Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Q. My six-month-old whippet mix is driving me crazy. From the sweet, quiet pup I adopted, he has turned into a hellion. He now barks at me — probably for attention — and at other dogs (especially at the dog park), and even nips me during play. Is he trying to dominate me?
A. Pushy puppies, or dogs who display behavior such as nipping at people or barking at other dogs, are often thought to be displaying dominance, a frequently misunderstood concept. While dominance does exist in a dog’s world, it is not as prevalent as people have been led to believe. Dogs who have not been taught manners or how to play appropriately will often adopt their own behavioral “style” to get attention, and this style is frequently rude and pushy.
At six months of age, your puppy has entered adolescence, a phase where boundaries are tested and the “crazy” brain takes over. Rather than responding confrontationally, as is easy to do when we don’t understand a behavior, find ways to help your pup make good choices instead of bad ones. At this stage, his puppy brain is like a sponge, absorbing situations and experiences. This makes it the perfect time for positive learning to take place.
One of the best ways to teach a pup how to greet and play is by taking him to a puppy socialization and manners class. Manners training will help you understand and communicate with your pup, while socialization with other dogs will teach him how to play appropriately. A good class will show you how to teach your puppy a reliable recall, which gives you the opportunity to redirect negative behavior onto a toy or treat. This tells him that leaving play and coming to you are good things. If he ignores you, quietly remove him from the room for a time out until he is calm enough to return to playtime. If he resumes his pushy behavior once he is back in the room, repeat the sequence until he learns that making the right choice means he gets to stay where the fun is.
The same method can be used to curb his nipping behavior. If he nips during play with you, either get up and leave the room for a minute or two or have someone else hold his leash while you play and remove him from the room if he nips you. Play and your attention are rewards for keeping his mouth to himself.
While some dogs thrive on being at the dog park, others find it overwhelming. Observe your pup’s body language to see if he is barking at other dogs because he is overexcited and wants their attention, or because he wants them to stay away from him. Stop taking him to the dog park until you understand and address this behavior in class. Practice makes perfect, and rehearsal of negative behavior makes that behavior harder to change.
Choose a puppy class that utilizes positive-reinforcement methods only. Dogs who are trained this way are not only more tolerant and self-controlled, they behave much more predictably.
Positive training techniques center on working the dog’s brain in a nonconfrontational way, rewarding positive behavior, establishing rituals and predictability, training incompatible behaviors that negate the bad behavior, and lessening a dog’s anger and frustration. Because behavior is influenced without force, the dog’s trust in his person is not violated the way it can be when harsher methods are used (which they unfortunately still are by trainers who espouse outdated dominance and pack-leader theory).
Positive, however, does not mean permissive, and discipline in the form of vocal interrupters, time outs or ignoring bad behavior is used to guide the dog into making the right choices rather than suppressing negative behavior through fear or force.
News: Guest Posts
How to intervene when a dog needs an advocate?
It was a glorious Sunday afternoon in the park. My husband and I were having a lovely time at our friends’ impromptu baby shower, a picnic with lots of snacks, sangria and lawn games. Everyone was basking in the sun and celebrating the happy occasion.
Everyone except Sparky.
Sparky the Lab mix was tied to a nearby tree. He had a long lead and plenty of water, but he was clearly agitated. He seemed concerned about his “territory” from the get-go, barking warnings at newcomers to the party and pacing almost constantly. At one point, I refilled his water dish and when I bent down to put it on the ground, Sparky jumped at my face, snapping his jaws and headbutting me. It hurt.
Nobody seemed to see it. Sparky’s owners were the couple being feted, and I didn’t want to spoil the fun. I didn’t say anything.
As the park began to fill with weekend revelers—and their dogs and toddling children—Sparky’s protectiveness increased. He was on guard full-time now. More than once, passersby smiled and came closer to Sparky, attracted by his classic Labrador handsomeness. As soon as they crossed the invisible border of Sparky’s kingdom, he charged, barking ferociously. Hands that reached out to pet were swiftly retracted, and smiles turned into scowls.
“Sparky!” one of his owners would shout distractedly. Then, “Oh, Sparky,” with a sigh.
It happened over and over again. I started to worry that Sparky would go after a kid. But I never said anything.
I felt conflicted. What would I have said? This was a special day for Sparky’s parents. Should I have pointed out their dog’s anxiousness, basically forcing them to cut the party short to take Sparky home? But what if the dog actually hurt someone? I’d feel far worse about that.
It’s a tricky situation. Much like parents and their children, pointing out a dog’s behavioral issues can offend the owner. When it’s a good friend or a family member who’s got “The Bad Dog,” the touchiness factor is far higher. You don’t want to come off as critical of your friend, or ruin a precious moment, but you also don’t want anyone to get hurt. And in Sparky’s case, he was uncomfortable, too.
I’m not always a shrinking violet when it comes to misbehaving pooches. My husband and I essentially got a woman kicked out of our apartment building for refusing to leash her dog. The dog was dog-aggressive, and the owner either didn’t know or care to control her animal. It even tried to push its way into our apartment once to get at our dog.
After woman-to-woman pleas, gentle reminders and, eventually, confrontations, we finally had the guts to file formal complaints. She was evicted—just because she couldn’t find the wherewithal to consistently leash her dog. Despite verbal reports from other neighbors, we were the only ones who approached the management with the problem in writing.
But I barely knew that woman beyond her first name. It’s far different when a person you care about has a dog that’s potentially harmful.
It’s not like I think I’m a behavior expert. I know that my dog is sometimes The Bad Dog. She’s aggressive toward other dogs and not great on the leash. We’re working on it, though, and we try to be realistic about her bad behavior and our limitations. I just don’t know what to do when it’s someone else’s dog who’s lashing out.
Have you ever had to confront a friend or family member about their dog’s behavior? How did you do it, and how did it go over?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
A personality test for your dog
Pet Connect offers an opportunity to learn more about your dog with a quiz that will reveal your dog’s personality. Personality types from the Canine Behavior Type Index have names such as Adventurer, Dreamer, Companion and Deputy. You can find out which category best matches your dog’s personality for free, but you have to pay a fee ($9.95 Australian) to receive the full 15-page report with details about traits, management, training and exercise information for your dog’s specific personality.
The quiz has 26 choices parts and each one asks you to choose between such phrases as:
My dog seems to be very diplomatic./My dog seems to be insensitive to others./My dog seems to shift between trying to please and being insensitive.
My dog is quite lazy./My dog is quite active.
My dog seems to be unassuming./My dog is a show off./ My dog seems to have a noble attitude.
Though I enjoyed the personality test, I didn’t take the results too seriously, or consider it overly scientific. This test claims to be the first ever, scientific dog personality test, but actually, there have been many scientific dog personality tests, some of which you can read about Psychology Professor Stanley Coren’s book, “Why Does My Dog Act That Way: A Complete Guide to Your Dog’s Personality.”
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Why do dogs claim this spot?
Dogs often rest under the table, and in many cases, we really don’t know why. Sure, we can think of many advantages to being under the table, but that doesn’t mean that we know which reason matters to any particular dog. Here are some possibilities, though:
They can see what’s going on, but are not likely to be stepped on by people, especially kids, running about the house.
It’s a cozy, protected space that many dogs find comforting.
It’s a great place to wait for food to fall from the sky.
It’s cooler and darker under the table than elsewhere in the house, and that’s better for napping.
The table is a place where the rest of the family spends a lot of time, so it smells familiar to dogs.
Some dogs choose this space only when they are afraid, such as during Fourth of July fireworks, or bad weather, including thunderstorms, but a lot of dogs rest there even when fear does not seem to have anything to do with it.
Do your dogs rest under the table? If so, why do you think they are doing it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Both Ends of the Leash
Here are some “rules” for you dog lovers out there (that is, if you’re given to following just anyone’s advice, whether or not they’re qualified to give it):
• Don’t pet your dog unless he works for it first.
But, never fear. Here’s what you can do:
Why, you might ask? Because each action is said to either cause your dog to think he’s dominant over you, or — in the case of the spitting and the wiping — tells your dog that you (and your baby) are dominant over her. Seriously. There are people out there telling us that these tips are critical to our own happiness as well as that of our dogs.
Oh my. Are we really still having this conversation? Are we really still talking about whether or not we need to “get dominance” over our dogs? Ten years ago, I wrote a column for Bark titled “Alpha Schmalpha,” in which I explained that dominance is one of the most misused and misunderstood words in the English language, at least in relation to dog training. As I and many other trainers and behaviorists repeat endlessly in books, blogs and seminars, dominance is simply a description of a relationship between two individuals who want the same thing.
One animal is said to be “dominant” over the other if he or she always has primary access to the pork chop that falls on the floor, or the favorite toy, or the cozy lap of a dozing guardian. Thus, it’s about the resolution of situations in which there might be competition for a resource. It is not about coming when called, or sitting when told to sit, or accepting unfamiliar dogs into the yard.
We’re not even sure how the concept relates to interactions between dogs, much less to interactions between two entirely different species like people and dogs. At present, thoughtful ethologists and behaviorists are re-evaluating the concepts of “dominance” and “social status” as they relate to the domestic dog. Although there are questions and quibbles about some of the finer points, experts almost universally agree that the concept of “getting dominance” over our dogs is, at best, not useful, and more often is harmful to our relationships with our best friends.
Yet, the idea that we must “dominate” our dogs lives on, zombie-like, in spite of years of research and experience that demonstrates “being dominant” over our dogs does not improve obedience. In fact, we know that using positive reinforcement results in the best behavior, the fewest behavioral problems and the richest relationships. Given that, the question we need to ask ourselves is this: why is the concept of achieving dominance over our dogs so seductive? Why is it so hard for people to give up?
This is most likely not a question with one answer. Given that humans are complex animals, I suspect there are many answers. And, of course, all we can do is speculate. Perhaps thinking about what might motivate us to hang onto this age-old concept can help us finally give it a respectful burial.
Surely one reason that so many people are enamored of the concept is that social status is highly relevant to our species. No matter how egalitarian we are, the fact is that in restaurants, some people get better tables than others, and most of us can’t walk into the governor’s office just to have a chat. We address physicians as “Dr. Johnson” but we call nurses “Anita” or “James”; we ask the judge for “permission to approach the bench”; and if we are lucky enough to be given an audience at Buckingham Palace, we still, still, bow or curtsy to the queen.
However, we don’t seem to make the mistake within our own species that we make with our dogs, confounding social status or control with teaching or conveying information. We may take away our children’s cell phones to make them spend more time studying algebra, but we don’t think that our ability to do so actually teaches them algebra. And yet, we tend to do that with our dogs all the time. Dogs are supposed to come when called, refrain from jumping up on company and walk at perfect heel just because we tell them to. Each of those actions requires learning; they are not natural to dogs and have to be taught, much the same as we had to be taught how to solve an equation like 2x – 3 = 5.
Perhaps another reason we are so susceptible to the fallacy of “getting dominance” over our dogs is that it makes dog training seem simple. One-step shopping — just get your dog to accept you as “alpha,” and voilà! Your dog will stop jumping up on visitors and will quietly walk through the neighborhood at your side, ignoring all the interesting stuff, like squirrels and information left by other dogs as they passed by.
No training required, either for your dog or, as importantly, for you. No need to learn timing and reinforcement schedules and how to know when your dog can learn and when she is too tired or distracted to understand what you are trying to teach her. In a world of instant rice and instant messaging and instant information on demand, no wonder a simple, black-and-white concept is attractive.
No matter that dominance has no relation to these issues, or that the way it is presented often equates more to bullying than to social status. Sure, it’s appealing to think that one overriding concept will take care of a host of behavioral issues. And hey, how hard could it be to talk your dog into believing that you are the alpha? You’re the one who can open the door, you’re the one who brings home the dog food and you’re the one with the opposable thumbs and the big brain. Of course, opening doors has nothing to do with sitting when the doorbell rings, but surely being “dominant” will mean that when you say “Sit!” she does. What else would she do?
Well, actually, there are many reasonable responses that a dog can make to a noise coming out of a person’s mouth, such as: have no idea what sit means because she hasn’t been taught to understand what she was supposed to do when she heard the word; or be unable, without training and practice, to control her emotions and sit down when she is overwhelmed with excitement.
Finally, and perhaps most compellingly, the concept of dominance feeds into our desire for control. Let’s face it: we all want control, at least over some things. Influencing the behavior of others is crucial to members of a social species, and is most likely one of the driving forces behind language, facial expressions of emotion and the importance that movie directors pay to the musical score. Heaven knows our desire for control is satisfied rarely enough: world leaders pay no attention to our solutions to one crisis after another — granted, we’ve only been talking to our friends about them, but then that’s my point. We are awash in events that we read about, hear about and post blogs about but have little or no control over. How satisfying then to say “Sit” and have our dogs hear us, do it and look up with a grin.
The idea that all we need is respect (cue Aretha here) and our dog will behave perfectly is understandably seductive. Too bad it’s incorrect. Far worse, it can lead, at best, to a dog who performs because he is intimidated, and at worst, to a dog who is abused. The fact is, dogs will respect us only if we are consistent, clear and fair. They will love and trust us only if we are loving and patient and are able to communicate to them in ways that they understand. That does not mean we need to “spoil” them and allow them to behave like rude and demanding house guests. However, we need to teach them how to behave in the society of another species, rather than expecting them to do what you say just because they “want to please us.” That foolish fantasy is as realistic as a Disney cartoon.
Ah, we all love a good fantasy, don’t we? However, separating fantasy from reality is an important part of being a grown-up. Let’s make it an important part of being a good guardian for our dogs.
I’d write more, but I have to go spit in my dog’s dinner.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dog and jewelry both okay
When diamonds went missing from a jewelry store in Georgia, X-rays solved the mystery of who took them. The store owner’s dog, Honey Bun, had eaten the valuable pair of earrings when he had left his desk to help a customer. Usually, Honey Bun’s job is to greet customers rather than to attend to merchandise.
How, you may ask, were the diamonds recovered? Nature was allowed to take its course, and the diamonds saw the light of day in due time. A friend of mine once had her engagement ring take the same sort of travels through her Bernese Mountain Dog puppy’s insides. (I had the “pleasure” of being with them when the ring reappeared.) Has this ever happened to any of your jewelry?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Image moves many people
Navy SEAL Jon Tumlinson died in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011. After leading the family into the gym where the funeral was held, his dog Hawkeye stayed by the coffin. Jon’s cousin, Lisa Pembleton, took a photograph of Hawkeye lying by Tumlinson’s coffin, and this stirring image has attracted attention worldwide.
Among the many people moved by this photograph was Jon Lazar, who played football for the Iowa Hawkeyes in the 1970s. Lazar has suggested to the Iowa football team that Hawkeye lead the team onto the field at a game this season as a way to honor Tumlinson, who is a native of Iowa. Lazar envisions the announcer telling the story about this dog’s actions at the funeral, which he thinks would bring the crowd to tears. (I think the idea is beautiful, but I am in favor of carrying it out only if Hawkeye would not be stressed by being in that situation. Some dogs can handle such crowds and noise, but many can’t.)
Though Hawkeye no doubt misses his lost friend, he does have a loving home. Tumlinson’s friend Scott Nichols is Hawkeye’s new guardian.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Is it a case of the Clever Hans Effect?
The news is full of stories about dogs with incredible abilities. As a dog lover, I adore hearing about amazing canine skills. As a scientist, I am often skeptical and wonder if the dog in question is really capable of doing what has been claimed. The story of Beau is one such case in which I have been made to wonder.
According to his guardian David Madsen, and to many witnesses, Beau can do math. For example, if Madsen tells Beau that there were six dogs at the park but three of them left, and then asks his dog how many dogs are left, Beau answers, “woof, woof, woof.” He will answer with five barks if asked what two plus three equals.
Madsen says Beau is correct about 85 percent of the time and that he has never had such a smart dog. To prove that he was not signaling the dog, Madsen has allowed others to test Beau when he (Madsen) was absent. Beau’s success when Madsen is not there proves that Madsen is not pulling a fast one on the rest of us, but it does not speak to the possibility that Beau’s skills are the result of the “Clever Hans Effect.”
Hans was a horse who lived in the late 1800s and early 1900s. He was owned by Wilhelm von Osten, who claimed to have taught him many skills, including arithmetic. Hans responded to questions, both oral and written, by tapping his foot. Many people observed Hans perform with von Osten at various shows throughout Germany.
In 1904, a panel of 13 people tested Hans to determine whether the horse actually knew the answers to the questions or if von Osten was tricking them all by secretly signaling his horse. They concluded that von Osten was not committing fraud and that the horse did indeed know the answers to the questions.
In 1907, psychologist Oskar Pfungst evaluated Clever Hans and shed new light on what the horse was able to do. In a series of tests, Pfungst investigated the horse’s success at answering questions under a variety of circumstances. He sometimes kept the horse away from spectators to make sure that the horse was not using any cues from them. He had people other than von Osten question Hans at times. He used blinders so that the horse could not always see the person asking the questions. He varied the distance between the questioner and Hans. Finally, in some cases, he used questioners who did not know the answer.
Pfungst noted that Hans got the answer to questions right even when von Osten was not the person asking the questions, which convinced him that Hans’ performance was not a fraud. He also observed that Hans answered correctly only when he could see the questioner and when the questioner knew the answer. For example, when von Osten knew the correct answer, Hans was correct almost 90 percent of the time, but when von Osten did not know the answer, the horse’s responses were correct only about 6 percent of the time. Hans’ performance suffered to a lesser degree if the questioner was far away from him.
What Pfungst noticed after observing the behavior of questioners was that as the horse tapped his leg, the person would change his expression and posture subtly as the horse approached the correct answer. He observed that when the horse had tapped the right amount of times for a correct answer, the person released that tension. That release in tension was the cue that the horse was using to know when to stop tapping.
Even being aware of this tendency to cue the horse, questioners, including Pfungst, could not stop their faces and bodies from giving information to the horse, as these cues are largely involuntary. Questioners were entirely unaware that they were communicating with the horse in this way. Pfungst showed that while Hans did not know the answers, von Osten was not a fraud. (Von Osten never accepted that Clever Hans was cuing off of people rather than actually solving the problems and continued to show his horse to appreciative crowds throughout Germany.)
The tendency of an observer to influence the behavior of a subject being studied with subtle and unintentional cues is called the “Clever Hans Effect.” Most experiments in psychology are now carefully designed to avoid it.
Hans may not have had the grasp of mathematics that von Osten claimed, but there is no doubt that this horse was a brilliant observer. His ability to cue off subtle cues in people’s posture and facial expressions was remarkable, and as such, this famous and talented horse certainly earned his nickname “Clever Hans.”
It would be interesting to test Beau, the dog who has so recently gained fame for his performances. Beau clearly possesses an extraordinary ability, but I want to know exactly what it is. Is it a great mathematical talent or a highly developed aptitude for observing and responding to people’s subtle, unintentional facial expressions and body language?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Some dogs don’t have it
Last fall, we were dog sitting for a delightful dog called Marley. His breed is best described as “Hmm, hard to say. I’d guess he has some hound in him, but after that I’m mystified.” (Check out the blog Canardly Marley to see what people have guessed about his breed.) Anyway, while spending a lovely four days with Marley, I learned a lot about him. It’s always a process getting to know a new dog, and most things about dogs don’t surprise me.
Marley has one highly unexpected trait. He is not the slightest bit sensitive to sudden loud sounds. He was so unresponsive to loud sounds that I would be worried about his hearing except that he comes running to the kitchen at even the quietest hint of the crinkling of a bag of treats. In a house with two young children, there is ample opportunity to verify that loud sounds don’t upset him, though it was something I did that really showed that loud noises don’t matter to Marley.
Our smoke alarm went off one day. In our house, that usually means that I am cooking pancakes. However, on this particular day, the smoke came from our woodstove as we first lit the evening’s fire and failed to get a good draft up our chimney. As the obnoxious but potentially life-saving beeping of our smoke alarm began, Marley looked up, cocked his head, and then went back to his Kong, completely unconcerned with the noise. Meanwhile, the rest of us were running around opening windows, fanning the smoke alarm with a cookie sheet, and grabbing a chair so that we could reach up to make it stop alerting us to the smoke. I make pancakes often, so our system for dealing with the smoke alarm is a well-oiled one.
On another occasion, Marley was playing with a balloon leftover from my son’s birthday party the day before. (By the way, I don’t advocate this as a toy for dogs because many dogs do get scared when they pop and also because dogs who habitually ingest things are too likely to choke if they take pieces of balloon into their mouths.) The balloon popped, and as you can see in the video below, Marley’s reaction was minimal in the extreme.
It’s quite delightful to live with a dog who is not bothered by loud noises, as anyone who has ever had a dog who panics in similar situations knows. Marley is not reactive to any loud noises, including power saws, as you can observe in this video:
Care to share any tales of dogs don’t care at all about loud noises, or about dogs who get alarmed in response to the sound of the proverbial pin dropping?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
They’ll jump in any puddle
While dog sitting for the adorable Marley, I learned that I share an unexpected trait with him: Marley loves water. I found this endearing and it made me feel close to him because I’m the same way. I grew up in LA within sight of the ocean. (If we leaned a certain way in our driveway and the neighbor’s Magnolia tree blew just right, we could see the ocean. We enjoyed joking that our house had an ocean view.) I've always loved the beach, tidepooling, scuba diving, windsurfing, the pool, lakes, streams, ponds and any other type of water. I even love to splash on puddles in the rain when no other water option is available to me.
It seems Marley is the same way. He’ll jump into any puddle. We took him into the backyard, and after surveying his temporary playground, he headed right for a two-person sled that had fallen from our shed and filled with rainwater in the previous night’s storms. He stood there in the chilly water looking very pleased. I knew at once we were kindred spirits.
On subsequent walks, we both enjoyed sloshing through the water in the gutter and stomping in the few puddles that remained. I suspect that Marley, like me, would gravitate towards any body of water no matter the size or the temperature. While I find this charming, I could also imagine it to be inconvenient at times.
Does anyone else have any tales to tell of a dog who seems drawn to water of all kinds, whether it’s the neighbor’s pool, the sprinkler in the garden, or even an upturned trash bin lid?
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