Good Dog: Behavior & Training
How Do Dogs Remember?
In her new book, The Secret Language of Dogs, trainer and Animal Planet star Victoria Stilwell explores the ways recent canine studies show us how to better understand the hidden language of dogs.
Memory is crucial for problem solving, hunting of prey, smell recognition, facial recognition, and general learning. Dogs need to memorize environmental landmarks so they can find their way around as well as construct mental maps of where these landmarks are located. Although dogs use visual markers to navigate their surroundings, they rely more heavily on how things smell. This mental mapping is important for remembering territory and territorial boundaries as well as being able to reach a food source or an area of comfort and safety.
Dogs also need to have a good working memory if they have to find food for themselves. They have to remember that if the prey they are chasing goes behind a rock and disappears, it might still be there even though they can’t see it.
It’s believed not only that dogs have good olfactory memory and can remember smells for years afterward, but also that smell is linked to their emotional memory, just as it is in humans. The smell of a veterinary hospital may always elicit negative emotions, whereas the odor of a favored person triggers happiness and joy. Auditory memory is also important and is especially useful when it comes to remembering the sound, tone, and pitch of a human vocal signal that is linked to a certain action or behavior.
Dogs can not only recognize the voices of people they know but also learn and remember that different vocal pitches and tones mean different things. Their physical reading skills can help them determine what human vocalizations mean, and because people tend to speak in higher pitches when they are being affectionate and lower pitches when they are upset or angry, it is easy for dogs to learn the difference and respond accordingly. You can help your dog learn by being consistent with your vocal pitch as well as being aware of how to use tone when talking to your dog or giving cues. In general, the type of cue will determine the type of tone and pitch you use. You can use highenergy vocalizations to excite your dog into playing, for example, or to get your dog to come back to you when you call; use medium tones for everyday cues such as “wait” by the food bowl or “stay” by the front door when a guest is entering. You can use lower tones to tell your dog how you feel about a certain behavior, but take care not to frighten him into compliance. The canine memory is so good that he will truly remember and recognize the difference! Dogs that have been raised in positive, stimulating environments tend to have better memory function than dogs that have been raised in social isolation, because the more pleasant experiences a dog has in early life, the more chances its brain has to develop.
Reprinted from THE SECRET LANGUAGE OF DOGS Copyright © 2016 by Victoria Stilwell. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.
Wellness: Healthy Living
Helping Fido slow down at mealtimes.
Some dogs eat so fast that a reasonable person would bet good money that they either think their speediness will make a steak appear or they believe that all of their kibble will self-destruct in 60 seconds. Many dogs do this throughout their lives without a serious problem, but they are flirting with disaster.
Eating so quickly doesn’t allow them to chew or even really taste their food. More worrisome is that speed eating can cause choking, gagging, vomiting and an even more serious condition called Gastric Dilation (colloquially known as canine bloat). Canine bloat can result from eating too much or too fast. The stomach expands because gasses build up to the point that it can twist within the dog’s abdomen, preventing the gasses from leaving the stomach. The result is that circulation can be cut off to that organ as well as to others including the heart. Dogs can die within hours of the onset of bloat, so it is a serious condition that requires immediate emergency medical attention if you even suspect it is a possibility. So, eating fast is more than unsightly—it’s potentially dangerous.
I am regularly asked how to train a dog to eat more slowly, and my answer is that it’s easier to make it physically impossible for them to eat that fast than it is to train them to eat slowly. There are a lot of ways to do this, but they all use the same principle, which is to set up a system that doesn’t allow them to eat more than a little bit of food at a time.
Pictured: Slow Feed Dog Bowl
You can place one small bowl upside down inside a big bowl and then pour the food over the small bowl and into the bigger one. That creates a narrow “moat” of food and the dog can’t gulp the entire meal down. He has to work his way around the entire circle of food. Another option is to place toys that are too big to swallow (and that are clean!) in a food bowl so the dog has to move them out of the way or work around them to reach the food. It’s also common for people whose dogs tend to eat a bowl of food in a matter of seconds to scatter the food over a broad area so the dog has to move around for each piece of food. This works very well in houses with a single dog. If more than one dog is around, this option is a poor choice because it promotes competition, stress and can lead to aggression over the food.
Pictured: Wisspet Happy Hunting Bowl
My favorite way to keep dogs from scarfing down their food too quickly is to buy and use a food bowl or food puzzle that is specific to this purpose. I am comfortable with any slow feeder that is easy to clean and sturdy, and there are many options out there. Food puzzles are often loud, but many dogs will work for a long time to roll or push a Buster Cube or a Kong Wobbler around to get the food to fall out. Not only does this slow down their eating, it also provides mental exercise and gives dogs valuable experience being persistent and handling a bit of frustration.
If your dog is a speed eater, have you found a way to slow down mealtimes?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The Dog Who Hated Surprises
The big dog lay on the floor in my office consulting room, as calm as could be. After a few minutes, he rolled onto his side, let out a huge sigh, and fell asleep. Once in a while he would open one eye when he heard another dog in the next room, but mostly Bailey seemed like the calmest dog in the world.
Sitting in two chairs in front of me, Jack and Sarah, Bailey’s two humans, described a very different dog. They lived in a suburb of Boston, where Bailey had free rein in their large house. Jack was a minister, with a gentle manner, flyaway hair, and large spectacles. Sarah was kindly and quiet with a ready smile. But despite their calm and warm demeanors, they were clearly in deep distress about the antics of their mixed-breed rescue, Bailey.
The stories were alarming. Recently, while outside the parsonage for his morning walk, Bailey had attacked a poodle that was innocently passing by. Even though the poodle was not harmed, his owner had reported the incident to the police, and was talking about filing a lawsuit. This would be bad enough for any dog owner, but a lawsuit could financially ruin Jack’s church.
Bailey had certain definite triggers. Oddly, blue jeans as well as anyone in his territory seemed to set him off. A few days before the poodle incident, Bailey and Jack were out for a walk when they had been surprised by a man turning a blind corner around a hedge. Bailey had lunged, teeth bared, and ripped the man’s jeans. Fortunately, the man was happy with Jack’s offer of a new pair of denims and did not take the matter any further.
Bailey also was puddling in the house and compelled to bark at anyone who walked past the parsonage’s large bay front window. He had even shown aggression to friends who visited. Bailey was not providing the welcome that visitors to their parson for counsel or comfort would normally expect. While Jack and Sarah loved their dog, they had to face the fact that Bailey was likely to injure someone else. They had been seriously considering giving Bailey up for adoption, a kindly euphemism for what we all knew would likely mean euthanasia.
Throughout Jack’s scary tale of Bailey’s attacks, the dog lazed around my consulting room at Tufts, reminding me of my meeting with Comet. I’d persuaded Jack to let Bailey out of his harness when they arrived. Jack had been loath to do so, and he was surprised that Bailey seemed so calm once free of restraint. The dog had wandered around the room a bit before taking a nap. Bailey was hardly the most extreme case of fear-aggressive behavior that I had ever seen, though his owner’s stories clearly indicated that Bailey was territorial and anxious. Away from his own territory, which he guarded too fiercely, Bailey was a sweetheart.
The dog’s behavior almost certainly stemmed from a bad start in life. Fear-aggressive dogs reach the high point of their belligerence at about two-and-a-half years of age, the peak of their physical and social maturity. Bailey was a rescue, so his early environment was unknown. I would take bets that the first three months of Bailey’s life were far from ideal, with substandard socialization exacerbated by frightening experiences.
The first thing I told Jack and Sarah was that Bailey’s barking, which they had complained happened whenever someone passed their house, might be something they’d have to live with. As the old adage goes, if you don’t want a dog that barks, get a cat. Most dogs engage in some territorial alarm barking when people or other dogs pass the home. Mine certainly do, but the majority of dogs are perfectly well behaved, even affectionate, once people are welcomed into the home. I did suggest that they move the couch away from the window so that Bailey couldn’t jump up and see everyone passing by. We also discussed denying him access to the front room and getting blinds or curtains to cover the windows. As another old saying goes, what the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve. Sometimes simple changes in logistics can really help.
A tired dog is a good dog, or at least a better behaved one, and from what Jack and Sarah told me, Bailey didn’t get nearly enough exercise. Even though I’d rate more exercise as a basic “square one” change, it could still make a difference. Dogs generally need at least one hour of off-leash cardio exercise per day—that’s right, at least one hour.
Jack and Sarah seemed surprised by this, but even though they described themselves as “hardly spring chickens” they thought they could manage. Clearly Bailey had some issues about his territory, probably because he was anxious. There was plenty of work we could do to help Bailey, but first I figured that Jack and Sarah were the ones who needed the most help.
Dealing with stressed-out owners is a large part of what I do, and of course most people have plenty of other things going on in their lives besides their dog’s problem behavior. But they have to prioritize what to deal with on their plates—and sometimes what’s on their dog’s plate. Because a dog’s diet can affect his moods, a high-protein diet can cause increased levels of aggression, especially territorial aggression such as Bailey was showing. So Jack and Sarah needed to change Bailey’s diet.
Bailey needed only a limited, maintenance- level of protein. When I first saw him, he was ingesting about 25 to 30 percent protein in his regular dry food. My advice was to bring that down immediately—that very day— to around 18 percent. Protein doesn’t cause the aggression, but it will fan the flames, so reducing the protein in his rations would defuse at least some of the bad behavior.
With these measures in place, Bailey’s aggression waned. He never attacked another person. The threatened lawsuit did not materialize and Jack’s parsonage was safe. Bailey had a solid home with the good reverend and his wife and would not be rehomed, or worse, euthanized.
But there’s a coda to this story that points to the complex interactions between people and their pets. It turned out that at the time of Bailey’s “acting out,” Jack and Sarah had been having a terrible problem with a loved one, and that person had died in their home as a result of drug addiction. Bailey had been the first to discover the body, and the person had been wearing blue jeans.
Perhaps the pooch’s fear-based aggression was catalyzed by the troubled atmosphere in the home and the untimely death, which affected Jack and Sarah. When members of the household have changes in mood and behavior, this often affects their pet. Trainers often suggest that owners’ anxiety is transmitted to dogs, and there is some scientific evidence to support that contention. The stress that people face has been found to increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the saliva of people and dogs. Other studies have shown that owners’ emotional states can be mirrored in their dogs. And not just negative moods—owners of puppies have increased levels of oxytocin or the love hormone, which is also heightened in puppies. But following the psychological trauma of his owners, Bailey may have become overprotective of his “pack,” which could have caused him to behave in an unusually defensive way.
From Pets on the Couch: Neurotic Dogs, Compulsive Cats, Anxious Birds, and the New Science of Animal Psychiatry by Nicholas H. Dodman, BVMS, DACVB. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas H. Dodman. Permission of Atria Books, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
In her new book, Pit Bull, Bronwen Dickey thoughtfully examines the history, stereotypes, fiction and societal worries surrounding a breed that was once thought to be an American icon. In this excerpt, she scrutinizes the science behind a misunderstood and complicated behavior.
The Victorian dog-show mania of the mid-nineteenth century not only created hundreds of new breeds, but also created two possible categories of bloodlines within many of them: working bloodlines, in which behaviors were most important, and conformation or show bloodlines, which prioritized appearance over behavior. The “washouts” from the conformation lines usually went on to pet homes. The dramatic increase in the number of breeders also allowed for more physical and behavioral variation within each breed, with the most popular dogs also being the most varied. Today, Labradors from American show lines are much shorter and fatter than they were even twenty years ago, while Labradors from British field lines are leaner and leggier. Dogs from these two strains may not only look different, they may also have drastically different behavioral profiles.
When breeders stop pushing, the car rolls back down the hill, and canine behavior drifts back to the middle. Exaggerated traits that are not selected for and not adaptive will mellow out and disappear over time, which is what appears to be happening in both the American and European dog populations. The overwhelming majority of modern dogs live as pets, rather than workers. Great Danes are no longer used for boar hunting. Siberian huskies do not pull sleds. Rhodesian ridgebacks do not bay lions, and most dachshunds will never see a badger, let alone kill one. Rather, these animals are physical reminders of the way the world once was. As the historian Scottie Westfall says, “Dogs are artifacts.” Though it is common to attribute a dog’s behavior to the task it was historically “bred for,” many of us fail to consider that most of today’s dogs are “bred for” the work of being companions, and have been for many generations.
In 2005, Kenth Svartberg, a zoologist from Stockholm University, collected data from more than thirteen thousand dogs from thirty-one breeds that had been subjected to a standardized behavior test and sorted them according to behavioral traits such as “playfulness,” “curiosity/fearlessness,” and “sociability.” After analyzing the data, Svartberg and his colleagues found that there was “no relationship . . . between the breeds’ typical behavior and function in the breeds’ origin.” He did, however, find that dogs from working lines (not breeds, but lines) retained more of their historical working traits than dogs from show lines, leading him to conclude that “basic dimensions of dog behavior can be changed when selection pressure changes, and . . . the domestication of the dog is still in progress.”
Pit bull breeds are not exempt from this trend. Unlike pointing or retrieving, both of which increase a dog’s ability to feed itself and its offspring by hunting, fighting isn’t one behavior but a complex series of behaviors that put the animal at tremendous risk. As highly social creatures that negotiate and renegotiate their relationships over time, most dogs depend on shared resources for their survival. If removed from human society, a dog that indiscriminately attacks or kills its own kind doesn’t live very long. While it’s certainly possible to breed for certain types of aggression (toward humans or other animals), it’s much harder to breed dogs that match the profile that fighters say they want: an animal that is indiscriminately accepting of humans, selectively reactive around other dogs in a specific environment—the pit— but tolerant of dogs outside of it, one that “doesn’t signal its intentions,” and also “doesn’t feel fear or pain.” They may as well be describing the American unicorn terrier, because these are all genetic dead ends.
No researcher has yet located an “aggression gene” or a set of aggression genes, despite years of genomic analysis. While conducting his research at Bar Harbor, John Paul Scott considered aggression “a poor scientific term [that] chiefly functions as a convenient handle to relate phenomena described in more objective terms to practical human problems.” At best, today’s scientists can only make educated guesses about certain components of canine reactivity, like the startle reflex (which multiple studies indicate is heritable) and individual pieces of the agonistic repertoire (freezing, fleeing, defensive postures, vocalizations, etc.). But this requires that researchers clearly define and isolate the behaviors they are observing, which is always a challenge. It’s possible, for example, that what was once called “rage syndrome” in certain lines of the English springer spaniel and English cocker spaniel is not one condition but several that were mistakenly grouped into one category. A few studies in mice and dogs have shown that disruption of the 5-hydroxytryptamine (5-HT) receptors in the brain, which regulate the neurotransmitter serotonin, may be linked to specific types of impulsive aggression, but in both animals and humans, the 5-HT receptors can be damaged by stress and trauma that occur both in utero and after birth. Yet even these possible neurological links have been observed only in dogs from tightly closed gene pools. They are not widely passed from dog to dog in an open breeding system, like the passing of a disease.
“Let’s assume that you and I are working to breed the most dangerous aggressive fighting dog in the world,” Kris Irizarry, the geneticist at Western University, told me. “And we want this dog to turn and attack any human being, child, or any other animal relentlessly and never stop until it dies, 100 percent of the time. That’s our goal, okay? Now, let’s make the crazy assumption that we achieve that goal, and we produce, I don’t know, fifty dogs, a hundred dogs, even a thousand dogs that all have the same amount of this supernatural trait. For our purposes, we’ll call them ‘Crazy Dogs.’”
As he previously pointed out, “The moment our dog mates with any other type of dog, half of that genetic material is lost, so now you have a litter that’s only 50 percent Crazy Dog. If that litter reproduces, then their offspring are only 25 percent Crazy Dog. Then it goes down to 12.5 percent, 6.25 percent, et cetera. Within only seven generations, you’re at 1 percent Crazy Dog, and that’s assuming you were 100 percent successful at the beginning, which we know isn’t true of any breeder or any type of dog. Especially when you’re talking about complex behaviors like fighting, it just doesn’t work that way. There are probably constellations of genes, maybe even hundreds or thousands of genes that are contributing to that behavior. You have to get the right neuron shape, the appropriate amount of neurotransmitters, all these things.
“So,” he continued, “the idea that any dog that has an ancestor—however many generations back—that had a head shape that cast a shadow against a wall that looked like the shape of a dog that bit someone in the pants . . . the idea that this dog is now going to be biting people is absolutely ludicrous! Americans watch too many zombie movies.”
A number of other studies have confirmed that dogs lash out most frequently from fear and anxiety, not “rage.” Not every dog that displays these behaviors has been abused, neglected, or formally trained, but overwhelmingly, the factors most highly correlated with dog aggression, such as the dog’s early development, its level of socialization with people and other dogs, how it is contained, and which training methods the owner uses, are completely within the owner’s control. Research indicates that these factors are far more important than the physical shape of the dog in determining its behavior.
Our own perceptions and expectations of the animals we encounter play a role in this, as well. “Dog breeds develop reputations,” writes the biologist Ray Coppinger, “and those reputations color people’s interactions with them.”
The fearful responses of people to a perceived aggressive breed “teaches” the shepherds or pit bulls to be aggressive with people. As the dog walks the streets, some people, almost imperceptibly, will take a step back or away from the dog. In two weeks the dog can become aggressive toward people. If people treated a golden retriever the same way, in theory one would get the same results.
Are shepherds genetically aggressive? Yes! Where are the genes for aggression? In their coat color and shape. It is a feedback system, where each time a person steps back from the shepherd because of its coloring and shape, the dog becomes more responsive to the move, and the people react more demonstratively to its movement, and so on. Can you train the dog not to be aggressive once it has learned to be? Probably not satisfactorily.
Okay, then can you breed people-aggressiveness out of shepherds? Of course! I’d start by breeding shepherds to have yellow coats and floppy ears. “Gameness,” however one defines that elusive quality, has never been studied in the laboratory with other variables held constant. Nor is it defined with any consistency. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist—there’s much anecdotal evidence that it does—but we have no way of measuring it. And, as we know, not all pit bulls come from fighting stock, anyway. The Stafford and AmStaff are show breeds, as is the American bully. Most APBTs come from conformation/ pet lines as well. So, the selective pressure for “gameness” was relaxed for most pit bulls between 80 and 150 years ago. As a result, many have retained their looks but not their historical working drives.
If we want to own dogs, their teeth come along. It is up to us to learn how and when dogs use them and to keep our dogs out of situations where they feel they need to. Aside from that, we must also accept that sometimes accidents and misunderstandings, even tragedies, can happen. As much as we may want them, there are no simple answers.
Excerpted from Pit Bull by Bronwen Dickey. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Good Dog: Studies & Research
Individual variation explains a lot
Dogs are well known to be chowhounds. The idea that they love food more than anything else is practically (excuse the expression) dogma in the fields of canine behavior and dog training. The trouble is, recent research suggests that it is not true for all dogs.
In a study called “Awake Canine fMRI Predicts Dogs’ Preference for Praise Versus Food” scientists investigated whether dogs prefer treats or praise, and whether their choice can be predicted by their brains’ response to both stimuli. In one experiment, they measured the level of activation of the brain’s ventral caudate, an area known to function as a reward center, in response to items that predicted various outcomes. A toy car predicted that verbal praise was coming, a toy horse predicted that food on its way and a hairbrush was associated with nothing. Dogs were trained to make these associations with a series of 40 pairings of each object with what it predicted. The activation of the specific region of the brain was measured with functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), which is possible because the dogs in the study have all been trained to remain motionless while in the scanner.
The average activation of the reward center of the brain was higher in the food and praise conditions than in the neutral condition, which shows that the dogs did learn the associations between the objects and what the objects predicted. (Each dog’s responses in the brain to seeing the toy horse and NOT receiving the expected praise was also measured.) There were 15 dogs in this experiment, and most of them had a similar response in the reward center to the food or to the praise. Four showed a stronger response to praise and two showed a stronger response to food. The average response to praise and to food did not differ.
In another experiment, dogs were placed in a Y-maze and given the opportunity to choose which arm of the maze to go to. One arm led to a food bowl with treats and the other arm led to the dog’s guardian, who provided petting and praise. Each dog was tested in the Y-maze 20 times. Seven dogs in the study chose the guardian the more times than the food, and seven dogs chose the food more often. One dog chose the guardian and the food an equal number of times.
The relative value of praise versus food in the first experiment was highly predictive of the choices that dogs made in the Y-maze experiment. Dogs whose ventral caudate showed a strong response to praise were more likely to choose their guardian over food but dogs who did not show such a strong response to praise relative to food were more likely to head for the food when given a choice.
Regrettably, the results of this study have erroneously been reported in many places as proof that dogs prefer praise and belly rubs to treats, and suggested that using treats in training is therefore unnecessary. It has been written in many places discussing this study that 13 of 15 dogs prefer praise to food, and that’s not correct. What the researchers actually wrote is that in 13 of the 15 dogs, the ventral caudate showed either roughly equal activation to food and to praise or greater activation to praise than to food.
It’s quite interesting that roughly half of the dogs chose their guardian over food. For those dogs, social interaction such as praise and belly rubs may be more effective than treats in training. However, caution is important when acting on the findings in this study because the research may overestimate the response of dogs to their guardians relative to food in situations outside the laboratory setting.
The lab may have been stressful, causing a bias in dogs towards an increased interest in their guardians when compared with food. They may have been seeking comfort from their guardians in a way that they might not be during typical training situations. The scientists do point out that these dogs have been trained to stay still in the scanner and that the lab is a familiar environment. That does not mean the dogs are as comfortable as they are at home or in other areas such as on neighborhood walks, at the park or at the training center where they attend classes. It’s important to know what dogs choose in the actual training setting before changing what reinforcement to use based on lab research.
Additionally, although dogs may value social connections over food when the social interaction is with their guardian, not all training occurs between guardian and pet. I do a lot of training with dogs who I adore, but I don’t share quite the same bond with them as they do with their own guardian. So, just because dogs may prefer affection from their guardian over food does not mean that they prefer affection from just anyone over food. Finally, in many training scenarios, dogs receive praise in addition to food during training, and that may be more effective than either one alone.
Many people swear that their dogs prefer praise and petting to treats, and others are just as certain that food wins out every time with their dogs. Perhaps the most important lesson from this study is that individual variation in preferences is huge. If you feel strongly about what matters most to dogs, there’s a good chance you’re right—when it comes to your dog, anyway.
Do you think your dog would go for food or for praise and affection if given the choice?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Friends Across Species
Dogs and people are truly the best of friends, but that doesn’t mean that dogs can’t be buddies with other animals, too. Though dogs and cats are often considered natural enemies, countless households have a dog and a cat who very close. They play together, sleep together and generally prefer to be near one another.
Less common, but still far from rare, are the dogs who have strong social connections to other species. I have one client whose dog loves to head upstairs in their apartment complex to hang out with the neighbor’s rabbit. A friend of mine has a ferret who plays daily with her dog until they are both exhausted.
Dogs and pot-bellied pigs can be great chums, and countless canines love spending time with their horse pals. There are plenty of dogs whose friends include sheep and goats.
I know of a couple of parrots and parakeets who socialize with dogs, and one pair of these vocalize together with great regularity. I’m not going to lie—the howling dog and the screaming bird don’t sound pleasant to me, but they seem quite happy with their symphony, and that’s what matters.
If your dog has a friend outside the dog or human species, how do they interact?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Differential use of the left and right nostril
The common wisdom that dogs can smell fear doesn’t give dogs full credit to the nuances of their ability to sense emotion through their noses. A recent study titled “The dog nose “KNOWS” fear: Asymmetric nostril use during sniffing at canine and human emotional stimuli” examined dogs’ tendencies to sniff various substances with the right or the left nostril. Exploring this side bias may seem like looking at random details, but the side of the nose used to sniff something tells us a lot about the dog’s emotional reaction to the odor. The use of one side of the body indicates a differential use of one side of the brain or the other, which is a clue to the dog’s emotions.
The left side of the brain processes more positive emotions such as happiness and excitement as well as stimuli that are familiar. The right side of the brain tends to take over when a dog is processing negative emotions such as sadness or fear as well as novel stimuli. In general, the right side of the body is controlled by the left hemisphere of the brain and vice versa. However, the nose is an exception; the right nostril sends information to the right side of the brain to be processed and the left nostril sends its information to the left side. The findings of this study suggest that the pathways used to process various olfactory stimuli are dependent on more than just whether they elicit negative or positive feelings.
Eight odors were tested—four from dogs and four from humans. The four human odors were collected as sweat from donors who were joyful, fearful, physically stressed, or in a neutral situation. The joyful and fearful states were elicited by movies, and the physical stress odor was collected after donors ran for 15-minutes. The four canine odors were collected from dogs who were happy following a play session with the guardian, stressed by isolation in an unfamiliar place, disturbed by a stranger approaching the car, and dogs who were asleep. The dogs who “donated” odors were different from the dogs whose sniffing behavior was studied.
To further explore the phenomenon of side bias in sniffing, the guardians of the dogs in the study filled out a questionnaire related to each dog’s temperament. During the study, dogs were led to a video camera under which was mounted a Q-tip saturated with various odors. The videos captured the dog’s sniffing behavior so that it was possible to determine a laterality index for each dog for every odor based on the amount of time spent sniffing with each nostril. A laterality index of 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the left nostril and negative 1.0 indicated exclusive use of the right nostril. Dogs’ cardiac activity was also recorded during the tests of each odor.
I’m sure it’s the science geek in me, but I got a kick out of reading the sentence, “Results for nostril use are shown in Figure 2.” Three of the odors elicited consistent sidedness in nostril use and five of them did not. Dogs more frequently used the right nostril to sniff the canine isolation odor. They more frequently used the left nostril to sniff the human fear odor and the odor from human physical stress.
There were two ways in which the results of the questionnaire were correlated with the laterality pattern for a particular odor. The higher a guardian ranked the dog’s fear/aggressiveness to other dogs, the more likely that dog was to use the right nostril for sniffing the disturbed canine odor. This suggests that individual differences in emotional arousal and perhaps even in temperament influence asymmetries in sniffing behavior. Dogs with higher scores for predatory behavior used the left nostril more for sniffing the odor that came from physically stressed humans. This makes sense when we consider that it is structures in the left side of dogs’ brains that are involved in predatory behavior.
Dogs’ brains are every bit as amazing as their noses, as research about both of them reveal!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
A stressful situation for dogs
A canine whodunit is the set-up for this video. It’s not a murder mystery and there’s no butler, but still the crime must be solved. When two dogs are asked who took the cookie off the counter, one dog reaches out and puts his paw on the other dog. The gesture clearly says, “She did it.” I do like the use of a single behavior as the basis for an elaborate joke, and the idea is unquestionably adorable. Though it’s easy to have a little chuckle about it, it’s also easy to feel concern because both of these dogs show signs of stress.
The dogs appear to have quite a bit of training, and are probably on stays. The dog on our left is presumably responding to a visual cue to bop the other dog with his paw, though it is supposed to look like he is answering the speaker’s question about who is the cookie-taking culprit.
Neither of the dogs looks comfortable as both exhibit signs of anxiety. There are a lot of tongue flicks, constant worried expressions, multiple stress yawns, slightly cowering postures, and the closed-mouth look of dogs who are not relaxed. It may be that the dogs are stressed by the anticipation of the bop by one dog to the other. Neither dog seems too happy about it. The dog who paws at the other dog tongue flicks before or during every repetition of this action, and the dog on the receiving end often does the same afterwards.
Another possibility is that the camera is stressing them out, which is really common in dogs. Either way, although both dogs are obedient and the basic idea behind the skit is amusing, the emotional state of the dogs ruins it a bit for me.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Dogs react to magic
Magician Jose Ahonen made treats disappear right in front of dogs’ noses. When I watched videos of his work, I saw dogs who understood that a treat had been there and that it MUST still be nearby. Their reactions made it clear that they knew the treat had gone missing.
One common response was for the dogs to look down at the ground as though the treat had fallen. A fallen treat is probably a familiar experience for most dogs, so they were using a search strategy that had worked in the past. Many of the dogs began to sniff and investigate the immediate area. Another frequent reaction was to look at Jose or in the direction of the camera, where perhaps the guardian and a camera operator were. Many dogs look to people for information or for help when they are confused. I see this in training or when a toy has rolled somewhere inaccessible, so it was not surprising that dogs who were puzzled about the location of the treat did this. A number of dogs pawed at Jose’s hands, which is such a common response to a closed fist around a treat that I’ve used it many times as part of training a dog to “Shake” or “High-5”.
The most interesting aspect of the video is that dogs in it appear to show object permanence, which is the understanding that objects continue to exist even when they cannot be observed. Object permanence is considered a major milestone in human development. Many children have been tested—an experimenter hides a toy while the child is watching and then observes whether the child can find it. Most children show object permanence by the age of one year. A lot of dogs have shown object permanence in scientific studies, but it is not universal in the species.
The magic tricks with dogs in these videos were for entertainment and are not controlled experiments. The smell of treats was still present, so that could have tipped the dogs off that the treats still existed. Their actions are certainly not conclusive evidence that dogs are cognitively capable of object permanence, but they are still suggestive of it.
I wish I could see a longer clip of each dog because I’m curious how much time they spent searching and whether they showed increasing frustration. It was a relief to realize that each dog was given a treat before and after the disappearing trick, which I would imagine lessened any distress about the missing treat. For some of the dogs, the most distressing part may have been the laughter of the people observing. I think dogs can tell when they are being laughed at, and it bothers me. Still, it's really hard not to laugh when you watch this (I know I did!), so I can hardly blame people for that.
How do you think your dog would react to a magician making a treat disappear?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
The short answer is that it depends
Behaviorists, including myself, have cautioned people for years about hugging dogs because dogs don’t like it. One of the most easy-to-find types of photos shows a jubilant person hugging a dog who is miserable to some degree or another. It is very common for dogs to dislike being hugged, but for people to love hugging them. It should come as no surprise that members of two different species have different preferences.
Of course, there are exceptions, which I’ll get to later, but the general pattern is that the majority of dogs are not as crazy about hugs as people are. It’s a subject that deserves more research, which is why I was so pleased to read a recent post by Stanley Coren, Ph.D, called The Data Says “Don’t Hug the Dog!”
Coren viewed 250 random photos on the internet of people hugging dogs. For each photo, he determined whether the dog fit one of three categories: 1) the dog appeared stressed or anxious, 2) the dog appeared relaxed and at ease, and 3) the dog appeared neutral or ambiguous.
Signs of stress can be tongue-flicking, ears down, face averted, eyes showing “half-moons” of white, furrowed brows, tightly closed mouth, rigid facial muscles, and furrowed brows. Dogs who are relaxed and happy tend to have open mouths, relaxed facial muscles, and no signs of stress. Coren only included photos in which the dog’s face was visible and in which no other obvious stressor was present. (Other obvious causes of stress included things such as being picked up while being hugged.)
Coren found that of the 250 dogs, 204 (81.6%) of the dogs showed one or more signs of stress, discomfort or anxiety, 27 (10.8%) of the dogs showed either neutral of ambiguous reactions to being hugged and 19 (7.6%) seemed comfortable with being hugged. From these data, Coren concluded that it makes sense to recommend that humans refrain from hugging dogs, but instead save their hugs for other humans.
His results don't surprise me at all. I’m inclined to agree with his suggestion that these pictures might even underestimate dogs' dislike for hugging (at 80%) because pictures posted are selected by people who are presumably posting photos to show their love for and bond with their dogs. Coren points out that hey are not overly likely to choose photos with the most blatant signs of distress in the dogs, at least not if they recognize those signs.
Coren’s suggestion that it is not a good idea to hug dogs has many professionals nodding their heads in agreement, but many people have also objected to it. Most of the objections take the form of people saying that their dogs love being hugged. This is to be expected by anyone who has spent time discussing this contentious subject, which includes me. It comes up in my work because of the large number of dog bites that happen when a person is hugging a dog. It’s a very common context for bites to people, especially to children.
Over the years, I have had countless clients—in private consultations and in classes—as well as friends, neighbors, cousins etc. who swear that their dogs do like being hugged. However, whenever they hug their dogs to show me, I see dogs who show no signs that they like it. Most show anxiety and discomfort. Some tolerate it, but I would at best call their reactions neutral. With a few, I can't tell if they don't mind or if they have just learned that this is their lot in life and have stopped reacting. Either way, I do not see dogs who are convincingly happy about it. So, my personal experience is generally in line with what Coren found in his research, though he did see more dogs who were comfortable with hugging than I have.
His finding that there are a minority of dogs who were comfortable with hugs will be reassuring to many people who are confident that their dogs do love being hugged. I would encourage anyone who feels that their dogs fit into this category to make an effort to be sure. Observe your dog carefully during a hug to check for signs of anxiety, stress of discomfort. Sadly, I’m convinced that not everyone who is certain that the dog they love to hug also loves being hugged is corrrect. We have a situation here that is comparable to the well-known fact that most people think that they are above-average drivers. Similarly, almost all parents think that they are in that rare minority of people who do not regularly embarrass their teenagers. Obviously, in these examples, some people are right, but just as obviously, some people are wrong. The math just doesn’t allow any alternative conclusion.
That said, there are exceptions, as I mentioned before. There are people who I respect very much who are dog experts and who have told me that they have dogs who enjoy hugs. I also know of a few people who have consciously worked to condition their dogs to hugs, sometimes with the goal of being able to take a charming photo of themselves hugging the dog. If you hug a behaviorally healthy, non-aggressive dog and then offer him a piece of chicken, and do that repeatedly (by which I mean hundreds of times) you are likely to teach him to be happy about hugs. If one of my great-aunts, who shall remain nameless, had given me a brownie (or five dollars) every time she pinched my cheeks, I probably would have felt more cheerful about it, too.
Though many people assert that their dogs love to be hugged, most qualify that by noting that the dogs love hugs from family members and close friends, but not from strangers. There is general agreement that hugging unfamiliar dogs is a risky proposition and I’ve heard no objections to the general advice that this behavior should be avoided. However, there have been many criticisms of the idea that we shouldn’t hug our dogs at all. I think as general advice, it makes sense, but because there are exceptions, perhaps it is wise to state it as, “When in doubt, don’t hug a dog.” Then, we all need to be very careful about how we eliminate the doubt if we choose to hug a dog.
How we hug a dog can make a difference. For example, I see dogs who like to snuggle and seem happy to lean up against a person who then has one arm around them, but that's not what’s usually meant by a hug. Still, I have seen people refer to it as a hug when draping an arm around a dog who leans in closer, enjoying the attention and physical contact. It’s more common for a hug to be putting arms around a dog’s neck and hanging on. Kids are especially likely to hug in this way, and I generally feel sorry for dogs when I see this happen. Many dogs make no attempts to escape, and if you don’t carefully observe the signs of distress, it would be easy to assume that they are okay with it, but often they look miserable. A gentler hug that is not as long, as tight or as high up on the neck may be easier for dogs to accept, though I know of no study that investigates that possibility.
When considering exactly what a hug is, I think of dogs who appear to hug people, because I think there are dogs who like to do so. I've seen some tall dogs such as Leonbergers, Newfoundlands, Great Danes and large Labs or Shepherds who stand on their back legs and put their front paws on the shoulders of a person. They seem quite happy to hug people in this Marmaduke style. Of course, though that looks like a hug, too, it's not at all the same experience as dogs who receive hugs by having a human wrap her arms around them.
I'm really glad that Coren collected these data because this is an issue that we talk about a lot in the canine world but data are sparse. The blog post detailing his findings has led to many responses and conversations about whether or not dogs enjoy being hugged, and that exchange of ideas is valuable.
I'm know that many readers love hugging their dogs and people are always sad about the possibility that not all canines share our human love for hugs. I personally wish that all dogs loved being hugged, and not only because that would mean fewer dog bites and distraught families. I also say that because I love to hug dogs, which is why the dogs in my life have to tolerate it on occasion. I try not to overdo it, and I certainly don’t do it when the dogs are busy with some other activity or not in a good mood, but I do not totally abstain from hugging them either.
The main point is that “It depends” is a fair answer to the question of whether dogs enjoy being hugged or dislike it. Not only does it depend on the individual dog, it also depends on who is doing the hugging, the situation and on what is meant by a hug.
What have you observed about your dog’s response to being hugged?
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