Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Following your passion into a profession
You want to become a dog trainer because you love dogs, right? Makes sense, but before you take the plunge into the career of your dreams, ask yourself this very important question: how do you feel about people?
Most of dog training entails teaching people. Sure, you could land a job training service dogs or dogs living in shelters, but the vast majority of dog trainers earn a living by teaching classes and private lessons for pet-dog guardians. And the success of a dog’s training program depends upon the human’s compliance with that program.
There are many, many wonderful clients who put everything they have into training and rehabilitating their dogs. They do their homework. They are eager to hone their skills. They treat their dogs with kindness. But there are also clients who will challenge you at every level of your being, who will question your expertise, fail to do their homework and then complain that their dog is not improving, and disappear when they recognize how much work is involved. A word of advice: As a person who loves dogs, you can, and will, go the distance for the good of the dog, but at a certain point — sooner rather than later, if you want to avoid burnout — you just have to let it go.
Still interested? Great! Read on. There are many routes one might take to gain the skills and experience required to train other people’s dogs. Many trainers are self-taught, relying on books, videos and personal experience for their education. Others learn by apprenticing with an established trainer. Seminars and workshops provide an education for a lot of trainers. And still others choose a more formal route by attending an academy for dog trainers. The best trainers explore all paths and recognize that the journey never ends.
What follows is a seven-part lesson plan to guide you in your pursuit of training dogs for a living. In no way comprehensive, it’s an overview of some of the possibilities that await you. Where you go from here is limited only by your imagination!
Lesson One: Train thyself
When people catch the training bug — often as a result of working with their own difficult dog or taking an inspiring group class — their first step down the path to becoming a professional trainer is to study the many books, articles and DVDs on the subject of animal behavior and training.
Sarah Owings, owner of Bridges Dog Training in Los Angeles, Calif., says, “Before KPA [Karen Pryor Academy], I was simply an autodidact — totally self-taught animal person devouring books and videos. Like many dog trainers before me, however, my main teacher was Zoë and before her Annie and before her Rocky and Rufus and…”
In order to work effectively with dogs, you need to know how to read and understand canine body language. Every training library should begin with Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide, by Brenda Aloff. Other must-reads include Don’t Shoot the Dog, by Karen Pryor; Culture Clash, by Jean Donaldson; Excel-Erated Learning, by Pamela Reid; The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell; and Complete Idiot’s Guide to Positive Dog Training, by Pamela Dennison.
Of course, self-education can take you only so far. At a certain point, you need to learn hands-on skills from someone with more experience.
Lesson Two: Get your hands dirty
Perhaps the most frequently traveled path to becoming a professional dog trainer, and one that seems to follow naturally after reaching the limits of educating oneself, is the apprentice/ mentor relationship, which can take many different forms. Some dog-training academies include formal apprenticeships as part of their programs. Some trainers offer internships through their own businesses. And sometimes, an informal apprenticeship grows out of a trainer/client relationship.
Jill Dextrase, co-owner of Sit Happens!, in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, met her mentor when she enrolled her own problem dog in a group class at the local humane society. After apprenticing for several years with the instructor, Jill took over her mentor’s business and now teaches classes and private lessons out of her own facility. Volunteering at an animal shelter is another excellent way to gain hands-on experience with a wide variety of dogs. Many shelters now have training programs in which volunteers are instructed how to train the shelter dogs so that they become more adoptable. This can be as simple as teaching a dog to wait at doorways or as complex as behavior modification for reactive or fearful dogs. If your local shelter doesn’t have a training program, volunteering to establish one, once you’re qualified, is a terrific way to gain client referrals from the shelter staff and other volunteers.
Lesson Three : Get schooled
There are more dog-trainer schools out there than you can shake a stick at — and many of them deserve to have a stick shaken at them! Be diligent when researching schools; many proclaim themselves to be “positive” and “humane” while continuing to promote techniques and equipment that are quite the opposite.
Until recently, there were two biggies in the arena of positive-reinforcement training academies: the Karen Pryor Academy and the Academy for Dog Trainers at the San Francisco SPCA. But in 2009, the SF/SPCA Academy closed its doors.
Jean Donaldson, founder and former director of the SF/SPCA Academy, recently announced the details of her new Academy for Dog Trainers, which will take the form of lectures and training demonstrations on CD, as well as self-assessment tools and virtual classrooms. Students work at their own pace with their own dogs in their own homes. Graduation requirements include an online final written exam and submission of a video of the student training with specific criteria. Jean hopes to establish a mentor program for graduates of her academy (academyfordogtrainers.com).
The Karen Pryor Academy (KPA) also offers the convenience of distance learning, but combines it with four weekend workshops with the instructor and fellow classmates. KPA instructors are extremely well regarded in the industry and are located across the U.S. and internationally; students may choose the instructor they want to work with. The curriculum is entirely online and includes training exercises and interim tests. One unique feature of the KPA curriculum is the requirement to train an animal of a species other than canine. Graduation requirements include an online final exam and inperson teaching and training assessments. Passing all three assessments earns graduates the right to put “KPA CTP” (Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner) after their names. Certification can be revoked at any time if a graduate does not continue to meet the quality standards of the Karen Pryor Academy (karenpryoracademy.com).
When you’re ready to take your skills, as well as your understanding of the science behind how animals learn, to the highest point possible, then you’re ready to take Bob Bailey’s Operant Conditioning and Behavior Analysis Workshops (a.k.a. “Chicken Camps”). Bob teaches four levels of these eminent workshops; unfortunately for those of us in the U.S., he now teaches them only in Borlänge, Sweden (houseof- learning.se).
There is no substitute for learning from Bob, but if Sweden is out of the question for you, you can learn to train chickens (which sharpens mechanical skills like nothing else can) with Terry Ryan at Legacy Canine in Sequim, Wash. (legacycanine.com)
Lesson Four: Get out there
Conferences, seminars and workshops are fantastic sources of knowledge as well as great networking opportunities. From one- or two-hour evening seminars to weeklong conferences, there are enough educational events across the country to keep a trainer learning, meeting and greeting all year long.
The biggest get-togethers for dog trainers — and anyone interested in dog training — are ClickerExpo (clicker expo.com) and the Association of Pet Dog Trainers conference (apdt.com). ClickerExpo is held twice each year at various locations across the country and features three days of speakers as well as hands-on “learning labs” (yes, you can bring your well-behaved dog!). The APDT conference takes place annually in a different city, lasts five days and features many of the top trainers and researchers in the field.
There are also numerous smaller workshops and seminars held all over the world every month of the year. Positively Trained and PuppyWorks are two companies that organize and host educational events for professional as well as amateur trainers. The Yahoo! list “DogSeminars” is a great resource for finding seminars in your area.
Lesson Five: Make your own path
And then there are the approximately bazillion other routes one might take to become a professional dog trainer. Laura Monaco Torelli, Director of Training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, Ill., began her career with marine mammals in Ken Ramirez’s trainer program at the Shedd Aquarium and went on to work with zoo animals before becoming a dog trainer. Kristen VanNess, owner of A-Frame of Mind Dog Training in Granville, Ohio, learned to train dogs first as a 4-H club member, which led her to become more involved in dog projects as a 4-H advisor and eventually to co-found a 4-H kid-and-dog camp, Ohio 4-H Teen Dog Experience.
Lesson Six: Get credentialed
It’s a commonly lamented fact that anyone, at any time, can hang out a shingle declaring him- or herself a dog trainer, with nothing more invested in their services than a business card — and even that isn’t essential. But while it’s true that there is no government regulation of dog trainers in the United States, there are a number of organizations through which you can earn credentials. The most common is the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers, which offers the Certified Professional Dog Trainer — Knowledge Assessed (CPDT-KA) certification (ccpdt.org). Earning a CPDT-KA isn’t a cakewalk, but you’ll learn a lot along the way and your clients will understand that you are committed to a high level of learning.
Lesson Seven: Get in business
So, you’ve chosen your path, you’ve learned all there is to learn about training dogs (yeah, right!), and now you’re wondering, “How do I start, let alone run, a business?” Fortunately, Veronica Boutelle, former director of the SF/ SPCA Behavior and Training Department and author of How to Run a Dog Business, recognized a need among dog trainers, and founded dogTEC, providing business consulting services to dog professionals (dogtec.org).
It’s a beautiful thing when a career and a passion come together. If training dogs professionally interests you but you’re not sure about making the transition from whatever you’re doing now, take just one simple step toward your goal, and then take another: Read a book. Watch a DVD. Complete a class. If the bug catches you, you’ll know it, and you won’t be able to stop the momentum. And whatever you do, even after you’ve been training dogs for 30 years, don’t stop learning and improving your training skills. You can never know too much about dogs, and the world and its dogs need as many great trainers as they can get.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Does it happen in your house?
I remember as a child hearing my mom say, “Karen, Karen, sweet and able, get your elbows off the table, this is not a horse’s stable.” I thought the rhyme was entertaining and my mom thought it was effective. I soon learned that I was not allowed to rest my elbows on the table. Similarly, I teach tall dogs that they are not allowed to have their heads on the table.
We were dogsitting a large dog named Bear whose height made it easy for him to rest his head on our dining room table. After photographing him at the table, I used the cue “leave it” to let him know that the table was off limits to him. I reinforced him with a chew toy for choosing to back away from the table and thereafter reinforced him for resisting the urge to put his head there again. He seemed familiar with the rule already, so I suspected that he had the same rule at home. We avoided leaving food on the table so that there was less temptation, but he followed our guidelines agreeably.
Though I don’t want dogs to put their heads on our table, I can’t deny that they look awfully endearing when they do so. Do you let your dogs rest their heads on the table, and if not, has it been challenging or straightforward to teach them that this behavior is not allowed?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Perfect Family Dog Training
Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz, 52, who trained dogs for the late senator Edward M. Kennedy and trained first dog Bo (known to her as Charlie) before he went to live in the White House, died Jan. 12 in Virginia. According to The Washington Post, she had been leading dog training classes days before her death. After being admitted to the hospital, for reasons that were not stated in the obituary, she went into a coma and died of respiratory distress.
A champion of positive-reinforcement training methods, many of which she detailed in her book, The Love That Dog Training Program, Sylvia-Stasiewicz will be missed by all of those who have been touched by her message of loving and respecting dogs, and teaching them as we would our children.
Bark interviewed Sylvia-Stasiewicz shortly before she died. That interview, which appears below and will appear in shorter form in our February issue, was apparently her last. Dawn’s family has requested that tax-deductible contributions be made to the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) Foundation to further her work in researching, developing and promoting best practices in positive reinforcement dog training. Dawn’s mentor and APDT Founder, Dr. Ian Dunbar, is presiding over the fund.
Details on a memorial and opportunities to pay tribute can be found at lovethatdogbook.com.
We spoke with Dawn Sylvia-Stasiewicz in December to talk about her book, The Love That Dog Training Program (written with Larry Kay), which was also one of our best picks in 2010. She has trained—employing positive reinforcement techniques—many dogs in the Virginia/DC area, including those of the late Senator Kennedy, as well as preparing Bo for his White House posting.
One thing I notice by reading the very many dog memoirs that have become so popular is that few people who write those books train their dogs, which is shocking to me. So could you tell us why it is important to train your dog?
Since most of The Bark’s readers already care well for their dogs, I’m probably singing (or howling) to the choir, so my thoughts will reinforce your readers’ own. Training opens up communication; it’s a language that helps our dog understand us, and vice versa. With any valued companion, good communication bonds us, helps us socialize in the world together, opens up a lifetime of experiences and possibilities. The danger of not communicating includes safety to others and to our dog. If (God forbid) we become physically unable to care for our dog and our dog needs to be rehomed, untrained dogs have a much higher rate of being euthanized. I believe we have a moral obligation to train our dogs.
Why doesn’t aversive training (like Cesar Millan’s methods) work? Could you make a case for positive reinforcement? Why does it take more time than traditional methods?
Both methods will train a dog, but there are dangers and disadvantages in using aversive techniques that outweigh its benefits. Focusing on a dog’s mistakes means he must figure out by trial and error what behaviors won’t get him punished—dogs aren’t good at that kind of reasoning. Failure-oriented training also diminishes a dog’s spirit, typically leaving him fearful. Aversive methods are dangerous because they suppress problems that can flare up without warning—often triggered by an exuberant child, innocent dog or helpful friend. Children should never copy a grownup’s aversive methods, because there is no guarantee that the dog will regard the child with the same authority as an adult. Aversive methods grew out of unscientific, trial and error attempts to dominate, control and coerce a dog, and were based on the naïve and mistaken myth that dog pack psychology required an alpha bully boss—my, how far we’ve come. My book discusses the American Veterinary Society for Animal Behavior’s position paper against aversive methods and the Michael Vick dog-fighting case (the 47 dogs that a federal court ruled were beyond redemption and were scheduled to be euthanized, but are now being rehabilitated only with positive reinforcement methods by Best Friends Animal Society).
Positive reinforcement methods take longer in the beginning. But once your dog catches on that training is a fun time to be with you—a pack leader that directs play and gives good rewards, while ignoring most mistakes—he will be motivated to learn and feel like a spirited genius.
Could you explain the concepts of positive versus negative?
In behavioral psychology, positive means to give something (a reward or a punishment) and negative means to take away something (not give a reward or punishment). It’s like the carrot and the stick: giving a carrot is a positive reward; hitting with a stick is positive punishment; not giving a carrot is a negative reward; not giving a stick is negative punishment. These charts will help explain it.
As you noted, “good leaders don’t have to act like bullies to command respect.” How difficult is this concept to teach to your clients?
Most people get it, especially when they’re given a choice and see demonstrations. Dogs love to follow leaders who provide food, shelter and safety; leaders they see as benevolent and fair. Good pack leaders provide social experiences and lots of fun.
What are your top three goals in training the perfect family dog?
My top three are socialization, real-life rewards and hand-feeding.
Socialization starts by introducing the human world to your dog in a way that she can understand. Your dog needs to have the secure feeling that being around people and other dogs is a pleasant and safe experience that can also be fun and rewarding. When a dog believes that that is life’s reality, everything else falls into place.
Real Life Rewards means that your dog sits for everything. She sits before eating, getting a treat or playing with a toy, before walking through a door, greeting another dog, to get in and out of places and distracting situations. She learns that “sit” happens before something good, so “sit” becomes her way of asking “please.” For the real life rewards system to gain consistency, all family members need to be involved.
Hand-feeding teaches your dog that all good things come from you. Start hand-feeding on day one (unless your adopted dog has food aggression and may bite you). Hand-feeding will teach your dog to be calm when someone reaches into his bowl. Hand-feed in different parts of your house and your dog will learn that your rules apply everywhere. Hand-feeding also helps diminish guarding of food, toys and contraband; it also teaches bite inhibition.
In training Bo Obama, how did you also train the President and his family in the proper ways to keep the training up? Do you still do any brush-up training with Bo?
In training any family, we always work with the whole family, including the extended family, so that everyone learns the same language to communicate with the dog. There’s always brushing up and fine-tuning to do. Training never ends, it just gets easier.
What was the hardest thing you had to train Bo Obama to do? I would think that a “substitution trade” was extremely difficult.
Actually, substitution trades with Bo were a piece of cake (not literally). With most dogs, substitution trades are easy if you anticipate and have valuable things to trade ready (I like stuffed Kongs). Be prepared—not a day goes by when I have a dog in for training and I’m preparing for situations that may come up.
Why do you recommend a five-week training program?
Five weeks give you the basics for everything you’ll need to know without being too overwhelming for dog owners. Since positive reinforcement makes training fun and playful, most dogs aren’t overwhelmed with learning new skills—it’s dog owners’ follow-through that I’ve designed the program to help. It takes about 30 days to make a new habit or undo an old habit, and five weeks is just over that threshold. In those five weeks you will get to know your dog, “read” his posture and learn to anticipate his next moves. Some owners and dogs may learn a little slower, while others a little faster.
Why and when do you advocate hand-feeding a dog?
As I discussed before, start hand-feeding on Day One. Hand-feeding is powerful because it puts you in charge of a resource (food) that the dog can’t live without, and since you “own” the food, your dog will view the relationship with you as the dominant and benevolent force. We’re reaching inside the dog’s primal survival mind to teach her that it’s okay for hands to be in her dog bowl and she appreciates what you provide. If a dog bites during hand-feeding, then be cautious; my book’s chapter on behavior problems will help. Be aware that given the wrong circumstances any dog will bite, so hand-feeding gives you an advantage in preventing and correcting this safety issue.
And what about tethering—when your dog is tied to you? Why do you think this is effective strategy? Can it work with older dogs, not just puppies?
Tethering brings you and your dog together. You become deeply aware of each other as you share each other’s world. It’s a bonding experience; you both take responsibility for anticipating each other’s moves. It’s almost like you become your dog’s muse: you inspire him. On my recent talk in Seattle, I had the hotel dog tethered to me during the whole presentation, and the dog volunteered all kinds of behaviors: sits, giving attention, looking for what’s next—he got lots of praise and some rewards.
In formal heel work, what is the best way to train a dog who is a forward-motion, pull-at-all-cost dog—like our German Wirehaired Pointer—to walk somewhat at your side? I noticed that Bo still hasn’t seemed to master this, at least in the press video I have seen.
In the Barbara Walters Thanksgiving TV Special with President and Mrs. Obama, it was apparent that Bo was well-behaved and prepared for the event, as we should all be with our dogs when meeting visitors. Perhaps your German Wirehaired Pointer needs to walk more often to help [her] understand how to walk on a leash. If we’re training only while we need to take a walk, we’re not going to teach effectively. Tethering and leash walk training can include many turns, stops and starts, variable pace and standing as still as a tree to keep your dog focused on you. Most dogs get excited in moments, and that’s part of their beauty and joy, so we need to prepare.
What’s the Slot Machine and Jackpot psychology in training?
Dogs love gambling as much as humans love casinos. Guessing and working for an uncertain payoff is a game. Positive reinforcement’s beauty is about working to win the game. Once your dog learns a skill, begin withdrawing treats for doing that skill correctly—that’s the slot machine—and now your dog will try harder to win the game he used to win all the time. When his skill improves, such as lying down more quickly on cue, then reward him with extra treats—that’s the jackpot. But don’t start using gambling psychology when teaching a new skill until your dog performs consistently what you’re asking; otherwise the rewards will just seem too random and frustrating.
What do you think are the hardest things for people to learn about dog training?
Dog training doesn’t have to be mean, ugly or painful. Patience and positive reinforcement should be enough to get training started successfully.
Most behavior problems are created by humans. For example, since dogs don’t generalize well, we need to be consistent when showing a hand signal. We need to gradually generalize our cues to new locations—starting by simply taking one step to the side, then gradually building up variety. We reward our dog for “bad” behavior by rewarding it accidentally, such as petting a dog when we want her to stop barking.
Comparing our dog’s progress against other dogs’ abilities will make our dog lose an unfair game. Every dog learns at his own rate. My program gives building blocks and suggested time frames. If your dog goes faster or slower, that’s all good. Patience is a virtue. Slow and steady wins the race.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Just as the iconic image of the Great Dad shows him playing catch with his kids, the iconic image of the Great Dog Guardian would show a person running around with a dog. A few minutes—or even a few steps—are all you need, so don’t resist these easy ways to add joy to your dog’s day.
1. Chase. This game is simple: You run and your dog chases you. Clap or make a “smooch” sound to get your dog’s attention, and then run away from him. When he’s within a few feet of you, turn and reinforce him with a treat, a toy or the start of another chase. Stopping before he reaches you prevents the chase game from turning into the “nip the human on the back of the leg” game. (Don’t play the “chase the dog” game—it will teach him to run away when you approach and ruin his recall.)
2. On Your Mark, Get Set, Go. Combine a little trick work and self-control practice with running. Teach your dog to lie down when you say “On your mark,” do a play bow to the cue “Get set” and start running when you say “Go.” Très cute.
3. Fartlek. Runners worldwide use fartlek training to increase their speed. The word, which means “speed play” in Swedish, refers to the practice of interspersing short bursts of speed within a training run. To play with your dog fartlek style, surge ahead and run few paces, past several houses or even down the block. Chances are your dog will happily follow your lead. (And yes, even serious runners think it’s a funny word.)
4. Hard to Get. This short keep-away game can jump-start a play session. Squeak, bounce or wave a toy around to get your dog’s attention as you run away from him. Just make sure you don’t tease him by playing keep-away too long. The excitement created by a moment of playing hard to get can start another game, but going on too long without giving your dog access to the toy can result in frustration or anger rather than playfulness.
Many people love to play with their dogs. Still more want to play with their dogs but think their dogs aren’t playful, or that they only like to play with other dogs. Certainly, some dogs are more naturally playful or more toy-motivated than others. Yet, I’ve found that time and again, the majority of dogs who are described as “not playful” by the people who know them best actually do love to play, as long as the games are based on running and chasing. Give them a try!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What’s new with the dog pros
Dog training is a dynamic field (although probably not as dynamic as dogs themselves), and at the annual national conference of the Association of Pet Dog Trainers (APDT) in Louisville, Ky., in mid-October ’08, it was fascinating to witness the ways in which the field continues to evolve. Following are, in my opinion, some of the most notable trends in dog training, all of which figured prominently in conference talks, workshops and dinner conversations.
1. An emphasis on people. Historically, dog trainers have paid more attention to canine ethology than to the behavior of their clients, but now, these instructors are also looking at how people learn, how to encourage them to practice at home, and how to most effectively communicate what they need to do to accomplish their dog-training goals.
2. An intense interest in play behavior. For years, play has been considered a fun topic and very enjoyable for dogs, but with the exception of its relevance to socializing puppies, it has not been widely considered to be worthy of serious attention. Now, canine play is a hot topic in dog training on several levels: establishing and maintaining the relationship between people and dogs, maintaining a high quality of life, and even solving serious behavioral problems. This year’s conference devoted an entire day to a play symposium, during which all of these topics were explored.
3. Fewer crossover trainers. The change from coercion training to positive reinforcement is not new, but what is new is that now, most positive trainers have always trained that way. Fewer people are learning coercive techniques in the first place and therefore, there are fewer trainers to cross over.
4. An emphasis on science. For years, scientifically based training principles have been gaining ground in the dog-training world. This trend continues, with more trainers than ever coming from a scientific background or pursuing continuing education with a scientific basis and an emphasis on the critical thinking skills that allow trainers to distinguish anecdotes and opinions from facts based on scientific evidence.
5. Training as a profession. Many trainers have left careers in business or other professional fields and brought that professionalism to dog training. As a result, more people are training full time rather than doing it part time as a second job or as a hobby.
6. A broader range of information to offer. Instead of focusing narrowly on dogs’ responses to cues such as sit, heel and come, dog trainers now consider what is necessary for dogs’ overall well-being and to improve their quality of life. As a result, most trainers are able to help clients directly (or indirectly, through referrals) in the areas of canine massage, nutrition, exercise and enrichment activities.
7. A focus on family dogs. Dog training used to be directed toward competitive events, primarily obedience and dog shows. Now,many dog-training schools are focusing on teaching pet dogs the skills necessary to be mannerly members of society—walking nicely on leash, greeting others politely and coming when called. These skills are different from competition skills such as a perfect heel, a formal recall and a long sit-stay.
8. Relationships as a top priority. Training is universally considered to be more effective and more quickly accomplished when a strong relationship exists between the person and the dog. As a result, that relationship has become a bigger part of the equation. This recognition means dog trainers are emphasizing ways to develop and strengthen those relationships in connection with the way people train, play and interact with their dogs. Along with that understanding comes the idea that dogs are members of our families. This view, which used to be expressed timidly, almost apologetically, is not only widely accepted now, but unquestionably mainstream.
So, what’s the take-away message? Here it is: It has never been easier for you and your dog to get quality training from a highly skilled, educated professional who focuses on your needs as well as those of your canine companion. And what a great combination that is.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Where does it begin?
Imagine this: a purse falls off a chair in the vicinity of two seven-month-old puppies. Terrified, one of the puppies refuses to go anywhere near it. Her sister takes a look, gives it a quick sniff and then leaps over it and goes on her merry way. Scenarios like this happen every day to Holly and Kit, the Border Collie/Beagle mixed-breed pups adopted by the editor of The Bark a few months ago.
Rescued from a shelter in Kentucky early this year, littermates Holly and Kit have been in their new home in northern California for several months now. As far as is known, the pups’ first five months of life were less than ideal; they seem to have lived outside on their own and had little contact with people. Not surprisingly, they arrived at their new home timid and shy. Since then, Kit has come out of her shell, romping happily around local off-leash parks with her “big sister,” Lola. Holly is a different story; she is sweet and loving at home, but extremely skittish in other contexts. But even at home, small changes in the environment—like a purse falling from a chair—overwhelm her.
That sisters would behave differently isn’t shocking to any of us with siblings or children, or anyone who has watched one puppy battle through life while a littermate calmly accepts whatever comes her way. We all know that sisters and brothers, whether human or canine, are not clones. No matter how similar the upbringing, minor differences in siblings’ genetic make-up account for major differences in behavior. But beyond that, what do we know about what influences a dog’s approach to life? What’s new in our understanding of the ontogeny of fear? In particular, what can make a fearful dog like Holly so different from her more outgoing sister?
Genetic Blueprints. The answer begins, of course, in the genetic make-up of each dog, which is unique to that individual. After all, the point of sexual reproduction—an inefficient and messy process (genetically speaking)—is variation. Each parent contributes one strand of DNA to the double helix that makes up each chromosome, and the strands link up in unique ways each time a new life is created. Thus, every individual is the result of a unique combination of genes. In an environment with a range of conditions—perhaps a drought one year and floods the next—genetic variation ups the odds that some individuals will survive even if others perish, thus ensuring continuation of at least some individuals of their particular species.
This variation isn’t news to dog lovers—we are all well acquainted with canine physical variation, from flat-nosed Pugs to skinny-muzzled Salukis. This genetically mediated variation is equally true of behavioral predispositions. According to research done over the last 30 years on personality, one of the most heritable behavioral characteristics relates to the behavior of Holly and Kit. What is now called the “shy-bold continuum” has been found to be a relatively stable aspect of personality in rhesus macaques, cattle, people and dogs (to name a few). It appears as though different points on the “shy-bold” spectrum are advantageous at different times. For example, primatologist Steve Suomi has found that in some conditions, shy male rhesus macaques have higher reproductive success than bold ones. The shy males wait longer to leave their natal troops, and thus arrive at a new troop larger and better able to hold their own when challenged by established males. (But sometimes it helps to be brave and bold; what if there are only a few troops in the area and the bold monkeys become established in them before the shy ones venture forth?)
One can easily imagine how, in some contexts, the progenitors of domestic dogs were best served by boldness (being the first to venture near a human settlement) or by caution and timidity (letting a littermate be the one to go play with that big, fuzzy animal that humans call lions). What is not clear yet is how much of a dog’s physical appearance is linked to behavioral tendencies. Holly looks more like a Border Collie than does her sister Kit and, in general, we know that shyness is relatively common in many of the herding breeds. Could there be a link between looks and personality?
Starter Houses. Beyond an understanding of the role of genetics, research is increasingly focused on the effect of in-utero experiences on the development and, ultimately, the health and behavior of an individual. Until recently, our developmental considerations have focused on the influence of genetics and the environment during “early development”—the old nature/nurture argument, as it were. The period we defined as “early development” began at birth and followed an animal through infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. However, new information has alerted us to the important influence of in-utero experiences, an environment we’ve never before considered as having an affect on an adult animal. Much of the research I’ll mention here was done on humans, but there is no biological reason to not generalize it to canids.
In general, the influence of a mother’s experience on her fetus is profound: her sleep pattern teaches the developing child about the cycle of day and night. Her food preferences influence her baby’s after birth. If the mother is seriously deprived of food, her infant will be predisposed to diabetes and high cholesterol as an adult. Most relevant to a fearful puppy, a mother suffering from extreme anxiety puts her offspring at high risk of being anxious and fearful, even as an adult. Apparently, high levels of the stress hormone cortisol produced by the mother result in fewer cortisol receptor cells in the pup (or child or monkey, etc.). This low number of receptor cells means that the pup’s brain is unable to perceive and respond to high levels of cortisol in his own body until the system is overloaded with it. Then the brain goes on red alert, sending the emotions into full panic mode, even in situations that would be only mildly stressful for an average individual.
In addition to the significant influence of a mother’s influence on her young, we also know now that the experience of each individual within the uterus is different. Minor differences in nutrients, for example, have long been known to be a factor in major differences in the size and health of animals within a litter. Even genetic clones—identical twins for example—aren’t behaviorally identical. Though they may look alike, they usually have remarkably different personalities. Since they developed with the same set of genes, only in-utero experiences can account for their behavioral differences. Developmental psychologists are learning that for twins, development in the womb is a kind of dance between the two that, by the time they are born, has shaped their personalities.
Another example of the influence of in-utero development is what’s called “androgenization.” In this phenomenon, females in a litter are permanently affected by the androgen produced by male puppies surrounding them within the uterine horns. Androgen is the precursor to testosterone, and females who are “bathed” in it, perhaps because of their placement between a large number of males, tend to behave differently than other females once they develop into adults. Androgenized females behave more like males, sometimes have enlarged gentalia and are often more aggressive to same-sex individuals.
And so, even prior to birth, profoundly different experiences could have shaped Holly and Kit. The combination of different genetic blueprints and different experiences inside the womb resulted in two dogs with very different personalities and tolerances. Even though they have grown up together, those beginnings mean that a similar environment will affect them in different ways as they continue to develop. Holly will probably always be more cautious than Kit, because much of who she is was established before she was born. This is not to say that shy little Holly can’t become more comfortable at the dog park—or with runaway purses—but it does remind us how and why every dog is a unique creation and special in her own way. And special they are, every one of them.
Good luck, Holly … we’re rooting for you!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Some dogs do, but some don’t
A man had broken his back after a fall and was found on the side of his road with a dog who was unwilling to leave his side. That’s the sort of loyalty dogs are famous for, and many dogs live up to this high standard. There are countless examples of dogs who stayed with a person in a crisis situation, providing protection, warmth or simply company.
On the other hand, there are dogs who aren’t as likely to stick around in an emergency. Some panic and bolt. Others consider the unusual situation to be a great opportunity for some freedom and take advantage of it. There are dogs who become distracted by a squirrel or by a smell just begging to be investigated. From time to time, there are dogs who actively go to seek help.
I am convinced that most of the dogs in my life would stay with me if I fell or was injured in some way. I’ve also loved a dog who was fearful enough that I deep down felt it was 50-50 whether he would come through for me in a real disaster. Of course, developing a strong relationship with any dogs makes them more likely to act admirably in an unexpected situation, but some dogs are just more naturally inclined to do so.
Do you have dogs who have stayed with you in a crisis or dogs who have not? Of the dogs who have never (thankfully) been tested by such a situation, what’s your best guess about how they would behave?
News: Guest Posts
We need more research to really know so right now we should keep the door open
(This post is a response to Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience? by Stanley Coren, Ph.D., F.R.S.C.)
Dogs are amazing nonhuman animal beings (animals) and anyone who's known a dog knows this. Just today Dr. Stanley Coren published a very interesting essay called "Which Emotions Do Dogs Actually Experience?" and concluded, among other things:
"However, we know that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old. This means that a dog will have all of the basic emotions: joy, fear, anger, disgust and even love. However a dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame." (After an email exchange with Dr. Coren about my response to his essay, he modified his conclusion to read, "However based on current research it seems likely that your dog will not have those more complex emotions like guilt, pride and shame.")While this conclusion is extremely interesting, it remains a hypothesis in that the necessary research has not really been done. So, until the detailed research is conducted we don't really know "that the assortment of emotions available to the dog will not exceed that which is available to a human who is two to two-and-a-half years old."
We also don't know if dogs experience guilt, pride, and shame. However, because it's been claimed that other mammals with whom dogs share the same neural bases for emotions do experience guilt, pride, and shame and other complex emotions (see also and and), there's no reason why dogs cannot. And, there's solid biological/evolutionary reasons to assume dogs can and do. Recall Charles Darwin's ideas about evolutionary continuity in which the differences among species are seen to be variations in degree rather than kind - "If we have or experience something, 'they' (other animals) do too."
Do dogs feel guilt?
One more point needs to be made concerning doggy guilt. Consider the research conducted by Alexandra Horowitz, author of Inside of a Dog and Psychology Today writer. As I noted in a previous essay called "The Genius of Dogs and The Hidden Life of Wolves", Dr. Horowitz's research is often misinterpreted. For example, in their book titled The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think, Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods consider Dr. Horowitz's research on doggy guilt (pp. 183ff). They write that Horowitz "conducted an experiment to see whether dogs can feel guilty" but they misinterpreted just what Dr. Horowitz was actually trying to do. Her research did indeed show that people were not all that good at reading guilt in their dog, however her data do not show that dogs cannot feel guilt. I frequently hear people say that Dr. Horowitz's project showed dogs cannot feel guilt and this is not so (please see Dr. Horowitz's comment about this error).
Let's keep the door open about the emotional lives of dogs and other animals and also extend a hearty thanks to Dr. Coren for once again writing a very interesting and stimulating essay.
Note: One can also question the value of comparing young humans with other animals. I don't find these comparisons to be especially compelling and other researchers have agreed that they are fraught with difficulties as are many cross-species comparisons concerning the cognitive and emotional capacities of individuals of different species. In a previous essay I wrote, "Animals do what they need to do to be card-carrying members of their species and we need to remember that numerous nonhuman animals outperform us in many different ways." Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species or individual exceptionalism, a move that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Coming home to destruction
Leaving a dog alone and unconfined at home works out beautifully for millions of families. People leave to go to work, and return to find a dog who is pleased to see them and a house that is exactly as it was in the morning. However, the experience of coming home to a dog who is pleased to see them AND mass destruction is hardly unusual either.
Often this has happened unexpectedly since steps were taken to prevent such trouble. There are many dogs who struggle to handle the responsibility of freedom in the house and are usually confined, but that’s not always foolproof. Sometimes a dog figures out how to open the door to the laundry room. Other dogs jump a gate that was thought to be too tall. In other cases, there is confusion within the family, with each thinking someone else had put the dog in the proper place for the day. True Houdini dogs seem to be able to break out of crates or other means of confinement, no matter how secure they may seem.
Sometimes the mess that dogs make is a result of thinking that a puppy or adolescent dog has put destructive chewing behind them. Though they do quite well for several days or weeks, one day, they are back to their old habits. For some dogs, a thunderstorm or other anxiety-causing event can trigger bouts of chewing and mayhem. Dogs who are unable to tolerate time alone may cause destruction because they are literally in a panic about being separated from the family, and they are just not themselves in that emotional state. (Such dogs need help to overcome this issue and it’s best not to leave them alone until they are emotionally capable of handling being left alone.)
Sometimes the destruction occurs because something way too tempting has been left within reach. Even dogs who normally allow the house and everything in it to remain undisturbed will chew something amazing just because it’s there. I know of dogs who, understandably, have been unable to resist appetizing steak bones in the garbage, a leather belt and pair of shoes that are usually in the closet, wooden salad tongs that were left to dry by the sink but slipped off onto the floor, and a new couch cushion just begging to have the stuffing ripped out of it.
Over the years, most dog owners have come home to destruction of clothes, food, and furniture, or even a good old-fashioned trash party. What’s the worst mess you’ve ever come home to courtesy of your dog?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
More than just noise
A friend suggested that one of the reasons we love dogs so much is that they can’t talk back. But I wonder whether that’s true. Sure, a dog won’t tell you, “You really shouldn’t have that second cookie,” but does that mean dogs are not talking back?
Dogs are anything but mute, and while we usually focus on wagging tails and beguiling eyes, vocalizations—among them, barks and growls—provide us with another window into dogs’ everyday experiences.
Social species are known to be much noisier than animals who lead solitary lives. Snow leopards roam the mountains of central Asia in near silence, but groups of monkeys do a lot of highvolume chattering. So, given that dogs and their wild progenitor, the wolf, are über-social, it’s no surprise that both produce a wide range of vocalizations: they bark, whine, whimper, howl, huff, growl, yelp and yip (among other nuanced sounds). From the earliest moments of their lives, dogs and their canid relatives produce tonal yelps and whines, and atonal barks and grunts appear in the fi rst few weeks of life in conjunction with the onset of social behavior.
There’s a big difference between the bark of an adult dog and that of an adult wolf, however. Dogs seem to play every instrument in the orchestra, hitting the highs of the flute and the lows of the tuba, sometimes with the duration of a Wagnerian opera. Plus, there seems to be no context in which a dog won’t bark: They bark when alone and with other dogs. Some bark before, during and even after a ball is thrown. A car goes by or the doorbell rings and barking ensues. In contrast, wolves bark less frequently and in fewer contexts, primarily for warning or defense.
Meanings Behind the Message
That being said, research that has been conducted on the subject is incredibly insightful. Take growls, which, it has been shown, dogs use to accurately judge another dog’s size. How in the world do we know that? Tamás Faragó, PhD, and his colleagues at the Family Dog Project at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest (familydogproject.elte.hu) presented dogs with two images of the same dog: one was true to size and another was 30 percent larger or smaller. Dogs then listened to a pre-recorded growl, and most dogs looked at the image of the full-size dog rather than the altered image.
Growls appear to be meaningful in other ways as well. In another study, Faragó and his colleagues used some clever trickery to explore how dogs respond to growls recorded in different situations. In an apparently empty room, a dog was allowed to approach a bone. Unbeknownst to the dog, there was a speaker hidden behind the bone, and as the dog approached, the sound of a “play growl,” a “stranger-approaching” growl or a “food-guarding” growl was transmitted through it. Dogs were likely to take the bone when hearing the “stranger-approaching” or “play” growl, but the food-guarding “my bone” growl deterred them. Even though the foodguarding and stranger-approaching growls sound quite similar (at least, to our ears), they prompted different behavior.
Many studies investigating vocalizations are based on prerecorded samples, but it is important to remember that vocalizations and visual signals usually go hand-in-hand. In the strangerapproaching context, dogs growled with closed mouths, whereas in fooddefense situations, they showed their teeth and pulled back their lips.
While we tend to take notice when we hear a growl, we often dismiss barking as meaningless noise, as though it is simply an item on a dog’s daily checklist: “Take a walk, have breakfast, bark.” Before the turn of the century, that was the prevailing view among researchers and theorists. At most, barking was thought to result from social facilitation— one dog barking prompts other dogs to bark—or maybe attentionseeking, or even rivalry or defense.
Only recently have researchers begun to investigate whether barks produced in different contexts vary in their acoustic parameters (such as tone and pitch). Scientists theorized that if— like growls—barks displayed consistent differences, they might have a more specific communicative function, perhaps even be associated with a dog’s internal motivational or emotional state. For example, some barks might convey aggression while others might convey friendliness.
In one early study, Sophia Yin, DVM, MS, recorded a variety of breeds barking in response to different situations: a stranger ringing the doorbell (“disturbance barks”), separated from an owner (“isolation barks”) and play. Yin found that the barks did indeed have different acoustic properties. Disturbance barks were harsher and lower in pitch with little amplitude modulation, while isolation and play barks were pitched higher and had greater tonal and higher frequency and a wider range of amplitude modulation. More recent studies confirm that dog barks follow particular patterns. For example, a dog barking at a stranger sounds very different from a dog barking before going on a walk. But do these vocalizations carry meaning? They do for dogs. When dogs in one study listened to barks recorded in a new context or from a new dog, they gave more attention to the unfamiliar bark. This suggests that dogs can detect that some barks are different from others, though scientists are still exploring ways to determine how exactly they perceive and process that information. Humans, too, can decipher barks. Whether or not they’re experienced with dogs, people are quite good at classifying barks into their appropriate contexts and attributing them to perceived emotional states. After listening to randomly played recordings, people describe isolation barks as full of despair, while barks from a play session are said to be happy. Our ability to do this starts early; by age 10, children are able to assign different-sounding barks to the correct context. Today, we can distinguish the acoustic properties of certain barks so accurately that we’re able to program computers to categorize them (which confirms that computers will one day take over the earth; personally, I hope Ryan Gosling will be there to save us).
Recognizing the Patterns
A recent publication by Kathryn Lord, PhD, offers an additional take on why dogs bark. She and colleague Ray Coppinger, PhD, investigated the contexts in which other species use barklike sounds: “When other species emit their version of a bark, they are usually in some sort of conf licting situation. For example, an animal is at a nest or den and observes some sort of threat. Customarily, the animal would run, but because of its situation, it can’t, so it barks. We think [that] when dogs bark, they are making these sounds in association with an alert or an internal motivational state of conflict.”
In a sense, Lord and Coppinger argue that “conflicted” should be dogs’ middle name. They suggest that dogs bark in so many different situations because they often find themselves conflicted: they are in the house and want to go out, they are out and want to come in. And it may be that, through the process of domestication itself, dogs have become more prone to put themselves in these sorts of situations. In comparison with wolves, dogs have a substantially decreased f light distance; something can easily get too close before the dog feels conf licted about how to respond.
Udell suggests that barking doesn’t have to be whittled down to one simple explanation. “If you look at communication and vocalizations in a wide range of species, it usually isn’t about one thing. Chickadees have ‘alert’ calls, but they also have songs, and the songs themselves can mean different things in different contexts. I think the same could hold true for dogs.”
But genes aren’t everything. As Susan Friedman, PhD, a pioneer in the application of applied behavior analysis to captive and companion animals and a psychology professor at Utah State University, explains, “While Shih Tzus as a group tend to display less barking than Miniature Poodles, that doesn’t mean barking in Miniature Poodles is impervious to change. And I’ve certainly known individual Miniature Poodles who are quiet and individual Shih Tzus who are barky, both based on their current situations. The individual always bests any generalization.”
Dr. Yin’s study of dog barks concurs. Even within breeds, she found variations in who barked and when. Rudy and Siggy, 11-year-old German Shorthaired Pointers, both barked in the disturbance context, but when alone, Rudy did not bark and Siggy had lots to say.
The effects of the social environment on dog behavior can be important because sometimes, dogs just go with the flow. On The Bark’s Facebook page, Bev Morey of Kansas commented, “After attending day care each afternoon, my Weimaraner now barks at anything and everything. So annoying.”
“So annoying” is one of the challenges of barking. While all vocalizations, including barking, are generally seen as normal elements of dog behavior, barking is one of dogs’ less-appreciated attributes. According to Laura Monaco Torelli, CPDT-KA, KPA CTP, director of training at Animal Behavior Training Concepts in Chicago, “Barking can be especially challenging for those in urban settings, as they live in close quarters with neighbors.” Owners of barking dogs might receive dirty looks or formal complaints from neighbors, and enough complaints can lead to eviction.
Though dogs bark for any reason under the sun, barking is a construct of context, genes and environment, and so is flexible. For example, feral dogs are much less noisy than their counterparts who play with toys, sleep in beds and go to obedience class.
Friedman explains. “For dogs, barking is a functional behavior, meaning it is maintained, increased or decreased due to consequences. Once this is [understood], it opens the door to changing the duration, intensity and frequency of the behavior by changing the consequences.” In other words, dogs can learn to be quieter.
However, perfect quiet is probably unrealistic. Owners can’t always control the stimuli that prompt barking, especially if they’re not home 24/7. Moreover, barking that has been solidified and maintained over time through intermittent reinforcement has a lot of staying power. “It seems that owners unintentionally reinforce the barks produced when a dog is around food or toys, and these become the begging barks of that dog,” says Faragó.
Monaco Torelli agrees. “If a dog learns that the noise in the hallway goes away when he barks, barking becomes an effective behavior. Barking is followed by the consequence of the noise in the hallway stopping.”
Owners should focus not on eliminating barking altogether, but on reducing it to levels they find appropriate and livable. When she meets with clients to discuss their dogs’ barking issues, Monaco Torelli asks questions such as, “How many barks is okay? What’s excessive to you?” This, she says, gives the trainer a good starting point from which to develop a plan to teach the client how to reshape a dog’s barking behavior. Trainers and owners discuss acceptable barking, and then implement techniques to achieve desired levels in each context.
Friedman shares the way she manages her own dog’s barking: “We live in the country, and when we let the dogs out, they bark at the deer for a number of seconds. Then we say, ‘That’s enough, thank you,’ and they are quiet and we praise them.” She adds, “It’s a [mistake] to think that barking is the problem. The real problem is that dogs don’t stop barking when we ask.”
So-called “quick fixes” can make barking worse, particularly if the underlying reason for the behavior isn’t addressed. “Putting an anti-bark collar on a fearful dog is unlikely to decrease barking if the consequence [shock or spray] increases the dog’s fear. If the fear increases, barking could as well,” explains Marylandbased Mary Huntsberry, MA, ACAAB.
Strategies for Change
Barking can be managed and modified, so if you want to influence your dog’s vocal style, it helps to start early and be observant. Teaching dogs the boundaries of acceptable vocalizations from an early age will pay off for everyone; when dogs are young, barking might be cute, but as they age, the cute factor tends to wear off. If the behavior is already in place, there are ways to alter it, Huntsberry observes. “It helps to do a functional analysis. During an extensive interview, I identify what happens immediately before (antecedent) and after (consequence) the unwanted behavior so I can identify the trigger and what maintains it.”
Monaco Torelli focuses her attention on the dog-human relationship. “When owners are frustrated by their dog’s behavior, we show them some immediate training goals and success points so they see that their dog can do what they want them to be doing, instead of what they don’t want them to do. This helps them rebuild their bond with their dog.”
The takeaway message is that barking is a nuanced and flexible behavior, and relationships can grow by paying attention to what your dog’s vocalizations mean. And if you’re on a post-holiday diet and want to train your dog to bark incessantly whenever you make a move for another slice of cake, well, that’s just good teamwork.
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