Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog activity throughout the day
It’s such rotten luck than just as many of us are coming home from work hoping to chill out, our dogs are ramping up for high activity. When dogs go nuts at that time of day, their happy reunion with us not the only reason. Most dogs naturally exhibit high energy and elevated activity levels in the early evening. That’s why it’s so important to spend some time with our dogs then. It pays to get them outside and exercising, even though that may not always be our first inclination.
Dogs are also ready for some action in the mid-morning, and this is also species-typical. They are inclined to be active at certain times of the day just as birds are inclined to sing at sunrise and coyotes tend to howl during the night. The tendency to behave in certain ways over the course of the day is part of the daily cycle called a circadian rhythm. Many living organisms have circadian rhythms, including animals, plants, fungi and even bacteria.
The light/dark cycle of our rotating planet is responsible for the circadian rhythms that lead to the predictable timing of behaviors throughout the day. Light leads to changes in the hypothalamus, which regulates these daily rhythms. The pattern of light affects sleep cycles, hormone levels, brain wave activity and body temperature, all of which have an impact on behavior.
Dogs certainly have a natural circadian rhythm with activity peaks in the mid morning and early evening. Although dogs may vary in how closely they follow this typical pattern, few adult dogs are completely at odds with this normal schedule. Puppies, on the other hand, are not born with a circadian rhythm, and it takes months for them to develop the pattern typical of their species. Their active times are not as predictable as those of adult dogs.
Is your dog predictably active at certain times of the day?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Different speeds affect multiple-dog walks
When our friends Ian and Emily told us that walking their two dogs together would mean that we would have one arm in front and one behind and demonstrated the posture, I did not take it literally, but I should have. I thought they were just cleverly saying that Super Bee would want to go faster and that Zoroaster would be a bit slower. I didn’t realize that we would, in fact, have our arms open wide to accommodate the dogs’ different speeds on walks.
Both of these dogs are quite biddable, so it was not difficult to ask Super Bee to wait up sometimes or to encourage Zoroaster to pick it up at other times. Neither puts much pressure on the leash, so it was easy enough to hold the leashes in one hand so our arms were not spread out. Overall, the difference in their walking tendencies was more amusing to us than it was problematic. Still, it made me consider the options for walking dogs together when they tend to go at different speeds because of age, breed, size or personality.
An obvious option that is not always available is to have one person walk each dog. If my husband and I walked the dogs together, whoever had Super Bee could go out ahead and then loop back for the person with Zoroaster. Being separated for a short time made them both more likely to adjust their speed and stay together for a brief period afterwards.
Similarly, it’s always possible to walk each dog separately. While I am hugely in favor of quality one-on-one time with each dog, walking one dog at a time has its drawbacks. With active athletic dogs like Super Bee and Zoroaster, we were already working pretty hard to give them enough exercise, so walking them separately would have meant cutting the length of each of their walks.
Sometimes the time of day can make a difference. Super Bee is more affected by the heat than Zoroaster, so if we walked them when it was hotter, she slowed down a bit and the difference in the dogs’ speeds diminished. That helped keep the dogs at the same speed, but the drawback is that because of the heat, the walk was shorter for both dogs.
If you have dogs who walk at different paces, how do you handle it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Detection dogs find explosives faster
Scent detection dogs and their handlers work as a team and the behavior of both of them influences the outcome. It has long been known that dogs take cues from their human handlers and may mistakenly identify a target scent (a false positive) based on the person’s behavior. They may also search in patterns based on instructions from the handler rather than according to their own inclinations.
A recent study (Human-animal interface: The effects of handler’s stress on the performance of canines in an explosive detection task) in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science shows that the handler’s stress level has an impact on the search. Specifically, researchers found that when the people were stressed, the dogs performed better, detecting the explosives more quickly.
In the study, handlers in the Israeli army were presented with two different types of stressors in a random experimental design in which every handler faced the same stressors. One stressor was related to the handling task. Observers, including commanders, were present during a detection session, and as part of the experimental design, they pointed at the handler from a distance and pretended to write down comments during the session. The other stressor was not related to the task. Before those sessions, a handler was told by the commander that the handler would be transferred to another military unit and need to face a military police investigation. Each team also had a control session with no stressors.
Handlers were monitored during their sessions to determine physiological measures of stress. Stressors decreased the handlers’ attention and increased their anxiety levels compared to control sessions.
Dogs found the explosives more quickly when their handlers were stressed, especially by factors unrelated to the task. The dogs also showed more activity in general under this experimental condition. These results support the hypothesis that handlers’ emotional states have an impact on the performance of working dogs.
The researchers propose one possibility for the dogs’ improved performance when their handlers were stressed: Perhaps they were less attentive to the task at hand, allowing the dogs to behave in a less “handler-dependent manner.” They propose that there may be benefits to allowing dogs more control over their own behavior during detection work.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Sometimes dogs are extra excited
When my family visited relatives and friends in Portland, Ore. recently, everyone was glad to see us. However, nobody expressed their exuberance more than Nick and Margaret’s dogs Zuma, Keeper and Radar.
These dogs have always liked us and been happy to see us. During this visit, though, they really outdid themselves with their wags, wiggles, spins and general enthusiasm. It’s certainly possible that this was simply because it had been a long time—several months—since we had seen them. (We felt pretty excited to see them, too, after such a long absence.)
Ever since our happy reunion, though, I’ve been contemplating another reason for their especially upbeat greeting. Because they moved from Arizona to Oregon several months ago, these dogs have not seen many familiar people lately. Most of their interactions have been with strangers or with people they don’t know that well yet. So, it’s possible that seeing old friends for the first time in a long while was especially exciting for them.
After our initial hellos, all three dogs solicited attention and petting more than usual. They went onto their backs and gratefully accepted belly rubs. They put their heads in our laps and looked up at us longingly until the petting commenced. They wanted to be near us and oozed happiness in response to any physical contact. They’ve always been friendly with us, but this exceeded their usual signs of love and friendship considerably.
Has anyone else had a similar experience?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A dog struggles to figure it out
One day, Marley showed us a limitation in his problem solving ability when he failed to come when called. He just looked at me, cocked his head and stayed exactly where he was. That’s not like him, because he has a good recall. This was definitely not a matter of him being distracted or refusing by choosing to do something else rather than responding to my cue.
His recall may not be proofed in every situation yet, but at our house, it is rock solid. If he is able to come, he will do so when told. When I say, “if he is able to come,” I mean that if he can figure out how to get to me, he will head that way immediately. This time, he literally did not know how to reach me, even though he was standing in our backyard and I was only 20 feet away.
That 20 feet was not on the ground though. I was above him on the upstairs balcony, which does not have access to the ground floor. To respond to the cue appropriately and come to me, Marley would have had to run away from me to go through the backdoor downstairs, run through the house, up the stairs, through the hallway, into the master bedroom and exit through the sliding glass door to the balcony. I suspect he was unable to figure out that there was a way to come without running directly to me.
To help him solve this problem, we broke it down into three smaller steps. My kids called him to come inside and reinforced him for that. Then my husband called him from the top of the stairs, and also gave him treats. Finally, I called him from the balcony, and this time he was able to respond to my cue and be reinforced for doing so.
It will take him additional practice to be able to do the entire recall from the backyard, into the house, up the stairs and onto the balcony, but he has progressed already. He can complete this complex recall in two steps now instead of three, and I expect that he will soon be proficient at the task which once completely befuddled him.
Has your dog ever struggled to come when called because of confusion about how to reach you?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Take two and double the fun
If you’re like most dog folks, sooner or later you may think, “As wonderful as one dog is, two would be even better!”
There are many great reasons to add another canine family member: more to love, more to be loved by, companionship for Dog One, saving a life, companionship for a child and more. There are also many reasons not to: more vet bills, more food and toys to buy, more poop to scoop, less individual attention for Dog One, more potential behavior problems…
Assuming you’ve carefully considered the pros and cons and made an educated decision to adopt another, here are some tips for a successful introduction of your new dog to your existing canine pal(s):
1. Make sure Dog One is dog-friendly. If you don’t already know that One is the life of the dog park, find a friend with a very dog-friendly dog and introduce One to Friendly in a safely fenced neutral territory. One may tell you in no uncertain terms that he’d rather be an only dog. If so, consider maintaining your one-dog status. Or, if you’re dead-set on another dog, find a good, positive trainer/behavior consultant to help you convince One of the benefits of having a canine pal. If the introduction goes well, take the next step.
2. Select the right dog. If your current dog is very assertive, adding another “top dog” could be the equivalent of holding a lit match to an open gasoline can. Look for a dog who defers to your “Boss Dog.” However, if your current dog is a Wilting Willie, an assertive new dog may take over. Willie will probably be fine with this, but you may have a hard time seeing him pushed around. If so, look for a non-assertive dog.
Size needs to be taken into account. If you have a three-pound mini-dog, there are inherent risks in adopting a large-breed dog. Even in play, big dogs can cause serious, sometimes fatal, injuries to toy-size canines. It’s not impossible to have very disparate sizes in a household, but it requires committed supervision and management.
Grooming and energy levels are still other considerations. If Woolly Bully requires daily grooming to stay mat-free, perhaps a shorthaired dog is in order. Or, if you finish brushing Woolly and are eager for more, a second Old English Sheepdog may be right up your alley.
If your current Border Collie mix is an Energizer™ bunny, another active dog might help wear her out—or you could end up with two bunnies.
3. Script your introductions. Set up your introductions in that safely fenced neutral territory. This is best done prior to your commitment to adopt Dog Two. Both of you armed with hot dogs, have a friend, hold one leashed dog at the far side of the area while you enter with the second. Watch body language; they may become alert and a little tense, or act all waggy and playful—both are acceptable responses. If one or both dogs exhibit serious aggression—lunging, frenzied barking, snarling or snapping—stop the introduction and seek professional assistance.
When the dogs notice each other, calmly feed hot dog bits, until each is focusing on the person providing the treats. Now slow the rate of hot dogs until the dogs glance at each other, then look back at you for hot dogs. If both dogs appear happy and/or reasonably relaxed in each other’s presence, drop the leashes while still at a distance and allow them to greet each other. Leash restraint can sometimes cause otherwise compatible dogs to behave aggressively. Leave the leashes on for a few moments so you can safely separate the dogs if necessary. When it is clear that they are getting along, call them back and unclip the leashes so they can play without becoming entangled (which can also cause a fight!).
At home, introduce them again in your fenced yard, and, to minimize indoor stress, don’t bring them into the house until they’ve tired themselves out playing.
4. Train and manage for success. Installation of baby gates and tethers in strategic places can help keep the peace. When dogs are still getting to know each other, separate them when you’re not home. If there are food-bowl or feeding-station issues, feed the dogs far apart, perhaps in separate rooms or crates, to avoid confrontations. Make sure there are enough toys to go around, and ample beds located in low-traffic areas.
The more dogs you care for, the more important training becomes. You can survive one ill-mannered canine, but two poorly behaved dogs—or several—will make your, and their, lives miserable. Your benevolent but firm leadership lends itself to peace in the pack. Something as simple as consistently requesting them to sit for a cookie before going out serves as a constant reminder that you’re in charge.
I have four dogs of my own; I stand squarely in the “more is better” camp. The thousands of dogs awaiting homes in shelters and rescue groups second this emotion. Think it through, make introductions carefully, train and manage well, and you’ll have another lifelong love.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Casual comments when aggression is brewing
The dog was scaring me. He was heading towards us, calling to mind a true wild predator. Moving slowly, silently and with unsettling stillness, this dog was stalking us and I felt true fear. This was a 70-pound tall and leggy dog who had a coyote-like look to him. He was only about 30-feet away at the hole next to us on the disk golf course where we had come with Marley. His family showed no signs of concern with their dog’s behavior and perhaps they had not even noticed it.
I resisted the urge to shriek, “Call your dog! What made you think it’s remotely okay to have a stalking dog off leash around kids and other dogs? Sheesh!” Blaming or shaming them with a knee-jerk response such as that would have done nothing to accomplish my goal of influencing their behavior to make the situation safer and less scary. Instead, I faked calmness and said, “I think your dog is making our dog uncomfortable.” This was a serious understatement as Marley seemed truly distressed by this dog’s approach.
It turned out to be a good choice of what to say. One guy in the group casually said, “Oh, sorry,” and called his dog with a cheerful, “Bear, Come!” Bear trotted over to him and regained a relaxed and playful body posture. I was still glad when they left not long after.
It feels satisfying to diffuse a potentially tense situation that involved the potential for canine aggression as well as social awkwardness between people. I wish it were always possible. The previous day, I had tried to make light of a situation with a dog and had failed miserably and comically.
I was out for a run and feeling tired though I still had a few miles to go. I was inspired by the peppiness of a Boston Terrier who was headed towards me while out for a walk with a young couple. As we approached each other, I said exactly what was on my mind: “I wish I had the spring in my step that your dog has.”
The dog reacted by barking and lunging at me, hitting the end of his leash and making a bit of a scene. The people were probably hoping as we approached that we would all ignore each other, so that their dog would not have an outburst. Sadly for them, they had come across their worst nightmare—an extreme dog lover and an extreme extrovert, so that was not to be.
It was my attempt to diffuse the situation rather than my original comment that was really the mistake, though. After I had remarked on the dog’s energy and she had replied with her, “BARRARRARR BARRARRARR,” I said, “See, she has so much energy!” My intention was to try to lighten up a tense situation and to let them know that I was not scared or angry. These things happen, as I know as well as anyone. Understandably, they just looked annoyed.
When I came home and told my family about it, my 9-year old son’s comment was, “Do you think they thought maybe you weren’t that smart?” (It’s a reasonable conclusion about someone who has described a dog’s aggressive barking and lunging as “energetic.”) I replied, “Well, I’m sure they didn’t think I was an expert in canine behavior, and they’re surely not praising my social skills.” I just didn’t want them to feel ashamed or bad in any other way, as I know so many people do when their dog’s behavior falls short of perfection.
Have you had luck—good or bad—diffusing awkward situations involving potentially aggressive behavior?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It often happens naturally, but can be taught
Many dogs know the names of the humans sharing their home. It’s only natural that they notice that certain words go with certain people. Many dogs will react to the names of their guardians with great enthusiasm when they are not present, perhaps anticipating their return. In the natural course of things, we humans use each other’s names a lot, saying hello, getting each other’s attention, and calling out into the void to see if they are around. We also use it to announce someone’s arrival, as in, “Rich is home!”
Training dogs to know people’s names on purpose is also possible. One of the easiest ways to teach a dog the names of everyone in the family is with a game called Family Circle. One person says, “Where’s Karen?” and then I call the dog to come. If he comes to me, he gets a treat or other reinforcement, but if he goes to someone else by mistake, he will be ignored. Then, it’s my turn to cue the dog about where to go, and I might say, “Where’s Rich?” at which point Rich will call him, and going to Rich is the right thing to do to get reinforced. This game works best with at least three people. With only two people, the dog may learn that the correct response is to go to the person who did NOT just say ‘Where’s . . .?” without necessarily learning names.
In the early stages of training a dog to play Family Circle, the dog should always be told the name of the person he must go find and hear that person call him to come. The person should also be within sight of the dog. Later on as the dog becomes competent at the task, the cue “Come” can be dropped, and later still, the game can be played when the person he must find is out of sight, so the dog must go search for that person.
I love this game because of its practical applications in the event of a lost person, or even one who has just gone out of sight or earshot briefly. Not only does it solidify their understanding of names with a game can be very useful, it also teaches dogs to find the person in response to the cue and gives them great practice with their recall. Among the other benefits are that the dog can get physical exercise without the people having to move, and it can help keep a dog occupied mentally when we are too busy to engage in more active play.
I’ve been thinking lately that dogs who live with only one person don’t have the same opportunities to learn guardian names. If there are no other people in your household, how often is your name spoken aloud in the presence of your dog? I wonder two things about dogs who live with one person: 1) Does the dog know the person’s name? 2) If not, does it matter?
If you live in a family in which you are the only human member, do you think your dog knows your name? What about those of you with multiple people in the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A study with insights into welfare
If you think that having dogs who bounce off the walls is problematic for them and for you, you are not alone. “Wall bouncing” is one of the repetitive behaviors that have long been considered indicative of poor welfare and chronic stress in the animals performing them. Other repetitive behaviors that are commonly seen in dogs are pacing, circling and spinning, all of which are generally regarded as stereotypical behavior.
Stereotypical behaviors are those that are not just repetitive, but also pointless and occur because of deficits in animals’ housing situation that cause frustration. That is, when animals are performing stereotypies, they are exhibiting behavior that has no function, and doing it over and over because their living environment is inadequate to meet their needs. A recent study in the journal Physiology and Behavior called Repetitive behaviour in kennelled domestic dog: Stereotypical or not? explored whether all the repetitive behaviors observed in kennelled dogs are actually stereotypies. The reason this question matters is that if their repetitive behaviors are stereotypies, it suggests that animals’ welfare may be compromised, but if they are performing repetitive behaviors for other reasons, then that conclusion may be suspect.
The researchers studied 30 male German Shepherds who are fully trained Police Dogs in the UK and live in a kennel that can hold as many as 40 dogs. They studied their behavior as well as their cortisol profiles (which indicate stress) before and after veterinary exams. They found that all but two of the dogs performed repetitive behaviors, but that very few of them displayed stereotypies. Repetitive behaviors were most commonly induced by a dog and handler walking past the kennel and by witnessing food preparation, which supports the idea that repetitive behaviors are simply a response to situations of high arousal rather than to stress.
The dogs could be divided into four groups based on the pattern of their repetitive behavior and the eliciting stimuli. Twelve of the dogs only exhibited repetitive behavior in response to husbandry events (including veterinary care) or not at all and showed them in less than half of the observation period. Five additional dogs also only displayed repetitive behavior in those same contexts, but they showed it more than half of the time that they were observed. Eight dogs performed repetitive behaviors in response to husbandry and when a person walked by or stood outside their kennel. The last five dogs displayed repetitive behavior in the absence of these and other specific stimuli.
Though all the groups had similar baseline cortisol profiles, this last group had a cortisol profile following the exam that differed from the other groups. These dogs showed a decrease in cortisol immediately after the exam rather than the increase in cortisol seem in the other groups. This suggests one of two possibilities. One is that these dogs are under chronic stress and lack the physiological ability to respond typically to the additional stress of an exam. The other possibility is that these dogs are so attached to people, including their caregivers and the veterinarian, that being with them after a separation is such a positive experience that it balances out the stress of being removed from the kennel and examined.
The relationship between repetitive behaviors in dogs and their welfare status remains unclear, but this study suggests that there is not just one motivating factor behind the expression of repetitive behaviors. Many questions remain about repetitive behavior in dogs who are kenneled. Is it an indication of poor welfare? Could the repetitive behaviors be a result of reinforcement (food or attention) of these behaviors from people caring for the dogs? Why are the cortisol profiles different in dogs who exhibit repetitive behaviors without specific eliciting stimuli?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Avoiding aggression can look silly
At first glance, these dogs seem comical as they bark and display at each other through the fence. It’s obvious that they could move over just a few inches and actually reach their opponent. Yet both of them determinedly stay where there’s a fence between them and display rather than move over and fight in the open.
Their behavior shows a lot of self-control and a disinclination to fight. Dogs often choose not to be aggressive when they have another option. It reminds me of the importance of avoiding situations in which dogs have no way out. The fence gives these dogs an out—a way to avoid being aggressive.
Neither of these dogs wants to fight. They are both showing a common sign of fearfulness—the fear grimace, which is when they pull back the corners of their mouths. The fear grimace is a facial expression that allows us to see many of the dogs’ teeth, which is why it looks so menacing to us, but it is a behavior that indicates fear. In addition, the dog on the left approaches with its weight back and continues to lean back rather than charge forward. That is also a sign of a dog who is afraid rather than confident in the situation.
I have seen this type of fence fighting behavior before, and have had many people share stories with me of similar situations. Once, I even saw two dogs run along opposite sides of a fence barking, and then, when they unexpectedly come to a break in the fence, head back to the fence and continue fence fighting, all in a charmingly synchronized way.
It looks funny, but I think they both deserve gold stars rather than laughter for their behavior. Good for them for avoiding violence and handling the situation with some visual and vocal displays instead. I wish people chose this route more often. Dogs who choose fence fighting over actual fighting deserve our admiration, not our disdain, though I must admit I always have to fight the urge to laugh anyway.
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