Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Something soft and cozy, please!
Jack does not like to lie down on any hard surfaces. This dog will be with us all weekend, and since our entire downstairs is uncarpeted, it will be littered with sheepskins, towels and blankets. He likes the sheepskin he is on in the picture the most, but he will choose any soft option over a hard one.
I’ve sometimes heard people insist that dogs lie down on a hard floor because of the inconvenience of providing other options even if the dogs are clearly hesitant. Jack’s distaste for lying down on wood or tile floors is not a problem for me. He’s an exceptionally sweet, agreeable dog, and if he feels so strongly about this one thing, I can adjust. Many dogs share Jack’s distaste for lying down without at least a tiny cushioning layer, and I think that’s reasonable. It doesn’t mean that a dog is stubborn, difficult or spoiled, even though you may have heard that it does. There’s probably a good explanation why any particular dog avoids lying down on a bare floor.
Typically, dogs who want a place that’s soft and cozy are either really skinny, on the older side, have very short hair or are in some kind of pain. Basically, that means that lying down on a hard floor hurts them or makes them feel cold. People don’t like to lie down in a spot that causes a chill or pain, either. It makes sense that dogs would similarly resist.
If your dog hates lying on the hard floor, by all means provide a more comfortable spot to rest. If your dog suddenly develops an obvious inclination to seek out the softest place available before lying down and actively resists lying down on a hard surface, it’s a good idea to try to find out why. A good first step is telling your veterinarian about this change and having your dog examined for potential physical explanations.
Does your dog avoid lying down on hard floors?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
One simple tip to try
Trouble when visitors arrive is a common concern of many guardians. I get calls every week because people want help with dogs who react badly to anyone who comes to the house. More often than not, these dogs are afraid, but people rarely call to say that they have a fearful dog. They call to tell me that their dogs are barking and lunging, growling, or even biting visitors.
Comprehensive programs for improving a dog’s emotional state and behavior when visitors arrive must be individually designed for each dog and each situation. Often, the use of treats or favorite toys is involved so that the dog learns that all visitors have something fun and wonderful to offer. When a dog has grasped the strong connection between visitors and good things, happiness can replace fear as the dog’s response to people coming to the house. That’s a very brief and simplified description of what can often be a long and detailed process. Sometimes a little trick can help make visits easier for dogs so that they are in a better state for learning to like having company.
The little trick is to make sure that the dog does not see the visitors enter but only first notices them when they are already settled in the house. It’s a lot easier for a dog to see people already seated in the living room or around the table than it is for the dog to see people arrive and enter. Having visitors show up at the door is a very intense situation for a fearful dog. The sight, smell and sound of someone other than a family member appearing at the door and entering the home is a big deal to a dog who is not comfortable with new people. It sets off all of their alarm bells (“Intruder! Code red, code red!”) I’m all for avoiding this challenging situation whenever possible.<
To avoid that situation takes some planning ahead. Hopefully, you can tell your visitors to call or text right before coming in so that you can make sure you have the situation set up to maximize your chances of success. Before opening the door for your visitors, temporarily put your dog in a place out of sight of the entry such as in a crate in another room, in the back yard or in the laundry room. I’ve even had clients briefly put their dog in the car in the garage if that is where the dog is most comfortable when not with his guardians.
Once the dog is where you want him, let your visitors in, have them sit down and give them whatever treats or toys your dog loves best. Then, bring your dog into the room where the visitors are and have them give the dog those goodies. Depending on the details of the dog’s issues, you may need to have the dog on a leash or behind a gate during this interaction.
Some dogs will be fine with people once they have met them in this way, and if that’s the case, then this may be all you have to do during this particular visit. Other dogs may react as usual if anyone stands up or makes any sudden movements, and may be better off kept separate from the visitors after the initial exposure. Such dogs can benefit from additional work, but this technique can still be a good first step. No single method suits every dog, and extra caution is always advisable with dogs who have bitten. Still, it is easier for almost all fearful dogs to meet visitors who are already in the house sitting down than it is to meet people as they enter the house.
Have you tried this technique with any dogs who react to visitors because they are afraid of them?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Meeting the dog at home is not enough
One of the obstacles to proper socialization is a misunderstanding of the details of the process. Specifically, many of my clients have told me that they didn’t worry too much about socializing their new puppy because they have another dog at home, and the puppy and that dog get along great. There is an assumption that if a dog can interact properly with one dog, they can interact with all dogs. Regrettably, this is not true.
Exposure to many dogs in the early months of a puppy’s life teaches the puppy to be comfortable with unfamiliar dogs in addition to teaching him to be comfortable with the particular dogs he has met. While meeting the other dog at home is a great place to start socializing a puppy, it is unwise to stop there. Many dogs grow up behaving beautifully around the other dog in the family but are totally unable to cope with any other dogs. That’s because such dogs only had the opportunity to learn that the dog at home is a friend, but never learned that any other dog can be a friend, too. Judging the dog based only on the behavior around that one dog paints a very incomplete picture of his social skills.
An analogy is to consider a girl who is very relaxed and comfortable around her brother and to assume that she’s comfortable around boys. In reality, she may be shy, tongue-tied or completely awkward around boys. Her behavior around her brother is an exception that is out of step with the real pattern
Many well-meaning dog guardians forego the usual suggestions to socialize a puppy, and they do so because they erroneously believe that one dog at home (or even several) will provide adequate socialization. Not so. Puppies need to meet a lot of dogs in order to be able to interact in a socially appropriate way with unfamiliar dogs throughout their lives and to feel comfortable doing so. If a puppy meets lots of dogs early on, the lesson that all other dogs are potential social partners is more likely to be learned and to be applied to all dogs.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How does it measure up to his looks?
“Your dog has a great look!” I called out to a woman at the park.
She looked at me suspiciously and actually asked, “Are you talking to me?”
I assured her that I was, though understanding immediately why she questioned me on that point. Her dog was not what most people would consider an attractive dog. He was a bit odd-looking to be honest, with a head that was small in proportion to his body, some very random color patterns in his slightly straggly coat and an ear that had been torn at some point in his life and healed imperfectly.
When I had commented on his “look,” I was referring to an aspect of his behavior—his expression—rather than his overall appearance. The look on his face as she took a flying squirrel toy out of her bag was one that combined pure joy, complete attention and enthusiasm without the slightest sign of over arousal. That combination is hardly common in my professional work with dogs with serious behavior problems, so I enjoyed it and appreciated its significance. This was a great dog—attentive, not excessively revved up, playful and happy. I was impressed with his expression, prompting me to comment on his “great look.”
Thanks to the ambiguity of the English language, my comment was misunderstood, and I suspect that the woman thought I was overcompensating and pretending that the dog was gorgeous or mocking her. It’s a fair assumption that nobody had ever told her that her dog was a handsome fellow. He is beautiful on the inside, but most people aren’t going to argue that he is gorgeous on the outside, and that’s a shame.
I’ve always maintained that some of the happiest guardians are those who pick dogs based on who they are on the inside and actively choose to love what they look like on the outside instead of doing it the other way around. This woman seemed happy once I had explained that I was impressed with her dog’s expression and went into detail about it. She told me that she loves his look, too, but that not everybody sees beyond his looks.
I’ve loved dogs who were visually stunning and dogs who were not, except perhaps to me. Do you have a dog whose “look” is a better representation of who he is than his “looks” are? Or a dog whose “look” and “looks” are both lovely?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Overwhelming a dog is not good socialization
There were easily 300 people in the school building that Saturday morning, all milling around and signing their kids up for various after school activities. There was also one very young puppy being carried through the crowd becoming more and more exhausted and increasingly overwhelmed.
When I say “very young,” I mean that I suspected that they had just picked up their new Lab puppy within the last few days even before they told me. (In fact, they had just brought her home the night before.) The dog was so small that she was outsized by over half the purses there. In addition, she had that loose skin look of brand new puppies. You know what I mean—it looked as though if you blew up that skin like a beach ball, there would be room for at least one and maybe two additional puppies in there with her.
Her new guardians were carrying her in their arms and everyone was touching, petting and leaning in at the puppy, whose eyes were wide until she was so tuckered out that they closed for an involuntary nap. She seemed like a stable enough puppy and never looked downright fearful, but she did look overwhelmed. That’s no surprise really—she was in a big crowd with too many people getting too close to her, and many people were hugging her guardian so that she got wrapped up awkwardly in the squeeze.
It breaks my heart to see a puppies dealing with such situations during the first few days or weeks in a new home because I know the guardians think they are doing right by their dogs. Everybody knows you have to socialize your puppy and get her to meet new people, but many people think that having a puppy around large numbers of people is the right way to do it. That’s perhaps a reflection of how misunderstood the concept of socialization is.
Socialization is an important part of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Socialization is the exposure to potential social partners during the early part of dogs’ lives, and typically occurs when puppies are three to 16 weeks old. That time is a critical period of development during which dogs learn who their potential social partners are. A critical period is a stage during which an animal is especially receptive to learning something.
For example, a critical period for learning language exists for humans, and if we are only exposed to a language after that critical period, we are unlikely to ever speak it like a native. It will always be a foreign language to us with perhaps an accent or grammatical difficulties, however slight. Similarly, dogs who are not properly specialized during the critical period may always have social skills that are not natural to them, but have an “accent” or various difficulties with social behavior.
For dogs, socialization requires providing puppies positive experiences with people in the first few months of life. Note that I specifically said, “positive experiences.” If a dog has negative experiences with people early on, they learn not to be comfortable and social with people, but to be nervous or afraid around them. That’s why bringing a puppy to a large crowded place the day after being adopted is potentially damaging and not recommended. It’s far better to meet people one or two at a time and have those people provide treats, toys and gentle touching in a calm setting. Exposure to people and other dogs that results in positive experiences for the puppy provides proper socialization. Being in a large crowd and becoming overwhelmed does not.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Recognizing individuals’ poop
At The Bark, we regularly share dog stories with one another, often just for fun. When Editor Claudia Kawczynska told me about one of her latest experiences out on a walk, I just had to blog about it. It deals with two wonderful topics in the canine world: 1) poop and 2) the amazing olfactory abilities of dogs.
Claudia’s dog Charlie sometimes like to try to pee on Kit, who is another of her dogs, while she is peeing or pooping. Claudia usually intervenes to prevent Kit from ending up with a yellow stain on her back. Of course, life being what it is, sometimes it happens anyway. Charlie will also pee on Kit’s poop, a behavior which is called “overmarking.”
One day in an off-leash area, Claudia couldn’t find Kit’s poop to pick it up, so she asked Charlie (who is always by her side) to help her find it, which he did. He peed on it, and then Claudia picked it up. On another occasion, Claudia asked him to do the same thing, and he did. This time, he ignored at least three piles of poop that were not Kit’s, but finally peed on hers. Claudia knew it was Kit’s because she and her dogs were the only ones at the park and the pile of poop was too fresh to have been anyone else’s. (In case you’re curious, Claudia bagged up the other three piles of poop, too. Some people do more than their share in all areas of life!) It’s hard to know whether Charlie was responding to Claudia’s cue to find Kit’s poop, or he was just seeking it out because that’s what he likes to do.
As a practical person, I love the way the detection of individual poop by Charlie allows Claudia to be sure she cleans up after her dog if she happens to miss “the event.” It’s so easy to have that happen in off leash areas, especially if you have more than one dog with you.
Given that dogs can use their noses to smell whale poop underwater, to detect low blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes as well as cancer in people, bacteria in diseased bee hives and a whole host of weapons and drugs, it’s hard to be surprised by what dogs can do. It also makes sense that dogs would be able to tell which poop comes from their housemates. The components of the odor of any pile of poop is going to include chemicals related to that dog’s diet, intestinal flora, sex, reproductive status and a whole host of other factors that create an individual odor signature. Social animals of all kinds are adept at recognizing individual members of the group, and dogs can do this through olfactory, auditory and visual means.
Still, just because I’m not surprised doesn’t mean I’m not impressed. I’ve not lost the admiration for dogs and their amazing abilities that began when I first focused on them professionally, and hopefully never will.
Do you have a dog who has demonstrated the ability to identify the poop of another one of your dogs?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Not all “scaredy” dogs have been mistreated.
“She must have been abused,” is a comment I hear with alarming regularity. When a dog cowers and shakes or barks and growls at a person wearing a hat, it’s natural to think that the strong reaction is proof of previous harsh treatment by someone wearing a hat. It’s easy to conclude that a dog who’s scared of children was teased by the neighborhood Dennis the Menace. Similarly, it’s logical to assume that a dog would only react aversely to a broom after having had terrifying experiences with one.
Without a doubt, far too many dogs suffer abuse, but not all dogs who seem to have been abused have been treated badly. Some are fearful because they were inadequately socialized, or have a genetic tendency to be fearful, or both. As often as not, a history of abuse is not a factor.
The most common scenario that leads people to conclude that a dog has been abused is the dog who’s fine with women but scared of men. In these cases, while it’s possible that a man abused the dog, the fact that a dog is afraid of men doesn’t prove the theory. Typically, dogs who have fearful tendencies are more scared of men than of women. I’ve met hundreds of dogs who were only scared of men, but exactly two who feared women more. The fact is, dogs who are fearful have a natural propensity to be more afraid of men. Nobody knows for sure why this is, but it’s likely that men’s larger size, broader shoulders, deeper voices and facial hair make them more intimidating.
Another reason that dogs might be more afraid of men was suggested by a study reported in Current Biology,“Correlated changes in perceptions of the gender and orientation of ambiguous biological motion figures.” When motion was detected only on pointlight displays*, observers perceived an interesting difference between male and female movement. Figures considered masculine in gait seemed to be approaching, while both feminine and gender-neutral gaits were seen as heading away. Fearful dogs are typically most frightened when something scary moves toward them—no wonder they find men more alarming than women.
Scent may also be a factor. A recent experiment, “Olfactory exposure to males, including men, causes stress and related analgesia in rodents,” reported in Nature Methods, showed that mice and rats react differently to male and female experimenters because of differences in the way that they smell. That means that all studies of these rodents’ behavior may have been influenced by the gender of the people conducting the study. The test animals became highly stressed and exhibited decreased pain responses in the presence of human males; even T-shirts worn by men (but not those worn by women) caused this reaction.
The rodents were similarly stressed by odors from males of a range of species, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even other rodents. Males release certain pheromones in larger concentrations than females, and these fearinducing chemicals are shared among mammals, which means that dogs could also be affected by them. Scent differences could very likely affect dogs and cause them to be more frightened around men.
The assumption that fear of men indicates a history of abuse by a man is not the only one that may be erroneous. Many people are sure that dogs who react negatively to people with hats or backpacks proves past abuse by a person sporting those same objects. While again, this is possible, it’s more likely that the dog is simply unfamiliar with the objects themselves and the way that they change people’s appearance. Many react fearfully to a changed silhouette, becoming frightened, for example, by the sight of someone they know and love wearing a hat. Once the person removes the hat, the dog switches to happy greeting behavior.
Another commonly misunderstood area relates to the fear of children. Many dogs are skittish around children because of their erratic behavior, especially if they were not well socialized to them at an early age. After all, from a dog’s perspective, kids behave in peculiar and unexpected ways. They change direction suddenly, roll on the ground, move at variable speeds, make weird noises and are generally high-energy, bipedal whirling dervishes. Dogs who are naturally fearful may find excitable, loud humans in motion to be unpredictable, which is frightening. (On the flip side, there are fearful dogs who do fine with kids, but are terrified of adults. Usually, such dogs have had positive experiences with children and are used to their erratic behavior.)
If a dog’s fearfulness toward specific types of people or certain everyday items doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog has been abused, how can you tell if your dog suffered from abuse in the past? The honest answer is that— unless you have the dog’s full backstory— you can never know for certain. However, some clues may help you make an educated guess. Abuse is less likely as an explanation for a dog’s fearfulness if the dog’s reactions fit the pattern associated with dogs who are naturally fearful. The most common pattern is for such dogs to be cautious around strangers, especially men, and to be worse around tall, deep-voiced men with beards, or anyone carrying things—garden implements, brooms or mops, or a clipboard, or wearing sunglasses, a backpack or a hat. Dogs with a generally fearful approach to the world often react most vigorously when unfamiliar people approach, look directly at them, stand up from a sitting position or reach down to pet them.
If the dog has sustained multiple injuries, such as broken bones or teeth, or has scars on the face and body, abuse is more likely. Of course, those injuries could be a result of accidents, and some forms of abuse leave no scars. Still, a dog with unexplained evidence of physical trauma is more likely to have been a victim of abuse than a dog without it.
If a dog’s fear is highly specific, it is more likely to be based on trauma, which could have come in the form of abuse. So, if a dog is afraid of freckled, redheaded children with glasses in the age range of 10 to 12 years, but fine with all other kids, it’s more likely that a negative experience with a child of that description caused the fear. On the other hand, if a dog is only okay with children who are older than about 16, my bet would be that the dog lacks experience with a wide range of children and is only comfortable with children who are more adult-like in size and behavior. Similarly, if the dog is okay with men unless they are wearing loafers with a buckle, I would be inclined to suspect abuse. Specificity of fears is more likely to indicate abuse, because dogs who are generally fearful are usually set off by a wider range of triggers.
Even in the case of a specific fear, we have to be careful about assuming that abuse was the cause. For example, I had a client whose dog was fearful of and aggressive toward only one person. Sounds like that person might have beaten the dog, right? Not in this case. The man the dog was afraid of was the neighbor who had saved the dog’s life during a house fire; the wonderful man went into the house and carried the dog out before the firefighters arrived. Until then, the dog liked this man, but was terrified of him after the fire, presumably because he associated the man with the horrible experience.
While anyone who loves dogs wants to know if a particular dog has been abused, the same process is used to help a dog overcome fears of any origin. Classical conditioning, desensitization and patience will serve people and dogs equally well. It’s critical not to force a frightened dog into situations that provoke fear, but instead, to protect the dog from scary circumstances. Be gentle and kind and refrain from using punishment. Feel free to comfort any dog who is scared without worrying about the common (but misplaced) warning that this will reinforce the fear. Accept that many fearful dogs never become gregarious, go-with-the-flow types, and love them for who they are rather than who you think they should be.
Some people seem relieved when I tell them that their dog may not have been abused, while others seem disappointed to give up the “feel good” story of adopting a dog who was mistreated. I empathize with both groups.
I can understand the relief, and I can also understand how gratifying it feels to give a loving home to a dog who only knew cruelty before. And while I certainly can’t say definitively which dogs with unknown histories have been abused and which haven’t, I agree with other progressive trainers and behaviorists that abused dogs are not as common as one might think.
Many wonderful clients whose dogs are fearful and reactive have said to me, “People are going to think we’ve abused her, but I swear we’ve never hurt her.” It’s a pleasure when I can reassure them that I do believe them, and for very good reason.
* Point-light displays are made by filming people, animals or objects with reflective markers or point lights attached to the major joints, and then processing the video so that only the point lights are visible.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Animal trainer Teresa Miller’s canine cast is Oscar-worthy
White God, the latest film by acclaimed Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó, is a tale of politics, class and society. The movie tells the story of a group of unruly canines confined to an overcrowded public shelter in Budapest who break free of their chains and storm the streets of the city, waging bloody retaliation against their human oppressors. White God draws upon Eastern Europe’s painfully recent history of government tyranny and exploitation under Communism, as well as its subsequent slide into radical ultra-conservatism, to construct a fast- paced, emotionally devastating parable about the fearsome power of a dehumanized underclass.
The film’s perspective shifts between that of the four-legged rebel leader, Hagen, and his adolescent human sympathizer, Lili. While Hagen endures starvation, abuse and confinement, Lili roams the streets searching for her lost pet, whose agonies are the result of a cruel, impulsive abandonment by Lilli’s embittered father. The real culprit, though, is a “mutt tax” levied against all non-purebreds, which is so ridiculously high that Lili’s father refuses to pay it. Though the film has a fairy tale quality, it is strictly adult fare and not suitable for children. There are scenes of violence and inhumanity that may prove upsetting to any animal lover.
Still, White God is a cinematic triumph—all of the filming is live action using real dogs—hundreds of them. Atypical for this day and age, the filmmakers avoided computer generated imagery (CGI). That choice lends the film a level of reality and surrealness unlike any film before it. The complexity of the crowd scenes and action sequences has to be seen to be believed, made all the more incredible when you know the task the film’s animal trainers were faced with. The trainer for White God’ is Teresa Miller, she and the director, Kornél Mundruczó, share their thoughts on the making of the film. Mundruczó, share their thoughts on the making of the film.
TRAINER: TERESA MILLER
To cast the right dog to play Hagen, I literally researched hundreds of dogs that were available to be adopted. I started locally in California and branched further West, as Kornél had not yet seen “Hagen” in my pictures. It was important to not only find that unique dog that would stand out in a pack of 200 dogs but also a dog that had a photo double. The amount of work that the dog had to do in this film would have been nearly impossible without the help of a double. After two months of searching I finally found “Luke” and “Bodie,” two brothers that were in need of a new home. They were very young—nine months old—and had a lot of energy and playfulness which was essential to accomplish this project. We began training in December of 2012 and in February 2013, traveled to Budapest to begin working with the pack dogs, trained by Arpad Halasz. The “Hagen” dogs were 13 months old when we started filming.
I have been training animals for the film industry since 1983. I worked very closely and learned most of my trade by working with my father, Karl Lewis Miller, for more than 20 years. He is responsible for many successful animal films such as Beethoven, Babe, K-9 and the infamous dog Cujo and the white Shepherd from Samuel Fuller’s film White Dog, to name a few. He was a master at training acting dogs, not just dogs that performed.
While preparing the dogs for the film White God, many training techniques were used to safely portray the level of violence that is depicted in the film. At no time was any animal treated badly or hurt in any manner. For example: The “Hagen” dogs were always wagging their tail and they looked too sweet, so I taught them to put their tail down. I also taught them to hang their head down to look sad or mean. We used an artificial dog for the scenes of medical and dental work. I also taught him to snarl and growl at me—not because he was angry, but because I asked him to respond to me that way.
DIRECTOR: KORNÉL MUNDRUCZÓ
It was a therapeutic experience. It was like coming into contact with Mother Nature herself or even a bit of the Universe: It was the big picture. It was a shooting process where we had to adjust to them, and not the other way around. The film is an outstanding example of the singular cooperation between two species. It was also an uplifting experience because each dog that appeared in the film came to us from shelters, and after the shooting ended, they were all adopted and found new homes.
While cooperating with the dogs, we adhered to the instructions of the U.S. Guide to Animal Treatment in all cases. Each scene had to be playful and painless for the animals. In a sense, the dogs became actors and the actors became dogs.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The (Next) Love of Your Life
Whether you’re searching for your first best friend or the next one, choosing a dog to welcome into your home and heart takes some thought.
The right decision is the difference between an uneasy relationship and a match made in heaven. Many people choose a dog without much reflection, and honestly, a lot of the time, things work out fine. Sometimes, though, a combination of unfortunate choices and bad luck leads to trouble. Whether it’s an incompatibility issue or serious behavior problems, a mismatch can sure get in the way of a loving relationship and the companionship we seek from dogs.
Thoughtful consideration about the kind of dog who best suits your lifestyle will help you avoid some common mistakes: Getting a long-haired-needs-to-be-brushed-every-day dog if you never bother to comb your own hair. Adopting a committed barker if you live in an apartment. Picking an athletic dog because nothing else has made your dream of leaving your couch-potato ways behind come true.
Since some traits are more common in certain breeds than others, choosing by breed can be a good place to start. There are exceptions, but few will argue that a Dachshund is as good a backpacking companion as a Labrador Retriever, for example, or that a Sheltie and a Greyhound are equally likely to bark excessively. Many people, including me, have a particular fondness for mixed-breed dogs, but if you know you want a dog to work sheep or some other highly specific task, choosing a purebred who has been bred to perform certain behaviors has advantages.
Regardless of your personal preferences, however, a purebred dog isn’t guaranteed to have a good temperament or good health, or be compatible with you. (Mixed-breeds come without this guarantee as well.)
It’s also common to focus on the type of dog and fail to give enough consideration to the individual dog, even though that factor is so critical to everyone’s future happiness. This stage of the selection process requires careful thought as well.
Remember that what is most likely to make you happy is the dog’s behavior, not the dog’s looks. That sounds obvious, but it’s often forgotten when you meet a dog who is so eye-catching that your heart melts, followed by your brain. I know it’s hard to resist, but don’t let beauty trump good sense.
Appearances can lead you astray in other ways. It’s unwise to pick a dog because he looks like one you used to love. That brown spot shaped like a crescent moon right above his tail is not the trait that made your angel dog from childhood an angel. Ditto for the color of his eyes, the tendency for one ear to be up and the other down, or his endearingly comical leggy proportions.
The best predictor of a dog’s behavior is the parents’ behavior. This information is not always available, but if it is, pay attention! If someone tells you that you can’t meet the father because he’s aggressive, don’t even consider a puppy from a litter he sired. The mother’s behavior is just as critical, so if it’s possible to know anything about her or to meet her, take note of her actions. Ask what she (and the sire) would do if a child took her toy, or if she met a strange dog on the street, or if a strange man went in for a hug, and pay attention to the answers.
Whether you are adopting a puppy, an adolescent or an adult, never ignore the most important predictor of a dog’s behavior, which is the behavior of the dog’s parents. Information on parentage can be hard to come by, especially for adolescents and adults, but always ask about it. You may be surprised to find out that some specifics are known.
And while I think it’s prudent to consider temperament tests or other behavioral assessments, I wouldn’t accept them as gospel. A recent study of the value of such tests performed in shelters found that of the many things they measured, only fear and friendliness had any predictive value once the dog was placed in a home (Mornement et al. 2014). Clearly, temperament tests don’t come through on their promises to tell us all we want to know about dogs before adopting them (Hekman 2014). Still, we can’t pretend they’re pointless, either. Surely it’s better to do some sort of evaluation rather than play eenie-meenie-miney-mo, or choose the dog you think is better looking than the others.
It bodes well when a dog solicits play or responds to your attempts to play. A playful dog in a strange situation with an unfamiliar person has not been shut down by fear or stress, and that’s good. There are plenty of scared, stressed dogs who make wonderful pets and are loved beyond measure, but let’s face it, dogs who don’t chronically suffer from either of these negative emotions have advantages. One study showed that dogs who responded rather than ignored people’s attempts to play with them were more likely to be adopted (Protopopova and Wynne 2014). This suggests that playfulness already influences adoption, whether we consciously attend to it or not.
I’m favorably impressed by dogs who are comfortable being touched. Enjoying petting and seeking close physical contact are great signs, but not deal breakers if dogs aren’t immediately into it. When they’re in a strange environment, it’s natural for them to want to sniff around and explore a bit. However, while an instant desire for petting is not essential, later on, once they’ve calmed down, it’s a reasonable expectation.
Speaking of calming down, I pay a lot of attention to whether or not a dog is capable of doing so, and how long it takes. I have no problem with dogs who get excited. Perhaps they’ve been in a kennel for a long time and are short on exercise and social contact. Naturally, they are thrilled to greet you and run around a new place. Still, a dog who shows no signs of getting over that initial arousal and excitement within a few minutes may struggle with self-control in a lot of situations, and that’s not ideal in a pet dog.
Whether the dog leans toward being playful or toward wanting physical contact, it’s smart to choose a dog who engages with you. Exactly how they do that and what appeals to you personally are both matters of individual choice, but it’s important that they express an interest. Otherwise, you may be swimming upstream in trying to build a strong relationship and to train the dog.
I also like to evaluate a dog’s trainability by observing how quickly he learns a new behavior and how interested he is in the process. Teaching a dog to sit or lie down, to leave a piece of food on the ground, or to touch a target stick are a few great options for assessing trainability. A dog who can be trained demonstrates focus and attention, and an interest in you or in food (or perhaps both).
It’s promising when a dog recovers quickly from being startled by a loud noise, such as a book dropped on the floor. If a dog gets scared and hides for hours, that’s a problem. What you’re looking for is a dog who, though startled, takes only a moment to return to his normal emotional state. It indicates an ability to regulate his emotions and deal with the many little shocks that life brings.
Although there are a lot of things to do in order to choose a dog who is a good match for you, you also need to know what not to do: Don’t pick a dog out of pity; it’s not the best way to start a relationship. Remember, you are giving a home to one dog no matter which dog you choose, so choose the one you really want. Don’t rush into it or acquire a dog on impulse. It makes things harder on everyone if you bring a dog home when you are not ready emotionally, financially or logistically. Don’t buy from a pet store or any place that gets dogs from puppy mills. If you do, you are supporting a system that harms dogs. When there is no demand for dogs from these places, dogs will no longer be bred for them or mistreated in them.
If you are planning on welcoming a puppy rather than an adolescent or adult dog, there are a couple of extra “don’ts” to consider: Don’t pick the puppy who is off by himself in the corner while the others tumble around together. That “lone wolf” sort of puppy may be endearing and pull at your heart, but he is not exhibiting normal social behavior. The dog who does not interact will be less likely to build strong connections with you or with other dogs, and far more likely to have serious behavior problems that will distress you and your family down the road.
Similarly, resist the temptation to pick the puppy who is running over everyone and showing no self-control or respect for boundaries. Such “mack truck” puppies are likely to be that way throughout life, and it’s not a trait that’s fun to live with. Lack of impulse control can make training, relationships and daily life challenging beyond description.
There are many, many dogs out there—in shelters and rescue groups (including breed rescue), and from responsible breeders—who could be a great friend as well as a family member you can’t imagine life without. May your search lead you to one who will become your true love!
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A look at an innovative dog training program at University of Pennsylvania
A unique program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—not only trains detection dogs from puppyhood, but also, studies every aspect of their development in order to determine how to identify and train the finest detection dogs possible, dogs whose work is critical when natural and human-caused disasters hit. The center officially opened on September 11, 2012, at a former DuPont facility just south of the main campus. All of the puppies are named after dogs who served at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We want to focus on what the nose can do,” says the center’s founder and director, Cynthia Otto, associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto, who had been providing medical care to detection dogs for FEMA since 1994, joined a contingent of first-responders from Pennsylvania at Ground Zero in September 2001. Initially, the dogs were deployed to search for survivors, but ended up locating the remains of victims.
After the disaster, Otto and some of her colleagues in the working-dog world took a serious look at the factors that come into play in the best detection dogs. Was it genetics? Or could a dog’s natural talents be optimized? Was it possible to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues? If so, how? Otto, a scientist, began planning a program that would provide answers.
Otto decided to break with the practice of most detection-dog programs—including those of the military and many law enforcement agencies—which wait until dogs are a year old before beginning their detection training. Instead, she wanted to give puppies an overall “liberal arts” experience that included obedience, agility, searching, direction and control, drive building, impulse control, socialization, play, fitness, and husbandry. Then, she would study their development during that crucial first year, gather evidence of what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to guide the development (and identification) of even better detection dogs.
Another unusual feature of the center is that, rather than being kenneled, the dogs live in foster homes. Such a system requires a great deal of organization; after several years of fund-raising and searching for a location, Otto hired three full-time employees to manage operations, direct the dogs’ training and coordinate the many volunteers who would be required. Then, she and her staff set about finding puppies whose pedigrees indicated that they had the drive and temperament to become exemplary detection dogs.
Ronnie, a black sable German Shepherd, is one of the dogs who spent his first year at the new Penn Vet Working Dog Center. As a puppy, he was fostered by Cathy Von Elm and lived with her and Auggie, Von Elm’s Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in their Center City Philadelphia home. Evenings and weekends were spent doing typical puppy things: playing with Auggie, tossing giant fleece bones in the air, filching ice from Von Elm’s glass, going to the country on weekends. Every weekday morning, however, on her way to work, Von Elm dropped Ronnie off at “school”—the Penn Vet center; in the evening, on her way home, she picked him up.
Ronnie came from breeder Julie Stade, whom Otto had met in 2012 at a national breeders’ conference, where Otto was giving a seminar. Stade, who’s based in Kansas and is known for her work with Doberman Pinschers, had recently made a foray into breeding German Shepherds and was awaiting her first litter. The parents came from impressive lines of Czech dogs, and Stade was interested in donating one of the puppies to the center.
Her timing was excellent: Otto was looking for just the right German Shepherd to add to her class of puppies. She wanted a namesake for another Ronnie—a Czech German Shepherd whose handler, David Lee, had been a longtime detection-work colleague before his retirement from the Philadelphia police force. (Lee had introduced Otto to Annemarie DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Trooper and founder of their canine program, who became the center’s director of training.)
In November 2012, Stade’s dog Burana whelped; Ronnie was the fifth of nine males. As she does with every new litter, Stade conducted what she calls “the matching game”: figuring out which dog is best suited for a prospective owner. “It’s my favorite part of the process,” she says. Stade observes the puppies’ behavior from birth and presents them with challenges, such as a variety of loud noises, to see how they respond—who gives up, who perseveres, who looks to a human to solve the problem, who whines.
After she’d narrowed down the choice to three dogs, Stade and her husband took Burana and the puppies to a park that was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from their farm, an adventure they hoped would help her make the final decision. “I had the brilliant idea of putting them in the back of a horse trailer,” she says ruefully.
Stade rode in the back with the dogs and all of their equipment, but she quickly discovered that without a horse’s weight, the trailer and everything inside bounced. “It was a far more extreme test than I ever would have done intentionally. I never want to put puppies in a situation where they question or doubt themselves.”
Ronnie, still unnamed, was identified only by his yellow collar. While his red-collared and blue-collared brothers reacted to the sounds and movement by becoming angry or anxious, Ronnie took in his surroundings and then promptly curled up and drifted off to sleep. Ronnie wasn’t just an intrepid traveler—he seemed to be unflappable.
In late January 2013, the time came for Ronnie to leave Stade’s farm for his life in Philadelphia. By then, however, the cold weather made it risky to ship him in a plane’s cargo hold. The center needed a volunteer to carry Ronnie on the flight. But there was another complication: Stade likes to keep her puppies well fed just before placement so they have some extra padding to help them adjust to the stress of their new surroundings.
“Ronnie was really fat,” she confesses. In fact, he was eight weeks old and weighed 29 pounds. Would he even fit under the seat of a plane? There was only one solution. David Lee, now a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, was unlikely to be challenged if there were difficulties during the flight. He volunteered to fly to Kansas and bring Ronnie to Philadelphia.
Lee recalled seeing the Buddha-shaped Ronnie for the first time: “He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed … just a ball of fire.” While playing tug with Ronnie, Lee instantly fell for his charms, but wondered what he’d be like on the plane. Lee had yet to discover that Ronnie didn’t just resemble Buddha—he possessed his enlightened detachment, too. On the flight, Ronnie didn’t flinch, whine or bark. He just sat on Lee’s lap. When Lee put Ronnie on the adjacent seat, he looked around, lay down and slept.
After arriving in Philadelphia, Lee was able to spend some time with Ronnie. He took him everywhere—to a warehouse, to the beach, down stairs. “Nothing fazed him,” Lee remembers. “He was a great dog even then.”
Trained for Excellence
School is a full-time affair at the Working Dog Center. After being dropped off each weekday morning before 9 am, the puppies spend the day at the center until their foster families pick them up sometime between 5 and 7 pm. The dogs are trained on-site, and their daily training regimens are tracked on a master board. All areas must be covered in a predetermined rotation, but obedience training takes place every day, if only while the dogs are being taken outdoors.
In addition to several indoor training areas, the center has a dedicated outdoor agility course and a rubble pile. They use a nearby vacant warehouse for search training. Regular field trips expose the dogs to as many different environments as possible. Destinations include local warehouses, airport terminals, the Philadelphia subways and the rubble pile, which is in New Jersey.
Dogs are grouped according to age so those with a similar skill level can go through a particular training scenario together, but they’re never held back because of their age. Each dog has to master basic scenarios before moving on to those that are more complex. Depending on how many staff members are available, the dogs go through two or three scenarios per day.
Search training, part of which involves finding a volunteer in an empty barrel on the agility course, is probably the most fun to watch—it’s like a really elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Or, one of the puppies might be let loose inside the empty warehouse to find a tug toy. The reward in either case is a well-earned game of tug and a wagging tail. “It’s a game, making it fun for them,” says Training Director DeAngelo.
Regardless of the setup, logistics matter. The dogs need to be transported to training destinations in crates, but the center’s cargo van cannot carry them all, so staff vehicles usually join the caravan. Each puppy also needs his or her own handler during training. Many of the handlers are volunteers or interns, and every attempt is made to pair a dog with the same handler as often as possible. In addition to the director of training, the center has two full-time and three part-time trainers. The part-time trainers have dedicated areas of expertise: agility, obedience and reactivity. When they’re not training, the dogs rest in their crates or are taken for walks, often to Penn’s main campus, where they play and socialize with students.
Otto estimates the costs of raising and training each dog to be $36,000. Penn’s vet school provides their health care, and various companies donate food and other supplies (foster families incur no expenses). In Ronnie’s case, the Wawa convenience store chain made a donation to the center to support his care. Such contributions are crucial, as the center depends entirely on donations for its operating budget.
Perhaps the most challenging fields for a detection dog are law enforcement and search and rescue (SAR). A major difference is that there are periods of inactivity in SAR work, but law-enforcement dogs work almost daily. “Ronnie can do anything,” declares Otto, and that seems to be the consensus of opinion among those who’ve come in contact with him. “He’s an awesome work dog,” says DeAngelo. David Lee goes further: “I’d love to be his handler. He’s the most laid-back dog I have ever worked with. The only thing that I would fear is if he did something that bored him. As long as it’s fun, that dog will work for days. He’s just that good.”
Initially, Otto was hesitant about placing the center’s dogs in law enforcement because that would require training them in bite work, a key component of criminal apprehension. Introducing an aggressive behavior has to be done carefully to avoid having it affect the dog’s personality. Nevertheless, when the police department of Philadelphia’s mass transit authority, known as SEPTA, announced that it was expanding its canine unit, Otto carefully considered the opportunity.
Ronnie had the chance to prove himself at SEPTA’s 2013 Iron Dog Challenge, an annual fundraiser in which teams of working dogs and their handlers compete in a specially designed course of more than 25 challenges, which include having the dog jump through a window, demonstrate nonreactivity to a gun shot, be carried uphill and placed over a barrier, complete a low crawl, and criminal apprehension. For Ronnie to compete, he had to be trained to bite on command.
Fortunately, one of the center’s volunteers is Bob Dougherty, a certified law enforcement canine trainer who is also a member of the Cheltenham, Penn., police K9 unit. Dougherty worked with Ronnie over several months of accelerated training that included more directed searching and tracking and the subtle work of teaching the bite-on-command behavior.
According to Dougherty, the key is to manage stress so that the dog never feels a pressure to perform, and training remains a game. Dougherty’s goal is to find a balance between achieving results from the dog and maintaining the dog’s happiness, so that the next time, the dog is even more eager to practice biting. “Ronnie is such an easy dog to work with,” says Dougherty. “All the foundation work was done so well. It wasn’t difficult at all.”
Although Ronnie didn’t place at the Iron Dog competition, he did well enough against the more than two dozen teams of certified working dogs and handlers that SEPTA officials took notice. Since 2005, SEPTA had been rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be canine officers. In January 2014, Ronnie and one of his classmates became the first dogs SEPTA purchased. With the help of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the group paid $8,000 for him.
Ronnie now lives with his handler, Officer Javier Class. Class is new to the canine unit, but has been around dogs all his life and always knew he wanted a canine partner. Nevertheless, when he met Ronnie, he was taken aback by the Shepherd’s size. Ronnie weighs100 pounds, and Class says it occurred to him that he might not be able to handle the dog. Class’s moment of doubt quickly disappeared as he and Ronnie bonded.
The two fulfill the principle of opposites attracting: whereas Class has plenty of patience, Ronnie is so eager to work that SEPTA’s head trainer, Officer Dave Parke, has instituted what he calls the “30-second rule”: he has to explain every new concept in 30 seconds so that Ronnie can get to work. Otherwise, the dog barks impatiently. When Ronnie is home with Class, his wife and two children, however, he’s a different dog. Class attributes this to the home environment that Von Elm and Auggie gave Ronnie in his first year.
Ronnie will almost certainly spend the rest of his life with Class and his family, even after he grows too old for active duty (something that’s difficult to imagine today). Barring injury or illness, Ronnie will work until he’s nine or 10, which is about the point at which dogs begin to lose their stamina for the rigors of scent work. For now, Ronnie’s most definitely on the job, and when he’s not, he spends a lot of time with his new best friend, Class’s six-year-old daughter. Their favorite game? Hide-and-seek, of course.
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