Karen B. London
Karen B. London, PhD, is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral problems, including aggression
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
This means “heel” but I use it for kids
July 20 2014
Whatever skills you have from your career or any other experiences in life may get used in surprising ways once you have kids. For me, as a dog trainer and behaviorist, there are many obvious parallels between the way I treat my dogs and the way I behave with my children. To use just one example, I like to keep both kids and dogs in physical contact and right near me when there is any danger from cars.
Parking lots and streets are the scariest places in the world with either dogs or kids. In the dog world, that’s what leashes and heeling are for. I’m a tyrant about it with my kids. The rule since they were old enough to toddle was that whenever we were in the street or in a parking lot was that they had to hold my hand or touch the car. (This compares to having your dog on a leash.) When they got a little older (around 3 or 4 years) they graduated to “Stick Close.” In this video, my three-year old is holding my hand as we cross the street but my four-year old is “Sticking Close,” which looks a lot like heeling.
In fact, the only reason I called it “Stick Close” instead of “Heel” is because I didn’t want the other moms or the neighbors giving me weird looks. After we shot this video for me to use in a talk called “Applying Dog Training To Our Relationships With People” at the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) conference, my three-year old son wanted to practice “Stick Close” which I had just started to work on with him. As I do with dogs, when learning something new, I work with only one student at a time, so my husband held onto my older son while I took only my younger one with me across the street.
On the first attempt to stick close, he bounced across the street. I was going to stop and start over, and then I thought, “It’s just like a shaping the behavior of a dog.” Shaping behavior is common in dog training and it means working gradually towards successively closer approximations of the true behavior that you want. In this case, the first approximation is that he was not running off, but generally staying next to me and moving in the right direction.
Later I worked towards having him walking rather than bouncing and paying closer attention to me and where I was going. Once I got into that dog trainer mode of shaping behavior and thinking about what I would work on next, listen to how much more of my dog trainer voice I acquired as I praised him. I was a dog trainer before I became a mom, and sometimes that shows!
Have you taken skills and ideas from your experience with dogs and applied them to other situations?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A study with insights into welfare
July 18 2014
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
Sometimes toys aren’t fun
July 16 2014
I woke up in the middle of the night with every intention of quietly having a drink of water. Unfortunately, I landed on a particularly loud squeaky toy and managed to disturb everyone’s sleep. A few days before that, I got out of bed and stepped on a dog toy that is not designed for the underside of delicate human feet. I woke everybody up that time, too, and not because the toy was noisy. No, it was me that made the racket as I uttered the sorts of phrases that make films lose their PG ratings.
Ahh, dog toys. I love them except when I don’t, and then I hate them. Obviously, it would be wise to clean them up at night, and we usually do. We are a work in progress, and improving all the time. We’re just not improving fast enough to stop me from causing trouble.
And it’s not just at night that dog toys can be a problem. I am perfectly capable of nearly spraining my ankle on a toy or sliding across the room on one during daylight hours. (I’m just gifted that way.) I don’t know why dogs don’t seem to have this problem. In my experience, when they pounce on toys or make noise with them, they meant to do so.
I’m seeking sympathy. Who else has had an accident with a dog toy?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Avoiding aggression can look silly
July 11 2014
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.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Understanding and helping fearful dogs
July 11 2014
For the first month after he was adopted, Sunny spent his time in the corner of one room, in which he ate, slept, eliminated and watched the world go by. Murphy whimpered, barked, and chewed the carpet and the door whenever she was left alone. Tucker growled and lunged at every man he encountered. Maggie was inconsolable during thunderstorms— pacing, whining, circling, jumping in and out of the bathtub. Zoe was so shut down that she was unwilling even to face the door of her crate. Molly yelped and trembled when a chair was moved to a new spot; the vacuum, dishwasher or washing machine was turned on; or the door was opened.
All of these dogs have one thing in common: their behavior problems are a result of fear. But because fear-based behavior can vary so widely—from cowering under the table when a truck roars by to lunging at and even biting visitors—people don’t always recognize that the dogs exhibiting it are fearful.
According to Nicole Wilde, CPDT-KA, canine behavior specialist and author of Help for Your Fearful Dog, “There are lots of fearful dogs, but people call because of the symptoms. They rarely say, ‘I need help because my dog is fearful.’ They call because their dog is barking at visitors or shredding things.”
These fear-based behaviors don’t improve until the underlying issues have been dealt with. Further, as the fear worsens, so does the problem behavior. Dan Estep, PhD, CAAB, notes that, unfortunately, early and perhaps subtle signs of fear—ears pulled back, tail tucked, avoidance—are often discounted as things that all dogs do. If these signs are ignored, the signals may become more obvious and include panting and dilated pupils. Even then, it may be possible to distract the dog from the fear source. But, over time, fearful dogs act more intensely, become harder to distract, and then become destructive or reactive. Only then, when the problem is much more serious and harder to resolve, do people seek help. That’s why it’s so important to recognize the signs of fearfulness in dogs and intervene before the behavior becomes more difficult to deal with.
According to Estep, “fears have behavioral, physiological and subjective components.” Some dogs flee in an attempt to avoid the stimuli that elicit fear; these dogs may hide under the bed or behind their guardian, or simply turn away from whatever it is that frightens them. The appearance of some dogs’ eyes change when they are afraid—the pupils may dilate, or more of the sclera (whites of the eyes) may be visible in an expression known as “whale eye,” which may be the result of a dog watching what frightens him by moving his eyes so he can see it without looking at it directly. Or, a dog may scan an area repeatedly in a highly vigilant manner.
Fearful dogs may also adopt telltale body postures: crouching in a lowered body position or lying down and freezing. Many dogs whine, bark or make other distress vocalizations. A fearful dog who is forced to confront or contend with what’s scaring him or her may become defensively aggressive while still exhibiting signs of fear.
Dogs who are fearful exhibit many physiological changes: the sympathetic nervous system becomes aroused, which means an increase in heart rate and respiration and possibly shaking, trembling or panting. As Estep observes, “No one of these signs by themselves is a reliable indicator of fear or any other emotional state. It’s the pattern of these things together that indicates fear.” Both Estep and Wilde note that most common canine fears are related to loud or sudden noises, separation anxiety, and unfamiliar people. A fearful dog can be afraid of just about anything new, whether it’s a man in a hat, an umbrella, a garden statue, a double stroller, a unicycle or a motorized toy.
Just as the behavior exhibited by fearful dogs can vary, so can the reasons for the fearfulness. This may be because fear is such a common emotion. As Patricia B. McConnell, PhD, writes in For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend, “Surely fear must be the universal of emotions, given its importance to survival. Without it, even civilized urban dwellers wouldn’t live to pass on their genes, because they’d stroll in front of buses and forget to lock their doors at night.”
McConnell’s example is apt: fear has an important function. Without fear, it would be difficult to recognize dangers to which the appropriate reaction is critical for survival. So, fear is not itself a bad thing. It becomes a problem when individuals of any species, including dogs, are scared of so many things, or the fear is so intense, that it interferes with their enjoyment of daily life.
Why Is My Dog So Fearful?
Experiments done with Pointers in the 1960s demonstrated that you can breed for fear of people in dogs.* Additionally, many dogs who are fearful have littermates or other relatives with this problem, which suggests a genetic predisposition. It’s hard to tease apart the effects of early experiences and genetics. For example, an entire litter of puppies could also be fearful of people because they were raised with no opportunity to meet them; proper socialization could have resulted in puppies without such fears.
Socialization is indeed important. It’s critical to expose puppies to new people, places, animals, sounds, objects and anything else they are likely to encounter throughout their lives. As Estep succinctly says, “Positive early experiences are critical for preventing fearfulness.” From ages three to 12 weeks, puppies are especially receptive to learning that the unfamiliar is not to be feared.
Not all fears develop in puppyhood, however. At age eight, a Miniature Schnauzer named Maxine suddenly developed a fear of other dogs, reacting with barks, lunges and growls whenever a dog approached. She even reacted to her companion dog—a four-yearold Miniature Schnauzer who had been her playmate since being adopted as a puppy. I met Maxine when I was working at a dog camp, and wondered if she were in pain, since sudden reactivity at an older age is consistent with the presence of pain. When the camp veterinarian examined Maxine, she discovered inflammation along the dog’s spine and noted that she yelped when that spot was touched. A canine chiropractor treated Maxine, and once her health improved, so did her behavior. A dog who knows that it is going to hurt when dogs leap on her or roughhouse with her could become one who reacts with behavior that’s intended to make them go away.
Not surprisingly, negative experiences may also lead to fear. For example, a dog who is hit by a car may become afraid of cars. Similarly, a dog who accidentally knocks over a bunch of two-by-fours in the garage may develop a fear of any long object such as wood, brooms or shovels, or become afraid of the garage.
Can Dogs Get Over Their Fears?
There are so many misconceptions about treating fearfulness in dogs that before discussing what to do, it’s important to know what not to do. Ascribing to any of the following myths is detrimental to progress when working with a fearful dog.
Dogs will grow out of it. Expecting a dog to “just get over it” is wishful thinking.
He must have been abused. The behavior that most commonly elicits concerns of abuse in a dog’s past is that the dog is only scared of men. While it’s possible that a man has harmed the dog, fearful dogs are often more reactive to men than to woman or to children, and this is particularly true of dogs whose socialization experiences were inadequate. It’s likely that men— with their larger size, deeper voices, broader shoulders and stronger jaws— appear more imposing to dogs.
He must have had a traumatic experience. It’s natural to assume that a dog who is scared of children has been teased by them, or that the only reason a dog would react badly to a broom is because of a terrifying experience with one. Yes, bad experiences sometimes lead to fear, but often, dogs are afraid of things that are new or unpredictable. So, the dog may fear children because they scream and move around in crazy ways, or he may fear brooms because he’s not used to them.
He should be punished. Punishment will make the dog more fearful, and must not be used as a way to change any fear-based behavior. When bad things happen to a dog in the presence of what scares him, it makes the fear and the problem behavior worse, not better.
A drug can fix this. In some cases, and always under the supervision of a veterinarian, pharmacological intervention may be appropriate, in conjunction with behavior modification and other techniques for helping fearful dogs. However, there is no magic pill that instantly cures fearfulness in dogs.
He’s just being stubborn. When a dog refuses to get in a car or crate, resists allowing the vet to examine him, or won’t go down the steps to the basement, many people perceive his behavior as obstinate. But with fearful dogs, stubbornness is not the problem, any more than a kid standing on the high dive and refusing to jump is being mulish.
He’s trying to dominate. Status is a fact of life for many social species, but when dogs are afraid, their social standing is not the issue. Trying to fit all behavior problems under the heading of dominance does far more harm than good. Happily, more and more people recognize this perspective as outdated and counterproductive.
Petting or consoling him will reinforce the fear. Pia Silvani’s comment on this common misconception is simple and to the point: “With all due respect, this does not make a bit of sense.” It is okay to reassure your dog that everything is fine in a calm and confident manner. To ignore him when he is clearly distressed is about as logical as refusing to hug your child when she wakes up from a nightmare. They are not going to become more fearful when they are reassured, but failing to do anything risks teaching them that you are not available when they need you most. Wilde tells her clients, “Be affectionate with your dog, but if you are overly worried, your dog will be, too. It’s fine to reassure your dog casually with an upbeat tone, but don’t coddle them with nervous energy.” McConnell devoted an entire Bark column to explaining why it’s not only okay, but actually helpful to soothe dogs who are afraid. (“I’m Okay, You’re Okay,”).
You just have to live with it, or get rid of the dog. Thankfully, this is not true, but resolving a dog’s fear-based problem does take effort. As Jacobs puts it, “It’s not easy and it never happens as quickly as you’d like it to. It’s going to require more work, time and energy than you anticipated.” Many dogs recover completely, and still others improve greatly, though they may always remain on the cautious side; some situations may always be overwhelming and should be avoided.
So, How Can I Help My Dog?
Visit your veterinarian. The first step should be a thorough medical evaluation to determine if health problems are playing a role. Dogs who are in pain may develop fear of anything that exacerbates the pain, such as being touched, being approached by a playful dog, a leash or collar, or a sport class like agility. Older dogs may develop fears and phobias following physical changes, including cognitive deterioration or loss of sight or hearing. A myriad of other physical problems can be in play as well, and any underlying medical issue should be resolved.
Do all you can to protect your dog from frightening situations. This may involve being an advocate for your dog, such as stopping strangers from petting him or refusing to let a family member use power tools until you get the dog out of the house. Management of the environment is a lot of work, but it’s work that pays big dividends. Protecting a dog from exposure to situations that scare him is a great way to start, because every time a fearful dog becomes afraid, the problem is compounded. And as Jaak Panksepp, author of Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, says, “One of the most horrible experiences of life is to be stricken by sudden terror. Another is to be continually consumed by the persistent feelings of anxiety that gnaw away at you, destroying your sense of security in the world.” For dogs who are reactive to the point of snapping or biting, preventing situations in which the dog feels the need to do this is essential for the safety of others as well as for the well being of the dog.
Never force your dog to approach something that scares him. It’s not going to help, and it may make the situation worse, adding yet another scary experience that confirms his belief that something is worth being afraid of. Wilde advises that we allow the dog to make the decision about approaching or avoiding a potentially scary situation.
Help your dog develop confidence. Developing your dog’s confidence can help him overcome his fearfulness because these two states of being are not compatible. Anything that allows a dog to experience success is good for his selfesteem and adds to his self-assurance. Training dogs to perform behaviors on cue—standard obedience exercises, targeting, responding to their names or performing tricks—can build confidence. So can getting their nourishment from food-reward puzzles or foodstuffed toys, because accessing the food is an accomplishment. Play is also a way to help dogs feel confident. Once a fearful dog is comfortable enough to happily engage in play, a positive feedback loop develops. The more they play, the more confident they are, and the more confident they are, the more they play.
Practice desensitization and classical counterconditioning. These techniques are often the core treatment for fearful dogs. Systematic desensitization is a structured way of repeatedly exposing your dog to something that he fears, but starting at a low level so that fear is not induced. Then, gradually, during many sessions over a period of weeks, months or even years, the intensity of what frightens him is increased so that he can get used to it at each level before moving on to the next. Scary things are made less scary by being smaller, slower, quieter, farther away or otherwise less intense. Exposing your dog to what frightens him at an intensity level that is too low to induce his fear is completely different than forcing him to confront what he fears by overdoing it and actually scaring him. (For details on these techniques, Patricia B. McConnell’s booklet, The Cautious Canine, is a great resource.)
Classical counterconditioning consists of pairing up what frightens the dog with something the dog loves more than anything else; eventually, the dog realizes that the scary thing predicts the wonderful thing. If your dog fears people, then every time he sees someone, he should immediately receive a fantastic treat or highly prized toy or other item. Eventually, the dog will have a positive emotional reaction to seeing a person, because he knows that something good is about to happen. Exposing your dog to the trigger that scares him, starting at very low levels of intensity and gradually working up to more intense exposures, is most effective. In practice, desensitization and classical counterconditioning are often done together.
Some dogs progress rapidly, but others make progress that can only be detected when viewed long-term, over years or perhaps over the dog’s entire life. No matter which pattern describes your dog, it’s important to work gradually, and as Wilde says, “go at the dog’s pace.” You must only move to more intense triggers when the dog is clearly comfortable at the previous level of exposure. Fearful dogs must be handled carefully and with endless patience.
Build a good foundation. Most behaviorists and trainers agree that in addition to specific behavior modification, a good foundation for helping dogs overcome their fears is built from many aspects of their daily life. Good nutrition, regular exercise and predictable routines are all helpful. Other potentially therapeutic techniques or alternative and complementary therapies include massage, Tellington TTouch, anxiety wraps, Bach f lower essences, homeopathic remedies, acupuncture and Traditional Chinese Medicine.
What Determines How Well a Dog Will Do? Almost all fearful dogs can improve, but the degree to which a dog overcomes his fear depends on many factors. Estep and Wilde agree that the human partner is a huge factor in the eventual outcome. Motivation is critical for success, as is an understanding of the situation and the amount of time the person is willing to commit to it. The use of gentle, positive methods is also linked with improvement. Mild fears or those of recent development have a higher likelihood of successful resolution. The dog’s genetics play a role as well; the stronger the genetic component of the dog’s fears, the harder it may be to overcome them.
Wilde sums up the basic approach to helping fearful dogs: “It takes time and patience … Always be gentle, positive and kind … Never, ever use physical force or corrections.” Jacobs echoes this advice: “Your dog’s trust in you is the most important building block in the foundation for building her confidence. Never use any type of punishment or correction which scares or intimidates your dog.”
Though it can be gut-wrenching to watch a dog live in fear, there are also positive aspects, and that may be part of the reason why some people are drawn to fearful dogs. Wilde has a long-standing history of relating to them: “I always had an empathy for the fearful ones. I was drawn to the shaking dog in the corner.” She points out that having a fearful dog “teaches you a lot about subtleties of canine body language. You become tuned into your dog. You learn to manage things. You gain increased empathy for your dog. You expand your knowledge and patience.”
Helping a dog who lives in fear is a common undertaking—many people, knowingly or not, end up living with a dog who is afraid. To succeed in treating a fearful dog so that he can conquer his fears requires knowledge, consistent effort and extraordinary patience. It’s not easy, but it’s gratifying to see the difference in a dog who has been the beneficiary of this hard work. While it is an experience that is likely to have lows that are lower and highs that are higher than expected, many guardians report that it is immensely rewarding to work with their dogs and help them overcome their fears. As though we needed further convincing that dogs of all types, including the fearful ones, enrich our lives!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Tournament locations inspire one coach
July 8 2014
We all like to remember our successes, and one World Cup soccer coach chose his dogs’ names accordingly. Born in Argentina, José Pékerman was chosen to coach the under-20 Argentine national team in the FIFA World Youth Championship. The appointment was a surprise to many, but criticism stopped after the team won the championship three times. They won in Qatar (1995), in Malaysia (1997), and in Argentina (2001).
The coach’s dogs are named in honor of these three victories. Qatar, Malaysia and Argentina are loved by their guardian, who no doubt enjoys saying their names and remembering those championships.
Pékerman is now a citizen of Colombia and the coach of the Colombian national team. They made it to the quarterfinals in the FIFA 2014 World Cup in Brazil before being eliminated last week. That is the country’s best showing ever, so the tournament was a success. I doubt it was enough of a success for Coach Pékerman to name a new dog Brazil after the country hosting the World Cup though, since it was the Brazilian team that defeated them and sent them home.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s not clear what’s going on
July 3 2014
Gertie has an unusual eating behavior. She can spend hours polishing off a couple of cups of dry dog food. She takes a few pieces of kibble from her bowl, carries it a few feet away, drops it on the floor, and then eats it piece by piece with painstaking slowness. It reminds me of the way chickadees eat from birdfeeders, taking one item from the feeder and flying to a nearby tree to eat it before returning to the feeder again. Here is a short video of Gertie eating, which starts with her walking away from her bowl with some food in her mouth and then dropping it on the floor.
Honestly, I don’t have an explanation for this behavior, though a few other guardians have mentioned that their dogs feed in a similar way. My brother-in-law, who takes care of Gertie when her guardians are out of town, thinks this behavior relates to experiences with fire ants in her earlier life before being adopted into a loving home. She was tied up, and where she lives in Florida, fire ants can find food extremely quickly. Since the sting of these ants is very painful, perhaps Gertie is using her food-moving behavior to take the food away from fire ants in her bowl. It’s certainly an interesting speculation, but I have no idea if it’s true.
Here’s what I do know: At her own home, Gertie consistently eats in this way, day after day, meal after meal. When she is visiting my brother-in-law and his family, she alternates her usual feeding behavior with eating right out of the bowl at a slow but steady speed. That’s what this video shows—some carrying of food and some eating it right from the bowl. The change may be a result of visiting a home with another dog—Tucker, a Miniature Pinscher mix who will try to eat her food if he is not kept away by a barrier. If Tucker is around, she will usually eat more quickly and do it directly from the bowl.
Have you ever known a dog who eats like Gertie does? Do you have a possible explanation for the behavior?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Eagerness to fetch is obvious
June 29 2014
Sometimes when I think of what we ask of dogs, I find myself impressed with what they will tolerate. Recently, I was at our local park with my kids when a man came to play fetch with his Border Collie. This dog was clearly a devoted fetcher. Her gaze was locked and loaded on the ball even as they walked into the park, and her attention never wavered.
I watched the man and his dog play fetch for 30 minutes, and the dog never stopped staring at the ball. She did it when the man was holding it, when it was in the air, and when he set in on the ground for a moment while he tied his shoe. When he gave it a little toss in the air and caught it, the dog’s eyes followed its path. When he walked to the drinking fountain, her eyes followed the ball as his arm swung. This dog was riveted on the ball, the whole ball and nothing but the ball.
My kids know better than to ask to pet a dog who is so engaged in play, but I could see them looking at her longingly. The dog was left to play in peace until another family came and DID ask to pet the dog. The man said, “Sure, but she’ll probably be more interested in the ball than anything.” (Truer words were never spoken.)
The dog obediently dropped the ball and went into a down posture on cue so the kids could pet her, but her focus never left the ball. For several minutes, the kids fawned over her, and the dog stayed put the entire time while staring at the ball. She was polite and calm with the children, but absolutely uninterested in them. She continued to lie there watching the ball until the man said, “I think she’d like to play some more now,” and called her to him. She leapt up with extreme enthusiasm and resumed fetching with the same fervor as before.
This dog no more wanted to stop her fetch game for a petting session than I want to stop in the middle of a run to have someone braid my hair. Yet, she did what she was asked with admirable patience and grace. So many dogs are similarly tolerant and I’m grateful for that every day.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Are some individuals incapable of self-control?
June 26 2014
I specialize in working with dogs with aggression issues, so I think about biting behavior a lot. Mostly, I’m pondering ways to help dogs stop doing it and ways to help people who want to help their dogs stop doing it. Many thoughts center on protecting dogs from situations in which they are prone to biting, and protecting people and dogs from being bitten. Other topics include the motivation behind biting, the triggers that elicit it and the effects of a bite on everyone involved.
My biting obsession is always centered on dogs. I had given very little thought to biting by people until this week’s incident at the World Cup in the game between Uruguay and Italy. In that match, Luis Suárez of Uruguay bit (actually bit!) the shoulder of Italian player Giorgio Chiellini, who showed the tooth marks to the referee. The commentators seemed dismayed with remarks such as, “Oh dear, dear, dear,” and perhaps more alarmingly, “Surely not again.”
Yes, that’s right, this is not the first, but rather the third time that Suárez has bitten an opposing player. In the past, he has been suspended for a number of matches because of his behavior. It seems crazy to jeopardize his career and his reputation, embarrass himself and hurt the chances of his country succeeding at the World Cup by biting again. Television cameras are everywhere, and millions of people throughout the world are watching. There wasn’t a chance that another bite would go unnoticed or unpunished, and he has in fact been given the longest suspension in World Cup history and fined over $100,000. That’s why I think that Suárez is literally unable to stop this behavior because he lacks emotional control. (I’m not suggesting that he is not responsible for his behavior or that he should be treated leniently because he can’t control himself. I’m just saying that he seems unable to exercise normal inhibition of his own impulses.)
Biting is far more common in the canine world than in the human world, but it’s still rare to meet dogs who bite in such an uncontrollable way. I’ve known very few dogs like this, and though the behavior is unacceptable, I do find myself feeling pity for individuals—both dogs and people—who are unable to control themselves. It’s a shame to lack normal social skills and become dangerous to others or unwelcome in various situations as a result.
Emotions such as anger and frustration combined with high arousal are typically involved with dogs who bite in an out of control way. (Suárez has said that he was angry with Chiellini for hitting him in the eye during the game, and there’s no doubt that the intensity of a high stakes international soccer match lends itself to high arousal in the players.) Such bites happen when dogs have the canine equivalent of a toddler’s tantrum because they don’t get what they want. Dogs who bite in these contexts are literally unable to control themselves. It is much harder to substantially improve their behavior compared with other dogs, most of whom are biting as a result of fear.
Many humans go through a biting stage at around age 2, but they outgrow it. They learn self-control as well as developing an understanding of what is socially acceptable. Similarly, dogs use their mouths both playfully and not so playfully as puppies, but then the vast majority of them develop normal bite inhibition and an understanding of what they are and are not allowed to do with their mouths. Biting is a more normal part of canine behavior than of human behavior since people are more inclined to hit when behaving aggressively than to bite, so the analogy is not perfect, but there are similarities.
It’s important when working with an aggressive dog to understand as much as possible about why the dog is biting. There’s hope for the overwhelming majority of dogs with a bite history, as many are able to improve their behavior with a combination of behavior modification and a sensible management plan for prevention. However, there is the rare dog whose likelihood of improvement is small because of a lack of any kind of self-control and the tendency to bite when frustrated, angry and aroused.
Did anyone else see this incident and have their minds immediately go to thoughts of dog bites?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Australian office workers rescued by dogs
June 23 2014
We all know that many dogs are in need of rescue, but The Lost Dogs Home in Melbourne Australia took a different approach to enticing people to their facility. They started a program called the Human Walking Program, which offers relief to office workers who spend too much time indoors and sitting at their desks.
They offered people the opportunity to spend time over their lunch hour outdoors walking dogs. The promise of fresh air, a little exercise and time with a new canine buddy was very appealing. At the inaugural event in April 2014, over 5000 office workers were rescued from their daily grind and all of the available dogs were adopted.
Most of us realize that people need rescuing just like dogs do. The Human Walking Program turns that fact into happiness for members of both species. I’d love to see programs like this become popular in other countries.
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