Dog's Life: Lifestyle
More evidence that dogs attend to human emotions
Science is subject to trendiness, just like fashion, language and entertainment are. So, just as we are all facing an abundance of mid-calf boots, abbreviations and post-apocalyptic films, there is no shortage of studies on the influence of human emotions on our dogs. One of the latest studies, Fetching what the owner prefers? Dogs recognize disgust and happiness in human behaviour, in the journal Animal Cognition, is just one of many recent works to explore this topic.
The purpose of this study was to address two questions: 1) Can dogs discriminate between human expressions that indicate happiness, disgust, and neutrality? 2) Do dogs prefer objects eliciting the more positive human emotion in the owner?
In this experiment, dogs had to choose between two bottles, each of which was associated with a human emotional expression of happiness, one of disgust or a neutral expression. The bottle associated with a more positive expression had food inside it while the other one contained a stone. (Though this is potentially a problem in the experimental design—the objects are not identical, meaning that the contents of the bottle as well as the guardian’s expression could be influencing the dog’s decision—the researchers conducted some control trials in an attempt to eliminate this potential glitch.)
The researchers measured dogs’ choices in two ways. They recorded which bottle the dog approached first and which they retrieved. They argued that positive emotions in humans may be linked with a corresponding emotion in the dog because what people feel positively towards—going for a walk, starting to play or dinnertime—may also trigger positive feelings in the dog. On the other hand, negative emotions in people may not correspond to the dog’s response to something. That is, when humans express disgust, it may be related to objects that dogs find appealing such as trash or poop. That’s why, in this study, the experimenters looked at a task (fetching) rather than just an approach to an object. They wanted to see how dogs responded to human requests rather than simply making a choice based on their own preference. The goal was to get a better measure of dogs’ responses to human emotions.
The overall findings of this study are that yes, just like in so many other studies recently, dogs are attuned to the emotions of their guardians. They preferentially retrieve the object associated with a more positive human emotion. So, when their guardian expressed happiness over one bottle and disgust or neutrality over the other bottle, they were significantly more likely to retrieve the bottle associated with happiness. Similarly, if their guardian expressed disgust over one bottle but was emotionally neutral about the other, the dog was more likely to retrieve the neutral bottle.
What I find most interesting in this study is that dogs preferentially retrieved the object associated with a more positive emotion even though they didn’t necessarily show a preference when measured as first approach. In other words, they acted according to human preference when told to do something—“Fetch!”— even though it was sometimes in contrast to their preference about which object to approach. We all know that dogs find many things appealing that revolt us. I’m personally thinking of how often I had to bathe my dog after he rolled in fox poop when I lived on a farm. I found it disgusting but it was clearly very appealing to him even with the threat of a bath hanging in the balance.
If the researchers had only looked at approach, they might have concluded that dogs could not discriminate between the various human expressions of emotion. Their more complex design provides evidence that dogs can do so, but that they don’t always behave accordingly.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Must-have travel items for guests
If you’re traveling with your dog this holiday season to stay with friends or family, you probably have more stuff jammed into your car than if your dog were staying home. I hope you’ve still have some space left, though, because you’ll want to make sure you have those extra items that can help make the trip with your dog a success.
I’m not talking about the obvious stuff like food, food bowls, crate, leash, collar, and a brush for daily groomers. I assume those are already packed and ready to go. No, I’m talking about the things that make visits easier for social reasons—the ones that are useful because they help prevent or ease the tensions that so often arise when dogs are guests.
Let’s not kid ourselves—even friends and relatives who love our dogs may not love the extra mud, hair and slobber that they bring or those little behavior gaffes such as counter surfing, barking, crotch-sniffing, trash parties and jumping up. With a little planning ahead and thoughtfulness, you can minimize any feelings of regret they may have about inviting your dog to come with you. Here are some must-have items to bring.
Extra-nice hostess gift. Bring something really special for your hosts and write in the card how much you appreciate that your dog is welcome, too. Consider adding a second gift that is from your dog.
Lint rollers. The hair that you consider a standard accessory to your outfits may not match everyone else’s style. Sharing these clean-up tools helps everyone get ready for family photos and also lets them know you realize that your dog sheds and that you care about how this affects others.
Washcloths and towels. At my house, we have a huge bin of old towels and washcloths that we use for anything slightly gross. At some houses, all linens are fancy and new, which means their owners may not appreciate them being used to wipe muddy paws and bellies, to put on furniture or rugs under a wet dog or to clean up everything from dog vomit to water bowl spills.
The phone number and location of a nearby hotel that accepts pets. It’s wise to be prepared in case it becomes prudent for you and your dog to relocate. Hopefully, tensions will not escalate to the point where you feel compelled to leave, but being prepared for that (just in case!) is always wise.
Thank-you gift. When you leave, let your hosts know that you appreciate them with something like flowers or a bottle of wine. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it shows that you are grateful and includes a gracious note praising your hosts’ hospitality to you and your dog.
I hope you and your dog have a wonderful visit and that you are both invited back again!
News: Guest Posts
One of the most shared recent articles in the New York Times was one about a “wrong dog” and how the op-ed blogger felt she was wronged by agreeing to adopt a young dog from a rescue group. I was going to write about this but then our good friend, and former Bark science editor, Mark Derr, wrote a great post for Psychology Today that brought up all the points, and then some, that I had wanted to make. He kindly allowed us to cross post his article:
The New York Times ran a opinion piece on Saturday, December 13, by Erica-Lynn Huberty on the trauma caused when a well-meaning young couple bring a sweet young rescue dog into their home who turns into a cat-killing maniac. The essay, “The Wrong Dog,” serves as a sobering reminder that not all found dogs fit as seamlessly into their new homes as Arthur, the Ecuadoran stray who joined a team of Swedish adventure racers and traveled several hundred arduous kilometers with them last month. The team captain then sought and won permission to take him home to Sweden, and their story went viral.
Arthur’s story raised several questions in my mind: How frequently can dogs be said to choose their human companions, what criteria do they use, and what is their success rate? I have several friends who literally rescued dogs off the street, in one case the Brooklyn Bridge, and took them home to discover they had a friend for life.
Is it merely random chance that a dog and man or woman should meet and become instant friends? I think that both are choosing—the human to save a fellow creature in distress; the dog to find a loyal companion. Any dog dumped in the road would want that but be suspicious, too, I should think.
People I know with multiple dogs often have dogs dumped near them by neighbors who assume they will take the dog in. They do and if it doesn’t fit into their existing “pack,” they will find the dog a home. The private placements I know of have worked well—on occasion spectacularly. But dogs who go that route are the lucky exception among the abandoned millions.
The apparent ease with which human and dog share affection and respect casts light on why wolves and humans teamed up initially. Though the reasons remain mysterious, they clearly, I have long suspected, have to do with the ability of individuals from both species to form lasting bonds of friendship with someone other than their own kind and to do so voluntarily, as adults, as well as children and puppies.
Whatever mutations governing sociability occurred to make dogs, at least one must have involved fixing them as dominate in the dog genome—or so it appears.
But there are times human and dog don’t match up well, and unless something is done, the results can be tragic. Many of the failures in that relationship seem to arise from a lack of forethought on the part of the human, a fundamental failure to think through and find ways to meet the animal’s need for exercise, social contacts with people and dogs, consistent treatment and mental stimulation.
The central problem with Huberty’s essay lies in her argument that nothing short of ditching the dog when she first started acting oddly would have prevented the catastrophe that occurred. They would have done that had they known that some dogs are unfit for adoption, and no amount of training, discipline, or coddling will change that.
“We let ourselves believe that beneath our rescued puppy’s strange, erratic behavior was a good, loving pet,” Huberty writes. The truth was the opposite.
The back story is common enough. Having become smitten with a five-month old Lab mix, Huberty and her husband, decide to have her share their home with their three cats, a female dog, and two children.
From her arrival, the new dog, Nina, showed a defensive/possessive aggression that led Huberty to seek more information from the group who rescued her.
Huberty says that she and her husband followed the advice of Cesar Millan, “the Dog Whisperer” to create a “loving but disciplined environment.” Nina responded by attacking a cat and biting Huberty when she intervened.
In response, Huberty called the woman who gave them Nina. She agreed to pay for a trainer, who proved to be the anti-Millan. She advocated a rewards-based approach rather than “discipline.” The essay takes an odd turn here as Huberty calls the rewards-based method ‘coddling” while appearing to indicate that it was working up to a point.
Nina would go along being a normal, playful puppy. But at times, out of nowhere it seemed, she would snap at me or Alex and, once, at our son,” Huberty says, “She would suddenly cower and growl. It was like a switch flipped, yet we couldn’t figure out what had done it.”
Nor do they try to find out. Dogs do not usually change their behavior that rapidly and dramatically without reason. That could very well be an underlying pathology that a thorough examination by a veterinarian might reveal. Indeed, Huberty gives no indication that she ever took the dog to a veterinarian—the first stop a new dog or cat companion should make.
If no physical reason for the behavior can be found, the next stop is to consult a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. There are not many in the country but your veterinarian should help arrange a consultation.
Huberty blames the dog, the woman who gave her the dog, the trainer—everyone but herself and her husband—and Nina herself for her failure to fit seamlessly into Huberty’s home. From this experience, she draws the conclusion that some dogs are just unsuitable for living with humans. That might be the case but there is no proof of it here.
Maybe we should seek ways to allow more dogs to choose their human companions. I have a notion they would do a better job of it. “And when they don’t fit in they may be saying ‘wrong family,’” said my fellow Psychology Today blogger Marc Bekoff after reading “The Wrong Dog.” “Living with a dog is a two-way street and assigning unilateral blame gets us nowhere and once again leaves the dog out in the cold. This sort of ‘musical dogs’ is bad for the dog, as much research and common sense tell us.”
Nina might pay with her life for human miscalculations and failure to seek professional help.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Singing along to “Let It Go”
This dog sleeps right through Charli XCX’s “Boom Clap” featured in “The Fault in Our Stars,” but watch how he reacts when Frozen’s “Let It Go” by Idina Menzel comes on. The way his ears respond first followed by a slight movement of the head, then a head raise and a look directly at the camera makes the sequence look choreographed. The dog acts very much like an actor in a musical at the start of a big number.
I find it especially amusing that the dog yawns and looks ready to sleep again when the music switches from “Let It Go” and returns to “Boom Clap.” This guy knows what he likes. I’m curious about why this dog prefers one song over the other. Personal preference could obviously account for his reaction, but prior experience may play a role, too.
The people who posted the video call “Let It Go” their dog’s favorite song. It certainly makes sense that familiarity plays a role in the dog’s enthusiasm at hearing it. Perhaps, like me, this dog lives with kids in the age range of 4-12, in which case he’s probably heard this song hundreds of times by now.
Whatever the reason, he really has his performance down! Somebody needs his own iPod or a karaoke machine!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
This may not be obvious to your dog
“Brought home my first Christmas tree about 25 seconds ago. The dog peed on it about 23 seconds ago. So. Joy to the world and season's greetings and all that.” My friend’s Facebook post describes a situation many of us have faced.
Though Christmas trees are decorations to us, their purpose is far from clear to most dogs. Anxiety has always been a part of my experience when I bring a dog to visit people around Christmas. I encourage anyone whose dog is going to be around these evergreen signs of the season to assume that dogs might view the tree differently than people and act accordingly, if you want your tree to be free of dog pee. (And who doesn’t want that?)
Management and prevention are useful tools when trying to prevent this behavior issue, so do what you can to keep your dog from going over to the tree when you’re not looking. Use gates or other equipment to block your dog’s access. If that’s not possible, supervise him when that room is available to him so he can’t sneak up on the tree while you’re baking, wrapping gifts or panicking over a recent credit card statement. This takes discipline and commitment on your part because this time of year is busy for most of us. Keeping your dog on a leash inside can keep him from wandering over to the tree, too.
No matter how well your dog is housetrained or how many years it’s been since he had an accident, assume nothing when a tree is indoors, especially if it is your dog’s first experience with one. A dog who pees on a Christmas tree is confused rather than acting out. Give your dog some help by letting him know that you still want him to eliminate outside. Take him out often on walks and in the yard, and reinforce him with great treats for eliminating in the right places. Know the signs that your dog has to go. Be alert to any indications that he may be about to eliminate such as sniffing or circling. Spend quiet time with him near the tree massaging him or letting him chew on a Kong or other chew treat so he considers the tree part of his living space. Dogs are less likely to eliminate in areas where they hang out or where they sleep.
If your dog knows “leave it,” practice it with many objects in the house that are off limits, including the tree. Reinforce him with treats, play or toys for correct responses to this cue. If he sniffs the tree or goes near it, reinforce him for being near it but not peeing on it. Teaching him to do something specific near the tree such as “sit” or “lie down” gives him a go-to behavior to do in that area other than lifting his leg. If he develops a strong reinforcement history with a behavior other than peeing on the tree, he will be less likely to pee on it.
Remember that if your dog does pee on the tree, he probably didn’t realize it was a faux pas. The tree may even have been peed on in the great outdoors before you brought it home, and that can make it extra confusing for the canine set. Clean it with an enzymatic cleaner to take away the odor so that it won’t smell like a bathroom to him.
Hopefully, your dog will not decorate your tree this year (or your heirloom tree skirt, your favorite ornaments or any of the presents.) That will make it easier to mean it when you say, “Joy to the world and season's greetings and all that.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
She’s not a Houdini dog after all
Though definitely impressed by the intelligence of dogs, I generally still consider my cognitive skills to be beyond theirs. At the very least, I like to think that I am a match for the power of the canine brain, but lately there has been evidence to the contrary.
We were dog sitting a 5-month old puppy named Peanut. Her house training was far enough along that she never had an accident during the week at our house. Though she likes to chew a bit as do most puppies that age, she generally kept her teeth where they belonged—on puppy toys and chews. Still, there was no way that she and the house were guaranteed to be safe from each other without constant supervision, so we needed to confine her to a part of the house while we were gone.
We chose our back room, which has a wood floor and old furniture. Though the doorway to that room is a wide arch with no actual door, we used a puppy pen to block her access to the rest of the house. The puppy pen is quite high and she’s not an elite jumper, so we thought she would remain in the room.
Over the course of the week, her location when we returned was variable, and we were beginning to think of her as a real Houdini dog. Sometimes she was sleeping on the couch or lying on the floor enjoying an appropriate chew toy in the back room. Those were the good moments. Other times, she was at various other places in the house—in the upstairs hallway, in the kitchen, in the living room or dining room. She was never in the bedrooms or bathrooms because we closed the doors to those areas, but with an open plan house, our close-the-door strategy had its limits.
The first time she got out of the back room, there was clear evidence that she had pushed the gate in various ways to spring herself free, but after that, we used chairs, stools and various other means to prevent that from happening again. Yet, we kept coming home to find Peanut unconstrained by our techniques, and the gate intact. We considered the possibility that she was jumping or climbing the gate, but she just isn’t one of those dogs with a remarkable vertical leap, and we’d not seen any signs of her climbing tendencies, either.
The reason we couldn’t figure out how she was escaping was because of our own constrained thinking. We were only considering the one doorway out of that room because that is the only way we ever enter or leave the room. There is, however, another way out, and though we didn’t think about it, it did not escape Peanut’s notice. That room is next to our kitchen, and there is a faux window that leads from the back room to the kitchen. By jumping up on a set of stacking tables in the back room, Peanut was easily able to reach this passageway into the kitchen. Then, it was easy enough for her to jump through that open space into the kitchen sink, and from there, the house was hers to enjoy.
Once we moved those tables away, it was easy to keep her confined to the back room, as she was unable to escape, and we faced no more surprises upon returning home. Despite her escapes into the rest of the house, she did very little damage. A flip flop has a few bite marks in it, and the first chapter of one paperback book is no longer in mint condition. Such chewing activity is pretty mild stuff for a young puppy, and we are grateful. Considering our idiocy in not realizing what an easy escape route we had provided to Peanut, we are lucky.
Has your dog found ways to escape confinement that seemed obvious to you only after the fact?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog remains ever hopeful
In this video, a dog tries repeatedly to convince a statue to play fetch with him. He places his stick at the statue’s feet over and over, but never gets the response that he wants.
Of course my response to watching this was laughter, but it really made me think. Why is this dog undaunted by the statue’s unresponsiveness? I’m guessing that most people do engage in play with this endearing and persistent dog, but some may not respond right away. Perhaps this dog is accustomed to trying multiple times before people toss the stick for him.
On the other hand, we need to explain why it has escaped the dog’s notice that he’s approaching a statue, not a live person. Perhaps he just sees a human shape and immediately equates it with the prospect of playing fetch without the need to assess other details of the situation. Maybe this dog has paid little attention to many aspects of human behavior. “They throw sticks for me,” might be all he has taken in. Or, maybe the statue is just too realistic for him to discriminate it from live people, especially if he has no prior experience with statues.
Here’s a dog who apparently views people as stick throwers, and has probably had great success with that view of the world. To him, any human form is a potential stick thrower, and he has not had the opportunity to learn to distinguish humans who can throw sticks from statues of humans that cannot.
Interestingly, the statue the dog wanted to engage with is of Alan Turing, the brilliant mathematician and code breaker who is generally considered the father of theoretical computer science. As a genius and a completely original free-thinker, Turing was clearly too preoccupied considering some deep mathematical problem to pay attention to the dog.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Seeing themselves in the mirror
Peanut bounded up the stairs fully of puppy pep and sporting an expression of extreme happiness. She had never been to our house and loves to explore new places. Her light-hearted mood would likely have continued if not for the mirrors all along our closet doors. When she saw her reflection, her entire affect changed. She stiffened and barked, then charged at the mirror.
I have no idea how this dog vs mirror scenario would have played out if Lucy (another of the dogs in Peanut’s household) hadn’t come in and barked at Peanut. The puppy became more interested in Lucy than in her reflection, and came with the older dog out of the room and back down the stairs. Because Peanut seemed distressed by seeing her own image in the mirror, we closed the door to that room to keep her out.
There has been a lot of research on how animals react to seeing themselves in the mirror because it can tell us a lot about their cognitive abilities. If they recognize that the reflection is their own image, it provides evidence that they have a sense of self-awareness. If they don’t appear to do so, the results can be hard to interpret. One of the ways that this idea is explored experimentally is to expose animals to mirrors until they are familiar with them. The next step is to put a mark of paint on the animals and then give them the opportunity to look in a mirror again. If they see the reflection and attempt to touch or remove the spot of paint on their own body, scientists conclude that they are self-aware.
Much work in this area has been done on primates with great apes, but not monkeys, typically showing signs of self-awareness. Dolphins, elephants, and magpies have also “passed” this test. Dogs have not generally done well at the mirror test, though some people, including Marc Bekoff, have argued that dogs are more olfactory than visual so a scent test is more appropriate for investigating whether they are self aware. Bekoff studied his male dog’s reactions to his own urine and to the urine of other dogs and found some evidence that his dog recognizes his own urine. This concept of “mineness”—belonging to me—suggests self-awareness, but it is certainly not conclusive. The research was published in the article “Observations of scent-marking and discriminating self from others by a domestic dog (Canis familiaris): tales of displaced yellow snow.” The method has come to be known as the “Yellow Snow Test.”
We have to be careful not to assume that a failure to recognize a reflection in the mirror as oneself means a lack of a self-awareness. In addition to vision not being the proper sense to use in such a test, sometimes the problem is that the animal is too young. For example, humans generally pass this test, but babies under 18-months are confused by it.
Have you had the opportunity to observe your own dog’s response to looking in a mirror?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Having fun through the nose
“Tucker is serious about sniffing,” my husband said about 10 minutes after we met him, and I agreed. Tucker is an 8-month old puppy who is mostly German Shepherd, but has something else in him, too. We were watching him for a few days while his guardian attended a wedding on the east coast, and we had never met him before.
My first priority when new dogs come to our house is to make them happy here, and that involves several stages. The first step is making sure that their initial introduction at the house is a positive experience. We make sure that water is available, that they get to explore the back yard to find toys, and that every member of the family generously provides treats. If the dog is not overwhelmed and is used to leash walks, we head out for a short one as soon as the initial meet-and-greet is over.
The second step is all about finding out what makes the dog happy so we can provide it. That means figuring out what the dog does for fun and how we can help him have a good time while he is here with us. For many dogs, the fun and happiness is all about treats, and lots of exercise outside. For others, it’s a tennis ball or nothing. Most love the opportunity to chew on bones and other dog-safe items intended for this purpose. A few simply want lots of loving—petting, massage and the opportunity to be up on the bed at nap time and at night.
Tucker is all about sniffing, so the first thing I decided to do was teach him to play “Find your treat.” This is a game in which you hide treats and then instruct your dog to find them. To begin, put some treats on the floor or furniture near you without your dog seeing you do it. Say the cue “Find your treat” and tap or point to the treats. Repeat this many times until the dog starts to search for the treats as soon as you say the cue. Then, you can drop the tap or point from the process.
Once the dog is doing well at this, you can spread the treats out further, progressing to a 5-foot spread, then a 10-foot spread, and even over a broader range and in harder-to-find spots. As your dog continues to succeed at this game, you can advance to putting treats all over a whole room and then to putting treats all over several rooms before giving the cue. At first, most dogs find the treats visually, but then progress to using their nose for the task, especially if you begin to hide them.
In addition to playing “Find your treat” with Tucker, we also went on walks to new places as often as possible so that he could sniff to his heart’s content. We allowed him to choose the pace on walks so that he could take time to smell the fire hydrants. Tucker would be a great candidate for nose work, but even with no formal work, it was easy enough to satisfy his need to sniff by taking him to places full of great smells and playing search games in the house.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Stay Loose: Dogs’ impressive ability to cope with novelty
Dakota had previously struggled with behavioral issues, but this time, he really went bananas. When the cell phone began to vibrate on the table, he panicked, which is why he jumped through the window, shattering it and scaring a couple of kids riding by on their bikes. Luckily, his guardian was able to calm him down, and his injuries were minor. Is he a bad dog? No, the situation was just more than he could handle. It would be unfair to call his response “bad,” though it was certainly undesirable. Oh, and Dakota isn’t a dog, technically speaking. He’s a wolf hybrid, and like most such animals, reacts strongly to anything new—a sound, a person, an object or a situation. The difficulty that a majority of wolf hybrids have with novelty is one of the reasons I caution people against having them as pets.
Dogs are different; their tendency to respond more easily to new things is one of the many reasons they make great pets. Their ability to take “new” in stride is part of what makes dogs who they are. Perhaps best of all, they easily form new social bonds throughout their lives, which is why many of us are able to have loving, close relationships with dogs whose first home was not with us.
Most dogs are able—even expected— to face new situations without blinking (and, for that matter, without barking). Think of what we typically ask dogs to contend with. Many are placed with new people in a new home at the age of seven to 10 weeks. Some stay in that home, but others are rehomed, in some cases multiple times. Even dogs who stay with the same family will face much that is new.
They might be taken out in a canoe, or spend the night in a kennel while the floors are being refinished; eat a different kind of food; endure a loud party; welcome a new dog or a new baby or a cat to their household; move to a new home, a new town, from the city to a rural area, or vice versa. They may have to stay with a dog sitter, greet a new dog walker, accept regular rearranging of the furniture or a change in routine when their guardians start working in an office instead of from home. Even if the household remains steady, dogs generally meet new dogs as well as new people, and go many new places throughout their lives.
When facing unexpected craziness in my own life, I tend to say, “No worries! I’m a mom. I’m nothing if not flexible,” but dogs have a far stronger claim to that characteristic. The range of situations, objects and social partners that most dogs take in stride is enormous. Though we tend to take it for granted, their ability to roll with whatever situation they find themselves in is really amazing, and far from typical in the animal world.
Of course, things don’t always go smoothly. Some dogs freak out when they walk on snow for the first time, or when the baby cries in the middle of the night. Many dogs struggle to deal with “newness” of one sort or another, or perhaps anything new. Even dogs who appear to accommodate it may find it stressful. Though dogs tend to handle novelty better than most other species, there is still considerable variation in individual reactions.
Their responses depend on personality and experience, both of which contribute to how they react to stress and how they solve problems, and also to how distressing they find the new thing. A dog may bark, cower or hide. A few will growl or lunge; the occasional dog will bite. Some seek comfort from their guardians; whine, freeze up or approach tentatively; head for their crate; or retrieve a comforting toy. Similarly, responses to a positive novelty can run the gamut from leaping and spinning, sniffing, grabbing, jumping, whining, or barking to offering a behavior that has been reinforced in the past, or a tail wagging that’s vigorous enough to cause a mini tornado of fur. Behavior has a genetic component; dogs are genetically predisposed to be flexible and adaptable. Yet, genetics do more than account for differences among species. They also explain various behavioral differences among breeds and individuals, including disparities in dogs’ ability to cope with changes in their environment. As in other aspects of canine behavior, this ability also varies. That’s why certain traits such as gregariousness, shyness, curiosity and fearfulness can actually run in lines of dogs.
So, some dogs come into this world with greater potential for enjoying newness, or at least successfully coping with it. Still, full development of this potential requires the right kind of experiences at the right age.
In order for dogs to maximize their ability to respond well to the unfamiliar, frequent and positive exposure to a variety of people, places and situations early on is essential. Without those opportunities, they may not be able to manage the unexpected as adults.
Puppies who encounter grass, cats, concrete, elevators, paper airplanes, toys, kids, blankets, music, oven timers, men and women, stairs, other dogs, people with canes, rugs, bells, hair dryers, fish tanks, mirrors, and a wide variety of other elements of their world are far more likely to develop into adult dogs able to handle them, as well as other novel things, later in life.
Socialization, or exposure to potential social partners, has received particular emphasis from behaviorists and trainers. Socialization is the process of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. For dogs, it involves making sure that puppies have positive experiences with other dogs and people at the age during which they are most receptive to being influenced by those exposures.
Even brief encounters in the first few months of dogs’ lives can have a large impact on their future behavior. Absent these opportunities, no amount of contact later in life can make up for the deficiency. Dogs whose worlds were limited during puppyhood are rarely as comfortable around new things, including potential social partners, as those whose early months were rich in experiences.
That is why dogs raised in severely impoverished environments—tied up outside or used as breeding dogs in a puppy mill, for example—struggle to adjust to what most would consider a “normal” environment once they are liberated. In many cases, the problems they face are less a result of the bad things that happened to them and more about the good things that did not happen. For such dogs, anything new poses a serious challenge, and it can take them months, if not years, to improve. And in the end, it is unlikely that they will ever be able to deal with novelty as easily as dogs with more generous upbringings.
However, even well-adjusted, flexible, happy dogs can be shaken by traumatic incidents. Such events will affect some more than others, but no dog is immune to the effects of something extremely scary or upsetting.
A study of pet dogs who survived the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami and the nuclear disaster that followed them showed that these dogs had issues and behavior consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Compared with a control group of dogs who were not involved in the disaster, these traumatized dogs had a harder time learning new skills in training sessions, as well as greater difficulty connecting with new people (caregivers in their rehabilitation program).
Dogs can also be negatively affected by less harrowing, but still aversive, experiences. They may struggle when meeting new dogs who resemble one who attacked them when they were young, develop a reluctance to go to the park after being caught in a thunderstorm there or become uncharacteristically terrified of strangers as a result of being home alone during a burglary. On the other hand, many dogs do more than just accept new things in their lives; they sometimes actually prefer them. In a recent study, dogs were offered three toys—two familiar and one novel—and chose the new toy first in nearly 80 percent of the trials, indicating a preference for the new item over the well known.
Dogs’ ability to handle a great majority of what we present them with impresses me both in an intellectual, scientific way and in a “Wow! Gee whiz!” way. One of the great joys of working with dogs is that they regularly amaze me, making my own life seem ever new—in a good way.
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