Home
behavior
News: Letters
Thoughts on Testing Behavior Assessment

In addition to the behavior tests mentioned in the article Testing Behavior Assessment, I believe we also need to test those individuals with administrative authority over owned dogs and owners, i.e., field and hearing officers. Anyone with the authority to find that a dog is dangerous or aggressive should be required by law to pass a test showing that they fully understand canine behavior.

Animal control officers who conclude that growling equates with being aggressive or dangerous are menaces to owners and dogs; ditto those who think any big, brindled dog is a Pit Bull. Hearing officers who refuse to actually observe the dog’s behavior are worse, and violate an owner’s right to present evidence to refute charges against the dog.

As one who has worked professionally with animals all of her life, I feel the tests are also affected by who’s performing them. Animals can sense confidence as well as fear. Someone new to animal recue doing the testing may be nervous or scared, which I feel [could] cause the animal to act differently, whereas someone with experience will have a different presence, and the animal will respond to that, too. Over the years, I have seen the same animal respond to the same situation very differently depending on who was doing the handling.

I am glad people are working on a better way test shelter animals for their adoptability.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Behavior of Canine Abuse Victims
Do abused dogs have traits in common?

Animal abuse happens all too often in oh so many situation and cultures, yet little research has been devoted to the problem. An interesting study in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science (JAAWS) titled “Behavioral and Psychological Characteristics of Canine Victims of Abuse” compared dogs who have been (or have most likely been) abused with dogs who have not been abused.

Not surprisingly, behavioral differences were found between the abused dogs and other dogs. Dogs with a history of abuse were rated by their guardians as more excitable and performed more attachment and attention-seeking behavior than their counterparts. They also displayed more fear and aggression towards unfamiliar people and unfamiliar dogs. They rolled in feces more often, exhibited more fearfulness on stairs, showed higher levels of hyperactivity, were more persistent barkers and had a greater frequency of “bizarre, strange, or repetitive behaviors.” That last category includes actions such as hoarding shoes, digging deep holes, sucking on pillows and being unable to stop, and circling when anxious.

The researchers discuss possible interpretations of the results of their study. They point out that fearfulness towards strangers (dogs and people) and aggression towards them are highly correlated in a number of studies, suggesting that much of the aggression seen in the abused dogs could be motivated by fear. They also point out that abuse could cause fearfulness that leads to aggression through a conditioned response, but that aggression could also be a result of genetic predisposition, poor socialization, brain injury and other injuries that could cause aggression motivated by pain.

The researchers went through several steps to identify abused dogs for inclusion in their study. Magazines sent to members of Best Friends Animal Society included a notice requesting anyone who suspected their dog had been abused to consider participating in a study about canine abuse. Over 1100 respondents were given a link to SurveyMonkey, which asked about reasons for suspecting abuse. From that sample, 149 were chosen for the next phase of the study because the cases of those dogs were considered “more likely than not to involve substantiated abuse.”

Five experts were then given the dogs’ historical information and physical reports of injuries, but no behavioral information. (Behavioral information was not included because that was the subject of the study.) If at least four of the experts evaluated the information and concluded that it was probable that the dog had been abused, the dog was included in the study. Only dogs who were still alive at the time of the study were included in order to avoid problems with memory or biased recall.

Of the 149 selected in the first phase of the study, only 69 proceeded to the next stage. Their guardians were instructed to fill out the highly detailed Canine Behavioral Assessment and Research Questionnaire (C-BARQ), which was designed to measure a number of behavioral characteristics in dogs. The C-BARQ has become a standard research tool used to compare the behavior of different groups of dogs. In this study, the abused dogs were compared to 5239 dogs from the C-BARQ database who matched the abused dogs in age range now and at the time of acquisition and the source of the dogs.<

Studies of abuse, in both children and animals, have limitations because abuse is often done secretly, and because of incomplete information about the victims. Rarely is there much information about their personality and behavior before being abused. This study, as the researchers note, suffers from these limitations as well as others.

Another limitation of this study is that it correlates behavior with a history of abuse, but is unable to show whether that abuse plays a causal role in the behavior of abused animals. While it is hard to imagine that abuse does not affect behavior, correlational studies are not designed to elucidate any such claims. The researchers caution that the differences they found between abused dogs and other dogs does not mean that the abuse CAUSED these differences. It is also possible that some of these behavioral characteristics are risk factors for abuse, meaning that they made abuse more likely, or that the abusive environment, rather than the abuse itself, played a casual role.

The researchers recommend that future studies investigate which behavioral differences are caused by abuse, which are risk factors for abuse and which are both. (For example, aggression in human children is known to be both a risk factor for abuse and a result of abuse.) They would also like to investigate which types of abuse are the most damaging. Again comparisons to humans are inevitable, and it is known that emotional abuse is often more damaging and harder to recover from than physical abuse. Finally, they want to know more about how the age at which dogs are abused affects outcomes.

Like many people, it makes me physically ill when I think about abuse of people or of animals, but I’m grateful that it is being studied. The more we know about abuse—its causes and its effects—the better we are able to help those who have suffered and to prevent additional instances of abuse.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Surprises On Walks
They come out of nowhere

We were walking through the neighborhood when I saw a man hurrying two off-leash dogs into his house. I appreciated this responsible action that prevented Marley from having to face two exuberant dogs running up to him while he was leashed up. There was a large truck parked in the driveway that nearly hid us from view, so it’s possible that the dogs hadn’t even seen us. Because the man was so responsible with two of his dogs, it caught me quite off guard when we passed by the truck and an enormous dog on a long tether in his yard barked and lunged at us, coming within a few feet, even as we both moved away from him.

To express the gigantic nature of this dog requires no exaggeration, which is a shame, because it’s so fun to exaggerate. He reminded me of Marmaduke, although instead of being a purebred Great Dane, he seemed to have been crossed with something really large, like a water buffalo. Because he was tied up, this big dog did not actually reach us, but we were still scared by the suddenness of his appearance and his actions.

I feel comfortable speaking for both Marley and myself when I say that neither of us are usually so aware of just how effective our sympathetic nervous systems are at preparing us to respond to danger. My heart rate doubled within seconds, and Marley jumped straight in the air with his eyes showing an increase in size that was similar in magnitude. Perhaps Marmaduke came to mind because our own reactions seemed so absurdly cartoon-like.

Though Marley doesn’t react badly to off leash dogs, he’s hardly thrilled when one appears out of nowhere and barges into his space or, even worse, into him. Luckily, he’s such a stable dog that there was no real harm done.

It took very little effort and time to counteract the shock of our bad experience. We crossed the street and I took a few deep breaths to calm myself down. I helped Marley do the same by speaking cheerfully to him and offering him treats and a toy from my pocket. Then, just for fun, I said, “Let’s go!” and took off running. Few things change his mood for the better than a sudden burst of speed.

Still, I’m well aware how traumatic an incident like this can be for dogs who already struggle to cope with other dogs. Sometimes, dogs will shake and drool, or be so upset that they refuse even their favorite treats. Others get nervous the next time they pass the spot where the trouble happened, and in rare cases even hesitate to go out on the next walk. The sooner you can give them a positive experience to change their mood with fun, toys, petting or treats, the easier it is for most dogs to recover from the fright, but it takes patience and time for many dogs. If you’ve already been working to help a dog get over a fear of other dogs, a bad scare like this can be a major setback.

Have dogs taken you by surprise on your neighborhood walks, and can you calm your own dog (and yourself!) down afterwards?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More Determined As They Age
Are older dogs less willing to be interrupted?

“This way,” I said in that sing-song voice that tells the dogs in my life that I am about to get moving and that they should join me. It’s not a cue for a specific behavior, and it’s certainly not a command. It just means, “I am going to be moving, so you should pay attention to the direction I go.” When an off-leash dog hears it, I expect them to take note of me so they can follow me when they are ready to go.

Marley has always been agreeable about this, but this past weekend, he really had his nose to the ground and was slower to follow than usual. It didn’t bother me, though. We were in a safe place, I like him to have his freedom and I figured the warm weather was making smells extra distracting.

Then I walked him a couple of mornings later on leash around the neighborhood in sub-freezing temperatures and he did not budge when I gave him a typical, “Marley, let’s keep going.” This is also not a cue or a command but generally encourages him to keep it moving. Because I was cold and ready to go home, I really noticed that he did not want to interrupt his sniffing. I gave some serious thought to what is going on, and I think some of it is just a common age-related behavior.

Marley is at least six and perhaps a few years older than that, and I think he’s an older gentleman now who wants to do what he wants to do, rather than stop and do what I want him to do. Sure, the smells might be extra enticing, but I’m beginning to think he’s just more willing to assert his own desires rather than act as biddable as he has in the past.

He’s about the most agreeable dog I’ve ever known, and in no way stubborn as a major personality trait. I simply think he’s secure in himself and sometimes acts on his strong opinions, which include not wanting to stop doing something he’s enjoying just because I’ve suggested it. I’ve noticed this with other dogs over the years, too, and wondered about it.

I’m a big fan of letting dogs in their golden years have a little more leeway about doing what they want, and I try not to interrupt their sniffing or snoozing any more than necessary. Marley is far from being old, but he does seem to be channeling his inner middle-aged-fellow-who-wants-what-he-wants and is less willing to be influenced by anyone, including me. In my mind, I hear him saying things like, “In a minute,” or “Hold on a sec.”

His behavior does not reflect any sort of training issue. He’s still as responsive to cues as ever and will respond well to any that he knows, whether it’s something basic like “Sit” or “Come” or tricks like “Sit Pretty” and “High Five.” It’s just that he is not as quick to follow if I’m merely suggesting that I would like to move on. I love that he is smart enough to distinguish between cues that he’s supposed to respond to and mere indications of what I’m going to do. If I need him to come away from something, I can use his recall, and he’ll do it, but he used to act almost as if I had given the cue “Come” when I said, “This way.”

Has your dog become less likely to interrupt what he’s doing and respond to you as he’s gotten older?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s Dinnertime!
How does your dog let you know?
What does a dog have to do to get this thing filled up?

The dog was definitely letting us know that he was ready to be fed, and that he wanted us to get our sorry selves downstairs to the kitchen to attend to this pressing matter. Dinnertime is usually between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., and it was nearing the end of that hour. His stomach certainly knows how to tell time.

He kept opening and closing his mouth, looking around, and snapping in the air repeatedly. He walked to the top of the stairs a few times and then returned to the bedroom where we were all hanging out. He gave some sighs, a few longing looks and had a tendency to jump up if any of us made any sort of move. I guess he hoped that any action was a hopeful sign that someone (anyone!) was finally going to feed him.

When we did head downstairs at last, he was positively gleeful, bounding right over to his bowl and looking up expectantly. It was only then that we were certain what his slightly agitated behavior had been all about. He doesn’t usually act pushy in any way, including over food, so this was somewhat new behavior. I can only assume that he was especially hungry that evening, and eager to have his evening meal.

A lot of dogs have dinnertime alert rituals, whether it is barking, running to the cupboard where the food is stored, standing by the food bowl or picking it up and holding it. How does your dog let you know that it is time for dinner to be served?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Are You Special To Your Dog?
New research confirms that you are

Does your dog recognize you, the guardian, as unique in his life? Naturally, you consider him the most important, best, most special dog in the world, but does your dog view you as a unique treasure, or just as any old tall-two-legs capable of feeding him, putting on the leash, opening the door and playing with him?

A recent study in the journal Behavioural Processes titled “Dogs and their human companions: The effect of familiarity on dog–human interactions” investigated questions like these. Specifically, the scientists wanted to know whether dogs interacting with guardians, other people they know well and strangers behaved differently depending on how well they knew the person. With a series of tests on 20 dogs who were well socialized with some training experience, the researchers concluded that:

1. Dogs responded differently to the guardian and the stranger in most situations.  That is, if your dog is like the family dogs in this study, you matter more to your dog than a stranger does. (Whew!)

2. Dogs acted differently when they were with their guardians and when they were with a familiar person when the situation involved playfulness, fear or anxiety, or physical contact.

3. Dogs reacted similarly to their own guardian and people that they knew well when the task involved responding to obedience cues.

Understanding the effects of the guardian on dog behavior is important because it informs us about the attachment between humans and dogs. It also matters because it shows that behavioral research is affected by which humans, if any, are present during experiments.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The Challenge of Children
I’m sympathetic to many dogs

We all know that dogs and children can be a volatile mix, and that we must take care to protect kids from dogs. Regrettably, some kids are bitten and even more are scared or hurt by dogs chasing them or jumping up on them. As both a parent and as someone who works with dogs professionally, I see this as an important issue that we as a society must continue to improve.

Still, many times the interactions between kids and dogs leave me more concerned about the dogs than the children. Though far too many dog bites to kids happen, sometimes I think it’s amazing that there aren’t more considering what dogs have to put up with. While I think the majority of kids are kind to dogs, such good behavior is far from universal.

I’ve heard many people over the years praise their dogs by saying, “The kids can do ANYTHING to him.” I always respond by asking, “What are the kids doing to him?” while inside I’m crossing my paws and hoping it’s not too bad.

The answers range from the relatively benign (they follow him to pet him constantly, they dress him up) to the deeply concerning (they make a game of jumping over him, they use him like a pillow, they carry him around a lot) to the truly horrifying (they poke him in the eye, they pull his tail, they scream in his ear to wake him up, they try to ride him like a horse.)

My years working with clients as well as observations of dogs outside of work leave me with tremendous gratitude to the enormous numbers of dogs who react peacefully to kids. Some dogs are dealing with kids who are a bit rough, totally thoughtless or even downright cruel.

Without excusing dogs who have bitten kids, I think we’re asking dogs to put up with an awful lot considering what goes on in many households with kids. Almost every day, I silently thank the millions of dogs out there who have refrained from biting kids who bother them relentlessly. We’re very lucky as a society to have so many amazing canines as pets.

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do Dogs React to Being Laughed At?
I wonder if it makes them feel bad

Marley had jumped up on our bed, as he is allowed to do, but the rule is that he has to get down if he is asked to do so. On this particular night, he seemed exhausted and eager to go to bed. Once ensconced in his favorite spot, he avoided eye contact with all of us. Wherever our faces were, he was looking the other way.

I proposed the idea that perhaps he was trying to avoid being told to get down off the bed, in an “If I can’t see you, you can’t see me” kind of way. This was pure guesswork, but the rest of my family thought it was funny because it really seemed to fit.

We began to act like him, looking away, pretending that nobody could tell us it was bedtime or anything else we didn’t want to hear, and we were all laughing. I caught a glance at Marley, and he looked really unhappy, which is when I said, “I wonder if he feels bad because we’re laughing at him.”

In truth we found Marley endearing and funny, and meant no disrespect, but how did he perceive it? Dogs are so in tune with our emotions and actions, and they are obviously intensely social beings, so it seems possible that he felt himself the object of derision where none was intended.

It made me sad to contemplate the idea, and my husband and kids felt the same way. We stopped laughing immediately and began to pet Marley as we usually would when we’re all about to go to bed. Soon Marley looked happy again, though still tired.

It’s no fun being laughed at, and it does happen to dogs, whether our intent is hurtful or not. Do you think your dog can tell if others are laughing at his expense?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How Can This Be Comfortable?
Dogs rest in the weirdest positions

I don’t understand how dogs can possibly be comfortable in some of the positions they choose to be in. Take Marley, for example, in this picture. Even with every effort to remember that he is not a human and that I shouldn’t project my preferences on him, this makes no sense to me.  He looks like a “before” picture in an ad for a chiropractor.

Over the years, I’ve seen dogs resting with their necks bent at 90-degree angles, with their paws straight up in the air and with their faces smashed against the wall. I’ve seen them sleeping in their food bowls, tangled up with each other and with cats on top of them. Some dogs stretch out completely flat in way that seems impossible for canine joints while others are curled so tightly in boxes that I would have bet good money they would be unable to squeeze into them. I’ve even seen a few who have actually fallen asleep with their bodies suspended between the couch and coffee table.

Marley, and many other dogs, put themselves into what look like contortions on a regular basis. They do it on the floor, on the couch, and in bed. About the only place I don’t typically see dogs in odd postures is in their crates, but there are exceptions to that, too.

In what unfathomable position have you found your dog?

Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog Pushes Baby in Swinging Crib
Gentle help from Charlie the Beagle

I strongly believe that when you have a new baby, you should accept all assistance available to you. “Turn down no offer of help” was some of the best advice I ever got, and I frequently pass it on to other parents.

One family’s dog is able to offer rocking services to keep a baby swinging gently in her crib. In this video, you can see that the dog looks at the camera operator, who I presume is the guardian, after each push to the crib. He seems to be checking in, and I like to imagine him asking, “Did I do good?” (I never imagine that dogs consistently speak with proper grammar.)

This activity combines a happy baby and time for the dog to work on a specific skill, which is no different than training any other trick or action.  It looks to me as though the dog is being cued to rock the crib each time, based on how he continues to look at the person operating the camera. I hope the dog gets reinforced for responding correctly, because he really does a nice job gently contacting the crib so it rocks in a controlled way.

The dog does look nervous, but it could be that it’s the camera rather than anything else about the situation that is upsetting to him. Even if the dog showed signs of being completely relaxed, I would never want this to be an unsupervised activity. There’s too much risk of the dog overdoing the swinging or of the baby reacting with crying or other distress. It’s hard to say how the dog would react. It is easy to say, though, that this behavior is cute as well as having a practical component.

Pages