Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Short and sweet if given the choice
I recently attended one of my favorite annual events—the Interdisciplinary Forum on Applied Animal Behavior (IFAAB) conference. This is a small gathering of 30 Certified Applied Animal Behaviorists, Veterinary Behaviorists, Academics and Trainers who get together each year for a discussion of all kinds of topics related to Applied Animal Behavior. Every attendee gives a talk, and we discuss everything with enthusiasm from the first talk to the concluding remarks.
This year, fittingly, the first talk was about greetings. Camille Ward, PhD, CAAB, started things off with a talk called “What’s Up? Dog-to-Dog Greetings.” Greetings are a fascinating area of behavior because so much can happen in such a short time, and there are so many possible functions of greetings. Greeting between members of the same species serve a variety of functions from reducing uncertainty, fear and arousal to gathering information. Greetings can involve the signaling of status, increasing tolerance for being close to one another and may play a role in conflict management and reconciliation, which are important areas of behavior in social species though they have been primarily studied in primates.
Ward videotaped greetings between pairs of dogs at a local dog park in Ann Arbor, Michigan and analyzed the behavior that she observed. When she watched the behavior in the greetings, she collected data on a large number of behavioral details. (Videotaping is a common tool in behavioral research that allows scientists to gather more data than is possible when doing it live, and also takes so much time that it prevents scientists from taking over the world or even having a life because it keeps them too busy for such undertakings.)
In this study, 52 dogs were recorded, in 26 greetings. Each dog was only observed in a single greeting. Ward recorded whatever greetings happened to occur at the dog park, although she specifically avoided greetings when a dog first entered the park. She was interested in pairs of dogs greeting and when a dog first arrives, he is often mobbed by other dogs. Pairs of interacting animals are called “dyads” in the animal behavior literature, and the dyad was the unit of study in this project.
For each dyad, Ward noted which dog initiated the greeting or if it was a mutual approach. She noted the relative sizes of the dogs and whether play or aggression followed the greeting. Other data included whether each dog’s overall body posture was high, neutral or low both at the beginning and the end of the greeting, and if both dogs participated in the greeting by sniffing the other dog.
One of the most interesting and practical results from this study was how short the greetings were. When dogs are off leash and free to choose, they don’t hang around interacting for a long time. The greetings Ward observed were typically in the six to eight second range, which is very brief. It’s certainly a lot less time than we spend talking with our human friends when we run into them on dog walks. When that happens and our dogs also greet, they are forced to be in close proximity to the other dog when that is not what would happen if they were doing things their own way. Greetings are naturally short—far shorter than just about all of us experts at this conference would have predicted! We should keep this in mind if we have dogs greet on leash and not allow the interaction to extend beyond that time frame unless the dogs progress into play.
Based on Ward’s study, play is not a highly likely outcome of many greetings. Only six of the 52 greetings (twelve percent) she recorded resulted in play. Perhaps we should consider that many dogs want to meet and greet one another, but don’t want to engage in play as often as many of us expect. None resulted in aggression, which is encouraging, but that rate might be higher in a population of dogs that are not at the dog park as some people wisely choose not to take dogs prone to aggression to the dog park.
Greeting were either reciprocated or unreciprocated. In a reciprocated greeting, both dogs were involved in the interaction and showed similar behavior—e.g., both dogs sniffed each other. With an unreciprocated greeting, only one of the dogs sniffed or investigated. The other dog ignored or showed little attention to the greeter.
Large weight differences usually involved the heavier dog initiating the greeting. When weights were closer between the two dogs, involvement by both dogs was more common. Over 80 percent of the greetings were initiated by only one of the dogs. This pattern suggests that dogs are using greetings as a way to assess other dogs.
If you have observed your own dog greeting other dogs, does his behavior match up with what Camille Ward documented in her study?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Easy Circus Trick
Spin Left and Right: Start with your dog facing you in a stand. Lure her in a circle, rewarding her at 3, 6 and 9. At 12, switch direction and repeat. If she doesn’t follow your lure, analyze her performance and add motivation right before she begins to lose focus. If she shows a preference for one direction over the other, do a few extra reps on her weaker side each time you practice. The spin is not only an essential part of more advanced tricks, it also helps a dog quickly habituate to distractions and is a great warm-up exercise.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Littermate syndrome has potential downsides.
The email described a familiar scenario: “We were planning to adopt one puppy, but the breeder said that raising two sisters would be easier. After we brought the girls home at nine weeks, their behavior became increasingly out of control. My husband and I could not get their attention for more than a second or two—it was as if we weren’t even in the same room. And then they started displaying alarming fearfulness of people and other dogs.” I made an appointment for a home visit so I could meet the family and the puppies.
Many dog behaviorists, trainers, breeders and shelters discourage adopting siblings. Anecdotal evidence suggests that behavioral issues may arise during key development periods because the two puppies’ deep bond impedes their individual ability to absorb and grasp the nuances of human and canine communication. Since fear is the canine’s default reaction to odd or unfamiliar stimuli, this muddled understanding of the world around them can lead to impaired coping mechanisms later on.
Of course, many factors influence behavior, and not all siblings raised together will exhibit this problem, which is called “littermate syndrome”; it’s a risk, not a foregone conclusion.
Dunbar points out that raising littermates necessitates training two puppies, which is particularly challenging when they’re essentially wearing blinders to all but each other. “It’s more than twice the work; it’s exponential. The two combine to produce levels of energy that we can barely measure. Tension develops in training and compliance as they squeeze the owner out of the relationship. They’re always living with an enormous distraction: each other.”
The Tie That Binds
Wilde believes the problems are rooted in hyper-attachment, which leads to hindered social development and communication issues. “People assume that having two same-age pups who play together and interact constantly covers their dog-dog socialization needs, but they in fact don’t learn how other [dogs] play and have no idea about social skills with other puppies, adolescents or adult dogs. Perhaps one puppy is a bit of a bully, which his littermate puts up with, but his rude behavior might not be tolerated by a new dog in a new setting.”
During my appointment with the family, we determined that the best course was to rehome one of the 12-week-old siblings. Dunbar agrees that it’s often best to separate littermates, especially if symptoms appear early, so that each has a chance to develop normally as an individual. This is obviously a burdensome decision for the overwhelmed owner to make, a sort of canine Sophie’s Choice, so he recommends that potential new owners meet both puppies and determine which to take home.
Dunbar, too, is adamant that one of the key lessons a puppy must master is how to be content with being alone, which is all but impossible with two siblings. “Once we’ve done that, yes, he can live with other dogs and have free run of the house. But if you don’t teach puppies early on how to be alone, and especially with siblings who have always been together, it will be catastrophic when one dies.” Dunbar encourages multiple dog households— “I always like having three dogs”—but the timing, temperament and age that each enters the home is paramount.
Most people have never heard of littermate syndrome, finding out about it while researching their dogs’ problematic behaviors. Increasingly, however, trainers and behavior professionals recognize that the cons of adopting siblings far outweigh the pros. “The only advantage I can think of is a short-term gain of the puppies being less lonely in the first month of life,” says Dunbar. “Everything else is a loss.”
Exceptions and Hope
Myriad factors affect dog behavior, including genetics, early life experiences and owner engagement. As University of California, Davis, veterinary behaviorist Dr. Melissa Bain points out, “Two fearful littermates very well may be genetically predisposed to fear.” Bain is less inclined to apply the term syndrome to the set of symptoms. “It makes you think all littermates have problems, which is not the case.” She also emphasizes that the level of owner involvement is key, saying, “The symptoms escalate when the owners treat them as one dog with eight legs.” When conflict ensues between the pair, Bain believes it’s due to the dogs being similar in size, age and gender. “This uniformity makes it difficult for the siblings to delineate a hierarchy,” she said.
After one of the siblings had been rehomed, I received an email from the owner describing how the remaining puppy began to thrive under a remedial socialization program. “Dora has blossomed in the last three months into a delightful household companion, and she continues to improve. She now approaches people out of curiosity. We know she would still be fearful had we not separated the two before it got any worse. Dora has become more confident with all kinds of dogs, and successfully completed a group obedience class.”
While siblings blessed with extraordinary genes and socialization-forward owners may avoid littermate syndrome, the consensus among canine professionals is that it’s not worth the risk. Most would encourage new owners to adopt a single puppy who suits their lifestyle and to focus on the training and socialization that strengthens the interspecies bond unique to humans and dogs. Once your puppy is a dog, by all means, get a second, since the two will be at completely different stages, and the older one may very well emerge as a great life teacher to the younger.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A new dog can affect the behavior of other dogs
Maggie’s “Drop It” used to be perfect, making games of fetch effortless from the human side of things. However, today she was hesitant to let go of the tennis ball. Instead of putting it at my feet instantly, it look her anywhere from five to 30 seconds to release it, and sometimes she grabbed for it when she had just put it down. I wasn’t thrilled to see this change in her behavior, but neither was I surprised. A new puppy had just joined the family, and that can have all sorts of effects on other dogs’ behavior.
The decline in Maggie’s “Drop It” skill was the most obvious change. It interested me because the puppy showed no interest in the ball while Maggie was playing with it or at any other time, and Maggie was resistant to “Drop It” whether the puppy was present during the play session or not. I suspect this was not about having to compete with a new puppy for the ball, but rather about Maggie’s emotional reaction to sharing her home with another dog.
Just because the human members of a household are excited about a new addition to the family doesn’t mean that the dogs who already live there are on board. Changes can be upsetting, and dogs are often taken by surprise when a new dog appears . . . and then stays. Unlike people, they are not part of the decision-making process, and don’t have the benefit of knowing a dog is joining them and preparing themselves ahead of time. It can be hard to predict how a new dog will affect other dogs, but it seems there’s always something that changes when the family goes up a canine in number.
When a puppy is added to a family with a middle-aged or older dog, it’s my experience that two results are the most likely. One is that the older dog becomes more playful, lively and generally younger in outlook and behavior. The other result is the exact opposite—that the older dog becomes crankier and more sullen. It seem that sometimes a puppy breathes new life into an older dog, and sometimes a puppy makes an older dog seem a bit more geriatric when he wasn’t like that before.
Even when it isn’t so dramatic, there are often interesting changes in behavior by the dogs already in the household when a new dog joins. Over the years, I’ve observed dogs act a little differently when a new dog comes to stay. Besides becoming more possessive over toys and chews, I’ve seen dogs become more playful with people or less playful with people. I’ve noticed that some dogs bark much more, whether or not the new dog is prone to vocalizing. It’s common for a dog to become much more affectionate, and especially to be extra snuggly in bed or on the couch. Some dogs seem to go on high alert, and others eat much faster. Some become maternal (or paternal) either with the new dog or towards fleece toys. Some adjust their sleep patterns, and others choose different places to rest.
How did your dog’s behavior change when a new dog joined the family?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It influences adult behavior
“Tell me about your mother.” This phrases, so common in therapy, all but assumes that whatever is going on with someone can be traced back to the mother. Was she a good mother—attentive, patient, nurturing? Was she less than stellar—harsh, uncaring, neglectful? Whatever she does, you can bet her offspring’s behavior will be considered a result of her actions, and that doesn’t just mean in people. It’s old news that maternal care affects primates and rodents, but a new study investigated the phenomenon in dogs.
The authors of “Levels of maternal care in dogs affect adult offspring temperament” investigated the influence of the mothers on the behavior of adult dogs. Researchers looked at 22 litters of German Shepherd Dogs bred to become Military Working Dogs with the Swedish Armed Forces. The 94 puppies in the study were all continuously videotaped with their mothers during the first three weeks after birth. Videotapes were analyzed for many variables, such as the amount of time that the mother had her paws in the box with her puppies, time that she was in physical contact with at least one puppy, time she spent nursing, time she spent licking puppies, and the number of times she sniffed, poked or moved a puppy around using her nose. (Litter size was accounted for in the statistical analysis.)
When the puppies were 18-months old, they were evaluated with the Swedish Armed Forces’ standard temperament test. Dogs were assessed for their reactions to a number of situations, including social and cooperative ones with humans as well as potentially scary stimuli such as loud noises. Not surprisingly, the main result of the study is that researchers found an association between the mothers’ behavior and the behavior of her adult offspring.
Mothers were consistent over the course of the study regarding the time they spent interacting with their young. The amount of interactions that mothers had with their puppies was a really important factor associated with the behavior of these individuals as adult dogs. Specifically, puppies whose mothers had a large number of interactions with them were more socially engaged with humans as adults, more physically engaged with them, and scored higher on tests for aggression. Based on the paper, it's not clear what is meant by "aggression" or whether the association with maternal care is a positive or a negative one. (It's also not clear whether "aggression" was considered a desirable trait for these working dogs.) Confidence of the adult dogs was the fourth category of behavior measured, but no association was found between confidence and level of maternal care.
There are many factors to consider when choosing which dogs to breed in any situation, including working dog programs. This study suggests that there are benefits to paying attention to maternal care behavior when choosing which females to breed. That is, more attentive mothers are an important piece of successfully breeding dogs with desirable traits, and females who are good mothers should be considered an asset to any breeding program.
Dog's Life: Humane
For centuries, wolves — incredibly charismatic, highly social and extremely intelligent — have held a special place in our consciousness, starring in as many nightmares as they have in paintings and pop songs. With their bigger brains, stronger muscles, and teeth and jaws many times more powerful than any dog’s, they’re also quite dangerous, capable of killing an elk, a moose, even a bison.
It’s both understandable and surprising that people want to take a bit of that wildness home in the shape of a wolf/dog mix — or “wolfdog” — which some consider to represent the best of both worlds: a dog’s friendly companionship paired with a wolf’s good looks and untamed nature. Buy a wolfdog, the thinking goes, and live out your Jack London fantasies, even if you’re in Akron rather than Anchorage.
As with many things, reality is not so simple. Wolfdogs are perhaps the most misunderstood — and, many would argue, mismanaged — animals in America. Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others and are showing up on breedban lists, along with Pits and other so-called “dangerous breeds.”
What’s more, there’s no approved rabies vaccination for wolfdogs. While the federal government officially sees them as domestic pets (and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities), they’re treated as wild animals when it comes to rabies. Thus, the wolfdog who bites a person can be considered a rabies risk — even if he’s been vaccinated — because the USDA, which regulates veterinary medicines, does not extend approval for use of the standard rabies vaccine with “hybrids” (the vaccine is approved for use in dogs, cats, ferrets and horses). Euthanasia is necessary, the USDA says, because the only reliable test for rabies requires an examination of the animal’s brain.
Wolfdog owners are encouraged to vaccinate their animals, but to do so, they have to make a tough choice: lie to their veterinarian about the animal’s lineage or sign a waiver stating that they understand that the vaccine is being used “off-label” on a hybrid animal and thus cannot be relied upon to deliver full protection against rabies, and that their animal can be impounded and put down if it bites someone — a high-stakes gamble, and one for which the wolfdog could pay with his life.
When it comes to their legal status, the regulations are literally all over the map. At the time of this article’s publication, it’s illegal to keep one as a pet in Alaska, Connecticut, the District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Dakota and Rhode Island. However, in some of these states — Alaska, Michigan and North Dakota — a wolfdog can be “grandfathered” in. Other states — Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Utah — don’t regulate ownership on a state level, instead leaving it up to individual counties. Among the states that allow wolfdogs, many require the owner to obtain a permit, or mandate registration and/or confinement in specific kinds of cages. In some states (New York, for example), that means getting a “dangerous animal” permit — the same type needed to keep a lion.
And, legal or not, wolfdogs pose significant behavioral challenges for owners, many of whom are unable or unwilling to meet them, thus creating a large population of unwanted animals who wind up chained in backyards, abandoned or euthanized.
“These are beautiful animals, and a lot of people are attracted to something that’s exotic and different,” says Nicole Wilde, a wolfdog expert and author of Wolfdogs: A–Z. “They want to own a piece of the wild, and they often say that the wolf is their spiritual sign or totem animal. Unfortunately, they don’t realize that it’s not really the same thing as having a wolf in their living room.”
Like Pit Bulls and pornography, wolfdogs can be tough to identify, regardless of laws passed to limit them. Several years ago, the USDA released a report estimating that there were about 300,000 wolfdogs in the US; how they came to this metric is unclear, as the numbers are impossible to nail down. Some people deny their pets’ heritage, while others claim their 100 percent dogs are part wolf. In fact, experts say that the vast majority of animals sold (or bragged about) as wolfdogs actually possess very low wolf content, or none at all.
Part of the problem is that there’s no clear definition of what a wolfdog is, says Nancy Brown, director of Full Moon Farm, a wolfdog rescue and sanctuary in Black Mountain, N.C. Most experts use the term to describe an animal with a pure wolf in its family, no more than four or five generations back. But there’s no way of proving any animal’s pedigree, as there is no breed registry (and no such thing as “papers” for a wolf or wolfdog, no matter what those who breed them contend). Genetic testing is theoretically possible but, as it is reserved for wildlife management and law-enforcement agencies, is essentially unavailable to individuals. Phenotyping — having an expert evaluate an animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics — remains the most accessible way to identify a wolfdog. Unfortunately, few are trained in phenotyping wolfdogs and, as a result, many dogs are erroneously labeled.
Even if you could draw its family tree, there’s no way to predict an animal’s “wolfiness,” says Stephen L. Zawistowski, PhD, executive vice president and science advisor for the ASPCA. “I’ve seen ads for animals that are ‘98 percent pure wolf,’ but these are bogus numbers,” he says. “These claims are based on the misguided belief that genes blend like food coloring: if you take half red and half blue, you get a nice, even purple.” In reality, he says, genes “blend” more like marbles. Say you have a dog, represented by 20 red marbles, and a wolf, represented by 20 blue ones. If you breed the two, you’ll get 10 marbles from each parent, so you’ll have half of each color; this is an F1 (Filial 1, or first filial generation) cross. But in subsequent generations, you’ll get a random assortment of red and blue from each parent. So the individual offspring of two F1, 50/50 wolfdogs (an F2 cross, a generation removed from full wolf) could have anywhere from three-quarters wolf genes and one-quarter dog genes to three-quarters dog and one-quarter wolf — yet all will be considered one-half wolf. Thus, he says, you can see enormous variations among wolfdogs, even those who come from the same litter.
Knowing an individual animal’s filial number — the number of generations it is removed from a pure wolf — is probably the best way to speculate about its future behavior and potential problems, says Kim Miles, vice president of the Florida Lupine Association, a wolfdog advocacy group. “Wolfdogs aren’t easily pegged because they’re essentially a combination of wild and domesticated animals.” According to Miles, the biggest difference between a wild and a domestic animal is its tractability, or the ease with which it can be managed or controlled. “A dog is like a 12-year-old child, and a wolf is like a 35-year-old man. The dog will generally do what you want it to, but the wolf will do what you want only if he wants to do it himself.”
Experts agree that the vast majority of wolfdog breeders are selling dogs with little or no wolf content, despite the fact that the animals fetch as much as $2,500 apiece. Moreover, the majority of “wolfdogs” being kept as pets — and being surrendered to shelters and sanctuaries — are all dog, too. “I’d say about 70 percent of the so-called ‘wolfdogs’ out there are not wolfdogs at all,” notes Ken Collings, director of Wolfdog Rescue Resources, Inc., a national rescue organization headquartered in Stafford, Va. “Individuals take Malamutes, Shepherds and other dogs and cross-breed them until they get an animal who looks like a wolf. And because most people [who want a wolfdog] are uneducated [about them] and have no idea what they’re looking at, they buy it.”
Unfortunately, people who like the idea of owning a fearsome predator as well as those with a misguided nature fetish often don’t understand what they’re getting into. In many cases, a person will think he has had experience with wolfdogs in the past — maybe he had or knew an animal who he thought was a hybrid but was, in fact, all dog — and decides to get a wolfdog puppy. “Only this time, he gets the real thing,” Collings says. “And by the time the pup is five or six months old, [she’s] eaten the couch or clawed [her] way through the drywall.”
Of course, not all wolfdogs behave the same way, and there’s probably more variety in behavior among wolfdogs than any other kind of dog. “You have to remember that a wolfdog is not a wolfdog is not a wolfdog,” says Brown. “There’s no such thing as ‘typical.’”
“A high-content animal is probably going to act a lot more ‘wolfie’ than a low-content animal,” adds Wilde. “With a high-content wolfdog, you might start out with the puppy in the house and then, as he hits adolescence, you’ll be building an enclosure outside. You’ll have to.” It’s for just these reasons that many experts, including Wilde, discourage people from breeding wolfdogs, or buying wolfdog pups from breeders.
“The average dog owner won’t deal with their Beagle, and can’t handle an ordinary dog’s behavior problems,” says Wilde, who rescued a wolf and two wolfdogs several years ago. She can personally attest to the challenges of keeping these beautiful canines. “I worked with them to the point that I could look between their paw pads and look at their teeth — and give them tummy rubs — but I never forgot what they really were.”
Editors’ Note: In our opinion, despite their undeniable beauty and appeal, deliberately breeding or purchasing wolfdogs as companion animals does a disservice to both Canis lupus and Canis lupus familiaris as well as to the individual animal. If you love wolves, honor their ancient connection with our domestic dogs by joining the effort to preserve their habitat and maintain their status as a federally protected species. HSUS and the Defenders of Wildlife are just two of many groups working on their behalf.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It explains the behavior of Costa Rican dogs
During a recent field trip to Costa Rica, I was as interested as my students in Ceiba trees, toucans, sloths and tree frogs, along with so many other organisms we were able to see in the tropical rain forest. When I was in town, though, my focus shifted to the local dogs.
One aspect of their behavior repeatedly caught my attention. Over and over, I saw dogs waiting just outside the doors of local businesses. Whether it was a bakery, restaurant, butcher’s shop or hair salon, dogs did not go inside. These were all stray dogs, many in need of food, but they did not charge through the doorway no matter what tempting goodies were inside. They exhibited impressively polite behavior, which is easy enough to explain.
The reason that these dogs never went inside businesses is that the behavior of the people in those businesses has consistently been favorable when the dogs stay outside and not so favorable if they attempt to enter. As soon as these dogs are old enough to wander through town, they have multiple experiences with people shooing them out of stores if they enter, and also have repeated experiences with receiving food if they wait outside. The dogs learn that waiting outside is a good strategy and that barging into a store is a bad strategy. Because the culture so strongly opposes having stray dogs enter stores, the dogs get consistent messages about what to do. The dogs are so well trained, if you want to look at it that way, because of the consistency of the responses to their behavior. There are no mixed messages.
There’s a lesson here for all of us about being consistent with our training. This sounds obvious and is well known, but even a rare departure from consistency can mess up an otherwise excellent training program. There is a huge difference between never permitting your dog to jump up on you, beg at the table or join you on the couch and almost never allowing these behaviors to happen. The difference lets your dog question whether each occasion is one of the exceptions and keeps hope alive. It can make them seem quite pushy when they are really only unsure about what the rules are.
When we are completely consistent with our dogs, training goes more smoothly and there are fewer problems. The Costa Rican people I observed simply never allow dogs to enter their stores, and the dogs learn that the only way to get food from the people is to wait patiently at the door. It’s a successful system for members of both species.
In what ways are you completely consistent with your dog, to the benefit of your training?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Links between canine lateralization, behavior and emotion
A few years ago, dog trainers and behaviorists renewed their love affair with tail-wagging, constantly checking to see whether dogs were wagging their tails higher to the right or to the left. Our awkward attempts at positioning ourselves to observe this behavior were surely entertaining to others. Why were we so eager for the information conveyed by these asymmetrical tail wags? Because they indicate dogs’ differential use of the left and right hemispheres of their brains and are, therefore, a window into their emotions.
The study of asymmetrical tail wagging that prompted our collective interest (Quaranta et al. 2007) found that differences depended on what inspired the wags in the first place. Dogs wagged higher to the right when greeting their guardians. The same right-side bias was seen in response to unfamiliar people, although the wags were lower overall. In response to cats, there was little wagging, but it was still higher to the right. In the tests, the only stimulus to which dogs’ wags had a left-side bias was an unfamiliar, confident dog.
Left or Right?
The left hemisphere is activated when the brain is processing positive experiences associated with emotions such as happiness, affection and excitement, as well as anything familiar. The right hemisphere takes precedence when processing sadness, fear, other negative emotions and novel things.
This link between emotions and sides of the brain came to light in studies of humans. Ahern and Schwartz (1979) found that people who were asked questions that elicited either positive or negative emotions responded in accordance with this principle. They looked to their right (showing left brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that elicited positive emotions, but looked to their left (showing right brain hemisphere involvement) in response to questions that evoked negative emotions.
Individuals—canine or human—who favor the left paw or hand more often use the right hemisphere of their brain, while right-pawed and right-handed individuals have a more active left-brain hemisphere. Studies have shown differences between right-pawed and left-pawed dogs. They have also revealed that dogs who are ambilateral—who don’t have a paw preference—are different in predictable ways from dogs who strongly prefer one paw over the other.
Lateralization research, an active area of study, informs our understanding of emotions and behavior. Though dogs and people are common study subjects, similar patterns have been found in fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and primates and other mammals.
Determining Paw Preference
Strength of Lateralization
Batt et al. (2009) showed that dogs with stronger paw preferences were bolder and less cautious than dogs with weaker paw preferences. They were more confident, less prone to arousal and anxiety, quicker to relax or become playful in new environments, and exhibited calmer responses to novel stimuli and strangers. It turns out that we humans are similar to our best friends in this regard: People with weak hand preferences are more likely to suffer high anxiety levels and are more susceptible to both PTSD and psychosis than those with a strong handedness.
Just as being right-pawed predicted guide-dog training success, dogs with a strong lateralization (either left or right) and a low rate of using both paws in the Kong test fared better in these programs (Batt et al. 2008). The authors hypothesize that this may be because strongly lateralized and right-pawed dogs are less likely to experience high reactivity and distress responses, which are detrimental to success as a guide dog.
Dogs also turned left in response to images of cats and snakes but not to images of dogs. With repeated presentations, there was a change toward right-turning behavior, indicating that the left side of the brain and its associated positive emotions were involved. This suggests that novelty may be a factor in fear and other intense negative emotions that tend to be processed by the right side of the brain.
To understand the role of lateralization in processing olfactory stimuli, it is essential to know that each side of the brain processes the information received on the same side: the right nostril goes to the right hemisphere, the left nostril goes to the left hemisphere. Dogs started to sniff novel but non-aversive stimuli (food, lemon, dog secretions) with their right nostril and then shifted with repetition to using their left nostril, showing a change from negative to positive emotions. When presented with adrenaline and sweat from their vets (really!), dogs demonstrated a consistent bias toward the right nostril, suggesting that their emotions started, and remained, negative in response to these odors (Siniscalchi et al. 2011).
* * * * * * *
Love and understanding compound one another with our dogs, and lateralization is a case in point. A dear dog friend of mine is strongly right-pawed; it was pitiful to watch him attempt to learn to give a left high-five, or use his left paw to hold his Kong when he briefly had a bandage on his right paw. I used to find how hard it was for him to do anything with his left paw somewhat comical. Now I understand that this trait is part of the package that makes him the unflappable, happy, don’t-care-about-the-power-tools-running-all-day-during-the-kitchen-remodel, playful and exploratory, nothing-fazes-him kind of dog I love so much. I’m honored and overjoyed that when he greets me, his tail wags are as one-sided to the right as the rest of him.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Many reasons for this behavior
Dogs often hold onto their own leashes with their mouths, and sometimes even take the leash of another dog. It’s generally pretty adorable, perhaps, in part because we relate to any example of dogs acting like us. If you watch any dogs hanging on to the leash of another dog, you may be able to make guesses about why the dog is doing it.
In some cases, as in the video below, it looks to me as though the dog is simply playing with the leash. The leash is an object in the environment that has caught the dog’s attention and interest, and the fact that it is attached to the collar of another dog does not seem to be important or highly relevant.
In other situations, such as in the following video, one dog appears to be walking the other dog around, much as humans do. It’s not a very forceful situation and no malice is apparent, but the dog with the leash in his mouth is using it to lead the other dog around. The dog on leash seems untroubled at first, but later appears to dislike the limitations imposed by the leash. Then, he starts to pull on the leash, just as dogs so often do when it’s a person holding it.
In this last clip, the more confident dog in the video appears to be using the leash to encourage (pull!) the more timid dog to go down the slide. Again, this is something that a person might do. Some dogs benefit from being forced in this way because they find the slide fun but might not have tried it on their own. Other dogs were scared to go down the slide before they did it and very scared while they do it, so it can be traumatic for them. It’s definitely a risk, but it sometimes works out well. I’ve seen a lot of people make their dogs go down a slide with this technique, but I’ve not seen a dog participate in this way before.
After watching the last two videos, it’s natural to wonder if dogs have learned how to guide dogs around by their leashes from watching humans do it. With so much recent research on social learning in dogs, I find myself watching dogs do things that humans have done and wondering if the dogs learned it by observing people.
Do you have a dog who leads another dog around with the leash?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Just ask skier Lindsey Vonn
Lindsey Vonn has had many injuries over the years from skiing, but this past weekend, she joined the dog bite club. She was hospitalized after being bitten when she tried to separate her own dogs during a fight. True to form, she is back on the slopes and plans to race later this month even though the bite to her thumb required stitches and looked ghastly.
Vonn’s two dogs, Leo and Bear, got into it over a toy, and she tried to break it up. The gash on her thumb is both bad luck and a warning about the dangers of trying to break up a dog fight. Of course, when you see dogs at risk of hurting one another, it’s natural (and commendable) to want to step in and halt the madness as soon as possible, especially when they are both your dogs.
There is no surefire way to break up a fight between dogs, and there is no guarantee that it can be done safely. There are always risks, but some techniques are better bets than others, and depending on the seriousness of the fight, you may be willing to take a big risk. If you ever have the misfortune to see dogs fighting with each other, consider your options and choose what you think is the best way to handle the situation.
Some low risk options for breaking up a dog fight are not always that effective, but they aren’t likely to cause a problem, either. These include making a loud sound such banging any loud meal objects together, blowing an air horn or a sudden yelled, “Hey!” Often dogs ignore these attempts, but for dogs who are not that committed to the fight or who actually want to stop fighting, but can’t seem to break it off themselves, loud startling sounds can work.
It’s true that spraying dogs with a hose may stop a fight, but dogs so rarely fight within reach of one. Even spraying them with water or dumping a bucket of water over them can work, but many dogs don’t seem to care. I’ve heard of cases in which fighting dogs were pushed in a pool and stopped, but again, there’s not always a pool handy when you need one. Spraying dogs with a citronella spray can have the same effect as water.
Using a barrier to separate dogs is riskier than the above suggestions, but also more likely to work. Inserting a cookie sheet, a piece of plywood or even a thick piece of poster board between two dogs can break up a fight. That said, it’s a major feat of coordination to accomplish this in most cases during a highly active altercation. There is a risk of being bitten but the bigger the barrier, the lower the risk because you can keep your hands further away from the mouths of the dogs.
Separating the dogs with direct physical contact has the best chance of stopping the fight, but also poses the biggest risk of you being bitten. It’s wise to lower that probability any way that you can. If two people are there, an option is for each person to grab the back legs of a dog and pull them away from each other. Yes, it can work, and yes, it’s awkward to time this right. Dogs have almost no power when their back legs are not in contact with the ground, which is why this is not likely to lead to a bite to the people. Of course, a failed attempt in which one dog is being held and the other gets away can put everybody at risk. I’ve seen people separate dogs by grabbing tails instead of hind legs. It’s not very pleasant for the dogs, but is generally better than continuing to fight.
The worst and riskiest ways to separate dogs involve putting your hand near their front ends. That includes grabbing at collars and reaching for an object that is the source of the dispute. This so often leads to dogs turning and biting at people’s hands. That’s how Lindsey Vonn ended up in the hospital, but it’s only fair to point out that reaching into the middle of a dog fight is most people’s natural response to trying to stop it. Like any other guardian, Vonn didn’t want her dogs to get hurt, which means that she didn’t want them fighting. Though reaching in is risky, if a dog’s life appears to be in danger, it may be worth doing anyway. One sobering bit of advice I once got from a brilliant animal control officer was that if you absolutely have to use your hand to separate fighting dogs, use your non-dominant hand. That way, your good hand is not the one that gets injured. It’s fine advice that I hope nobody ever has to take.
Have you broken up a fight and been injured while doing so?
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