Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Experience with relevant objects has no effect
Anyone whose dog loves to get into the garbage for a trash party or is better than Houdini at escaping from a crate knows that dogs are problem solvers. In fact, their ability to solve problems is an active area of research, and the results are not always intuitively obvious. (That’s the way that scientists express what other people might say as, “Whoa! That’s not what I expected!”)
In the study, “Inhibitory Control, but Not Prolonged Object-Related Experience Appears to Affect Physical Problem-Solving Performance of Pet Dogs”, researchers studied how two factors relate to how well dogs solve problems presented as physical tasks. Specifically, they wanted to know whether the ability to inhibit themselves was correlated with increased problem solving ability and whether experience with objects relevant to the problems made a difference. These two variables were chosen for investigation because there is evidence that they are both important in problem solving ability across a range of species, including humans.
In order to address these questions, they recruited 63 Border Collie puppies in pet homes and studied them over a period of three years. Each dog was randomly assigned to one of three groups that differed in their experiences with physical tasks.
The first group (enrichment group) received toys that gave them the opportunity to learn about the physical effects of gravity, attachment, and support and also a set of toys that required attending to a size differential between objects to access a treat. The second group (manipulative group) received toys that gave them the same opportunity as the first group to manipulate toys, to push and pull on handles and other parts of the toys, but which did not teach them about the effects of such actions or the importance of relative size. The third group (control group) had only the typical toys used by guardians for stimulation, such as ropes, balls and various rubber toys. The dogs in the experimental and manipulative groups (but not in the control group) took part in a string-pulling study that provided an additional educational experience about the physical effects of their actions.
All dogs, no matter which experience group they were in, were taught three inhibitory tasks. One was being required to wait for permission before taking a treat on the floor in front of them. (This task is often called “Leave It” though some people using this cue never allow the dog to take the treat he was told to leave.)
The second involved the opportunity to obtain a treat from underneath each of two transparent cups turned upside down. The catch was that there were three cups and the dog would only be permitted to knock over two of them. He had to avoid knocking over the empty cup, as the final cup was made unavailable after the dog had knocked over two cups. This is very hard for dogs, especially if the empty cup is in the middle between the cups with treats.
The third task involved the dog being caught by his leash on something like a tree or a lamp post. The guardian would call the dog, but the dog had to first move away from the person in order to untangle himself.
To assess dogs’ level of inhibitory control, they were tested on each of the tasks after a month of practice and scored on a scale of 0 to 2, which 2 representing the highest level of inhibition. This study did not distinguish between learned and inherent levels of inhibition, but simply looked a dog’s ability when tested to control himself in the various tasks.
To sum up, dogs were given one of three levels of experience with objects and their levels of inhibitory control were assessed. They were then tested with four problem-solving tasks. The problems were all designed to be difficult in order to detect potential improvement based on experience. (If the tasks were too easy, researchers would be unlikely to detect any role of experience in dogs’ ability to solve the problem.)
One main result of the study is that there was no difference found in the problem-solving abilities between the three groups of dogs. That is, success at solving the problems was not related to whether a dog was in the enriched, manipulation or control group. Another result of the study was that dogs’ inhibition scores were related to their performance in two of the problem-solving tasks, but not the other two. Of the two tasks in which performance was related to inhibition, one task was positively associated with success (high inhibition predicted success at solving the problem) and the other was negatively associated with success (a low level of inhibition predicted success at performing the task correctly).
The dogs in this study did not exhibit the ability to transfer knowledge about physical rules learned in one situation to another, similar situation. The researchers conclude that dogs do not generalize from one problem-solving task to another. They hypothesize that dogs approach each problem as a novel task unrelated to others that they have already solved.
I’m curious about these conclusions because of my own experiences observing dogs. I don’t have data on canine problem solving, so my surprise about this study’s results only reflects my anecdotal observations. It seems that dogs who understand how to get food from one style of Kong or toy have an easier time figuring out similar puzzles. It also seems that once a dog has solved the mystery of one “secure” trash can, others are quick to be defeated by that same dog. Perhaps experience only matters with highly similar tasks, or when the task is presented in the same location. Another possibility is that if the motivation to solve the problem is high enough, a dog will perform at a higher level. Kongs and trash cans may provide more motivation than a puzzle in a lab setting. All of these variables would be interesting to explore in future studies. Such work is incredibly intensive and time-consuming, and I applaud these researchers for investigating canine problem solving abilities in a long-term, controlled experiment.
Do the conclusions of this study match your expectations?
Culture: Stories & Lit
The Power of Name-Calling
Our new Golden Retriever puppy is nearly six months old and her learning experiences are our learning experiences. Five times a day, she whimpers to go out; five times a day, we tell her Not now, Maisie. All three of us are learning what to expect from one another concerning patience.
Even though she is our fourth Golden in a long line of beloved dogs, the art of dog training and the understanding of canine behavior have exponentially increased since our last dip into dog parenting. But still, similar to child rearing, hundreds of “experts” offer completely contradictory advice: Have the baby sleep in your bed; never let the baby sleep in your bed. Let the dog sit on your lap; never let the dog sit on your lap.
During the first weeks of Maisie’s transition from being one of 10 littermates to the solo dog in our universe, she was the most adorable, cuddly, sweet-tempered puppy. Then, my husband and I began noticing unpleasant behaviors. Take away a toy or a stick and Maisie’s cute puppy face morphed into what looked like a snarl. I’m talking a display of fangs, which seemed more than mouthy puppy frolics.
Cartoon dogs bury their bones all the time, but when a real dog runs out the door, bone in mouth, and appears to be digging to China and growling if someone gets near, one worries. Our hands and arms were marked with scratches and scabs, and these made us even more cautious in approaching our new pup.
So we phoned an expert. For privacy purposes, I’ll call this person Susan. Susan responded to our SOS immediately, and arrived with an upbeat attitude—You can handle this. We can retrain Maisie—and oodles of information. Our sighs of relief must have been audible when, on her first visit, Susan modeled a cheery dominatrix and coerced Maisie into polite manners. She did this by using force. I don’t mean she used brutality; let’s just say that she out-bullied the bully, showing Maisie who was boss. Susan was not a big woman, but she knew how to square her shoulders and maximize her voice. At one point in the training session, she put a headlock on Maisie and called her “a stubborn little devil.”
We’d never used force with our other dogs and were a bit taken aback, but maybe this dog needed more discipline. Maybe we were the problem. Maybe we needed to buck up, tolerate less, use tough love. We felt badly about ourselves. How did we know what was right? We weren’t the experts, after all.
That evening, we reviewed Susan’s assessment of Maisie’s problems. It read like a profile of a kid destined for prison: hoarding/stealing, aggressiveness, dominance issues. Hoarding! My gawd, we weren’t just dealing with the ups and downs of normal puppydom, we had a delinquent dog on our hands. This was not what we had opted for. Yikes! Would Maisie be a problem dog for the rest of her life? Were we capable of training her? Did we want that responsibility? Our attitude toward Maisie quickly changed from devotion to disappointment and distress, and we considered returning her to her breeder.
Out of desperation, I suggested we try another professional. This time we chose a dog behaviorist, not a dog trainer (the difference is significant and too involved to go into here). Our second expert arrived with a bag full of dog treats and toys; a curious, attentive, non-judgmental manner; and ready praise on her lips. This may sound Disneyish, but Maisie responded immediately to her calm, patient, non-militaristic approach.
From this woman, we learned that very smart dogs like Maisie love to learn. Their puppy energy can be directed toward the playful learning of games and commands for which they earn praise and hot-dog rewards. We learned that the idea of dominant and non-dominant dogs is outdated and that dog behaviorists understand “possession aggression” as “resource guarding.” Dogs with leadership qualities, dogs who might be leaders of their packs in the wild, have an instinct to guard and bury their food because they will be responsible for helping to feed the pack. Bravo for them!
This gets me to my takeaway point: labeling others—children, dogs, ethnicities, races, genders—affects our feelings and emotions about them. What we call them and the spin we give to those names affects how we see and respond. Which sounds better to you: possession aggression or resource guarding? How about this: Your child is bossy. Your child shows leadership ability. Your child is hyperactive. Your child is energetic.
Name-calling can reflect our basest instincts and our uncanny proclivity to project onto others exactly the aspects we dislike in ourselves. Or it can represent our better angels. We can choose. If we apply this insight to the current world stage, doesn’t it seem we have entered a time of malicious name-calling? Maybe we should consider that what we vilify in others might be something we fear in ourselves.
P.S. Maisie has won our hearts. She shows absolutely no signs of unwarranted aggression. She is the dog of our dreams.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
It’s not about the breed!
Not a week goes by that I don’t get asked what I think are the most dangerous kinds of dogs. If what I do for a living comes up, this question often does, too. And when people say “kind” they are typically talking about breed. When I answer that the breed doesn’t have anything to do with it, people are usually skeptical, but there is consensus in the field of canine behavior about this.
Recently, I read a blog post called “The Five Most Dangerous Types of Dogs in the World” that sheds light on what types of dogs are dangerous. It makes clear that we need to pay attention to individual dogs and specific circumstances rather than the dog’s breed. According to this post, the five most dangerous types of dogs are:
Untrained dogs. If a dog has no boundaries, and has never been taught how to behave, he is more likely to injure someone, perhaps by accident.
Fearful dogs. Dogs who are scared or nervous may panic and act aggressively in order to protect themselves. Being afraid is at the root of more canine aggression than any other factor.
Unpredictable dogs. If a dog’s behavior is confusing and does not follow any obvious pattern, it’s easy to be taken off guard by their actions or inadvertently do something that upsets him.
Tired or sick dogs. Just like people, dogs are not at their best when they don’t feel well and most would prefer not to be bothered. Dogs don’t have many ways to let us know they want to be left alone. They sometimes resort to a growl, snap or bite, especially if they’ve already tried to walk away and go off by themselves, and that didn’t get the message across.
Unfamiliar dogs. Not all dogs consider everyone a friend immediately. Lots of dogs need time to warm up to new people and don’t like to be treated as a long lost friend within five seconds of being introduced.. Treating an unfamiliar dog like your best friend can be off-putting to some and lead to aggressive behavior. If you adore all dogs, it’s hard to remember that the feeling of love at first sight may not always be mutual.
There are plenty of dogs in each of these categories that are not dangerous in the slightest, but it makes sense to consider these potential risk factors and act accordingly.
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Recently, scientist Claudia Fugazza got out of the bathtub, drained it and then watched her newest dog, Velvet, jump in and spend several minutes lying in the tub as though she were relaxing. Despite the potential mess, Fugazza had no objection to Velvet’s activity. In fact, she had decided not to inhibit Velvet from performing behaviors inspired by her own actions.
Many dogs are inhibited, however. We reach into our bag, and when the dog sniffs its interior, we say, “No!” When we sit on the couch and then they sit on the couch, we tell them to get off, and we react the same way if they start to dig in the yard after we do.
Velvet is not the only one of Fugazza’s dogs to mimic some of her actions. One night several years ago, Fugazza was surprised to hear water running in the bathroom; she thought she had turned it off. When it happened again the next night, she began to suspect that her dog Siria, who loved to drink directly from the tap, was responsible. On a subsequent night, Fugazza made sure the water was off, then kept an eye on Siria. As she watched, Siria went into the bathroom, opened the faucet with her nose and drank from the stream.
This experience inspired Fugazza to begin reading about animals’ capacity to learn new behavior by watching others —a specific form of social learning called imitation. Years ago, it was thought that dogs were not capable of social learning of this kind—that only humans could do this. As it turns out, this hypothesis about human-only aptitudes failed to stand up to solid research, as have many others.
For example, the idea that only humans used tools was disproven by Jane Goodall’s research on chimpanzees. As pioneering anthropologist Louis Leakey famously remarked in a telegram to Goodall, “Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as human.” Similarly, it was long thought that only humans used language or experienced emotions, but these capacities have been found to exist in many species.
Now, imitation as a uniquely human trait is on the chopping block. Research into social learning (including imitation) in dogs and many other species is extremely well documented.
A paper titled Reproducing human actions and action sequences: “Do as I do!” in a dog (Topál et al. 2006) was among the earliest to demonstrate the canine ability to copy human actions. It also detailed a dog-training protocol—Do as I Do—that makes use of this natural inclination. Fugazza started using the protocol with her dog India, and loved it. From this spark of interest, she began a new chapter in her own life, changing careers to pursue research in animal cognition rather than continuing to work as a lawyer.
During my interview with Fugazza via Skype, it was easy to see her affection for dogs as well as her scientific curiosity about them. Her walls are decorated with dog paintings created by an artist friend. She got up during our conversation to let in her very old Border Collie, Snoopy, lovingly explaining that he’s not always sure what he wants to do these days. When she talks about her research and the questions she wants to address in future studies, she is animated and enthusiastic.
Fugazza’s main area of interest is social learning, and she’s one of the researchers studying this phenomenon in our best friends. The principle underlying her work is that animals who live in groups are capable of acquiring new skills through social learning. For example, there are advantages to avoiding trial and error when learning what’s edible. For dogs, it can be particularly beneficial to acquire information from humans. After all, people are the experts on many things that interest dogs, such as where to find food or other treasures and how to open various contraptions such as drawers, doors and containers.
With the knowledge that dogs are capable of social learning, and that it can be used to train them, Fugazza began to explore ways to put this aptitude to use. Her book, Do as I Do: Using Social Learning to Train Dogs (Dogwise), explains the method in detail as well as the history of its development.
The Do as I Do (DAID) method teaches dogs to copy human actions. Once a dog understands the system, the person can perform a behavior, say “Do it!” and the dog will imitate it. Fugazza’s research has demonstrated that this method is highly successful, especially when the behavior involves an interaction with an object.
In a recent study, Fugazza and her collaborators found that—when compared to dogs taught via shaping/clicker-training methods—DAID-trained dogs learned faster, were better able to generalize the performance of a new task to a new context, and were more successful at performing the task in response to a verbal cue 24 hours after the training session (Fugazza, Miklósi 2015).
Like any training method, DAID has both advantages and limitations. Though some see it as a challenge to their own longtime training methods, Fugazza considers it a supplement rather than a replacement. In order to learn what “Do it!” means, dogs must be able to perform a number of behaviors learned via other methods, shaping/clicker among them. She also emphasizes that while DAID can reduce the time it takes to train a dog to perform certain tasks, it’s not useful for teaching dogs to walk on a leash or to come when called.
Among its advantages is its focus on the human/canine relationship, and many dogs seem to benefit from this way of learning. Another interesting aspect of the DAID paradigm is the view it provides of dogs’ cognitive processes. What Fugazza finds most interesting is that it allows an investigation of the way the observer (the dog) represents the action of the demonstrator (the person). In other words, it allows her to see what is in the dog’s head when he observes the action of the demonstrator. Studying how dogs learn through imitation has implications for our understanding of dogs’ minds as well as their behavior.
One study involved the action of opening a drawer. The people performed the action with their hands, but dogs’ use of either paw or nose was considered successful. (Researchers were looking for what they call “functional imitation,” which takes into account the differences between dog and human anatomy.) One of the dogs did not imitate the behavior, which was surprising because this dog had previously had a lot of success with DAID training. The guardian said she thought her dog would do it if she herself demonstrated by opening the drawer with her mouth, which she did. The dog then immediately copied her action, and did it correctly. Since most dogs opened the drawer by mouth after observing a human do it by hand, this exception provides insight into individual differences in dogs’ mental representations of actions.
Currently, Fugazza is researching the length of time that dogs can remember behavior shown by a human demonstrator, and this is the area in which she has been most surprised by dogs’ abilities. Specifically, she was amazed to find that dogs can remember actions they observed after a 24-hour delay but did not ever perform during the learning session. Her research into time delays suggests that dogs’ mental representations of the actions demonstrated are long-lasting (Fugazza et al. 2015).
It’s exciting when science meets practical experience, and when love and understanding of dogs connect with a desire to improve our interactions and relationships with them. Claudia Fugazza, who has experience in both the world of science and dog training, has seen firsthand how different these fields can be.
In the scientific arena, there has been (and continues to be) extreme skepticism about work with canines in the area of imitation. Fugazza welcomes the criticism, which she says forces her and her colleagues to do even better, more conclusive research. The intense scrutiny has improved their work and allowed them to design and carry out the very cleanest and best studies possible.
She has had the opposite reaction from the dog-training world—hardly any skepticism at all—probably because dog lovers believe that dogs are amazing and have incredible untapped potential. Additionally, dog trainers, who typically are open to new styles of training and always looking for novel ways to work with dogs, are finding the DAID approach to be quite useful.
That’s no surprise, because the method takes advantage of social learning, which comes naturally to dogs. What is thrilling is that it opens up a world that millions of dog trainers and dog guardians have fantasized about for years. We can show dogs—literally show them—what we want them to do!
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
What puts your dog’s tail in motion?
When I taught training classes, we often had contests on the last day of a session. Dogs (and their guardians) could win prizes for the most charming trick, the best stay, the slowest heel and other categories. My favorite contest was always the most enthusiastic tail wag. I would tell my students to do whatever they would do to get their dog to wag his tail if someone told them that they could won a million dollars for the best tail wag. (In reality, the prize was a dog toy, a package of dog treats or perhaps a gift certificate to a local pet store.)
Over the years, I saw a range of ways to prompt tail wags. People would praise their dogs, “Who’s my good girl? You’re my good girl!” play with them, show them a ball, or pull out the leash and say, “Do you want to go for a walk?” People told their dogs that dinner was ready or said, “Daddy’s home!” In one memorable instance, a guy left for a minute and then came back so his dog could give him a welcome home greeting. (He won by a wide margin!) Other students fed their dogs handfuls of treats, said, “Do you want to go for a ride?” or headed out the door saying, “You get to go!”
If you were in this contest, what would you do to get your dog to show off his best tail wag?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Happy 1st Birthday!
Malachi just turned a year old. I didn’t want a hairy wild wolfdog, least of all a feral one. I’ve seen so many wolfdogs on my job as an Animal Control Officer. Wolfdogs that people run out and buy as puppies thinking it would be cool and then fast realize are way too strong, escape prone, destructive or whatever. Although I think he’s beautiful, and I love him, Malachi is not a dog I would have gone out and chosen even if he wasn’t feral, but sometimes we end up with the one who needs us most.
Born in what has been described as a wolfdog puppy mill, Malachi was born with some genetic wildness and then likely received little or no human contact for his first critical months of life. He was basically feral when he was purchased at 3 months of age by a person who was completely unprepared and unable to handle him. Within a few months he escaped from his home and ran wild in the rural countryside for some time. The owner moved away without ever being able to touch him again. I heard about him through our animal control department but was working a different area and he was too wild and too intelligent to be trapped or cornered.
We continued to get reports of Malachi running loose on busy roads and near livestock where he could be shot. Worried for his safety, I finally went on my day off and using every trick at my disposal and with the help of neighbors and my sweet flirty female dog, was able to capture him. I took him home with the idea that we would find a suitable wolfdog rescue or sanctuary for him. We found a fabulous wolfdog-experienced home to take him but he was returned within days and no rescues or sanctuaries had room for him. Of the 500 or so dogs and puppies we have fostered over the last 30 years, he’s the most challenging. He flees from any human approach and the slightest stress has him voiding his bladder and bowels.
We used targeting and positive reinforcement to help shape Malachi’s behavior while we continued to look for a place for him. Sadly there are many wolfdogs in need and very few rescues with the resources to handle them and we’ve been unable to find a home for him. Malachi has made progress in his months here but it is still impossible to walk up and touch him. He allows, and at times enjoys, some limited contact but it is strictly on his terms.
Our other dogs have been instrumental in helping Malachi learn the ropes. He watches them and imitates some of their behavior but he often acts like a wild animal and his fear of humans is still very strong in many situations. Overall he’s finally become happy and playful with us. He bounces into the house with the other dogs and is comfortable hanging out as long as we don’t initiate contact and with occasional exceptions he avoids human touch. We had him neutered, vaccinated, wormed, microchipped, heartworm tested and treated for fleas but even that involved extensive planning and sedation to ensure that all went smoothly.
We love Malachi and want him to be happy but we run a small non-profit rescue with the goal of rescuing and rehoming dogs in need. We fix them up and find them wonderful homes and that makes room for the next one. We have to be careful how much we take on, with time, space and finances being limiting factors. We do keep a small number of sanctuary animals here. Animals that due to age, health or temperament, are not considered adoptable and who can live out their lives here. Taking on a large, feral wolfdog who has the potential to live 10-15 years or more and cannot be handled like a normal dog is a huge commitment and expense and not to be taken lightly. But after much thought and discussion and with very few other options, we have decided Malachi will stay here with us. We continue to learn from each other and work hard to give him the best life we can.
Readers can follow his progress on Facebook at The Secret Life of Dog Catchers.
Happy Birthday Malachi. You’ve been given the one thing you need the most. A home.
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?
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