Dog's Life: Lifestyle
What’s going on when a dog does this?
“His hackles went up. What does that mean?” It’s such a great question and one that I hear from clients regularly. When the hair on a dog’s back goes up (technically called piloerection), it’s usually a sign that the dog is aroused or excited in some way. It is an involuntary reaction, just like the goose bumps we humans get, so it’s important not to have any expectation of a dog being able to control it. While sometimes aggressive dogs do exhibit piloerection, it is not true that it’s necessarily a sign of aggression.
Data are limited on this phenomenon, but as an ethologist trained to observe animals and their behavior, I have noticed some things about it. Based on my experience with many dogs over the years, it seems that different patterns of piloerection are associated with different behaviors, probably because they are associated with different internal emotional states.
Some dogs exhibit a thin line (at most a few inches wide) of hair all along their back to the base of the tail. I associate this pattern of piloerection with a high level of confidence and in my experience, these dogs are more likely to go on offense and behave in an aggressive way than other dogs.
Another common pattern of piloerection is a broad patch of fur (up to 8 or so inches wide) across the shoulders, which does not run more than one-quarter or one-third of the way down the back. I associate this pattern of piloerection with low confidence and I often find that these dogs are somewhat fearful.
The most confusing pattern is when a dog exhibits a patch of hair that is raised at the shoulders and another raised patch at the base of the tail. The hair in between along the back is not raised. This pattern of piloerection often occurs in dogs who are in an ambivalent emotional state and feeling conflicted. Many of the dogs who show this pattern are somewhat unpredictable in their behavior and inclined to be more reactive than other dogs.
Of course, there are many exceptions, but these generalizations apply to the majority of dogs that I see. What have you observed about dogs and piloerection?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Dogs find their own entertainment
Facebook gave me a laugh earlier this week when a friend posted this:
“this really happened to me today...i had 15 minutes between meetings so i ran home to let the dogs out. pearl (the puppy) heard kids playing down the street, ran down to see them and then quickly ran through the open door of a house (of a woman who hates dogs), ran through her house, pushed open their bathroom door (where someone was "sitting") grabbed the loose end of the toilet paper roll, started running, got it wrapped around her head and body, a chase ensued with pearl, me, a string of kids and a grandma before finally getting the little stinker back home. i don't like it when my real life starts to look like a scene out of a bad disney movie. it's not good at all.”
As a bonus, I got an extra little giggle from a mutual friend who always has a great perspective on life. Her comment was, “Don't think of it as a bad Disney movie - Think of it as a great Charmin commercial!! Love it!!”
I always worry about dogs who escape and go on their own adventures because I’ve heard too many tales without happy endings, usually involving collisions with cars. However, knowing that Pearl was safe, it was easy to enjoy the ridiculous image created by this post. I feel sympathy for the person who was in the bathroom, for the non-dog-loving woman who owns the house and for my friend whose work break was less relaxing and more memorable than she planned.
It’s far from unusual for a dog’s gleeful actions to result in embarrassment, awkwardness or even strained relations with neighbors, but it usually makes for a story worth telling. Do you have a good one to share about your dog?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Canine thoughts at work
In a recent article entitled “Are You a Man or a Dog?” Susan Breslin puts forth a plan for understanding the other people at work. Her idea? Pretend they are all dogs. Actually, she gives a three-step plan: 1) Identify their breed, 2) Identify your breed, 3) Find your pack.
I have previously written that it helps me understand my sons when I think of one as a Greyhound and the other as a Viszla/Irish Setter cross, so it’s clear that I have no objection to this basic strategy. And yet, this article disappointed me because of its breed stereotyping and lack of understanding of basic dog behavior and training. As someone whose job involves educating people about dogs and dog behavior, this article demonstrates that considerable work remains to be done.
While there is value in noting the traits that people share with typical representatives of a breed of dogs, it has to be done with some accuracy to be useful. So, when Breslin describes German Shepherds as aggressive and implies that Poodles are hard to work with, especially in large numbers, I think she would benefit from better information. Most objectionable is her assertion that Cocker Spaniels thrive on positive reinforcement, implying that not all breeds do. This sort of thinking—that positive reinforcement is limited to certain species, breeds or individuals—is worrisome for those of us who advocate widespread use of humane, positive training methods.
On the bright side, this article’s appearance on Forbes.com is yet another reminder of how very much dogs are in the conversation about all aspects of our lives.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Talking Training with Victoria Stilwell
Q: We get along great with our neighbors; alas, our dog seems to despise their dog, and it’s mutual. Why don’t dogs like one another, and how do we teach them to get along?
A: People ask a lot from their dogs by expecting them to be social with every dog they meet. This can put a lot of pressure on a dog—especially one who finds it hard to cope in social situations. Humans are able to choose their friends and avoid people who make them uncomfortable, but when dogs aggress at other dogs, their people often punish them for “bad behavior” and unwittingly force them into situations that make them feel more insecure.
Disharmony between neighborhood dogs is relatively common. Dogs can be very protective of their territory, and anyone encroaching on it is a potential threat. Tension over territory could be a potential reason why your dog and your neighbor’s don’t get on. I advise you not to introduce the dogs on either’s home turf. All introductions should take place on neutral territory such as a park (but not a dog park), or a street well away from where you both live.
Before the introduction, make sure your dog has learned to focus on you and is good at following your direction. Focus cues such as “watch me” must be built up in a distraction-free environment before they can be effective outside, so prior training is essential. Once your dog is responding appropriately, take her to neutral territory and have your neighbors stand with their dog a good distance away—the distance at which both dogs can see one another without reacting negatively. Ask your dog to “sit” and “watch me,” and reward her each time she complies. When a dog is using her “thinking brain,” she is less likely to become emotional and feel the need to aggress.
If both dogs are calm, steadily move them closer to each other. If at any time either dog reacts, walk off in opposite directions, back to the point at which both dogs were comfortable. When the dogs are calmly standing within 10 feet of each other, start the “follow walk,” in which one dog follows the other (it is less confrontational for the more nervous dog to follow the non-biting end of the other). The next step is to walk them parallel with one another, making sure to maintain enough distance between them to avoid either of them reacting. If the parallel walk goes well, allow the dogs to greet face to face for a couple of seconds before you and your neighbor happily walk them off in opposite directions while praising them for their good behavior.
It might be possible to do all of this in one session, or it might take many weeks to get to the point where the dogs can greet calmly. Whatever the time frame, allow them time to feel comfortable. It is also important to realize that not allowing the dogs to greet can be frustrating to them, so if both look eager to make a connection, go directly to the quick greeting. If everything goes well, the greeting period can become longer until the dogs either want to play or go their own ways. If you are in an off-leash area and the dogs are calmly standing next to each other, remove the leashes.
Good walk and play experiences on neutral ground will bring them to the point where they can play with each other on home territory. Start the play outside before you bring them inside either home, and remove all highvalue resources (food and toys) to prevent potential fights. Dogs can also be highly protective of their people, especially inside their homes; in the event your presence causes a negative reaction, allow the dogs to interact in the yard; and if this is still too volatile a place, continue working in neutral spaces.
If both dogs continue to have problems even on neutral territory, it is time to either call in a professional or take the pressure off and realize that the dogs are not meant to be friends. If this is the case, then it is better for everyone if you visit with your neighbor on your own while your dog snoozes happily at home.
News: Guest Posts
Social dominance is real but has been widely misunderstood and misused
The concept of social dominance is not a myth. A myth is an invented story. The concept of dominance has been, and remains, a very important one that has been misunderstood and misused, often by those who haven't spent much time conducting detailed studies of other animals, including those living in the wild.
Dominance is a fact. Nonhuman (and human) animals dominate one another in a number of ways. Individuals may dominate or control (1) access to various resources including food, potential and actual mates, territory, resting and sleeping areas, and the location in a group that's most protected from predators; (2) the movements of others; or (3) the attention of others, an idea put forth by Michael Chance and Ray Larsen. Even if dominance interactions are rare, they do occur, and that is why it's important to log many hours observing known individuals. As one gets to know individuals in a group he or she also learns more and more about the subtle ways in which a wide variety of social messages are communicated, including those used in interactions in which one individual controls another.
Complicating the picture is the phenomenon of situational dominance. For example, a low ranking individual may be able to keep possession of food even when challenged by another individual who actively dominates him or her in other contexts. I've seen this in wild coyotes, dogs, other mammals, and various birds. In these cases possession is what counts. I've studied social, dare I say dominance relationships, in a wide variety of species, and any introductory textbook on animal behavior contains various definitions of dominance and many examples. Another complicating factor is that there's a lot of variation in the way in which dominance is expressed both within and between species.
What has happened over the past 30 or so years based on extensive comparative behavioral research is the discovery that dominance is not a simple or ubiquitous explanatory concept as some took it to be. For example, for many years it was assumed that dominant animals mated the most and controlled access to various resources. Now we know this isn't necessarily so in all species or even within different groups of the same species. Often, less dominant or subordinate animals are able to mate and can control others in different contexts.
So, is there much new under the umbrella of dominance? Yes and no. In 1981 renowned primatologist Irwin Bernstein published a most important essay on dominance in which he discussed all of the above and more. Bernstein and others since have convincingly argued that we need to be very cautious about throwing out the baby with the bathwater because the concept of dominance is useful despite newly discovered complexities and subtleties.
To be sure, ethologists have not called dominance a myth. Rather, they've noted that a univocal explanation of dominance, one relying on a single unambiguous meaning of what dominance is, is misleading and simplistic. An excellent discussion of dominance in various animals can be found here.
Dominance surely is a slippery concept with respect to how it's expressed and how individual variations in social dominance influence behavior. A narrow definition doesn't necessarily hold across species, within species, or across different contexts. Many discussions in which the broad concept of social dominance is criticized are very informative, but to claim that dominance is a myth flies in the face of what we know about the subtle, fleeting, and complex social relationships and on-going social dynamics of many group living species.
Note: Some of the critics of social dominance include those who study and/or train dogs and it was this essay that got me revisiting the notion of dominance. In this essay the author writes, "Dr. David Mech, the world's leading expert on wolves, says that in 13 years of studying the wolves on Isle Royale in Michigan he never [my emphasis] saw any displays of dominance." When I read this I was (and remain) incredulous. In the limited time I've watched wild wolves in Yellowstone National Park I saw dominance displays on a number of occasions and other researchers also report these sorts of interactions.
Some of the critic's concerns are legitimate because we need to be very careful about generalizing from the behavior of wild and captive wolves (from whom dogs emerged) to the behavior of dogs. It's also important to realize that the misuse of the concept of dominance that results, for example, in a person violently dominating a dog, is not a valid, respectful, or humane way to treat or to train our best friends.
Note 2: David Mech's essay can be found here. It's important to note that he does not reject the notion of dominance (nor does he reject it here). Indeed, he wrote, "Similarly, pups are subordinate to both parents and to older siblings, yet they are fed preferentially by the parents, and even by their older (dominant) siblings (Mech et al. 1999). On the other hand, parents both dominate older offspring and restrict their food intake when food is scarce, feeding pups instead. Thus, the most practical effect of social dominance is to allow the dominant individual the choice of to whom to allot food."
Clearly there's lots of confusion on this matter (as well as the use of the word "alpha") and there seem to be myths about what Mech actually thinks about these matters. He does argue, as do others, that the notion of social dominance is not as ubiquitous as some claim it to be, but doesn't reject it across the board.
Note 3: Another of David Mech's papers titled "Prolonged Intensive Dominance Behavior Between Gray Wolves, Canis lupus" that clearly shows he does not at all reject the notion of dominance can be found here (see also).
In response to my essay, David Mech wrote to me:
"I probably won't have time to read this right now, for I'm preparing for a trip out of the country early next week. However, a quick scan of the Kelley article reveals much misinformation attributed to me. This misinterpretation and total misinformation like Kelley's has plagued me for years now. I do not in any way reject the notion of dominance."
News: Guest Posts
Stray cats have turned a dog’s happy yard into a source of misery
It’s 1:30 a.m. and Daisy is pacing. Again.
She hears a cat somewhere—or at least she thinks she does—and is in a hurry to get outside and attack it. If we don’t let her out, she’ll pace and whine for an hour or more. If we do let her outside, we’ll be reinforcing her demanding, unnecessary behavior. It’s the middle of the night, and we’re stuck. All of us.
I was so happy for Daisy when we first moved from our small apartment to a house with a yard. As of a month or so ago, because of the cats, that honeymoon is over.
She’s escaped our backyard four times, all in the name of chasing cats. Half the yard is bordered by a six-foot wooden fence; the rest is a chain-link job we thought was too tall for her. How cute—that’s become her primary method of escape. (Though she somehow wiggled through a loose board in the wooden one, too.)
After the escapes began we started checking on her every few minutes while she was in the yard. That didn’t work. Our new policy is to never leave her outside without supervision. Someone either goes outside with her or sits in the house and watches from the windows. She’s so quick it’s unwise to do anything else while watching, so it’s usually a 20- to 30-minute staring session.
All of this is because of her anxiety about the cats. If she perceives a cat nearby, whether real or imagined, Daisy will do anything to get to it.
We knew there were stray cats in the neighborhood when we moved in. We’d seen them while looking at houses, and one of our new neighbors mentioned occasionally trapping them and taking them in to be spayed or neutered. It’s a dense residential area, complete with dumpsters and alleys—it makes sense that there would be alley cats.
What we didn’t anticipate was the cycle of anxiety they’d set spinning. We figured Daisy would have a ball keeping them out of the backyard. We didn’t think her natural prey drive would spiral off into seeing and hearing cats everywhere and at almost all hours.
Sometimes her desire to chase is legitimate. There really is a cat sitting complacently in the yard next door or two cats mating loudly on the front lawn at 4 in the morning. (Always a treat.) But one real event will set off 24 hours of high tension with near-constant pacing on wooden floors, plaintive whines and vigilant watch at the windows. Potato-chip bag in the street? Cat. People talking? Talking cats, obviously. Passing cars? Really big, fast cats.
A couple of things help: A good walk, as always, helps ease her mind and burn off excess energy. Keeping the blinds closed, while depressing for an at-home worker, keeps her from getting locked into staring out the window. We’re all doomed, however, if a cat decides to start yowling on the front lawn in the middle of the night. There will be little sleep for any of us after that.
Clearly, we need to consult with a behaviorist about Daisy—while this is inconvenient and annoying for us, for her, it’s truly distressing.
Have you ever dealt with a similar problem with your dog? Got any tips for discouraging stray cats?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Can cats and dogs get along
You’ve heard the heartwarming stories: Dog meets cat. Cat loves dog. They bond and are best buds forever.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Article in Time Magazine says no
Sometimes when you have a strong opinion about something and want to share your views, someone else expresses what you think so well that all you really want to say is, “Yeah! What she said!” I am currently having that experience. I just read Trisha McConnell’s blog responding to the new article in Time Magazine about the science of animal friendships, and I highly encourage you to take a look at her articulate reaction. (The original Time Magazine article is only available online to subscribers.)
In the article, writer Carl Zimmer makes some good points, but I believe he’s off the mark a bit on some others. On the plus side, he discusses research supporting the formation of friendship in a variety of species other than humans. On the downside, he asserts that scientists have only recently concluded that animals form friendships, which runs counter to the work of Barbara Smuts, Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall, to name a few of the people whose research provided substantial and well-accepted evidence of animal friendships decades ago.
Kudos to the author for pointing out that long term studies of animals are essential for understanding bonds between individuals and asserting that such studies are highly valuable. A thumbs up to Zimmer for understanding that all the anecdotes in the world can’t make up for the lack of research and hard data. It’s true that studies of friendship in the domestic dog are sorely lacking. However, I must insert a thumbs down here since a paucity of evidence because the phenomenon has not been investigated does not merit the article’s claim that most scientists think dogs “fall short of true friendship.”
I’m glad that Zimmer wrote this article so we can participate in the discussion about it. It’s a wake up call regarding the need for more research on social relationships in dogs AND the importance of scientists making themselves available and more easily accessible to people who write articles about science. (Zimmer has written on Facebook that he spoke to several scientists while researching this article, but he didn’t mention any whose work dealt with social relationships in dogs.)
I think there is ample reason to think that rigorous studies are likely to support the idea that dogs form true friendships, and I’d love to see good studies that address the question. What do you have to say about the topic of friendship in dogs?
News: Guest Posts
Tragedy should serve to educate about responsible dog ownership
You may have seen the feel-good footage of a fireman who pulled a dog out of icy waters on Tuesday, February 7. Or the viral video of the same dog biting a news anchor live on TV the very next day when he and his owner were reunited with the rescuer.
Viewers are shaking their heads and pointing their fingers. Some say the dog is to blame. After all, anchorwoman Kyle Dyer, of NBC’s KUSA Denver affiliate, was only leaning in to give Max the Dogo Argentino a little kiss. Others claim Dyer is at fault; she either missed or misinterpreted Max’s warning signals, which included lip licking, blinking, stiff body, turning his head away, whale eye and, finally, just before the bite, baring his teeth and growling.
I say owner Michael Robinson is to blame for allowing his dog to be in the stressful environs of a TV studio a mere 12 hours after Max’s traumatic ordeal and rescue. In his nearsighted quest for 15 minutes of fame, he has risked his dog’s life for a second time.
That’s right—a second time. (Read Denver-based animal behaviorist Kari Bastyr’s thought-provoking essay, “The Perfect Storm,” for more insight.) The initial risk occurred last Tuesday, when he allowed Max—who does not have a solid recall—to be off leash near an icy pond. True, who could predict that a coyote would’ve come along at that exact moment, and that Max would’ve chased him onto the ice, and they both would’ve broken through?
But that’s what training is for, to prepare one’s dog for the unpredictable to ensure his and the public’s safety. If Robinson’s tense leash corrections on Max during the live segment are any indication, the poor dog was ill-prepared in general, not just for the spotlight.
Dyer had emergency reconstructive surgery the same day she was bitten. Hopefully, she will make a full recovery and soon be able to return to work. As for Max, the three-year-old mastiff is being quarantined at a Denver animal shelter.
"Several people interacted with the dog [prior to the segment] and everything seemed fine,” said Patti Dennis, KUSA vice president of news, as quoted in a Yahoo! News article. “Then at the last moment, the dog had behavior that nobody predicted or understood. Clearly we learned something."
One can only hope. Or, if you’re a dog advocate like me, you can do something about it and educate others about reading and respecting dog body language. The majority of dog bites are preventable. Until dogs learn how to speak our language and verbally tell us when they’re feeling threatened, it is our responsibility to learn canine communication.
A good place to start is the ASPCA’s “Virtual Pet Behaviorist,” resource page with photo illustrations. I also like the book Canine Body Language: A Photographic Guide by Brenda Aloff, and the DVD The Language of Dogs: Understanding Canine Body Language and Other Communication Signals by Sarah Kalnajs. Both are available from Dogwise.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Adolescence is only a stage
The puppy was leaping all over the adult dog—batting the older dog’s ears, crawling across her neck, nudging her muzzle and generally acting like he had no idea that she might prefer to rest after their long play session. It’s the kind of scene I’d heard people describe countless times, but this client had video. As we watched, she said, “See, she was so sweet to him. He could do anything to her and she would just let him.”
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