively to a touch that he would normally like (or ignore), that reaction may be due to pain. Typical negative reactions include yelping, leaping, whining, licking your hand, pulling away or even growling. A painbased reaction will usually only be displayed when a specific spot is touched.
If you have any reason to suspect that your dog may be in pain, make an appointment to see your vet right away, as we did with Bugsy. It was a relief to know exactly what was going on with him, and to be able to ease his misery. Only a veterinarian can diagnose a medical condition, but with astute observations of the behavioral warning signs, you can help save your dog from unnecessary suffering by seeking speedy medical help.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A gentle hand or a tasty treat doesn’t reinforce fear, it reduces it
It was one in the morning, and I was wide awake. Thunderstorms had been rolling like waves over the farm all night, and this one was so loud I thought the windows might break. Lassie, my 14-year-old Border Collie, lay panting beside me. She’s almost deaf, but the combination of a falling barometer, lightning flashes and the crashes of thunder were enough to send her into a panic. As we lay there together, I stroked her soft old head, thinking about the advice to avoid petting a dog who reacts to thunder. “You’ll just teach them to be more fearful,” according to the traditional wisdom. Only one thing: It’s not true.
We’ve been taught for ages that trying to soothe frightened dogs just makes them worse. It seems logical, in a cut-and-dried, stimulus-and-response kind of way. Your dog hears thunder, he runs to you and you pet him. Voilà, your dog just got reinforced for running to you when it thunders, and worse, for being afraid of thunderstorms in the first place. But that’s not what happens, and here’s why. First, no amount of petting is going to make it worthwhile to your dog to feel panicked. Fear is no more fun for dogs than it is for people. The function of fear is to signal the body that there is danger present, and that the individual feeling fearful had better do something to make the danger, and the fear that accompanies it, go away.
Think of it this way: Imagine you’re eating ice cream when someone tries to break into your house at midnight. Would the pleasure of eating ice cream “reinforce” you for being afraid, so that you’d be more afraid the next time? If anything, things would work in the reverse—you might develop an unconscious discomfort around ice cream. However, you sure as heck aren’t going to be more afraid if a burglar arrives because you were eating chocolate mocha fudge the first time it happened.
There’s another reason petting your thunder-phobic dog doesn’t make him worse, and it couldn’t hurt to take a deep breath before you read it. Research on thunder-phobic dogs suggests that petting does not decrease the level of stress in the dog receiving it.* If it doesn’t decrease stress, how could it act as reinforcement? Before you write describing how your loving touch calms your own dog, please note that (1) I didn’t do the research; (2) my own dogs stop pacing and whining when I pet them during storms; and (3) I don’t care what the research says, it makes me feel better, it doesn’t hurt anything, so I do it anyway.
On the contrary, it’s just not possible that petting your dog is going to make her more fearful the next time there’s a storm. Warnings that you’ll ruin your dog by comforting her are reminiscent of the advice from the 1930s and ’40s to avoid comforting frightened children by picking them up. That perspective was tossed out long ago by psychologists, when research made it clear that having parents they can count on when life gets scary creates bold, stable children, not dependent or fearful ones.
A Classical Approach
Understandably, many a client has asked, “But isn’t giving him treats when he’s barking and growling just going to make him worse? Won’t he get reinforced for barking and growling?” The answer is no, not if his behavior is driven by fear. Remember, fear is no fun, and a few pieces of food, no matter how yummy, aren’t going to override the brain’s desire to avoid it.
Tossing treats (or toys) to a fearful dog can teach him to associate approaching strangers with something good, as long as the treat is really, really good, and the visitor is far enough away to avoid overwhelming the dog. CCC is one of the most important tools in a trainer or behaviorist’s toolbox, yet it can be hard to convince people to try it. It feels like rewarding a dog for misbehaving, and in our punishment-oriented, “you’ve got to get dominance over your dog” society, it is tough for some people to do. But that’s exactly what I did to cure another Border Collie, my Pippy Tay, when she developed a fear of storms many years ago.
CCC is one of many ways you can help a thunder-phobic dog. I’ve used some of the following with good success, either on their own or, in Pippy Tay’s case, combined with other methods: pheromone therapy, wraps, acupuncture, acupressure, diet change and, in serious cases, medication. If your dog is afraid of storms, you’d do well to consult a behaviorist or veterinary behaviorist for assistance in choosing the method that is right for you and your dog.
I even put thunder on cue. “Oh boy, Pippy, you get thunder treats!” I’d say each time we heard the thunder growl. Mind you, these words would come through clenched teeth at three in the morning, but for two summers, I chirped about thunder treats, pulled out the drawer beside the bed and fed Pip after each thunderclap. By the end of the summer, Pip stopped lacerating my face with panicked attempts to crawl inside my mouth to hide from the storm. She began to sleep through moderately loud storms, not even waking up to beg for treats when the thunder rolled. She came over to me when things got really loud, but with little of the panic she’d shown before.
Fear Is Contagious
However, if you are scared (and who isn’t sometimes?), all is not lost. You can calm things down by concentrating on your body—slowing down your breathing and your movements, changing your posture to one of confidence and relaxation, and speaking slowly and calmly (if at all). These actions have the beneficial effect of altering your own emotions as well as your dog’s. The calmer you pretend to be, the calmer you’ll actually feel.
I kept that in mind last night as I cooed, “Oh boy! Thunder treats!” and fed Lassie tasty snacks from the bedside table. I had a lot more reasons to be scared than she did—she didn’t know that the basement was flooding, the white water crashing down the hill was threatening to take out the barn, and the roads were washing away all around us. All she knew was that every thunder roll predicted a piece of chicken, and that I seemed to think it was a great game. She settled down relatively soon, but I lay awake for hours. I guess it really is time to put some chocolate in the drawer beside the bed. If, the next time they see me, friends notice that I’ve gained a lot of weight, they’ll know it’s been a stormy summer.
*Nancy Dreschel, DVM, & Douglas Granger, PhD. 2005. “Physiological and behavioral reactivity to stress in thunderstorm-phobic dogs and their caregivers,” Applied Animal Behaviour Science 95:153–168.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Hugs have the opposite meaning to dogs
As a kid, I remember watching the emotional scene in the movie Homeward Bound and seeing the oldest boy hug his Golden Retriever, Shadow, upon being reunited. I also remember reenacting the scene many times with my poor cat (unfortunately for the cat, I didn't have a dog when I was younger). We regard our pets like family, so hugging them feels natural.
According to a recent survey, 30 percent of dog lovers hug their pets more than their human family members. More than half of those surveyed said that hugging their dog makes them smile. However, it may not be the case the other way around.
In honor of the relationship we have with our pets, Purina's Beneful named April 10th the first annual Hug Your Dog Day. I understand the dog food company wanted to celebrate the human-canine bond, but encouraging people to hug their dogs isn't a good idea.
Of course, I've hugged my dogs before. It feels satisfying, but now that I know more about canine behavior, I can tell that the feeling isn't mutual. My dogs simply put up with hugging, but would rather I pet them instead.
According to canine behaviorist Patricia McConnell, in primates, hugging is an expression of love, endearment, support, or a gesture of mutual fear or sadness. Dogs, however, don't have arms like primates and evolved with no concept of our term of endearment.
In fact, a hug has the exact opposite meaning to a dog. What starts off as good intentions most closely resembles a gesture of dominance to our pets. Because we've built a relationship of trust with our dogs, they know we're not acting aggressively, but it still makes most pups uncomfortable.
It probably goes without saying to never hug a dog you haven't met before. This is also related to how you would approach a strange animal. The best way is pet them under the chin or chest, not on their head or back, which they may view as threatening, and looks similar to the beginnings of a hug! This is an important lesson to pass on to other animal lovers, especially children who are particularly vulnerable to bites.
So next time you go to hug your dog, pay close attention to their body language and facial expression. If your dog is licking his lips, panting, flicking his ears back, or shows stiffness in his body, even subtly, it's time to back off.
We may see our pets as our four-legged children, but it's important to remember that they're not humans. There are many other ways to show our dogs that we love them, however tempting it is to give them a hug.
News: Guest Posts
The play’s the thing for these mismatched pals
We know dogs are pros at crossing the species barrier, especially when it comes to fun. But it’s still surprising and enlightening to watch it happen. A friend of The Bark recently sent us a couple videos of a friend’s German Wirehaired Pointers and Jersey cows playing together—and we had to share them.
►Also, for more on dogs with unusual playmates, check out today’s story by Rebecca Wallick about her childhood memory of a seal who played with the neighborhood dogs.
News: Guest Posts
Memories of cross-species games
Butch was my seal. Or so I fantasized, and bragged to my grade school friends. His origins, age—even his true sex and name—were a mystery. But he was real. He wore a faded collar that had become painfully tight, creating a ring of raw red flesh, like a gruesome necklace he couldn’t unclasp. My own, childishly romantic theory was that he had escaped from a traveling circus. It was the 1960s, and his adopted home was near our dock, in Lake Sammamish, east of Seattle. Oddly, Butch’s presence felt normal for us.
Butch was beautiful, plump yet sleek, his dark form gliding effortlessly and phantom-like just under the lake’s surface. His skin had spots like silver dollars, and his whiskered muzzle reminded me of a dog’s. I would watch, transfixed and jealous: his head gently breaking the surface, nostrils exploding with exhaled breath, dark round eyes scanning my world before silently slipping back to his own. To be so weightless and graceful! Heavy and ungainly on land, he was elegant and agile in his watery element.
Dogs were as crucial to Butch’s wellbeing as the lake fish on which he dined. Dogs were his playmates. His favorites were Spot and Tar, large mixed-breeds with simple names that aptly described their appearance—one shaggy white with occasional black spots, the other all black. They lived nearby.
In my mind I still clearly see them playing: The dogs pace back and forth on our dock, signaling and waiting. Spying them, Butch stealthily swims under the dock, under them, setting up his moment. Spot and Tar crouch with tense anticipation. Then, with an explosion of speed, Butch breaks the surface, just inches below them, surprising and titillating the dogs into paroxysms of spinning and barking, just beyond the reach of their mouths, before he slips back under.
Spot and Tar maintain a frenzied focus, leaning perilously over the edge of the dock, tails wagging furiously in circles for balance while barking excitedly as Butch teases from below, literally brushing their noses with his, diving back down for several seconds to increase the tension, then breaching like a Sea World performer, slapping his tail fins against the surface with a resounding whop that drenches the dogs and the dock with the splash, leaving us all…breathless. Over and over, this sequence, with little variation, for as long as thirty minutes per session.
They played regularly over the years, to the obvious delight of all involved, especially me. It was almost as though they knew when it was playtime, because the dogs were rarely stood up. I would watch with intent stillness from a distance, for as soon as a human approached, the show ended with Butch swimming silently away.
Rarely, a dog would fall off the dock and into the water. Butch would gently grab them by a hind leg, briefly pulling them under before releasing them to swim to shore. Butch never hurt a dog. I think he just wanted them to swim with him, be like him, learn to play like a seal in the water. Butch surely was lonely, the only seal in the lake.
I felt a kinship with Butch. We both chose dogs as our favored and most trusted playmates—out of necessity for Butch, simple affinity for me. I never tired of watching them play. Butch’s trust of Spot and Tar grew to the point that he would beach himself while playing—exposing an almost lover-like vulnerability to them. He chose well, because while they’d bark from inches away, they never harmed him. They played with him in ways they all agreed upon.
I’m grateful Butch and the dogs allowed me into their unique and transcendent world of play. They taught me to ignore assumptions and overcome bias in interactions with animals and with people. I learned that play is the common language across species and across cultures. I continue to marvel at scenes of different animal species playing with each other, finding their common ground, communicating their playfulness and lack of aggression.
We humans can learn so much from dogs and all of the animals with whom we share this planet.
News: Guest Posts
A great place to explore and enrich our interrelationships with other animals
“…animals are always the observed. The fact that they can observe us has lost all significance.” (John Berger, About Looking, 1980)
Our relationships with other nonhuman animals (aka animals) move us all over the place. We love some, hate others and are indifferent to a wide range of fascinating species. Animals intrigue and inspire us and as we inquire about who they are we learn much about who we are.
John Berger, a famous art critic, painter and author, spent a good deal of time in his seminal work called About Looking analyzing what it means to gaze at animals. We stare at them for hours in a nature documentary, take a trip to a sanctuary in order to feel connected with them and marvel at their amazing cognitive, emotional and moral capacities. An important question on which many people often reflect is, “Why do we engage with other animals in a myriad of ways, often highly contradictory and inconsistently?”
We also need to ask, “What about the animals who are staring back at us?” What is taking place behind the eyes and between the ears of a chimpanzee or a mouse in a laboratory, a deer or a bird darting through rush hour traffic, a wolf running from those who want to kill him, or two dogs romping here and there at a dog park? What is happening in their hearts? How do we give animals their due and recognize that they too observe us and also hear and smell us, that they too are sentient, thoughtful, and emotional beings who share and engage in this world with us?
There are many books, documentaries, and other venues that can help us answer these and many other questions that center on our relationships with other animals. The relatively new field of anthrozoology that is concerned with research on the nature of humans-animal interactions is gaining a good deal of momentum from researchers representing many different disciplines.
What has been missing, but no longer is, is a museum that can also help us learn more about human-animal interactions. For the past year, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of serving as an advisor to the National Museum of Animals & Society (NMAS), based in Southern California. This museum is dedicated to enriching the lives of people and animals through the exploration of our shared experience when we and other animals encounter one another. In their collections, exhibitions, programs and educational efforts, the museum centers on the full spectrum of human-animal studies (our relationships with, and perceptions of, other animals), the history of protecting animals by organizations as well as by everyday people, and the importance of humane education.
MAS is the first museum to take on this subject matter from the perspective that respects the lives of individual animals. Its subject matter is near and dear to the hearts and minds of millions of people and most likely dates back to our very first interactions with other animals.
Humans have long grappled with the moral, legal, emotional and spiritual dimensions of our interactions with, and representations of, nonhuman animals. This has included numerous debates about our responsibilities to companion animals as well to wildlife in crisis, the awe and revulsion experienced when witnessing animals in zoos and circuses and our feelings about how they are represented in literature, art and film, and our inspiration as artists, writers, photographers and audiences that awakens our best sensibilities about the lives of the many animals with whom we are active participants in different areas of society. All this is what NMAS calls “our shared experience.”
Historically, such experiences have motivated many people, at different points in time, to protect animals from cruelty and to challenge the ways in which we habitually think about and relate to other animals in the grand scheme of things. While sages such as Socrates and his contemporaries gave thought and energy to questions about the welfare of animals, it wasn’t until the mid-1700’s that the movement to protect animals gathered momentum. In fact, around this same period of time, there was much overlap among several social justice causes, such as those to abolish slavery, fight for women’s suffrage, and advocate for the interests of children and laborers. Interestingly, these other organized efforts have been widely represented and discussed in museums, but not that of animals—until now.
NMAS is the brainchild of museum professional and animal advocate Carolyn Merino Mullin, who has long been interested in how we can preserve, interpret, and present our rich and inspiring history of caring for animals. Now in its third year, the museum is fundraising to open exhibition space in Los Angeles, Calif. Led by an exemplary group of directors, advisors and academics, NMAS has already produced a number of bi-coastal traveling and online exhibitions ranging from animal welfare in colonial America to a children’s exhibit on mythical beings to an innovative and interactive Facebook exhibit called “Souls Awakened: The Animals Who Have Shaped Us” that exposed thousands of children to humane education programs at schools and festivals. NMAS also is acquiring a remarkable collection of historical artifacts (currently 500 items). Be on the lookout for its summer exhibit called “Be Kind: A Visual History of Humane Education, 1880–1945.”
You can follow NMAS on its website, Facebook and Twitter and support this inspirational, model and seminal organization and enrich your own life and relationships with other animals in the process. Those people living or vacationing in Southern California also can take advantage of their Fall Lecture Series, guest speakers, events and much more.
As time goes on nonhuman animals are enjoying much more positive publicity as we learn that our own health and wellbeing are tightly associated with how we treat these remarkable beings. NMAS will surely enrich these varied and shared experiences, help us appreciate just how amazing other animals truly are and foster coexistence with other animals and other humans.
Note: In the spirit of the growing field of anthrozoology, a course titled “Animals and Us” will be offered by Schumacher College in the UK. Information can be seen here. This course follows up on a special issue of Resurgence Magazine published earlier this year.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What’s going on when a dog does this?
“His hackles went up. What does that mean?” It’s such a great question and one that I hear from clients regularly. When the hair on a dog’s back goes up (technically called piloerection), it’s usually a sign that the dog is aroused or excited in some way. It is an involuntary reaction, just like the goose bumps we humans get, so it’s important not to have any expectation of a dog being able to control it. While sometimes aggressive dogs do exhibit piloerection, it is not true that it’s necessarily a sign of aggression.
Data are limited on this phenomenon, but as an ethologist trained to observe animals and their behavior, I have noticed some things about it. Based on my experience with many dogs over the years, it seems that different patterns of piloerection are associated with different behaviors, probably because they are associated with different internal emotional states.
Some dogs exhibit a thin line (at most a few inches wide) of hair all along their back to the base of the tail. I associate this pattern of piloerection with a high level of confidence and in my experience, these dogs are more likely to go on offense and behave in an aggressive way than other dogs.
Another common pattern of piloerection is a broad patch of fur (up to 8 or so inches wide) across the shoulders, which does not run more than one-quarter or one-third of the way down the back. I associate this pattern of piloerection with low confidence and I often find that these dogs are somewhat fearful.
The most confusing pattern is when a dog exhibits a patch of hair that is raised at the shoulders and another raised patch at the base of the tail. The hair in between along the back is not raised. This pattern of piloerection often occurs in dogs who are in an ambivalent emotional state and feeling conflicted. Many of the dogs who show this pattern are somewhat unpredictable in their behavior and inclined to be more reactive than other dogs.
Of course, there are many exceptions, but these generalizations apply to the majority of dogs that I see. What have you observed about dogs and piloerection?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs find their own entertainment
Facebook gave me a laugh earlier this week when a friend posted this:
“this really happened to me today...i had 15 minutes between meetings so i ran home to let the dogs out. pearl (the puppy) heard kids playing down the street, ran down to see them and then quickly ran through the open door of a house (of a woman who hates dogs), ran through her house, pushed open their bathroom door (where someone was "sitting") grabbed the loose end of the toilet paper roll, started running, got it wrapped around her head and body, a chase ensued with pearl, me, a string of kids and a grandma before finally getting the little stinker back home. i don't like it when my real life starts to look like a scene out of a bad disney movie. it's not good at all.”
As a bonus, I got an extra little giggle from a mutual friend who always has a great perspective on life. Her comment was, “Don't think of it as a bad Disney movie - Think of it as a great Charmin commercial!! Love it!!”
I always worry about dogs who escape and go on their own adventures because I’ve heard too many tales without happy endings, usually involving collisions with cars. However, knowing that Pearl was safe, it was easy to enjoy the ridiculous image created by this post. I feel sympathy for the person who was in the bathroom, for the non-dog-loving woman who owns the house and for my friend whose work break was less relaxing and more memorable than she planned.
It’s far from unusual for a dog’s gleeful actions to result in embarrassment, awkwardness or even strained relations with neighbors, but it usually makes for a story worth telling. Do you have a good one to share about your dog?
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