Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Looks aren’t everything, but they do play a role in communication
Dogs excel in their role as our best friends. Spooning with us on a cold night, they seem almost hyper-domesticated. If there were a gold medal for “Achieving Domestication,” dogs would win it.
Some days, however, the story is quite different: chasing squirrels, digging up newly planted flowers, eating — then throwing up — grass, romping in a mud puddle post-bath, rolling in an overripe carcass. At these moments, we’re apt to look at our four-legged companions and say, “Really? You’re domesticated?” And, of course, they are. This mixture is what makes dogs, dogs — one minute, dressed in a Superman costume and the next, shredding and eating said costume.
People often cite life experience and breed when trying to account for the ways dogs behave. Who hasn’t heard, “He’s a rescue and was probably abused — that’s why he’s shy,” or “She’s a Labrador Retriever, so she always has a ball in her mouth”? Dogs of unknown origin are described in a similar fashion, relative to their possible breed identities: “Petunia kind of looks like a Chihuahua, but she definitely has that Border Collie eye.”
According to Christine Hibbard, CTC, CPDT-KA and owner of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash., when associating a dog with the “look” or “behavior” of a particular breed, it’s important to remember that “the way dogs look and their actual genetics can be very different.” That, at least, is what studies are showing. As Victoria Voith, DVM, PhD and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., explains, “Mixedbreed dogs are a collage of features of their ancestors. So much so that they often don’t look like any of their immediate parents or grandparents. In fact, they may look more like other breeds.” DNA tests often reveal that dogs are not simply a cross between two purebred parents. Instead, tests come back as 25 percent of this, 12.5 percent of that and a pinch of a few others. Since a dog’s looks and his genetic code can be on very different pages — sometimes in different books altogether — attributing a dog’s behavior to its “look” can some- times be a faulty assumption.
What about purebred dogs? Do these dogs from concentrated breeding pools give clues about why dogs act as they do? The AKC and other breedcertifying organizations certainly ascribe global attributes to breeds: The Schipperke is confident and independent; Boston Terriers are friendly and lively; Chows are independent and aloof; Clumber Spaniels are gentle, loyal and affectionate.
Breed standards, however, are simply guidelines. As Denise Herman, CTC, lead trainer and founder of Empire of the Dog in NYC, says, “When you get a puppy of a particular breed, people think it’s a blank slate, but it’s really an unknown slate. Breed gives an indication of where that unknown slate may go, but not all Border Collies herd, not all Huskies pull sleds and some Chows like everyone equally. A puppy of a particular breed is an unknown slate with the possibility of those characteristics.”
No Two Alike
The controversial practice of dog cloning provides a great example of the limits of behavior assessment based on genetics. In Dog, Inc., Pulitzer prize– winning investigative reporter and Bark contributor John Woestendiek explains how, after spending $20 million to clone their beloved dog Missy, Joan Hawthorne and John Sperling found Missy’s successor different from the original. “Missy was robust and completely calm. Missy wouldn’t come through my home and knock over every wine glass … They’re not at all alike,” says Hawthorne. Their genetics were the same, but personalities? Not so much. Even clones aren’t clones.
While genetics and life experiences certainly contribute to who dogs are, they’re not the entire story. The other part of the picture is in plain sight.
Breed standards specify required physical attributes pertaining to the tail, the ears and the coat, among other things. Most of these individual attributes, of course, appear across breeds and even in dogs in general. As a result, dog physical appearance — and its implications for how dogs communicate and how they are perceived — can be examined in its own right.
The famous Russian silver fox experiment is a clear reminder that the behaviors animals demonstrate can in some ways be linked to the way they look. In a few generations, foxes bred for docility and friendliness toward humans began to look quite different from those who were fearful of humans. As Stephen Zawistowski, PhD, CAAB and science advisor to the ASPCA, summarizes, “As the foxes became more tame, they began to develop a more ‘dog-like’ appearance, with piebald coats and floppy ears.”
The signals a dog has at its disposal may simply be a matter of basic equipment. As Zawistowski observes, “There are some things that are anatomically not possible for a dog to do, simply based on its anatomy. How can you tell if a Basset Hound has his ears up and forward? A Rottweiler can make a great lip pucker, but how on earth can a Bulldog pucker?” To be sure, the lack of overt behavioral signals does not suggest a dog is not feeling a particular emotion, or even that he might not adopt different strategies to convey them. But the implication is clear: The perception that Rottweilers are aggressive and Basset Hounds are laid-back could be a function of their physical features — and thus, the behaviors they can perform — rather than their mental processes.
With this in mind, could dogs’ physical appearance affect how they communicate? Or even, for that matter, how they’re treated by other members of their species? When a Great Dane comes across a French Bulldog, olfactory cues will reveal that the French Bulldog is, in fact, a dog, but does the Great Dane think to himself, “Hello my long-lost, thirty-times-removed cousin!” or “What the heck? You smell like a dog, but I don’t understand what you’re saying.”
Here to translate for the dogs is Jim Ha, PhD, CAAB, research associate professor and staff member of Companion Animal Solutions in Seattle, Wash.: “The way dogs look — their morphology — can definitely change the quality of their visual signals. Dogs who are more infantile in appearance — paedomorphic dogs like French Bulldogs, Pugs and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels — are nice examples of how we are handicapping the dog’s ability to signal properly. But we also find that dogs who are not paedomorphic in appearance can have trouble signaling and communicating with one another as well. Signaling difficulty is not only associated with paedomorphic dogs.”
The changes we’ve made to dogs’ physical appearance do not necessarily make it easier for dogs to communicate with one another. Ha suggests that many aggression issues stem from misuse of signals and miscommunication between dogs.
Voith has a similar assessment: “Based on clinical experience, but not tested systematically, dogs that are fuzzy or black are often attacked by other dogs. I think that is because their social signals are not easily detectable — if at all. Subsequent to being attacked, black or fuzzy dogs become defensively aggressive towards other dogs, generally on leash.”
Herman agrees. “For any dog with a lot of fur or hair, you can’t see muscle tension, and it’s harder to read stiffness. Is a Komondor having a piloerection [raised hair along the dog’s back]? I have no idea.”
Or, take tails. Dog tails come in a spectrum of shapes and sizes. Are they important for dog-dog communication? Humans certainly take note of tails; when asked to assess dog behavior, we pay an inordinate amount of attention to the tail (possibly because we do not have one). Does a Labrador look at a Corgi and think, “Umm, excuse me, sir. I’m having a hard time understanding you. I believe you’ve misplaced your rear-end thing.” For another species commonly found lounging around our homes, tails are highly relevant. While a graduate student studying with noted ethologist John Bradshaw, Charlotte Cameron-Beaumont found that cats more readily approached, and approached in a friendly manner, a cardboard cat silhouette whose tail was in the “tail-up” position as opposed to those cat silhouettes with their tails down. Tails play an important role in cat-cat greetings (good luck, Manx).
When the dog researchers explored how dogs respond to other dogs’ tails, they pulled out the big guns: a model robot dog resembling a Labrador Retriever. Apart from its tail, the “dog” was motionless. The researchers found that when the robot dog had a long wagging tail, it was approached more than when it had a long still tail, which as you probably assumed, suggests that the tail conveys emotional state, and that wagging is more inviting than not wagging. When it came to short tails, the story changed. There was no difference between how the robot dog with a short/still and a short/wagging tail was approached. It appears that the longer tails were most effective at conveying emotional information, and since short tails are hard to read, they might not be read at all.
For Herman, the implications are obvious. “When you dock tails, it takes away part of their communication signal. It’s the dog version of Botox. Ear cropping falls in the same category. Dobermans with cropped ears ostensibly look alert to other dogs. They can’t be read [accurately] because they can’t change.” It’s difficult to derive cues and information from cropped ears. If anything, their constantly alert position could mislead other dogs.
E’Lise Christensen, DVM and boardcertified veterinary behaviorist in New York City, agrees. “I think cosmetic alteration could affect communication with other dogs. It certainly [has an impact on] assessments by owners, because they forget to look at the stump of the tail for movement and tension. Ears that are too cropped mean owners have to look for muscular movement at the skull level rather than the pinna, the outer part of the ear, where we customarily look. Flat faces make it more difficult to read small muscular movements.”
Herman suggests that taking note of a dog’s morphology can give owners a better appreciation for their dog. “It’s hard for other dogs to see that a Chow is really stiff, simply because he is [engulfed] in a ball of hair. It can be helpful for pet dog owners to recognize that what dogs have or do not have at their disposal could add confusion to dog-dog communication. This appreciation could help owners empathize with their dog, instead of blaming their dog or feeling angry for the dog’s behavior.”
Hibbard reminds us that the issue at hand can be twofold. “If you can’t see the ears, that’s one problem. But if you can see the ears but the dog uses them wrong, that’s another problem.”
It’s All About Us
Training, life experience, genetics and psychological disorders are the common suspects for “out-of-sync” behavior, but how a dog looks — or rather, sees — is often overlooked. In 2003, professor Paul McGreevy, DVM and researcher at the University of Sydney, and his colleagues discovered that, contrary to popular belief, all canine eyes are not the same. Shortnosed dogs have what is called an area centralis, which allows them to focus more clearly on the world in front of them, like humans, while long-nosed dogs have a visual streak, which enables better peripheral vision. There’s a physiological reason why a long-nosed dog would take off after something way in the periphery while you and a shortnosed dog continue to sit on a park bench wondering what the long-nosed dog saw.
It stands to reason that these differences would not only affect how dogs see the world around them, but also how they attend to us humans, and that’s exactly what we find. Dogs are quite adept at following our pointing gestures, but brachycephalic (flat-faced) breeds, with their more forward-facing eyes, follow these gestures better than dolichocephalic (long-nosed) breeds. In turn, this sense of being seen and responded to accordingly (or not) may affect how we perceive and relate to dogs.
Undoubtedly, dogs are a composite of their genes and individual life experiences. But the physical features that they come with, or that we give them via docking and breeding, can contribute to how they interact with others and are perceived by dogs and humans alike. When thinking about why your dog behaves the way he does, it can be helpful to be superficial and look at what’s right in front of you.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Managing expectations about your dog’s behavior makes for a good relationship
We live in a fast-paced, results-oriented society, one in which technology advances at warp speed and solutions to many of our everyday problems are often just a mouse-click away. Our increasingly hectic lifestyles mean that we waste very little time getting our needs met. This is fine if we’re ordering a couch and decide that blue tapestry is more to our liking than vintage brown leather. Chances are good that we’ll get just what we ordered. The same is often true when buying a car, a boat or the latest status toy. For the most part, we get what we want, and we get it without much effort.
Living with inanimate objects is very different from sharing a home with a four-legged best friend, however. Dogs, as we are learning from a wealth of newly published research, display sensitivity, emotion and advanced cognitive skills; they also have an understanding of fairness, and perhaps most importantly, they have the capacity to form intense social relationships with humans, other dogs and even other species. In my 15-plus years of scientifically studying and training dogs as well as treating their life-threatening behavioral problems, I have yet to see a pre-packaged dog, one who comes out of the box perfectly behaved and needing only food, water and a leash. It just doesn’t happen that way. Nor should it.
What does it mean to enter into a relationship with a dog? Among other things, it means that:
*Blackwell, E., et al. 2008. The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behavior problems, as reported by owners, in a population of domestic dogs. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 3 (5): 207–217; Herron, M. E., et al. 2009. Survey of the use and outcome of confrontational and non-confrontational training methods in client-owned dogs showing undesired behaviors. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 117: 47–54.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How to deal with dashing dogs
There he goes again, (expletive deleted)!” Sounds like the unhappy human companion of a door-darter— a dog who slips through an open door every chance he gets. This is frustrating for the human and dangerous for the dog, who romps around having a marvelous time just beyond his owner’s reach, or worse, takes off at a dead run for parts unknown.
Why would a well-loved dog who has ample food, water, toys and human attention choose to escape? Because it’s fun. The outside world can be endlessly reinforcing for a dog. If you have an “investigate-and-sniff-everything-onwalks” kind of dog, you know that from experience. The door-darter has also learned that dashing outside is a great way to get his couch-potato human to play with him — which is also very reinforcing. Finally, if you’ve ever made the mistake of being angry at your dog when you finally got your hands on him, you’ve taught him that being captured makes good stuff go away (he doesn’t get to play anymore) and makes bad stuff happen (you yell at him).
Making good stuff go away is the definition of “negative punishment” and making bad stuff happen is “positive punishment.” Basically, he’s punished twice, and neither punishment is associated with the act of dashing out the door! Rather, both are connected with you catching him, which will make it even harder to retrieve him the next time he gets loose.
So, what do you do if you live with a door-darter?
First, get him back. Easier said than done, you may say. An accomplished door-darter is often an accomplished keep-away player as well. Don’t chase him; you’ll just be playing his game. Play a different game. Grab a squeaky toy, take it outside and squeak. It may be counterintuitive, but when he looks, run away from him, still squeaking. If he chases you, let him grab one end of the toy. Play tug, trade him for a treat, then squeak and play some more. Let him follow you, playing tug-thesqueaky, into your fenced yard, then close the gate (or into your garage or house, if you don’t have a fence). Play more squeaky with him.
If he loves car rides, run to your car and say, “Wanna go for a ride?” Open the door and when he jumps in, take him for a ride! Chasing tennis balls or flying discs? Fetching sticks? Walkies? Whatever he loves, offer it.
Once you’ve corralled your cavorting canine, the part about punishment bears repeating: no matter how upset you are, don’t yell at him! Don’t even reprimand him calmly. And don’t take him back inside immediately — that’s punishment, too. Stay outside and play a while. I promise, if you punish him or march him sternly back into the house, he’ll be harder to catch the next time. Instead, happily and genuinely reinforce him with whatever he loves best.
Don’t let it happen. Management is vital for dog-keeping generally and successful behavior modification specifically. It keeps your door-darter safe and you sane. If you can’t fence in your entire yard, perhaps you can fence a small area outside the door(s). If you can’t put up a physical fence, install a barrier outside the door(s) — a small area with a self-closing gate, so that if he dashes out, he’s still contained. Don’t even think “underground shock fence”— determined dogs will run through those as easily as through open doors.
Baby gates or exercise pens inside can block your dog’s access to escape. Insist that everyone — family and guests alike — makes sure he’s behind the barrier before they go out the door or greet a visitor.
Increasing your dog’s level of aerobic exercise is another way to reduce the darting. If you keep your canine pal busy and tired, he’ll be less inclined to look for opportunities to make a break for it.
Train, train, train. Teach your dog to wait at doors until he’s given the release cue. With your dog sitting beside you at a door that opens outward, tell him to “Wait.” Reach toward the doorknob. If he doesn’t move, click your clicker or use a verbal marker and give him a tasty treat. Repeat, moving your hand closer toward the doorknob in small increments, clicking and treating each time he remains seated.
If he gets up, say “Oops!” have him sit, then try again. If he gets up several times in a row, you’re asking too much of him; go back to moving your hand only a few inches toward the knob, and advance more slowly.
When he’ll stay sitting, touch the knob. Click/treat. Jiggle the knob. Click/treat. Repeat, clicking and treating each time, then open the door a crack. If your dog doesn’t move, click and treat. If he gets up, say “Oops!” and close the door. You’re teaching him that getting up closes the door; if he wants the opportunity to go out, he must wait.
Gradually open the door in one or two-inch increments. Any time he gets up, “Oops!”/close the door/try again. Do several repetitions at each step. When you can open the door all the way, take one step through, stop, turn around and face your dog. Wait a few seconds, click, then return and treat.
When he’s solid with you walking out the door, occasionally invite him to go out ahead of, with or after you, by using a release cue such as “free.” Other times, walk through the door and close it, leaving him inside. Once the door closes, he’s free to get up and move around. You can give your release cue through the closed door, or simply leave him to figure out it’s okay once you’re gone. He will figure it out.
Finally, teach everyone who interacts with him how to ask for the “Wait” at the door. The more consistent everyone is at reinforcing the sit-and-wait, the more reliable your dog will be at waiting, and the less likely he’ll be to dart out that door. Thus, the safer he’ll be and the more easily you’ll breathe. And that’s a winning combination.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Doubling Up: Are Two Puppies a Good Idea?
Question: We have a five-month-old Lab and a six-month-old Golden Retriever. My husband and I thought it would be great to get two puppies so that each of our kids (ages three and five) could have one to care for and train. It’s a nightmare! The dogs only pay attention to each other, their training is nonexistent, and we are so overwhelmed and exhausted that we wish we had only gotten one. Is there anything we can do to make the situation better?
Answer: It’s a huge temptation to get two puppies—who wouldn’t want double the cuteness and double the fun?—and you succumbed, as have so many others before you. Take heart: The problems you describe are common in households with two puppies, and you can make the situation better.
The most important step is to spend time alone with each puppy daily. Besides helping you build a strong relationship with each of the dogs, this will also accustom them to being separated. Use this one-on-one time to work on training. The pups need to be trained individually before you try to work with them as a pair, because they are going to distract one another when they’re together.
The time you spend alone with each puppy shouldn’t be all work—engage them in other activities as well. Playing, going on walks, or taking a class together are all ways you can spend valuable time with each dog. Another benefit is that you can focus on doing what that dog enjoys most. Perhaps one loves nothing more than to have you practice canine massage on him, while the other dog’s favorite activity is running and jumping in the creek.
It is wise to let them be individuals; living in the same house does not mean that they necessarily have identical personalities or that they have the same needs. On the flip side, the fact that one dog dislikes riding in the car doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun for the other dog. No matter how similar they are, treat them as individuals. The more you do, the more likely it is that they will have a strong bond with you, and the easier it will be for you to get their attention.
Don’t expect your children to lessen the workload of having dogs. Even mature children with the best of intentions need lots of supervision when helping care for or train dogs. The amount of guidance required means that when they pitch in, it may be even more work for you. The adults have to commit to the full responsibility of the time and effort involved in raising two dogs.
Finally, the voice in your heart that keeps repeating the wish that you had only gotten one dog deserves to be respected. I truly believe that when you adopt a dog, it is your responsibility to do what is best for that dog. In an environment where the people are overwhelmed, the dogs are out of control, and everyone is exhausted and unhappy, it is fair to consider a change of environment. If, after trying the suggestions included here, life is still not at all what you had hoped for, consider rehoming one of the dogs.
I recently took care of a client’s puppy for a weekend so she and her family could see how they would feel with only one puppy in their home, a home that also includes two small children. The trial showed them that one puppy was enough and two were too many. They decided to place the dog I cared for in one of the several households who wanted her. Now, two happy homes each have one lovely puppy, instead of one feeling crazed by the stress and chaos of two puppies. Returning a puppy to a breeder, placing her with a rescue group or finding her a new home is not a decision to be made lightly, but in some cases, it can lead to a happy ending all around.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Troubled by Temptation
Q. During the holidays, my dog discovered the joys of entertaining—from cookies and hors d’oeuvres on the coffee table, she graduated to leaping onto the counter for other delectables while we were busy entertaining our guests in another room. She never did this before! How do I train her out of this newly acquired habit without resorting to kenneling her when we’re home? Other than this, she’s a great hostess.
A. Well, Here’s an example of what not to do. One of my clients, fed up with her dog stealing food when her back was turned, placed “scat mats” (electrified mats) on the kitchen counters. On his first encounter with the mats, her dog received such a jolt that he squealed and ran out of the kitchen. The scat mats seemed to have done the trick, and the lady was pleased with the result. The “success” was short-lived, however. The only entrance to the backyard was through the kitchen, and when it was time for the dog to go outside, he flatly refused to go anywhere near the kitchen area. not surprisingly, he also began to have accidents inside the home. a counter- surfing issue had turned into major anxiety, and it was some time before the dog would walk through the kitchen to go to the backyard.
Put yourself in your dog’s paws. The next time you’re hungry, place your favorite food on the table and see if you can resist taking a bite. even people who have difficulty controlling themselves expect their dogs to resist temptation when food is placed right in front of them.
In order to set up your dog for success while ensuring her safety, it is much more realistic to use a mixture of management and training techniques. Dogs are opportunists and the more successful they are at getting food from kitchen counters or the table, the more they will try. Blocking access by using baby gates or putting your dog in another room if you have company is one way to ensure she doesn’t have an opportunity to surf and thus, reward herself for this activity. If this isn’t an option, try tethering her to you so she is with you at all times.
If you’re working in the kitchen and are unable to use a baby gate, draw an imaginary line along the floor and teach her to stay behind that line. (a reliable sit-stay cue needs to be taught first so that she understands what is expected of her.) If she strays, gently block her with your body until she retreats behind the line again. reward her at intervals while she stays behind the line and she will see the area as a positive place to be.
As counter-surfing happens mostly when no one’s around (dogs are smart!), you can try going hi-tech with a special two-way radio collar that allows your dog to hear your voice right next to her ear even when you’re in another room.* Put some food on the counter and then walk away to a place where you can see the food. Pick up a magazine or pretend to be doing something else so she thinks your attention is off her. Wait for her to go up to the counter, and just before she jumps up, ask her to “leave it.” If she backs away, praise her. Start this exercise using low-value food before making it more difficult with the yummy stuff. This technique might cause a little confusion at first, but your dog will soon learn that the “all-seeing eye” is everywhere, even if you aren’t in the immediate vicinity.
While you are entertaining, you can also provide your dog with something else to focus on by giving her an interactive toy such as a treat ball or a Kong filled with food. This will most likely tire her out while filling her up, quenching any desire to seek out food—leaving your dog satisfied and your food safe!
*The Hear now Two-Way radio Collar is one option; it’s not easy to find, however. an online search will sometimes turn up a source.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Do people think I am?
On a day that I had gone for a run, and not yet had a chance to shower I saw the woman who cuts my hair, looking chic and well-styled as always. We said our hellos and then I burst out with, “I swear my hair hardly ever looks like this! The cut you just gave me is great and I’ve been able to make it look really nice, but today I went for a run and then threw it into a ponytail and rushed here!” Always kind, she smiled and was very gracious about my weird behavior. I wondered out loud to my friend whether this poor woman is used to people acting this way when they see her.
My friend said, “I’ll bet people feel the same way when they see you and their dog is not being a saint. I replied, “I’m not judging dogs’ behavior when I see them!” And it’s true. I understand that dogs can get very excited when out and about and that what I see may not be their typical behavior. And my friend asked me, “But do you really think the woman who cuts your hair is going around judging people for not having perfect hair?”
I gave this a lot of thought and realized that people often want to show me what their dog can do—a new trick, not jumping up to greet me, an impressive down-stay or anything else the dog can do well. They are so proud when the dog does just what they want, and I love to applaud these successes with them. I’m well aware that it means a lot to people to show me the best in their dog. I just hadn’t thought about the other side of the coin—when the dog goofs in front of me by jumping up, pulling on the leash, barking or any other imperfect behavior. I tend to focus on celebrating what the dog is doing right rather than becoming worked up about other behavior. After all, it’s not like I’ve ever had a dog whose behavior was consistently perfect.
Have you had the experience of your dog acting up in front of just the person you want them to show off for? Have you had your dog make you proud, too?
Wellness: Healthy Living
There’s a brief moment in Mike Nichols’ iconic 1967 movie, The Graduate, that helps me imagine what life is like for my 15-year-old Corgi, Edgar, who has lost most of his hearing. Early in the film, Benjamin Braddock, the eponymous graduate, enters a pool party given by his parents in his honor, wearing full SCUBA gear. Wellmeaning faces from his past float up in succession, each one with advice about what he should do with his life, but, while he can see their mouths moving and read their facial expressions, all he can hear inside the diving mask is the sound of his own breathing.
Every now and then, I look Edgar straight in the eye and say, as helpfully as I possibly can, “Plastics.” That is the advice given to Benjamin by the soonto- be-cuckolded Mr. Robinson about a possible career path. No one ever laughs at my jokes, so Edgar’s blank look is not new, but it makes me feel as though I am still communicating with him even though he cannot hear.
It might seem petty to worry about a little deafness when Edgar is in otherwise perfect health. But I realized that his deafness was a barrier to our bond, and that I felt as estranged from him as he undoubtedly did from me. He had never come when he was called, so that was nothing new. But suddenly he looked away when I said the various trigger words — “Let’s go for a walk,” “Do you want a treat?” “Do you want to ride in the car?” — that used to cause him to cock his head from side to side in a manner that made it clear we were communicating. Suddenly, he was silent during birthday parties, when in the past, his exuberant baritone rang out above all the other voices during the Happy Birthday song.
Dogs’ hearing mechanism is basically the same as that of humans, and they experience hearing loss for many of the same reasons: they can be congenitally deaf (deaf since birth), or they can acquire deafness due to having dirt, wax, ear mites or other foreign bodies in the ear; an infection or inflammation of the ear canal; trauma to the head; noise trauma; exposure to certain antibiotics or other drugs; or old age. I do not know when or why Edgar lost his hearing; part of it was undoubtedly just normal aging process. But he also had an ongoing skin infection that extended into his ears, which I treated with antibiotics, either of which can cause hearing loss. His hearing seemed to have deteriorated overnight, but most likely, it was a gradual process that I didn’t notice until he exhibited some of the more obvious symptoms: pacing around looking for his people, suffering obvious distress at being left alone, exhibiting a pronounced startle response at being touched while he was asleep.
“In hearing, as in most other things, dogs are very adaptive and good at compensating,” says Colette Williams of the University of California, Davis, Pritchard Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital. Williams has been an electro- diagnostician at UCD for 29 years. Among many other tests that she conducts, she assesses animals for hearing loss using brainstem auditory evoked response (BAER) technology. Many seeking her expertise are breeders, who use BAER to identify congenital deafness in their puppies.
If a puppy is found to be bilaterally deaf (deaf in both ears), breeders have a difficult decision to make: euthanize that puppy or let it go as a pet. Those who favor euthanasia point out that many deaf dogs end up in shelters because of the challenges in training them. Also, deaf dogs often get hit by cars, and they can be snappy when they are startled when sleeping, which gives the breed a bad name.
Colette Williams has tested thousands of dogs and has owned two deaf dogs of her own. One of her dogs, a bilaterally deaf-from-birth Dalmatian, learned hand signals that Williams and her son made up. “The key was consistency, and rewarding him with treats,” she says. “I had a hearing dog at the time, and he was harder to train than the deaf dog.” Hearing dogs often aid a deaf dog, Williams points out. They give social cues and can help with training. Williams trained the hearing dog to wake the deaf dog so she didn’t have to worry about the deaf dog biting her young son if he touched the dog while he was sleeping.
Deaf dogs can be marvelously adaptable and inventive. “Dogs are good at using their other senses,” says Williams. “My deaf dog knew where every cat in the neighborhood was. When we walked, he would scan from side to side, taking in everything.”
Like Edgar has had to do, Williams’ deaf dog accepted his condition and got on with life. “Dogs don’t have the self-pity that a lot of people have,” she says.
Seattle-area dog trainer Diane Rich, who has worked with numerous deaf dogs over the past 25 years, points out the importance of developing other modes of communication regardless of whether your dog is deaf or has tip-top hearing. She teaches people to use a combination of body language, hand signals and auditory cues. That way, if the dog loses hearing in old age, he won’t feel quite as isolated. “People want to keep up communication with an older dog,” says Rich. “It takes a lot of patience. You have to learn how to communicate differently, not just verbally.” She also recommends teaching all puppies a “watch” command in addition to the usual commands. Hold some alluring food near the dog’s nose and slowly bring it to your eye level, maintaining eye contact with the dog. Say “Watch” or “Look.” Work on “fading the lure,” and eventually, you’ll be able to just point to your eye and have the dog’s full attention. “Dogs use an array of body language already,” says Rich. “People need to be able to use their own body language to communicate with their dog.”
While many people teach their dogs American Sign Language, any hand signal will do, as long as you’re consistent. “There’s no ceiling to how many words or signs a dog can learn,” says Rich. “They can learn as long as they have a pulse and you have motivation and patience. If you make training fun, they’re going to love learning, and it’s going to cement your bond.” She points out that it’s not true that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks: sometimes it’s easier to train older dogs because they have longer attention spans.
Further, she recommends taking a matter-of-fact approach to your deaf dog’s disability. “Dogs aren’t saddled with ego,” she says. “If we pity them, we can create a situation where the dog may either shut down or act out because they think they did something wrong to make us feel bad. If you act like the disability isn’t a big deal, dogs will respond like it’s not a big deal.”
And so Edgar and I continue together into (in my case) middle age and (in his case) senescence. Taking care of him is a lot of work, but the truth is that I am no bargain either. He is very accepting of the ways in which I am not perfect, and, in turn, I am accepting of his increasing physical limitations. Every day, we practice the hand signals we learned in puppy class 15 years ago, which he still remembers: come, sit, stay, down, good boy. I smile a lot and pat him while giving the “thumbs up” sign when he does something well. I continue to tell him my jokes and he continues to give me a blank look, just like he always has. On every birthday, I bark and howl and yelp when people sing the Happy Birthday song, in honor of the joy his “singing” has given me over the years.
Though he requires a lot of extra care for all his special needs, it is care I am happy to provide in gratitude for the happiness he has brought me. In short, even though he has lost his hearing, arthritis has slowed him down, he sleeps most of the day and cannot participate fully in all of our old antics, he is still my best friend, and encroaching old age will never change that. Because — as every creaky, long-in-the-tooth, middle-aged woman and failing, deaf, 15-year old dog know — love is blind.
The BAER Test
BAER (brainstem auditory evoked response) is a diagnostic test for hearing whereby a dog is fitted with a sound source in the form of earphones with foam inserts that extend into the ear. The device emits a sound and the response is detected by tiny electrodes that have been placed at specific sites on the dog’s head and shoulders. The BAER detects electrical activity in the cochlea of the ear as well as in the auditory pathways of the brain, much like an EKG detects electrical activity in the heart. The resulting waveform definitively shows the extent and degree of a dog’s hearing loss and is used to evaluate a dog’s hearing status. The procedure is painless, but occasionally dogs will object to wearing earphones and being lightly restrained; in extreme cases they are muzzled or sedated, though this is rarely necessary. Results are available on the spot.
While curious pet owners sometimes seek confirmation of a hunch that their dog is deaf, BAER testing is used routinely by breeders, primarily those whose breeds are susceptible to congenital deafness. Coat-color-related deafness is associated with some white-coated and merle breeds, such as Dalmatians and Australian Shepherds. (To find out which breeds are most affected, see Louisiana State University’s Dr. George M. Strain’s comprehensive list.)
Inside the ear, the organ of Corti includes a layer of cells, the stria vascularis. The job of these cells is to secrete a factor that keeps hair cells healthy within the ear. If the stria vascularis cells are not pigmented, they are defective and lead to hair cell death within a puppy’s first few weeks, resulting in deafness. Unfortunately, this takes place in the inner ear and is, therefore, not visible to the eye; often, it is not obvious that a puppy is deaf. Deaf puppies may play harder than their littermates (because they cannot hear the yelps they inflict); also they may be hard to wake, or be seen to be following cues from the other puppies. Hunches must be confirmed with BAER testing.
Those who train working dogs also utilize BAER testing. These dogs need to be able to hear in both ears in order to localize the source of a sound. A dog can be unilaterally deaf (deaf in one ear), so that he can still hear but cannot tell where the sound is coming from. Others whose dogs experience chronic ear infections may seek BAER testing to find out how much hearing loss their dog might have experienced as a result of infection. BAER testing is also used to aid in the diagnosis of more serious medical conditions, such as vestibular (inner ear) disease or brain tumors.
BAER testing can be done only at one of the centers that specialize in the test. (Click here for a list of BAER testing sites.) However, BAER testing is occasionally available at “health clinics” at major dog shows.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Some fetchers are made, not born!
The game of fetch wins the prize as the ultimate good-for-us, good-for-them activity. It gives dogs exercise without humans having to work up a sweat and is a great way to teach dogs the crucial skill of dropping an object on cue. Since it’s fun and interactive, it enhances the relationship between people and dogs. Fetch provides the basis for some of the most amusing tricks, such as teaching a dog to go get a tissue when he hears someone sneeze or to grab a beer from the cooler when told that someone is thirsty.
Unfortunately, many guardians expect their dogs to play fetch without any training, and they are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. They assume that their dog just isn’t into fetch. That’s a shame because many dogs who aren’t naturals at the game love to fetch once someone has taught them how to play.
When teaching a dog to fetch, do what you can to get off on the right paw by choosing your dog’s favorite toy, whether it’s a ball, a plush squirrel, or something squeaky. Begin inside the house where the distractions are fewer and less intense than outside and it will be easier to keep your dog’s attention.
In the early stages, the farther you throw the ball, the less likely your dog is to go after it, so start with short tosses of 10 feet or less. Use two or three toys so that you can throw one when your dog comes back to you even if he doesn’t want to let go of the one in his mouth.
After throwing the ball, either make rapidly repeated high-pitched noises such as woop-woop-woop (pup-pup-pup is also good) or clap as you run away from your dog to encourage him to run towards you. Change the throwing direction with each toss to keep it unpredictable. It’s the unpredictable that makes much of play so fun. Another way to keep it fun, so that your dog will want to keep playing, is to throw the ball the microsecond he comes back to you. It’s more natural to stand there holding it (your dog thinks you’re hoarding it) as you praise him, but that may bore your dog and cause him to lose interest. Finally, quit before your dog wants to. “Leave’em wanting more” is a great strategy when teaching fetch.
As wonderful as fetch can be, it’s not the right game for every dog. Dogs who become aggressive either because they become too aroused or because they are possessive (defending their toys with threatening or even injurious behavior) should not play fetch.
Any dog who is physically capable of playing the game can learn to fetch, and many dogs from a huge variety of breeds love it. It is true, however, that fetch is often picked up fastest by dogs who have a natural tendency to chase after things or are toy-motivated.
If you teach your dog to play this wonderful game, you will have a dog who is fetching, in every sense of the word.
News: Guest Posts
We are almost half way through Ranger’s first year or life and training to become a Conservation K9! He really did not seem to grow much the first few weeks but now he is just growing like a weed and turning into a very handsome Golden Retriever!!
Ranger’s training continues to progress. We train each weekend with the Search and Rescue team, as well as attend puppy obedience class. We trained at a couple novel locations this month, which was great to see how he reacted, and not surprisingly he did just fine. One day we had a short training session at my local UPS store here in Brenham, TX where Ranger was allowed to run around off leash, do some short sit, down, sit exercises and then I did a lot of playing with him. At one point I threw his beloved toy onto a pile of discarded cardboard boxes and he, without hesitation, clambered up to retrieve his toy. This is a really great sign at such a young age that he has potential to be a successful detection dog because it shows that he will do quite a bit to get his toy, even if it is a little scary or uncomfortable!
A week later I took Ranger to Lowe’s and he got to run up and down the lumber department, retrieved his toy off a few piles of wood and even jumped onto a very tipsy lumber cart multiple times to get his toy back… I was very pleased!!
Of course wherever we go Ranger gets to meet new people, and I am thrilled with his temperament because he is an absolute love bug with everyone he meets. I have decided that he has a definite backup career as a therapy dog one day!!
As Ranger’s training has progressed, Dogs for Conservation has also made some big strides lately. We have assembled what I like to call a “Dream Team” consisting of several amazing detection dog trainers, and thanks to one of them, Sgt. Renee Utley, we also have several fantastic dogs who are old enough and have what it takes to immediately start training for Conservation Projects. One of these new dogs is a Springer Spaniel named “Bea” who has an keen nose, absolutely loves her ball, and is starting her new career in Conservation next week as she begins training to search for one of Texas’ most endangered species!
Dogs for Conservation has teamed up with the highly esteemed Caesar Kleburg Wildlife Research Institute (CKWRI) at Texas A&M University in Kingsville, TX to start training dogs for a couple different research projects that will be very useful to biologists to survey for these endangered species they are studying. The CKWRI instantly recognized the value and potential to use dogs to assist in their various research areas, and I believe we are going to be working with them for a long time. One of these soon-to-be-announced projects is also in collaboration with one of my favorite childhood places, the Houston Zoo!
I am also happy to announce that we have had several new sponsors come on board this month including Micah Jones from Blue Giraffe Art Works who donated a commissioned portrait of a CenTex Search and Rescue dog we work with regularly during training and which proceeds from will help both organizations. We were also generously donated several great products from the Kyjen Company, whose Outward Hound product line is a perfect fit for our working dogs in the wilderness!
Check back with Dogs for Conservation next month to see how Ranger and Bea’s training is coming along! You can also join us on Facebook or on our Website to check for more regular updates!
Training (and fun!) Videos this month:
Good Dog: Studies & Research
When operant conditioning clicked (and clucked)
On a warm and slightly overcast morning in 1967, a rusty, mustard-colored station wagon slowly approached the terminal at San Francisco International Airport. Wheels still rolling, a door opened and something gray jumped out. As the wagon continued on its way, an animal headed toward the terminal. It was a cat.
Straight five steps, then wait. The glass door opened and as a portly man in a business suit dragged his overnight bag through it, the cat darted in. Straight 10 paces and the cat was inside the terminal. It headed left 20 feet, then right 30 feet, then left two more feet. No one seemed to notice. The cat settled under a bench where two men sat, engaged in intense conversation. Ten minutes passed, then 20; the cat lay patiently, its tail occasionally twitching.
Then, abruptly, the cat stood up and retraced its steps. Two feet to the right, 30 feet to the left, 20 feet to the right and out the glass doors. Once again, the station wagon pulled up and without stopping, a door opened. The cat leaped in. Mission accomplished.
The project, commissioned by the CIA and run by Animal Behavior Enterprises, had been a success. The cat’s cochlear implant (a device agents used to listen to the cat’s environment) had proven reliable, and its months of training using the relatively new technology of operant conditioning had proven effective for this intelligence operation.
Does this sound preposterous? Would it sound less preposterous if the trained animal had been a dog? Thanks to the science of operant conditioning, European police and military teams have been able to train their working dogs to perform at a much higher and more reliable level than had been possible using traditional coercion- based methods.
This type of training is no small feat. In 1996, Simon Prins, co-author of K9 Behavior Basics: A Manual for Proven Success in Operational Service Dog Training (2010), was hired to lead an innovative project for the Canine Department of the Netherlands National Police Agency. A test project with a three-year timeline, it would continue if it were a success. The project included a detailed list of tasks for dogs to perform.
“This included normal operational tasks, such as tracking, and explosive and narcotics detection,” says Prins, “but also climbing, rappelling, traveling by helicopter and boat and, the most challenging, training dogs to work with cameras and to follow radio or laser guidance at long distances.”
Although Prins had been a patroldog handler in the regional police force for only a few years, he was selected for this project because he was seen as an innovator. “I had been questioning our traditional force techniques because I noticed that dogs would shut down and stop working, or my police dog would become aggressive to me and to the trainer. So I was already looking for new methods.”
At this point, you may be asking yourself — given the fact that people have been training dogs for more than 4,000 years — why did traditional trainers feel these new tasks were impossible? Also, if a guidance system had already been developed for cats in 1967 in the U.S., why did it take Prins three years to reinvent the wheel 30 years later?
Bob Bailey, who worked on the 1967 project and later became co-owner of Animal Behavior Enterprises after marrying its cofounder, Marian Breland, explains. According to Bailey, it was the advent of animal training and behavior as a science that allowed them to develop the system for dogs, cats and, later, dolphins. “Dog training has been practiced as an ancient craft,” says Bailey. “The science of training wasn’t developed until the 1940s with B.F. Skinner.”
What’s the difference between craft and science? According to Bailey, “Crafts generally develop over thousands of years and tend to preserve what’s old and what has been done before. Information is passed down in secret from master to apprentice, and the apprentice must never question the master.” As a result, when errors are introduced, they tend to be preserved. Another characteristic of a craft is that a change is usually designed only to solve an immediate problem. “Rarely do they look for general principles,” says Bailey.
Science, on the other hand, is a systematic way of asking questions, a process that eventually weeds out mistakes. It’s guided by principles and data, and researcher’s approaches change and are revised as new information comes to light. As a result, science advances quickly compared to craft.
Bailey backs up his description with an example: “For 1,000 years, the Chinese used gunpowder to build small rockets. Then the Turks decided to build bigger ones, which they used on the British. It took them 800 years to develop the technology.” Then, in the 1900s, science and technology stepped in. In 1926, American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard launched the first liquid- propellant rocket. In 1949, less than 25 years later, the U.S. sent a rocket to the moon.
“So it took 800 years of craft to send a six-foot rocket half a mile and less than 50 years of science to send a rocket to the moon,” Bailey summarizes.
From Puzzle Boxes to Bells and Whistles
Others were making discoveries at the same time, but the one who really put things together was B.F. Skinner. Through many experiments, Skinner developed the principles of operant conditioning, which describes how animals cope with their environments.
Skinner found that animals learn to repeat behaviors with consequences they view as positive and to avoid behaviors with those they view as negative. They learn best when the positive or negative consequence is timed exactly to the behavior, and their learning rate is directly proportional to the rate at which the behavior is reinforced.
Research and technology advanced quickly, and within only eight years, operant conditioning had made its way out of the lab into an applied setting. During World War II, Skinner, who wanted to help with the war effort, set out to train pigeons to guide missiles by pecking at an image of the target site on a screen in a project called Project Pigeon. To demonstrate to the navy how it worked, Skinner took six pigeons and the apparatus in which they were trained to Washington, D.C. The demonstration was successful, but the navy turned him down; the admirals may have been taken aback when Skinner opened the chamber, which resembled a Pelican missile warhead, and they saw three pigeons pecking away.
Skinner’s two graduate students, Marian Breland and her husband, Keller Breland, had dropped out of their degree programs to help with Project Pigeon. They learned a lot while working with Skinner, more than they had learned in class, and became skilled at shaping — a process by which a goal behavior is taught in increments, systematically rewarding intermediate behaviors. They also learned about secondary reinforcers — unique tones such as a clicker or whistle that, when paired with food, could be used to tell the animal exactly when it had done something right.
The couple, who saw how powerful these nonforce techniques could be, decided that when the war was over, they would get into some kind of business where they would use operant technology to help solve problems for animals and, later, humans. In 1947, they founded Animal Behavior Enterprises (ABE), whose mission was to demonstrate a better, more scientific way of training animals in a humane manner using less aversives.
They started with dogs, but trainers shunned the new method, claiming that people had been successfully training for centuries and no new approaches were needed. Rebuffed on the canine front, the Brelands turned to other species. For 47 years, ABE trained animals for its own theme park, the IQ Zoo, in Hot Springs, Ark., as well as for shows across the country. At ABE’s height, the Brelands could have up to 1,000 animals in training at any given time, many for companies such as General Mills, who used them in commercials and at sales conferences. They also worked on animal behavior and training projects for the U.S. Navy and Purina, as well as for Marineland of Florida and Parrot Jungle, where they developed the first of the now-traditional dolphin and parrot shows. When they started, there was only one trained dolphin, whom it had taken trainers two years to get ready to perform. In six weeks, Keller trained two new dolphins to perform the same behaviors.
Bob Bailey met the Brelands when he was hired as director of dolphin training for the navy and Keller and Marian were contracted to help. “I spent six months at ABE learning to train many animals, including chickens.”
Three years later, the same year Keller passed away, Bailey joined ABE as assistant technical director and head of government programs. Later, he became research director too and then executive vice president and general manager. Eventually, he and Marian married.
Over the course of their career, the Baileys trained more than 140 species (or about 16,000 individual animals). In 1990, they retired and closed ABE. Then, in 1996, they received a series of calls from Simon Prins.
Inspired by Dolphins
“We didn’t want to deal with police or military because in our experience, they are punishment-based,” says Bob. In the U.S., the Baileys had come to feel that force-based trainers could not make the change to operant technology because eventually, they fell back on the method with which they were most comfortable. “These trainers take what we say and modify it. They take good operant-conditioning principles and modify them, and then say they won’t work.”
Eventually, as Prins continued to meet Bob’s increasing demands, Bob agreed to help. Prins came with a few other trainers as well as his superiors to the Baileys’ Hot Springs headquarters to learn by training chickens.
Animal Behavior Enterprises had tested many animals for learning purposes and found that chickens provide by far the best training model (find out why). Prins and his bosses quickly learned that training is a technical skill rather than a mystical, inborn ability. A science, not a craft. They trained chickens to selectively peck just one type of object among a group of objects, and to perform tasks only on cue. They learned to train behaviors as a series of many little shaping steps, and to keep track of the outcome of each trial in order to determine whether they were having success or needed to fix their technique or plan. They did this all with positive reinforcement — without physically manipulating the chickens.
“Bob and Marian changed my whole perspective on animal training,” says Prins. As a result, he met all of the 1996 goals, and more. At first it was difficult. ABE had developed remote-guidance systems for cats, dogs and dolphins by 1967. In months, they could train dolphins to perform many behaviors, including traveling 12 hours on a circuitous eight-mile route with no reinforcement. It took Prins three years to work out the methods.
“I talked to Bob by mail and phone, but it was difficult, because I was the only one here using these techniques,” he recalls. The process required thinking about what he wanted, planning how he would get it and then implementing the plan and collecting data. This was followed by an evaluation of the data and revisions to the plan based on the results. This process defines the field of applied animal psychology that the Brelands had created based on Skinner’s work. It’s something that most dog trainers are ill-equipped to do.
Whenever Prins got stuck, he fell back on his old habit of blaming the dog instead of recognizing that he had signaled the wrong behavior with his body language or had poor timing or an inadequate shaping plan. According to Bob, the traditional method of training would advise, “Get a bigger stick and beat the dog harder.” He reminded Prins that he needed to stop blaming the dog and look more carefully at video evidence to see what was going wrong.
“He had been training under the eye of other trainers, who for many years [had taught] him it was the dog’s fault, and you must correct the dog,” says Bob. “If you’re the one making the errors, you should be beating yourself, not the dog.”
The three-year process was a challenge, but he kept at it because he felt that it was the only way they could get the consistency and reliability they needed. As Prins explains, “If you have a punishment-trained dog, in the new situation when they are not sure what to do, they are afraid they will receive punishment, even if it is mild. Dogs just stop performing, [and] learning slows down or stops.” He had already found that it was much more effective to condition an animal to see the world as an environment in which something positive could occur at any moment.
So he stuck with it until he had the techniques down. As a result, the program was even more successful than anticipated. “Our dogs often work far from our position, often in the dark and always in an area they have never seen before,” he says. While trainers prepare the dogs for many situations, they can never truly simulate real-time operations, which usually happen in unpredictable surroundings and are stressful for the human handlers. But once they are taught by teaching dogs that performing in many different situations is fun, dogs are able to perform reliably.
Training speed has also improved. “[With] the first dog, [it] took me eight months to train him to follow a laser. With operant-conditioning, it now takes me four weeks.”
The training is heavily weighted toward positive reinforcement, but both Bailey and Prins point out that rarely, aversives are also used. Aversives are not used until trainers understand operant conditioning well and have been training extensively in it for six months, and only when a dog exhibits behavior that puts himself, humans or the operation at risk. The aversive may range from verbal reprimands to low-level shock. Before trainers use an electronic collar, they must wear the collar around their own necks and see what it’s like to be trained this way. They find out what it feels like when a correction is given, and even worse, given at the wrong moment as commonly happens even with the most skilled trainers. “Then they understand how difficult it is, and they do not like to use it,” says Prins. Overall, aversive methods comprise about 1/1000 of the training.
Their success has led to other countries, including Belgium and Norway, adopting this approach. Despite the advantage of being able to learn from Prins’s mistakes, all the trainers in his group experience some of what he did during his first three years. To select new trainers, he sends potential candidates through four five-day chicken training camps in Sweden. “The punishment trainers fall hard. We give them four days to see if they can make the change. The process is grueling,” he observes.
The change is worth it. Trainers see the difference, and the proof is not just in their impressions. It’s in the hard data: shorter training times, more dogs trained for less money, behaviors they could never train before and more consistent, reliable dogs, which lead to more successful missions.
Bailey explains that while a handful of trainers may be motivated to improve the treatment of their dog, “the trainers who actually make the changes are those who want more success and recognize that simply beating their dog more will not get that additional success.” Once they understand and become skilled at the operant technology, an added benefit is that they can finally enjoy their work and so can the dog.
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