Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
A look at an innovative dog training program at University of Pennsylvania
A unique program at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine—the Penn Vet Working Dog Center—not only trains detection dogs from puppyhood, but also, studies every aspect of their development in order to determine how to identify and train the finest detection dogs possible, dogs whose work is critical when natural and human-caused disasters hit. The center officially opened on September 11, 2012, at a former DuPont facility just south of the main campus. All of the puppies are named after dogs who served at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“We want to focus on what the nose can do,” says the center’s founder and director, Cynthia Otto, associate professor of critical care at Penn’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Otto, who had been providing medical care to detection dogs for FEMA since 1994, joined a contingent of first-responders from Pennsylvania at Ground Zero in September 2001. Initially, the dogs were deployed to search for survivors, but ended up locating the remains of victims.
After the disaster, Otto and some of her colleagues in the working-dog world took a serious look at the factors that come into play in the best detection dogs. Was it genetics? Or could a dog’s natural talents be optimized? Was it possible to identify successful detection dog candidates from shelters or rescues? If so, how? Otto, a scientist, began planning a program that would provide answers.
Otto decided to break with the practice of most detection-dog programs—including those of the military and many law enforcement agencies—which wait until dogs are a year old before beginning their detection training. Instead, she wanted to give puppies an overall “liberal arts” experience that included obedience, agility, searching, direction and control, drive building, impulse control, socialization, play, fitness, and husbandry. Then, she would study their development during that crucial first year, gather evidence of what worked and what didn’t, and use that information to guide the development (and identification) of even better detection dogs.
Another unusual feature of the center is that, rather than being kenneled, the dogs live in foster homes. Such a system requires a great deal of organization; after several years of fund-raising and searching for a location, Otto hired three full-time employees to manage operations, direct the dogs’ training and coordinate the many volunteers who would be required. Then, she and her staff set about finding puppies whose pedigrees indicated that they had the drive and temperament to become exemplary detection dogs.
Ronnie, a black sable German Shepherd, is one of the dogs who spent his first year at the new Penn Vet Working Dog Center. As a puppy, he was fostered by Cathy Von Elm and lived with her and Auggie, Von Elm’s Cardigan Welsh Corgi, in their Center City Philadelphia home. Evenings and weekends were spent doing typical puppy things: playing with Auggie, tossing giant fleece bones in the air, filching ice from Von Elm’s glass, going to the country on weekends. Every weekday morning, however, on her way to work, Von Elm dropped Ronnie off at “school”—the Penn Vet center; in the evening, on her way home, she picked him up.
Ronnie came from breeder Julie Stade, whom Otto had met in 2012 at a national breeders’ conference, where Otto was giving a seminar. Stade, who’s based in Kansas and is known for her work with Doberman Pinschers, had recently made a foray into breeding German Shepherds and was awaiting her first litter. The parents came from impressive lines of Czech dogs, and Stade was interested in donating one of the puppies to the center.
Her timing was excellent: Otto was looking for just the right German Shepherd to add to her class of puppies. She wanted a namesake for another Ronnie—a Czech German Shepherd whose handler, David Lee, had been a longtime detection-work colleague before his retirement from the Philadelphia police force. (Lee had introduced Otto to Annemarie DeAngelo, a retired New Jersey State Trooper and founder of their canine program, who became the center’s director of training.)
In November 2012, Stade’s dog Burana whelped; Ronnie was the fifth of nine males. As she does with every new litter, Stade conducted what she calls “the matching game”: figuring out which dog is best suited for a prospective owner. “It’s my favorite part of the process,” she says. Stade observes the puppies’ behavior from birth and presents them with challenges, such as a variety of loud noises, to see how they respond—who gives up, who perseveres, who looks to a human to solve the problem, who whines.
After she’d narrowed down the choice to three dogs, Stade and her husband took Burana and the puppies to a park that was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from their farm, an adventure they hoped would help her make the final decision. “I had the brilliant idea of putting them in the back of a horse trailer,” she says ruefully.
Stade rode in the back with the dogs and all of their equipment, but she quickly discovered that without a horse’s weight, the trailer and everything inside bounced. “It was a far more extreme test than I ever would have done intentionally. I never want to put puppies in a situation where they question or doubt themselves.”
Ronnie, still unnamed, was identified only by his yellow collar. While his red-collared and blue-collared brothers reacted to the sounds and movement by becoming angry or anxious, Ronnie took in his surroundings and then promptly curled up and drifted off to sleep. Ronnie wasn’t just an intrepid traveler—he seemed to be unflappable.
In late January 2013, the time came for Ronnie to leave Stade’s farm for his life in Philadelphia. By then, however, the cold weather made it risky to ship him in a plane’s cargo hold. The center needed a volunteer to carry Ronnie on the flight. But there was another complication: Stade likes to keep her puppies well fed just before placement so they have some extra padding to help them adjust to the stress of their new surroundings.
“Ronnie was really fat,” she confesses. In fact, he was eight weeks old and weighed 29 pounds. Would he even fit under the seat of a plane? There was only one solution. David Lee, now a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security, was unlikely to be challenged if there were difficulties during the flight. He volunteered to fly to Kansas and bring Ronnie to Philadelphia.
Lee recalled seeing the Buddha-shaped Ronnie for the first time: “He was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed … just a ball of fire.” While playing tug with Ronnie, Lee instantly fell for his charms, but wondered what he’d be like on the plane. Lee had yet to discover that Ronnie didn’t just resemble Buddha—he possessed his enlightened detachment, too. On the flight, Ronnie didn’t flinch, whine or bark. He just sat on Lee’s lap. When Lee put Ronnie on the adjacent seat, he looked around, lay down and slept.
After arriving in Philadelphia, Lee was able to spend some time with Ronnie. He took him everywhere—to a warehouse, to the beach, down stairs. “Nothing fazed him,” Lee remembers. “He was a great dog even then.”
Trained for Excellence
School is a full-time affair at the Working Dog Center. After being dropped off each weekday morning before 9 am, the puppies spend the day at the center until their foster families pick them up sometime between 5 and 7 pm. The dogs are trained on-site, and their daily training regimens are tracked on a master board. All areas must be covered in a predetermined rotation, but obedience training takes place every day, if only while the dogs are being taken outdoors.
In addition to several indoor training areas, the center has a dedicated outdoor agility course and a rubble pile. They use a nearby vacant warehouse for search training. Regular field trips expose the dogs to as many different environments as possible. Destinations include local warehouses, airport terminals, the Philadelphia subways and the rubble pile, which is in New Jersey.
Dogs are grouped according to age so those with a similar skill level can go through a particular training scenario together, but they’re never held back because of their age. Each dog has to master basic scenarios before moving on to those that are more complex. Depending on how many staff members are available, the dogs go through two or three scenarios per day.
Search training, part of which involves finding a volunteer in an empty barrel on the agility course, is probably the most fun to watch—it’s like a really elaborate game of hide-and-seek. Or, one of the puppies might be let loose inside the empty warehouse to find a tug toy. The reward in either case is a well-earned game of tug and a wagging tail. “It’s a game, making it fun for them,” says Training Director DeAngelo.
Regardless of the setup, logistics matter. The dogs need to be transported to training destinations in crates, but the center’s cargo van cannot carry them all, so staff vehicles usually join the caravan. Each puppy also needs his or her own handler during training. Many of the handlers are volunteers or interns, and every attempt is made to pair a dog with the same handler as often as possible. In addition to the director of training, the center has two full-time and three part-time trainers. The part-time trainers have dedicated areas of expertise: agility, obedience and reactivity. When they’re not training, the dogs rest in their crates or are taken for walks, often to Penn’s main campus, where they play and socialize with students.
Otto estimates the costs of raising and training each dog to be $36,000. Penn’s vet school provides their health care, and various companies donate food and other supplies (foster families incur no expenses). In Ronnie’s case, the Wawa convenience store chain made a donation to the center to support his care. Such contributions are crucial, as the center depends entirely on donations for its operating budget.
Perhaps the most challenging fields for a detection dog are law enforcement and search and rescue (SAR). A major difference is that there are periods of inactivity in SAR work, but law-enforcement dogs work almost daily. “Ronnie can do anything,” declares Otto, and that seems to be the consensus of opinion among those who’ve come in contact with him. “He’s an awesome work dog,” says DeAngelo. David Lee goes further: “I’d love to be his handler. He’s the most laid-back dog I have ever worked with. The only thing that I would fear is if he did something that bored him. As long as it’s fun, that dog will work for days. He’s just that good.”
Initially, Otto was hesitant about placing the center’s dogs in law enforcement because that would require training them in bite work, a key component of criminal apprehension. Introducing an aggressive behavior has to be done carefully to avoid having it affect the dog’s personality. Nevertheless, when the police department of Philadelphia’s mass transit authority, known as SEPTA, announced that it was expanding its canine unit, Otto carefully considered the opportunity.
Ronnie had the chance to prove himself at SEPTA’s 2013 Iron Dog Challenge, an annual fundraiser in which teams of working dogs and their handlers compete in a specially designed course of more than 25 challenges, which include having the dog jump through a window, demonstrate nonreactivity to a gun shot, be carried uphill and placed over a barrier, complete a low crawl, and criminal apprehension. For Ronnie to compete, he had to be trained to bite on command.
Fortunately, one of the center’s volunteers is Bob Dougherty, a certified law enforcement canine trainer who is also a member of the Cheltenham, Penn., police K9 unit. Dougherty worked with Ronnie over several months of accelerated training that included more directed searching and tracking and the subtle work of teaching the bite-on-command behavior.
According to Dougherty, the key is to manage stress so that the dog never feels a pressure to perform, and training remains a game. Dougherty’s goal is to find a balance between achieving results from the dog and maintaining the dog’s happiness, so that the next time, the dog is even more eager to practice biting. “Ronnie is such an easy dog to work with,” says Dougherty. “All the foundation work was done so well. It wasn’t difficult at all.”
Although Ronnie didn’t place at the Iron Dog competition, he did well enough against the more than two dozen teams of certified working dogs and handlers that SEPTA officials took notice. Since 2005, SEPTA had been rescuing dogs from shelters and training them to be canine officers. In January 2014, Ronnie and one of his classmates became the first dogs SEPTA purchased. With the help of a grant from the Department of Homeland Security, the group paid $8,000 for him.
Ronnie now lives with his handler, Officer Javier Class. Class is new to the canine unit, but has been around dogs all his life and always knew he wanted a canine partner. Nevertheless, when he met Ronnie, he was taken aback by the Shepherd’s size. Ronnie weighs100 pounds, and Class says it occurred to him that he might not be able to handle the dog. Class’s moment of doubt quickly disappeared as he and Ronnie bonded.
The two fulfill the principle of opposites attracting: whereas Class has plenty of patience, Ronnie is so eager to work that SEPTA’s head trainer, Officer Dave Parke, has instituted what he calls the “30-second rule”: he has to explain every new concept in 30 seconds so that Ronnie can get to work. Otherwise, the dog barks impatiently. When Ronnie is home with Class, his wife and two children, however, he’s a different dog. Class attributes this to the home environment that Von Elm and Auggie gave Ronnie in his first year.
Ronnie will almost certainly spend the rest of his life with Class and his family, even after he grows too old for active duty (something that’s difficult to imagine today). Barring injury or illness, Ronnie will work until he’s nine or 10, which is about the point at which dogs begin to lose their stamina for the rigors of scent work. For now, Ronnie’s most definitely on the job, and when he’s not, he spends a lot of time with his new best friend, Class’s six-year-old daughter. Their favorite game? Hide-and-seek, of course.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Separation anxiety is a two-way street.
Patricia McConnell had me at “separation anxiety.” But not in the way you’d normally think.
“I do indeed suffer from separation anxiety when I leave my dogs,” the renowned animal behaviorist and author said in her 2014 APDT conference keynote presentation, “People, Dogs and Psychological Trauma.” “I don’t know about you, but I’m already starting to stress lick. What makes it okay is that I’ve come to talk with a group of people who are as stupid in love with their dogs as I am. So I’m in good company, and that helps a tremendous amount.”
My reaction? I’m not alone!
It turns out that separation anxiety in pet owners—which ranges from a reluctance to leave a companion animal for even a few minutes to a complete inability to travel—is a lot more common than I realized.
“It’s so individual,” says Faith Maloney, co-founder of Best Friends Animal Society, who, along with psychologist Linda Harper, PhD, runs the annual Giving Heart Retreat, a three-day workshop that helps people with problems such as this. “Every single situation that I’ve come across is unique to that person or that family,” she says. (Learn more about the retreat at bestfriends.org/What-we-do/Events/Workshops.)
One scenario does pop up a lot, though, she says. Something bad happens while the owner is away—the dog becomes sick at a boarding kennel, for example, or the pet sitter forgets to show up. “Then, based on some of these traumatic experiences, people say, ‘I can never leave again.’”
For others, the mere fact that their dog had a rough past before they adopted him can keep them tethered.
“I’ve got rescues,” says Sarah Bartley of Luling, Texas, who currently shares her home with a 14-year-old Pit Bull/Greyhound mix, an 8-year-old Shepherd/Border Collie mix, two previously neglected horses and, yes, a rescued bearded dragon.
“I gave my dogs my word when I took them on that they would have the best life possible,” she says. “They’ve come to love me, so I don’t want to go out without them.”
I made a similar promise to my Beagle, Emma, who was a caged breeder before she came to live with us. She crawled into my lap the moment I met her at the North Shore Animal League in New York, and my lap remains Emma’s safe place when she’s scared or insecure.
Frankly, I love that Emma wants to press into me every chance she gets, and comes straight to me when she needs support. But when I comfort her, am I making it harder for her stand on her own two … er … four feet?
“You can’t change what happened to [your dog]. You cannot make up for that,” McConnell says in a phone interview following the conference. “But you can do everything [possible] to help your dog be a healthy, happy and stable individual. Dogs who have been really damaged tend to be brittle. But we work toward creating individuals who are more flexible, who can bend rather than crack,” she says.
Understanding that the best thing my husband, Tom, and I can do for Emma is to help her develop the confidence and comfort level to be alone helped us “cut the cord,” if you will.
“When you think about what you’re really doing, to be effective as a pet owner,” says Pamela Uncles, MEd, CDBC, a Northern Virginia-based animal behavior consultant, “giving dogs the skills to be independent is one of the best gifts.”
It’s helpful for pet owners to understand that as soon as they bring a dog into their home, they need to start preparing the pup (and themselves) for time apart.
Of course, even if the dogs can handle our departures, that doesn’t guarantee it will be easy for us to say farewell.
During a four-day trip to Florida last year, Pamela Rachil, owner of Woofy University training, daycare and boarding in Rochester, N.Y., boarded her two Pomeranians with a woman who cares for dogs in her home. “The boys had a great time, but I was miserable,” she says. “I was lying by the pool thinking, Oh God, I wish I could be walking the dogs on the beach. I missed them so much.”
McConnell doesn’t travel as much as she used to, she says, and missing her dogs is a factor in that decision. “I know when I come home from being gone, the way they greet me, they’re clearly over-the-moon happy to see me, but I don’t have dogs with separation anxiety,” she says. “They’re fine. I think it’s more about me.”
Some psychologists, such as Chicago-based Linda Harper, who specialize in helping people deal with the highs and lows of caring for animals.
“It is in the animal advocate’s nature to experience intense feelings for animals,” Harper writes in her book, The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals (Cap Publishing, 2014), on which Maloney collaborated. “We feel what we think they feel. It’s not ‘just an animal.’ We read pain in their eyes, we interpret their whines and barks and meows. We feel their excitement and we imagine their disappointment.”
Sarah Bartley—rescuer of two dogs, two horses and one bearded dragon—does, indeed, feel such intense emotions. She recognized that she was giving all that she had to her animals and not taking enough for herself.
In eight years, Bartley had only gone home in England once, and that was a short out-and-back for a death in the family. She even reduced her hours working at a skydiving business from full-time to part-time so she didn’t have to leave the dogs alone so long.
Okay. You’re getting kind of crazy, Bartley recalls saying to herself last year. You have to let go a little bit. So she made arrangements for someone to care for her animals and headed out to Kanab, Utah, where she and about a dozen others attended the three-day Giving Heart Retreat.
Most people attend the retreat to deal with burnout and grief, Maloney says. For the obvious reason, people with anxiety about leaving their animals don’t often make it.
That is partly what motivated her and Harper to create The Power of Joy in Giving to Animals. “It’s something we did specifically to help all the people who, because of the nature of the condition, are not going to leave home to get the help they need,” says Maloney. “This is a way we hope we’re reaching those people.”
The good news is that the mere act of traveling to the retreat could, in some cases, give people the nudge they need to be able to go away again.
“A good first step is to travel to a dog behavior or training seminar,” McConnell says. Concerned owners can justify leaving the pup at home because they’re going to learn something that will benefit him. After returning home to a happy and healthy dog (assuming all goes well), they just might feel confident enough to try traveling again.
But for some—even when they know that their dogs can handle their absences and will receive great care while they’re gone—parting can still be such sweet sorrow. What does McConnell do during the really rough times? She turns to good ol’ classical conditioning.
“I eat chocolate,” McConnell says. “I literally give myself chocolate. Never, never, ever, ever dismiss the power of chocolate.”
Experts give their views
I listened in on a webinar today held by the good people of the Animal Behavior Associates—it was their June CAAB (Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists) Chat, the general topic was Pet Behavior Wellness. Similar to a veterinarian wellness exam, but with the main focus on a dog’s behavior. Participants were Suzanne Hetts, PhD, Dan Estep, PhD and guest “chatter” Nancy Williams, MA, RVT, ACAAB. Questions that they addressed included:
- What is behavioral wellness and why should we be interested in it?
- What does it mean to have a behaviorally healthy pet and how do you get one?
- How do behaviorally healthy pets act? What are the criteria for behavioral health?
- Is behavior wellness simply the absence of behavioral problems or something more?
- Does simply meeting an animal’s behavioral and physical needs put it in good behavioral health or is good behavioral health something more?
As professional behaviorists they all were frustrated that oftentimes clients came to them for behavioral consultation as the “last resort” instead of being proactive about their dog’s behavioral health. Being proactive about this can reap benefits similar to preventive medicine. They discussed the characteristics of behaviorally sound and healthy dogs, and referenced a test you can take, see how your dog’s behavioral health measures up.
Among the list of behavioral needs that should be provided to our dogs besides the basic ones of food, care and shelter, are providing a dog with the “ability to control some aspects of the environment, opportunities for mental stimulation, and for pleasant social contact.”
When the discussion turned to how to fulfill those particular needs, much to my surprise, they brought up the controversial topic of retractable leashes. None of these veteran trainers had started out as fans of those devices because so few people seem to employ them properly, but all three are now advocates for their wise and limited use, again, something that surprised me. But that turn in the discussion definitely sparked my interest to learn more. They talked about how all dogs aren’t good candidates for dog parks or doggie day care, but the retractable leash was offered as an alternative to giving a dog both the mental stimulation and some control over their environment. As we know, dogs prefer to walk ahead of us, something that is really impossible at the end of a standard six-foot leash and the resulting pulling on the shorter leash can make a pleasant outing into an uncomfortable walk for those on both ends of the leash. These experts spelled out the characteristics of beneficial leash walks which can be obtained by use of retractable leashes: they "allow for ample sniffing, physical exercise, ability to control their own experience, and lack of restraint and pulling against something." The three of them agreed that using retractable leashes does not mean that a dog will learn to pull harder on a standard leash, or that a dog will think she is in charge because she is able to walk ahead of you. Dogs basically like to forge ahead of us, playing “scout” perhaps, and those who can do so with the flexibility provided by a retractable leash, usually, according to these trainers, do not venture that far ahead or pull to get even further ahead.
But they cautioned that these leashes are also not appropriate in many cases and many dog people do not have the skill to use them properly. Retractables should not be used on city streets, in confined areas, or on dogs who can be aggressive to other dogs or people, by kids, with people with physical disabilities, when walking more than one dog or when walking a dog for training and not for exercise. For many of us a trainer will need to show you how best to use one.
I have never been a fan of these leashes, having had a horrible experience with a woman who did not know how to use one and almost hogtied me when her pup tried to play with my dog, her leash quickly wound around my knees and cut into the back of my legs, she didn’t have the sense to just drop the leash! But then again, that woman should never have used such a leash without proper direction. What Hetts, Estep and Williams had to say about this, made me question my ingrained negative perspective on retractables. But I know that this is really hot button issue, so am curious to hear your opinion.
You can purchase a recorded copy of the CAAB webinar for a small fee if this topic interests you (the retractable leash part is towards the end of the hour and a half long webinar) and sign up for free their monthly chats, they are always interesting and informative.
Learning a dog's heritage has its benefits
When we adopted our dog Charlie from the Sacramento Independent Rescuers, his foster mom, Shana Laursen, who specializes in Greyhound rescue with Greyhound Friends for Life, told us that he probably had some Whippet in him, thinking that not only his brindle coloring but the “set” of his back legs indicated that he might have a sprinter in him. She also added that was one of the reasons she picked him to foster. Lucky for us she did because by the time we saw his posting on Petfinder I had been getting discouraged after scouring for weeks online pet adoption services nationwide and local shelters to find a scruffy male terrier to be the “bro” to our three female dogs.
At that time we didn’t really know what breeds contributed to making Charlie the perfect match that he turned out to be. Some type of terrier definitely in the ascendency, his very first night in his new home found him scooting under the covers to sleep at my side, a position he has proudly claimed since. As for the Whippet? Sometimes he manages to keep up with our speedy Pointer, Lola, so perhaps Shana might be right. It was time to figure that out, so we decided to “test” Charles’ DNA using the really easy-to-use, Mars Wisdom Panel DNA test.
Unlike other genetic tests that rely on blood samples, for this one you only need to collect saliva samples from inside your dog’s mouth, using the two swabs that come with the kit. Next you dry the swabs out for a few minutes placing them in a convenient “holder” that comes with the kit. Next you register the sample online, filling out a few basic profile questions about the sex/age/weight of the dog. Plus they pose some really interesting optional questions like the reasons why you are doing the test—perhaps you want to understand your dog’s behavior better, or confirm the breed make up of a prospective adoptee, predict the adult size of a pup, or testing for health reasons? Many breeds are prone to a variety of genetic diseases, so it is beneficial to know what breeds your mixed breed dog might be, for possible preventive or diagnostic reasons. Importantly, this newest version of the Wisdom Panel 3.0 also includes a screening for the genetic mutation for MDR1 or Multi-Drug Resistance 1 that can be a really important consideration, and which can affect many herding breeds. As it is explained on their website:
“The MDR1 gene is responsible for production of a protein called P-glycoprotein. The P-glycoprotein molecule is a drug transport pump that plays an important role in limiting drug absorption and distribution (particularly to the brain) and enhancing the excretion/elimination of many drugs used in dogs. Dogs with the MDR1 mutation may have severe adverse reactions to some common drugs. Although the mutation is most closely associated with some purebreds, it can also be found in mixed-breed dogs. Therefore it is important for owners of mix-breeds to test their dogs and to share the results with their veterinarian in order to provide their pet with the best possible care. The discovery of the MDR1 mutation in dogs was made by Washington State University.”
While it is unlikely that terrier-mix Charlie has any herding breeds in him, he might have a Whippet ancestor—the long-haired variety having a 65% frequency of this mutation—so it is good for us to find this out now.
Browsing around their interesting site I also found this very informative video that explains the genetics behind a dog’s physical characteristics. I actually learned a lot from watching it, including the reason that many dogs have white markings on the their feet and paws—or on areas farther away from the dog’s back (where the dominate color starts off). Watch the video for the explanation of why this is:
So stay tuned, we’ll be getting Charlie’s results really soon. But until we do, what kind of terrier do you see in him?
Step aside dominance, hello to loving and caring
The much over-used construct of “alpha” got a good roll over recently on the opinion pages of The New York Times. Carl Safina, the founder of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, writes in his insightful op-ed, “Tapping Your Inner Wolf,” about how the alpha notion is rather misguided and demonstrates a misunderstanding of what it really means to be a leader. Instead of the aggressive, snarling, chest beating male alpha posture that many see as being “top” wolf—or dog for that matter—he points out that true alpha wolves don’t need to be aggressive at all, and actually have a quiet self-confidence that is “not domineering and nor aggressive to those on his team.” Making them, in fact, an exemplary role model for our species.
Debunking of what it means to be “alpha” and how this plays out with our relationship to dogs, has often been the subject of Bark articles. Sadly there are still some trainers (especially ones with large TV followings), who still don’t get it and claim that dogs are trying to “dominate” us and it is up to us to show them who’s “alpha.” How often have you heard something along the lines of, “my dog is trying to dominate me by pulling on her leash,” or “he’s trying to be alpha by blowing me off when I call to him,” sadly the list of misapplied notions of dominance and what it means to be alpha, goes on.
As to why people still cling to this false alpha meme, even though leading experts have demonstrated that positive reinforcement is far more effective and humane, is anyone’s guess. A few years back Patricia McConnell, PhD offers a “simple” suggestion in her Bark column “Down with Dominance.”
“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.” She goes on to note that, “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.”
And Bark’s behavior columnist, Karen London, PhD thinks that it might feed into our desire for control, which sadly can have far reaching consequences, as she observes, “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.” This is very much the same well-oiled family/pack dynamic that Safina describes about wolves.
So it’s great when someone with respected science chops like Safina takes on alphaness and it gets even better that he also points out that biologists are now suggesting that the wolf family/pack structure work with having shared leadership, with the females doing “most of the decision making.” This can includes “where to travel, when to rest and when to hunt.” As wolf researcher, Rick McIntyre, told him, “It’s the alpha female who really runs the show.” Which leads Safina to conclude that human males can definitely learn something from real wolves, and that includes a “respect for females and sharing responsibility” in their families. Proving once again, that we have a whole lot to learn from the ancestors of the species that we share our lives with.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Surprises when bringing a dog to school
Besides veterinarians and zookeepers, not many professions related to animals are well known. That’s why I was so happy for the opportunity to represent my field and share what I do as a canine behaviorist and dog trainer with elementary school kids.
I was granted special permission to bring a dog as one of the requested “visual aids” for a career day presentation at my son’s school. The best part was the mutual enjoyment between Marley and the students. He clearly loved every second of the attention, and they were quite enamored with him. It was pretty blissful all around, but in truth, I expected that. He’s a social dog who loves attention, and any group of kids is likely to enjoy spending time with a nice dog while at school.
There were ways in which I was caught off guard, though. I was pleasantly surprised by how much most of the children knew about dog behavior. It seemed to be common knowledge that when dogs wag their tails to the right, they are especially happy. The kids were aware that they should not stare at dogs or hug them and that a dog who goes stiff should be considered unapproachable. Most of the kids knew about using clickers and treats to train dogs, and several brought up the issue of dogs being left-pawed or right-pawed.
Additionally, the students surprised me by asking high-quality questions, including the following:
Is this fun for Marley or stressful?
Do all of the dogs you work with stop being aggressive?
How do you decide which trick will be easiest to teach a certain dog?
How can you tell when Marley has learned enough and he should get to go to recess?
Why is it easier to train dogs than to train cats?
What are scientists trying to learn about dogs right now?
Another surprise is one that perhaps I should have anticipated, but thoroughly failed to do so. I had assumed we would be in a classroom like all of the other presenters. Instead we were out in the courtyard. That means that various classes were walking through to spend time in the school garden and that there were (Oh my!) squirrels running around a few times during the course of the event. Naturally, this was potentially distracting for Marley and very exciting, but he rolled with it. He stayed focused on me and also on the kids in the group.
Marley got a chance to perform some of his best tricks, along with displaying the good manners that come from a mastery of basic obedience and lots of practice being in a variety of situations. When given each appropriate cue, Marley responded by sitting, lying down, coming when called, heeling and waiting at doors. He also showed off his lovely “Leave It” by not eating a treat or biscuit that was on the ground until he was given permission to do so. The tricks he did included “High-5”, “Sit Pretty”, “Rollover”, “Crawl”, “Spin” and “Unwind” (spinning in the opposite direction.)
The kids were most impressed by his tricks, but I was particularly proud of what nobody else probably even noticed—Marley was unreactive to distractions, remained focused on me, and was gentle as he visited all the children, letting each one have a moment to meet him. As a professional, I know that this generally polite behavior is actually more worthy of admiration than responding well to specific cues.
It’s not easy to remain calm in a new place no matter what happens—school bells ringing, children running, squirrels appearing and a breeze wafting in smells from the cafeteria. Of course, as a professional I also know that not every dog is capable of behaving well in such a stimulating environment. I would never bring a dog to an elementary school unless I was completely confident he could act appropriately no matter what.
Marley’s behavior was exemplary, so he definitely deserved to end each presentation by showing off his newest trick, which is “Take a Bow.” Good dog!
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
I know they’re in there, but how do I find them?
Televisions and computers can be confusing for dogs. It’s not easy for our canine friends to figure out that videos are merely recordings of life, and that what they see is not really present. In this video, a Westie is confronted with a laptop showing a video of another Westie and a couple of puppies.
He seems to be searching for these other dogs, which he can so clearly see, and attempts to find them by walking around the computer and sniffing it. He’s making use of several senses, apparently listening, looking and smelling in order to track them down. The dog’s name is “Radar” so you’ve got to think it’s likely that this dog can usually locate what he’s looking for.
Radar is able to handle with ease a situation that might cause frustration in other dogs. He remains calm and methodical where many dogs would become upset. There’s another aspect of Radar’s behavior that is of great interest to me. He’s clearly confused, and he does a couple of things I interpret as attempts to get more information. He repeatedly cocks his head, which dogs may do to better localize a sound. Additionally, he repeatedly looks at the camera, where there is presumably a person filming the scene. We know that dogs often look to people for information when they are struggling to solve a problem, and it’s easy to imagine that Radar is seeking help with this challenging task.
How has your dog reacted when faced with a similar situation?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
The difference between loving and threatening
There has recently been a lot of interest in people and dogs gazing into each other’s eyes and how this creates feelings of love. The evidence is compelling that this interactive behavior does enhance the bonding between us. I have no objection to this assertion, but it does make me concerned that these new findings will cause a problem.
It’s one thing to gaze softly into the eyes of your dog. It’s another thing entirely to stare at that dog or at any other dog. In fact, it’s potentially hazardous because staring is often considered a threat by dogs. So, I hope nobody goes around trying to bond with new and unknown dogs by looking them right in the eye. It’s a reminder that subtle differences in behavior can have vastly different meanings.
One of the first things I learned when I began to work with aggressive dogs is to pay attention to eye contact. This was especially important for me because I have big dark eyes and I tend to open them wide when expressing interest or surprise. It would be all too easy for me to scare the dogs I’m trying to help with my frog eyes. It has become second nature for me now to turn off my wide-eyed actions when I am around dogs. I take care not to look directly at them without squinting just a little until they are comfortable around me.
It’s because dogs are afraid of big eyes, especially when they are aimed directly at them, that many dogs react to cameras with big interchangeable lenses. It’s likely that our canine subjects perceive these lenses as giant scary eyes staring at them. Many dogs who are not particularly fearful or nervous freak out when faced with a new camera and a person enthusiastically pointing it at them often and for long periods of time. If a dog’s tendency when alarmed is to look away, cower or hide, that’s what may happen in the face of a big camera. If a dog is more likely to bark, growl and lunge when scared, then that may be the reaction you see when a camera is pointed towards that dog.
Has your dogs reacted fearfully to someone staring or to a camera?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Understanding dogs makes all the difference
“Our dog bit our son completely out of the blue! There is no way we could have seen it coming.” I hear this sentiment from parents all the time, as do all other behaviorists and trainers, but we know it’s not true. Dogs rarely, if ever, bite without warnings, and sometimes those signs of trouble have been going on for months or even years before the bite happens.
The problem isn’t unpredictable dogs. It’s misunderstood dogs. Dogs are often trying hard to communicate that they are uncomfortable or that they don’t like what kids are doing to them. If nobody understands those messages, the dogs continue to be in situations that make them unhappy, and some of those dogs may end up biting.
Most dog bites to kids come from the child’s own dog or the dog of a friend. In fact, this is true 77 percent of the time. Check out this video by the family dog about how dogs and kids can have such different views of their experience together.
Several other videos by the same organization are really helpful when teaching kids (and adults!) things they need to know to stay safe. I love how these videos are targeted at different ages. This video is for kids in elementary school.
This video is for kids of preschool age.
The goal of keeping kids safe around dogs involves education so that people of all ages understand dogs better. It’s important that kids know how to act around dogs and that everyone in the family can distinguish happy, relaxed dogs from dogs who are nervous or uncomfortable. “Stop the 77” is the movement to prevent dog bites to kids, most of which come from dogs they know well.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
His post-elimination running still makes us laugh
Our dog Bugsy must really have enjoyed a good poop. I say that because he seemed to celebrate each one with a good run afterwards. He ran at top speed in a big circle with a gleeful look on his face around the yard or in the woods. He became the quintessentially happy dog—sporting a big grin, ears flopping, running fast enough that his fur waved in the breeze. (If he was on leash, he modified his actions and just did a few spins in place looking moderately cheerful.)
My husband mentioned Bugsy’s post-elimination antics last night and we laughed remembering this particular behavior of a dog who died over a decade ago. It was absolutely predictable for Bugsy to do this after eliminating, and I used to look forward to watching him. My favorite part was the way it looked as though his back end was running faster than the front of him, causing his behind to be tucked down. In other contexts, he had a smoother gait and his body looked more organized.
It’s not that there is actually anything so special about a dog running around after pooping, as that is relatively common. We find this memory endearing because he looked so happy and because the precise posture and motions were distinctively his. I would have been able to spot him in a group of hundreds of dogs making wide arcs if he were running in this particular way because I’ve never seen another dog assume quite the same form when running.
We have many wonderful memories of Bugsy, and this just happens to be the one that struck a chord last night. Anything a dog does that is joyful and distinctive is likely to be remembered with love. That’s true even if it’s something that doesn’t seem typically sentimental, such as the way the dog runs after eliminating.
What behavior of a dog from your past brings you joy when you think back on it?
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