Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Variable reactions, similar behavior
Dogs with very different feelings about vacuums can exhibit behavior that is remarkably similar. In the following three videos, all three dogs act somewhat alike, but based on subtle differences, I believe that their emotional reactions to the vacuums are very different.
In the first video, the dog exhibits no discomfort around the vacuum. He moves close to it many times, offers a series of play bows, and seems quite eager to interact with it. When you see his face, his expression is not tense or fearful, but relaxed. Though his aroused barking suggests he might get overly worked up, which is not great for dogs, this one-minute video does not show a dog having a negative experience at all. His body is relaxed, there are a lot of happy tail wags, and the whole experience seems like a playful one for this dog
In the second video, there is a mix of positive and negative reactions to the vacuum by the dog. She is clearly interested in the vacuum and seeks interaction with it. She is sometimes relaxed and playful as she charges at it, but other times she seems nervous and unsure. While there are play bows, there are also nervous tongue flicks and retracting lips, which suggest that she is not enjoying herself. The fact that she runs away from the vacuum is also concerning. This dog seems more serious than the previous dog and also a bit frantic, reminding me of the way some dogs act around laser pointers. She is ambivalent about the vacuum—interested in it and yet not thoroughly comfortable around it.
In the third video, the dog seems distressed by the vacuum. The way he approaches it and bites at it do not look playful, and may be an attempt to get the vacuum to go away. When it moves towards him, he retreats, and I think that he is quite frightened by it. Many dogs run away and hide when afraid, but other dogs (including this one) tend to go on offense, preferring to get the vacuum before it gets them. This dog appears tense and anxious, darting in and out around the vacuum, but running away on multiple occasions.
How do you think your dog feels about the vacuum based on his behavior towards it?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Taking the angst out of canine introductions.
“We put the new dog into our car with our other dog.”
“I held each of them by the collar and put them nose-to-nose to meet.”
“Our son brought home a stray dog and took her into the back yard with our other dogs. I guess it was too much for an eight-year-old to handle by himself.”
When it comes to dog-dog introductions, I’ve heard it all—usually because the introductions have gone badly, very badly or disastrously, which leads to families coming to see me in varying stages of distress. Some are unsure about keeping the new dog, many are scared and a few are injured. All have learned the hard way that introductions are not to be taken lightly.
People introduce dogs to one another in all kinds of suboptimal ways, including those mentioned previously. Some of the time, it goes just fine, but even so, they’re still gambling with the safety and well-being of both their dogs and themselves
Whether you are introducing a new dog into your own household, setting up a first meeting between your dog and your partner’s, or just want to go for a walk with a friend and her dog, it’s more likely that the new relationship will flourish if the first meeting goes well.
As in all aspects of behavior, knowledge is your ally. It’s important to know that there’s no standard protocol for dog-dog introductions that works best for every dog in every situation, and no introduction is risk-free. That said, there are a few general guidelines and techniques that go a long way toward making the first meeting between dogs a positive experience for everyone. (Don’t feel you have to do it alone. Line up professional help if you have reason to suspect that there will be trouble, or that one or more of the dogs isn’t good with other dogs.)
• Have new dogs meet one-on-one. Group introductions can be a bit challenging even for a well-adjusted dog. For a dog who struggles in social situations, meeting multiple dogs simultaneously can be so overwhelming that it could damage the new relationships.
• Choose the location of the meeting carefully. Off-territory is best so that neither dog feels like the other is the intruder. And conduct the initial meeting outside rather than inside. Often during meetings, a dog will urinate and then walk away, especially if he is feeling overwhelmed. That gives the other dog an opportunity to get to know the stressed dog by sniffing the urine without coming into close contact with its source. If dogs are inside where urinating is a no-no, their options are limited.
• Avoid gates, fences, doorways and other tight spaces. They tend to make dogs tense, and a tense dog is unlikely to be at his best. In general, dogs feel more relaxed and are more likely to exhibit desirable behavior when they don’t feel confined, so do your best to keep both dogs in open space and away from narrow passageways. For example, try to conduct the introduction in the middle of the yard rather than along the edges.
• Don’t crowd the dogs. Like narrow spaces, having people too close can also make dogs feel uncomfortably confined. For many dogs, being crowded by people is worse than being crowded by inanimate objects and tight spaces because it puts a lot of social pressure on them. Resist the urge to lean toward them or hover over them. It’s natural to want to move toward the dogs if you perceive even the slightest sign of tension or trouble, but ironically, it can make things worse. Moving away is far more likely to lower the arousal or tension level and prevent escalation of the situation. If you see tension, use a cheerful voice to say something like, “This way,” or “Let’s go,” then clap your hands and walk away.
• Keep moving. This is a great way to help an introduction go smoothly. It not only prevents you from crowding the dogs, it also keeps their interactions with each other from developing intensity. If humans walk purposefully, dogs will often follow, allowing them to avoid greeting or interacting more closely than they’re comfortable with.
• If you can and it’s safe, drop the leashes and let them drag on the ground so you can easily take hold again if you need to. “Safe” means that the area is securely fenced and both dogs have a history of behaving appropriately around other dogs. If you can’t let go of the leashes, keep them loose to prevent tension from traveling down to the dogs. This is easier with thin, 12-foot lines, but can be done with 6-foot leashes, too.
•Model calm, relaxed behavior and remember to breathe. Our dogs respond to our emotions and behavior, so if you’re holding your breath because you’re tense, or sending out nervous energy (“Oh jeez, oh my, oh no! Yikes, I hope this goes okay!”), the dogs will pick up on that. Focus on breathing evenly, avoiding negative thoughts and keeping your own body relaxed.
• Make the meeting a food-free, toy-free experience. Many wonderful dogs are not at their best in the presence of other dogs when food or toys are around, especially if the toys are their own or the food is held by their people. Eliminate the possibility of possessiveness, which can cause problems.
• Keep the first meeting really short. By “short,” I mean just a few minutes. Many dogs find meeting new dogs fun and exciting, and if both dogs are like that, no harm is done by a short meeting. You leave them wanting more, eager to hang out again, and that’s not a problem. But if one or both dogs find meeting new dogs stressful, upsetting or tiring, a short meeting helps them avoid becoming overwhelmed, and that prevents trouble. The next time they interact, they are not truly “new” to each other, and a longer interaction is not as likely to be as detrimental. For dogs who really struggle in new social settings, a few short sessions may be indicated, but for most dogs, even one short session goes a long way toward a successful introductory experience.
• Make a new dog seem less “new.” Novelty is often exciting to dogs, and the resulting high levels of arousal can work against a smooth meeting. If you can remove some of the novelty from the situation, it helps make introductions easier and less intense. How do you take away some of the “newness”? By getting them used to the sight or smell of each other ahead of time. Then, by the time they meet, much of the novelty will have worn off.
One way to do this is to walk the dogs in the vicinity of one another without allowing them to greet. Continue to move in the same direction, keeping several feet between them, and adjust the distance as needed. Walking in the same direction (rather than facing each other head-on) and exploring smells is one of the normal ways dogs get to know one another—it’s the canine equivalent of “let’s have coffee.”
Having the dogs smell each other’s urine before they actually encounter one another is another way to get them over the “newness.” You can either lead each to a spot the other has used to urinate, or actually collect some urine from each and present it to the other. Oh, the things we do as dog people for the sake of a successful introduction!
And a successful introduction is the whole point. Proper meetings go a long way toward preventing social problems, from minor angst all the way up to and including serious fights. Whether you are adopting a new dog into your household or making the acquaintance of an occasional play buddy, following this advice will make it more likely that the dogs will become friends. That’s especially important when the goal is to have a “blind date” lead to a “together forever” happy ending.
Early tactile input pays off
As our readers know, The Bark is 100 percent in favor of adopting dogs from rescues and shelters. Giving a dog a new life in a home in which he or she is understood, loved and cared for is a giant gift, not only to the dog but also, to ourselves. It's one of those cliched win/win situations: we do something good for a dog and in the process, benefit from the unparalleled companionship that dog provides.
That being said, we also know that every day, hundreds—or more likely, thousands—of dogs are purchased from breeders for a variety of reasons. The most commonly cited reason has to do with predictability: those who buy a puppy from a breeder are looking for some degree of certainty in the adult dog's behavior, trainability and looks. Taking the wide-angle view, that notion has merit, but when it comes to individual dogs, it doesn't necessarily hold up.
I'd like to say that I'm a purist, that I've only adopted, never purchased, but that would be untrue. In my 20s, I purchased a Dalmatian from a breeder who was also a neighbor. All of the pup's littermates had been sold, and at 12 weeks, he was the last one in need of a home. The breeder had determined that he was going to exceed AKC standards in terms of height at shoulder and size of spots (I'm not kidding--she told me his spots were too big) and so decided to sell him as a companion dog. He turned out to be a great dog, one with none of the stereotypical Dalmatian behavioral quirks.
Fast forward 30 years, and I made another foray into purchasing a dog, although not from a breeder, but rather, from an acquaintance whose Siberian Husky had had a litter fathered by a Siberian mix. In that case, I was specifically looking for a Siberian mix for the very unscientific reason that on some level, I was trying to replace a much-loved dog who had died shortly before. I was guided by my heart, not my head.
In both cases, I lucked out—and believe me, the luck was definitely of the "dumb" variety.
The Dalmatian breeder bred her dogs infrequently and carefully, and the pups were well-handled and well-socialized before going to their new homes. The Siberian's people were teachers, not professional breeders. One could be critical of their decision not to spay their female and to deliberately allow her to mate, but in their raising of the puppies who were the outcome of that mating, they were stellar.
Recently, I read a posting from Stan Rawlinson, the UK's "original dog listener." In it, he talks about the impact a breeder has on a dog's adult behavior and health. Following is an excerpt that I found particularly interesting—it also explains why I'd been fortunate in the two dogs I'd purchased: in both cases, the puppies were born in the home and handled extensively from birth.
Humans handling pups from day one provide a mild stress response, which acts to improve the puppies both physically and emotionally. After that at 10 to 14 days the sense of hearing and smell develop, eyes open and the teeth begin to appear.
Their eyesight is not fully formed until seven weeks. Though they can see enough to get round from around three weeks of age. Pups that are handled regularly during the first seven/eight weeks of their life mature and grow quicker.
They are more resistant to infections and diseases, and are generally more stable. These pups handle stress better, are more exploratory, curious and learn much faster than pups that are not handled during this period.
They are also more likely to be happy around humans and are rarely aggressive. Therefore the pups born in kennels outside, and not in the home, and the ones born into puppy farms are less likely to get this vitally important tactile input.
Here's the first take-away: If you care deeply for a specific type of dog and are determined to start with a purebred puppy, it behooves you to pay careful attention to the way the breeder approaches the pups' crucial first weeks of life and the environment in which those pups are being raised. (After that, it's up to you!).
And here's the second obvious-but-true take-away: the value of handling very young puppies early and often isn't limited to purebreds —it applies to all pups of all persuasions in all situations. Hands-on breeders, shelter workers and rescue volunteers improve the odds that their smallest charges get off to a good start .
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Something soft and cozy, please!
Jack does not like to lie down on any hard surfaces. This dog will be with us all weekend, and since our entire downstairs is uncarpeted, it will be littered with sheepskins, towels and blankets. He likes the sheepskin he is on in the picture the most, but he will choose any soft option over a hard one.
I’ve sometimes heard people insist that dogs lie down on a hard floor because of the inconvenience of providing other options even if the dogs are clearly hesitant. Jack’s distaste for lying down on wood or tile floors is not a problem for me. He’s an exceptionally sweet, agreeable dog, and if he feels so strongly about this one thing, I can adjust. Many dogs share Jack’s distaste for lying down without at least a tiny cushioning layer, and I think that’s reasonable. It doesn’t mean that a dog is stubborn, difficult or spoiled, even though you may have heard that it does. There’s probably a good explanation why any particular dog avoids lying down on a bare floor.
Typically, dogs who want a place that’s soft and cozy are either really skinny, on the older side, have very short hair or are in some kind of pain. Basically, that means that lying down on a hard floor hurts them or makes them feel cold. People don’t like to lie down in a spot that causes a chill or pain, either. It makes sense that dogs would similarly resist.
If your dog hates lying on the hard floor, by all means provide a more comfortable spot to rest. If your dog suddenly develops an obvious inclination to seek out the softest place available before lying down and actively resists lying down on a hard surface, it’s a good idea to try to find out why. A good first step is telling your veterinarian about this change and having your dog examined for potential physical explanations.
Does your dog avoid lying down on hard floors?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
One simple tip to try
Trouble when visitors arrive is a common concern of many guardians. I get calls every week because people want help with dogs who react badly to anyone who comes to the house. More often than not, these dogs are afraid, but people rarely call to say that they have a fearful dog. They call to tell me that their dogs are barking and lunging, growling, or even biting visitors.
Comprehensive programs for improving a dog’s emotional state and behavior when visitors arrive must be individually designed for each dog and each situation. Often, the use of treats or favorite toys is involved so that the dog learns that all visitors have something fun and wonderful to offer. When a dog has grasped the strong connection between visitors and good things, happiness can replace fear as the dog’s response to people coming to the house. That’s a very brief and simplified description of what can often be a long and detailed process. Sometimes a little trick can help make visits easier for dogs so that they are in a better state for learning to like having company.
The little trick is to make sure that the dog does not see the visitors enter but only first notices them when they are already settled in the house. It’s a lot easier for a dog to see people already seated in the living room or around the table than it is for the dog to see people arrive and enter. Having visitors show up at the door is a very intense situation for a fearful dog. The sight, smell and sound of someone other than a family member appearing at the door and entering the home is a big deal to a dog who is not comfortable with new people. It sets off all of their alarm bells (“Intruder! Code red, code red!”) I’m all for avoiding this challenging situation whenever possible.<
To avoid that situation takes some planning ahead. Hopefully, you can tell your visitors to call or text right before coming in so that you can make sure you have the situation set up to maximize your chances of success. Before opening the door for your visitors, temporarily put your dog in a place out of sight of the entry such as in a crate in another room, in the back yard or in the laundry room. I’ve even had clients briefly put their dog in the car in the garage if that is where the dog is most comfortable when not with his guardians.
Once the dog is where you want him, let your visitors in, have them sit down and give them whatever treats or toys your dog loves best. Then, bring your dog into the room where the visitors are and have them give the dog those goodies. Depending on the details of the dog’s issues, you may need to have the dog on a leash or behind a gate during this interaction.
Some dogs will be fine with people once they have met them in this way, and if that’s the case, then this may be all you have to do during this particular visit. Other dogs may react as usual if anyone stands up or makes any sudden movements, and may be better off kept separate from the visitors after the initial exposure. Such dogs can benefit from additional work, but this technique can still be a good first step. No single method suits every dog, and extra caution is always advisable with dogs who have bitten. Still, it is easier for almost all fearful dogs to meet visitors who are already in the house sitting down than it is to meet people as they enter the house.
Have you tried this technique with any dogs who react to visitors because they are afraid of them?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Meeting the dog at home is not enough
One of the obstacles to proper socialization is a misunderstanding of the details of the process. Specifically, many of my clients have told me that they didn’t worry too much about socializing their new puppy because they have another dog at home, and the puppy and that dog get along great. There is an assumption that if a dog can interact properly with one dog, they can interact with all dogs. Regrettably, this is not true.
Exposure to many dogs in the early months of a puppy’s life teaches the puppy to be comfortable with unfamiliar dogs in addition to teaching him to be comfortable with the particular dogs he has met. While meeting the other dog at home is a great place to start socializing a puppy, it is unwise to stop there. Many dogs grow up behaving beautifully around the other dog in the family but are totally unable to cope with any other dogs. That’s because such dogs only had the opportunity to learn that the dog at home is a friend, but never learned that any other dog can be a friend, too. Judging the dog based only on the behavior around that one dog paints a very incomplete picture of his social skills.
An analogy is to consider a girl who is very relaxed and comfortable around her brother and to assume that she’s comfortable around boys. In reality, she may be shy, tongue-tied or completely awkward around boys. Her behavior around her brother is an exception that is out of step with the real pattern
Many well-meaning dog guardians forego the usual suggestions to socialize a puppy, and they do so because they erroneously believe that one dog at home (or even several) will provide adequate socialization. Not so. Puppies need to meet a lot of dogs in order to be able to interact in a socially appropriate way with unfamiliar dogs throughout their lives and to feel comfortable doing so. If a puppy meets lots of dogs early on, the lesson that all other dogs are potential social partners is more likely to be learned and to be applied to all dogs.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
How does it measure up to his looks?
“Your dog has a great look!” I called out to a woman at the park.
She looked at me suspiciously and actually asked, “Are you talking to me?”
I assured her that I was, though understanding immediately why she questioned me on that point. Her dog was not what most people would consider an attractive dog. He was a bit odd-looking to be honest, with a head that was small in proportion to his body, some very random color patterns in his slightly straggly coat and an ear that had been torn at some point in his life and healed imperfectly.
When I had commented on his “look,” I was referring to an aspect of his behavior—his expression—rather than his overall appearance. The look on his face as she took a flying squirrel toy out of her bag was one that combined pure joy, complete attention and enthusiasm without the slightest sign of over arousal. That combination is hardly common in my professional work with dogs with serious behavior problems, so I enjoyed it and appreciated its significance. This was a great dog—attentive, not excessively revved up, playful and happy. I was impressed with his expression, prompting me to comment on his “great look.”
Thanks to the ambiguity of the English language, my comment was misunderstood, and I suspect that the woman thought I was overcompensating and pretending that the dog was gorgeous or mocking her. It’s a fair assumption that nobody had ever told her that her dog was a handsome fellow. He is beautiful on the inside, but most people aren’t going to argue that he is gorgeous on the outside, and that’s a shame.
I’ve always maintained that some of the happiest guardians are those who pick dogs based on who they are on the inside and actively choose to love what they look like on the outside instead of doing it the other way around. This woman seemed happy once I had explained that I was impressed with her dog’s expression and went into detail about it. She told me that she loves his look, too, but that not everybody sees beyond his looks.
I’ve loved dogs who were visually stunning and dogs who were not, except perhaps to me. Do you have a dog whose “look” is a better representation of who he is than his “looks” are? Or a dog whose “look” and “looks” are both lovely?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Overwhelming a dog is not good socialization
There were easily 300 people in the school building that Saturday morning, all milling around and signing their kids up for various after school activities. There was also one very young puppy being carried through the crowd becoming more and more exhausted and increasingly overwhelmed.
When I say “very young,” I mean that I suspected that they had just picked up their new Lab puppy within the last few days even before they told me. (In fact, they had just brought her home the night before.) The dog was so small that she was outsized by over half the purses there. In addition, she had that loose skin look of brand new puppies. You know what I mean—it looked as though if you blew up that skin like a beach ball, there would be room for at least one and maybe two additional puppies in there with her.
Her new guardians were carrying her in their arms and everyone was touching, petting and leaning in at the puppy, whose eyes were wide until she was so tuckered out that they closed for an involuntary nap. She seemed like a stable enough puppy and never looked downright fearful, but she did look overwhelmed. That’s no surprise really—she was in a big crowd with too many people getting too close to her, and many people were hugging her guardian so that she got wrapped up awkwardly in the squeeze.
It breaks my heart to see a puppies dealing with such situations during the first few days or weeks in a new home because I know the guardians think they are doing right by their dogs. Everybody knows you have to socialize your puppy and get her to meet new people, but many people think that having a puppy around large numbers of people is the right way to do it. That’s perhaps a reflection of how misunderstood the concept of socialization is.
Socialization is an important part of becoming aware of the social world and learning how to behave within it. Socialization is the exposure to potential social partners during the early part of dogs’ lives, and typically occurs when puppies are three to 16 weeks old. That time is a critical period of development during which dogs learn who their potential social partners are. A critical period is a stage during which an animal is especially receptive to learning something.
For example, a critical period for learning language exists for humans, and if we are only exposed to a language after that critical period, we are unlikely to ever speak it like a native. It will always be a foreign language to us with perhaps an accent or grammatical difficulties, however slight. Similarly, dogs who are not properly specialized during the critical period may always have social skills that are not natural to them, but have an “accent” or various difficulties with social behavior.
For dogs, socialization requires providing puppies positive experiences with people in the first few months of life. Note that I specifically said, “positive experiences.” If a dog has negative experiences with people early on, they learn not to be comfortable and social with people, but to be nervous or afraid around them. That’s why bringing a puppy to a large crowded place the day after being adopted is potentially damaging and not recommended. It’s far better to meet people one or two at a time and have those people provide treats, toys and gentle touching in a calm setting. Exposure to people and other dogs that results in positive experiences for the puppy provides proper socialization. Being in a large crowd and becoming overwhelmed does not.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Recognizing individuals’ poop
At The Bark, we regularly share dog stories with one another, often just for fun. When Editor Claudia Kawczynska told me about one of her latest experiences out on a walk, I just had to blog about it. It deals with two wonderful topics in the canine world: 1) poop and 2) the amazing olfactory abilities of dogs.
Claudia’s dog Charlie sometimes like to try to pee on Kit, who is another of her dogs, while she is peeing or pooping. Claudia usually intervenes to prevent Kit from ending up with a yellow stain on her back. Of course, life being what it is, sometimes it happens anyway. Charlie will also pee on Kit’s poop, a behavior which is called “overmarking.”
One day in an off-leash area, Claudia couldn’t find Kit’s poop to pick it up, so she asked Charlie (who is always by her side) to help her find it, which he did. He peed on it, and then Claudia picked it up. On another occasion, Claudia asked him to do the same thing, and he did. This time, he ignored at least three piles of poop that were not Kit’s, but finally peed on hers. Claudia knew it was Kit’s because she and her dogs were the only ones at the park and the pile of poop was too fresh to have been anyone else’s. (In case you’re curious, Claudia bagged up the other three piles of poop, too. Some people do more than their share in all areas of life!) It’s hard to know whether Charlie was responding to Claudia’s cue to find Kit’s poop, or he was just seeking it out because that’s what he likes to do.
As a practical person, I love the way the detection of individual poop by Charlie allows Claudia to be sure she cleans up after her dog if she happens to miss “the event.” It’s so easy to have that happen in off leash areas, especially if you have more than one dog with you.
Given that dogs can use their noses to smell whale poop underwater, to detect low blood sugar levels in a person with diabetes as well as cancer in people, bacteria in diseased bee hives and a whole host of weapons and drugs, it’s hard to be surprised by what dogs can do. It also makes sense that dogs would be able to tell which poop comes from their housemates. The components of the odor of any pile of poop is going to include chemicals related to that dog’s diet, intestinal flora, sex, reproductive status and a whole host of other factors that create an individual odor signature. Social animals of all kinds are adept at recognizing individual members of the group, and dogs can do this through olfactory, auditory and visual means.
Still, just because I’m not surprised doesn’t mean I’m not impressed. I’ve not lost the admiration for dogs and their amazing abilities that began when I first focused on them professionally, and hopefully never will.
Do you have a dog who has demonstrated the ability to identify the poop of another one of your dogs?
Good Dog: Behavior & Training
Not all “scaredy” dogs have been mistreated.
“She must have been abused,” is a comment I hear with alarming regularity. When a dog cowers and shakes or barks and growls at a person wearing a hat, it’s natural to think that the strong reaction is proof of previous harsh treatment by someone wearing a hat. It’s easy to conclude that a dog who’s scared of children was teased by the neighborhood Dennis the Menace. Similarly, it’s logical to assume that a dog would only react aversely to a broom after having had terrifying experiences with one.
Without a doubt, far too many dogs suffer abuse, but not all dogs who seem to have been abused have been treated badly. Some are fearful because they were inadequately socialized, or have a genetic tendency to be fearful, or both. As often as not, a history of abuse is not a factor.
The most common scenario that leads people to conclude that a dog has been abused is the dog who’s fine with women but scared of men. In these cases, while it’s possible that a man abused the dog, the fact that a dog is afraid of men doesn’t prove the theory. Typically, dogs who have fearful tendencies are more scared of men than of women. I’ve met hundreds of dogs who were only scared of men, but exactly two who feared women more. The fact is, dogs who are fearful have a natural propensity to be more afraid of men. Nobody knows for sure why this is, but it’s likely that men’s larger size, broader shoulders, deeper voices and facial hair make them more intimidating.
Another reason that dogs might be more afraid of men was suggested by a study reported in Current Biology,“Correlated changes in perceptions of the gender and orientation of ambiguous biological motion figures.” When motion was detected only on pointlight displays*, observers perceived an interesting difference between male and female movement. Figures considered masculine in gait seemed to be approaching, while both feminine and gender-neutral gaits were seen as heading away. Fearful dogs are typically most frightened when something scary moves toward them—no wonder they find men more alarming than women.
Scent may also be a factor. A recent experiment, “Olfactory exposure to males, including men, causes stress and related analgesia in rodents,” reported in Nature Methods, showed that mice and rats react differently to male and female experimenters because of differences in the way that they smell. That means that all studies of these rodents’ behavior may have been influenced by the gender of the people conducting the study. The test animals became highly stressed and exhibited decreased pain responses in the presence of human males; even T-shirts worn by men (but not those worn by women) caused this reaction.
The rodents were similarly stressed by odors from males of a range of species, including dogs, cats, guinea pigs and even other rodents. Males release certain pheromones in larger concentrations than females, and these fearinducing chemicals are shared among mammals, which means that dogs could also be affected by them. Scent differences could very likely affect dogs and cause them to be more frightened around men.
The assumption that fear of men indicates a history of abuse by a man is not the only one that may be erroneous. Many people are sure that dogs who react negatively to people with hats or backpacks proves past abuse by a person sporting those same objects. While again, this is possible, it’s more likely that the dog is simply unfamiliar with the objects themselves and the way that they change people’s appearance. Many react fearfully to a changed silhouette, becoming frightened, for example, by the sight of someone they know and love wearing a hat. Once the person removes the hat, the dog switches to happy greeting behavior.
Another commonly misunderstood area relates to the fear of children. Many dogs are skittish around children because of their erratic behavior, especially if they were not well socialized to them at an early age. After all, from a dog’s perspective, kids behave in peculiar and unexpected ways. They change direction suddenly, roll on the ground, move at variable speeds, make weird noises and are generally high-energy, bipedal whirling dervishes. Dogs who are naturally fearful may find excitable, loud humans in motion to be unpredictable, which is frightening. (On the flip side, there are fearful dogs who do fine with kids, but are terrified of adults. Usually, such dogs have had positive experiences with children and are used to their erratic behavior.)
If a dog’s fearfulness toward specific types of people or certain everyday items doesn’t necessarily mean that the dog has been abused, how can you tell if your dog suffered from abuse in the past? The honest answer is that— unless you have the dog’s full backstory— you can never know for certain. However, some clues may help you make an educated guess. Abuse is less likely as an explanation for a dog’s fearfulness if the dog’s reactions fit the pattern associated with dogs who are naturally fearful. The most common pattern is for such dogs to be cautious around strangers, especially men, and to be worse around tall, deep-voiced men with beards, or anyone carrying things—garden implements, brooms or mops, or a clipboard, or wearing sunglasses, a backpack or a hat. Dogs with a generally fearful approach to the world often react most vigorously when unfamiliar people approach, look directly at them, stand up from a sitting position or reach down to pet them.
If the dog has sustained multiple injuries, such as broken bones or teeth, or has scars on the face and body, abuse is more likely. Of course, those injuries could be a result of accidents, and some forms of abuse leave no scars. Still, a dog with unexplained evidence of physical trauma is more likely to have been a victim of abuse than a dog without it.
If a dog’s fear is highly specific, it is more likely to be based on trauma, which could have come in the form of abuse. So, if a dog is afraid of freckled, redheaded children with glasses in the age range of 10 to 12 years, but fine with all other kids, it’s more likely that a negative experience with a child of that description caused the fear. On the other hand, if a dog is only okay with children who are older than about 16, my bet would be that the dog lacks experience with a wide range of children and is only comfortable with children who are more adult-like in size and behavior. Similarly, if the dog is okay with men unless they are wearing loafers with a buckle, I would be inclined to suspect abuse. Specificity of fears is more likely to indicate abuse, because dogs who are generally fearful are usually set off by a wider range of triggers.
Even in the case of a specific fear, we have to be careful about assuming that abuse was the cause. For example, I had a client whose dog was fearful of and aggressive toward only one person. Sounds like that person might have beaten the dog, right? Not in this case. The man the dog was afraid of was the neighbor who had saved the dog’s life during a house fire; the wonderful man went into the house and carried the dog out before the firefighters arrived. Until then, the dog liked this man, but was terrified of him after the fire, presumably because he associated the man with the horrible experience.
While anyone who loves dogs wants to know if a particular dog has been abused, the same process is used to help a dog overcome fears of any origin. Classical conditioning, desensitization and patience will serve people and dogs equally well. It’s critical not to force a frightened dog into situations that provoke fear, but instead, to protect the dog from scary circumstances. Be gentle and kind and refrain from using punishment. Feel free to comfort any dog who is scared without worrying about the common (but misplaced) warning that this will reinforce the fear. Accept that many fearful dogs never become gregarious, go-with-the-flow types, and love them for who they are rather than who you think they should be.
Some people seem relieved when I tell them that their dog may not have been abused, while others seem disappointed to give up the “feel good” story of adopting a dog who was mistreated. I empathize with both groups.
I can understand the relief, and I can also understand how gratifying it feels to give a loving home to a dog who only knew cruelty before. And while I certainly can’t say definitively which dogs with unknown histories have been abused and which haven’t, I agree with other progressive trainers and behaviorists that abused dogs are not as common as one might think.
Many wonderful clients whose dogs are fearful and reactive have said to me, “People are going to think we’ve abused her, but I swear we’ve never hurt her.” It’s a pleasure when I can reassure them that I do believe them, and for very good reason.
* Point-light displays are made by filming people, animals or objects with reflective markers or point lights attached to the major joints, and then processing the video so that only the point lights are visible.
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