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Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Herding Dog Brings Sheep Home
Nobody else wanted the sheep in the house, though

Stories of canine behavior leading to a mess in the house are ubiquitous among dog guardians. If you have any illusions that your dog caused some kind of record-setting clean-up problem, you’re going to have to let them go. That distinction goes to Rocky, a seven-month old Border Collie puppy belonging to Rosalyn Edwards in Devon, England. Rocky led nine of their sheep into the house, resulting in a great deal of muck and waste. Here is a brief video of the sheep inside, where they seem a tad out of place.

Edwards heard a noise, and when she looked around, she discovered what Rocky had done. He had led the sheep through a gate that had been left open and proceeded to guide them into the house. Though the dog clearly needs more training, it’s hard not to be impressed by his herding skills. It seems he is a natural, but his future training will need to focus more on where to herd the sheep than how to do so.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Presidential Leaks
Emmanuel Macron’s dog urinates in the palace

Most of us are proud of our dog and rightly so. However, who among us has not also been embarrassed by our dog? The President of France, Emmanuel Macron, recently had such an experience when his dog Nemo urinated on a fireplace in the Élysée Palace during a meeting. Unluckily for him, it was caught on video.

It is a French tradition for the president to have a “First Dog” which may be why Macron and his wife Brigitte recently adopted the Labrador/Griffon mix. The timing of the adoption is rumored to have been an attempt to improve his plummeting approval ratings, and he was widely praised for adopting a dog from a rescue shelter.

When Nemo lifted his leg and peed on the fireplace, the various government ministers present were entertained and teased President Macron. He handled the situation with a certain grace, laughingly saying, “He is doing something quite exceptional.” When he was asked if this happens often, his answer was, “No, you have triggered a totally unusual behavior in my dog.” In the past, Nemo has been polite and calm when in the spotlight. For example, he has cheerfully trotted next to the President when greeting important guests such as the President of Niger.

Though he appeared embarrassed and did beg the pardon of those present, Macron was a good sport and seemed to appreciate the humor of the incident. There is nothing that makes famous people seem more like the rest of us than the imperfect behavior of their dogs, and I just have to love our four-legged friends for that!

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Teaching a Dog to Whisper
Training dogs to use their indoor voice

A dog can’t jump on visitors if he’s sitting. He can’t run off if he’s on a stay. Training an incompatible behavior is a reliable way to squelch the unwanted.

But what about barking? Boston could bow and bark, bounce and bark, beg and bark. He barked on a stay, he barked while running with a ball in his mouth.

Boston was my guide dog, and though he loved to serve, he also loved to vocalize while on duty. At work, I often had to run him outside for an emergency bark break.

My husband, Bob, and I first thought of teaching him to speak on command in the hope that he’d learn to only bark on cue. We’d chase him around the house while tooting loudly on a beer bottle, a game he loved that set off a cacophony of woofs. “Speak,” we’d yell, and throw a treat as soon as he vocalized. It took Boston only two sessions to learn to speak.

Now we had the irrepressible Golden barking both on and off cue … but what, I wondered, was an incompatible behavior?

The epiphany came when I realized that it need not be exactly incompatible, just suppressed. We taught Boston to whisper.

This was super-easy to shape. Each day, only a softer bark elicited a treat. In a week, we had turned the volume down by half. A month later, Boston was whispering very quietly indeed.

When Boston retired, he became Bob’s pet, and they certified together under the Therapy Dogs International program. When they visited children in classrooms, Bob demonstrated how Boston could both speak and whisper on command. (Teachers often reminded their overly loud classes that even the dog had an indoor voice.)

Years later, when we adopted Dayton, another bouncy and vocal Golden, we put “whisper” into practice right away. Though the command hasn’t eliminated Dayton’s barking altogether, after a few woofs, he often reverts to whispering softly to himself as he roams the yard and house.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Ball Skills
Canine love affair with these toys is revealing

There are dogs who will play to the point of exhaustion with just about any kind of ball. Understanding dogs’ relationship with these toys tells you quite a bit about who they are. Even in a 25-second video of a dog playing with a soccer ball, you can see a lot about what makes them tick.

It’s amazing how much fun dogs can have by interacting with anything that’s round and that rolls. So many dogs live for the chase, and without a live squirrel in their toy box, balls have a tendency to become priority one. There is great joy to be had by following a ball, even by many dogs who don’t like to fetch.

Dogs are fast. This is not exactly stop-the-presses news, but I still often find myself saying, “Wow!” The speed of dogs makes them fun to watch, though it’s this speed that can make many backyards too small for them to truly make use of this talent. Whenever I see a dog running at high speed, I am reminded again how amazingly fast they are, and what a kindness it is to find spaces for them to really turn on the jets.

Dogs can maintain amazing focus if something interests them. Many dogs show moderate interest in various objects, but when they have access to something that really excites them, their focus can be intense. It’s worth finding out what your dog’s true passion is, because the opportunity to pursue it (sometimes quite literally!) may be a source of great satisfaction.

The agility of dogs is incredible. There’s nothing like a little ball play to allow dogs to show off their athleticism. The ability of the dog in the video to accelerate, decelerate, turn and run, all while controlling a ball, is impressive, and yet many dogs have skills this good or even better.

The love affair that many dogs have with balls is extraordinary. Balls make many dogs deliriously happy, and a side benefit is the fun we can have watching a dog experience such rapture. Are you blessed with a dog who loves to play with balls?

Good Dog: Studies & Research
Hormonal Influences on Canine Aggression
Vasopressin and Oxytocin Affect this Behavior

Many hormones influence canine aggression, according to a new study by researchers at the University of Arizona titled, “Endogenous Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Aggression in Domestic Dogs”. This is no surprise given that the hormones testosterone and serotonin have a huge influence on aggressive behavior, but this study provides evidence that high vasopressin levels are associated with aggression, and that high levels of oxytocin are associated with the absence of aggression in dogs. Previous work has shown that oxytocin levels in dogs are elevated by positive interactions with people. (In humans, oxytocin is important in both childbirth and in breastfeeding, and is also known to facilitate social bonding. Vasopressin is also influential in people, with previous research indicating that people with long standing aggression problems have high levels of this hormone.)

Dogs with a history of behaving aggressively to other dogs were recruited for this study, and for every dog recruited, a non-aggressive dog of the same age, sex and breed was also recruited. In one experiment, dogs were on leash and exposed to a recorded sound of a barking dog behind a curtain. then the curtain was pulled back, revealing a realistic dog model with a person. Dogs were also tested with videos showing dogs exhibiting various non-aggressive behaviors. (In control trials, they were also exposed to random sound effects everyday objects such as a box or a yoga ball. No dogs reacted with aggression to these objects.)

In all trials, the dogs’ hormone levels were recorded before and after the exposure to what was behind the curtain. Many of the aggressive dogs did react to the model dog with barking, lunging and growling, but there were almost no reactions to the controls or the videos. The dogs who reacted aggressively had higher levels of vasopressin than dogs who did not react, but no differences in their oxytocin levels were found.

Another experiment in this study compared hormone levels of dogs in an assistance guide dog training program  to those of the pet dogs in the study. Researchers found that these assistance dogs had higher levels of oxytocin than pet dogs, but did not find differences in vasopressin levels between these two groups of dogs.

The assistance dogs are from a population of dogs who have been bred for over 40 years for traits such as friendliness, calm temperaments and the lack of aggressive behavior. At the physiological level, they showed a difference in oxytocin levels when compared to pet dogs, suggesting that the selective breeding of these dogs may have been acting on oxytocin levels, and that changes in the levels of that hormone may also influence the likelihood of aggressive behavior.

There is a never ending quest for ways to help dogs overcome aggressive behavior. This study indicates that there may be value in pursuing treatments based on targeting both vasopressin and oxytocin.

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dog Pays for Treats
She was taught to trade money for food

Dogs want food treats so much that they will generally do whatever it takes to get us to hand them over. Different dogs learn different strategies to accomplish this same goal. Some dogs learn to sit, other dogs figure out that making their cutest wide-eyed face works best and there are dogs who have been taught that begging at the table is effective.

One dog named Holly learned that the best way to get treats is to pay for them. As a puppy, she loved to take things from bags or purses in the house, and that included dollar bills. Rather than chase her around or try to wrestle her new treasures away from her, her guardians wisely opted to make trades. Holly would surrender the money to receive a treat. It wasn’t hard for her to figure out that if she had money, she could use it to “buy” treats. In dog training parlance, she had been reinforced (with treats) for having money in her mouth and letting her guardians take it away, so she began to do it more often.

In fact, she learned to search for money so that she could trade it for treats. Her guardians can tell her to go get a dollar if she wants a treat, and Holly will go find one. This family finds it amusing and allows her to have a stash of cash that she can use to “buy” treats. When she runs out, they replenish her supply. (She will often bring a dollar without being asked and put it on one of their laps to let them know she wants to exchange it for a treat.)

When it comes to getting treats, dogs do what works for them. As trainers and guardians, we can use that to our advantage by making a behavior that we like be one that works for them. So, if you want your dog to drop things, make that a strategy that will result in treats for them.

It is possible for this to go awry if what your dog learns to drop for treats is something you don’t want him to have in the first place such as your phone or your glasses case. It’s more fun (and less irksome) if you can teach your dog to drop things you want him to bring to you, such as the newspaper or your slippers. If there is something your dog is always taking that you would prefer not be in his mouth, make it inaccessible while you encourage him to take something else instead. Once he has established a new habit of bringing you the “right” objects, he will be more likely to leave those other things alone.

Has your dog learned that certain objects can be traded for treats?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Another Reason for Gratitude to Dogs
It’s easier to give medicine to them than to cats

I’m quite fond of cats, though dogs top my list of true loves. I recently had a reminder about one quality I prefer about dogs: It is so much easier to give them their medicine. The typical dog doesn’t care for the taste, but there are plenty of workarounds. Cheese, peanut butter, steak, chicken and just about any other tasty food can be wrapped around the pill.

The result, for a large number of dogs, is that you can easily pop a pill in a dog’s mouth. Due to canine enthusiasm for the delicious smell of the tasty wrapping, it is likely to be swallowed. In fact, it seems that a typical dog’s thought process goes something like this:

“Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, that smells so yummy! I hope I get to eat it, I hope, I hope, I hope! Yay, it’s coming towards me, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. [chomp] Hmm, that was mostly good, but it tasted a little funny at the end.” Then, the next day, with the same delicious presentation, the same internal dialogue may as well happen again, because most dogs will once again become excited about the cheese, steak or chicken wrapped around a pill, eat it again, perhaps notice a funny taste, and basically not care at all after that moment.

A few dogs will be hesitant about that particular food in the future or even reject it outright, but it’s not that common. To minimize the chances of having a problem, it is wise to give dogs these special foods without the pill sometimes so that they do not develop a distrust of them. Many dogs never have such issues anyway, but pill-free treats provide some extra insurance.

A large percentage of cats, on the other hand, tend to take more of a, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me” approach to being fed a pill wrapped in tuna, chicken or in another delicious food treat. Sure, you may be able to trick a cat into downing the pill one time, but good luck ever doing it again with any treat even remotely similarly to what you used.

During a recent cat-sitting stint for my neighbor, I needed to give each of her two cats medicine every day. The instructions said to put their medication, which was powdered, into their food. To be certain that each cat received a full does of the medicine and did not get any of the other cat’s share, I needed to stay and watch them eat. That usually took anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour. One day, neither cat would touch the food at all, possibly because they did not enjoy the previous night’s dinner. At breakfast, they were even hesitant to eat the medicine-free food unless it was different in flavor than what had been served at any meal with the medicine. Salmon cat food as well as tuna fish (high quality feline cuisine!) were happily eaten until they had been used to serve up the medication, after which point they were avoided. Pill pockets, which are so useful with dogs who object to taking their medicine, were not successful, although they do work for some cats.

Meanwhile, in the hour or so I spent each evening with these sweet cats, I could probably have dosed dozens of dogs with whatever medication they required just by wrapping the medicine in anything I happened to have on hand. The point of reporting this is not to pick on the marvelous creatures we call cats. My purpose is simply to add to the never ending list of reasons to be grateful for dogs.

What has made you grateful to your dog lately?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs Have Fun Playing
It’s good for them, as it is for many species

It’s easy to feel sorry for this Bulldog when it looks like he falls and rolls down a grassy hill. Within 30 seconds, though, he has twice gone back up the hill and rolled down again. Clearly, he is playing, and having a great time at it.

Many animals engage in play seemingly just for fun, and dogs are arguably the champions, spending huge amounts of time engaged in play. The playful activities that dogs do for the sake of a good time include wrestling, chasing, fetching, tugging, rolling, leaping and pouncing.

To do something “just for fun”, scientifically speaking, is a bit weird because it takes away from the limited time and energy animals have for essential activities such as acquiring food, finding and courting mates, drinking, growing bigger than their rivals and fighting them. Play is costly in other ways, too. Injury is an inherent risk due to the physical, thrill-seeking nature of play. There’s also the danger of being attacked by predators while too absorbed in play to be on the lookout. Play must be highly valuable to offset its considerable costs, and in fact, it is. Generally speaking, playful behavior makes animals more competitive in the game of life. It increases their success by helping them to survive and reproduce more than less playful individuals.

Scientists have discovered a number of highly specific benefits of play in different animal species. Ground squirrels who engage in play frequently are more coordinated and rear more young than those who play less. The most playful feral horses are more likely to live until their first birthday than their less playful peers. More playful bears have a greater chance of surviving until they are independent of their moms than less playful cubs. Rats who are deprived of opportunities to play lack social skills as adults. Compared to rats who are able to play, they are more likely to behave badly in tough social situations, either running away and shaking, or having the equivalent of a rat temper tantrum. One study found that the more rats played, the bigger their brains grew.

Though canine survival and reproduction is heavily influenced by humans in many areas of the word, that does not mean that dogs are free of the evolutionary influences that made play such a valuable activity. Play still helps them develop a variety of social and cognitive as well as physical skills. Dogs who lack opportunities to play as puppies often have impulse control issues, poor bite inhibition and lack the social skills to interact properly with other dogs as adults.

Although scientists agree that play is valuable, there is still significant debate about the specific purpose of play, which may vary among species. Perhaps it allows animals a safe way to practice important behavior, such as predation or combat with members of their own species. The purpose of play may be to get physical exercise or to improve dexterity, agility, reaction time, or cognitive skills. Developing creativity or problem-solving skills could make play beneficial. Perhaps the opportunity to practice handling the unexpected is important, so that during life-or-death-situations, animals are capable of responding effectively to the danger. Socialization or relieving anxiety may also be important factors that favor play in animals.

Whether it is swans surfing on ocean waves, dogs treating a river bank like a luge course, dolphins playing underwater catch with seaweed, either by themselves or with other dolphins, many animals love to have fun by playing. Though playful fun is costly in terms of time and energy and imposes serious risks, it is worth it. The fun is just nature’s way of making sure that animals engage in the highly valuable activity of play. That is good news for dog guardians, many of whom view canine play as nothing more and nothing less than one of the great joys in life.

News: Guest Posts
A Dog Even Nicer Than I Realized
It took dog sitting to really get to know her

I thought I knew Harlow, a young Boxer mix, long before she came to spend the week with us. I had worked with her guardian in over a dozen training sessions, and she had visited our home multiple times so she would be familiar with my house and family. (I always recommend a few visits ahead of time so that dogs are more comfortable when they stay with me.)

From my previous experience with Harlow, I anticipated an enjoyable week while her guardian was out of town. She has always been fun to train, responsive, affiliative and friendly. I thought that I knew her quite well, which is why it caught me a little off guard to learn just how incredibly nice she is.

When I say that a dog is “nice”, it is the highest praise I can offer. I’m not using the term as something vaguely positive in lieu of anything more specific to offer as a compliment. I believe that a truly nice dog is a wonder of the universe, and that such angels are not at the end of every leash. All dogs have their fine qualities, each a little different, but there’s a special place in my heart for dogs who are remarkably nice.

Harlow is such a dog, and it’s odd to me that I didn’t realize it in the many months I worked with her. During our training sessions, I came to like her very much and have always considered her a great dog. Yet, it took living together this week to really understand the depth of her sweetness, which showed itself in a number of little ways. When we entered the house from the yard and arrived simultaneously at the back door, she paused as if to say, “Please, after you.” This is not because she has specifically been trained to do this or because she is particularly deferential. It’s a result of being naturally kind. She’s friendly with all of our guests and welcomes attention from anyone, yet she’s not pushy about it. She takes treats gently no matter how excited she is about them.

Harlow walks and runs beautifully on leash, and though a large part of that is due to the training efforts of her guardian, there’s more to it than that. When we run by a spot on the sidewalk that has plants growing over it, she navigates the narrow part carefully so we can both easily fit through. She looks back as we go through and slows down, apparently aware that the length of the leash requires special care when we must go single file. There’s simply a pleasant agreeableness about her that is hard to explain, but easy to appreciate.

Obviously, I adore this dog, but please don’t think I’m seeing her through rose-colored glasses—I’m not. Delightful as she is, she’s not perfect. Like all dogs, she has her good qualities and her not-so-good ones. She is not above throwing herself the occasional trash party, and she even had one such festivity at our house. I don’t consider that a blot on her character—or on any dog’s character for that matter—but it’s not a plus. The enthusiasm with which she barks out the window at any potential dog buddy is loud enough to be objectionable. (Since she can be called away from the window, the ruckus is brief, but it’s pretty exciting while it lasts.) Her drinking habits are so sloppy that I can only watch in wonder and amusement as she dribbles around the bowl and across the floor.

Most dogs are nice (that’s why we love them so!) but Harlow is especially so. Dogs can learn to have better manners and trained to perform certain behaviors, but being genuinely nice is an intrinsic quality that can’t be taught.

I’m not sure why, but it took living with Harlow for me to see how nice she is. Have you ever hosted a dog you thought you knew, and only then really gotten to know her?

Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Accepting Dogs on Their Own Terms
It’s a skill cat lovers bring to the table

It sounds trivial to say it, but dogs and cats are very different animals. The experience of living with individuals of these two species is not the same in many ways. I know I am generalizing here and ignoring the many exceptions, but the typical cat is more independent that the typical dog, and usually more aloof. (Again, I know there are dogs who lean towards the standoff-ish, and cats who are clingy and constantly affectionate, but that’s not the most common way for members of those species to be. Think of it this way—it remains true that men are generally taller than women even though there are certainly individual women who are taller than individual men.)

My point here, and I’m sure you’re glad I’m getting to it, is that if someone has experience with cats, they may acquire perspectives and skills that are different from those acquired by people who spend all of their time with dogs. (It should go without saying that I have no problem with anyone spending all of their time with dogs!)  Those skills and perspectives can be very useful with certain dogs, though I’m not necessarily referring to dogs who are more cat-like in any way.

The dogs who benefit most from the knowledge of cat-savvy people are those who are shy, fearful or nervous. People who know cats well are completely on board with the fact that you can’t push or force a cat to be social with you. (It’s unwise to push or force a dog, either, by the way, but many dogs are easier to convince to engage with us than cats are.)

With cats, it is always wise to take it slow, let them come to you and ignore them until they show an interest in you. That is also true of fearful dogs, but many people who come into contact with a dog who is afraid try to cajole the dog into approaching, or try to lure the dog with toys or treats. People with cat experience are far less likely to try to take shortcuts like this, to the benefit of the dog in question. Cat-savvy people are used to the idea that you have to accept the animal on his own terms and to be patient. To be fair, many dog lovers also know this really well, but I find that it is almost universal among people who have spent a significant amount of time with their feline friends.

I was recently reminded of the wonderful way that many cat lovers have with shy, nervous or fearful dogs when my friend Betsy came over while I was watching a dog of that description. I told her that the dog was very sweet, though easily scared by new people, and that the best thing to do was to toss her some treats and then ignore her. Betsy did exactly that, and within minutes, I took this picture of a very happy dog (the lean one on the left with a tail wagging fast enough to look blurry) enjoying her new human friend. Throughout their initial interaction, Betsy always let the dog control the pace of their progress. She never pushed too hard to pet the dog or encouraged the dog to approach. She just waited and let the dog do what felt comfortable.

Do you have cat experience that has helped you in your interactions with dogs?

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