News: Guest Posts
Does it smell weird in here to you?
You know what I’m talking about. That nagging feeling that something smells “different,” but you just can’t put a finger on it. This has been my life for the last three days. Day after day, I’d enter the living room and think, “Did it always smell like that in here? It smells different, right? What is that!?”
On the fourth day, I finally sat down on the couch to read a book. On the coffee table before me sat a bowl of chestnuts. They had yet to be roasted. “Chestnuts don’t have a smell,” I thought. To the right of the chestnuts, the remote. Electronics, also void of smell (although my Game Boy got moldy, and that smelled). Then, I saw it. Next to the remote sat the biggest, most obvious thing on the table, the centerpiece you might say. A large, overripe cantaloupe. It had been there for 6 days and with the radiator pumping out heat (because it is so cold!), the cantaloupe was starting to mush, and that mush was permeating the air and my nostrils. How could I miss it? It was the most prominent thing in the room. Yet day after day, I missed that the gnarly cantaloupe was behind the new stench.
That’s how I feel about dogs. Not that they are starting to smell (although some of them might be), but that despite them being major parts of our lives, we can overlook the important bits.
I left 2013 by posing a question: How Well Do You Know Your Dog? Part 1. The answer: If judging by smell, you know your dog pretty well. In one study, people could identify the smell of their dog compared to an unknown dog in a “smell test.” I finished Part 1 suggesting that while we might be attuned to some nuanced bits of our dogs — like their smell — we’re not attuned to all parts of them, like behavior. I’ll explain.
Is Snoopy happy?
We know happy! But…
But fear was different. Study participants who were dog professionals did a better job identifying fear compared to both dog owners and people with little dog experience. The authors suggest that “professional experience with dogs aids proficiency in interpretations of fearful behavior.” It didn’t matter how many years the dog professionals had spent working with dogs; they had the same proficiency in identifying fear.
So why did dog professionals do so much better in identifying fear? One reason could be that professionals looked at more dog body parts for clues, such as the eyes, ears, mouth and tongue, while non-professionals looked at fewer body parts, focusing primarily on legs, paws and tails. More details in the figure provided by Wan et al. (2012).
The researchers summarize: “The results of the current study are among the first to demonstrate that the perception of an emotion in dogs can be associated with human observers’ level of dog experience.”
While many of us love dogs to pieces (Buzzfeed reminds me of this on a daily basis), noticing and interpreting their subtle behaviors can take practice. That’s okay! Behavior observation can be learned.
Keeping an eye out for fear
What does fear look like? It can include a wide variety of body parts and body postures. Wan and colleagues explain, “…fearful dogs are said to reduce their body size – crouching into a low posture, flattening their ears, and holding their tails in a low position. Shaking, yawning, salivation, freezing, panting, paw-lifting, and vocalizing are examples of other behaviors that have been associated with fear in dogs.”
Maybe, in certain contexts, you notice fearful behaviors in your own dog and want to help decrease it. Like gymnasts, fear is flexible. Just as dogs can sensitize to stimuli, so too can they habituate. With classical- and operant-conditioning techniques, behavior management, and maybe some professional assistance (see below), dogs can have a modified outlook on life. What does a modified outlook look like? Check out Masey’s progress over at Reactive Champion.
Sometimes we just can’t piece it together that the cantaloupe smells. But of course, a trained fruit expert would exclaim, “Julie! Your cantaloupe is rotting.” You see where I’m going with this. Sometimes dogs are fearful, and the clues are right in front of us, like a rotting cantaloupe. Learn to recognize dog fear behavior. This is a blog about dogs after all. Not cantaloupe.
Photo: a muddy dog…..is a happy dog via bambe1964; National. Flickr Creative Commons
References & Recommended Reading
This article first appeared on DogSpies, Scientific American. Used with permission.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Tips for helping your dog “go” this season
“Help! My dog won’t “go” in the snow!” Some dogs hold it so long that it’s worrisome and others simply choose to go inside the house, even if this is something they would never do when the weather is more to their liking. Elimination problems when there is snow are common, especially for dogs who have never been in snow and for small dogs who struggle with cold to any degree. There are likely at least two reasons why dogs show a reluctance to eliminate when snow covers the ground.
Most dogs learn at a very young age what surfaces are appropriate for bathroom use. While still puppies, they experience certain substrates such as grass, leaves, concrete, or indoor training pads or litters, and those are what they are likely to prefer for the rest of their lives. When dogs encounter snow, they often just don’t know that it is okay to eliminate on it. Puppies who learn their housetraining skills during a snowy winter are far less likely to have this problem. So, even though I consider raising a puppy in winter to have its miseries, an advantage is that the dog is less likely to balk at eliminating in the snow each winter.
Another issue for dogs with the snow is the obvious one—it’s cold! There is the cold air itself and also the cold snow on their paws (and on their legs and bellies in some cases!) For dogs unfamiliar with snow, especially small dogs who are not fans of cold under any circumstances, they simply hate the feeling of cold and snow. This makes them resistant to head out at all, and unable to relax enough to go once they are outside, which is perfectly understandable.
Luckily, they are ways to help your dog so that eliminating in the winter is still something that happens on the ground outside rather than on the carpet inside. One method that many use is shoveling out a patch of grass for them along with a path from the door to the potty area. I’ve had clients who have tried to minimize the work involved by shoveling a path to an area protected from the snow such as under a balcony or even under a trampoline. Most dogs are more likely to head out to take care of business if it’s easier to walk there and if there is a snow-free area available to them.
Many dogs do better if you go out with them. Not everybody wants to head out with their dogs in freezing temperatures to wade through the snow together, but if you find that it leads to success, it may be worth it to you. In some cases, several outings may be required. You can go out with your dog, and if he doesn’t eliminate within 5-10 minutes, take him inside with you, keeping him right with you on leash so he can’t sneak off and “go” in the house. After another 5-10 minutes, head outside together to try again. You can repeat this many times, and though it takes considerable effort, it does work for most dogs.
Some dogs struggle the most to eliminate in the yard when it’s snowy, but do better on walks through the neighborhood. If it’s not so cold that your dog’s paws can’t take it, walks may inspire your dog to eliminate. Being away from the yard is helpful, and the activity may make your dog’s need to go more urgent. Leading your dog to areas where other dogs have already gone (yellow snow has its benefits!) may encourage your dog, too.
Training your dog to eliminate on cue has helped many dogs potty in all sorts of new and confusing situations, including snow, but it’s most helpful to teach your dog this skill before the weather is working against you. There are two steps to this training process:
1) Reinforce elimination behavior by giving your dog a really great treat every time he pees or poops. Don’t wait until your dog comes running back to the house to give him the treat or he’ll think he earned the treat by running over to you. Stand right near him as he goes and give him the treat the instant he is done eliminating so he connects going potty with receiving a treat.
2) Once you have done this many times and he begins to look at you expectantly for that treat after eliminating, add in the cue. Take him outside as usual to eliminate and give the cue you want to use to tell him to eliminate, making sure to say it before he goes. Common cues are “Hurry Up”, “Get Busy” and “Go Potty.” With enough practice, a dog will learn that when you say the cue, he should take care of business. Continue to reinforce him with treats once you have added in the cue so that he knows he did the right thing and is happy that he did.
Once your dog can eliminate on cue, you can give him the cue in situations where he might not be sure that the area is acceptable, such as in snow or in a rocky area without grass. It’s just one more way that specific training allows you to communicate with your dog and make it easier for him to understand what to do.
Does your dog resist going potty in the snow? If so, how have you handled it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They respond to photos of familiar faces
You know your dog knows who you are, right? That enthusiastic greeting when you come home is proof positive that he recognizes you. But what clues him in to your identity—the sound of your footsteps, your voice, your unique smell, that palpable charm? That may all be possible, but recent evidence suggests that dogs can actually recognize faces.
The ability to recognize faces is important for social animals. When living in a group, identifying individual members and being able to distinguish them from one another is essential for keeping track of specific social interactions. For dogs as well as humans, this skill is highly developed.
In a recent study called How dogs scan familiar and inverted faces: an eye movement study published in the journal Animal Cognition, researchers investigated facial recognition in the domestic dog. They concluded that:
These results are similar to those found when studying humans and other primates with the same technique used in this study—tracking eye movement. Across the many species that have been studied previously, primates are more interested and spend more time looking at faces of members of their own species. Similarly, primates look at the eyes of faces, just as dogs did.
This study also investigated dogs’ responses to faces that are shown upside down. Such inversions are interesting to cognitive scientists because there is evidence in other species that inverted faces are not processed the same way as faces that are oriented in the normal way.
Humans are able to identify faces quickly and accurately because we have a mechanism to identify faces that is separate from the system used to identify other sorts of objects. The face is looked at as a complete structure with tiny differences in the configuration of its parts rather than as separate parts as we do with other objects. When faces are upside down, the process of facial recognition is disrupted and we are forced to identify the face as we would other objects, as parts that must be looked at and evaluated individually rather than as a whole. The facial recognition that is usually so effective doesn’t work well on inverted faces. They are processed as other sorts of objects are—piece by piece—rather than as an integrated whole, which is why we are not as good at identifying faces in this way.
Dogs, according to this study, fixate on upside down faces longer, suggesting that it is more difficult for them to identify them than when they are upright. They do spend a lot of time looking at the eyes even in upside down faces, which suggests that they do recognize these images as faces despite their position.
Because dogs have lived with humans for so long, they provide an interesting model for studying facial recognition since they are adept at identifying individual faces in their own as well as in our species.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It influences their orientation during elimination
A new study called Dogs are sensitive to small variations of the Earth’s magnetic field published in the Journal Frontiers in Zoology has demonstrated that dogs can sense and respond to magnetic fields. It is the first time that this has been shown in this species. Researchers found a measurable change in behavior based on the conditions of the magnetic field.
Specifically, they found that under certain conditions, dogs choose to pee and poop with their bodies aligned along the north-south axis and avoided orientation along the east-west axis. They studied 70 dogs from 37 different breeds over a two-year period, observing 1893 defecations and 5582 urinations. Observations were all made while the dogs were off leash and in open fields so that they were not influenced by walls, fences, fire hydrants or other objects.
The researchers collected data on dog directionality (and hopefully all the poop, too) and found that the way dogs face is not just a matter of chance. They ruled out such factors as time of day, angle of the sun and wind conditions. Their analysis found that the Earth’s magnetic field explained dogs’ orientation when doing their business. Interestingly, the pattern only emerged when the magnetic field was stable, which was only about 30 percent of the time. The Earth’s magnetic field can become unstable due to such factors as the variation in solar winds and the sun’s magnetic field. During such periods of instability, dogs did not show a preference for aligning themselves along the north-south axis and oriented randomly.
This research has been written about extensively in the media, possibly because any scientific research that involves potty talk is inherently amusing to journalists. Though the behavior that the researchers studied was elimination, to focus on that is to miss what’s really important about the study.
What I think is so fascinating is the revelation that dogs are able to sense the Earth’s magnetic field and that their behavior is influenced by it. It has been known for a long time that dog senses, particularly the sense of smell, mean that they are responsive to stimuli that we humans aren’t aware of, but the fact that dogs can act, in some manner, as though they have an internal compass is just as fascinating.
Previous studies have found that cattle, deer and foxes sometimes align their bodies with respect to the magnetic field. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic field has previously been demonstrated in species that migrate such as birds and whales, and also in honey bees, whose navigational abilities are legendary.
Of course, people have long asserted that dogs can find their way exceptionally well, and I’ve even known people who said that it was like their dogs had internal compasses. Finding out that dogs can in fact sense the Earth’s magnetic field, just as compasses can, makes their navigational abilities perhaps more understandable, but no less extraordinary. It was in part dogs’ remarkable homing abilities that made the researchers suspect that dogs might be sensitive to the Earth’s magnetic field in the first place.
Why dogs are choosing to orient themselves in this way is the big question, and hopefully future research will pursue it. I look forward to seeing research on that subject as well as experiments investigating other canine behaviors that may be influenced by the Earth’s magnetic field.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
It’s more than just a cute trick
Years ago I taught my dog Bugsy to “back up” with the intention of adding it to his trick repertoire. It means just what it sounds like—to move away by taking steps backwards. My dog already knew how to crawl, wave, high-five, spin, shake, rollover, bow, and sit pretty, but I was searching for something new to teach him. I remembered seeing horses do this on cue and finding it adorable. I decided it would be Bugsy’s next trick, but I never imagined how useful it would be.
It began as a trick, which are behaviors I ask dogs to do on cue just for fun, but I began to use it functionally in an ever-increasing number of contexts. Bugsy already had a solid “stay” and knew how to “wait” (pause and refrain from going forward until given permission) when asked. Still, there were many situations in which telling him to “back up” was more helpful.
Dogs can sometimes get in the way, and asking them to “back up” solves the problem. I’m thinking of situations such as when I’m trying to open the front door, the pantry or the fridge and there are many pounds of lovable canine filing the space I need.
Being able to tell a dog to back away from a trash can, the dishwasher, another dog’s food bowl, a toy, or anything found on a walk that looks gross or even dangerous is so useful. It’s true that the cue “leave it” will also work in those contexts. However, having a dogs create physical distance between themselves and the forbidden object sometimes helps them resist temptation. “Leave it” only tells most dogs that they may not grab something, but it gives them no help deciding what to do instead. The cue to “back up” instructs them with a specific incompatible behavior to perform. (A dog cannot simultaneously approach the dishes in the dishwasher and back away from them.)
There’s really no end to the situations in which asking your dog to “back up” is useful. I’ve used it when I need a dog to move away from a child or a person who does not love dogs, out of a crowded kitchen, out of my way as I carry a large pile of blankets that prevents me from seeing where I am stepping, away from a freshly painted fence, away from a swinging door, a swing or a car door, and away from an intersection with skateboarders flying by too close for comfort. I’ve asked dogs who were carrying large sticks to back away from people just for safety’s sake, and I’ve used this cue to tell a dog to increase the distance between himself and another dog if I see trouble brewing. It is endlessly practical, and I soon found myself using it way more often than wait or stay.
In addition to its great practicality, “back up” has the appeal of being relatively easy to teach. Start with your dog standing in front of you and attending to you. Move toward your dog calmly. When he takes a step backward, reinforce immediately with a click/treat or a treat. For some dogs, a couple of steps in their direction work best but for other dogs, a slight lean is most effective.
Continue to reinforce your dog for taking a step backward until he is doing it reliably. Then, continue moving toward your dog until he has taken more than one step backwards. Reinforce him for multiple steps. Once he understands that backing up is a way to earn treats, say the cue “back up” before moving toward him, and reinforce him for responding appropriately. With practice you can phase out the motion towards him so that he is backing up in response to the cue alone. You can use a visual cue such as extending your arm towards him instead of the verbal cue or in addition to it.
I use the verbal cue “back up” for this behavior, but other trainers use different ones. A few common cues for this same behavior are “back out”, “get back” and “beep beep.” Any of these cues will work equally well, so choose the one that you like best, keeping in mind that it’s best to avoid using a cue that sounds similar to any cues that your dog already knows for any other behaviors.
Some dogs will respond to your motion towards them by sitting down or by turning around. If your dog is a sitter during this training, try holding a treat a few inches over his head and moving it towards his back end slowly. This causes most dogs to step back rather than sit, and you can then reinforce the behavior. If your dog’s tendency is to turn, try to train him in a narrow hallway or between two large pieces of furniture so that there’s not enough room for him to turn around. Presented with such an obstacle, most dogs will try to back up as an alternative, providing you with an opportunity to reinforce the behavior you are looking for.
Does your dog have a cue that means to back up, and if so, when do you use it?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Her own qualities helped her survive
A few days ago, Crosby the Golden Retriever was rescued from the Charles River by officers in the Wellesley Police Department. Crosby had fallen through the ice and was unable to return to shore. The ice was too thick for her to break through and swim for safety. It was too thin to support her weight and allow her to walk to shore, even if she had been able to climb onto the ice from the water.
Officers in cold-water survival suits swam out to her and hauled her 50 yards back to shore. Without their help, she is unlikely to have survived. She was swimming back and forth in the freezing water when rescuers arrived and without help, she would have been at great risk of drowning due to hypothermia, exhaustion, or a combination of the two.
When I watch the video of her rescue, I see many factors that helped Crosby to survive. The rapid response, skills, and equipment of the police department obviously played a critical role. The technology that allowed the guardian’s location to be pinpointed from her 911 call was also important.
As a canine behaviorist, what I notice most is how the dog’s own qualities played an important part in her survival. Specifically, I observed that this dog was fit, emotionally stable, and social, all of which contributed to the success of a challenging rescue.
Fitness. Swimming in freezing water is exhausting. We don’t know how long Crosby was in the river. It wasn’t long enough for her to freeze, but it was long enough for her guardian to call for help, for police officers to arrive, to prepare for the rescue and to reach her 50 yards from shore. Some dogs would not have had the physical abilities required to stay above the surface that long, so Crosby’s fitness was a huge asset in this emergency situation.
Emotional stability. Nobody could watch the video and claim that Crosby looked happy at any point, but she did not seem panicked either. She was calm in the water before she was rescued, while the officers pulled her to shore and afterwards as she was dried off and entered the vehicle. It’s hard to imagine that she wasn’t frightened, but she held it together. If she had freaked out, it would have been entirely understandable, but it would have made her rescue less likely. A dog (or a person) who is too emotionally distressed is less able to cope with immediate dangers. Because she was able to stay calm, she helped herself stay afloat until she was rescued.
Social. By social, I’m not referring to dogs who are wag-the-back-end-off-during-greetings friendly. I just mean dogs who are comfortable around strangers. Dogs who are not social enough in this way may shy away from rescuers. Tragically, this is a real issue for dogs in water catastrophes and in fires and also for those who flee after car accidents. Crosby was clearly at ease with the strangers helping her in the water, and the one on land drying her off so she could begin to warm up. Even a dog who is frightened of people may be scared enough in an emergency situation to allow them to help. However, a dog like Crosby who is social will almost surely be able to accept the help of people working to rescue her.
I’m not taking anything away from the skills of the police officers who rescued Crosby. They performed an exemplary rescue of a dog who was in real danger. It’s just that I can’t help but observe that Crosby made the rescue just a little bit easier than it might have been with a dog who was not so fit, emotionally stable or social.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Let the adventures begin
Lucy and Baxter, a pair of Border Collie mixes, will not be traveling across the country with their guardians over the holidays. Instead, they traveled across town to stay with us, starting two days ago. As I write this, they are lying on the floor—one under the table and one next to me—and I am enjoying their peaceful company. (Earlier in the day, I was enjoying their energetic playfulness, but I’m pleased they are having a snooze now.)
Lucy and Baxter will stay with us a little over a week, and during that time, we will be among the many households whose dog population has grown. Just as people move around and go visiting at this time of year, so do dogs.
Some dogs go with their guardians during holiday visits, and others go to dog sitters. Either way, many dogs find themselves in new situations with unfamiliar surroundings. These changes sometimes lead to unexpected little incidents.
Many families have stories of dogs who have eaten holiday dinners either before they were served or right off the dining room table. Others tell of a dog shooting out the front door and going on a little jaunt through the neighborhood when a niece or nephew left the door wide open. There are dogs who have unwrapped all the presents while the humans were attending church, and dogs who ate the treats that were intended for Santa and his reindeer.
A client told me about the time her dog locked himself in the bathroom at her grandma’s house, which was a real problem since it was the only one in the house and 7 people were staying there for the weekend. One friend can hardly speak for laughing when she tells how her dog uncharacteristically lifted his leg on a very mean uncle who nobody had ever stood up to. He left in a huff and everyone was really appreciative.
I love stories of visiting dogs and the things they do. Of course I am mindful that eating many holiday offerings or escaping the house are among the dangers facing dogs at this time of year, and it’s important to do our best to protect dogs. A combination of training dogs and managing situations to prevent trouble are essential, but things have a way of happening over the holidays.
We have yet to have an incident with Lucy and Baxter worthy of a story, unless you count me taking a truly spectacular (but non-injurious) fall when I tripped over their dog bed in the dark. Thankfully they were not on it at the time.
If you are you caring for extra dogs this holiday season or hosting people with dogs, has anything memorable happened yet?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Another way in which dogs are perfect
For most runners, finding training partners is a challenge because of many factors: social compatibility, scheduling issues, trail versus street preferences, tendency to be competitive. Additionally, and perhaps most limiting, they must run at close to the same pace.
Enter the dog, and voilà, problem solved! Dogs have the ability to run at a wide variety of paces. As long as they are healthy and free of any prohibitive medical issues, including injuries, most dogs can comfortably run at the pace of any human runner.
In my town of Flagstaff, Ariz., you can see that range of paces daily. On the most popular running routes, you’re bound to see slow folks with a dog trotting along side as well as professional elite runners zipping by in a serious hurry with their dogs, and everything in between. One of my running partners is a mixed breed named Marley, and he is happy at a lot of different speeds.
Here’s me running with Marley while we cool down at a very slow pace after our run.
And here’s my husband with Marley going at a much faster pace.
Marley is equally comfortable at either speed.
It’s true that sometimes dogs do better with faster runners and are more likely to pull or leap around with slower runners, but specifically training the dog to run nicely on leash at the slower pace is the key to enjoyable runs for both people and dogs. Also, there are occasionally intermediate paces that a dog struggles with simply because that pace is not quite right for any particular gait, but mostly, our dogs adjust to any pace.
As a bonus, the social and scheduling issues that face us with most humans are irrelevant. People enjoy running with their dogs, and suggesting a running outing and having our dog beg off because of being tired or because of another appointment isn’t going to happen. Dogs are the perfect any-pace running partners. As if we needed a reason to love them any more. . .
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
People don’t see the dog you love
There are so many drawbacks to living with and loving an aggressive dog. You have to manage or prevent any situations that cause your dog to behave aggressively. That may include feeding time, the arrival of visitors, or seeing other dogs. There’s the constant concern of an incident happening despite your best efforts at prevention. It may be impossible, or at least challenging, to join others for group walks, journeys to the park or to visit family over the holidays. But sometimes the worst part about having an aggressive dog is that other people don’t see the dog you love.
They only see the dog going crazy, barking at the delivery guy or lunging at every dog in the neighborhood. The creature they see is a snarling, growling, snapping dog who exhibits little behavior that makes getting to know him seem remotely appealing. They don’t see the sweet dog who cuddles with you at night and makes you smile when he tosses his toy in the air himself and tries to catch it with amusing, but largely unsuccessful, acrobatic moves. They don’t have the opportunity to see the dog who does a down stay all through dinner, who comes when called perfectly at home and performs any number of charming tricks on cue.
After years of working with them, I can assure you that most dogs with aggression issues are lovely to be around in most situations, however badly they may behave in others. Almost every client whose dog is aggressive makes some comment to me along the lines of “Other than when he’s biting (or lunging, barking, growling) he’s such an angel!” and I believe them. Many aggressive dogs are not at their best when out in public around strangers or other dogs, but are kind and lovable around the family, including small kids and even the cat. When you have a dog like that, it hurts when other people don’t see the good side of your dog, even though that’s what you see most of the time.
If you have an angel who is all too often an angel in disguise, what do you wish other people could see in your dog that you see every day?
Good Dog: Activities & Sports
Rainy day play by the numbers.
Have wet conditions gotten in the way of your normal walk, run or play time at the park? Are you in search of some ideas for entertaining your dog when the weather outside is “frightful”? There are lots of stimulating activities that will keep you and your dog happily enjoying one another’s company, no matter how gloomy it is outdoors. It’s all about spending time together in interesting ways.
1. Take your dog to visit a friend, relative or neighbor who would be cheered by some dog-petting therapy.
2. Teach your dog a new trick, such as lying down and resting her head sadly on her paws when you say, “It’s raining.”
3. Go outside and play in the snow or splash in the puddles. (If your dog had her way, this would probably be her first choice.)
4. Have a canine spa day at home—give her a bath, clean her ears, cut her nails and brush her coat.
5. Play a few rounds of indoor hide-andseek. Have your dog stay, and then hide. Release her and call her to you. When she finds you, greet her with something that will make her happy, like treats, a game of tug, a chew toy or a belly rub.
6. Buy a new toy for each of you and hang out together while you enjoy them; better yet, buy a toy you can share.
7. Practice the art of canine massage. To learn, start with a great video, Bodywork for Dogs: Connecting through Massage, Acupressure, and Intuitive Touch by Lynn Vaughan and Deborah Jones.
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