Step aside dominance, hello to loving and caring
The much over-used construct of “alpha” got a good roll over recently on the opinion pages of The New York Times. Carl Safina, the founder of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, writes in his insightful op-ed, “Tapping Your Inner Wolf,” about how the alpha notion is rather misguided and demonstrates a misunderstanding of what it really means to be a leader. Instead of the aggressive, snarling, chest beating male alpha posture that many see as being “top” wolf—or dog for that matter—he points out that true alpha wolves don’t need to be aggressive at all, and actually have a quiet self-confidence that is “not domineering and nor aggressive to those on his team.” Making them, in fact, an exemplary role model for our species.
Debunking of what it means to be “alpha” and how this plays out with our relationship to dogs, has often been the subject of Bark articles. Sadly there are still some trainers (especially ones with large TV followings), who still don’t get it and claim that dogs are trying to “dominate” us and it is up to us to show them who’s “alpha.” How often have you heard something along the lines of, “my dog is trying to dominate me by pulling on her leash,” or “he’s trying to be alpha by blowing me off when I call to him,” sadly the list of misapplied notions of dominance and what it means to be alpha, goes on.
As to why people still cling to this false alpha meme, even though leading experts have demonstrated that positive reinforcement is far more effective and humane, is anyone’s guess. A few years back Patricia McConnell, PhD offers a “simple” suggestion in her Bark column “Down with Dominance.”
“Perhaps another reason we are so susceptible to the fallacy of “getting dominance” over our dogs is that it makes dog training seem simple. One-step shopping — just get your dog to accept you as “alpha,” and voilà! Your dog will stop jumping up on visitors and will quietly walk through the neighborhood at your side, ignoring all the interesting stuff, like squirrels and information left by other dogs as they passed by. No training required, either for your dog or, as importantly, for you.” She goes on to note that, “although there are questions and quibbles about some of the finer points, experts almost universally agree that the concept of “getting dominance” over our dogs is, at best, not useful, and more often is harmful to our relationships with our best friends.”
And Bark’s behavior columnist, Karen London, PhD thinks that it might feed into our desire for control, which sadly can have far reaching consequences, as she observes, “far worse, it can lead, at best, to a dog who performs because he is intimidated, and at worst, to a dog who is abused. The fact is, dogs will respect us only if we are consistent, clear and fair. They will love and trust us only if we are loving and patient and are able to communicate to them in ways that they understand.” This is very much the same well-oiled family/pack dynamic that Safina describes about wolves.
So it’s great when someone with respected science chops like Safina takes on alphaness and it gets even better that he also points out that biologists are now suggesting that the wolf family/pack structure work with having shared leadership, with the females doing “most of the decision making.” This can includes “where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt.” As wolf researcher, Rick McIntyre, told him, “It’s the alpha female who really runs the show.” Which leads Safina to conclude that human males can definitely learn something from real wolves, and that includes a “respect for females and sharing responsibility” in their families. Proving once again, that we have a whole lot to learn from the ancestors of the species that we share our lives with.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Surprises when bringing a dog to school
Besides veterinarians and zookeepers, not many professions related to animals are well known. That’s why I was so happy for the opportunity to represent my field and share what I do as a canine behaviorist and dog trainer with elementary school kids.
I was granted special permission to bring a dog as one of the requested “visual aids” for a career day presentation at my son’s school. The best part was the mutual enjoyment between Marley and the students. He clearly loved every second of the attention, and they were quite enamored with him. It was pretty blissful all around, but in truth, I expected that. He’s a social dog who loves attention, and any group of kids is likely to enjoy spending time with a nice dog while at school.
There were ways in which I was caught off guard, though. I was pleasantly surprised by how much most of the children knew about dog behavior. It seemed to be common knowledge that when dogs wag their tails to the right, they are especially happy. The kids were aware that they should not stare at dogs or hug them and that a dog who goes stiff should be considered unapproachable. Most of the kids knew about using clickers and treats to train dogs, and several brought up the issue of dogs being left-pawed or right-pawed.
Additionally, the students surprised me by asking high-quality questions, including the following:
Is this fun for Marley or stressful?
Do all of the dogs you work with stop being aggressive?
How do you decide which trick will be easiest to teach a certain dog?
How can you tell when Marley has learned enough and he should get to go to recess?
Why is it easier to train dogs than to train cats?
What are scientists trying to learn about dogs right now?
Another surprise is one that perhaps I should have anticipated, but thoroughly failed to do so. I had assumed we would be in a classroom like all of the other presenters. Instead we were out in the courtyard. That means that various classes were walking through to spend time in the school garden and that there were (Oh my!) squirrels running around a few times during the course of the event. Naturally, this was potentially distracting for Marley and very exciting, but he rolled with it. He stayed focused on me and also on the kids in the group.
Marley got a chance to perform some of his best tricks, along with displaying the good manners that come from a mastery of basic obedience and lots of practice being in a variety of situations. When given each appropriate cue, Marley responded by sitting, lying down, coming when called, heeling and waiting at doors. He also showed off his lovely “Leave It” by not eating a treat or biscuit that was on the ground until he was given permission to do so. The tricks he did included “High-5”, “Sit Pretty”, “Rollover”, “Crawl”, “Spin” and “Unwind” (spinning in the opposite direction.)
The kids were most impressed by his tricks, but I was particularly proud of what nobody else probably even noticed—Marley was unreactive to distractions, remained focused on me, and was gentle as he visited all the children, letting each one have a moment to meet him. As a professional, I know that this generally polite behavior is actually more worthy of admiration than responding well to specific cues.
It’s not easy to remain calm in a new place no matter what happens—school bells ringing, children running, squirrels appearing and a breeze wafting in smells from the cafeteria. Of course, as a professional I also know that not every dog is capable of behaving well in such a stimulating environment. I would never bring a dog to an elementary school unless I was completely confident he could act appropriately no matter what.
Marley’s behavior was exemplary, so he definitely deserved to end each presentation by showing off his newest trick, which is “Take a Bow.” Good dog!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I know they’re in there, but how do I find them?
Televisions and computers can be confusing for dogs. It’s not easy for our canine friends to figure out that videos are merely recordings of life, and that what they see is not really present. In this video, a Westie is confronted with a laptop showing a video of another Westie and a couple of puppies.
He seems to be searching for these other dogs, which he can so clearly see, and attempts to find them by walking around the computer and sniffing it. He’s making use of several senses, apparently listening, looking and smelling in order to track them down. The dog’s name is “Radar” so you’ve got to think it’s likely that this dog can usually locate what he’s looking for.
Radar is able to handle with ease a situation that might cause frustration in other dogs. He remains calm and methodical where many dogs would become upset. There’s another aspect of Radar’s behavior that is of great interest to me. He’s clearly confused, and he does a couple of things I interpret as attempts to get more information. He repeatedly cocks his head, which dogs may do to better localize a sound. Additionally, he repeatedly looks at the camera, where there is presumably a person filming the scene. We know that dogs often look to people for information when they are struggling to solve a problem, and it’s easy to imagine that Radar is seeking help with this challenging task.
How has your dog reacted when faced with a similar situation?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The difference between loving and threatening
There has recently been a lot of interest in people and dogs gazing into each other’s eyes and how this creates feelings of love. The evidence is compelling that this interactive behavior does enhance the bonding between us. I have no objection to this assertion, but it does make me concerned that these new findings will cause a problem.
It’s one thing to gaze softly into the eyes of your dog. It’s another thing entirely to stare at that dog or at any other dog. In fact, it’s potentially hazardous because staring is often considered a threat by dogs. So, I hope nobody goes around trying to bond with new and unknown dogs by looking them right in the eye. It’s a reminder that subtle differences in behavior can have vastly different meanings.
One of the first things I learned when I began to work with aggressive dogs is to pay attention to eye contact. This was especially important for me because I have big dark eyes and I tend to open them wide when expressing interest or surprise. It would be all too easy for me to scare the dogs I’m trying to help with my frog eyes. It has become second nature for me now to turn off my wide-eyed actions when I am around dogs. I take care not to look directly at them without squinting just a little until they are comfortable around me.
It’s because dogs are afraid of big eyes, especially when they are aimed directly at them, that many dogs react to cameras with big interchangeable lenses. It’s likely that our canine subjects perceive these lenses as giant scary eyes staring at them. Many dogs who are not particularly fearful or nervous freak out when faced with a new camera and a person enthusiastically pointing it at them often and for long periods of time. If a dog’s tendency when alarmed is to look away, cower or hide, that’s what may happen in the face of a big camera. If a dog is more likely to bark, growl and lunge when scared, then that may be the reaction you see when a camera is pointed towards that dog.
Has your dogs reacted fearfully to someone staring or to a camera?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding dogs makes all the difference
“Our dog bit our son completely out of the blue! There is no way we could have seen it coming.” I hear this sentiment from parents all the time, as do all other behaviorists and trainers, but we know it’s not true. Dogs rarely, if ever, bite without warnings, and sometimes those signs of trouble have been going on for months or even years before the bite happens.
The problem isn’t unpredictable dogs. It’s misunderstood dogs. Dogs are often trying hard to communicate that they are uncomfortable or that they don’t like what kids are doing to them. If nobody understands those messages, the dogs continue to be in situations that make them unhappy, and some of those dogs may end up biting.
Most dog bites to kids come from the child’s own dog or the dog of a friend. In fact, this is true 77 percent of the time. Check out this video by the family dog about how dogs and kids can have such different views of their experience together.
Several other videos by the same organization are really helpful when teaching kids (and adults!) things they need to know to stay safe. I love how these videos are targeted at different ages. This video is for kids in elementary school.
This video is for kids of preschool age.
The goal of keeping kids safe around dogs involves education so that people of all ages understand dogs better. It’s important that kids know how to act around dogs and that everyone in the family can distinguish happy, relaxed dogs from dogs who are nervous or uncomfortable. “Stop the 77” is the movement to prevent dog bites to kids, most of which come from dogs they know well.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
His post-elimination running still makes us laugh
Our dog Bugsy must really have enjoyed a good poop. I say that because he seemed to celebrate each one with a good run afterwards. He ran at top speed in a big circle with a gleeful look on his face around the yard or in the woods. He became the quintessentially happy dog—sporting a big grin, ears flopping, running fast enough that his fur waved in the breeze. (If he was on leash, he modified his actions and just did a few spins in place looking moderately cheerful.)
My husband mentioned Bugsy’s post-elimination antics last night and we laughed remembering this particular behavior of a dog who died over a decade ago. It was absolutely predictable for Bugsy to do this after eliminating, and I used to look forward to watching him. My favorite part was the way it looked as though his back end was running faster than the front of him, causing his behind to be tucked down. In other contexts, he had a smoother gait and his body looked more organized.
It’s not that there is actually anything so special about a dog running around after pooping, as that is relatively common. We find this memory endearing because he looked so happy and because the precise posture and motions were distinctively his. I would have been able to spot him in a group of hundreds of dogs making wide arcs if he were running in this particular way because I’ve never seen another dog assume quite the same form when running.
We have many wonderful memories of Bugsy, and this just happens to be the one that struck a chord last night. Anything a dog does that is joyful and distinctive is likely to be remembered with love. That’s true even if it’s something that doesn’t seem typically sentimental, such as the way the dog runs after eliminating.
What behavior of a dog from your past brings you joy when you think back on it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Fittingly, it helped her relax
We all know that many people see the great value of yoga for relaxing, reducing stress, lowering blood pressure and developing a more positive outlook. Many people are also fully on board with the idea that Doga (the practice of yoga with pet dogs) has similar benefits for dogs and guardians alike. Still, I was caught off guard with the amazing effects of my own yoga practice on a fearful dog who is spending the week at our house.
Peanut is a brindle terrier mix who is spooked by many things, Though she adores dogs and loves to play with them, she is on the nervous side with people. Additionally, loud sounds or unfamiliar objects give her pause. She is sweet, gentle and smart, so we enjoy having her in our lives. However, we have concerns about her well being when she visits. She is not at her most comfortable here when compared to how she is at her own home with her own guardians.
We are on day 6 of her visit, and she has become progressively more comfortable. Some of that is probably a function of simply getting used to her new surroundings, but much of it is a result of our purposeful efforts. We are using treats and toys as part of a counter classical conditioning program to help her overcome her fears. We are working hard to avoid surprising her, and we are doing our best to have her out of the house on a walk when anyone is practicing the trumpet, French horn or saxophone. We speak gently to her, let her approach us and make sure she never feels trapped by us in a corner or in a narrow hallway. Using our “Fearful Dog 101” skills has no doubt helped her, but yoga did even more.
On her second day here, I did a short yoga routine, and the instant I began, she trotted over and sat down next to me. (Prior to that moment, she rarely approached, and spent a lot of her time in rooms that were unoccupied.) From my first pose, I could see that she was more relaxed than she had been and more comfortable being close to me. Her guardians regularly practice yoga, so my best guess is that the familiarity of yoga was the key factor.
Now, I am taking advantage of how yoga affects Peanut to make life easier and less stressful for us all. When we’re in the backyard and I need her to come in, I can do a downward dog inside the doorway, and she’ll come right over to me. If I want to leash her up for a walk, a child’s pose is inviting. When a few too many visitors came over to watch a basketball game, and she ran to hide under our bed, I went to our room and did a short routine, which drew her out and improved her emotional state.
Most dogs become less afraid when play and treats are used thoughtfully and carefully in a program to help them overcome their fears. Peanut is unusual in that yoga seems to work better. Have you had a fearful dog who improved in response to something unexpected?
Good Dog: Studies & Research
There is no disputing the fact that having rich and varied social experiences in the first three months of life improves a puppy’s odds of a growing into balanced, confident dog. Also not in question is the reality that canine under-socialization can result in behavior problems, fear and aggression, all primary reasons for relinquishment and euthanasia in pet dogs.
The window in which the most effective socialization takes place is only open between weeks 3 and 12 of the puppy’s life; then, it slams shut. Given that the last combination vaccine (against distemper, hepatitis, parvovirus, parainfluenza and coronavirus) is usually administered when a puppy is 16 weeks old, it’s also the genesis of a dilemma.
Some veterinarians, shelters and breeders advise new owners to wait until after a puppy has had her final set of vaccinations to allow her to interact with others. Unfortunately, by that time, the socialization period has ended, precluding the pup’s best shot at acquiring lifelong dog-on-dog social skills.
So, I was particularly interested in a study conducted by the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, which looked at the risks to partially vaccinated puppies of contracting parvo at indoor puppy socialization sessions (socials). The results were reassuring.
Risk vs. Reward
It seems that puppies who have had only their first set of shots are at no greater risk of being infected with parvovirus than those not attending socials. During the study, it was reported that none of the 15 puppies who contracted parvovirus had attended puppy socials, and that none of the puppies who attended socials contracted parvovirus.
This dovetails perfectly with the standard of care recommended by the American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior (AVSAB), which unequivocally encourages owners to begin socialization classes for puppies as early as seven to eight weeks of age, and seven days after the first set of vaccines. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the ASCPA, and other dog health and behavior experts concur.
As the ASVAB statement reads, “The primary and most important time for puppy socialization is the first three months of life. During this time puppies should be exposed to as many new people, animals, stimuli and environments as can be achieved safely and without causing over-stimulation manifested as excessive fear, withdrawal or avoidance behavior.”
It is important to note that structured puppy socials run by a variety of training and daycare facilities and other pet-related businesses take place indoors on non-porous surfaces, and “accidents” are cleaned up immediately with an antimicrobial solution. Porous surfaces, such as dirt, sand and, in particular, those found at dog parks, must be avoided until full vaccination.
Also, puppy socials do not guarantee that a dog won’t develop fear or aggression later in life; genetics, in-utero experiences, early nutrition and the first weeks with the mother and siblings also play key roles.
Why is the window of opportunity so small? At the risk of stating the obvious, puppies develop much faster than their human counterparts. For example, puppies walk beautifully at three weeks, but it takes babies about a year to reach that milestone. This acceleration affects canine cognitive function, which develops rapidly during the short socialization period; it’s during this time that a puppy’s framework for future social functioning evolves. A strong foundation built from a rich set of early experiences gives the puppy more context in which to evaluate and react to future stimuli in the environment, including people and other dogs.
As mentioned, the true socialization period of puppies—the time during which they readily incorporate new experiences into the developing worldviews that directly affect lifelong behavior—lasts from weeks 3 to 12. That’s it. Since most puppies remain with their mother and littermates for seven weeks (a whole other topic), this means that new owners have just four weeks to make sure their puppy has ample opportunities to learn that there are many sorts of people and types of dogs in this world.
Weeks 8 through 12 are called the “second socialization period” (the first having been spent with the mother and siblings). During those 28 days, a puppy’s brain is like a sponge, supple and ready to absorb and incorporate new experiences. This is without question the most profoundly important period in a dog’s life. Her brain is wired to absorb new experiences far more rapidly than during any subsequent period, and she learns not only to accept being around people and other dogs, but also, to enjoy and seek out these experiences.
While not a perfect analogy, a puppy’s capacity to learn social skills is similar to a young child’s capacity to learn languages. Studies have shown that children younger than seven easily pick up new languages because their brains are capable of readily incorporating the sounds, words, grammar and structure of multiple languages.
Like the puppy socialization period that ends at 12 weeks, this window closes for children around seven, after which language acquisition becomes far more difficult. A six-year-old child who spends a year in a Mandarin immersion class will come out fluent in the language. If I were to attend the same class, I would likely still be struggling with the basics.
The analogy continues. My Mandarin would improve over time as I became more familiar and comfortable with the language, but I would never be as fluent as my young counterpart. Likewise, dogs without the advantage of a rich socialization period can learn to thrive in social situations, but it takes a great deal more time and effort and has a lower chance of success.
Country Dog, City Dog
It goes without saying that your puppy needs to be socialized to the environment in which she will be living. If your puppy is not destined for an urban life but rather, say, for the life of a farm dog, socialization to lots of people and dogs is not as important. If your pup’s life will be devoted to managing livestock, this second socialization period would be the ideal time to hang out with sheep, goats, cows and horses.
But 80 percent of Americans live in urban areas, and since more of us have dogs in our homes than ever before, it behooves us to structure our puppy’s socialization period to take this into account. In San Francisco, we have a beach where sometimes hundreds of dogs roam around off-leash at any given time. Our sheepherding dog probably doesn’t need to learn how to cope with that, but if you want to eventually spend quality time with your dog in this lovely locale, you’d best start her education early (yes, during those four crucial weeks).
In addition to socials, a widely accepted goal is for a puppy to meet 100 people during these same four weeks: babies, children, elderly folks, men and women of all races, sizes and shapes, dressed in all sorts of clothing and carrying all sorts of implements—umbrellas, canes, plastic bags. One caveat is that puppy socials and people-meet-and-greets must be positive experiences, not too overwhelming and not too scary.
As your pup’s guardian, you need to shield her from overtly frightening situations (being pursued by an unruly, much larger puppy, for instance), but you must also allow her to venture forth into the rollicking puppy mayhem at her own pace. Sometimes, a timid puppy will hang back for the first few events, and then become a social butterfly. Take, for example, my dog Otis.
As a young puppy, she was shy and unsure of herself. She had been fostered in a rural area of eastern California, so the sights and sounds of the city were initially overwhelming. At her first puppy social, she hung out under my chair and observed the other puppies playing; I did not coddle or overprotect her, nor did I force her to engage with them. By her second social, she was venturing forth, playing for a few minutes, then retreating to her safe place under my chair. By her third social, she was actively seeking out playmates and practicing adult communication behaviors, which is the ultimate goal of these events.
Since Otis was by nature somewhat fearful, I have no doubt that had she not had the chance to come out of her shell among other puppies and to learn and practice social skills, she would be a fearful dog today, possibly aggressively so. Instead, she has superb communication skills and is particularly adept at enticing other dogs to play and chase her. She remains cautious around novel stimuli (a strange stack of wood on our street or a kite hitting the beach nearby), but she is most definitely not fearful. Puppy socials made all the difference.
A word of caution here: Had I taken Otis only to that first puppy social (the one during which she hung out under my chair, overwhelmed and frightened), it almost certainly would have backfired. She would have learned that being around other dogs was an unpleasant experience to be avoided. She might have become aggressive in order to keep them away, like the multitude of dogs who have learned that snarling, snapping, lunging and barking keeps other dogs from approaching. Instead, because Otis had numerous opportunities to learn to how to play at her own pace, she became a world-class communicator.
I mention this primarily because I recently took a call from the owner of a six-month-old puppy whose veterinarian had advised avoiding all contact with other dogs until the pup was fully vaccinated. In this particular puppy’s case, that meant no contact until 17 weeks.
Five weeks past the end of the second socialization period, the pup finally attended one social, and it did not go well. The puppy was terrified and the owner decided not to go back. Now, this young dog’s single point of reference is that new dogs are scary. She trembles in the presence of other dogs, unsure of how to act, or react. A desensitization/counterconditioning program will take months or years, and will never be as effective as if that puppy had been taken to numerous socials while her brain was configured to learn and cope.
Knowledge Is Power
I find it interesting (but not surprising) that in the UC Davis study encouraging early socialization, puppies taken to socials did not contract parvo, but some who were not taken to socials did. New owners who are conscientious enough to learn about the advantages of early and safe socialization are also knowledgeable enough to avoid taking under-vaccinated pups to dog parks, where the risk of contracting the virus is high.
Conversely, people unaware of puppy socials are more likely to take puppies to places they should not be until they’re fully vaccinated, which includes dog parks, beaches and other settings with porous surfaces likely to harbor parvovirus-infected feces.
Puppy socials are just one part of a well-thought-out socialization plan, but they form the plan’s cornerstone and have the additional advantage of being viable before all vaccinations have been given.
In part because the safety and benefits of early socialization are well documented, most urban and suburban areas of the country now have access to indoor puppy socials that require just the first set of shots. This bodes well for the heath and well being of future generations of our best friends.
I hope this sheds some light not only on the advantages of socialization but also, on how such a program can begin early enough to make a real difference in the life of your dog. Now, get out there and mingle!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog ignores attempts at interaction
Dogs who are not social around other dogs may react to them by barking, growling, lunging, yelping or running away. Their behavior makes it obvious that something is upsetting them. For some dogs who are just as disinterested in playing with other dogs, their response is far subtler: They act like no dog is around, as in, “Dog? What dog? I don’t see any dog.” They may be afraid of those other dogs or they may simply lack even the slightest interest in them.
Dogs who ignore deer are extremely rare, but ignoring other dogs is hardly a common reaction, either. Over the years, I’ve seen it quite a few times, but it’s unusual enough to capture my attention every time. Sometimes a dog is nonchalant about other dogs and may genuinely have no interest in them. In such cases, dogs may be completely focused on their guardians, or perhaps on a toy. (“Nothing in the world exists except my ball and whoever is throwing it!”)
In other cases, the dog is so afraid of dogs that he actively avoids looking in their direction. When extreme fearfulness is involved, the dog will turn away from the other dogs over and over, no matter how often they move around and into his field of view. The constant looking away can make them look like bobbleheads, which would be amusing if it were not for the fact that they are clearly afraid enough to be in serious distress.
If your dog ignores other dogs without having been trained to do so, is it because he doesn’t care about other dogs or because he’s too scared to look at them?
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.
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